Saturday, September 10, 2011

Make Me Ugly: 25th Hour and 9/11

There's been a lot of discussion recently about films and other art works related to 9/11. Allow me to put in a word here for what I consider to be not just the best film about 9/11, but the best film of its respective decade, period: Spike Lee’s 25th Hour. A film that, despite its measly box office and rapid fade from theaters, still keeps popping up in the cultural conversation, with many defenders as well as quite a number of haters. This isn't really meant to be a defense of the film (many more eloquent than I have made the case for it) but I do want to address one aspect of it.

Although the film opens with images of Ground Zero and is set against the backdrop of the period following the attacks, many feel that 25th Hour has relatively little to do with 9/11 -- that the topicality feels welded on, and awkwardly at that. The film is based on a novel written pre-9/11 (I haven’t read it) and as such the attacks and their aftermath do not seem to directly figure into the plot. Indeed, in interviews, Lee has said that the reason he brought 9/11 into the film was really simple: He was shooting a movie about New York, in New York, and it seemed absurd not to. Others have said that the 9/11 backdrop gives the film an Open City-type feel, the sense of history intruding in on a narrative and into the very fabric of a film. And certainly, the sense of devastation in post-9/11 New York enhances the desperation and desolation of the central story – not to mention its foregrounding of the city’s many ethnic and social enclaves (the characters at its center all seem to represent different social and/or ethnic strata –Wall Street hotshots, well-meaning intellectuals, club kids, Russian mobsters, etc.).

But allow me to suggest that 25th Hour is about 9/11 in more direct, profound ways, too.

I need you to make me ugly.” Those are the words convicted drug dealer Monty Brogan (Ed Norton) utters to his friends in the film’s climactic scene. Monty has just lived his last night as a free man before beginning a seven-year stint in Otisville prison. And he wants his friends to pummel his face in so that he’s not so good looking when he goes behind bars in a few hours; he doesn’t want to be the pretty boy who gets raped.

Many have taken this scene quite literally. To them 25th Hour basically devolves into a movie about a criminal who is afraid of getting raped when he goes to prison. Some have also suggested (I’d say ludicrously) that the film is indulging in gay panic, as if prison rape is supposed to be an opportunity to broaden one’s horizons or something. The film is certainly about maleness to some degree – there’s a lot of talk about eligibility, families, and lineage. (I’d argue that the 9/11 backdrop enhances this breathless, almost survivalist atmosphere as well – this is one of those rare films where male-female sexual dynamics are directly tied into survival, as if the thick air of catastrophe has suddenly brought things into ruthless focus for everyone.)

But there’s more to it than that, and it gets to the heart of why this film is, in fact, about 9/11 on a deeper level. Let’s rewind a bit: In an earlier scene shot (in one single take) against the smoldering ruin of Ground Zero, Monty’s friends Frank (Barry Pepper) and Jakob (Philip Seymour Hoffman) discuss their friend’s impending fate: “I love him like a brother, but he fucking deserves it,” says Frank, to Jakob’s shock. Both of them understand, however, that Monty has wasted the opportunities given to him; they were all friends at the prestigious private school where Jakob still teaches, where Monty first got his start dealing. Over and over, all throughout the film, the notion of Monty having thrown away a promising life, and his friends’ silent complicity in it, is brought up. Later, Frank corners Monty’s girlfriend Naturelle (Rosario Dawson) in a club about the fact that they let him do this to himself:
"What’d I do to stop him? What did I say to him? Nothing…Last ten years I’ve been watching him get deeper and deeper…I didn’t say shit. I just sat there and watched him ruin his life. And you did, too. We all did."
Even Monty realizes the waste he’s brought to his own life. In what might be the film’s most powerful and notable scene (to be fair, there are a couple of other candidates), he delivers an extended tirade in front of a bathroom mirror in which he tells basically everybody in New York and around the world to go fuck themselves, one by one. 

