It’s funny how some totally discount the value of lists like these, even as they are drawn to them, like Gollum to his ring-shaped addiction. In other words, I cannot count how much mail, good and bad, I received for last year’s installment of this retrospective, especially from readers who could say nothing other than how useless such lists are.
But there was one vitally important note that was brought to my attention about last year’s list—I lumped everything under the unintentionally nationalistic rubric, “American culture”. Figuring, perhaps correctly, that much of the entertainment sphere’s lifeblood and funding comes directly out of the United States, I felt, perhaps wrongly, that its products were at least latent manifestations of American culture.
But even if that sentiment is found to be correct or fallacious, it is inherently missing the point. Even if one argues that America is where the world comes to play with its various signifiers—especially those of the entertainment and political persuasion—it’s nothing short of ignorant to ascribe all of them to the United States. In that sense, I would like to apologize to everyone outside of America who felt slighted by my pathetic bias.
And, again, I would like to apologize to everyone in the past that I’ve offended—and everyone I’m about to offend with this piece. That said, here’s 10 more watershed moments of the past year whose impact will most likely be felt long after Dick Clark’s balls drop on New York City and Los Angeles.
It’s About Tolkien Time!
Peter Jackson’s peerless presentation of J.R.R. Tolkien’s canonical imaginary made the top of the list last year, but that was right after The Two Towers hit the theaters and several months before the fan-friendly extended DVD landed. In other words, it was in media res. But now, with the release of The Return of the King, it can conclusively be said that Jackson’s trilogy is nothing short of history in progress. The box office receipts are staggering and the reviews are across-the-board positive, with a little elbow room given to quibbles that will most likely be smoothed over by the time the extended version comes out.
In fact, the only public dissent can be found amongst the Tolkien hardliners who misunderstand the fundamental complexities involved in bringing a 1000-page literary masterpiece featuring multiple storylines and constructed cultures and languages to the screen. And even those are hard to find.
One thing that the haters and the cheerleaders both seem to forget is how unprecedented Jackson’s achievement is, how rare a moment in film—to say nothing of entertainment—history it has become. Without alienating the Tolkien horde, without defaulting on New Line’s loans, without employing any major stars and without anything resembling a standard Hollywood resume of his own, Peter Jackson has revolutionized cinema. His heart-wrenching CGI Gollum raises serious questions about so-called “real” actors, his fellow Kiwis at WETA have made the two words “George Lucas” a thing of the past, and his trilogy has supplanted any other that came before (the Matrix cocktail, Coppola’s Godfather saga, the Star Wars machine, the Indiana Jones washout). Plus, his films will dig the fantasy and science fiction genres out of conventional narrative’s red-headed stepchild basement, and his fanatical dedication to his work and home have made New Zealand a Hollywood of the future.
Now, I know that he and many of his actors don’t give a shit about awards, but it’s insanity to think that the Academy doesn’t owe him back pay for overlooking his trilogy in favor of A Beautiful Mind and Chicago (where are they now, indeed), and that they won’t come through in 2004 to make up for it. I’m sure the rise in salaries for future projects will be nice for all of those involved, but more than anything, as sports has shown us, everyone remembers the winners and it’s time to pay up, suckers. It will be no small satisfaction watching Jackson have to make repeat trips to the podium at the Oscars this year; it will be about fucking time.
All hail the kings of prog punk! In a year that saw many bands going back to the well with boring (Radiohead) if not ridiculous (Dandy Warhols) results, one group grabbed the brass ring and reminded our DJ-saturated culture what it means to make music together again. Recombining the DNA of everyone from Led Zeppelin, Santana and Fugazi to Ozomatli, Rush and Pink Floyd—then adding a potent does of their own lyrical and musical fury—Mars Volta easily made the album of the year, causing some serious cranial hemorrhage along the way.
Crafting a scato/eschato/psychological exploration of addiction, depression and doom, Omar Rodriguez-Lopez and Cedric Bixler-Zavala carved out a name for themselves as the best songwriting duo since Page-Plant. Cedric’s glass-shattering vocals and Omar’s guitar wizardry brought an almost forgotten energy back to rock, while ensconcing both in the headbanger hall of fame. And is there a better, more powerful drummer in music today than Jon Theodore? The guy is unbelievable.
Even though the death of their sonic experimentalist and friend, Jeremy Ward, injected a disturbing confluence between art and life into their De-loused at the Comatorium, nothing could stop Mars Volta’s refreshing runaway train of rock revisionism. While some will argue that some brat named Dizzee Rascal or some color-coded kids named the White Stripes made the album of the year, Mars Volta could take a stage and eat their collective lunches with one song.
The Daily Show
Liberal billionaire George Soros is tired of the right-wingers at Fox, MSNBC and elsewhere soiling the airwaves, as is Progress Media. They want to spend millions to roll out a liberal bias in the media to counter that proffered by tools like Rush Limbaugh (nice call on McNabb, Oxy fiend!), Sean Hannity, Joe Scarborough and onward.
