Making sense of it all, five years later

From Slate:

To mark the fifth anniversary of 9/11, Slate asked novelists, artists, journalists, and other thoughtful people a question: What work of art or literature has helped you make sense of the attacks and the world after them? Their answers are below.

It was a bright blue Tuesday morning, crisp and breezy in the way that tells you summer has finally left the building. Even though I was rushing out of my apartment ten minutes later than usual, I was enjoying the clean air. For some reason, NPR was putting on some prank, a modern-day “War of the Worlds” broadcast. I cycled through station after station, and by the fourth signal I had figured out that this was no joke. When I got to work, I parked the car, turned off the ignition, and sat there for five minutes, staring out into space.

The rest of my day was probably much like yours. I couldn’t get through the suddenly clogged internet to find any news, so radio once again became the Source of All Things Current. Frantic phone calls to friends in Brooklyn, Harlem, and Washington, DC, were met by busy signals and curt recorded voices. I didn’t get much work done.

To be honest, I don’t remember much about the week of 11 September 2001. I’ve taken to calling it the Lost Week, and most of what I recall are fragments that I’ve mashed together into a continuous narrative that exists only in my mind.

On the night of the massacre, I ended up at a local beer tavern that I wasn’t even sure would be open. There were only five others there, including the bartender/owner, who said he was only open “because I couldn’t think of what else to do but do what we always do.” I asked him what was the pretty music playing in the background. “Oh, that’s the Grateful Dead’s Blues for Allah,” Phil said. “He’s got ‘em bad right now, right?”

I submerged myself in Beulah’s terrific The Coast Is Never Clear, which—unfortunately for the band—was released on 9/11. The music is bright and poppy, like that gorgeous Tuesday morning. Flutes, vibes, horns, and string sections mesh with punk-rock guitars and pounding drums. The lyrics underneath, however, seep out anxiety—breakups in process, low-hanging guilt that never seems to dissipate, a weariness with life.

L(2) emailed on Wednesday that she was also playing The Coast Is Never Clear over and over again. In “What Will You Do When Your Suntan Fades?” Liz emailed to report that she was hunkering down by thinking about James Joyce and the Home Rule Party.

By that Friday, though, there was one form of art that I was sick of. In an email to a friend, I wrote:

I’ve watched so much video footage that I was becoming burnt out, so I’ve declared a moratorium on TV watching till Monday night. I don’t want to get used to the image of the collapsing towers of the World Trade Center, with thousands of people inside. I don’t want that to become passé, so I’ve resolved to stop watching it for now.

I didn’t watch the televised concert, but I was cheered to see that others were looking to popular culture and art to make sense of the world. That’s a large part of what art is supposed to do—make the fragmented, chaotic life experience into something manageable and coherent, even if the ultimate message of a particular artwork might be how unmanageable and incoherent life actually is.

So Slate’s question is a good one. It wasn’t until December 2002 that I found the artwork that put the post-9/11 world into focus. And, like all great or near-great works of art, it led to others.

Spike Lee has fearlessly, sometimes unwisely, wrestled with the here-and-now in his movies, more so than any working American filmmaker. He makes movies quickly—in some years, like this year, he puts out two within twelve months—and as a result can insert up-to-the-minute references and talking points into his films. If his movies occasionally feel rushed (Get On the Bus), unfinished (Bamboozled), or slapdash (Girl 6), it’s because he feels the need to cram in everything he’s thinking about into a given project. It’s as if he thinks he might never get a chance to make another movie, so he’d better get his whole soul—no matter how half-baked elements of it might be—in at once. This was endearing when he was a 20-something fully cognizant of the fact that black celebrities have a short shelf life. It became less so as he’s become part of the establishment. (I bet Lee has an easier time scrounging up money for new projects than, say, John Sayles, who’s been doing this longer.)

In any case, every attentive film lover realized Lee would make a 9/11 film. Who can blame him? Unlike so many hand-wringers whining “It’s too soon,” Lee actually lives in New York City I just didn’t expect it to be so good.

Sure, 25th Hour has its flaws—the final dream sequence goes on too long; it’s not totally clear what Barry Pepper’s character does for a living; as usual, Terrence Blanchard’s gorgeous jazz score is sometimes mixed too loudly and gets in the way of scenes; Anna Paquin is slightly irritating.

But the movie gets so much else right. It’s not a 9/11 movie in that, unlike United 93 and World Trade Center, it’s not directly about the events of that day. But it’s the first American movie in which its aura is palpable. The movie’s characters are walking wounded, and the dialogue percolates with barely suppressed—and, at one critical point, completely unleashed—tension about Arabs, politics, war, and moral failure. Lee shows flashes of dead firemen, construction at Ground Zero, and New Yorkers from all classes and races. These glimpses aren’t random fragments but rather jigsaw puzzle pieces; put them together in the proper places, as Lee does, as you’ve got a single picture—the mood of America a year after the massacre.

Like Lee’s Inside Man, it captures the atmosphere of the country—in all its disparate parts—while the film’s form is itself encased in a tried-and-true genre. A year ago, I wrote that

Lee usually works best when working with a broad canvas—multiple plot strands, lots of characters, cultural commentary coming at you from all sides. He can’t keep myself from making political points in his movies, from making broader commentary, even if the ideas are half-cooked or if they don’t fit the dimensions of the film he’s making at the time.

…but I may have been wrong. Lately, Lee has found his best self when working with (and sticking to) a genre: documentaries (4 Little Girls, When the Levees Broke), heist tale (Inside Man), a single-day character study (25th Hour).

As the movie’s end credits roll, Bruce Springsteen’s “The Fuse” plays, accompanied by Blanchard’s trumpet. It’s such a soaring moment that it got me interested in the Boss’s work for the first time—I hadn’t intentionally listened to one of his songs, ever, since 1993’s “Streets of Philadelphia.” I’d never owned one of his albums. “The Fuse” comes from The Rising, also released in 2002 and also a magnificent response to 9/11. Both the film and the album have stayed in my mind since. I’m as familiar with the images they project as I am with those I kept seeing on the TV screen on 11 September—but only the former make any sense to me.

**************

So, let’s throw Slate’s question out to the rest of us. Feel free to post in the comments section or on your own sites. I’m curious to see how art has or hasn’t made 9/11 manageable to the bloggerati.

UPDATE: Susan gets the ball rolling at Chicken Spaghetti.

About Walter Biggins

Walter Biggins is a writer based in Athens, GA. His work has been published in RogerEbert.com, Bookslut, The Comics Journal, Salon, The Baseball Chronicle, Jackson Free Press, and Valley Voices: A Literary Review. Follow him on Twitter (@walter_biggins), and check out his bimonthly newsletter (https://tinyletter.com/Walter_Biggins).
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2 Responses to Making sense of it all, five years later

  1. Elizabeth says:

    I was living in a studio in downtown San Francisco on 9/11/01. Those were the nights when the whole city shot out of bed every time a siren drove by, which was like, every five minutes.
    That night, I went to a video store and rented Shakespeare in Love, because it was on the shelf. I don’t know how much sense I made of 9/11 from watching it, but I still think an awful lot about what honor if any art and creative expression have nowadays. I suppose I come back to the very basic thought that beauty doesn’t save lives or really even change lives, but it is beautiful, and it is a tiny way to counteract the evil inside us. Might as well, right?

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