Dispatches > The Buzz

'Let right be done'

A G-rated movie for adults takes honor seriously, holding the deed to good deeds, and other cultural buzz

Issue: "School vouchers debate," May 15, 1999

A G-rated movie for adults
David Mamet gave us two movies on the big screen about con artists: Wag the Dog and The Spanish Prisoner. Now he gives us the story of The Winslow Boy (Sony Pictures Classics; rated G), who is telling the truth. The story takes place in 1911 when the 13-year-old title character is kicked out of a British military school and comes home to his neo-Victorian father (played by ex-Madness of King George monarch Nigel Hawthorne). Young Ronnie swears he is innocent of the charge of stealing that stands against him. Dad cross-examines his son, then launches an expensive, heavily publicized campaign to clear his name. Meanwhile, Ronnie's sister Catherine has a fiancé who doesn't like the publicity. There's also a very expensive lawyer, Sir Robert Morton (Jeremy Northam), brought in to save the case. Catherine and Robert have a love/hate relationship because she's a suffragette and he's part of the establishment. The Winslows' story shows a family living at the intersection of the 19th and 20th centuries. Even though this is a historical drama, there is little of the sweet, romantic flair one would expect from movies of this type. Mr. Hawthorne is excellent as the stoic father leading the charge for his son's honor. "Let right be done" becomes his motto. Mr. Mamet's movies are often unemotional looks at unusual characters. In The Winslow Boy, this style does not fare so well, because the characters seem dry and undeveloped. A few more scenes here and there could have added some feeling to the story. (At any rate, this movie shows that G-rated movies for grownups can still be made today.) The film seems to cast Winslow's fight against the moral ambiguity that developed during the 20th century. Often characters, including Ronnie, seem to wonder if the battle is worth fighting or if it even matters. The family sacrifices its fortune and comfort for the sake of the boy's reputation. Honor still meant something just before WWI, but its value was slipping away. If only Mr. Mamet had not left us with characters that seem so cold and distant. Owning the truth
You need a life-saving operation, but the doctor can't perform it because the rights to the procedure are locked up. A big agriculture company sues you because the farm seed you sold has a DNA structure that it owns. Your shot at major league baseball is stalled because your best pitches are patented-literally-by a big-name player who won't let you use them. These are the nightmare scenarios that journalist Seth Shulman describes in his book Owning the Future (Houghton Mifflin). He says that intellectual property law, along with the Patent Office itself, is out of touch with the era of genetic engineering, e-commerce, and Windows 98. He packs in plenty of real-life horror stories: a researcher looking for millions in royalties over a common Down syndrome test, an obscure company called E-Data that says it owns all rights to doing business over the Internet, and a little-known writer who collected from Random House because he owns the rights to the title of David Brinkley's memoir, Everybody Is Entitled to My Opinion. "Because these realms are so little understood," Mr. Schulman writes, "and we lack a workable framework to effectively delimit the scope of intellectual property claims, it seems that anything can be owned today." Mr. Schulman, a former Knight Science Fellow at MIT, does a tremendous job of explaining an extremely complicated society. He says that if the rules concerning who owns information aren't rethought, we risk damaging our society and risking some lives. After all, should somebody have the right to own certain types of DNA? With the rise of common but highly complex software forming a critical girder of society, determining whether someone should collect a royalty is quite murky. At one point, Compton's New Media claimed it owned the right to all multimedia from digital encyclopedias to CD-ROM Bibles. The company lost this fight, but the war over E-Data's claims is ongoing. If Mr. Schulman is right, our future can be held hostage by a few mischievous rights holders and a score of frivolous lawsuits. Personal audio space
Years before the Internet exploded, Akio Morita's invention put millions in their own little worlds. The Sony Walkman, which made personal headset stereos a mass-market item, is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year. Instead of carrying radios or heavy stereos around to hear music, people chose the light and easily carried Walkman. It helped push people to dump their LPs for the more portable cassettes, hastening the death of needles and grooves. The exercise trend boomed as people carried their tunes with them as they worked out. Listeners no longer had to consider whether their selection would bother other people; everything ran through headphones, so it didn't matter. The Walkman and its clones became as ordinary as blue jeans overnight. Schoolteachers started hating them because they were an easy distraction, as students tuned into music instead of class. While the Walkman boosted sales, it also helped diversify the music market. With tapes popping into players (and more and more car stereos by the 1980s), the radio DJ's role as musical gatekeeper diminished. Now a new generation of devices is on its way to start a new revolution. Instead of tapes or CDs, portable players like the new Rio play digital recordings pulled off the Internet or one's computer. They're lighter, more compact, and don't shake and wobble because there aren't any moving parts. While the Walkman helped kill the LP, Rio and its brothers threaten the mainstream record business. Right now, music can be stored in the MP3 format at near-CD quality using only a megabyte of disk space per minute of music, That means songs can be be bought and traded over the Net like trading cards. Such a system has music executives concerned: In 10 years, who will need them or the record stores? Walkman and Rio both help fracture our society because people who share the same physical space no longer need to have tastes acceptable to their neighbors. This is another example of how the cultural center is breaking apart, with little on the way to fill in the gaps. A lied-to leftist
Christopher Hitchens is one of the great obnoxious left-wing pundits alive today. He's also against abortion, bombing Yugoslavia, and Bill Clinton. About the latter he made headlines for breaking ranks and playing a walk-on part in the Lewinsky scandal. Now he's got a new book explaining to his fellow leftists why Mr. Clinton is so loathsome. The president is at the end of the line, says Mr. Hitchens; he has No One Left To Lie To. (Verso). The song sung here is familiar to everybody, but the words are a little different this time around. Mr. Hitchens sees Clinton as a patsy of the establishment and a phony liberal. "The honest and the powerless," Mr. Hitchens writes, "have a vested interest in a politician who cannot be bought, whereas the powerful and dishonest have already begun to haggle over the tab while the acceptance speech is being written." And Bill Clinton, he writes, was ready to serve. The trouble with Mr. Hitchens is that he is politically confused almost beyond repair. One of his complaints concerns Mr. Clinton's partial acquiescence in welfare reform ("a highly popular campaign against defenseless indigent mothers") and his supposed lack of enthusiasm for homosexual political aims. Mr. Hitchens hates the unsocialized American way, but he can't stand the fact that his own side sells him out again and again. This leads him to a few correct and even brave positions, but his core values are still rotten.

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