Editor’s Note: My list of things I might do with my free time, if we survive this American Crisis, is long. And right up near the top is my love for criticism, my desire to talk and write and think about books and movies and television and music, and about what our stories tell us about ourselves.
I set out to write this post – listing and rattling on pretentiously about my favorite “stuff” of 2019 – two weeks ago. Then the President tried to start a war.
But even in times like these, I think there’s value in lifting up the art that speaks to us most urgently. Also I’m a snob.
So – following a healthy dose of some patented GTFUP.org pessimism about this Iran mess – I’m going to do my pretentious lists anyway. This is an old-school rambler of a GTFUP.org post, but I had fun writing it, and I thank you for reading!
My 2019 was “bookended” by two exceptional books, one fiction, the other non-, that grappled with the heartbreak, and creeping insanity, of watching the country you love crumble.
I rung in the new year just over a week ago by finishing Ece Temelkuran’s “How To Lose A Country,” a lyrical, episodic retelling of the devolution of Temelkuran’s native Turkey into a far-right nationalist autocracy. A clarion-call-warning to the U.S. and the U.K. that “yes, not only can it happen here, it is happening here,” Temelkuran’s book is a painfully beautiful act of compassion – not compassion for the ugly far-right movements that are devouring our world right now, but for those among us who are so frustrated, angry and scared at their ascent.
And I started 2019 with Idra Novy’s “Those Who Knew,” a fictional account of an island nation clawing its way back after decades under a brutal dictatorship. Touching on a range of themes powerfully relevant to these times – not just politics and authoritarianism, but Me Too and the dynamics of power in any society – Novy’s imagined nation is bruised and battered from its time under the “Cato regime,” and still far from healed as a new, “lesser evil” reform regime takes control.
Both books are rewarding and worthwhile reads in their own way. And both provide invaluable insights as we grapple with our American Crisis, including the latest madness surrounding our President’s dangerous and reckless efforts to stoke a war with Iran.
One central theme of both “How To Lose A Country” and “Those Who Knew” is the way that, in an autocracy – where disinformation and intellectual dishonesty are aggressively weaponized against a flat-footed citizenry – numb bewilderment takes hold in every corner of society.
It becomes impossible to track the “good guys” or the “bad guys,” to adequately assess or make sense of daily events, and the old rules that helped build a once decent society become blurred and defiled. Eventually huge swaths of society surrender altogether, just tuning out the daily madness, allowing it to turn into inconvenient white noise.
That “numb bewilderment” was on my mind often this past week, as the Trump Administration buried us in lies, in constantly shifting rationales, in ominous warnings of vague threats meant to enflame, confuse and frighten Americans.
There are a number of plain, obvious truths about this Iran debacle, things that any rational observer – anyone able to step outside of the relentless, hostile fog of Trumpism – would be able to say unequivocally:
- There is no universe where killing Qasim Soleimani makes America safer. This will have massive, long-term destabilizing impacts on the Middle East, and the broader world.
- We are dealing with a faithless President, one who doesn’t care about American interests, at all.
- The President does care about his own interests, he does care about the interests of favored foreign powers who offer him riches or more power (i.e. Saudi Arabia, Israel, Russia), and he does care about the interests of the creepy, dangerous fundamentalist movements he has installed in power. None of which is good.
- War crimes are bad. It is bad for the world when the U.S. President threatens war crimes.
- Regardless of how anyone feels about congressional authority over war powers, the President should not be blatantly and obviously lying to, and hiding information from, Congress (much less the American people) as he seeks to start a massive war.
- Are there echoes here, of the Bush Administration’s dishonest drumbeat for war in Iraq? Sure. But we’ve reached a new, far more dangerous level: the lies are overwhelmingly more serious, voluminous and absurd, the decision-making stunning in its recklessness, the corruption infinitely more brazen.
- America’s abdication of its position as leader of the free world is all but complete. This will have massive, lasting implications, and it is no longer clear if the liberal world order – a status quo that has made America very prosperous for 70+ years – will survive.
- It is a terrible idea to put an individual as craven, corrupt, stupid and unstable as Donald Trump in charge of American foreign policy – and the consequences will be devastating.
