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The Market for Tragedy

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"Nine-eleven was for me," he says, "like a reset switch."

On the third day, after two and a half days of no sleep, he woke up and heard on the radio the song "Overcome," by the band Live. Steve found himself listening to the music and seeing the images he and his staff had been collecting. And although a year later, Steve would be trying to figure out how not to be consumed by the tsunami of 9/11 media, on that third morning, he rushed back to his office and put together a music video for the song that within 48 hours was airing on VH1.

Then he realized he had to make a film -- and that the film would take precedence over everything else in his professional life.

"No one is ever going to write an engraved invitation to do important work," he said, recalling this moment the other day.

Adding to the footage he and his crew had collected, Steve placed an ad in The Village Voice looking to buy footage, amateur and otherwise, taken during the first week. He decided to buy any film that was offered to him if the person who shot the film would sit for an interview -- his film would become about how people saw what they saw. "The experience," he says, "is all about images." Which seems quite clearly true.

It turned out he wasn't just making a film. As the amateur footage came in, Steve, in some perhaps obsessive fashion and at nobody's expense but his own, began to catalogue the entire visual record of the event.

His is now the largest 9/11-video repository that exists. I can't tell if this makes Steve more or less a part of the media problem. I think of the Korda brothers, who in the early days of Hollywood created a bank of footage about the African bush that became the B-roll for every movie set in Africa. Steve's interest seems as functional and as specialized -- and indeed, his bank of images has supported other 9/11 documentaries.

Still, I can see the art here, too, and the mission. If we have been bombarded with images, Steve's antidote is to deconstruct them. Every image in his database has an explanation, a provenance. When I stopped by his offices a few weeks ago, Amy Rubin, a young woman who had worked at the Holocaust museum, was painstakingly recording the exact time and location of each image. "Whether a shot happened at 115 Broadway or 60 Broadway will one day be important," Steve says.

I ask him about when he stops collecting. "When there are no more images to collect. When every sock drawer is empty," he says.

Here's the point Steve seems to be making, the thing he is trying to set himself against: Just because the media is dwelling on 9/11, and will turn this anniversary into the ultimate commemorative spectacle, doesn't mean 9/11 will, really, be remembered. It doesn't even mean that the media is all that interested in 9/11. The illusion-reality quotient is, at this point, potentially very high.

"If we hit the story really hard, we can put a stake through its heart and then it will go away and leave us alone" is how Steve analyzes the basic media response to material that, after all, mostly fails to get ratings or sell ads.

There was, he recounts, the West Coast distributor who managed to rather exactly convey the growing sense among media people that we in New York who experienced 9/11 firsthand might have a different take on it from the rest of the world. "How you feel about the Northridge earthquake -- that's how we feel about the World Trade Center" is how the distributor put it.

Indeed, the avalanche of anniversary coverage may, as Steve suspects, mean the exact opposite of the importance of remembering. Rather, in the starkest media terms, the anniversary represents a window of interest, and when it closes, that will be it for 9/11.

"If you don't sell your film and have it on the air before September 11, it will be valueless on September 12," one television executive told Steve, in some kind of testimony to the survival and triumph of media values in the media capital.

Certainly among journalists (many of whom, like Steve, saw their reason for being transformed, however briefly, after 9/11), the refrain for the past month or so has been to complain about 9/11 duty. What else is there to say? everyone pragmatically asks.

I find myself trying to suggest to Steve that this attitude might not be just cynical but reasonable too.

Like many reporters who covered 9/11, I've gone back to read what I said in the days and weeks afterward and would surely say it differently if I could. We seemed altogether sure about the meaning of the catastrophe -- the media attention not only made the event larger but made the meaning surer -- in ways that I think many of us might examine further now. Indeed, whether Steve's film is The Sorrow and the Pity might depend less on the film than on what the catastrophe itself comes to mean.

Was it the most profound political event of the age, a geopolitical chasm that will mark the world for a generation, or was it something more like a natural disaster, a moment of vast destruction that will recede now in memory as the repair and rebuilding become the focus? On this point hinges, possibly, George Bush's political career, as well as the fate of Steve's film.

"You're wrong," Steve says.

I feel churlish. "I'm not arguing here. I'm just suggesting that we don't know."

"You're implying it's a fluke occurrence. But it's not. Look at what's happened. It's -- Sarajevo," he says in some frustration. "It's the assassination of the archduke."

"Do you really think so? We are not at war."

"We are."

"Well, what if, actually, nothing else happens -- if we are not really under attack?"

"If nothing else happens, I guess my film might not be all that interesting or valuable ten years from now," he says, and I suddenly feel guilty for wringing out the admission.

Meanwhile, eschewing the big audiences but certain disposability that television offers, Steve is opening his film this week in movie theaters around town. His point is for you to get away from the involuntary and passive commemoration, and, rather, on your own accord, come looking for it, and alone and in the dark try to decide what it means to you.


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