The end of 2017 is nigh. And with it, the top ten lists, the retrospectives, the predictions. Rather than the Top Books Published in 2017 or the Best Films of the Year or anything like this, here’s my list of opinions, ideas, and arguments that I have not already written about in 2017 and would like to make sure I write about before the year is up and they become potentially irrelevant.
So, here we go.
The Literature Takes
One. Are we living in Vonnegut’s unfinished final novel?
I’ve already written about how painfully the current world resembles a Vonnegut novel. But as nuclear war ticks closer, metaphors invade real life, and madmen in decline occupy the highest positions of power, it’s worth wondering if we might simply be living in Vonnegut’s world.
According to his book A Man Without a Country, Vonnegut had an unfinished novel at the end of his life, a novel with little-to-no prospect of ever being finished. He called it If God Were Alive Today and describes it as
“…about Gil Berman, thirty-six years my junior, a standup comedian at the end of the world. It is about making jokes while we are killing all the fish in the ocean, and touching off the last chunks or drops or whiffs of fossil fuel. But it will not let itself be finished.”
It’s no secret that I’m a pretty big Moby-Dick fan. Or, if it was a secret to you, then this might be the first thing you’ve read by me. Which is cool, if that’s the case (thanks!).
Anyway, in honor of Moby-Dick‘s 166th birthday, here are nine reasons that you finally need to read it. Now.
Ishmael is an extraordinarily funny narrator.
You’ve probably heard a lot of reasons to read Moby-Dick in your life. Great American novel and foundation of all literature and a genuine masterpiece and so on. But something that seems to be often lost in its recommendations is that it’s a genuine laugh riot.
Oddly enough, I’ve noticed a trend in which readers of Moby-Dick find it funny, yet think that the humor is something they’re discovering for the first time, like this listicle of all the sperm references and this thread in the /r/mobydick subreddit.
The reality is that, yes, Ishmael is a very funny narrator and Moby-Dick is a very funny book. As pointed out in this NPR article, it’s a good idea to read it looking for humor and “see almost immediately that Melville’s tongue couldn’t have been more in his cheek.” And yes, you’re not imagining it: there really are tons of phallus jokes, with the entire 95th chapter dedicated to “a very strange, enigmatical object” which is none other than a whale’s penis.
Ishmael is a wise and thoughtful and oddly progressive narrator.
He’s not just funny, of course. He’s also wise and poignant, with enigmatic, zenlike musings including:
“It is not down in any map any map; true places never are.”
“Yes, as every one knows, meditation and water are wedded for ever.”
“Better to sleep with a sober cannibal than a drunk Christian.”
It’s that third one that has sparked endless conversation, centered around the relationship between the “heathen” Queequeg and his bedmate Ishmael. Of course, the line above isn’t the only reference to the depths and threads of their relationship. Throughout the entire book, Ishmael and Queequeg form an intimate bond, to the extent that Moby-Dick has been considered the first depiction of same-sex marriage in American literature.
It was the best of Alien films, it was the worst of Alien films, it was the sequel to Prometheus, it was the prequel to Alien, it was the story of David, it was the story of Lucifer, it had an awesome ending, it had the worst ending ever — in short, Alien: Covenant was so much like the entire Alien series that many of its audiences and critics have insisted on discussing it in the superlative degree of comparison only.
Immediately, let’s note that Alien: Covenant could never accurately be considered the best or the worst Alien film. The only contenders for best Alien film are the original Ridley Scott masterpiece and Aliens, the James Cameron action sequel. The worst, depending on who you ask, is the third or the fourth installment, or, if you’re considering them as contenders, the Alien vs Predator movies.
Rather than discuss the film as a whole – as there are many critics whose job it is to review films in depth, and many armchair critics whose hobby is the same – I’d like to focus on one small aspect of Alien: Covenant that I think was missed by many of its viewers. The film was derided by various bloggers, commenters, and critics as having an “obvious twist ending.” As you know, based on the headline of this article, my argument is that this should not be called either a twist ending or an obvious twist ending.
I’ve also waited long enough to write this so that a) no one is talking about Alien: Covenant anymore b) I’ve had enough time to consider it to know that this is how I feel, and c) we know how well the film did at the box office (not quite $250 million on a nearly $100 million budget, so not awesome.)
First, let’s recap the Alien: Covenant ending, before debating its flaws and strengths
Game of Thrones is Not Sacred. It’s Grateful Dead Fan Fiction
The first episode of the seventh season of HBO’s Game of Thrones sparked a multitude of reactions, but perhaps none more virulent and hysterical than how certain GOT fans responded when Ed Sheeran appeared onscreen. The response was so rabid that some speculated Sheeran had deleted his Twitter account in response to the hatred (Sheeran has since denied it, stating “Why the hell would I worry what people thought about that. It’s clearly fuckin’ awesome.”)
I made my opinion very clear, via a tweet declaring:
If Ed Sheeran's cameo on Game of Thrones upset you, then you are the problem. Not him.
