The disjunction between sound and image—and the importance of sound—is signaled by an opening black screen, accompanied by the dialogue of a widower, played by Ernest Borgnine, discussing the sound of an alarm clock in Penn’s film. An alarm clock rings on the soundtrack for a full minute.
A split screen composition, ironically, leads to Borgnine’s character recognizing the sound of the alarm, which has intrudes jarringly into his space.
A televisual context for the screen images of 9-11: Jerry Springer.
While the protagonist sleeps with the television on for company, the silenced alarm signifies “time zero.”
The withered plant in the window is deprived of light under the shadow of the towers.
Mrs. Hamdani visits a sidewalk shrine in Mira Nair’s film.
The poster for her missing son, Salman Hamdani.
She prays behind the screen at the mosque. Like the television screen, its translucency is misleading.
Cacophony and chaos within the sound design.
The omnipresent television. Convinced her son is being held by the authorities, Mrs. Hamdani writes letters to the President and the mayor of New York.
The family learns that Salman is a suspected terrorist through a televised interview with their next-door neighbor.
Salman is vindicated in a television broadcast: he perished at Ground Zero because he went to offer assistance, having trained as a paramedic.
Televising a temporary memorial for Ground Zero ...
... three views of the Tribute in Light ...
... installed six months after 9-11.
Mrs. Hamdani delivers a eulogy for her son at the mosque. The screen suggests ...
... the sometimes imperceptible, but nevertheless determining, distinctions made regarding gender, national, and religious differences.
The towers collapse in silence: a trope of “respectful silence” that will become a familiar feature in post 9-11 fiction films.
With this graphic device, Brigand envisions a global empathy that can be both aroused and expressed through media forms: the graphic implies that the moment at which the first plane crashed into the WTC (which, of course many people in the United States and around the world did not witness) produced instantaneous, worldwide reverberations and a sense of empathetic identification. 9’11”01 articulates this connection through a firmly rooted sense of nationality, and national identity becomes the defining feature of global diversity in the project. The film’s resort to notions of cultural difference based on national origin contradicts one potentially progressive feature of the omnibus film. By virtue of the collaborative process, the omnibus film “problematizes conventional paradigms of authorship and nationhood” (Diffrient 2005 19). By constructing a moment on 9/11 as a mechanism for global synchronization and asserting the importance of the national cultures of the directors, Brigand ratifies traditional paradigms of authorship and nationhood rather than questioning them. In fact, during the film’s opening credits several passages of text introduce the 11 participating directors by associating them with specific national locations and perspectives. The text reads:
The Internet Movie Database refers to all of the individual films except for Makhmalbaf’s (entitled “God, Construction and Destruction”) according to the filmmaker’s national origin, so that Iñárritu’s entry is titled “Mexico,” Lelouch’s “France,” and Nair’s “India,” although they are all set in New York. In its use of global space, the map graphic suggests that each film offers a perspective emanating from a specific national-physical location, even when the directors themselves feel no injunction to provide such nationally coded or spatially situated representations in their films. If anything, many of the films intentionally elide national identity and imply that war, migration, transportation and emerging communication technologies erode traditional ideas of nationality. In Samira Makhmalbaf’s film, Afghan refugees are living in Iran; in Nair’s and Lelouch’s films, a Pakistani family and a French emigrè, respectively, live in New York.
Brigand’s unifying framework thus reiterates political and aesthetic assumptions regarding national cultures that the filmmakers themselves seem hesitant to endorse. The comparison with Deutschland im Herbst is particularly instructive. The earlier film’s apparently solipsistic focus on German culture permitted its contributors to question whether or not the idea of a national culture is always fascistic, whereas the nationally decentered 11’9”01 project is paradoxically framed by devices that marshal the ideology of nationality to serve a notion of global empathy, if not solidarity, with the United States. This logic, much like the spatial emphasis of the Sonic Memorial, reiterates a desire to recast 9/11 in terms of traditional warfare—and thus perhaps implicitly endorses the U.S. invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan: friends and enemies alike assume the form of nations (Afghanistan, Iraq) rather than that of a multi-national, multi-nodal terrorist network.
