Monday, March 29, 2010

Big-screen versus small-screen terror

I'm currently reading a book to review called Firestorm: American Film in the Age of Terrorism. It's pretty good—a decent balance of exposition and analysis, and makes some very useful observations about the often serendipitous relationship between Hollywood and 9/11. One observation it makes, which sort of struck me, is that since the attacks nine years ago, there has been very little in the way of terror-based plots emerging from Hollywood. Certainly when compared to the fairly constant presence of terrorists as ubiquitous bad guys through the 80s and 90s, the absence is rather striking. The author quotes an article written in The Atlantic in 2008 by conservative columnist Ross Douthat, who claims "Even in films that aren't taking thinly veiled jabs at the Bush administration, terrorist baddies turn out to be Eurotrash arms dealers (2006's Casino Royale), disgruntled hackers (2007's Live Free or Die Hard), a sinister air marshal (2005's Flightplan), or the handsome white guy sitting next to you in the airport lounge (2005's Red Eye). Anyone and anybody, in other words, except the sort of people who actually attacked the United States on 9/11." I think Douthat's claim here is inane,1 for reasons I will get to in a moment, but at least has the merit of being correct in the broad strokes: namely, that there have been very few films since 9/11 that have depicted Islamist extremists in any capacity. Those that have I can more or less count on one hand: The Kingdom, United 93, Munich and Syriana are really the only ones that leap to mind (though I suppose you could include You Don't Mess With the Zohan if you wanted to stretch the designation to the breaking point, and Iron Man features bad guys in Afghanistan whom we are meant to understand as either Al-Qaeda or Taliban types).

To clarify what I mean here: there are a host of films that feature terrorism as a narrative element, or which are obviously about 9/11 in displaced form (think of Spielberg's remake of War of the Worlds), but these are not about radical Islamism per se; I also leave off the list films about the Iraq war such as The Hurt Locker, Stop-Loss or In the Valley of Elah. I find Douthat's claim insipid because, of the films he cites, only Live Free or Die Hard can reasonably be called a film about terrorism, and even there the antagonist's principal motivation is to demonstrate to his former employer, Homeland Security, how vulnerable the U.S. is to electronic assault. The other three are, respectively, an overwrought spy film, a really rather incoherent psychological thriller, and a more nuanced and taut psychological thriller. Given that the latter two involve airplanes, I can see the impulse to classify them as Douthat does, but that stretches the definition of "terrorism" to an extent that renders is more or less meaningless.

I would counter Douthat's claim, which attempts to posit this lack of "the sort of people who actually attacked the United States on 9/11" in films as Hollywood being all wimpily PC, with the observation that there have been very few films about terrorism in general since 9/11.2 It's not that Hollywood is reluctant to depict Islamists (Allah knows they were the among the most frequent go-to villains in action films in the 80s and 90s), but that it has become leery of the very subject of terrorism. This is, in and of itself, unsurprising. For all it gets vilified as a bastion of liberalism, Hollywood is actually very conservative—not politically, perhaps, but it is very cautious where the financial bottom line is concerned. Whether or not big-budget, genre movies—and this, really, is what we're principally talking about, not small-scale, independent or self-consciously "quality" films—could sustain audiences if they actively reminded them of the war or terror is an interesting question, but not one that major studios are likely to test at the risk of their profit margins.

All of this, besides offering me an excuse to take a few thwacks at Ross Douthat, is by way of pointing out that while films have been reluctant to depict terrorism since 9/11, Islamist or otherwise, the same cannot be said for television. Indeed, the small screen has been very nearly glutted with narratives of Samuel Huntington's so-called "clash of civilizations," and pretty much every American actor who can pass for "Eastern" has been getting work on 24. Even Kal Penn of Harold and Kumar and House fame has taken a turn as terrorist (albeit a reluctant one). Kal Penn, I ask you! Also that season, Canada's own Sean Majumder played a terrorist as well, casting that is perhaps even more amusing than Penn's.

