August 29, 2011
For almost 30 years, the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center graced the New York skyline. They were 110 stories high and symbolized strength and optimism. The monumental complex in Lower Manhattan was at the heart of New York's financial center. But the towers were more than that. They became a landmark of popular culture. For three decades, they were showcased in more than 1,000 films. For Americans and people around the world, they became an emblem of New York and the entire USA.
In 1978, the world watched as Superman, the all-American hero, brought truth and justice to Metropolis. It was the first of the "Superman" films, showcasing Christopher Reeve as the red caped man of steel. New York's World Trade Center provided the background.
"It summarized a certain kind of American grandeur. Not the grandeur of old. Not the grandeur of tradition because they were so new and so modernist in their design," explains film critic David Sterritt. "But the grandeur, I would say, of sheer American powerfulness."
Hard to miss
For years film Sterritt lived next to the Twin Towers.
"I was never very fond of them architecturally," he admits. "However, they certainly are large. I guess for a while they were the tallest building in the world and it's kind of an American triumphalism here. You not only build the tallest building, but you build it twice!"
Sterritt says the sheer size of the buildings made them hard to miss.
The Twin Towers were also in the drama Wall Street as well as in the opening shots of Brian de Palma's The Bonfire of the Vanities.
Both films highlighted the arrogance and greed of Wall Street in the 1980s.
Mike Nichols's 1987 Working Girl depicts the Towers as a power center. But here, the Towers are a symbol of women's empowerment.
At the center of the story is Tess, a working class woman from Staten Island, a ferry ride away from Manhattan. She dreams of making it New York's financial district. She finally succeeds.
The 1979 re-make of King Kong has the giant ape climbing the Twin Towers, not the Empire State Building as in the original.
But the most dramatic stunt was in 1974, by the French high wire artist Philippe Petit. He secretly stretched a wire between the Twin Towers and walked on it for 45 minutes. The police were left to look on.
The 2008 documentary Man on Wire, captures the breathtaking stunt with photographs and original footage. It represented one man's power over the towering edifice.
The Towers also became linked to romance, like in the 1987 film Moonstruck which features the steel buildings in New York nostalgia. The story centers around Loretta Castorini, an Italian-American widow who falls in love with a one-handed baker in Brooklyn, played by Nicholas Cage.
In one poetic moment, a full moon shines over Loretta's quaint Brooklyn neighborhood, stirring the hearts of its Italian residents, while the Towers shimmer in the background.
Disaster movies also appropriated the Towers. In Roland Emmerich's 1996 Independence Day, aliens from another planet destroy, one by one, America's landmarks, including the World Trade Center.
"The Twin Towers have been destroyed in various disaster movies that were made before 9/11," notes film critic Sterritt. "That became something that you couldn't do even retroactively after 9/11."
In some cases, Sterritt says, filmmakers cut out scenes that showed the Towers so audiences wouldn't be upset.
One example can be found in footage from the 2002 movie Spiderman. Sterritt believes the cuts were patronizing. But New Yorkers have their own opinion. Here's what some at Ground Zero had to say:
"You know I lost some relatives there. So, it's a sad thought for me unfortunately," one man said.
"When I see them in a movie, I think it's wonderful and I love it and then when we were travelling and coming across from Jersey we look over it and we don't see it, there is a big gap and we miss it," a woman said.
David Sterritt says the gap is seen best in the 2002 crime drama 25th Hour by Spike Lee, a quintessential New Yorker.
The camera focuses on two parallel beams of light shining up from where the Towers once stood, an amputated New York still feeling its extremities.