Act Four Live: Pop culture with Alyssa Rosenberg (Feb. 26)

Feb 26, 2018

When the credits come up at the movies, the pages in a book run out, or the last commercial rolls over the end of a television episode, the story might be over. But the discussion is just getting started. Here at Act Four, we’ll get together every week to talk about the best (and worst) in pop culture. We’ll also try to sort out why the stories we love mean so much to us, and what they mean for the rest of the world.

Hi everyone! Welcome back! I know it's been a long time since we've gotten together, and I'm determined not to miss any more of our conversations until I head out on maternity leave later this spring. I value our time together, and it's definitely going to be something I miss while I'm out of the office. I hope you've all been well in my absence, and I imagine there's a lot of pent-up Oscar and "Black Panther" energy, so let's get to it. (I'd also love to hear from any of you who saw "Annihilation" this weekend, though judging by the box office, that's not a whole lot of you!)

I've always wanted to visit Italy, but haven't made it happen yet. What were the highlights of your trip? Any particularly memorable or surprising moments? What was the food like (let's be real, the pasta and gelato are a big draw for me)?

Oh, man, well I cannot recommend Italy highly enough, and if you do start planning a trip there, I am happy to offer further consultations by email. It's a truly wonderful place to travel: easy to get around, hard to eat really badly, and just crazily chock-full of wonderful things to do and wonderful opportunities to just sit back and see the world go by. We were in Florence and Rome this time around, so I'll confine my Italy highlights to those two cities (though Venice is terrific as well). 

In terms of what we saw, in Florence, I particularly enjoyed:

-Our day trip to Siena, which is a physically beautiful city with a lot of very interesting history. We used Rick Steves' free audio guide here, as we did a lot of other places, and found it a really terrific supplement to the curation at the various sites we visited.

-The Duomo Museum, which was much better curated than many of the museums we saw in Italy, and gives you space to see the original pieces, many of  which have been removed from the Duomo itself.

-The Oltrarno neighbohood and the Piazalle Michaelangelo, which sits at the top of it. Central Florence is lovely and walkable, but the Oltrarno (literally, the other side of the Arno) feels a bit more genuinely lived-in and less touristy. The Piazalle Michaelangelo, a big park area at the top of the neighborhood, is full of tourists but worth it for the stunning views and the walk up.

-Food-wise, the gelato places we were most interested in visiting all seemed to be closed for renovations while we were in Florence, so we went to a conveniently-located Grom a lot (Grom is basically the Starbucks of gelato, but it's still tasty). But we had amazing meals at Coquinarius and at Osteria Vini e Vecchi Sapori, which served us pasta in a saffron cream sauce with shredded squash blossoms that I am certain I will remember until I die.

In Rome, we were probably a little more predictable. But even if loving the Colosseum and the Forum, or sighing over the Vatican Museums and bursting into tears at the sight of the Pieta are total cliches, I will defend those experiences forever. Rome is an amazing place to see centuries of civilization working on each other and in cultural dialogue with each other, and it's so worth doing the big stuff there. We also had a really nice visit to Ostia Antica, a largely-preserved Roman port town, which I highly recommend. Food-wise, I felt like we ate a little less well in Rome than we did in Florence, though we went to Il gelato di San Crispino every day, while feeling very smug about the huge crowds Instagramming their cones outside of Giolitti, which is an expensive tourist trap. I also highly recommend getting reservations at Armando al Pantheon if you can while you're in Rome. It's a bit more upscale, but all the classics are just to die for. If you go, please get the poached pear for me.


Did you partake of any Italian media coverage of the winter Olympics? I imagine it would be interesting to compare/contrast with US TV.

Honestly, I didn't: given that this was our last big pre-baby trip, we wanted to get out and do as much as is humanely possible, recognizing that it'll be harder to hit our usual travel pace with a tiny human in tow. That meant we weren't in our hotel room much, nor were we lingering in front of TVs any place else. I'm sure it would have been an interesting comparison; it just wasn't what we were up for on this trip.

First of all, welcome home, although I'm sure some small part of your brain would've liked to have stayed in Italy, amiright?!?! I'm someone who's lucky enough to typically spend one month a year in Europe, but the only drawback is that I find there are large gaps in my pop culture information base since I endeavor to be as "present" (i.e., immersed) as possible in Europe while I'm there, and consume only the minimum necessary amount of US pop culture (mainly what's reported on BBC, Sky News and France24 English-language TV networks). Since returning. have you learned anything that transpired in American pop culture while you were away -- if so, what, and do you regret missing it at the time? (In my case, it's often the deaths of people who were famous mainly in the US, so their passing isn't reported in foreign media).

