Darkness falls on Manhattan


This weekend, as Irish cinemagoers watch A.I. Artificial Intelligence, Steven Spielberg's new film (by way of Stanley Kubrick), they will be struck by one scene in particular, but not in a way that the film-maker ever intended. A.I. takes place some centuries in the future when sea levels have risen dramatically, and its final revelations are played out in a sunken Manhattan whose skyscrapers rise out of ocean waves like dark icebergs. It's a haunting, beautifully achieved special effect in an otherwise disappointing movie, but what audiences will surely notice most now are the twin towers of the World Trade Centre dominating the archipelago.

A.I. (which was released during the summer in the US) seems destined to be remembered as the last in a long line of pre-disaster New York movies made in the years before the real disaster hit the city.

Much has been written in the past 10 days about the iconic significance of the New York skyline, and the pre-eminent place within it of the World Trade Centre's twin towers (the overbearing "H" in the poster for Woody Allen's Manhattan). The towers were never the best-loved element of the skyline - that honour was disputed between the Empire State and Chrysler buildings - but they were the biggest and the most recognisable from a distance.

Although their reign as the tallest buildings in the world was fleeting, they somehow still represented the ultimate skyscraper. Who knew what the Sears Tower looked like? Other rivals such as Toronto's CN Tower were just glorified broadcasting masts. Standing a few months ago at the foot of Kuala Lumpur's Petronas Towers (the current world-record holders), what struck me was how they just didn't look as big or impressive as the World Trade Centre.

"Size matters", ran the tagline for the 1998 flop, Godzilla, just one of a slew of films of the past 10 years in which New York has been threatened with destruction. It could be the tagline for the city itself, the most mythologised, most televised, most filmed, most sung about place on the planet. All of which also made it the most potent and symbolic target. In a wired world hooked on entertainment, New York belongs to all of us, even to those who hate what it symbolises.

With more than 6,000 people dead, the question of the impact of last week's events on the landscape of popular culture may appear irrelevant or even tasteless - but it certainly formed part of the concerns of the attackers. It has been asked whether the level of media coverage and outrage at these events means that the dead of Srebrenica or Rwanda have less value than those of lower Manhattan. Much as we might care to deny it, familiarity and empathy play a large part in our emotional reaction to other people's tragedies.

For many people, myself included, the first, breathtaking sighting of the Manhattan skyline was one of those moments in life you never forget. But just as memorable was the descent from the Brooklyn Bridge into the city itself and the strange, dislocating sense of having been there before. This is a place we all know from thousands of films and television series, whose geography and texture are fixed in the imaginations of millions, even billions, who have never set foot there.

It would be an over-simplification, though, to see that city of the imagination purely as some sort of imperialist cultural construct. New York is no sterile, manicured monument to totalitarian power. For me, the ambiguous, edgy, questioning work of Martin Scorsese or The Velvet Underground are more important in that New York of the imagination than any tub-thumping Frank Sinatra song.

But there is no gainsaying the bizarre, almost creepy way in which the events of September 11th were foreshadowed by mass popular culture. Just go down to your local video store and look at some of the titles. Soldiers on Wall Street? The Siege. Explosions billowing down the canyons of Manhattan? Independence Day. Skyscrapers collapsing like houses of cards? Fight Club. An obscure pop group, The Coup, has been catapulted to unexpected fame because the cover of their forthcoming album, designed well before the attack, features the twin towers on fire.

It is hard to believe that those who carried out last week's attacks were not familiar, as we all are, with these synthesised images of destruction.

That popular culture in general, and Hollywood in particular, will be affected by all this seems beyond doubt, despite the predictions of some media analysts that accelerated news cycles and shortened attention spans mean that the events of September 11th will recede into our memories within a few months. Frank Rich of the New York Times has suggested one of this summer's violent blockbusters as the marker for a seachange. "The America that saw Disney's Pearl Harbour is as far removed from the America that was attacked on Tuesday as the America that listened to Orson Welles's War of the Worlds was from the America attacked at Pearl Harbour."

The change will be a difficult one for the major entertainment conglomerates. Trailers and posters for the forthcoming Spider-Man, depicting a giant web stretched between the two towers, were withdrawn within hours of the atrocity. Two movies have already been pulled from the US release schedules: Collateral Damage, in which Arnold Schwarzenegger plays a fireman bent on revenge after his family die in a terrorist explosion in a skyscraper, and the Miami-set comedy, Big Trouble, which revolves around a potentially deadly suitcase which passes undetected through airport security. Next year's Men in Black 2 was supposed to climax at the twin towers. The ending will now be re-shot, say the producers, at the Chrysler Building, a couple of miles to the north.