Now, regardless of why Sheeran temporarily deleted his account, it does not change the fact that some Game of Thrones fans really, really hated seeing him on the screen. A top post in the /r/GameofThrones subreddit declared that his cameo had “ruined the Realism (sic).” Others mocked him with YouTube videos, angry tweets, and scornful recaps. Among the responses I received – in response to my “Ed Sheeran isn’t the problem” tweet were people telling me that they “hate him” and that cameos by Beyonce and John Legend would be next.
There are a few good points about why the Ed Sheeran cameo is nothing to be upset about, but I’ve already seen all but one of them already effectively made. These arguments include:
Sheeran is recognizable, yes, but aren’t many of the other actors in the show also recognizable?
Sheeran was cast as a singer with a beautiful voice. Doesn’t it make sense to have a singer with a beautiful voice play a singer with a beautiful voice?
Why are all of you putting so much energy into hating a complete stranger?
But none of these are the articles I’ve come to write.
Or at least, it eventually will be known as Moon Landing Week. For now, we know that this upcoming Thursday (July 20th) is the 48th anniversary of the Moon Landing… or perhaps we don’t. Perhaps you just learned that now.
In honor of this year’s Moon Landing Day, here are ten things you can do to celebrate.
Listen to JFK’s Space Speech at Rice University
In September of 1962, with little over a year to live, John F. Kennedy, gave a speech where he reimagined the history of humankind into a 50 year span, and told us what we could accomplish before midnight during these condensed five decades.
He tells us, in this speech, that space has the potential to be “a sea of peace” or a “new terrifying theater of war.” He also reminds his audience that sometimes the right thing is the difficult one:
We choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others, too.
We could dwell at length on the lessons in this speech, the similarities and contradictions between that moment in America and this one. Regardless, it’s something listen to and consider on this Moon Landing Day.
We find ourselves in the midst of another summer and with it, an endless brigade of sequels, prequels, reboots, requels, and the ongoing march of extended cinematic universes. A new Mummy. A fifth Transformers. A new Baywatch. A third installment in the third imagining of Planet of the Apes. A third actor playing Spider-Man in the last decade. A sequel to the Alien prequel. Another damn King Arthur. Another three Marvel shows on Netflix springing up for every new Marvel film, perpetual menaces likes heads of the hydra.
And while the tastemakers and critics bemoan this ongoing onslaught of tired ideas and bloated franchises, it’s worth pausing and reminding ourselves that there is nothing novel about this. This lack of new ideas is not new. Sure, 2017 is bloated with stories and characters lacking originality, but so was 2016, 2007, 1997, and 1597.
If you’re really looking for someone to blame for these endless reboots and expanding cinematic universes, it’s not Michael Bay or Vin Diesel. Blame the real culprits: William Shakespeare, Charles Dickens, Mark Twain, and all the other writers throughout history who did the same thing we’re seeing today on the screen.
So, dear reader, it’s time for you to sit back, hold your rebuttal until the end, and consider the following list of explaining how the current “lack of originality” is neither original, nor a problem.
Sequels Upon Sequels Upon Prequels Upon Sequels are Nothing New
Surely you’re familiar with The Three Musketeers, the swashbuckling adventure novel by Alexandre Dumas. Perhaps you’ve read it, or perhaps you’re seen one of its screen adaptations, of which there have been many.
But here are a few things you might not know about The Three Musketeers and Dumas:
The Three Musketeers has two sequels by Dumas, Twenty Years After and The Vicomte de Bragelonne.
The Vicomte de Bragelonne is often published as three different books instead of one as it’s extremely long, meaning that The Three Musketeers effectively has four sequels.
The third part of the third Three Musketeers book is the famous The Man in the Iron Mask.
All of these novels were originally published in serialized form, being released in installments over time. The Three Musketeers took four months to be released, much like a television show is released today.
The Count of Monte Cristo, another novel by Dumas, was originally serialized in 18 parts and ran for over two years.
When each of these novels were released in English, they were also serialized, often seeing competing versions and abridgments being released at the same time.
Of course, Dumas invented neither the sequel nor the serial. The following authors also followed their novels with sequels that followed the same characters and cashed in on the popularity:
Lewis Carroll, after releasing Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland in 1865, followed it up with a sequel, Through the Looking Glass, six years later. He then wrote The Hunting of the Snark, an epic poem published in 1876 that features a few characters and creatures from Through the Looking Glass.
Leo Tolstoy might be famous of War and Peace and Anna Karenina, but his first published novel was Childhood, which launched him into popularity. He wrote two sequels to the novel, called Boyhood and Youth.
The famous novel we know today as Little Women by Louisa May Alcott was initially two different novels, called Little Women (1868) and its sequel, Good Wives (1869). Not stopping there, Alcott published another two sequels, Little Men and Jo’s Boys.
