Saturday, April 3, 2010

Boston Globe opinion piece on "Remember Me"

 globe 3/28/10
"Coasting on the Fumes of a Common Cultural Response?" by Ty Burr, Globe staff

Fair warning: If you haven’t seen the current Robert Pattinson movie, “Remember Me,’’ and don’t want the twist ending spoiled, do not read any further. This entire article is a spoiler. Are we clear on that? OK, let’s go.

The reason the film’s ending merits discussion — really, more than the rest of “Remember Me,’’ an intensely mopey saga of young love in Manhattan — is that it uses a major historical event in a way that deeply moves some audiences while deeply offending others. (I’m serious: If you don’t want to know what happens, stop now. The exit’s that way.) And it raises the question once again of when — and how, and if — disaster can or should be repurposed for our entertainment.

Here’s how the finale plays out (last chance, bye-bye): Pattinson’s character, a twitchily misunderstood New York University student named Tyler, has been wrestling with his love for fellow student Ally (Emilie de Ravin) over the course of the film, and things are finally looking up. He has made peace with her cop father (Chris Cooper) and even with his own dad, an imperious Master of the Universe type played by Pierce Brosnan. We’re in New York City at an indeterminate time, although if you’ve been paying close attention, you’ll know exactly what year it is.

Tyler drops by his father’s office one morning for a meeting; dad is running late because the ice around his heart has finally melted and he’s taking his young daughter (Ruby Jerins) to school. Tyler looks at dad’s screensaver — a family slide-show — and is filled with love for the world. He steps to the window. Cut to the sister’s classroom, where the teacher is writing the date on the board: September 11, 2001. Cut back to Tyler at the window; the camera pulls back for the big reveal. He’s high up in one of the World Trade Center towers. Quick montage of shocked faces looking up, a shot of a funeral, Ally carrying on, and roll the credits. Now do you feel sorry for him?

It’s obvious why the filmmakers — screenwriter William Fetters, director Alan Coulter — chose to use 9/11. The tactic validates the characters and their dramas by suddenly reframing them within the context of a historical tragedy that carries agreed-upon cultural significance. By borrowing our emotions about that day, “Remember Me’’ seeks to inflate the meaning of the rest of its story.

And it seems to work, at least for some people. During the movie’s press screening the week before it opened, my colleague Wesley Morris and other local critics sat there with jaws agape and steam coming out their ears even as the smattering of college journalists present wept quietly into their notebooks. Go to the Internet Movie Database, and you’ll find dozens of user reviews lauding the final sequence as “unexpected and very tastefully done,’’ “a beautiful and gentle reminder that 9-11 was about people.’’ (A few naysayers have chimed in on the message boards: “I don’t know if I can ever think of a more manipulative ending solely designed to try and get girls to cry. It was pandering at a level I cannot even think of a reasonable comparison for.’’)

All right, people are moved by what they’re moved by and offended by what they’re offended by — these are honest reactions all. And I honestly know where I stand as a moviegoer: The twist in “Remember Me’’ sickens me. It doesn’t ennoble the characters, it cheapens history, and it abuses my personal memories of the event. Yet I’m open to the fact that others can feel differently, and if I don’t quite understand how, I’m willing to entertain the why of it.

For instance: Is this a matter of age? Although not all the online praise for the movie is coming from the under-30 contingent, a sizable chunk of fans are college age and younger. An 18-year-old would have been 9 when the towers fell, a 21-year-old 12. A 15-year-old “Twilight’’ fan would have been 6, the age I was when John F. Kennedy was shot, which maybe explains why I don’t feel the same measure of disgust for Oliver Stone’s “JFK.’’ National catastrophes experienced in our youth are generalized into frozen images and recollections of grown-ups crying; they don’t happen to us in any way we can conceptualize because they happen when we’re pre-conceptual.

Is it a matter of physical distance? If you processed 9/11 solely through the media coverage, it remains a distant horror made of shared fragments of sound and vision. Because I was living in Brooklyn then, because I just missed seeing the second tower hit as I walked to the corner after voting in the mayoral primary, because my children watched the towers fall from their classroom across New York Harbor, because my older daughter came home clutching a charred memo that had blown across the water, because the air smelled of burning electrical insulation for weeks, because people I knew lost people they knew — because of these and countless other unique memories, the event is a private grieving ground for me even as I share it with millions of others who were closer and farther away.