Everyone who’s seen the film knows the scene – he kicks off with the squeegee men, moves on to Pakistani cab drivers, aging uptown socialites, Jewish jewelers, Korean grocery owners, then winds his way to corrupt cops and Al Qaeda, before turning to (and on) his friends and family, finally ending with himself. But right before he does that, Monty unleashes his most toxic vitriol on the city itself, every corner of it, using language of such eloquent loathing it would make Travis Bickle blush:
"Fuck this whole city and everyone in it. From the row-houses of Astoria to the penthouses on Park Avenue, from the projects in the Bronx to the lofts in Soho. From the tenements in Alphabet City to the brownstones in Park Slope to the split-levels in Staten Island. Let an earthquake crumble it, let the fires rage, let it burn to fucking ash and then let the waters rise and submerge this whole rat-infested place… No. Fuck you Montgomery Brogan. You had it all and you threw it away, you dumb fuck."
So later, when Monty finally asks Frank to kick his face in, he's not just asking for a favor from a friend, he’s asking for the punishment he knows he should have had all along: “I think you can,” he says to the protesting Frank. “You know what, I think you want to, too, a little bit. You think I deserve it a little bit. For years you’ve been giving me that look, like you want to smack some sense into me. This is your chance. I need it, Frank.”

In other words, this scene, in the context of the film, isn't about rape at all; it’s about self-annihilation. In order to actually get Frank to actually beat him up, Monty has to threaten Jakob with violence. He needs to lash out in order to inflict damage on himself. That echoes the “Fuck you” mirror scene in its trajectory – the same way Monty had to express his hatred of the world to work his way back to himself, Monty has to attack the helpless Jakob.

This strange brand of self-annihilation and loathing, this deep need to be “made ugly” in order to find salvation – or to even have any hope of finding salvation – seems to me to be the key to the film’s 9/11 metaphor. It’s not one to take too literally – Lee has plenty of incendiary political beliefs, but I don’t think he’s necessarily making a 1:1 comparison between New York City or America and an entitled drug dealer. Rather, this is a manifestation of the idea that 9/11 “made us ugly” – that is to say, hurt us and stripped us of our illusions. It broke us but also, maybe, allowed what remains of us to survive. It's an unforgiving and cruel calculus, to be sure, but it does allow a glimmer of hope. And it’s this dynamic that fuels the very first scene of the film, wherein Monty finds a wounded dog left for dead and takes it in, eventually naming him Doyle.

From that first scene with the battered Doyle, we go to the opening credits, featuring the “Tribute by Light” at Ground Zero. The final image of the film is the final part of this triumvirate: Monty’s bloody, bruised visage leaning against his father’s car window, his cratered face a map of his own self-loathing. Thus, the broader arc of the film draws the connection explicitly – from a broken animal, to a broken city, to, finally, a broken man. We are all ugly now.


  1. Hey -- the movie's title is 25th Hour, not The 25th Hour.

  2. Ack. I never pay attention to such things. Thanks for correction.

  3. The best film of it's respective decade eh? First and last time I read THIS blog.

  4. I wholeheartedly agree with you on this one. This has always been my favorite Spike Lee film, and I also chose it as my #1 of the past decade. Great article!

  5. I really enjoyed this post, there is so much in it I agree with. I'm writing a chapter of my PhD thesis on post-9/11 cinema specifically about 25th Hour, working on similar terms on the subtextual contents of the movie. I was feeling equally dissatisfied with the existing critical analysis of masculinity in the film, and I feel totally vindicated! Thanks.

  6. An excellent movie (I wouldn't necessarily call it the best, but I think it's definitely one of the most important of the decade). And thanks for linking to me above (I discovered this post via a trackback).

    What strikes me about your "make me ugly" point is that ultimately America went in a different direction than Monty in this regard - burying its head in the sand so to speak. Essentially you could say we turned down the GW Bridge and headed west, escaping into the fantasy his dad weaves as movie's end instead of facing the music. The analogy is inexact, as I'm not trying to suggest an analogous culpability between 9/11 and Monty's drug bust - rather the "accountability" I'm thinking of is psychological, in the nature of dealing with and facing a trauma rather than ignoring it.

    That's why this film is so valuable: Lee was one of the filmmakers to grapple with one of the most earth-shattering events of his time (and of course he's done this repeatedly with contemporary historical phenomena, what with the Rodney King footage in Malcolm X & the Katrina doc). And I love his "well, duh" justification for doing so; I wish more directors thought that way - and had his ability to weave the subject into his story so deftly (I think writer David Benioff, who worked on the adaptation of his own novel, deserves credit here too - while I thought the U.S. version of Brothers, which he also worked on, somewhat overwrought, it also showed signs of having one's ear to the ground).

    Over time - and it seems this is already becoming the case - I think this will increasingly be looked at as a crucial American film of the 00s, maybe the crucial American film at least in relation to society.

  7. I keep coming back to this piece, Bilge. It's fucking brilliant.

  8. Excellent review of a great and greatly under-praised movie. You have a way with words.