Sunday, May 07, 2006

United 93 (updated below)

So I saw the film the other night. I came out of it sad and wanting to continue the fight; fortunately there were no ethical idiots in this theatre, on the lefty side of town, saying stupid things. In fact, there were not more than twenty people there and the film has only been out a week.

As I thought going in, I needed to walk home afterwards - for almost two hours - in order to burn off the tension. Judging from an intemporate email I wrote when home, the march was not long enough. The film's ending, as you know, is entirely unsatisfactory. Knowing what will happen, you nonetheless hope against hope that the final struggle will end differently. I suppose this is even true for the Jihadists and their western nihilist compadres who get a kick out of American death and destruction. The film's message, delivered equally to both sides, is that the war remains to be won, the full meaning of the event is yet to be written.

In terms of esthetics, the notable quality of the film is its investment in a certain kind of realism that might appear to be non-judgmental, as if that were possible in respect to such an event. Beyond its pacing of the unfolding event, there is very little obvious dramatization, and the actors are unknowns - some of the roles of the NORAD and air traffic control personnel are actually played by the real persons themselves, as if the film were a means for those who lived the trauma of 9/11 to give their testimony as to what really happened, and to allow for some catharsis.

Without much obvious symbolic manipulation, we are simply walked through the known moments of that horrible day. There is no background narrative on the people involved, so it seems as if evil simply appears on a mundane scene, its intentions unexplored, beyond the obvious religious-cultish motivations of the murderers we see often praying and chanting. Similarly, we are given no background on the lives of the victims, so that they appear before us much as would any strangers we see at the airport and on the plane.

One might thus think that the film offers us no obvious motivation with which to mythologize, or make sense, of the sacrificers' choice of victims. But the inevitable Americanness of the scene is highlighed by the insertion of a shot at the beginning of the film, where a "God Bless America" sign, supposedly on the road to the airport, is shown. This happens immediately after a shot of the murderers bowing to their god on a prayer rug in their hotel room. I took this juxtaposition as a vile attempt at suggesting, just possibly, some kind of moral equivalence between two forms of faith. I felt a similar revulsion on two other occasions.

The first was when we see the murderer who will "fly" the plane respond kindly to a flight attendant while being provoked by the fretful demands of his comrade that he stop waiting and start the hijacking. Despite this emotional distraction, he is nonetheless able to acknowledge and politely refuse the flight attendant's unanticipated appearance and offer of a drink - this is the only scene where we see the murderers significantly interacting with the crew before they reveal their homicidal intent. That the well-dressed and tonsored Jihadist leader - who is depicted as too nervous to signal his accomplices to begin their final evil as early as would have been necessary to turn the plane around and get to Washington before the passengers had time to learn what was going on and put an end to the Jihadist plan - would have the presence of mind to gallantly mask his certain disdain for the infidel woman he was about to kill, strikes me as unbelievable. While it does us no good to dehumanize the enemy - and thus fail in our duty to understand him, the better to defeat him - this scene struck me as over-romanticizing a bastard. But what do I or anyone really know about the man?

The other indignity of the film occurs as the credits begin to roll. We hear a young child's voice - a voice of innocence - singing "laa... laaah... laah". Maybe it's just me, but I could have sworn the first "la" was an "allah", as the rest are almost. That this might be the film's final word - though readily deniable - is morally ambiguous and unduly provocative. Is a god being invoked or his supposed betrayal being lamented?

When we attend a film in the midst of a war, a film portraying a most key event in the war, we are programmed by historical experience to expect a clear differentiation of good and evil; we expect the film to take a side. While it would take a moral moron not to recognize the unquestionable evil of the murderers' clearly-depicted act, the film's withdrawal from overt dramatization - beyond its subtle, ambiguous, manipulation of a few religious and patriotic symbols - and the absence of background narrative, makes it clear that moral judgment is left largely to the viewer. The film's embrace of realism is disquieting because it is not clear why any artist has the right to suspend frank moral judgment in deference to this reality. The event thus revealed is less that seen by a confident set of American eyes, as it is the perspective of some extra-national agglomeration.

