How pop culture has helped us process 9/11 over 15 years
9/11 was like nothing else, ever.
Pop culture is like everything else, ever. Familiarity is comforting: that's why movies get remade, and Billboard hits sound like other Billboard hits.
It's only natural that pop culture, for the last 15 years, has tried to comfort us about 9/11 in the best way it knows how: by taming it, domesticating it, making it fit into familiar tropes and uplifting formulas. Nor is this, necessarily, bad. When people — or cultures — undergo a shock, they search above all else for a way to process it.
"You take it, and you try to cut it down to size, something that will make sense," says Dr. Harvey Greenberg, a New York psychoanalyst and pop culture writer ("The Movies on Your Mind").
Those of us lucky enough to live through that day in 2001 still remember the sense of utter chaos, blind panic, as unimaginable things began happening, one after another: skyscrapers collapsed, airplanes plummeted, tsunamis of smoke barreled up Manhattan streets, traffic became paralyzed for 100 miles in each direction. Fear and disorientation overwhelmed us. Anything, it seemed, might happen next.
In moments of panic — psychologists say — we tend to blindly, feverishly search for parallels, analogies. Our minds rifle through our store of memory, looking for any clue that will give us a context, an explanation, a guide to surviving the crisis.
What our minds do in seconds, pop culture has been doing for a decade and a half. It's been searching its storehouse for familiar ways to frame the narrative.
Familiarity: Former Record photographer Tom Franklin didn't seek to create an icon of pop culture when he happened to shoot, on the afternoon of Sept. 11, three firefighters hoisting an American flag amid the World Trade Center ruins. But that image quickly took on a life of its own: reproduced in murals, coins, statues, figurines, postage stamps.
Of all the eloquent pictures that emerged from that day, why this one in particular? Almost certainly, because it bore a phantom resemblance to another image: the famous "Raising the Flag on Iwo Jima" photo from World War II. Never mind that the situations were hugely dissimilar. The Iwo Jima picture captured a moment of triumph. Franklin's image conveyed — what? Pathos? Resilience? Defiance? No matter. It seemed familiar — and that above all was what was needed in the months immediately following 9/11. The unspoken message: We've been through this before, and survived.
Springsteen: A year later, in his album "The Rising," Bruce Springsteen framed 9/11 in familiar Springsteenian terms: working-man heroes saying goodbye to their girls, as they do what a man's gotta do.
"I need your kiss, but love and duty called you someplace higher," sings a firefighter's lady in "Into the Fire." "Somewhere up the stairs, into the fire."
It's said that Springsteen was inspired to create his album a few days after the attacks: a stranger rolled down his car window and said "we need you now." Of all the people one might need after a national catastrophe, why Bruce Springsteen? Was it, perhaps, because ruined cities are old news to him ("My Hometown," "Jungleland")? Not to mention tough but sensitive guys in a tight place, and the girls who have their back? If we "needed" Springsteen after 9/11, maybe it was because of the special brand of first aid he offered: continuity.
"People wanted someone who could speak for them, who could give them some hope, some resilience," says Eileen Chapman, director of the Bruce Springsteen special collection at Monmouth University. "Who better than Bruce Springsteen, whose songs have been anthems to his fans?"
Hollywood: It took five years for Hollywood to tackle 9/11 head on. The two big films that came out in 2006 were both hero narratives — one of the things Hollywood does best. There were, of course, 9/11 heroes — even if more of us experienced the day as stunned bystanders or, more tragically, as victims or grieving relatives. But if you want your movie "World Trade Center" to star Nicolas Cage, and attract a mainstream audience, you will choose a fact-based story about two firefighters who heroically kept each other alive in the rubble for more than 12 hours. And if you're director Oliver Stone, you will have characters say things like "We're gonna need some good men out there to avenge this!" and "He's alive! They couldn't kill him!"
The year's other 9/11 film, the well-made "United 93," about the 40 people who deliberately brought a hijacked airliner down over Shanksville, Pennsylvania, (there were also several TV movies on this subject), was less histrionic. But both films ultimately did the familiar Hollywood pivot: crafting a feel-good movie out of a feel-bad subject.
The same thing could be said about another, weirder 9/11 movie. "Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close" (2011) based on the novel by Jonathan Safran Foer, tried to mix 9/11 and cute — another reliable Hollywood commodity. A 9-year-old kid with Asperger's syndrome (Thomas Horn) mourns for his father, a 9/11 casualty, by roaming the city having wistful interactions with different New Yorkers in what one critic called "a quest for emotional blackmail, cheap thrills, and a naked ploy for an Oscar."
Reference: Some less pretentious Hollywood films that indirectly referenced 9/11 may have come closer to capturing the way the day actually felt for many of us. "Cloverfield" (2008) was a low-budget horror movie in which some kind of gigantic monster — we see it only in glimpses — attacks New York. "War of the Worlds" (2005), Steven Spielberg's update of the old H.G. Wells alien-invasion thriller, included a resonant scene (which some critics thought was in bad taste) of survivors poring over a fence posted top to bottom with "missing persons" fliers and photos.
Both films relied on 9/11 associations for part of their impact. Both films achieved dread by keeping the action at ground-level, with the characters experiencing the catastrophe — as most of us experienced 9/11 — as a series of bewildering, disconnected flashes. And both films gave viewers a way to exorcise their memories of the 2001 attacks: by recasting them in the familiar form of a horror movie.
TV: Unlike a theater screen, TV can't overwhelm with size. The crushing horror of the World Trade Center attack doesn't necessarily come through in TV movies and documentaries (of which there have been many). But what TV can address, especially in the new "long-form" arrangement that has become popular in the last 15 years, is time.
The excellent "Homeland" (2011-present), partly by virtue of its drawn-out, episodic format, captures some of the low-level trauma we've suffered in the 15 years since 9/11. "Homeland" is about our abiding fear of attack at home — and the dread that our ever-morphing, never-ending Middle East wars, like the twists and turns in the story of turncoat soldier Nicholas Brody (Damian Lewis) and suspicious CIA officer Carrie Mathison (Claire Danes), might just go on and on and on.
Comedy, another TV staple, was thought to be forever off the table when the first plane hit the first building. Actually, it didn't take too long for the wisenheimers to weigh in on 9/11 — with varying degrees of taste.
"Osama bin Laden Has Farty Pants" was the first new "South Park" episode to air after the attacks (Nov. 7, 2001). In a 2004 "Arrested Development" episode, Tobias (David Cross) talks of his failed marriage is these terms: "Well, I don't want to blame it all on 9/11, but it certainly didn't help." Seth MacFarlane (who himself narrowly escaped being on one of the hijacked 9/11 planes) has especially pushed the envelope. When the diabolical baby Stewie, in a 2010 "Family Guy" episode, is asked his favorite holiday, he promptly replies "9/11." When Norah Jones tells Ted the talking Teddy Bear (MacFarlane) her nationality in "Ted" (2012) he responds, "Whatever. Thanks for 9/11."
Inappropriate? Maybe so. But humor, too, is a coping mechanism. And yet another way that pop culture does what it does best — by cutting the worst cataclysm most of us have ever known down to familiar, manageable size.
"Humor helps us," Greenberg says. "It's like turning a telescope to look through the wrong end. Sick jokes are a way of distancing ourselves. It's a way of saying: if I can laugh at it, I've mastered it."