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Reign Over Me

Affirming the Negative    


The polemical and the therapeutic – are these the two most likely cinematic approaches to take in relation to 9/11? Where the documentaries generally offer a polemical tone as in Fahrenheit 9/11, No End in Sight, The Power of Nightmares and Uncovered: The War on Iraq, have fiction films tried to minimise the political angle as much as possible; have they tried to make it a human issue?

Of course one could claim this is simply the difference between hard news and soft-fiction, and that where documentary covers the broader perspective; fiction picks up the human pieces. But one can hardly claim recent documentaries have ignored the human – perhaps part of documentary’s recent success has lain in its capacity to offer the intimacy of fiction: Etre et Avoir, Grizzly Man, Touching the Void are all successfully humanized docs. And does Fahrenheit 9/11 not play on the human element in between the polemical – as we notice with the woman who’s lost her son in Iraq? By the same token, doesn’t United 93 have an element of logistical precision, as it moves from the plane, to the airport, to the military, to understand the event?

Let’s suggest though that what we want from 9/11 fiction is not the politically provocative – which can sometimes feel an awful lot like cynical opportunism – but the traumatically ‘therapeutic’. In this we could argue that Dogville, Elephant and Hidden (which have no direct interest in 9/11) are more intriguing and more radical works than United 93, and World Trade Centre, if we think of the degree of visual and narrative trauma they generate.

However, a perfectly pleasant film like Reign over Me almost utilises 9/11 as narrative conceit, and yet surprisingly offers an interesting perspective on it as a consequence. It provides Adam Sandler’s character with the necessary past to avoid confronting himself when his friend, Don Cheadle, sees him for the first time in years: it gives the buddy movie and, as we’ll show, the romantic comedy, some intriguing twists. This utilisation of generic elements isn’t at all to damn the film; actually we want to explore it for the way it arrives at the affirmative in almost a Cavellian sense, where that great philosopher of optimism, Stanley Cavell, insists in Philosophy the Day after Tomorrow “…that humankind would rather praise the void than be void of praise”, or later quotes St Matthew: “A man is rich in proportion to the number of things he can afford to let alone.” These are affirmations out of the apparently pessimistic, and Reign over Me is nothing if not a film that tries to affirm the negative. This is in some ways consistent with an American can-do cinematic spirit that turns the Holocaust into a feel-good weepie (Schindler’s List), or WWII into an exploration of American goodness (Saving Private Ryan), but we want to propose it is slightly more than that, no matter the admittedly key emotional moment when Sandler tells his in-laws why he can’t seem to confront his daughter and his son’s death in one of the planes – that he sees 9/11 on the faces of people he passes on the Manhattan streets. It is a moment likely to move an audience to the point of tears, and whether it is the therapeutic element of Reign over Me, the heroism of World Trade Centre, or the sacrifice of United 93, the films try to claw something positive out of the barely imaginable.

If we feel that World Trade Centre and United 93 conform to Spielberg’s false optimism, while Reign over Me affirms the negative, we perhaps need to say that there is a suspect, often heroic false optimism that sustains the collective, and another form of optimism, in affirming the negative, that sustains the individual. In the former there is symbolic fabrication as the collective values are sustained out of the heroic gesture: Schindler’s List, Saving Private Ryan, United 93 and World Trade Centre all play up the gesture that tells us either Man is Good, or the United States strong. Reign Over Me less ambitiously and yet more optimistically proposes something closer to the St Matthew comment above. How can Sandler’s character absorb a devastating loss, a loss that needs merely to be absorbed – not sublimated into the grand themes of the goodness of man or the strength of the United States?

