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Austin Chronicle A Potpourri of Pages

By Stuart Wade, Chris Baker, and Adrienne Martini

NOVEMBER 24, 1997:  Detailed to the point of obsession, The Highwaymen: Warriors of the Information Superhighway by Ken Auletta (Random House, hard, $27.50 hard) chronicles the aspirations of those who are currently scrambling to exploit the Internet -- CEOs of TV networks, film studios, cable giants, and publishers.

The book reprints 16 "Annals of Communication" columns Auletta wrote for The New Yorker. The articles encourage those who'll shape the Web to raise their sights. As with all Auletta writings, this book's strength is in its high level of access. Publicity-shy Rupert Murdoch grants the author a full week inside meetings, dinners, and other privileged moments. Good stuff -- and then the reader sits in on a board meeting of Viacom, Sumner Redstone's media conglomerate whose properties include Paramount, MTV, Blockbuster, Nickelodeon, and Showtime.

Unfortunately, The Highwaymen falls far short of Auletta's comparable predecessor, Three Blind Mice. An exhaustive study of the TV networks' catastrophic loss of market share during the 1980s, that book was able to lock onto the clashing philosophies between network journalists and corporate profit-making in a mature medium. That book's success was its ability to reveal the human element: the causes and effects of simple office chemistry among the TV news developers and their corporate bosses. Billed as a Three Blind Mice for the Web, this new book never seems to rise above personal quirks. In the end, The Highwaymen remains a slapped-together collection of articles.

For instance, an article about Fox/QVC impresario Barry Diller, brimming with potential insights about Diller's Web dreams, reads instead like one of those "What's on your PowerBook?" magazine ads. Another article simply doesn't belong: "What Won't You Do?" reports the self-imposed ethical limits of some presumed future Web content producers, people like NBC programmer Don Ohlmeyer: "I'd like to think network TV would put on The Civil War but I can't do that when we're in third place," or macho filmmaking duo Jerry Bruckheimer and the late Don Simpson: "We've never had a principal character in our movies that smokes." What has this stuff got to do with the Web? Ask Steven Seagal or John Landis, two more subjects of this hard-to-figure piece.

The image this book describes of the future of the Internet is both promising and depressing. After all, we've never seen a faster-growing communications medium. But the Internet "barons" are in essence TV moguls -- the same people who brought us She's The Sheriff. The Highwaymen leaves us wanting more from everybody next time around. -- Stuart Wade

Director Fritz Lang once said, "My private life has nothing to do with my films," but Patrick McGilligan's biography Fritz Lang: The Nature of the Beast (St. Martin's Press, $30 hard) disproves that statement. In recent books, McGilligan has, Kitty Kelley-like, uncovered classic Hollywood's gay underground, (George Cukor: A Double Life) and exposed Jack Nicholson's sordid family history (Jack's Life); his expertise at dishing dirt almost demands that he take the director's remark as a challenge.

Fritz Lang was a prominent figure in German silent cinema, having invented the espionage film, and was perhaps the greatest pioneer of SF/fantasy movies since Meliés. His finest epics, Der Müde Tod, the Nibelungen, and Metropolis, are orgies of visual splendor so appallingly overwrought that they flirt with true insanity. He fled Germany for Hollywood, where he spent 25 years churning out a fascinating array of B-pictures: socially progressive dramas, patriotic war adventures, bleak "adult" Westerns, and some of the most vicious noir films ever made. The critics of the French New Wave adored his American movies, especially the bad ones. Jean-Luc Godard even cast Lang as an archetypal auteur in his rereleased Contempt, now playing at the Village.

When he wasn't making movies, Lang was a debauched Continental aristocrat -- vain, womanizing, dilettantish. When he was making movies, he was a tyrant. Neither Erich von Stroheim nor Josef von Sternberg came as close to embodying the cliché of the Teutonic perfectionist who indulges his sadistic impulses on the set. Maybe Lang mistreated everyone around him to get better work out of them. Maybe he did it because he secretly hated them for coming between his pure vision and the inevitably compromised film that resulted from it. Maybe he just did it for kicks.

