JUMP CUT
A REVIEW OF CONTEMPORARY MEDIA

Despite the fact that the González Iñárritu’s film is set in New York and draws exclusively from footage of Ground Zero, the land mass of Mexico is illuminated as a national locus of origin for the director.

 

Fassbinder plays himself in the omnibus film Deutschland im Herbst (1978), contributing to that film’s dual focus on formal and political issues.

A televised version of Antigone becomes a point of contention in Deutschland im Herbst. Will Sophocles’ prescient play garner sympathy for members of the Red Army Faction?

A smokestack looming over an Afghan refugee camp in Iran references New York’s Twin Towers in Samira Makhmalbaf’s film. The young refugees witnessa metaphor for the many genocidal acts of the 20th and 21st centuries

Ouedraogo indicates the significance of aural evidence in his film, set in Burkina Faso: a radio announcer conveys the news of the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

Tanovic’s film emphasizes the radio broadcast as a source of information for women who silently demonstrate every week on behalf of loved ones who perished in the Srebrenica Massacre.

In Loach’s film, a memoir of the Chilean coup that ousted the democratically elected government of Salvador Allende, which took place on September 11, 1973 is transmitted aurally and orally in the form of a narrated letter.

The modern metropolis, as both imagined and recorded by the movie camera in Dziga Vertov’s Man with the Movie Camera (1928).

The iconic bridge imagery in Sheeler and Strand’s Manhatta helped define the modern city in terms of geometrically defined, measurable space.

Shirley Clarke re-functions the urban bridge as disconnection in Bridges-Go-Round (1958) and decenters the spatial integrity of the city in the process.

 

Reconfiguring global space and time in 11’9”01

11’9”01—September 11 exhibits several of the strategies used in the Sonic Memorial and, in turn, these techniques later appear in fiction films about 9/11. All of these media forms shape the cultural work of remembering 9/11 as an emotional, political, and aesthetic event. Just as the Sonic Memorial shapes a series of complex events by manipulating time and space, 11’9”01 constructs certain temporal and spatial frameworks that bear implications for the way that day is remembered.

An international omnibus project that combines the work of 11 different filmmakers, the film comprises documentary, fiction, and experimental modes. The project draws heavily upon two experimental cinema traditions — the omnibus film and the structural film — while a number of the short films contained within it recall a third, the city symphony. Although the film relies upon avant-garde strategies to restage the trauma of 9/11, the project manipulates sounds and images and space and time in ways that have increasingly come to signify and to memorialize 9/11 in both documentary and fiction films.

The film’s production history makes it clear that French producer Alain Brigand’s priority lay with project’s formal design, assuring each director’s autonomy by refusing to impose expectations or limitations upon content. Working toward a release on September 11, 2002 at the Toronto Film Festival, whose program had been severely disrupted by the events of 9/11 the year before, Brigand charged 11 filmmakers with the task of creating a film with a duration of 11 minutes, nine seconds and one frame. (The film’s title in French is Onze Minutes, Neuf Secondes, un Cadre). This rigorous formalism reflects the legacy of structural cinema, a mode of experimental film in which the structure or organization of the work is at least as important as, if not more important than, narrative or thematic concerns. Structural film “insists on its shape,” P. Adams Sitney has famously written; “what content it has is minimal and subsidiary to the outline” (Sitney 227). In Brigand’s collection, content is not fully subsidiary to the outline, yet the fact remains that the conceptual design of 11’9”01 provides a transparent and symbolic organizing principle, enforces a material limitation, and imposes uniformity on a diverse group of films.

Brigand’s logistical specifications encompass both temporal (minutes and seconds) and spatial dimensions (the single frame) and thus hint at the amalgamation of time and space that characterizes the film’s overall approach to remembering the 9/11 attacks. Like the Sonic Memorial Project, the film uses the site of the twin towers of the WTC, whose collapse was broadcast around the world on television and radio, to represent, by condensation and synechdoche, the multiple and geographically diverse tragedies of that day.           

The film’s focus on the space of lower Manhattan and the attack on the WTC serves to unify a cluster of disparate events, and it also lends coherence to the inherently fragmented genre of the omnibus film. As participants in a project that Brigand hopefully describes as “cinematographic mosaic” (Brigand), filmmakers Youssef Chahine, Amos Gitai, Alejandro González Iñárritu, Shohei Imamura, Claude Lelouch, Ken Loach, Samira Makhmalbaf, Mira Nair, Idrissa Ouedraogo, Sean Penn and Danis Tanovic all interpret 9/11 through different genres as well as from diverse political, cultural, and geographical vantage points.

