The Imagery Of Sept. 11

arts september 11, 911, springsteen, west wing, charlie daniels, firehouse CBS/AP

CBSNews.com's Mary Jayne McKay feels that if anyone can help us understand what happened on Sept. 11, it is the nation's artists - writers, photographers, filmmakers and musicians - who are using their skills to ease the pain.
The image is burned into the memories of most Americans: A sleek, white jet glides into the side of a steel and concrete skyscraper and is swallowed up in a cloud of smoke and flames, raining mortar and glass on the streets below.

And most of those who saw it - either as it happened or on the endless TV replays that day - had the same reaction: It was like a scene from a Bruce Willis action movie.

It is no accident that we turned to the images of Hollywood to process the unthinkable. Movies are our shorthand, capturing in one image a mood, a tone and a whole range of emotions.

See trenchcoated men emerge from a swirling black and white fog, and you know the lost love and opportunity that is "Casablanca." Hear a golden bell tinkle on an ornament-laden Christmas tree, and you have the warmth, hope and brotherhood that is "It's A Wonderful Life." Picture a prizefighter dancing on the steps of a museum, and you feel the power of "Rocky," the triumph of an underdog striving against all odds.

And just as it was the arts that first helped us wrap our minds around the horror that was Sept. 11, so, in the end, it will be arts that help us to process, come to terms with and ultimately transcend the tragedy.

With a few notable exceptions, the first artists to look at the events of that day were photographers, documentary filmmakers and non-fiction writers. Theirs is the role of witness. From the chaos surrounding one of the world's worst acts of terrorism, they are fashioning a historical record, gathering the facts and the details to tell the story from every possible perspective.

There has been no shortage of these. Check the Sept. 11 on Amazon.com and you will find hundreds of book titles. They range from David Halberstam's slim volume "Firehouse," which tells the story of a New York fire company that suffered massive losses, to 576-page "Oxford History of Islam." Included among these is CBS News' just-published book, "What We Saw," which compiles first -person accounts by network correspondents and other newsgatherers.

Almost another 100 titles, including a memoir by then-Mayor Rudolph Giuiliani, are due out this fall.

It's impossible to watch TV these days without happening across a Sept. 11 documentary. They run the gamut from hastily-pieced-together programs to achingly beautiful accounts.

One of the first was "Sept. 11" by Jules and Gedeon Naudet, brothers and filmmakers who were working with New York firefighters on another documentary that day and went along on the call to the World Trade Center, filming everything they witnessed over the next few hours. It was first aired by CBS on the six -month anniversary of the terrorist attack in March, and will be rebroadcast Wednesday night.

At least one feature-length documentary has made it to movie theaters. In "Seven Days in September," which debuted last weekend in theaters in New York and Los Angeles, MTV producer Steven Rosenbaum, listed in the credits as the film's director, pulls together the works of dozens of amateur and professional cameramen and videographers.

Photographs of the day were among the first to touch our hearts and have been displayed in countless exhibits over the course of the last year. One of the most touching is the exhibit of works by Bill Biggart, a freelance photojournalist who was taking pictures when he was buried under the debris of one of the collapsing towers. His film survived, but he did not.

Moving as many of these are, they essentially speak to our minds, bringing understanding out of the chaos of that day. The currency of these artists is fact, not symbol; they deal in accuracy, not myth, and as a result cannot speak to our souls.

That is mission of another set of artists - the novelists, poets, musicians, dancers, movie makers, actors, sculptors and painters. This will take time because of the very nature of the creative process. Before an artist can work these images and emotions into their works, they first must process it themselves.

There have been some exceptional early efforts. Aaron Sorkin rushed a Sept 11-like plotline into his hit TV series "The West Wing" last fall. That episode dealt with not the terrorist attack itself - too raw yet to be addressed in TV dramas - but with the skittishness of a White House in the post-Sept. 11 world.

Ex-Beatle Paul McCartney gave the country "Freedom," a ringing anthem that energized audiences across the nation and raised money for relief efforts. (All proceeds went to the Robin Hood Relief Fund.)

Country musician Charlie Daniels pulled out of a television special on Independence Day because the concert's producers objected to the lyrics of his "The Last Fallen Hero," the song he wanted to perform. Similarly, Toby Keith was booted from a Fourth of July event because of his song, "Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue."

Rocker Bruce Springsteen, whose earlier works have found heartbreaking beauty in America's underside, has this summer released "The Rising," a critically acclaimed set of songs that offer an infusion of hope even as they describe the despair.

Sept. 11 imagery has been creeping into the works of America's poets and many of them will be reading their works at commemorative ceremonies in cities and towns across America this week. "Poetry After 9/11," anthology of the works of New York poets is among the new titles to be published this fall.

This is just the beginning, many more efforts will be made in the coming years.

And some of these artists will get it right. They will find the right note - the right word, the right movement, the right color, the right shape or the right expression - that rings so true, says so much about the human condition and the nature of and response to evil that it transforms the entire experience that is Sept. 11. From the horror of smoke and flames will come some works that are hauntingly beautiful.

If anything can redeem Sept. 11, that is it.

By MARY JAYNE McKAY
  • Mary-Jayne McKay

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