In discussing another film, Saving Private Ryan, Eric Gans makes one of his characteristically brilliant observations, about realism:
The notion of realism is the most tantalizingly difficult of all esthetic ideas. All representation is revelatory; it can do no other than claim to show its object "as it really is." An esthetic can only claim not to be realistic when, as with modernism, a prior mode named "Realism" exists against which it can define its own truth. Thus we may begin by understanding realism, not as a specific historical movement, but as the claim that a given representation is "more real" than previous ones. Realism in this sense is a universal function of the historicity of the human, the necessarily "progressive" nature of culture that stands in tension with the necessary "decadence" of its ritualized traditions... A novel or a film appears realistic precisely to the extent that it makes earlier novels and films appear unrealistic. This process requires the unanticipated and revelatory foregrounding of some new element that "thickens" narration, at the same time deferring its end and intensifying its effect. High-cultural realism tends more toward the former pole, popular realism to the latter; in the first case, the detail nuances the violence of the narrative conclusion; in the second, it intensifies it.
In depicting the murderers as well-dressed, neat, pious and devoted to their faith and the heinous act it ostensibly calls on them to perform, to the point that they are willing to lay down their own lives, the film's realism leaves open the possibility - for the legions of moral morons that we know are out there - to see nuance in the film's deferral of its violent conclusion, even as the film's realism also intensifies its unmistakably violent effect on the viewer. This blurring of Gans' distinction of traditional high and popular esthetics is in part possible because we live in an age where we have been trained by a form of realism to defer our judgment as to evident good and evil, at the behest of a culture of expertise and those who profess special knowledge of deeper realities (of subjects like terrorism) and their ostensible "root causes" unknown to most of us unless we engage in serious studies. There remains some question that we, broad-minded and realistic westerners, might see the murderers as tragically mistaken young men who could have become heroes if their committment to faith had been otherwise trained; in any case, the film's appeal to reality does not make us confident that we can simply demonize them as the bad guys and take from the film a commitment to the simple martial truths of the popular narrative.

In other words, the film holds our attention for two hours, even though we know what is going to happen, even as we should have no doubt about the nature of the evil unfolding, because we want the film's confirmation or testing of our own imagining of postmodern reality. This testing today imposes on us the question of whether a realist film - one that has hired Muslim academics in order better to depict the muderers' (mis?)practice of their religion - should in any way demonize or denounce the murderers and their faith by getting into the story behind their motivations. But it does not. For example, not one of the passengers or crew is shown conveying anti-Muslim epithets to the killers. Apparently the victims were not sufficiently informed, or too scared and defensive, to do that. This, we may or may not believe, would have been the most likely reality of ordinary Americans' on 9/11/2001.

As Gans says, our desire for realism follows from our falling out of a world in which both our guys and the enemy can be quickly distinguished by the use of familiar "ritual" devices. What is symbolically powerful about United 93, is that while the murderers are revealed as immersed in a world of ritual, their victims' rituals are comparatively banal. We hear about planned trips with family members, the trials of raising children, sporting interests, work schedules, and of course the passengers' last whispered words to loved ones, but little unites them as a group - beyond a vague Americanism - before the final moment of their lives when the immortal words "let's roll" are undramatically whispered and those who love life initiate a new historical era by fighting back, no longer putting faith in the old promise that one can survive if you give the terrorists what they want. However, like all acts of faith, that of the passengers on flight 93 enters the world in uncertainty and vulnerability. What bonds America most clearly on 9/11 is seen in the disciplined professionalism of the air traffic controllers and the NORAD team; but of course on this day this is all to no avail.

The film ends with the formation of a new covenant among the passengers and crew, an act of faith in each other, propelled by a pressing necessity. Let us hope that the realism of the future will similarly depict our falling out of the disconnected rituals of postmodernity and back into firmer covenantal bonds, such that a realistic film featuring Jihadists can have no choice but to reveal the utter hopelessness and indignity of their cause before peoples united to pummel every fantasy of virgin-rewarded martyrdom back into the dark holes of savage resentment from which they come. When we are united in defense of western values and no longer surprised by terrorism or puzzled as to its resentful and cultish motivations, it will run out of ideas and means with which to shock us. The effect of realism in United 93 exists only as long as we fail to do what we, if determined, could do: totally defeat and humiliate the common - readily justified by scriptures and history - conception of "Jihad" as war against the Infidel, such that Islam must radically change or die. Let the next generation view this film with the sense of unreality we today have for the reality portrayed in films from the fifies and beyond.

UPDATE: Peter Suderman has a different perspective on the film; he sees its realism - its careful research on everyone who boarded Flight 93 on September 11 - as a memorial to the passengers and crew. This raises the question of whether any narrative medium is suited to collectively memorializing numerous lives senselessly ended in acts of mass murder. As Stalin said, the story of a single life and death can be a tragedy; a million deaths is a statistic - in other words, no artistic medium can capture and fairly represent the nature and horror of the crime, nor can the lives and deaths of particular victims - whose live are ended with an entirely impersonal reason -be used as exemplary of the crime's story. This argument, often invoked in discussions of genocide, may not hold for an event like 9/11, and especially for the passengers of Flight 93 who, in fighting back, did indeed leave a memorial to their own lives and led the way to a new era where there can be no question of appeasing terrorists.

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