A sulking vagrant arrives in a small American town, equipped with an absurdly large knife and lethal skills gained in the service of the same US military interests by which he now feels betrayed. Harassed by an overzealous representative of the law, he becomes a kind of ‘illegal immigrant’. Haunted by dark images, which he can articulate only through involuntary spasms, he is forcibly ‘detained’ and forced to endure one too many acts of unnecessary cruelty. A fiery display of revenge is let loose. Burning buildings, gutted vehicles, and defeated bodies prove his indestructible will. He is the American Hero as terrorist.

A man has just shot himself in the mouth in order to be rid of his own shadow, a psychotic projection through which he has acted out dangerous thoughts, now materialised as a nation-wide terrorist conspiracy against the pillars of US capitalism. Only now is he able to embrace both his own authentic nature and the woman of his dreams. At this very moment, the vast terrorist project conceived by his vanquished alter ego comes to spectacular fruition, but it is no longer the focus of our attention. As boy finally meets girl and the massive credit card towers start shuffling softly to the ground, the consequences of terror feel like nothing so much as a burst of pretty fireworks.

Like so many other films produced in the last twenty years, Rambo: First Blood (Ted Kotcheff, 1982) and Fight Club (David Fincher, 1999), two otherwise very different exercises in cinematic violence, now seem to anticipate and ‘reply’ to the events of September 11. The ‘strange parallels’ which spontaneously emerged between the terrible news images of that day and the typical content of American blockbusters seem to call for some kind of critical response from those of us who study moving pictures, but the stakes of that response — politically, ethically, and rhetorically — are extraordinarily high.

It seems clear, nonetheless, that both the motivation of the event and the forms of our global response to it are inseparable from the all-pervading presence of the moving image in our lives.

From the point of view of those who executed the crime, there can be little doubt that these acts of self-sacrifice and mass murder were planned for maximum global media impact. By seizing control of four planes, they also commanded our perception, acting as voluntary directors of their own death scenes, orchestrators of a worldwide special effects display. The deliberate choice of the World Trade Centre as target announced a suicidal-homicidal will that would not be bargained with at any level. The implied promise that all viewers were now potential victims added a frighteningly ‘interactive’ dimension to the spectacle. For these vengeful theocrats, one must assume, the numbers of the innocent dead could only serve to underline the absoluteness of their decision to bring the experience of war ‘back home’ to those of us used to safely observing global violence from the other side of a television screen.

At ‘ground zero’, amongst the smoke and ruins, this intimate connection between the moving image and contemporary forms of terror would be felt as an effect of uncanny resemblance. Survivors and witnesses repeatedly declared that ‘it was like being in a movie’. (1) The question of the moving image’s fidelity to the real did not arise. To the contrary, images now provided the only standard against which to gauge the unbelievable reality of lived experience. The hard core of traumatic experience seemed ‘naturally’ to produce an internal allusion to the synthetic experience of film.

This sense of irreality, mixed inextricably with recognition of the final reality of death, was not confined to the immediate vicinity of the catastrophe. It seems likely, indeed, that no single event has ever before been so thoroughly and globally monitored in its aftermath. Viewers around the world found themselves cast in the role of real-time witnesses to the second impact and the subsequent collapse of both towers. For up to 48 hours after the event, all free-to-air television stations in Australia switched their programming to coverage of the disaster. At least one of the featured networks was not content to re-screen the moment of impact between each segment of reportage, but soon reproduced the sight as a small animated icon permanently displayed in the corner of the screen, automatically resetting itself at the end of each momentary cycle. From now on, it seemed, time could no longer be adequately measured by the neutral ticking of a clock, but only by the compulsive reviewing of the unthinkable. Even as TV reported the touching fate of a bystander found searching for “some medicine to stop the people jumping out of the towers in my head”, TV also eagerly invited its international audience to risk falling victim to the same condition of internalised and interminable witnessing.

It seems very possible that the shape of the act itself, if not the desire to commit it, may have been inspired at least partly by such conspicuously destructive, internationally distributed American films as Independence Day (Roland Emmerich, 1996), and Fight Club. It is a remarkable fact, nonetheless, that no commentator dared to invoke even a shadow of the rhetoric of ‘video causality’ so often resorted to in the wake of incomprehensibly violent acts. The magnitude of the crime apparently raised the stakes of commentary high enough to risk rendering the real stakes of ‘media influence’ disturbingly apparent: to reduce the crime to an effect of merely external causes is to erase the moment of decision itself, and, therefore, to deny any possibility of justice. In any case, the immediately assumed ethnic and religious ‘otherness’ of the perpetrators made the usual forms of domestic media scapegoating unnecessary. In the moral vision of Michael Medved and similar critics, Hollywood is imagined as a dark, invasive force ‘making war’ upon American families. This time, as President Bush took every opportunity to remind us, the violence could be blamed on the singularly “evil” subjectivity of others. Terror demands the kind of occult explanation suggested by ‘media influence’ only when it is attributed to ‘one of us’.