Again, all of these are obvious conclusions – it does not take a seasoned pundit, or a weathered national security expert, or a brain surgeon, to understand these things. And yet we’re so busy sifting through the President’s lies – trying to intuit what the hell is going on, because our government won’t give us a straight answer – so busy trying to push back on the shameless bullshit spewing out of the GOP propaganda machine, that we can’t seem to bring ourselves to collectively acknowledge these basic facts.
What’s left of our “discourse” becomes fixated on minor, petty process questions, on short-term “winners” and “losers,” and the shallowest imaginable jingoism. All the while, the grave, far-reaching consequences of America’s reckless belligerence go all but ignored.
In “How to Lose a Country,” Temelkuran explains, in devastating detail, how the shameless lying and corruption, the celebration of rank indecency, are all carefully calibrated to destroy and render meaningless a nation’s common understandings of truth, morality and common decency.
She describes how the far-right nationalists in Turkey weaponized the idea that only Erdogan’s followers were the “real Turkey,” how dissenters were initially stifled, then aggressively bullied, then subjected to horrific violence, all because of the insane nationalistic fervor of the “real Turkey” that Erdogan created.
I couldn’t help but think about Ms. Temelkuran – a staunch Erdogan critic for whom returning to her homeland is no longer remotely safe – when I saw video of an unhinged man, screaming at Elizabeth Warren the other day about her “siding with terrorists”:
This is an obviously unwell human, and thankfully he only showed up to scream and yell.
But this unhinged fervor is dangerous, and the President and his enablers are eager to exploit and enflame it. In the past week alone, we’ve seen many Republicans – including the supposedly rational remaining adults in the room – feeding that unwell man in New Hampshire his lines, while the President refers to Democrats as “vicious, horrible people.”
If you can stomach some discomfort, and you get a chance to read “How to Lose a Country,” you’ll see that all of this – the weaponization of violent nationalistic fervor – is very much by design.
What we’re seeing right now is straight out of the authoritarian’s playbook, and if history is any guide, we will see more intense, terrifying violence from the President’s most fervent supporters in the months to come.
And if you get a chance to read “Those Who Knew” – which, I should note, is the easier, brisker, and less-depressing read of these two fine books – you’ll see that, once a nation loses itself, once a society’s common sense of truth and morality are pummeled into meaninglessness, it can be painfully difficult for that nation to find itself again.
The best character in “Those Who Knew” is an aging radical named Olga, a woman who fought the fascists and paid dearly, and who, even after the autocracy fell, still found herself a foreigner in a strange, surreal reconstruction of her homeland.
Olga’s story is a sad one, but it does lead to a final act that feels something like redemption. Until that final act though, Olga gets by by operating a bookstore (which also dabbles in selling marijuana), where fellow lost travelers and onetime freedom fighters can gather, commiserate, and find solace in great art.
The bookstore is called “Seek the Sublime or Die.” And I really love that.
Which brings me full circle, to art in 2019.
2019 was a tough year, but it was made profoundly better by art and storytelling that inspired me, soothed me, challenged me and humbled me, that bravely endeavored to “seek the sublime.” Below are just some of my favorites…
It’s weird for me, a movie snob, to be taking television seriously enough to include it on my pretentious list of favorite art for 2019. But streaming content has taken America by storm, and there’s no question that the some of the best storytelling around is happening on the small screen.
To that end, many of my favorite shows of the year were clever, brilliant variations on old themes.
For instance, the story of the sympathetic psychopath has been retold 1,000 times since America was introduced to Hannibal Lector (and the archetype goes back much further), but the playful, seductive feminism of Killing Eve – the way the show toyed with and upended age-old tropes – was an absolute delight. And Bill Hader’s Barry – a Sopranos-esque, pitch black comedy about a contract killer earnestly pursuing an hilariously hopeless acting career – managed to examine the consequences of violence, through humor and laser-sharp writing, in ways that Martin Scorsese could only dream of matching.
Meanwhile the British/American mashup high school sex comedy, Sex Education found new ways to tap into the uniquely absurd psyche of hormonal teenagers, and the wonderfully entertaining The Good Fight reimagined the righteous lawyer drama under Trumpism, and wound up producing some of the most provocative, instructive, and fun Resistance storytelling I’ve seen these past few years.
