Volume 24, Number 3, Spring 2006

Post-9/11 Hollywood: The films they dare not make today

By Thomas M. Sipo

Terrorists are cool and cuddly, jihad is noble and liberating, and Bush’s New World Order war hysteria is, well, hysterical! Those are some of the shocking but unavoidable post-9/11 messages of many Hollywood films shot pre-9/11—films that would likely not get produced today(at least, not uncensored).

The Oil Must Flow

Okay, here’s the trailer for the feel-good movie of the summer: They were proud desert warriors, poor but God-fearing—occupied and exploited by heathen armies and foreign cartels for the fuel beneath their sand. Too weak to attack their enemies’ high-tech military head on, they resisted through surprise raids and bombings. The imperialist oppressors called them savages—even terrorists—but they knew themselves to be freedom-fighters. And that one day God would send a messiah to unite their tribes and lead them in jihad.

No, not Osama bin Laden. Not any current Arab leader. And not even Lawrence of Arabia.

I’m talking about Muad’Dib, the messiah in Frank Herbert’s epic sci-fi novel, Dune (1965). It is Muad’Dib who leads the Fremen tribes in jihad against a spice-hungry Empire. Spice is the fuel of the Empire. Without spice, interstellar travel—and trade—is impossible. Without spice, the galactic economy will collapse.

“The spice must flow!” is the cry repeated throughout this tale. Along with, “The one who controls the spice, controls the universe!” And in all the galaxy, there is only one spice source—the desert wasteland planet named Dune.

Muad’Dib defeats the Empire by taking the spice source hostage, and threatening to blow it up, which would plunge all civilization into a new dark age. Talk about terrorism! (Anyone recall Hussein’s threat to blow up the Kuwaiti oil fields?)

Oh yes, Dune has all the parallels. The hero even uses the J-word—jihad. Of course, critics have long recognized that Dune was inspired by Islam, and that Herbert modeled Muad’Dib on Mohammed. But I’ve yet to hear someone note the parallels post-9/11.

Hollywood has twice adapted Herbert’s novel. First as a 1984 feature film, directed by David Lynch and starring Kyle MacLachlan as Muad’Dib. Then in 2000 as a Sci-Fi Channel mini-series, directed by John Harrison and starring Alec Newman as Muad’Dib.

Most fans of the novel prefer the mini-series to the Lynch film, maybe because the mini-series is twice as long as the film, and so includes more of the novel’s details. But Lynch’s Dune has a grander soundtrack, which better captures the novel’s epic sweep. Lynch’s film feels bigger than the mini-series, despite being only half as long.

What’s remarkable is how similar both adaptations are, both remaining faithful to the novel.

Can a faithful adaptation have been produced post-9/11? Sure, Dune is a classic sci-fi novel, its cult status with 1960s counterculture achieved partially because spice was also a psychedelic, something you can’t say about oil.

But even if some future Hollywood Muad’Dib stays mum about jihad, Dune still carries a dangerously subversive message. The tale actually implies that an indigenous people have a right to their land, and to the natural resources beneath it—even if a technologically more advanced civilization decides that they want it. Yikes!

Hot Bods in Fourth Reich Chic

Bedtime story, from Papa Bush to his young ‘uns: Once upon a time, a long time from now, there was a United Earth. A New World Order of peace, prosperity and freedom. Everyone was clean and pretty and healthy. Good genes, all around. Black people too. And the streets were clean, and the environment, and the trains ran on time. Then one day, bad monsters attacked Earth, because the monsters were evil and ugly, and looked like giant bugs (because they were giant bugs), and they hated anybody lucky enough to have so much peace, prosperity and freedom, and who were so good-looking.

But luckily for the happy people of Earth, their world government had the bestest military in the universe, with lots of gnarly weapons and way cool uniforms. So everyone enlisted like crazy to fight the ultimate war between good and evil. The politicos and top brass called it the Bug War—but for the young recruits, it was the kick-ass adventure of a lifetime!

