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[Nettime-bold] New Look for Entertainment in a Terror-Conscious World
Paul D. Miller on Mon, 24 Sep 2001 17:20:28 +0200 (CEST)

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[Nettime-bold] New Look for Entertainment in a Terror-Conscious World

New Look for Entertainment in a Terror-Conscious World

September 24, 2001


For executives at MGM, the release of a forthcoming movie
called "Gangster" is problematic. It has action and
suspense, mobsters and international terrorists.

Once this was the stuff of box office dreams. But the
tragedy of Sept. 11 changed all that. Now the makers of
"Gangster" and dozens of other films, television shows,
plays, books, musical recordings and video games are trying
to find their places in a shifting cultural landscape.

The self-scrutiny is unprecedented in scale, sweeping aside
hundreds of millions of dollars in projects that may no
longer seem appropriate. Like the calls to curb violence in
popular entertainment after the 1999 shootings at Columbine
High School in Colorado, the reaction may be helpful in the
short term. But creators and producers are just beginning
to grapple with more difficult, long-range questions of
what the public will want once the initial shock from the
terrorist attacks wears off.

Many in the industry admit that they do not know where the
boundaries of taste and consumer tolerance now lie, much
less where they will be in a year or two.

In the short run there are immediate questions. After such
tragedy and insecurity, conveyed in vivid television
images, is it responsible - or commercially viable - to
deal in fantasy violence or the romance of the outlaw? In a
climate of mourning and fear, is there a place for humor
and escapism, fashion and pleasure?

"People realize that it is not the time to move forward
with the frivolous, exploitative action films," said David
Ladd, an independent producer and former MGM executive.
"There has been a certain complacency, I believe, in the
audience, to be titillated by a certain kind of movie,
whether it's on the comedy side or the action side, and I
believe that this incident has made everyone a lot more

The new piety strikes an odd note: taste is not what some
of these people do best. Industries that have robustly
defended depictions of mindless carnage or the degradation
of women are suddenly drawing the line in seemingly
arbitrary ways, policing even incidental references to the
World Trade Center.

All fields of culture are feeling the uncertainty.
Playwrights and novelists are reassessing their subjects.
Fashion houses, architects and industrial designers,
buffeted by both the tragedy and the sinking economy, are
rethinking the role of irony, luxury and security.

"That sort of ironic, hip attitude is going to have to
undergo revision," said Jonathan Galassi, the publisher of
Farrar, Straus & Giroux. "Any sort of sense of cynicism and
self- absorption - nobody is going to be interested in

Rock and rap performers, who have been sliding into gaudy
irrelevance, are hoping to re-engage the public. "Music was
in a very stagnant place before the attack," said Antonio
Reid, president and chief executive of Arista Records. "We
have good records but not meaningful records. Maybe the
attack will jolt writers to speak to the times we're living

First, though, the businesses are scrambling not to offend.
Studios have put off the openings of action films like
Arnold Schwarzenegger's "Collateral Damage" and a Tim Allen
comedy, "Big Trouble," which involves a bomb on an

Television series are holding back episodes that are now
viewed as cutting too close to the bone. And television
writers are reformulating pitches for next season.

Bryce Zabel, chairman-elect of the Academy of Television
Arts and Sciences and a longtime television writer and
producer, said he had been scheduled to pitch an idea last
week to the USA Networks for a mini- series called "World
War III." "Obviously this show died when the victims died,"
he said.

Now he is reaching for story ideas from the heart. "Maybe
more character-oriented, something to do with romance or
fantasy," he said.

Even an artist as respected as Stephen Sondheim is not
immune. The Roundabout Theater Company has withdrawn plans
for a Broadway revival of Mr. Sondheim's 1991 musical,
"Assassins," because it portrays the killers of American
presidents. The McCarter Theater in Princeton, N.J., has
pulled from its season a dark 25-year-old play by Richard
Nelson, "Vienna Notes," which has references to a terrorist

There is a daunting momentum to such caution. On an MTV
message board, a viewer described the singer Alicia Keys as
"the bomb," a vernacular compliment. "Someone said, `Take
that off,' " said Judy McGrath, president of MTV Group.

Even the World Wrestling Federation has shown a new
sensitivity, decking its performances with American flags
and removing a theme song called "Bodies." (It's about
dancers, not corpses.) "We're in a gray area in terms of
what's right and wrong," said Stuart Snyder, the company's
chief operations officer.

This self-policing threatens to yield a culture of
blandness, leading some to conclude that cultural comfort
food is all the nation may be willing to stomach. "We're
going to go right back to Doris Day movies, I can feel it
in the bones of the country," said Robert Brustein, a
theater director and a critic for The New Republic. "It's

Comedians and satirists already feel the squeeze; after the
tragedy, being funny almost seems treasonous, said Steve
Levitan, creator of "Just Shoot Me," an NBC sitcom. "And
when you laugh at something, you feel guilty."

Even the unmodulated speech of the Internet is tempering
its sarcasm. Last spring Modern Humorist, a satirical
Internet magazine, published "My First Presidentiary," a
savage paperback sendup of President Bush. This week on its
Web site it posted the sort of heartfelt message that might
have once been used to sell war bonds.

"You probably wouldn't guess that the creeps behind Modern
Humorist are the sort who wave flags and sing `America the
Beautiful' with strangers in the streets," wrote the
editors, Michael Colton and John Aboud. "But that is what
we have been doing, in unity with others."

Television viewers watched last week as one wiseacre talk
show host after another engaged in a kind of public
purging. "I'm sorry to do this to you; it's another
entertainment show beginning with an overwrought speech of
a shaken host," the comedian Jon Stewart said on "The Daily
Show," which returned on Thursday after more than a week

Eventually the late-night hosts will move on from grief; by
the end of the week, David Letterman was beginning to joke
around, but only in the gentlest ways.

"It's not that irony is dead," said Mr. Aboud. "It's just
that feelings and honesty are in."

But others are resisting a retreat to softness. George
Steel, who heads Columbia University's Miller Theater, a
haven for adventurous contemporary music, had second
thoughts about opening the season on Friday with "Blood on
the Floor," a raw, jazz-infused work. In the end he decided
that music lovers could make up their own minds. "To cancel
it or replace it with something more palatable would be to
infantalize the audience," he said.

Tony Kushner, the Tony-winning playwright of "Angels in
America," has a new play, "Homebody/Kabul," about a
family's search for an Englishwoman lost in Afghanistan. It
is scheduled to begin performances in late November at the
New York Theater Workshop, whose artistic director, James
Nicola, said he had every intention of proceeding.

"It is all the more important now to be thinking about
Afghanistan, to explore what we don't know about it and why
we don't know what we don't know," Mr. Kushner said.

It is not clear whether any of the current foment will
prove substantive or lasting.

"There'll still be explosions and violence in movies," said
Edward Zwick, who directed the 1998 film "The Siege," about
terrorists in New York. "It's na‘ve to think otherwise."


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