One year on: The Hollywood version

The cataclysmic images of the attacks were horribly familiar. We'd seen them before, in disaster films peddled by the big movie studios. So has the Hollywood dream factory woken up to an awful new reality?
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The Independent US

So, you want to ask, what is Hollywood doing about September 11? In brief, it's trying to pass off its usual run of rubbish, mixed in with a few movies that might have been made by and for grown-ups. And in a country where much business is doing badly, the movies cling to the comfort that box-office numbers are up. Is that because of our new martial spirit and how the life we are living has changed, changed, changed utterly? Ask Austin Powers.

So, you want to ask, what is Hollywood doing about September 11? In brief, it's trying to pass off its usual run of rubbish, mixed in with a few movies that might have been made by and for grown-ups. And in a country where much business is doing badly, the movies cling to the comfort that box-office numbers are up. Is that because of our new martial spirit and how the life we are living has changed, changed, changed utterly? Ask Austin Powers.

There are flags all over America still, and I dare say a majority vote would support action in Iraq. If you could get enough people to vote. If enough people could find Iraq on the map so as to deliver the attack. All I'm trying to suggest is that the mood in America is uneasy, anxious and suspicious. Why not? So many leading corporations and so many hitherto irreproachable auditors have been revealed as liars and scoundrels. The ordinary American working towards retirement has had as much as 30 per cent knocked off the value of his 401(k). And for the moment, that pension system means more than MK 16 guns, or whatever. Yes, we all know the World Trade Centre was destroyed, and we grieve, just as we quietly reckon that a year after the loss (and most of us could not name and did not know one person actually lost) we can get on with life. It's world trade that took the biggest hit, just as the deepest fear is that all kinds of centre will not hold.

It's my guess that, like misanthropists at Christmas, many Americans would happily miss or sleep through the anniversary of September 11. It's not that we don't care or respect the people lost in that disaster. It's not that we aren't all sharply aware that we might be targets. But Americans are a wry, resolute, impatient people happy enough to live with risk. (This is a country that pioneered modern gambling.) So you can only warn so many times that a very dangerous weekend is coming up, that we have "intelligence" (not to be spelt out, of course, for security reasons) that something big and bad could happen this weekend.

Whereas ordinary American common sense (which has never had much time for intelligence) notes the many, unbelievable errors and omissions in supposedly competent security systems that let September 11 happen, and asks itself whether that neglect doesn't chime horribly with the "oversight" procedures that let Enron happen, and all the other massive economic crimes against the American citizen.

Are we really at war? It doesn't feel like it – not if war is being caught in the crossfire of Black Hawk Down, or seeing the waves of Japanese planes come in in Pearl Harbor. In the few weeks after September 11, Hollywood did all it could to hang out the flags and wrap itself in patriotic bunting. Films such as Collateral Damage were held back. Shots of the twin towers were wiped from the imagery of television series. And the picture business wondered if there might not be an audience for gung-ho military pictures.

But Hollywood is slower than a tank stuck in the mud. Even now, a year later, one can't expect the picture business to have had enough time to adapt to the new crisis. So as The Four Feathers opens yet again – this is the sixth time the 1902 novel has been filmed – with its spectacular and largely unexplained decision that British soldiers must slaughter people who look like especially unwholesome Arabs, still there's nothing personal. That film was decided on a while before September 11, and on the basis that the business had got away with the racist nonsense in the past, so why not now?

Nor is there any evidence that Hollywood, after the attacks, immediately decided on a set of pictures that encouraged hatred of Islam, or indeed understanding of that religion; that urged guys to join the army or the Marines, or which spoke instead to caution, diplomacy and learning the Arab languages (if only to know what the plotters of domestic terrorism were saying in all those hours of tape-recorded messages). No, Hollywood took heart in its own helplessness. The movie business is like one of those oil tankers that takes so long to stop itself that you can't count on their help if you've fallen overboard. And so Hollywood sails on, serenely indifferent to everything going on in the world.

Of course, if you want to be wickedly clever about it, you could argue that that detachment has itself affected the great American public and now helps justify their lack of interest in non-American news. The picture business is a form of entertainment, or distraction, that urges the audience not to bother about such big things. At the same time, a hundred years of picture stories have established many clichés and stereotypes, some of which are evident in The Four Feathers: that natives from the Third World are savage and nasty; that white people are reliable; that men are brave; and that women will wait for them. In other words, the bitter experience of, say, Palestinians and Arabs in general – that they are misunderstood, demeaned and stigmatised – surely adds fire to their hostility towards the West and makes solution in the Middle East more remote.

Hollywood has not conceded this, and is not likely to do so. To this day, Hollywood (meaning the total enterprise) has never admitted or apologised for its crucial role in the processes known as McCarthyism and the blacklist. Thus the headstrong senator from Wisconsin and his treacherous people are the villains in the melodrama, no matter that McCarthy had power only because the Hollywood studios declined to stand up to him, to say they would not heed his "findings" and to tell him to take his witch-hunt elsewhere.

As to whether any medium of such imaginative potential should remain so distant from realities is a more profound question than most Americans think about. One obvious alternative is that television should take up the role of visual journalism. And the vast array of cable options ought to offer places where TV can be as critical, or as anti-establishment, as the BBC managed in the Sixties and Seventies. In fact, PBS in America (public broadcasting, and deadened by steady budgetary attack from Republicans) is a pretty tame voice. It's been hard in the last year, or in any previous year, to find scathing attacks on the attitudes of the ruling class. Indeed, it is a truism now that handling the media – putting spin upon it – is a vital self-defensive task of government.

But then something truly American happens – and at the moment it is the voice and the shambling on-camera presence of Michael Moore, a self-appointed scourge to all the Bushes and their Bushery. Moore has made a feature-length documentary film, Bowling for Columbine, which won a prize at this year's Cannes Film Festival, and which opens in cinemas this autumn. Entirely unpredictable, and every bit as idiosyncratic as Moore himself, the film could be the most arresting cultural event in America this year.

The film re-runs the horror of those planes slamming into the World Trade Centre. But its instinct suggests that the shootings at the Columbine High School in Littleton, a suburb of Denver, in April 1999 were actually more symptomatic of America's disarray, and far more deserving of treatment. Moore's film is a rabble-rousing essay that looks at the totemic status of guns in America as a way of diagnosing the nation's paranoia and its terrible reactionary role in world affairs. For George Bush, the film is insulting invective – at last. No President has got away for so long without crushing stricture. And this film goes way beyond the cautious limits of current journalism.

But this is not Hollywood speaking, let alone a television network. Michael Moore is a lone force from Michigan, an independent film-maker, albeit a best-selling author and a figure of increasing power in the nation. Not that he's entirely lovable. There's a demagogue inside Moore, I fancy, despite all his admirable admonitions to Americans to start thinking. But another subtle influence of the movies is that no one attempting to make political discourse can come across as anything but an actor.

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