September Mourn 

On the five-year anniversary, movies address life in post-9/11 New York.

Full disclosure: As a New Yorker born and bred, I may be slightly biased. But, while it may have been the nation as a whole that was targeted by terrorists five years ago, the people of the city of New York bore the brunt of the attacks of 9/11. The psychic scars left upon the city have barely begun to be recognized, and it will be years more before they even begin to heal. Half a decade on, the inner turmoil of New Yorkers is beginning to show up on film.



The need to skirt around the city’s gaping emotional wound is achingly apparent in The Great New Wonderful, a loosely interconnected series of sketches about ordinary New Yorkers'from a couple struggling with their marriage and their unruly son, to a maker of absurdly fancy cakes for Manhattan debutantes'on the one-year anniversary of 9/11. The word “terrorism” isn’t mentioned once in the film; there’s barely a direct acknowledgement of the day at all. But director Danny Leiner and his wonderful cast'including Olympia Dukakis, Tony Shalhoub, Maggie Gyllenhaal and Edie Falco'create an atmosphere of perpetual unease, a sense that the dominant state of mind from now on would be one of anxiety. No film that I’ve yet seen better captures the dismal mood that gripped the city in the wake of the attacks, or the urge that many New Yorkers felt to make a big life change: start a relationship or end one, move or quit a job, as if the problem were within ourselves and realigning the direction of our lives would fix it.



Brian Sloan’s WTC View, based on his own stage play, takes the metaphor of one of those life changes and uses it to explore the desperate fragility of New Yorkers in the days immediately after 9/11. A young man (Michael Urie) places an ad on Sept. 10 for a new roommate to share his downtown apartment and is besieged by applicants on 9/12 and in the weeks after. But all the prospective roomies he interviews are in as big a state of psychological flux as he is, here in the backyard of the Trade Center devastation. The one-on-one discussions'as he shows the apartment, and total strangers find themselves brought together by the city’s shared tragedy'are so powerfully and realistically depicted that they slammed this New Yorker back into that terrifying time like it was yesterday.



In Sorry, Haters, filmmaker Jeff Stanzler takes a slightly more surreal approach with his story of a screwed-up TV executive (Robin Wright Penn) who aggressively takes up the cause of a Syrian immigrant cab driver (Abdel Kechiche) whose family has been victimized by post-9/11 hysteria and paranoia. Stanzler pushes to extremes the impulse many New Yorkers'and many Americans'felt and continue to feel to do something constructive in response to 9/11, and turns it into a cautionary tale about not letting ourselves be consumed by grief or feelings of inadequacy. This is an uncomfortable, even shocking, film about what constitutes terrorism, who perpetrates it and why.



And so is Joseph Castelo’s The War Within. It also looks at the aftermath of 9/11 from an immigrant’s perspective'that of an innocent Pakistani man (Ayad Akhtar, who wrote the film with Castelo) who plans his revenge on America for his years-long imprisonment and torture by becoming what he was accused of being. This is a film to rattle any New Yorker (as it wanders city landmarks, like Grand Central Terminal, with destruction in mind) and any American (with its calm, thoughtful depiction of the howling, potentially destructive injustices wrought in our name).



It can hardly come as a surprise that there is no satisfying closure to be drawn from these movies, no sense that the grieving is over. They are, to a one, devastating howls of inarticulate rage and anguish. But they might serve as a punctuation mark on a city’s'and a nation’s'mourning, an expression of a collective unconscious acknowledging the need to begin to truly deal with the unthinkable turned real.

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MaryAnn Johanson

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