September 11th and the movies are forever linked for me. Three separate and equally odd experiences surrounding 9/11 mark my memory forever. Two involve actual movies and one involves a video store and my experience of that unusual morning. Movies provided, for me, comfort and absurdity in equal measure.
On the morning of Tuesday, September the 11th I was working at a video store. The entire staff of Movie Gallery was on hand at 7am central time for inventory. We were never much of a group; co-workers, not friends. That morning however, our first extended amount of time together since I began working there, we had a friendly, congenial vibe going for the first time until the phone rang.
We didn’t open for several hours and the boss had no intention of answering the phone before we opened, new movies come out on Tuesday and anyone calling at this time was probably trying to reserve the new releases. Finally, as the phone would not stop ringing, the boss finally answered and she was told what was happening.
The boss turned on the one non closed circuit TV in the place and found a fuzzy broadcast of NBC news. Together with this group of people, the names of whom have long since slipped from my memory, I watched as the news talking-heads came to the conclusion that the country was under attack. I didn’t see the second plane hit like so many others had; I don’t know if I am grateful for that or not.
The boss allowed us to choose whether we wanted to stay and work or go home and be with our families. I wanted neither. I didn’t want anyone to see me as frightened as I was that day. I went home and locked myself away. I stayed in front of the TV for 24 hours straight occasionally taking stunned phone calls from friends.
I needed to think of something else. So, I went to the movies. Being a part time critic at the time, I had seen every movie released the previous weekend save one, the Vivica A. Fox–Morris Chestnutt romantic comedy Two Can Play That Game. I could not have made a more absurd choice. Numbness and exhaustion had set in and I had a need to think of something other than impending doom.
On any other day this mediocre romantic comedy would not have penetrated my defenses. On this day however, I willed myself to care about these characters and their ludicrous romantic comedy problems. I forced myself to become involved with the movie and worry that the characters would find the happiness and romance they sought.
It was either give myself over to this movie or return to horror of the previous day. Two Can Play that Game was like a piece of chocolate, it was calorie filled comfort food that transported me back to the world as it was on Monday, September 10th 2001, when the world made sense.
My final September 11th movie memory emerged five years later with the release of United 93. I saw the film the night before it opened in an empty theater and was blown away by the precision with which Paul Greengrass took us back to that day. The authenticity of United 93 is jarring, especially in the performance of Ben Sliney as himself, the man who on September 11th was in command of all flights on the Eastern seaboard.
United 93 covers the response on the ground as well as taking us aboard United flight 93. Whether what Paul Greengrass depicts on the plane actually took place will never be known but it remains a powerful evocation of what likely took place. The precision of United 93 is documentary-esque.
I gave the film a very positive review but I could not stop lingering on the notion of who the audience for the film was. Why would anyone want to watch such an accurate re-creation of the worst tragedy we’d ever witnessed? That surreal feeling I experienced watching Two Can Play that Game five years earlier returned.
The next day, I was at the theater to watch another of that weekend’s opening films and I was struck dumb. There were lines of people waiting to see United 93 that day. 10 years later I cannot shake the strange image of people carrying trays of snacks and giant, sweaty cups of Pepsi and Mountain Dew into the theater to watch an precise, accurate re-creation of September 11th.
I still cannot settle myself with the notion of gulping down popcorn while watching United 93. The movie theater was the supremely wrong environment for this movie. United 93 needed to be approached with sobriety and seriousness, not with nachos and milk duds.
Movies are an inextricable part of my life and it makes sense to me then that movies would play such a dominant role in the way I remember September 11th.