Sunday, December 28, 2008

2008: The Year That Was (Pretty Lame)

This was a better year inside my head than the previous two or three, but outside the old cranium I wasn’t thrilled with what I found. There were several reasons for my lukewarm reaction to cultural offerings -- most of them the culture’s fault, though not all of them. For instance, I was just a bit distracted by the presidential race, as you might remember from the almost daily novellas I was writing in support of Barack Obama’s candidacy. His election in November was obviously a highlight -- the highlight -- of the year for me.

But when I surfaced from MSNBC for air, there wasn’t much to shout about. I saw three movies (in the theater) that left strong impressions: Man On Wire, The Wrestler, and my pick for best of the year, Happy-Go-Lucky. In The Wrestler, which I saw last week, Mickey Rourke is every bit as good as the buzz says he is. The press has milked the hell out of the parallels between real-life Rourke and silver-screen Randy “The Ram” Robinson, and that does a disservice to the work. First of all, the parallels aren’t perfect. Randy is a pretty gentle, simple soul who easily elicits sympathy, whereas Rourke allegedly created a lot of his troubles by being a world-class jerk. Beyond that, though, Rourke deserves credit for a lot more than just showing up and having his bizarrely devolved face put on film. The way Randy carries himself, the way he tosses his long blond hair and adjusts his hearing aid, the way he grunts his way through moments both happy and crushing -- in short, the performance -- should have been written about more than the lazy parallels.

(One more brief but heartfelt note about The Wrestler before moving on: I don't know how or why Marisa Tomei dove into this exhibitionist phase of her career with such passion, but unless the psychological trigger was some terrible personal experience, I just couldn't be more thrilled.)

In the world of superheroes, Iron Man was a lot of fun, The Incredible Hulk was very good until, er, the Hulk showed up, and an alarming number of Americans convinced themselves that The Dark Knight was the most provocative work of philosophy since Being and Nothingness.

The first half of Wall-E was brilliant, a strange, mostly silent look at an apocalyptic future through the experience of a trash-compacting robot. The second half was a mess, culminating in two robots cutely cooing each other’s names far too often for my taste. (3,000 times? Something like that.) I love Pixar, and I liked Wall-E, but I don't agree with the many critics who called it the studio's best work. Elsewhere on the animated front, Kung Fu Panda was much less ambitious but more consistently pleasing.

On the reading shelves, I continued a strong pace, but as in the second half of 2007, I used my freedom from plowing through manuscripts for work to catch up on books from the past -- including the work of Wilfrid Sheed and Italo Svevo. In the world of 2008 publishing, the nearly unanimous praise for Joseph O'Neill's Netherland inspired me to read it eventually, and Daniel Menaker’s review of Nothing to Be Afraid Of by Julian Barnes was itself one of the best things I read this year, so I immediately ordered the book. At least three quirky books were published this year that I also hope to read before too long: The City’s End by Max Page, a beautifully illustrated book about the history of the destruction of New York City in films, literature, comic books, and even amusement-park rides; Collections of Nothing by William Davies King, a raved-about memoir by a 50-something professor about his lifelong compulsion to collect items like “cat-food labels, chain letters, skeleton keys, cereal boxes, chopstick wrappers, the ‘Place Stamp Here’ squares from the corners of envelopes"; and A Little History of the World, art historian E. H. Gombrich’s 300-page recounting of everything from prehistoric man to World War II (written 70 years ago, when Gombrich was in his 20s, and published in paperback for the first time this year).

It seems almost certain now that simple aging is part of the reason why my batch of favorite new music diminishes every year. Like anyone else settling into middle age (or at least middle 30’s, which is the same thing, rock-wise), I’m spending more time listening to other genres and finding older gems -- like the Red Garland Trio’s It’s a Blue World, which contains a great version of “This Can’t Be Love.”

In terms of new music, The Hold Steady unsurprisingly put out the year’s best, Stay Positive. Not many records are as haunting and mellow as Bon Iver’s For Emma, Forever Ago. ("Skinny Love" was my song of the year.) Sambassadeur’s Migration was released toward the end of 2007, but I discovered it this year, and I’d highly recommend it for fans of Belle & Sebastian and Camera Obscura, among others. Hotel Lights, Tift Merritt, Jennifer O’Connor, Sun Kil Moon, Frightened Rabbit, and even those artful codgers in R.E.M. also released records worth owning.

On TV, I eventually gave in to the actorly charms and visual meticulousness of Mad Men, even while remaining annoyed at the show’s glaze of self-satisfaction for presenting a view of the ’50s that’s been essentially canonized for three decades. Women were subservient in the workplace! Men drank martinis at lunch . . . and scotch in the office! Meanwhile, the great 30 Rock seems to have recovered from its unproductive dependence on A-list guest stars (the episode at Liz’s high school reunion was terrific). The Wire (best. show. ever.) didn’t exactly squander its reputation, but it certainly went out on a fifth-season low note. And Friday Night Lights allegedly regained its best form, but I won’t know until the third season leaves the satellite-subscriber hinterlands and starts airing on NBC in 2009.

As blah as most things were this year, they were easy enough to ignore, which is more than I can say for the year’s worst cultural news, the suicide of David Foster Wallace. There’s little I can offer, on a meaningful emotional level, about someone I never met who chose to violently escape two decades of pain. But as a reader who loved him: Goddammit. The sadness of it will be sinking in for a while. (If you’d like a few more thousand words than that, see here.)

Wrapping this up, it occurs to me that I had at least three very good experiences at live events in New York -- I saw the revival of "South Pacific" at Lincoln Center, which was rightly lauded by just about everybody, a night of animated films by Don Hertzfeldt that was good for dozens of laughs, and a one-man show by comedian Mike Birbiglia that was good for dozens more. So, in 2009, I'll continue to take advantage of the city, but without the political IV drip I'll need a little help from a revitalized culture. Here's hoping...

2 Comments:

Blogger Midgard Dragon said...

"The second half was a mess"

Time to go watch the movie and stop just repeating what you heard one or two critics say about WALL-E. Clearly you and they missed the powerful love story, saving of humanity, and well, the whole d*mn point of the movie. There's a reason that it's making every Top 10 list out there, and it's not "in spite of" the second half, it's because the whole is greater than its parts, both of which were great.

1:47 AM  
Anonymous ambitextrous said...

Whoa. Not that it matters because Midgard Dragon probably won't come back to read replies, but MD's presumption is breathtaking. The worst are full of passionate intensity and all that, I suppose.

Anyway, thanks JMW, for your critique of the year that was. I'm glad I found your blog this year (through Pajiba) because of the thoughtfulness you bring to your reviews/appreciations; you've actually influenced me to pick up Marilynne Robinson, William James, and Wilfrid Sheed books, and for that, I'm grateful.

I still need to watch The Wrestler, but I mostly agree with your picks. As a point of comparison, my top 5 this year was: Happy-Go-Lucky, Up The Yangtze, Paranoid Park, Man on Wire, and Burn After Reading, in more or less that order. I'm not sure if there's a unifying theme to that selection, but those movies were the ones that left the strongest impressions on me, caused me to exclaim, "Whoa," not only at their breathtaking presumption but also at the skillful articulation of that presumption.

11:07 AM  

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