In the wake of the terrorist tragedies, Ty Burr wonders if movies, music, and TV series have become absolutely trivial

Is entertainment relevant anymore?

One of my best buddies from college is a film editor on ”The West Wing” out in Los Angeles. You might have seen him win an Emmy the other night. The award now sits on his TV table, ignored; the TV, and the hellish news streaming from it, is the focus of attention. On Thursday my friend was talking on the phone with one of the stars of the show, and, in the course of the dazed conversation, the actor said, ”Is what we do even RELEVANT anymore?”

The answer — unspoken but obvious to the actor, my friend, and myself when I heard the story — is: No. Of course it isn’t. Everything that has anything to do with the entertainment industry that is this country’s primary ideological export — the new TV season, hit movies, Michael Jackson, this website and magazine — suddenly appears as trivial as, in fact, it is. Worse: Entertainment itself suddenly seems obscene. The glib irony that our pop culture likes to gather about itself for protective camouflage is revealed as cowardice, utterly incapable of dealing with the reality of dozens of people forced to jump off a skyscraper, of hundreds of people scrabbling through rubble, of men and women sitting on subway trains mutely holding up photos of missing relatives.

Proof of the entertainment industry’s brutal impotence lay in many people’s response to the event itself. How often have you heard, during the media’s coverage of a disaster, an eyewitness say that it looked ”just like a Hollywood movie”? On Tuesday morning, as I watched the immediate aftermath of the collapse of the World Trade Center towers — the rush of the cloud of debris through the canyons of lower Manhattan, the crowds of terrified people racing to stay ahead of it — the movie ”Independence Day” jumped to my mind. For about a second. Then that brief, glib association was completely outstripped by unforgiving reality. This was not a movie. This was so big as to sever any connection between our little celluloid daydreams and the waking world.

Some people out there didn’t get it — they saw it as just another reality show. The prepubescent fools who phoned in bomb scares. The jerks selling wreckage on eBay. A lot of the folks indulging in ”kill ’em all and let God sort it out” posturing. (Maybe this is specific to New York, but everyone I know is simply too SAD to care about revenge. Doing whatever it takes to make sure it doesn’t happen again — anywhere? Fine. Stallonesque dreams of retaliation? Sorry, this is not a movie.)

To their credit, the purveyors of entertainment understand that they don’t matter now. Much of the new TV season has been postponed. Concerts have been cancelled. The online game Majestic, whose elements involved players getting bombarded with emergency phone calls, e-mails, and IMs, has been suspended. Films are being reedited (”Men in Black 2”’s twin-tower finale will be scrapped); Warner Brothers has indefinitely put off releasing the new Arnold Schwarzenegger terrorism thriller, ”Collateral Damage.” Better they should throw the whole project in the dumpster; I can’t think of a genre that now seems more pathetically out of touch than the he-man demolition fest purveyed by actors like Arnold and directors like Michael Bay. Seriously, would you ever, EVER want to watch things blow up for the fun of it again?

I wouldn’t, but maybe you would. And, to a degree, this will all pass. The new TV shows will debut, movies will be released, the machinery will once again crank up. Many in the audience will be relieved, others will find it vaguely ridiculous. That includes a number of people at Entertainment Weekly, even as we ready an issue devoted to the industry’s response to the tragedy. Personally, I’d prefer we go dark for a week and send everyone a copy of Time instead. But then I think of my 6-year-old daughter, whose school was directly across New York Harbor from the World Trade Center, who saw it unfold not on TV but through the windows of her first-grade classroom. I watch her grapple with what she sees — the people weeping in our Brooklyn neighborhood, the lampposts plastered with photocopied photos and pleas for information, an emptiness on the skyline where once stood the two towers that were her visual symbol for her hometown — and I also see the relief with which she loses herself in some stupid little kiddie video at the end of the day.

She is not being entertained — she’s being diverted. And if diversion is all we’ll be able to handle for a long, long while, maybe that’s enough.