Maclean's SPECIAL REPORT

The cultural reckoning

In the wake of Sept. 11, Hollywood steps away from apocalyptic porn

Brian D. Johnson October 1 2001
Maclean's SPECIAL REPORT

The cultural reckoning

In the wake of Sept. 11, Hollywood steps away from apocalyptic porn

Brian D. Johnson October 1 2001

The cultural reckoning

In the wake of Sept. 11, Hollywood steps away from apocalyptic porn

BRIAN D. JOHNSON

When it happened I was at the Toronto International Film Festival, which is an unreal place to be at the best of times. It's a centrifuge of celebrity and art where the outside world ceases to exist. Catching a masterpiece from Iran, or a party with Uma Thurman, becomes one of life’s urgent imperatives. And the local media sustain the illusion by according the festival the kind of coverage usually reserved for the death of royalty. But on Sept. 11, the festival, like everything else, was eclipsed. For once, movies didn’t matter. Except for the one playing in real life, and real time, on a screen that offered no escape.

That Tuesday morning, I was locking my bicycle to a parking meter, heading off to interview an American director, when a fellow film critic came up and broke the news. Trying to convey the scale of the event, he said it was “like something out of a Jerry Bruckheimer movie.” Soon enough, the refrain would become as familiar as the recurring image of the plane vanishing into the building: its like a movie. How else to explain the sense of disbelief? And where else had we seen anything remotely like it? A fireball out of the blue. Alien terror from the sky. An evil genius bent on annihilation.

In the past few years, Hollywood has entertained America with reckless visions of its own destruction as if there were no tomorrow. Summer after summer, apocalyptic porn has been all the rage. By the time we coasted into the new millennium, hiccuping over the Y2K speed bump, we felt we had already “done” the end of the world. Deep Impact. Armageddon. Independence Day. The Siege. The Matrix. We saw a plane collide with a skyscraper in True Lies. We saw the World Trade Center’s twin towers destroyed in Armageddon and Under Siege 2. More recently, Pearl Harbor turned America’s original Day of Infamy into escapist dreck, while A. I. envisioned the underwater ruins of a sunken Manhattan. Even in the images of victims jumping from the windows of the World Trade Center, there was a ghastly sense of déjà vu—of passengers taking death into their own hands as they plummeted from those skyscraper decks in Titanic.

Now that Hollywood fantasy has become the stuff of America’s nightmare, much of what was once billed as harmless entertainment has begun to look like dumb prophecy. It seems that those conspiring to destroy America and those conspiring to entertain it have drawn on the same fears, and targeted the same icons. As Neal Gabler observed in The New York Times, “It may have been no accident that [the terrorists] chose the language of American movies. They were creating not just terror; they were creating images.” They were, in effect, making their own action picture, a low-budget production with a diabolical plot and lethal images, perfecdy timed to train our eyes on the event and make us watch.

In the aftermath, the landscape of pop culture is in a shambles. So much of what passes for entertainment now seems frivolous, or inappropriate. A shamed Hollywood is scrambling to recall products that have acquired macabre overtones. Warner Bros, indefinitely postponed the release of Collateral Damage, starring Arnold Schwarzenegger as a firefighter who batdes terrorists to avenge the death of his wife and child in a bomb blast. Disney’s Big Trouble, a Miami farce about bomb smuggling, is on hold. And Sony Pictures plans to reshoot the climax of Men in Black 2, which takes place at the World Trade Center. Sony has also recalled a Spider-Man trailer and poster featuring the twin towers. Miramax is revising People I Know, starring AI Pacino as a Manhattan publicist who frequents a late-night opium den in the WTC—one surreal shot shows a drug-warped view of the towers turned on their side. And, in the most eerie coincidence of all, an Oakland rap duo called The Coup is redesigning an album cover that shows the twin towers exploding, with the bandleader holding a detonator.

Meanwhile, Broadway shows are shutting down as tourists shun New York. Several new TV dramas are in jeopardy, including a special series of Law and Order episodes about terrorism striking Manhattan. And much of the fall TV season has been delayed. “It doesn’t feel like it’s the time to celebrate new programming,” explains one studio executive. “Everyone wants to be safe in their decisions.”

The sensitivity can run to puritanical extremes. As Hollywood fine-tunes the cosmetics of grief, it seems that any depiction of the twin towers is now taboo. Ajnd the most tangentially related material is up for review. Two comedies, Serendipity and Sidewalks of New York, have been shelved simply because of their Gotham setting. Footage showing pieces of the moon falling on Manhattan is being excised from The Time Machine. And Warner Bros, has scrapped “Terror loves company” as the slogan for Thirteen Ghosts, a horror movie that makes no reference to terrorism.

