The year in culture.

The year in culture.

The year in culture.

Arts, entertainment, and more.
Dec. 30 2004 5:14 PM

The Year in Culture

Neil LaBute, Lemony Snicket, Kenneth Pollack, and others on 2004's most notable cultural happenings.

This year, Slateasked a collection of writers, critics, editors, and artists to answer the following question: Which cultural happening most amazed or disappointed you this year? Here are their responses:

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Hilton Als: Medulla, Björk Björk's Medulla is, perhaps, the most brilliant cultural artifact produced this year. Armed only with vocalists—Razhel from the Roots provides many of the beats; the brilliant Inuit throat singer Tanya Tagaq undercuts but never overwhelms Mlle. B's astonishing mezzo-soprano—Björk sets about filling the sonic landscape with a presynthesizer world of her own imagining. Ostensibly about a return to basics (the title is Latin for the inner part or core of a plant or animal structure), Medulla is really about Björk's re-exploration of her voice in a Third World context. That the world outside of her native Iceland has always been immensely important to her, musically, is without question; now, she makes clear that she is unequivocally interested in racial and thus social integration as well. Which is just another phrase for politics.—Hilton Als is a staff writer for The New Yorker and the author of The Women.


Rachel Cohen: The Colonial Andes: Tapestries and Silverwork, 1530-1830, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City
One of those exhibits for which I'm so thankful to the Metropolitan Museum, an erudite and thoughtful documentation of a whole field and period of artistic endeavor that I knew nothing about—in this case the tapestries and metalwork of what are now Peru and Bolivia from the moment of the Spanish arrival through 300 years of adaptation and invention on the part of the Inca residents of the Andes. And such beautiful work. Each tapestry—some meant to be worn, some to hang—moving with wonderful control through a beautifully complex visual field. Certain of them deeply satisfying abstract patterns—checkerboards, narrow and broad stripes—others with a sense of life in all its variety: dogs, angels, small running creatures, Chinese dragons (the Spanish had an annual shipping route between Acapulco and China), twining vegetation, heraldic shields, and birds. Such birds as you imagine you will never come across elsewhere—perhaps they have disappeared even from the trees of Peru and Bolivia and can only be seen here, hesitating near each other on the borders of a woman's dress from the 17th century, or feeding their young in a most graceful curving silver urn that the gentle curators of the Metropolitan Museum have kindly arranged to borrow from Bolivia or the Czech Republic or the National Museum of the American Indian, for the edification of the grateful citizens of New York.      
—Rachel Cohen is the author of A Chance Meeting: Intertwined Lives of American Writers and Artists, 1854-1967. 

Stanley Crouch: The Wire on HBO
One can never underestimate the human importance of the aesthetic contributions to television narrative that HBO continues to make. One easily recognizes the impetus for the late-night trash that it presents as a neon sop of barely soft-core pornography for the masses, but that would not explain all of the other things that this adventurous station offers. In aesthetic terms, I think this is especially true of The Wire, a dramatic series with much wider scope than The Sopranos, an unprecedented classic.

The human importance of The Wire is that it avoids the caricatures that we are too often given of black people in rap's pervasive minstrelsy and the other fast-food ethnic images of mass media. The Wire is the best crime show since Hill Street Blues, Law & Order, and NYPD Blue. Like its predecessors, the show has a breadth of human vision that moves us far beyond the stereotype and does the best that it can with the mysteries of human personality.

The Wire is set in Baltimore and does not back away from the monstrous elements of the black drug trade in American cities, but it also gives great variety to the criminal characters, from extremely stupid to extremely clever. Even more impressive than that already impressive achievement is the range of black people in law enforcement and the complex rendering of urban politics as played out along racial, sexual, and class lines. For one long stretch its focus was white ethnic crime on the Baltimore docks, and the series was as successful in creating complex scenarios, providing the viewer with maddening, flawed, corrupt, heroic, and tragic characters. Within the limits of its form (which seem to be no more than the width of the screen, since cable television is not, for good and for bad, held in check by censorship), The Wire is a masterpiece and will continue to be as long as it can maintain the depth of the standards it has set for itself.
Stanley Crouch is the author, most recently, of Don't the Moon Look Lonesome: A Novel in Blues and Swing.

