Spectator: Are Beavis and Butt-head Arty?

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When haven't the dons and high-culture fogies complained that culture is in decline? The pronouncement is always delivered with a mixture of fretfulness and self-congratulation: Americans aren't interested in Shakespeare, won't listen to Stravinsky -- and it's because of television, Hollywood, all the meretricious easy-access audiovisual crud. In fact, a strain of cerebral artiness is suddenly proliferating in the mainstream, a funny autodeconstruction that in the past decade has moved from European literature (Italo Calvino's If on a Winter's Night a Traveler), to West End theater (Michael Frayn's Noises Off), to quality American pop: it is at the core of The Larry Sanders Show on HBO, MTV's Beavis and Butt-head and the new Arnold Schwarzenegger vehicle, Last Action Hero. Such a fin-de-siecle moment: Schwarzenegger, the son of an Austrian Nazi, starring in a $70 million special-effects action blockbuster that owes everything to a brilliant avant- garde 1921 play by Luigi Pirandello, the Italian Fascist.

In Pirandello's Six Characters in Search of an Author, the dramatis personae from an incomplete play burst into the "real" world, where they persuade a company of actors to re-create key scenes from their fictitious lives, provoking gunplay and an onstage debate about theatrical reality. In Last Action Hero, Jack Slater, the Schwarzenegger character from the movie-within- the-movie, bursts into the "real" world, where he encounters the actor Schwarzenegger, provokes gunplay and has an on-camera discussion of cinematic reality.

The movie parodies explode-o-matic thrillers and yet, unlike the Hot Shots! Part Deux school of pure movie lampoons, tries also to be an earnest explode- o-matic thriller. It is a very fine line. "Every moment of every day," says screenwriter Shane Black, of working on the script with his partner David Arnott, "we looked at each other and said, 'This isn't Naked Gun.' " Black, who wrote Lethal Weapon and The Last Boy Scout, says, "I hate action movies," but he also maintains that the new film is "a heartfelt example" of the genre. Sort of. For instance, the villainous android-cop from Schwarzenegger's Terminator 2 appears in a cameo. At another point, Slater/ Schwarzenegger unwittingly delivers the Terminator's famous salutation, "I'll be back." "You always say that," his boy companion replies.

Now that everyone's a postmodernist, even a straightforward summer megahit has moments of wry distance from itself: in Jurassic Park, a shot of merchandise at the Jurassic Park gift shop gets laughs from audiences aware that Jurassic Park toys and bubble bath are already on store shelves.

In TV the winks range from the casual and occasional (network newswomen appearing as themselves on Murphy Brown) to the deadpan crypto-real (on Seinfeld, comedian Jerry Seinfeld plays a comedian named Jerry, and in one episode he makes a Seinfeldish TV pilot) to the relentlessly ironic (David Letterman satirizing his program, his genre, the entire medium). Letterman will appear as himself next month on The Larry Sanders Show, which is Garry Shandling's spot-on comedy about a fictitious late-night network talk program called The Larry Sanders Show. In the episode, Sanders is beaten out by Letterman for an award, then tries to find out from him who CBS is hiring to be host of the talk show that will follow Letterman's -- an actual job Shandling himself may actually take. The fake Letterman-Sanders encounter was filmed at a real TV awards ceremony where the real Shandling had presented an award to the real Letterman.

Larry Sanders' "real life" is shot on film, his talk show on videotape. The media seams in MTV's Beavis and Butt-head are both more and less stark. The title characters are animated figures, a pair of teenage slackers (imagine Wayne and Garth desentimentalized), but the live-action Faith No More and Aerosmith videos interlarded with Beavis and Butt-head's pro-and-con commentaries ("For a big muscular dude he sure sings like a wuss") are nothing if not cartoonish. "There are moments of self-parody on MTV," says MTV creative director Judy McGrath, "but most of them are unintentional." This may be the bravest show ever run on national television: it lampoons not just the performers who are the channel's raison d'etre, but mercilessly depicts MTV's dopey, antisocial, suburban-boy audience. And what do the living, breathing Beavises and Butt-heads of America think of the caricature? It is MTV's most popular show by far, with ratings at least twice as high as those of plain old irony-free music videos.