Cinema and Reality

Contribution to Terror, Disaster, Cinema and Reality – A Symposium

“We live inside an enormous novel. It is now less and less necessary for the writer to invent the fictional content of his novel. The fiction is already there. The writer’s task is to invent reality.”
J. G. Ballard

“Nothing is true. Everything is permitted”
Hassan-i Sabbāh 

After the Die Hard films, The Siege, Arlington Road, The X Files film, Swordfish and the countless other terrorist-narrative films, not to mention all the alien invasion and natural disaster films off the past few years, the attacks on the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon on 11 September 2001 was a strange case of life imitating art. Like most of the world I watched the amazing live coverage of the events and muttered in bewilderment how much it looked like a film. A cinematographer friend of mine told me quite seriously that it was some of the best action photography he has ever seen. I had to agree. The montages of images that were assembled by the next day contained multiple angles, spectacular sound, brilliantly suspenseful timing and a real life spectacle that looked almost as good as anything done with models or CGIs.

After the second plane hit we all realised that this was a planned attack. Although horrified I was glued to my TV wondering what would happen next. Although exhausted and aware of an early start the next day, I kept on watching because I didn’t want to miss anything exciting. My determination to keep awake paid off and I was not disappointed. I can now stand proud and proclaim that I saw the whole thing live as it happened. I witnessed the second plane hit, I witnessed the buildings fall, and I experienced first hand the disbelief and horror of what was happening.

Like watching a powerful film, I was somehow ‘enjoying’ the rush of emotions that I was experiencing. I don’t think I am the only one guilty of this. For days afterwards people avidly compared how they first heard the news. Everybody knew somebody who knew somebody that was visiting or living in New York. Everybody had some story about somebody they knew who would have been in one the towers if only this or that had not happen. News coverage quickly stopped being about the actual event and began giving more and more time to tales of personal tragedy and heroism. It was totally irrelevant to the very serious political ramifications of what had happened, but it was riveting viewing.

Very quickly the event began to become ‘fictionalised’. The overflow of personal stories dominated the coverage while very little ‘news’ was being given. If the media simply reported what had happened and what little information was available, then the entire coverage would take maybe half and hour. After the initial shock of the event subsided, the whole thing started to become tedious and dull. As with watching the same film over and over again everyday, the coverage became monotonous and predictable.

A story had been generated and it was not going to change. The personal stories became like television or film spin-off shows – attempts to generate new interest in an established narrative by exploring minor characters and plot lines. This was not the first time this had occurred. The Port Arthur massacre also became a fictionalised narrative after the horror of the event was replaced by repetitive coverage. Princess Diana became more alive for me after her death since the Princess Diana I knew was only ever an image from television and magazines.

Why does this happen? A purely cynical observation may be that each television station and newspaper has to make the story more interesting than that of their rivals in order to secure ratings. Information has to be made into entertainment otherwise nobody would pay attention. This is why coverage is referred to as ‘reporting stories’ rather than ‘list of known and confirmed facts’. Or maybe the only way we can make sense of what is happening around us is to construct stories out of the events that we experience. We need to see the human element in events that have such a global impact to identify with them. This of course creates the vicious circle where we are so used to understanding our past through stories that we can digest information only when it is has been turned into a story.

While at first glance it may be argued that this is caused by our exposure to the dominant Hollywood narrative and the tendency for Hollywood to re-tell history by personalising events, this tendency to fictionalise is really nothing new. As Joseph Campbell, amongst many others, has argued, hero based stories, myths, and legends have always been used to tell history. What is perhaps more alarming today is the speed at which mass media can generate folklore.

However audiences today seem a lot more conscious of the power the media has in creating ‘reality’. The commercial and critical success of films such as The Matrix, Dark City and The Truman Show reveal that the dangers of false realities are something we are all aware of. As well as the many other films asking us to question the reality of the world we live in there are also films such as The Sixth Sense and Fight Club which even ask if we really know who we are. Again this is nothing knew. Shakespeare’s plays, for example, were full of characters not knowing the truth behind their own heritage and identity and there is of course poor old Oedipus.

Although we get tangled up in the emotion of events that are reported to us, we are still able to later reflect on the truth behind what we are told and what we see. We may not reach any conclusion but we are media literate enough to have an awareness of our own manipulation.

This new awareness is also apparent in the speed of making films that critique events just passed. The Vietnam War is still critically analysed in Hollywood films from numerous viewpoints. Even though it was many years after the Vietnam War ended before films directly attacked American involvement, there were films about other wars, such as MASH and Catch-22, which were strongly anti-war and thematically suggested Vietnam. There was also the huge wave of violent revisionist films at that time, such as Bonnie And Clyde, The Wild Bunch, Little Big Man and The Godfather, that were critical of other aspects of American myths and history.

In the past decade the gap between events and the release of critical films has shrunk considerably. For every propaganda film like Courage Under Fire, the Gulf War has come under attack directly in Three Kings, suggestively in Wag The Dog, and slightly more obscurely in Starship Troopers. Already in the few weeks since the Americans started bombing Afghanistan, television shows as mainstream as The Oprah Winfrey Show have had open discussions about the morality behind America’s retaliation. Debate surrounding issues such as an appropriate response to the terrorism has been widespread and has displayed an awareness of the complexities involved.

This is not to say that everything is all right and that we can relax into optimistic relief. The people with power have opted for violent and misguided retaliation and they have many supporters. But dissent is out there. People everywhere, including New York, are protesting against the American government’s retaliation and I predict that after the moral panic and a few excruciating real-life tragedy films, films will emerge that condemn what is currently happening. Maybe in fifty or so years a comedy based on the events will be made. After all, it has happened to the Holocaust.

Real life is fiction but it has always been. History has always been told as stories that reflect the cultural bias of those who tell them. That is why history features more white heterosexual men than any other group of people. And as George Orwell once said “History is written by the winners”. Although contemporary film is not providing any answers (and why should it have to) it has been drawing our intention to the fact that reality is constructed.

Art does not imitate life – it is the other way around, but we are only just beginning to realise this. Our lives are simply experiences that have been turned into a narrative by ourselves so we can comprehend the world around us. In terms of structure, life, with its infinite plot lines, is a lot more sophisticated than any film narrative. But in terms of dealing with disaster and the resulting emotions, films are way ahead.

Originally appeared here on Senses of Cinema Issue No. 17, November – December 2001

© Thomas Caldwell, 2001
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