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Weekly Alibi Cultured Clubbed

By Devin D. O'Leary

OCTOBER 12, 1998:  As we near the end of this century (and of the millennium itself), we inevitably enter a weird post-postmodern realm. Merely examining art, culture, society is no longer enough. Thanks to our hyper-conscious, trend-hopping, mile-a-minute rush to the end of the 20th century, there is no artistic movement, no intellectual thought, no TV sitcom that has not been reexamined, revived or revamped. From the art-cum-advertising of Andy Warhol through to the pop culture cannibalism of Quentin Tarantino, America has become a littered landscape of self-referential winks and self-conscious appropriations. As we near the fin de siècle, we must continue the trend, go to the next level and start examining those who do the examining. Digging into the president's sex life is old hat. Questioning Kenneth Starr's motivations just isn't enough. We're at the point at which nothing less than a Newsweek cover scrutinizing Dan Rather's coverage of Kenneth Starr's investigation into what Monica Lewinsky said she did with President Clinton will suffice.

First-time filmmaker Dan Zukovic seems to have reached a similar conclusion. His hilarious and original new film The Last Big Thing follows this trend to its logical (if insane) conclusion. Zukovic not only writes and directs the film but stars in it as Simon Geist. Geist is an enigmatic L.A.-based intellectual who has supposedly started a hip new culture magazine called The Next Big Thing. In actuality, though, The Next Big Thing doesn't exist. It's nothing more than an attractive lie. Nonetheless, Simon seeks out people in various media and tries to set up interviews with them. It's all an elaborate excuse for our post-postmodern protagonist to confront and question the creators of culture ... or just insult them if the mood strikes.

Simon's unusual "project" attracts the attentions of Darla (Susan Heimbinder), a self- effacing trust fund baby who meets the highbrow heckler "after a period of deep depression that lasted from the ages of four to 23." Darla and Simon hook up, acquire "the perfect camouflage" (a house in suburbia bought with money from Darla's rich father) and set about to expose "the most fucked-up city of the last thousand years" as the pointless, fame-obsessed fraud that it is.

Zukovic, looking like a hulking version of David Byrne, sulks his way through the role of Simon with perfect self- importance. "Zeitgeist" directly translated from the German means "spirit of the time." This character, this intellectual puzzle, this pop culture mega-critic known as Simon Geist is, literally, a spirit of his time. He is both an embodiment of the age and a pale shadow walking through its days. At first, it seems as if Simon is on to something. Certainly, rock bands with pretentious names and stand-up comics with a million weary references to '70s sitcoms are ripe targets for satire. Simon's (and Zukovic's) skewering of cheesy soap actors and clueless artists is both scabrous and funny. Eventually, though, Simon's project begins to run out of steam. He chooses a picture perfect cover model named Tendra for his final "interview." Unfortunately, Tendra turns out to be quite the intellectual herself, matching Simon's cultural musings tit-for-tat and upending his entire world view.

As a director, Zukovic seems to have a natural way with actors, wheedling believable performances from every member of his novice cast. Susan Heimbinder is quite appropriate as the starry-eyed idol worshipper who slowly finds her own intellectual voice by chronicling the rise and fall of Simon Geist's cultural excoriation. Darla's obvious love for Simon is nicely demonstrated by her growing jealousy of Tendra. At the same time, her own intellectual agenda becomes more apparent with her burgeoning self-awareness and her waning confidence in Simon.

Everyone on the planet, it seems, is looking for "the next big thing"--the next fad, the next fashion, the next Trial of the Century. What everyone's searching for, I suppose, is a convenient capper to the 20th century--an easy tombstone to mark the end of one era and the beginning of another. "Who will be the last figure of this millennium?" is a question that Zukovic's film vocalizes frequently. I don't think we're going to find one. Life is rarely accommodating enough to work around our rigid calendars. With The Last Big Thing Zukovic may not have found a window to our future world, but he has created a witty, warped and highly astringent addition to the current trainwreck known as American culture.

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