I was sorry to miss the press screening of "Black Panther," which happened while I was away, and meant that I was about a news cycle behind on discussions of the movie by the time that I got back. But honestly, even though this might not be the most responsible thing for a critic to admit, I try not to get anxious about what I'm missing while I'm away on a trip like this. There are simply so many movies and TV shows coming out right now that I'm inevitably going to be behind on a lot of things, and I'm just not ever going to be completely caught up (this will be doubly true when I go out on leave). It's a better use of my time as both a critic and as a human being to try to get as much out of the place that I've gone to visit when I'm there, rather than worrying about what's going on in a different cultural ecosystem. Being in Florence and Rome was a really important reminder to me to take the long view when it comes to questions of cultural influence and borrowing: seeing the Romans both acquire and borrow from Greek art, and then seeing the great artists of the Renaissance rediscover the lessons the Greeks and Romans had already learned, and then seeing how artists began to incorporate those lessons and move beyond them into the Baroque just reset my brain in a valuable way. I'm not totally sure how I'm going to incorporate those reminders into my own criticism, yet: the news cycle is so punishing these days, and so counter to these kinds of millenia-long perspective. But I'm working on a piece about a new book about "Angels In America" where I think I'll be able to make use of some of these insights in a more abbreviated way. That's more valuable to me than having seen "Black Panther" right on time, even if it means sacrificing some traffic.

I don't want to rechew the exchange we had about Allen a couple weeks ago, but I do want to recommend A.O. Scott's recent essay about Allen's films if you didn't see it while on vacation. He says interesting things about the dangers of both reflexively condemning Allen's films because of his problems and reflexively looking past those problems as irrelevant to his art. And he also makes an intriguing case that Allen's best films are those of what might be called his "Mia Farrow period," which got me thinking about whether there are similar unities in his other periods (which I would call "Lasser," "Keaton," and "post-Farrow").

I read the essay! I thought it was good, and I agreed with parts of it. I also wish it had been longer and more sweeping!

In the looking for the silver lining, maybe the Trump-Pence administration will mean the end of it? I didn't even noticed that nobody in the real room didn't laugh at Stephen Colbert's 2006 routine because I was laughing so hard out loud, but I wouldn't miss it much. I think the critiques of it are pretty well established, but curious as someone kind of adjacent to that world, do professional political journalists love it? If they do, then have it at it I guess.

"Kind of adjacent" is a good way to describe my relationship to the community of journalists who would ever be invited to the White House Correspondents Association dinner. I think a great deal of my happiness in Washington and in Washington journalism is due to the fact that I'm an eccentric weirdo who everyone can come talk to about their favorite TV shows. But I digress. I don't think I would say that "professional political journalists" love the dinner, since that's a term that covers a huge number of people. DC is not a super-glitzy town, and I do think it's fun to have an event where people get dressed up and celebrate the profession and enjoy themselves. But I don't know that the dinner as it currently exists, or has existed in recent years, with the president's participation and the presence of a lot of out-of-town stars, has to be the same thing forever. (If anything, as a cultural journalists, I always feel a little weird about seeing journalists taking a lot of selfies with actors.) If the whole thing became less cozy with the administration, and more focused on the values that support good journalism and on raising scholarship money, that would be just fine.

Have you checked out "Babylon Berlin" yet? Guessing no since probably higher work-related priorities to catch up, but I think it's worth it and something you don't need to binge. Don't want to praise it by knocking other shows, but feel like I'm about to. I think you were more into that TV show that I was, but "Mad Men" was so impressed with itself over the set design of one floor of a office building and yet it wasn't until I watch a "behind the scene" video showing just how much they recreated of 1929 Berlin. All the street exteriors were fake which I never got from watching. Felt very much like these were real buildings. A lot of money was spend on it and certainly feels immersive (the characters don't spend their entire lives in two or three locations, but move around), but luckily it doesn't come across that way. More natural then drawing attention to itself that some "big" TV productions do.

Not only have I not checked it out, I haven't even heard of this. Send context!

