This year for the eighth summer in succession I presented—along with free pizza—a collection of old movies on a theme. The theme of this year’s series, jointly sponsored by the Ethics and Public Policy Center, where I am a resident scholar, and the Hudson Institute in Washington, where the films were shown, was “Middle America and the Movies.” There were six selections, all of them having something to do with the Midwest as seen from Hollywood and, therefore, as in some sense representative of the country as a whole in a way that Hollywood itself never quite managed to be—though it used to come a whole lot closer than it does today. Four of the six movies were set, wholly or partly, in Indiana, which I take to be the movie capital’s Platonic ideal of a Midwestern state, and which was as well the original home of The American Spectator. In fact, Steve Tesich, the Oscar-winning screenwriter of Breaking Away (1979), the final movie in the series, was a fraternity brother and roommate of the Spectator’s own R.
Recently, my wife and I attended a performance of Mozart’s Magic Flute—which is what German speakers call a Singspiel opera, written in the vernacular and intended for a popular audience. In this it was unlike the others among Mozart’s most famous operas, which were written to Italian libretti and intended for a more aristocratic public—though most were also performed in popular, vernacular versions. The Washington National Opera was staging it in an English translation by one Kelley Rourke, who, besides having the ear for rhyme of your average rap or hip hop artiste—which is to say, hardly any ear at all—managed largely to extract any residual sense of sex difference from the opera’s tale of a young prince’s quest to find and rescue a young princess from imprisonment by (so he is told) an evil sorcerer. You might almost call it magic.
My obituary’s written,” a tearful but paradoxical Eliot Spitzer told Vanity Fair a year or two after his forced resignation as governor of New York, “and that is a very hard thing to live with.” The obituary itself would presumably be a very hard thing to die with, but what he meant was that it was hard to live with the knowledge—already, most likely decades before his death—that he would be remembered principally for the prostitution scandal that had forced him from office. In doing so he was taking up what Richard Dawkins would call a meme but which we traditionalists prefer to call a rhetorical topos of our fame-obsessed culture. In the same way Bryan Cranston calls Walt White of Breaking Bad “the role that will undoubtedly be the first line of my obituary” and the golfer Tom Kite said of his winning the U.S. Open at Pebble Beach in 1992, “Well, at least now I know what the first line of my obituary will be.”
Ellen DeGeneres opened this year’s Oscar broadcast with a joke about the two possible outcomes of the nearly four hours of self-congratulation to come—hours that, as she could not have known at the time, were to culminate in Matthew McConaughey’s bizarre acceptance speech as Best Actor in which he claimed that his hero has always been himself in ten years. It occurred to me that McConaughey only differed from most of those present by being more honest, and by adding “in ten years.” Miss DeGeneres was also embarrassingly honest when she joked that either 12 Years a Slave would win the award for Best Picture or, alternatively, “you’re all racists.” She wasn’t being all that daring, since she must have known she could count on the Academy to come through—as indeed it did—for Steve McQueen’s already much-begarlanded film about a free black man from New York, kidnapped and sold into slavery in 1841.
What was that stereotype again? Something about women being fickle and unable to make up their minds? Oh, and being illogical. You know, wanting contradictory things, like being treated as equals with men and at the same time with special consideration for their female sensitivities. Or, perhaps, loudly insisting on a latitudinarian approach to feminine beauty and body size while posing for Vogue in photo-shopped sveltitude. That, of course, was Lena Dunham, the third season of whose Girls on HBO debuted in January and proved funnier than ever, though it was somewhat overshadowed by her Vogue cover. This provided endless material for feminist debate, scandalizing some of her admirers and causing others to leap to her defense—especially after Jezebel offered a reward for and subsequently posted the unretouched original photos.
Over the Thanksgiving weekend, members of the self-designated 501st Legion of Star Wars “re-enactors” came to Washington, D.C. to take part in the “crowd funding” of a proposed Museum of Science Fiction there. The whole enterprise smacked of the fantastical. How, to begin with, do you “re-enact” something that never happened? These people live in a fantasy of a fantasy. The career of the moving spirit behind the new museum, a self-proclaimed screenwriter named Greg Viggiano, appears to be equally fantastical, as he has no screen-writing credits on IMDB. He also appears not to know that there is already a Museum of Science Fiction in Seattle, lavishly funded by the Microsoft billionaire Paul Allen. It is housed in a fantastical structure designed by Frank Gehry and designated by Forbes as one of the world’s 10 ugliest buildings. Maybe the new museum, with the cachet of being housed in our nation’s capital, will try to surpass it.
In the many obituaries of and accompanying tributes to Lou Reed, in the course of which he was often referred to as a poet of genius, I was struck by how little quotation there was from his allegedly poetic oeuvre. What makes poetry poetry and not prose is that the words are crucial to the meaning (or meanings), but most of the late Mr. Reed’s admirers seemed to have contented themselves with summaries of how he had sung of his addiction to heroin or people who engage in exotic sexual practices or who overdose or die of AIDS. The actual words seem not to have been important. For them, the poetry lay in the inarticulate: the supposed authenticity and (as they say) transgressiveness of such life-outcomes and “the raw, anarchic sound” with which they were hymned. One obituary quoted its subject’s reaction to the unsuccess of an album the obituarist describes as “morbid and pretentious.” “If people don’t like Berlin,” Reed told an interviewer in the 1970s, “it’s because it’s too real. It’s not like a TV program, where all the bad things that happen to people are tolerable.
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