Contemplating the state of the modern superhero movie is probably one of the activities destined for me in hell, which might explain why I ended up doing it on a 12-hour-long flight last week. At a certain threshold of sustained boredom, you don’t actually want the ennui to be broken, only punctuated.
Captain America: The Winter Soldier was diverting enough—lots of “now kiss” moments between Chris Evans and Anthony Mackie, liked the paranoid suggestions of ’70s political thrillers—but not even sensory deprivation could get me through that Thor sequel from last year. The high-fantasy psychedelia developed by Jack Kirby and Walt Simonsonhad been bronzed into bland realism, Game of Thrones with more advanced metalworking, much of it seeming to take place in some soupy netherworld. Captain America can make something of that militaristic aesthetic, even if its title character leaps around wearing an American flag, but running another dozen Marvel movies through the same colour filters reveals the Lego-like structure of their master narrative. Is this all it takes to delight nerds now? An auteur brand?
I read Young Adult literature, in theory, for work. I sell books and write about them in equal measure, and stories about teen girls have become my beat. Knowing what’s big and popular in the field is how I pay my rent. This is the line I give when I sheepishly try to explain my bookshelf to anybody visiting my apartment.
I read Young Adult literature, in practice, for myself. One may not be able to survive on YA fiction alone, and yet these are the books I frequently reach for at the end of the day. They are books generally crafted to appeal to burgeoning readers: all killer, no filler, and yet, when done right, never at the sacrifice of good storytelling. It’s a genre that lends itself well to—well, other genres.
Tupac Shakur’s work is as resonant today—days after a police officer shot Michael Brown and left his body in the street—as it was then: an indicator of still-grim realities.
At a certain point in your schooling, your English teacher probably told you something about context clues, the words and phrases you can use to help suss out the meaning of a word you don’t recognize—basically the codified version of the desperate flailing for meaning we all engage in with language. At a certain point last week, we learned that a surprising number of people don’t register the phrase “dogboner” as something that might denote sarcasm, or, at least, a person who might sometimes be less than sincere.
In fairness to the thousands who snorted derisively at Michael Hale’s sarcastically captioned picture of Neil deGrasse Tyson after it was posted to the I Fucking Love Science Facebook group, theirs was less a failure of appreciating the context than not looking for it at all. Seeing one of the most recognizable scientists on the planet being mocked as a “dumbass nerd” for using his laptop on the subway short-circuited some critical faculty in their brains: that it was done by a guy named dogboner was no more relevant to the reaction than, say, wondering why someone would even consider a stranger using a laptop in public worthy of any note whatsoever. That they are roundly the type of people who wear their supposed capacity for critical thought as if it were an Olympic medal is one of those deeply satisfying ironies that makes you want humanity to live forever in its hilarious ridiculousness. Say what you will about people who take pride in their own ignorance, they are way harder to humiliate so thoroughly.
Animator-turned-comic artist Emily Carroll’s debut book, Through the Woods, is steeped in fatalism, full of doomed characters who often feel deserving of the grisly punishment coming their way. The stories are personal, in other words.
There has to be something to the fact that almost every even mildly successful made-up athletic-ish game-show-y spectacle that shows up on American television contains more than a whiff of the playground. Maybe it’s just a matter of implicit permission—that it’s somehow okay to plunk in a system of arbitrary rules and simplistic goals if we can relate back to the last time any of us invented our fun out of a few willing participants and whatever landmarks were within giddy sprinting distance.
So you’ve got American Gladiators, the early ’90s staple that was King of the Hill quite literally on steroids, mixed in with the sick thrill that comes with wailing on someone with an object from the Nerf family (or, in warmer climates, the pool noodle). I can’t be the only short, poorly coordinated, pudgy kid who still has the occasional dream about SlamBall, the trampoline/basketball hybrid that was invented by literally everyone with access to a trampoline and a portable basketball hoop, and which actually had a few official seasons worth of televised competition in the early 2000s. Or there’s Wipeout, the still-running humiliation-a-thon that combines aspects of bouncy castles, The Ground is Lava, and laughing at people eating shit from the top of a slide.
In a Super Bowl commercial from 2012, an adorably shabby rescue dog is trained to retrieve Bud Lights on command. He brings his owner a beer. Then he drags over a couple of cold ones for the owner’s friends. Some pretty girls arrive, and the dog is sent to the fridge to beer them, too. At the end the dog does a keg roll, adorably. Everyone enjoys a Bud Light. Scene.
Ask me how I feel about the ad and I might say that it’s kind of weird to celebrate the enslavement of a rescue dog—should pets be forced to become our bartenders?—and then maybe I’d add something sniffy about light beer drinkers. But my brain would tell the truth. And the truth, according to a soon-to-be-published study in Nature Communications, is that my neurological reaction is likely the same as everyone else’s—a clear sign that the ad is bound for glory.
