Amused to Death
On September 13, at 11:30 a.m., Bryce Zabel was to have met with USA Network executives about a miniseries he was pitching to the cable outlet. Zabel, creator of such television shows as Dark Skies and The Crow: Stairway to Heaven, had the conference on his calendar for weeks. But, like most who peddle entertainment in Los Angeles, Zabel and USA scrapped their plans following the September 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon. Plotting future projects seemed so trivial as bodies were being pulled from wreckage on the other side of the country. Besides, the week's events had rendered moot the purpose of Zabel's meeting: He was going to pitch USA a miniseries titled World War III, about how an act of terrorism on United States soil expanded into global conflict.
"My partner and I had worked carefully with the Air Force and some Pentagon war planners to figure out the possible scenarios by which such a conflict could come into being," says Zabel, his voice still shot through with disbelief two days after the attacks. "The irony is that we had sort of rejected something as radical as what just happened as being a little too much. So, interestingly enough, the cautionary tale we hoped to tell in fiction ended up becoming a cautionary tale told on the evening news, and there almost is no need for the wake-up call, because America has been woken up."
Canceling that meeting was the second-easiest decision Zabel had to make last week. As the newly elected chairman and chief executive officer of the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences, Zabel was largely responsible for postponing the broadcast of the Emmy Awards, which were to have been handed out last Sunday. Television simply could not yield its unblinking, unending images of annihilation to those of actors and writers being applauded by their peers.
When the show finally does take place October 7, it will be an entirely different broadcast from the one originally planned. Zabel says the Emmys now will have little to do with TV's "entertainment value"; long gone, in all likelihood, will be the inside jokes and self-satisfied smirks that dominate such award shows. The telecast, Zabel says, instead "will be about being a service to the nation in any way we can in terms of providing a shared experience, in the same way television has always provided Americans and the world a chance to share tragedies and work through them together."
One imagines a somber affair, but what images has television provided in recent days worth celebrating? We've seen too much of Dan Rather to care, for now and for the foreseeable future, who loves Raymond. We are in no mood to laugh, to be distracted, to be entertained. Nor are we prepared at this moment to watch TV shows and movies that use domestic terror to amuse us. As much as the events of September 11 changed the landscape of Manhattan, so, too, did it rumble the foundation of a city on the other side of the country.
It took only hours after the terrorist attacks on New York City and Washington, D.C., for Hollywood to respond, as studios began postponing the release dates of films whose plots hinge on acts of terrorism, lax airport security and, in one instance, romance in New York. Touchstone announced on September 12 it was pushing Barry Sonnenfeld's Big Trouble, due for release this week, to early next year. Disney-owned Touchstone had good reason to hold the movie, which is based on a novel by humorist Dave Barry. It's as frothy as a Starbucks cappuccino: Bumbling hit men, dim-witted cops, loutish millionaires and failed journalists cross paths so often you'd think Miami was a city of 12. The studio was uncomfortable with a scene near the film's end, in which two petty criminals (played by Tom Sizemore and Jackass Johnny Knoxville) sneak a bomb and two handguns onto a plane bound for the Bahamas.
"When the wounds are so raw, how do you put out a movie that touches the subject at all?" Nina Jacobson, president of Disney's Motion Picture Group, told the Los Angeles Times last week.
Warner Bros. also announced it would no longer release the Arnold Schwarzenegger "political action thriller" Collateral Damage on October 5. Schwarzenegger plays a fireman who witnesses the death of his wife and son when terrorists bomb a building. The studio has also pulled all outdoor, in-theater, television, radio and Web site advertising, which will cost Warner Bros. millions. Paramount Classics delayed the opening of Edward Burns' romantic comedy Sidewalks of New York from this week to November. And Sony yanked the trailer for Spider-Man, in which a helicopter is snared in a web between the World Trade Center's towers, and pulled its posters from theaters, in which the now-vanished towers are reflected in Spider-Man's left eye.
