Was the sky falling?
There is culture that speaks to the moment, and there are moments so loud and dissonant that it becomes hard to distinguish where the moment ends and the culture begins. Or vice versa.
What if nothing much happened in 2017? What if it had a been a year like any other? Some losses, some triumphs, an outrage or two, then the next year began, institutions intact, morality intact, status quo. Would that slender man have felt ominous then? Would the culture we occupy — much of it planned long before the 2016 election — have looked different? Or were things trending downward for a while, fed on an ugliness lying in wait? This time last year, I was finishing a story that was partly about whether 2016 was the worst year ever. Turns out — nope. If you’re in need of an episode recap of what happened in the United States, Season 241, Episodes 2,881 through 2,892:
Donald Trump became president. The president sought a ban on travel from seven predominantly Muslim countries. Then the president sought a ban on transgender soldiers. The president said there were bad people “on all sides” of a white nationalist rally in Virginia (that ended with a protester being killed). The president endorsed the Senate candidacy of a judge accused of sexually harassing teenagers. The president brushed aside accusations that he sexually harassed a number of women. The president attempted to roll back hundreds of regulations, affecting children’s health, education, national parks. Hurricanes hit Texas and Puerto Rico; the president threw paper towels at survivors. On Jan. 1, after taking a knee during the national anthem to protest racism, quarterback Colin Kaepernick played his last game in the NFL; months later, when other players kneeled, the president sought their firing.
The Trump presidential campaign was repeatedly connected with Russian efforts to undermine the 2016 election; the campaign became part of an ongoing investigation. A gunman in Las Vegas killed nearly 60 people and wounded 500 more. There were additional terror attacks, in New York and Texas. North Korea threatened nuclear war, then the president threatened back. Scores of powerful men in Hollywood and the media (and nearly every profession and governmental body) were accused of sexual harassment and removed; Minnesota U.S. Sen. Al Franken said he would step down after allegations were made against him. The president retweeted videos from white extremist groups, insulted the prime minster of Australia, pulled the U.S out of both free-trade and the Paris Climate agreements, embraced dictators and called the press the “enemy of the people.” He referred to the news that he didn’t like as “fake news.” Also, Time magazine asked, “Is Truth Dead?”
Other stuff happened, too.
But basically, culture changed. The air grew heavier, the foundations on which much rested — literally, morally — witnessed a slow rumble. One of my favorite podcasts of the year was “Where Should We Begin,” a series of actual couples-counseling sessions, which at times is like listening to pieces of a cliff break off a continental shelf, chunk by chunk. Landscape changed overnight, sometimes tentatively, sometimes with a crash. A lot of people liked the change; they were, electorally, demographically, statistically, in the minority. The rest felt a steep dive — what decay already existed now accelerated.
Winter arrived (as they said on “Game of Thrones”).
People started “saying stuff to each other, none of it actually becoming dialogue” (as Ali Smith wrote in “Autumn,” her brilliant novel set in a splintering, post-Brexit England).
The galaxy, at last, had “lost all hope” (as Gen. Leia said in “Star Wars: The Last Jedi,” having sent a distress signal to a universe that appeared, at best, indifferent).
Like the Millennium Falcon swooping in at the last minute: Democrat Doug Jones, to the relief of Democrats and Republicans alike, beat Roy Moore, who has been accused of molesting teens, in the Alabama Senate race — then a few days later, a terrific new “Star Wars” arrived.
Merry Christmas, indeed.
And it wasn’t just the usual Stormtrooper parade: “The Last Jedi” is as much a product of its moment as any overtly political work released this year, containing both the downswings and hopes of its times in one package. Female leaders are second-guessed and mansplained. Fundamentals are questioned. We see sometimes it’s best not to meet heroes. There’s a trip to a planet characterized by income inequality, ruled by a One Percent; in bad-guy Snoke, we get the juiciest portrait of needling, soulless opportunism since “Saturday Night Live” portrayed Steve Bannon as the Grim Reaper.
