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Jewish World Review Nov. 9, 2001 / 24 Mar-Cheshvan, 5762

Matthew Miller

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As Bush turns to Hollywood, its creators are pensive


http://www.jewishworldreview.com -- KARL ROVE is having a summit with top studio owners and executives this weekend, apparently to hammer out concrete ways Hollywood can help with the war on terror. "Once we work out some specific objectives, the creative community will be invited back in," one 'suit' told Variety.

But that creative community is struggling mightily to digest what's happened, as became clear at a forum I hosted at Occidental College the other day. How this will play into White House plans is anybody's guess. But if you thought only you, your friends and your politicians were having a hard time adjusting to this new world, it's oddly comforting to hear that some of the nation's most creative writers and directors are at a loss themselves.

"You wake up in the morning thinking, 'My G-d, what do I do now?'" said Aaron Sorkin, the force behind the hit NBC series "The West Wing."

"I'm just desperately trying to understand it," added director Sydney Pollack.

Pollack was in New York on Sept. 10 previewing his new film, "The Quiet American," which deals with how America got into Vietnam. The test audience had a routine reaction - some liked it, some didn't, nothing out of the ordinary. A few weeks later after only minor editing, Pollack said the next audience response was "much more somber, much more serious the prism through which this thing is hitting people's unconscious has changed in a really radical way."

In what may turn out to be a preview of the debate Rove's summit will spark, I asked about how Hollywood might help the war effort.

"The worst thing that could happen now," Pollack said, "is everyone in Hollywood feeling a sense of obligation to do something about this that turns into some sort of agitprop" (i.e., Soviet-style political propaganda).

Director Kevin Sullivan ("How Stella Got Her Groove Back") agreed. If the CIA wants to brainstorm with action writers about outside-the-box ways that terrorists might strike again, that's fair. But "if the White House came to me and said, 'You need to go make a movie about some happy soldiers,'" Sullivan added, "I'd tell them to go fish."

Others felt Hollywood had a different role to play. "What art does ... is attempt to organize our experience," said Ed Zwick, whose films include "Traffic" and "The Siege." "People tend to learn as much from art as they do from the editorial page."

Producer Sean Daniel ("The Mummy") said the rap Hollywood takes for "coarsening the culture" overlooks a valuable role films already play in broadcasting our values. American films, Daniel argued, "reveal democracy and equal opportunity and the chance for anybody to play a central role in a story.

"Since we know how to put imagery and music and words together in a way that reveals America" in ways that go far beyond flag-waving, Daniel added, "there's something very interesting lying ahead for us to do."

For Pollack, the empathic power of storytelling remains, over time, the one sure way Hollywood can help the country make sense of things. This may not be on Karl Rove's to-do list anytime soon, but it's worth hearing Pollack out.

"Literature and film," he said, "it's like this big bank where you can go and ... see what it's like to be an adulterer's wife. I can see what it's like to be mistreated as a woman. I can feel what it's like to be a murderer, or I can feel what it's like to murder or to confess or to fantasize about it.

"And when you start to load up ... our film and television with a job it can't handle, which is to become a kind of guardian of the well-being of the culture, I don't think that works very well.

"Oddly enough ... when you do good work and tell good stories, it does good. (And) you don't have to make a film about terrorists in order to talk about terrorists. You don't have to make a film about blowing up buildings to understand what it is we're all trying to understand here. You can do it in a very indirect way, and the more you try to understand people and motives, the more you are in some way moving forward."



JWR contributor Matt Miller is a senior fellow at Occidental College in Los Angeles. Comment by clicking here.

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