“Where were you when…?” We ask each other this question after major events happen – when Kennedy was shot – when the Space Shuttle Challenger exploded – when two planes crashed into the Twin Towers. You were eating dinner, you were in a classroom, you were sleeping and a phone call woke you up. As time goes by, these major events are not only remembered as personal experiences, they became moments deep-rooted in our culture. So years later, when asked where we were when…we recall the changed world of that time – reflected in our politics, economy and art – for better or worse.
Today’s guest blogger, writer, Jason Grote, recalls New York City shortly after 9/11. His viewing of the film The Quiet American was not only “cathartic”, as he states, it was also “scary and transgressive.”
As any theater owner could tell you, movies aren’t just the works of art projected onto the screen. Like any work of art (perhaps even more so), they exist embedded in a context, partially that of the venue itself and partially the one that the viewer brings in with them — the year and the town in which they’re first seen; the viewer’s mood and mental state; whether the person in the next seat is hogging the armrest (or worse; I once attended a screening of 2001: A Space Odyssey in which a guy was loudly laughing into his cell phone for the first 20 minutes). For a brief period in the mid-1990s, I went to the movies stoned about once a week and loved almost everything I saw, or at least forgave all of the films their shortcomings. Not long after that, I moved to New York City, tapered off the pot smoking, and met my future wife. We saw movies everywhere, from Film Forum and BAM to the suburban-style Kips Bay multiplex and the grotesquely huge Times Square Loews, which was often forced to program obscure indie films in order to fill its screens without violating exclusivity agreements.
The context in which I saw Philip Noyce’s 2002 film The Quiet American was in the Angelika, in New York, a mile and a half north of the World Trade Center, not long after the September 11 attacks. Like the Vietnam War (with which Noyce’s film dealt, though somewhat indirectly), the attacks have become so encrusted with cliches and platitudes that it’s hard to discuss them with any clarity. But for me, the most striking, shocking aspect of those days was the sensation of being at war. The landscape was irrevocably altered, the city was grieving en masse, laserjet photographs of the missing (and, as it turned out, mostly dead) festooned the concrete walls of armories and office buildings. Briefly, there was an opening where maybe some people were questioning America’s role in the world and how we’d gotten here. Not everyone, certainly, not even most people, but many of us.
By the time The Quiet American was released, that opening seemed to have slammed shut, hard. Mayor Giuliani had long ago cleared away the impromptu shrines at Union Square, Fox News had begun its long march of ratings triumphs, and the Bush administration began beating the drums of war in Iraq. The atmosphere began to feel frightening and vaguely McCarthyite.
I’m not sure whether the production and development of the film had started before or after 9/11, but commercially speaking, the timing of the release couldn’t have been worse. Faithful to the original Graham Greene novel of the same name, the film tells a compelling and straightforward story about a love triangle between a dissolute British expat (Michael Caine), his lover (Do Thi Hai Yen), and an idealistic American yokel (Brendan Fraser). Greene was a clever storyteller, and always wrapped his uncomfortable politics in love stories, melodramas, satires, or spy thrillers. Noyce’s excellent film was all of these. But — courageously, for its moment — it also told an uncomfortable story about America’s history with empire and terrorism, and its unfortunate tendency to lead the world down that road paved with good intentions. In the movie, Fraser is affable as ever, no moustache-twirling villain, even though Noyce depicts his actions as unequivocally evil and Caine’s complicity in his murder as justified. He’s not Paul Wolfowitz spitting on his comb in Fahrenheit 9/11. He’s an idealist and a true believer who, as it turns out, is willing to kill innocent women and children for an ideal. It just so happens that the ideal isn’t international socialism, or fundamentalist Jihad, but democracy and free enterprise.
The movie climaxes with a terrorist attack, a provocation by the OSS intended to frame the communists, in a busy city square. Noyce doesn’t flinch from showing the terrible suffering from this act. It’s not an abstraction or a statistic, but a loud noise and a fire followed by the bodies of men, women, and children, all who whom died terribly. It’s hard to imagine it now, after more than a decade of war, after being exhausted and desensitized by the latest reveal of NSA spying or Silicon Valley privacy invasions, after years of the 24-7 outrage machine of cable news and social media, and the rising ante of movie and TV violence — but to me, and to the very few others in the theater, this moment captured the immediate emotional tenor of 9/11. It also spelled out American complicity in an act of terrorism. It felt cathartic, but even more so, it felt scary and transgressive. I’d half expected John Ashcroft or Sean Hannity to storm the theater and pull the reel off the projector (assuming, of course, that the Angelika hadn’t yet gone digital).
Of course, though the theater was mostly empty, there was no conspiracy against Noyce, or Miramax, or the movie itself. Michael Caine was nominated for an Academy Award for the film, and people still watch and discuss it. It was just bad timing for a good movie. We still live in a climate of fear and anger, but free speech remains, in its (historically normal, as it turns out) battered, compromised form. But at that moment, in that mostly empty theater in 2002, for my future wife and I — a movie felt like a radical act.
Jason Grote is the author of the plays 1001, Shostakovich, Maria/Stuart, and Civilization (all you can eat), and wrote the text for HABIT (2013 OBIE Award) and Basetrack (upcoming national tour). He has written for the television shows “Mad Men,” “Hannibal,” and “Smash.”
Find out more about Jason on his website.
Follow Jason on Twitter @jasongrote