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Pop Culture Nuclei #1: The 90s are coming.

July 27, 2010

The behometh ecosystem of pop culture pulses, evolves, and mesmerizes us, much like the beauty and terror in a Discovery channel circle of life nature special.  I put my bachelor degree in environmental science to good use by zooming the microscope in on the creature, to investigate the genetic code, to see what those mitochondria powerhouses are pumping out.  If we know our origin story, we can see the future coming and avoid getting smacked in the face with it, or at the very least enjoy it while its happening.

This past week I caught two movies on cable I hadn’t seen since they first were released on video, and I decided to rewatch to see if they held up.  Both movies were from the 90s, and in different ways, are what I call examples of a Pop Culture Nucleus:  a creative center that spawns other series or evolutionary lines.  Everyone knows the example of All In the Family, but there are thousands, millions more examples that deserve our careful study and analysis as pop culture scientists.

So first I’ll start with a movie about a man, a man who is a rich, charismatic, white, intelligent, narcissistic and uncaring professional, whose life is turned upside down with a devastating tragedy, causing him to reclaim his humanity and reconnect with his wife and family.  No, I’m not talking about Regarding Henry.  I’m talking about the movie that came out two weeks after that movie, The Doctor:  the quieter, indie version of the transformation story (though both falling short of The Unbearable Whiteness of Being category). William Hurt isn’t shot in the head in this movie, he just gets lung cancer and learns how terrible and scary it is to be a patient, especially one not treated like a human being.

This movie showed us how Mandy Patinkin made a great charismatic surgeon.  And Adam Arkin looked pretty good in scrubs too, so they recast him as the William Hurt character and made the pair into the David E. Kelley television show, Chicago Hope.1 Christine Lahti was promoted from wife-of-surgeon to rival-for-chief surgeon, but then a couple years into the show, Mandy left for greener pastures (he can’t be tied down!). Chicago Hope didn’t go the distance like ER, but one of its children, Grey’s Anatomy is holding the baton passed down. The Doctor also feature Elizabeth Perkins as woman made sage by her cancer, rocking the silk scarf and…..looking a lot like she does 15 years later in Weeds when her character goes through breast cancer treatment.  The movie holds up overall, the technology parts that are dated are just context, so it’s a nice time capsule of late 80s/early 90s fashion and ideas, but the stories aren’t really much different given our current healthcare system failures.  Today the movie would be called “The BlueCrossBlueShield Exec”, well, actually that would be last year, now we want the Oil Company Presidents to feel the irony and imaginary retribution in the narrative.

Next in my observational experiment is 1996’s legal thriller, Primal Fear, aka Edward Norton’s big breakout performance.

Watching it again, he’s still solid, and though the treatment of dissociative disorder is more about narrative plot convenience than reality, there are some interesting moments discussing the concept that reminded me of how they are shaping the experience in a current popular show, United States of Tara.  Wait, hold on mild SPOILERS ahead, just skip to the next paragraph if you haven’t seen this movie.  Ok, now that it’s just us:  I know there’s that twist in the end and the whole thing is an act and I can’t decide if I like that it undermines their assumptions about him being “a sick boy” who just needs help because he’s a victim, or if any of the nuances in how they talk about the issue are eradicated by them making him a sociopath who played a part, thereby intimating that people who do have dissociative personalities are all ‘crazy’.  How does it compare to say Dexter?  I think I feel much different about the Aaron character now than I did when I watched it 14 years ago, but maybe I’m giving the movie too much credit.  I welcome others’ thoughts who have sifted it out better.

Richard Gere is the lead in the film, but in Primal Fear EVERY SCENE had someone famous in it.  This movie was a filmic crossroads of actors’ careers:  Alfre Woodard as the judge!  John Mahoney (the dad from Frasier) as the Catholic representative and old Chicago guard!  Maura Tierney as Gere’s assistant and Andre Braugher as the investigator!  Frances McDormand as the psychiatrist!  Then there’s John Locke from Lost and the aforementioned Edward Norton, but the person who blew me away most this time was the performance by Laura Linney as the prosecutor.  She was sharp and biting and chainsmoking and outsmarted Richard Gere in the courtroom, which of course made him want her more.  I think her character in the new series on Showtime is the love child of her character in Primal Fear crossed with The Doctor.  OMG, MUTANT SUPER POP CULTURE NUCLEI!  I guess maybe I should watch it now, it’s for research.

Both movies surprised me in how contemporarily relevant they could still feel, and I’m positing that now that it’s officially the 00s, it’s time for 80s-nostalgia to die down and the 90s nostalgia to begin.  Hello, love, earnestness, and identity politics.  BP oil spill will be for today’s teen what the Exxon Valdez was for me, the green movement has gotten a head start, but I remember its previous 1990 revival with Earth Day 20.   We started the 90s in a recession too, I just didn’t really notice, I was too busy preparing to graduate high school and picking a college.  I will continue to investigate under the microscope the nuclei of pop culture in our times, reflect back to two decades (and beyond) to see what lessons I can glean for future planning.  All reports will be published here on Fry Butter as I go and welcome your observations from the field, too.

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1
It will probably surprise no one that I remember when both ER and Chicago Hope premiered on television (the same week!), and I decided to only watch Chicago Hope because a) I love Mandy Patinkin, b) I loved Picket Fences and wanted to see what David was doing next, and c) ER stole George Clooney away from my favorite television show, Sisters, where he played Teddy’s (Sela Ward) soulmate, and I was so mad they took away Teddy’s happiness that I mentally boycotted ER for the first few years.

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17 Comments leave one →
  1. July 27, 2010 9:02 pm

    Primal Fear was all about Richard Gere doing his best Al Pacino (with comedic results). Of course, I saw each of the flicks in the theater!

