Comparisons of 9.11 with digital disasters in blockbuster films abound. The collapse of the Twin Towers was quickly linked to film scenes such as the destruction of the White House by aliens in Independence Day. In staging such sensational acts of destruction for the media, Al Qaeda terrorists also participate, of course, in the Western capitalist spectacle they profess to abhor. Terrorism’s role within the spectacle has been imaginatively conceptualized in Retort’s Afflicted Powers. But as Guy Debord argued, this ‘inconceivable foe’ is also constructed by the West itself: ‘the story of terrorism is written by the state’.footnote1 What remains underdeveloped is the analysis of the ‘perpetual present’ of the contemporary spectacle through which that tale is told, and the temporal politics which constitute it. This present is ruled by media events, structured in turn by a dialectic of suspense and surprise; it is through their manipulation of time that the larger historical picture is obscured. Under threat of terrorism, bloody surprises are accompanied by a sustained—or sometimes nagging, low-key—suspense, that can be perpetuated for weeks, months or even years on end. Historically, twentieth-century filmmakers took cues from terrorism when perfecting their production of suspense and surprise. Today those engaged in the production and mediation of ‘terror’ and ‘war on terror’ appear as savvy manipulators of people’s experience of time, masters of the bad infinity of that present in which nothing ever happens.
In various texts and interviews, published over the course of several decades, Alfred Hitchcock developed what might be called a poetics of suspense and surprise. In his conversations with François Truffaut, Hitchcock illustrated this opposition in graphic terms:
We are having a very innocent little chat. Let us suppose that there is a bomb underneath this table between us. Nothing happens, and then all of a sudden, ‘Boom!’ There is an explosion. The public is surprised, but prior to this surprise, it has to be an absolutely ordinary scene, of no special consequence. Now, let us take a suspense situation. The bomb is underneath the table and the public knows it, probably because they have seen the anarchist place it there.
Hitchcock always insisted that the latter situation was preferable. ‘In the first case we have given the public fifteen seconds of surprise at the moment of the explosion. In the second case we have given them fifteen minutes of suspense’.footnote2 Suspense, then, is more value for money, more time for money: it stretches time. Contrary to many suspense situations that involve real danger, the suspense experienced in the context of a film is usually a pleasurable one, the time-stretching desirable. The audience is asked to identify with the people who are in peril; editing and the use of ‘point-of-view’ shots are crucial for establishing this identification. Only when the public cares about the protagonist can suspense arise—but then, suspense also has the habit of creating sympathy for the characters involved no matter who they are; if Hitler were the potential victim, the audience could still be prodded to identify with him.
Hitchcock’s musings on suspense and surprise were repeated many times, with some interesting variations. While the term suspense stands alone, the term surprise is sometimes replaced by shock; in a late text, the explosion of the bomb under the proverbial table without forewarning is said to generate ‘five or ten seconds of shock’.footnote3 The trailer for Psycho announced the film as a ‘shocker’ while that for The Birds promised ‘suspense and shock beyond anything you have ever seen or imagined’—indicating that Hitchcock’s preference for suspense was not as principled as he would have had us believe.footnote4 He knew that it was not a question of choosing between two mutually exclusive options; rather than one or the other in isolation, it is the dialectic of suspense and surprise that is fundamental to his filmmaking. Hitchcock’s status as ‘master of suspense’ derives largely from his expert manipulation of this dialectic. In Psycho, for instance, the murder of Marion in the shower comes as a complete surprise (for ‘innocent’ viewers), leading to a new build-up of suspense once her lover and sister start investigating her disappearance, and yet another drastic shock at the film’s climax.
For Guy Debord, the spectacle is marked by the ‘quasi-cyclical’ alternation of work and leisure.footnote5 From a Debordian perspective, film is an integral part of the colonization of time by commodified experiences which appear to negate the dullness of modern clockwork time, while in fact cementing the numbing cycle of working hours and ‘free time’. Any sense of real historical time is thus precluded. The quasi-cyclical alternation of shocks and suspense in cinema such as Hitchcock’s reflect this logic, its apparent deregulation of time being produced with industrial precision. Film, however, inherited many strategies from the nineteenth-century culture industry, especially from serials and mass-circulation novels. The crucial difference between suspense in novels and in films is cinema’s greater ability to control the consumer’s actual consumption of time; a reader can vary his or her reading, a viewer must conform to the film’s pacing (at least when it is seen in a cinema; video and especially dvd have created more ‘readerly’ modes of viewing). Although Hitchcock stressed that he aspired to an ‘art of pure cinema’ that does not follow literary models, nineteenth-century literature—with its increasing audience, and the competition between various publications vying for a mass readership—had already developed a sophisticated understanding of the dialectic of suspense and surprise. Popular nineteenth-century authors from Hugo to Sue, from Dickens to Collins had systematized, industrialized their employment. Surprise endings to suspense situations were frequently used in literary serials.
It is significant that Hitchcock, even in the 1960s, turned to the ‘classical situation’, as he called it, of the anarchist bomb plot to provide the kind of shocks and suspense his cinema needed. His Sabotage (1936) is based on Joseph Conrad’s 1907 novel The Secret Agent, itself loosely inspired by the ‘Greenwich bomb outrage’ of 1894, when a man blew himself up near the Greenwich Observatory. The man’s brother was apparently an anarchist newspaper editor, also employed as a police spy. In writing The Secret Agent, Conrad could assume his readers’ familiarity with media stereotypes of evil anarchists. His protagonist, Verloc, is both a police informer and a foreign secret agent moving in anarchist circles; a sluggish man who runs a porn shop as a cover for his other activities. His wife has a retarded brother, Stevie. The action is set in train by Mr Vladimir, an official at a foreign embassy, who is unhappy with the British government’s lax attitude towards the anarchist immigrants who have been wreaking havoc in his native land. To prod the British into action, a spectacular ‘anarchist’ outrage is needed: the bombing of Greenwich Observatory. A cornered Verloc uses Stevie—his wife’s darling—to place the bomb, but Stevie blows himself up.