Monthly Archives: January 2009

Updike Fan Bids Id Adieu

Photo by John McNab at Flickr, licensed via Creative Commons

Photo by John McNab at Flickr, licensed via Creative Commons

John Updike’s death yesterday has spawned numerous tributes bemoaning the void he leaves on the literary landscape. I will not add to those, save to note that what I think we are all really mourning is a kind of literary life, of which Updike may have been the last great practitioner. There used to be a time in American letters (or so it seems in retrospect) when a writer could flow easily between novels, short story collections, nonfiction books, and magazine articles. Or maybe only Updike himself could manage that juggling act.  For the past half century, Updike’s prodigious output included roughly a book a year and articles and short stories for many magazines, including 800 bylines in the New Yorker. While he’ll be best remembered for his novels of suburban ennui and adultery, he stretched easily to other topics, from baseball to fine art, from witchcraft to third-world politics.

Along the way, he attracted criticism (some deserved) that he had no business, as a WASPy Harvard alumnus, to appropriate the narratives of characters from backgrounds distant from his own. His imagination may occasionally have failed him, but as an artist, he certainly had the right to try. Literature is about empathy, and like Terence, Updike found nothing human was alien to him.

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Filed under Books, In Memoriam

Awaiting a Matt Damon-William Kristol Smackdown

Photo by Siebbi on Flickr, licensed via Creative Commons

Photo by Siebbi on Flickr, licensed via Creative Commons

Any doubt that political punditry has now turned into pro wrestling should be dispelled by William Kristol’s challenge to debate Matt Damon for calling him an idiot on such issues as the Iraq War — not to mention new blog Big Hollywood‘s offer to bankroll the $100,000 cage match. (How will they come up with the money? I smell another unfunded mandate.) As entertaining as it would be to see the two Harvard-educated experts engage in erudite repartee, it sounds like a lose-lose for both of them. If Kristol gets whupped, he’s lost a political debate to the guy who made Stuck on You; if he wins, well, big deal, he’s beaten the guy who made Stuck on You. If Damon (pictured) loses, he looks like a typical know-nothing Hollywood actor for his initial remarks, but if he wins, he’s only beaten a guy mercilessly ridiculed in the left blogosphere for being so wrong about everything all the time that even the New York Times let him go with an unceremonious don’t-let-the-door-hit-you-on-the-way-out notice on Monday. (Moments later, Kristol landed a new sinecure at the Washington Post. Like the Weekly Standard editor/Fox News contributor needs another outlet for his underexposed opinions? Dude’s got more platforms than Elton John.) Damon should let this double-dog-dare slide (if he’s even aware of it) and go back to making kick-ass spy thrillers and recording Howard Zinn audiobooks.

The reaction over at Big Hollywood is instructive. The site, which launched earlier this month, seems to want to be the conservative answer to the Huffington Post (a mix of celebrities, political experts, and people no one’s ever heard of, all opining on pop culture and politics), but it clearly has disdain for the opinions of most celebrities, and so do the 1,100-plus people who’ve commented on the Kristol-Damon item so far. The Big Hollywood bloggers see themselves as an embattled minority within liberal Hollywood (shouldn’t they call themselves “Little Hollywood,” then?), even as they claim Hollywood’s biggest successes as their own (Did you know The Dark Knight was a right-wing parable about supporting the Bush War on Terror? Neither did I.) while dismissing the folks who actually have lucrative gainful employment in Hollywood as out-of-touch liberals whose propaganda fails to move the populace. (Obama fan Tom Hanks, you’re no everyman — unless you decide to make Forrest Gump 2: Gump Harder.) They think the marketplace should favor conservative movies, but since that’s not happening, they’d apparently like some quotas in their favor. They don’t understand why, if the market is the ultimate arbiter of what’s art, the marketplace is so full of movies that pander to the lowest common denominator and promote ideals that make family values conservatives aghast. And of course, they don’t realize that, if their supposedly deep thinkers like Kristol want to engage the entertainment arena on the level of spectacle, they’ve already ceded the moral and intellectual high ground. Once you turn a political debate into an episode of Hannity and Colmes, or a YouTube video to be shared via e-mail. you might as well let Vince McMahon be the moderator.

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Filed under Feuds, Movies

Barack Obama, Rock Star-in-Chief

My erstwhile colleagues at Entertainment Weekly have a cover package this week on Barack Obama, who these days is the only celeb big enough to upstage the Oscar nominations (which take up the bulk of this issue’s feature well). Much marveling over what rock stars the First Couple are, at a time when celebrities-as-brands have lost much of their influence and allure (see Cruise, Tom). Of course, the flip side, unexamined here, is that stars can fall out of favor just as quickly as they rise; media outlets are just waiting behind the rodeo gate to unleash the backlash at the first sign of an Obama misstep. At that point, I imagine, EW will create a “Can this career be saved?” article, listing a media plan for the tarnished president to restore his image. (Expect them to recommend visits to Oprah, Saturday Night Live, Larry King, David Letterman, The Daily Show, and other usual stations of the cross for penitent media figures.)