So whether it is the therapeutic element of Reign over Me, the heroism of World Trade Centre or the sacrifice of United 93, the films try and show something positive out of the apparently unimaginable. Yet Reign over Me does so with this almost Cavellian sense of optimism, a daring optimism, rather than the predictable heroism or sacrifice of Paul Greengrass and Oliver Stone’s film. Sure, Reign over Me is no Elephant, Hidden or Dogville, films that accept an event – whether it is the killing spree in Dogville and Elephant, the suicide in Hidden – contains a troubling, inexplicable dimension. One might say the 9/11 films are trying to do the opposite: to make the event explicable. Indeed they do exactly that, but this is where we need to try to extricate the affirmation of Reign over Me from the ready containment of the heroic and the sacrificial in the other films.  The key line in United 93 is the supposedly actually uttered “let’s roll” – a statement that resembles “business as usual”, or “a man’s got to do what a man’s got to do”. It banalises the situation. It is the opposite of a neologism; it is simply a cliché – and now enters the culture as a mythic phrase about dignity and sacrifice. In contrast, probably the key line in Elephant is the closing “eeny, meeny, miny moe” – a deeply self-conscious cliché (both on the character and on the director’s part) that becomes, if you like, neo-logical: it creates a new context for an established nursery rhyme. It is a horrifyingly neological statement, of course, but original in the context in which it is used. The killer is choosing which of two students he will kill as the camera retreats from the scene.

Obviously it could be argued that the passengers in United 93 were offering a fresh usage out of a stale statement  – and an heroic one versus the evil one offered by the killer at the end of Elephant. However, the question here isn’t about good and evil – there we would be in Bush territory – but the need to comprehend the nature of the event. To superimpose good on an event when the event itself requires an understanding of the non-good, means that the problem isn’t being addressed, and this is part of our sense of unease over “let’s roll”.

Thus so far we’ve looked at three things: the idea that 9/11 was a traumatic moment that has been better dealt with by films that haven’t actually focused on 9/11 than those that have; Secondly, the importance of the troublesome statement over ready cliché, and thirdly documentary versus fiction.

But here we’re going to change tack and ignore the significance of Dogville, Hidden and Elephant – amongst the key films of their decade – and focus more specifically on this most therapeutic and optimistic of 9/11 films. Reign over Me would seem the opposite of what we admire in Hidden etc. as it fits 9/11 into the genres of the buddy movie and the romantic comedy. Yet one of Reign over Me’s admirable qualities lies in this very idea: its determination to take an horrific real event and fit it into the unreal universe of the ‘rom-com’. This isn’t to say the romantic comedy has no interest in the real world – think of how You’ve Got Mail commented on the death of small businesses next to large chain stores; and When Harry Met Sally cued into the idea of women’s pleasure with its famous faked orgasm scene. Neither film could have been made forty years before, no matter that You’ve Got Mail was a remake of A Shop Around the Corner; which is merely to say that the romantic comedy can absorb the social whilst retaining the overwhelmingly optimistic. Yet how can Reign over Me possess that sense of optimism when hovering over it, reigning over it, is 9/11? How can the film allow us to forget 9/11 to achieve the necessary feel-good ending?

Structurally oriented critics might look at parallelism, at the way Sandler’s crisis is matched on a micro-scale by the woman he becomes besotted by, played by Saffron Borrows. Both are in crisis: he’s lost his wife and child and her husband had been having a long term affair with another woman. These have been worlds turned upside down, where the other couples in the film – Cheadle and his wife; the in-laws – have only had their lives turned sideways. Both couples are having mild marital problems in relation to Sandler walking into their lives in the former instance; Sandler not coming to terms with their daughter and grandson’s death in the latter. There is the further parallelism of course as the couples still together are on learning curves of mutual understanding, while Sandler and Burrows are on a recovery mission.

Now Sandler’s spent years looking to avoid the outside world, while Borrows seems determined to get into somebody trouser’s: namely, initially, Cheadle’s, as she books appointments in his dental practise with no other purpose than to lure him onto sex. But this is where all the rhyming narratives give way to something a bit more substantial: the idea that it may take mutual loss to achieve mutual gain. It is a nice coincidence that Burrows would be attuned to Sandler, but this shouldn’t be viewed as necessarily a new level of implausibility in the meeting cute stakes, but as a deeply – as opposed to a superficially plausible – meeting of minds and souls.

For Burrows’ initial interest in Cheadle would fall into the category of infatuation; infatuation as a shallow feeling based less on carefully observed emotional deduction; but closer to projective inference. When she finds herself attracted to Cheadle’s dentist, she does so based not on any perceived emotional pain she might see, but on his superficial professional and personal qualities. He seems a man accomplished; married children etc. She projects onto a man without specific qualities, as if trying to escape her own specific problems. Sandler happens to be a man who much more shares those ‘qualities’ of loss.