While 24 is the primary example of TerrorTVTM, it is by no means the only one: besides such short-lived shows as E-Ring, Threat Matrix, and The Grid, N.C.I.S. has frequent recourse to plotlines involving Islamists; season three of The West Wing began with a special post-9/11 episode ("Isaac and Ishmael") in which the characters mused over the nature of the war on terror while in a lockdown, and the second half of the season hinged to a large extent on a plot in which the president must decide whether to assassinate a foreign dignitary who is discovered to be the leader of an Al-Qaeda type group; Showtime produced a two-season series titled Sleeper Cell, about an African-American Muslim working for the FBI who infiltrates, well, a sleeper cell; and the various Law & Order franchises have all featured episodes about terrorism, Islamism, or the new American security state.

I raise this question here because I am curious as to why this is the case—I get why film shies away, but what is it about terrorism, Islamist or otherwise, that television finds so amenable? Is it the small-screen format? Where film is leery of recreating the kind of spectacle of 9/11, is television unconcerned because it can't do large-scale visuals in the same way? Are terrorism plots (in the various senses of the word) better suited to episodic format or procedural dramas? Or is there another reason?

I throw this out to general discussion—I am interested to get feedback. Also, I am sure I am missing terrorism-based films in my short list. If you want to point out anything I have overlooked, that would be super.


1I suppose I should be kinder to Ross Douthat, given that he is one of a rapidly shrinking cohort of conservative writers and thinkers who actually value intellect and erudition, and overall the article of his I'm quoting offers an interesting reading of post-9/11 film as a self-conscious retread of 1970s Hollywood. His discussions are almost invariably marred however by such tendentious claims as the one he makes in the quoted passage. He pretty much always manages to seriously irritate me whenever I read his columns, less by his politics than the presumptions about leftist and liberal thought that underwrite his arguments. (One way or another, I am deeply amused that Microsoft Word's spellcheck suggests that the word I'm meaning to type when I write "Douthat" is actually "douched.")

2Douthat, incidentally, does not do much to help his argument when he dismisses one of the few post-9/11 films to specifically depict Islamist terrorism—Syriana—as a film that "eschews nuance entirely, tracing all the ills of Mesopotamia to a malign nexus of Texas oilmen, neocons, and a trigger-happy CIA." Omitted from this list, interestingly, are such middle-Eastern regimes as Saudi Arabia, whose systemic maltreatment of migrant workers provides the primary site and source of religious extremism in the film.


Fred said...

Even outside the U.S. there is limited releases.

(1) "My Name is Khan" one of a number of Bollywood films focusing on post-9/11.

(2) Michael Moore "Farenheit 9/11"

(3) From France, "A Few Days in September"

(4) "City of Theives"

Not much even outside of the U.S..This also raises the question of do I want to see a film about 9/11? I will read a history of it, or watch a documentary, but not as entertainment.

The thing about films like "Die Hard," is that they are catastrophe films which foreground pyrotechniques and action. It would seem rather exploitative to use 9/11 in such a way. And since action films make up a mainstay of Hollywood movies, it's more likely fictional villains will fill the bill. Why risk public outrage when Transformers satisfies the target audience. Mind there is that British comedy, "Four Lions."

We could also ask why there haven't been a significant number of films about Hurricane Katrina? Is the "Day after Tomorrow" and "2012" coded references to Hurricane Katrina?

I must also wonder if television is more relatable to a wider audience than film? Within the context of a series, audiences are familiar with known characters, whose reactions to 9/11 and its aftermath are essentially reassuring. Knowing Mac Taylor's response on CSI: New York, provides an accessible model of patriotism for audiences. This may seem unsatisfying, but I wonder if the demographic for programs like CSI, NCIS, or West Wing allows the writers to more sentimentally handle the experience of 9/11 that is not as available on film.

These answers may be unsatisfying, but perhaps there is a kernel of truth in them.

Chris in NF said...