At one level, the world wide video repetition compulsion that followed the attacks simply served to isolate the event from any context. Globalisation of the moving image did not guarantee universal access. Viewers, expecting to see America strike back at any moment, found themselves at the vanishing point of an unprecedented display of real-time global montage, cross-cutting instantaneously between the devastation of New York, the incomprehensible celebrations of Palestinian refugees, and the stuttering images provided by video phones in Afghanistan. In all this automated shifting of our point of view, relentless repetition of the moment of impact acted as a kind of anchorage point. It was like Year Zero in the history of murderous assault upon innocent civilians.

It is unexceptionable to note that an obsession with violence has always been characteristic of American movies. Richard Slotkin’s Gunfighter Nation, for example, shows how the myth of the American frontier resonates throughout the twentieth century. Central to this myth, as he unfolds it, is the desire for regeneration through violence. (2) Since the transgressions of the ‘other’ must first be seen to license the unleashing of unlimited force, it is precisely the rhetoric of ‘first blood’ that is at stake. In the classic western, for example, the power of film form, with its ability to create and destroy insides and outsides and to manipulate our POV through the process, repeatedly evokes a world where ‘savage Indians’ wilfully invade the rightful security of American family homes. The persuasive powers of montage and myth worked together to isolate the ‘aggression’ of American indigenes from any historical or political context.

Hence, the uncanny light which the event has thrown upon so many Hollywood films; not only upon the spectacularly obvious episodes of unlimited destruction, but also upon the manic repetition of the inside/outside, same/other crisis. Across almost all genres, American films betray a fascination, at once terrified and tempted, with the limits of ‘border control’ at every scale: from the body, to the state, to the earth itself. All these themes converge in Independence Day, perhaps the most inflated Hollywood indulgence in scenes of penetration and destruction, descending from the invasion of the planet, to the obliteration of the White House, to the anal rape of the misunderstood hero who eventually saves the world by flying his jet up the burning sphincter of the alien spacecraft.

This filmic rhetoric joined forces with the televisual ability to deliver the world in real-time during President Bush’s globally broadcast “wanted: dead or alive” and “smoking ’em out” performances. From the initial call to arms in the name of “Operation Infinite Justice”, to the much later confessions that “we may never catch him”, the unlocalisable global threat of “asymmetric warfare” has since justified an indefinite escalation of worldwide security, even in a situation where the US enjoys undisputed military and economic superiority at the level of the nation state.

Nonetheless, if the traditions of American film are entwined with a myth of self-definition through violence, this has never meant that particular films have automatically reproduced its terms. The career of John Ford, to name just the most revered example, reveals the ways in which popular film explores its own limits and assumptions, even inverts its own rhetoric. The image of the ‘Indian’ is reproduced and revised from film to film, in a complex and contradictory interplay of memories, aspirations, and fears. Film violence is thus also a way of thinking, at least potentially, and a way of inventing new possibilities of perception. It participates in the global feedback circuit that includes images of violence, acts of violence, and expressions of concern about their relationship, in modes that include complicity, critique, exploitation, parody, self-interrogation — sometimes all within a single film, maybe a single sequence.

The very phrase “it was like a movie” resonates beyond any mere resemblance of content: it implies a distinct and general sense of ‘the movie experience’.

At one level, the analogy may be viewed as purely a matter of scale. Only film captures and overwhelms our senses so completely; only movies are this ‘sublimely big’. “It was just like a movie” also seems to suggest, however, that to be ‘on the scene’ of a life and death event, in the very midst of the action, is not like being ‘on the scene’, but far more like being a spectator. In both situations, one ‘finds oneself’ watching what is already sealed, with no way to respond. It is thus not just an empirical resemblance between events and images that is at stake (‘it looks the same’), but a sort of ‘transcendental reflection’. Terror and the moving image somehow ‘put you in the same place’ — or, rather, the same time, the time of lateness, in which one finds it is already impossible to respond, one sees the very impossibility of any response. The phrase might also suggest, to the contrary, and at the same time, that the intimate experience of spectacular violence is like being in a movie, in the midst of reality-become-fiction, as if transported into the world of action films. “Like a movie” would here involve the recognition of something absolutely familiar, but entirely ‘in the wrong place’, hence ‘uncanny’.

TV viewers around the world were thrown into the grip of this ‘analogy’ at a different level. Watching the explosion, I felt myself torn between at least two desires: an ethical obligation to recognise and witness the loss; a detached curiosity that wanted to ‘see more’ of this real referent for all the simulated catastrophes I have ever enjoyed. These were not just pixels, but ‘people just like me’, statistically indistinguishable from ‘me’, burning and falling in the substance of this fascinating image, which nonetheless looked just like a special effect, the only referent available in the compass of my experience.

