Friday Night Seitz

Looking back at the cultural impact of 9/11

Slide show: Remembering the years after the attacks, when everything felt filtered through one September morning

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    “9-11: Artists Respond”

    Anthology of comics by 100 writers and artists

    Released Jan. 1, 2002, “9-11: Artists Respond” was not the first comics response to the catastrophe of 9/11, but it was the biggest and in some ways the most impressive, especially given the short time in which it was turned around for publication. A dazzling lineup of artists and writers (including Will Eisner, Tony Millionaire, Frank Miller, Kelli Strom, Eric Drooker, Michael Stout, Istvan Banyai, Renee French and Eric Kupperman — contributed pieces in an array of styles and moods, all dealing with the attacks in imaginative and often heartbreaking ways, offering everything from journalistic narratives of the day (including the United Flight 93 rebellion), satire and political commentary, abstract meditations and even poetry.

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    AP

    Woody Allen salutes New York City

    A sentimental appearance by a longtime Oscar refusenik

    This moment, which occurred during the March 24, 2002, Academy Awards telecast, ranked No. 1 on my list of the greatest moments in Oscar history. Between the raw emotion coursing through the room six months after the 9/11 attacks, and the jaw-on-the-floor surprise factor of seeing Oscar-phobic Woody Allen show up to present a tribute to his hometown, it was a truly great appearance. And Allen’s remarks were as smart, affectionate and self-deprecatingly funny as his best stand-up routines. “Thank you very much,” Allen told the cheering crowd. “Makes up for the strip search.”

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    “Path to War”

    Directed by John Frankenheimer

    The final film by John Frankenheimer (“The Manchurian Candidate,” “Black Sunday”) was one of his best — a feverishly intense, nearly three-hour historical epic about how President Lyndon B. Johnson (Michael Gambon) watched his presidency crumble as his most beloved project, the War on Poverty, was swallowed up by the quagmire of Vietnam. Alec Baldwin gives one of his finest performances as Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara, who applies corporate thinking to war, with disastrous results. Every scene, situation and line in “Path to War” is drawn straight from a verified historical source — a nonfiction book, a memoir, a government transcript — yet this HBO movie never feels like an illustrated history lesson. It feels more like the greatest film Oliver Stone never made — expressionistic and impassioned but with a strong moral center and an undertow of lament.

    Although the film was shot before the 9/11 attacks, it was finished in the months that followed, and aired May 18, 2002, less than two months before Frankenheimer’s death; the director later said that the 9/11 attacks and the Afghanistan invasion were very much on his mind as he finished the movie. The result feels eerily prescient, almost like a warning of what was to come, as if history was speaking to the present through drama. In the summer of 2002, U.S. forces had been in Afghanistan for half a year, and there was already serious talk of invading Iraq. So many of the decisions were motivated by excessive faith in technology and sheer firepower, and by a paralyzing fear of appearing weak in the eyes of the world.

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    AP

    “Courtesy of the Red, White, & Blue (The Angry American)”

    By Toby Keith

    One of the most potent country-western responses to 9/11 was Toby Keith’s “Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue (The Angry American)” — released May 27, 2002, in conjunction with his album “Unleashed.” It was a red-state anthem that expressed solidarity with the Bush administration’s war on terror, and connected it with generational traditions of family military service and an Old Testament sense of justice.

    “This big dog will fight
    When you rattle his cage
    And you’ll be sorry that you messed with the U.S. of A.
    ‘Cause we’ll put a boot in your ass
    It’s the American way.”

    Interestingly, although “Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue” quickly became a favorite of Bush supporters, the musician is a registered Independent; he was a Democrat when he recorded the song, and in 2004, he described himself as “a conservative Democrat who is sometimes embarrassed for his party.”

