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From movies to sports, coming to terms with 9/11

By Todd Leopold, CNN
  • Pop cultural works have grappled with the impact of 9/11
  • Early works either reacted in shock or denial
  • More recent works have been more nuanced
  • Today, 9/11 has become a shorthand -- and even a special effect

(CNN) -- In the days after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, you heard the comment constantly: "It was like a movie."

Except it wasn't. Real people don't die in movies. If planes crash into skyscrapers, if buildings collapse and fall, it's all special effects, created on computers or rendered on models.

And it's over in two hours and we can all go back to normal life.

Not this time. There was no easy return to "normal life."

How do you come to terms with that?

Over the past 10 years, artists of all stripes have grappled with the question. To some extent, the expressions of emotion mirrored Elisabeth Kubler-Ross' famed stages of grief.

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First there was denial, as the twin towers were digitally removed from films and the painful subject generally avoided on television. (Indeed, not long after the attack, news networks such as CNN refrained from showing the most troubling images -- a restraint that, in general, continues to this day.) Then came anger, with revenge fantasies and defiantly heroic tales carrying the day.

As the day of the terrorist attacks has receded from view, authors, filmmakers, musicians and performers continue to sort out What It All Means. To some, the attacks have been an opportunity to examine the psyche of a terrorist. For others, 9/11 is a jumping-off point for looking at geopolitics, consumerism, cultural clashes and reaction under stress.

Yet, particularly in recent years, it's simply become part of the scenery, shorthand for a dividing line between Before and After, part of a historical continuum that includes the Hiroshima bombing, the Kennedy assassination and the fall of the Berlin Wall.

As Slate's Dana Stevens noted in her review of last summer's "Transformers: Dark of the Moon," it's even become a special effect. Chicago skyscrapers are destroyed in a way that evokes the collapse of the twin towers, complete with pieces of paper flying out the windows like dust.

Just like a movie.

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