Reviews > Culture

The culture of death

Culture | Going gothic and other cultural buzz

Issue: "Madness in the Methodist," July 25, 1998

Action figures
Small Soldiers (rated PG-13) is a childhood fantasy run amok. In this story, a bunch of toy action figures comes to life and goes to war. It fits in the formula of the new Spielbergian studio DreamWorks in providing high-concept, mass-market entertainment. Tommy Lee Jones is the voice of Chip Hazard, the leader of the Commando Elite. He's fighting Archer, leader of the Gorgons, the other set of toys. The Commandos are GI Joe-esque, and the Gorgons are peace-loving aliens trying to get home. In a cinematic in-joke, the rest of the Commandos are voiced by the cast of the Dirty Dozen and The Gorgons by the cast of Spinal Tap. Meanwhile, two kids must stave off disaster as the Commandos try crazier and crazier tricks to defeat the Gorgons. They invade a garage to make little Land Rovers and helicopters and use nails as ammunition. Meanwhile, the Gorgons are trying to hide. All this mayhem is a result of the peace dividend. With the Cold War over, a defense contractor buys a toy company and winds up putting artificial intelligence chips into its toys. The toys can learn quickly and adapt to their environment, adding to the mayhem. Even though Small Soldiers has all the makings of something really disgusting, the action is rather tame. The humans are unharmed. Amazingly, lots of fire is thrown around in this movie, but nothing ever burns. Seeing an action figure broken apart isn't very shocking. Older kids will get the joke, but this one-gimmick movie wears thin quickly. Small Soldiers resembles director Joe Dante's other work, the two Gremlin movies. As expected, the effects are terrific, but the script is unmemorable. Little ones may be troubled by the plastic carnage. Plus the language in the film is a bit extreme for its demographics. The suits at Burger King, who had a promotional deal on the movie, were so stressed over the movie's PG-13 rating that they put up signs urging parents to decide whether it was fit for children. Thus we have another kids' movie that might not be watchable by kids. Like Doctor Doolittle before it, this movie, ostensibly for children, is rated PG-13. It is geared for children under 13, but by its own admission it may not be suitable for children under 13. But they are no doubt welcome to buy the action figures. American gothic
America's cultural battles are drawn between Forrest Gump and Freddy Kruger, according to Mark Edmundson in his book Nightmare on Main Street (Harvard University Press). Mr. Edmundson, an English professor at the University of Virginia, says the central theme of today's culture is gothic. It sees the everyday world as a facade. Behind the veil are many horrors lurking to attack us in the night and destroy us. These fears struck the West in the turmoil following the French Revolution and have returned in our era. The world of haunted castles and upper-class vampires has been transformed into American pop culture. Gothic characters are everywhere, says Mr. Edmundson. These people-like Hannibal Lecter and Norman Bates-are predators striking out at the innocent. They are symbols of power and fatalism. In a post-Christian society, death always wins. Since God is allegedly dead, Mr. Edmundson says the gothic storyline is an easy way to explain the world. So how does one wake up from the nightmare? By turning within. Mr. Edmundson says the alternatives to gothic come in many forms. Self-help and puffy angelology naturally fill in as a sedative against the pains of modernity. There's also the smug optimism of cyber-futurists joyriding through cyberspace, the escapism of chick flicks, and the calm cynicism of late-night talk shows. Each of these is a way for people to feel they have some control over their lives. For Mr. Edmundson, David Letterman, The Celestine Prophecy, and Sense and Sensibility come from the same root. They may show a world with problems, but at least there is order. No monsters are lying under the bed. In the end, of course, we are all mortal. So death still wins, according to Mr. Edmundon's depiction of our age. His book makes some helpful points, even if they are drawn in broad brush strokes. Nightmare rambles on into endless abstractions and Freudianisms. The author has a great central idea, but he misses his own point, largely because he dismisses Christianity. In a world without God, people will cling to anything while trying to escape from the truth. They'll even adopt a worldview cribbed from horror stories. Evil woman
When a wife kills her husband and children, is she merely reacting to past abuse, or is she an abuser herself? Do men alone have the potential for bloody evil? What sort of women commit violent crimes? Our society is afraid to address these issues, Patricia Pearson argues in her book When She Was Bad: Violent Women and the Myth of Innocence (Viking). She says her fellow feminists have clouded the issue by claiming that women are only nurturing and caring. Bloody murders are often excused due to battered-women's syndrome. That doesn't fit the facts-and this author's statistics pack a powerful punch. "Women commit the majority of child homicides in the United States," Ms. Pearson writes, "a greater share of physical child abuse, an equal rate of sibling violence and assaults on the elderly, about a quarter of child sexual abuse, an overwhelming share of the killing of newborns and a fair preponderance of spousal assaults." Bad contains enough stories to fuel a shelf of true crime novels. Deadly women range from serial killers to box-cutter wielding gang members to mothers who kill their kids for attention. Prominent in the book is a Canadian killer named Karla Holmolka. She helped her husband rape and murder her sister and two other women. When caught, she claimed she was forced into the crimes by a victimizing spouse, but the facts showed otherwise. The parts about wives who batter their husbands and kill their babies are especially gripping. These problems are real, Ms. Pearson argues, even though the establishment persists with the women good / men bad credo. The feminist war against patriarchy has gone to an extreme so that anything bad done by a female must have been induced by a man. To think otherwise would be sexist. During this century, feminism has marched from the margins to the mainstream and now holds the status of a civil religion. Ms. Pearson hasn't left that faith, but she sees a few serious trouble spots.

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