11’9”01’s political resonances immediately evoke two precursors within the omnibus tradition, namely Deutschland im Herbst (Germany in Autumn 1978), a film that brought together 10 German directors, including Alexander Kluge and Rainer Fassbinder, and who weave together documentary and dramatization to address the Red Army Faction’s (RAF) kidnapping and murder of Hanns-Martin Schleyer. The second precursor is the “newsreel collage” film (Adler) Loin du Vietnam (Far From Vietnam 1967), made by Claude Lelouch, Jean-Luc Godard, Joris Ivens, William Klein, Chris Marker, Alain Resnais, and Agnes Varda, which served as a protest of the U.S. war in Vietnam.

These two films raise questions of cinematic form in conjunction with issues of radical political philosophy and activism, placing particular emphasis on the persistence of fascism and imperialism. In the opening segment of Deutschland im Herbst, Fassbinder “plays” himself as a filmmaker struggling with his paranoia, anger, and his inability to work. Woven throughout the many vignettes that comment on German attitudes toward political dissent in general and the Red Army Faction in particular are scenarios that highlight complex political and aesthetic conundrums. In one example, television network executives debate the proper “frame” for a presentation of Antigone as they seek to minimize the comparisons between Sophocles’ play — which features a “violent” woman who defies the official edict refusing the burial of the rebel leader of the recent civil war (Polyneices, her brother) — and contemporary Germany, where a controversy erupted regarding the burial of members of RAF members who died in prison under questionable circumstances. Here, few distinctions can be drawn between the politics of representation and “real” politics. The out-of-work filmmaker is personally and professionally devastated by the failure of the radical left in Germany to challenge contemporary fascism, embodied in the person of former SS leader Schleyer; and television network employees express their anxieties about a classical Greek play that bears a remarkably charged significance for contemporary politics.

In addition to these two overtly political omnibus films, another recent film, like Brigand’s, combines structural cinema and the omnibus tradition: Lumière and Company (Lumière et compagnie 1995). Lumière and Company is more interested in probing the nature and durability of the cinematic medium than it is in interrogating global politics. The project — which numbers among its contributors three 11’9”01 participants, Chahine, Lelouch, and Ouedraogo — is a collection of short films by 41 directors that presents itself as an aesthetic investigation of the art of cinema. Its filmmakers pointedly (and poignantly) address the imminent possibility of the death of cinema 100 years after the first Lumière brothers’ actualités were filmed. Like the 11’9”01 project, Lumière and Company imposed structural film-inspired technical restrictions on contributors. They were enjoined to use the Lumière brothers’ hand-cranked cinématographe to make a film of no more than 52 seconds in three or fewer takes, without a synchronous soundtrack. The devices that unify the disparate entries include brief interviews with each filmmaker and the presentation of “making of” documentaries (of 52 seconds in length) for each 52 second film.

Given the political and aesthetic heritage of the omnibus film, and given the political and media inflections associated with 9/11, it’s not surprising that the individual films in 11’09”01 address both political and aesthetic questions in their work. The majority of the films in the collection are narrative dramatizations that explore the responses of individuals or small groups at the moment they first hear about or experience the attacks (Makhmalbaf; Lelouch; Chahine; Gitaï; Tanovic; Penn). Others employ narratives that span a few days or weeks after the attacks, tracing their short-term impact (Ouedraogo; Nair). Several reject narrative altogether (Loach; Gonzáles Iñárritu) or work in an allegorical mode (Imamura). Even the most conventional narratives call attention to aspects of film form:

  • in Chahine’s film, the director carries on a conversation with a ghost soldier, reminding viewers of the capacity of the moving image to bring the dead to life;
  • in Gitai’s film, a layered structure turns the broadcast media into a hall of mirrors, as a reporter covering a fatal car bombing in Tel Aviv finds that her report has been pre-empted by news of the 9/11 attacks;
  • in Lelouch’s film, sound and image are used disjunctively, competing for the spectator’s attention, as a hearing impaired woman living in New York remains unaware of a television in her living room that is broadcasting footage of the WTC attacks as they happen.

