I started writing this post more than a year ago. I managed to set up the blog on 9/11/12, and almost finish the post. But not quite. It’s not that I’m a luddite. I just can’t keep up. But as far as the post being somewhat topical, it’s almost as appropriate to post on the day after we elected a President as it might have been to post on the anniversary of 9/11.
When the 10th anniversary of 9/11 attacks rolled around, I felt I should do something to observe the anniversary. A lot like people felt like that shortly after 9/11, like they should do something. What I did then was to attend a community conversation at the University of Virginia, sponsored by the then-new (now-defunct) Center on Religion and Democracy, where a panel of academics discussed the need to understand our neighbors at home, especially of the Muslim faith, as well to understand Islam abroad in its mainstream and marginal forms. (What my co-worker, a cartoonist starting out, did as her “doing something” was to contribute to 9-11 Emergency Relief: A Comic Book to Benefit the American Red Cross. And I made a cameo as a cartoon in the strip she contributed.)
© 2001 Jen Sorensen. Used with permission.
What I did for the 10th anniversary was to attend a community conversation sponsored by the new Danforth Center for Religion and Politics at Washington University in St. Louis. Where a panel of academics had pretty much the same discussion. It seemed not much had changed since 9/11/2001.
Of course, a few things have changed. Osama bin Laden is dead, which changed something. And before that, we had an economic meltdown, which may have changed everything. And before that, someone wrote a book about 9/11, and this book made me realize that we shouldn’t have been trying to understand Islam better, or Al-Qaeda. The real question we should have been asking all along is how well they had understood us.
The book was Lawrence Wright’s The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11 (2006) the most perceptive, useful and relevant discussion of Al-Qaeda I’ve read in all the years since 9/11 (amid many discussions that were superficial at best). It was widely understood and easily recognizable almost from the beginning that the immediate goal of the attack on the twin towers was to kill a large number of Americans, and in the process cause enough physical destruction to the financial district of New York to throw the financial system into chaos. It was in recognition of this that George Bush encouraged us to resist terrorism through shopping.
What never seems to be raised—by now incredulously—in these discussions is that, as Wright argued in his book, the immediate goal of the confusion of the financial system created by the attacks was only the most obvious part of a broader goal: which was to execute an attack violent and spectacular—and frankly cinematic—enough to provoke the United States into mounting a full-blown military counter-attack in the Islamic world that would eventually drain the resources of the United States, and ultimately destroy its economy. In light of the two invasions undertaken by the United States into Afghanistan and then Iraq, the accumulation of massive federal debt as a result, and the likely not-coincidental economic collapse of 2008 that followed, all we can say of Al-Qaeda’s broader goals in the attack, is: mission accomplished. Nearly.
The other thing most people remember about 9/11—apart from the shock at the terrible loss—is the sense of unity we all felt as Americans. In retrospect, the very short-lived sense of unity. It seems ironic that we’d go from that sense of unity to a state of political division that now seems unprecedented. On further reflection, it doesn’t seem ironic at all.
Al-Qaeda understood us well enough to anticipate their attack would provoke a response on a scale we could not ultimately afford, which certainly was a major factor in sending our financial system to the brink. What I wonder is if their calculations extended to how we would get there. That a sense of American exceptionalism was operative is obvious. But the real trigger to our reaction was less our sense of shock and outrage at the attack than our inclination to sentimentality—especially when it comes to our idea of ourselves. Already within days (if not on the day of) the 9/11 attacks, the comparisons with Pearl Harbor began. And the idea that 9/11 was this generation’s Pearl Harbor. And with it, implicit comparisons of this generation to the Greatest Generation. And a desire to meet the challenge just like they had: a desire for things to be the way they used to be back then. And then the “embedded reporters” in the first days of the Iraq invasion, stating that the defeated forces of Hussein’s army were simply “melting away”—as if the army were like the Wicked Witch recently doused with water. As if they weren’t in fact escaping, toting significant weaponry away with them that the Americans would meet again. And we succumbed to that sentimental impulse because we so badly wanted to be the way we used to be.We gave in to that sentimental impulse because we so badly wanted to think of ourselves as being the way we used to be.
There had been a build up to this on the right in America in the 90s, that called for a return to an era that seemed less morally ambiguous. But toward the end of that decade—just before 9/11—there was a brief window when it seemed that America was ready to recognize both that we couldn’t just go back, but at the same time, maybe there was room for dialogue. Maybe there had been too much sex, drugs and rock and roll. Maybe education was important. And to unthinkingly try to go back to the way things were was like the middle-aged guy chasing after the teenaged cheerleader, pathetically trying to get back to a place that is gone. We seemed to be on the verge of rejecting that self-destructive sentimentality, while also rejecting the alternative of resignation. A kind of truce in the culture wars seemed to be represented in the media. The most clear example was the sitcom that introduced Téa Leoni, The Naked Truth–that was basically its plot line: the story of a party-girl turned nun. Somewhat less straightforwardly, this was represented in three movies released as the decade drew toward a close. In order of appearance: Pleasantville (1998) Election (1999) and American Beauty (1999).
