Yearning for content

Culture | A much-hyped 'zine and other cultural buzz

Issue: "Clinton unites conservatives," Oct. 10, 1998

New Magazine looks for truth, but avoids content
"Our first principle is that anything selling itself as non-fiction should be true," Steven Brill says in his brainchild, a new magazine called Brill's Content. This sounds like he's throwing down the gauntlet to our postmodern, relativistic culture-in particular, launching a bold challenge to our truth-impaired media. Unfortunately, Mr. Brill's magazine is so ensnared in the surfaces of the pop culture that he cannot get beyond Pilate's question: What is truth? Mr. Brill's "independent" critique of his peers in the dominant media culture lets him throw his weight around. But the problems he finds aren't exactly life threatening, or even very important. On one cover he beat Bill Gates over the head with a 1970s New Mexico police mug shot and the not-so-shocking news that he uses a PR firm to make himself look good. In other news, we learn that the makeup used by cover models in fashion magazines might not be the ones listed in the photo credits. The letters to the advice columnist on the inside pages might not be real. Baseball announcers are biased journalists who root for the home team. And many medical reporters didn't go to med school. With his magazine, Mr. Brill can nag an entire industry, passing out praise and condemnation. As editor and publisher of the most overhyped rag since Wired, he gets to be both king and kingmaker. When real issues make cameo appearances in Content they are always well within the political fashion of new-class liberalism: The networks and Matt Drudge misreported the Starr investigation and helped create the Clinton scandal. The culture war barely exists in Brill's Content. It did an obligatory piece on New Republic hoaxer Stephen Glass, but ignored his vicious smears against conservatives and Christians. When Mr. Brill's cadre finally hits pay dirt they miss the gold and stare at the hole. A horrifying story in the premier issue profiles the head buyer at Barnes & Noble, Robert Wietrak. It describes him as a man addicted to diet books, Oprah Winfrey, and Rosie O'Donnell, but holds back judgment. Instead of examining the worldview of the man who determines what books receive mass exposure, thus shaping the discourse of the whole country, the piece focuses on the weird ways books reach shelves. Content pokes around at big media houses for their foibles, but the magazine ducks the issues that make the news worth reading in the first place. Orwellian plot with a pro-life twist
Most people know George Orwell for his eerie visions of totalitarianism: 1984 and Animal Farm. But his critical eyes were also well-focused on the free world. In the prodigal-son story A Merry War (First Look Pictures, rated PG-13 for profanity, mature themes), Richard E. Grant brings to life a character similar to Mr. Orwell himself. He plays George Comstock, a struggling, feisty, opinionated writer trying to save his sanity in London. In this dramatization of Mr. Orwell's novel Keep the Aspidistra Flying (which is in print from Harcourt Brace), George is an ad writer who receives good reviews from his first book of poetry, so he decides to quit his job to become a full-time poet. He declares his merry war against commercialism. "Faith, hope, money," he says. "Only a saint could have the first two without having the third." As time passes, his ranting against "the money god" gets louder, his paycheck gets smaller, and his clothes get more wrinkled. His girlfriend Rosemary (Helena Bonham Carter) tries desperately to get him to return to his own life, but George's reactions get more extreme. He lashes out at her and at his rich publisher, who still gives him endless favors, and tortures an innocent aspidistra plant. "Advertising is the rattling of a stick inside a swill bucket," he says. George becomes less of a free spirit and more of an egomaniac as things wind their way toward the film's happy conclusion. An amazingly pro-life plot twist jolts him out of his exile from respectability. After George gets his girlfriend pregnant, he goes to the library, gets a book on pregnancy, sees pictures of babies in the womb, realizes he must change his ways, marries her, and goes back to being a corporate wage slave. Mr. Grant, a deft, intense, actor whose wild resumé includes The Player, Hudson Hawk, and Spice World, is perfect for the role of Comstock. Mr. Orwell's subtle humor is maintained; such wit is rarely seen on the screen. The film has plenty to say about sycophants and bohemians and concludes that it is best to be neither. A new movie from 40 years ago
Orson Welles had great success early in his career then spent the rest of his career trying to make up for it. First he shocked the world with his radio play of The War of The Worlds, then made his cinematic perfect pitch, Citizen Kane, which would later be hailed as the best movie of all time. In 1958 he thought he was making a comeback with a movie called Touch of Evil (Universal, rated PG-13 for violence and drug content). The studio wasn't happy with the picture so it fired him, shot some new scenes, and re-edited the film into a B movie. Now the film has been re-edited according to a 58-page long series of suggestions Mr. Welles sent to Universal and re-issued as a director's cut. What results is a wild piece of noir featuring Charlton Heston, Janet Leigh, Dennis Weaver, Marlene Dietrich, and Joseph Cotten. Mr. Heston plays a Mexican narcotics officer in conflict with crooked cop Welles (playing an evil version of the rotund crimefighter role later filled by William Conrad and Raymond Burr). They're trying to solve a car bombing in a sleazy border town, and the bad cop isn't beyond cutting corners to maintain his heroic reputation. Meanwhile, there's a Mexican drug gang looking for revenge against Mr. Heston and wife Leigh. Mr. Welles's location shooting and Henry Mancini's score are good, but believing that Charlton Heston is Hispanic makes suspending disbelief difficult. And like many film noir classics, the dialogue is so deadpan that it raises unintentional laughter from audiences. While Touch of Evil isn't the masterpiece Mr. Welles wanted, it was ahead of its time for 1958. Mr. Welles's cop is like the O.J. defense team's version of Mark Fuhrman: a racist cop who plants evidence trying to force a confession from a suspect. This character paves the way for the genre of police corruption movies from Serpico to LA Confidential. As cynicism about authority grew, bad boys in blue became commonplace.

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