Garfield's Ad Review: Familiarity-even with the horrific-can breed nostalgia

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It began with sudden death, endlessly rerun, as the whole world watched, shaken and transfixed. Then: Osama bin Laden, awful and awesome in his serene, walkie-talkie slouch. Again and again. Over and over, until after a week's time the powers-that-be decided to wean us. They didn't want video of an airplane crashing into the World Trade Center to turn into a meaningless logo. They didn't want the Evil One to turn into an icon.

Too late.

Six months removed, despite the best efforts of the media and the government, Sept. 11 is a picture show, a highlight reel of horror, beyond the ability of anyone or any institution to harness.

Somehow, thankfully, advertising figured this out. The industry that thrives on the arrogant presumption that it can manipulate with imagery clearly understood the danger of toying with forces it cannot control. Many weighed in with condolences and generalized sentiments of solidarity. Few dared trespass on the sacred geography of our Sept. 11 mind's eye.

fine line

Budweiser was one. Bowing Clydesdales at the foot of a scarred city. Maybe too much, maybe just the right touch. The United Auto Workers filmed the same brave passage over the Brooklyn Bridge into lower Manhattan, but their trek was to boast about the union's generosity. It was a rare abomination.

Then, in the halftime of the Super Bowl, that extravaganza of soulless commercial excess, the names of the dead scrolled above the stage in a gigantic video outcropping-memorial as special effect-to dress up the music act. No mere abomination this. It was a desecration. Mercifully, that image will not linger, because it was so empty and slight, but it is vivid evidence of what is best left alone.

Still, nobody owns Sept. 11 and nobody can protect it and nobody can guarantee its purity. Images take on a life of their own. Not only are they impossible to harness, but, as time passes, their meaning mutates, and the enormity is impossible to preserve.

Over the toilet in my powder room I have a framed photograph. It's from November 1963 in the basement of the Dallas police headquarters: the frozen moment when Lee Harvey Oswald takes one in the gut, courtesy of Jack Ruby, night club owner, patriot and God knows what else.

The picture makes me smile.

Not because I hate Lee Oswald. Not because I get off on violence. While some of my fascination with the photo may be macabre, mainly it makes me smile because it reminds me of my childhood.

I see Ruby lurch, I see Oswald grimace, I see the escorting detective rear back, startled, and I am eight years old again. Over four decades, a lethal moment has been denuded of its immediacy and transformed into the benign ephemera of nostalgia. Images, like art, can take on a meaning wholly separate and distinct from their literal selves.

The Hindenburg disaster. The Zapruder film. Jetliners piercing the twin towers. There will come a time when the horror is gone.

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