Potemkin Villages

Potemkin Villages

Potemkin Villages

Arts, entertainment, and more.
June 15 1998 4:58 PM

Potemkin Villages

Was director Peter Weir poking gentle fun at Seaside, Fla., when he set The Truman Show there? Were the faux-neighborliness and picture-perfectness a hint that he considers the planned community, with its gingerbread cottages and white-picket fences and Yale-trained architects and grand terminology ("The New Urbanism") and grander utopian ideals, a Potemkin Village? After all, even this architectural utopia has turned out to have its downsides: onerous zoning and architectural restrictions, rules about what you can and cannot do with your garden, a general atmosphere of community-mindedness that can grate on a soul, if that soul (like Truman) starts to develop a live-free-or-die approach to things. ...

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If so, the satire has gone over viewers' heads. Seaside town officials have told the Hollywood Reporter that as soon as the movie opened, they started getting calls from tourists looking to rent one of the 270 cottages available to renters. One of the movie's producers commented, "I recall we made 'Witness' (in 1985), and the following year tourism went up 39% in Lancaster County (Pa.)." ... Which reminds Culturebox that the first maxim of movies debunking the illusion of movies is: It doesn't matter how devastating your expos, of an illusion, if the illusion's a pretty one, some people will always want a piece of it. ...

Speaking of The Truman Show: What if the Library of Congress announced an event celebrating the top 100 American novels, to be chosen from a list of 400, 95 percent of which just happened to have been published by publishing firms that had donated big money to the event? Or if the Met was to pick the 100 best American paintings, most of which were painted with Windsor and Newton oils, a major sponsor? Seem corrupt to you? So why is the American Film Institute doing the same thing with its top 100 films, to be chosen from among 400 preselected studio movies, when the sponsors are ... Warner Bros., Twentieth Century Fox, Disney, Miramax, Columbia/TriStar, MGM/UA, Paramount, Universal, Polygram, HBO, Republic Pictures, LIVE Entertainment, and Orion. And what is the stated purpose of the event, which will be broadcast on CBS and promoted by Newsweek? To stimulate video rentals. ...

And as long as we're asking annoying questions: Where are all the great films of John Cassavetes, most of which have not yet been released on video? (Shadows, which is on the list, is not one of his best--it just happens to be out on video.) Ditto for, say, a dozen great directors and long-acknowledged classics? But second-guessing the list is too easy a sport. The more important questions: Why are we selling off our greatest cultural heritage to the highest bidder? OK, OK, Culturebox understands that the dictates of the market supersede nitpicky aesthetic judgments, no matter how right they happen to be. But must we celebrate our tainted taste on television?

--Judith Shulevitz