2014: The First Annual Only Culture Awards That Matter

This year, like every year, I consumed a bunch of #content. Less than usual, and far fewer books than usual, as I have trouble committing to a long read when I’m finishing up my own. I saw roughly half as many movies as I did in 2013, which actually led to less disappointment than usual when the year-end lists informed me that eight of the 10 best films came out for critics in December.

MOVIES!
Best movie: Boyhood. I’m inclined to like every Richard Linklater movie, so it was awfully polite of him to make an absorbing classic.
Best movie-within-a-movie: Dune, as envisioned by crazy people in Jodorowsky’s Dune.
Best dystopia: The frozen world of Snowpiercer, everything from the roach-jelly that feeds proles to the psychotic elementary school to the machines run by tiny children. (Runner-up: Whatever the hell happens in the last act of The Congress.)
Best dopplegangers: A tie between the ideal couple in The One I Love and the parallel dinner-partiers in Coherence.
Best Angela Merkel joke: Her appearance in the credits montage of witches in Las Brujas de Zugarramurdi. (The Spanish ain’t happy with her.)
Best miniatures: A tie between The Grand Budapest Hotel and The Lego Movie.
Most jarring use of Ken Burns footage: The dust bowl scenes in Interstellar, which ground the famine-plagued future with interviews of real Okies. Nolan really gave away his source there.
Best sociopath (male): Nightcrawler‘s Lou Bloom, a criminal who’s terrifyingly good at applying self-help language to his manipulations and wanton destruction.
Best sociopath (female): Amy Dunne, the titular Gone Girl.
Worst fake journalist: Gone Girl‘s Ellen Abbott (Missy Pyle), a Nancy Grace stand-in who ruins a man’s reputation and tries to make up for it with the gift of a four-legged robot.
Best use of bluetooth: Ivan Locke (Tom Hardy), in Locke.
Worst sex: The endless S&M of Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg) and K (Jamie Bell) in the second chapter of Nymphomaniac.
Best music cue: “Real Gone Kid” by Prefab Sprout, which plays just as Under the Skin is shedding its plot dynamics and Scarlett Johanson’s alien has decided to try out humanity, and fail at it. The song gets her tapping her hand to the rhythm in a way that makes her seem more alien than ever.
Worst music cue: “Tusk” in Tusk, Kevin Smith’s attempt to ruin a great Fleetwood Mac song by associating it with fighting men in walrus costumes.
Worst science: Lucy, which not only relies on the myth that humans have yet to tap 90 percent of their brains, but gives Morgan Freeman a serious-sounding expository lecture about that “fact.”
Worst use of Kickstarter: Zach Braff’s Wish I Was Here.
Best song by a fake band: “I’ll Have to Dance With Cassie” by God Help the Girl. Listen and agree:

(Runners up: “Hate the Sport,” by the adorable kids of We Are the Best! and “I Love You All,” by Frank and the Sonopofprbs.)
Best supervillain: Neville Love (Ben Mendelsohn), the Starred Up prisoner whose efforts to protect his equally evil son are not stymied by physics, or timing, or logic.
Worst supervillain: Thanos (Josh Brolin) in Guardians of the Galaxy. Look: I’m a huge goddamn nerd and can quote back parts of the “Infinity Gauntlet” arc. But in the movieverse, so far, Thanos has 1) grinned, 2) glowered, and 3) fallen for the old “instead of delivering this powerful item to you I will steal it and defeat you!” rumble.
Worst action hero: Ford Brody (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), who gives us very little to root for in Godzilla. If you’re going to kill off Brian Cranston, don’t replace him with a stack of cardboard.
Best action hero: Groot, duh.
And if I was assigning Oscars by diktat, I’d hand ’em to Julianne Moore (yes, Still Alice is Oscar bait, but it’s devastating thanks to her), David Oyelowo (for Selma), and Patricia Arquette (for Boyhood). Haven’t seen Whiplash, which all the smart kids say J.K. Simmons is perfect in.

MUSIC!
Best mash-up:
Did mash-ups stop being cool? I haven’t heard one at a party in ages. Your loss, humanity: 2 Mello’s Final Fantasy (The 3-6 Chambers) was a complete masterpiece.
Best progressive album: Peter Hammill & Gary Lucas’s Other World. Hammill can really do no wrong, but the ambient guitar sounds brought something fresh and distracting to his music.
Best hip-hop album that isn’t Run the Jewels: Freddie Gibbs & Madlib’s Piñata.
Worst progressive album: Pink Floyd, The Endless River.
Best cover song: Bryan Ferry’s “Johnny and Mary,” a synthtastic pop hit transformed into a slow roasting ballad.