In 2008, hip clothier Juicy Couture launched what might have been one of the most ill-conceived advertising campaigns ever. Plastered all over its flagship Manhattan store and inside nearly every fashion magazine, you could find the image: waifish models posed on a California beach, clad in Juicy’s iconic velour and terry-cloth gear, all sporting different colours, with a bold Gothic-type tagline declaring, “Let Them Eat Tracksuits.”
At the heart of Siri Hustvedt’s recent novel, The Blazing World, is a work of art conjured up for the story itself. Would the Man Booker-shortlisted book have been as successful if this fictitious exhibition didn’t seem real enough for our own world?
From the rat’s nest of a Lower East Side studio of Stranger Than Paradise to the … rat’s-nest of a crumbling Detroit mansion of Only Lovers Left Alive, Jarmusch’s work always feels vaguely familiar—and yet, not quite like anything else.
His purview is supposed to be limited to the last week, but John Oliver has spent the first few months of his HBO show’s run reaching a lot further back into America’s psyche. Whatever nominally topical subject he’s taking on, he uses Last Week Tonight to treat it like a springboard, launching off of a piece of congressional testimony or a Supreme Court decision into a kind of miniature State of the Union, a barbed look at how this ridiculous bit of news is a data point on a much broader, and often considerably less funny, chart.
Not quite a year removed from his name-making summer of guest-hosting work on The Daily Show, the crown of seven years spent as the dryly sarcastic Senior British Correspondent, Oliver still isn’t entirely out of that show’s long shadow, nor is his approach really light years away from the exaggerated exasperation that is Jon Stewart’s most exportable good. Still, if Stephen Colbert is (soon enough, was) the satirical Satanic message you get from playing TDS backwards, Oliver so far is its slowed-down SoundCloud track, explicating and dissecting exactly why so much in the news deserves to be treated with bitter irony.
The D-list, so far: I went on some dates for paparazzi to photograph. I folded shirts. I got a few modeling gigs. I found cash inside of a fire hydrant. I changed my outfit but not my makeup. I lined up a lucrative appearance at the Immaculat Vodka party tonight. I enlisted an unscrupulous talent-management type to help troll my nemesis on Twitter, until she started yelling about Obamacare (very realistic). I hung out with Kim Kardashian. It’s like Louise Brooks wrote at the end of Lulu in Hollywood:
Although our sexual education had been conducted by the élite of Paris, London, and New York, our pleasure was restricted by the inbred shackles of sin and guilt. Thus at the same time our reputation for immorality excluded us from the parties of respectable Hollywood, which devoted itself to presenting a picture of moral beauty to the world, our reputation for sudden attacks of puritanism excluded us from the delights of the carefully arranged parties that ended for us after lunch or dinner when we were dismissed with a firm goodbye.
In 1992, MTV premiered a reality TV show, billed as the true story of seven strangers picked to live in a house, to find out what happens when people stop being polite and. Start. Getting. Real. The Real World, about to enter its 30th season and often credited with spawning the reality television phenomenon, is successful because of this simple premise: stick a group of young people with different backgrounds in a house, turn on some cameras, invite a bunch of voyeurs to tune in and watch in thirty minute installments. It’s not scripted, just edited.
Shuichi Yoshida’s novel Parade is not The Real World: Tokyo, but it’s not entirely dissimilar. Four twentysomethings and one teenager, all with the loosest connections to one another, share an apartment in Setagaya, Tokyo. They are intimately familiar with each other in ways made possible only by living in the same space: washing each other’s laundry, sharing a bathroom, seeing each other during the most vulnerable moments of the day. But none of them really know each other, not in the ways we consider that one human can truly understand another. They are five private people, each with their own secrets.
It was said that actor Peter Sellers so excelled at his craft because he had no identity of his own—he simply became whoever he was playing. This tidbit goes through my mind often as, almost out of my control, I find myself shifting back and forth between accents.
My family moved from London to Toronto when I was 12. I was too old to simply absorb a new accent, but young enough to want to. For years, I tried affecting a Canadian accent at school to fit in better, only to return to an English one when I got home. What Degrassi Junior High’s Stephanie Kaye did with makeup, I did with accents.
Before the Toronto date of their outlaw-themed On the Run tour, I fantasized about Beyoncé tying Jay Z to a chair, only removing his gag when she needed a guest verse for “Upgrade U” or “Crazy in Love.” Such havoc only went down last night during the interstitial video, where they played a pair of bank robbers blasting through a French New Wave pastiche, Pierrot le fou remade by Michael Bay—although they seem to like Godard’s Brechtian period too. “NOT REAL,” the frame declared mid-firefight, “THIS IS NOT A GUN.” Anyone who arrives onstage in a lace ski mask is working with a sophisticated understanding of artifice. It was a little ironic, then, that everything surrounding her strained to disguise that as much as possible, blending two disparate discographies like somebody following the employee manual at a juice bar.
