The fireball fades

More patriots, fewer explosions -- everyone has an idea of how movies will change. What if they got better?

Published October 4, 2001 7:00PM (EDT)

No one knows for sure how the events of Sept. 11 will change the world of movies, but plenty of people seem to think they know. A few things are certain: No one wants big explosions -- at least just not yet. And no one, but no one, wants to see on-screen destruction of government buildings or skyscrapers at the hands of terrorists.

But beyond that, the future isn't as easy to read as you might think. A recent special issue of Entertainment Weekly titled "What Lies Ahead: The Challenge to Our Culture" speculated that oldtime patriotism would make a comeback (admitting, rightly, that for years the air has been redolent with it anyway); lightweight diversions, like romantic comedies, the kinds of things that took Americans' minds off the Depression, would also draw big. The suggestion is that we'll basically be seeing the same movies we've been subjected to for the past 20 years -- only they'll be more unbearable than ever.

If that's the case, we'll be retreating into a movie world that's even more simplistic than the one we've got now, one where movies will reflect how we want to feel and who we want to be. Tom Hanks (once, and occasionally still, a marvelous actor) will be our ubiquitous and insufferable king.

If every country eventually gets the culture it deserves, maybe that will be our fate. We've gotten so used to the mediocrity of most mainstream movies, we were probably braced for them to get worse anyway, even if the world we live in hadn't changed so drastically in just one day.

Then again, maybe a time of crisis is what it takes to make us question the shape, texture and direction of movie culture. In the aftermath of the attack, executives in Hollywood, seemingly as shaken up as the rest of the nation, were acknowledging that quite a few things would have to change. Isn't right now the best possible time to throw down a challenge to Hollywood?

Nobody wants to ask the most dangerously optimistic question, the one with the most thrilling possibilities: Could movies actually get better?

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Maybe it's a good idea to define, briefly, what's meant by "better." Explosions in movies aren't bad things in and of themselves; they can be exhilarating and sometimes cathartic -- and the value of catharsis shouldn't be underestimated in a country that, for the first time in its history, is having to face up to the reality that it's not invincible.

But who needs movies that are just excuses for bigger and better explosions? Before Sept. 11, there were certainly plenty of people ready to line up for loud, flashy movies -- but there were plenty of people looking to escape them, too. Now, almost every American moviegoer has a good excuse to seek out pictures that might take their minds off their concerns without blasting them out of their seats. The Michael Douglas thriller "Don't Say a Word" -- which features a man being buried alive -- was the top box office draw on its opening weekend, that of Sept. 28. (There's no way to explain it other than to say that old habits die hard, especially with movie audiences.) But Alejandro Amenabár's small, beautifully made, quietly creepy thriller "The Others" -- a picture most mainstream audiences might normally consider an art film, despite the fact that it stars Nicole Kidman -- took the No. 5 slot.

Maybe "The Others" is one of those flukes, a small film (with almost no initial advertising push to speak of) that just happened to cross over because of good word of mouth. But even though the movie opened on Aug. 10 on a relatively small number of screens, it gained, not lost, momentum at the box office the two weekends after the Sept. 11 attacks, and it continues to hold steady.

"The Others" is scary, but not in an obvious way: Its biggest frights are insinuated, not spelled out. To say that American moviegoers have simply stumbled onto it may be accurate -- or it may be underestimating them: Perhaps they know just what they want in a movie right now, and, consciously or unconsciously, they're reaching out for it. In any event, "The Others" triumphs on the intricacies of its plot -- it's as unflashy as a movie can get. And it's the kind of diversion that American moviegoers might learn to demand once they've developed a taste for it.

It may be premature to think that the events of Sept. 11 will have much more effect on Hollywood other than the mad scramble we've already seen -- typified, so far, by Warner Bros.' indefinite postponement of an ill-timed Arnold Schwarzenegger movie and the mad, fluttering butterfly sound of countless CGI experts' tapping away at their computer keys to erase images of the World Trade Center from every movie already in the can.

And of course, it's unrealistic to expect that Hollywood will actually respond to a crisis by giving us more of what we really want (especially when we don't know exactly what that is). But if the past few weeks have taught us anything, it's that we can't predetermine what we can "realistically" expect from people. Nothing I've ever seen in my life prepared me for the grace, kindness, decency and good sense I saw, and continue to see, among New Yorkers (not to mention people across the country) in direct response to the World Trade Center attack; now I wonder why I ever expected less of them. An unrealistic expectation is not the same as an unreasonable one -- and even if it were, let's just say that now is the time for American moviegoers to be unreasonable.

These next few months are likely to be viewed by Hollywood as a testing ground for what audiences will and will not tolerate. "Hardball," a reasonably entertaining formula picture about a guy whose life is changed by the inner-city Little League team he coaches, did particularly well in the wake of Sept. 11: Baseball is, after all, the national pastime, and audiences tend to like stories about personal transformation, particularly if they're not too sappy.