Steven Spielberg’s “The Post,” which for months has been called the right movie at the right moment, felt relevant, if in less magical and obvious ways. It doesn’t have the engine of a classic fairy tale, but rather the power of a populist Frank Capra fairy tale. It tells the story of how the Washington Post printed the Pentagon Papers during the Nixon administration, as the administration actively sought ways to subvert the newspaper’s First Amendment rights. When Chicago actress Carrie Coon (playing journalist Meg Greenfield) reads the Supreme Court decision — saying the press exists to “serve the governed, not the governors” — I imagine it was hard for Coon to not look directly into the camera and wink. Unlike the years of development most movies take, “The Post” came together remarkably fast; it didn’t start shooting until Memorial Day.
You feel the clipped urgency to get it on screen immediately.
The result (opening here Jan. 5) is a call for resistance, though less an argument against a White House than an argument for journalism itself, the exhausting, intense reporting that goes into holding public servants accountable. Ironically then, Coon was also at the heart of the finale of HBO’s “The Leftovers,” as a woman wandering through a world pulling apart, where accountability no longer has much relevancy. The plot, if you recall, is about how the world was altered overnight when 2 percent of its people vanish. Right until the end (and maybe after), Coon’s Nora was struggling to find purpose in the remains, and as seen in a lot of culture this year — “Twin Peaks: The Return,” “Mother!” — what remained was a shred of empathy in a dream-state existence.
In other words, resistance took less evident forms.
For instance, I met the Resistance in June, at a music festival in Wisconsin. At least they called themselves the Resistance. They were registering voters; they kept a bowl of pins for people they liked, each with the insignia of the Rebels from “Star Wars” — not unlike the Rebel-insignia rings that children collect in “Last Jedi,” dreaming of joining the fight one day. The Resistance also found a place in your mailbox: Creators of Cards Against Humanity, the playfully abrasive Chicago-based party game, solicited $2.25 million in $15 donations, to legally tie up a small patch of land on the Mexico-U.S. border, to defend against the Trump administration’s attempts at building a border wall. With the money, the Cards folks also “redistributed” $1,000 each to 100 low-income people, retained a Texas lawyer and, charmingly, stuffed envelopes full of good news.
You know, to cheer you up.
It was kind of a prank, kind of art — and definitely an act of resistance.
The trouble with 2017 was that, as the relentlessness of significant, impactful news refused to slow — as bombarding us with way too much to process and react to became a political strategy — it became hard to tell if an act of resistance was a response to decay, or the decay was a necessary byproduct of the resistance. Take the biggest cultural story of the year: the sexual harassment charges against powerful men that tsunamied, taking with them Louis CK and Harvey Weinstein and Matt Lauer and Russell Simmons, among others. I can think of more than a few instances where the culture itself seemed presciently cued in: The Art Institute of Chicago had an insightful show on Gauguin, who has long been a kind of Exhibit A of our ongoing debate on what to do with great art made by bad people. Inversely, Kerry James Marshall painted a 132-foot-tall mural on the side of the Chicago Cultural Center that honored 20 Chicago women, some famous, some not. Did you pick up on the side-eye and smirk that Laura Dern throws a boundary-stepping Oscar Isaac in “The Last Jedi”? It looks well practiced. Just as Daniel Day Lewis’ impervious fashion designer in “Phantom Thread” (opening here Jan. 12), a man who treats women as canvases, matter-of-factly explains to a muse: It is his job to provide her breasts — that is, if he chooses to give them.
It’s not as if any of these movies or exhibits were hatched in the past two months; it’s not as if the arts community were somehow more woke on systemic misogyny. (If they were, they wouldn’t be among the biggest misogynists.) Yet each of these works, in its own way, arriving this year, became a comment on institutional rot. That foundational decay curdled at the center of so many works in 2017 — again, works not conceived and directed at Trump himself — suggests a country that’s been unraveling in elementary ways, a nation where no one even agrees anymore on the basic point of the country.