It’s the first movie, Pleasantville, took these issues on most directly. The main characters of the movie—twin brother and sister—represent the two divergent trends: the nerdy, studious and shy brother David represents the longing in America for simpler times. At the outset of the movie he is planning to stay home to watch a marathon of his favorite TV show, Pleasantville, an amalgam of all the TV shows of the period that self-represented America in its simpler times: Father Knows Best, The Andy Griffith Show and Leave it to Beaver. His fantasy of a simpler time comes to life when he is visited by the symbolic guardian (played by Don Knotts) of those times, in the guise of a TV repairman, who gives David a special TV remote that transports him to the actual town of Pleasantville, in all its black and white glory.
Complicating the plot, his sister is transported with him as they struggle over control of the TV remote. America, the over-sexed, irresponsible and underachieving, is represented by David’s sister, Jennifer. The film traces both children’s deficiencies, to some extent, to their broken home. The drama unfolds as the two assume the roles of the children in the family around which the show is centered, and their entrance gradually begins to bring color to the colorless town. With color, the peaceful town becomes progressively disordered and divided between those embracing the changes and those wanting to try to return the town to its monochrome stability. The story reaches a climax in when it is revealed that even those calling for a return to the old Pleasantville have also been colorized, and a new peace emerges. Despite its transformation, the town is still recognizably the same, and clearly distinct from the reality from which the twins were transported. But the twins themselves reverse roles, with the wayward sister choosing to remain (“I’ll probably get better grades”) to go to college, while the brother chooses to leave his fantasy of a simpler time to engage the real world as it is, having learned in the quiet town to come out of his shell and stand up for what he believes.
There is an unreasonable amount of overlap in these films, from Reese Witherspoon’s appearance in two of them, to the symbolism of the rose, obviously in American Beauty, but also in Pleasantville where it is the first object to make the over-the-rainbow transformation into Technicolor. Above all, they share a high school at the center of their respective cinematic worlds, which is also the main indicator that these films are “about” America. It isn’t that High School is a perfect representation of America. It’s through high school’s complete failure as a representation of an ideal America that it achieves an almost perfect representation of the actual America in its hypocrisy.
That hypocrisy is most pronounced in the fiction of student government, which drives the drama of Election. Though all three films have high schools as the center, Election and American Beauty also both feature men approaching middle age as their main characters. Both characters, typical of the stage of life, have Lost Their Way. Unlike Lester Burnham in American Beauty, whose speeches describe his efforts to break out of the hypocrisy, Jim McAllister’s self-narration at the opening of Election glories in its platitudinous virtues. It is Jim McAllister’s weak attempt to rebel against those hypocrisies that set the drama in motion, leading to an attempt to alter the outcome of the student body presidential election and obstruct his nemesis, student Tracy Flick, on her seemingly irresistible upwardly mobile trajectory in life. The way in which Jim McAllister almost seems to actually believe the description of his life and vocation, makes it painful to listen to:
It’s hard to remember how the whole thing started, the whole election mess. What I do remember is that I loved my job. I was a teacher—an educator. And I couldn’t imagine doing anything else. The students knew it wasn’t just a job for me. I got involved. And I cared. And I think I made a difference.
Painful as that speech is to hear, it is almost unbearable to hear nearly the same speech at the end of the movie, when he has lost all of what little he had at beginning of the movie. Having moved to New York and become a museum guide, Jim draws on yet another cliché to hide the reality of his life from himself: “I mean, that’s what’s great about America. You can always start over.” But as Jim leads a tour group of schoolchildren, and in response to a question the eager hand of a precocious nine-year-old shoots up in the style of Tracy Flick, the audience knows that’s not possible for Jim McAllister to start over.
Though Jim McAllister’s lusting after a teenage object of desire in Election is not as overt as Lester Burnham’s, his transference of desire from Tracy to his wife’s best friend is the first thread in the unraveling of his life. Jim’s proclamation of faith in the American gospel of self-reinvention seems drowned out by the echo of Tracy’s statement from the beginning of the movie: “You can’t interfere with destiny. That’s why it’s destiny. And if you try to interfere, the same thing’s just gonna happen anyway. And you’ll just suffer.” But the movie isn’t about the inevitability of winners and losers. It isn’t even about the reality that underlies Jim’s banal professions of faith, just as he isn’t the real protagonist of the story. If there is a protagonist in the movie, it is the audience. The movie isn’t saying things could be otherwise. Or that they couldn’t. What is important, is that we know that these conventions of civic virtue are frauds. And our knowing—and laughing at it—may be resolution enough.
