Friday, August 11, 2006

World Trade Center: A Review

Against my gut, I went to see the opening of World Trade Center.

I say against my gut not because I thought I would hate it, but because I was afraid it would evoke the exact reaction it did from me: sadness. Great, heaping mounds of it.

I am not an Oliver Stone fan, but this is not to say that I hate his work. Truth be told, I am relatively ignorant of his works except by way of plot summaries and word of mouth. And anyway, every artist should be measured only on the basis of the work at hand. Each creation is a tabla rosa.

Is five years too soon to make a movie about the collapse of the Trade Center? I think so, based solely on the visceral reaction I had watching it. But let’s first be honest about what this movie is: it is a tribute to the courage of these two men and the men and women who were the first responders. It was a tribute to those lost as well. Should the story be told? Absolutely. It deserves telling. As a tribute movie, this story works.

The scenes from the inside of the towers collapsing which, of course, only one of the 20 survivors could authenticate, is harrowing and nightmarish. It had all the markings of one of those 1970’s disaster movies. There is no fear of spoiling any ending here because well, we know the story. The buildings fall and these guys are rescued. The drama then is somewhat stunted, as it is in all biopics or historically based movies. The only thing these sorts of movies have to offer is some sort of unique perspective. Unfortunately, perspective is the one thing lacking in this movie – the one thing that might actually make me feel that I walked away with something, anything, other than this great sense of loss.

The first half of the movie re-invokes that same sort of voyeuristic compulsion that held us all glued to our TVs when the event actually happened. After it happened, when the news showed the towers fall again and again, we knew what was going to happen, but we still watched anyway. This movie has the same sort of effect and I have to say, it’s disquieting. It was horrible when I experienced it the first time, and this “rebound” voyeurism is even worse because I should know better.

There is a scene where Allison (Maggie Gyllenhall) has to leave her house she is so distraught over the looming reality that she may be a widow. She goes out into her New York neighborhood and the soft glow of all the other row houses TVs spills out into the night. Presumably these people are glued to their TVs just as we all were. I must say that Gyllenhall’s performance was among the best, as she portrays a young pregnant woman not knowing whether her husband was going to be coming home. She exhibited in a realistic way a woman in the grips of some sort of post traumatic stress disorder very convincingly, even to the denial she heaped upon herself to get her through the hours.

To some extent, this is what Stone is banking on here. This retelling of a familiar story that offers little if anything new can only be to call up in us that same sense of dread and horror that we felt when we first watched the towers fall. That is exactly what I was feeling. Maybe that is how he tries to get us to buy in and become emotionally invested but it is not done well enough; the writing is not good enough, or the observations are not keen enough to make it seem sincere.
The first half of this movie is about pulling me back into to that swath of grief that laid me emotionally bare enough to welcome the comfort of strangers, good will from people I’d never met, or from people halfway around the world. This is touched on briefly as some actual footage from world reactions is played just after the attack. The complete shock and awe on the faces of those who should have been disinterested parties really reminded me of that moment of closeness as well. As sad a time as that was, there was a great sense of common unity and this movie does well to remind us of this. But this movie was not about that moment. It was about the theater of the absurd that the fall of the towers represented.

Unfortunately that sense of oneness was quickly abandoned by a “a few good men who will need to avenge” this sort of act as Marine Sgt David Karnes (Michael Shannon) presciently says at the end of the movie into his cell phone to some unknown person.

Karnes in fact is one of the most interesting minor characters of the movie. Presumably based on a real person, Karnes discerns while deep in prayer in his evangelical church in Wilton, Connecticut, that God is telling him that he needs to go down to Manhattan and help. Appearing heroic in a GI Joe sort of way, he actually came off a bit creepy in my estimation. This sort of “white knight” persona represents the same sort of zealotry that allowed those to fly planes into the Trade Center towers in the first place. Is Stone trying to teach us about the nature of zealotry; that it can be a double-edged sword, which can kill and save? The irony is obvious and almost too exaggerated to be by accident. But who knows? Maybe the guy really is that rigid. Still the irony is perfect, even if Stone did not intend it.

