Filming location for spaghetti westerns in Almería, Spain

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© 1987-2016
Scott Larson

Building façade in Cannes, France


My personal patriotic epiphany came on Saturday evening as we drove up Interstate 205 through Vancouver, Washington.

We had spent the week making our way up the West Coast of America from Los Angeles to Seattle. After the atrocity on September 11, U.S. flags were everywhere. Windows and antennas of cars on every road were festooned with them. People were flying them from their homes and their businesses. Even aging hippies (and everyone else) in Eugene, Oregon, were wearing them every way they could find to attach them to their bodies.

But the moment on Interstate 205 was different.

It was dusk, and standing on top of the freeway overpass in the twilight was a boy (I’d guess him to be about 12) with one leg straight and the other bent atop the base of the railing. He had an exhilarated look on his face as he waved at the cars below energetically with his right hand and held aloft a huge American flag that billowed in the breeze with his left. There was something so wonderful, so downright American about the scene that my heart leapt. Most of us drivers either honked or blinked our lights at him. It could have been a stirring scene out of a Steven Spielberg movie or, depending on the tone, one by David Lynch.

Does it trivialize a national tragedy to make a film reference, as I just did? In any case, I am by no means the first to do so. In the immediate aftermath of the attack on Manhattan, everyone from eyewitnesses on the street to New York Governor George Pataki was saying that the destruction of the World Trade Center looked like something out of a movie. It seems that “it was just like a movie” has found a place in our modern language with a meaning that used to be expressed by the phrase “it was like a nightmare.”

For some time it has been apparent that movies, particularly in the horror and disaster genres, have served as some sort of collective therapy for helping us to confront our worst fears and insecurities. And, whether by design or accident, the perpetrators of the September 11 atrocity managed to exploit those anxieties, as evidenced by popular movies, flawlessly. Whether it is our fear of knives (cf. endless teen slasher movies, like the Scream series), airplane disasters (from the Airport movies to Con Air and Turbulence), catastrophes in a skyscraper (from Towering Inferno to Die Hard), or unexpected and devastating sneak attacks on our homeland (Red Dawn, Independence Day, Pearl Harbor). This is to say nothing of the post-World War II fear of brainwashed sleeper assassins, as depicted in The Manchurian Candidate. The only way the attackers could have emulated a more complete catalog of Hollywood disaster movies would have been to somehow sink an ocean liner full of people in the process.

But if we were shocked and afraid that reality could match so closely our worst fears, as seen in the movies, then there was another side to the disaster that lifted our hearts.

We also saw the kind of heroism that we thought only existed anymore in the movies. As we heard about the firefighters and police officers who rushed into the towers to help people with no thought of their own safety and who paid the ultimate price for their courage, some of us could be forgiven if our first thought was that they measured up to the best of action movie heroes. And as we learned about the passengers on Flight 93 who banded together to attack the hijackers, apparently preventing another target from being hit, well, if that wasn’t a story lifted from a movie, then I don’t know what it was.

There is no “silver lining” in a disaster like the one of September 11. The closest we can come to deriving comfort from the events of that awful day is to realize that, even if we learned that reality can mirror all too well the most frightening occurrences in our culture’s movies, we also found that we have real, honest-to-God heroes among us who are equal or greater to any that we have ever seen on the silver screen.

(Note: In the unlikely event that someone actually cares, I will definitely get back to my interrupted discussion of a consumer fraud suit against movie studios next time.)

-S.L., 20 September 2001

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