Culture To Go

Road Scholar

Hallmark Home Entertainment

Nobody knows America like a horny Jewish-Romanian expatriate ex-dissident closet aging hippie poet. Nobody loves America like Andrei Codrescu. Native to a land where only Big Brother had the big guns, now child of a country where they let the little people shoot each other, the NPR commentator lies on the desert floor and fires a massive mounted gun at a target. "You can feel the power surge. It's almost mystical!" Codrescu hates guns. And loves them. And hates himself for loving them. And while he's ultimately unconverted by their quasi-spiritual charms, he does unearth a subtle divinity in other American perversions such as drive-thru weddings, retirement-community garage rockers (One Foot in the Grave), and roller-skating Christians. They're all part of a tragicomic documentary road trip in search of America's soul--or was it Codrescu's?--finally available on video two years after its theatrical release.

Armed with Slavic skepticism and a poet's pith, Codrescu revisits sites of his own late-'60s quest for Walt Whitman's America, and is continually disappointed. A prison now stands across the street from Whitman's house. Former peaceniks have become warrior/capitalist Sikhs or spirituality supershoppers. Yet (toward the end of his trip, of course) he does manage to find something redemptive in this culture, and the only subjects who truly refute America--the dwellers of Taos Pueblo--are the very breath of the beast. Impossible as it is, Codrescu's America is held together by pure mystery: He finds that "Paradoxically, the most materialistic country in the world is also the most spiritual." I hope he's onto something. (Kate Sullivan)

CD-ROMS

Bartlett's Familiar Quotations,
Expanded Multimedia Edition

Time Warner Electronic Publishing

As digital storage gets increasingly compact and exquisite, there will develop an inverse form of territorialism. Connoisseurs of info storage will battle one another, like czars collecting Fabergé eggs, to have ever more facts, quotes, sounds, images, and words in ever smaller containers. It will become a kind of addiction: to have not one but 10 Encartas; to pile up art-ROM collections or Complete Works Of like so many crystal belladonna jars. This rampant rage to assemble everything (Eurocentric, though apologetic) now includes the Bartlett's people, who are no longer content with providing handy (though potentially inappropriate) quotes for B.S.-ing sophomores. They are now supplying these sophomores, and those Rotarian speakers, and I suppose a minister or two, with pictures! sounds! and teeny-tiny movies!

This new version of the old standby is at first glance an impressive cabinet of wonders: Enter "gun" and you get various texts, but you also get a picture of Colt's Revolver (c. 1836-1847). Look up the same gun on its "Media Timeline" and you find it in accidentally poetic proximity to a placid Japanese woodcut, an English painting of a train, and Edward Hicks's oft-quoted The Peaceable Kingdom (lions with lambs, etc.). But choose the search terms "violent" and "entertainment" and the gun doesn't show up at all. (Neither does Samuel Jackson from Pulp Fiction.) So while it's pretty and teasingly comprehensive, this disc doesn't get irony and offers little in the way of context. Images of the city of Giralda and of Angkor Wat show up (full-screen) but without a hint of where they actually are. And, as on the World Wide Web, authors both revered and long-since discredited share status. Is this good or bad? It suggests something like a Borges world, where--as one of his personae once said--the hint is always present of the "total book" lying somewhere. This isn't that book but it points the way. (Phil Anderson)

LASERDISCS

Alphaville

The Criterion Collection/The Voyager Co.

It helps to know that Jean-Luc Godard's original title for this sci-fi/noir/whatever hybrid was Tarzan vs. IBM. In other words, it's about an iconic tough guy (Lemmy Caution, hardboiled detective) who swings into action against a futuro-corporate menace bent on suppressing creativity and controlling the world. Take the metaphor another step and Alphaville could just as well be called Godard vs. Bourgeois Narrative Cinema. I'm sure JLG would appreciate the irony that his mid-'60s-era technophobic vision is now more clear than ever on this, a flawless laserdisc with digital sound and a high price tag.

Especially these days, it's hard to imagine an anticapitalist sci-fi epic sans FX, but that's Alphaville: The film's omnipotent computer is basically a high-beam headlight with a gravelly voice (no-budget auteurs take note!), while Godard does more with a sterile office building and some men in white coats than George Lucas did with his whole megabucks Death Star. And therein lie the movie's plot and subplot: Both Caution and Godard must thwart the power structure by asserting and subverting. Ultimately, it's a stalemate. As in Blade Runner, the Detective Hero rescues the Woman with No Feelings, and the two drive off toward greener pastures; but in neither film does the happy ending begin to convince. Indeed, in Godard's recent Alphaville sequel, Germany Year 90 Nine Zero, the director and his alter ego are still under siege, this time from a New World Order and the same old shit. (Rob Nelson)

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