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Culture | The decline of World's Fairs & other cultural buzz

Issue: "Just say clean needles," May 9, 1998

Updating Tarzan--again
It seems no decade can pass without at least one Tarzan revival. Eighty years after the first movie version comes Tarzan and the Lost City (rated PG). It's a sequel to 1984's Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan. And it's awful. Square-jawed Casper Van Dien inherits the part once played by Johnny Weissmuller and Buster Crabbe. Tarzan has left his natural habitat and moved to England to be lord of Greystoke and marry Jane. A bunch of poachers are making monkey business back in Africa. So the duo head off for adventure. They meet Tarzan's tribal buddies who beg the ape-man to stop the bad guys from entering the lost city of the title. The main villain here is an Indiana Jones type, seeking treasure, pelts, and Jane. There are also plenty of swinging vines, drumming tribesmen, endangered elephants, and extras in bad gorilla costumes. The whole thing plods along witlessly until the characters finally reach the lost city-and things get interesting for about a reel. Then comes the big climax that drives this movie firmly into the bad column. Tarzan doesn't save the day; instead, that old black magic stops the bad guys from stealing the obligatory treasure. The worst moment is when zombie tribal warriors appear and shrink into chicken bones when the villains shoot at them. Even the kids who are part of this movie's target audience won't buy it. At least this one was actually filmed in Africa. Part of the problem is that translating Tarzan for 1990s moviegoers is mighty tough. He's not dark and brooding like Batman or The Shadow. He's not a renegade cop like all those Willis and Stallone characters. He gives jungle calls and swings on a vine. He's a traditional hero. Playing him straight wouldn't sell to a cynical audience. The classic stories work today as period pieces-the AMC cable network ran a Tarzan marathon-but suspending disbelief about an aristocrat raised by apes is too hard now. One day someone might give in to the temptation to make him an environmentalist, but who would watch Tarzan, Protector of the Rain Forest? The ape man's greatest test comes next year when Disney releases an animated Tarzan movie. Supposedly this will be true to the original and focus on his early years. Will it resemble the original Burroughs character, with its turn-of-the-century values, or be another Hercules, turning a time-honored legend into a '90s kind of guy? World's Fair: no longer great, just fair
The World's Fair concept is not dead-yet. Expo '98 opens this month in Lisbon, Portugal. This year's $2.4 billion extravaganza is expected to draw 8.5 million visitors. Most of these will be Europeans. Americans are expected to stay home in droves and make the usual pilgrimages to Six Flags. Amusement parks, TV, and shopping malls make giant commercialized spectacles more commonplace than when World's Fairs started in 1851. They used to be historic moments. People got together, ate newly invented foods like hot dogs and ice-cream cones, and looked at utopian visions of the future, which now seem hopelessly naive in retrospect. World's Fairs left debris in host cities, such as the Eiffel Tower, the Space Needle, and the Montreal Expos. More recent Fairs are thought of as temporary theme parks that lose fistfuls of money. Unlike the Olympics, World's Fairs are hard to televise. They also have boring globalist themes like "Progress without Pollution," "Coexistence of Nature and Man," and "Progress and Harmony for Mankind" that are guaranteed to send kids running back to Magic Mountain. The last two World's Fairs in the United States, in Knoxville and New Orleans, were dismal failures. The last one was Expo '93 in Taejon, South Korea; it was largely ignored outside Asia. Budapest tried to have one in 1995 to celebrate the fall of Soviet Communism. The Hungarians ran out of money in the planning stages, rescheduled it for 1996, then threw in the towel. The Portuguese, of course, hope their Fair will turn the tide. Expo '98, like the 1992 Fair in Spain, focuses on the high seas. Seville celebrated Christopher Columbus and Lisbon will toast Vasco da Gama. The slogan this time is "The Oceans, a Heritage for the Future." Lisbon's big attraction is a giant aquarium housed on a man-made island. This American-designed extravaganza cost $65 million and will hold 15,000 creatures. Shamu the whale from Sea World was not invited. A clean-cut but complicated corporate mystery
David Mamet may be the biggest living brand name on the stage today. He also makes movies. In the last year he's released The Edge, Wag the Dog, and now The Spanish Prisoner (rated PG, for thematic elements including tension, some violent images, and brief language). This latest movie spotlights a Dilbertesque character (this time played by George C. Scott's son Campbell) hounded by nefarious corporate sharks (led by Steve Martin). Throw in Mr. Mamet's wife (Rebecca Pidgeon) as the femme fatale. Our hero is a Clark Kentish inventor who creates a secret formula that will make his company a big pot of money. Naturally, the bad guys want to steal it. And this is one of those movies where saying anything more would spoil the ending. Don't worry, there are plenty of red herrings, double crosses, and plot twists: a princess, a tennis book, an heiress, a bloody knife, and a bunch of Japanese tourists. Mr. Scott plays his part well as a clean-cut guy who keeps his cool through it all. And the whole thing is amazingly PG rated. The Spanish Prisoner sounds like the title of an existentialist novel, but takes its name from a type of confidence game. The movie plays best as a mental puzzle rather than a drama. Mr. Mamet, who wrote and directed, tries to make this into one of those middle-manager-betrayed-by-the-system movies that seem always to star Michael Douglas. He tries to make a statement about how modern business cares more about profits than ethics, but his characters are too mechanical to carry the message. The first few reels are pretty placid as the films drops clues needed for later recall. Then the tension starts to rise toward the big payoff at the end. This will play well as an A&E Mystery Movie in five years.

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