And 2019 was a banner year for stark, painfully-true stories making their way to the small screen, including the shattering When They See Us – a heartbreaking, impeccably crafted story of the Central Park Five – the much-loved Chernobyl, the unsettling, compelling Mindhunter, and more well-meaning, well-mounted documentaries than you can shake a stick at.
But for my money, the best of these “don’t you dare look away” productions was Unbelievable, an unflinching look at American rape culture. It’s a show that features killer performances by three towering leads, and a slow boil procedural style of storytelling that allows the audience to live the valleys, and occasional peaks, of a police work.
Unbelievable turns a critical eye on the often-tragic failures of policing and our justice system – the way that ingrained biases can corrupt an investigation from the start. But it also offers hope in the form of two badass female detectives who, when empowered and placed in command, find ways to resuscitate and reinvent a badly broken system. It’s tough to watch at times, but it’s been rattling around in my brain – in an immensely positive way – for months.
My two favorite shows of 2019, however, were two dramatically different endeavors that each, in their own way, took a bold swing at reaching the sublime.
The complex, daring Russian Doll thrilled me – episode after episode – with its audacity, its willingness to shatter expectations again and again, and then skillfully and seamlessly rearrange the pieces into something deeper, and more interesting. We live in a world where true originality – “creativity” in the most fundamental sense of the word – is in retreat. I was awed by the way that Russian Doll rejected that premise altogether, the way its creators swung hard at something that was wholly, delightfully, original.
With that in mind, maybe, for all my griping about the rise of the “small screen,” that is a bit of a silver lining: the desperation for “streaming content” has allowed unique, original voices to find a home.
And nowhere was that more true than with my favorite television program of the year, Fleabag.
A considerable amount of ink has been spilled about Fleabag and its creator Phoebe Waller-Bridge, and I think you could teach a class on pitch-perfect storytelling and characterization using only the delightfully manic dinner scene in the photo above. But what stuck with me with regards to Fleabag is the way in which the very language of the storytelling – the syncopated narrative beats, the unexpected grace notes, the exaggerated yet somehow earthy pathos of the human interactions – was so innovative, and so new.
2019 will not go down in the history books as a good one for humanity, but one positive to come in the past year is that women and persons of color are being given more opportunities to tell stories, on their own terms, and without being pigeonholed into making art solely for “niche” audiences.
Fleabag is a story about a woman, told by a woman, but its appeal is infinitely broader than that. And the uniqueness of Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s voice and narrative inclinations are going to resonate far and wide (she apparently played a key role in fixing the upcoming James Bond film) for years to come. To that end, Fleabag is a reminder that the more voices we allow into the conversation, the better, more full, and more rewarding that conversation will be.
Books – 2019
“Those Who Knew” and “How to Save a Country” were among my very favorite 2019 reads (full disclosure: some of the listed books below were technically published in 2018), but here are some others that gave me strength and succor this past year:
- Maurice Carlos Ruffin’s “We Cast a Shadow” is a biting satire with a deliberate, powerful point of view – something all too rare in art these days. But for as well as the satire works, it was Ruffin’s commitment to character – the brutally honest way in which the hero engages with issues of race, society, parenthood, the insidious nature of fear – that, for me at least, elevated “We Cast a Shadow” to something universal and uniquely powerful.
- And I’ve never read anything quite like Jackie Sibblies Drury’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play, “Fairview.” An extraordinary feat of scuttled and upended expectations, I cannot overstate the power of the escalating revelations within this blistering nested doll of a play. It works exceptionally well on the page, but I imagine it’s infinitely better on stage – if you hear of a production near you, go, and I will be eternally jealous!
- Meanwhile, if you’re looking for insights on our deranged President – but don’t want to dig quite as deep as “How to Lose a Country” – you can’t go wrong Stephen Greenblatt’s “Tyrant: Shakespeare on Politics.” Without ever once mentioning F.A.T.’s name, Greenblatt makes a compelling case that the President is an archetype, one that old Bill Shakespeare figured out centuries ago. I’ve found that criticism of Shakespeare – unpacking what the great master was really getting at – can be a lot more fun than reading the plays themselves, and this book is a classic example of that.
- A few months ago I did a Rebel Art post about Irish rebel songs (Part II still forthcoming), and my fascination with the genre comes in large part from Patrick Radden Keefe’s propulsive history of the Troubles, “Say Nothing.” With the pace of a thriller, but a deep, sympathetic, probing soul, “Say Nothing” is a fascinating and instructive deep-dive into one of the most unsettlingly-close-to-home recent chapters in humanity’s long history of senselessly escalating violence.