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Bryan Curtis: My Prison Without Bars, by Pete Rose
As a document of false contrition, Pete Rose's book is a treasure—from the woe-is-me title to the rear-cover photo of Rose in tears, standing on first base. Rose published My Prison in January as part of a literary plea bargain: By admitting he placed bets on the Cincinnati Reds while serving as their manager, he hoped to grease his path into baseball's Hall of Fame. Well, as Pete might say, no dice. The problem is that Rose didn't cop to much of anything. He blames his dad for turning him into a horsetrack addict. He imports a doctor, David E. Comings, to ascribe his personality flaws to attention deficit hyperactivity disorder: "ADHD kids are very strong-willed. They don't like anyone telling them what to do. … In Pete's case, these characteristics helped him to become one of the greatest hitters in baseball history. … In fact, Pete Rose is not unlike Einstein, who flunked English but excelled in math." Hey, thanks, doc!

Those of us who cherish jock confessionals—who believe against all evidence that athletes have something to say—lost a little bit of our souls after reading My Prison. The sports confessional was once a flourishing literary form, practiced by jock-litterateurs who wanted to show how dehumanizing team sports really were. Now, the typical author is more along the lines of Rose, who seems determined to prove that athletes have moral compasses indistinguishable from toads. My most dispiriting cultural event for next year: Juiced, a memoir by Jose Canseco, who will surely make Rose look like Scott Fitzgerald.
—Bryan Curtis is Slate's deputy culture editor and a staff writer.

David Edelstein: The Passion of the Christ and Fahrenheit 9/11
Never the twain shall meet: Two movies that highlight our cultural schism, The Passion of the Christ and Fahrenheit 9/11. I suppose there might be someone, somewhere, who loves them both, but in general, neither side will ever see the other's point of view. Each film is punishing in its single-mindedness, but is, for its intended audience, a sort of turn-on. Every bloody lash and gouge out of Mel Gibson's Jesus is transfiguring: It cannot be too bloody, it cannot be too horrible. Gibson can talk disingenuously about Christian forgiveness, but the pain that his movie inflicts is meant to engender anger—at what or at whom is the question of the hour (if not the millennium). I know my characterization of it as "The Jesus Chainsaw Massacre" engendered anti-Semitic e-mails and vague death threats. (The most charitable e-mail said that one of those bloody lashes had my name on it—that Christ died for me, too.) Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 9/11 gives no inkling of the brutality of Saddam Hussein or the very real peril of what some call "Islamofascism." Firmly grounded in a view of the United States as run by corporatist greedheads (and cowards) who hide their true motives behind bogus piety, Moore traffics in sniggering innuendo and lingers on the bloody corpses of Iraqi children. But (here is where my own biases come into play), Moore's demagogic techniques are in the service of attacking a misbegotten war waged by arrogant fools, a war that has ended up costing thousands upon thousands of lives, with no end in sight. In any case, we will continue to demonize one another and celebrate the films (and propagandists) that help sustain our convictions. You think your side is right; I know mine is. In the end it will come down, once more, to who can sway the undecided, those idiots.
—David Edelstein is Slate'sfilm critic.

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Daniel Handler: The DVD release of Aventurera This year, the greatest film in the entire world was released on DVD. The film, Alberto Gout's Aventurera, was made in Mexico in 1950. It is the greatest film in the world. If I could, I would force you to see it. Once I saw it with my friend Matt, who was jet-lagged and fell asleep halfway through so I jabbed him in the ribs, hard, to wake him up. Once I saw two showings of the film on the same day—right in a row. I saw the film, bid my friend goodbye, lingered outside the theater, met another friend and pretended I had just arrived, went inside, and saw it again. Once I bought a VHS copy online from a very iffy-looking Web site, but it turned out there were no subtitles. I don't speak Spanish but my brother-in-law and his wife do, so I sent it to them. They have never acknowledged receiving the film, which I can only interpret as awe.