Memories of 9/11

“Where were you on 9/11 when the Towers were hit?” People have often asked me that question. My answer embarrasses me a little, because I missed hearing about the horrible event as most Americans did, by watching it unfold as it happened. I have to answer: “I was asleep at the time.” Yet this also meant that instead of watching a gradually unfolding horror, I got the full impact all at once.

In September 2001, I was doing frantic last-minute work on my doctoral dissertation, which I had to deliver to my professors in little more than a week. I was in my apartment next to Fordham’s Bronx campus, but was without roommates at the time. I worked as usual until around 4:00 a.m. on September 10, then went to bed, but couldn’t sleep for anxiety over my studies. I finally drifted off around 6:00 a.m., but slept poorly. Sometime around 10:30 or 11:00 I vaguely heard the phone ring in the empty bedroom next to mine where I had put it with the ringer turned down low to keep from being disturbed at night. I ignored it, figuring the answering machine would pick it up. Finally I fell into a sound sleep, but was jarred awake again sometime after 12:30 p.m. by the phone ringing — and it continued to ring insistently. Something was clearly wrong. When I finally stumbled into the next room to pick it up, I heard the frantic voice of my mother, calling from back home in Iowa:

“Where have you been? Why didn’t you answer the phone? Don’t you know what’s happened?” She was screaming with anger and crying at the same time. This was very unlike her. I couldn’t even answer except to stammer that I’d been asleep.

I’ll never forget what she’d said next: “All hell has broken loose. Two planes crashed into the World Trade Center and destroyed them. Nothing’s left but a hole in the ground. The Pentagon’s in flames. There was another that crashed in Pennsylvania. The terrorists have attacked us.” A chill of horror went through me, but the full meaning of what she said didn’t register. I don’t even remember what I said in reply, or what the rest of our conversation was like. Mom finally calmed down enough to say, “Turn on the TV and I’ll call you back.” She had to call other family members scattered across the country and couldn’t rest until she knew everyone was all right. She was especially concerned for me because I lived in New York, and since I didn’t answer the phone, she thought I might have been downtown. I can’t imagine to this day how, knowing my schedule as she did, she could have even imagined I’d be up early in the morning, much less anywhere near downtown Manhattan, but a mother’s fear is irrational at times.

I turned the TV in my bedroom, sat down and watched the ongoing coverage. The horror which was so impossible to absorb at first gradually took shape and became clearer. I took the cordless phone into my bedroom and talked with my family as we shared our reactions. I sat, still in my pajamas, by the TV all day, not moving, not getting up to eat — the knot in my stomach would have made it impossible anyway — not working, realizing that the entire world had changed. As I realized how many people must have died inside the Twin Towers, I was grateful I didn’t know anyone who worked in there.

The only time I had ever been inside the World Trade Center was in July 1995, the summer after my first year of studies at Fordham, when my mother and two sisters were visiting me in New York. I took them to do all of those touristy things I never had time to do myself. On this particular day, we had gone down to Battery Park to ride the Staten Island Ferry back and forth in order to look at the New York City skyline and the Statue of Liberty. We then walked up the few short blocks to the Twin Towers. We took the elevator up to the wide lobby, waited in line with all the other tourists, then a deep breath – and a long, long ride up to one of the top floors and the glassed-in observation deck with its incredible panoramic view of the city and the vast distances stretching away from it in a blue mist. There were even clouds below us! Last of all, we rode up to the very highest spot, the outdoor observation tower, and Mom took a picture of the three of us that I still have. It had only been two years previously, in 1993, that terrorists had attacked the building. We had recalled it in our talk as we walked around the deck, but we felt no fear other than the dizzy kind at being up so high. As I watched the TV coverage, I could imagine people trying to get down to that lobby where we had walked so unconcernedly, but how the elevators were out, and how the stairways we had never seen became a lifeline for many, and how many on the top floor had flames ten stories deep between them and safety. And what it must have been like for them as the towers fell. . .

As the hours of coverage wore on, other emotions joined the first horror. The tears as family members described the last goodbyes transmitted by cell phone from their loved ones trapped inside the towers. The pride and gratitude as we realized the heroism of the firefighters, Port Authority police and rescue workers, and grieved for their deaths. And the confused sense of bitter anger and pity as we learned about the young men who had been seduced into carrying out the attacks . . . and exactly who was behind them.

I remember many other people’s reactions during the following days. Someone in my apartment building put up a long, badly-spelled screed on the inside wall near the mailboxes, adressed “To Osama bin Laden . . . you have underestimated us. . . America will rise up against you. . . We will get you, you murdering bastard. . .” I can honestly say that I felt no desire for revenge. I knew that measures would have to be take to stop those who did this, but I also knew that no amount of killing people will destroy evil ideas. And hatred is useless.