Both Sandler and Burrows are the opposite of Cheadle; they are loose-end characters, characters for whom stress matters less than loneliness, and so their connection to Cheadle can’t really give them what they want, because Cheadle’s life is already too full of responsibilities. He’s beholden to his wife, his children, the dental practise where his colleagues watch over his every move, and now also responsible for Sandler. When Sandler suggests they watch a Mel Brooks all-nighter, Cheadle is half-enthusiastic, half-petrified. When he gets home in the later than early hours, his wife is quick to chastise him for his stop-out behaviour. At another moment Sandler inopportunely turns up as the whole family is about to have breakfast.

How do two friends, no matter if they’ve been buddies for years, communicate if one has a life full of responsibilities, and the other full of ‘irresponsibilities’: Sandler has money from an insurance pay out, he turns up casually for breakfast at Cheadle’s, and thinks nothing of insulting a psychoanalyst friend of Cheadle’s when the three of them go for lunch in a café. Sure, near the end of the film Cheadle has his affirmative moment – telling his fellow dental practitioners that he isn’t going to be told what to do considering he did more than anybody else to get the firm going: he started the firm and he can hire and fire who he likes. But generally Cheadle proves to be for both Sandler and Burrows a false diagnosis – they may believe their loneliness can be alleviated by someone who is himself not lonely, but it is much more a case of two wrongs – two lonelinesses- making for Mr and Mrs Right.

And it is here where we can once again find the absurd optimism. It reminds one of that other 9/11 film of pure affirmation – a Sean Penn short, where Ernest Borgnine’s plant comes to life after the sun was blocked out by the twin towers, and is now suddenly alive to the incoming sunlight. Where United 93 and World Trade Centre offer melancholic, tragically heroic pessimism, or docs like Fahrenheit 9/11, Power of Nightmares and Uncovered: The War on Iraq polemicize the political situation, Reign over Me actually proposes 9/11 as a melancholy event in the past that leads to a meaningful event in the present, and it is the present that matters.

Now this may result in a sense of misplaced priorities: in films like The English Patient and A Very Long Engagement, for example, the romantic projections of the characters seem to trivialize the World Wars (the second and first respectively) that become merely a backdrop. We may feel socio-politically short-changed by the enormous event as emotional back projection to a minor event – namely a love story. But how can we square our admiration for Reign Over Me’s optimism against the apparently similar trivialities in the other romances? How can we now defend the tunnel vision perspective on 9/11 where the tragedy is irrelevant next to Sandler and Burrow’s burgeoning romance? Without too much difficulty, if we take into account that where The English Patient and A Very Long Engagement play out their projects around the time of the war, Reign over Me is very much set several years after 9/11. If anything, Sandler can’t recover because, as we’ve said above, he sees September 11 on the faces of many of the people whom he passes on the streets. Reign over Me may want overt optimism (and seeks it out where The English Patient, for example settles for the tragic) but its optimism nevertheless contains far more realization than Minghella’s film’s pessimism. Not just the optimism is earned, we feel, but the romance as well. It is earned because we believe these aren’t so much two characters forgetting their past lives (as we find in The English Patient, where Scott Thomas’s character cheats on her husband; Ralph Fiennes ignores the war), but the film suggests they’ll bond because of these past lives – aren’t they both in therapy to explore their very existence? This is the opposite of denial. And central to this sense of admittance on Sandler’s part is confronting his own loss. Thus for us to say that September 11 is a backdrop to the foregrounded emotions would be to misconstrue the difference between The English Patient and Reign over Me. One wants woozy denial; the other therapeutic confrontation.

It is in fact, no matter the absurdity of the comparison, closer to Alain Resnais’ masterful Hiroshima, mon Amour, if not in genius of form, at least partially in content. For if we’ve talked of misplaced priorities in The English Patient, what about the idea of replaced priorities? Where Resnais and screenwriter Marguerite Duras reckon there is some equivalence between humiliation in Nevers where the central female character was brought up and where she had an affair with a German soldier during the war that she was punished for, and the Japanese man’s near escape in Hiroshima where the rest of his family were killed, here we have the equivalence of Burrows and Sandler’s emotional turmoil sharing some similar principle.

