Act Four Live: Pop culture with Alyssa Rosenberg (Oct. 15)

Oct 15, 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! I hope you will forgive me some minor pokiness due to some complicated childcare arrangements this morning. The result is that I'm rushing in to work and tossing some food in my face: the upside was that I got to see my parents play with my kid all morning. But I'm looking forward to your questions!

I try not to get caught up how movies do commercially since its correlation with quality is nebulous at best, but I have to say I was disappointed to see that First Man under-performed. I saw it at the Air and Space Museum's IMAX screen and it was incredible, the kind of film that really makes seeing something in theaters feel like an actual experience distinct from watching at home on TV/Netflix. What are your thoughts on why First Man apparently didn't draw much general interest from audiences? What's up with Venom being so popular?

"First Man" is the movie I most regret having missed while on maternity leave, and the one I'm most eager to when I can finagle a day to make it happen this week. (Maybe Thursday!) But like you, I share a sense of bummerhood about the movie's relatively lackluster first weekend box office performance. 

The simple answer to both of your questions here is that American moviegoers have shown a preference for things they're relatively familiar with. That's part of the reason superhero movies are so popular, and why everything that's even reasonably successful gets transformed into some sort of franchise. Venom may not be a superantihero moviegoers have seen recently, but the character is superpowered, and that's probably enough to get a bunch of audiences to decide "Well, I guess maybe that's what I'll see this weekend." (It's also how we got a whole series of Hobbit movies, despite the fact that "The Hobbit" is a relatively slim book.) By contrast, "First Man" is an original picture, and thus it doesn't arrive in theaters "pre-sold" to audiences: it has to make its own case for itself.

In this case, I think "First Man" was probably hurt by a fallacious pseudo-controversy about whether or not it depicts Neil Armstrong planting the American flag on the Moon, a subject about which Act Four contributor Sonny Bunch will have more to say later this week. That has me feeling especially glum about the box office results. It's one thing if American audiences stayed away from "First Man" because they weren't immediately certain it would hit their pleasure centers. It's far worse if they decided to avoid it because of misinformation that suggested it would offend their political sensibilities.

I think I'm going to use this list of extinct Irish first names as my potential baby names list a.k.a. basically a list of my great uncles and my great aunties.

I love this idea! We chose rather old-fashioned middle names for our baby, 100 percent because we like them, but I also like the idea of keeping them alive and in the family.

Idk his name Pete Davidson, I thought it was perfect when he was with Larry David's daughter and they were so happy and I was so jealous. And then like 4 minutes later he was engaged to Arianna. So seemingly that was never going to work out. Why do I care?

Honestly, I think that certain people who are sufficiently famous and out-of-reach start to feel fictional to us, and so we are able to think of them as characters in stories that divert and amuse us. Davidson seems to qualify for you! I'm not sure I get the appeal of him specifically, but I totally get why it's fun to get lightly invested in the romances and private lives of people you don't actually know. I feel the exact same way about Meghan Markle (there was definitely some Royal Baby squeeing in my house this morning). Following this sort of celebrity gossip is diverting. Soap operas can take us away from the specific onerousnesses of our day-to-day life while also providing us an alternate perspective on the big issues of the day.

Note that I said I think it's fine to be lightly invested in these sorts of gossip cycles. It's never healthy to get invested in the relationships and choices of a real person to the extent that you get irrationally angry at them when they do something that is not maximally amusing or satisfying to you. (It's not great to get angry at creators of fiction when they write choices you don't like, but there is a degree of difference between that and thinking someone should be punished for not living their actual life to your specifications).

I'm not saying you're doing that, of course. So go forth and enjoy The Perils of Pete Davidson without worrying about either your degree of frivolity or your mental health.


Thank you for encouraging the reading of Tamora Pierce's Beka Cooper series. I'm a woman in my early 70s now, but I've always loved young adult and children's fiction. I am so enjoying Terrier and certainly plan to move on to the other two. Beka is a terrific role model for young women today, and Pierce's imagined world is fascinating.

For all my Tamora Pierce fans in the audience, this is where we start chanting "One of us! One of us!" I am SO glad you're enjoying the trilogy. To my mind, it's Pierce's best work, but that's not to denigrate the rest of it: I think she's just extremely good, and there are a bunch more series awaiting you if you enjoyed this one.

