How Hollywood is re-editing its Manhattan skylines.

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The upcoming film Spider Man is an escapist story about a guy who can climb skyscraper walls, spin webs out of his fingertips, and handily morph into an office worker whose girlfriend doesn’t suspect a thing. It’s a major player in the 2002 summer escapist-blockbuster season, along with Episode Two of Star Wars, and the sequel to Men in Black.

Six years and one 11 September after Independence Day blitzed the worldwide box office, on the strength of spectacular special effects that showed the White House and the Empire State Building being blown to pieces by hostile aliens, film companies are extremely cautious about showing the World Trade Centre in films that were completed before the towers’ destruction.

The original marketing campaign for Spider Man featured the twin towers prominently. The trailer had escaping bank robbers becoming snared in a giant spider’s web, with the camera zooming out to show that the web was suspended between the twin towers. Audiences who saw this trailer before 11 September whooped and cheered.

Apparently, this was promo-material only, and the scene was never intended for the final cut. In any case, the trailer was pulled after 11 September. The original publicity poster for the film showed Spider Man wedged, larger-than-life, between the twin towers – the new poster has no towers, just Spider Man.

In the wake of 11 September, Hollywood showed its skill in keeping up with the times – which is, after all, one of the keys to winning good box office. But it also showed one of its weaknesses: its love of the simplest-and-lowest-common-denominator. It thought, understandably, that audiences might be thrown by the sight of the twin towers, now too infamous and tragic to be slotted into the background of a no-brainer popcorn flick.

So some films released late last year, like Zoolander, had glimpses of the towers digitally removed before their release. Films with close-to-the-bone subject matter were also affected. Arnold Schwarznegger’s new film Collateral Damage – about a firefighter who goes into action after a terrorist attack – was postponed by several months.

Several upcoming films, including Men In Black 2 and Martin Scorsese’s Gangs of New York, are being re-edited or digitally modified to exclude visual references to the twin towers. The finale of MIB2 was to feature Will Smith battling a giant alien worm on the rooftop of one of the towers. What audiences will see, thanks to computer effects, is the same battle, fought on the rooftop of a different building. What about the second chapter of The Lord Of The Rings, which is called The Two Towers – will it be retitled?

Similar things happened in September 1997, after the death of Princess Diana. The Australian film Diana and Me featured Toni Collette as an Australian girl called Diana Spencer who travels all the way to London to meet her namesake, and ends up getting involved with a photographer in a dogged pursuit of the princess. The film was due to be released in late summer 1997, but after Diana’s death, two new scenes were quickly shot and the film was re-edited to comment anew on the role of the paparazzi.

What does this avoidance of jarring current affairs events say about our relationship to film? We line up in droves to watch films where people die, leaving behind their devastated loved ones (Terms Of Endearment, Titanic), or films that explore serious issues (The Insider or American Beauty). And movies featuring violence, death and destruction have been box office gold for decades.

So why do we, or the film companies that entertain us, feel the need to be shielded from recent shocks? It’s as if Hollywood cares for us like a nanny, tucking us up at night and assuring us there are no real monsters out there….

We are still unsure about how to react to 11 September. Creative artists, screenwriters and filmmakers will need time to figure it out too. At a recent Hollywood forum, writer-director Peter Hyams said, ‘If I had a film that was a comedy and there’s a scene of two people walking up the street and in the background is the World Trade Centre, I’d want that out of my film, because that would certainly make people like me start to cry’.

On the one hand, I understand what he means. Recently I was watching an episode of Sex And The City, when the towers briefly appeared. Suddenly, lost in thought, I missed the next few minutes of dialogue and lost the thread of the whole episode.

But on the other hand, I can’t help thinking of the lame early 1990s gay/AIDS film, Longtime Companion, which explored a friendship group of gay men, many of whom die of AIDS during the film. At the end, all of the dead characters magically reappear in a saccharine dream sequence on a beach, running through the sand in slow motion and hugging their friends with full corporeality. The anguish of the subject matter, in this case AIDS, is avoided – just cancelled out.

The filmmakers were betraying the fact that they had an uncertain reaction to the subject matter of the film. So much for one of the few ‘serious’ films ‘about’ AIDS. Likewise, the makers of Diana and Me virtually remade their film, updating its point of view to suit contemporary events (in vain, as it turns out – the film flopped). The same process is happening today, as filmmakers scramble to make their fictional films reality-savvy. And for now, reality is Ground Zero, not the standing twin towers.

It is understandable from a marketing point of view, but a bit dubious from a rational point of view. The twin towers were destroyed, and it was truly horrible. But what is achieved by pretending they were never there in the first place?

Mark Adnum is a Sydney-based writer.

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