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Today more than ever, film may be answer

AT CLOSE TO MIDNIGHT on Sept. 10, I hustle through the Alliance Atlantis party at the Toronto Intl. Film Festival, exhilarated that I have scooped my competition: Miramax is near a deal to acquire domestic rights to the fest’s hottest pic, “Buffalo Soldiers,” and I’m one of the few who knows it. I call in the news to my stalwart editors in Los Angeles. Proud of myself, I have a drink with a friend, stop in on the UTA/Movieline party and don’t get to bed until 2:30 a.m.

When I wake the next morning and turn on the radio, the world has changed. I run into the Park Hyatt Hotel press office, where there is a widescreen TV, just in time to watch the Twin Towers collapse. Entertainment journalists from around the world are glued to the screen, eyes wet, speechless.

In the lobby of the Park Hyatt, I glimpse the exec from Good Machine whom I’d been trying to reach the night before to confirm the Miramax deal. We nod cordially. If he has seen my story on the acquisition, he might be angry at me for running it. But now we are bound by our humanity; the unfolding tragedy has brought forth nothing but civility. And the terrorism calls into question the relevance of the frenetic work we do — I chasing film stories, he producing and selling films.

But just as I am allowing myself to dismiss my world as petty, that world begins to take on a new meaning.

FINALLY OUT OF TORONTO and back in New York, my hometown, I walk the streets of lower Manhattan. The most expressive people in the world are suddenly subdued, polite. A taxi driver rams into a Honda Civic at University and 11th Street, jumps out of his vehicle and calmly approaches the driver. They shake hands, apologize, exchange insurance information. This is not the New York I know.

At Union Square Park, I sit on the grass with some 50 others of all races, income levels and ages, listening to a man in his early 50s, wearing dark glasses and a stars-and-stripes bandanna, playing the trumpet. His moody jazz on this cool September evening conveys our collective sadness. People sway to the beat. This is a “sit in,” not for anything as specific as to end the Vietnam War: It’s a peace gathering to end the cruelty we do to each other — everywhere, any time.

Several feet away, men and women walk solemnly through what has become a park-sized shrine to the victims — with hundreds of photos of missing loved ones hanging on lampposts, and flowers, American flags and candles all around. A sign reads, “Free Hugs,” another, “Peace is peace to end all wars.”

I look closely at the faces of the missing: a young father, 30, who worked for an investment banking firm on the WTC’s 98th floor; a secretary for an airline company on the 101st. The missing ones are caught smiling and their images seem to be trying to tell us something, particularly we in the entertainment business. Is it the enduring value of a movie that probes our humanity, that teaches us of the permanence of love?

THE GOTHAM SKYLINE may be altered forever. Americans may well have lost a piece of their innocence. Shooting films in Gotham may take on a new meaning, and seeing films set in New York, with the World Trade Center in frame, may stir up the wrong kind of emotion. I ponder the future of film in New York, wondering whether the city that epitomizes American hope and energy and despair and optimism can ever regain its cacophonous glory. Frank Rich of the New York Times tells me: “The city that can recover from this will have a new aura of legend about it.” I think he’s right.

For a moment the moody romantic comedies of Woody Allen, the gritty films of Scorsese and the fluffy Broadway musicals of the 1930s or 1950s, seem like yesterday’s news. But that’s why we need them, and similar entertainment, all the more today. Like the movie director in Preston Sturges’ “Sullivan’s Travels,” I suppose we must learn again how film can awaken us in the deadliest of times.

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