In the eyes of many, movies haven't really changed since Sept. 11-- or, if they have, it's been with typical glacial slowness and skittishness.
That's hardly surprising. Everything happens slowly in the movies, the art form where millions of dollars usually have to be raised before a project even starts. But, according to some observers, such as Dave Poland, who writes the saucy and well-informed industry column The Hot Button: "There hasn't been a major reaction -- and there probably won't be. People in the studios are going to continue to make the movies they think will make the most money and avoid the ones they think won't. And right now, in the eyes of Hollywood, 9/11 is old news. Both Enron and [the Catholic Church scandal] are more current -- and more likely to affect future movies."
Others echo Poland's opinion, though some, such as writer-director and one-time journalist/critic Rod Lurie ("The Contender"), feel the important changes may be below the surface, in the decision-making apparatus.
Lurie believes that you can already see certain trends: "It seems that 9/11 is sort of finding its way into history and is going to be dealt with . . . though I don't think you're going to see any major Hollywood studio doing anything [directly] with 9/11 for quite some time. I think there's a feeling that nobody wants to profit off it. . . . I was talking about a project [before last September] that dealt with terrorism -- and, after 9/11, the head of the studio said to me, `Well I guess we can't do this now.' And I agreed with him. Now, we're talking about it again."
Current reactions to 9/11, though, are few and far between. Despite the fact that two films with 9/11 themes, "The Guys" and "11'09'01," will be playing the Toronto Film Festival next month -- both scheduled for Sept. 11 showings in remembrance of the last year's disaster -- they're among the only such projects ready to hit theaters so far. "The Guys," starring Sigourney Weaver and Anthony LaPaglia, based on the play mounted by a small theater near the World Trade Center site, is about a Manhattan firefighter (LaPaglia) and an editor (Weaver) recalling fellow firefighters lost in the tragedy, and "11'09'01" is a collection of short films, all with a 9/11 theme or moment, commissioned from major filmmakers around the world -- including Britain's Ken Loach, France's Claude Lelouch, Israel's Amos Gitai, Iran's Samira Makhmalbaf, Bosnia's Danis Tanovic and America's Sean Penn. Each episode lasts exactly 11 minutes, 9 seconds.
At least one new movie on the effects of 9/11, a German project called "September," is now in production, but, as for other direct responses, especially from Hollywood, they're not crowding the schedule.
There are obvious reasons. Movies are often the slowest to respond to the latest news events and trends. Since it may take years for a project to get green-lighted and produced, and the world may undergo many revolutions between original inspiration and its final appearance in theaters, it's rare to see too much influence too soon.
And, to a degree, that's a big part of what's wrong with our current movies: that they react today too little, too late, and often too timidly and superficially, to the great social issues and cultural sea changes of our time. According to Poland, one of the biggest reasons for that is Hollywood's dependence on the foreign market -- and uncertainty here about how they may respond to 9/11.
One of the year's biggest action pictures, the empty-headed "XXX" with Vin Diesel appeared without much 9/11 consciousness at all, with villains who weren't localized terrorists, but all-purpose anarchists. That's typical, says Poland: "Arab villains are definitely out right now, because it's too hot a topic."
If there's little planned for the future, you can search in vain through the list of 2002 releases to find many recent or current films affected by 9/11 -- unless you want to count ones that had releases delayed or content and advertising altered because the studios were worried about presumed (accidental) similarities to the tragedy: terrorist content ("Collateral Damage," "Bad Company"), incorrect politics ("Big Trouble") or even just the presence of the pre-9/11 World Trade Center itself in shots or ad layouts ("Sidewalks of New York"). In that vein, the limit of absurdity may have been reached when controversy briefly arose over the title, from the original novel, of Part 2 of Peter Jackson's three-film adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien's "The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers."
There have been changes, but they may be happening below the surface.
Some commentators, such as the scathing conservative TV pundit David Horowitz, believe that the political climate of Hollywood, now overwhelmingly liberal, is changing markedly because of 9/11, that a new era of conservatism and patriotism is dawning -- and they point, perhaps dubiously, to the post 9/11 success of relatively gung-ho war movies like "Behind Enemy Lines" and "We Were Soldiers" or terrorist thrillers like "The Sum of All Fears" as proof.
`Out of the closet'
Writer-director Lionel Chetwynd ("The Hanoi Hilton") was quoted May 31 in "The Hollywood Reporter" as saying, "[Conservatives] are coming out of the closet. Hollywood is finally becoming a two-party town." "Fears," in fact, which was prepared well before the Trade Center attacks, changed its terrorists to modern-day European Fascists -- the kind of switch ridiculed by action movie veteran/icon Clint Eastwood: "You've got to make [the terrorist villain] a neo-Nazi ... some old tired neo-Nazi group out of the Idaho panhandle. You can't do anything that's current, because God forbid you should insult somebody!"
According to Poland: "The only thing that's really clear is that the industry is still paranoid about people on the lot. Going to the studio these days means an extra 15 minutes of having your car searched. That's dissipating though . . . ." And that may be the most lasting of all these shifts and possible shifts: Hollywood's various reactions to our heightened national sense of vulnerability -- and, beyond that, the need to pull together and triumph over darkness.