Clearly these are tense decision-making moments for those entrusted with managing our pop culture. The public has a yen for a return to normalcy, as after every apocalyptic event. On the other hand, there is a great sensitivity to exploitative subject matter. People want the familiar, but not the ugly familiar.
An apt metaphor for the moment was captured by Brian Lowry in the Los Angeles Times: Sandy Grushow, chairman of Fox Television, was walking down Fifth Avenue last week, mulling programming decisions, only to be stunned as a file of military vehicles rolled past. By the time Grushow reached his office, he had decided to cancel his network showing of “Independence Day.”
There is broad recognition that a watershed event has occurred in our society. On the other hand, it would be naive to conclude that it will have an instant sanitizing impact on our pop culture.
Studio production chiefs may be delaying the release dates of movies with terrorist themes, and the Sandy Grushows of the industry may be scrutinizing TV shows like “24” and “The Agency,” but that doesn’t necessarily mean that the ubiquitous violence permeating our movies and TV will miraculously disappear.
Those who’ve been around awhile vividly recall the phenomenon that became known as the “Black Sunday Syndrome.”
The 1977 film “Black Sunday,” directed by John Frankenheimer, was arguably the most harrowingly vivid movie ever made about terrorism. Exhibitors predicted blockbuster business. Critics praised its spellbinding story line: A band of Arab terrorists setting out to blow up the Super Bowl.
But the movie faced two major obstacles. First, it was so real as to be downright horrific.
To compound this problem, its release collided with real-life events: There was a terrorist raid on Washington. A nightmare collision of two 747s in the Canary Islands killing 600 was blamed on terrorists, which turned the public’s consciousness back to other nightmares of the ’70s, like the massacre at the Munich Olympic Games and the hijacking at Entebbe.
Most moviegoers turned their backs on “Black Sunday.” They didn’t want to know.
A version of the “Black Sunday Syndrome” will again surface in the times ahead. There will be retaliation for last week’s tragedy, and then retaliation for the retaliation. They will bring with them a revulsion toward violence and terrorism.
And none too soon. Movies about terrorism are too easy to grind out and market. The image of Bruce Willis or Arnold Schwarzenegger thwarting the baddies screams out from virtually every poster.
Variety‘s Tim Gray last week found some 270 matches for the word “terrorist” on the Internet Movie DataBase, reminding us how many projects carry this theme.
The mood of the moment may provide a rare opportunity to step back from this cultural blood lust and bring forth entertainment that might ennoble its audience rather than exploit it.
Sure, there will always be a market for violent revenge stories. Even now the bottom-feeders are out there signing up real-life sagas of those who survived last week’s grim events, or even triggered them. There will inevitably be a nasty aftertaste to the tragedy.
But some programmers may be smart enough to remember the “Black Sunday Syndrome.” We’ve all experienced enough of the dark side these past few days. The TV images are forever embedded in our consciousness. We owe ourselves the opportunity of rebirth.