- If there’s a book I read this year that I hope will make its way onto college reading lists for decades to come, it’s Miriam Toews’ extraordinary novel “Women Talking.” The subject matter is dark: “Women Talking” is based on a horrific true story of unthinkable abuse suffered by the women of a secluded Mennonite colony in South America. The book does not shy away from that darkness, but it doesn’t dwell on it either. Instead, it imagines an amazing, complicated moral and ethical conversation – played out over three days – between the women of the colony, as they carefully debate the righteous, moral response to the abuse they’ve suffered.
In addition to touching on a range of themes that are vital to our present national conversation, “Women Talking” makes a powerful case for the value of careful, morally-conscious deliberation as essential to our basic humanity.
- Finally, my “favorite” book of the year – one that likely won’t make its way into college reading lists, but that almost certainly will make a terrific Netflix series – was Taffy Brodesser-Akner’s “Fleishman Is In Trouble.” A wickedly funny, incisive inversion of the “upper-class white people in Manhattan acting silly” genre, “Fleishman” is, first and foremost, an exceptional read. Its characters are meticulously well-constructed, its narrative structure propulsive and complex, its ideas equal parts familiar and provocative.
But where “Fleishman” succeeds most is in its recognition that every single one of us is living our own personal story, and the way our stories interact – the way we crash in and out of one another’s personal narratives – is what makes human beings so goddamn fascinating.
My last pretentious “critic” post was almost two full years ago, breaking down my favorite movies of 2017. In it, I wrote hopefully about the future of cinema as a “kind of refuge: the simple pleasure of sitting in a dark room, in the quiet company of strangers, and solemnly swearing not to be distracted while we give ourselves over to old-fashioned storytelling.”
This was naive – the dominance of home viewing over “seeing it in the theater” is only growing – but my best movie experiences in 2019 did involve that remarkable, dark-room-with-strangers sense of community.
Mrs. GTFUP.org and I saw the exquisite Monos – the most intense, anxiety-inducing film I’ve seen in years (in a good way!) – in a small theater with just a handful of strangers, and by the end every single one of us was stricken silent.
An update of “Lord of the Flies,” Monos follows a group of teenaged guerrilla “fighters” in an unnamed South American nation, serving vague revolutionary forces, wandering the most beautiful mountaintops you can possibly imagine, descending into madness. It is not a film for the faint-hearted, but Monos is a powerful reminder of the ways that films can challenge us and provoke us, and it has haunted me, in the best possible way, for months.
Along those same lines – films that provoked and unnerved – the Korean masterpiece Parasite was one of those wonderful film experiences where a crowded theater spent the first half of the movie laughing, assured we were in on the joke, only to have the chair pulled out from underneath us in the devastating second act.
From a purely critical perspective, I was awed by the way that Parasite contained – depending on which character’s perspective you followed – dozens of pointed, and often conflicting social commentary. That that level of nuance and sociological insight could be packaged in a film so deeply entertaining and rewarding is really something to behold.
The gritty Uncut Gems, meanwhile, gave Monos a run for its money on the anxiety front, turned both Adam Sandler and NBA star Kevin Garnett into bona fide thespians, and featured a gut punch that left our theater breathless. Uncut Gems is, for my money, a perfect distillation of pure noir storytelling: an everyday guy (Sandler), through a mixture of impossible circumstances and his own all-too-common demons, finds himself in a hopeless, tragic spiral. The beauty of Uncut Gems is that the die has long since been cast, long before the action on screen begins – we’re just watching nature (tragic, human nature) run its course.
This was also a banner year for stories about music, and specifically about the last generation of musicians, now entering full-on senior citizenship, who lived in an America in which superstardom was a thing.
One fascinating theme was the way that many of these films appear to have involved close, careful collaboration with their still-living subject matter. The David Crosby documentary Remember My Name, the Elton John biopic Rocketman, and Jakob Dylan’s ode to Laurel Canyon Echo in the Canyon, were all stuffed full of great moments and powerful nostalgia, but it was impossible to watch them without wondering just how “real” and “truthful” the story we were seeing was, and to what extent these films were just carefully-crafted hagiography.