Other people arranged candlelight prayer vigils and asked us to put lighted candles in our homes. I got one right away. I recalled how Edith Stein, a Jewish intellectual who had recently become a Catholic, went to her spiritual director soon after the rise of the Nazis began, and aked him if she should follow the inspiration she felt God had sent her: to become a Carmelite nun. He said: “You can so much more good against the evil in our land by your writing and your work as a professor.” A few years later, when the full horror of what Hitler was up to became clear, she asked him again. This time he said: “Yes, enter the convent. This kind of devil can only be cast out by prayer and fasting.” She did so, determined to make her life a sacrifice of love for the world and the defeat of evil. She ended up a martyr in a Nazi death camp, and is now a saint. Nothing but love can ultimately defeat evil.

I successfully defended my dissertation on October 21. My mentor, Professor Gyug, then invited me the next weekend to have dinner to celebrate with him and his wife in their Manhattan apartment near Columbus Circle. It was the first time I had ventured downtown since the towers fell. I felt comforted to see that traffic seemed normal in the city, and people filled the sidewalks as usual; there were even laughing and chatting groups sitting as usual on the edge of the fountain at Lincoln Center. A feeling of pride in my city filled me. Yes, my city. I had lived in the city for seven years on 9/11, but I can truthfully say that I became a New Yorker that day.

This Post is Not Yet Rated

Monday when I went downtown to get my passport photo taken, I stopped at the IFC center to see a documentary I had heard a lot about – This Film is Not Yet Rated by Kirby Dick. It takes a hard look at the MPAA ratings system.

The purpose of the ratings system, of course, is to give information about the content of film to parents. Most people agree that the MPAA ratings board could be doing a better job. But Dick approaches the subect from the perspective of the artists – directors, writers and actors – who are concerned that the system is leading to de facto censorship. In particular he focuses on how the NC-17 rating has become a financial kiss of death for a movie – many exhibitors won’t show an NC-17 move, many newspapers won’t advertise them, and many video/DVD retailers and renters, including Wal-Mart and Blockbuster, won’t stock the video versions. Faced with the fact that this not only prevents teens under 17 from getting into their films, but means that the adults they were intended for won’t be able to see them either, filmmakers often struggle to edit their works to get an R rating.

I was interested, not just as someone concerned about what children will see in theaters, but as at least a potential film artist who may one day face dealing with the ratings board. I know that I would dread (and resent) anyone trying to tell me what to film or how to edit to get distribution. But then none of my films are likely to stray anywhere near NC17 territory. All the same, I was sympathetic towards the filmmaker’s concerns.

Dick’s interviews with film artists (Kimberly Peirce, director, Boys Don’t Cry; actress Maria Bello and director Wayne Kramer, The Cooler; Kevin Smith, director, Jersey Girl), are very revealing in a number of ways. The documentary covers a lot of familiar ground in regard to filmmakers’ complaints: the most extreme violence is OK’d for teen audiences with an R, while any graphic depiction of sex, no matter how loving, gets an NC-17; there are no real guidelines for what content gets what rating and the system is applied arbitrarily, with small independent films being treated curtly and given no help in editing their films, while the board works very closely with big studio pictures to see that they get the rating they want when millions are at stake.

Most of all, Dick seems obsessed with the fact that the board won’t release the names of the parents who vote on the ratings to the public. A major part of the film involves Dick and a hired PI tailing the cars of MPAA board members, stalking them with a hidden camera in restaurants and searching through their trash. This mainly comes across as a juvenile and annoying stunt that accomplishes very little, and makes you feel sorry for the people whose privacy has just been invaded. There are certainly a number of ways that the film board could be made more accountable without needing to release the names of the ordinary parents who advise the studio. (It’s done, the board says, to protect them from pressure and harrassment of exactly the type Dick engages in).

In fact, the film documents the process by which Dick himself submitted his film for a rating, and received an NC-17, largely because the film contains graphic scenes from a number of NC-17 movies. Whe he appealed the rating, instead of defending the content of his film, he kept asking for the board members’ names, because he didn’t want to be judged by an anonymous group. No wonder they didn’t take him seriously. Because he didn’t accept the rating, the film has been released unrated, and is going to apear in only a few theaters before it is shown on the IFC cable channel later this fall.

Unfortunately, Dick never really acknowledges that the difficulties that NC-17 films experience in the marketplace are part of the economic and cultural reality of the entertainment business as a whole. I recall critic Roger Ebert, back in the late 80′s complaining that the X rating was defamatory and placed an unfair stigma on “adult” films. It was in part because of these complaints that the name of the rating was changed to NC-17. Of course, changing the name didn’t solve the problem. It’s certainly not the fault of the raters that exhibitors won’t handle NC-17 films, but that of the exhibitors themselves. Since the American film industry has been concentrating its marketing on the teen audience, NC-17 films, which are off-limits to that audience, are never going to make much money under present conditions and theaters and advertisers realize that and are acting accordingly. Maybe Dick would have been more on target if he’d had his PI stalk Wal-Mart employees. But Wal-Mart isn’t a small, secretive group that’s easy to attack.

