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Someone is Wrong on the Internet: Bill Wyman of Slate, Completely Missing the Point on “9/11 Movies”

September 10, 2011

Ed. Note: In this column, we put aside our deep reservations against becoming argumentative blowhards and answer the moral obligation to call shenanigans when some other blowhard is spouting substantial amounts of BS.

Who among us didn’t expect that the 10th anniversary of the September 11 attacks would be a major cultural and media event? As well it should be, as many Americans, and even the nation itself, are still healing from physical, psychological, political, and economic wounds resulting from the attacks and America’s subsequent military excursions. The attacks and the years that have followed should be on our minds right now. I can only hope that this milestone serves to prompt critical reflection on our individual and collective responses to the murderous violence brought to our shores.

The event’s prevalence in visual media is also not surprising because of the overwhelming number and variety of stunning, horrifying visual images emerging from that terrible day. It’s not fair to demand much in the way of insightful analysis from these visual presentations, of course. However, when a writer is given real or virtual column inches to discuss the 9/11 anniversary, I think it’s fair that he or she should be expected to say something of value, and should be criticized for instead peddling intellectually bankrupt fare. On the business side, I know websites are looking for traffic, and there’s nothing more likely to generate traffic this week than 9/11 content. Smart though it may be as an SEO tactic, plastering substandard 9/11 pseudo-analysis on your website can rightly be viewed as exploitative or at least opportunistic.

Which brings me to Bill Wyman’s September 7 piece on Slate titled “Disaster Movies: The four brilliant 9/11 films that get overlooked.” Simply put, this is a terrible piece of writing. Wyman’s core argument is that Donnie Darko, Memento, Mulholland Drive, and Waking Life are so-called 9/11 movies because “they all capture something essential about that day.” Buried toward the end of the piece is the clear fact that Memento was released before September 2001, and the other three were released shortly thereafter. This of course means that all four films were scripted, pitched, bought, filmed, edited, and even marketed before anyone (except the CIA, I suppose) had any inkling of even the threat of attack.

Wyman acknowledges at the end of his essay that, because of the timeline, he may be “forcing meaning into movies that don’t have it, at least in regard to an event that happened after their creation.” He quickly rejects that notion in favor of the idea that these filmmakers looked around at the millennial moment in America and “found something overbright, hyperreal, and ultimately ominous” that portended the disaster to come and informed their storytelling. Wyman misses the plain fact, however, that this second point doesn’t invalidate the first. I have little doubt that Richard Kelly, Richard Linklater, David Lynch, and Christopher Nolan found much inspiration in the pre-millennial West for their jittery, anxious, hallucinatory explorations of the subjectivity of reality (or realities) and the unreliability of identity. But calling them “9/11 films” is still almost impossible to justify with rational argument.

I’ve alluded twice already to what I see as the real thread tying these films together, if one is to be found. I would argue that all four films are suffused with, and reflective of, the millennial tension that I remember just as concretely and palpably as Wyman seems to remember as “a calm and gay time.” For Wyman, perhaps it was calm and gay, given that he remembers the late 90s and 2000-01 as “the dot-com era in San Francisco,” during which he and his contemporaries “gathered for swanky parties on rooftops and talked about Pets.com.” I resent Wyman’s assumption that his privileged experiences during this time, or any time, are universal. For many more Americans, not to mention people across the globe, this time was like any other, filled with economic struggle and personal hardship. We were all being told that our technological backbone might be thrown out of alignment because of the Y2K bug.  For millions (perhaps tens or hundreds of millions) informed by various religious traditions, the millennial turn added an extra layer of uncertainty to an already shaky time. These feelings may not have been real or valid to Wyman, but if he wants to talk about how “artistic antennae vibrate to other sensations,” I think he should assume that tense psychic wavelengths shared by many millions across the country would be more powerful than the shiny, happy vibes generated at his posh Bay Area technogentsia parties.

Regardless of whether you buy my “millennial tension” argument, I would return to the fact  that these films were made before 9/11, and I strongly doubt that the filmmakers themselves would say that their movies are statements on the meaning of the attacks. It’s also reasonable to think that Kelly, Linklater, Lynch, and Nolan would resent Wyman’s concluding point that the directors “didn’t know what they were doing,” that their respective inspirations for their films were mysteries, that they were not the real agents behind the creation of these wonderful, profound works.

Wyman himself recognizes that there’s a gulf between his argument and the underlying facts, and this recognition should have led to this piece never seeing the light of day, at least in its final form as an essay on “9/11 films.” I must believe, then, that the only reason for its Slate publication was its timeliness and subject matter, not its quality. It’s worth pointing out that the title and the source publication (which I generally respect) were enough for me to want to read the article, at least initially. By the measure of generating interest, job well done.

But the subject matter of 9/11 is too delicate, too rare, too intimate, too terrible, too emotional, too sacred to use primarily as a hook to increase readership and hit counts, especially when the effort is based on writing that’s empty and inconsequential at best, intellectually dishonest at worst. Bill Wyman and Slate were wrong to choose this coarse, irresponsible means of generating content and traffic without a reasonable level of analytical quality to justify the publication.

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2 Comments
  1. September 10, 2011 5:13 pm

    Great piece. If you’ll excuse my saying so, Wyman’s article doesn’t much surprise me, given the fact that Slate pretty much exists completely up its own smug, super-clever ass moreso these days than ever before.

    The thing that gets me is the fact that he’s calling this piece “The Four Brilliant 9/11 Films That Get Overlooked” and then writes that, as you say, he may be “forcing meaning into movies that don’t have it.” So how exactly are we “overlooking” them? That’s like writing a piece called “The Greatest Cinematic Commentary on World War II Ever: ‘Blazing Saddles.'” Just because I invent meaning doesn’t mean I should be able to scold you for your lack of insight into films for which I’ve just invented some bullshit.

    Wyman, given the wildly attributive qualities he assigns to the filmmakers in this piece, would have done better to write the clearly more interesting article here: “Four Directors who can MAGICALLY SEE INTO THE FUTURE.” It would have been just as realistic. None of these movies can be considered “9/11 films.” They may have dealt with a general public malaise or certain sense of generational consciousness at the time, but if that’s the case, add the other 800 films of the independent cinema movement from 1995-2001 we’re also apparently “overlooking.”

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