Accept no imitations

Culture | Movie knock-offs, breaking the Gates monopoly, objective journalism, and other cultural buzz

Issue: "Surviving the Y2K panic," April 3, 1999
  • Rent Yul Brynner's version
    Before Star Trek's Picard, Hollywood's favorite bald leader was a certain king of Siam. But his legacy is being smashed by a lame animated remake of The King and I (Warner Brothers; rated G). After 'tooning up Anastasia in 1997, Hollywood has looted the vaults of history once again, this time reviving the Rodgers and Hammerstein hit. Good thing those masters of the musical did not live to see this. To make the story of a stubborn schoolteacher charming an Asian monarch safe for 1999 cartoons, it has been forced into a cookie cutter borrowed from Disney. Thus we see all the standard elements of Big Event animation: a strong female lead, an articulate villain with magic powers and a daffy sidekick, a mushy love story, a tacked-on rescue scene, and a quick bow to some fashionable cause. In this case, the center of this movie isn't really Anna or the King of Siam, but Prince Chululongkorn, who is in love with a Burmese slave woman. The soundtrack is mangled: Most of the original music is missing, and the rest is treated as if it were a mere contractual obligation. "Getting to Know You" is lost in a forgettable setup scene. We get to hear "Hello, Young Lovers" as the prince does karate tricks to woo his servant girl. The big moment goes to Barbra Streisand singing a forgettable diva-pop piece. Naturally, the relationship between Anna and the King is completely undeveloped. Instead we get lengthy nonsense about an evil prime minister who wants to knock off the royals so he can take over and poach elephants. So the movie slogs its way through the "Shall We Dance" number-about halfway through the Yul Brynner version-and stops! It's as if the tear-jerky stuff at the end of the original musical didn't pass muster with some focus group down at Warners.
  • Media slaves
    Is true love more powerful than television? That's what the hero of EDtv (Universal; rated PG-13 for language and adult themes) must decide. A reality-television cable network decides to boost its ratings by televising someone's life 24 hours a day à la The Truman Show. So they pick goofy Ed (Matthew McConaughey), a 31-year-old video-store clerk. At first he's excited about instant celebrity, but soon things start getting dark. As TV viewers become obsessed with him, the TV producer (Ellen DeGeneres) spends every waking moment watching her discovery. But some parts of his life don't do well enough, so she declares herself the "golden goddess of television" and starts trying to tinker with Ed's world. Ed's girlfriend (Jenna Elfman) is the big problem. Her poll ratings aren't high enough. And she doesn't like all the attention, so the pair try to find ways to sneak away from the ubiquitous camera. Demigod-wannabe DeGeneres tries to run her off and replace her with a supermodel (Elizabeth Hurley). Toward the end of the movie, the DeGeneres character and her boss (Rob Reiner) spend all their time sitting in a fishbowl-like conference room staring at a monitor. These would-be masters of the universe become trapped in their own creation. Filmmaker Ron Howard is obviously using TV veterans DeGeneres and Reiner (who were controversial on TV in different decades) to symbolize the power of the medium, but they make lousy villains. Instead of being dastardly and vain, they are merely obnoxious and vain. EDtv has none of the fantasy or innocence of Truman's captivity in The Truman Show. Everybody in the movie is underhanded and unappealing; even the love story seems as flat as a high-end TV screen. Unlike last year's Truman Show, this movie has its target knowing he's on camera, thus giving him power over those behind the camera. In this movie, the producers are as trapped in the scenario as Ed is, since their careers are riding on his behavior. The whole concept has been done before, but EDtv shows us that we live in a world where it is considered better to be famous than successful.
  • Bill who?
    As Microsoft braces for being picked apart by a federal court, a feisty competitor in a Red Hat wants to smash the Windows PC operating system. Backers say the rival operating system, called Linux, can run PCs with more flexibility and fewer crashes. Hewlett Packard and IBM are making computers that run it, and other giants like Intel, Compaq, and Novell are starting to invest. Linux itself is super-powerful and completely free. Anybody in the world can download it off the Internet and install it on his computer. The operating system was developed in the early 1990s by a Finnish student named Linus Torvalds and spread like wildfile through cyberspace. Linux resembles an old standby named UNIX (hence the name), and computer geeks by the millions have built the operating system into a grassroots movement. Since Linux's source code was freely available too, programmers could customize their computers like a car nut soups up a 1966 Mustang. Thus it is being constantly improved by an army of volunteer programmers who share their tricks with one another. With anti-Microsoft fervor growing and key products being delayed, Linux is becoming a serious option. "Bill who?" Mr. Torvalds joked recently. Linux itself has a following that resembles a political movement. Its supporters are split into factions divided over how far to "sell out" Linux to big corporations who want to sell it and keep the profits. What once was the domain of techies and techno-dreamers is turning into something powerful. International Data Corp. said that Linux made up about 17 percent of the software shipped for business PCs in 1998. Linux has a big problem, however: While it keeps getting better, it is not exactly user-friendly. The software is notoriously hard to install and operate. A kid could bypass college and launch his career in computers by simply learning how to work Linux. But don't count it out. Just as the Internet was hard to use 10 years ago, Linux could catch up and cast a shadow on Microsoft.
  • More than just the facts
    Does anybody still believe that mainstream news is "objective" anymore? Maybe not, but the magic O-word has been at the center of debate about the media for decades. In his book, Just the Facts (NYU Press), former CNN assignment editor David T.Z. Mindich approaches the topic like the proverbial blind man approaches the elephant. To understand objectivity, Mr. Mindich looks at the history of the media and how journalistic standards grew with the power of newspapers. As each wave of newsgathering elites (from Horace Greeley to Dan Rather) rose and fell, they adopted more detached, fact-based, and nonpartisan poses. This didn't mean that they didn't try to influence society. After all, Greeley and William Randolph Hearst both ran for president, even as anti-slavery newspapermen Frederick Douglass and William Lloyd Garrison boasted that they were above party politics. What Mr. Mindich doesn't mention is that in the 20th century, the media narrowed its journalistic focus to represent a specific point of view: the infamous "liberal agenda" forged on the front page of The New York Times. As media ownership has conglomerated into a few hands, dissenting approaches have been shoved out of the news section and into punditry. This is why editors publicly brow-beat themselves over having to cover the Clinton scandals. But objectivity had its dark side even in its early days. Mr. Mindich pays special attention to how papers covered lynching in ways that purported that "everybody knew" the black men being strung up were guilty of some crime. He misses the force of his own insight that the air of objectivity allowed the mass media to define itself and grow in power as the so-called "fifth estate." By being independent of political parties, the press only became more adept at molding opinion. Mr. Mindich notes that the concept of objective journalism is going away and concludes with the now-obvious nostrum that "journalists must always remember their vision is colored by their culture." He misses the deeper issue, that journalists' vision is colored by their worldview.

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