On Luigi Cazzaniga's film
9/11: What I Saw
by William Flesch
The first time we see the Twin Towers in
Luigi Cazzaniga’s film is almost the last time
anyone will see them, and they still look the
way they do in pre-9/11 photographs of lower
Manhattan -- the credits for The Sopranos, for
example, through May of 2002, the end of the
third season. And there they are again, rising
with a serene indifference through the smoke that wreathes around them. They’re not like the burning trees of the Dixie Fire, caused by the global warming that western thirst for oil has fed (that thirst itself responsible for the geopolitical morass out of which the attacks and their sequelae arose). You can see the distress in trees. But the towers never looked more godlike, like Talos, the giant bronze statue in Jason and the Argonauts, which my mother took me to see when it first came out, when I was six. Jason and his men are beneath his notice until Jason steals a gigantic piece of jewelry which he thinks is a javelin. With a kind of sublime, lazy contempt the statue comes to life and threatens the tiny sailors, a deadpan King Kong, filmed in similar stop-action animation. Jason attacks him from below, at his weakest point, his sandaled heel, unscrewing a kind of manhole cover at his ankle and releasing a hot rush of liquid ichor, like oil from a tanker, with smoke and steam billowing up. Talos can’t look confused -- he can convey nothing but a sort of polite curiosity, even about his own destruction. He falls and breaks, and in his fall his body lands on Jason’s friend Hylas, killing him. The twin towers hadn’t been built yet. None of us knew they were coming. (In fact serious planning began in 1962, as Jason and the Argonauts was being filmed.) But there’s a kind of prefiguration there, for the child’s imagination, remembered, as the gigantic structure and the human body combine, a scene of destructive exhaustion as the vertical crashes to the horizontal world beneath it, the horizontal streets that Cazzaniga bicycled down, hell for leather, to document the attacks on 9/11.
My father was in the hospital, that morning, uptown, in Yorkville, with pneumonia. They had wanted to keep him for another couple of days. He’d been in an oxygen tent, but not on a ventilator. They’d thought he would die, but now he was better. When they heard about the attacks they assumed they’d need his bed, but they didn’t. A few years later I had as a student the daughter of one of the few severely injured persons to survive. All those empty beds -- so unlike the ICUs in the darkest days of Covid-19 in the city -- and they only needed a handful of them. My student’s father survived. Another student’s brother died. A month into classes a few years later she and some friends went to Hyannis for the weekend, and kayaked straight into a wall of fog, wreathing the twilight sky. Apparently it was spooky to watch them coming back out of the dark mist. Until she and a friend of hers didn’t -- they got lost and they drowned. Another student was killed on 9/11-- one of the sweetest people I’d ever known. I found out a few weeks later when his luminous face appeared in the New York Times group obituaries of those who died that day. And then I was struck anew as just today The Atlantic published an article about him, by Jennifer Senior. Terrorism counts on six degrees of separation. 9/11 made everyone a node, made each of us a connection between the dead and the dead.
On 9/11 TV screens everywhere were windows on that world. Eventually I watched the Golf Channel in a kind of stupor. The golf balls soared into the sky and then, without hitting anything, landed gently on the greens down which they rolled. The vertical and horizontal merged without violence, and the green shades were not annihilation but assimilation into green thoughts of a peace that seemed infinitely remote. A peace not unlike the high-class, low-key atmosphere of Windows on the World, the one time my parents took me there. It was night, and the restaurant was fairly empty, as Lower Manhattan itself tended to be at night. It was peaceful in the lobbies, and the elevators that went straight up to the restaurant took you there with a kind of confidence -- supremely self-possessed maitre d’s. Yes, we were going to the top of the world, but no, there was nothing to worry about. From the windows you could see far north beyond Manhattan, into Westchester and east over Long Island -- something like fifty miles they said. You could see the river and far away small planes flying, taking off and landing at Kennedy and La Guardia -- as small, compared to the building, as King Kong was at the top of the Empire State Building. Somehow we were high enough that the sheer verticality of the building had become reassuring, a way of meaning the endless, golf-course horizontal of the welcoming spaces of the landscape around. New York wasn’t a strange anomaly in the landscape here -- it was part of it, the most beautiful part, made beautiful by the beautiful evening landscape that surrounded it, and by the twilit clouds and dusky atmosphere.
9/11: What I Saw ends at evening, Cazzaniga filming the world he can see from his windows -- a world of other buildings, other windows, and people you can see through those windows. No one seems to be looking out. People (including both my parents, uptown) are at home, exhausted. It could be the end of any New York City weekday. Everyone is too exhausted to relax, but there’s an extraordinary, stunned beauty in the apartments, something you could imagine F. Scott Fitzgerald describing. Everyone is isolated, everyone is in it together. The water tanks that are so much a part of the roofscape of New York stand in the dusk. We first see one right between the two towers as Cazzaniga’s camera zooms in on them. Old New York, with so little water to resist the fire, the heat of the bright day, evening still so far away.
