The Buzz

Culture | Divorce for Dummies and other cultural buzz

Issue: "Religious liberty fight," June 20, 1998

Morality for dummies
Need another reminder of the suicide of the West? Go to any bookstore and on shelf after shelf are yellow and black books from Dummies Press. It started out as a line of computer tutorials, such as DOS for Dummies, and has now spread to cover 350 volumes on every subject imaginable-Investing for Dummies, Chess for Dummies, even Lawn Care for Dummies. The one that points to impending doom is brand new: Divorce for Dummies. That's right. It's a user-friendly guide to untying the knot. Lawyer John Ventura and PR flack Mary Reed team up to teach unhappy couples how to end their marriages. "Many divorcing spouses turn what could have been an amicable breakup into a cutthroat battle," they say, "but divorce doesn't have to be about winners, losers, and huge legal bills." Just cut through the legalese and get right down to the broken home brass tacks. Naturally, there's boilerplate at the beginning and end of the book on how to make relationships work. Things like "Don't just talk-Communicate" and "Get marriage counseling" are the extent of that. The heart of this book is about things like lawyers, prenuptial agreements, and alimony. There's even a chapter on how to tell Junior that Mommy doesn't love Daddy anymore. Dummies even tells about scary possibilities like bankruptcy, depression, and parental kidnapping. In short, readers learn about divorce in the same way they're taught how to buy a computer or surf the Internet. The "For Dummies" formula treats divorce in a disgustingly nonthreatening way. The authors toss around anecdotes about how divorce used to be frowned upon, but times have changed. We're not embarrassed anymore. After all, Tammy Wynette ended her second marriage way back in 1968, the year "Stand By Your Man" was a big hit. Maybe she was singing about her lawyer. Welcome to the No-Fault World Order. If the creator were a television hack
Jim Carrey finally found the role of his career. And it's a summer blockbuster, of course. Like Steve Martin, he's moved from silliness to substance. As the star of The Truman Show (Paramount, rated PG for thematic elements and wild language), Mr. Carrey's an everyman trapped in television. He was adopted before he was born by a production company and unknowingly lives his life inside a giant domed set. His every move is broadcast via satellite to the world. Everybody is an actor except Truman. The crazy program is controlled by an all-powerful director named Christof (played to the hilt by Ed Harris) who manipulates everything for ratings. And he smooths over the whole thing with a bunch of rhetoric about how he's giving viewers something genuine. Cristof's made-up world is just the real one, except the harshness is edited for television. He thinks Truman should be happy living in a custom-made society designed just for him by his "creator." Cristof plays God for fun and profit. The phony island town where Truman lives is called Seahaven-notice the pun in the names of the creator and his creation. Since The Truman Show has no commercials, this cast pitches products during everyday conversations. Truman isn't so appreciative of all that work. One day he's selling insurance and the next he discovers he's lived 30 years as a pawn in the ratings game. Our hero starts realizing his whole life is a sham and starts pondering how to break out. If the viewer can suspend disbelief over the concept, this is engrossing, Kafkaesque fantasy. Metaphors pile on metaphors in The Truman Show. A viewer can read media manipulation, postmodernism, fascism, and every imaginable problem of the 20th century into this movie. Plus the story plays itself out without being heavy-handed. This is the best mass-market philosophical conversation starter since Schindler's List. Vietnam with valor
Hollywood never wants to let go of Vietnam. The latest evidence: A Bright Shining Lie, which plays HBO this month. This story of Lt. Colonel John Paul Vann (Titanic's Bill Paxton) comes from Neil Sheehan's Pulitzer Prize-winning book. Vann's an officer who thinks Vietnam is winnable but that Westmoreland and company don't know how to win it. So he discovers a corrupt South Vietnamese military and a Viet Cong ready to stand and fight. Vann becomes a contrarian outcast, yet he still wants to fight Communism. He's forced out of the service, but soon goes back to Vietnam as an aid worker. Meanwhile, his Clintonesque philandering isn't making his life easier. As the war is falling apart around him, his determination grows. Both Vann and the war are full of explosive contradictions. Meanwhile, the liberal reporter who befriends Vann and narrates the movie respects him, yet sees him as a pathetic figure. He sees a quixotic figure, a man who succumbs to the "Lie" that the war can be won. Anti-war outbursts pop up in this movie, but they're more sedated than in many of Lie's predecessors. This movie should've been an epic. Vann is the stuff of a great story. He's both a hero on the battlefield and a villain at home (at least according to Mr. Sheehan). This character should grip us from start to finish. But perhaps the film's confusing tone is good. If it had been consistent, it might have been shrill and leftist. Lie was the most expensive original movie in the network's history. Curiously, HBO thought there was enough of a statement here to put an inside-front-cover ad in the conservative National Review-perhaps because this movie leaves Vann and other American soldiers with their valor. Writer/ director Terry George could have made something important here, but the whole thing is too muddled.

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