Not a Movie

Watching the unwatchable

Given our appetite for destruction, it is hard to know how to take some of the statements currently coming out of Hollywood. On Sept. 16, The New York Times quoted Sherry Lansing, chairwoman of Paramount Motion Picture Group, as saying, "Violence is part of the world. But it's our responsibility not to trivialize violence, not to glamorize violence, not to make it look cartoony." As with the rest of us, Lansing sounded shaken to her core. But this is the same producer who made Fatal Attraction and, as head of a studio, has given us such suspect entertainments as The General's Daughter, a thriller in which the naked, battered but still very shapely body of a dead woman is not just part of the scenery, but also a very totem of her outré sexual habits. Producer Brian Grazer (Apollo 13) was quoted as saying that there are now areas he simply doesn't want to pursue, among them "anything that involves explosions, anything where a person's life is at stake." You can sympathize with Grazer but wonder about his prohibitions. Shakespeare's tragedies turn on the frailty of human life, as does history, including the World War of which we have recently become so fond. To listen to Hollywood, you would think all that's in store for us is "family" entertainment.

On his website this week, Chris Gore, the editor of Film Threat, wrote, "I am proud that Hollywood is exercising restraint in light of this tragedy. . . . I just hope that 50 years from now, if some new Jerry Bruckheimer decides to make a three-hour epic movie about this horrible moment in history, that it is made with some sensitivity to the real event. . . . Honestly, I hope I never see some TV movie or miniseries or epic film about Sept. 11, 2001. I just don't think I could take it." Again, you can sympathize with Gore's sentiments, but realistically, how long will the industry keep pricy movies like Collateral Damage on the shelf? One month, two, eight? How long will it be before violent spectacle again fills the screen? Perhaps more important, how long should it take? Has violence suddenly become immoral in Hollywood? Is there an expiration date on sensitivity, or is it just a matter of timing and shrewd public relations before Arnold re-materializes, locked and loaded?

Chris Gore may be proud of Hollywood, and there's no doubt real sentiment behind the industry's response. But this is, after all, an industry that has, for the past few decades, put spectacle and violence before complex characters and stories. Just ask any smart screenwriter how proud he is of an industry that routinely rejects projects that can't be summed up in a single sentence. (Hollywood executives say they're only giving the audience what it wants, and what it wants, apparently, is the opportunity to see the exact same movie that the rest of America is watching on 3,000 other screens.) Is it too much to ask that our movies, like our media and our government, start telling us fewer untruths? That our movies begin looking at other countries as something more than exotic locations, backdrops for American intrigue and tourism? I'm not looking for an end to action films or American films in general, but the creation of more thoughtful films, in which looking inward is every bit as important as looking out.

Five years ago, American audiences applauded and hooted as they watched trailers for the science-fiction film Independence Day in which the White House got blown to smithereens. Yet another riff on The War of the Worlds, the film made mindless pop fun out of the destruction of Earth by space invaders. Los Angeles is the first city to go, but the second is New York; after the attack, about all that remains of its iconic downtown skyline is one of the twin towers, damaged but standing. The highest-grossing feature of the year (Twister came in second), Independence Day opens with a shot of the American flag planted on the moon, followed by a pan down to a plaque ("We came in peace") co-signed by Richard M. Nixon. Thereafter, the movie goes more or less Earthbound, and the very first thing we hear is Michael Stipe singing, "It's the End of the World As We Know It (and I Feel Fine)." In many respects, the whole movie is an extended-play version of the song, but that's not what made it popular. What made it popular was how the film embraced the words with more blithe cheer than irony. The end of the world? Whatever. We kicked butt.

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