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Hollywood Struggles to Create Villains for a New Climate

October 3, 2001

Hollywood Struggles to Create Villains for a New Climate


LOS ANGELES, Oct. 2 — After more than a decade of fumbling about in search of a workable bad guy upon which to hang its crowd-pleasing action blockbusters, Hollywood has been handed the gift of actual national villains in the form of Islamic terrorists. But unlike the months after Pearl Harbor, when moviemakers enthusiastically embraced stereotypes of Japanese evil, this time the entertainment industry has opted for restraint to avoid accusations of bias and the danger of offending audience sensibilities in an increasingly multiracial America.

"People are so much more attuned to issues of racism today than they were after Pearl Harbor," said Robert Sklar, a film historian at New York University. "That's why one of the big questions about movies and television in recent years has been, because of race, How do you represent the villains?" He added, "Bad guys in movies in recent years have been evil white guys, suggesting a kind of turncoat or traitor figure, as opposed to an enemy from outside."

The paradox is not lost on the nation's storytellers: a culture that has shown such a voracious appetite for monumentally evil villains and the cinematic violence they justify now has an actual villain upon which to focus but chooses to back off.

"It's been a real issue, from a screenwriting perspective, to come up with a good villain," said Stephen Gaghan, who won an Oscar for his "Traffic" script earlier this year. "Suddenly we're being faced with a real global villain, and he's engaging in real acts of global villainy. Watching those images again and again on television has made it all too obvious that in recent movies we've been able to get the computer-generated imagery just right, while the emotional content has been rather cartoonish by comparison."

A nation imagines itself in the stories it tells, and in the United States for the last century those stories have come from movies, joined by radio and then television. A cultural narrative is created, an evolving dream image of the national mood. Gradually, over the course of many years and many weekend box-office reports, America's pop-culture storytellers came to a kind of consensus about what makes heroes admirable and our villains despicable.

And then came Sept. 11.

In the short term at least, Hollywood has shown itself to be uncomfortable with the new situation, postponing the release of movies featuring terrorists as villains and rethinking future projects involving exploding buildings and fanatical bad guys. This is not a new problem for filmmakers but one that has been thrown into starker relief. And a general slowdown in film production combined with a reluctance to approve new projects makes it unclear when or if the studios will return to making big, explosive action films involving terrorists or bombed buildings.

Since the end of the cold war Hollywood has been in search of a new villain. This period has also coincided with the rise and domination of the special-effects action blockbuster as the financial backbone of the industry, offering a dizzying array of villain choices.

In "Die Hard" (1988) the villains were former Euro-terrorists turned robbers. In "The Rock" (1996) it was renegade American soldiers. In "Con Air" (1997) it was a plane load of deranged escaped convicts.

"We've had the I.R.A. as villains, we've had international drug dealers, we've had Arabs, we've had vague Asians who you weren't quite sure what country they were from," said Jeanine Basinger, professor of film studies at Wesleyan University. "We've been dancing around it a little bit."

The question is: Now that America has an actual national villain, what will Hollywood do?

"My overall sense is to wonder whether the industry has really lost the ability to make movies for adults," Mr. Sklar said. "It has achieved such an effective system based upon marketing and teenagers and opening weekends that I am not sure it has the capability to reassert a mature entertainment viewpoint."

In the days after the Sept. 11 attacks, producers of several films with terrorist plot lines said they would scrap their projects or rework them. Producers of "Tick-Tock," a Jennifer Lopez thriller about a bomb-defusing expert, said the start of production would be delayed until next year to give them time to rework the story. They stressed that the story's bomber-villain is clearly not an Islamic fundamentalist.

But others are arguing that it would be better if villains specifically were the kind of terrorists who threaten the United States.

"I don't think anybody would have a problem with making the Taliban the bad guy," the film producer Alison R. Rosenzweig said. "You just have to be careful that it doesn't seem as though all Arabs or all Muslims are bad guys. You'll have to be really sensitive to that."

In the past, when threatened by accusations of bias, television and movie writers have sometimes used the device of giving the hero a sidekick who is from the same ethnic group as the villains. When "The Untouchables" television series was criticized for a plethora of Italian- American villains, its makers pointed out that Eliot Ness's most trusted underling was an Italian-American agent named Rico. And even in "The Seige" (1999), in which the villains were specifically Islamic terrorists, Denzel Washington's sidekick, played by Tony Shalhoub, was an Arab-American agent.

And still others wonder if the villainy might not reach people in a more roundabout way, perhaps in the same kind of cultural metamorphosis that turned cold war enemies into pod people in "Invasion of the Body Snatchers" (1956) and atomic dread into giant insects in "Them!" (1954) and many other 50's horror films.

