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Laramie Movie Scope:
Hollywood and 9-11

Is Hollywood Responsible for 9-11?

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by Robert Roten, Film Critic
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April 15, 2002 -- Robert Altman, a renowned Hollywood director, says Hollywood is to blame for the attacks of September 11.

Altman, director of such classics as "Nashville," "MASH," "McCabe and Mrs. Miller," "The Player," "Short Cuts," "Cookie's Fortune" and many other films, including a recent Academy Award contender, "Gosford Park," is not just some average film director. He is a highly acclaimed director. His words carry a lot of weight.

Altman was quoted as saying in an Associated Press story, "The movies set the pattern, and these people have copied the movies ... Nobody would have thought to commit an atrocity like that (the attack on the World Trade Centers) unless they'd seen it in a movie." He was also quoted in same article as saying, "How dare we continue to show this kind of mass destruction in movies? ... I just believe we created this atmosphere and taught them how to do it."

While I subscribe to the theory that violence in the mass media results in more violent behavior in society (see my essay Violence in mass media and its effect on society), I have trouble with Altman's contention. First of all, I don't remember ever seeing a film in which hijackers crash planes into buildings. In the case of 9-11, the artistic precedent for that attack was not a movie, but a book, Tom Clancy's "Debt of Honor" in which the pilot of a jetliner crashes his aircraft into the Capitol building in Washington, D.C., wiping out most of this nation's elected officials in the process. The pilot's suicide attack was meant to avenge his son's death at the hands of U.S. troops in a war. There was also a similar story in the pilot episode of Fox television's short-lived X-Files spinoff series, The Lone Gunmen in which the gunmen thwart a plot to crash a remotely-piloted jetliner into the World Trade Centers.

Films like "Independence Day," "Deep Impact," "Armageddon," and just about every James Bond movie ever made are examples of films that celebrate, and profit from, the depiction of destruction on a grand scale. These are the types of films that Altman is probably referring to. The final scene in "Fight Club," for instance, is a spectacular vision of apocalyptic destruction, in which large financial institutions are brought down by explosives in the name of anarchy. It is a scene hauntingly similar to the fall of the World Trade Centers. When the World Trade Centers were attacked, many eyewitnesses remarked the surreal scene was "just like a movie." It should be noted, that some of Altman's own films, including "Nashville," "Short Cuts" and "Gosford Park" include scenes of graphic violence, but on a very small scale. Apparently that makes a difference. Murder is acceptable, but mass murder is not.

Perhaps more important than Altman's allegation is the underlying assumptions it reveals. It means that in Altman's mind, violence in movies does have an impact on the behavior of people in the real world. This is at odds with the apologists for movie violence, like award-winning critic Roger Ebert. He argues movies simply reflect the violence in society, and that they don't really cause violence. The opposite view is that of media critics like myself and Neal Gabler. In Gabler's book, "Life, the Movie: How Entertainment Conquered Reality" he argues that entertainment has become a dominant force in everyday life. He argues that we live our lives by the rules laid down in the movies. We think of our lives through the filter of television and film.

Although most films do not represent reality, they seem like reality, and they produce real emotions, and tangible emotional responses, such as laughing and crying, in the audience. This creates a powerful illusion of reality which becomes part of the emotional experience of each audience member. This emotional legacy becomes, in a sense, indistinguishable from the legacy of real life experiences. In other words, film does not merely reflect reality as Ebert argues, it changes reality by interacting with the minds of the viewers.

I don't quite buy Altman's exact argument that Hollywood is to blame for the September 11 terrorist attacks because it gave the terrorists the idea. I think you have to give the terrorists some credit for being able to come up with their own ideas about how to attack America. The hijacking of four jets at once to attack New York and Washington simultaneously went well beyond even the lurid imagination of Hollywood screenwriters.

I do think that Hollywood films had an indirect role in the attacks, however. As some film critics have pointed out Hollywood films ("American Beauty," for instance) show America in a very bad light. The image of America projected overseas in films is perfectly suited to the purposes of Islamic extremists who want to stir up hatred against the U.S. We are depicted as a dangerous, violent, vengeful, corrupt people, preoccupied with sex, violence and money. We are seldom depicted as spiritual, religious, generous, loving, family-oriented, giving or caring people. In other words, most American films are perfectly suited for religious extremists who want to demonize us. These extremists could not have done a better job making us look evil had they made the films themselves.

Altman's statement was, in a sense, wishful thinking on his part. He hoped against hope to influence Hollywood, and filmgoers, to support movies that are more character-driven and thought-provoking (like "In the Bedroom"), rather than big, mindless action movies (like "Collateral Damage"). Altman was quoted as saying, "Maybe there's a chance to get back to ... grown-up films ... Anything that uses humor and dramatic values to deal with human emotions and gets down to what people are to people." Those are the kinds of films that Altman likes to make. However, those aren't the kinds of films that make money in foreign markets. The movies that translate well across different cultures are ... you guessed it, movies that are short on dialogue and long on spectacle: big, mindless action movies. Foreign markets make up a big percentage of the profit made on films nowadays. In many cases, foreign box office receipts are greater than domestic box office totals, even for American-made films. It's not an art, it isn't even about reality, it is a business, and it is all about the money.

So be careful what films you support with your money. If you'll go see any old teen sex comedy, no matter how bad it is, then that is just what Hollywood will produce in the future. Think about how movies depict Americans as a people. Is this who we really are? Besides, you never know who else is watching this stuff and what they are thinking, and how they might use it for their own purposes.

Note: This essay appears in the Fifth Edition of Katherine Anne Ackley's Essays from Contemporary Culture, a college textbook.

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Copyright © 2002 Robert Roten. All rights reserved.
Reproduced with the permission of the copyright holder.
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Robert Roten can be reached via e-mail at my last name at lariat dot org. [Mailer button: image of letter and envelope]

(If you e-mail me with a question about this or any other movie or review, please mention the name of the movie you are asking the question about, otherwise I may have no way of knowing which film you are referring to)