For a long time, I kept a cartoon on my desk that offered some black-humor perspective on the world. It bore the image of a businesswoman dressed for success and looking at the sky with shock. In the balloon above her head it said, "Nuclear war!?! Oh, no, there goes my career!!"
In that same dark spirit, I've had trouble working up a lot of sympathy for the current plight of the entertainment industry. Terrorism!?! Oh, no, there goes the new Arnold Schwarzenegger movie!!
Fortunately, no one has had the nerve to ask for a federal bailout of "Collateral Damage." Nor for "Big Trouble," a laugh-riot of a movie built around a suitcase bomb on an airplane.
Reality pulled the rug out from under fantasy. The heads of various entertainment companies used almost the same words to describe their decision to pull back on disaster and violence: "It would be insensitive." As if, somehow, on Sept. 10 it was "sensitive." Indeed, what struck me is precisely how many movies, TV series and specials were being held up, altered or dumped because of this new "sensitivity." How many projects, in short, had hinged on violence.
Let me give you a small sample. "Nosebleed," a Jackie Chan film in which he plays a window washer for the World Trade Center who battles terrorists. "The Alchemists," with an ex-CIA agent going after terrorist acts by military men. "The Lion's Game," in which an ex-cop goes after an Arab terrorist.
On TV, NBC had produced a five-hour miniseries in which the "Law & Order" cast dealt with terrorism. Fox was promoting the first episode of "24," in which the CIA tries to prevent the assassination of a presidential candidate. An independent producer was getting ready to pitch the USA Network a miniseries called "World War III."
The list does not include the generation of movies at the video store such as, say, "Independence Day." It doesn't include all the garden-variety movies now showing with gratuitous violence so routine that Entertainment Weekly runs a monthly body count. For August 2001, the tally was 532.
Remember after the Columbine shootings when senators and citizens called on the industry to put some lid on the violence? Their worries were met with a blanket defense of the industry, the "oeuvre," the creative freedom.
Then the twin towers were hit, and "it looked just like a movie." But as Jeanine Basinger, who heads the film department at Wesleyan University, says, it woke us up "to the truth behind images we've been thinking of as entertainment without consequences. We don't just throw our popcorn bags in the trash and go home."
When reality trumped fantasy, the industry finally "got it." It took this tragedy to activate a long dormant V-chip in Hollywood's own internal thought process.
But we don't know whether they are more "sensitive" to the perils of the box office or to the call of citizenship. Whether violence is temporarily out of fashion or whether they'll retool their world view.
An entire cast of entertainers lined up for the emotional telethon that netted $150 million in pledges -- not much for a high-tech blockbuster, but pretty remarkable for a two-hour TV show. Will those telethon stars who have also starred in dramas full of gratuitous violence -- from Tom Cruise to Sylvester Stallone, from Will Smith to Clint Eastwood -- now become more "sensitive"?
I am not suggesting that the dream factory be turned into a propaganda mill. I am suggesting that it has been a propaganda mill.
The entertainment industry has made violence a favorite product. It has encouraged our own children to be amused, even thrilled, by blow-up, knock-down mayhem. It has exported an image of the United States as an overwhelmingly, casually, violent country.
We need comedies and tragedies. We need artists to tell stories that make us understand our world. Eventually even stories of Sept. 11. But do we finally understand that the images of violence as entertainment have, if you will forgive the expression, blown up in our faces?
The thrill is gone. So are the excuses.