The bugs never had a chance. The end.

No, not a bedtime story, but Paul Verhoeven’s Starship Troopers, a dead-on satire of post-9/11 war hysteria—astonishing because it was released in 1997!

The film’s satire was originally aimed at its source material: Robert Heinlein’s 1959 novel, Starship Troopers (condemned by some critics upon publication as “fascistic”). But like humor-impaired Trekkies, many Heinlein fans remained clueless and unamused. They complained that the film had replaced Heinlein’s socio-political military philosophy with mindless bug battles. Few realized the joke was on them. Verhoeven didn’t so much ignore Heinlein’s philosophizing as lampoon it.

Heinlein’s novel paints a future Earth in which everyone enjoys equal rights and liberties—except to vote and hold office, which are reserved only to those who complete military service. Enlistment is voluntary and non-discriminatory; any sex, any age. Blue-haired grannies can sign up. But no special treatment. Many softies die in the sadistically brutal boot camps. (However, you can quit anytime, without reprisal). Another rule: everyone fights. Cooks, supply clerks, nurses, medics, privates, generals. No paper pushers or desk warmers in Heinlein’s military.

Verhoeven’s Starship Troopers parodies Heinlein’s romanticized military culture by trivializing and sanitizing war. Soldiers are sexy and clean even after battle, ready to party hardy. Ready to die. Dina Meyer’s death-bed speech satirizes an old war film cliché: while reaffirming her love for her main squeeze, she nobly adds that she has “no regrets” about her sacrifice.

For “red shirt” soldiers, death is less sentimental. Quick—and quickly forgotten. After shooting a captured soldier (to prevent a painful bug death) Michael Ironside curtly informs his platoon: “I expect you to do the same for me.” Which they do.

Starship Troopers was no big hit in 1997, but it has its fans, many of whom—judging by review postings on Amazon.com—confuse the film for a serious sci-fi epic with a “war is hell” message. (Not surprisingly, post-9/11 postings are more likely to “get it”.)

Those who doubt the film’s satirical intent should consider one hero’s uniform, which can best be described as neo-Third Reich. Clearly, Verhoeven’s film was not informed by Heinlein’s libertarian fans, but by those critics who interpreted the novel as fascistic.

Also noteworthy, the film’s stars are all strikingly attractive with well-chiseled Aryan features.

However, their SS physiques are not part of the plot, but merely a hint at the film’s underlying satire. Plotwise, Federal Service (as it’s called) is open to all, and the Aryan protagonists warmly welcome their sidekicks of color. In one brief scene, a dumpy black female is appointed as the new Sky Marshall, promising to “take the war to the bugs.”

However, because many moviegoers confuse fascism with racism, and because most of them were unfamiliar with the novel, the film’s satire was lost on many. For most moviegoers, the film was just vapid soldiers shooting giant bugs. Further obscuring the satire, the soldiers were just too damn sexy, the bugs too mean and ugly. We humans are inclined to sympathize with attractive people, which is why satirists often paint their targets in hideous garb (communists as pigs in George Orwell’s Animal Farm, and as grotesque vampires in my own Vampire Nation).

Starship Troopers takes the opposite tact, painting globalist fascism as imagined by globalist fascists. Everyone is healthy and happy and sexy. The satire is in the exaggeration of fascist ideals (as in Norman Spinrad’s The Iron Dream). With unwavering fortitude and unshakable confidence in Earth’s inevitable total victory, Denise Richards flashes her Pepsodent smile throughout the film. In hairy battles, her mouth may turn sexily pouty, but her brilliant teeth soon return, vast and blinding, equally at home on a TV commercial and an SS recruiting poster.

Want to laugh out loud? The funniest scenes are the recruiting ads and “news” propaganda bulletins. One “news” item features warmly grinning soldiers distributing bullets to the delighted squeal of eager schoolkids. (How clueless do you have to be to post reviews at Amazon praising the film’s “war is hell” message?)