In all these instances, the formal capacities of the film medium are given enhanced emphasis because some conventional attribute of sound and image, such as legibility or synchronization, is violated.

The most important formal issue for 11’9”01 is that, like all omnibus films, it must contend with its own inherent fragmentation. According to David Scott Diffrient, who has written extensively on the omnibus film,

“Containment is one of the central issues appertaining to cinematic episodicity, which seeks some middle ground between unchecked excess and absolute boundaries. How does one mark off one self-contained narrative from another in a package feature or omnibus film?” (Diffrient 529).

Brigand’s containment strategy, like the choices made in designing the Sonic Memorial, manifests the desire to condense the time and space of 9/11. Containment here takes the form of an overarching graphic device that opens the film and re-appears between each of the 11 segments. The “clock-map” of the world is a dynamic, ethereal graphic that superimposes a large, bright white analog clockface onto a dark, starry background. In the opening of the film, small luminous clockfaces, with sections of continents etched in them, glide across the dark background. After they move into place, forming the continents, all the clocks stop ticking. A bright red glowing dot illuminates New York City, signifying the moment of the attack on the WTC. The various times on the clockfaces record the same instant in different time zones. Finally, the clock and maps dissolve into the title.

This device, which would look right at home on a network or cable news broadcast, attempts to unify the 11 fragmented films and indeed the complex event itself by compressing the time and space of one moment of the attack across the globe, signified by the static clockfaces, the jigsaw-puzzle continents, and the fiery red glow. Yet it remains unclear which moment on that day was or should be designated as “time zero”: the first plane slamming into the north tower (8:46 am EST), the second plane hitting the south tower (9:03 am), or the collapse of the towers (9:59 am—south tower—and 10:28 am—north tower) even if we momentarily set aside the question of how to account for the Pentagon and Pennsylvania crashes. The clock map appears to use the first crash into the south tower to synchronize the film’s representational clock: no clockface reads 8:46 am, but two clocks located over the North American continent read 7:46 am and 6:46 am.

Graphic device synchronizes and compresses global space and time.

Before each of the 11 films, this graphic returns with the same black background and white continent silhouettes, but without the clockfaces. In these introductory segments, after New York glows red, the national map of the filmmaker whose work is about to be shown is illuminated in white. The repetition of the graphic suggests equivalence among the disparate films, but several obvious dislocations arise. Some spatial disjunctions are meant to be obvious; for example, the fact that New York appears geographically distant from some of the nations from which the filmmakers hail (Iran, or Burkina Faso, for example). The fact that New York—a city—is presented as the equivalent of entire nations introduces an incongruity as well. Yet another spatial discrepancy remains invisible: the fact that some films made by directors who are citizens of countries other than the United States are not necessarily set in those “other” countries. For example, Lelouch, Iñárritu, and Nair’s films are set in New York rather than in France, Mexico, and India, respectively—so the illumination of those national maps undermines the ability of the graphic to introduce these films (set in New York) because that ties the director and the film to a specific, “non-American” national identity.

Here, the early morning weather forecast functions as a harbinger of the noxious cloud that will hover over lower Manhattan after the fall of the towers. The televisual aesthetic within Claude Lelouch’s film serves as a painful reminder of the way ... ... many people experienced the events of September 11 as television spectators. The placement of the television screen suggests the apartment’s architecture functions as a screen as well.
The protagonist reads and writes her letter, unaware of the events taking place just a few blocks away. The first tower is hit: visible evidence transmitted by a television that no one sees or hears.
The second tower is hit, but the unseen televised images make no impact on the world of Lelouch’s film. Time collapses as events redouble themselves, made ... ... especially notable because the television images are played against the continuous timeline of the ‘screen’ on the right side of the frame.The image of the second attack is repeated.
And repeated again a few moments later. The repetition compulsion—a desire to stop, rewind, and repeat ... ... at work already in the early hours of the terrorist attacks. The first tower falls.
A literal shock wave, registered in a coffee cup. The television images offer spectators an opportunity to re-experience the traumatic events, but the film distances viewers as well, by aligning them with a character ... ... who does not experience the attacks first hand in “real time”, or through televisual sounds and images. Her lover returns from Ground Zero as a ghost. When she signs, “What happened?” he responds, “Weren’t you watching TV?”

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