"It was like a movie."

In a universal phrase, a common effort to comprehend.

OVER AND OVER you heard those same words, repeated from the lips of stunned witnesses, shaken news anchors, and disbelieving TV viewers. It's a clich鬠and yet it's true. Grasping for the means to describe the indescribable, we naturally resort to images from the shared canvas of our dreams and nightmares. Especially when events overwhelm with immensity and violence, their seeming unreality elicits cinematic comparisons.

Why? Because Hollywood has so thoroughly prepared us as an audience. A thousand action flicks have made the Sept. 11 attacks numbingly familiar; the scenes come to us, yes, as if from a movie.

We view the planes' impact from every conceivable camera angle. The image repeats in slow motion. The murderously determined flight path is out of a war movie (like the swooping Zeros of Pearl Harbor) or recalls the lumbering jets of the '70s Airport series. The fireballs and smoking skyscrapers summon up other '70s disaster flicks, chiefly The Towering Inferno with its shattered facade and tiny, flailing, falling people.

The screaming, fleeing, ash-covered crowds suggest the 1983 post-nuclear apocalypse TV movie The Day After. The resulting dust plume is out of the '97 volcano films Dante's Peak and Volcano (or reminiscent of the mushroom cloud in Dr. Strangelove). The enormity of destruction is like those '98 comet/asteroid pictures Deep Impact and Armageddon.

And how many times in action movies have we seen the shattered glass curtain walls of skyscrapers, the gaping holes, the billowing smoke, and the gloriously blossoming orange fireballs erupting high overhead?

Lastly—though the examples here could go on well past 100 titles—there's the specter of Independence Day, in which the obliteration of Manhattan and the White House by aliens drew cheers for its gleeful destructiveness.

THE FLYING GLASS of modern action flicks has made the old movie monsters pass鮠In the place of mummies, vampires, and werewolves are faces we could reasonably expect to see on the evening news. Instead of Boris Karloff, Bela Lugosi, or Lon Chaney, we have Gary Oldman's Zhirinovsky-like Kazakstani terrorist from Air Force One, Alan Rickman's suave blackmailer-thief in Die Hard, and Ed Harris' homegrown right-wing fanatic in The Rock.

They may be distorted, larger-than-life characters—smarter, more handsome, and better spoken than Tim McVeigh or Ahmed Ressam—but they're extracted from real life, our life. Hence the fascination with hijackings, armed takeovers, high-tech ransom jobs, and nuclear and biological terrorism that has driven so much Hollywood plotting. No one's frightened of Frankenstein-style monsters anymore, but we can all relate to the fear of being held hostage on a plane (Die Hard 2), a bus (Speed), or in our workplace (Die Hard).

It could happen, we tell ourselves, then we feel thankful that it doesn't. It's the same kind of catharsis we get from horror and monster movies.

Hollywood recognized our appetite for the terrorist subgenre of action flick following the '72 Olympic hostage crisis in Munich, which riveted a worldwide audience. (Check out the harrowing Oscar-winning '99 documentary One Day in September on that subject.) Pulp novelists including Thomas Harris—yes, he of The Silence of the Lambs—quickly seized upon our interest. His Black Sunday was a big hit in '77. Since then, Tom Clancy and his ilk have been steadily supplying the fodder for techno-terrorist thrillers both upscale (Patriot Games, with Harrison Ford) and down- market (anything with Chuck Norris).

DON'T BLAME Hollywood. We're the ones buying the tickets for ever-grander scenarios of destruction. As our home and office lives grow safer, duller, and more prosperous, absent any Cold War threats, we seem to crave the chills.

On Sept. 11, of course, reality not only caught up with our cinema-fueled imagination but surpassed it. What we once considered entertainment became news.

And here's what isn't even shocking: Only a few days ago, Hollywood execs would've jumped at a pitch for an action movie in which, say, Bruce Willis battles terrorists to prevent simultaneous jumbo-jet kamikaze strikes on New York and Washington, D.C. You can imagine the reverse-angle POV of office workers in the World Trade Center gaping at the oncoming jets.

Only a few days ago, studio honchos might've exclaimed, "I love it! What a great movie idea!" You can imagine Chris Rock as the sidekick, Robert Davi as the terrorist leader, Helen Hunt as the girlfriend bravely leading her co-workers down the stairs to safety—accompanied by a Celine Dion anthem.

Only a few days ago, we might've eagerly lined up around the block to see it. You can imagine the grosses.