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    “The Rising”

    By Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band

    Released July 30, 2002, Bruce Springsteen’s response to 9/11 was probably freighted with more import that its relatively modest selection of songs could handle. Rather than make grand political statements, it focused on more intimate experiences: personal grief and mourning, a free-floating sense of depression and aloneness, and the need to cut loose and celebrate as an antidote to all the gloom. Springsteen addressed the World Trade Center attacks directly in “Into the Fire”:

    The sky was falling and streaked with blood
    I heard you calling me then you disappeared into the dust
    I need your kiss, but love and duty called you someplace higher
    Somewhere up the stairs into the fire

    As Kevin Cherry wrote at National Review, “What Springsteen has done brilliantly is capture the two near-opposite feelings of most Americans in the days and weeks after September 11: on the one hand, a deep grief for the lives lost; on the other, a belief that we will ‘rise up.’”

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    “I Can’t See New York,” by Tori Amos

    From the album "Scarlet's Walk"

    Released Oct 28. 2002, on her album “Scarlet’s Walk,” Tori Amos’ song “I Can’t See New York” is haunting, powerful and ultimately mysterious. At first it seems to be told from the point of view of a woman on a plane bound for New York that morning, but some of the details suggest a more general sense of spiritual unmooring, as if the heroine is a ghost in limbo endlessly trying and failing to get home. Amos actually wrote the song before 9/11 but finished it afterward; it’s possible that it was originally conceived as a more general meditation on death, maybe via drug overdose. But history claimed it.

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    “11.9.01″ aka “September 11″

    Anthology of short films responding to the attacks

    The initial concept of this French-financed international coproduction was somewhat gimmicky: 11 filmmakers from 11 countries were invited to create short films about 9/11 that ran exactly 11 minutes, 9 seconds and one frame. Not all of them really worked, as is often the case with anthology films, but the sheer variety of responses gave viewers a useful glimpse into the mentalities of different countries circa late 2001-early 2002 (when the shorts were produced), as well as the diverse styles of all the filmmakers. The lineup of directors included Youssef Chahine, Amos Gitai, Alejandro Gonzalez I

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    “The 25th Hour”

    Directed by Spike Lee

    The story of this Spike Lee film originally had nothing to do with 9/11; it was based on David Benioff’s novel about the friendship between three New York men, one of whom (Edward Norton’s character) is a drug dealer who’s about to go to prison. But the film, which was shot in the fall and winter of 2001, was completely subsumed by the dreamy/nightmarish atmosphere of New York City after the attacks. This seepage was intentional on the part of Lee, his crew and his cast, all of whom were feeling the overwhelming intensity of the moment and wanted to get it on film. Released Dec. 19, 2002, the movie is filled with visual and verbal references to the attacks, and two daringly long conversations take place in front of a picture window overlooking the neon wound of Ground Zero. It was the first time that the pit, as rescue workers called it, had been shown in a Hollywood movie. As the actors do their scene, you can see firefighters and EMTs digging around in the rubble, looking for body parts.

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    “Stars and Strife”

    After being hounded for months for anti-Bush comments, the Dixie Chicks stand firm (and nude)

    From the opening of the May 2, 2003, issue of Entertainment Weekly, in which the country-western trio the Dixie Chicks struck back against people who called them anti-American for criticizing President Bush:

    “Earlier in the day, for Entertainment Weekly’s cover, the Chicks got themselves thoroughly plucked. It was their idea: Though [their manager] admits that their publicist doubted the wisdom of being branded with epithets, ”we wanted to show the absurdity of the extreme names people have been calling us. How do you look at the three of us and think, Those are Saddam’s Angels?” Adds [singer Natalie] Maines, 28: ‘We don’t want people to think that we’re trying to be provocative. It’s not about the nakedness. It’s that the clothes got in the way of the labels. We’re not defined by who we are anymore. Other people are doing that for us.’”

    Singer-songwriter Steve Earle’s album “American Boy” — named after a line from his song “John Walker’s Blues,” about John Walker Lindh, the American who fought for the Taliban — made Earle a bit of a pariah as well, albeit not on such a gigantic scale. It was not an easy time to be openly political in America, especially if you criticized the president and the war. To quote the title of a documentary about the Dixie Chicks, it was much easier to just shut up and sing.

