July 30, 2003
Reflections on the Twin Towers in the movies and on movie acting – why facelessness can be a virtue

The other night I watching a rather silly movie called Pushing Tin, which is about insanely neurotic air traffic controllers – in other words the exact sort you do not ever want to be controlled by. As I say, rather silly, even if the background facts it all sprang from so insanely may have been accurate, for all I know. Anyway, my point here is that the very first shots of the movie, and the very last shot of all, right where it said The End, all had New York's now famously absent Twin Towers in them.

Like – I'm guessing – literally millions of others, every time I have watched a movie since 9/11, I have kept a special eye out for those towers, and it is astonishing – truly astonishing – how often they appear in movies. In Woody Allen's Manhattan, they even appeared in the title graphics, as the two ts of Manhattan.

American movies being American movies, any "symbolism" involved in such shots as these is kept at arms length. It's there for the movie buffs, but no character ever steps forward to explain it. That sort of self-consciously artistic art is not allowed in the American art of popular movie making. Nevertheless, those Twin Towers definitely meant a lot, to a lot of people.

If there had only been one Tower, as I seem to recall there once was before the second one got built, I seriously doubt if it would have been missed that much. It was the way there were two of them that really got to people, and made everyone miss them so. (Question: what would have been the reaction if only one of the towers had got knocked down?)

Often the Twin Towers appear for the simple reason that when they existed, they were the most striking feature of the New York skyline. They didn't symbolise anything. They were just there, along with the rest of the city.

But on other occasions, it seems to me, the Twin Towers were used in movies to evoke and to symbolise and echo that most elemental of human experiences, the partnership. As I say, I can't quote you chapter and verse where someone actually says this, but that's how it looks to me.

Usually, that partnership is the one that dominates movies (and especially the kind of soppy chick flick movies I generally like best), the partnership between a man and a woman. But I don't think that what makes the Twin Towers such an appealing representation of human partnership is to do with sex, or romance, or not in the superficial sense of those notions. The Twin Towers were not about sex, or about romantic dinners for two. I think what was appealing about the Twin Towers was their absolute and uncompromising equality.

Underneath all truly effective partnerships, sexual, romantic or any other kind, there lurks absolute equality. Sexually you may be different. What you each do during the day may be different. But a true partnership is a partnership of equals. And those two towers were absolutely equal.

This was emphasised by the extreme blandness of the shape of each tower. The Twin Towers spoken to the inner essence of the human experience, rather than to its outside idiosyncrasies. This is what souls look like on Judgement Day. Faceless.

Take those other Twin Towers, the Petronas Towers in Kuala Lumpur. They are equal as well, but they is so much else going on with them, and above all so much in the way of surface decoration, that they don't have anything like the same universality or innerness – not to me. Also, they are holding hands in a somewhat co-dependent way, which for me slightly spoils the universality of the partnership symbolism. The Twin Towers stood entirely separate, structurally. Each was utterly self-supporting. Yet there were both were together, manifestly sharing life together. Perfect Partners.

Stay with me.

There is also something rather faceless about the most successful film stars. Often their faces are nothing remarkable, and the most characteristic thing that the most successful film stars often do with their faces is: nothing. They simply present them, blankly, "facelessly", and onto that blank the audience projects its own concerns and interpretations.

Modern architecture. Faceless. Modern movie acting. Also "faceless".

Old time acting (British theatrical acting): full of frills and gestures, to get its message across to the folks in the top row at the theatre.

New style movie acting (American): no frills. The face is so huge that it doesn't have to do anything. It can just be there. It communicates effortlessly, by erecting a blank slate upon which the audience scribbles its emotions.

Old time architecture: … New style architecture: …

The idea that the facelessness of big modern architecture might actually be a major part of its appeal is not one that I have ever spelt out to myself in so many words, yet I do believe that it is so.

I'd never thought of this stuff quite like this before, and I'm sure I'm not the first. But interesting, I think.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 01:25 PM
Category: ArchitectureMovies