How Hollywood could help

By STEVE SAILER  |  Nov. 2, 2001 at 1:38 PM
share with facebook
share with twitter

WASHINGTON, Nov. 2 (UPI) -- It's ridiculous that in America's current struggle to win the hearts and minds of the rest of humanity, we, the home of Hollywood, are being out-propagandized by home videos made by a homicidal troglodyte.

We need an imaginative strategy to encourage foreigners to emotionally identify with us, not a fanatic in a cave. The people of the world need to feel that our tragedy was also their tragedy, that our struggle is their struggle.

There is probably no more powerful method for eliciting sympathy and fellow feeling than the big-budget movie, as shown by "Schindler's List." (The closest thing is a TV miniseries, such as "Roots.")

Movies are the end product of a deep-rooted revolution in communications. The growth of humanitarian sympathies over the last millennium was fueled in part by improvements in artistic techniques for helping audiences imagine what it feels like to be another person. It's harder to be indifferent to brutality if artists make it compelling to imagine yourself as one of the victims.

As novelist Tom Wolfe has pointed out, the development of the realistic novel in the 18th and 19th centuries allowed readers to better project themselves into the daily lives of characters.

Novels filled with mundane but sometimes heartbreaking details switched the focus of literature from kings, princesses and conquerors to the lives of everyday people.

Similarly, the invention of the microphone turned singing from an athletic showcase, in the manner of opera tenor Enrico Caruso, into a way to convey individual personality, as originated by Bing Crosby and perfected by Frank Sinatra.

Yet it was the invention of moving pictures that may have been the single greatest leap forward in the human race's powers of identification with others.

It's no surprise that Osama bin Laden produces videos that intercut his speeches with documentary footage of suffering Muslims.

Surely, though, the civilized world can do better.

The American film industry owns a format that no one can match. Despite critical carping, the blockbuster disaster movie is probably the most popular genre around the globe. "Titanic" is the all-time global box office champion, with close to a billion dollars in revenue. "The Towering Inferno," a tale of tragedy and heroism in a doomed skyscraper, was one of the biggest movies of the 1970s.

The American movie industry has been extremely reluctant to greenlight movies about the World Trade Center mass murders. They've felt that the number of deaths was too depressingly vast.

Of course, for overseas propaganda purposes, a movie about Americans trying to escape the World Trade Center's twin towers wouldn't be all that effective. First, while most people in the whole world, including Muslims, love American movies, they are more interested in stories about their own people.

That's just human nature. For example, Americans have nothing against, say, Italians. We like Italians. We wish them well. We just aren't that interested in them, mostly because they speak Italian, not English. Europeans are more familiar with subtitled movies, but for most people that's still thin gruel compared to seeing your countrymen on screen speaking your mother tongue.

Further, Hollywood blockbusters just worsen the anti-Americanism of foreign cultural elites. Other nations' film industries can't muster the money to make a competitive disaster flick. "Titanic" ended up costing something like $200 million, an amount inconceivable to any producer outside Hollywood.

So the French film business just carries on making what its filmmakers can afford to make - little movies about the adulteries of the middle-aged and the like -- and cursing America for making movies more popular with their own people than theirs are.

Finally, showing Americans dying at the hands of Muslim terrorists would simply incite more anti-Americanism among those who resent America's capabilities. It's sad to say, but in the Arab world and among more than a few European intellectuals, the success of the sneak attack inspired not sympathy for our country, but contempt.

So we should make it possible for top filmmakers in other countries to tell the stories of their own people who were trapped in the skyscrapers.

Something like 50 other countries lost citizens in the atrocities. Yet, outside of Britain, their losses tended to be small enough -- six here, two dozen there -- to at least bear contemplation. Further, we now know that the great majority of people in the World Trade Center escaped, which makes films about that day more palatable.

Audiences will watch some tragedy as long as it can be leavened with daring escapes and heroic rescues.

Disaster films that brought home the reality of the tragedy to major nations around the world would help revitalize the sense that all civilized peoples are in this fight together.

An imaginative strategy could help the moviegoers in other countries -- such as France, Germany, India, the Chinese and Spanish-speaking worlds, even the Arab lands -- emotionally identify with the victims rather than the perpetrators of the atrocities of Sept. 11. We could even enlist their normally anti-American creative elites in the task.

OK, how could foreigners afford to make expensive effects-laden movies about Sept. 11?

Hollywood patriots like Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks could put together a consortium that would finance 10 foreign filmmakers to each create for their home markets an all-star spectacular disaster film about their fellow countrymen who were in the WTC on that fateful morning.

This needn't be a charity. Done right, it could turn a profit for the investors.

How? The secret would be to share special-effects costs. The crews could split 10 ways an $80 million budget for sets, flames, computer- generated imagery, stunt people and the like. This would allow a film made by, say, Brazilian talent to make money even in that limited market.

International cost sharing has been done before. For example, the 1970s "Tora! Tora! Tora!" was made by separate Japanese and American crews. They told the story of Pearl Harbor half in English, half in Japanese. Yet, while economical, the box office proved disappointing. Audiences would prefer to see their own stars speaking their own language all the way through.

Thus, it would be a bad idea to make one multinational dinosaur of a film about the WTC with Omar Sharif as the Arab, Jackie Chan as the Chinese, Roberto Benigni as the Italian, and so forth. Instead, each country should make their own unique movie, but they can economize by sharing the costs of the most spectacular footage.

The movies could also share American stars who would play firemen and cops. New Yorker Robert De Niro would be a natural to play a heroic fire chief. Top character actor Steve Buscemi actually had been a New York City fireman in his pre-acting days, and he spent a week digging through the WTC rubble, working side by side with New York City firefighters.

A disaster film is a particularly good genre for making movies that turn into national events, since they typically feature all-star casts. (For instance, everyone from Fred Astaire to O.J. Simpson appeared in "The Towering Inferno.")

Most nations' audiences would love to see their own country's top dozen actors get a chance to appear in what would look like a hugely expensive production. Think of how excited Indian fans would be to see their Bollywood legends in a movie with the production values of a "Titanic."

The French, for example, would be intrigued by what Jean Reno, Juliette Binoche and Daniel Auteuil could do in a blockbuster. And they couldn't resist seeing those twin forces of nature, De Niro and Gerard Depardieu, together again for the first time since "1900" a quarter-century ago.

Sure, French intellectuals would complain (that's their job), but controversy sells tickets. Even in France, at least one top director would leap at a chance to make a Hollywood-sized film -- he or she would see it as a tryout for a career in Los Angeles -- and that's all you'd need. All the kvetching would just make it more of an event.

Making 10 movies would probably take one to two years, but we are in the struggle against terrorism for the long haul.

The slaughter of Sept. 11 largely paralyzed Hollywood's decision-making ability. This offers an opportunity for the true statesmen and stateswomen of the industry to snap out of their funks and come to the aid of their country.

Related UPI Stories
Trending Stories