Remediating the apocalypse

Hollywood Responds to 9/11

If the biblical language of apocalypse, of good and evil, of final and decisive battles, “enduring freedom” and “infinite justice” have been key to George Bush's response to the events of September 11 and its aftermath, the language of film has also played a key role in forming the public understanding of these events.

The New York Time's arts columnist Frank Rich recently wrote:

As the Iraq war enters its second year, it has already barrelled through at least four movie plots. What began as a High Noon showdown with Saddam Hussein soon gave way to George Bush's Top Gun victory jig. Next was the unexpected synergy with The Fog of War, Errol Morris's Oscar-winning documentary underlining how the Johnson administration's manipulation of the Gulf of Tonkin incident was the ur-text for this administration's hyping of Iraq's weapons of mass destruction. And then Falluja: Black Hawk Down. (Rich 2004)

Or as Kevin Maher has written:

The 'aesthetic memory' of 9/11 is perversely and irreversibly rooted in blockbuster movies. It's a fact that even Saddam Hussein, hardly the world's sharpest cultural critic, has famously acknowledged, declaring: 'When we watched what was happening in America for the first time, we thought it might be another American movie. Later, we found out that it was a real movie.' (Maher 2002)

Director Robert Altman took this argument one step further when he argued, in the wake of the September 11 attacks, that Hollywood had not just made the attacks imaginatively interpretable but that they had made them actually possible.

The movies set the pattern, and these people have copied the movies ... Nobody would have thought to commit an atrocity like that…unless they'd seen it in a movie…How dare we continue to show this kind of mass destruction in movies? ... I just believe we created this atmosphere and taught them how to do it. (quoted in Roten 2002)

The Pentagon sought the advice of Hollywood screenwriters in the weeks after 9/11, to help “brainstorm” possible terrorist scenarios. (ABC 21/10/04) Then in November of 2001, key Bush advisor Karl Rove met with Jack Valanti the director of the Motion Picture Association of America and leaders of the major Hollywood studios and television networks. Although the meeting was widely reported and although both sides were keen to emphasise that the White House was not trying to dictate or censor film content, it remains unclear what if anything was decided at the meeting.

According to CNN (12/11/2001) Valenti said the meeting “was about contributing Hollywood's creative imagination and their persuasion skills to help in this war effort so that one day Americans can lead normal lives again.”

Rove is reported to have led discussion around a set of key themes that he suggested the film industry could help address:

o The antiterrorism campaign is not a war against Islam.

o There is an opportunity to issue a call to service for Americans.

o U.S. troops and their families need support.

o The September 11 attacks were an attack against civilization and require a global response.

o Children need to be reassured of their safety and security in the wake of the attacks.

o The antiterrorism campaign is a war against evil. (CNN 12/11/2001)

After a preliminary meeting between Hollywood executives and White House officials, some weeks before the one with Rove, one of the initiators of the dialogue, producer Lionel Chetwynd said:

There was a feeling around the table that something is wrong if half the world thinks we're the Great Satan and we want to make that one right. There's a genuine feeling that we as Americans are failing to get our message across to the world. (Waxman 2001)

Forty-five films were cancelled, rescheduled or altered in the immediate months following the September attacks (CNN 9/11/2001). The release of Collateral Damage which featured a graphic bombing orchestrated by Columbian terrorists, was delayed for a few months but The Quiet American, which exposed CIA involvement with terrorist attacks on civilians in Vietnam, was left in limbo for over twelve months and was then only released in selected cities for a short season, after public pressure from its British star Michael Caine. But Black Hawk Down a patriotic film about American military mateship, set against the tragedy of Somali genocide, was rushed into cinemas ahead of schedule.

Although each of these films was conceived and filmed before September 11 their release and reception was governed, at least in part, by the terrorist attacks. In interviews the stars and producers of these films worked hard to make clear their patriotism and their commitment to the type of agenda that Rove had outlined to the meeting of Hollywood executives.

This web project is an evolving space exploring contemporary manifestations of the apocalyptic in current affairs and popular culture. It is being developed in association with my Ph.D. research and is both a research method and a presentation of that research. In exploring the apocalyptic I am particularly interested in mapping a series of multimodal mythic clusters that are evolving through a process of remediation which I identify as a key cultural logic for an age in which electracy is the new literacy of nomadic subjects. This hypertextual presentation foregrounds affiliational logic and although I hope the project accumulates meaning it does not seek to present a single, formal, linear argument. I have presented some of these ideas in more traditional academic formats in other places. Although the navigational choices are the user's own these tips may be useful. Feedback is very welcome.

Marcus O'Donnell 2005-2006