The one, single, and universal cliche that emerged even as the tragedy
unfolded was blurted out by EVERYONE EVERYWHERE, regardless of class,
status, or intellect - "It looked just like a movie." Like nothing else I
can remember, the look of this event was BOTH a complete surprise and yet
immediately and utterly FAMILIAR. And this realization made it all the more
disconcerting and strangely ungraspable for our entertainment numbed
psyches which have come to depend on an indestructable hero in such flames
to "justify" such insanity. All the Hollywood special effects that we've
all seen in umpteen variations, even extending to Hollywood's unwavering
reliance on petroleum explosions to represent ANY kind of explosion, made
this reality LOOK exactly like all the fiction we've been drowning ourseves
in for decades as a culture. It's not that we then should have expected to
see such an evil drenched disaster duplicated in the news, but when we did,
we ALREADY had one and only one reference for it's visual shock. And it was
what we have been calling "fun" for all these years. I don't know what this
unifying realization on the part of EVERYONE really means beyond the fact
that we were ALL united in one way by our movie experiences long before we
bacame so in another way by this fiction come true, or how profound this is
in speaking to our social and cultural training, but it sure does mean
SOMETHING on some level which is difficult to evaluate.
I wonder how many such movies from the Great Satan these Americo-phile
terrorists had watched throughout their lives for instance, as the
anti-American wheels in their heads spun backwards with plots and schemes
to turn our own images of "excitement" against us. Was turning the always
obvious blood lust of our own special effects back on us in reality
contributing to their secret smirks at all? Anyway, as I think back on the
endless list of movie titles that apply, I remember all the audiences'
wildly cheering approval for all the actually horrible catastrophic events
being depicted, though I can hardly remember what any of the plots had
going for them or what they were really all about beyond superhuman and
surreal survival amid impossible destruction.
So we've probably had enough of all that for the moment, even as we reel,
at the moment, under the kind of unfocused demand for instant gratification
and, of course,the kind of violent retribution which all those movies
promote and revere as righteous solutions to evil. I guess they seek to
relieve, appease, and tease our almost total modern removal from
"uncivilized" issues of self reliant survival under extreme, human testing
danger, and the generally bored, boring, and safe state of affairs we call
"reality," but when that over the top destructive stuff actually comes to
call with a vengence at no charge, it repels us all and we quickly remember
why we preferred to become civilized after all. All that exqusite Hollywood
glorification of stuff we, as a people, actually want no part of in reality
always smelled funny to me. Art, yes, but shallow at best. Personally, I
think Hollywood should lower their budgets and perhaps spend what's left on
actual story writing rather than on film filling, constantly escalating
action storyboards for a change. That genre has sufficiently made it's
point, but I'm still trying to figure out exactly what it was.
>September 18, 2001
>THE BIG PICTURE
>The Time to Get Serious Has Come
> By PATRICK GOLDSTEIN
>If there's one place where the carnage at the World Trade Center and the
>Pentagon must have inspired some uncomfortable self-reflection last week, it
>was in the executive corridors of this town's studio conglomerates. Summer
>after summer they have churned out eerily similar fantasy images of planes
>being hijacked, buildings being blown-up and cities being reduced to
>rubble--all under the guise of popular entertainment.
>Much has been written in the past days about the terrorist attacks' effect on
>our political and financial institutions. But little has been said about the
>effect on our pop culture. Yet I suspect that our culture will eventually be
>transformed as much as any other arena of American life. "When you drop a
>stone in a pond, it has a ripple effect," says Armyan Bernstein, producer of
>such films as "13 Days" and "Hurricane." "Well, this is like dropping a
>boulder or a meteor. I don't know one person who hasn't had their spirit
>challenged. People have been changed."
>Change is overdue. In the past decade, Hollywood has metamorphosed into a
>soulless popcorn machine, creating mindless dreck designed to pay off at
>every stop on the global gravy train, from movie theaters to cable TV to
>DVDs. The studios have largely abandoned any pretense of grappling with
>real-life issues of the modern world. Ask any top screenwriter or producer:
>It's almost a lost cause to pitch a studio an adult drama or a movie about
>politics. Unless you've got an A-list movie star in your back pocket--or a
>project helmed by a director with the pile driver ferocity of an Oliver Stone
>or Michael Mann--they won't even stamp your parking ticket on the way out.
>For every "Erin Brockovich" or "Traffic," there are hundreds of forgettable
>fantasy thrill rides like "Tomb Raider" or "The Mummy Returns." If you want
>to see drama about contemporary issues, you have to turn on your TV and watch
>"The West Wing" or "Law & Order" or "The District." The movie studios these
>days are in the celluloid theme-park business.
>Hollywood executives argue that they simply make the movies people want to
>see. So maybe Hollywood will recognize that Americans suddenly view the world
>as a more serious place. There's a new moral gravity out there. It is a time
>for soul searching. In Washington, politicians are putting aside petty
>partisan differences. In hard-boiled New York, there has been an outpouring
>of good Samaritanism and communal feeling.
>The terrorist attacks may have brought to a close a decade of enormous
>frivolity and escapism. No one knows for sure how quickly or enduringly this
>kind of transformation takes place. Pop culture is largely a province of the
>subconscious. That's why it's so unpredictable, why it's so hard to tell
>which movie or CD or TV show will be hit or a flop.
