Several of this year's contender films tackle grim and difficult topics

Blame it on Sept. 11 or on the wars that followed, but movies seem to have taken a dark turn in late 2003.

Where a typical year’s mix of award contenders might feature a tragedy or two with the usual earnest dramas and biopics, the pics getting this year’s screenplay Oscar buzz — including “Mystic River,” “House of Sand and Fog,” “21 Grams,” “The Missing,” “The Human Stain,” “The Barbarian Invasions” and “In America” — are especially laden with stories of loss, suffering, death and grief.

“House of Sand and Fog” writer-director Vadim Perelman says Hollywood’s new interest in tragic material is directly related to 9/11. “It was really evident in how a lot of the studios, not just DreamWorks, jumped on (‘House’). And I think it’s why they didn’t move to soften it, which is quite a brave act as well.”

The overall trend is quite apparent to the writers, but not necessarily to other bizzers. Even Walter Parkes of DreamWorks, the studio backing Perelman’s movie, is skeptical. “I can’t say that our decision to make it had anything to do with the Zeitgeist,” he says, pointing instead to the two Oscar-winning actors (Ben Kingsley and Jennifer Connelly) who were attached to star.

Notably, many of these films were well under way before 9/11.

“Artists feel things before the general population,” says Denys Arcand, writer-director of “Barbarian Invasions.” “We’re the caged canary in the coal mine. That’s why people should take movies and books and plays seriously. If you listen to a playwright, they will tell you where we’re going.”

“Invasions,” which was already shooting in September 2001, focuses on a dying man who, in his final days, wants to tell his estranged son that he loves him. It’s an impulse many people shared on 9/11, Arcand points out. “If you remember the people who were on the (planes that crashed that day), they wanted to phone their loved ones.”

Jim Sheridan’s “In America” follows a family that is struggling with another kind of grief — the death of a child. Sheridan came to Manhattan to shoot his autobiographical film just weeks after the destruction of the Twin Towers. “Can you imagine what the temptation was like, standing there with a story about grief after 9/11 and we I still hadn’t shot Manhattan?” he recalls.

Sheridan’s movie is about getting past grief, and the helmer notes that viewing his film can be cathartic for viewers who have been through a tragedy themselves. “They’re only going to go through those emotions if there’s part of their own life that touches those feelings they want massaged or alleviated. So people change according to reality because now they’re engaged in a different way. They’ve understood something. They’ve been through something.”

“21 Grams” screenwriter Guillermo Arriaga hopes his film will leave audiences better prepared to face the suffering of real life with compassion and tolerance. “They say that ’21 Grams’ or ‘Mystic River’ are dark films because they deal with death, but why is it not dark when in an action film, when there are 30 people dead and nobody cares?” he says. “Which film is darker? In my films, pain and death are real and have real consequences. Death is not a game. This film is trying to take a very humanistic point of view, it’s recovering the humanity of the themes. And I think that people right now need that a lot.”

What American moviegoers have been through in the past few years is unlike anything the nation’s experienced since at least the Vietnam era. Several of the writers behind these films even see a parallel between the conditions driving this current wave and the atmosphere that produced the flowering of serious American films at the end of the ’60s.

Nicholas Meyer, screenwriter of “The Human Stain,” remembers that audiences in those years flocked to films such as “Easy Rider” while the studios pushed musicals like “Paint Your Wagon.” “That was clearly a countercultural surge, which in retrospect could be traced to the divisions over Vietnam,” says Meyer.

Likewise, Perelman notes that those movies “followed a cataclysm. It followed the Vietnam War. And I really feel that this is a new wave, as a direct response to the war we’re waging now.”

As they talk about their films, many of these writers refer not to the language of film, but to stage tragedies going back to Shakespeare and even the ancient Greeks.

“The idea of drama,” says Meyer, “is to move you through catharsis, as the man says, to pity and terror. Somehow, art is supposed to renew you.”

Perelman adds, “When I’m asked why should we go see (‘House of Sand and Fog’), I always say look, any kind of tragedy in theater or film was invented to put the audience through tragedy, to make them sit there (and) see other people living through it so that we may live through our own tragedies, our real tragedies, gracefully.”

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