In the wake of Tuesday's carnage, studios have blocked the release of terror movies. But will they really change their ways? DOUG SAUNDERS reports
By DOUG SAUNDERS, The Globe and Mail
Friday, September 14, 2001
LOS ANGELES -- Perhaps one of the most disturbing things about Tuesday's horrific events is that they had taken place before, over and over, on our movie and TV screens.
For more than 20 years, the violent destruction of New York and Washington had been the stuff of the lightest entertainment. We had seen the twin towers of the World Trade Center collapse, in Armageddon and Under Siege 2; we had seen mysterious terrorists, sexy and swarthy, wreaking havoc on East Coast cities in Patriot Games and Arlington Road.
Parents whose children were stuck in front of the TV on Tuesday were alarmed to find that those kids were not so much traumatized as they were blasť: For them, this was nothing new.
Here in Hollywood, studio executives are reacting with mortification and panic. It's as though they have been coasting for years on a set of scenes (according to one estimate this week, 270 terrorist-themed films have been made here in the past two decades), only to have those stories collide with the terrible, unheroic and morally complex world of real-life terrorism.
"The television imagery on Tuesday looked like stuff we've seen in film after film. And this is because the film industry has made hay and fun of disaster for a long time," says David Thomson, a film historian based in San Francisco. "And a lot of people in Hollywood are feeling a lot of shame."
In the past 72 hours, that shame has propelled movie and TV studio executives to take dozens of films out of production, to withdraw the release of many completed films, with titles including Collateral Damage and Big Trouble, and to remove old chestnuts such as The Peacemaker from TV screens. In some cases, these actions have been facile marketing efforts: A trailer for the forthcoming Spider-Man film was withdrawn, for instance, because it showed the now nonexistent twin towers. Release of the film Sidewalks of New York was postponed simply because its title contained the name of the besieged city.
In many other instances, though, Hollywood's retreat has been grounded on far more sober concerns. Sony Pictures spent much time filming a violent climax involving the World Trade Center for Men in Black 2, a lighthearted comedy-action caper with a terrorist theme.
Warner Bros. was quick to withdraw the Oct. 5 release and all the advertising for Collateral Damage, a cardboard action-hero film involving Islamic terrorists. There is no sign that this film will ever appear on-screen.
The studios, faced with real conflict, are discovering that their films are offensively pale and two-dimensional. "It's difficult for them to reconcile the real violence and its terrible repercussions with the casual, easy violence that movies and TV have employed during the past 20 years," Thomson says.
There is also the awful possibility that real-life terrorists might have been inspired by their celluloid counterparts. In films as simplistic as The Siege (which was the subject of protest by Islamic groups), it is hard to avoid rooting for the bad guys. This has led many entertainment-industry figures to question their role in global culture. "It makes a lot of entertainment offensive. It makes a lot of the techno-bomb-and-hostage stuff seem parasitical," Martin Cruz Smith, the California writer responsible for such works as Gorky Park and Havana Bay, told a San Francisco reporter this week.
"There's going to be a distaste for that, a reaction against this kind of story as titillation or entertainment."
It is hard to avoid looking back 60 years, to another moment when Hollywood films had been sophisticated and escapist. The attack on Pearl Harbor led many studios to change the nature of their pictures (though not always for altruistic reasons: The U.S. government offered funds for propaganda-message films, and studios were accused of profiteering for their rush to cash in on these funds).
The tone of Hollywood's pictures changed dramatically. "The movies generally became more upbeat," Thomson says.
"They weren't literally created as propaganda, as they were in Germany. But the studios took for granted that they would have to tell happier stories with messages -- the darker stories suffered."
In Hollywood today, many figures have begun to question their priorities.
"The way everybody looks at life is different from the way we looked at it yesterday," Smith says.
"I sat down an hour ago to look at my own work just to look for what's false in what I'm doing. This is all the more reason to take out what's false. I'll ask myself more and more, 'Is this worth doing? Is this genuine or not?' I generally try to hew to that, but you get sloppy, and people respond to entertainment gore."
In Smith's view, the comparison to 1941 is apt. He believes, along with many other figures, that films are going to take on a more pointed and responsible message. "There'll be a basic move back to real heroics, like we apparently saw on that plane in Pittsburgh. We'll be less interested in supermen."
Of course, this is not necessarily a recipe for good movies. And it is hard to imagine Hollywood becoming more morally pointed or upbeat than it is now. Even a relatively sophisticated recent film such as Steven Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan degenerated into a childish moral fable, and most of the terrorist-themed films that are currently being deplored are, in the end, simplistically pro-American propaganda pieces.
It is perhaps worthwhile to think back to the summer of '42, half a year after Pearl Harbor attack, when the U.S. government formed the Bureau of Motion Pictures, a division of the War Information Office. They told studios to ask themselves a constant question: "Will this picture help win the war?"
In the end, maybe the pictures did help win the war. But they did not expand anyone's mind, nor were they great art. When we think of great cinema, we remember the movies of the thirties, and the post-war noirs of the late forties. These employed stereotypes, including foreign terrorists and easy mayhem.
Still, there is a distinct sense that the favourite trope of moviemakers since the seventies -- the impossibly violent act carried out with few moral repercussions -- is, at least temporarily, impossible to put on-screen. Reality has rendered it ridiculous, if not offensive.
"We've been blowing things up for at least 20 years for fun," Thomson says.
"America was the last country that could treat these images so lightly; most other countries with film industries have had to look at more complicated moral questions."
Of course, these are early days, and it's entirely conceivable that Hollywood may be able to absorb Tuesday's terrible attacks into its envelope of simple images. Real life is unlikely to provide any happy endings, but this is Hollywood's stock in trade: Americans, and audiences worldwide, may actually want even more terrorist-mayhem movies, with patriotic messages turned up even louder.
"One thing about Americans is that we get over things very fast," Thomson says. "I think the nation is still stunned, and we're watching the response to that. Wait a week, and we'll see how Hollywood has changed."