Those are some great points. It's interesting, on the disaster film end of things, that the only real candidate there is "2012" -- it's as if anything more localized than THE WHOLE WORLD BLOWING UP is dodgy territory in the post-Katrina (and now, post-Haiti world).

I like your idea about the familiarity of television characters. We develop deeper emotional bonds and responses to them than we can in a 2-hour film, which perhaps makes terrorists more palatable as villains because they are, by contrast, more threatening and alien.

I also think that television makes terrorism more about narrative and less about spectacle than film does. If it is a series of plot points rather than a singular event, does that create a cognitive distance from 9/11?

Fred said...

Two ways to consider 9/11 in films and television. By comparison with the history of Holocaust films, and by examining metaphors associated with 9/11.

One way to look at this is to consider Holocaust films. Do we, in general, have enough historical distance from the Holocaust to make it part of entertainment? How did audiences interpret Benigni's "Beautiful Life" for instance? It is classified as a comedy, and it certainly drew controversy for being so. Hence, is the temporal proximity too near for 9/11 to become part of entertainment?

In "X-men" Magneto is a child deportee who uses his powers at the gates of Auschwitz. In "X-men" the Holocaust as a subject has moved beyond the historical. Lawrence Baron (Chapter 8 in "Projecting the Holocaust into the Present") describes this shift as the "Holocaust as pop-metaphor". As of yet, 9/11 has not entered the terrain of pop metaphor.

If we want to find references to 9/11 we need to look for metaphorical interpretations that go beyond direct documentary representations. For instance, the rhetoric of 9/11 includes references to 'rising' (see Jeffrey Melnick, "(/11 Cutlure" especially chapter 4, "Rising"). Rising, flying up, are metaphors with direct relations to 9/11. One of the super powers in "Heroes" is the ability ot suddenly fly up. The third "X-Men" uses this metaphor as well in the figure of Angel. "LOST" uses the metaphor in reverse, beginning with falling (plane crash), but rising does come later as when Jack and company rise off the island in Frank's helicopter (ironically, only to crash again). There seems to be an equal balance in metaphorical usage of 'rising' between film and television. In fact this may be the edge of 9/11 as pop-metaphor.

andrew.dewaard said...

There is Oliver Stone's 'World Trade Center', focusing on heroism (never saw it, but it did ok commercially and critically), 'Reign Over Me', a decent Adam Sandler film about a man coping with the lose of his family on 9/11, and Spike Lee's underrated 'The 25th Hour', which is a pretty elegant allegory for America's reaction to 9/11, and features the Tribute in Light 9/11 memorial. But none of the 3 deal with Islamic terrorism...

More here:

In terms of 'why tv and not film', I think maybe it just takes cinema longer to react? Television seems to write from the headlines (especially Law & Order and its ilk), whereas film projects often take much longer to gestate. Would be interesting to chart Hollywood's reaction time to historical events; while there have been relatively quick responses to war, I would guess that most of the important ones happened considerably later... And the seemingly quick reaction to the Iraq War owes something to the fact that its a retread of the Gulf War...

Also, Hollywood is in full-on high-concept, franchise building, globally-palatable, increasingly 3D and transmedia-applicable blockbuster mode -- doesn't leave a lot of room for terrorism or Muslim extremism.

No doubt we will one day get the 3D 9/11 spectacle that appears unimaginable at this point -- I bet no one in the 1940s thought there would ever be a Michael Bay and Jerry Bruckheimer production of Pearl Harbour, starring Ben Affleck and lots of explosions.

Austin Gorton said...

If it is a series of plot points rather than a singular event, does that create a cognitive distance from 9/11?

I think there might be something in this. Just as TV allows us (the audience) to know in advance or over the course of the show how the protagonist is likely to approach terrorism, it also allows time for a terror plot to unfold. And thus, the plot (of the show) becomes about the plot (of the terrorists) and the protagonist's reaction to it, as opposed to JUST being about the spectacle of the attack itself (which is more often the case in a summer blockbuster).