There are far more serious things that the filmmaker largely fails to address , however. One is the actual harm that not only the violent content, but the sexual content of many movies is creating. Several of those used a false and misleading analogy that might be summed up as: “Violence is an evil, sex is good; why restrict the depiction of something good and loving?” This ignores the fact that many films contain sexual acts and portrayals of such acts that aren’t healthy at all for children to view, such as sexual abuse and rape. Nor is even the less disturbing content always portrayed as particularly loving, or respectful of the real meaning of human sexuality. I was amused by the film’s frequent innocuous description of the sexual content of NC-17 films as “depictions of baby-making” and “reproduction.” How many Hollywood films have you seen recently that actually show parenthood resulting from the graphic sexual encounters shown? I’m willing to bet almost none. The film does briefly acknowledge that even many R-rated films offer a disturbing blend of sexuality and violence, with exploitative treatment of women and female nudity. I was glad to hear Catholic filmmaker Kevin Smith specifically ask for the most restrictive rating possible for scenes of rape. But these sound bites made up about a minute and a half of a 97-minute film.

Nor does the film spend more than a moment or two considering how a good ratings system might function — say, with some input from child pyschologists or social scientists who might be able to identify material that would be really harmful to the developing psyches of children and teens, especially when it comes to the question of sexual violence and exploitation of women in film. While berating the ratings board for its pre-occupation with sex, Dick seems unwilling to discuss the subject in any depth himself.

The film is earnest as well as often funny, and makes some good points. It certainly deals with a problem that needs attention. But it’s done from too limited and self-absorbed a perspective. Let’s not let artistic concerns blot out the needs of parents.

UPDATE: 2:30 p.m. Sunday Sept. 10

After I finished writing this review, I discovered, courtesy of Creative Screenwriting’s online newsletter, that Dick and his colleagues have started this petition to the MPAA requesting, among other things, better guidelines, the participation of psychologists, social scientists and other experts on the board – and also abolition of the present NC-17 rating , something the film itself actually didn’t do.

It asks “that the NC-17 rating be replaced with a category that describes content fairly and accurately, but does not restrict the rights of individual parents to make their own decisions about what their minor children may see or limit the ability of adults to see films.”

The petition doesn’t describe this rating in any more detail, but presumably it would be like the R rating, where kids could attend with an adult, but with perhaps a stronger warning to parents.

Once again, note the misunderstanding that it’s the rating itself, not the economics of the system that prevents wide distribution of NC-17 films. I would greatly prefer it if filmmakers want to make adult films, they should learn to live with having an adults-only audience, rather than failing to protect children — even when parents can’t be with their child every moment. What’s wrong with parents depending on the movie industry to police itself effectively? (And where is that old liberal “it takes a village to raise a child” mentality when you need it?). So what does everyone think of all this?

I also ran across this article in the National Catholic Reporter in regard to the Catholic participants in the MPAA appeals board. Very interesting. (You have to scroll down the page to get to it). An excerpt:

As part of his exposé, Dick discovers that Protestant and Catholic “clergy” sit on the MPAA’s appeals panel. He makes reference to the long history of antagonism between Hollywood and the churches, including various attempts over the years at censorship. At the end, Dick flashes the name of the Catholic delegate on the screen: Harry Forbes of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.

For the record, Forbes is not “clergy.” He’s a former New York drama critic and executive for the Public Broadcasting Service, who came to work for the American bishops as their in-house film critic in 2004.

I spoke to Forbes this week, who said that in reality neither he (nor his colleague David DiCerto, who sometimes attends meeting in his stead) has any voice in the MPAA appeals process.

“We observe, we don’t contribute to the conversation,” said Forbes, head of the bishops’ Office for Film and Broadcasting “We’re not asked for an opinion. That might influence the vote, and we don’t have a vote.”

The point of his presence, Forbes said, is to monitor the process and to report back to the bishops about how it’s working.

Ciaio, Roma!

It’s really true, though I’ve scarcely let myself believe it until now. I have my ticket, and if my passport comes through in time, I will be flying to Rome on September 24 to take part in the first deliberations of the international commission of the Secular Franciscans overseeing the celebration of the 8th centenary of St. Elizabeth of Hungary. My dream of returning to Rome has just come a few months closer.

I’ve known about this since sometime late in July, but dates were tentative and plans were iffy — but everything is all settled. Most wonderful of all, I will be in Rome September 28, the anniversary of Pope John Paul I’s death. I will be able to visit his tomb and hopefully attend a Mass of commemoration – in the past these have been celebrated by the Pope himself. I’m so grateful for this opportunity. I have a couple of posts I’m getting ready, but probably won’t be blogging too much this month (just like most months, I’m afraid). But I will probably have lots to talk about when I get back!