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    “Dogville”

    Directed by Lars von Trier

    Released May 19, 2003 (at the Cannes film festival), this political parable from Danish enfant terrible Lars von Trier plays like a toxically cynical 21st century version of Thornton Wilder’s “Our Town.” Nicole Kidman stars as the mysterious young woman who takes up refuge in the title town — a metaphoric stand-in for the USA, represented by an empty soundstage with chalk outlines where walls would be — and eventually discovers that the inhabitants of the place are much more vicious, ignorant and self-interested than their kindly demeanor indicates. The film’s second half is an escalating series of painful scenes in which tormentors become the tormented and vice versa. U.S. critical response to this English-language, all-star production was mostly negative. “Essentially, von Trier’s worldview is no different than that of the most macho pulp writer,” wrote Charles Taylor, in a negative review for Salon.com. “In his world, it’s kill or be killed. And it doesn’t much matter who does the killing and who does the dying because, for von Trier, we are all rotten at the core.” “‘Dogville,’ etched in brimstone, is a condemnation of what von Trier fancies is a particularly American strain of hypocritical moralizing,” wrote Entertainment Weekly critic Lisa Schwarzbaum. “In a wildly mischosen coda, he sets inflammatory historical news photos to David Bowie’s ”Young Americans.” But we who know what the country really looks like can surely absorb such an inventive critique without raising a flag and crying ‘Anti-American!””

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    “DC 9/11: Time of Crisis”

    Directed by Brian Trenchard-Smith

    This made-for-Showtime TV movie — which aired Sept. 7, 2003 — represented a rare effort to apply the most simplistic World War II propaganda techniques to post-9/11 subject matter; it was so corny and jingoistic, and so completely divorced from anything resembling reality, that its characters might as well have been wearing capes and tights and shooting the hijacked planes down with their laser-beam eyes. Timothy Bottoms stars as President George W. Bush, the smartest, most informed, most capable and tough president in the history of the United States — a man who can spout the most granular factoids during briefings, and who spends much of the film correcting the mis-impressions of his staff and deftly handling every problem that history hurls at him. Bottoms, intriguingly, played Bush once before in Trey Parker and Matt Stone’s short-lived sitcom “That’s My Bush!,” which was essentially “Married With Children” relocated to the White House.

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    “Battlestar Galactica”

    Developed by David Eick and Ronald D. Moore

    Almost certainly the greatest remake every created from a totally forgettable source, this SyFy series — which ran regular episodes from 2004-2009 — transformed a mindless “Star Wars” rip-off from the late 1970s into one of the few thoroughly adult science fiction dramas ever aired on commercial TV. It started off as a miniseries — really a very long “stealth” pilot episode — that aired Dec. 8-9, 2003; it had political content, but it was somewhat muted compared to future episodes of the series proper, which dealt with moral relativism, competing religious viewpoints, the efficacy of torture during wartime, and the touchy, sometimes rancorous relationship between civilian governments and their militaries.

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    “The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons From the Life of Robert S. McNamara”

    Directed by Errol Morris

    Released Dec. 9, 2003, Errol Morris’ muted, analytical but ultimately troubling documentary about former Defense Secretary Robert S. McNamara spilled off the entertainment pages and became a news story, thanks to the elderly McNamara’s very belated admission that he’d managed the war badly and told President Lyndon

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    “Fahrenheit 9/11″ and “The Passion of the Christ”

    A documentary and a religious epic dramatize American political rancor

    After 18 months of suppressed dissent and an uneasy attempt at a united front, the March 2003 Iraq invasion cracked open the conservative-liberal political divide. Public discourse became increasingly heated. By 2004, a presidential election year, the schism was even more pronounced, and no two movies better reflected this than Mel Gibson’s impassioned, gore-soaked religious epic “The Passion of the Christ” (Feb. 25, 2004) and Michael Moore’s conspiratorial, acerbic, despairing documentary of the Bush years, “Fahrenheit 9/11″ (which premiered May 17, 2004). Pundits and politicians on opposite ends of the political spectrum embraced one film or the other. Their preferences told voters whether they’d decided to throw in with the red state mentality represented by the likes of Toby Keith and Fox’s “24″ or the blue state point of view championed by Jon Stewart, Bill Maher and singer-songwriter Steve Earle.