MGM was planning to start pre-production on Nose Bleed, a Jackie Chan comedy-thriller involving terrorists and a fight on top of the Empire State Building. But that movie, and many more like it--including The Sum of All Fears, based on Tom Clancy's novel about a terrorist attack on the Super Bowl, due for release next year--are on hold. Studios say they have little interest in using panic to sell popcorn, just as audiences likely will have little interest in seeing the frighteningly familiar projected on the big screen. They've had plenty on the small screen.
"This is real life, not a make-believe story that we've been filming," says Robert Wise, the Oscar-winning director of such films as The Sound of Music and West Side Story. "It's a terrible thing, and I think it does have an impact on how we think about movies. It's wise of the film companies and producers to hold off or delay the release of those films while this is so current...What happened in New York and Washington is certainly going to change our way of looking at movies."
Networks also have been forced to re-evaluate some of their fall-season programming. The premiere of Fox's much-ballyhooed 24, due to air at the end of October, contains footage of a terrorist parachuting out of an exploding airplane. Brian Grazer, the series' executive producer, has said no changes will be made to the show, which is not surprising: The series, about a plot to assassinate a presidential candidate, airs in real time (each episode takes place over one hour), and to manipulate the first episode would likely have a domino effect on others already in the can.
Zabel says CBS executives are also "taking a new look" at The Agency, the network's set-in-the-CIA procedural thriller. NBC also has its problems: It currently has on its schedule a five-hour miniseries spread across its three Law & Order series, including the forthcoming Criminal Intent, which deals with a terrorist incident in the United States. The shows' creator, Dick Wolf, could not be reached for comment.
But, insists Zabel, "Wolf's five-part series...is a valid cautionary tale, and it is powerfully important information for Americans to know. Whether they need to know it right now, in the aftermath of this terrible tragedy, is probably a good question. But I think Americans will enjoy quality television programming that makes them think. I always think we do a great disservice when we underestimate the intellect and capacity of the American public, because they do like to learn and to be challenged and to see things through different eyes...Writers pay very close attention to the news. I would imagine other writers, like myself, are watching these images and thinking about what it all means to our society in the future, and I would imagine you will see some of that reflected in projects in the future."
But how soon in the future? The threat of impending war lingers like smoke over a wounded Manhattan, and the notion of resuming regularly scheduled programming is, at the moment, almost unfathomable. Life has leapt in front of art and blotted it out. We've been reminded of this almost daily, as talking heads sit in front of news cameras and blithely compare the attacks to Tom Clancy novels and Jerry Bruckheimer movies. It's almost as though the so-called Attack on America (the title given the tragedy by the networks just minutes after the first plane smashed into the World Trade Center) is but one of the new fall-season shows.
Few in the entertainment industry have been more mindful of this than New Yorker staff writer Lawrence Wright, who penned the story and screenplay for the 1998 film The Siege. That film, directed by Ed Zwick, looks now like a prophecy: After the capture of a suspected Arab terrorist, Ahmed Bin Talal, New York is subjected to multiple bombings, which the Army uses as an excuse to put the city under martial law and inter Arab-Americans. As Wright sat in his Austin home on September 11, watching events transpire on his television that looked as though they had been lifted from his film, he was stunned and saddened.
"When I was working on the movie, I was interviewing a lot of people in the CIA and FBI's counterterrorism task force," says a subdued Wright, "and I don't want to say they expected something like this, but they were all very convinced something like this could happen and that only a series of fortunate accidents had prevented it from happening so far. The movie was, I think, reflective of some of their anxiety. It was meant to be kind of a cautionary tale: What would happen if we experienced in this country the kind of terrorism that happens almost routinely in some other countries, and what kind of country would we become? That was the intention of the movie, and then to see scenes that looked so much like what the movie portrayed was spooky and unsettling and depressing."