Sherlock Holmes might be one of the most ubiquitously adapted characters today, which certainly wouldn’t be the case if Sir Arthur Conan Doyle hadn’t cranked out sixty sequels to his 1887 success A Study in Scarlet.
Literary sequels to great works continued into the 20th century, including Joseph Heller writing a sequel to Catch-22 and Johns Cheever and Updike writing a few sequels of their own.
The trailers are out for the third season of Fargo and there isn’t much more to say about them than “okay then.” As in, it looks good. Pretty darn good.
But it’s not here yet. The third season of the anthology will premier in late April, giving us time to either rewatch the first two seasons in anxious anticipation or get hyped for it by consuming some other media with similar themes and settings. The following list contains a number of films, shows, and books, all of which can be recommended to an enthusiastic Fargo fan. Many of these are either set in Minnesota, created by Minnesotans, or have some other Midwestern connection.
Many also share at least one of two other traits with Fargo: a sense of humor and a sense of violence.
Watch A Serious Man by the Coen Brothers and Starring Michael Stuhlbarg
Filmed in Minnesota’s Saint Louis Park, A Serious Man is arguably the most autobiographical film that Ethan and Joel Coen have made. But the setting and the creators aren’t the only reason to watch this film in anticipation of the upcoming Fargo season.
This 2009 film stars Michael Stuhlbarg as Larry Gopnik, a Minnesotan man who finds his life unraveling much in the style of Job. If you’re not immediately familiar with the name Michael Stuhlbag, you might know him better as Arnold Rothstein in Boardwalk Empire. Or, you might not be familiar with him at all… but you will be, assuming you watch the upcoming series of Fargo, in which he plays the character Sy Feltz. (It’s also worth noting that Stuhlbarg isn’t the only Boardwalk Empire alum in this season of Fargo; Shea Whigham will also be in this season.) Continue reading “Twelve Ways to Get Hyped for Fargo’s Third Season”→
Toward the finale of the 2016 election, Mike Huckabee took to Fox News to give a defense of Donald Trump that I’ve been mulling over in my head ever since.
I see Trump as Capt Quint (Robert Shaw) on the boat, Orca, in the movie “Jaws.” He’s salty, drunk and says incorrect things. He spits in your face. BUT… He’s gonna save your rear. You may not like what he says but, in the end, you and your family survive.
“Vote for the fishing boat captain,” Huckabee said. “Not the shark.”
While ineloquent and muddled, Huckabee’s defense gave a great insight into why people were lining up behind Donald Trump. They saw him as a vulgar presence, but he was their vulgar presence against the greater dangers.
If Huckabee were more versed in film, literature, or television, he would have realized that there are a thousand better metaphors for who Donald Trump is: he is, in the eyes of his followers, the anti-hero of the True America.
A different defense of Trump comes to mind, one that his followers would surely cite, had they seen the first season of True Detective:
Marty: Do you wonder ever if you’re a bad man?
Rust: No, I don’t wonder, Marty. The world needs bad men. We keep the other bad men from the door.
The world needs bad men. It seems like a missed opportunity that Trump’s campaign didn’t snap that up as their slogan. One can imagine Rust and Marty’s conversation rolling over footage of Donald Trump mocking Serge Kovaleski, or Rust’s defense of bad men and musings on man’s inability to love intercut with I moved on her like a bitch and you can do anything.
At this point, I have to point out that there is nothing unique in saying that Trump is an anti-hero and our obsession with anti-heroes in our media and film is what got Trump elected. As evidenced by the articles I just listed, this has been exhaustively explored.
What I do have is another layer to add to this: the rise of the anti-hero in our media came from the America that emerged during the presidency of George W. Bush.
During the Bush era, America found itself in the role of the anti-hero. This is what propelled the flawed and gritty protagonist into our film and television. This is what prompted the wave of dark and gritty reboots that are still grinding today.
Art imitates life imitates art. Politics causes pop culture causes politics. Bush was our cowboy hero who became tainted, tattered, and gritty as our wars became unwinnable and our morals murky. Obama was our shining hero, our knight in shining armor, our warrior who could not be everything he wanted to be.
And now there is Trump: the gritty anti-hero, the protagonist who rapes, the populist king. He is the danger.
Consider the misquote. It lies in that same realm as citing fake news or reading only the headline. Misquoting is certainly nothing new, but the internet allows a fake quote to be retweeted a thousand times before the truth has even clicked send.
I’ve written about this before, of course. In the summer of 2015, I wrote a blog post called Six Things Hemingway Never Said, in which I listed a series of fake, inaccurate, misappropriated, or apocryphal Hemingway quotes and their origins.
Since then, of course, it has only gotten worse. Consider the following list of quotes, provided by Google when one searches for ernest hemingway quotes:
I won’t catalogue all of these, but let’s say that they range from context-free to paraphrased to nonsense. The seventh is a misquote of a line he said during a famous article by Dorothy Parker in The New Yorker, while the last one on the list sounds like the social media status update of a moody teen.