Much has been written about the terrific job done by so many in the wake of the September 11 horror. Now Hollywood is weighing in, and it's played it well so far.
The star-packed fundraising telecast last Friday was splendid, and America responded both in terms of watching (more than 89 million viewers) and pledging (more than $150 million). Julia Roberts, who appeared on the program, also donated $2 million to relief efforts.
Paul McCartney intends to hold a concert benefiting the families of the firemen who died at the World Trade Center. Whitney Houston is re-releasing the single of her 1991 rendition of "The Star-Spangled Banner" in order to raise money for New York fire and police relief funds. A new version of the late-'70s disco hit "We Are Family," featuring such singers as Charlotte Church, Dionne Warwick, and Sheryl Crow, is to be released, with proceeds going to relevant charities. (By the way, Crow, whose upcoming album was set to contain a song lamenting the scarcity of heroes, now says she'll change the lyrics or drop the song altogether in light of the bravery of New York public servants.)
Is all this but the passion of the moment, or will there be long-term ramifications for the entertainment industry?
It's up for speculation. Columbia Pictures head Amy Pascal told the Los Angeles Times that "clearly some of what we thought was entertaining yesterday isn't today, and won't be tomorrow." The release of some terrorist-themed movies has been delayed. On the other hand, director Ed Zwick contends that "one can't live with a heightened sensitivity forever, and gradually normalcy returns. That will happen here."
Some have seized the occasion to argue against all media violence, particularly because of its influence on children. That's simplistic. Yes, Hollywood cranks out a great deal of mindlessly exploitative violent product, but it's also yielded such masterpieces as "Schindler's List" and "Saving Private Ryan," which convey the horror of violence without glamorizing it in any way - and which mature children ought to see for that reason alone.
As for our popular culture in general, what have the attacks forced to the margins? Glibness, for one thing. Real comedy, from the talk-show format of David Letterman to sitcoms like "Frasier" - one of whose executive producers, David Angell, was aboard one of the planes that crashed into the WTC - is needed as much as, or more than, ever.
The humor we need, be it bawdy or witty, is grounded in the substance of real life, in human nature and character. Glibness is quite different. It's determinedly insubstantial, irreverent. Its ultimate meaning is that nothing matters enough to matter. Over almost two decades of largely carefree affluence, it's been an easy attitude to adopt.
Glibness now rings horribly, horribly false. The magazine Entertainment Weekly long ago moved past flirting with glibness into a steady relationship with it. A few days ago, however, Chris Willman of EW wrote, "Putting together our latest issue, [we] found our words undergoing an unusual amount of scrutiny from editors, just in terms of tone. Seemingly harmless copy was sent back to us with notes like 'Too flip.'"
And Vanity Fair editor Graydon Carter, a longtime Manhattan media figure and a major shaper of the glib sensibility, told Inside.com, "I have a feeling something fresh will emerge. When you have something so cataclysmic happen you almost can't help it...The way people think, the way people create, is going to change."
Even more marginalized than before, thank God, is the sense that America is fundamentally a bad place. No comedian better personifies the obnoxious nature of glibness than George Carlin. In his 1999 HBO special, Carlin ranted, "This entire country is completely full of s-t and always has been, from the Declaration of Independence to the Constitution to the 'Star-Spangled Banner.'"
He made a couple of "jokes" that two and a half years ago were despicable and are, post-September 11, simply indescribable: "The very idea that you can set off a bomb in a marketplace and kill several hundred people is exciting and stimulating and I see it as a form of entertainment...Airport security is a stupid idea, it's a waste of money, and it's only there for one reason: to make white people feel safe."
To my knowledge, Carlin hasn't commented on the terrorist attacks. One can only hope he profoundly regrets what he said back in '99, just as one hopes Hollywood's embrace of patriotism isn't fleeting.