IN MEMORIAM: NEW YORK CITY 9/11/01
HBO Home Video, $19.98
YOU'RE GOING TO SEE a lot of Sept. 11 anniversary coverage this week, but if you don't have HBO, its hour-long May documentary In Memoriam (on disc Sept. 3) offers a chance to reconsider these disturbing images.
Is it wrong to watch such horror again? If, as I wrote last fall, Sept. 11 scenes are like the Zapruder film of the 21st century, endlessly replaying before our eyes with unreal fascination, no—they're a part of the historical record, as much as JFK's assassination. I don't believe it's possible to be "desensitized" to such graphic images; that's just a meaningless expression critics use to denounce art or expression they don't like. I've seen thousands of violent movies, and they don't undercut the power of Memoriam one bit.
Former Mayor Rudolph Giuliani serves as narrator and protagonist here, but numerous other voices are heard—including the gasps and "holy shit!"s of incredulous videographers whose remarkable footage underlies this doc. Calm after-the-fact interviews are interspersed with gut-wrenching shots of orange fireballs, dust clouds, falling debris (and people); you need the talking heads as relief from the carnage.
Stunning still photographs and somber music by the New York Philharmonic accompany the fearful montage. Random, stray details accrue in pointillist horror. For me, an ex-N.Y.C. resident, a subway conductor's routine announcement on the Q train sums up the incomprehensibly bizarre occasion: Service interrupted because planes have crashed into the World Trade Center.
But now, a year after writing about the "it was like a movie" reaction to Sept. 11, I'm struck not by the resemblance to action-flick special effects but by the very different depiction of crowds. In movies, we never look at the extras. Here, every ordinary, stricken onlooker surges to the foreground; there are no stars to mislead our eyes.
It's not just the explosions and tower collapses that give Memoriam and other Sept. 11 videos their shocking importance. In the gallery of astonished, upturned faces, we see every color and class and type of New Yorker responding like parts of the same wounded organism. The city is a living body, interconnected and wincing in pain when a piece of it is cut away. This is made indelibly clear on Sept. 12, when these dazed spectators post homemade flyers in search of their loved ones—almost all of whom perished the day before.