King Kong's home away from home

A moviegoer's elegy for the World Trade Center.

By Stephanie Zacharek

Published September 21, 2001 7:00PM (EDT)

Suddenly, here in New York, everyone is missing a building no one ever much cared for before.

In the days after Sept. 11, people riding over the Manhattan Bridge from Brooklyn on the subway would, almost to a person, gaze out the window at that incomprehensible mass of smoke, an inadequate placeholder for the glossy dual monoliths that by all rights should still be there. More than a week later, people still look out -- not everyone, or at least not all at once. But it's a given that everyone's feelings about the World Trade Center have changed: Its absence is a presence in itself. The hole it's left is much bigger than the building ever was.

New Yorkers are used to seeing their city reflected back at them from movie screens: We see familiar streets dotted with restaurants or shops we've visited, and public parks where we've walked our dogs. Most of all, we're used to seeing our buildings, particularly our skyline. Every city's skyline has its own memorable contours, but New York's -- perhaps for no better reason than as moviegoers we've seen it so often -- is the most iconic.

The view from a subway window isn't much like a movie screen. But in a pinch, it will do. The subway ride in that first week was something of a trial run -- a way of adjusting to the new skyline, but also of getting ready for the weirdness of having it reflected back at us in its new state. The New York of the movies, specifically the buildings that make up its skyline, belongs to everybody, not just to New Yorkers. Better to reckon with it in the harshness of broad daylight than in the darkness of a movie theater, a place that we all prefer to think of as a source of pleasure.

Getting ready to adjust to a world of movies with no World Trade Center means coming to terms with what the building meant when it was still standing. Before Sept. 11, it was almost a full-time job for many New Yorkers to pretend the World Trade Center didn't exist. Unless you worked in or near it, it was pretty much a "tourist thing." In a noisy patchwork of a city with so many incredible little pockets, so many smallish neighborhoods with so many eminently charming buildings, it was just too obvious.

But secretly, when no one was looking, we loved it. In the daytime it stood guard over the city, gazing straight up Fifth Avenue, more benevolent than imposing. I know for a fact that tourists weren't the only ones who'd look for it if, emerging from the subterranean bustle of a subway station, they needed to orient themselves quickly.

And lit up at night, its magnificence always pulled you up short. When I look at pictures of the old nighttime skyline now, I see the World Trade Center as a gorgeous, dignified misfit, too tall for all the buildings around it, and just not caring because it was all that. It was confident without being arrogant; its size made it glamorous, but its simplicity made it elegant. It was so New York.

This past week, New Yorkers returned to work, putting a brave face on the act of returning to normal -- as rough as things have been, we're all happy to have the attempt at normalcy to keep us busy. But I've noticed that no matter what part of the city I'm in, I'm always aware of my location in relation to the ruins, and other New Yorkers have said the same. We desperately need to be in touch with where that building used to be; the space it occupied, no matter what is or isn't built on it in the future, will always mean something to us. It's a new point on our compass, a necessary addition to north, south, east and west.

People around the country can't feel precisely the same way, of course, but there's no doubt that to almost everyone a New York with no World Trade Center is just plain wrong: They've all seen the pictures of our skyline, with its two front teeth knocked out. People have talked about how strange it will be to fly into the city without the welcome of those towers.

If part of what America does when it feels lousy is go to the movies, this might be a good time to reconsider John Guillerman's 1976 remake of "King Kong." People laughed at it when it came out (perhaps thinking that it wasn't in on its own jokes -- although I'm not sure how that could be, given that it features a giant oil corporation named "Petrox"). But even those who don't care for the movie can't deny now that its producer, Dino DiLaurentiis, knew a star when he saw it. And in every one of its scenes, the World Trade Center is a natural.

The building's big entrance doesn't happen until the last half-hour of the movie, but it's foreshadowed at the beginning: In Kong's island habitat there are two large rock formations rising straight up from the horizon like towers. It's only natural that Kong, displaced in nighttime New York, would catch sight of the World Trade Center's brightly lit twin towers and head for them. To him, they look like home.

As cinematographer Richard H. Kline shows them to us, they're incomparably beautiful: They fill up the frame, silent and sparkling. The only decoration worthy of them is the bright disk of moon hanging nearby. Later, as Kong begins to climb, we see the building's ground-level decorative grillwork -- grillwork that we've seen countless times on news footage, a bent and mangled tracery of metal standing, cathedral-like, silhouetted against mounds of rubble. In "King Kong," the sight of it, in its proper place and serving its proper function, is soothing.

The World Trade Center comes to little harm in "King Kong." Save for a moment when a dazed helicopter crashes against its exterior, which is difficult to watch, the building emerges unscathed. (It is poor Kong, a poetic hero with a leathery chest, who meets his tragic end at the very top.)

Just as the memory of those two tall rocks triggered impulses of longing and joy in Kong, the World Trade Center has made an indelible imprint in ours. It lives on in countless movies, mostly as a supporting player in the skyline, sometimes as a cameo in an establishing shot. There has been plenty of talk, in the press and in casual conversation, about how it will look to us in the movies from now on. Reportedly, its image is already being removed from some completed movies -- as if it were remotely possible to erase the memory of something so goddamn big! -- and a trailer for the forthcoming "Spiderman" that prominently featured the twin towers has been recalled.

Will the sight of the World Trade Center, in either new movies or old ones, bring people down? Will it remind them of a horrible event they desperately wish they could forget?

Something tells me that the answer is no. On Wednesday night, in New York, there was a screening -- one populated by both critics and civilians -- of a new movie that's set here in the city, partly downtown in SoHo. In one scene, the camera gazed idly down one of those narrow SoHo streets, a corridor of shops and restaurants and pedestrian traffic, a textbook shot that normally wouldn't make you look twice. And there at the end, not the focus of the shot but a clumsy bystander who happened to be in the way, was the World Trade Center.

The sound that swept across the audience in a ripple was a murmur of surprise and delight, the kind of sound that slips out of you before you realize it, a spontaneous "Oh!" I had the sense of a roomful of people leaning forward in their seats just a bit, involuntarily, as if the screen had a kind of pull on them.

A few people, after they'd composed themselves, clapped. But the "Oh!" that rose up from that audience was nothing so obvious as a wince or a shout or a mournful cry. New Yorkers are fond of sighing -- it's part of the city's unspoken but not unfriendly language -- and this was a sigh that encompassed a universe of things that under normal circumstances, New Yorkers would never say:

"There it is!"

"Gosh, it's big!"

And last, the biggest, most overwhelming rush of feeling: "I never thought it would look so beautiful."

Stephanie Zacharek

Stephanie Zacharek is a senior writer for Salon Arts & Entertainment.

MORE FROM Stephanie Zacharek

Related Topics ------------------------------------------