One of the things that has interested me since the early days after 9/11 is how the event would effect our national psyche; not in the obvious heightened security, fear of terror, flag-waving and nowadays, threatened Koran-burning. These are all obvious and conscious reactions. What interests me is the way the attacks have altered the national subconscious. In short, I’ve been looking for the 9/11 Godzilla.
Now, we all know Godzilla, the beloved 90 foot tall radioactive lizard of enjoyably bad Japanese B-films and less enjoyable (but still bad) Matthew Broderick movies. And while J.J. Abrams tried to bring the giant killing monster-genre to New York City in Cloverfield, the American fascination with giant radioactive monsters is there mostly because it’s goofy and another example of the alterna-West that is Japanese culture.
For the Japanese however, Godzilla, Mothra and their ilk resonant on a deeper level. Giant radioactive monsters who level cities flat are unsubtle psychic demons conjured by the U.S. nuclear bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. I wouldn’t argue that contemporary Japanese culture is purely a response to the bomb, but like the cargo cults of tropical islands who come to worship washed up cans of soda or downed planes as gods, the bomb, in all its terrifying devastation has become fetishized and ritualized in Japanese culture.
The obsession with emulating Western styles, the apocalyptic religiosity of Akira, even the a-bomb like explosions of Pikachu are all atomic residue of the devastating nuclear attacks that ended World War II.
Which brings us to America and the identity-shaking power of 9/11. As the event recedes into the distance, how have we begun to mythologize and fetishize the horrors of that terrible day? No nation on Earth is as reliant on its own national mythology to unify its citizens, which may explain why we’re the global home of the storytelling industry. So, what’s our 9/11 myth? Not the story of the day, but rather, like Godzilla, the mythologized subconscious version of it.
I recently reread Tom Junod’s brilliantly written Esquire feature, “The Falling Man” about the search for the identity of the man captured in Richard Drew’s iconic photograph of one of the “jumpers” who threw themselves out of the towers. Junod points out how quickly the U.S. media collectively decided to self-censor the images of people jumping from the towers and how quickly the people of the U.S. decided to wash the image from its collective memory. Junond writes,
“More and more, the jumpers — and their images — were relegated to the Internet underbelly, where they became the provenance of the shock sites that also traffic in the autopsy photos of Nicole Brown Simpson and the videotape of Daniel Pearl’s execution, and where it is impossible to look at them without attendant feelings of shame and guilt.
In a nation of voyeurs, the desire to face the most disturbing aspects of our most disturbing day was somehow ascribed to voyeurism, as though the jumpers’ experience, instead of being central to the horror, was tangential to it, a sideshow best forgotten.”
But like any trauma repressed, the disturbing image of those people so desperate for air or escape from the hell they found themselves in that they dove into oblivion has found its way to the surface. Nearly ten years after 9/11, we’re awash in the one image of 9/11 we tried so hard to repress.
The opening credit sequence of Mad Men may be the most obvious (though least commented upon) example. In it, a black silhouette of an office worker tumbles out of a skyscraper amid scraps of iconic ads representing American consumerism.
Rewatching the credits with 9/11 in mind can be a profoundly disturbing experience, but it also clues us into the wider themes of the show: The downfall of the American man. Details may have anointed Jon Hamm “the last American alpha-male” this month, but if Mad Men is meant to reflect today and not simply be a time-period capsule for mid-century modernist design connoisseurs, then it’s telling us that the American alpha male is already dead — he leaped from the towers nine years ago.
It’s this specific image, the idea that the mortgage brokers and financial whiz’s of Cantor Fitzgerald and Goldman Sachs, the very types of people with mythologize as the pinnacle of success in capitalist America, took their lives by leaping from the towers that has sunk into our consciousness.
The alpha-male is our Godzilla, a doomed monster, terrible and pitiable at once. He shows up in Big Love, another show that’s credit sequence features bodies falling through space and this summer’s Inception, which spends the last third of the movie focused on a sequence of a group of corporate mind-raiders falling from a bridge in slow-motion.
The Falling Man is our new national Everyman. His fall is literal and metaphoric. His failures as human being extend beyond the professional to the personal and he’s not offered catharsis. Don Draper, Dom Cobb, Bill Hendrickson and their ilk aren’t offered redemption; just a long slow-motion free fall towards oblivion. And unlike the 60s, where a counterculture developed that rejected the old order in favor of a new, utopian ideal, the 21st century Falling Man is someone who we can’t seem to shake.
Perhaps what’s most interesting is that in fiction, The Falling Man is universally a white profesional, while the real victims of 9/11 were a diverse array of ethnicities and beliefs. The man featured in Richard Drew’s photograph is Latino and as the New York Times recently pointed out that the World Trade Center itself had a Muslim prayer room — and nobody said two words about it after the ’93 bombing. There’s something ugly about the whitewashing of reality in the creation of this new myth — whether it appears in Matt Weiner’s show or in the paranoid rantings of Glenn Beck. While the fall of affluent straight white male dominance in our culture might be a tragedy for, well, affluent straight white men, for the rest of us (and increasingly, ‘the rest of us’ is most of us), it seems more like a coming down to Earth.
The lesson for the myth makers here is to be skeptical and pragmatic; pulling on the threads of the nation’s psyche can have the effect of unravelling the tapestry.
The very image we rejected in the early days after 9/11 has us now transfixed. He’s come to represent our fears that old institutions no longer hold, that the success he embodied is not just fleeting, but illusory. His suspension in mid-air, plummeting towards an unknown destiny is the unspoken foundation of every political debate in this country. His power is so strong that we can only address him at right angles, metaphorically on premium cable. He’s our unspoken national secret we can’t shake, because we know that even now, nine years later, he is more than ever, our new reality.
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