But the clueless are out there. Unfamiliar with the book, smitten with the sexy stars and repelled by the bugs, many didn’t “get” the jokes. In practical terms, until 9/11 Starship Troopers was a satire without a target. The war hysteria following 9/11 provided that target, the players and events stepping tailor-made into the film’s sites with amazing prescience, granting the film a powerful resonance that was lacking when it was first released.

As with Dune, all the parallels are present. The enemy—the Bug—are pure evil. The military, the news reports, the war, the government, are all beyond question. If they make a mistake, they can be trusted to correct it. United Earth we stand.

The Bug War begins with a Bug attack on a city. In the film’s eeriest scene, a burning building’s framework resembles the Twin Towers. Also remarkable are the many random jokes that find a target post-9/11. In adapting a 1950s book to a 1990s sensibility, Verhoeven tossed in some contemporary satirical barbs unconnected to the book, or even to much of anything in 1997—but which eerily resonate with our post-9/11 war culture.

There is the film’s black female Sky Marshall, a kooky but satirically pointless joke in 1997. Yet it’s a role tailor made for Condoleezza Rice. There are the TV war correspondents, absent in the book, but today stationed in Iraq. They pester the soldiers in battle, don’t appreciate the threat, and are killed by the bugs. There are the TV pundits who would understand the bugs, woolly and ineffectual as seen through the film’s fascist prism (the New World Order likes to see itself as tolerant).

Starship Troopers is a penetrating satire of post-9/11 war hysteria as might be imagined by an idealistic New World Order fascist. It’s hard to believe it was made pre-9/11; impossible to think it could be made post-9/11. Starring Casper Van Dien, Denise Richards, Dina Meyer, Jake Busey, and Michael Ironside.

High Testosterone 9/11

Try pitching this to a studio today:The movie ends with the hero blowing up a skyscraper. No, better than that. A whole skyline full of skyscrapers! (Yes, in an American city.) See, the hero’s this terrorist, but he finds true love at the end. The film’s got romance. And in the final scene, the terrorist hero and his lady love, they stand in romantic silhouette before a panoramic view of an entire city skyline majestically aglow from the explosions, then come crumbling down. Boffo!

Okay, he’s more anti-hero than hero, but he’s the character we’re rooting for, the one who stands up to the Man.

No, you won’t get that film made today, at least not with that ending. But in 1999, that was the ending of David Fincher’s Fight Club (starring Edward Norton, Brad Pitt, Helena Bonham Carter, Meat Loaf; based on the novel by Chuck Palahniuk).

Fight Club satirizes corporate dehumanization and its emasculation of men. An office worker, browbeaten by his equally domesticated yuppie bosses, regains his manhood by destroying his material things and founding a “fight club”—a place where society’s male losers (the clerks, the wage slaves, the unemployed) gather to beat up one another. The point is not to win, but to fight, to give and feel pain, and thus reconnect with one’s authentic, primal masculinity. In the process, you lose fear of pain, you stop caring what polite society thinks. Your bruised and ugly face becomes your badge of manhood, an in-your-face challenge to your prissy yuppie bosses at work.

If you do not fear, they cannot control you. If you do not want societal status or material goods, they cannot buy you.

Although remaining underground, fight clubs spread to other cities, and members seek to confront society more directly, through guerrilla theater, vandalism, and terrorism.

Even pre-9/11, critics were divided over Fight Club. Some praised it as a progressive/anarchistic assault on materialism, consumerism, and corporate dehumanization. Others condemned it as a fascistic/nihilistic assault on those same targets.

Anti-Fight Club voices noted that fascists too oppose “bourgeois family values” and that the film glorified a brutal “cult of masculinity. ”Club members live communally in frat house/pig sty conditions (liberated from feminized civilization). Although their ranks are multi-racial, they sport shaved heads and combat boots. Not so much clean Marines as unruly storm troops. They are not merely anti-corporate, but anti-everything. They vandalize corporate art, spread anti-environmentalist agitprop, and challenge both police and Mafia. Feeling oppressed from all corners, they seek complete liberation from all values and all powers.