To not want those experiences whipped into an all-purpose multiplex fiction may be illogical, but we’re not talking about logic here. We’re talking about watching 2,752 individual human beings perish from a close distance. (For that reason, the only 9/11 movie that for this writer carries any weight is the 2002 HBO documentary “In Memoriam: New York City,’’ which is mostly a collage of footage that re-creates the day as it occurred, along with a handful of interviews. At one point, Rudy Giuliani notes that “we’re going to have to remember September 11 in its reality’’ if we don’t want to “rob people of the ability to relive it,’’ an observation that goes a long way in explaining why “Remember Me’’ bugs me so much.)

Which leads to the next consideration: Is it a matter of temporal distance, of time? Even civic and national wounds heal; even psychic scars fade. Three days after the attacks, I wrote in a blog post for my then-employer, Entertainment Weekly, “Entertainment itself suddenly seems obscene. . . . Warner Brothers has indefinitely put off releasing the new Arnold Schwarzenegger terrorism thriller, ‘Collateral Damage.’ Better they should throw the whole project in the dumpster; I can’t think of a genre that now seems more pathetically out of touch than the he-man demolition fest purveyed by actors like Arnold and directors like Michael Bay. Seriously, would you ever, ever want to watch things blow up for the fun of it again?’’

Feel free to laugh in my face. “Collateral Damage’’ came out the following February and made $40 million; Bay’s “Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen’’ was the biggest hit of last summer. Of course the entertainment-industrial complex rebounded; of course we still watch things blow up for the fun of it, now more neurotically than ever. The human aspect of disaster becomes subsumed by the rhythms of daily life and the slow tick of years. We watch “Titanic’’ precisely to be reminded of the individuality of the men, women, and children who perished at sea in 1912, even as we accept the foregrounding of Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio as one symbolic story out of thousands. Would we accept a similar love story set in the towers or would we find it distasteful? If so, why do we accept a love story that ends there?

And, of course, the culture is different now, so much faster and more aggressive in the way it slices and repackages our actuality. That said, two silent movies re-creating the sinking of the Titanic were released within months of the disaster: a 35-minute German film called “In Nacht und Eis’’ (recently rediscovered, it can be seen on YouTube) and the lost 10-minute saga “Saved From the Titanic,’’ starring an actual survivor, Dorothy Gibson, wearing the actual gown she had on the night of April 14, 1912.

There are no records of shocked audience responses. There are no surviving records whatsoever. But movies were a novelty then, and the restaging of famous battles and other newsworthy events was common. This was a way to grapple with the tragedy, to see it, not to mention a way for Dorothy Gibson to grab a little fame. 9/11, by contrast, was so widely recorded, so seen, that its iconography was immediate. Because of that the event remains difficult to consider afresh. “Remember Me’’ doesn’t even try, choosing instead to coast on the fumes of our common cultural response.

Is it the way the movie uses 9/11, as a “Twilight Zone’’-style gotcha in a tale of ordinary adolescent madness, that sits like an anvil in my stomach? Stone’s 2006 “World Trade Center’’ is a decent film rather than a great one, but at least it’s about the attacks. Same with Paul Greengrass’s “United 93,’’ the TV movie “Flight 93,’’ and other entries in 2006’s brief “Is It Too Soon?’’ genre. Is it still too soon, though, for a teen-oriented romantic melodrama to use the towers as a narrative punch line? What’s the statute of limitations for crap?

What about 9/11 novels like Don DeLillo’s “Falling Man’’ and Jonathan Safran Foer’s “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close’’ — do we cut them a break because they represent one artist’s attempt to describe the indescribable rather than a collaborative Hollywood star vehicle? What about the Adam Sandler drama “Reign Over Me,’’ in which it’s revealed that the hero’s depression is due to his family’s death in one of the planes? Fair game or not?

As to that last one, I’d say yes, barely, because Sandler gives an honorable performance while Pattinson gives a terribly busy one, made up of grimaces, shrugs, and other James Dean-derived tics. (De Ravin, by contrast, seems grounded and real.) Ultimately, “Remember Me’’ isn’t about the people we lost on 9/11 at all but about more generic notions of living the full life and appreciating what you’ve got while you’ve got it (and who you’ve got while you’ve got them). Really, the bait-and-switch is right there in the title: Remember me, not them.

Some of us aren’t ready to forget about them just yet.


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