STAGE TO SCREEN: In the Wake of Sept. 11, Sensitivity or Censorship?

STAGE TO SCREEN: In the Wake of Sept. 11, Sensitivity or Censorship? It's too early to know what the arts will look like in the wake of Sept. 11, but we have a much clearer idea of what we won't be seeing. We won't be seeing Arnold Schwarzenegger or Chris Rock take on terrorists on American soil; their upcoming films, "Collateral Damage" and "Bad Company," have been tabled indefinitely. We won't be seeing Samuel Byck try to fly a plane into the White House; the Roundabout production of Assassins, featuring Byck and his fellow disenfranchisees, is (at least temporarily) no more. We won't be seeing Leno and Letterman make their nightly gags about President Bush; Bill Maher of "Politically Incorrect" has lost advertisers and may be suspended for relatively benign comments of that nature.

It's too early to know what the arts will look like in the wake of Sept. 11, but we have a much clearer idea of what we won't be seeing. We won't be seeing Arnold Schwarzenegger or Chris Rock take on terrorists on American soil; their upcoming films, "Collateral Damage" and "Bad Company," have been tabled indefinitely. We won't be seeing Samuel Byck try to fly a plane into the White House; the Roundabout production of Assassins, featuring Byck and his fellow disenfranchisees, is (at least temporarily) no more. We won't be seeing Leno and Letterman make their nightly gags about President Bush; Bill Maher of "Politically Incorrect" has lost advertisers and may be suspended for relatively benign comments of that nature.

I'm not necessarily saying the time is right for any of those above examples. I happen to love Assassins and view it as an extremely patriotic work in its own way, but America is too raw right now to delve into the subtleties of a musical that strives to explain why Americans would want to kill the President. No, my concerns are more about the oft repeated instruction to "return to normalcy" as soon as possible. Normalcy would be terrific right now, but doesn't that include laughing at our elected leaders (whoever they may be) and thrilling to the sight of good guys killing bad guys? Do we need a new "normalcy" now? And if it's new, then how is it normal?

If war and devastation can give us Wilfred Owen and Stephen Crane, "Guernica" and "Apocalypse Now," "I Am a Camera" and On the Town, then the loss isn't complete. Is the art worth the carnage? Of course not. But it's a way out. It's a way through. Some artists will feel the need to tackle our newly-smudged psyches directly, while others will feel the need to insist that we are still what we were. The first group will most likely incur the wrath of many. (One of America's great strengths is that it can move past lockstep boosterism. One of its great weaknesses, I fear, is that too many of its citizens can't.) The second group will be accused of pouring pabulum down our collective throats when we require something more bracing. In short, I don't envy the writers and directors and actors and cinematographers out there in these uncertain, unsound days. But I sure am glad we have them.

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I'm apparently far from the only person grappling with these questions. Much of what Danny Hoch does would qualify as political art: He gives voice to the fringe dwellers, the underrepresented. Much of his work deals with the idea of what it means to be "American." Recent events understandably resulted in one final delay for "Jails, Hospitals & Hip-Hop," based on Hoch's dynamic solo show?the New York opening is now scheduled for Oct. 12. So I contacted Hoch two weeks after the disaster to see how he thinks America's new mood will affect what he does. And he has no idea. "A lot of artists I've been talking to seem a bit dazed and don't know how to proceed," Hoch says. "The first thing that jumped into my head was, 'I don't want my art to be about this. I want to deal with what we were dealing with before we got distracted.' But maybe this wasn't a distraction. Maybe it was a wake-up call. We have no choice anymore but to deal with truth."

The day we spoke, Newsday had cited a poll saying that one-third of New Yorkers supported some sort of internment camps for "individuals who authorities identify as being sympathetic to terrorist causes." Hoch, whose material often deals with Americans' tendency to shoehorn people as members of one race or one type, says the wave of anti-Arab sentiment is horrendous but not surprising. "When Timothy McVeigh was found out to be the culprit in Oklahoma City, did we vilify all white men? Did we publish the names of the churches they attended? I don't think so." In fact, the first piece Hoch has written in response to the events was at a recent benefit that was designed in part to combat prejudice against Arab-American and Muslim communities.

