The Only Thing Real: Meaning and Maturity in Post-9/11 Cinema

Post-9/11 Cinema Essay - Funny Games

If you grew up in the 1990s, it was understood that the tides of history had been pacified. The conflicts that had animated previous generations had been resolved; a path had been cleared to pursue self-realization; a vista of endless prosperity and peace was now visible, overseen by a liberal humanitarian order which would promote immutable rights across the globe. Generation X was free to practice a studied cynicism in the face of the victorious free market, but it was conducted with the knowledge that everything was fundamentally settled; the Gen X posture was a permissible condition of lassitude at the end of history. The first intimation that this state of mobility and security might not be as unassailable as its chief ideologues were propounding came with the 2000 U.S. election; an embarrassing spectacle for the new global hegemon which stripped away the veneer of stability and meritocracy to reveal the partisan machinations and conservative judicial activism which connived to select the Leader of the Free World.

Still, it was a minor blow to America’s belief in its exceptionalism. It wasn’t until 9/11 that American invulnerability truly began to erode. 9/11 was a psychic wound that fostered a new relation to the world, and those who grew up in its aftermath struggled to digest its lessons; some fell back onto intransigence, while others internalized the damage. These wounds began to manifest cinematically in the period between 2005 and 2007; these years constitute a kind of historical dead zone, a brief interregnum between the convulsions of the War on Terror and the first rumblings of the Global Financial Crisis. This period permitted a brief moment of self-reflection, before history took another hostile turn and the cultural consensus was able to erect a more seductive set of myths situated within carefully cultivated, escapist landscapes.

The trauma of becoming unmoored from seemingly steadfast social pillars finds its expression in characters like Jim (Casey Affleck), who in Lonesome Jim (2005) flees his life in Manhattan after running out of money, and returns to his Indiana hometown in an attempt to break out of his “chronic despair.” Jim is an aspiring writer who longs to tell “sad stories about sad people with pathetic dreams”; he has internalized the spirit of creativity that has been constrained by the predominant culture, and is embodied in the tragic, suicidal artist who stands in defiance of boundless national optimism. As the 2000s progressed, that optimism was stretched to a breaking point, and Jim wakes from the contented slumber of the 90s boom to find a world steeped in uncertainty. For those who had enjoyed the fruits of prosperity, the world seemed chaotic again. Lonesome Jim is a study in shock and adjustment, but it is equally a wry take on Gen X solipsism; Jim damages everyone around him, driving his equally depressed brother, Tim (Kevin Corrigan), to attempt suicide. The film resolves itself into a morality test: Jim is torn between the slovenly self-absorption of his uncle “Evil” (Mark Boone Junior) and the public-spirited optimism of a nurse and single mother, Anika (Liv Tyler). Bearing witness to the contraction of economic possibility, Jim resolves to build something from the debris.

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The Hispanic teens in Wassup Rockers (2005) deal with their trauma and disorientation though a forceful display of group identity. They use skateboarding and hardcore punk to engender strength in numbers, a collective creativity which keeps despair at bay. It is the kind of expression which Lonesome Jim’s protagonist yearns to release him from the bonds of his enforced precarity, but for these teens it is a crucial coping mechanism against the genuine instability that surrounds them in South Central Los Angeles. The new state of national tension and paranoia is very familiar to them; there were never any expectations to be dashed against the rocks of a new reality; they already live in a milieu where they are surveilled and contained, the rest of the country has merely become subject to the same controls as those who have historically been their target. Subculture takes on a different complexion when you belong to a marginalized group; it is less an affect and more of an attitude, a defiant stance for those deemed extraneous. The teens take a leap into the dreamland of Beverly Hills, and catch a glimpse of America’s fabled confection. They come to understand that if it cannot be exoticized or commodified, it must be extirpated, that Beverly Hills is rife with its own lethal illusions, and all that remains is unified motion.

In Thumbsucker (2005), 17-year-old Justin (Lou Taylor Pucci) seeks comfort in sucking his thumb; the act becomes a foothold in the face of internal chaos, but the character starts seeking solutions. First, he is hypnotized by his new age orthodontist, Perry (Keanu Reeves). Then, Justin is diagnosed with ADHD and put on medication which transforms him from a shy underachiever to the star of the school’s debate club. Within its domestic drama, Thumbsucker offers a portrait of post-9/11 malaise and America’s obsession with security. Justin’s medicated brain is the avatar for a media landscape which peddles intriguing yet ersatz narratives; his desire to become a TV journalist speaks to his willingness to project an image of spurious authority. Justin strives to reside in the Goldilocks Zone of maturity in which his parents (portrayed by Vincent D’Onofrio and Tilda Swinton) long to remain, speaking to the Baby Boomers’ desire to extend their vitality at any cost. In order to keep reality at bay, structures are erected which strengthen the artifice of external life while occluding interior disquiet. Propelled on a pharmaceutical tide, it is this paradigm into which Justin throws himself, exploiting our capacity to be sold a heartening story by skilled rhetoricians. But Justin merely trades one security for another, and as he sets off for NYU to perfect his act, he is reminded by Perry that he must accept “human disorder,” that he must come to terms with the fact that our certainties are manufactured.