At the time of its release, The Siege was almost universally panned for being too polemic, too paranoid and even too racist in its so-called vilification of the Arab community. "It turns into a speechifying consideration of civil liberties and constitutional rights," sniffed Janet Maslin in The New York Times; she added that the "film's stark images of scheming Arab villains often speak louder than its diplomatic words." Wright has had little time to reflect or react to the week's events. He has been too consumed writing a story for the New Yorker about the harassment of Arab-Americans and Muslims, which has been especially rampant throughout Wright's home state. In effect, he is writing a factual follow-up to the fiction he authored but a few years ago.
Wright believes that had The Siege been presented as trashy fiction--as a Steven Seagal or Jean-Claude Van Damme thriller set aboard a battleship or in a hockey rink--it likely would have been given a "free pass." But, he insists, the movie was damned for being too challenging, too didactic...and far too authentic to be entertaining. The Siege not only could happen. It did happen.
But, Wright says, "We're still going to need entertainment. We may look at things differently somewhat, but beyond entertaining, movies are a form of art. They may at times be low art, they may at times be high art, but the function of art is to help us understand experience. As a reporter, what I'm trying to do is put things down in order, get them straight, get the facts right, sort things out. That's what I've been doing for the last several days. But as an artist, what I'm trying to do is incorporate those facts and experiences and digest them in a human way so they're understood, they're absorbed. One thing that movies and all other forms of art do is help us get a handle on our experiences, especially when those experiences seem too big for us."
No doubt, there will one day be movies about September 11, 2001. They will be set in World Trade Center stairwells, in airplane cockpits, in Pentagon offices. Hollywood will not be able to resist the temptation to document one of this country's most horrific moments, no more than it can stop making movies about the Civil War or Pearl Harbor. Time will pass, debris will be disposed of, bodies will be buried, and all that will linger is the memory of two airplanes disappearing into office buildings that no longer exist. In February 1993, terrorists bombed the World Trade Center for the first time, killing six and injuring thousands. Four years later, Marcia Gay Harden and Peter Gallagher starred in the made-for-HBO film Path to Paradise: The Untold Story of the World Trade Center Bombing, which bore the promotional tagline, "No one expected a terrorist attack on U.S. soil. But many could have prevented it."
"This story is too big for us," says Zabel, "but I could see writing a character who lost a loved one in this event. That would make it not too big for us, but just small enough to be real. I think there's a lot of different ways to come at a particular story, and not all of them have to be Die Hard. That's too big for us, maybe, but a character moment may not be. But good writing isn't about providing answers. It's about providing the questions."
Don't tell that to Matthew Crouch, the rare film producer whose life did not come to a standstill the morning of September 11. When he saw balls of fire shooting from the World Trade Center, he thought only of how to capitalize on the moment when, this week, he puts into 400 theaters nationwide Megiddo: The Omega Code 2, the sequel to the surprisingly successful religious thriller released in October 1999. Megiddo, which stars Michael York as the devil,is full of images that will look appallingly familiar, including scenes of landmark buildings being destroyed and reporters standing in front of fiery ruins.
Crouch says he never--"not for one second"--considered pulling the film, which, according to its Web site, is about "the rise of a Machiavellian leader bent on amassing the armies of the world for the battle of Armageddon while calamities of Biblical proportions pummel the earth." Crouch, son of Trinity Broadcasting Network president Paul Crouch, says Megiddo is nothing less than a "prophetic movie" based on various books of the Bible. He insists the movie, which hasn't screened for critics, does nothing less than "foretell future events," including, but not limited to, last week's massacre.
God, Crouch says again and again, wants this movie in theaters immediately. And who is he to argue?
"God is not in the building-destroying business," he says. "His breath did not blow those planes off of course and slam them into those buildings. God is not into the taking-of-life business, nor did he squish those buildings. But God knows all things, and to think that he took my production company and positioned us to make this movie over the last 24 months and have it finished just in time to have it answer a question we did not know was coming is awesome...I am thrilled to be in the right place at that right time."
God knows he may be the only one.
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