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Hollywood hunkers down 

Mass media reconsiders what's entertainment in the new world order

When hijacked planes collided with the World Trade Center towers and the Pentagon Sept. 11, the impacts weren't felt just in the foundations and on the neighboring streets. The shock waves also traveled on the air, through printing presses and along modems and cable hook-ups, with tremors continuing to reverberate through the mass media.

The terrorist attacks have caused some pop-culture products to undergo complete reversals. Light romantic comedies become grim reminders of a national tragedy. Thin, escapist adventures now evoke grave, ambiguous geopolitics. Works that speak directly to our most pressing issues get removed from circulation.

Only with great difficulty could you find a medium that's gone unscathed. Images of the World Trade Center are being removed from PlayStation games, the opening credits of television shows and even album jackets: Party Music by anti-materialist hip-hop band The Coup was intended to feature one of the towers exploding on its CD cover, although the image was changed before the cover went to press. An Athens-based electro-pop band called "I Am The World Trade Center" has renamed itself "I Am The ..."

The reactions of media companies can combine genuine sensitivity and charity with concern over the bottom line, and such calculations will continue if the nation enters prolonged military struggle. Film and television in particular have the greatest potential of transmitting images and information to the widest possible audience, and the stories we choose to tell or hide from ourselves will reveal much about our national priorities and what we're willing to face.

"On TV they have, very literally, commercial interests. There's also a sense of terrible loss in the country, and I think the two things are coinciding," says David A. Cook, director of film studies for Emory University.

Since Sept. 11, movie studios, radio stations, record labels and the like have been scrambling to reposition, reschedule and rethink films, television shows and music that might bring up bad memories. Some movies have been postponed for what could be called "cosmetic" reasons, like the comic romance with the untimely title Sidewalks of New York. Clear Channel, the nation's largest radio network, has been distributing to its affiliates a list of songs suggested as inappropriate for broadcast, from understandable ones such as "She Dropped a Bomb on Me" and "Leaving on a Jet Plane," to more puzzling choices such as "Walk Like an Egyptian," anything by Rage Against the Machine and "New York, New York" (which has been, in fact, one of the most highly requested songs nationwide since the attack).

With the nation stunned and the government going to a war footing, storylines with even glancingly similar subject matter are turning taboo. The caper comedy Big Trouble (which features bomb components on an airplane) and the Chris Rock spy spoof Bad Company are both being bumped to 2002. CBS' CIA drama "The Agency" has shelved its pilot episode, which included a reference to suspected terrorist mastermind Osama bin Laden, while "Friends" is reshooting its Oct. 11 episode, which featured zany hijinks at an airport.

Movies and television shows mean to take place in the here and now, but the erasure of the World Trade Center from already-shot movies like this week's comedy Zoolander feels like a reminder of a terrorist victory. Take the case of the teaser trailer for next summer's Spider-Man, in which bank robbers in a helicopter find themselves trapped in a web spun between the two towers. The trailer, as well as a movie poster including the towers, has been pulled, as if we now must pretend the World Trade Center never existed.

"It's like Stalinists removing Trotsky from 10 Days that Shook The World," Emory's Cook says. "But when people are bereaved, if you're in the company of someone who's had somebody die, often you don't want to remind them of their loss. Still, when the actual scenes of the plane crashes are playing again and again on TV, it's a complete contradiction."

Cook points out that the "sensitivity" of movie studios and television networks is motivated by profit as well as the public interest. "They're both industries where people make a lot of money, but I think that the people who do the programming, who put things on the air, and the creative people in the film industry, have a sense of public responsibility. It goes hand-in-hand with not creating a product that has a negative valence."

On Sept. 12, Warner Brothers announced, "In light of yesterday's tragic events and out of respect for the victims and their families," the studio was delaying the Oct. 5 release of the political action thriller Collateral Damage. The now-unscheduled film features Arnold Schwarzenegger as a fireman who seeks revenge when his family is killed in a bombing by (Colombian) terrorists.

Also on hold are Jennifer Lopez's terrorist-themed Tick-Tock, Jackie Chan's comedy Nosebleed, involving a window-washer on New York landmarks, while "Law & Order" has halted plans for next year's five-hour miniseries called "Terror." The Broadway debut of Stephen Sondheim's musical Assassins has been cancelled, even though its exploration of what motivates political criminals speaks very directly to events in the headlines.

The harsh echoes of real world events make such stories seem inappropriate, although video renters have been seeking both escapist humor and terrorist-themed works. "Mostly people come in and say, 'I need a dumb comedy,'" says Ron Hughes of Movies Worth Seeing. "We've had a lot of people asking for Nostradamus: The Man Who Saw the Future, and the action movie where similar things happen, like The Siege, and the made-for-TV movie about the prior attack on the World Trade Center -- which isn't something we carry."

The Denzel Washington/Bruce Willis drama The Siege was scheduled to air Sept. 20 on the USA Network, which hastily pulled it from broadcast. (Mass destruction films like Independence Day also have been replaced with milder fare.) When released in 1998, The Siege was attacked by Arab-American groups and some critics for its portrayal of Islamic terrorists striking targets in New York. But the film's larger issue is prejudice against Muslims, who are rounded up and put in detention camps. The Siege may not always be realistic, but with hate crimes already being committed against Americans of African, Middle Eastern and South Asian backgrounds, its message could not be more relevant.

Or consider the Gulf War comedy-drama Three Kings, which reflected the complexities of the U.S. involvement in the Persian Gulf. One scene has Mark Wahlberg's character tortured by an Iraqi soldier of comparable age. The interrogator proves ruthless but not entirely unsympathetic, describing the death of his son in the U.S. bombings, and giving voice to anti-American sentiments: "Your sick fucking country made the black man hate himself, just like you hate the Arabs and the children you bomb over here."