There’s also a decent sidebar listing the powerful Hollywood supporters (from David Geffen to Jennifer Aniston to will.i.am) who helped Obama get elected, though it’s unclear if any of them expect or even want to have Obama’s ear now that he’s in office. Another sidebar, listing some of the president’s own pop culture faves (he likes The Godfather, Meryl Streep, SpongeBob SquarePants, and Bob Dylan, but then, who doesn’t?), which also raises the unanswered question: Just because he has good taste and is tech-savvy enough to work an iPod and a BlackBerry, does that mean good policies will follow? Anyway, check it out.

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Filed under 2008 Election, Barack Obama, Oscars

Reading the Oscar Nominations

30thoscarsIn the Academy’s eternal battle between whether to embrace commerce (and attract more viewers to the show by nominating big hit movies) or art (and maintain its somewhat compromised integrity but risk being branded as elitist and out of touch, while viewers ignore the annual telecast because they’re unfamiliar with the nominated films), the voters seem to have split the difference with this morning’s nominations. Benjamin Button is a safe, middlebrow choice, and its $100 million-plus gross means enough viewers with rooting interest in it might actually watch the awards show. Indie darlings Richard Jenkins (The Visitor) and Melissa Leo (Frozen River) got some much-deserved love, but not in the Best Picture categories where they might do some damage. And Dark Knight got several noms but only one (Heath Ledger’s) in a major category, which is usually how Oscar pays respect to genre movies that are enormous hits. Sorry, Chris Nolan; Ledger’s astonishing performance apparently directed itself.

My big gripe is with all the attention for The Reader. (Did Stephen Daldry steal Nolan’s director nod?) I’m mystified by all the acclaim for this movie, especially over that other, higher profile Kate Winslet movie, which was supposed to be a lock but was all but shut out. I can’t believe the Academy fell for such a piece of Holo-kitsch. I gather that the novel, which I haven’t read, is a meditation on collective guilt, and more specifically, what moral responsibility, if any, the generation of Germans who came of age after World War II bears for the previous generation’s sins of omission and commission that resulted in the Holocaust. Winslet et al may have thought they were making a movie that thoughtfully addresses that issue, but what they’ve actually made is a steamy sex pic given artificial weight and artsiness by being tied to a horrific historical event. The result trivializes the latter without really elevating the former out of the bubble bath. Continue reading

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Filed under Movies, Oscars

Obama Is President, At Last

Photo by Jay Tamboli at Flickr, licensed via Creative Commons

Photo by Jay Tamboli at Flickr, licensed via Creative Commons

What was the most moving moment of Tuesday’s inauguration? Aretha Franklin’s song? (Or her hat?) The new president’s speech? The Rev. Joseph Lowery’s rhyming benediction? The helicopter departure of the Bushes? Dick Cheney crumpled up in his wheelchair, looking like Dr. Strangelove or some defeated James Bond villain? No, for me, it was watching the first couple dance as Beyoncé sang “At Last” at the Neighborhood Ball. (See the video here.) Even Sasha Fierce herself was crying, and not just because she knows she can’t really do justice to the Etta James classic. It would have been hard for anyone watching not to shed a tear at the handsome couple and their romantic clinch, not to mention the omnipresent awareness of how far they (and others before them) had to travel to reach this moment. My overwhelming feeling all day was one of relief, and not just relief that this day ended in a slow dance and not a tableau from a Robert Altman or John Frankenheimer movie. The grown-ups are in charge, at last.

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Filed under 2008 Election, Barack Obama, Music

Watching the Obamathon

There’s been a lot of grumbling about how Barack Obama’s inauguration has become a pop culture event, more an entertainment spectacle than a political transition. Some of this has manifest itself in the form of pretending that the tab for the event is unprecedentedly costly compared to previous inaugurals. (Eric Boehlert makes mincemeat of such claims at Media Matters.) Truth is, it’s no more extravagant or star-studded than previous swearing-ins, but the Obama team has certainly done a cannier job of turning it into a camera-ready, easily accessible spectacle. Again, no reason to complain about this after Reagan and W. spent two terms each practicing government-by-photo-op, though I predict more scrutiny on Obama than on past presidents to see whether he can back up the visuals with actual results. Meantime, the production values of the celebrity-sphere prevail for the moment, and why not? Americans love celebrities (which is why it was so foolish for the McCain campaign to attack Obama last summer for being one), and most seem to be proud (whether or not they voted for him) of the milestone his assumption of the presidency represents. So a little celebration is in order this week.

One thing I don’t recall from previous inaugurals is their own HBO concert special. The one from last night is available to all (not just premium cable subscribers), streaming online at HBO. One unforgettable moment: Pete Seeger and Bruce Springsteen singing Woody Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land,” including the radical populist lyrics left out when they teach it to you in school. I bet not even Seeger, in all his 89 years, after all the blacklisting and censorship, imagined that one day he’d be standing on the Lincoln Memorial steps, the site of Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, and singing the full “This Land Is Your Land” to America’s first black president. Watching that gave me shivers; see it below.

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Filed under 2008 Election, Barack Obama, Music, TV

Podcast: A Look Back at 2008, A Look Forward to 2009

My Friday chats with Mark Reardon of KMOX-AM in St. Louis continue with this look back at the top entertainment stories of 2008 and a preview of the likely highlights of 2009.

Gary Susman talks to KMOX’s Mark Reardon, 1/2/09

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Filed under 2008 Election, Books, Comics, Movies, Music, Podcasts, Saturday Night Live, TV