As Hollywood takes deliberate steps back into the escapism business, creators of entertainment product are struggling with a now familiar but unresolved theme: Whither the movie and television industries, post Sept. 11?
The trepidation among industry leaders and the implications of the terrorist attacks have given what can be moribund affairs - Hollywood panel discussions - a new sense of possibility. Earlier this month, there was the spectacle of filmmaker Oliver Stone ("JFK," "Nixon"), who at a symposium in New York cast the terrorist attacks as a "revolt" on "the new world order" ruled by the "barons and kings" of the media conglomerates who control culture and ideas. Stone went on to compare Palestinians rejoicing at the attacks on America to the reaction from the public in France and Russia during their revolutions, according to an article in New Yorker magazine.
Such ideological harangues probably aren't breaking out over lunch at the Ivy these days, but that doesn't mean you can't get a vibrant debate going.
On Wednesday, for instance, at a forum sponsored by the Entertainment Industries Council at Le Meridien hotel, the subject turned to the practice of networks and movie studios erasing images of the World Trade Center twin towers from movies, such as when Sony pulled a trailer for the upcoming release "Spiderman" and the towers' removal from the recent comedy release "Zoolander" as well as the opening credits of NBC's New York-based drama "Law & Order: Special Victims Unit."
The panel included what the entertainment trade papers refer to as a "non-pro" - John W. James, co-founder of the Grief Recovery Institute in Los Angeles. James asserted that entertainment too often gives the lie to grief - i.e., excising the World Trade Center twin towers, which James called "an attempt intellectually to make the event not have happened, to deny the fact that we are all experiencing an enormous range of conflicting emotion following this act of war."
Writer-director Peter Hyams ("Capicorn One," "The Musketeer") raised an objection. "If I had a film that was a comedy and there's a scene of two people walking up the street and in the background is the World Trade Center, I'd want that out of my film, because that would certainly make people like me start to cry," he said.
"And that makes the assumption, though, that people are not capable of having multiple emotions, and somehow crying in the middle of a comedy is not OK," James interjected.
"Yeah," Hyams said. "I think there are moments in a comedy where you don't want the audience to cry."
Later, James concede that he and the entertainment industry are at cross-purposes: They want to entertain, and make money, and he's asking for emotional truth about pain and grief. Still, he didn't think the concepts had to be mutually exclusive. "The piece that's always missing is the emotional piece," he said. "On the one hand, we have wall pictures saying we will never forget, and on the other hand we're erasing the World Trade Center."
There was more unanimity on Monday during a symposium at Occidental College. This time, the panel included serious heavy-weight creators, among them Academy Award-winning director Sydney Pollack and Aaron Sorkin, creator of the hit NBC drama "The West Wing." They had been convened by Matt Miller, the columnist and commentator who hosts a lively half-hour of political sparing on a show called "Left,Right and Center," which airs on KCRW-FM (89.9). Pollack said he feared Hollywood would "feel an obligation to do something about this" - in other words, that it would try to make meaningful movies about terrorism and create agitprop pablum in the process. "It took 30 years after World War I before we got a serious movie about World War I," he said. "It took a lot of time, a long time, after Vietnam before we really dealt with the reality of Vietnam... I don't have any idea how this is going to play out, really. But I just think that it would be a terrible mistake to do this torn-from-the-pages... movie about terrorism in order to show how patriotic we are or how we feel about it."
Asked to respond to comments made by Stone and director Robert Altman (In a recent interview, Altman said violent Hollywood movies served as a blueprint for the terrorist atrocities), Pollack was diplomatic.
"We have the most successful proliferation of pop culture in the world, bar none," he said. "But in some way we're a little bit like Microsoft, in the sense that everybody needs it, and everybody hates it a little bit... I don't agree with the statements of either of those guys literally, but I think I understand the impulse."
Sorkin had begun the proceedings by seeking to reduce his own omniscience, saying that, as a creator of entertainment product, "we do something that dances on the edge of silliness in this country." This seemed to be an argument against turning to movies and TV shows for enlightenment at a time like this, which aroused Ed Zwick. Zwick is in demand these days as a cultural spokesperson for what now seems to be an uncomfortable credit - he directed the 1998 thriller "The Siege," about Arab terrorist bombers in New York. Zwick, however, has spent much less time exploring the trauma of terrorism than the trauma of marriage, child-rearing and divorce, in the TV dramas "thirtysomething" and "Once and Again."
What art and artists can do, Zwick said, is "attempt to organize our experience," thus filling a key role. "You're right that we all have to look deep and react personally before we react professionally or artistically," he said to Sorkin, "but I don't think that what art does is irrelevant, nor particularly irrelevant at this moment." Sorkin agreed. He said he was just talking about what a drag it had been to have to point a camera at something in the weeks after Sept. 11.
Sean Daniel, meanwhile, offered an affirmative counterpoint to Stone's portrayal of Sept. 11 as a revolt against the pernicious reach of American pop culture.
"There is nothing about our culture that keeps women indoors, or that keeps them from school, and what we show is an incredibly strong representation of that," said Daniel, the former Universal Studios executive whose recent credits as a producer include "The Mummy" movies and "Dazed and Confused." "We do have a role in the shaping of America's message, because we're really good at it."
This did not include, the panelists agreed, making movies simply to burnish a positive image of America, a Hollywood role suggested by a meeting last week between industry power brokers and two White House representatives.
"We should continue to tell good stories that hopefully celebrate human courage," said writer-director Kevin Sullivan. "If you do that well, hopefully you'll serve a function in society."
"It ain't brain surgery," Sullivan added of making movies. "But where does a brain surgeon go the night before he cuts you open? He probably goes to the movies. Hopefully, we can be noble by association that way."
Zwick later said he felt the symposium was refreshing for its lack of presumption.
"In the past people have often used a panel as a means to hold forth and to espouse a particular point of view or to reveal their certainty. And what I felt was everyone's legitimate confusion and even humility in the face of all that we're confronting."