The Market for Tragedy

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.

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.”

“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.

The Market for Tragedy