Tuesday, January 02, 2007

Slate: The Year in Culture

I posted a speedlink to this, but I thought it deserved a feature post as well. Slate asked some prominent members of the culture, "What cultural event most amazed or disappointed you this year?" I'm with Stephen Dunbar on loving Studio 60.

These are some of the responses:
Stanley Crouch, author, The Artificial White Man and Considering Genius: Writings on Jazz
As we are all aware, the technology of films has never been more convincing, but the human content seems to diminish with every advance in duping techniques. That is why I was absolutely startled by Little Children. It focuses on humanity as the most marvelous of all narrative enhancements and has in Kate Winslet an actress of classical cinematic greatness. She is a woman who can look beautiful or plain at will and whose capacious ability to ride the pulsations of human feeling is second to none in this age. After all that we learn about the oddness, delusions, loneliness, needs, and dreams of its characters, the film comes down to something quite unusual for our narcissistic age. In the film Paths of Glory, one character says that compassion is the noblest of all human impulses. There is such a thorough realization of that perception in Little Children that it explains both the blue, lyrical, and aching nobility of the film and the ennobling experience it provides for the audience.

Stephen J. Dubner, co-author, Freakonomics
I [heart] Aaron Sorkin's Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip. It isn't necessarily the best TV show ever. But I can't think of another show with a greater disparity between a) how good it is and b) how much it is dismissed by the smart-seeming people who tell us which TV shows are good, and why. What I most love about the show is its audio track: It is as dense, fast-paced, and jargony as the audio track for Sorkin's West Wing, but since I usually watch Studio 60 on my iPod, I can actually hear what's being said, and understand most of it. It is like listening to a really good radio play. I fear that NBC may cancel Studio 60. If so, I hope Aaron Sorkin will at least let us all tap into his brain for a daily podcast.

Dana Gioia, poet; chairman, National Endowment for the Arts
The most startling encounter I had this past year with a new work of art was with a short choral piece by Morton Lauridsen. Only 15 minutes long, Lauridsen's Nocturnes consists of three interwoven settings of poems in three languages by Rilke, Neruda, and James Agee. Nocturnes creates a complex and strange beauty that doesn't sound like any other composer. Yet for all its musical intricacy, the work has a direct and powerful emotional impact—not the impact of a scream, but of an intimate whisper that cuts right through you. Listening to these pieces repeatedly, I find my tough, old heart filled with both wonder and gratitude.

Lorrie Moore, author, Birds of America
Theater! Especially the moving and ghostly last acts of Faith Healer and Grey Gardens: Ralph Fiennes' transcendent rendition of Brian Friel's soliloquy of death and Christine Ebersole singing "Another Winter in a Summer Town," Grey Gardens' one good song (which like the Friel is about the doom involved with losing one's powers, especially if those powers were capricious to begin with).

Robert Pinsky, former poet laureate; author, Jersey Rain
Political comedy—funny, passionate, informed, smart—not long ago seemed not an American form. European cabarets or Latin American writers could slash, while American comedy made cautiously topical, evenhanded wisecracks. Garry Trudeau looked lonely. Saturday Night Live, even in its best days, was limited. The running gag, "In breaking news, Spanish dictator Francisco Franco is still dead," was kind of brilliant—and kind of self-diagnostic: easy target, minimal statement.

Now, in the mysterious life cycles of art, we have The Onion, Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert, and South Park's Matt Stone and Trey Parker: all bringing it, American-style. The separate show for Colbert this year confirms the transformation. Bless cable ... or thank Cheney for his February quail shoot?

Laura Kipnis, author, The Female Thing
I was gripped by the minor scandal involving hard-punching literary critic Lee Siegel, who was suspended from the New Republic after it turned out he'd been anonymously writing glowing tributes to himself on the magazine's Web site. Before being exposed, he'd celebrated himself as brave, brilliant, and witty—all this under the alias "sprezzatura," which is Italian for "studied carelessness." In the New York Times Magazine, Siegel defended himself by declaring that he is constitutionally childlike. What's so interesting about the genre of the minor scandal is that new rules for proper social behavior get invented in the very act of someone's transgressing them: Thanks to Siegel, we all now know not to blog flattering things about ourselves under a pseudonym while in someone else's employ. In case there was any doubt.

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