So, horror films had a blockbuster year, and Ken Burns’ epic Vietnam War documentary on PBS — a government lies to its people, and goes to the trouble of covering up the lies? — played almost quaint at times. “War for the Planet of the Apes” was a strong argument against humanity itself, and “The Florida Project” became a Huck Finn for the age of inequality. The alienation of a shrinking middle class fueled Steven Soderbergh’s return to directing, “Logan Lucky,” and “S-Town,” the hit podcast from the “This American Life” team, focused on the claustrophobia and collapse of shared values in a small town. The tiny Steep Theatre in Rogers Park didn’t seem concerned if “Earthquakes in London” — a sprawling, three-hour global collapse — fit on its stage, only that it had a stage. In Carmen Maria Machado’s indelible debut, the story collection “Her Body and Other Parties,” women read porn-star minds and charted sexual history by the apocalypse unfolding before them. Bruce Springsteen, our reliable foghorn of hope in the murkiest American moments, used his Broadway stage for a study of depression.
Superman himself, in DC’s “Doomsday Clock,” is unable to sleep.
None of which is quite protest. You also didn’t find much music in 2017 reminiscent of the heart-on-a-sleeve outrage from a half-century ago. Instead, the times seemed to strip off navel-gazing: Jay-Z rapped about never intending to mope around a mansion; Lana Del Rey, a seemingly vaporous pop presence by design, sounded eager to cast away nostalgia. In Kendrick Lamar’s “DNA,” there’s a desire to see super clearly:
Tell me when destruction gonna be my fate
Gonna be your fate, gonna be our faith
Peace to the world, let it rotate
Sex, money, murder — our DNA
Then again, in a country where white nationalism is seeing a resurgence, the act of creating art itself is political: When Perfume Genius — the stage name of performer Mike Hadreas, who is gay — sings, “How long must we live right/ Before we don’t even have to try?” he sounds long past caring for an answer. Compassion becomes a political act: There was a remarkable episode of Aziz Ansari’s “Master of None” that, for one episode, shifted the focus to a doorman and a cashier who is deaf — the sort of blink-and-you-miss background roles often treated like wallpaper.
Perhaps there was a fear of the didactic, a worry about creating work that dates quickly, a concern that the line between moral righteousness and moral grandstanding gets thin.
Smart things to worry about.
Perhaps it’s too early in a relatively new White House to expect much: But when the Resistance didn’t mince words this year, it created the culture’s best moments. Tina Fey devouring a cake, in real time, on “SNL,” working out Trump-era anxiety. PJ Harvey, in one of Chicago’s most discussed performances of 2017, reimagining the festival show as political dirge. The public voted clearly for Seth Meyers, Jimmy Kimmel and Steven Colbert’s political satire over an increasingly irrelevant Jimmy Fallon. The National Portrait Gallery filled an exhibit with images of laborers, even as Congress moved to extend tax cuts to primarily the richest Americans.
“Dunkirk” and “Darkest Hour” were not conceived as reminders of what true leadership resembles, but it’s hard to imagine either playing many other ways now. “Get Out” blasted through the racial-healing rhetoric of the Obama years, only to land like a cruel joke weeks after the Trump inauguration. Indeed, you could argue the Resistance was born the day after the inauguration, at the Women’s March, with its homemade banners and ubiquitous “pussy hats.” The opening salvos of an insurgent culture? Less than a month later, Vince Staples rapped in “BagBak” about the president using language we can’t print in a newspaper, but really all you need is the song’s refrain:
We on now
By summer, monuments to the Confederacy were coming down, while in Chicago, a 5-foot-tall gold message went up, pointed at Trump Tower, courtesy of the city itself:
The city says the sculpture wasn’t political: But then, we should not confuse the city of Chicago with the Resistance, and besides, it’s not the city’s place to say. “Star Wars: The Last Jedi” ends with an uncertain Resistance, hoping to persevere “not by fighting what we hate but by saving what we love.” That’s political in 2017. Things get worse before they get better. Asteroids hit the earth. Look up. “The Post” — the “Rogue One” of Nixon movies — ends not quite in triumph but with the Watergate scandal. Ali Smith’s “Autumn,” a book I returned often to this year, finds comfort in this inevitable falling apart, the way seasons pass and resilience rises to the top, the way everything is “bones in grass, bones in flowers, the leafy branches of the ash tree above them, Which is what, in the end, is left of us all, whether we carry a gun while we’re here or we don’t. So. While were here. I mean, while we’re still here.”
©2017 Chicago Tribune
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