    This post is Patinkin Licking Good.

  2. July 27, 2010 9:45 pm

    I’m sure Patinkin hates blogs, but I bet he’d think ours was alright.

  3. July 27, 2010 9:57 pm

    Omg, I hope Mandy would love this blog. Fry Butter loves Mandy! Maybe he’d sing it a song.

  4. July 27, 2010 10:04 pm

    if we ever do Patinkin week, I call dibs on Yentl!!

  5. irishup permalink
    July 27, 2010 10:36 pm

    “I like that it undermines their assumptions about him being “a sick boy” who just needs help because he’s a victim, or if any of the nuances in how they talk about the issue are eradicated by them making him a sociopath who played a part…”

    I have got to see this again, but my read at the time was that BOTH things were true: abuse (maybe not the specific claim, but that he was drawing from personal experience, though I thought it was ambiguous – like he was denying this happened now because of the former) and sociopath callously trading on the assumptions. This reading had me chewin on it for WEEKS: Does a victim forfeit claims on sympathy under some circumstances? Do they cancel? How do we decide when brain diseases mean lack of culpability? Is this an acceptable consequence of “better that one guilty man go free”? I return to all of these frequently. And I still love that Norton puts those kinds of nuances into so many of his characters.

    I think Mandy loves good blogs and wishes he had more time to read them, and would get an extreme kick out of “Patinkin Lickin Good”, so much so that he would sing “I Get A Kick Out of You (FryButt)”. And this post has ME soppin the gooey buttery goodness up with my Mom’s drop-biscuits!

  6. July 27, 2010 10:49 pm

    I am rattling the same questions around in my head — I remember chewing on it for awhile when I saw it the first time, but my perspective has changed since then, so it’s compelling to untie one reaction from another. Also, the first time I saw this movie, I felt the chill of the focus on “the murderer going free” ending, but this time I was more moved by Richard Gere’s shock at having been played so thoroughly, his disillusionment caught my eye more than worrying about Aaron/Roy being out and about!

  7. July 28, 2010 10:03 am

    I enjoy watching shows and movies where future stars make their first major marks. I’m not sure how I’ve managed to miss both of these, but I’m definitely planning on watching them.

  8. July 28, 2010 10:42 am

    Oh Mandy!

  9. July 28, 2010 11:45 am

    I’m sure Kathie Lee was just itching to join in.

  10. July 28, 2010 11:52 pm

    The Cradle of Civilization is Mandypotamia.

    But I digress. And so do you!

    Seriously, I have been mulling this post over and over again and I don’t really have a brilliant retort or even an above average observation other than Primal Fear is the sort of movie where you’re supposed to think how horrible Lawyers are and how great the system is for working in spite of that.

    As for “The Doctor,” I remember the clips from it, and never saw the film. I think I was on my “Ignore the Hurt” world tour at the time. To me it’s amusing how the commercial makes the film look like a promo for a TV movie which also may have contributed to my avoidance.

  11. July 29, 2010 12:36 am

    As for “The Doctor,” I remember the clips from it, and never saw the film. I think I was on my “Ignore the Hurt” world tour at the time. To me it’s amusing how the commercial makes the film look like a promo for a TV movie which also may have contributed to my avoidance.

    A smart move. It definitely plays like a mediocre TV movie! It’s so bland and unremarkable it seems as though they gave up after realizing they were going up against a similar themed Harrison Ford vehicle.

  12. July 29, 2010 8:43 am

    It definitely plays like a mediocre TV movie!

    It’s totally the pilot episode of Chicago Hope, drawn out for 2 hours. It just took a few years for the series to get bought up.

  13. July 29, 2010 8:47 am

    also, just for context, here’s the trailer for its competitor:

    I’ll do tend to get sucked in by the Mike Nichols.

  14. July 29, 2010 9:18 am

    I won’t lie, seeing a snarky doctor get his (re: Regarding Henry) in the trailer was more satisfying than thoughts of actually sitting through the movie in the theater, which oddly enough I did.

  15. July 29, 2010 11:21 am

    I will watch anything with Laura Linney in it. She is amazing. Why hasn’t their been a Laura/Patinkin opus?

  16. July 29, 2010 10:17 pm

    The thing I love about IFMiB is that it crystallizes the errant pop culture thoughts I’ve had over the years, like the fact that Primal Fear is randomly chock full of famous people.

    I remember watching PF when it first came out and was amazed how many good and interesting actors it had, even in small roles. In particular I remember Maura Tierney popped in a lot of big movies in the 90s, Liar Liar and Primary Colors and some others I can’t remember.

    On an unrelated note, I completely forgot that George Clooney was Teddy’s boyfriend on Sisters until this post. I think Sisters is one of the only shows left (besides Wonder Years) that still hasn’t made it to DVD.

  17. July 30, 2010 12:37 pm

    I remember watching PF when it first came out and was amazed how many good and interesting actors it had, even in small roles. In particular I remember Maura Tierney popped in a lot of big movies in the 90s, Liar Liar and Primary Colors and some others I can’t remember.

    It has a pretty stellar cast in what is largely a paint-by-the-numbers courtroom thriller. Still, there are very few disappointing performances. I’m not sure who to thank for that. I love Gere but he tends to play two types of characters: Loud or Quiet. Within those types he is usually: thoughtful, charismatic, seductive or earnest. I like his character in Pretty Woman (quiet, seductive, somewhat earnest), despite not being absolutely dazzled by the film itself. In PF, he’s playing a Loud, charismatic, seductive litigator and unless he’s being accompanied by a show tune, this character tends to be really boring in his hands.

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