Grief Tied Up in Narrative Bows

The arts have failed to respond adequately to 9/11. Stephen Daldry’s new film is no exception

Film
Toy soldier: The unlikeable young Oskar from Stephen Daldry's film "Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close"

The arts — our challenging, insightful, edgy arts — have on the whole been a miserable failure as far as September 11, 2001 is concerned. Whether visual, literary, theatrical or cinematic, their interpretations have been crass, their insights banal, their attempts to illuminate simply irrelevant. The one exception perhaps is Paul Greengrass’s superb, documentary-style film recreation of what might have happened on flight United 93 before it hit the field in Pennsylvania. Otherwise, the only memorable cultural intervention is that of the late Karlheinz Stockhausen, who treated us to his view that the attack represented  “the greatest work of art there has ever been”, a statement most people would have started to regret while it was still halfway out of their mouths, but for which the German composer never apologised.

Perhaps the preoccupations of artists and novelists have become rather too small over the past few decades. Events — the fall of Communism, the death of multiculturalism — simply leave them behind now. They are like therapy patients who need time to come to terms with a recent trauma, the process of which is fascinating for them but tedious for anyone else listening. And when they finally produce something at the end of it, their “closure” is, similarly, usually crushingly predictable.

Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, Jonathan Safran Foer’s 2005 novel, explored the grief of Oskar Schell, a precocious 11-year-old, after the death of his father in the Twin Towers on what he refers to throughout the book only as “the Worst Day”. The new film adaptation, directed by Stephen Daldry, begins with glimpses of a figure drifting through a blue sky, and it’s obvious straight away that this is Schell senior falling to his death. But a very long two hours later, it has also become clear that, despite the 9/11 context, despite the way in which those events are forced to dominate much of the narrative, he could have been shown meeting his end in a car crash, or a hospital bed, or choking on a fishbone, and it would have made not a jot of difference to the story or the themes it purports to address.

The title of book and film — tricksy, knowing, the kind that tends to appeal to those looking for a certain fashionable smartness in their culture — should be a warning that this is a project with ideas way above its station. 9/11 is bolted on to what could otherwise be a straightforward account of the death of a parent and its effect on a child. Instead, there’s a straining for meaning, evidenced not just by the use of an epoch-defining event, but by the convoluted and frankly utterly implausible narrative.

Oskar, played by newcomer Thomas Horn, is super-bright, probably autistic, and thus given to inappropriate remarks and bad timing. We see in flashback his joshing, playful relationship with his father (Tom Hanks), which is based upon the gathering of arcane facts and little projects mutually undertaken, such as a quest to find the long-lost sixth borough of New York. In the aftermath of 9/11, Oskar discovers a key in an envelope marked “Black” amid his father’s personal effects and, convinced this means something important, determines to go on a city-wide search of all the “Blacks” he can find in the city phonebook. Looking on is his alienated, distant mother Linda (Sandra Bullock), a grandmother who lives across the street and her new, mysteriously mute tenant who may or may not be Oskar’s grandfather (played silently and beautifully by Max von Sydow).

The outcome of this journey is unspectacular, although we do learn something endearing about Linda, which comes as a much-needed fillip after having spent so much time in the company of a frankly quite unlikeable child (albeit one played by Horn with astonishing self-assurance). At various points, we see how Oskar reacted to the increasingly desperate phone messages left by his father in his last hours, but again this goes nowhere, and serves no purpose other than to pull at the heart strings, which, as the film makes its way to its peaceful end, would have grown quite tough in most people (mine certainly had).  

Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close is smooth, good-looking and immaculately performed. It is almost tasteful in its treatment, but tastefulness is not what one wants in these circumstances. Grief is messy, all over the place; it cannot be tied up in narrative bows as it is here. Such an approach has the opposite effect: it ends up being vulgar.   

Daldry’s movie is (inexplicably) among the nominations for this year’s Best Film Oscar. I wouldn’t have thought it would stand a chance, although by the time you read this all might have been revealed on that front. It’s cheering for me to be able to say (after a good few hours spent in the dark) that this one notwithstanding, the nominations reflect the high standard of many movies over the past year. 

The Descendants, Midnight in Paris, Moneyball are all worth the price of a ticket. And just in case you haven’t caught it yet, do see The Artist (whether or not it wins, it will be in cinemas for some time yet). Director Michel Hazanavicius’s black-and-white silent homage, not just to early cinema but to classics like Singing in the Rain and A Star is Born, could be described as a perfectly rendered artefact. Presented in the square format of that era, and set to a boisterous orchestral score, it is astonishingly sure-footed in its depiction and celebration of cinema’s first golden age. How reassuring it is that modern filmmakers know enough about their heritage to be able to carry off something like this with such skill and aplomb — and how encouraging that audiences have gone to see it in such numbers.