I just wanted to say thank you so much for the Trump Show columns! Your columns have been a great service this past year in a way that's hard to express. They've really helped me process the craziness that happens every week by stepping back and looking at everything through the lens of fiction--especially when you incorporate discussion of TV tropes, like flashbacks, into the column. You've frequently helped me get past my initial reaction and look at the larger picture of what's happening. Please keep up the good work!

Thank you so much! We've kept up these recaps, even though they haven't found a massive audience, because those of you who love them seem to really love them, and they're both sanity-restoring and a really interesting writing exercise for me. I'm going to pass this note along to my bosses. It means a lot to me.

I know this question will be a little behind the curve once this chat happens, but anyway. I personally (as a straight guy) have found the media narrative around sex and gender that followed the Aziz Ansari revelations to not really match my personal experiences around sex. All this talk about entitled men who push for what they want, ignore signals, refuse to communicate, and act selfishly is just alienating because I seem to have had a very different socialization that featured a lot more exposure to feminism than it seems others have. I used to have the opposite set of problems, like being nervous to initiate anything, being timid and passive sexually, being hesitant to ask for what I want, spending a distracting amount of time communicating, and being too focused on my partner and not myself. I also know a number of men in my personal life who seem similar. I believe that many men are entitled and bad at communication, but I also know that many are not. Is the media being too reductive here? Is there a way to write about issues like this that acknowledge the real variation in the population, even if it detracts from clean narratives?

Oh, who cares about what's behind the curve. This is an important question, and I'm going to make it the subject of this week's newsletter.

I'm disturbed that some ad hoc memorials to the 17 shooting victims at Stoneman Douglas High School consist of 17 crosses -- when in fact some of these victims were Jewish. It feels as though their heritages are being coopted for a message they wouldn't agree with. Your thoughts?

I'd suggest that we think about this a little bit differently, and think about this less as hostile to the memory of the people who were killed at Stoneman Douglas High School, and more as proof of the fact that a lot of folks have a fairly limited language to express mourning or memory. If crosses are all you've ever seen as memorials or on tombstones, you may not even be thinking a lot about the fact that they're Christian symbols: they may just read to you as universal symbols of grief. That's a bit careless, of course, but I'd be hesitant to say that it's the same thing as expressing active contempt for the Jewish faith of anyone who died in the shooting. And it's certainly not the same thing as turning those students into martyrs on shoddy evidence, as happened to Cassie Bernall, who was killed in the Columbine High School massacre in 1999*, or saying what the victims would have wanted in terms of policy responses to their deaths when they can't speak for themselves. I'm not Christian, but I have a lot of friends who express their love for me through Christian prayer, and I've never felt like they were attempting to impugn my Jewishness or to convert me (and I would object if they pushed those boundaries); they are just saying that they feel for me and requesting intercession on my behalf in the language that feels most meaningful to them. We can see what's an expression of hurt and grief in the terms people have to offer it, and what's an attempt to erase the victims, I think.

*If anyone in this chat hasn't read Dave Cullen's "Columbine," I think it's hugely worthwhile to make time to do so. It's one of those books that totally upsets an established narrative in a way that gets at why that narrative was established in the first place. I think it's made me a healthier consumer of news, and more thoughtful about what motivates school shootings.

so was wondering where/what all these disgraced people go to now...I mean I can never watch spacey in anything ever again, or matt lauer or others so wither to now?

This is a really interesting question that raises important questions about restorative justice in the public sphere. With your permission, I'd like to take a little bit to consider it, because I might want to report out an answer a bit before I give it to you.

Just curious if you got any of the recent Winter Olympic Games and if so, what highlights stuck out to you?

The Olympics basically overlapped with my vacation and jetlag on my return home, so I really don't have opinions about them this year, unfortunately.

Can artists decline nominations from awards shows? I was thinking of this in regard to Ed Sheeran, someone whose music I don't particularly care for, but who seemed to be going out of his way to signal disinterest in the Grammys. When he won an award anyway, the Internet was screaming bloody murder at him to the point that you would think the man had voted for himself rather than the academy voting for him. (Maybe that's how the Internet people believe it works?) So it looks like declining nominations might be the only avenue left if you don't want everyone to hate you forever.

