The Buzz: Three versions of hope

Culture | Hollywood and Graham both go country

Issue: "Rethinking divorce," June 13, 1998

Soap Floats
Hope Floats (20th Century Fox, rated PG-13 for "thematic elements") is a country chick flick with Sandra Bullock suffering through heartache and pain. She's a poor distressed ex-cheerleader who goes home to mother upon discovering her husband is having an affair with her best friend. So she's left the big city for her small town in Texas. But she's nobody now instead of the most popular girl in school. Now she's trying to put the pieces together. Naturally, Momma's got a man for her, played by Harry Connick Jr. So Ms. Bullock's got to rebuild her life. And, of course, that means plenty of growing pains. A few of these travails are quite moving, such as when the little girl finally realizes Daddy doesn't want her. In another scene, she needs help finding a job from a former high-school outcast whom she once treated like dirt. But most times Hope Floats sinks in shallow water. Never mind that the whole family is wrecked by divorce. A little sweet talk mixed with the oft-hyped country soundtrack will fix everything. To make matters worse, both leads are wooden actors. Mr. Connick looks good in his Western duds, but he's cinematic wallpaper. He pops into scene after scene to do just the right romantic thing. Just because Frank Sinatra made it in Hollywood doesn't mean every crooner can. And Ms. Bullock is thrown into scene after scene beyond her range. She doesn't resemble a wife or mother; she's just another big-screen sufferer trying to Find Herself. When one or both of the stars must carry a scene, things get boring fast. The pair give the movie a melodramatic phoniness that's difficult to swallow. Every element in Hope Floats seems designed to manipulate three-hanky Harlequin Romance readers. Soap opera trumps family drama once again. Here's a movie brimming with emotion but devoid of feeling. In facing up to the human consequences of unfaithfulness and divorce, this could have been a good movie. Billy Graham movie Vs. Godzilla
For the first time in what seems like ages, a movie produced by an evangelical organization is playing multiplexes. The Ride comes from Billy Graham's World Wide Pictures. It's got a decent budget and a real star in Michael Biehn, who went back in time in 1984 to chase The Terminator. Like Hope Floats and The Horse Whisperer, the milieu comes right out of country music. Mr. Biehn plays a fallen rodeo star named Smokey. He gets in trouble with the law and escapes a cell by agreeing to live on a ranch for troubled boys. He shows up at this Boys Town for Protestants and behaves worse than the kids he's supposed to help. A dying boy (Brock Pierce) helps lead him to Christ. Anyone can see the buttons The Ride pushes. But it takes a few steps out of the mold. Writer-director Michael Sajbel, who was a director of photography on John Woo's Broken Arrow, doesn't make the altar-call sequence the climax of the movie, and doesn't spread on the melodrama as thickly as some might expect. The bull-riding leading role looks a little like Clint Eastwood in Honky Tonk Man or Robert Duvall in Tender Mercies. Parts of the movie seem stiff and forced, though, with the role of virtual evangelist taking priority over plot and character. Although there are still light-years to go, The Ride is a cinematic advance over earlier evangelism films. And instead of going straight to video for the church youth group and lock-in market, it's being distributed on the big screens, right up there next to Godzilla. Defending Commercialism
Has pop culture got you down? Are you sick of mind-numbing pablum on network TV and so-called alternative music filling record stores? Do you sometimes wonder if another era had higher standards, superior art, and better taste? Well, economist Tyler Cowen has a contrarian message: Pop is good. His book In Praise of Consumer Culture (Harvard University Press) outlines his case for cultural optimism. The progress of democratic capitalism, he says, gives people time and affluence to make and enjoy culture. Commercialism also produces endless outputs-from mass market media to coffeehouse poetry hours to the World Wide Web-for expression. That means endless diversity; Mighty Mouse, Michael Medved, and Marilyn Manson live side by side in the great Turkish bazaar of global media. Mr. Cowen is best when he skewers the popular notion that great artists are poor bohemians who live on the margins of society. After all, Shakespeare, Mozart, and Muddy Waters were all commercial successes. His problem is that he overgeneralizes all opposition- from New Left to New Right-as "pessimists" who miss the glories of commercialism. As long as someone can find his favorites released by some small publisher somewhere, Mr. Cowen says, he has no right to complain about modernity. The author forgets that Megastored America may mean more freedom-but finding quality work often becomes like panning for gold. Of course, a world where anyone can make a statement just by opening an Internet account is not of itself bad. But Mr. Cowen has no reason to cheer. The West is blissfully ill-equipped at discernment. We swim in a vortex where every man must pick his own worldview. Common culture is losing ground to endless subcultures that have a hard time expressing themselves to outsiders. The basic questions of art and life melt away as civilization is reduced to a never-ending shopping mall.

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