|SAN FRANCISCO CHRONICLE
Mick LaSalle, Chronicle Movie Critic
May 8, 2002
'Underground Zero' a needed catharsis
It's the first film to be made, released after terrorist attack
UNDERGROUND ZERO: Documentary shorts. Directed by Jay Rosenblatt, Caveh Zahedi and others. (Not rated. 76 minutes.
For the past eight months, movies have existed in a peculiar limbo. Though we live in a post-Sept. 11 world, movies have not caught up. Every "new" release was, in fact, filmed before September, and that has made for some disconcerting moments in theaters: The World Trade Center appears onscreen, and for five or 10 seconds the audience forgets the movie it's watching and tries to get over the jolt of shock and grief.
Now we enter a new phase with Underground Zero, the first movie to be made and released after Sept. 11. Opening today at the Roxie Cinema (and on Friday at the Rafael Film Center and Fine Arts Cinema), it's a series of 13 short films inspired by the attacks, compiled by San Francisco filmmakers Jay Rosenblatt and Caveh Zahedi. Some are better than others, but the effect of seeing all 13 is powerful and cathartic, even necessary. It's not just that it's a good movie. I think we need it.
Think of Underground Zero as the bridge between the movies in theaters today and the movies we'll be seeing a year from now. Soon Hollywood will leave its pre-Sept. 11 state of happy oblivion and enter its other favorite state, happy denial. Underground Zero is a chance for audiences and, in a sense, for the art to take some time to breathe, to pause, acknowledge the tragedy and mourn.
It's a pause that, frankly, I've needed. Not long ago, I saw three movies in a single week that featured shots of the twin towers -- Death to Smoochy, World Traveler and Changing Lanes -- and each time felt as though wires were short-circuiting behind my eyes. There's nothing more present-tense in feeling than a brand-new movie, and so to see something irretrievably lost in such a context is more than disorienting. It feels like temporary madness. If this were only me, it wouldn't be worth mentioning, but in movie theaters I hear people all around gasping at these images -- not just gasping but sighing, almost moaning.
For years, the World Trade Center existed onscreen as a symbol of New York, as something outside time. Now we see those towers as buildings, filmed on a certain day at a certain time, with people inside them. Ten seconds of disorientation is not enough to process that change. We need at least one whole movie, and Underground Zero is that movie.
A Childs-Eye View
The picture begins with Frazer Bradshaw's The End of Summer. It's a curtain-raiser in which a little girl talks about Sept. 11 while shots of comfortable suburbia are shown onscreen.
It's followed by one of the highlight of the compilation, Robert Edwards' The Voice of the Prophet. The prophet is Rick Rescorla, the head of security for Morgan Stanley Dean Witter, a former Army colonel who was filmed in his office on the 44th floor of the trade center in July 1998.
Rescorla talks about his military record under Hal Moore of "We Were Soldiers" fame, then offers a cogent and prescient analysis of the geopolitical situation. "Hunting down terrorists," he says. "This will be the nature of war in the future." Without the opening title card, anyone would swear this was filmed after Sept. 11.
Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman are represented by Isaiah's Rap, in which their nephew Isaiah Gage stands on his TriBeCa rooftop and recites a rap inspired by the tragedy. It was filmed in November, and the hurt is still raw.
David Driver's A Strange Mourning documents a spontaneous patriotic demonstration that erupted at a Los Angeles intersection on Sept. 14, 2001.
Tension in S.F. Classroom
One of the most curious entries is Zahedi's The World Is a Classroom, which documents a film class he taught at the San Francisco Art Institute in the fall of 2001. It begins pre-Sept. 11, then shows how the class processes the tragedy and later almost fragments during Zahedi's clash with a student. At first we think, why are we watching this? What does this classroom bickering have to do with the trade center attacks? Then we remember how stressed out we all were in the aftermath of Sept. 11. The World Is a Classroom is a fascinating time capsule in which we see people so out of their minds with tension they don't even know they're tense.
Rosenblatt's Prayer uses found documentary footage of people of various cultures praying. It's strange and profound and the most moving piece in the compilation.
Other films, such as China Diary (911), Eva Ilona Brzeski's account of what it was like to be in China on the fateful day, are not nearly in the same league, but they don't, in the end, detract from the experience.
See Underground Zero to feel better. See it to feel worse. See it to feel whatever it is you're going to feel. This is a thoughtful compilation and a healing experience.
©2002 San Francisco Chronicle.