The list goes on. There's Nose Bleed, starring Jackie Chan as an Empire State Building window cleaner who defeats a terrorist attack. There's the five-hour Law and Order mini-series, now cancelled, about a biological warfare attack on New York. A new version of H.G. Wells's The Time Machine is changing its ending, in which shards of the moon fall onto Manhattan streets.

In the immediate aftermath, everything is affected. A film called Sidewalks of New York has been held back, purely because of its title. Editors are reviewing completed episodes of the popular series, Sex and the City, to make sure the towers aren't visible in the background of any scenes. In a secular culture where death is compartmentalised and hidden away, the World Trade Centre stands like a reproof and a reminder in innumerable movies and television shows.

There's an episode of The Simpsons we'll never see again, in which Homer (who hates New York) frantically races to the top of one World Trade Centre tower in search of a toilet, then has to run all the way back down the stairs (the lifts are broken) to prevent his car being clamped.

But it's the action movie, the backbone of the US entertainment industry, which will change most radically.

"Everybody's emotions are so raw," Sherry Lansing, chairwoman of the Paramount Motion Picture Group, was quoted as saying last week. "We can't just show the pretty side of life. That's unrealistic. Violence is part of the world. But it's our responsibility not to trivialise violence, not to glamorise violence, not to make it look cartoony." Lansing is the most powerful woman in Hollywood, which makes that statement even more breathtakingly audacious.

The entire point of the cinema of destruction in the past decade is that it's cartoony, trivial and glamorous. Its heroes - Bruce Willis, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Will Smith, Nicolas Cage - are knowing mannequins, smirking at the camera as they dangle from skyscrapers, battle RADA-trained "terrorists" aboard out-of-control airlines and race against time to defuse bombs primed to kill tens of thousands of American citizens. Most modern action movies are exuberant, self-consciously tongue-in-cheek - and apocalyptic.

Although highly profitable, these are not films which are held in particular high esteem, even within their own industry.

They never get a look-in at the Oscars, except in specialist technical categories and they tend to be derided by critics, especially if they make a half-hearted attempts to "tackle" serious issues. The Siege, in which militant Islamic fifth-columnists take over Manhattan, purports to explore the threat to civil liberties posed by martial law, but collapses under the weight of its own silliness. The Peacemaker makes a rare attempt to portray sympathetically the motivations of a Bosnian Muslim bent on blowing up the UN building, but this hardly registers against the more pressing romantic plotline between glamorous Nicole Kidman and hunky George Clooney. We critics, like everyone else, have tended to prefer our catastrophes done with maximum jokiness and minimum casualties.

Suddenly, all is changed. How now do we read Fight Club, David Fincher's gleefully nihilistic pyrotechnical extravaganza, which climaxes with an entire Manhattan-esque skyline exploding orgasmically against a night sky?

Why has American popular culture of the past 10 years been so eager to imagine the violent destruction of the world's most famous city, over and over again? The most banal and most obvious answer is possibly the truest: because it can.

If the producers of Sex and the City so wished, they could remove the World Trade Centre towers from their programmes with a swish of a digital paintbrush. In a previous era, the car-chase movie was held up as the purest example of US exultation in destruction for entertainment. "Look," those films seemed to say, "we can afford to smash up all this expensive technology - just for fun!"

In the post-Spielberg, post-George Lucas world, the same impulse applies, but the technology is now courtesy of Microsoft and Apple instead of Buick and Chevrolet. And the film-makers have used it to soup up the B-movies and comic books of their own Cold War-era childhoods. In particular, they have perfected the representation of destruction and applied it to their country's most famous landmarks.

Some will seize on this bizarre prefiguring as evidence of the cultural decadence of Western pop culture (in this, if nothing else, they are likely to agree with the attackers themselves). "This is a society carried away by the fun and the spectacular dispersal of unreality," film critic David Thomson wrote this week in the London Independent. "It is a culture that has been encouraged to separate such things from the damage that goes with them. And it has seemed like a flourish of American supremacy that it can so flirt with disaster, and turn it into an entertainment."

But if this terrible month does presage a change of direction by Hollywood (which is nothing if not sensitive to the demands of the marketplace), what form will that take?

At a moment when the US political response still seems unclear, there seem to be two options: it could reflect a new isolationism by retreating further into fantasy and science-fiction stories, or a new aggressiveness by a return to the gung-ho Rambo-isms of the early Reagan years. In either case, the days of the American urban disaster movie are finally and definitively over.

Kathy Sheridan reports from New York in News Features in the main paper