Act Four Live: Pop culture with Alyssa Rosenberg (Mar. 12)

Mar 12, 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! How were your weekends? Are your Mondays off to a good start? I want to begin this chat by asking for your collective forbearance: I've spent the last week dealing with some not-terribly-dangerous but extremely bureaucratically complex health issues, and as a result, I'm much further behind on everything than I'd like to be, even with my expectations adjusted for the era of Peak TV, etc. I'll be doing my best to get myself back on track, though my schedule is going to remain a little bit more complicated than I'd prefer for it to be for the next 10-11 weeks. So thank you in advance for your patience.

I'm curious which of the 2018 Oscar movie nominations you'd be happy to watch over and over again for the shear pleasure of discovery. That's one of my litmus tests for a great movie. So far, I've watched "Get Out" at least three or four times because there's so much going on. I thoroughly enjoyed "Lady Bird", "Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri", "Dunkirk" and the "Shape of Water", but don't feel much like reliving them. I'm looking forward to viewing "Call Me by Your Name", "Phantom Thread" and "Darkest Hour" on cable.

This is a great question! I think "Lady Bird" would probably top the list for me, just because there are a couple of specific circumstances in which I'd like to rewatch it. Though it could be a fraught experience (not for any particular reason beyond the obvious), I think I'd like to show it to my mom at some point. And since I'm having a girl in May, it's definitely the kind of movie I can imagine watching with her at some point, and possibly with my sister and my sister-in-law as well. I'm probably a bit of a sucker for it in part because I graduated from high school a year before the characters in "Lady Bird" did, and so the movie captures a lot of the pop culture, clothes and general atmosphere that defined my high school years. But I also just feels like it captures a very specific part of the mother-daughter relationship, such that I think I'll be able to point to it in various situations in the movie and say "This is what I meant!"

I'm not a huge horror person, but I"ll probably watch "Get Out" again at some point, just so I can study it a little bit better. I really admired the meticulousness of the script and the production design -- in general, I think I probably admired it more than I liked it -- and I'll want to sit down with it again just to take another look at how it worked.

And in third place, I'd probably put "Dunkirk," which was one of my favorite movies of the year, but which I'll need to be in a *very* specific mood to watch again.

I've been rewatching the first season of The Americans to prepare for the final season, and as someone who found the most recent seasons disappointing, it's been really rewarding as a reminder of why I fell in love with this show. Since you haven't written as much about it lately, I was wondering what your overall impression of the past couple of seasons was and what your expectations are for the ending. Most importantly, what is your favorite musical cue/use of a pop song from the whole show?

I actually didn't watch the last season, but catching up is on my list for this week. I hate making predictions for how shows will end because it's a game I'm really bad at, but I feel like the ending most true to the show is probably the one where everyone involved is the most morally damned. In that case, that probably means that Stan Beeman is ruined in some capacity, and that Philip and Elizabeth are stuck forever even as the Soviet intelligence bureaucracy begins to serve values very different from those that motivated them to sign up in the first place. As for the use of music in the show, I still completely love the use of Peter Gabriel's "Games Without Frontiers" at the end of the firs season.

Any reaction?:

I thought this piece was really interesting, and I'm happy you posted it, not least so other readers on the chat will have a chance to check it out. Honestly, it's a little tricky for me to evaluate the argument without seeing the breakdown of Oscar ballots. If "The Shape of Water" was an overwhelming consensus choice and won on the first ballot, that could indicate a broad-based acceptance of the movie's politics, or it could mean that "The Shape of Water" had broad support among the different divisions of Oscar voters who admired it on various technical merits.

I really wanted to see this film, even before your recommendation, but it looks like I'll have to wait for Redbox. The time windows available for me to see a movie are limited due to child custody stuff, and by the time one came round it was already on the way out of theaters. Do you think it's poor performance is due to timing (release too close to Black Panther)? Or do you think it's just another nail in the coffin for complex, intellectual films (see Blade Runner 2049)?

It's actually a little bit more complicated! Netflix struck an unusual deal that allowed it to put "Annihilation" on its international service just 17 days after the movie premiered in theaters in the United States. That deal was in part the result of testing that suggested that "Annihilation" might be a tough sell to moviegoers, which does suggest a lack of faith in audiences, which in turn could translate to trouble for adult-oriented original sci-fi like "Blade Runner 2049," which may not have made back its production and marketing budget if we assume that the two together are essentially double the reported production budget, and the cheaper "Arrival," which did fine but not astonishing numbers. "Annihilation" did get a pretty wide release -- in 2,012 theaters -- but the box office has been fairly sluggish, which gives theater operators a strong incentive to move on to something new. I think the fact that "Black Panther" and "Red Sparrow," another intense, R-rated movie with a female lead, were opening on its heels probably didn't help with that decision, but February is not traditionally a super-busy release month. So there are a lot of factors at play here, though obviously my hope is that we still get many more Alex Garland movies in the future, albeit perhaps with smaller budgets.

