Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Maria Pramaggiore: The global repositioning of the city symphony: sound, space, and trauma in 11’09”01—September 11

The global repositioning of the city symphony: sound, space, and trauma in 11’09”01—September 11
by Maria Pramaggiore
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Given the political and aesthetic heritage of the omnibus film, and given the political and media inflections associated with 9/11, it’s not surprising that the individual films in 11’09”01 address both political and aesthetic questions in their work. The majority of the films in the collection are narrative dramatizations that explore the responses of individuals or small groups at the moment they first hear about or experience the attacks (Makhmalbaf; Lelouch; Chahine; Gitaï; Tanovic; Penn). Others employ narratives that span a few days or weeks after the attacks, tracing their short-term impact (Ouedraogo; Nair). Several reject narrative altogether (Loach; Gonzáles Iñárritu) or work in an allegorical mode (Imamura). Even the most conventional narratives call attention to aspects of film form:

* in Chahine’s film, the director carries on a conversation with a ghost soldier, reminding viewers of the capacity of the moving image to bring the dead to life;

* in Gitai’s film, a layered structure turns the broadcast media into a hall of mirrors, as a reporter covering a fatal car bombing in Tel Aviv finds that her report has been pre-empted by news of the 9/11 attacks;

* in Lelouch’s film, sound and image are used disjunctively, competing for the spectator’s attention, as a hearing impaired woman living in New York remains unaware of a television in her living room that is broadcasting footage of the WTC attacks as they happen.

In all these instances, the formal capacities of the film medium are given enhanced emphasis because some conventional attribute of sound and image, such as legibility or synchronization, is violated.

The most important formal issue for 11’9”01 is that, like all omnibus films, it must contend with its own inherent fragmentation. According to David Scott Diffrient, who has written extensively on the omnibus film,

“Containment is one of the central issues appertaining to cinematic episodicity, which seeks some middle ground between unchecked excess and absolute boundaries. How does one mark off one self-contained narrative from another in a package feature or omnibus film?” (Diffrient 529).

Brigand’s containment strategy, like the choices made in designing the Sonic Memorial, manifests the desire to condense the time and space of 9/11. Containment here takes the form of an overarching graphic device that opens the film and re-appears between each of the 11 segments. The “clock-map” of the world is a dynamic, ethereal graphic that superimposes a large, bright white analog clockface onto a dark, starry background. In the opening of the film, small luminous clockfaces, with sections of continents etched in them, glide across the dark background. After they move into place, forming the continents, all the clocks stop ticking. A bright red glowing dot illuminates New York City, signifying the moment of the attack on the WTC. The various times on the clockfaces record the same instant in different time zones. Finally, the clock and maps dissolve into the title.

This device, which would look right at home on a network or cable news broadcast, attempts to unify the 11 fragmented films and indeed the complex event itself by compressing the time and space of one moment of the attack across the globe, signified by the static clockfaces, the jigsaw-puzzle continents, and the fiery red glow. Yet it remains unclear which moment on that day was or should be designated as “time zero”: the first plane slamming into the north tower (8:46 am EST), the second plane hitting the south tower (9:03 am), or the collapse of the towers (9:59 am—south tower—and 10:28 am—north tower) even if we momentarily set aside the question of how to account for the Pentagon and Pennsylvania crashes. The clock map appears to use the first crash into the south tower to synchronize the film’s representational clock: no clockface reads 8:46 am, but two clocks located over the North American continent read 7:46 am and 6:46 am.

Before each of the 11 films, this graphic returns with the same black background and white continent silhouettes, but without the clockfaces. In these introductory segments, after New York glows red, the national map of the filmmaker whose work is about to be shown is illuminated in white. The repetition of the graphic suggests equivalence among the disparate films, but several obvious dislocations arise. Some spatial disjunctions are meant to be obvious; for example, the fact that New York appears geographically distant from some of the nations from which the filmmakers hail (Iran, or Burkina Faso, for example). The fact that New York—a city—is presented as the equivalent of entire nations introduces an incongruity as well. Yet another spatial discrepancy remains invisible: the fact that some films made by directors who are citizens of countries other than the United States are not necessarily set in those “other” countries. For example, Lelouch, Iñárritu, and Nair’s films are set in New York rather than in France, Mexico, and India, respectively—so the illumination of those national maps undermines the ability of the graphic to introduce these films (set in New York) because that ties the director and the film to a specific, “non-American” national identity.

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