Yet even as CNN and every other channel brings these indelible images into our homes, a nervous Hollywood just yanked several titles from the fall release schedule—lest they appear too close to the horror show now running endlessly through our heads. Among the casualties are Collateral Damage (Schwarzenegger avenges family's death by terrorists), Big Trouble (a Tim Allen vehicle in which two comic stooges smuggle a nuclear bomb on a plane), and the Ed Burns-Heather Graham romantic comedy Sidewalks of New York—apparently bumped merely because it has the city in its title.

Before they might've been hits; now they're pariahs bound for re-editing and Blockbuster ignominy. Is Hollywood wrong to disown them? Should we feel ashamed for our having previously watched and enjoyed such fare?

Maybe this new squeamishness stems from a misplaced sense of guilt—that we somehow willed the horror of Sept. 11 into being. It's like the child who wishes he were an orphan then feels shock when the loss coincidentally occurs. Sitting at home staring at that day's wrenching scenes, we uneasily reflect on what a receptive audience we are. We feel complicit.

Still, saying, "It's like a movie," isn't the same as wanting to see that movie— or the actual incident.

AS WE LEARN that the terrorists' cohorts actually set up cameras across the Hudson River to record the aerial raid, the terrible irony is how Sept. 11 feels like a disaster movie that was presumably produced by fanatics who find movies profane. There are no multiplexes in Afghanistan. Even if the perpetrators never saw any of the titles mentioned above, they knew their intended audience—us.

We've been dealt two blows from an anti-Western quarter where frivolous entertainment and modern technology are equally despised. First our proudest emblems of progress—skyscrapers and jet-liners—are used against us, then our own fictions are twisted into awful reality.

The problem is how the story line lacks clearly defined protagonists and antagonists. Only the victims are certain. There is no Bruce Willis to avert disaster as in Die Hard; there is no Harrison Ford to be our brave, hijack-thwarting president as in Air Force One. Instead we've got teleprompter-dependent Dubya, who never would've advanced beyond central casting in the old studio system. (As a second-lead cowpoke in a B-movie Western—maybe.)

Even if Osama bin Laden emerges as the heavy in this production, he's no more satisfactory. Evil? Sure—but he's no more charismatic or concrete than Bush. Action movie formulas require the final vengeful killing of the bad guy, but as our president and nation will discover, closure may prove impossible. That's the hitch with assigning narrative terminology to the non-CGI world; there's no easy, reassuring end to the plot.

Sept. 11 was a movie made real. There's truth to the words uttered by so many. It was like a movie and it's become a movie. We supplied the cast and spectators and technological apparatus to transmit it around the world. It was video on demand—not ours, but theirs, a demand that we pay attention, and we did.

In a horrible way, the production values are superb. What special effects could equal the calamitous attack? On CBS, Dan Rather had to remind viewers that the 767's impact on a tower framed against an azure blue sky was not a computer simulation but real.

More than the morbid curiosity that causes us to slow down for a wreck on I-5, the addictive power of such compelling images will have us viewing and reviewing them for decades to come. (Think of the Hindenburg—another emblem of modernity, like the World Trade Center—whose flaming, agonizing public demise is now so iconic and eternal.) There will be TV specials, VHS and DVD documentaries, even uncensored gory home videos on the Internet.

It's the Zapruder film of the 21st century.

IN AN AGE of media spectacles and spectaculars, when reality blurs into pixels and bytes, actuality dissolves into imagination. We see things (in CGI) before we've truly seen them. Then we're bewildered by perceiving a reality we couldn't previously have envisioned. There's an infinite regression of life- imitating-art versus art-imitating-life that last week cannot clarify. Who knows what madmen have in mind?

Yet in our own minds, despite the horrific familiarity of Sept. 11, that d骠 vu doesn't mean we've become desensitized to violence or terrorism. Even as people repeatedly commented on how cinematic the assault was, all were clearly shocked and stunned. No one was prepared; no one was inured; no one had been made callous or uncaring by the thousands of violent movies they'd seen before.

On the contrary, faced with the sort of devastation only previously experienced in World War II (when "blockbusters" fell on London), the humanity of survivors and witnesses seemed not only undiminished but enhanced. The cold hard slap of death woke them up. Spectators no longer, they rushed to aid the fallen, to comfort the dying, and now, sadly, to retrieve the dead.

A week later, on screen and in real life, we face the sickening expectation of sequels to come.


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