Does this not make Reign over Me Hiroshima, Mon Amour lite? Undeniably, and this is not necessarily an insult; it is simply a way of locating the lightness and yet underpinning purposefulness to this very minor film. It is a movie that wants to do little more than achieve a kind of therapeutic sense of affirmation. It is an affirmation that is peculiarly American and that’s why we’ve invoked Cavell. When Cavell writes in Philosophy the Day after Tomorrow about screwball comedies in the thirties and forties, or the notion of praise in a Fred Astaire musical, he searches out a sense of the affirmative similar to affirming the negative that allows for nothing less than a form of joy. As he says, “Astaire has shown the acknowledgment of his debt [to black culture as his character dances with a Black shoe shiner] in a way that has required a lifetime of faithfulness to achieve. Nobody does what Astaire does better than Astaire does it. It is in its transcendent accomplishment of black dancing. It hurts that his work changes nothing in the conditions of injustice under which the debt has been incurred.”

This is Cavell defending Astaire and The Band Wagon against criticisms by Michael Rogin in Black Face and White Noise, where Rogin attacks the dance number for the way it is acknowledgement as domination. Cavell reckons that “Rogin’s violence of attitude, understandable as it may be…does not allow him to recognize that Astaire’s dance of praise is itself to be understood specifically as about this painful and potentially deadly irony of the white praise of a black culture whose very terms of praise it has appropriated…” Here Cavell insists upon a sort of sophisticated naivety, where Rogin’s rage attack, which is ostensibly a sophisticated reading, can be countered with a no less sophisticated though apparently naïve reading on Cavell’s part. Is this a sort of ‘naïve sophistication’ we’re trying to find here; an optimistic hermeneutic but not finally an especially naïve one because the naivety is addressed? As Cavell writes of the notion of praise in The Band Wagon, we recognize often an affirmation that finds itself paradoxically earned, whether that is the humour and goal-oriented behaviour out of divorce (a la His Girl Friday, Mr and Mrs Smith), central to his work in comedies of remarriage in Pursuits of Happiness, or the praise he sees in Astaire’s dance with the shoe shiner in The Band Wagon.

Perhaps we invoke Cavell to try and give gravity to an optimism that needn’t be mindless but instead mindful, and so that we needn’t dismiss Reign over Me for its romantic comedy conventions in relation to September 11 tragedy. For the film works quite hard to suggest a post 9/11 Manhattan where people like Cheadle carry on in life as though 9/11 never happened. The stress in Cheadle’s life is exactly the same as it would have been before: the problem of juggling family with work commitments; a conjuring act possible until Sandler comes once again into his life and we witness Sandler’s internal stress against Cheadle’s external pressure. Cheadle’s character arc is small: he needs to do little more than learn how to assert himself with the right people; he shouldn’t take advantage of his wife’s sense of responsibility – staying out all night as she looks after the kids – but should assert himself with his work colleagues.

Thus Cheadle’s arc is minimal; Sandler’s optimal – optimistically optimal if we take into account what we’ve said so far about September 11 and Reign over Me’s determination to incorporate the event into the genre’s possibilities, and perhaps it manages to do so by keeping the romance chiefly until the third act. It becomes problematic because of a late complicating action that doesn’t come out of the evolving romance, but out of Sandler’s crisis rising to the surface. In the grand Sandler tradition of anger mismanagement, Sandler loses the plot one evening as an outburst leads him to pull a gun on the police, and a court case ensues.

This gives the film its act of suspense, but it is a complicating action because without it we might have assumed Sandler and Burrows would smoothly move towards couple-dom. Yet the film probably needs this complicating action to move them towards becoming a couple in the first place. Burrows, who knows Cheadle because she came onto him in a moment of desperation in his dental surgery, ends up sharing the same psychologist (Liv Tyler), and thus also the same psychologist as Sandler – Cheadle recommends Tyler to Sandler. What the court case can do is provide the plausible back story to show the complex behaviour resides in a complicated life, and Burrows, always at a loose end, attending the case daily, witnesses a man working from a painful place so much more deeply entrenched than her own. Yet this also reflects her pain, captured well in a few reaction shots as the film cuts to her on several occasions during the case.

