As the phrase ”drags on“ begins to haunt descriptions of our Afghan bombing campaign, the hunt for Osama bin Laden has also become a search for symbols and images that the Bush administration can use in the war of public opinion. Yet even as Tony Blair urges Britons to constantly remember the devastating images of September 11, we have all but had those fiery pictures expunged from our public record — part of a growing tendency to childproof America against traumatic memories and national self-doubt. So, although mainstream newspapers are packed with PR photos of Northern Alliance fighters standing stoically beside their weapons (and patiently waiting for America to bring them to power), the White House has abandoned the very images it needs to rally support for its policies.

Instead, supporters of the war party and liberals alike have fallen back on words — most notably talk of the ”twilight struggle“ against terrorism. It’s a phrase borrowed from John F. Kennedy‘s inauguration speech, but has inadvertently come to describe this time of lassitude and waning attention spans — attention spans that require periodic jolts of panic, administered by U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft in the form of scary and ambiguous FBI warnings whenever we seem to be nodding off.

L.A.’s own urban imagery last week offered glimpses of a city torn between sleepwalking back to normalcy and awakening to an uneasy future: A Silver Lake street waif expounded her belief that the government has dusted American Spirit cigarettes with anthrax in order to kill ”bohemians“; MTA subway-station ticker tapes greeted passengers with the message ”GOD BLESS AMERICA“; a young woman in a red sports car, exercising her own kind of normalcy, washed her feet with 7-Up in a shopping center parking lot at Sunset and Western. And last Saturday, Lenny Kravitz shot a video at the Owl Barber Shop downtown, while four blocks away a peace rally got under way in Pershing Square. Or at least it tried to. ”It was supposed to start at 1, but we‘re going to wait for more people to show up,“ said an organizer at 1:20. By 2 p.m., several hundred had gathered, enough to get things going.

Saturday’s mostly young crowd was angry — and not only about this war. They were mad about Mumia, still sore about the Korean War and not too happy about the raw deal indigenous peoples have gotten. But, like the White House, the protesters lacked the kind of visceral imagery needed to inspire support. (Unlike Vietnam, this over-the-horizon, high-altitude war has produced no villagers ablaze with napalm, no corpse-filled ditches, no curbside executions.) Instead, the protesters also fell back upon talk and old chants (”The people united . . . “ ”Hey-hey, ho-ho . . . “). Perhaps nothing more graphically underscored the antiwar movement‘s need for its own new symbols than the fact that, within an hour, the rally’s blue-and-white peace flags were marked down from $15 to $10.

”You Could Make a Million“

That‘s what low-brow painter and Silver Lake action figure Anthony Ausgang says. He predicts that smart investors will soon begin sinking money into companies making see-through envelopes that give recipients a preview of what they are getting or not getting, powderwise. Ausgang claims he’s seen a recent upsurge of velum envelopes — tastefully frosted but translucent enough to discern any foul play. (Invitations to a Jerry Stahl reading at Les Deux Cafe and an opening at the Mary Karnowsky Gallery are among the most recent such envelopes to arrive at Ausgang‘s home.) Lately, he has also observed panicky moments in the front line of terror known as Los Feliz. Patrons at Psychobabble, the post-something coffeehouse, were so frazzled by a package someone had left on a table that ”total strangers“ began speaking to one another, wondering if the man had left a bomb. When a patron did return for it, Ausgang reports, ”Everybody sort of giggled at him.“

At the post office across the street, Ausgang says, ”A lady at the counter was wearing surgical gloves, and a woman in line got agitated. ’If the post office knows which post offices have anthrax,‘ she said, ’why aren‘t they telling us?’ She was your standard insane lady, though, and another woman turned to me and whispered, ‘You don’t have to worry, lady. The Taliban doesn‘t give a shit about you.’ “

Lights, Camera, Anthrax!

James Nathan, a popular usc screenwriting lecturer and script doctor doubts that September 11 and its unfolding aftermath will ever get green-lighted as a film.

”The elements are great,“ he says, ”they‘re all there — you couldn’t invent this stuff. But there‘s been too much pain and suffering for Hollywood ever to touch it.“

Thus warned, the Weekly nevertheless pressed Nathan for his opinions on how the daily evolving blockbuster might shape up onscreen. Would it be one of those international-cast spectacles from the 1960s, a la The Longest Day or Is Paris Burning?

”No,“ he replies flatly. ”Hollywood doesn’t do well with multiple points of view. It‘s too star-driven to be good at making the kind of ensemble films popular in the ’60s. They wouldn‘t be going back and forth between Washington and bin Laden in his cave. The main characters would be the president, the Wise Old Men telling him what to do, the joint chiefs of staff, and then the good-looking special-ops guys, led by someone like Ben Affleck. The president could be anyone from the 40-something A-list.“

Nor does Hollywood’s track record with biohazard stories bode well for handling the anthrax segments.

”The problem with Outbreak was that they wouldn‘t let the event be the center,“ he says. ”It was about Dustin Hoffman and not the disease. What’s the theme? Who is the main character? These questions have to be answered first — form is always dictated by theme.“

And how would the story‘s presumed hero, George W. Bush, be presented?

”That’s tough,“ Nathan says, ”with the way he was jumping from hiding place to hiding place on September 11 — you wouldn‘t want to touch that. The standard plot would have the untested, underestimated president rising to the occasion — acting on his own [apart] from the Wise Old Men, and getting squeezed from all sides in the second act.“

And the picture’s villain?

”I don‘t think you’d show much of bin Laden,“ Nathan says. ”It‘s like Jaws — the less shark, the better. In fact, I think you might just intercut documentary footage of bin Laden. Except for Three Kings, the history of casting these kinds of [Third World] roles is terrible. What are you going to do, get Ben Kingsley and put lots of makeup on him?“

Wargasms R Us

”Sex is up tremendously in times like these,“ says Frank Keshishian, and he should know. His new enterprise, Live Acts Video, offers what the public needs in these stressful weeks: a videotaping service that provides five themed movie sets on which lovers can frolic in complete abandon and privacy for an hour before receiving a tape to remember the occasion by. The sets include a barn, doctor’s exam room, Gothic bedroom (”It‘s got a fireplace, wooden high-beamed ceilings, stained-glass windows and hand-carved, $10,000 bed — I swear there’s nothing cheesy about these rooms“), and a dungeon. (”You gotta have a dungeon!“) A fifth room is ever-changing — ”Maybe an office,“ Keshishian says, ”maybe a locker room.“ Each room has a microphone and three cameras (with controllable zoom lenses). Packages run $335 to $575 through December 16. One plan includes total privacy (patrons‘ movements trip lasers that activate the cameras); another involves a videographer in a separate control room; and with a third package you get the cameraman on the set with you. (”Action!“) A 27-inch monitor helps decide what your best angle is. Located in the old WGA headquarters at Beverly Boulevard and Doheny Drive in West Hollywood, Live Acts Video ( is open through monthly ”open houses“ and by appointment. Who says these aren’t boom times?

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