After reading Patrick Goldstein’s Los Angeles Times piece Five Years Later: Pop Culture of Denial, I started to wonder what was the right reaction for the entertainment world to the September 11th attacks?
Of course, there’s many answers to that question, including no answer at all. Goldstein chides all facets of the entertainment nexus for dropping the ball about this but are they really to blame? How much time lapsed before the arts reacted in full to say the Civil War or the Pearl Harbor attacks? With the former, since many of the types of media we know today weren’t around, it’s harder to chide artists then though there were definitely songs being written and sung then. Gone with the Wind and other epics would come later. Ditto for Pearl Harbor in terms of film tributes to December 7th.
Also in the L.A. Times is Christopher Hawthorne’s Unseemly Memorials which examines the long, pained processes around building Sept 11th memorials. He suggests that Maya Lin’s minimalist Vietnam War memorial would be a good model so to speak and also has this illuminating thought about how movies like Flight 93 and World Trade Center should also serve the same purpose: “... they offer a reminder of how much the public craves narrative — basic, heartfelt storytelling — when it comes to remembering even the most tragic events.” That’s a nice sentiment but I’m even more inclined to believe author Robert Jay Lipton (quoted in a fine Washington Post article) who’s studied mass tragedy elsewhere: “I don’t think people ever come to anything like a unified position about a memorial… There’s a certain sense in which no memorial can ever capture the depth of pain that people experience.”
I understood that after watching on the news about endless heart-wrenching footage of various memorial services being held around New York. It was tough to watch and relive this: I live in NYC and I was around here when it happened.
Maybe then realizing it or not realizing how it would also commemorate that day, I went out this September 11th to a benefit show for the Democracy Now program. Along with Suheir Hammad’s impassioned poetry and Dar Williams’ touching songs and a few sage words of perspective from victims of terrorism in Africa, there was Charlie Haden Liberation Music Orchestra (in a taped interview before the show, the legendary jazz bassist spoke of how grateful he was to work with such gifted musicians). While he usually favors re-arranging folk songs and revolutionary music, one selection he favored us with was “Amazing Grace.” While it seems like an obvious selection, its tone was both somber and defiant, even joyful at times when Haden took a bass solo or when Curtis Fowlkes (also of the Jazz Passengers) took a trombone solo.
The power of the famous gospel warhorse could then not only take up the lingering sentiment of September 11th but also of the lingering tragedy of New Orleans. It was that moving and it was all I could do not to loose it as I listened. At last, I found, heard and experienced something that was the right reaction- mournful but also determined and defiant. As subsequent speakers talked of the need for peace now, Haden arrangement also neatly made the point that facing and struggling to overcome tragedy in both a personal and public way was what was needed most of all.
The best article I’ve seen regarding 9-11 and the arts’ reaction to it is Mary Carole McCauley’s Drawing light from concrete and smoke. It’s a very moving and wise piece of writing that gives a lot of perspective and has a lot of heart.