I went to the concert because I adore Beyoncé the singer and Beyoncé the album; her husband I mostly thought of as an additional Ticketmaster charge. Jay Z has now spent half his career in embarrassing-dad mode, as if preparing to become an actual dad. Several of the recent hits feel like he composed them to distract himself while sorting a dresser full of luxury brands. He moved through the classics with practiced staccato—I imagine Sinatra still sounded pretty good in the ‘80s, too. But baseball stadiums never flatter a prerecorded backing track, and some of Jay’s best ones were hardly steely by design: The speakers crushed all that flamboyant delicacy out of “Big Pimpin,” losing the ebullience of “Izzo” amidst industrial acoustics. “No Church in the Wild” and “Ni**as in Paris” held up better, even while inviting unfavorable comparisons to Kanye’s obsessively theatrical Yeezus tour. When Jay appeared solo, he had the manner of somebody doing a private show for an illustrious but distant acquaintance.
In the absolute sense of the term, there is a subatomical case to be made that we don’t actually touch anything. The natural repelling force of electrons would seem to suggest that we and the physical world around us are at best asymptotes, our valences perhaps intertwined, but never, strictly speaking, coming into contact. That we seem to actually grasp things, that we can know something of their being by touching them, is maybe just a trick of the mind, our limited perception making the most sense it can of a world that we can only really just reach for.
Daniel Holden’s bent is more philosophical and psychological than physical, so when his tender sister-in-law asks him about the literal lack of human contact he experienced during nearly two decades on death row, he says only that the absence has left him profoundly ambivalent about it, sometimes yearning for and sometimes afraid of its power. These opposite poles define most of Daniel’s experience of the outside world, prosaic minutiae infused with an almost horrid vividness by time spent in a nearly featureless white cell.
Unlike Sam Cooke, who discovered him, or Sly Stone and Aretha Franklin, for whom he served as a session guitarist, or the Rolling Stones, who made his song “It’s All Over Now” their first #1 hit, Bobby Womack only intermittently got over beyond a particular niche. His, though, was R&B—a broad church then and now.
That was, in fact, where Cooke found him, singing for a family gospel act called the Womack Brothers, who changed their name to the Valentinos before recording secular music in an attempt to circumvent the routine backlash. Although his solo material became a feature of Billboard’s Hot Soul Singles chart from the ‘60s through to the 1980s, he’d mostly been dormant for a decade or two until his most recent, harshly abbreviated comeback. Womack was one of those musicians fated to be known most widely through other artists, whether Mariah’s teary invocation on “We Belong Together” or Pam Grier’s long poised glide through LAX to the tune of “Across 110th Street.” If you’re only familiar with the latter song from Jackie Brown, let the death of its creator last week lead you to the original source.
Michael Bay takes a fair bit of justifiable heat for his suite of bloated, nearly incomprehensible Transformers movies, but if we’re portioning out blame for one of the nadirs of contemporary blockbuster cinema, we should probably start with Mark S. Fowler. Fowler was the head of the Federal Communications Commission, the board tasked with overseeing broadcasting in the United States, during most of the Reagan years. Like Bay, he took a somewhat dim view of his medium; he once called television—his primary area of focus—a “toaster with pictures.” In his six years as head of the FCC, he oversaw the most significant deregulation of television broadcasting since the invention of the medium.
Though not necessarily remembered as his biggest move—Google “FCC + anti-trafficking regulation,” and get a brief history of corporate ownership of the airwaves—the one with the most lasting effect on the Gen X/Millennial nostalgia market involved removing the regulations on program-length commercials. Once one of the board’s more strictly enforced guidelines (they once used it to go after Romper Room, which is basically a public park puppet show compared to almost anything on the air today), it prevented something like, say, a toy company creating a show based entirely on its most recent line of products.
The first season of Orange is the New Black, easily Netflix’s best original show, was something like a big bang: it started with our comfortably blond middle-class protagonist, Piper, but expanded as quickly and widely as possible, leaving her, essentially out of necessity, not even a gravitational centre so much as just one of the brightest stars. Piper’s story is our way in, but the ostensible protagonist might not have even made a list of the show’s ten most interesting characters.
Though we continue to receive episode-length glimpses into the histories of everyone who isn’t Piper, in the second season, Litchfield prison already has its firmament, and we spend far more time charting what we’ve already seen than boldly going anywhere in particular. There are only two real additions to a prison that felt almost borderless its first season: a starry-eyed hippy named SoSo, who shows us how far into cynicism Piper has sunk, and Vee, a long-time drug dealer and returnee to the prison.
“Chaka Khan has never bothered with great albums because she has such a great voice—juicy, airy, spunky, transported,” the critic Robert Christgau wrote a few years ago, wisely implying that a musician might nurse aspirations beyond the great album. She’s always preferred the variety a string of singles affords: This is someone whose discography encompasses the black feminist anthem “I’m a Woman” (in her youth, she was a Panther, serving free breakfasts to the children on Chicago’s South Side), the didgeridoo and fiddles of “Best in the West,” and covers of Fleetwood Mac circa Tango in the Night, not to mention all those ventures into jazz. Like Patti LaBelle, she devoted herself to a vision of female funk that never would be fully realized commercially—and then she tried other things. “I am a species born to die / Understanding this, I hardly cry,” as “I’m a Woman” announces.