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The Market for Tragedy
For some people, everything changed. For other people, nothing changed. Just ask the agents and distributors and other media types who determine the relative value of 9/11 product.

By MICHAEL WOLFF

My friend Steve Rosenbaum, a maker of television documentaries and news specials, has made a 9/11 film that is attracting many fans among nine-elevenalia connoisseurs and that has received a great many television offers. But against the counsel of agents, distributors, and other media professionals, he has decided to forgo a television deal for his 9/11 feature, 7 Days in September, and to try to rise above the maw of insensate repetition.

Steve has as much self-reproach as anyone who has worked in television for twenty years, but the events of September 11 -- even though he, too, has been involved in the overwhelming media mobilization -- seem to have markedly increased his aversion. Television makes everything, no matter how significant, seem like a throwaway, or background noise, Steve believes. Yesterday's news. And he feels that his film, which he's worked on for a year now, is worthier than that. An artifact, he calls it, meaning that it might be a piece of media worthy of surviving all other 9/11 media. Art, too, he means. The Sorrow and the Pity. A record of events and emotions that ensuing generations can grow up with.

But when he asks me if I have any advice on how to make it stand out in the media maelstrom, how to make it not just more television, how to make it last -- at least how to let people judge whether it's worthy of lasting -- I demur.

I think he should take the money from all his worldwide television offers -- enough to cover the cost of the year he's put into it -- and run. This is partly because having seen it, I really have no idea if, in the end, Steve's film is any different from anyone else's film -- or if it can be. We have, after all, seen all of these images, or, at this point, can imagine them. And partly because even with the best of intentions, how do you not become part of the repetition and ritual?

And partly because I feel what I sense more and more people feel: that I would just like 9/11 to be over, to be done with.


It is the subtext of the anniversary discussion:
Are you over it, or are you not? Where you stand informs the kind of moral
attention you demand of friends and neighbors and the media.



There are two kinds of people: the everything-changed and the nothing-changed types. Within those two groups are a range of variables: people who know or who are related to people who died, people outside New York and people inside, people uptown living in the eerie sameness of the Upper East Side and people downtown living in a war zone, people who saw events in real life and people who saw events just on television, and, indeed, people in the media business and people not in the media business. There may be, too, as a further subset, people who were already looking for greater meaning in their lives -- those who are stuck in a general midlife malaise or those who had recently lost their money in the market. Or those who are in the television business.

It is the subtext of the anniversary discussion: Are you over it, or are you not? Where you stand informs the kind of moral attention you demand of friends and neighbors and the media, as well as how you see the future of the world (most immediately, the future of Iraq).

And while it may be, and many people suspect it is well on its way to being, a profound political divide, it remains very much an emotional one. Have you been able to develop a distance or coolness, or, in a flash, do you find yourself back in the heat and confusion of the moment?

Steve is very much an everything-changed guy.

Although he is somewhat broad of beam and wears Coke-bottle glasses, in this Steve resembles George Bush -- he has that thing in his eye, the grimness and intensity. It is not only, or principally, I realize, that everything has changed for the everything-changed-ites but more specifically that they believe they have changed. For them, the World Trade Center catastrophe is about their own sense of purpose and clarity.

Before September 11, Steve ran a successful independent television company, producing over the years a wide assortment of A&E, Discovery, and National Geographic documentaries and specials. In recent years, as he's tried to get out from under television, his gimmick has been to put amateur footage on the Web -- to make journalism out of diverse voices and low-cost technology. (TELL YOUR STORY TO THE WORLD, says a big sign on the headquarters of Steve's company, CameraPlanet, on lower Fifth Avenue.) On the morning of September 11, Steve was set to go with a crew of 30 to begin making a reality-TV show. And then the attacks began.

Everyone in the media at that moment in time had a qualitatively different reaction, I believe, than people outside the media. It's the difference in inclination to run from or to run toward something. It's perhaps one reason the media has so identified with the firefighters.

Never before had so many media people had so much access to so large an event -- making the event, it would be fair to argue, geometrically larger.

Steve gave each member of his crew a camera, tape, batteries, and a cell phone. He kept them working for ten days: "We had no client and no interest in getting a client. We were just shooting pictures for history. We wanted the delicate images. The horrible poetry."

It was, he realized, "the first time in my professional life I was doing something just because I wanted to do it."

         
   
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