The week of the attack, Toronto’s film festival wrestled with the same quandary that Hollywood is now facing. Should the show go on? On the afternoon of the attack, festival screens went dark for the rest of the day. Interviews and news conferences were cancelled. Festival-goers, many of them Americans, clustered around TVs set up in hotel lobbies. People wept, strangers embraced—not just sad, but terrified of where the world was heading.

After Sept. 11, festival organizers grimly resumed screenings, but they cancelled the parties, the red-carpet glitz—any and all signs of festivity. The festival also had to mobilize its resources to help hundreds of stranded guests. Many were from New York, desperate to contact home and find their way back. They included journalists, filmmakers, distributors and stars. Some, such as Julianne Moore and Debra Winger, struck out for the border in rented cars. Gene Hackman and Mira Sorvino hitched rides on executive jets.

While a pall fell over the festival, many of us continued to go to movies. The morning after the attack, Indian director Mira Nair—whose gala premiere of Monsoon Wedding had been cancelled the night before—stood in front of a packed theatre and introduced her film as “a testament to life.” It’s a beautiful picture, a swirl of sensual chaos, and as I watched from an unbridgeable distance it occurred to me that, just a day earlier, this would be the kind of picture you could lose yourself in.

That evening, Ben Kingsley, director Clare Peploe and her producer husband, Bernardo Bertolucci, stepped onstage at the premiere of The Triumph of Love, an 18th-century romp starring Sorvino. Her voice quavering with emotion, Peploe described it as the story of “a woman who overpowered her enemies with no other weapon but love.” Kingsley said he hoped we could find “space” to enjoy it. It’s the first time I’ve been moved to tears before the opening credits, of a comedy no less.

One of the stars at the festival who soldiered on with her interview schedule was legendary French actress Jeanne Moreau, who portrays writer Marguerite Duras in Cet Amour-là. The day after the attack, Moreau, 73, talked to me about growing up with the horrors of the Second World War, and how art must prevail. “I know yesterday people were saying, ‘What’s the use? What we’re doing is meaningless compared to what’s going on.’ I said, ‘No, the fact that we can express ourselves— under the power of terror, we don’t have that. It makes us realize how valuable is the human imagination. That’s the inner freedom—to make films and speak about what you stand for.’ ”

Fiollywood is more fixated on the weekend gross than on the human condition. But its brute commercial instinct has X-rayed “the American condition” with unwitting prescience. As Anthony Lane noted in The New Yorker, phrases such as “make no mistake—we will hunt down

After Tuesday, films played in a different light. American pictures about middle-class angst—Prozac Nation, The Safety of Objects, Life as a House—suddenly seemed superfluous. Some works, however, took on a deeper resonance. Eloge de l’amour, Jean-Luc Godard’s elegy to die broken heart of the 20th century, became especially poignant. The Grey Zone, a harrowing portrayal of cremation at Auschwitz, seemed one step closer to home. And no less than three Iranian films illuminated the timely issue of Afghanistan: Delbaran and Baran both tell stories of teenage boys among illegal Afghan refugees in Iran, and in Kandahar an Afghan-born Canadian returns home to find herself among a desperate horde of land-mine amputees. These dire, poetic visions of hope and desperation on the Afghan border are more edifying than any number of breathless news reports. Even tiptoeing around government censorship that forbids sex and violence, Iran’s filmmakers frame social truths with the lucid storytelling of great literature. the enemy” and “it’s a new kind of war” were spoken by Bruce Willis in The Siege three years before they resurfaced in the recent speeches of George W Bush.

We keep reminding ourselves that this is not a movie, the deaths are real. But that’s hard when, in a matter of hours, the media are packaging the story as blockbuster entertainment. When CNN brands its coverage “America’s New War,” all that’s missing is the word “improved.” When Bush proclaims “the first war of the 21st century,” it has the ring of a blurb. And, like a shaky actor thrust into an illfitting role, he poses as a frontier sheriff with language like “smoke ’em out” and “wanted dead or alive.”

Fiollywood, meanwhile, attempts a kind of penance. Leno and Letterman return to the air delivering sermons, not stand-ups. Dan Rather weeps on camera, consoled by Letterman—New York’s other mayor—who, in his own way, seems more statesmanlike than Bush. Celebrity and irony, the twin fetishes of pop culture, are instantly out of fashion. Yet ironies abound, and the celebrity machine simply reverses its engines. Just days after Michael Jackson popped up on the cover of Entertainment Weekly to relaunch his career, he proposed an all-star anthem to aid relief work. But the strangest thing was seeing Arnold Schwarzenegger doing Collateral Damage control. Marching onto Leno’s stage with a large American flag, the Terminator then proceeded to preach tolerance and understanding. “This is not a time right away for revenge,” he advised. As for unleashing his movie on the public, he said, “Eventually the time will be right.” True lies indeed. In this newly vulnerable America, where action heroes are politic, and politicians talk like action heroes, it’s hard to know where the movie ends and the war begins.