Everybody’s Got Stories: Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close and My 9/11

Thomas Horn and Tom Hanks in Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close (Warner Bros.)

I worked in 1 World Trade Center from 1999 to 2001- to September 11th, 2001 to be precise. My story about that day isn’t all that dramatic really. There are details I could divulge but suffice it to say I wasn’t on the schedule for Tuesday mornings that month. So I was not on either the 106th or 107th floor on that day, nowhere close, thank God. I thought about taking that shift when the proposed schedule came out but decided against picking up an occasional AM shift. I was juggling college and the job and Tuesday was an off day from classes and I decided to use that to rest.

Of course, we all know what happened that day and since then I’ve been fairly quiet about a number of topics that pertain to the day itself. I’ve also had varying reactions to works of art which have dealt with the attacks.

I am writing this, of course, because Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close is due out soon and it’s been lambasted by some as exploitative among other things. I have yet to see the film so I cannot defend its artistic merit, however, we should look at other depictions of 9/11. One other caveat: so unimaginable and unpredictable were the attacks to me that while working there I wrote a post-apocalyptic script wherein a family eventually lived in the World Trade Center.

First, there is the tandem of fairly fact-based films World Trade Center and United 93. Neither of these films interest me in the least. I have, more times than I care to, been able to imagine, only imagine but what more can one do, what those floors looked like that day. Having worked there I get a much clearer picture than I care to so I needn’t see any dramatization thereof. The films may be fine and as propaganda-free as possible but I just have no interest. To me those smack more of exploitation for it takes actual people and focuses on the event and tried to feed on rampant patriotism to generate box office. Some see it otherwise and that’s fine but as I said I have no reason to see it.

Remember Me, which I wouldn’t have seen anyway, was your standard father-son drama and decided to use 9/11 as a twist ending rather infamously and in classless fashion.

On the flip-side Stephen King in his collection of short stories Just After Sunset deals with the tragic day in New York in two different ways. In “The Things They Left Behind” he deals with the aftermath and those lost but in “Graduation Afternoon” it comes in at the end, in the distance. It does not inundate all that preceded it and change the entire story and feel like a blatant, in-your-face exploitation. It is there, it is stunning and it affects all, but it does not compromise the tonality of the entire piece.

In Brian K. Vaughn’s brilliant comics series Ex Machina the first issue concludes with a newly-minted superhero’s biggest failure, the fact that he only saved one of the two towers. Considering the tone of the series was serious, political and a very post-9/11 story it all fit.

So the last three I enjoyed so I can take in a tale of fiction which cites something that so closely affected me. Yet it seems this film gets quite a bit of vitriol just in the “How dare you?” realm. The question of “How should art deal with 9/11?” is a valid one but it seems that was never asked for the two that try to most closely replicate it. Bastardized truthiness does not a documentary make and what function is being served there? Those are movies about 9/11 but in a bright piece of marketing Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close is being labeled as being about every day after. In some ways those days were harder.

Furthermore, the word art is formed from the word artifice. It is about subterfuge. Exactitude is what a documentarian strives for but even they know there’s a gray area.

This film reminds me of some of the reading I did about Kapó before I decided to buy it. The film features perhaps the most over-analyzed shot in film history of an inmate dying in a concentration camp. It raised questions of morality in film, however, what should be moral about film? Absolute morality eliminates myriad genres. Horror is where we imagine out nightmares to try an exorcise them and horrid, immoral things are imagined and inflicted upon the people that populate those stories. What need have we of narrative morality?

Not to compare disparate tragedies but surely there was a time when the holocaust was an untouched topic. However, through the years different narrative avenues about events in and around World War II have been found, some not universally embraced, Stephen Daldry’s (the director of this very film) The Reader comes to mind.

The fact of the matter is there are events in world history that defy logical explanation and easy categorization. However, that does not stop us as human beings from exploring them and one of our biggest means of exploring is through the arts. Some say “Why make this film?” I say “Why not?”