Whereas the omnibus film tradition presents a clear lineage for Brigand’s project, it’s a somewhat more challenging proposition to argue that 11’09”01 also lays claim to the heritage of the city symphony film, a merger of documentary and experimental cinema that treats the modern city as its subject. In some ways the events themselves, as depicted by the broadcast media, unfolded as a surrealist collage (a genre that influences city symphonies) in that the coverage juxtaposed the top floors of a modern office building and the jumbo jet; the box cutter and the cell phone; a cave in Tora Bora and the sidewalk shrine.
More concretely, one stated intention of Brigand’s film—to present diverse responses to 9/11—insists that viewers reflect on New York City in the context of global finance/world trade and transnational terrorism. 11’9”01 encourages us to reconsider the city symphony through its relentless return to New York in the graphic that introduces each film and also within the films themselves. Only one film—Imamura’s—avoids acknowledging the New York attacks. And another film—Gitai’s—shows us important events occurring in other locales that are aurally though not visually upstaged by the New York events. In Tanovic’s film, Bosnians draw connections between the destruction in New York and their experiences of the massacre at Srebrenica, and the film’s protagonist and her colleagues choose to conduct their weekly silent protest in honor of those victims as well as their missing family members.
11’09”01 sheds some light on the contradictory meanings ascribed to New York at the beginning of the 21th century. If Dziga Vertov’s Man with A Movie Camera (1928) presented a coherent vision of the Soviet city as a utopian merger of human and machine, then 11’9”01 offers fragmented images of modernism’s successes and failures. New York is often described as “paradigmatic of a distinctive American modernity” (Shiel 165). It spawned the first city symphony film, Paul Strand and Charles Sheeler’s Manhatta in 1921, and inspired numerous others, including works by Robert Flaherty, Jay Leyda, Irving Brown, Herman Weinberg, Shirley Clarke, and Marie Menken, among others. New York has been so closely associated with modernism that by 2000 it had been eclipsed on screen by postmodern megalopolises, including Los Angeles, Phoenix, Houston, and Las Vegas (Shiel), and Beirut, Buenos Aires and Lagos (Beattie). In narrative cinema, New York came to represent unbridled capitalism, ably serving as the setting for Oliver Stone’s Wall Street in 1987 and for Bret Easton Ellis’s yuppie satire, American Psycho, adapted for the screen by Mary Harron in 2000 (and shot in both New York and Toronto). At the time of the 9/11 attacks, Wall Street seemed to have ratified the politics and economics of neoliberalism, with the Dow Jones rising to a “Clinton” dot.com high in January of 2000 and with the much discussed Disneyfication of Times Square.
Because it situates New York as a global city without explicitly addressing its role as a locus for the negotiation of global capital flows, 11’09”01 paradoxically erases the spaces of the city beyond the WTC. New York becomes synonymous with the towers (in the films that are set in the U.S. and abroad) and thus becomes symbolic of the way that the successes of modernity and capitalism are also its failures. Such an association occurs despite Brigand’s attempts to shape the project as a meditation on global unity through its synchronized time frame, its presumption that global attention and empathy were fixed on New York, and the equalization of urban New York with national spaces envisioned by a mapped silhouette.
Sound and space
In addition to 11’9”01’s globalized spatial and temporal focus on New York through the graphic device, several individual films take New York as their point of departure. Here the city symphony’s reliance upon musical form and rhythmic editing is made manifest. As implied by the term symphony, these films are generally not organized by a narrative thread, but through repetition and motifs that speak to emotions without the apparatus of an organizing narrative logic. In 11’9”01, the symphonic model is referenced and ruptured by filmmakers who place special emphasis on sound-image relationships. Several films feature oral and aural modes of communication, including radio broadcasts (Ouedraogo and Tanovic) and reading/writing aloud (Loach).