And, as usual, the question always comes down to blueprints—who is going to get copied to make the dream a reality?
Who indeed, besides Comedy Central’s brilliant fake news program, The Daily Show? In a stroke of genius or luck, The Daily Show lost former ESPN talking head and smug tool Craig Kilborn and replaced him with Jon Stewart in 1999, and it’s been gravy ever since. Where Kilborn’s intellectual capacity seemed to involve not much more than chicks in hot tubs, Stewart by contrast has a firm grasp of pop culture and its attendant politics, as well as a congenial interview style that isn’t saved by a bogus five-questions quiz.
Then there is the insanely funny Stephen Colbert (“That’s French, bitch!”), whose trenchant satire has skewered everyone from crotchety loudmouth Bill O’Reilly to confused loudmouth Al Sharpton. In 2003, Colbert and Stewart were the finest one-two punch on television, while the whole sick crew was rewarded for their penetrating insights with two Emmys.
Add that to the Emmy and Peabody already decorating The Daily Show‘s toilet, and you have more than the best fake news program on the airwaves—considering America’s current piss-poor state of television journalism, The Daily Show is the best damn real news show. Period.
Strom Thurmond Finally Dies!
Goddamn this took longer than it should have. Strom Thurmond’s long life defies the existence of a god; actually, I take that back: it does more to prove that god is white male than anything I can think of. How else to explain how a guy that steadfastly fought integration, who tried to run for president on a racist platform (Trent Lott, pick up the white courtesy phone), and continually fortified his redneck worldview whenever given the chance—all while siring a mulatto and paying her off with hush money since 1941(!)—lived to be 100 and serve time in Congress at the same time?
The only thing worse than Strom is his daughter Essie Mae Washington, who told Dan Rather that for “50 or 60 years now, this thing has been following me. So the fact that I am coming out now to talk about it is like a burden being lifted, because I had this secret.”
First off, it was no secret; everyone in South Carolina knew about it, and anyone with a sure grasp of tragicomedy—or Freud—could have guessed that much (hey, Strom had to be compensating for something). And secondly, why she felt that holding the bag for an absentee father who spent most of his public life degrading the living hell out of people her color—OK, people darker than her, but you catch my drift—up until the end of the 20th century is beyond me. I mean, think of the sea changes in African American culture since King, X, Chester Himes, Marcus Garvey, James Brown, Snoop Dogg, P-Funk, Tiger Woods and Jesse Jackson, to say nothing of the now-canonical slave narratives of Harriet Jacobs and Frederick Douglass—they all passed her by. Next to Rosa Parks suing Outkast for trademark infringement, this has got to be one of the most ludicrous moments of 2003, hands down.
And before all you sensitives draft those hate mails, answer this question—what possible collective good came from Washington keeping silent? That move saved one person above all else some much-needed embarrassment: Strom.
I know it might be taboo to ridicule the dead, but in a year that cost us the shining lights of Edward Said, Gregory Peck, Nina Simone, Johnny Cash, Elliott Smith, Gregory Hines, John Entwhistle, Barry White, Althea Gibson, Bobby Bonds, Celia Cruz, Stan Brakhage, Leslie Cheung and Maurice Blanchot (whew!), the passing of Strom was music to my ears. Good riddance.
The Liberal Smackdown!
Michael Moore wins an Oscar. Al Franken firmly lodges his foot in Bill O’Reilly’s ass. Some nobody named Howard Dean galvanizes—and raises—millions at the drop of a hat. In fact, there’s a better than good chance that he might be America’s next president.
Can you smell what the pinkos are cooking?
OK, so these are all minor victories, but trust me, after four years of the smarmy, smug, provincial “Us vs. Them” corporate sellout Bush administration, I’ll take whatever I can get. And you should too, because no matter your political affiliation or cultural perspective, there is no doubt—to use Ronald Reagan’s twisted logic—that the United States is far worse off than it was four years ago. Four years ago, we had a massive surplus; now we’ve got trillion dollar deficits. Four years ago, the dollar was kicking currency ass; now it’s getting beat down by the euro. Four years ago, the Twin Towers were standing and the Clinton crew was chasing Osama bin Laden and Saudi Arabia down. Today, the Towers are a memory and the energy sector-funded Bush administration has killed at least four times as many civilians who died on 9/11, all while invading and occupying a country that had nothing to do with 9/11 but nevertheless houses the world’s second-largest oil reserves.
What kind of boneheaded administration decides that occupying a country in the Middle East—which is already losing its mind over, what else, Israel’s occupation of Palestine—is a good thing? Or thumps its chest because they found Saddam in a spider hole? Only in America!
Four years ago, we were friends with mostly everyone in the world; now they all hate us. In other words, the ascendancy of Dean, Moore, Franken, Soros and other liberals who so recently realized that they weren’t king-sized wimps is instructive; in fact, it may be a taste of things to come. Smell that!