The movie really breaks down when it tries to explore the inner workings of the minds of Officers Mcloughlin and Jimeno. The attempt to get us into their heads while they are dying (and face it that is what this movie is about, watching these two characters die while others scramble to rescue them) tries to take this movie into a direction it shouldn’t even go. There is nothing deep about their reaction. It is perfectly normal and understandable that they should have visions as they are dying. And so what? Office Jimeno (Michael Peno) is worried about what his wife is going to name the baby when he is gone. Officer Mcloughlin (Nicholas Cage) has doubts about whether he was the kind of husband he should have been. These are very ordinary things that any one of us can relate to and I guess that was the design here: to further draw us in on a personal emotional level but that is unnecessary. It was an attempt at something meaningful, but it just came off cheesy to me.

The latter part of the movie does resemble a Hallmark moment, but there are moving moments as well. When Mcloughlin says to his wife Donna (Maria Bellow) as he is being brought into the hospital “you kept me alive” you can’t help but bawl. But in a way, I sort of feel that my grief for the WTC tragedy is being manipulated and exploited.

The fact is I am not ready to give up my grief about what happened on that day. I don’t want to “feel good” about 9/11. I want to be connected to other humans – the way we all felt in the first few days following this disaster. It is clear that Stone meant this movie to be an homage to these people. But for every Mcloughlin and Jimeno there were thousands more still buried in all that rubble or worse, vaporized never to be heard from or seen again – as though they’d never existed in the first place save for those countless grieving others left behind. There were thousands more family members who worried and did not have the same sort of joyful outcome that Officers McLoughlin and Jimeno's families did. They even attempt a classic dramatic twist to keep us emotionally involved as both wives rush down to the hospital after being told one just “walked out onto Liberty street” only to be told later that he was still being extricated. It doesn’t work though because we know the ending. The two wives in a sort of attempt at eerie “woo-woo” confluences, actually pass each other at the hospital, but neither knows the other, or how their lives are unknowingly bound together. But all of our lives are that way after 9/11. Again, maybe it really happened. Who knows? But it seemed contrived to me.

It’s not that modern art ignores what happened on 9/11 nor should it. Subtle uses of the WTC collapse, as in the Jonathon Safron Foers’ book “Extremely Close and Incredibly Loud” for example, uses the events of that day as a backdrop that drives young Oscar Schell to seek a connection with his father who perished in the WTC collapse. The tragedy is used to uncover the 9/11 in our own lives – those collapsing building moments that we have with others, how we are all survivors of one sort or another. In this case, the WTC collapse is really used as a metaphor.
The bottom line is that this is a story that should be told, but not now, and not with the idea of trying to use the heroism that was exhibited that day to smooth over the tragic nature of the event. We are grieving still and five years is not enough time. One hundred years will not be enough time.

I am glad these two officers survived. But people who subscribe to psychoanalysis claim real growth only comes through pain, I’d like to see the devastating events of that day sensitize us as a people. Sensitize us against war, against what is happening in Iraq, against what is happening in Lebanon, and Darfur, against violence in general.

That would be a truly heroic thing. It is only in that sort of context that the rescues of Offices Mcloughlin and Jimeno would be best told. It would make all the suffering and loss almost seem worth it.

Thursday, August 03, 2006

Raising Feral Children

What does it mean to raise “feral” children? Some would argue most kids being raised today ARE feral. They have no sense of right and wrong. They are disrespectful. They are in every sense of that word “feral” – truly wild. But that is not what I am getting at here.

First, I reject the notion that kids today (and you can pick the age) are any more unruly than they ever were. Yes, I think culture has made things harder for them, but I also believe that culture has less of an impact as a teacher than a child’s first and most indelible teachers: his parents. Parents, no doubt, are informed by the cultural norms every bit as much as kids watching MTV. I think there is a double whammy: that of a corporatized world which tells kids and parents alike that life just ain’t worth living if you don’t have that widget, that new gizmo; if you don’t have that branded sort of life that makes you beautiful. It’s a tag team type of depersonalization. The pressure is real, it is palpable and it is completely self-inflicted.

Second, given the decline of any sort of meaningful dialogue about anything in this nation (and with it a sort of demonization of intellectual things as being “effete” and “snooty” and of course “tight-ass”), there is an aspect to being “wild” that I believe we need to restore in our children.