Best supergroup: The Both, the collaboration between Aimee Mann and Ted Leo that produced some of their best music in years, as well as a gripping, friendly live show.
Best concert: See above — 930 Club, earlier this year.
Best music video: The masses are right: Sia’s Chandelier kicked everything else in the ass, and hard.

Most lifelike robot: St. Vincent.

BOOKS! (Mostly COMICS!)
Best flesh-eating monsters: Not The Walking Dead‘s stalwarts; instead, I got way too into the horrifying sex-crazed civilization-destroyers of Crossed.
Best space opera: Jeff Lemire’s Trillium.
Most confounding creator: Between East of West, Manhattan Projects, and God is Dead, I have no idea what the hell Jonathan Hickman is doing. Yet I keep reading.
Best biography: Different All the Time, Marcus O’Dair’s comprehensive life story of Robert Wyatt. A real tonic, and a real reminder to stop slacking on my own history of progressive rock.

“Dare” (1990)

Every time they put up another statue of Ronald Reagan, the Anglosphere’s memory of the 1980s gets a little more schizo. In this country, the 1980s are generally agreed upon as a boomtime. Our president from that time is the only one that Republicans like to talk about, and boy, do they ever talk about him. Idea getting trashed? Mention what Reagan would have done. Nobody taking you seriously? Locate a picture of yourself seating across the aisle from Reagan.

This must be so alien to Brits. Their conservative icon, the one who waged victorious small war in the Atlantic and broke the unions into pieces, is a completely reviled pop figure. In my short time in England — admittedly, it was the apogee of New Labour — no one ever would have thought of popularizing some idea by connecting it to Thatcher. Her name meant the poll tax (“a tax on being alive”) and manufactured poverty.

Why does this matter? If you pull lots of comics from the bargain bins, as I like to, you find 1980s classics limned with political references, and only half of them still resonate. The British half. Anti-Reagan jokes make no sense anymore. Ah, but the many, many stories about fascist Britain — Thatcher satire! We all get it.

Grant Morrison’s “Dan Dare,” which I read in a collection of Rian Hughes-illustrated comics, is a classic example of the Thatcher-as-social-disorder story. Batman got a grim-and-gritty future, and thanks to Morrison, so does Dan Dare, a space age relic who was constantly at war with Venusians and Martians. In Morrison’s hands, Dare is a sort of Hindenburg figure. The German president, not the blimp. Crippled and bitter, slogging through a memoir (“I’m not a writer,” he mopes), he agrees rather quickly to help Prime Minister Gloria Monday — our Thatcher manque! —  as the public face of her desperate election campaign. “We just need five more years to implement our program,” she says. When [SPOILER] she wins, it’s her “unprecedented fourth term.” That’s what Thatcher would have won if she hadn’t been ousted the year this comic came out.

I should step back: I am not trashing this. “Dan Dare” is an absorbing read, largely thanks to Hughes. This was my first extended exposure to his art, after noticing it and liking it on some posters. It’s perfect — it evokes the 50s serial and the 60s cartoon, and jars horrifyingly with the stuff Morrison gives him.

Morrison gives him a plot. This is a far more structured story than “Arkham Asylum” (which made him) or “Flex Mentallo” (his first, perfect work of superhero surrealism). Dare is pathetic, but the elements of heroism crackle in his brain, and he shakes himself out of a TV stupor to realize how horrible things have gotten. As he explores his doubts about PM Monday, he’s given a tour of northern England, all food lines (“some of them have been waiting for days,” says his guide) and abandoned art deco. He flashes back to the massacre he participated in against some helpless Treens, the civilization of northern Venus ruled by the Mekon. (The mega-brained Mekon, later ripped off by Marvel AND D.C. for their own genius-floating-on-a-chair characters, rules the Treens and wars against Earth and Dare.) He uncovers the secret that Monday has been hiding from Britain, and without spoiling it I can say it’s an early, potent example of how Morrison taps Freudian sexual paranoia for sci-fi twists.

This is minor Morrison, much more nakedly political than you could ever imagine him getting in this decade, but it works. All credit to Hughes: It’s easy to hack out a future dystopia, but his looks like all the toys a 50s whiz kid with play with, after he got bored and left them peeling in the rain.

 

A Few Words About This Blog

That would be a few more words than have appeared on this blog lately, right? So, what happened was this: Like many twentysomething white male Americans who live in the 202 area code, I became a devotee of Twitter sometime in early 2009. I’d joined in 2008, mostly to suggest things to do to friends, and to be on the early alert for the things they were suggesting. But @daveweigel turned into its own beast, and right now I have 6000-odd people reading my scattered and random and brief thoughts on, like, whatever.

