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After attacks, will Hollywood change its ways?

By Arts and culture correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor / September 21, 2001


The first round of responses to what many are calling a Hollywood scriptwriters' nightmare brought to life is still unfolding throughout the entertainment industry. Network season premières have been delayed at least a week, individual shows are still being evaluated for insensitive plot lines, film openings are being canceled or rescheduled, tasteless CD covers are being pulled, and video games are being examined for their appropriateness. (See story at right for details.)

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But as this Act I plays itself out, Act II promises to be less predictable.

"This could be a coming of age for our nation," says Ed Gernon, executive vice-president of movies and miniseries for Alliance Atlantis, a television, film, and miniseries producer. "It depends on which way we go."

Mr. Gernon, the producer of such TV films as "Nuremberg" and "Joan of Arc," says that, although it is important to deal with the enormity of the hijackings, there is a risk of being stuck in the sensationalism of the emotional response. "I'd like to see us start looking at the process of recovery," he says, "and if entertainment has any job, it's to put this suffering in a kind of context and prepare people for what's next."

After being unable to fly home from Washington last week, Gernon says a cross-country drive with family and colleagues gave him a new perspective on what is taking place across the nation.

"I was amazed to see this extraordinary sense of community. There's something interesting going on in our world," says the Louisiana native. "We are entering into a time of family and community."

The question he asks himself, and which he has put to many fellow producers and writers during the past week, is what the role of entertainment must be during a time of great upheaval. "Does the entertainment community lead or follow the charge? We will probably come to the conclusion that we do both," Gernon says.

"You don't foist a series of images like [the destruction of the World Trade Center towers and a damaged Pentagon] on a nation without them being integrated on some reasonably profound level," says Robert Thompson, director of the Center for the Study of Popular Television at Syracuse (N.Y.) University. "Yes, there will be some changes."

Professor Thompson calls some of the shifts possibly "counter-intuitive." He points to the new espionage-themed TV shows, such as "Alias," "The Agency," and "24" which have come under intense scrutiny as being insensitive or inappropriate.

"But there will be a reversal," says Thompson. "At first, we don't want to deal with these things. But soon it will be like World War II movies." The networks made the right decision to delay these shows, he says, "but in a few weeks, the interest will be greater, and all of a sudden 'The Agency' is a war series. If this is a war, then just as the 'Sands of Iwo Jima' was a World War II movie, this is a war movie."

Other changes may be more profound and long lasting. Thompson echoes producer Gernon's comments when he says the tone of entertainment will probably have to shift, specifically from what he calls "irony and cynical ultra-hipdom," a trend that emerged in the late 1970s.

"That style, which has so completely permeated America popular culture, is a function of one of the most extraordinary secure times in history," Thompson says. The Gulf War was taken care of quickly, the stock market boomed, and irony abounded in popular culture, from "Saturday Night Live" to David Letterman to Ben Stiller. "It was a mode that good times allowed to flourish."

The events of the past week "bring a big bucket of cold water on irony," Thompson says. He adds that he has seen an abrupt change in the behavior of his undergraduates at the University of Syracuse, who are noticeably less cynical. "This is a sudden hitting of the wall for what many would argue is the luckiest generation ever."