Not coincidentally, I would argue, the films that might be described as New York stories—by Lelouch, Iñárritu, Nair and Penn—all emphasize sound. Sound waves and light waves become the means for the transmission of trauma—with literal concussions and reverberations in the films by Lelouch and Penn. But it is as if all four directors seek to avoid the "visible evidence" of the events around which Brigand has organized the project—with iconic footage of the attacks on the WTC and the subsequent collapse—and, instead, investigate the role of aural evidence. Sound may be central to 9/11 in these films because iconic televised images represent the public, monumental, overwhelming and distanced aspect of 9/11 whereas sound has the ability to function on a more personal, even intimate level. As Christian Metz argued, sounds are not anchored in space the way that projected moving images are; they are ambient, mobile, and difficult to locate (30). Furthermore, sound waves literally vibrate parts of the listener’s body—initially, at least, the tympanic membrane—so even as film viewers work to fix the visual source of ambient sounds on screen, the vibrations seem to have escaped from the confines of the representation and to occupy the same bodily space as the spectator. Emphasizing sound in these New York films, then, may permit individual viewers and auditors to break from the official, visual constructs that surround the representation of 9/11 that were securely in place by the fall of 2002 (the time of the film’s release) and to re-experience 9/11 on a different perceptual and emotional level. David Simpson suggests that
The 11’9’01 films that shift their emphasis from the visual to the aural realm reject the “received vocabularies” and speak to audiences through an intensely personal soundscape of trauma.
Claude Lelouch’s film makes use of the televised images of the WTC, yet it smothers the images in silence. His film depicts the potential breakup of a relationship between a hearing-impaired woman and her lover through flashbacks, sign language, and the printed text of a farewell letter composed on a computer screen. Midway through the film, after the man leaves for his job as a tour guide at the WTC, the woman writes her letter. As she types, she is positioned so that she cannot see the images of the blazing towers that play on the television in the next room, in the foreground of the frame. The woman registers the shock wave of the collapse of the towers only by witnessing the turbulence of her coffee cup, which trembles at the concussion of the tower’s collapse. She does not realize its significance even after her partner returns, ghost-like with ash covering his body. Her inability to comprehend what has happened without having witnessed it through visual means could be interpreted in several ways. In one reading, her personal drama distracts her from political events (an interpretation that parallels the view that the attacks were a wake up call for the United States). In another, one’s ability to comprehend events is not necessarily correlated with one’s physical proximity to those events, but instead to the visual and aural representations of the events.
Lelouch distances the woman from the events (despite the fact that she is living in the midst of them) and then situates the viewer at a distance from her character because we have a greater knowledge of the day’s events than she does. We know the man is headed into the inferno and suspect he might perish; we recognize the television images of which she is oblivious; and we serve as her proxy as we begin to grieve for her lover before she knows to do so. Lelouch’s manipulation of sound and image—or, more precisely, his orchestration of their disconnection—has been criticized as recapitulating 9/11 as a private melodrama (Lim). The film’s dampening of sound engulfs viewers and encases them within a private story and its potential for melodramatic excess, while at the same time the images of the WTC in the foreground force a reckoning with the “outside” world. Visually and sonically, the film creates an inner and an outer world and probes their lack of congruence. Absences become palpable in the gap between sound and image: the lover’s absence, the woman’s lack of knowledge of the attacks, the destruction of buildings and lives at the WTC. The film elicits feelings of loss on behalf of the woman protagonist based on assumptions that prove faulty: she does not experience the losses viewers may anticipate because she never knows her lover is in jeopardy or that the attacks have occurred. By conjuring shared memories of 9/11 within an aural cocoon and a visually disjointed frame, the film offers viewers a way to re-experience the trauma through a character (who never experiences it) and from a distance.
