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Best. Movie. Year. Ever. How 1999 Blew Up the Big Screen by Brian Raftery

June 15, 2019

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It’s 1999. The U.S. is between the two Gulf wars. We’re approaching the end of the millennium. Y2K has some people on edge, but tech stocks are on a roll. The internet has not yet changed everything, but everyone understands it will. 9/11 is unimaginable. Television is still fairly uninteresting and predictable compared to the big screen. Something about this mix made it a great petri dish for film.

I heard about this book in an interview with Raftery on The Gist podcast, and I was skeptical. After all, 1939 is traditionally accepted as the best movie year in history. Gone With the Wind, The Wizard of Oz, Stagecoach, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. But then when he started to name the movies of 1999, and I couldn’t believe the list.

The Matrix, American Beauty, Fight Club, Election, Magnolia, The Blair Witch Project, Office Space, Run Lola Run, The Sixth Sense, Eyes Wide Shut, American Pie, Rushmore, The Virgin Suicides, Being John Malkovich, Three Kings.

That is a phenomenal lineup of game-changing, genre-bending, influential films. In 1999, I was still watching at least a movie a week. I saw a lot of these movies in the theater, and I walked out of more than one of them slack-jawed: The Matrix, Fight Club, Blair Witch, American Beauty, Run Lola Run, Eyes Wide Shut. These were mind-blowing films, each in a different way.

In 1999, the studios were taking risks. Everything wasn’t just the next in a proven franchise like it is today. They could afford to take a chance on the Wachowski (then) brothers who had an incredible storyboard for a film about some weird alternate universe in the computer. After Boogie Nights, they basically gave Paul Thomas Anderson a blank check to make his three-hour melodrama that ended in an unexplained storm of frogs. If Fight Club were released today, it would be banned as left-wing terrorism propaganda.

And audiences were awesome too, taking risks on bold movies and keeping secrets. I remember standing in line outside a Chicago theater to get into The Blair Witch Project, arguing with someone over whether or not it was a documentary and if the cast had actually died in the woods. Most everyone I know managed to see The Sixth Sense without having some bozo spoil the end beforehand.

Many of these films did not do well at the box office, but gained cultural significance in the decades to follow. Looking back, some of them seem downright prescient. Fight Club’s critique of consumer culture rings truer today. Hillary Clinton seemed like a grown-up Tracy Flick. Boys Don’t Cry told a brave story about gender identity that could be released in 2019. And nothing captured the inanity and insanity of corporate culture better than Office Space, which only became popular in its post-theater life.

This book is an awesome romp through an awesome year in movies. I’m sold on 1999 as the greatest film year ever, but I actually think this book could become a series. I’d love to read one on 1994 (Pulp Fiction, Forrest Gump, Shawshank Redemption, Natural Born Killers, The Lion King, Clerks). Rafferty conducted dozens of interviews with the writers, directors, actors and producers behind the films, so the book is more than a critic’s take. It’s a slice of very rich film history, including some never-before-told stories, and with the benefit of two decades of hindsight. I’m glad I was at the right age to see so many of these films when they came out. Many of them remain favorites, and it was fun to spend more time with them.

Forward: A Memoir by Abby Wombach

May 25, 2019

 

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Abby Wombach is one of the most accomplished soccer players of all time. She also sits on the board of the company I work for as one of our cultural advisors. She is occasionally in the office, and though I haven’t met her in person, I’ve heard great things from those who have. I’ve always liked her for her prominent role on the women’s national teams (Olympics and World Cup). Someone offhandedly mentioned that this memoir is inspiring and adds another dimension to her story and I’ve been trying to read more books by women authors, so I thought I’d give it a go.

The least interesting part of this book is the soccer stuff. I remember a few of the World Cup games, so it was interesting to get some of the locker room stories. But much of it reads like a typical sports memoir, full of clichés, over-written passages describing the action, pep talks, etc.

What’s far more interesting is her personal story as a professional with an incredibly demanding career, an LGBTQ activist, and an addict. She tells the story of her relationship with her first wife and the strains on the relationship caused by her drinking, addiction to painkillers, and the demands of her career. And a particularly endearing story about her asking her first wife’s parents for their blessing. These triumphs and struggles, her cycles of doubt and accomplishment, and her ability to own her mistakes and share her victories, make her an ideal role model.

In addition to her activism for gay rights, she also is a force for gender equality, attacking the pay gap in soccer with all the tenacity she’d go at a high pass across the center.

But what struck me most about this book was the courage it must have taken to be so vulnerable. These are stories of struggle that would be inspiring for anyone else going through the same things. To hear one of the greatest athletes ever humble herself by detailing her fight with the same things is what we need from our sports heroes. She takes responsibility, challenges herself, fails, hold herself accountable, gets back up and tries again and again. That she shares those stories so openly here shows the kind of courage and resolve that makes her one of the greats—the kind of athlete who deserves to be lionized. It’s good to see that she is using her talents not just as a player, but as a person, to change the world for the better. I hope she finds as much success off the field as she did on. I think she will.