I saw this coming. I intended this blog to become a clearinghouse for lists and short, stream-of-consciousness reviews of books and movies. For a little while last year, it was! And while it’s too late into 2010 to make a “resolution” out of this, that’s my plan, to turn this into a clearinghouse for the pop culture side of my life. That’s still the plan! I’ve just moved to a new place in DC, just put together a new TV-and-directTV-and-DVD setup, and almost finished putting together bookshelves. So expect some related content.

Way of the Packrat

When I return home — and it’s less and less often these days, despite the difference — I become aware of something awful, something that I otherwise try and blot out. That something is my genetic inability to throw something away. I know I have it, because I see it at home.

I know how it started. For many years we lived in the same home. I lived in that home for 16 years. In 1998 we packed up everything we had and moved to England. In 2000, we moved back with more stuff. We had an intra-house move in England, too, but that didn’t seem as important as the continental moves. Because we never quite put our stuff back in the proper place.

This all became obvious to me in 2008, when, after leaving my last job, I used some of my time off to start cleaning our basement. There were mysterious boxes down there, stuff labeled and re-labeled until no one quite knew what they contained. I ripped open about a dozen of them. I found many, many magazines, many items of clothing, and some proportion of them ruined by nine years of dampness. A proud collection of two years of “Q” magazines, melted and mildewed. Same for an old suit. There were great discoveries, like an old James Dobson book on the proper brutalization of childen. But the chief revelation was this: We had a lot of bullshit, and we had it on the theory that at some point, our aging bodies and maturing minds would return to it. We would use some part of our remaining time on earth to check out an old magazine article or an old book.

At the time, I had a revelation about how digital media had changed much of this. It’s the same revelation you had around 2002 or so. But it really got to me this time. Historical items, family items, are worth keeping. A blouse that you got as a gift, or an old drawing, or an old political sign — all keepers. That means that 90-odd percent of the stuff we had we could lose forever, and never care.

I thought of this again just now. I went out for a run before dinner, listening to my iPod, which I keep in a bright green case for protection and for visibility. Getting ready to settle in and read after we’d watched some movies (“Taken” and “Al Franken: God Spoke”) I realized that I had no fucking idea where it was. I had moved maybe 20 yards since I returned from the run, to a kitchen to a living room to a den to the bedroom. At some point, I absent-mindedly put my iPod down. But where? There were endless piles of clutter that could have obscured it underneath. It was dark. It was late. I couldn’t find it, nor did I want to waste too much time trying. And as I poked through one of the two rooms of the house rendered pretty much unusable thanks to piles of clothes and books and magazines and (for fuck’s sake) VHS tapes, I realized that this was symptomatic of a big problem. I had the urge then and there to just start piling old, ugly clothes into garbage bags and throwing them out.

I stopped. I realized that most people don’t stop. It’s obvious to them when it’s time to junk an old pair of boxers (one, that I can’t believe hadn’t been tossed, had an elastic waistband that broke in 2002 at the most recent). It’s not obvious to me/us.

Speaking only for myself, there are two reasons for this. One is misplaced environmentalism. I don’t like the idea of our crap building into a landfill somewhere. This is rather less ridiculous than my refusal to flush a toilet unless it’s been used for multiple excretions. (This has become an accidental advantage as people tour the house I rent, looking to buy it.) It’s still ridiculous. It’s responsible for a short hesitation that becomes an indefinite one.

The second reason is sentimentality. I have a terrific recall for event and place. I remember when and where I bought most every CD or DVD or book I own, and most items of clothing. I do pause before junking a shirt that came from a high street in Guildford, or a book received at Christmas back in 1997. My family has never taken many photos. The stuff is what we have, connections to place and time and one another.

I hate living like this. I have been kicked out of at least one house because of my messiness. I had a girlfriend whose last comments to me (give or take a few) were about how my room “smelled like dirty laundry.” It probably did. But I have a weak sense of smell, especially in winter, and I can’t tell that sort of thing. And I have trouble keeping all my clothes in order because my life, my room, are deluged with papers and books and movies.

It’s funny that I wrestle with this problem instead of trying to solve it. I have a friend, Erin Doland, who *wrote a fucking book* about uncluttering. I have a friend, Chris Chandler, who has one of the most extensive collections of video games on the planet, occupying an entire basement, and it’s better put together than any room of any house I’ve ever lived in.

One excuse I give myself is that I am constantly forced to move houses. Probably next year I’ll have to move houses within DC again. It’s not fun or rewarding to keep on buying organizing materials when I know they’ll clash at the next place. I have proven able to trash a few boxes of things every time I move.

