by Christine Nicholls, Altitude, Volume 4, Article 1, 2004.
Reflecting on the events of September 11 2001, I, like many others, was left with a strong sense of déjà vu. This does not betoken any prophetic gift on my part – far from it. As it happens, many of the occurrences of that day and the subsequent fall out had been pre-empted visually by Hollywood movies (mostly B-grade), especially those that fall into the aptly named genre ‘disaster movies’. Debord1 has noted that our social relations are mediated through images and on no occasion was this more apparent than on September 11 2001, where the porous relationship between image and reality became obvious via the presentation of an act of terrorism as a ratings-pushing television spectacle.
The repetitive broadcasting of the September 11 footage on all Australian television stations day in, day out (sometimes in fact, hour in, hour out) in the period immediately following September 11 2001 reinforced the impression that the disaster constituted its own self-referential loop. This occurred to the point that the repetitious footage could almost be read as the kind of saturation advertising that commonly precedes forthcoming blockbuster movie. The fact that in Australia we are so geographically distant from the US, while at the same time such avid consumers of its televisual culture, served to reinforce the impression that the basis of this event had less connection to documentary reality than it did to the movie industry. In other words, the main external referent for September 11 2001, at least as visual spectacle, seemed not to be ‘the real’ or ‘reality’ but the movies, specifically Hollywood movies. In a bizarre inversion of what is supposed to be the norm, simulacra of reality, at least in some respects, became the major referent for the real in this case.
Some of the films prefiguring the tragic events of 9/11 reflected so-called ‘natural’ disasters but the more recent ones (especially aircraft disasters brought about by some human failing) have been increasingly presenting human-engineered disasters as the spectacle-de-jour and chief entertainment. The unfurling events of September 11 in which the crisis was presented in the most graphic of tele-visual terms – as the ultimate disaster movie – showed life uncannily imitating art, rather than vice versa, which is how it is supposed to be, in theory.