Hoch was in Morocco filming "Black Hawk Down" the last time we spoke about "Jails, Hospitals & Hip-Hop," back in March. Is it possible that Americans might no longer relish seeing a film about the last major U.S. military disaster, the failed 1993 Somalia incursion that ended in the deaths of 18 American soldiers? On the contrary, says Hoch: "To my dismay, people are going to see it in a war fervor. Now that the majority of America is buying into the propaganda of 'We are innocent victims,' Americans will eat this up."

Regardless of whether "Black Hawk Down" opens according to schedule (it's currently scheduled for a March 2002 release), Hoch's most immediate artistic endeavor has hit a potentially major snag. He had been assembling a weekend conference at the New School focusing on hip-hop, activism and philanthropy in Cuba — one of the countries that President Bush has singled out as not taking a sufficiently firm stand against terrorism. As a result, Hoch says, a dozen Cuban artists have had their visas "indefinitely suspended" and will be unable to attend.

Will people want to see "Jails, Hospitals & Hip-Hop" now? Is there an audience for non-jingoistic political art? "I hope audiences get the same things they would have gotten two weeks ago," he says. "I hope this will help bring us back to the reality of what we were struggling for--and struggling against- before all this.

"At the bottom of all my characters is the humanity of these people. There's so much technology out there to desensitize us and make us feel not human, and one major thing that art does is make us human."

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Lost in the shadow of the New York Film Festival is an Oscar Wilde film series running through Oct. 19 at the Morgan Library, just a few blocks below Grand Central Station. Free screenings of various movies based on Wilde works — including "The Importance of Being Earnest," "Lady Windermere's Fan" and "An Ideal Husband" are included with admission to the library's extensive new exhibit, "Oscar Wilde: A Life in Six Acts." Call 685-0610 for details.

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When Nicholas Hytner talked about "Center Stage" in this column, a continuing relationship with Hollywood seemed all but certain. But now that he's landed what may be the most prestigious job in the English-speaking theater world — As the new head of London's Royal National Theatre — his movie career will likely be on hold. His five-year contract doesn't start until April 2003, which means he may have enough time to line up a film project after Sweet Smell of Success and before the RNT gig starts. After an extremely promising start with two theater-based films, "The Madness of King George" and "The Crucible," Hytner ran aground a bit with "The Object of My Affection" and then "Center Stage." By contrast, fellow directors Sam Mendes and Stephen Daldry both took themselves out of the running for the RNT job, presumably because of their own film careers.

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Cutting-Room Floor: ABC is currently working on a "20 years later" sequel to "Grease," set in 1979. All performers in the original film are expected to be offered roles in the sequel. MTV Films is making its first foray into theatrical producing in New York with bare!, a rock musical about five high school seniors. In an article in Variety, MTV Films executive David Gale off-handedly mentioned that the studio had previously tried to land the rights to both Rent and Hedwig and the Angry Inch. Now that Larry Miller's nice-guy stint in Neil Simon's The Dinner Party is over, he can go back to playing cartoonish villains in family films again. His latest screen heavy role is in "Max Keeble's Big Move." It opens Oct. 5, the same day as "Training Day," which features Hedda Gabler costar Harris Yulin. And "The Last Castle" (Oct. 12) marks Mark Ruffalo's long-awaited follow-up to "You Can Count on Me."

Your Thoughts: What role do movies, theater and all the rest of it play in this new era? Are the people who create things patriots or artists first? Now what?

Eric Grode is New York bureau chief of Show Music magazine, assistant editor of The Sondheim Review and a theatre critic for Back Stage. He can be reached at egrode@cmp.com.