Catastrophes, by their nature, lead to reexamination and reconsideration. Everything looks different after a day like last Tuesday, and it's almost inevitable to question, in the quietest part of yourself, "If this is the kind of world we live in, what am I doing with my life?"
That odd, marginalized feeling--that sense that ordinary concerns and occupations seem trivial and pointless if you are not doing something to alleviate the surrounding chaos--is common at a time like this, but it made itself felt especially strong to me as a film critic. What could be more peripheral, less important to the way things are, than reviewing motion pictures and even, by extension, the frivolous, self-involved movie business itself?
The movies, of course, have not shied away with showing terrorism on the screen. Far from it. Yet in thinking over all the films, excellent or indifferent, from "Die Hard" to "The Siege" to "Passenger 57" and "Air Force One," it's hard not to feel that they let us down, not because they didn't prepare us for the enormity of a terrible reality (they didn't, but that really wasn't their mandate) but because they were counterproductive. For, watching these movies made us feel, erroneously it turned out, that we'd had a whiff of what the real thing would be like.
Big-screen terrorism was something good for a rush, something that went well with popcorn, something that happened only in the movies, rather than the dreadful reality of a bottomless sinking feeling that gets deeper every day.
Looking even punier now are the films that actually wanted us to feel sick, films like "The Cell" and "Seven" that delighted in having our skin crawl. They wanted us to squirm as if evil were right in our laps, and now that it is, their posturing seems more childish and despicable than ever.
Despite these misgivings, we have to acknowledge that film and the power of the moving image are central to what we're going through--if nothing else, no one who saw the amateur video of that first jet hitting the first tower will be able to get that picture out of his or her mind.
More than that, if, as the government has suggested, it is Islamic fundamentalists who are behind these acts, the power of the moving image is certainly part of where their fury comes from.
As several columnists have noted, these attacks stem in part from a disgust with the modern world, with the huge and potentially crippling cultural impact our music, our mores and, inevitably, our movies are having on the traditional ways of life these people are committed to preserve at all costs. They see our films as infecting their world, changing their children's attitudes, in ways they find abhorrent.
Given all that, what can be said for film in these terrible days? What aspects of the strength and resilience of the medium can we take comfort, even pride in?
Most obviously, even if we don't take advantage of or even like all of it, just the fact that we have such a wide variety of movies as viewing options is a key indicator of the kind of open society we have and want to preserve, something we should not take for granted or consider irrelevant.
Just the ability to go out to the movies, even silly ones, has a value that may not be immediately obvious. When I went to Sarajevo in 1993, to attend a film festival and talk to residents about what film had meant to them during the siege, I was surprised to find how much people had been invested in trying to see movies, even if it meant risking their lives during shelling. "I was scared to death, running all the way with my cousin," one woman said about a clandestine expedition to see, of all things, "Basic Instinct." "It was very dangerous, but we did it."
They did it, said journalist Dzeilana Pecanin, because "in spite of all the hardships, we never gave up on the things that made us human beings, not animals." Because seeing films helped provide what was most denied Sarajevo's citizens, a pedestrian feeling unremarked on during peacetime, the sense of being normal.
"You don't have to have everything fine to want to see movies," Haris Pasovic, who ran the first wartime festival in Sarajevo, told me. "You see them because you want to connect, to communicate from your position on the other side of the moon, to check whether you still belong to the same reality as the rest of the world.
"The favorite question of journalists during my festival was 'Why a film festival during the war?' My answer was 'Why the war during a film festival?' It was the siege that was unusual, not the festival. It was like we didn't have a life before, like our natural state of mind and body was war."