Yes We Camelot

What cultural artifacts will come to embody the current presidential administration?

F eel free to try this at home, but I guarantee you won't get anything out of it except a migraine. Imagine you've been a bit prematurely asked to fill a time capsule with telltale cultural artifacts of the Age of Obama—the evocative movies, TV shows, hit tunes, and other creative whatnots that will someday exemplify the ineffable atmosphere of our 44th president's first term. Realizing nobody has called these times "The Age of Obama" since early 2009 should be your first clue that this is no easy job. Try to persevere, though. Um—J.J. Abrams's Star Trek reboot, maybe? Obama's partisans and detractors alike do dig comparing him to Mr. Spock. TV's Glee and Modern Family? Hey, how about post – everything pop diva Lady Gaga? That's the best I can do off the top of my head, and they're all a bit of a stretch. The multiculti on steroids—OK, asteroids—of James Cameron's Avatar may be less of one. Yet the movie's conception predated not only Obama's presidency but George W. Bush's. Anyway,...

More Like Tin

The Iron Lady, short on substance and long on sentimentality, is just the sort of film Margaret Thatcher would hate.

C all it the Meryl Streep money shot, the scene most likely to appear in the Oscar montage for best actress. Margaret Thatcher sits in a patient’s paper gown, grasping for her wits through a fog of Alzheimer’s, aware she must perform a charade of competency. A young doctor peppers her with questions about whether she’s experiencing hallucinations and how she's feeling. And just like that, the anxious old woman transforms, replaced by a former U.K. prime minister who draws herself up, fixes her opponent with a glare, and issues a flinty indictment about the tyranny of modern life, dominated by those who “care more about feelings than thoughts and ideas.” The irony is that the much-anticipated The Iron Lady hews precisely to this formula. Long on sentiment but short on statement, the film is a star vehicle for Streep, who does her usual, impeccable job of conjuring flesh and blood out of a stale script. This time she’s channeling director Phyllida Lloyd’s take on Thatcher as a grocer’s...

From London, With Angst

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy chronicles the last days of Britain as a superpower.

AP Photo/Matt Sayles
Spying is popularly conceived of as a glamorous line of work. The James Bond, Jason Bourne, and Mission Impossible films are all cocktails, trysts, gunplay in the tropical sun, and evil brought to heel. The audience gleefully absorbs the antics of the hero-spy, a romantic figure who easily escapes the institutional harnesses of his superiors. Tomas Alfredson’s Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy takes place in a different world. There is no super spy here, just a vision of the claustrophobic, embittered world of the intelligence community and its human cost. Based on the novel by John le Carré, Tinker, Tailor is concerned with the hunt for a Soviet mole who has infiltrated the highest levels of the British intelligence establishment, an agency known at “The Circus”. (Le Carré’s work popularized “mole” as a term for a double agent.) Gary Oldman plays George Smiley, Tinker Tailor ’s rumpled, aging hero. Smiley, enmeshed in a corrupt institution, represents an elite obsessed with perceived...

Snobs Like Us

When did cultural disdain become the province of the left?

Y ou can always count on Hollywood panjandrum Harvey Weinstein to be bombastic about his own restraint. “In 20 years of coming to the Toronto Film Festival, I’ve never released a statement for a film,” read the statement e-mailed to journalists in mid-September. “But I would like to take this moment to formally invite Republican Congresswoman from Minnesota and Republican presidential candidate, Michele Bachmann, to co-host with me the big premiere of Butter in Iowa in a few months from now. I know Michele will already be in Iowa for the caucus, so we can save some money on airfare and travel. I would of course be more than happy to fly in the other leading members of the Tea Party movement to make an entire day of it.” The Weinstein wit has clearly stayed hidden under a bushel too long. Note the effortless contradiction between the joke about saving money on airfare and the munificent offer to fly in—well, how many dozens of Tea Partiers might qualify for Harvey’s largesse? There...

The Showman

This "lost" interview shows Steve Jobs as an incredibly charismatic figure.

AP Photo/Paul Sakuma
A few nights ago, I took to the E Street Cinema in Washington, D.C., to watch the “lost” interview Steve Jobs gave to Robert X. Cringley for a 1996 PBS television series, “Triumph of the Nerds.” The series included ten minutes of the interview, the rest of which was never seen, and feared lost, until Cringley discovered the mastertape following Jobs’s death last month. The interview shows Steve Jobs at 40, ten years into his career as head of NeXT computer, 9 years into his position as co-founder of Pixar, and a few months before he would sell NeXT to Apple, the first stop in a process that would end with Jobs as CEO of Apple Computer. If you’re familiar with Apple’s history, nothing in this interview should surprise you. Jobs goes over the well-worn stories of Apple’s founding by himself and Steve Wozniak, its initial successes with the Apple II and the Macintosh, his ejection from the company in 1985, and Apple’s failure to keep up with Microsoft in the late 1980s and early 1990s...

Beautiful Annihilation

Director Lars von Trier's latest film asks: What do you do when the world's coming to an end?

Christian Genisnaes A s Danish filmmaker Lars von Trier would have it, there is little more maddening than a depressive in one’s care. The lachrymose lump under the covers, the dead-eyed gaze at dawn, the obstinacy—almost pleasurable, it can seem—in clinging to suffering. Nothing is worse than taking care of such a person, perhaps, except being the depressive herself, lost in a scratchy fog of sadness and anxiety punctuated only by guilt and the unanswerable, unrelenting question: Why can’t you be happy? Von Trier’s response: Because the world is coming to an end. In Melancholia , the director has made his version of a zombie apocalypse film, with Kirsten Dunst as the living dead. I don't mean to be flippant, really, as the thing is deadly serious when it’s not pitched for perverse laughs—an operatic three-parter that focuses on two sisters as they grapple with the end of the world. The film is stunning—if you go in for the director’s brand of cinematic sadomasochism. Reviled for what...

