Stephen Applebaum

Published in The Scotsman: 07 March, 2002

There is nothing new about blaming society's violence on Hollywood. But did it, as Robert Altman insists, really help to inspire the events of 11 September? Could last year's outrage actually be the worst copycat crime yet? "The movies set the pattern, and these people have copied the movies," Altman told the Hollywood Reporter after the Twin Towers fell. "Nobody would have thought to commit an atrocity like that unless they'd seen it in a movie. How dare we continue to show this kind of mass destruction in movies? We created this atmosphere and taught them how to do it."

Altman's remarks are undoubtedly as much a reflection of his own jaundiced view of Hollywood as of a wider reality, for he added that he hoped the outcome would be a return to a more thought-provoking and character-driven cinema. The kind of cinema, in other words, that he represents. But special pleading or not, the question remains: how should Hollywood respond to 11 September?

Six months on, it has so far produced patriotic public service announcements that have been playing in American theatres; then, of course, there was the knee-jerk re-editing of existing movies and the hasty re-shuffling of release schedules immediately following the attacks. So far, though, there has been little indication of whether film content will change to echo the post-11 September zeitgeist.

Despite appearances, the glut of war movies we are currently experiencing - Black Hawk Down, Behind Enemy Lines, We Were Soldiers - has nothing to do with the attacks on New York and the Pentagon, although their focus on bravery and heroism, cleansed of all self-questioning, chimes well with the times. Probably we are expecting too much too soon from Hollywood. Akiva Goldsman, writer of A Beautiful Mind, lives in New York and watched the Twin Towers crumble from his roof. Talking at last month's Berlin Film Festival, he told me he thought the sense of collective shock was still sinking in. "I think it has affected everything so much more deeply than is easy to characterise. If movies change as a result of 11 September that's just because it has changed everything."

"I've always imagined this truth: when death touches your life, you are suddenly less able, and less willing, to wield it whimsically in terms of a construct," he added. "So I've always tried to resist writing things that are particularly violent in anticipation of that. In that sense it was a wake-up call to everyone." So fewer films that bask in violence, perhaps? If so, Berlin offered a few glimpses of what's to come. Kevin Spacey, for example, is surely on to something with an ensemble drama, The United States of Leland, which starts with a horrific act and then tries to understand how it happened, from a multitude of different perspectives. The film, which Spacey is producing, is in tune with the way he thinks we should be dealing with 11 September.

"We hear political leaders on television frame the perpetrators of that act as evil, but I don't think that is enough for us as citizens of the United States or elsewhere," he told me in Berlin. "If we don't try to understand how it is those people (the terrorists) got to that place, then we'll never understand the why. And I do believe there is a why. It may be difficult to understand. It may be crazy. But it's too easy to say it's crazy and leave it at that. People have got to educate themselves."

Debate is what is needed, a politically clued-up Donald Sutherland told me. "What the nation's built on is discussion, contradiction and growth, and at the moment you can't discuss anything. If you do start to discuss it, you get criticised. If people hate us, you have to find out why and try to solve that problem."

What is not the answer, he argued, is to "railroad through an abrogation of the ABM treaty" as Bush has done, nor is it a missile defence system that will cost the country billions. "The reason the United States wants it, and unilaterally wants it, is because it makes them feel like they're better endowed as masculine individuals than the rest of the world. We all know that's a silly idea, in any relationship."

Given the atmosphere in America described by Sutherland, it looks unlikely that Hollywood will be in the vanguard of those trying to explore the underlying causes of 11 September. The political film-maker Costa-Gavras fears studios will follow Bush's lead and "start doing movies against terrorism without dipping, a little, into the problem of terrorism, because it's more dramatic and satisfying for the American audience."

THE massive success of Arnold Schwarzenegger's Collateral Damage last month- a film delayed after 11 September due to its gung-ho "Arnie vs terrorists" plot - suggests he may be right.

Ironically, Mathieu Kassovitz, the French actor/director, has been persuaded by events to return to a project he had almost dropped before 11 September.

"I thought I was going too far," he reveals. "But after the plane crashes, I said, 'No, I'm way under reality'." Not one to shy away from difficult subject matter, the controversial director of La Haine says his new film "is a very personal project about us as a species that is going to destroy itself, one day or another.

"We are going to see nuclear terrorism or nuclear war during our lifetimes, no doubt about it," says the 34-year-old, chillingly. "Every time we make a warhead, we increase the risk of blowing ourselves up. So how can we avoid it?" That, surely, is the question we should be asking ourselves.

© Stephen Applebaum, 2009