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August 18, 2005

Tragedy in Real Time

Recently I mentioned the news that filmmaker Paul Greengrass would be making Flight 93, a film portraying the 9/11 hijacking that ended with the plane crashing in a Pennsylvania field. Now, via Cinematical, I've just learned about 102 Minutes, a Paramount film based on a book by New York Times reporters Jim Dwyer and Kevin Flynn, which will focus on the time between the first plane hitting the tower and the collapse of that tower. Like Greengrass' film, 102 Minutes will unfold in real time, a coincidence that seems fairly significant when it comes to representations of these events.

In some sense, this real-time resentation fits the already existing narrative of the days' events, with a shocked world watching as events unfolded on television while they happened. And ceratinly real-time presentation fits within the temporal structures of TV's presentation of catastrophe. By disrutping normal TV programming, our daily routines are also disrupted, as Henry Jenkins and Shari Goldin argue in "Media and Catastrophe." In most cases, our memories of September 11 are shaped by the live televisual presentation, so real-time films, portraying only a small protion of the day's events, make a lot of sense.

But following Jenkins and Goldin, who were writing in the immediate aftermath of the day's events, I wonder what effect this real-time narration will have on shaping our interpretations of 9/11. Drawing from Svetlana Boym's arguments, Jenkins and Goldin point out that

the catastrophe creates a context where ordinary judgement breaks down, when emotions push us forward, and where we arrived at decisions which we might otherwise reject. We hold off panic in such a situation by returning to familiar terms, comfortable values, normal ways of thinking, but this may make it hard to think through the problem from a fresh perspective or arrive at new truths about a changing situation.
Perhaps my question here is this: how will these mass-spectacle, real-time presentations affect our ability to think critically about the events of September 11? And to what extent might these films silence other perspectives on 9/11? In other words, by showing these micro-narratives of the last moments on a hijacked plane or the last few minutes before the first World Trade Center tower crashed, what stories and narratives will be lost?

Update: The re:constructions website offers an outstanding resource of responses to the media coverage of the 9/11 attacks by media studies scholars. Given Hollywood's "return" to 9/11 and the upcoming Freedom Walk, these questions suddenly seem more pertinent, particularly when it comes to thinking about how various media shape our experience and how they contribute to a sense of cultural memory.

Posted by chuck at August 18, 2005 10:13 AM

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Chuck, as someone whose interests lie in temporality, how do you plan to address this "real time" preoccupation with the 9/11 films? I ask only because it seems to me that when anything purports to be "real time" (and I certainly can't dispute the 102 minutes between the towers collapsing), then the focus naturally shifts to concerns of space and place since, naturally, the simultaneity of events disrupts any attempts at "all-encompassing", panoptic filmmaking.

Posted by: marc at August 18, 2005 12:51 PM

Honestly, I'm not sure yet. I have to see what the films do with this real-time narrative approach. I think the "102 minutes" represents the interval between the plane hitting the first tower and its collapse, which would, as you suggest, require a specific grounding in space and place (i.e., you couldn't show all four, simultaneous events, although I'd imagine that the films will reconstruct timelines through the use of the cell phone conversations that have been widely documented, and most famously associated with the passenger's now famous "let's roll"). It's also notable that Hollywood films often clock in at approximately 100 minutes.

I think the micro-focus has the potential to reinfocre fears of terrorism, and certainly the real-time approach will heighten the tension in the films. And the enclosed location (in a plane; inside a tower) might also produce a sense of claustrophobia, as in Die Hard or Alien where all of the action, or at least most of it, takes place in a single location.

To be honest, I'm most worried about Greengrass' recent claim that his film would capture the "reality" of at least one aspect of 9/11. On the other hand, an optomistic reading might point out that these films recognize, implicitly at least, the impossiblity of conveying the entire story of September 11th.

Posted by: Chuck at August 18, 2005 1:28 PM

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