The attacks on the World Trade Center on Sept. 11 unleashed a nationwide surge of soul-searching and gestures of goodwill from an American public suddenly bonded by the tragedy.
Deborah Shaffer's documentary From the Ashes: 10 Artists & Epilogue takes that notion of redefined lives and objectives post-Sept. 11 and asks questions of a group of people who would seem to have a unique insight into the tragedy.
Commissioned by Austrian television, the documentary features interviews with 10 New York artists, musicians and performers (including Laurie Anderson, Jane Hammond and Pat Oleszko) whose studios or homes were located in downtown Manhattan where the greatest impact of the attacks was felt.
The result is a portrait of people who are, for the most part, so relentlessly self-absorbed, the tragedy only serves to display the limitations to compassion when talking about oneself proves far more pleasurable.
There are, of course, exceptions to the film's monotonous narcissistic drumbeat. Performance artist Oleszko is visibly shattered by the Sept. 11 experience and spends her time at Ground Zero assisting in the relief efforts. In one of the film's too few assertions of quirky artistic temperament, Oleszko talks about manufacturing a fake ID card that allowed her access to Ground Zero when bureaucratic rigamarole interfered with her desire to help. Oleszko is the person who most fulfills the filmmakers' ambition, to show not only how lives were changed by the attack, but how, perhaps, artwork changed, too. Encountered riding her bike through downtown Manhattan, looking still bleary, ashen and distraught, Oleszko says of her work: "My life as an artist is about playing the fool. And I'm trying to think how I could actually continue to do my work. It just doesn't seem possible."
In a similar vein, an eloquent Laurie Anderson goes past simple navel-gazing to contemplate deeper alterations of self, expressing her desire to learn more about the how and why of the anti-American hatred that led to the attacks.
Others express a newly awakened intellectual interest in the roots of the attacks. Joseph Rodriguez travels to the Middle East and witnesses that hatred first hand.
But too many of the artists shown in From the Ashes seem incapable of deeper reflection. Barbara Friedman expresses her trauma by dashing to the beauty salon to dye her blonde hair a dark red. As her hairdresser gravely intones in the self-serious manner of the perpetually clueless, "New beginnings ... I think that's what we're all after." Widows and orphans will be heartened to know that Miss Clairol can help them heal.
Video artist Skip Blumberg is also unconvincing in his essential angst, complaining that because his studio was near Ground Zero, he had to cancel a studio visit from the Museum of Modern Art. As if our blood is supposed to run ice-cold at the news.
Painter Jane Hammond, whose voice could curdle vinegar, takes time out from her canvas to admit that some horrific things did come out of Sept. 11. But there were some good things, too. For instance, Hammond trills without missing a beat, "My opening was fabulous."
From the Ashes is not an especially flattering vision of artists nor an enlightening film about Sept. 11. Like Hannibal Lecter, you don't want to knock around in these peoples' heads any more than you have to, certainly not for the 81 minutes Shaffer inflicts upon us.
People who may be good at assessing the minutia of their own artistic projects are not necessarily able to speak eloquently about affairs outside these professional interests.
In many cases, artists are our cultural soothsayers. But From the Ashes reveals, unintentionally it seems, that not all artists are blessed with the gifts of insight or empathy.