Culture Notes


Issue: "Palau: Renaissance Man," Jan. 24, 1998

TV shows go to the bathroom

The new fad in cutting-edge, reality-based TV is to show people going to the bathroom. This new phase of vulgarity started in movies-especially comedies resorting to the sure-fire laugh-getter of scatological humor. But now the men's room scene has become a common scene in PG-rated sitcoms and dramas. On ER and NYPD Blue, characters hold serious discussions while at the urinal, complete with sound effects. Executive producer Mark Tinker of NYPD Blue (the program which also broke TV's nudity barrier) defends the practice as a growth in sophistication. "Anything that addresses topics more honestly and more purely is progress." But Michael Stern, author of The Encyclopedia of Pop Culture, says the new scatology "is a reflection of the adolescence of popular culture." Pop culture, he says, is determined by the taste of early teens. Producers are trying to appeal to both younger viewers "and the grown-up whose emotional growth stuck at age 13."

The biggest movies

The film industry tallied its 1997 box-office numbers and announced the top-10 moneymakers of the year: (1) Men in Black ($249.8 million); (2) The Lost World: Jurassic Park ($229.1 million); (3) Liar Liar ($181.4 million); (4) Air Force One ($171.8 million); (5) Star Wars ($138.3 million); (6) My Best Friend's Wedding ($126.7 million); (7) Face/Off ($112.3 million); (8) Batman & Robin ($107.3 million); (9) George of the Jungle ($105.2 million); (10) Con Air ($101.1 million). The list is notable for the scarcity of R-rated or sexually salacious movies. Studio executives gave credit to the family factor in the success of the biggest winner, Men in Black. "We had the thing that every studio dreams of: a film that satisfied all age groups," said Lucy Fisher, vice chairman of TriStar. "It appealed to everybody from small children right up to grandparents. That movie was a boon to the whole studio." Despite the figures showing moviegoers spent some $6.2 billion, up 8 percent from last year, Hollywood moguls were disappointed overall. The revenue gains came mainly from increases in ticket prices. The number of people actually going to movies, though, remained flat. Furthermore, the cost of making movies is going up so much that it is difficult to turn a profit even on successful movies. Since Batman & Robin cost more than $100 million to make, its No. 8 showing still made it a failure. And many studios spent that much on movies that went nowhere. Despite the industry's record income, many of the major studios actually lost money in 1997.

Has the NEA gone country?

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One of the reasons American taxpayers have been so annoyed with the National Endowment for the Arts is its elitist image. Tax dollars go to support esoteric paintings that ordinary people either don't understand or find offensive, while subsidizing the diversions of wealthy, tuxedo-clad devotees of high culture. Critics have called the NEA "welfare for the wealthy." But President Clinton may be trying to change that image to garner more public and congressional support for the embattled agency. His nominee to replace theater diva Jane Alexander as head of the National Endowment for the Arts is Bill Ivey, director of Nashville's Country Music Foundation. Mr. Ivey is well regarded in country music circles for building the Country Music Foundation into a major resource for the study, preservation, and promotion of the old music. It operates the Country Music Hall of Fame museum in Nashville and sponsors a major televised award show, but it also re-issues rare recordings and keeps a major archive of artists such as Hank Williams and Bob Wills. Mr. Ivey would be leaving just as the Foundation begins construction of a $35 million museum and library complex in downtown Nashville. Of his organization, he said that "it's a combination of the fine arts, the community, and the folk arts working together." Does this mean the NEA will start funding Appalachian bluegrass groups and Merle Haggard retrospectives? Probably not. But it does signal a reorientation of the NEA to support of locally based institutions such as museums and community arts groups rather than the individual superstars of the art world. The nomination of Mr. Ivey, who has degrees in folk music and a long record of serving on NEA panels, is brilliant. It is also a reminder that Hank, Bob, Merle, and the great bluegrass bands managed to create their art without federal funding.


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