Sean Penn’s film similarly manipulates sound to re-create 9/11 as a distant event for someone living in New York who is already grieving. The film opens with a black screen accompanied by the monologue of a widower (played by Ernest Borgnine) who carries on a continuous one-sided conversation with his dead wife. The sound of television cooking shows plays in the background and a jarring alarm clock buzzes for a full minute before being silenced. As the man sleeps, television images of the WTC in flames are paired with the ticking of the same alarm clock, recalling the clock-map device and the suspension of time. When the towers fall, they do so only in silhouette: the shadow of the towers slowly rolls down the outside of the widower’s apartment building, and a withered plant miraculously blooms in the light of the sunshine now permitted through his apartment windows. Dennis Lim writes of this moment as “either a mind-boggling injunction to look on the bright side (literally) or a deeply sick joke about Tribeca real estate” (Lim). But here again, Penn, like Lelouch, attempts to represent 9/11 through alternative visual and sound techniques that ask viewers to re-examine their own understanding of the events, and particularly, the images and sounds that have become synonymous with 9/11. The fictional characters in Lelouch and Penn’s films are closer to the attacks in New York than most Americans were on 9/11—yet they fail to witness, experience, or comprehend them according to the standard media iconography . If memory is a constructive process, as neuroscientists have increasingly argued, then these films experiment with memory by marginalizing the visual images that seem to transparently explain the events (at the WTC) and by exploiting the intimate nature of sound in ways that might shape the process of memorialization.
In Mira Nair’s dramatization of the true story of Salman Hamdani, a young American of Pakistani heritage who is initially investigated as a terrorist, then proclaimed a hero for volunteering to help at Ground Zero, sound elements produce a cacophony of cultures. Phone calls from Karachi, from the FBI, and television news reports create an aural surround that reiterates the fear and chaos immediately after September 11. When those voices clear, and the literal and metaphorical dust settles, the sound design also resolves into a more conventional mode. Throughout, the film highlights the role of the omnipresent television set and emphasizes its capacity to serve as aural wallpaper. Television broadcasts inform the Hamdani family about what the authorities believe is true about their son (they suspect he was a terrorist because he was present at Ground Zero), but the television screen makes no claim to representing reality or truth, visually or verbally. Salman is finally recognized for what he was—a hero who had rushed to the scene to help—also on a television segment. When Mrs. Hamdani delivers her son’s eulogy at the mosque, formally voicing her anguish, pride, and grief at raising a son with such character that he would risk his life for others, she stands before another screen. This screen—glimpsed earlier when Mrs. Hamdani had prayed alone at the mosque—offers a not so subtle reminder that, regardless of their purported transparency, screens are also barriers. In this film, sound and space are used to signify but also to unsettle expectations about cultural differences. Mrs. Hamdani speaks before all of those assembled for the memorial service, but the women of the congregation sit behind the screen.
In each of these New York films, a separation, distancing, or breakdown between sound and image mediates the relation of individuals to the terrorist attacks. The films propose that the experience of 9/11, even for people living in New York or standing at Ground Zero, can only be comprehended as ruptured cinema, through experimental techniques that undermine the flow of the narrative on film and in viewer’s memories.
Perhaps the most-remarked upon and the most controversial contribution to 11’9”01 is the submission by Alejandro González Iñárritu. This film draws its images exclusively from footage recorded on 9/11, although not all of them have been televised. Whereas The Village Voice’s Dennis Lim rejected Lelouch and Penn’s films as “moral black holes [. . . ] presumptuous enough to situate themselves in Lower Manhattan on that very Tuesday morning—in the service of enlisting the actual disaster as a plot twist,” he writes of Iñárritu ‘s film that “it's hard to say if this devastating, nakedly exploitative work has a larger point beyond the evocation and infliction of trauma” (Lim). The fraught emotions associated with 9/11 and an ambivalence regarding any representations of trauma are apparent in Lim’s sentiments and they leave little room for artists to maneuver. To use the events within a larger story is reprehensible; but to try to wrest new meanings from the very images that documented the trauma amounts to naked exploitation.