Will you be watching? Are you following the Marvel Netflix shows?

I watched the first seasons of "Daredevil," "Jessica Jones," Luke Cage" and "The Defenders," and I skipped "Iron Fist," because at a certain point, why would I do that to myself? I haven't actually made up my mind whether or not I'm going to watch the second season of "Jessica Jones," at least right at this particular moment. I found the visceral violence of the first season to be over the line of what I'm normally comfortable handling -- seriously, what was it with horror-mystery shows and garbage disposals for the past couple years. And honestly, since I'm in my third trimester and have a little person who tends to get excited and kick me really hard whenever I watch something that provokes a very strong emotion (let me tell you guys, "Annihilation" was an EXPERIENCE), I tend to be a little bit choosy about what I'm watching at the moment. If something's going to really gross me out and upset me, it better be for a really good reason. And given my very mixed feelings about how much the Marvel Netflix shows have been worth it, I'm still on the fence. That said, boy howdy is the new season of "Legion" a) worth it and b) viscerally upsetting, and I'm watching screeners for that, so maybe I'll change my mind.

I really disliked the movie for many of the same reasons that you mentioned in your post. Between this and The Golden Compass, it's so frustrating to see complex, intelligent books for kids and teens gutted in favor of superficial whimsy, as if young people can't handle challenging ideas and emotions even though they're the ones reading those books in the first place. I guess I don't really have a question here, just general irritation about Hollywood's lackluster track record with children's book adaptations and honestly the fantasy genre as a whole.

Obviously we are in total agreement! This makes me very, very cross. My colleague Christine Emba and I did a long conversation on the differences between the book and this adaptation of "A Wrinkle In Time" that is due to publish today. If our copy editors finish it up before the chat is over, I'll post it here for y'all to read. Any thoughts/comment?

In general, I feel like I have very few insights into Taylor Swift's motivations and how her professional and personal motivations interact at this point. This is especially tricky when artists -- especially female artists -- are perceived to be mining their personal lives to make art. It's one thing if an artist is making explicitly confessional art, but Swift's music has always been more allusive than memoiristic; it invites audiences to see her music and videos as a window into her an actual experience without explicitly confirming that they refer to specific events. I've found I'm able to enjoy her as a pop singer much more when I just listen to her music rather than trying to treat it as some sort of elaborate puzzle to solve. Inviting analysis isn't always the same thing as producing work that can stand up to it.

and I liked it. Question. Do you think they explained the Pan-Africanism enough by introducing it as the preference of the American born and raised member of the royal family. Because people in Africa don't historically think that way any more than the peoples of any other continent. People are generally geared to families, tribes, local areas, and countries and that is about as big as it gets most of the time. I think I would have noticed this on my own, but Henry Louis Gates series on Africa was playing on PBS this weekend and it drove the message home quite clearly.

Can I actually ask you to clarify this? Because I'm not actually sure what this means: "Do you think they explained the Pan-Africanism enough by introducing it as the preference of the American born and raised member of the royal family. Because people in Africa don't historically think that way any more than the peoples of any other continent." Do you mean that Pan-Africanism is a preference for members of the Diaspora? If so, how do you think that was expressed in the movie? I can take another whack at this if you can be a bit clearer.

I don't know why, but finishing a season hurts more than a regular season show ending, even though the length of time I have to wait for the next season is usually the same. Maybe it's the binge-iness of being able to watch a whole season in a weekend and I just Need. Another. Hit. And I already miss those Queer Eye guys so much!

Huh, that's interesting. I'd be curious if other folks feel the same way. I definitely find that there's more time for me to miss Netflix shows once I get through with them -- that wait between binging "The Crown" and getting more of it was fairly agonizing. And I'm curious to see if Netflix starts commissioning longer seasons of some shows as a result.

Don't bother, unless you're drunk. I can't see ever wanting to re-live that experience again. Truly one of the most painful cinematic experiences of my life, and I have a high tolerance for quirky, arthouse, and period pieces.

Are you a Paul Thomas Anderson person, though? That's probably a better predictor of whether you'd like "Phantom Thread" than the broad designation of "quirky, arthouse, and period pieces." His movies fit those descriptors, broadly, but they also work in a fairly unique psychological mode.

Alyssa, were you a Girl Scout? I was a Brownie and a Junior (2nd through 6th grade). All my daughters were Brownies, and my oldest stayed on through Cadets. My older granddaughter was not a scout at all, and the youngest was a Daisy but isn't this year because they don't have a troop. One nice thing they do now is let you buy cookies to send to the troops (which I did several times).

