It feels trivial to question how the events of Sept. 11 will affect the entertainment industry while the welfare of our country is under attack. But Americans are searching for the means to understand and the devices to cope with these awful events and distant war, and popular art reflects, amplifies, and helps form our attitudes and expectations in ways that politicians and reporters cannot. The entertainment industry has so far reacted with censorship and selflessness; as our shock fades and reality becomes history, it is unsettling to imagine how Hollywood will portray and interpret this “unimaginable event.”
On that Tuesday morning, all of Hollywood collectively gasped as the dreams they have been projecting onto the screen for more than 10 years came true. Terrorists had become a popular enemy to depict, and catastrophe had become commonplace viewing — think of “Patriot Games,” “The Peacemaker,” “The Siege,” “Arlington Road,” “Independence Day,” “Armageddon,” “The Jackal,” “Passenger 57” and “True Lies.”
But what we saw on Sept. 11 was, as “The Onion” put it, “an actual scene from real life” and “not from a movie.” Hollywood has responded by postponing the release of films like: “Windtalkers,” starring Nicholas Cage, about Navajo code talkers in World War II; “Black Hawk Down,” about a botched special forces mission in Somalia; and “Big Trouble,” starring Tim Allen, a comedy, but a comedy involving a bomb on an airplane.
The music industry responded to the catastrophe by championing the cause of charity. A series of benefit concerts like the Concert for New York, the United We Stand concert in Washington, D.C., and the “America: a Tribute to Heroes” telethon have raised more than $170 million in funds for the relief effort. Every major performer has participated, from Michael Jackson to Tim McGraw to the Backstreet Boys. Paul Simon sings “Bridge Over Troubled Waters” at all of his shows. His song “America” plays constantly on the radio.
Like the film industry, the music industry has censored itself as well, but in more subtle ways. Many artists have canceled shows or promotional events. Clear Channel, the nation’s largest radio station owner, circulated a “gray list” of songs the company recommended — but did not mandate — should not be given airtime. The list included “Walk Like an Egyptian,” by the Bangles, and “Imagine,” by John Lennon, which Neil Young sang at the “America: a Tribute to Heroes” benefit.
But what happens now? How will war and catastrophe change the movies we see and the songs we listen to? We have not placed the current crisis on our cultural landscape, and as of yet we lack the language to describe it. The catastrophes are repeatedly described as “unspeakable” or “indescribable”; the war in Afghanistan is nearly invisible. Through song and film, musicians, directors and screenwriters will give us the vocabulary to understand the changing world and our changed emotional state. Here are some predictions and questions:
More family-oriented movies, romantic comedies and bubblegum pop. There has been talk in the media of the death of irony. Hopefully and probably that will not be the case, but Americans will want to go the movie theater to escape. The endings will be happy, although there will be more tearjerkers, since we will also seek catharsis.
A new enemy. Terrorists are too real to depict as comic-book enemies; Hollywood will have to find new ones. There will still be violent movies, but they will be set in safer contexts that allow for a clear distinction between reality and fantasy, like far-off times or unfamiliar lands. Some filmmakers may opt to make more Westerns and detective movies, reassuring American pride and continuity. War movies will probably endure, but any ambiguity as to the righteousness of the “our” cause will disappear. Think “Saving Private Ryan” instead of “Three Kings.”
Displacement. There will be movies and songs about Sept. 11 that are nominally about something else, just as “The Crucible” is not just a play about Salem teenagers. The catastrophe is still too painful to depict. Instead, filmmakers and musicians will deal with the questions and emotions indirectly.
Just as Yale waited three weeks for someone to say what former President Bill Clinton did, America is waiting for the films and songs that will give us some kind of understanding, context and expressive vocabulary. What happened on this day of infamy may be unspeakable, but only because it is still incomprehensible. We are silent; we need an interpreter.