    Bush won re-election against Democratic candidate John Kerry, in part because his team managed to paint Kerry, a bona fide war hero, as a coward, and his party as godless wimps who wanted to make nice with enemies that Vanity Fair columnist Christopher Hitchens labeled “Islamofascists.” In a year-end column, New York Times writer Frank Rich gave the edge to Gibson. “As we close the books on 2004, and not a moment too soon, it’s clear that, as far as the culture goes, this year belonged to Mel Gibson’s mammoth hit. Its prurient and interminable wallow in the Crucifixion, to the point where Jesus’ actual teachings become mere passing footnotes to the sumptuously depicted mutilation of his flesh, is as representative of our time as ‘Godspell’ was of terminal-stage hippiedom 30 years ago. The Gibson conflation of religion with violence reflects the universal order of the day — whether the verbal fisticuffs of the culture war within America, as exemplified by Mr. Donohue’s rant on national television or, far more lethally, the savagery of the actual war that radical Islam brought to our doorstep on 9/11.”

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    “Dawn of the Dead”

    Directed by Zack Snyder

    Released March 19, 2004, Zack Snyder’s “Dawn of the Dead” remake is far from the best horror film released in the aughts — it isn’t even one of the best zombie films — but it’s still a great snapshot of the American psyche post-9/11, revealing of the ways in which pop culture absorbs and reflects what’s happening in the world. This becomes especially clear when you compare it to its source, George Romero’s same-named 1978 horror epic. The setting is the same — a deserted shopping mall in which besieged humans fight off marauding ghouls — but the energy is completely different, as are the references. Romero’s “Dead” is a slow and sprawling satire on consumerism and malaise, a coded portrait of post-Vietnam suburban America. The remake is taut, urgent and pitched at the edge of hysteria; the zombies don’t shamble, they sprint. And there are countless incidental echoes of 9/11, Afghanistan and Iraq, including images of cities on fire and a shot in the opening credits of Arab men in a mosque praying to Mecca. Those amazing credits, by the way, are cut to Johnny Cash singing “The Man Comes Around,” a biblically infused song about a coming apocalypse.

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    “Between Two Rivers”

    By Nicholas Rinaldi

    Published June 1, 2004, Nicholas Rinaldi’s intimate epic novel recalls the impact of both the 1993 and 2001 World Trade Center bombings on a fictional Battery Park neighborhood, but these are but a few of the major historical events referenced in the book, which covers much of the post-World War II era. “What remains behind after digesting the novel’s bittersweet recognition of cataclysm,” writes Garrett Chaffin-Quiray of PopMatters, “is a tale of our time concerned with discovery, cultural clash, and growing older. In short, it’s a journey into metaphysical experience, concerned with how we might experience a changing reality that includes history and memory, conflict and harmony, and the potential beauty of kindness, no matter the assault of unfriendly times.”

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    “Rescue Me” and “CSI: New York”

    The first series to build 9/11 grief into their main story lines

    Denis Leary and Peter Tolan’s scabrously funny comedy-drama about New York firefighters debuted July 21, 2004. It was a problematic but fascinating work, maybe the first regular series on American TV that made post-9/11 life and grief its main subject. Leary, who also starred in the series as alcoholic, womanizing firefighter Tommy Gavin, brought a macho, spirited, working-class point of view to the material; the show’s fratty high jinks, sexual escapades and politically incorrect jokes were reminiscent of “M*A*S*H” — the movie, not the TV show. “Rescue Me” was also notable because it was the first series of any note in which the major characters all personally knew people who died in the World Trade Center attacks (the FDNY