I was a Girl Scout all the way through senior year of high school, and as a Senior scout, I helped run a troop as part of Girl Scouting Behind Bars. That experience had a huge impact on my views about incarceration, its impact on kids, and the support systems we give--or don't give--the families of people who are incarcerated and prisoners on their release. Girl Scout cookies are amazing, don't get me wrong. But I always hope that people understand that there is more to scouting than cookies.

We do, as we've watched the show ever since it's debut in fall 1968 (I'd had my last two wisdom teeth pulled earlier that day, so was stuck in bed and the première promised to be the best thing on TV that evening). The reason I ask, though, is because of the fallout in the wake of the show featuring Education Secretary Betsy DeVos that ran last night, and the Trump administration's efforts to block the airing of a Stormy Daniels segment. Sometimes the line between pop culture and news seems mighty thin these days. Your thoughts?

I consider "60 Minutes" and other news shows to be media, which is a subcategory of culture. Though I sometimes write about what's happening on news shows -- I wrote a column about a "Frontline" episode recently -- I generally leave the coverage of them to my awesome colleague Erik Wemple, who covers that beat for the Washington Post Opinions section. You can find his work here!

Will the name calling and insults Trump used this weekend affect his ratings? Will they rise among his base? What would he have to do for his base to abandon him?

I honestly have absolutely no idea what it would take for Trump's base to abandon him; at this point, I tend to think that faith in him among his absolute core base resembles religious devotion more than traditional political affiliation, and so it's harder to predict what might make people abandon it.

When I first saw the trailer for the movie a few months ago, I thought "Hmmm, that's not how I remember the book." So I reread the book and honestly couldn't imagine how it could be filmed. Maybe it's proof that not every book is meant to be on the big screen?

I totally agree, and will explore this more in the newsletter this week!

My wife had the same problems when she was pregnant with our first. We were watching "Life of Pi", and during the scene where the boat sank, my wife became very nervous (she has a recurring fear about drowning). The nervousness transferred to the baby and he was nervous/excited as well and kicked quite a bit. We didn't have this problem with the second because we had no time to watch movies ;-) Congrats!

It's kind of intense! One of the first times I felt the baby move was during a press screening for "The Last Jedi," though to be fair, I think that was more because a) I'd been sitting for two hours, b) I'd had a LOT of Diet Coke and c) it was loud.

To me the one thing that really sets them apart are the villains. Not all are good (See Diamondback) but Killgrave, Cottonmouth, and Fisk are lightyears better than anything we have gotten from the Marvel or DC movies (with the possible exceptions of Killmonger and Zemo).

Hey, let's not forget Michael Keaton's Vulture in "Spider-Man: Homecoming." I thought that was just a fantastic combination of actor, sharply-written material, a discernible and highly-sympathetic set of motivations and ground-level worldbuilding. If I rate him over Killmonger, it's only because I thought the writing for Killmonger in "Black Panther" was a little stiffer, though I would probably watch Michael B. Jordan read a phone book.

I saw it twice (at different theaters). Worth it to see it on something larger than a TV. Great ensemble cast. Makes me want to read the book again.

I totally agree that, if possible, "Annihilation" was worth seeing on a big screen (and at a theater where the projectionists and folks who handle the speakers really know their stuff). But it actually didn't make me want to read the books again: I was mixed on them at the time, and I actually found cinema to be a more effective vehicle for getting across what I think Jeff VanderMeer wanted to communicate.

Maybe it's because I've reached a certain age, but I loved all the music they used in Divorce on HBO. I'm very up-to-date with what the kids are doing these days, but there's nothing like a little Supertramp or other 70s bands to get me all melancholy in a good way.

Are you watching "The Deuce"? That might musically tickle you (though of course I understand that a fairly explicit show about the porn industry is not for everyone).

I just watched this movie yesterday, and I did not understand the hype for it at all. This is a solid, B-movie, horror flick, that's it. The leads, Daniel Kaluuya and Allison Williams, were very good, and some of the horror and suspense was well-built, along with some funny moments. But the whole premise was cheesy, the racial commentary was unrefined (undefined?), and there was nothing brilliant, ground-breaking, or even original about the script. This is a movie that I like fine, but somehow resent it because everyone says it's supposed to be so great.

May I suggest that we would all probably be better off if we could hold more strongly to our own tastes without resenting it when other people love something that we don't like? I've actually found that to be fairly critical to my mental health as a critic, especially when I find myself totally baffled about a consensus reaction to something where I violently disagree, like "The Last Jedi." Think of those occasions as an opportunity to sharpen your arguments about why you love or hate something, rather than to react, well, in a purely reactive fashion!

Hey folks, that conversation I mentioned about "A Wrinkle In Time" is up here now. I hope you're all having good days, and I'll see you back here next week!

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