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The Drab and Dynamic in Harper's

March 13, 1987|BILL STEIGERWALD

Harper's is in its usual fine form in March, jammed with everything from an assessment by literary agent Scott Meredith of what a book from Lt. Col. Oliver North might be worth to Christopher Hitchens' testy expose of TV's surfeit of Sunday morning political chat shows (they're rigged, he says).

Perhaps most interesting, however, are two beautifully written explorations of Tijuana and Romania, foreign places that couldn't be more dissimilar. In "Across the Borders of History," Richard Rodriguez trains his acute bicultural eye on anarchic, dynamic, Americanized Tijuana, which he says is still at "the beginning of the industrial age, a Dickensian city with palm trees."

"The Erotic Stripped Bare" illuminates deepest, darkest Romania, where romance and sexuality--like punk rock and Levi's--are official no-nos. In her sympathetic memoir, Linda Mizejewski, who lived in Romania in 1984 as a Fulbright lecturer in American literature, describes the sexual tensions and alienations created in a cheerless society where all hints of passion, sensuality and sexuality have been officially eradicated by government diktat .

Drab, shortage-ridden and smothered by a stern communist ideology, Romania is a kind of anti-world to America's obsession with flash and fitness and health, she says. And though our use of sex to sell everything from cars to groceries may be absurd, "equally absurd," she says, "is a world which deliberately suggests we have no sexuality or sensuality at all. In Romania, the lack of attention to color, texture, and light is only part of a larger pattern of repressed sexuality, a conviction that the senses don't matter, that nothing needs to be beautiful, nothing needs to charm."

The Story of 'Ishtar'

In New York magazine's cover story on the making of Warren Beatty's much-anticipated comedy "Ishtar," actor Charles Grodin, who's in it, assures everyone that it's a "hilarious movie."

It may well be. But whether the public will ever get a chance to see the contemporary Hope-Crosby-type road picture starring Beatty (who reportedly got $6 million) as a nerd singer-songwriter trapped in Morocco with Dustin Hoffman, is another story. The film is a $40-million budget-buster that writer David Blum says could be either a comic masterpiece or a major disaster of the proportions of "Heaven's Gate," Michael Cimino's famous $44-million box-office bomb. The fate of "Ishtar" is in hands of director Elaine May, who's busy editing the movie for its planned May 15 release date.

As Blum redundantly demonstrates, May, though brilliant, is a difficult perfectionist who has a poor record when it comes to finishing film projects. Blum decribes how during the location filming of "Ishtar" in the Moroccan Sahara she decided she wanted to flatten a square-mile of desert, which took almost two weeks, and how she spent a day shooting the same scene 50 times. May also managed to shoot three times more film footage for her "Mikey and Nicky" (1.4 million feet) than it took for "Gone With the Wind" (475,000 feet), says Blum, whose lively, entertaining report hints that "Ishtar" will not be ready for its planned debut.

Rock & Reaganism

The parallels between working-class hero Bruce Springsteen and Ronald Reagan may not be apparent to the average rock fan. But Jefferson Morley of the New Republic believes that the coinciding careers of the Boss and the Commander in Chief have a great deal in common.

"Both have become cultural icons by giving America a reflection, a vision, of themselves," says Morley in his fine contribution to the weekly's "Rock & Reaganism" spread, which also includes an unmerciful bashing of Talking Heads leader David Byrne's work. "Both deftly use the mass media to define what is American, to present a seemingly natural but carefully molded persona with which their audience can identify. . . ."

Morley points out the paradoxes too. Springsteen is entrepreneurial, young but "cautious," a typical baby boomer; "a conservative, both temperamentally and musically (though not politically)" who confronts his "own painful memories." Reagan is old but acts young and relies on the "mythology of the past" to define his future. He's "utopian," a "hedonist" who "revels in the tumult of capitalism with little regard for its consequences."

Morley praises Springsteen--now a matured family man whose dream has come true--and generally knocks Reagan, whose dream now "has gone bad and become frightening." His politics won't please Reaganites, of course, and his tone is a little too grad-school serious, but Morley's essay is an interesting look at the relationship between politics, culture and rock 'n' roll.

The Reality of Drugs

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