In the movie you can see people on the hot streets drinking bottled water as they watch the disaster and its aftermath. Once the towers go, there’s not much left to watch. People aren’t looking at each other much. They’re not avoiding each other -- they’re just not in a mode where they would be attuned to possible recognition or connection. People do line up at pay phones. Some people are on cell phones, but they were not ubiquitous yet, though I heard about the attacks, I recall, on mine. (The first iPod would be released five weeks later.) I tried calling my mother to see what was happening with my father, but I couldn’t get through to New York, from Boston. Maybe the lines at the pay phones would have been longer if people had been getting through, or maybe shorter. But almost no one on the street has anything they need to say to anyone else.
You do hear some snatches of conversation. One person tells Cazzaniga that this was definitely the right day for him to be late for work at the WTC. The magnitude of his escape makes him laugh with delight. We’re delighted too. What a story! For a moment we’re in the realm of story, and it’s a sheer and beautiful relief. Another person, near Washington Square Park, describes seeing one of the planes (he would have meant American Airlines Flight 11, which hit the North tower from the north) go screaming down Fifth Avenue. Two men discuss the war this will have to mean.
The film has a grueling real-time aspect to it, a little like Sebastian Schipper’s 2015 movie Victoria. It’s amazing how much you see and live those quarter-hours over again. The shock when each building falls, then the aftermath of that shock. The ashes all over the street, all over the fruit of a vendor’s cart. Streets full of ashes, turning the city briefly black and white, like a historical depiction of destruction and its aftermath: London after the Blitz, Pompeii in an early engraving, or in the shapes of daily life preserved in the pumice-turned ash.
It’s not Pompeii, though. It’s New York. The twin towers are echoed in the bright orange and white ventilation stacks of some water main or pipe repairs going on at street level. People dart across the streets, dodging traffic, with that particular offhand skill you learn in the City. The cops aren’t interested in getting control of the population, or getting people to move along -- only in opening up traffic lanes for emergency vehicles. The aimlessness of the people is already a kind of hope. There’s panic, but not much of it. There’s an odd community there. One person tosses some trash into a bin -- it’s a reflex, as is the way he makes sure it goes in as the trash totters on the side, on the verge of falling onto the street. It’s New York, not Schindler’s List. It’s New York where weirdos and conspiracy theorists don’t merit a second glance. A person on crutches is being wheeled north on a wheeled office chair. Makes sense. A fair number of people have masks, as though ready for COVID twenty years ago. Where did they get them? But you wouldn’t have been surprised to see them then, and you’re not surprised to see them now. There are a lot of people on bikes. Some on rollerblades, skating through the ash.
One shot shows the clear blue sky where the towers were. Then the smoke underneath. But the sky is the sky of New York. The towers are gone but the sky is there. People are watching TV in a cafe/bar, hearing about the attack on the Pentagon. That looks like history -- what’s happening on TV. What’s happening on the ground looks like the kind of community that a great and indomitable city is. A lot of people, scared, shocked, stunned into silence or sometimes into talk. Cazzaniga -- many of whose other films are full of New York too -- weeps as he records the streets. He is weeping for what he sees, for the beautiful and impossible City, I guess, for the shock of the bodies falling out of the sky. You weep out of helplessness -- you can’t bring anything back by weeping. But you do bring something back. You’re part of the strange shared attention directed everywhere and nowhere, a kind of tacit acknowledgement of all by each.
Night finally falls, and we see the windows and the people living, all of them, that evening at least, the same life. They’ve all crossed the Queensboro Bridge. The FDR drive is empty. You will need proof of address to go down before 14th street, and into Tribeca. New York has never felt more horizontal. And the horizontal has never felt more welcoming, as we pan, with a different stop-motion, to a beautiful Morton Feldman piece, across the roofs of the City in the cool of the evening.
William Flesch is Professor of English at Brandeis University and author of Comeuppance: Costly Signaling, Altruistic Punishment, and Other Biological Components of Fiction and Generosity and the Limits of Authority: Shakespeare, Herbert, Milton.
Luigi Cazzaniga's film 9/11: What I Saw premiered at exquisitepandemic.com on September 10, 2021.
9/11: What I Saw is directed by Luigi Cazzaniga, who shot the footage on 9/11/01 in downtown Manhattan. It is edited by Hernan Valle and produced by Luigi Cazzaniga, Ilka Scobie, and Rick Whitaker. 48 minutes.