So far we’ve used a number of terms that place the film in a well-crafted, quite predictable Hollywood tradition: character arcs, parallelism, complicating actions and back stories. But what we’re also trying to do is ally these traditions to an element of affirmation that’s quite philosophical, than can take Cavell’s idea of an optimistic philosophy he finds running through so many classic Hollywood films, and wonder why a romantic comedy can more successfully confront 9/11 than any number of serious films on the same subject, be they fiction or documentary.

Perhaps one of the problems with the heroism of United 93 and World Trade Centre is that it lends itself too easily to Bushism – to a vainglorious sense of American values. When for example Oliver Stone includes an ex-marine who believes America’s at war and immediately goes to New York, and ends up helping the firemen trapped under the World Trade Centre, this carries less than pacifist connotations. This is a moment of affirmation as well, but it contains within it a belligerence Stone curiously doesn’t confront. As far as he’s concerned, in the DVD commentary that accompanies the film, it was simply an extraordinary fact – but its inclusion carries a whiff of war-mongering. When the ex-marine says we’re at war, there is nothing in Stone’s film at this stage to counter with the idea that it is a terrorist attack and not a war situation. At face value, it would seem the film is vindicating what the character says. Ditto, United 93, where ‘let’s roll’ sounds remarkably like an all-American war cry.

How to affirm without heroizing is really the question we’re asking, and that we feel Reign over Me modestly answers. And this answer resides in an affirmation that is more Buddhist than Bushist, more pacifist than belligerent, and immanent within the character rather than present in the situation. When the ex-marine in Stone’s film knows what a man’s gotta do, there is no immanence and no pacifism – there is simply action. The very action that chimes with Bush’s remit, and is thus consistent with an aggressive foreign policy as the US  bombed Afghanistan and Iraq while many Americans were still wondering why the US was attacked at all. Bush, instead of addressing the problematic, saw the attack as a problem that needed quick resolution, and instead, of course, exacerbated the problem. Bush’s response was obviously not imminently pacifist but belligerently reactive. What genres, we’re almost asking, can allow for the immanently pacifistic in relation to September 11, or, if we must have the opposite of affirmation – as in the films we’ve suggested capture something of the trauma of 9/11, like Elephant – how can the reactive belligerence be contained as a problematic?

To de or re-problemitize, that is the question, or not so much de-problematize as assume the problem is less great than the solution. This isn’t at all to say that Reign over Me believes Sandler’s crisis is more important than 9/11, but it is to say that one can recover from 9/11 in numerous ways, and that revenge is merely an option, hardly a necessity. We might assume that Sandler’s anger is a form of revenge not taken, that much of his frustration resides in doing nothing about his wife and child’s deaths. But what can be done about them; and Reign over Me suggests nothing can be. Its reality needs much more to be absorbed than to be reacted against. Stockhausen’s famous comment about 9/11 being an astonishing work of art perhaps needs to be read in this way: it is an event that should be understood the way we try and understand a particularly complex art work. When Bush and co suggest their policies are faith rather than reality based, it is the antithesis of the film’s perspective – where reality must be confronted and anger controlled. When Sandler pulls the gun out on the cops it is a classic example of mis-placed anger, and the film sees it for what it is. Obviously the incident suggests Sandler’s not dangerous, per se, but there is a kind of intermediate danger, where he’s no longer in complete denial, but neither has he yet confronted reality. It is interesting that he is often at his angriest and most frustrated when confronted – by a psychologist or others – with the reality of the past. We can see how a faith based solution to a reality based problem can look when winnowed down to the individual.

We could stretch a point and say Reign over Me is an allegory of the US’s response to 9/11 – denial and anger — yet with a twist of optimism. But that isn’t especially useful. What is pertinent is that the film finds a way not to allegorise the problem, but contain it, contain it within the strictures and structures of genre, and one of the most optimistic genres at that.  Where World Trade Centre and the more impressive but still limited United 93 represent the issue directly and politically, where Fahrenheit 9/11, The Power of Nightmares, No End in Sight  and Uncovered: The War on Iraq, broadly politically and polemically look at the build up and aftermath, and Dogville, Elephant and Hidden manage, intentionally or not, to comprehend pessimistically an aspect of it, Reign over Me, a minor film, nevertheless seems to take the problem of 9/11 into a fresh and more optimistic direction.


©Tony Mckibbin