This week’s reading by Geoff King, titled ‘“Just Like a Movie”?: 9/11 and Hollywoood Spectacle’ examines the events of September 11 through a Hollywood perspective by comparing the attack on the World Trade Center to action movies such as Independence Day (1996) and The Matrix (1999). In doing this King (2005, p.47) argues that ‘there are some overlaps between ‘real’ images … and fictional images, specifically those from a kind of Hollywood cinema.’ King goes to great lengths to establish the similarities between the 9/11 attacks and Hollywood action movies, using words such as ‘fireball’, ‘huge dust cloud’, ‘impact’, and ‘collapse’ to colour the falling of the twin towers which he often refers to as ‘scenes’ and ‘images’.
By using this language to describe the events of 9/11 King helps to establish his comparison between the reality of the attacks and the unreality of ‘Hollywood fantasy’ (King, 2005, p. 47), but his evidence to support this idea is not very concrete, rather he coaches the reader into assuming his viewpoint by making statements such as ‘It did not take long for a villain, Osama Bin Laden, to be suggested… to create some kind of narrative context for the events’, the writer deliberately phrases Osama Bin Laden as a villain to make the events of reality seem like the construct of fiction, as though the 9/11 attacks were merely a scene from a Hollywood movie script. Just in case the reader hadn’t made this connection King (2005, p. 51) finishes off by saying ‘again, [this is] something that would be expected in a movie’ (King, 2005, p. 51).
King attempts to explain the differences between the real news footage of the September 11 attacks and Hollywood movies by suggesting that real news footage is usually accompanied by interviews and commentary which help to distinguish it from fiction, he then doubts what he just wrote by saying ‘these are not absolute guarantors of authenticity, given that such devices are sometimes used in fictional works, precisely because of their power to evoke an impression of the real’ (King, 2005, p. 49). King (2005, p. 50) further suggests that ‘shaky camerawork, dodgy focus or awkward zooms… signify that events have not been staged’, however this is also not always the case. The notorious exploitation film Cannibal Holocaust (1980) directed by Ruggero Deodato uses these very camera techniques to tell the story of a missing group of documentary filmmakers who set out the film primitive cannibal tribes of the Amazon. The movie begins with an American anthropologist who finds the footage that the filmmakers had left behind in their trail; the rest of the movie takes place in a screening room where the anthropologist views the footage to discover the fate of the filmmakers. The footage utilises very amateur film techniques and due to this and its graphic content, viewers of the movie had a hard time distinguishing it from reality, shortly after its release the director was charged for making a snuff film and had to prove in court that the film was a work of fiction and not reality. While this example might not be very useful in the context given that it is not a Hollywood movie, it’s popularity did spawn a very famous Hollywood film called The Blair Witch Project (1999) which utilised the same amateur camera technique and narrative structure.
This brings up an important question which King (2005, p. 47) briefly touches on when he mentions the ‘blurring of boundaries between the world of reality and that of media spectacle’, that is how do we distinguish fiction from reality? When we watch television where do we draw the line and say this is real and this is not? David Cronenberg’s film Videodrome (1983) explores this question and in doing so blurs the line significantly, the film follows Max, the president of a smut television channel who’s in search of something raw and cutting edge which will ‘break through’ and attract a larger audience. He stumbles upon a pirate leak of a snuff television broadcast, but he assumes it’s just ‘incredibly realistic’ and is eager to get it on his show, the rest of the movie shatters the audiences concept of what is real and what isn’t through Max’s obsession with the snuff show which takes his hold on reality. A character in the movie Prof. Brian Oblivion delivers a quote which sums up the movie’s message quite well, ‘the television screen is the retina of the mind’s eye… therefore whatever appears on the television screen emerges as raw experience for those who watch it. Therefore television is reality, and reality is less than television’ (Videodrome, 1983). This suggests that what we view on television may as well be reality, which explains why people are generally fascinated by watching grotesque and fantastical things on the big screen, because these are things that they can enjoy safely without having to actually experience it. Therefore television becomes ‘a harmless outlet for [our] fantasises and frustrations’ (Videodrome, 1983), this directly links up with King’s (2005, p. 48) point that Hollywood films ‘offer enjoyable fantasies of destruction: enjoyable precisely because they can be safely indulged in the arena of fantasy’.
- Cronenberg, D 1983, Videodrome [DVD], Director D Cronenberg, Universal Studios, Canada.
- Deodato, R 1980, Cannibal Holocaust [DVD], Director R Deodato, Grindhouse Releasing, Italy.