Act Four Live: Pop culture with Alyssa Rosenberg (Mar. 18)

Mar 18, 2019

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.

Greetings, fellow chatters! I hope you're well. I spent my weekend taking my kid on the swings, thinking about why I didn't *quite* love J.C. Chandor's "Triple Frontier," and finishing Nancy Farmer's "House of the Scorpion," since I wanted to see how her work other than "The Ear, The Eye and the Arm" read to me as an adult. What did you get yourselves up to? What's on your minds?

I understand that there's a range of opinions on films and not everyone's going to like everything, but I still don't get the backlash and find it kind of disturbing. It's almost as if some of the critics are for some new kind of filmic segregation where you can't ever put a white and black person in a movie together and it's more empowering to see all blacks on a screen and for white directors and actors to stay out of films with black themes. Whereas character growth and dynamic relationships are part of any good narrative, it's almost as if a story with a black or white person can't employ this for fear of being called out on a white savior or magic negro narrative (both not particularly applicable to this film in which both characters are pretty flawed from the start). Personally, I am thrilled Green Book won. I understand it won't convince the cynics and haters to stop using their outsized influence to bash a film for not falling under their definition of wokeness, but it showed the results of the race weren't be dictated by a small sphere of writers who believe their outrage speaks for everyone as they repeddled inaccurate claims to try to bring down the movie (tapes and e-mail trails confirm that Dr Shirley did have the experiences dictated in the movie and his family made amends with the film maker after seeing the movie)

There's a lot going on in your question, and I'm going to proceed slowly, because I want to be careful. 

First, I want to jump down towards the bottom of your question and note your use of the term "cynics and haters" to describe people who were frustrated by "Green Book." I would genuinely be curious to know: did you affirmatively like the movie? Or did you mostly like that it made certain people angry? If you genuinely liked it, what did you like about it and why?

Second, part of what's going on here is a dynamic that we don't talk about much with stereotypes or tropes that promote stereotypes, but is an important secondary effect of them. The most important impact stereotypes or stories that promote relatively tired ideas have is on the people who are most victimized by those stereotypes, or whose stories are most directly shoved aside by shopworn tropes. But the feelings of anger people have about stereotypes and the exhaustion they feel in response to tired storytelling sometimes end up falling on works of art that bear a resemblance to stereotypes or tropes, but that in some way deviate or rise above them. That's definitely frustrating! But I think it's possible to see where that anger comes from without taking it personally, especially in a case where the work you're championing won its industry's highest honor.

Finally, you raise some questions about where the current discourse about pop culture and who gets to tell what stories is heading. These are questions I have myself, and I think they're standards that are exceptionally important to work out. I do not think, for example, that a standard that says that only black directors can tell stories about black main characters would actually work to anyone's advantage: given the structural inequities in who gets to direct movies, this would probably result in a steep decline in the number of black main characters. That said, I do think that if audiences are persistently finding something missing in depictions of black life directed by white directors, white directors with the ambitions to tell these stories might learn something by listening and doing research, and as a result, their movies might resonate more deeply or have qualities they might otherwise have lacked. You can always decide someone is wrong after listening to them. But a commitment to doing a certain amount of listening in the first place can expose a person to a lot of helpful ideas.

During the March 4th chat, someone raised a question that's stuck with me: Do some people of Jewish heritage avoid holocaust movies? This was asked in context of not watching certain material any longer, and as a middle aged Jewish guy, I'd like to say that I've generally had enough. I grew up well schooled (at secular and Hebrew school) in holocaust history and stories and have seen more documentaries, films, TV shows, and Shoah interviews. But I just can't watch any more. I checked out of holocaust films way back in the 90s when I actively decided not to see Schindler's List. It's just become too much, and I almost always opt out when I have a choice. I don't put my head in the sand on noteworthy developments, but I don't seek out these stories as part of my entertainment any longer.

I can totally see why you would make that choice. There is a line between engaging and rubbing your own face in trauma past the point of any increased awareness, and for all of us, that's going to be different. Especially when it comes to material that is positioned to be both illuminating and entertaining, if one half of that equation isn't working for you, especially when you've already been sufficiently illuminated on the subject, it seems totally reasonable to me to make a judgement call about how you'd rather spend your time.

