Reviews > Culture

Terminally hip

Culture | Sanitizing squalor in the low-Rent district, information technology as an art form, and other cultural buzz

Issue: "Clinton: Capitol crimes?," Sept. 26, 1998

Low Rent
Rent is the biggest jolt to hit Broadway this decade. This musical about a multicultural cadre of Gen-Xers squatting in an East Village apartment won both a Tony and a Pulitzer after it opened. Today this blockbuster still plays to near-sellout Broadway crowds and runs strong with casts in London, New York, and Australia, plus two touring companies criss-crossing America. As the Great White Way was slumping through decreasing interest in big-ticket stage productions, Rent came along in 1996 as an anti-musical. The characters include homosexuals, artistic misfits, drug addicts, AZT-popping AIDS patients, and homeless people. In this postmodern update of La Boheme, they all raise a toast to their marginalization. The rock soundtrack sounds like a cross between Andrew Lloyd Weber and Meatloaf. The plot revolves around a Christmas day when one member of the group buys their apartment building and decides to kick everybody out so he can build a recording studio. In the ensemble's attempts to save their home and the action that follows, we see the relationships between the characters. While the cast is supposed to take encouragement from each other, they are actually too busy bickering with one another for the audience to believe that. While this rock opera shouts aloud the joys of the bohemian lifestyle, pain and death are everywhere. The angst-ridden twentysomethings coasting through the age of AIDS are drawn in such a way that the audience is expected to pity the entire cast. There's "No Day But Today," they sing, since the disease could cut you down tomorrow. After intermission, two of them are driven to their deathbeds. In trying to give hope amid suffering, Rent comes off as so much showbiz glitter, as playwright Jonathan Larson uses both hands to wring compassion from theatergoers. The maudlin nature of the musical could make the production into a retro phenomenon a la Grease in a few years. But as it stands, Rent is thoroughly hip, thoroughly relevant, and thoroughly depressing. Beautiful technology
A machine of beauty is a joy forever. So says David Gelernter, a Yale computer scientist who was nearly blown to bits by the Unabomber in 1993. Just as people seek elegance in art, architecture, and music, so they seek Machine Beauty (Basic Books) in hardware and software. "A single programmer alone at his keyboard can improvise software machines of fantastic or even incomprehensible complexity," he writes. "Imagine what kind of palaces people would live in if all you needed to do were to draw a blueprint, hand it to a machine, and see the structure realized automatically at the cost of a few drips of electricity." Mr. Gelernter harkens back to the day of Bauhaus, a German design school that searched for the ultimate combination of form and function. A well-designed device, be it a chair, a car, or a computer (or even the Hoover Dam) is as beautiful as a painting-even if the creators don't think of their work in those terms. An example of this elegance is the graphical interfaces that run today's PCs and Macs. It was first developed by Xerox in the early 1970s and eventually brought click-and-drag computing to middle America. Instead of typing in an arcana of commands, we can drive our machines by clicking pictures with a mouse. On the other hand, Mr. Gelernter hates physical computer design. He says today's hardware wastes space and gives the user a mouse without a pad. "We ought to start teaching Velazquez, Degas, and Matisse to young technologists right now on an emergency basis," he writes. Mr. Gelernter's writing, as usual, is crisp and concise, but at points he digresses. He delivers some punditry on the Mac/PC wars (he likes the Mac) and spends a chapter promoting his own product. Still, "Machine Beauty" provides a healthy corrective to the all-too-prevalent notion that computers are sterile and utilitarian. Instead of stripping us of our humanity, new technology opens doors of creativity. The technological revolution means more than information. As Mr. Gelernter says, "Great technology is beautiful technology." Eating the rainforest
Tarzan never dreamed of this. Coming soon to a mall near you is the Rainforest Cafe, a chain of jungle-theme restaurants where the great outdoors is rebuilt with fiberglass and silicon. Patrons dine in an atmosphere complete with fake trees, animatronic animals, and even artificial thunderstorms. Rainforest Cafe doesn't have waiters. It has "safari guides" in park ranger outfits and fanny packs serving up such delicacies as Rasta Pasta, Congo Mogambo, and Chicken Monsoon. At the back wall is a statue of Atlas holding a globe emblazoned with a green neon sign that reads-what else?-"Save The Rainforest." There's even a lighted star chart overhead serving as a man-made sky. All the special effects are timed so that something new happens every few minutes. Artificial jungle sounds are piped into a sound system that surrounds diners. Most of this is probably harmless. For the kids, this is a fun spot that is less manic than the giant lip-synching creatures down at Chuck E. Cheese. But it leaves one wondering: Isn't this somebody's science fiction nightmare scenario? After all, bringing King Kong to the big city only means trouble, but artificial monkeys can swing above one's head. And Tracy the Talking Tree never needs pruning. Tuki Makeeta the elephant won't stampede or be attacked by poachers. (Nevertheless, diners are told not to feed the animals. Go figure.) Think about the world of the Rainforest Cafe. Instead of driving to some scenic spot to see trees and animals, one visits Cherry Creek Mall or South Coast Plaza to see a denatured, environmentally friendly indoor version of the outdoors. Forget about taming nature. Now we can rebuild it as a theme park. Rainforest Cafe also gives the right amount of self-satisfaction to the shallow and Earth-conscious. One can now have an experience of "the environment" without grass stains, mosquito bites, or canvas tents. After all, real jungles don't come with gift shops and public restrooms.

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