It is a cautionary tale to some extent. The characters of Jim McAllister in Election and Lester Burnham in American Beauty readily invite comparison: both are approaching middle-age, both lust after under-age objects of desire, and both surrender to their desires to some extent. Most importantly, both feel trapped in the lives they have made for themselves, and are seeking a way out. The critical difference is that Jim McAllister never states his discontent directly, and acts only in the most passive ways. He never acknowledges his own hypocrisy—and that is what makes the movie painfully funny. Lester Burnham, by contrast, undergoes successive changes where he acknowledges the fraud his life has become ever more forcefully, and actively—if misguidedly—takes steps to change it: “I feel like I’ve been in a coma for the past twenty years. And I’m just now waking up.” [American Beauty quotes from IMDB]
But the film begins with the conclusion. In a voice-over narration, Lester Burnham tells us that he’s going to be shot today, and the rest of the movie shows the stages of his transformation leading up to his death. He remembers a time in his life when his life wasn’t a fraud, especially as a teenager, where he recalls a summer when all he was flip burgers and get laid. He successively sheds the externals of his middle-age, suburban life, and attempts to recapture the life of his teenage self: resigning from his job as a magazine writer, getting a job flipping burgers in a fast food restaurant, and trading in his Corrolla for a 1970 Firebird:
Carolyn Burnham: Uh, whose car is that out front?
Lester Burnham: Mine. 1970 Pontiac Firebird. The car I’ve always wanted and now I have it. I rule!
And indulging in sexual fantasies revolving around Angela, in a flood of rose petals, the teenage friend of his daughter who is on the school’s dance team with her.
And the truth is, although somewhat obscured by the charisma of Kevin Spacey’s performance, throughout almost the whole movie, almost to the last frames, Lester Burnham is mostly an ass. His one saving grace is his attempt to live an authentic life, however puerile his attempts to do so might be. Lester is not alone in his inauthentic life. He is alienated from his whole existence, but especially in his relationships with his wife and daughter. Like the other movies, the high school where the daughter attends is significant. But the locus of the drama of the narrative is street where the Burnham family lives. It represents America in its political divisions almost as clearly—though somewhat more subtly—as Pleasantville, which in American Beauty is symbolized by the Burnham family home, which is flanked by a household of a gay couple, on the one side (representing the left) and by a new family that moves in on the other, headed by a homophobic (and suppressed homosexual) retired military officer (representing the right).
The specific events leading up to Lester’s death largely revolve around the tensions around these households. Janie, Lester’s daughter, becomes involved with Ricky, the son of Colonel Fitts. She finds in Ricky, some connection that she lacks in her alienated relationship with her father, telling Ricky at one point, “I need a father who’s a role model, not some horny geek-boy who’s gonna spray his shorts whenever I bring a girlfriend home from school.” It’s in statements like these that this movie integrates cultural rhetoric from both the right and left: while the main character, Lester, is on a journey of discovery, and the narrative indicates it is an important one, the film does not hide the juvenile selfishness of this journey, and his failure as a role model and a father. Finally, at in the last few minutes of the movie, Lester finally re-embraces his identity in his actual stage in life, and as a father, when, finally about to obtain his object of desire, Angela, she tells him he is a virgin. Lester suddenly sees her for who she is, a child who looking for attention, and he remembers his own daughter, and asks Angela, “How’s Jane? … I mean, how’s her life? Is she happy? Is she miserable? I’d really like to know.”
Lester’s transformation is complete, when he is shot to death by Colonel Frank Fitts, after Lester rejected his advances. The film concludes with a voice-over by Lester, after he has been killed, echoing an earlier speech of Ricky Fitts’, describing the beauty he saw in a plastic bag he videotaped dancing in a whirlwind:
I had always heard your entire life flashes in front of your eyes the second before you die. First of all, that one second isn’t a second at all, it stretches on forever, like an ocean of time… For me, it was lying on my back at Boy Scout camp, watching falling stars… And yellow leaves, from the maple trees, that lined our street… Or my grandmother’s hands, and the way her skin seemed like paper… And the first time I saw my cousin Tony’s brand new Firebird… And Janie… And Janie… And… Carolyn. I guess I could be pretty pissed off about what happened to me… but it’s hard to stay mad, when there’s so much beauty in the world. Sometimes I feel like I’m seeing it all at once, and it’s too much, my heart fills up like a balloon that’s about to burst… And then I remember to relax, and stop trying to hold on to it, and then it flows through me like rain and I can’t feel anything but gratitude for every single moment of my stupid little life…
But it’s the very last line, in retrospect, that seems to point to the then-near future, and the closing of that decade and the momentary, almost truce in the war with ourselves:
You have no idea what I’m talking about, I’m sure. But don’t worry… you will someday.