Fight Club is a thought-provoking film, satirizing both yuppie America and the nature of rebellion. As in Starship Troopers, the fascism in Fight Club is non-racist. But unlike Verhoeven, Fight Club acknowledges both the nihilistic and patriarchal strains in fascism.

Although Fight Club is brilliantly original satire, its targets are not. The insight that fascism is inherently more sexist than racist was recognized in Katherine Burdekin’s novel, Swastika Night. Corporate emasculation and dehumanization has been satirized from a conservative perspective in my novel, Manhattan Sharks. And David Salle’s film Search and Destroy satirized corporate man’s desire to reconnect with his primal masculinity (as did Manhattan Sharks).

In Search and Destroy, Griffin Dunne and Christopher Walken portray two businessmen who, after becoming enamored with a Nietzschean TV guru (Dennis Hopper), abandon their material “things” and office, and go out hoping to find adventure and do “bold deeds”. (Hopper’s character, author of “Daniel Strong,” also seems inspired by Roberty Bly, author of Iron John).

But while people are shot and killed in both Manhattan Sharks and Search and Destroy, neither pack the uncompromising anti-corporate punch of Fight Club—a hero taking down an entire city skyline!

Nor will Hollywood be producing any more such uncompromising scenes, at least not anytime soon.

Terrorists Are Cuddly

Our final pitch: A small time crook threatens to blow up a New York landmark unless his demands for money are met. They’re not, and he does. We see Lady Liberty’s head disintegrate in an explosion. In our final shot: our terrorist sits overlooking New York harbor, nonchalantly munching his lunch while observing the headless Statue of Liberty. Oh yeah, it’s a comedy. For our terrorist, picture someone cute & cuddly. Say, Danny DeVito.

No, you don’t have to picture it. You can go see it, at least if you can get access to the NYU film school archives.

The film is Hot Dogs for Gauguin, a 1972 student short, shot on black & white 16 mm film. Directed by then-student Martin Brest (who went on to direct Beverly Hills Cop, Scent of a Woman, and Meet Joe Black), and starring then-unknown Danny DeVito as the terrorist. Also featuring his future wife, Rhea Perlman, in a minor role.

The shot of Lady Liberty’s head exploding was a remarkable special effect, reports a former NYU film student, especially by the standards of thirty years ago—and especially for a student film. Steve Feld helped Brest with the special effects, which Feld discusses on his website. Naturally, Hot Dogs for Gauguin helped launch the careers of Brest and DeVito.

According to the former student, NYU was screening Hot Dogs for Gauguin in classes as of the 1980s, and may still be doing so. A call to NYU was not returned, but NYU was still screening the film to the public as late as October 5, 1999.

The student also reports that, after screening Hot Dogs for Gauguin in class, the professor stated that, dramatically speaking, exploding Lady Liberty’s head was a wise choice.“You can’t set up a big expectation, and then not give the audience a payoff.”

Even so, the class was surprised—and delighted!—with the ending. Everyone seemed to have expected DeVito’s friend, played by William Duff-Griffin, to succeed in his attempt to stop DeVito’s terrorism, in the nick of time.

Although there are exceptions, film schools normally retain ownership of their students’ projects. Having screened NYU student films produced just a few years ago, and observed the copyright notices in their credits, the Hollywood Investigator has confirmed that this is the case at NYU. If prints of Hot Dogs for Gauguin still exist anywhere, it will likely be in the NYU film school archives.

Although DeVito portrayed a small time crook turning to terrorism for profit, his is a likable character. Just a little guy trying to make the big score.

Film schools are idealized as places where tomorrow’s artists can follow their vision, unrestricted by commercial concerns. Still, don’t expect to see many student films about likable crooks blowing up New York landmarks, at least not anytime soon.

Thomas M. Sipos is the author of Vampire Nation and Halloween Candy. His website: www.CommunistVampires.com

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