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Endings and beginnings collide in Off the Black (2006) when David (Trevor Morgan) gets caught vandalizing the house of Ray (Nick Nolte), a hard-drinking baseball umpire who cost a high school team’s place in the finals. To rectify the damage done, the characters reach an agreement — David must attend Ray’s 40-year high school reunion and pose as his son. David participates in the unpicking of an American myth: Ray embodies all of America’s tarnished ideals; he is a repository of all its losses — burdened by his own legacy, and willing to accept his own decline. David seeks stability away from a home where his father (Timothy Hutton) has been devastated by the departure of his wife, mired in a grief which hangs over the house as everyone struggles to adjust to a new reality in which the old rituals persist but have been hollowed out. This situation equips David perfectly for the reunion, where adulthood is revealed as an elaborate bluff in the absence of more edifying ideals. The ability to project plausibility becomes valued above all else; all that remains for Ray is the possibility of solidifying an ersatz version of himself in the eyes of his peers. David samples modes of American masculinity that are in the process of adaptation — Ray uses the analogy of the knuckleball being invented by Toad Ramsey when he severed a tendon in his index finger. When the structures of stability begin to disintegrate, life for David becomes a matter of filling in the meandering cracks, and absorbing the cautionary lessons from the men in his life. 

The New York urbanites in Shortbus (2006) seek solace in physical communion and studied dissipation. Like the teens in Wassup Rockers, they make a virtue of their alienation; their bodies become zones of fascination, a reimagined landscape distinct from the strictures of “real life,” but within viewing distance of Ground Zero. The city becomes a playground where new feats of exhibition can be completed, the backdrop for a sensual rather than violent spectacle. Everyone who haunts the Shortbus club — a “salon for the gifted and challenged” — is looking for a way to stop time; to suspend history as it whirls back into action; to exist in the eternal moment of climax, and never wake up to the clarity of a reconfigured world. They have flocked to the city in the face of spiraling rents because, as the club’s mistress, Justin (Mx Justin Vivian Bond), points out, 9/11 was “the only thing real that’s happened to them.” The frisson of carnage elicits a fin-de-siècle frenzy; they converge on the club to sample a vestige of New York realness, a self-aware Plato’s Retreat where the objective is frantic pastiche in search of an end: Justin avers wearily that it’s “just like the 60s, only with less hope.” There is a recognition that the city’s romantic energies are dissipating as its wounds heal, that a space where the normal laws of exchange do not apply and value is calculated differently cannot exist in the new metropole. The seed of a new, limited individual is contained within the final revel, ushering in the voyeurism economy, the aestheticized life and the systematic mapping of inner frontiers.

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The King (2006) could be read as an exploration of what political scientist Chalmers Johnson termed “blowback”: Elvis (Gael García Bernal) returns home after three years in the Navy with the intention of tracking down David Sandow (William Hurt), who his deceased mother told him is his father. David is now a pastor with a family, and wants nothing to do with this reminder of his previous life. Elvis begins a relationship with David’s teenage daughter, Malerie (Pell James), which brings him into conflict with her devout brother, Paul (Paul Dano). Malerie and Paul are merely collateral damage in Elvis’ greater campaign to expose the fraudulent foundations upon which David’s empire is built — Bernal’s character impregnates Malerie and kills Paul in order to instill in their father a sense of divine desertion, sowing uncertainty and inflicting pain in the name of avenging the past actions of this “saved” soul. The King offers an insight into the rise of a politically radical Christianity, whose ramifications are being felt in the present moment — Paul campaigns to have creationism taught in his school, reproducing the ideology his father is promulgating and presaging the contemporary culture warrior. But Paul becomes the first casualty when he tries to stand in defense of the empire; he is no match for Elvis, a militarized spirit hardened for every battle in his life. David grapples with his culpability in creating this vengeful specter, and the rectitude he presents to the world; he castigates himself in front of his flock for believing he was “God’s special guy,” and introduces Elvis to the congregation, shortly before the title character slays his family with a service rifle.

