Reviews > Culture

Demoralizing the troops

Culture | A Thin Red Line would have been better as enemy propaganda; also, remembering the Atari generation, watching the rise of Disney journalism, bidding farewell to MST3K

Issue: "Joe DiMaggio: In memoriam," March 20, 1999
  • A Buddhist meditation on GuadalcanalSaving Private Ryan brought WWII back to life on the screen; A Thin Red Line killed it again. Ryan clarified the morality of war, but Line (Fox; rated R for violence and profanity) thins it out into Buddhist mush. This overlong Best Picture nominee is reminiscent of everything that grates about self-righteous Vietnam movies from the 1980s. An army of stars, including Sean Penn, John Travolta, George Clooney, Woody Harrelson, and John Cusack, pop up in this story about fighting the Japanese at Guadalcanal. But art director Terrence Malick cares more about crocodiles, birds, and landscapes than his almost completely wasted cast. Private Witt (James Caviezel), who goes AWOL at the beginning of the movie but is dragged back for the remainder, provides a narration that runs on endlessly. He trots out endless Eastern nostrums about life, the universe, and everything that truly grates. It all sounds like propaganda the enemy would have beamed in to get the soldiers to surrender. Witt ponders human violence and suffering. As the movie opens, he thinks he's found a new Eden with a bunch of island aborigines. They disappoint him- and this fuels his esoteric rambling. In the middle of the movie comes a long intermezzo where Lt. Col. Tall (Nick Nolte) is ordered to lead his men (including Witt) into seemingly suicidal combat. About a reel of this, where John Cusak must take a hill, is good-but a lot more of Mr. Malick's two-hour, 46-minute movie gives us landscape shots while Witt mumbles about pantheism. At the end, the thought of plot fades away like a personality fading into Nirvana. We are treated to scene after scene of soldiers and more yackety-yak. An hour and a half should have been slashed from this movie, which would have destroyed Mr. Malick's vision but might have made something watchable. Mr. Malick makes war into a big backdrop for escape into detachment and meditation.
  • Growing up wired
    The so-called "Generation X" mainstreamed the PC and the Internet after starting life with Ataris and high school computer programming classes. Online zinemeister David Bennahum tells his story of techno-addicted youth in Extra Life: Coming of Age in Cyberspace (Basic Books). "We just disappeared one day," he writes, "stepped into the arcades and vanished, reemerging years later as adults." The love affair started when Mr. Bennahum started playing an early video game called Pong in a French hotel in 1973. The world melted around him. He began making pilgrimages to FAO Schwartz to stare at the latest electronic goodies. When an Atari 800 home computer came, his world changed forever. That model only had 48K of memory, which is over 1,300 times dumber than typical PCs sold today, but for lots of boys growing up between Richard Nixon and George Bush, this was a ticket to a new world. For Mr. Bennahum and others, technology became a companion that filled in the holes left by a broken home and social awkwardness. Some of the best parts of Extra Life are when Mr. Bennahum discusses growing up in the (then, as now) morally messed-up adolescent world of the 1970s and '80s. The author's greatest challenge comes when he starts taking Mr. Moran's computer science classes at Horace Mann High School in New York. His goal: the exalted title of Super User, that special level of student who has access to the entire school's computer network. As Mr. Bennahum works his way toward that Olympian goal, his family trouble continues. Both parents remarry and his non-techie sister's grades fall through the floor. She winds up expelled, hanging out in Central Park and living with a drug dealer. If only Mr. Bennahum had spent more time with that part of the story.... As it is, Extra Life is a little like reading another person's old yearbooks as he recalls his early years in incredible, introspective detail. Like most of his cadre, David Bennahum grew up to build a decent career, but didn't become Bill Gates. His story shows an important slice of American history: how the information revolution changed the lives of its first round of adolescents.
  • From talk TV to Talk Magazine
    Tina Brown self-promoted herself into celebrity status running The New Yorker, and she's returning to newsstands this summer with a blockbuster new chic-mag called Talk. "I think you will see a magazine that has a kind of intimacy, a kind of excitement that is not out there right now in the marketplace," Ms. Brown gushed in a recent interview about her creation. What that really means is that Ms. Brown's Talk will be just like her New Yorker: a boring, big-budget, general-interest magazine that says virtually nothing at all. Backed by Disney's Miramax Films and The Hearst Corporation, Talk is expected to reach a half million readers at its August launch. But there's more to it than just two big companies coming together to make "a provocative and topical publication offering commentary, criticism, reporting, opinion, and profiles," as a Talk press release suggests. What does Disney get from promoting the Cult of Tina? It gets to use her Talk as a minor league farm team to try out ideas before pouring in the real cash. Talk itself will develop TV shows and books based on its material, and feature films can't be far behind. Ms. Brown and her consort, publisher Ron Galotti, become glorified talent scouts bringing in prospective new courtiers to the Magic Kingdom. Talk isn't just an expensive insider baseball game for the media elite. If this project succeeds (something no one can predict), Tina Brown will become a kingmaker, a high-profile ambassador between the New York publishing scene and Hollywood. Neither Hollywood nor New York likes having to develop talent. They like having prepackaged sensations to toss at the public. Losing money on a big-budget movie is a lot harsher than dropping a few bucks into Talk and Tina Brown, who couldn't make a dinosaur like The New Yorker profitable despite all her efforts. Such shenanigans expose the need for Christians and conservatives to make a long march through the institutions-and make the effort to build new ones. If things continue at this rate, all that will be left in American culture is a lot of "talk."
  • Talking back to the TV
    This summer, Mike Nelson and his robot pals Crow and Tom Servo will stop cracking jokes at bad movies and come back down to earth. After 10 years, Mystery Science Theater 3000 is going off the air. Its trademark silhouette of three odd figures laughing at a screen gave new life to hundreds of B movies. Starting in 1988 on a small station in Minnesota, it quickly became a cable TV staple. MST3K, as its fans call it, revived the tradition of goofy TV movie hosts with an oddball storyline: about the host (originally creator Joel Hodgson, then Mr. Nelson) stranded on something called the Satellite of Love while a mad scientist subjected him and the robots to the worst movies of all time. So while Teenage Caveman, Night of the Blood Beast, or Skydivers played, they talked back to the screen. A typical episode had its films interrupted about 700 times for one-liners. The owners of the mocked movies collected royalties and laughed all the way to the bank. The sheer Dadaism of MST3K was enough to grab channel flippers and get them to put down their remotes. It also attracted its own band of overenthusiastic cult followers who kept the show alive after the novelty had worn off. A movie version came in 1996 (slogan: "Every year Hollywood makes hundreds of movies. This is one of them.") and a handful of episodes has been re-released on tape (Rhino). MST3K gave its audience a ready-made group of smart-alecks ready to shoot back at the drivel in front of them. It also perpetuated a feeling that the audience is superior to the cinematic swill being tossed at them. The show had a snotty streak, but it was also a healthy reminder that pop culture is usually more pop than culture.

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