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Society of Spectacle

Whether it's a case of synchronicity, or just a fluke brought on by a lack of new ideas, 1998 saw the release of two films about the disco era (The Last Days of Disco, 54), two big-budget, asteroid disaster movies (Deep Impact, Armageddon) and two World War II epics directed by filmmakers weaned on Vietnam, Steven Spielberg (Saving Private Ryan) and Terence Malick (The Thin Red Line, to be released in Detroit on Jan. 15).

Bubbling underneath the surface is a less obvious trend, but one that speaks to the specific sensibility of our media-saturated age. Some of 1998's best films deal directly with the psychologically complex relationship between what an artist creates and what fans glean from the work.

Gods and Monsters is the most heartfelt tribute to a movie director since Tim Burton's Ed Wood (1994), although their subjects couldn't be more different. Writer-director Bill Condon -- who adapted Christopher Bram's novel Father of Frankenstein -- opts out of a standard biopic, instead placing filmmaker James Whale in a fictionalized context. This allows Condon the creative freedom to create James Whale in part from life, in part from his own reactions to Whale's films, fusing the real and the imagined into a potent creative amalgam.

This is the same approach that Todd Haynes takes in the glam-rock epic, Velvet Goldmine. There are recognizable bits of musicians David Bowie, Iggy Pop, Bryan Ferry and Brian Eno in the outlandish characters, yet Haynes chooses not to tell their stories directly, but shows how their music and envelope-pushing lifestyles affected their young fans. One character -- a glam fan turned reporter -- provides a Citizen Kane-like investigative structure that reveals glam's intoxicating allure while keeping its glitterati at a proper distance.

Even the films that dealt with television were about the viewers' responses to TV programs. In Pleasantville, two 1990s teenagers find themselves beamed into a 1950s family sitcom. The simplistic world that they are transported into -- first metaphorically then literally -- is divorced from the often jarring complexities of the show's creators.

What's left for television viewers of subsequent generations is an impossibly idealized image of family life as the ultimate source of comfort, nourishment and wisdom. The immense irony behind The Truman Show is that television itself has come to function as an electronic umbilical cord, serving as a parent for Truman Burbank, who in turn becomes like a family member for millions of viewers raptly watching his ultranormal existence.

The Truman Show deals with the waning days of the fictitious popular program, when Truman begins to realize that nothing -- from his hometown to his friends -- is real. The audience reaction within the film is telling, and indicative of the like-minded attitude of these media-conscious movies of 1998. As Truman struggles to find his way out of the box, which he now understands is an elaborate and false construct, his fans cheer his escape, even though they realize that it means the end of the show.

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