Was it not precisely the fact that the ‘real thing’ seemed entirely indistinguishable from a special effect at the level of immediate perception that made us try to ‘see the difference’? This ‘difference’ would have been like a direct manifestation of the real in the very heart of artificiality; it will never be located or seen ‘in’ the image, however, if it arises in the responsibilities we assume toward it. If some cultures prohibit all attempts to represent the dead, our own increasingly evident desire to verify every collective trauma by having it instantly rendered as an episode of Reality TV reminds us that our imagining of death, our relationship to the unimaginable as such, has become inseparable from the moving image.

Charlie’s Angels (Joseph McGinty Nichol, 2000) parodies the post-Gulf War, post-digital obsession with putting our point of view inside the explosive event. In the climactic scene where the evil Knox finally meets his fate in the form of a misguided missile, we see through the perspective of the targeted character as the projectile gets him right between the eyes, but we also see into his face as it approaches. Special effects provide the content that went missing during coverage of the Gulf War: the suffering ‘face’ of the victim. In the coverage of that war, real-time monitoring from the missile’s own point of view may have brought us closer than ever to the moment of impact, but that moment itself was emptied of contact as the screen went to white noise. The look on Knox’s face restores this content to us as fiction, where it can be enjoyed without reserve. In the dreadful instant between recognising the oncoming instrument of his demise and the moment of impact itself, Knox must look at what he wishes most not to see. His death is the result of a fatal encounter between two speeds of perception: the human and the digital.

When a Montpellier journalist in 1896 described the Lumière projections as provoking “an excitement bordering on terror,” he was praising the new spectacle and explaining its success. (3)

Film has always been an art of speeds in collision: not just between shots, but also between the automated regularity of the machine and the ‘lateness’ of spectators. It may seem a trivialising affectation to link the terror felt by the first cinematic spectators at the sight of Lumière’s train with the events of September 11. But both events, one of which took just before the beginning the twentieth century, the other just after its end, involve the uncanny crossing of assumed limits between image and reality — if in very different ways. In both, a specific capacity of the moving image is at stake: its ability to seize perception ‘all-at-once’ whilst precluding any active response. Addressing the specificity of cinema in relation to literary narrative, Noël Burch writes:

… one important aspect of this specificity is the immediate and total materialization of discontinuity whenever indication of this continuity serves a dramatic need. In other words, moving from one dècor to another in a ‘classic’ novel usually involves a gradual process … This is obviously not so in the cinema…when these transitions take the form of simple shot changes, they are instantly perceived as radical breaks, as elements of extreme discontinuity. (4)

Film is always characterised both by this immediate description of its content and by variation of POV independent of the viewer’s response. As Jean-Louis Schefer has it in his rejection of traditional accounts of cinematic identification, the moving image uniquely pre-empts the subjectivity of spectators:

Cinematic images (painting doesn’t produce this effect) exercise a powerful preemption over the living being … A cinematic projection has to be diffused — across the hero, and the villain, and the animals, and the objects, and the places on the screen. It’s with the entirety of that world on screen that the spectator participates or identifies himself. (5)

It is just this fullness that continually exceeds and escapes us in the moving image, since our perceptions are no longer regulated by our responses. The most radical discontinuity that the moving image introduces, in this sense, is one which it opens up in us, by interrupting the continuity of our perceptions and responses (it is precisely this continuity of response which is artificially restored by the interactive moving images of VR). The images of September 11 thus also seem to have acted as a kind of metonymy for the ongoing proliferation of the moving image in our lives, and for the paradoxes of the place in which it puts us. The evident need to look and look again into the spectacle of terror, only to rediscover there an analogy with SFX, was perhaps an inverse measure of our uncertainty in knowing how to take up the place which the image assigns us in relation to the world and in relation to ourselves. All the repetitions might be viewed as an attempt to master the initial and necessary moment of non-consent, that specific risk of affect, which the advent of each and every ‘cut’ brings into our lives.


  1. The cinematic metaphors evoked around the event of September 11 irresistibly recall those ‘theories of the image’ that have long described the uncontrollable interpenetration or ‘implosion’ of distinctions between artificial images and reality. However, it cannot be sufficient, at least, not from the perspective of those of us interested in thinking about the specificity of the moving image in general, and of its different forms in particular, to simply find here yet another example of already established metaphors and concepts, proving, yet again, the universal compass of the postmodern critique of universality.
  2. Richard Slotkin, Gunfighter Nation, Harper, New York, 1992
  3. Tom Gunning, “An Aesthetic of Astonishment”, Viewing Positions: Ways of Seeing Film, ed. Linda Williams, p.121
  4. Noël Burch, In and Out of Synch: The Awakening of a Cine-dreamer, Scolar, Aldershot, 1991, p.7
  5. Jean-Louis Schefer and Paul Smith, “Our Written Experience of the Cinema: an Interview With Jean Louis Schefer”, Enclitic, 6(2): 41, Fall 1982

About The Author

Bill Schaffer teaches Film Studies at the University of Newcastle, Australia.

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