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The fall of homo sapiens

Homo scaenicus and other cultural buzz

Man the entertainer

Welcome to the republic of entertainment. Image is everything and fiction is reality. So says Neal Gabler in his book Life The Movie, a study of how the staging and escapism of the media have invaded real life. Social skills and image take over as we submit to the tyranny of entertainment. "Homo sapiens is rapidly becoming Homo scaenicus-man the entertainer." Like all our other revolutions, this one rose slowly from the days of Andrew Jackson to Bill Clinton. From the fall of the Berlin Wall to "Showdown in The Gulf," events are squished and squashed into the mold of media storylines. Just look at the career of Roger Ailes, who went from The Mike Douglas Show to GOP campaigning to the Fox News Channel. Celebrities like Madonna, Picasso, and Bill Buckley position themselves as actors playing the role they present to the world. If the storyline is more appealing than reality, look for an angle that turns the tale into truth. Mr. Gabler says even American religion feeds the fire, as people over the years have turned toward dramatic revivalism, emotionalism, and sensationalism under the power of superstar preachers. Life has insights, but also exaggerations. After all, people naturally read events within their own worldviews; TV simply mashes and strains the world into mental baby food. Mr. Gabler trots out obvious characters like Liz Taylor, Michael Jackson, and Zsa Zsa Gabor. He takes the obligatory chance to tsk tsk over all the attention given to President Clinton's adulteries. It is clear that spin doctors are turning society into a series of "pseudo-events" that make up "pseudo-life." But Mr. Gabler sees no way out of this dilemma because he misses the major problem: A society that refuses to look at the world through biblical eyes is easily distracted by the lights of neon signs, marquees, and TV screens. Once again, he who will not believe in God will believe in anything. A pessimist's America

Is America melting away? Foreign correspondent Robert Kaplan toured the blue highways and open spaces of the United States, looking through eyes that have recently seen sights from the Bosnian meltdown to Cambodian death camps. In his book, An Empire Wilderness (Random House), he takes a fresh look at our social trials and crises: urban squalor, racial turmoil, uncertainty in Canada and Mexico, and upheaval as small-town America is wired into the global economy. Mr. Kaplan's title summarizes where America stands. "The next passage will be our most difficult as a nation," he concludes, "and it will be our last." As he drives past miles of Nebraska cornhusks, he wonders how bad it will get. "Will the forms of democracy remain while its substance decays?" he speculates. Mr. Kaplan has a keen eye for hot spots and presents a engrossing series of stories of real people slogging through the wasteland. He avoids the ham-handed optimism about the future that plagues so many commentators. The places he travels through are normally considered "flyover territory" by the major media, sites to be passed over in the clouds on flights from New York to California. It's nice that somebody considers places like St. Louis and Missoula, Montana, worth covering, even as exotica. Not that Mr. Kaplan himself, a contributing editor for Atlantic Monthly, sees things so clearly. He still burns incense for the big-government meddlers who helped create the whole mess. He condescends to the evangelicals he meets on the road, commenting that "economic uncertainty among low-wage Americans encourages religious awakening as an alternative [to ideology]." Mr. Kaplan even believes the Federal government has the right to hold 90 percent of the state of Nevada as a fiefdom of the Beltway. Small wonder this book won a jacket endorsement from Bill Clinton. Nevertheless, Empire provides provocative analysis. The shyster lawyer as hero

John Travolta has been everything from Bill Clinton to a guardian angel since his comeback. Now he is an ambulance-chasing lawyer who turns into a heroic environmental savior in the mega-hyped A Civil Action (Touchstone Pictures and Paramount Pictures; rated PG-13 for language). This guy puts his career on the skids when he jumps on a case against two big companies who dumped poisons into the water supply and allegedly killed several children. It is "based on a true story." The story, taken from Jonathan Harr's also-hyped book, is supposed to be a tale of a good shark who gives himself for others. But it doesn't work. As the Travolta character's career self-destructs, he faces off with a judge (John Lithgow) and a sinister corporate lawyer (Robert Duvall) who preen and posture like eccentric college students. Meanwhile, his partner (William H. Macy) goes nuts maniacally looking for money to pay the escalating costs of this suit. Director Steven Zaillian (who wrote the screenplay for Schindler's List) drops the ball by not presenting his actors or plot in ways that brings this morality tale together. One would expect A Civil Action to wring emotion from every step, but this movie is dry and unfocused. Scene after scene is wasted as we're told over and over that truth doesn't always win in the court system. Part of the problem is that John Travolta simply gives his stock performance, and the motivation for his character's big change is simply missing. After all, personal-injury lawyers play all sorts of cynical games to win sympathy for suffering clients; they make more money this way. He wants a big settlement, but why is he willing to lose everything for his case? Was all that effort worth it? The movie never fleshes that out. If these companies, W. R. Grace and Beatrice Foods, really caused children to die from the negligence, then they deserve punishment. A Civil Action makes this case, but doesn't effectively give the audience a reason to care.