Paranoid Park (2007) takes the form of a confession, as teenage skater Alex (Gabe Nevins) looks to offload the guilt surrounding his involvement in a moment of deadly adventurism. Alex visits Portland’s Eastside Skatepark, aka “Paranoid Park” — a refuge for the city’s “train hoppers, guitar punks, skate drunks, throwaway kids” — where he is introduced to Scratch (Scott Patrick Green), who invites him to ride the rails. In the course of throwing himself into this intentional peril, Alex gets into an altercation with a security guard, who is pushed onto the tracks and bisected by a train. All that remains for Alex is to present a defiant front, to claim self-defense and that violence was the last resort, as the ambient vibrations of the war in Iraq are felt. Alex begins to understand his proximity to loss: his parents are in the process of getting divorced, and he is told that there are bodies buried under the skatepark’s cement; what had seemed so solid takes on a new tenuity as he approaches the threshold of maturity. Alex tells his friend, Macy (Lauren McKinney), that “There’s something outside of normal life, outside of teachers, breakups, girlfriends”; he is suddenly conscious of “different levels” which signal the impermanence of everything around him; what had previously defined his identity is revealed to be a consumer construct contingent upon spending power, the board can equally signify mobility or destruction. Wrenched from his subterranean domain, Alex is overtaken by adult concerns, and life’s visceral stakes come into focus as he meets death’s implacable gaze.

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Post-9/11 Cinema Essay - Paranoid Park

Adult concerns are felt acutely by Keith (Dore Mann) in Frownland (2007), an unsuccessful door-to-door salesman of coupons which purport to benefit those with multiple sclerosis. For Keith, the doorsteps of suburban homes become a crucible for all his festering discomfort, insecurity and disappointment. The character is an inarticulate, emotionally stunted figure; he is derided by his patronizing roommate, Charles (Paul Grimstad), for his “ridiculous, disjointed splutterings,” and he struggles to maintain a relationship with anyone. Keith doesn’t have the stomach to participate in a turbo-charged economy animated by a mutant strain of Reaganomics, in which George W. Bush enjoined Americans to “go out shopping for their families” after 9/11, seeking to heal the nation by financializing every interaction, and setting loose a cascade of credit that would eventually capsize the economy. Without a clear articulation of progress, a vacuum of possibility is filled by all manner of utopian grifters. Keith is seduced by the multifarious pyramid schemes which occupy the energies of atomized young men like him, hanging on to the paltry gains he has amassed. One nameless character (Paul Grant) comments wistfully that he is “nostalgic for a Kafkaesque universe.” It is understood that these characters have entered a new, chaotic formulation, without even the certainty of onerous bureaucracy against which to define themselves. The city becomes hostile, oppressive, accusatory, and Keith undergoes his own metamorphosis; scrabbling in the darkness, he is twisted into a mewling and burbling creature with no means of articulating his needs. 

Even Michael Haneke’s 2007 remake of Funny Games (1997) is tinged with the spirit of post-9/11 dread, as Naomi Watts and Tim Roth’s wealthy couple are held captive by two children of the hyperreal. The kidnappers (portrayed by Michael Pitt and Brady Corbet) trap their quarry in their own affluence; the signifiers of their wealth are used against them; they are vulnerable in their coastal redoubts, kept in by their own security measures, unable to scale the gates which protect their inflated assets in a febrile economy. In this version, Haneke implicates viewers as much in the footage from Iraq that characters watch on TV; the violence people pay to see on the screen. To see war in narrative terms is to reduce human suffering to a plot point, to redraft reality according to the regnant storyline; the representation of the act validates the act itself. Funny Games’ violence takes on a different resonance when placed alongside the casual cruelty unearthed at Abu Ghraib, just as the echoes of the Bosnian War inflected the original film. Pitt and Corbet play the role of the well-meaning occupiers; they pay lip service to a clean conflict with righteous goals, forced into extreme measures by the intransigence of their captives, undergirded by the virtue of their mission. But the original movie’s didacticism has been replaced by a barbaric levity — the kidnappers in the 2007 remake are the product of U.S. consumer culture, and as such there is no philosophy animating their actions grander than diversion. They cherish the right to be amused, and prolong the agony of their “little charade” because they understand “the importance of entertainment.” The war is brought into the imperial center, wrapped in the gaudy ribbons of a malignant contest.

D.M. Palmer (@MrDMPalmer) is a writer based in Sheffield, UK. He has contributed to sites like HeyUGuys, The Shiznit, Sabotage Times, Roobla, Column F, The State of the Arts and Film Inquiry. He has a propensity to wax lyrical about Film Noir on the slightest provocation, which makes him a hit at parties. The detritus of his creative outpourings can be found at waxbarricades.wordpress.com.