reminders of 9/11 in a city still on edge

New Yorker Filmmakers Heal Themselves

It may have been the nation as a whole that was targeted by terrorists five years ago, but surely, it is the people of the city of New York who bore the brunt of the attacks of 9/11. (Full disclosure: as a New Yorker born and bred, I may be just slightly biased.) The psychic scars left upon the city by the events of that day have barely begun to be recognized… though all we New Yorkers got a taste of it yesterday, when Yankee pitcher Cory Lidle’s small plane crashed into an Upper East Side apartment building and a kind of collective hyperventilation began all over the city. The blog Hot Air has unkindly termed the local media reaction to the accident “like a vet with PTSD flipping out at the sound of a car backfiring,” as if there were something funny in that — the analogy is, sad to say, an excellent one. NYC hasn’t even begun to heal from the 9/11 attacks, not when an accident can rattle us so.

But perhaps it’s not surprising that half a decade on, the, well, PTSD of New Yorkers is beginning to show up on film… and now on DVD.
The need to skirt around the city’s gaping emotional wound that all New Yorkers will still recognize today is achingly apparent in The Great New Wonderful (buy at Amazon), a loosely interconnected series of day-in-the-life sketches about ordinary New Yorkers — from a couple struggling with their marriage and their unruly son to a maker of absurdly fancy cakes for Manhattan society parties — on the one-year anniversary of 9/11. The word “terrorism” is not mentioned once in the film; there is barely any direct acknowledgement of the day at all. But director Danny Leiner and his wonderful cast — including Olympia Dukakis, Tony Shalhoub, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Edie Falco, and others — create an atmosphere of distractation and an undercurrent of perpetual unease, a sense that life would never be ordinary again and that the dominant state of mind would from now on be one of anxiety. No film that I’ve yet seen better captures the dismal mood that gripped the city in the wake of the attacks, or the urge that many of us New Yorkers felt to make a big life change: start a relationship or end one, move house, quit a job, as if the problem were within ourselves and realigning the direction of our lives would fix it.

Brian Sloan’s WTC View (buy at Amazon), based on his own stage play, takes the metaphor of one of those life changes and uses it to explore the desperate fragilty of New Yorkers in the days immediately after 9/11. A young man (Michael Urie) places an ad, on 9/10, for a new roommate to share his downtown apartment, and he is besieged by applicants on 9/12 and in the weeks after… but each of the prospective roomies he interviews is in as big a state of psychological flux as he is, here in the backyard of the Trade Center devastation. The one-on-one discussions that result, as he shows the apartment and total strangers find themselves brought together by the city’s shared tragedy, are so powerfully and realistically depicted that they slammed this New Yorker back into that terrifying time like it was yesterday.

In Sorry, Haters (read my earlier review/buy at Amazon), filmmaker Jeff Stanzler takes a slightly more surreal approach with his story of a screwed-up TV executive (Robin Wright Penn) who aggressively takes up the cause of a cab driver (Abdel Kechiche) she encounters one night, a Syrian immigrant whose family has been victimized by post-9/11 hysteria and paranoia. Stanzler pushes to extremes the impulse many New Yorkers — and many Americans — felt and continue to feel to do something constructive in response to 9/11, and turns it around and into a cautionary tale about not letting ourselves be consumed by grief, or by our feelings of inadequacy in the face of overwhelming events. This is an uncomfortable, even shocking film about what constitutes terrorism, who perpetrates it, and why.

And so is Joseph Castelo’s The War Within (buy at Amazon) — it also looks at the aftermath of 9/11 in New York City from an immigrant’s perspective: that of an innocent Pakistani man (Ayad Akhtar, who wrote the film with Castelo) who plans his revenge on America for his years-long imprisonment and torture as a terrorist by becoming what he was accused of being. This is a film to unnerve any New Yorker, as it wanders city landmarks, like Grand Central Terminal, with destruction in mind, and any American, with its calm, thoughtful depiction of the outrageous injustices wrought in our name that would be enough to drive any rational, intelligent person to violence.

It can hardly come as a surprise that there is no satisfying closure to be drawn from these movies, no sense that the grieving is over. They are, to a one, devastating howls of inarticulate rage and anguish. But they might serve as a punctuation mark on a city’s — and a nation’s — mourning, an expression of a collective unconscious acknowledging the need to begin to truly deal with the unthinkable turned real.

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