At the film’s opening, Iñárritu confounds cinematic legibility by sonically accompanying a black screen for more than two minutes with nothing but rhythmic chanting in an obscure language. Despite its emotional charge, the chanting cannot be directly connected to the day’s events: according to Allison Young, the voices belong to the Chamulas Indians of Chiapas, Mexico who are chanting a prayer for the dead (Young 41). After two minutes, the black screen is occasionally, yet also rhythmically, interrupted by brief glimpses of the blazing towers and people jumping out of them. A layered soundtrack contains prayers, news reports, individual testimonies, and sirens. At first hearing, the film seems to conform to documentary conventions of location sound, yet there is a disjunction even here between the aural and visual elements. Various individual voices describe the scene at the WTC, for example, yet the sound is not linked to specific images and often plays against the black screen, creating the kinds of fissures commonly associated with experimental filmmaking practices. Temporal disjunctions are prevalent as well. The sound of a plane crash is heard after the scenes of people jumping from the towers have been made visible and immediately before the towers fall to the ground in silence. The film rejects the synchronization of “Time Zero” and the global situating of Ground Zero within Brigand’s graphic device.
The film’s similarly fragmented compilation soundtrack draws from recordings and broadcasts from far-flung locales including Vietnam, South Africa, Poland, and Portugal (Young 41). They are commentaries from individuals who could not have witnessed firsthand the visible evidence of the tragedy, yet the pairing of images and sound positions implies that the sound comments on the images. Allison Young argues that the effect “aurally regenerates” 9/11, compressing it into a few minutes of cinematic time (41). She continues,
What is most compelling to me, however, is that the soundscape “aurally regenerates” the experience through prayer and through media commentary, the latter representing some official voices of reaction to the events. The film thus uses experimental techniques to contrast once again the intimacy of oral and aural expression—the chanted prayers—and the public, legible, and official statements of broadcast media. Here the experience of “dwelling in memory” looks more like a process of reconstructing memory by moving between the personal and the public.
The sound design in Iñárritu’s film presages the sound conventions of narrative fiction films released after 11’9’01 that deal with the U.S. war on terror. Corey Creekmur examines a number of such films and notes the frequent use of a “respectful silence” or “muted tones” to replace the roaring and screaming associated with the events (3)—and indeed Iñárritu’s penultimate scene depicts shots of the towers falling, accompanied by complete silence. In addition to this combination of silence and image to convey the awe-inspiring horror of the sublime, Creekmur identifies the way Muslim prayer is used as shorthand for
The chanting in the opening moments of Iñárritu’s film narrativizes this temporally disjointed film by acting as a prelude. The praying has an eerie quality to it—certainly unfamiliar enough to U.S. audiences to come across as exotic and perhaps sinister. Thus it seems to call forth the trauma of the towers’ collapse, as do those sounds in the films Creekmur examines. This example of Michel Chion’s acousmetre—the use of voices linked to bodies that are never made visible—also references certain religious injunctions against looking (Creekmur 9) and thus dovetails with the ambivalent gaze that must be associated with the fragmented footage of falling bodies. By using footage that was censored, Iñárritu implicates notions of taboo in a variety of contexts relating to 9/11. In the New York films of 11’9”01, what can be seen and heard has little to do with technical failures but instead are related to our individual limitations as well as our ignorance and refusal not only to confront but also to interpret and even reinterpret the visual and aural “evidence” as we continue to construct our memories of 9/11.
By reanimating the city symphony in a way that questions our ability to apprehend and comprehend the space and sound of New York on September 11, 2001, 11’9’01 offers one direction for the future of the city symphony and the experimental documentary. In these films, the experience of the city has less to do with the visual and instead acquires the status of the aural object theorized by Christian Metz—no longer grounded in space but transmitted through sonic, digitized codes, more intimate and yet more ineffable than any visual evidence.