FutureSex/Class Warriors

In Time is a movie for the attractive, radical redistributionist in your life.

AP Photo/Ed Andrieski
The thing to understand about In Time —the latest from Gattaca director Andrew Niccol—is that it isn’t a good movie. Characters lack compelling motivations, action set-pieces veer from boring to incoherent ( In Time apparently takes place in a world where everyone is an expert marksman), and it’s hard to take Justin Timberlake seriously as an action hero. But for as much as In Time fails as an action thriller, it fascinates as one of the most overtly ideological—and openly left-wing—movies of the year. The film’s premise is straightforward: at some indeterminate time in the future, humans were genetically modified to stop aging at 25, at which point they receive a year of time, which is the world’s currency. Time can be exchanged between people through a touch on the forearm or earned through work, and when you run out, you die. Like most people in this world, Will Salas (Timberlake’s character) is time-poor, lives in the slums, and works an industrial job in order to scrape through a...

A Different Kind of Revenge Film

Writing over at Mother Jones , Adam Serwer makes a smart point about ethnic revenge flicks like Inglorious Basterds and the forthcoming Django Unchained . “The true “revenge” of Inglorious Basterds,” Adam writes, “is in the banishment of a particular stereotype, the idea of the weak, fearful Jew who goes helplessly into the ovens.” The problem with Django Unchained is that African Americans have never had a problem with being portrayed as aggressive and prone to violence. Indeed, that’s the stereotype we’ve worked to reject . As Adam notes, “[A] film in which a slave kills his masters may vicariously avenge a historical injustice, but it lacks the catharsis of defying the accepted narrative that narrowly limits what being black is supposed to mean.” In his eyes, a real black revenge story isn’t Django Unchained , it’s The Cosby Show . I don’t disagree! But I think Adam is a little too neat in dismissing the value of a film like Django Unchained could have in subverting other...

Batman the Gentrifier

In real-life, the superhero's do-gooding would push all the poor people out of Gotham.

Rex Features via AP Images
For Batman fans, this past week was a big one. In addition to the release of Arkham City – the sequel to Arkham Asylum , the world’s greatest Batman simulator – DC released its animated adaptation of Batman: Year One , the Frank Miller-penned story that would define Batman for the next two decades, and form the basis for Christopher Nolan’s interpretation of the character. Here’s a trailer: I watched Year One with friends a few nights ago, and one thing that stood out was the sheer whiteness of Gotham City. From mobsters to orphaned children, most Gothamites were white. People of color were present, but they were a distinct minority in most parts of Frank Miller’s Gotham. Of course, this makes Gotham extremely unusual as a major industrial city in the early 1980s, which is when Year One takes place. By this point in American history, most cities had been hollowed out by successive waves of white flight, as middle and working-class whites left the cities for surrounding suburbs. In...

Is Batman Crazy?

Psychoanalyzing the Dark Knight

Over at Alyssa Rosenberg’s blog, a post about the class differences between heroes and villains has become a thread over Batman and his methods. In particular, the commenters are working through one particular question: Is Batman crazy? As the argument goes, it’s not that Batman is insane, per say, but that he has a monomaniacal focus on justice that manifests itself as a sort of pathology, in which his life derives it’s only meaning from the pursuit of criminals. The evidence for this is clear enough: after witnessing his parent’s murder by a common thief, Bruce Wayne pledges to avenge their life by complete devotion to fighting crime through personal methods, eventually donning a Bat costume and using his family wealth to bankroll a career of vigilantism. For the last 30 years, this has been one of the most popular depictions of Batman – a paranoid, distrustful man with a tenuous grasp on reality. Insofar that there have been alternative takes, they come by way of the 1990s animated...

Do Sports Matter?

Jay Smooth notes, in the context of the NBA Finals, that the masses pay well for their opiates and LeBron James broke a cardinal rule of sports by reminding people that they don't really matter: I'm not ready to say "sports don't matter" in a world where terrorists are willing to murder and mutilate World Cup fans because they see national identity as a threat to their plan for a worldwide caliphate. Even here, sports, like any kind of national drama, provide important insight into our own cultural identity and the rage towards James in particular seems like a perfect example of that.

Books on Film: Remembering Andrew Sarris

Growing up in Movieland

A detail from a film strip. (Flickr/miemo)
Andrew Sarris, the influential film critic and champion of the director's voice in filmmaking, died on June 20 at age 83. In this essay from our June 2010 issue, Harold Meyerson explains the critic's role in teaching him to love movies. I grew up in Movieland—Los Angeles' Westside in the 1950s and 1960s. I went to school with the kids of people in the industry, which was so hopelessly uncool, we didn't even talk about it. (The guy with whom I co-edited my high school literary magazine never mentioned that his father had created a well-known sitcom— I Love Lucy . I found out when he wrote about it 30 years later.) A sclerotic studio system was churning out The Sound of Music while we were deciphering Dylan and watching Vietnam burn every night on the tube. When I showed up in New York to go to college, the last thing I expected to study, or love, was the movies. But New York, circa 1968, had other ideas. There was, of course, no shortage of politics to entice me, but by the late '60s,...