On December 7, 1941, the Japanese air raid on Pearl Harbor shattered the American citizen’s sense of security. While high ranking government officials may have been cognizant of an eminent attack, civilians found themselves caught completely unaware of such a direct assault on their everyday lives. It would be unfathomable to survivors that 60 years later, the most tragic surprise attack of their generation would become the basis of a gaudy Hollywood Blockbuster, let alone one that producers would have re-edited as not to offend Japanese ticket-buyers. So how long before Ben Affleck Jr. gets his big break as a heroic fireman in the cinematic version of the attack on the World Trade Center?
Perhaps I have an overly cynical view of Hollywood. Even as you read this, high profile celebrities such as Tom Cruise, Julia Roberts, Tom Hanks and a multitude of others are gathering to host a fundraiser for the victims of last week’s insidious attacks. Entitled “America: A Tribute to Heroes,” the unprecedented event will be simultaneously broadcast on all four major television networks tonight from 9-11 pm, EST, not to mention on a slew of popular cable networks such as MTV, E! and Lifetime. Benevolent celebrities may be quick to apply their fame, but I can’t help but feel the ebb of exploitation waiting in the wings. While studio executives truly are concerned and rightly sickened by the idea of releasing any sort of thoughtless frivolity in the immediate future (they are human, aren’t they?), things will slowly revert back to “normal.”
But what constitutes normal? In the past, Hollywood has dealt with devastation in different ways. Screwball comedies and lavish MGM musicals entertained destitute Depression-era audiences, and World War II brought a slew of patriotic and nationalistic films. Diversion was the key. As socially minded protagonist John Sullivan (Joel McCrea) realizes in Preston Sturges’ classic satire Sullivan’s Travels (1941), there wasn’t any shame in choosing to direct a silly film (Ants In Your Pants—the sequel) as opposed to a more somber choice (O Brother, Where Art Thou—the original). It was diversionary levity, and not “a canvas in the suffering of humanity” that helped people temporarily forget their troubles, release their suffering and escape from the hardships of the world. In 1965, when America sent her first combat troops into Vietnam, the most popular movie of the year was The Sound of Music.
But last week’s attacks were a blow to our world, to our sense of freedom, to our self-consciousness. Unlike past attacks, we are not actively in a state of war, and have had our liberties and sense of security infringed upon by the most atrocious of attackers. Although our lives may indeed return to “normal,” things will never be the same. In regards to filmmaking, can you honestly say that you won’t feel even the slightest wave of nausea the next time you see an American landmark blown to bits in a cheesy action film? (Especially with today’s advanced technology, directors with designers and programmers can realistically destroy the White House, fill a coliseum with spectators or create violent forces of nature with the click of a mouse. Ironically, Independence Day was slotted to run on the Fox network last week; it was replaced by the comedy Mrs. Doubtfire.)
For the moment, film studios have prudently put on hold any completed films that may re-traumatize audiences or are editing out egregiously offensive material. While Collateral Damage, Arnold Schwarzenegger’s latest (and hopefully last) terrorism and vengeance action film, and Big Trouble, Disney’s adaptation of Dave Barry’s nuclear bomb on a plane novel, are indefinitely on hold, the ending of Men In Black 2 is being rewritten, advertisements for Spiderman and The Last Castle are being revamped, and all films set in New York (Serendipity, Streets of New York) are being retooled. Needless to say, Jackie Chan’s next project, Nosebleed, which concerns a World Trade Center window washer who uncovers a terrorist plot to blow up the Statue of Liberty, is beyond saving.
But as awards shows are rescheduled, and release dates are reconfirmed, we should take a moment to take stock of where we are. It’s a cynical view, but Hollywood and the entertainment industry are driven solely by profits. While Collateral Damage and Big Trouble are being postponed indefinitely because of their terrorism themed plots, other films are simply being postponed because with around-the-clock news coverage of the past week’s events, publicists haven’t been able to market their films properly on television. The severe evilness of last week’s atrocity has forced the entertainment industry into uncharted territory–and before industry standards return to reporting the latest gossip, we should take note of humanity’s 20, instead of 15, minutes of fame. But while the thought of watching ridiculously overpaid stars parade down a red carpet in million dollar outfits, or even the thought of catching a comedy at your local cineplex may seem obscene now, eventually the time will return when laughing is okay; we just won’t be so naïve about it.