I think it depends on the award or honor in question. In 2016, Vulture published a roundup of what happened when artists tried to decline Nobel prizes, honors from the Queen of England, Tony nominations, Grammy nominations and Oscar nominations. In a lot of cases, the nominating and voting bodies forged on anyway, forcing the artists to just not show up or to send people to decline the awards in their place. I think it's honestly a really tricky balance: it's very hard to decline an award or nomination without looking either petulant or arrogant, and I sometimes think the best thing to do is show up, use the platform to say something you care about, and donate the money, if the prize comes with money, to a cause that's important to you. It's hard to tell people that you don't want their esteem and to leave them feeling good about it.

It's 1:13 PM and so far there are no Q&As posted on this chat.

Nope, just sometimes it takes a while to write a detailed answer to a question!

Alyssa, Welcome back. I have not seen Annihilation but did read the trilogy. I found the books hard to get through and a little too weird just to be weird. I can't imagine enjoying the movie.

It's interesting, because I totally felt the same way about the books: I persisted and read all three of them, but felt like they just lacked actual characters, and were deliberately vague in a way that sometimes felt like laziness. But given how great "Ex Machina" was, I was always going to go see the movie adaptation, if only because it meant the opportunity to watch another Alex Garland movie. And I'm delighted that I did. The movie felt specific, and I felt connected to it, in a way that just never happened with the books. Some stories are just meant to be told in different media than the ones in which they first emerge. I feel like "Annihilation" is one of them.

I was texting a friend, and apologizing for being spacy lately. But the autocorrect on my phone assumed that I was referring to the surname “Spacey” for some reason, and wrote it as such. Had I not caught it, I was in danger of saying I was being “Spacey lately,” which has a whole different connotation, and would’ve been far less flattering than “being spacy.”

I've had the same problem! I don't know enough about how the Autocorrect algorithm works to explain exactly how this might have happened, and I'm not finding a great, immediately available explanation for it online. But if someone in the chat has a sense of when Autocorrect might tip over into this sort of decision, I'd love to know more about how it works!

Obviously you need to consult WaPo's Flight Crew re which places are most conducive to traveling with an infant (and later a toddler)! Travel writer Chris Elliott has discussed at length how he and his wife have trotted their three(!) children all over the world extensively, ever since they were born. With the right planning, it's doable!

Oh, my husband and I totally intend to keep traveling with our little person. I think we just both acknowledge that we are probably not going to walk ten miles a day through major European cities with a toddler, nor are we going to do exactly the same mix of things with a small child. My parents were amazing, ambitious travelers with me and my sibilings, even if I once rewarded them by throwing my teething beads down the Grand Canyon, so they have been great role models in that regard. I think we just need to consider a different kind of trip for a while, and I'm very much looking forward to finding out what that looks like for us. Of course, if readers have suggestions for great, kid-friendly destinations, especially in the first year, I'm all ears.

I'd have been sure to go to a local café, snack bar, etc., when events were being televised that Italian athletes were significant contenders in, so I could share the experience with the locals. I've been in Europe during World Cup (once) and the European football (soccer) championships twice, and it's great to get to cheer along with fans. Admittedly not as high-brow as going to museums (which I also like to do), but loads of fun!

In fact, people's mileage does vary! That's what travel is all about.

I went to the Women's March because some things are just that important. I have been to two or maybe three others in my life And I have NEVER made a sign before. Not once. I already have one for the gun control rally in March. It doesn't address the substance of the issue. It just says "Hear the Children." I can't quite figure out what it is about this group that has gotten to me so much. I have been (I think) appropriately upset about other shootings, school and otherwise, though they haven't touched me personally. This one feels different. I'm trying to figure out if it is the coverage, the circumstances, the zeitgeist of there being a political party I disagree with in complete control of Washington, something else that is the reason. My best guess is that it is something about hearing voices that has done it (that is what the sign says, after all). That has been such a big part of #MeToo. The right of women to be heard and believed. Why not also hear the kids who say they are scared to go to school?

I really appreciate you taking the time to write and share your experience. I wonder if some of what you're feeling is a) a sense that supporting the kids who are speaking out is important and doesn't require you to support existing parties or interest groups in the same way that other protests often might and b) a sense that maybe it's possible to actually change things this time around. Either way, I'll be really curious to hear back from you about your experiences, and I hope you'll be willing to check back in with us afterwards.

Thanks for coming by, friends! If you want Italy suggestions, or have recommendations for travel with kids, or really, if you want to talk about any old thing, email me. See you back here next week, when we will presumably all be both sleepy and wired from the Academy Awards!

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Alyssa Rosenberg
Alyssa Rosenberg blogs about pop culture for The Washington Post's Opinions section.
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