ApproximationDocumentary, History and Staging Reality

Imaginative Representation and ‘9/11’

Numerous feature films and made for television movies exist from numerous genres and countries that feature directly the events of 11 September 2001, such as Olive Stone’s World Trade Center (2006), 9/11 (Hanlon, Klug et al, 2002), 9/11: The Twin Towers (Dale, 2006). My focus is on films that offer more oblique and tangential imaginative responses to the terrorist attacks, such as James Marsh’s documentary Man on Wire, which recounts Philippe Petit’s successful attempt in 1974 to tightrope walk between the twin towers while they were still under construction.

A media event’s ever-presentness would seem to undermine ‘approximation’ as the staging of fantasy; ‘approximation’, however, is rooted in the imaginative storage of images. Of my core texts only United 93 replays directly some of the events of 9/11, but even this does so via the stylistic mechanisms of Hollywood. All the films examined have the events of ‘9/11’ as their common reference point and share a dialectical relationship to them, inviting interpretation in conjunction with, not in contradistinction to the what happened on that day. ‘9/11’, to most of us, is the catchall, shorthand collective term for the terrorist attacks on the US on 11 September 2001: the strikes on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon; the hijacking of flight United Airlines 93 and the intended strike on Washington DC. The ensuing discussion confronts the designation of ‘9/11’ as a defining as opposed to an ‘incidental’ event as examined in the previous chapter via analyses across a broad spectrum of narrative texts: the feature film United 93 (Paul Greengrass, 2006), Ken Loach’s section of the portmanteau movie 11’09”01, September 11 (2002), the long-running US television series The West Wing (1999—2006), the title sequence of another US television drama, Mad Men (2007—) and feature documentary Man on Wire (James Marsh, 2008).

In the early months of 2002, the fashion designer Kenneth Cole ran a series of advertisements entitled ‘On September 12’. Across each ran the tagline: ‘Today is not a Dress Rehearsal’ as each ad placed models and clothes in ostensibly but skewed domestic settings (for example, a model in a little black dress eating whilst sprawled over a weathered wooden table) in what many considered to be a campaign that was one of the most sophisticated produced in the first months after 9/11 (Sturken, 2007: 36). Cole, known for his topical and politically inflected campaigns, produced the series in the aftermath of the events of 11 September 2001 which, as Sturken continues, … spoke to the sense of crisis in the moment, and the sense of a necessary rearranging of priorities after the shock of the events of 9/11, a moment when family disputes seemed petty and worth forgetting; it also made reference to the many ongoing world crises that not be overshadowed by 9/11, such as the AIDS epidemic (36).

In his analysis of the Cole campaign, Richard Stamelman tussles with ‘the idea that today in the wake of September 11 we live in a world that can no longer be called a rehearsal’, in which ‘we can no longer be content (as we once were on September 10 and earlier) to pretend, to dress up, to hide behind costumes, clothes, makeup, and perfume’ and when we ‘have come face to face with the “real”’, proffering that, ‘falsely of course’, September 11 ‘has removed mask, pretence, sham, superficiality, and illusion (but, strangely, not fashion) from our lives’ and done away with ‘everything that is not reality’ (Stamelman, 2003: 17). For many, principally of course in the US, with the terrible attacks of 9/11 came not just tragedy but reality; the events stood apart from and sat outside history’s sequential linearity. After a reference to Judith Greenberg’s introduction to Trauma at Home: After 9/11, the collection from which Stamelman’s essay derives, Susan Faludi opens The Terror Dream: Fear and Fantasy in Post-9/11 America by briefly considering the descriptive terminology applied to the events of 11 September 2001. ‘Everything has changed’ was our insta-bite mantra, recited in lieu of insight Faludi observes, Our media chattered on about ‘the death of irony’ and ‘the death of postmodernism’, without ever getting close to the birth of comprehension (Faludi, 2007: 2). Similarly, Slavoj Žižek pondered in Welcome to the Desert of the Real how the phrase ‘Nothing will ever be the same after September 11’ reverberated everywhere, but just became an empty gesture of saying something ‘deep’ without really knowing what we want to say (Žižek 2002: 46). Faludi continues her argument by drawing attention to the fact that:

By mid-2007, long after the nation had passed the five-year anniversary mark of the attacks, we were still sleepwalking. Virtually no film, television drama, play, or novel on 9/11 had begun to plumb what the trauma meant for our national psyche. Slavishly literal reenactments of the physical attack … or unrepresentative tales of triumphal rescue at ground zero seemed all the national imagination could handle (2).

She targets two films in particular – Paul Greengrass’s United 93 and Oliver Stone’s World Trade Center (2006) – for replicating as opposed to delving into the events of 11 September 2001 …



Stella Bruzzi FBA

Stella Bruzzi

Stella Bruzzi is Professor of Film and Television Studies at the University of Warwick and was made a Fellow of the British Academy in 2013. She was Head of Department 2006–2008 and Chair of the Faculty of Arts at Warwick 2008–2011. She lives in Oxford with her husband and two children.


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