In this brave new world of movies, sappiness may be our biggest worry. In his study of the Second World War, "Wartime," Paul Fussell explains the effects a major war can have on the popular writing of its day, and it's easy enough to extend the metaphor to other popular art forms: "It will mean, among other things, that E.B. White will replace H.L. Mencken as one of America's most attended-to observers and commentators. ... That is, the age will demand that analysis, criticism, evaluation, and satire yield to celebration, charm, and niceness."

Whatever shape the United States' battle against terrorism takes, Hollywood will definitely respond with some sort of propaganda -- that's simply what Hollywood does during wartime. We shouldn't assume, though, that that propaganda will necessarily take the shape of movies like the World War II-era "Mrs. Miniver," or even like the movies we all readily acknowledged as Reagan-era propaganda, things like "Top Gun" or "Rambo." Those are only the most obvious examples of the way Hollywood goes to work on us. Propaganda takes all kinds of insidious forms. "An Officer and a Gentleman," a movie generally viewed as just a swoony love story, is actually an exceedingly artful example of Reagan-era propaganda: Richard Gere's character becomes worthy, grown-up, respectable, only after he has been "tamed," transformed from a tattooed biker into a spit-and-polished officer. His worth is dictated by how well he conforms; it's OK if he cries, but only in the service of reinforcing the movie's cowboy-soldier rhetoric.

It's very likely that in the coming years, young Americans will be treated to their own version of "An Officer and a Gentleman," or worse. (Plenty of people have been able to block out the politics of that movie enough to at least enjoy its elementally satisfying love story -- which, admittedly, is one of the things that makes it so insidious.) Whether or not people actually become more sentimental during wartime, you can bet Hollywood is going to try to milk them. We'll have to be more vigilant than ever in guarding against dreck, but it's crucial to remember that we don't have to fall for it. As Fussell notes, even "Mrs. Miniver" -- a 1942 romance "showing Greer Garson and Walter Pidgeon heroically suffering through the Blitz and Dunkirk" -- was met with jeers when British audiences watched it in theaters in 1944, even though it had been perfectly acceptable to everyone just two years earlier, before those audiences had a grasp of what war really meant.

Of course, we still don't know exactly how audiences will respond to any movie in the coming weeks, months or years. Right now I'm wondering if people aren't more likely to flinch at more immediate, visceral violence (a torture sequence, for example) than at a movie device as blatant as an explosion. An explosion is at least something of a known quantity -- it usually involves a "boom," followed by some fire and smoke -- and in the past, at least, we didn't rush to link it with human suffering.

But I don't necessarily see a future of wholly softened movies, either. Violence will always have its place. Done badly, it's stupid and offensive; done well, it can be cathartic and energizing and even beautiful. No national catastrophe can, or should, remove it from the cultural landscape. Does that mean that movies will put violence to better use in the future? Doubtful, but at the very least some filmmakers may end up rethinking the possibilities. And while we've all decided that terrorist movies are currently unacceptable, movies like the upcoming "Matrix" sequel will probably do astonishingly well. A picture that takes place in a fantasy world that we don't actually have to live in and also provides some outlet for the audience's subconscious (or conscious) aggression seems like a magic formula right now.

At this point, this week, I get the sense that movie audiences are still a little raw (at least in New York, which is where I go to the movies). We're nowhere near to business as usual, and it's anybody's guess as to how "normal" we'll ever feel again.

But if Hollywood really is rethinking its direction, and considering giving us something different from the same old stuff we've become accustomed to -- in other words, endless car chases and explosions -- isn't there even a remote possibility that it might come up with some improvements? Imagine new James Bond movies that rely on gadgets and sneaky plot twists and encounters with gorgeous women, instead of simply delivering bigger, louder and more impressive explosions every time (which is pretty much all the franchise has amounted to in the past 15 years).

Television may even be a few steps ahead of Hollywood in giving us what we most desperately need. The first episode of the new ABC series "Thieves" felt decidedly different from any other show -- or, for that matter, movie -- I've seen in years: It has two appealing stars, John Stamos and Melissa George, whose banter keeps the show moving fast. Their characters actually have some skill at Avengers-style hand-to-hand combat as opposed to the more obvious, and lazier, gunfighting. (Are we headed for the return of stuntpeople as nervy artists, instead of tough people who just get beat up and set on fire a lot?) George and Stamos wriggled out of scrapes by using their wits and ingenuity instead of dumb force: Stylish and sleek in matching black leather outfits, they rappelled, face-forward, down the front of a glossy skyscraper in a dazzling escape.

"Thieves" may not hold up, but in that first episode those characters represented unlikely rays of hope not just in the landscape of popular entertainment, but even against the larger problems that most of us have suddenly become so preoccupied with. Skittering so gracefully down the front of that building, they were getting away with something most of us can only dream about; their fearlessness made you want to cheer. They weren't beating anyone up, blowing anything up, or blasting anything with a trusty gun. All they were doing was moving, fearlessly, forward.

It's the only direction to choose right now.

By Stephanie Zacharek

Stephanie Zacharek is a senior writer for Salon Arts & Entertainment.

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