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An argument for not snipping the twin towers

Friday, October 12, 2001

Everyone in the business of making entertainment is dancing around like an amateur swami on hot coals, dithering about what they should do -- what is the right thing to do? What do the people want? -- in the wake of Sept. 11. But all predictions are bunk; no one knows what's going to happen until it happens.

No one knows for how long late-night talk-show hosts will ooze sincerity, or how cautious satirists will be pressured to be, or whether the lone-wolf action-adventure hero is passť, or how many times the Emmy Awards will have to be rescheduled. All we can do is look at what's happening now, today, this minute.

At this minute, for the people who consume entertainment, it's pretty much business as usual. Here are two examples.

"What do you think, should I edit the twin towers out of my film, or leave them in?" director Charles Herman-Wurmfeld asked me last week. Herman-Wurmfeld (cute, young, copious enthusiasm, little hair) was in Toronto shooting a made-for-TV movie, but he was talking about his second feature, Kissing Jessica Stein, a sparkling girl-meets-girl romantic comedy set in New York that has all the makings of an indie hit.

When it played the Los Angeles Film Festival last spring, Jessica won the audience award for best feature. But when it screened in Toronto, a handful of glamour shots of the Manhattan skyline, complete with an intact and shining World Trade Center, elicited gasps. Of course, that was on Sept. 12; things were understandably fragile then.

"The studio's immediate reaction was, 'Take them out,' " Herman-Wurmfeld said. Lots of marketers and filmmakers agreed. Ben Stiller had the towers snipped from skyline shots in his male-model-saves-the-world comedy Zoolander; posters and trailers for Spider Man that showed the costumed crimefighter weaving a web between the two buildings were recalled.

But in the intervening weeks, public opinion went the other way. "People noted that the towers were missing from Zoolander, and they were not keen about it," said Katherine Heintzelman, the executive editor of Premiere magazine, from her office on the 41st floor of a Broadway skyscraper. "Some audiences actually booed. Meanwhile, in Glitter, skyline shots that included the towers elicited spontaneous applause." (The only applause, it should be noted, that anything about Glitter did receive.)

Long-distance shots of the Trade Center also showed up in the Michael Douglas kidnapping thriller Don't Say a Word. My audience didn't, um, say a word, and the movie hit No. 1 when it opened two weeks ago.

Remember, those twin towers have appeared in virtually every movie set in Manhattan since they went up 28 years ago. The fact that they were wiped off the face of the Earth in real life does not mean they should now be wiped from memory, too.

"It's one thing if your movie features scenes of terrorism or destruction taking place at the towers," Heintzelman said. "But to erase all traces of them, as if they never existed, seems a shame."

Any movie is a document of how the world looked while it was being made. Though nothing as massive as the towers has ever been eradicated as violently before, many other buildings, street corners and neighbourhoods have changed or disappeared, with film as their only record. That's what film is: a permanent rendering of the most ephemeral thing in the world, time. And film lives on long after individual memories die.

I suggested Herman-Wurmfeld keep the towers in his movie. I hope he does.

Hollywood also raised a mea culpa about the future of action-adventure thrillers: Would people still pay to see acts of violence, ordinary bad guys, simple retribution? So far, the answer is yes.

The aforementioned Don't Say a Word has a standard, grimly satisfying conclusion. The bad guy gets his, and the look of resigned relief on Douglas's face tells us that's just. Audiences seem to agree.

The same goes for Training Day, which was released last Friday and took over from Don't Say a Word as box-office champ. Due largely to Denzel Washington's kinetic performance as a cop who's crossed way, way over the line, the movie does what movies are supposed to do: It yanks you into its world, and makes you forget your own troubles by fully immersing you in someone else's.

Training Day is dark, visceral, brutal and challenging, which has led some members of the morality police to argue that it's the wrong movie for this time of international uncertainty. But they are whistling in the wind, because audiences are loving it. Audiences aren't second-guessing whether they should like it or not. It's a good movie, so they like it. That's that.

I'm sure some studios are indeed rejigging their release schedules out of a genuine desire to be respectful of current events. But I'm equally sure that many others are doing so simply to make the biggest buck possible. As always. . . .

Here is what the people want: not safe movies, or simplified movies, but good movies. We don't want censorship, we want discretion, and marketing departments have a hard time with that distinction. These troubled times call for nothing more than some good taste. Unfortunately, that's not one of Hollywood's strong suits.

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