No Escape From New York

No movie column this week. Many cinemas in New York City, where I live, are closed; one, the big United Artists multiplex in Union Square, where on Monday I saw HappyAccidents, has been converted to a shelter for emergency workers and evacuated residents of Lower Manhattan. HappyAccidents, for the record, is a grueling romantic comedy about a man who travels from the 25th century to the present to save Marisa Tomei from getting run over by a taxi. It’s anyone’s guess why, as long as he was changing history, he didn’t mention to someone that the World Trade Center was about to be leveled … You’re right: That is a cheap and horribly unfair thing to write about an innocent piece of escapism. And yet it sums up the futility, at the moment, of turning to Hollywood for help in “escaping.” There is no escape.

I think about movies now only because that is my job, and because New York’s mayor, displaying unprecedented stature, has counseled us all to go back to work. I saw an excellent film last Monday called Dinner Rush, about a tumultuous night in an upscale Tribeca Italian restaurant, but almost nothing of it remains in my head. My friend Josh Kornbluth has an incisive and funny office-tower comedy called Haiku Tunnel that’s supposed to open this week in New York, Los Angeles, and San Francisco. Office towers and tunnels are not amusing settings this week—but the film, based on Kornbluth’s brilliant monologue, is a piece of Freudian slapstick that deserves to be considered in a different time and place.

The lines at my local video stores have been long, but no one is renting disaster pictures when the real thing can be seen on television, all day, over and over. One studio has pulled its Arnold Schwarzenegger revenge-against-terrorists flick scheduled for release next month. Network television screenings of The X-Files movie (in which an office tower explodes) and Independence Day (in which the White House explodes) have been canceled. It wouldn’t feel right to be entertained by annihilation. But should it ever have felt right? Pauline Kael, who passed away a week before this happened, in that other era, wrote about the obscenity of the 1974 schlock epic The Towering Inferno, in which “each scene of a person horribly in flames is presented as a feat for our delectation. The picture practically stops for us to say, ‘Yummy, that’s a good one!’ ” It will be a while, after footage of people fleeing clouds of lethal debris, before we surrender to disaster-porn like that again—although it should be said that, 10 years after Hiroshima and Nagasaki, a Japanese studio transformed the national trauma into a moneymaking machine named Gojira. That mournful first film turned out to be unexpectedly cathartic, and Gojira went on to become a sort of national champion, besting assorted invaders. Will we ever be so calloused?

Along with many New Yorkers, I saw two different images of the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center—the first, over and over, on a TV screen; the second, for about an hour, from my rooftop. I live on a hill across the harbor from Manhattan, three or four miles from where the towers stood: close enough to see the windows of my apartment from the top of the skyscraper, where I took my 3-year-old daughter about a month ago, where we bought a brownie from a man who’s probably dead and marveled at the view from what was called, with hubris, a “window on the world”; close enough so that, as I watched, from the roof, that same tower sink into itself, the dull roar took only a second or two to reach my ears. Down the hill, in Carroll Gardens, the cousin of a friend found a sheet of paper on his roof with a World Trade Center address, from the office of “Disaster Preparedness.” A few hours later, the air around Park Slope was filled with an acrid haze. I shut the windows and turned off the air conditioners. I read to my daughter from a book about animals that befriend other animals, while awaiting the safe arrival of my wife, who walked to Brooklyn from Midtown Manhattan.

It is difficult to imagine how movies can help us through this next period of our history. Hollywood will certainly want to tell the story of a band of very, very brave passengers who stopped a plane that might have been heading for the White House, the Pentagon, or Camp David. We’ll probably never know just who did what: Maybe it went something like the red-meat action picture Executive Decision, which is about Islamic terrorists who hijack a commercial airliner for a suicide attack on Washington, D.C. I tried watching it again last night, but the prospect of its happy ending—the hero not only slaughters the terrorists but gets to go for drinks with Halle Berry—was too distasteful. I wonder if Americans will come to embrace martyr scenarios—the sort of fantasies that apparently sustain (and motivate) this enemy. Unhappy endings go in and out of fashion and the fashion might be changing.

One of the few Hollywood movies that doesn’t feel cheap at this juncture is The Siege. A flop on its release three years ago, it’s full of glib, liberal pieties that stick in one’s craw, but it’s still one of the few commercial thrillers with something other than a vigilante-vengeance scenario. The film, directed by Edward Zwick, has two interlocking plot lines: The first concerns a group of Islamic “cells” waging attacks on prominent Manhattan targets (including One Federal Plaza) to free a kidnapped militant sheik; the second considers the impact of martial law following a citywide roundup of Arab-Americans. As the army leader, smug Bruce Willis stands before the Brooklyn Bridge (the World Trade Center is just visible in the distance) and says, “This is a land of opportunity, gentlemen—the opportunity to turn yourself in.” Against this, FBI agent Denzel Washington, embodying an admirable but wildly implausible mixture of vigilante recklessness and left-libertarian passion for civil rights, maintains that if we “shred the Constitution just a little bit, then they’ve already won.”

The movie’s heart is in the second plot line. It makes the assumption that a few tough FBI agents can take out the terrorist cells with straightforward, by-the-book police work—and anyway, since they turn out to have been initially trained and equipped by the CIA, it all comes down to wagging our fingers at the United States government. “Now you have to learn the consequences of telling the world how to live,” says the principal terrorist—a point that stands even as he’s blown into oblivion. I don’t know how I feel about TheSiege. But I also don’t know how I feel about President Bush telling the world he’s going to “whip terrorism.” I am frightened by the idea that we will think back on TheSiege as popular culture’s last sane response to the end of the world as we know it.