That was less of an issue with Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story, because Bob Dylan never quite tells the truth about anything. Bob has been crafting a funhouse-mirror personal narrative for 50+ years, and – given that I fall somewhere within the 94th-97th percentile of Bob Dylan fans worldwide – I was thrilled at the way that Martin Scorsese seized on and toyed with that theme in Rolling Thunder.
If I walked into Rolling Thunder filled with expectations, ready to be wowed, it was the opposite going to see Linda Ronstadt: The Sound of My Voice – I had most of Ronstadt’s hits stored somewhere in my memory palace, but that was the extent of my anticipation. Yet The Sound of My Voice – a humble biography that matched its gracefully humble subject, featuring a wonderfully elegant and powerful narrative structure – did, in the end, wow me. It turned me into a fan (Linda solidified my fandom for eternity with her recent rebuke of Mike Pompeo), and as we left the crowded, misty-eyed theater, The Sound of My Voice had my typically unsentimental old man saying “we need to get home and get out the guitars.”
If I’m being honest, while I had some great trips to the movies in 2019, I’m struggling to find a film from the past year that will endure – at least for me personally – for years to come.
For my money, this year’s great films were marked by smart, impeccable craftsmanship, and while they won’t necessarily make it into my personal pantheon, I very much loved the Scottish country music saga Wild Rose, the tight-as-a-tic Agatha Christie sendup Knives Out, and the delightfully boisterous, and smart as hell, high school comedy Booksmart.
And my two favorite movies of 2019 – the masterful legal drama Dark Waters, and Greta Gerwig’s expert reworking of Little Women – stood out because of their combination of expert film-making, and their ability to tap into something universal that spoke to me in the unique moment that was 2019.
Dark Waters is a truly great legal drama – one that, from a lawyer’s perspective, gives a fairly accurate portrayal of the slog that is high stakes litigation – but it draws its power from our shared humanity.
It is the story of a turncoat – a powerful corporate lawyer who uncovers unthinkable corruption, and spends decades representing the little guy, trying to right that wrong – and it is a story of that proverbial “little guy,” a community ravaged by Dow Chemical, and yet wholly paralyzed when it comes to whether, much less how, to fight back.
What I love about the film is that it does not lionize the lawyer, or sentimentalize the battered community, or wrap things up with a tidy, inspiring victory for justice. Rather, Dark Waters recognizes that the pursuit of true justice is a never-ending struggle. Its “hero” is simply a guy who can’t abide rank injustice any longer, and who makes a conscious decision to join that struggle.
In this moment in time, America is engaged in a war between decency and indecency, between those of us who still believe that we all share common moral moorings, and those who are willing to shed morality in favor of a “win.”
Dark Waters captures, better than anything I’ve seen these past few years, the utter unfairness of that war, as well as the critical importance of fighting it.
And finally, if Dark Waters is an expert portrayal of both sides of our moral American Crisis, Little Women is an overwhelming beacon of light, a powerful expression of exactly what a society founded on common moral moorings looks like.
There is so much to love in Little Women: the boldness of the adaptation, the care with which Ms. Gerwig builds, for each character, their own personal universe, and the impeccable skill of the storytelling. This is an episodic film that plays out over many years, dancing between timelines, rearranging the source material, and yet this version of Little Women manages to feel wholly organic – as if the story was meant to be told in this way.
What I loved most about Little Women though, was the way it portrayed profound decency not as something noble or praise-worthy, but simply as the way people ought to be.
To bring things full circle, Ece Temelkuran’s prescription for how not to lose a country is, first and foremost, to stop trying to argue or reason with the forces that are trying to tear apart America’s sense of self. They don’t care, they won’t listen, there is no convincing them.
Second, Temelkuran suggests proudly and loudly proclaiming – with the same urgency and unyielding passion as the lunatic Trumpists – what America is. We cannot beat Trumpism by equivocating, or by trying to find common ground with a movement that is founded on so much hatred and ugliness. But if we insist on the absolute truth that there is such a thing as steadfast American values, that decency and morality have a place in our society, and that Trumpism does not, we might just have a fighting chance.
Little Women – from the very first scenes – makes a passionate case for what America is, and as we head into 2020, we can all take a cue from this exceptional film on how to effectively, and unrelentingly, make that case.