The Five Best Pop-Culture Responses to 9/11

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This article contains exactly zero weeping eagles.

A few days after September 11, 2001, the avant-garde German composer Karlheinz Stockhausen called the September 11 attacks "the biggest work of art there has ever been." Like many statements made by avant-garde German composers, this is ludicrous. His impulse, though, to find some artistic meaning inside the attacks is a natural one: it's what artists do after tragedies. Here are the five best artistic responses to the September 11 attacks. When you're done with these, you'll be pleased to know that we've also selected the five worst.

5. “9/11/2001” New Yorker cover, Art Spiegelman and Françoise Mouly

On Sepetmber 11, 2001, Françoise Mouly, the art editor for the New Yorker, got a phone call saying that she needed to find an artist as quickly as possible to create a new cover for that week’s magazine. So she turned to the artist she knew best: her husband, the cartoonist Art Spiegelman. Thank God she did. Among the lurid photographs of destruction on the covers of the rest of America’s magazines, Spiegelman’s black-on-black cover came closest to evoking what it was like to lose the towers from New York’s skyline when it seemed as if, just moments before, they'd been solid and real. And Mouly made the inspired choice to arrange the towers so that they intersect the New Yorker nameplate, making a jet black hole in the magazine’s (and city’s) name. Internet reproductions don’t do it justice: the two different black inks made the image appear to change with the angle of the light. Turn your head and the towers — invisible just a moment before — would suddenly jolt into view.


4. Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, by Jonathan Safran Foer

The widespread acclaim which met Jonathan Safran Foer’s first novel, Everything is Illuminated, did not carry over to his second, a 9/11 novel published to a great deal of literary controversy in 2005. Famous novelists and critics (like John Updike, in The New Yorker) criticized it for being weak, sentimental, or worse. Nevertheless, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, the story of a young boy whose father died in the attacks, was the first response to the attacks by a major (and hip) American novelist, and it still has a devoted following from those who found in it a mirror of their grief. The novel’s final pages, containing a reimagining of a photograph of a man falling from the towers, rank as one of the most talked-about and affecting endings of a popular novel published in the last ten years.

3. United 93, directed by Paul Greengrass

Paul Greengrass’s United 93 is a riveting film about the group of passengers who came together to overpower the terrorists who had hijacked their flight. Greengrass’s handheld camerawork, which occasionally drew derision for its overuse in the Bourne films, is right at home in this intense, claustrophobic reminder of how September 11 felt as it was happening. The protagonists of this film, certainly some of the most remarkable heroes of a day with no shortage of heroism, are depicted so convincingly that it’s easy to forget that United 93 isn’t actually a documentary.


2. Man on Wire, directed by James Marsh

Man on Wire may seem like a strange choice — the film contain no mention of the September 11 attacks, and director James Marsh deliberately avoided any “mention, discussion or imagery of the towers being destroyed.” And yet, this documentary about Philippe Petit’s 1974 walk between the towers might be one of the best cinematic testaments to the iconic appeal that the towers held for New Yorkers and for the world. As Petit and his team describe the walk, viewers are given the chance to meditate on words, images and moments which gain in poignancy now that the towers are gone, like childhood photographs of loved ones found long after they’ve died: a clip of the WTC dedication at which an official hopes that towers will promote “harmony and communication between the nations and the world”; a visitor’s pass to the World Trade Center Observation Deck issued to Petit marked “PERMANENT;” a breathtaking black-and-white photograph taken from the ground of Petit framed between the two towers as a plane passes overhead. At one point, Petit describes the gulf between the two towers and says, “Imagine the void!” That’s exactly what this movie lets us do.


1. The September 27, 2001 issue of The Onion

Spiegelman’s New Yorker cover encapsulated the immediate numbness and shock of September 11, but only The Onion managed to capture the uneasy head space of a nation forced to going to work and school after an unimaginable tragedy. Even ten years later, headlines like “U.S. Vows to Defeat Whoever it is We’re at War With” and “Hijackers Surprised to Find Selves in Hell” bring me right back to what it was like to live after the attacks, when real life felt ridiculous and insane. No “serious” newspaper could do justice to something so absurd. And the issue has turned into that rare satirical document which only becomes more profound in retrospect. In everything written about the September 11 attacks since that day, I’ve never read anything truer than The Onion’s “Not Knowing What Else To Do, Woman Bakes American-Flag Cake,” which, for me, perfectly sums up post-9/11 America: confused and impotent, sure, and also hoping that small personal gestures of unity and support, repeated across the nation, would eventually get us back on our feet.