Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek – always quick off the mark – wasted no time whatsoever in providing, via the internet, his scattered reflections on the “Attack on America”. Most interesting was his rumination on fantasy and reality – as he quite accurately pointed out, “to us, corrupted by Hollywood, the landscape and the shots we saw of the collapsing towers could not but remind us of the most breathtaking scenes in the catastrophe big productions”. Contrary to the exclamations by newsreaders and commentators regarding the ‘shocking’ and ‘unimaginable’ attacks, the disaster was in fact eminently imaginable – disaster movies, most notably Roland Emmerich’s Independence Day (1996), with its famed sequences of the White House being destroyed by aerial assault, had in fact been fantasising about such things for years.
Indeed, watching the events on the television, over and over again, who didn’t admit at least once that it was “like watching a movie”? The underside of these events, despite all the declarations by the news media that the (Western) world was united in an experience of overpowering grief and sorrow, is the uncomfortable feeling that something was blocking the full emotional impact of these events. In the days after the event, I remember watching a news commentary show from the US which discussed the phenomena of New York locals actually venturing down to the site themselves to see it with their own eyes, take photos, make videos etc. It was as if, according to the commentators, people felt guilty about not feeling enough – they had to actually go there, to face the disaster in person, in order to precipitate some kind of emotional catharsis unattainable through their TV screens.
This, I would argue, reveals the true fear behind the acts of censorship arising from the disaster – for instance, the delaying of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s latest explosion vehicle. The avowed rationale behind such censorship might be that now is not the time for trivial ‘entertainment’. If that were so, however, doesn’t that apply to all films, particularly to the most ‘disposable’ movies – kid’s flicks, for instance – where the disparity between the on-screen frivolity and the real-world seriousness is so striking (notwithstanding the uncanny echoes of real life in films like Cats and Dogs or Spy Kids). In other words, isn’t it more offensive to be watching, say, a light comedy like Legally Blonde at a time like this?
Instead, however, the real fear lies not in the ‘incomparable’ nature of film and real-life, but the fact that they are so readily comparable. What if, after watching a disaster movie, people began to view the New York disaster in the same mode? What if they actually began to take enjoyment from watching those planes fly into the buildings, again and again and again? (A friend of mine, after days of watching the terrorist attacks on TV, was gripped by a desire to revisit John Frankenheimer’s Black Sunday , but resisted the temptation because he didn’t want the video-store workers to think he was deranged [or to alert the CIA]). Isn’t this the real fear behind pulling the Schwarzenegger movie – the desire to police this boundary between fantasy and reality, between pleasure and horror? The logic of the prohibition of ‘entertainment’ is here totally confused: ‘fantasy and reality are impossible to compare, and therefore we should not compare them’. What is truly traumatic, truly impossible to admit, is that the events of New York, whether to those who watched on television, or those who saw it first-hand and claimed it was ‘like watching a movie’, were always-already a cinematic moment – pure cinema, in fact.