By Roger Copeland
Director’s Notes for The Unrecovered
The Unrecovered is a feature-length, fictional narrative film about the psychological aftermath of 9/11. The film’s title refers not only to the “unrecovered” bodies at ground zero, but also to the state of the nation-at-large. Set in that hallucinatory period of time between September 11 and Halloween of 2001, The Unrecovered examines the effect of terror on the human mind, the way a state of heightened fear, anxiety and/or alertness can cause the average person to make the sort of imaginative “connections” that are normally made only by two distinct categories of human being: artists and conspiracy theorists. In fact, by the end of the film, the audience is left to ponder some rather striking similarities between creativity and paranoia.
I think of The Unrecovered as a horror film with a lot on its mind. Indeed, I’ve long dreamed of a movie that would combine the tough-minded, analytical intelligence of Godard’s Two Or Three Things I Know About Her with the shape-shifting, personality-morphing, dream logic of Bergman’s Persona (arguably the most sophisticated vampire film ever made). An improbable marriage of Two or Three Things… and Persona-- that’s a pretty good description of what The Unreccovered aspires to be.
There have of course, been many fine documentaries about 9/11; but very few works of fiction have attempted to chart the ways in which the recurring images of that unimaginable day have burrowed their way into the nation’s collective unconscious. The Unrecovered takes us deep into the dream-life of three different characters; but it does this without losing sight of the public and political context in which these converging nightmares occur. News coverage of 9/11 on television, radio or the Internet provides a constant “background” against which are “fore-grounded” three different characters (who often absorb these streams of media imagery indirectly-- as if by osmosis.)
The film employs a collage-structure which repeatedly cuts back and forth between three separate narratives titled “Sound and Silence,” “Wings and Roots,” and “Fog and Friction.” The first focuses on an artist (a composer) struggling to create a musical work and a video diary about 9/11. The second story concerns a mother and daughter who were abandoned some years earlier by their husband/father. The third centers on a survivalist/millennialist/conspiracy theorist.
The three characters and their stories embody three fundamentally different interpretations of the film’s title: (e.g. The conspiracy theorist is convinced that 2001, not 2000 was the true “millennial” year and that the events of September 11, 2001 mark the beginning of “end times” as foretold in the Book of Revelations.) For him, the unrecovered bodies at ground zero have merely been wafted into heaven, as the initial stage of “The Rapture,” the climactic event that he believes will trigger the appearance of the Antichrist and the ensuing “Tribulation.” (How and why a devout evangelical Christian like himself was “left behind” is the question that propels his course of action in the film.)
The composer (who refers to himself as a “recovering formalist”) is very much an aesthete, but one who realizes that September 11th was one of those rare occasions when real life manages to put art on the defensive. He’s brave enough to acknowledge what a lot of artists felt (but were afraid to admit) in the immediate aftermath of 9/11: “envy for the death artists, envy of the sensory impact, global reach, and symbolic resonance of what the terrorists accomplished on September 11.” He’s especially obsessed with the (real life) comments of the composer Karlheinz Stockhausen who declared -- a mere five days after the attacks-- that the events in New York and Washington amounted to “the greatest work of art in Western History.”
By contrast, the twelve year old girl becomes fixated on the possibility that her missing father may have been living in Manhattan under an assumed name, working in the World Trade Center; and as a result, he may be among the “unrecovered” at ground zero. With the zeal of a modern-day Nancy Drew, she sets out to determine whether or not her father was killed on September 11th. Early in the film, she watches a documentary at school about the ritual origins of Halloween. She learns that “trick or treating” may have evolved from the ancient Celtic rite of Samhain when the spirits of those who died in the past year wander restlessly in search of bodies to inhabit. And she suspects that if her father was indeed killed on 9/11, then the most likely time for her to encounter his unrecovered spirit is on Halloween.