"I think of a film like, say 'Space Cowboys,' where the focus is on the heroes and the villain becomes more opaque," Mr. Sklar said. "Or maybe like 'Perfect Storm,' where the villain is not a person at all but a simple force of nature."

Another problem is that Hollywood storytellers will have to adjust to an audience that has those Sept. 11 images in their heads, changing the national concept of what is unthinkable.

"What seemed fantastic a couple of weeks ago we now know is very real," said Tom Rothman, co-chairman of Fox Filmed Entertainment, which includes the 20th Century Fox film studio. "That line and that edge have been pushed further."

Hollywood reacted far differently to Pearl Harbor, the historical event to which the recent terrorist attacks have been most frequently compared. In the wake of the attack of Dec. 7, 1941, America knew who the villain was and had no problem depicting and demonizing its enemies.

In a string of gung-ho war movies, beginning with "Wake Island" in 1942, Japanese soldiers and government officials were almost uniformly portrayed as insanely suicidal, duplicity incarnate. "They'd just as soon die as stick a nickel in a juke box," a captain advises his men as they are about to hit "The Sands of Iwo Jima" (1949). Echoes of such views could be found in later films about the war, like "The Bridge Over the River Kwai" in 1957.

Now, even at moments of high crisis, the nation, which has become more diverse in the intervening decades, has lost its taste for such xenophobic stereotyping.

"We've just spent a lot of years in our culture trying to sort that issue out," Ms. Basinger said. "We like to believe that we've shaped ourselves up regarding issues of race and prejudice. And just when we've decided it's time to get over that and be multicultural, look where we are."

Part of the struggle to concoct acceptable movie villains for the past 15 years has been the nation's growing self-awareness on this subject. Too many of the potential choices were socially unacceptable because they tended to brand an entire ethnic or racial group. When James Cameron used Islamic terrorists as villains in his "True Lies" (1994), the film was roundly criticized by Arab-American groups and others.

And there are perhaps other lessons that today's filmmakers can learn from Hollywood's reaction to Pearl Harbor, lessons about the kinds of stories the country wants to hear in the wake of such a culture- rocking tragedy.

"The key film, the one that was the most popular and that set the mold for the others to follow, was 'Bataan' in 1943," said Ms. Basinger, who is also the author of "The World War II Combat Film: Anatomy of a Genre."

The film, directed by Tay Garnett, starred Robert Taylor as a crusty sergeant who took control of a platoon cut off from other American forces in the Philippines. By the standards of the day the violence was intense and unflinching. Helpless and isolated, the platoon members are picked off one by one until in the end only Taylor is left, valiantly firing at the enveloping hordes like Disney's version of Davy Crockett on the Alamo walls.

The film was made on a soundstage in Los Angeles immediately after the Bataan campaign, long before the country really knew what had happened. Instead, the thrust of the plot was simply lifted from "The Lost Patrol," a 1934 John Ford adventure about a doomed group of legionnaires in the North African desert. And "The Lost Patrol" was an updating of Xenophon's "Anabasis," in which stranded Greek soldiers pick their way through hostile Persian territory.

"Americans like to see themselves as underdogs," Ms. Basinger said. "We always go for the Alamo story. This is an American attitude. We've been hurt, we're the underdogs, you've made us mad, so we're coming back at you."

Most likely, she and others said, Americans will respond to this need for new villains — and for a revised national narrative — by similarly updating archetypal stories rather than reaching for some kind of documentarylike historical accuracy.

So, too, Hollywood will no doubt try to capture the new national mood — as it did in the 1940's — in a more indirect way. Besides gung-ho war movies, the early 40's also saw the rise of film noir, shadow-filled urban dramas full of brooding paranoia and imperfect heroes.

"We like to have stories that tell us directly about crises that are happening in our culture, but sometimes we also like to hear our stories indirectly," Ms. Basinger said. "Sometimes that's the only way we can take it. During Vietnam, for instance, when the war was right there on our television screens every night, we didn't want Vietnam combat films. Instead we had this wave of bloody westerns in which our heroes, usually antiheroes, rode across the border into Mexico and attacked those people who weren't American citizens."

Film scholars have a term for this: genre displacement.

Which is not to suggest that Hollywood will respond to Sept. 11 with a new form of film noir, any more than it will with racially stereotyped villains. New metaphors are needed.

"I think what you're seeing is a waiting period, a collective holding of the breath while everyone sorts out their own personal response," Mr. Gaghan said.

But eventually the metaphor will be found, and with the metaphor the villain.

"People in the movie business will be responsible," Terry Press, marketing chief at DreamWorks, said. "They will mind their p's and q's. And then somebody will make a movie and, while it won't use the exact elements of the tragedy, it will evoke a sort of we-are-the-greatest response in people, and they will go see it. And then the floodgates will open."

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