McGilligan gathers endless testimony from everyone who loathed Lang. (Henry Fonda, Spencer Tracy, Marlene Dietrich, etc. etc. etc. etc....). For 547 pages, an endless procession of actors storm off of sound stages, a succession of harried technicians beg to be fired, several generations of young starlets burst into tears. This quickly gets monotonous, and it doesn't really help us to understand Lang's inner life. It certainly isn't revelatory -- the tabloids of the day were full of accounts of Lang's cruelty on the set.

McGilligan repeatedly hints that Lang was not simply unpleasant, but truly evil, and that's how this book is being marketed. The author pursues this line so zealously that he occasionally strays into the shady territory of smear artists like Albert Goldman and Kitty Kelley. The one bombshell here, regarding the dubious chronology of Lang's flight from the Nazis, isn't even McGilligan's -- it was fully explored in the German press years ago. Worst of all, he never gets around to linking the beastliness of Lang to the monstrous grandeur of his films. Fritz Lang was an entertainer, but like his great rival Hitchcock, there is an element of cruelty in Lang's entertainment. In the silent era, he buffeted audiences with overpowering displays of upheaval and frenzy. (Cataclysmic anime features like Akira are the only modern equivalent.) When he could no longer secure the money for enormous sets to destroy and thousands of extras to terrorize, Lang could still brutalize the public with agonizing suspense, the shock of pain and death, and the spectacle of characters sick with dread and terror.

Lang's sensibility is perverse, but there's a refreshing integrity to it. He rejects the false catharsis of happy endings, and he rarely allows the audience to rejoice at a villain's death. Lang deeply distrusts heroism -- again and again, his protagonists are destroyed by their own obsessions and hatred. Lang's greatest masterpiece, M (the first serial killer movie ever), is as impressive for its moral complexity as it is for its technical skill. What we really need is a book that can explain how Lang could sometimes be so humane.-- Chris Baker

Sometimes, I think I know how Christ's disciples must have felt. But my message is never about the alleged son of man, nor is it related to some arcane scripture that was written hundreds of years ago. No, I feel like preaching to all far and wide when I find a book whose power hovers near the miraculous. I want to give a copy to everyone I know and make them read it right now so that we can all have the same wonderful experience and talk about it afterwards while we look for more people to convert. The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell (Ballantine, $12 paper) is one such book. While I generally avoid novels that have been the subject of as much industry buzz as this one on the grounds that they never live up to the hype, I picked up The Sparrow after a good friend approached me with a zealot's gleam in his eyes and informed me I had to read it. He was right.

Like any good work of fiction, it is difficult to sum up exactly what the book is about. If you only look at the plot, it does seem simple and fairly formulaic -- a spaceship full of people lands on a distant planet to discover more than they bargained for. Yeah, yeah, you say. Been there, bought the T-shirt. Give me more.

Russell gives the reader layer upon layer of more in this novel that is either a reason to dump all of your faith in a higher power or to fully avoid any contact with anyone who has the slightest whiff of the spiritual. Her space travelers are an eclectic group, led by two Jesuit priests, one of whom thinks he is on a mission from God and another who is an ugly dwarf from Waco with the soul of a saint. Rounding out the characters is an older, married couple, a scarred war orphan, and a genius misfit. But these descriptions only scratch the surface of Russell's complex characters. These are very smart people who end up making very human choices based on their best intentions. Nowhere in this work will you find the clichéd Heinlein space geek who always does the right thing and saves the world with his slide rule.

Russell's structure also defies attempts to pigeonhole it. Ordinarily, giving away the sad fates of most of the characters at the beginning of the book would be verboten and destroy any suspense about their lives. She makes it work and, in fact, this device makes it all more poignant when the plot plays out and you know what will happen while you remain powerless to stop it. But still you keep reading because there are more mysteries to solve than the mere plot. What has happened to this intrepid band of travelers becomes far less important than what will happen to the one who remains. Revelation about these deeper mysteries would be callous on my part as well as spoil the experience of this amazing book with my grand suppositions about what it all means. Luckily, the Ballantine edition, designed for book clubs, includes an interview with the author that does provide some nice clues, as well as providing a solid concept of her intentions.

Even without these insights, this would still be a fantastic book that easily crosses genre boundaries and should appeal to almost anyone who likes to think about faith, travel with well-constructed characters, and read fluid yet constantly clever words. -- Adrienne Martini

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