What Ezra and John Said

Back in May (May? God, yeah, May.) I succumbed to the excitement of “Infinite Summer” and started reading David Foster Wallace’s “Infinite Jest,” alongside several thousand people generally and this person in particular. I got 185 pages in, and then got sucked into the pedestrian drama of moving housing. I haven’t really touched the book since. I haven’t wanted to. I’ve read a novel and a nonfiction book and some comics, and I’ve seen some movies, but I don’t care if I pick up “Infinite Jest” again.

Which leads us to Ezra Klein.

It’s not that I don’t want to finish Infinite Jest. It’s not that I don’t enjoy reading Infinite Jest. It’s that I don’t have time for Infinite Jest. But this is not a book that takes the opportunity cost of the reader seriously. In my other life, I write 15 blog posts a day and a weekly interview column and a twice-monthly food column. I need to read books on the Federal Reserve and papers about obesity and CBO scores. I don’t want to be the sort of person who doesn’t have the time to read a long and serious and difficult novel. But I am that sort of person. And it is not as if Infinite Jest richly rewards every sentence read or page finishing. It is not taut and there is little forward motion. I can’t shake the feeling that DFW is wasting a lot of my time. But at this point, I can’t tell which bits are actually unnecessary, and which just feel that way.

Right. Allow me to pull an Alan Partridge and suggest that this book, which many smart people enjoy (I know people who’ve read it twice!) is a piece of shit. David Foster Wallace was a brilliant man who didn’t have a lot to say, and God help me, on this I agree with John Ziegler.

It has been often said that there is a fine line between genius and insanity. I believe that is indeed true. But I also believe that there is an equally fine line between real genius and just plain weirdness. In my experience, Wallace had very little of the former, so he exaggerated the latter. In fact, his only real genius may have been his ability to understand that if the right people want to think that you are a genius, they will give you the benefit of the doubt when deciding on which side of that line you fall. It is therefore far better to be weird and thought, at worst, to be “too smart for the room,” than to play it straight and be revealed as a “one hit wonder” or even a total fraud.
I’m unconvinced that Wallace had much to offer the world, or to me, in this novel. Will I finish reading it? I may not, and may instead concentrate on my own writing, or on reading better and more useful books. Wallace could write short fiction (this story, while cloying, is immediately unforgettable) but had no business pretending he could write a novel.

Fund Fund Fund

Let’s talk about smart people. For a while, I thought I was one. I was one of the smarter kids in my high school classes, as long as we define high school of a series of classrooms in which everything is taugh but math. I had to work hard, sure, and do lots of dull memorization to pick things up, but I got good grades, and befriended the people who go better grades, and they would have been able to spot a phony.

College was less satisfying; I was meeting people in the tip-top percentile of intellect, and I clearly was just a little bit below that. Washington has treated me much the same way, as I’ve met the people who are, indisputably, the best there is at what I do. (There are times I feel like the best-trained ninja going up against Wolverine in a Frank Miller splash page.)

Still, that test of the others – being accepted or not being accepted by the people you know are smart – is proving pretty useful. After two-and-a-half years in the libertarian sphere, after wondering why my brilliant friends like* Katherine Mangu-Ward and Julian Sanchez and Kerry Howley and Will Wilkinson had been invited to Liberty Funds, I wondered why I was not.

A word about Liberty Fund. It’s a program set up by nice, big libertarian endowments that brings libertarians together to talk about economics and philosophy.

So: My friends were going to these things, and not me. I assumed, in December, that I was more of a reporter than a philosopher, and that was that. In January, that changed: I was invited to a LF about public choice theory. That’s how I spent this past weekend.

Thoughts? It’s a good program, executed well, and so intellectually challenging that I wonder how I spend my time in Washington again. There is really nothing like hunkering down for 90 minute stretches to convince a room of smart people that, no, really, you and you alone have the right idea for a majoritarian government reform that would stave off the tyranny of faction.

*one way you can tell they’re smart is that they say “such as” instead of “like” in the right places

Wrapped Up in Books I: Alternadad

When I turned 27 I resolved to do something I’d resolved to do when I turned 26: Keep a log of the books I read. I find it awfully difficult to recall, instantly, from stuff I’ve read unless I’ve written something down.

So, Book One of my 27th year:

I started reading Pollack seven years ago, when he was still living in Philadelphia, writing for McSweeney’s, and writing stories as a fictional version of himself who had become (in his own mind) America’s Greatest Living Writer. He had a blog where the mask slipped, but only slightly, and he could excoriate left-wingers and right-wingers at the moment when they got the most ridiculous (see “Iraq War, the”).

