As post-attack product gets tweaked (or not), has there been a rush to judgment at the expense of art?

By Benjamin SvetkeyJeff JensenWilliam Keck and Adam B. Vary
October 05, 2001 at 04:00 AM EDT

Nine days after the world trade center disaster, a Times Square movie theater presented a preview of the new Michael Douglas thriller Don’t Say a Word. There are no suicidal terrorists in the film, no hijackers with box cutters, but there is a shot of the Manhattan skyline. And when the Twin Towers flashed across the out of the picture, the audience cheered.

The next day, a few blocks away, there was an advance screening of the Ben Stiller comedy Zoolander, which also contains images of the skyline (and, incidentally, also opens Sept. 28). This time, the towers had been digitally edited out. ”Ben made the decision to remove the Trade Center at the very last minute because the movie is an escapist comedy and having [it] show up would defeat that purpose,” says Stiller’s publicist, Kelly Bush.

But it’s a decision not everyone will be cheering. ”Militant Islam destroyed these towers, erased them,” fumes New Yorker and renowned author Cynthia Ozick. ”Is Hollywood now joining them?”

Since Sept. 11, the industry’s been agonizing over questions of sensitivity and taste: What sorts of movies, TV shows, and songs are appropriate for an angry nation in mourning? An even bigger challenge: how to deal with those two now-crumpled Manhattan landmarks?

The skyline has certainly never loomed larger than in places where it is no longer visible. It’s impossible to miss on Late Night With Conan O’Brien, where a curtain covers the backdrop on which it once twinkled. Even its disappearance from the logo of Daily Variety‘s Gotham edition has made it easier to see; no doubt most readers barely noticed it was there until it was gone.

”None of us has any experience with this sort of thing,” says Mark Gill, president of Miramax L.A., explaining why the WTC was excised from the upcoming romantic comedy Serendipity. ”There is no precedent…. We have to be extra sensitive.”

Actually, there have been precedents, albeit on a smaller scale. ”I used to work at the Letterman show,” offers Randy Cohen, now an ethics columnist for The New York Times Magazine. ”And whenever there was an airplane crash, Dave would refrain from jokes about, say, airplane food. His intention was not to add to people’s suffering, but I always found it odd. For whose benefit was he doing it? Would anybody be comforted by a shift in his monologue?”

Will anyone, for that matter, be comforted by Bush (the band, not the President) changing the title of their new single from ”Speed Kills” to ”The People That We Love”? Or the radio syndicate Clear Channel issuing a list of songs it suggested as inappropriate to play, including ”Imagine” and ”Bridge Over Troubled Water” (both of which were performed during Sept. 21’s all-star telethon)?

Nobody in showbiz can answer those questions yet. Eventually, some may end up taking a more fatalistic approach, which could turn out to be the most sensible. ”No matter what the film, a glimpse of the World Trade Center will inspire a moment of reflection,” says Laurence Mark, producer of Mariah Carey’s 1980s-set Glitter, which left its fleeting shot of the towers intact. ”I don’t know how that can be avoided.” Still, he adds, ”that may not be a bad thing.”

So long as it makes an audience cheer.

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