>But for years to come, many of us will feel a tiny shiver when we see a
>bearded Middle Easterner getting on a plane in front of us. So imagine our
>subconscious reaction to watching a movie where a building full of people is
>incinerated by a fiery explosion. Will it still feel like "fun"? Will it
>still be "exciting"? Will studio marketers still cheeringly call it a
>"spine-tingling thrill ride"?
>Hollywood has always been thought of as a pretty silly place, intoxicated by
>ego and vanity, but in the past, when faced with tragedy, it has sobered up
>fast. After the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, fatuity turned to patriotic
>James Stewart put on enough weight so he could pass an Army physical and
>enlisted as a private--he ended up a bomber pilot. William Holden, using his
>real name, became Army private William F. Beedle Jr. Robert Montgomery joined
>the Navy and eventually commanded a destroyer during the Normandy invasion.
>Directors like John Ford, John Huston and William Wyler went off to war and
>made combat documentaries, often in life-threatening situations.
>After Henry Fonda finished shooting "The Ox-Bow Incident," he enlisted as a
>sailor, even though he was 37, with three children. He got as far as San
>Diego before 20th Century Fox studio chief Darryl Zanuck had the shore patrol
>send him back to Los Angeles, where Zanuck put him in a film for the war
>effort. Everyone started shooting war movies, even though the amount of film
>available was cut by 25% because the military needed cellulose to make
>Soon Hollywood was making so many war-in-the-Pacific films that the studios
>ran out of bad guys, since in the hysteria after Pearl Harbor, the government
>had rounded up all Japanese American citizens and put them in internment
>camps. The studios would have to make do with hastily recruited Chinese
>So far, today's entertainment giants have reacted to the tragic events with
>largely cosmetic measures. A few scripts are being tossed out or rewritten.
>Warner Bros. has postponed the release of "Collateral Damage," which opens
>with a terrorist explosion, while Disney has pulled "Big Trouble," which
>features dimwitted criminals hijacking a plane armed with a nuclear weapon.
>The studios obviously fear that the public will turn away in distaste,
>especially now that reality is all too interchangeable with special effects.
>But how long will our unease last? How would you react today to watching
>hijackers seize the president's plane in "Air Force One"? Or mercenaries
>holding an airport hostage in "Die Hard 2"? Or scenes of the White House
>exploding in "Independence Day"? Will it will be too close for comfort to
>watch this weekend? What about next month or next year? When will gore and
>mayhem and gung-ho bravado be an acceptable escapist fantasy again?
>Zanuck found himself pondering a similar question when he came back from
>World War II and the Army Signal Corps. As Otto Friedrich writes in "City of
>Nets," his study of 1940s Hollywood, Zanuck realized that the war had subtly
>changed America's attitudes about itself. Audiences wanted something
>different from the cheap westerns and detective stories that had helped keep
>Hollywood afloat during the Depression-era 1930s.
>"When the boys come home, you will find they have changed," Zanuck told his
>production staff. "They have learned in Europe and the Far East. How other
>people live. How politics can change lives.... I recognize there'll always be
>a market for Betty Grable and Lana Turner and all that [breast] stuff. But
>they're coming back with new thoughts, new ideas, new hungers.
>"We've got to start making movies that entertain, but at the same match the
>new climate of the times."
>Zanuck followed his instincts by making a string of socially conscious hits,
>including "The Razor's Edge," "Twelve O'Clock High" and "Gentleman's
>Agreement," which won the Oscar for best picture in 1947. Willy Wyler came
>back from the war and made "The Best Years of Our Lives," which won the Oscar
>in 1946. It wasn't just the prestige pictures that sketched a darker, more
>unsentimental view of the world. The disillusionment and uncertainty of
>postwar America also spawned a flood of crime thrillers that were so gloomy
>they became known as film noirs--movies like "The Big Sleep," "The Killers,"
>"Out of the Past," "The Naked City" and "Force of Evil." The titles alone
>tell you what sort of pessimistic tone they had.
>It wasn't the only time filmmakers responded to a new audience mood. It now
>seems clear that the flowering of American film in the late 1960s and early
>'70s--the era that produced everything from "Bonnie and Clyde" and "Midnight
>Cowboy" and "MASH" to "Chinatown" and "The Godfather"--was largely inspired
>by the tumult of late-'60s anti-Vietnam protests and political assassinations.
>Has the suffering we've seen in the past days on TV put a new chill in our
>lives? We really don't know--it often takes years before anyone can make
>sense of seismic cultural changes. Obviously some sort of normality will
>return: Jay Leno will tell jokes again. Britney Spears will be back on MTV.
>Kids will go see "Monsters Inc." But there is a new whiff of melancholy in
>the air. And our most gifted artists, be they filmmakers or songwriters or
>poets or painters, will be the first ones to catch the scent. Touched by some
>tiny spark from this tragedy, they will be the ones to transform our communal
>sorrow into something that moves us or makes us laugh again.
>Art is the community's medicine. As Saul Bellow once wrote: "The artist must
>be a prophet, not in the sense that he foretells things to come, but that he
>tells the audience, at the risk of their displeasure, the secrets of their
>"The Big Picture" runs every Tuesday in Calendar. If you have questions,
>ideas or criticism, e-mail them to patrick.goldsteinATlatimes.com
>For information about reprinting this article, go to
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