Anne Lamott, shut up.

And so on. Little did I know that Pollack was expecting a baby boy, that he would move his new family to Austin, and that he would make the leap from “writer that NPR listeners like” to “writer that NPR listeners will buy tickets for at a reading inside a major university” with a book about the mundane wackness of child-rearing. In Alternadad (published a while ago) Pollack drops character and writes movingly about falling in love, buying a home, and raising his son Elijah. His wife loses interest in her artwork. Their son is denied access to a wonderful school and stuck inside one that only looks fit on the surface. There is joy, as Elijah discovers and enjoys some of the music Neal likes. There is tragedy, as father and son join a cultish gymnastics class. There is more tragedy, as the neighborhood the family has moved into is slowly revealed to be a John Carpenter nightmare. But there’s mostly a lot of humor and hope and delirious baby talk.

If I were a young man I’d resent Pollack for no longer being the type of guy who cracks wise about poets and becoming the type who blogs at Parents.com. But I don’t resent him, of course. This is a deeply funny book, touching and wincingly honest, and if there are imitators out there I’d like to read them.

Quick recommendation

Over the course of one work out and one round-trip Metro ride, I started and finished Chuck Klosterman’s “Killing Yourself to Live.” Hell of a book, and Klosterman’s first with an honest-to-God narrative instead of assorted, disjointed ramblings. (The ramblings are still there, but they particularly concern locations and women Klosterman encounters and they’re actually sorted.)

Speaking of journalism: When using a tape recorder, the odds of being seating right next to (or in front of) a person with breathing problems and/or allergies approach 1:1.

Two books

Shah of Shahs by Ryszard Kapuscinski
A Godly Hero: The Life of William Jennings Bryan by Michael Kazin

Two excellent and very different books here. Kapuscinski’s story of revolutionary Iran is brilliantly put together. In part one, he sifts through his notes and photos to reconstruct the buildup of the Shah’s power over 70 years. In part two, he follows the actions of a few characters in the 1979 revolution. There’s some repetition in this latter section, but I won’t complain – I was glued to this book, finished it in two hours.

Kazin’s biography of the Democratic presidential contender/cartoon character is also well done – less dry and preachy than I expected from the author or the subject. The lion’s share of the story covers Bryan’s rise to prominence up to his failed 1908 presidential campaign. Bryan lived for another 17 years after that, serving as Secretary of State and arguing against evolution in the Scopes trial. The latter event has basically eclipsed Bryan’s reputation, but Kazin puts it in the context of a life devoted to well-meaning demogoguery and populism.

Mild-mannered gate-crashers

I made the wise decision to drop by a DC “launch” event for Markos Moulitsas and Jerome Armstrong’s “Crashing The Gate” tonight. There would be pictures – and good ones! – but for the fact I forgot my camera on an endtable and noticed the loss when I was already well on my way. My best chance to post a picture of Markos Moulitsas and Byron York in the same room is lost. I’m dealing with that.

The main event was a very long 68 minutes. (I showed up about 5 minutes late after some terrible disaster shut down my train at the Foggy Bottom Station. Enough rubbing it in, George Mason.) Simon Rosenberg methodically interviewed Kos and Armstrong, both of whom answered without much joking around. Since I read CTG twice for an upcoming review, I didn’t learn much, although the two authors’ take on blogs is quite a bit different than you’d expect. Armstrong sees blogs as organizing tools, vis a vis old-school neighborhood politics. Moulitsas hates the term “blog” – “if I used a telephone, would you call me a telephoner?” – and sees blogs as just another kind of political writing.

The one really amusing moment came after a question about why the right wing hasn’t built an infrastructure like the liberal blogosphere. Moulitsas said it was because their system was working fine, and they were winning – and then he recognized Byron York, the National Review hotshot and author of “The Vast Left-Wing Conspiracy.” “Hi, Byron!” said Kos. “Byron York, of National Review Online.” (The last three words were half-sneered, half-smirked.) York, unsmiling, raised his hand and waved. But York never really smiles, so don’t read much into that.

I wasn’t thrilled, overall, but it was worth coming to mill around afterwards. In a few minutes I met plenty of people I’d interviewed or e-mailed over the years – Tim Tagaris, Matt Stoller, Teacherken, to name a few I can link to. When the throng moved to Buffalo Billiards I met Oliver Willis and The Nation’s fantastic reporter Ari Berman. This would be a far, far more interesting post if I could divulge the silly things they said or how rotten they were in the flesh. Sorry; they were all fine people and you should really buy them drinks sometime.