An obvious question: In what way(s) are the three stories “connected”? The audience (naturally) assumes that the narratives will eventually intersect; and many clues appear along the way suggesting that the answers to questions raised by one narrative strand may be found in one of the other two stories. Whether or not the characters really do cross paths with one another remains deeply (and intentionally) ambiguous, because the film is ultimately about the question : “What is and what isn’t, meaningfully connected post-9/11 in a fully globalized world?”
For the deeply paranoid conspiracy theorist, everything connects; there’s no such thing as a coincidence. For the composer, whose sensibility is dominated by detachment and irony, no two entities are inherently connected, except by virtue of the metaphors he devises in his art. This character is clearly an inhabitant of the digital age, an artist for whom the “cut and paste” icons on the computer constitute not just print commands, but a philosophy of life. At one point he declares “Cut and paste. I link, therefore I am.” Indeed, on one level, The Unrecovered is unabashedly a film about the nature of metaphor, which (as we learn from the composer’s video diary) derives from the Greek root “metapherein,” a transference of meaning which forges connections between otherwise disparate things or events). Ultimately The Unrecovered is about the way in which metaphor, post-9/11, is fed by meta-fear.
This helps explain why the composer seizes upon Edward Lorenz’s so-called Butterfly Effect (“Does the flap of a butterfly’s wings in Brazil set off a tornado in Texas?”) as the central metaphor for the way in which seemingly insignificant events in one isolated corner of a globalized world can generate major repercussions thousands of miles away. (Parenthetically, I might add that one of my chief ambitions in making this film has been to rescue the concept of “the butterfly effect” from the many banal and reductive uses popular culture has made of it in recent years.) And in an attempt to flesh out this metaphor, the composer performs a musical work by LaMonte Young in which a butterfly is turned loose in the performance area. When listeners complain that the butterfly makes no sounds, the composer objects strenuously, suggesting that it’s the audience’s responsibility to learn to hear the sounds the butterfly must surely-–at some decibel level--be making. “The tornado, that’s easy enough to recognize,” he argues, “but how do we learn to hear the sounds the butterfly makes when it flaps its wings?”
The question of what is and isn’t “connected” informs all aspects of this film-- its structure as well as its content. For example, quite deliberately, none of the action in The Unrecovered is set in Manhattan or Washington D.C.. This film is about characters whose connection to the events of 9/11 is entirely mediated by mass media. The Unrecovered evokes a world in which an actual visit to ground zero is likely to feel anti-climactic, a world in which the endlessly repeated, record-able , replay-able image of a thing is often destined to feel more authentic than the thing itself.
But… it also turns out that one of the characters may well be directly connected to one of the events that kept the nation in a state of rising anxiety in the weeks that followed September 11th. The conspiracy theorist (who dubs himself “The Bioevangelist”) becomes a self-professed avenging angel eager to speed-up the countdown toward “End Times.” There’s reason to suspect that this character may in fact be responsible for the anthrax deaths in October of 2001. Similarly, there’s also reason to suspect that the conspiracy theorist may be the twelve year old’s long-lost father.
The actual incidents of anthrax exposure began to mount in late October; and October 31, 2001 was probably the most anxiety-ridden night of trick or treating in recent memory. The Unrecovered reaches its emotional climax on Halloween, when the young girl–in- search-of-her -father does indeed experience an “encounter with the dead”--but not the encounter she had hoped for. The mental breakdown she suffers on Halloween night (when her identity appears to metamorphose into that of a teenage Palestinian suicide bomber) is designed to re-frame the film’s most central question in terms of the roots and branches of her family tree. Questions about “What is and what isn’t connected” morph into “Who is and isn’t related” in a post-911 world where the traditional notion of “roots” has given way to the more globalized concept of crisscrossing, globe-trotting “routes.”
Roger Copeland is Professor of Theater and Dance at Oberlin College in Ohio. His books include the widely used anthology, What Is Dance? and Merce Cunningham: The Modernizing of Modern Dance. His film Camera Obscura won the "Festival Award" at the Three Rivers Arts Festival in Pittsburgh in l985 and in 1989, Recorder, a video adaptation of his theater piece The Private Sector, was screened on WNET's "Independent Focus" series in New York City.