Ridley Scott's Black Hawk Down was scheduled for March 2002, but may see a fate like The Manchurian Candidate, an assassin-themed drama pulled following the Kennedy assassination (in part due to star Frank Sinatra's relationship with the Kennedy family), that went unseen for years. Black Hawk Down offers an account of the disastrous Somalia episode of 1993, in which 18 soldiers died. It could be highly constructive of the kind of actions we should and should not be taking in the Third World, but if studios are already pulling the posters for Robert Redford's The Last Castle -- which features a U.S. flag upside down, the sign of distress -- Black Hawk Down may be shelved for months.

If the war on terrorism does indeed resemble the war on drugs, it could easily be a decade before we see a cinematic treatment akin to Traffic. Instead, we could view the kind of Arab terrorists of True Lies and Executive Decision, films that now have uncomfortable similarities to actual events. True Lies tries to compensate for casting Muslims as villains by giving Schwarzenegger a thoroughly Westernized Arab-American hacker as a sidekick.

The Arab terrorist could become like the "Krauts" and "Japs" of World War II films. "Most Americans who lived through World War II and went to the movies came to regard them as demonic and sub-human, as the combat films and other propaganda of the time dictated," says Matthew Bernstein, another Emory University film professor.

Cook, in his A History of Narrative Film, estimates that 500 of the 1,700 films made during World War II involved the war or fascism. While the movies tended to idealize combat and the cause early on, "As real Americans were killed in greater numbers, there began to be a national sense of mourning, and movies became more serious about depicting battles. Now, we too should admit that we have been badly injured by this," he says.

But Nagesh Kukunoor, an Indian filmmaker and former actor who lives part-time in Atlanta, thinks that one positive result of the terrorist attack may be a more nuanced point of view toward people of the Middle East and South Asia. "Hindus and Muslims are treated interchangeably, and even the accents are wrong," he says. "As an actor in Atlanta, I auditioned for everything -- Iraqis, Iranians, Palestinians, everything. Anyone from the region could tell the difference, but here people didn't. Someone from the Middle East is very different from someone from India."

He adds, "After this, there will be more attention paid to the religious element. If more distinctions will be made between different people and different countries, hopefully there will be greater understanding. Hopefully, in the coming days we'll get our identities."

A film like this Christmas' Ali may contribute to this, featuring as it does Muhammed Ali's conversion to Islam, with Malcolm X as a major supporting character.

Bernstein passes along a theory that Hollywood indulges shoot-'em-ups like True Lies because the United States has been insulated from real violence for generations. "The most interesting thing I've read about this is that our fascination with violence in movies has been based on our sense of invulnerability and the absence of violent attacks on the country going back to the Civil War," he says. "Our fascination is based on our lack of experience with it. Now that we have the footage of last week's attack, we will never respond to such depictions as pure entertainment ever again."

But the idea of a desensitized Hollywood doesn't account for the popularity of American spectacles overseas: Independence Day, for instance, is the fourth most successful movie worldwide ever made. "I think that violence will never go out of style," says Kukunoor, who points out that Indian films have become more action-oriented to compete with Hollywood exports.

"The common language in the world is violence, and as long as Hollywood is supplying films not only to the United States but the rest of the world, it will continue," he adds. "There might be a little dip right now, but I don't think it'll ever go away. Even our worst memories fade. Maybe this will linger longer than other bad memories, because there have been images on the networks for so long. But when Hollywood feels safe, and believes they won't be accused of exploiting the tragedy, I think there will be a rush of films on this event. It'll be a few months, maybe a year, and then they'll start coming back."

Cook finds the Kennedy assassination and television's treatment of it an instructive example. "It was the first and most outrageous act of public violence in the post-war era. Afterward, there was a lot of breast-beating at that time about violence on television, and shows like 'The Untouchables' and Westerns were singled out. But because the networks gave up so much commercial revenue to cover the story, up through the funeral, afterward they felt that they could get away with increasing the quantity of violence on television. I have a feeling that in the wake of this disaster, with the loss of commercial revenue so much greater, that the networks are going to feel like they're entitled to something."

But he also believes that filmmakers will lack the stomach to show the violent deaths of innocents in entertainment. The Thursday after the attack, Cook had planned to show a film history class a bloody shoot-out from 3000 Miles to Graceland as an example of continuity editing. "But I couldn't do it -- it was too real. I'd be surprised if sequences like that, with the mass killing of bystanders, didn't go away for quite a while."

Bernstein expects future treatments of the terrorist attack to have a more positive message. "I can imagine that when movies are made about [Sept. 11's] events, they will be about survivors and heroes and therefore boast an inspirational intent."

If the actual terrorist attack has called violent escapism into question, films about large-scale tragedies can still serve a valuable purpose. Last summer's Pearl Harbor may be a poor example, as it's an empty epic nakedly striving to appeal to the audience that made Titanic the world's biggest hit. But in its half-hour sequence of the attack during "the day of infamy," it conveys the magnitude of the devastation, the suffering of the thousands in harm's way, to an audience that, 60 years later, may not appreciate it.

"The terrorist attack has been compared to Pearl Harbor so much, that I'll be surprised if the movie doesn't get a re-release," comments Cook.

The last thing the country needs is for the events of Sept. 11 to get a treatment like Pearl Harbor or Independence Day. But years from now, if someone approaches them with the craft and mindset that, say, Steven Spielberg brought to D-Day in Saving Private Ryan, we may get a worthy celluloid tribute to the ones that have fallen.

curt.holman@creativeloafing.com

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