Satire strikes image-conscious media

By Doug Cummings

Arizona Daily Wildcat

Media satires are strangely popular with Hollywood, particularly when, like with last year's ridiculous "Natural Born Killers," they can serve to sensationalize as well as satirize.

"To Die For," the new black comedy from acclaimed director Gus Van Sant ("My Own Private Idaho") is thankfully not a film that purports to criticize and then loses itself in its own embellishment, but manages to be straightforward, "realistic," and sharply funny.

The film stars Nicole Kidman as Suzanne Stone, a dull-witted, busty blonde with an obsession for a future in broadcasting. She interrupts family conversations about someone else in order to draw attention to herself, she forces her way into interviews, and she shudders at the thought of becoming a mother with her new husband, Larry. Stone is a person obsessed with her own image and professionalism, exuding self-consciousness in everything she does.

Stone is also a narrator of sorts, appearing every so often to recount the film's events leading up to its violent conclusion. As a matter of fact, the film is structured around three lines of narratives that connect and intertwine together like a storytelling braid: Stone's monologue, a documentary interviewing the associates and personal acquaintances of Stone, and the objective depiction of the film itself. The effect is a perspective that is always shifting and characters who suddenly appear in close-up talking directly to the audience. But like Norman Bates in "Psycho," the audience becomes uncomfortable with the characters' direct familiarity.

The story follows Stone as she formulates an idea for a story that she thinks will lead her to fame and fortune. She begins a series of interviews with three down-and-out teenagers at a local high school, quizzing them on video about their sex lives, their dreams, and their hardships. The teenagers begin to see Stone as their ideological savior, and fall into a sordid relationship with her infused with sex, lies, and videotape.

Nicole Kidman's performance is effectively disturbing. Her performance is laced with enough self-consciousness to make the audience squirm. She winks and poses her way through her monologues like someone flirting with herself in a mirror. She's obviously in love with herself, because she's on TV, and the amazing self-reverence she exudes is both provocative and insulting.

However, director Van Sant is able to invest true emotions in the film through its peripheral characters. The unfortunate teenagers are the true victims in the tragic circumstances. They exist as depressed outsiders isolated from the critical adult world who completely buy the ideology Stone is selling. "You aren't anybody in America if you're not on TV," Stone intones. "Because what's the point of doing anything worthwhile if nobody's watching?" The teenagers reach for success through Stone's sensationalistic promises and only find destructive failure as a result.

But the film plays for extremes and as such, manages to succeed as an often hilarious, always pointed satire. The film, like the doomed teenagers, plays everything according to Stone's rules, but exposes the insidious deception in its image conscious lies.

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