NOW THAT NEW YORKERS are laughing, drinking and cursing again, media pundits are busy trying to discern what effect the events of Sept. 11 are having on the culture as we knew it.
Vanity Fair editor Graydon Carter and others have suggested that the attacks signal the end of irony as a genre of art; the real irony is that the blood spilled on American soil may in fact have a positive influence on the movies.
My own experiences in the dead-letter offices of development have taught me how formulaic story-crafting can be. And many of the stories that move predictably from the setup plot point in Act I to the payoff destruction of the enemy and restoration of order in Act III are of the popcorn variety. Nearly all have forgotten that it’s the human element that interests us most in art, not tired formulas.
Terrorists, hijackers and suicide bombers are currently personae non grata in pics. And, for a time, formulas may fall out of fashion and the voice of the filmmaker may came back. We all know by now that the Arnold Schwarzenegger movie “Collateral Damage” has been pulled; that a five-hour “Law and Order” miniseries about a biological attack on New York is off; and that even the slightest glimpse of the World Trade Center has been excised from TV shows and films.
BUT WHAT WILL REPLACE the formulaic thriller, so many of which are the studios’ tentpole pics? And how long can Hollywood keep up the good behavior?
That is the multimillion-dollar question. One suggested answer is that so-called adult films will return. Such pics have, of late, had a poor box office track record for the studios. “The price point on adult dramas is lousy,” Joe Roth told me while he was at Disney, when the studio had just released Michael Mann’s “The Insider” and an expensive adaptation of Toni Morrison’s national bestseller “Beloved.” If turning toward serious films about serious subjects is the answer, it’s hard to imagine studios will be too pleased.
Of course, there’s always humor. At the Magic Theaters on Frederick Douglas Boulevard in Harlem, I asked a moviegoer, Kelly King, what sort of films she wants to see in light of the attacks. “There’s too much sadness right now,” she said. “I just want to see comedy.”
But comedy is a broad arena, warns Gotham playwright Wendy Wasserstein. “It’s a very good time for comedy, if it’s the right comedy,” she says. “Political comedy won’t be right. Sophisticated comedy, yes. It’s a hard note to get right now, but if you do it can be great.”
Wasserstein adds that audiences may rediscover ballet and the fine arts. “You need to feed the soul at this kind of time,” she says. “But you also want to know that there’s human potential for great good and great beauty.”
Some say the bar will be raised in Hollywood to create work with more meaning and emotional depth. “I think in light of the tragedies, we need more than ever to give meaning to the world,” says Elisabeth Robinson, who produced Fred Schepisi’s upcoming “Last Orders.” “That’s the best thing that art can do, and we have forgotten that purpose in mass-market movies.”
Scott Rudin says it’s a great time to do films “with emotion, undiluted human emotion.” Producer John Hart says Doris Day romantic fantasies, “the kind Renee Zellweger is so good at,” will do great today.
Gotham producer Ed Pressman speaks of the post-postmodern pic, such as several he is working on with Terrence Malick. “I’m talking about stories that are spiritually uplifting and of a positive nature,” he says. “These are the kinds of films that fell out of fashion because they weren’t ironic.”
BACK TO THAT PRICKLY WORD, “IRONY.” In movies, it’s a genre some say Quentin Tarantino made popular when his “Pulp Fiction” treated comically the violence in everyday life.
“Silly violence now becomes in bad taste,” director Kimberly Peirce (“Boys Don’t Cry”) tells me. “But I’m interested in emotional violence, in exploring what drives people to physical and emotional violence, which I think is of relevance today.”
So maybe, violent culture that we are, violence per se won’t remain taboo for long. “What we’re going through right now is the equivalent of a mourning period,” says MPAA prexy Jack Valenti. “Normalcy is held in suspension. That’s why there is so much sensitivity now. … But we can’t escape daily life. We will have to make stories about terrorism, which is part of doing what is necessary to defeat terrorism.”
Let’s just pray they will not be formulaic.