And I think Fred is on to something as well. The kind of movies we're talking about ARE big budget action spectacles. Smaller, quieter, "indy", "arthouse" films aren't necessarily afraid to deal with terrorism, because they're taking it on with a more measured, plot/character driven approach (like TV might).

Whereas the Hollywood blockbusters are going for the spectacle of it, and when it comes to terrorism (whether they're correct or not, in Hollywood's mind), the spectacle of a summer blockbuster strikes a little to close to the spectacle of reality.

Besides, like Fred said, why have terrorists blow up a building when you can have Megatron do it instead, and your audience is just as satisfied?

Sara Swain said...

It’s true, terrorists did maintain a constant ubiquitous presence as bad guys throughout the 80s and 90s--and the fact that they are currently absent in Hollywood cinema lends some credence to Slavoj Zizek’s observation that during the 9/11 attacks, the U.S. finally got what it had been fantasizing about. And maybe it is this painful wish fulfillment that has caused the post-9/11 crisis of representation that you’ve identified.

9/11 was an exemplary event where fantasy became reality. The threshold between the real and the spectacle dissolved/was exhausted, and perhaps that’s why Hollywood has been reticent to take on 9/11; there simply isn’t enough distance to make it into a fantasy or a spectacle. In a sense it already was a spectacle: people who witnessed the attacks on the first and second towers were on record as saying that it looked like something “out of a movie.” That footage was shown over and over again after the attacks. It was a “frenzy of the visible”—as if re-watching the visual evidence would somehow confirm that this traumatic event really did happen, an event that was never before knowable outside of fantasy. Had that footage never been shown, the social experience of 9/11 might have been significantly different.

Perhaps in the aftermath of 9/11, Islamic terrorist attacks became associated with the Real (the big ‘R’ in the Lacanian sense), that traumatic core that can never be symbolized. And it continues to resist symbolization…. But why it’s symbolized on television and not in movies is an interesting quandary. It might have something to do with television’s narrative structure to be sure--but it might also have something to do with the fact that the first images of the 9/11 attacks were shown on television; in a sense it’s the compulsive return to or reenactment of the proverbial primal scene/scene of the crime.

Chris in NF said...

@Andrew: I think you're right on the point of television's adaptability to recent news / current events ... If for no other reason, perhaps, than that TV writers are under constant pressure to churn out new scripts, they must be more tempted than screenwriters to crib from the headlines (that, incidentally, should be Law & Order's mantra -- "Cribbed from the Headlines").

@Fred & Teebore: I think you're both right about the sublimation of terrorism into gigantic robots or alien tripods. If we're going by the principle then that everything depicted in Hollywood spectacle means something else, I guess the question becomes what terrorists in the 80s and 90s represented? :-)

@Sara: I still maintain that, of all the various theorists sounding off on 9/11, Zizek was the one who got it right. What becomes a little weird in looking at the spectacle of 9/11 as a species of the Lacanian Real is the inescapable fact that it is simultaneously -- because of the leadup in Hollywood fantasy -- always already imaginary. Which is perhaps why it sometimes seems so sui generis.

Fred said...

After just watching the latest installment of 24, I find myself just simply bored with the whole show. Rioght now I feel like Comic Book Guy (Simpsons) writing, "worst epiosode ever." With 24 I can't say worst Season ever, but the show is exhausted itself.

So what does that mean for Big-screen versus Small-screen? I think the Small screen is now exhausted on the likes of Jack Bauer and his clones. Zizek mostly got it right, but now the Real is banal, and people want something else. Oh, thank heavens Glee is coming on soon.

Chris in NF said...

Hahaha! Yes, Glee is a great antidote to 24. I find myself watching 24 now more out of force of habit than anything else -- I'm glad this will be the final season.

Perhaps the exhaustion of 24 is indicative that TV is tired of this topic, or it has ceased to inhabit the cultural imaginary with the same immediacy.