I actually think Pierce is almost comically underrated as a worldbuilder. She is ridiculously thoughtful about the cultures she's creating, how magic works, and how societies change overtime. I don't really care that her primary audience is for young adults. She's doing work that a lot of authors for adult audiences should envy.

It's been 20 minutes since yout last post. Even Carolyn Hax doesn't take that long.

I got snagged by an editor with whom I'm working on an internal management project. I apologize.

I hope you, your baby, and your husband are doing well.

We are, thank you! Our kid is extremely bouncy and vocal, which makes life around the house a lot more fun, and a lot louder in all of the absolute best ways.

I missed your return last week. Welcome back! Time for an obscure followup to one of your pre-maternity chats. We talked about Elizabeth Kostova’s work, and specifically thoughts on her latest novel “The Shadow Land”. I’m happy to say I did get a chance to read it while you were gone and liked it a lot. I still think Historian is my favorite, but it was much better than Swan Thieves.

Noted! I'll have to put it in the queue. "The Historian" is so wonderful, but I'm glad to hear that something else of hers sounds appealing. It's always such a bummer when an author writes a book you love and then everything else breaks your heart. It's especially disappointing when your heart gets broken at doorstopper length. I adore "The Secret History," but I'm at a point with Donna Tartt where I would hesitate to dive in to another one of her books.

We all the misconceptions about socialism, I would kind of want a biopic of Otto von Bismarck. He was hardly a lefty, but he basically created what we sometimes refer to as the "welfare state" (which I dislike welfare is often associated with poverty which the welfare state is different from alleviation of poverty). Bismarck created the welfare state to keep the working classes away from socialism. Plus I'm sure there are some other funny and/or dramatic stuff in his life story to make the movie entertaining. Out to lunch?

This dovetails with a private wish of mine, which is that some network would make a show like "The Crown" except about Lyndon Johnson. It wouldn't be an exact fit, of course, since "The Crown" is more about the institution than about Queen Elizabeth II, even though she is the main character. But Johnson is such a compelling character, with so many stages to his life, that you could easily do a decade-by-decade show informed by Caro's multi-volume biography of him, and cast him and Lady Bird with different actors along the way. 

I realize this may sound like a diversion, but the way Johnson worked the New Deal for his Hill Country constituents has some interesting parallels to von Bismarck's social welfare programs. 

I think on some level we look to these romances as proof that happily ever after does exist, and are disappointed when inevitably the relationships fail -I'm looking at you Anna Faris and Chris Pratt -- why we do this I don't really know.

I think that's one of the reasons people get invested. And beyond the specifics, people are looking for certain things to be true. I think with Pratt and Faris, people enjoyed that they seemed to be a two-career couple, and were disappointed in part because it seemed like they broke up when he got super-jacked and famous.

Just be warned it has some pretty violent and explicit descriptions of postwar communist slave labor/concentration camps. Not sure if your aversion to violence extends to the written word or not.

I can manage that, but thank you for the thought.

I heard the director on Fresh Air and it sounds as if there were indeed factual reasons for not showing the flag planting on the moon. Apparently, it took a really long time to do it. Of course they didn't know what the soil/surface would be like (duh, they'd never been there before!) and had no way to prepare for the process. If you get upset about such things (kneeling in protest! flag lapel pins! flag on the moon!) then you don't understand what our flag stands for.

There are so often good reasons for these sorts of things! But a reason travels slower than a controversy, I suppose.

Is there a defining characteristic other than young adult tending to have younger main characters (which is hardly an absolute distinction). l think that young adult fiction tends to cover less time in the character's lives than fiction meant for adults - a year or two rather than a whole lifetime. Again, hardly absolute, since there are plenty of adult novels that cover short time spans. Is it a combination of the two? A book for teens has no problem covering just a summer in the life of a teen but a book for adults will take that teen well past that summer and cover years at least?

This is an excellent question, and I'm going to ruminate on it for this week's newsletter.

Everyone, thank you VERY much for your tolerance and kindness of my wonky schedule today. Coming back to work under a very new regimen is definitely going to be a challenge, and I'm grateful to all of you for your flexibility as I get this figured out. 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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