Disney's acquisition of 21st Century Fox is supposed to be finalized soon, and I've been feeling anxious about it. It's unnerving to imagine one company dominating so much of the box office; already, Disney had all of the three most successful movies last year. Is there anything that can be done to stop Disney from taking over the world?

A renewed understanding of how anti-trust law is supposed to work? (Perhaps tellingly, I was typing "disney fox merger" into my search bar the other day and accidentally typed "disney fox murder." Brains are wild.)

You're not wrong to be uneasy about the unions of these corporate behemoths! American entertainment is already incredibly homogeneous. We should not wish for anything that makes it even more slickly corporate.

Not saying you'll do it, but I really hope there are no (or at least very little) thinkpieces on how "what's going on with this or that GoT character is just like this or that 2020 Democratic nominee hopeful" as the final season approaches. I mean obviously Kamala Harris is Qyburn, but... dang it, I'm doing it...

If I could ban one style of writing from the internet, it would be these pieces that reach like Elastigirl to draw completely inept parallels between politicians and fictional characters. A WORK OF FICTION PUBLISHED IN 1996 IS NOT INTENDED TO PROVIDE A SCHEMA FOR THE 2020 ELECTION. LORDY.

Sorry. You may have worked me up there a bit. I promise I will write no such thing, and I will glare at anyone who asks me to do anything similar.

I remember when National Organization of Women (N.O.W.), Gloria Steinem, Geraldine Ferraro, and others tried doing it in the 2008 presidential primaries and didn't work well for them then so you'd think people would have smarten up by now. Women who support a candidate who isn't also women don't want to shamed for doing so and have plenty of reasons for doing so. Sorry just bugs me.

This is one of the benefits of a situation where you have multiple people from a community in a given race. You don't get pressured to vote in this way. In other news, I will not be casting my ballot for Tulsi Gabbard.

You going to see the show?

Unlikely! I do not have a lot of room for solo travel with a tiny human on the docket, and this is not something I'd likely clear the decks for.

I felt like I was watching Prometheus or Alien: Covenant. The comedy of errors was staggering for people who are supposed to be experts. In these movies, scientists (SCIENTISTS!!!) were taking helmets off in alien terrain, touching new life forms with no visible safety gear. In Triple Frontier, I'm screaming at Ben Affleck for every decision he made once he saw the money. I mean, for someone who is the "best planner" Oscar Isaac's character has ever worked with, he blew it every chance he got! Other than that.... I enjoyed it!




So, this is actually one of the things I liked a *lot* about "Triple Frontier," that the supposed badass logistics geniuses actually got themselves in way too deep, ignored things like the load-bearing ability of their helicopter, and messed up their ability to pull off the heist. One of the best, saddest, most human moments in the movies is when Redfly (Affleck) sees all the money and just loses his ability to think strategically, because he's been so beat down by his failures in civilian life. That's what makes this vastly more interesting than a traditional heist movie, and Chandor's inability to sustain his moral judgement of his characters is what ultimately undermines it.

Will anyone work with Lori Loughlin/Felicity Huffman/William H. Macy after this?

Oh, they totally will. In the scheme of Hollywood bad behavior, this is deeply embarrassing but ultimately sort of marginal. Loughlin may have a tougher road back because she was less seriously-regarded as an actress, but my bet will be that Huffman does a bunch of contrite press around "When They See Us," Ava DuVernay's Central Park Five mini-series in which she plays prosecutor Linda Fairstein, and all is ultimately forgiven.

So I'm sitting with friends over brunch and a friend of theirs was there as well and someone mentioned the movie at which point friend's friend turned to me and asked me if the movie made "feminist heart swell with joy". He seemed to have some pent-up anger towards women who, I dunno, kinda enjoy seeing women on screen who beat up the bad guys and save the day. I wish I had replied with "Did your maninist heart swell with joy when you watched Iron Man? Did your maninist heart swell with joy when you watched Black Panther? Or did the whole African country angle nip that swelling in the bud?"