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12 comments

  1. Pr J · January 18, 2012

    You should watch “Remember Me” before writing it off. All the relationships were important, not just father-son and it wasn’t a twist ending (or it was as much as 9/11 is a “twist ending” to all these people’s lives!). Even people who knew the ending going in, get caught up in the characters’ struggles. It holds up well after 2nd viewing where the symbolism becomes apparent.

    • bernardovillela · January 18, 2012

      Pr J,

      Thank you for reading.

      I appreciate the commentary and while I may have over-simplified the central conflicts of Remember Me I do think I adequately stated my reason for avoiding it and I don’t think much will sway me towards it. I don’t think comparing a film which is a work of fiction when all is said and done to a real life event is quite sound either. In the traditional sense of a twist wherein there’s a reversal of truth or reality I don’t suppose you can call it that but what it is sudden and completely unforeseen as in real life but typical films do not function that way and when they do they typically do not cite actual incidents. Films about marked historical events usually brandish that so people know what they’re getting into. Films commonly break molds and succeed and perhaps this one does but I admit I dismiss it and I’ll tell you why: I’d find no catharsis. All I would’ve done was revisit something I’d rather not without knowing prior to seeing the film that I would. I’m sure I’d have been angered more so than I was angered when I read about it online. Foreshadowing or no foreshadowing, symbolism or none; it’d have bothered me. This isn’t finding out that Bruce Willis has been dead all along, these were real people and a real tragedy brought into a fictional context when it was unexpected and due to the specifics I’d very disinclined to like it. We all have our biases and I try, whenever possible, to address mine and those three films would be hard-pressed to win me over.

      Cordially

      BV

      • Pr J · January 19, 2012

        Thanks for your thoughtful reply. Many viewers did find some catharsis with RM, finding meaning in the path this character took while his story played out until that sudden and completely unforeseen historical event. RM couldn’t brandish the historical event (and so how could critics call it exploitive?) because it really was trying to break the mold by reproducing the shock and loss felt that day, in a quiet and respectful manner.
        Perhaps in a few years you will catch it on TV and then try to give it a chance.

      • bernardovillela · January 19, 2012

        I try to never write off viewing a film forever so I can’t say I will not only express why I haven’t yet. I feel I’d be remiss if I omitted that sentiment. Your reaction to Remember Me is the same I’m expressing regarding Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close the difference I see in the two, while both are unseen by me, is precisely the treatment of the incident. Granted both films will likely have surface similarities but clearly based on narrative construct different things are afoot in both.

        Perhaps you’re right and I will see it at some point but this is how it is at present. I do not begrudge people their interpretations of certain films, I know I’ve backed more than a few unpopular choices and know how emotional an attachment one’s opinion of a film can be. I just try as accurately as I can to convey what my feelings are and why such that the reader can draw his/her own conclusions. I never presume my opinion to be more “right” I just always try to logically explain it. With the King
        story “Graduation Day” I was taken aback and when I finished the story I still liked it and had to decipher a sound way to vocalize my visceral reaction that would not be contradictory philosophically and, of course, still be truthful.

        I appreciate your readership as I said prior and your thoughtful commentary. Thank you.

  2. Pr J · January 19, 2012

    I’ll have to read Graduation Day. What you said about it (“it does not compromise the tonality of the entire piece”) fits how I felt about the ending of Remember Me: taken aback, punched in the gut, but thinking about it for days afterwards. What galls me about the current reviews for Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close is that they are much more lenient (I guess because Hanks and Bullock are involved) while RM was trashed by critics with shallow expectations. IMDb and Amazon reviews of people casually coming upon RM are probably the best recommendation.

    • bernardovillela · January 19, 2012

      I know there were a few who really liked it (Carrie Rickey & People Magazine) but it’s rather polarizing and those I’ve dislike it have dismantled it and occasionally crossed the line if you ask me. I plan on seeing Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close on Saturday so I won’t read anything else on it until after I see it and post my review but if you can point me to some of the positives I would appreciate it.

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  4. Pr J · January 23, 2012

    So what did you think after seeing it? It seemed half the top critics on Rotten Tomatoes liked it enough, so you can look there for the positives.

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