“It looked just like a movie.” Need I say which? Independence Day, for sure. The Towering Inferno, for those who remember it. Or Titanic, the ship gone up instead of down, with no Kate Winslet to offer succor. Escape From New York. Or Batman, with the Joker set loose and no Batman to protect Gotham. Hollywood has perfected the art of the fictional disaster to such an extraordinary degree that life itself, even at its most real and most heinous, can end up looking like an imitation. Until, that is, the moment of impact is over and the happy ending goes missing, no credits roll across the screen and, worst of all, no dead spring back to life.
When real-life disasters hit, American movies tend to leave the hard work of analysis and healing to television docudramas, cable presentations and independent documentaries. Unfit for the big screen, headlines become fodder for the small one; important subjects are scorned as “movie of the week” fare. Calamities like the AIDS epidemic, for example, were covered by independent videos and films years ahead of the movie industry.
When Hollywood does move from fictional violence to the real stuff of national crisis, it usually relies on two formulas to animate its scripts: biopics of fallen heroes and the epic battlefields of war. For peacetime dramatizations of national heroes, Oliver Stone and Spike Lee fill the bill. JFK and Malcolm X explored old wounds and prompted national soul-searching. Both directors have delved into the muck of social conflict in search of new answers (Born on the Fourth of July, Bamboozled), but they are the exception in an industry more reliant on recasting its own past hits and genres.
At its best and worst–Apocalypse Now and Pearl Harbor–Hollywood loves a good battle. Even when the United States has been militarily inactive, the impulse for war has been kept alive onscreen by repeating past victories (over the Nazis and Japanese in WWII) and defeats (in Vietnam). During the cold war, spy missions captured the imagination–hence the rise of Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan and the reinvention of James Bond. And when the end of the cold war created a short-term shortage of enemies, the deficit was filled by the introduction of drug lords and smugglers. With the narcotraficante cast as the new antagonist, movies were good to go, and a whole new chapter was about to begin, with Traffic as its likely opener. Now that, like the rest of life, will change.
The press has already reported that studios are hurriedly shelving or postponing the release of films on which they’ve already spent millions for fictional disaster sequences. Instantly notorious is the new Arnold Schwarzenegger film, Collateral Damage, which won’t be in theaters any time soon. Nor will Big Trouble, an ill-timed comedy based on the Dave Barry novel of the same name about a man whose life is transformed by a (ha-ha) bomb in a suitcase. Men in Black II has switched its climactic showdown from the World Trade Center to the Chrysler building. And the Spider-Man trailer has been pulled because of its sensational shot of Spiderman spinning a web between the Twin Towers. Pity LA’s midlevel execs, busy screening dailies and purging scripts, recutting trailers and shuffling opening dates. Out of respect for the American people’s great loss, yes. But equally out of fear of their own impending box-office calamity.
Keep in mind that the narrowly averted Screen Actors Guild and Writers Guild strikes of this spring have already resulted in a huge stockpile of films that were rushed into production and now await release. What are those films and their stories? And how will they play, if released into this scared new world? It’s too early to know whether they’ll be able to soothe the soul, just end up irrelevant or, worse yet, be offensive.
But one thing is sure. The aftermath in which we now find ourselves demands new scripts entirely, something that an entertainment industry more attuned to disaster simulation than disaster relief may have a hard time providing. Certainly it will try. You can be sure that at this very moment Hollywood is working hard to determine the mood of the public. Short-term, reports tell us that folks are returning to the movie theaters and concert halls. People want to feel community, to find solace, to employ denial for a moment’s peace.I would guess that romantic comedies, easygoing family dramas and any films that go down smooth will do well in the short term. Here are some thoughts and suggestions on what could happen next.
First up, diversion: We’ll be reminded of just why Busby Berkeley was so successful in the Depression era, designing ostentatious musicals to take people’s minds off their troubles. Expect escapism for shot nerves.
Second, revision: Hollywood will know how to fit the new stories into its existing formulas without blinking an eye. The heroism of the men who may have wrested control from the hijackers over the skies of Pennsylvania is a natural for the big screen. And surely the harrowing stories of people who made it out of the towers, and the tragic tales of those who didn’t, will be the stuff of scripts for years to come. This is no cynical complaint, either; they deserve to be films. But it may take a while for an audience to be able to sit through any replay of the events of September 11, 2001.
Third, reinvention: Film history offers a host of examples of what gifted filmmakers living in times of national catastrophe can produce. Postwar Europe, devastated by the ruins of cities, populations and economies, gave birth to one of the most influential film movements of the past century, Neorealism. It was a totally new cinematic approach that brought the grit of documentary into the passionate narratives of fiction. After it, the movies were never the same. Latin American cinema followed Italy’s example: The first Cuban directors studied in Rome with the Neorealist masters, Brazil and Argentina took note and a new vision of cinema was shaped.
Today our filmmakers once again have to help audiences imagine the previously unimaginable. And, again, there’s new technology to supply the immediacy and freshness that the new aesthetics, as well as audiences with a desperate need to make sense of an unprecedented set of experiences, will demand. There are some useful precedents. In Britain Michael Winterbottom captured the humanity in the new global conflicts with Welcome to Sarajevo. In 1974 Canadian filmmaker Michel Brault made the searing Les Ordres to tell the world the story of 400 Montrealers rounded up under the War Measures Act. And Jean Renoir’s Grand Illusion is a necessary revival, for its message of recognizing both the humanity of your enemy and the insanity of war.
Fourth, a worst-case scenario, the cinema of paranoia: Just imagine The Manchurian Candidate as the model for a new genre. I fear a widespread retooling of film noir, spliced together with the old Commie-threat scripts, into a new terror noir in which every stranger is a dangerous enemy, where community has broken down, civil liberties lie in tatters and no haven beckons in a world run amok. Something like I Was a Teenage Terrorist. Touch of Evil, recast for the East-West borderline.
Film noir flourished during the cold war, so it’s ready-made to rise again. Its subtextual message of masculinity in crisis will play well too, to those generals enraged by impotence in the instant of the Pentagon hit. Paranoia can be fun as a plot device. As national policy, however, it is extraordinarily dangerous, leading to the worst sort of demagogy and extremism. Let’s hope screenwriters resist the urge, and studios the desire, to take us on that kind of cinematic ride.
Finally, let’s hope independent filmmakers of honor and conscience can find the financial backing in these dark times to give us documentary and dramatic visions of coexistence, humanity and peace. We need films that can project hope and internationalism onto the screen, and fast. As a film critic, I know well the power of images. Now, more than ever, we need the right ones.