As a feminist who really, really did not like "Captain Marvel," the movie did not make my heart swell with joy. I think it's dumb and small-minded to be scared of female superheroes. I'm also deeply skeptical that we should accept Disney's attempt to sell us a movie that soft-peddles sexism in the Air Force in the 1990s and insists that the acme of empowerment is getting to be exactly like men instead of blowing up all those gendered expectations. The whole discourse around movies like these is a bad trap.

I'ver been thinking about how much people, including myself tend to define themselves by what they like. I used to have a near pathological fear of being seen as someone with bad taste. I'm pretty wary of a lot of fan communities. There is stuff to love, but also a kin of volatility I want to avoid. But recently I've started feeling like if I don't engage with my cultural interests regularly, I start feeling somewhat diminished. I wanted to hear your thoughts on how some kind of cultural engagement is (a possibly necessary) part of a sense of self?

This is a fantastic question and I'm going to snaffle it for the newsletter.

So I saw Captain Marvel this weekend. I felt an odd blend of being entertained but also unsatisfied. There are funny jokes, Larson is a likable and worthwhile lead, good guys win; but at the same time, there are some scenes that are real clunkers, Larson’s talents are severely underused, the stakes that we are told are cosmic are actually pretty banal, and there’s nothing about this movie that would have been any different if, say, Paul Rudd had played the lead. (That is, for all the “first! female! hero!” hype, there was nothing particularly feminist about this story.) I actually think “Lean In” had more substance than this movie. “Captain America: Civil War” showed us that Marvel movies won’t address actual political problems or questions, and “Captain Marvel” shows us more of the same – in more ways than one.

It's a fairly anemic script all around. If anything, Nick Fury probably has the best writing and the best-developed arc.

I just have to tell you that I'm a Libertarian (fiscal and military conservative, Pentagon retiree, socially liberal) but very much appreciate the WaPo writers such as yourself, Monica Hesse, Thomas Boswell, Hank Stuever, Tom Sietsema, the Travel staff and the Weekend staff, and the advice staff! The Style and Sports sections are two of the main reasons I still subscribe to print after 30 years. I can't take the editorials and editorial cartoons, so you know where I'm coming from. Although WaPo definitely has an extremely liberal and progressive slant, it doesn't bother me since Trump (not necessarily all of his policies) are unpresidential and somewhat abnormal. I get the resistance, but “Democracy Dies in Darkness” is a bit overly dramatic and over the top. I really believe that WaPo is now the preeminent national "paper of record" (The NYT has lost all credibility and LA has become too crazy). I’m a product of two CIA parents, who cancelled their WaPo subscription at least two or three times over the years! In this highly-partisan era, this is just a shout-out that I really appreciate the intelligence and writing of the WaPo staff.

Thanks so much for the nice note! I am actually based in the Opinions section, but like you, I think my Style colleagues are absolute aces and it's a huge privilege to work with them.

I understand the concerns but anything that takes a public megaphone away from Rupert Murdoch and his offspring has to be a relatively good thing.

Fox News was not part of the merger. It was spun off into a separate company, and the Murdochs still run it.

I finally got around to seeing Malcolm X last week. I imagine most people who want to hear what I have to say about movies would not want to hear what I have to say about Malcolm X. How do you think about old movies when you see them for the first time? Do you do anything special or just tuck them away in your memory palace?

Well, I just watched "GoodFellas" for the first time this weekend, so I understand where you are coming from. Generally, I store them away to save as comparisons or points of evidence in pieces down the road; I'm thinking about writing a comparison between "Triple Frontier" and "Heat," for example. 

What *did* you think of "Malcolm X," though? I love it.

I watched hunks of TNT's marathon this weekend and was struck by how much charm the original still has, dated SFX and all. Also caught the end of Revenge of the Sith and it STILL stinks. And the "better" effects at the end - lava duel between Anakin and Obi-Wan - were terrible. Glad Lucas handed them off.

A good script, good chemistry among good actors and good practical effects will take you so, so, so far.

