Friday, December 21, 2007

The 3 Best Things of 2007

It's probably most accurate to say that the following three things affected me more than anything else in 2007, and since the blog often celebrates my subjectivity, I suppose that's as good a standard to use as any.

#3: The Hold Steady in Harrisburg

I've said for years that the best concert I ever attended was Prince at Dallas' Reunion Arena in December 1998. But I think the little guy was eclipsed -- just barely -- this past May. As with all the best live-music experiences, timing played a pivotal role. My interest in The Hold Steady was cresting. I was listening to their most recent album, Boys and Girls in America, on a daily basis and had it memorized -- so I was getting into the first two records, knowing them just well enough to hope for certain songs to be played. My girlfriend and I drove to Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, for the show, and I wrote about the experience at length here.

#2: Into the Wild

There were several films that were more tightly crafted than Into the Wild this year, and I like things that are tightly crafted. The stubborn, ill-fated journey of Christopher McCandless, who left his comfortable suburban family in Georgia to reinvent himself and ended up dying alone in the Alaskan wilderness, might not lend itself to precision, but no other movie left me stumbling out of the theater into the bright afternoon sun trembling and crying. I had read the Jon Krakauer book that inspired the movie twice, and read it a third time to prepare my full-length review of director Sean Penn's adaptation. What I couldn't read before my review, naturally, but which would have helped me write it, were the comments left in its wake. The word "brat" appeared at least half a dozen times, and it seemed that the majority of people were so disdainful of McCandless' decisions that they couldn't stomach the movie. Others, like fellow critic Dan Carlson, were gentler on it, but still had a problem with how the story was presented: "I ultimately can't celebrate a film that seems to worship a boy for making such a cataclysmic mistake, the kind that cost him his life, especially when his existential breakthrough is something everyone else accepts much earlier, and easier."

To the charge of brat, I don't have much to say. These same commenters rarely call characters "brats" even when they are -- the average spoiled, soft consumers at the heart of so many movies. In the comments for the movie Juno -- a movie I liked -- the word doesn't appear once, but Juno, my friends, is a brat. A lovable one, fine, but still a brat.

I suppose that what mystifies me most is the widespread belief that the film "glorifies" McCandless' choices. He becomes emotionally attached to several people, and as he abandons those people one by one, it's impossible not to be frustrated with him. The supporting characters -- excellently played by Vince Vaughn, Catherine Keener, Brian Dierker, Kristen Stewart, and the amazing Hal Holbrook -- are people with whom you fully sympathize, so McCandless' inability to allow himself a lasting connection with them is infuriating. But this is not a fiction. He really did all of this, and his belief, however dangerous it became, that going further into himself would yield more spiritual truth than conventional connections could, places him in an awfully long and fascinating tradition. Tolstoy was in his 40's when he strove for poverty and asceticism. Rigorous seeking is not just for the misguided young. It's for genuine pilgrims. The fact that such people often hurt others and often catch only a glimpse of what they're seeking only makes their quest that much more complicated and compelling. To me, anyway. Maybe I'm too old to be as interested in the transcendental as I am, but without ever worshipping McCandless for a single second, I find his story absorbing and provocative and heartbreaking.

#1: The Wire

The actor pictured above is J.D. Williams, who plays Bodie on The Wire. I choose to feature him with a purposeful sense of randomness -- there are two dozen other characters I could put there to stand for the show's depth of field and the staggering number of people it makes you care for, often against all odds.

The fourth season of The Wire technically aired in late 2006, but I saw it on DVD just a couple of months ago. Like the first three seasons, it's astonishing. Expanding the scope of the series' portrait of Baltimore -- the richest portrait of an American city ever produced for TV or movies, among other superlative things to be said about The Wire -- the fourth season introduces a group of middle-school characters, brilliantly acted by four kids who, like most everyone else in the series, you've criminally never heard of before now.

Even summing up the show’s most essential levels of greatness would take at least 10,000 words, and it's better to just watch, so I'll let you do that, if you promise to do it. Like most smart, complex things, The Wire is short on viewers, but since it debuted in 2002, it's been the best thing American culture has to offer.


Blogger Mrs. White said...

I can't believe I never got around to seeing Into the Wild. Or actually, I CAN believe it since I'm a total failure at going to the movie theater, but it's one of the films I missed that I truly wanted to see. Boo.

And good list, my man. So excited for when The Wire comes back!

9:58 AM  

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