Eating the Dinosaur by Chuck Klosterman

May 25, 2019

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I’m getting repetitive with my review of Klosterman books, but he is remarkably consistent across his body of work. The biggest variances are the topics of his essays and the themes of his books (when there is one). Despite the title, this book doesn’t seem to have a consistent theme, paleontological or otherwise. It’s just a collection of Klosterman essays. Which is to say, engaging, conversational style, sardonic sense of humor (I would have said “ironic sense of humor,” but after his essay about irony and his insistence that everything he writes is written authentically, even if he can’t guarantee it’s what he really thinks, I’ve temporarily lost a confident grasp on what irony is), and his use of pop culture as a springboard into other topics.

So what are the topics in this collection?

Interviewing people (including interviews with two of the best interviewers around—Ira Glass and Errol Morris) and authenticity. Kurt Cobain and David Koresh and non-insular culture. NBA players and how they are “enslaved” (his word, not mine—he acknowledges the diceyness of the word) by expectation. Rear Window and The Real World and voyeurism. Authenticity (again) and pseudonyms. Football as a game of innovation masquerading as a game of conservatism. The relationship between short- and long-term relevance as it relates to ABBA and AC/DC (it’s hard to not think he picked those two bands as examples because of their names). Mad Men and Pepsi and marketing and target markets. Weezer and how Rivers Cuomo is not ironic, though everyone expects him to be, which is itself ironic. And for the finale, none other than the Unabomber and what he got right about modern technology’s impact on modern society.

Other than the unique topics, Klosterman’s essays are peppered with interesting thought experiments and random trivia. As an example, he asks this: If you make a phone call into your own past to give a teenage version of yourself a 15-second message, what would you say? Which is a provocative hypothetical. But then he says that the answer to this question splits along gender lines, with women telling their younger self not to do something they later regretted and men telling their younger self to do something they didn’t do. Chuck doesn’t try to explain this difference, just lays it out there and moves on. But I find this kind of stuff fascinating.

And I enjoy his wry, if often arguable, observations and pronouncements about culture, like his observation that Americans have three types of laughs they use in conversation, whereas Germans only laugh when they find something genuinely funny. And that the laugh track on television shows is “a lucid manifestation of an anxious culture that doesn’t know what is and isn’t funny.” (I agree—the laugh track is a sign of a degenerate culture, as I also agree with his assertion that the unwarranted use of the exclamation point is “idiotic…the saddest kind of failure.”)

This is my fourth Klosterman book in the past five months. The second one maybe seemed a little less novel than the first, but since then I’ve found them consistently enjoyable. In the neighborhood of David Foster Wallace, but a little easier to parse, slightly less intellectual navel gazing. I guess I’ll continue with his books unless I get bored by them, but I don’t sense that happening anytime soon.

Skeletons on the Zahara by Dean King

May 24, 2019

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In 1812, the trading vessel The Commerce wrecked off the west coast of Africa, at the edge of the Sahara. The crew of  was captured and enslaved by the locals. They were trekked across the desert, sold and bought repeatedly, scorched by the sand and sun, beaten and starved, suffered from pestilence and disease. What they endured during their captivity is a remarkable story, and fans of Shackleton’s story, or that of the Whaleship Essex will find the plight of this crew as interesting.

The enslavement of the crew adds an interesting element to this story. In most survival tales, man is debased by the natural world, cut down to size by the weather, predators or lack of food and water. He is forced into competition with animals, forced to realize that he no longer sits above them on the food chain. Ironically, the system that dehumanized the crew of The Commerce was commerce. They became commodities, with market value. A Christian’s value, they learned, “fell somewhere between a tattered blanket and an adult camel.”

As one of the men observed, “No matter how bad things were, on the Sahara, they could always get worse.” Indeed, possibly different than many other survival tales, there is not a clearing of one obstacle to encounter another. Their experience was of one malady piled on top of another on top of another. In the end, the fact that any of them survived is remarkable. When the survivors were rescued, one of them, Riley, usually a 240-pound man, was under 90 pounds.

This book was compiled from two separate diary entries, clearly with extensive research. It can be a little tedious and repetitive at parts, but one might expect that from a story about men being forced to travel across the Sahara.

The Power of the Dog by Don Winslow

May 13, 2019

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When Don Winslow published The Power of the Dog in 2005, he couldn’t have known that he would finish his twenty-year-long project with the third book in the trilogy—The Border—hitting bookshelves in February, 2019. The thick, imposing book, on its cover an ominous photo of a wall, adorned in concertina wire, stretching across the desert, would sit on bookshelves as the talking heads on the television debated what to do about the migrant caravans headed toward our southern border, our President lied through his teeth daily about his wall (Mexico was going to pay for), and our border agents separated children from their parents in the name of what—security? There’s no way Winslow could have known how bad it was going to get.

