Palo Alto Weekly Online Edition

Uploaded: Thursday, Sept. 20, 2001

Cinematic fall out
Studios delay releases and alter upcoming films following last week's attacks

by Jeanne Aufmuth

Editor's note: When last Tuesday's terrorist attacks occurred, Weekly film critic Jeanne Aufmuth was in Toronto, Ontario attending the annual Toronto Film Festival. The following story chronicles her experiences at the festival following the attacks, as well as its impact on the film industry. With many films being yanked or postponed, there will consequently be no movie reviews in today's Weekly.

Personally and professionally complacent. That sums up my state of mind as I was moving from film to film at the Toronto International Film Festival last week, secure in the knowledge that I was doing what I loved most with people who share my passion at its most heightened level. Filmgoers, filmmakers, journalists and actors from all over the world bask in the glow of this annual event, confident in the belief that movies are the art form that makes the world go 'round.

Last Tuesday, that idyllic picture splintered into a crashing reality. Emerging from a screening of a poignant ensemble drama titled "Last Orders", I was confronted with frantic filmgoers and festival volunteers flailing their hands excitedly and rapidly speaking into their cell phones. The word traveled like wildfire to an international crowd of bewildered movie celebrants -- the World Trade Center in New York had been attacked. Disbelief was quickly replaced by shock, and then fear. I was able to contact home to glean even more of the grim facts. The next film on the agenda, a Jack the Ripper account known as "From Hell," was agonizing. I couldn't concentrate, indeed couldn't think of anything except that I was separated from my daughters by a semi-continent at a time when I needed to be with them the most.

Piers Handling, director of one of the most influential film festivals of the calendar year, quickly took action and cancelled the remainder of Tuesday's screenings. When activities resumed the next day, it was to somber crowds and half-filled screening rooms. Movie prints were stranded on foreign shores due to severely limited air travel, and several directors pulled their offerings from the lineup altogether because of controversial content. My first film that day was a disenfranchised-teen piece from Japan called "Blue Spring". It depicted teenagers jumping off buildings to their deaths and knifing fellow students, and was clearly altogether too much to handle for an audience who skulked out one by one.
Anticipating this kind of negative reaction, the major Hollywood studios took matters into their own hands, by re-scheduling or postponing indefinitely the opening dates of films with a high violent content. Ditto films containing too-close-to-home subject matter such as high-rise bombings, airplane hijackings and troubling religious references.

Arnold Schwarzenegger's "Collateral Damage" (L.A. high-rise bombing) and Tim Allen's "Big Trouble" (suitcase housing a nuclear bomb) are just two of the projects to suffer from the fallout. Films depicting images of the World Trade Center, such as Sam Raimi's "Spider-Man" (May, 2002) and Barry Sonnenfeld's "Men in Black 2" (July, 2002), will go back into post- production to edit out any reference to the fallen landmarks. Trailers showing Spider-Man effortlessly spinning his web between New York's tallest skyscrapers have been scrapped.

We are a country of moviegoers who wallow in onscreen violence. Firearms, explosions and gunplay -- the more the merrier. I confess to a peculiar taste for the psychologically dark and twisted. But bring those realities home and we sing a very different song. Down come the carefully constructed barriers between art and life, between entertainment and someone else's pain.

"Training Day," featuring Denzel Washington in an extraordinary performance as a loose-cannon cop with a thirst for malevolence, rocked my world early into the Toronto Fest. This day-in-the-life of a wacked-out L.A.P.D. nutcase was spectacularly exhilarating. But watching fictional criminals die gruesome deaths does not go hand in hand with flashing on helpless victims trapped in claustrophobic time bombs.

Originally scheduled to open today, "Training Day's" release date has now been pushed forward to Oct. 5, to put a respectful distance between real-life fatalities and a potentially pleasurable moviegoing experience.

Movies, however, will not only survive; they will thrive. And they should. Film attendance was at record highs during World War II, an historical time when our nation utilized cinema as the ultimate escape. People went to the movies to laugh and to cry, and to wallow in someone else's misery or happiness. Early numbers from the weekend immediately following the Sept. 11 attack actually show an increase in box office dollars. Overall business surged well ahead of the same weekend last year, strengthening the resolve of the film industry to soldier on. The historical pattern looks to be repeating itself, even as our country rallies behind the indefinite journey our leadership chooses to take us on.

If there was a lesson learned last week, it is that time is finite. There is still time in our lives to enjoy the art and culture that surround us. For every "Collateral Damage" there is a "Serendipity", a promising valentine to romance and destiny. Whatever your escape of choice, that route will be opened to you through film.

The 2001 Toronto Film Festival closed on an unusual note. Due to a succession of cancelled flights, and an intense desire to be enveloped by the loving circle of our family, my husband and I rented a car and drove the 2600 miles home from Eastern Canada. Forward motion at all costs. From the airwaves came an overwhelming outpouring of support for our country, from our neighboring Canadians and the industrial automobile giants of Detroit to the tiniest outposts of Wyoming. We are a people of intense national pride -- we will survive. And the movies will survive along with us.


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