I recently spoke with a colleague of mine who had just come back from China and his most interesting impression of the country was how the people he met there seemed to have this overwhelming sense of personal responsibility in whatever they did. For example, not only did he witness people riding scooters without helmets but they were often overloaded with goods and too many other passengers.

My first instinct was one of horror. No helmets? No regulations limiting how many could ride a scooter? No, my friend told me, people there seem to be freer in many ways than we are here. They know that riding without a helmet is risky and when tragedy strikes, as it almost always certainly does, the grief and responsibility is almost always personal.
My reaction was evidence enough to show me that I had drunk the “cultural Kool-Aid” for far to long and it made me recall times when that a of laissez faire approach to things was how life went down and to be honest, it wasn’t always the worst of things.

Now let me be the first to say that this is a very difficult subject to argue. No one wants to see anyone get hurt. And please don’t think this some sort of libertarian call to arms. No one is trying to revoke child labor laws or (perish the thought) let the market decide what we should or should not be allowed to do. But in the noble attempt to save lives and avert disaster we have to pause and ask ourselves what are we giving up?

Here’s what I think we are giving up: a wildness in our kids that let’s them think they are immortal so they will try things; so they will not be so afraid and dependent on a culture that makes them dependent on consumption. True enough, it is that sense of immortality, that fearlessness of life - what I as a parent have sometimes called “stupidity” – that gets them into trouble. It will even cause tragedy. But here is where the personal responsibility part comes into play. Kids have to know enough, be lucky enough and be self reliant enough to make it out of childhood with enough risk so they can hone skills that will ultimately allow them to contribute to society. One way they get this is through the love and support of the family. Another is through experimentation. Our kids need to be allowed to fail if we have any hope at all of raising a generation that does not require the giant government teat and a society of privilege to get them through the golden years.

Raising children is no different than running nations when you stop and think about it. The other side of complete control (fascism) is always fully blown freedom (anarchy). It’s a natural dialectic between order and chaos and it permeates everything in our lives.
Consumerism, however, seems to have blanched the wildness out us. Much has been made of the post 9/11 fear culture converging with the post-industrial age consumer culture. But colored alert days are really all not all that different from the “duck and cover” drills of the fifties. Fear is fear. What has changed over the last 50 years since I first started breathing is this idea that we can always prevent bad things from happening to good people. It seems that we believe we can: by considering every angle, every law, every possibility in every event. This is the sort of “missile defense psychology” that says rather than do the harder work of enacting real political and social reform to lessen the likelihood of nuclear missiles flying everywhere, let’s have that garage door opener technology and make it moot. Similarly, when it comes to our personal lives, there is a very difficult lesson that we all want to avoid: that sometimes, bad things happen. Sometimes, really bad things happen. But rather than equip our children with an appreciation of the preciousness of life, and a sense that we are all in this together, we have carved out the great litigious society: this is the social equivalent of the Star Wars missile defense for the tragedy that befalls us on a personal level. So now our kids are all bundled up to go outside in the snow as in that funny scene from the movie “A Christmas Story”, except we can’t put our arms down, and God help us if we fall down!

Theodore Roethke wrote: “Self contemplation is a curse/that makes an old confusion worse”. This myth that we need to protect our children from everything comes from the heart, no doubt, but it is wholly misguided. It is the result of over analyzing life instead of just living through it and dealing with the consequences. It is truly a case of making an old confusion worse because each time we fail to protect our children, we are paralyzed even further, looking for other holes to fill to keep the next child safe. It ultimately robs our kids of chances to grow, learn, and eventually gain compassion for others about the ways of the world. It allows us to avoid the really hard questions too.

So what do we do?
Perhaps the trick is the middle path, as the Buddha would tell us.

A reverence for each child’s abilities is a start. (Real love requires this anyway.) This will create children who will challenge us to be sure. In fact it is the challenge that we should be seeking as parents. It requires letting go. It requires faith. It requires wisdom to know where to step in and where to step out. Most of all it requires a reflective thoughtfulness on our part as parents; a conscientious effort on our part to change the world, in the same manner as we compost our organics, recycle our plastics and buy more fuel efficient cars. After all, raising a feral child is nothing less than an act of saving the world, as green as any environmental activity one could imagine.