Oscars, 9/11, and Lazy Writing

At Gawker, Tim Grierson and Will Leitch think it’s wrong to hate Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close. I’ve been pretty hard on Extremely Loud, and I’m not about to stop now. Nor am I going to go see it.

From the first time the preview set me bawling in the theater, I have hated this movie. It’s one thing to cast a bunch of Oscar bait actors in a heartwarming story of a child mourning his dead father – that’s manipulative enough. To make use of the familiar images of 9/11 – the towers falling, papers falling from the sky, the bulletin boards covered in posters for lost friends and family – not only in the film but in the advertising campaign is flat-out crass. Worse, it’s flat-out lazy writing.

From the Gawker review:

Of course, that brings us to the film’s most risible potential problem: It’s a movie about 9/11. A lot of Extremely Loud‘s loudest detractors don’t just hate the movie; they object to how 9/11 is portrayed, adopting almost a territorial position concerning what’s “appropriate” or not for a film of this kind. The argument seems to be that using footage of the smoldering, collapsing towers—not to mention a few overly artsy, oblique shots of people falling from the towers—is in poor taste for a movie that wants to turn that horrible day into a sappy, quirky, manipulative Oscar candidate.

It’s an argument that’s so subjective and emotionally charged—especially if you were someone who knew any of the 9/11 victims—that it’s hard to know how to respond. All I can say is that while I understand those objections, I don’t think Extremely Loud is (for most of its running time) trying to somehow “heal” the wounds of 9/11 or offer a feel-good solution to the still-lingering pain of that day. Granted, the movie’s closing stretch is needlessly gooey with its sentimental, tearful reconciliations, and I wish it were more ambiguous in its resolution, offering a guarded sense of optimism rather than the unalloyed happy ending it dishes out. But I can’t deny that I found the movie incredibly affecting both times I’ve seen it.

That doesn’t mean I can’t see the film’s clear flaws. There is unquestionably a lot of preciousness you have to swallow. But while it’s fair to accuse Extremely Loud of capitalizing on the communal anguish of 9/11 to make its story more “significant,” I’m not sure it’s fair to ignore the film’s genuine attempt at dramatizing the intensely personal process of filling the void within.

Here’s the thing: It’s not only a question of what’s in good taste or poor taste. The fact is, playing on familiar images of 9/11 is a cheap way of stirring a visceral emotional reaction from audience members. It’s a manipulative trick used by lazy filmmakers to create a connection they haven’t earned. It’s lazy.I have no problem with artists using 9/11 as a backdrop for their fiction. It’s one of the most significant cultural events, if not the most significant, in the life of every living American, I’d hardly expect it to be taboo. But there’s a difference between using the events as a backdrop, and recreating images designed to play upon the deep emotional wounds of your viewers. This is why good filmmakers evoke the events without showing us the familiar visuals – I’m thinking here of Michael Moore, but there have been many others who told stories about 9/11, and resisted the impulse to put those visuals in front of our eyes.

I can’t even watch previews for Extremely Loud.  When it comes on, I avert my eyes or change the channel. It’s the Sarah McLachlin Shelter Pet Commercial of movie previews. I don’t mind crying at the movies, but when that happens I want it to be because of some emotional resonance, some connection that’s been forged between me and the film by skillful artistry – not because some director realized how easy it would be to make me cry by playing on the unresolved emotions I’m carrying around. Those feelings are mine, not theirs, and I feel violated every time.

The shame of it is, of course, that the movie itself might be quite good – certainly the performances look promising, and reviewers seem to find something insightful in the story, but for me any value will be lost by that sense of violation, and by my anger over the laziness of filmmakers who decided to pick at my scabs instead of trusting their story, and their actors, to draw out my emotions.


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