I have been surprised to see so much attention paid to Huffman and Loughlin. They seem to be carrying an unfair amount of public outrage, as there were many other wealthier people doing much more egregious things for their children. Do you think this is just the double-edged sword of celebrity at work?

Celebrity and gender. To my mind, one of the most egregious of the alleged offenders is Gordon Caplan, a big-deal attorney! Of all the people who ought to know that this is not kosher, a lawyer should have been one of them!

...and while I'm very interested in hearing your summary of the former since it seems to gotten mixed reviews, I now understand why the latter had the widest range of reviews (from fairly mainstream reviewers) on metacritic I've ever seen - from 90 down to 20. It was a massive mess of characters and ideas that vastly overfilled the time allotted, made worse by the hideous editing (seriously, if you're going to hint at THE BIG ACT 3 PLOT TWIST in the first ten minutes, you don't need a visual baseball bat over the head reinforced by dialogue when suggesting it.) It had some incredibly capable actors whose roles went precisely nowhere because the stuffing in of so many themes meant they couldn't develop anybody properly. But my reaction was more frustration than hate, largely because if you're a SF/F fan who has grown really tired of massive IP tentpoles, something that's reasonable original in the genre is better than nothing - and if nothing else, it was that.


Willie Stark is suppose to be a thinly veiled Huey Long, right? The major difference being it was written after the Long assassination in the Louisiana State Capitol Building. Also I think Francis Urquhart in the original "House of Cards" novels was the suppose to be a kind of over-the-top Thatcherite. What are some other good thinly veiled books on politicians?

I still think "Primary Colors" is incredibly astute about Bill Clinton's charisma and his darkness. 

I knew they were keeping the "News" but both the TV shows and movies are going away, no?

Ah, yes, I may have misunderstood the original poster. Fox's entertainment divisions are going to Disney, while the Murdoch family will stay in the cable news business.

I'm also concerned, but for the TV side. ABC (Disney) and Fox have run quite different types of shows over the years, and I can't help but think that Fox will become more like the Mouse House ABC to the detriment of the viewing public. However maybe because of the streaming options its not too terrible?

Well, it's worth noting that streaming, like every other aspect of the television business, is undergoing a process of incredible corporate consolidation. Increasingly, outlets are not holding onto or renewing material that they didn't make in-house, because they want to get a hundred percent of the profit on content and they don't want to have to pay licensing fees. Thus, my concern about homogenization. Disney's going to have control of a huge array of properties, and it has fewer incentives to make material for outside buyers or to commission material from outside studios. I suspect the result will be a lot more stuff that feels nearly identical.

Reminds me of my dad who fought in WWII. As a kid we loved all the WWII tv shows and he would always leave the room. He refused to see war movies. I remember asking him why and he said "I lived it and it was horrible" why would I want to see it portrayed be people who weren't there.

Completely understandable. What did he like instead?

Unless GoT has a character named Paco O'Toole, I don't think it will work.


It's an excellent film. There are so many different settings -- dance halls, the Klan raids, prison, Harlem, Mecca -- and Spike Lee is so assured with all of them. Denzel Washington is effectively understated, which suits the theme of the movie: that everyone has dignity, and that violent results can occur when people are not treated with dignity. I laughed out loud when I saw Nelson Mandela credited as "Soweto Teacher." (Also, on a visceral level, it's fun to be reminded of how attractive Denzel and Angela Bassett were, 30 years ago. It explains why they are still so attractive today!)

You've identified part of what I love about Spike Lee as a director: he can do so many different things. I don't always resonate to the things he's choosing to do, but, like Steven Soderbergh, he's insanely, fascinatingly versatile.

Hey, we have nothing to worry about, since The Bachelor and the new Late Night Videos with Bob Saget (what in the world was he thinking taking that job) will make sure that Disney is just trashy TV enough for the mainstream AND the conservatives who watch Fox Entertainment.

::sighs:: I would say we live in fallen days, but the medium has always had its depressing side.

On that cheery note, I have to sign off to call an author and talk through some changes. Have a fabulous week, and I'll see you all next Monday.

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