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Not in Hollywood's Vocabulary: Risk-Taking

October 21, 2001|KENNETH TURAN | Kenneth Turan is The Times' film critic

Facing me now on my desk is a copy of an extremely droll late 19th century French engraving showing a gendarme wearing wings and a small-plane pilot reaching over to get a glass of wine from a rooftop waiter. I keep this picture around because its dead-serious title, "In the Year 2000," reminds me of the futility of trying to look accurately into the future.

Still, an attempt to foresee what the movie business may have in store for us as a reaction to the World Trade Center catastrophe is inevitable. Film's role as a mass communicator, as the kind of molder of opinion that V.I. Lenin valued, makes its part in our future very much worth pondering. Even if the conclusions are not necessarily heartening.

Because it seems to me that crises, like fame, don't change people or institutions. Rather, they magnify what's already there. Meaning that the movie business will not rise to new heights but will become more committed than ever to doing things the way it always has. And right now, that essentially means doing as little as possible.

Of course, on the surface, there will be changes. Stories about zealous terrorists eager to destroy all we hold dear will not be what studio executives rush to greenlight. Not just out of respect for delicate sensibilities, but because audiences will likely not be eager to pay to see them. More than any time in its history, because of high production costs and the difficulty of recouping investment, not to mention turning a profit, Hollywood is in thrall to what the paying customers are going to want. Just show us which way the wind is blowing, the business says, and that's where we'll be.

That direction is difficult to figure out at this particular moment because it's too early to comprehend what we are facing, too early to know whether catastrophizing a day of mind-blowing terrorist actions into a third world war is prescient or excessive. Still, when considering what Hollywood might do now, looking at what transpired during the last global conflict is the inevitable place to start.

Hollywood, it turns out, did many things during World War II. It produced straight-ahead combat movies such as "Guadalcanal Diary," entertainments such as "Yankee Doodle Dandy" and "Meet Me in St. Louis" to take people's minds off chaos and destruction, even pro-Soviet, let's-be-nice-to-our-allies films such as "Mission to Moscow," an epic whose portrayal of Joseph Stalin as a kindly patriarch deeply embarrassed everyone later on.

Even truly subversive films were made, but they had a difficult time with audiences. Ernst Lubitsch's comic "To Be or Not To Be," which dared in 1942 to have an actor playing Hitler look around and say "Heil Myself," simply cut too close to the bone. Imagine a smart burlesque about Osama bin Laden coming out next year, and you'll see what Lubitsch was up against.

But what Hollywood was proudest of, judging by the best-picture Oscars awarded in the calendar years 1942, 1943 and 1944, was something different. "How Green Was My Valley," "Mrs. Miniver" and "Casablanca" were genteelly uplifting dramas making viewers feel that there were good people in the world and that they could make a difference, could in fact triumph over any kind of evil.

While audiences may yearn for similar fare, today's studios may not be up to filling that order. Years of capitulating to teenage and young-adult audiences that have evinced no interest in the morale-building, consensus-leading aspects of picture-making has atrophied those filmmaking muscles. Like the family in Chekhov's "The Cherry Orchard" that has irretrievably lost the recipe for making fruit into jam, the studios have pretty much forgotten how to make crisis comfort food such as "Casablanca," films that managed to be intelligent and supremely entertaining while saying something positive.

Adding to the problem is that today's Hollywood seems to lack an instinctive sense of what audiences want to see. So everyone in a decision-making position is going to play it as safe as possible, hoping to avoid committing to too many films before box-office figures show them what is likely to go over in a profoundly jittery marketplace.

And, frankly, timidity has been the order of the day for the studios so far, some of it understandable, some less so. Postponing the release of films such as "Collateral Damage" and "Big Trouble," which have terrorist plot lines, is an obvious call, but is it necessary, as some films have done, to digitally remove even casual visual references to the World Trade Center?

Are audiences that watched the real horror again and again on television likely to flinch at a fleeting glimpse of a building? Won't noticing its absence from the skyline take us out of the picture as much as seeing it there? We're not sure, studios would likely respond, we can't be certain. Let independent filmmakers shoot from the hip. With tens of millions of dollars at stake, studios won't be taking any chances.

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