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[whitespace] 'Independence Day'
Patriot Game: The White House went ballistic in the 1996 film 'Independence Day.' A scheduled TV broadcast of the movie has been canceled.

Just Like a Movie?

With any luck, the Sept. 11 attack will blunt the American taste for cinematic scenes of disaster

By Richard von Busack

" . . . bin Laden is, in one sense, the sort of menace-without-a-country that figured, cartoonishly, in old James Bond movies. If he was, in fact, the author of the attack, he has a deeply cinematic imagination. Images wrought by the attack in New York were right out of a big-budget Hollywood production, and made the realty almost impossible to believe."

--David Von Drehle, Washington Post

OVER THE LAST 10 years, as the special effects in films sharpened to uncanny clarity, we often saw spectacle divorced from any emotional content. Critic Jonathan Rosenbaum described the modern action movie, pioneered by 1962's Dr. No and its sequels, as "chicken McNuggets"--a box of juicy morsels unconnected by anything organic.

When the aliens splintered the White House in the money shots of Independence Day, when the meteors pelted New York in Armageddon, when the skyscrapers detonated in Die Hard, these cataclysms weren't meant to arouse anything but satisfaction. In modern action pictures, scenes of destruction were meant to stimulate an audience, not to remind them of their vulnerability. Moviemakers didn't care to stir a sense of pity. In these explosion scenes, you got the best applause when the buildings were in D.C. and New York: we know that the terrorists, aliens or meteors were punishing New York arrogance and Washington weaselry. The very size of the destruction meant that no hero--not even Superman--could be equal to the effect; the blown-up buildings were the stars of the show.

I believe it used to be different. In a Bond movie, a human being was always the star. In the Bond movies, the villains are civilized characters; we hear their point of view, and they're usually witty about their schemes. The films were adventures; a good part of the world you saw through the films was meant to be admired, not destroyed.

But Bond got old-fashioned in the 1980s. He was outgunned by Stallone's Rambo, and his various mini-Rambos, in films popular everywhere from Bosnia to Chechnya. In Rambo 3, Stallone was fighting along with the same Mujahedin who may be our opponents in a coming war. Each Rambo-style actioner was a tortured operatic expression of revenge.

Bond was never a great revenger; he was too uncomplicated and fun-loving for such emotions. (The film where he goes out for revenge, the Timothy Dalton Bond, License to Kill, was among the least popular in the series.) Rambo's sadism amped the stakes, and the films were more superficially real than the Bonds; Rambo got muddy and bloody and hurt.

When Bruce Willis took over as the similar avenger John McClane in Die Hard, fighting terrorists blowing up a skyscraper in L.A., the formula took a new turn: a hero as bruised as Rambo, fighting in the Bond-style world of cosmic villains. In Die Hard 2 (1990) McClane goes up against South American mercenaries who deliberately wreck a jumbo jet. (The model work on this film is so faithful that it merges in the mind with news footage I once saw of the remote-controlled jumbo jet the FAA wrecked in Iowa as a test.)

The franchise only went as far as a third film because Die Hard: With a Vengeance had gotten silly, while still trying to give Willis' John McClane the same weary, bruised character. At this stage in the action film, the heroes were immaterial: characterization only interfered with the process of blowing up buildings.

THE SEPT. 11 CATASTROPHE occurred right after the end of the action movie season, Labor Day. And nothing in the upcoming months has an extraordinary amount of explosions in it except for Windtalker, John Woo's World War II film. Windtalker feeds what cartoonist Gary Trudeau called "hedgerow nostalgia" for the world war. It may be popular because of what you hear in interviews this week: a longing for an enemy you can actually see. (That's a movie convention, though; ask a World War II veteran how often he actually saw a Nazi or Japanese soldier in the field; most soldiers on both sides preferred keeping a low profile to getting shot.)

There's no guarantee that Windtalker will be a hit. It's a showbiz law: you can't sell rural pictures to farmers ("Hix Nix Stix Flicks," as the famous Variety headline put it); convicts aren't big fans of prison movies, and soldiers under the gun have no appetite for war movies. And everyone feels under the gun now.

I want to believe we'll never see anything so terrible as Sept. 11 again, even onscreen. Maybe the attack will knock an entire moviemaking style out of existence. It would be no loss: action movies are decadent and baroque now, in need of some clever new approach.

The Travolta movie Swordfish is the most repellent this year, with its 360-degree diorama of a street corner blown up by C-4 explosive and pinball-sized ball bearings. We saw the detonation slow and from different angles, like the new species of porno on DVD. The movie blew the audience to pieces, and they weren't supposed to think anything about it except "Wow."

Already, the terrorist attack has postponed the television and cinema release schedules. Fox pulled a scheduled TV broadcast of Independence Day; and studios have delayed the release of the new Schwarzenegger picture Collateral Damage, where Schwarzenegger proposes to get even instead of mad, after terrorists detonate a skyscraper.

Also halted is the release of the Tim Allen comedy Big Trouble, in which a bomber attacks an airplane; and even Ed Burns' Sidewalks of New York has been stalled.

After enduring the emotional shock of Sept. 11, I began to feel guilt. For the first time, I wondered if there had been some merit, after all, to the monkey-see, monkey-do arguments against film violence--arguments I'd always dismissed. Seeing television broadcasts of the doomed jet slicing into the building, the smoke forced through the stone canyons of Manhattan, I responded in the same way everyone did: "It's just like a movie."

But later, I wondered: those who created the ever-better computer animation, those who devised the spectacle of disaster as entertainment, and those who watched it--had we all, somehow, helped call this terrible day into being by some collective act of imagination? Could our endless appetite for imaginary carnage have spawned real carnage? What did we do? What did we fail to do?

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From the September 19-26, 2001 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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