But then, when you read The Power of the Dog, a novel about the first three decades of the drug war, you might think otherwise. Because back in 1975, it was already pretty bad.

This book spans three decades, with four characters at its center: Art Keller, a DEA agent; Adán Barrera, a Mexican drug lord; Nora Hayden, a prostitute; and Sean Callan, a gangster from New York.

If it sounds like a set of characters from “Stock Crime Novel Characters ‘r’ Us,” it is. Winslow’s doesn’t seem interested in breaking genre convention. If anything, he goes all in. The result is something that seems related to Phillip Marlow and Dennis Lehane, a book version of Sicario, stories ripped from the headlines, ultra-violent. It’s not as dark as Roberto Bolaño’s 2666, but it’s not literary either. It’s an action movie in book form, about morally compromised agents of morally compromised governments.

The writing won’t win any awards, but the plot moves. And moves. And moves. That’s the most challenging thing—the plot sprawls. I felt a little like I did after watching The Departed—like it probably didn’t need to be that long, but not really sure I’d cut anything.

I don’t know that this will make my favorites of the year list, but I’ll probably eventually get The Cartel and The Border. Art Keller is likable enough of a character and the story interesting enough. I’d like to see how it ends.

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The Master Switch: The Rise and Fall of Information Empires by Tim Wu

May 6, 2019

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This is a book about the history of communication technology, how different mediums shaped our world, and how the lifecycle of each is remarkably similar. Radio only seems like a quaint technology because it’s a century old. Not only has the world grown used to it, but two other mediums—television and the Internet—have relegated radio to a few standard use cases. But when radio was invented and introduced to the world, it sparked the same kind of idealism and worry that the Internet does today. The optimistic imagined a world made smaller, new forms of storytelling and commerce, while the pessimists saw the unravelling of social norms, the potential spread of dangerous ideas, threats to security and privacy.

Each technology starts with a period of decentralized lawlessness (usually accompanied by unreliable service and inconsistent formats). A wild west of sorts. Then the new medium becomes centralized, often with the help of the government. Commercial forces take over, with companies vying for bigger pieces of the pie. Eventual buyouts and mergers lead to an industry that is largely centralized, consolidated, and regulated. The original promise of complete freedom has been tamed by law and commercial realities. The flow of information is controlled and limited. Once this happens, innovation is often stifled by the companies in control, who fear to disrupt their own dominance, and the bits of innovation that happen at companies around the edges are often gobbled up by the big fish.

This happened with radio and television, and it’s happening with the Internet. It will happen with the next technology that comes along. Whether that’s depressing or comforting depends, I suppose, on whether you’re one of the optimists or pessimists. Nonetheless, this is a good history of communication technology. Some of it was familiar to me from my college classes, but the section on the Internet—and particularly how we’ve gone through this several times before—is fascinating.

My Abandonment by Peter Rock

April 21, 2019

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This is a fictional account of a Viet Nam vet and his teenage daughter who live hidden in a public park outside Portland. The idea was inspired by a true story—a series of news articles about such a father-daughter duo. The true story had no ending, so Rock wrote one. “I realized I had to tell the story myself in order to satisfy my curiosity,” he said in an interview. “Perhaps some might hesitate at making fiction out of real people’s lives, or see it as a real imposition. I am a little uneasy about it myself but hope that my effort is a testament to my enthusiasm and respect. And wonder.”

The story is told from the POV of the daughter, Caroline. Unlike some child narrators, who filter the story through their own innocence or naiveté, Caroline is smart, thoughtful and observant. She recognizes that she is different from other kids, but we don’t get the sense that she’s unreliable as a narrator.

I came to this story via an interview with Deborah Granik, who directed the excellent film Leave No Trace based on this book. The film is simpler and has some significant plot differences. But at the center of both the book and the film is the question of a parent’s responsibility to a child. When the parent rejects what society has to offer, what of the child? And as the child comes into her own, what is her reaction to her “off-the-grid” upbringing? How does she feel about being an outsider? What is her attitude toward her father?

In addition to the questions around the morality of raising a child outside of society, it addresses the important problems in our mental health system, particularly our support and reintegration of veterans.  The father suffers from PTSD, and the daughter cares for him as much as he cares for her.

The off-the-grid questions are the same asked in Tara Westover’s best-selling book, Educated, as well as the film Captain Fantastic. They’re tough questions. Perhaps notable, though, all of these works seem to give the same answer.

I would recommend the film version of this story over the book. Where Rock takes the plot in the book is a little befuddling, and Granik’s decision to revise it in the film is a good choice. Still, this is a readable and thought-provoking book, and both the father and daughter are likable characters.