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

Jul 15, 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.

Friends, Romans, culture nerds, lend me your ears! How were your weekends? I knocked off "The Eye of the World," so if there are Wheel of Time folks in the chat today, I'd love to talk to you about it. And I'm sure folks have "Big Little Lies" thoughts. Also, I was surprised we didn't have much in the way of "Spider-Man: Homecoming" chat recently. Anyone have thoughts?

I'm watching Big Little Lies and the only reason for its existence seems to be as a Meryl Streep acting clinic. What other shows just didn't need more story tacked on to them and what should the reaction to them be?

This makes me feel like a potential crazy person, but I feel like I'm the only person who is really grateful for this second season of "Big Little Lies"! I'll explain why in a longer piece later in the week, but I've been really struck by the way the show is about the aftermath of a moment like #MeToo in micro. What happens after we've accepted the fact that there are bad men in the world is actually a really critical question! Celeste is dealing with the fact that she wants to still see the good in Perry; Mary-Louise is having trouble believing there was any bad in him at all; and everyone is wrestling with a set of nature-v.-nurture questions. These are the very messy human impulses we're going to have to deal with in the months and years to come, and if we don't, we're going to end up in a similar place of reckoning without progress a few decades down the line.

We were already married at the time of Apollo 11, so are old enough to remember the entire space race, including the effect of the USSR's launch of Sputnik on American education, after which it became patriotic to support it both financially and as a patriotic exercise. We spent July 20, 1969, at a moon-landing dinner party thrown by friends, all of whom we're still close to after a half-century: will email or telephone them on that anniversary!

I haven't seen it, but your question inspires me to throw a query of my own out to the audience: do you think it's possible for Americans to unite around a similar project again? And do you think we could do it without comparing ourselves to another country? The obvious rival for us in this regard right now is China, which is really pushing for dominance in space for reasons both of national pride and strategic military advantage. And my concern is that a competitive space race with China would become really ugly and xenophobic in a way that could potentially advance American unity but in a destructive way. I'm fascinated by space exploration, and I think we should be in it as a country for the pure advancement of knowledge, but I do wonder if there's a way to motivate people to be excited about that without whipping them up against an other.

Is this chat permanently moving to noon, or is today a one-off?

Today's a one-off! I have sources in from out of town and 1:30 was the only time I could see them.

Did you watch the season première of "Grantchester" last night on PBS, and if so, what did you think? SPOILER ALERT: I'd read that star James Norton was leaving the series, so was surprised to see him in last night's episode. The downward spiral of his character, Rev. Sidney Chambers, was really depressing, and I couldn't help but think that his new American love interest was too good for him (despite his urging her to speak up), and he seems likely to drag her down with all his problems. Your thoughts?

I am not a "Grantchester" person, unfortunately. But is anyone else in the audience?

A pun!


I finished Possession by A.S. Byatt for the first time a couple of weeks ago. I love the feeling of knowing as you're reading that a book is going to be an all-time favorite, and I got that with this one. Have you ever read it? Any books that you've read recently that you fell in love with?

I love "Possession" so, so, SO much! I've probably read it half a dozen times, and it's terrific. I'm trying to think of the last book that I just...fell into like that. I really liked Taffy Brodesser-Akner's "Fleishman Is In Trouble," though more in the sense that I felt like I had to get to the ending and couldn't stand waiting to get there, rather than feeling like it was definitely going to end up in the pantheon of my all-time greats. It's not a novel, but I've already read Patrick Radden Keefe's "Say Nothing," which is about the Troubles in Northern Ireland, twice. It's such an incredible piece of reporting and writing.

Let's not kid ourselves. The 1969 space race was also about uniting against another: we were sticking it to the Russians. That said, it's interesting to recall a geopolitical rivalry in which racism was not a factor. To be sure, the Communists tried to exploit racial tensions -- "if capitalism is so great and everyone is so free, why are the blacks still rioting?," that sort of thing -- but we didn't need to worry about the racial overtones because the existential threat was so different. Your concern about a rivalry with China is interesting, and I suppose I'm naive but it never occurred to me to use the racial angle to get people more worked up about the rivalry with China. I'm pretty worked up about it as is.

Oh, I absolutely did not mean to imply that the Cold War was not about a monstrous other. Obviously, we completely demonized government of the Soviet Union, and I think there were some racial angles to the rivalry on our end, especially as played out in the Olympics. But I do think something particularly toxic could emerge out of our rivalry with China.

I do want to be clear that it's obvious that anti-Asian racism isn't a new phenomenon. The Chinese Exclusion Act was the first law that specifically targeted a single community from immigrating to the United States, and the animus that animated that law has popped up in a lot of different manifestations over and over again. One of the reasons I've always appreciated Peter Hessler's humane reporting on China for the New Yorker, and why I appreciate pop culture phenomena like "Crazy Rich Asians" and "Always Be My Maybe" is that they push back against these stereotypes in a way that I think may be increasingly important in years to come.

It feels like there is a greater frequency in which we are reminded that we don't actually own the things we buy electronic copies of. This is frustrating for a number of reasons amongst which is the at the beginning of the boom in electronic music/books/movies etc it felt like some generally hard to find things were suddenly easily available, and now they aren't anymore. I'm not sure what to do to make accessible the literature, et al that I value more accessible, or at least make more people aware that they should be more accessible. Any advice?

 I totally, totally agree with you here. Sonny Bunch, who writes weekly for me, has made that case over and over again. When it comes to books and records, it's amazing to me that print-on-demand or press-on-demand services haven't become more widespread. Given how the development of cloud services has made it possible to store media extremely efficiently and at low cost, it would make so much sense for some place like Amazon to store the layouts of out-of-print books and make it possible for customers to order prints of them. That way, no one has to keep a physical inventory of stuff they're not sure they'll sell, publishers get a way to monetize their back catalogs and consumers get access to the work.

I appreciate the obvious answer that you offered, if you can't spend time alone with a female journalist then provide your own chaperone, though that gets in the way of the journalist seeing a "typical" day since there will be another person of the politician's choosing along for the ride and, presumably, messing with the dynamic even more than the journalist herself. I am still a bit confused by what the problem was. Did he think the journalist was going to be inappropriate with him? Did he think he would by inappropriate with the journalist? Was he just worried by the visual of spending time alone with a woman not his wife and what his opponent could do with any pictures (oddly, this seems the most absurd unless she was not a recognizable local journalist)? Was this based on some promise he made his wife since they did not trust each other from the very beginning of their marriage? In any event, the funniest outcome would have been for her to bring along a male work colleague who was gay and therefore more likely to be attracted to him than the journalist who is a lesbian. "Hi, this is our chaperone, Ted, from the fact checking department. And he thinks you are just cute as a button."

A couple of thoughts here:

1) It's worth noting, as I did in the column, that politicians are almost ALWAYS accompanied by staff in interviews, and I can't think of a scenario where any competent campaign manager would let a candidate be alone with a reporter all day, sex scandal risk or not. You want to be absolutely sure of what your candidate said and the context in which he or she said it so you won't be surprised come publication!

2) I think in this case, Foster's real angle was to gin up a controversy that would get him national coverage and allow him to present himself as a victim of liberal bias. He's one of a number of Republican contenders in the race, and he lost the NRA endorsement to someone else in the primary, so he probably needed to regain momentum. That said, Foster has said that this was a pledge he and his wife made to each other when they got married. I don't know that it means they don't trust each other, but it is aimed at avoiding the appearance of potential impropriety, even to an extent that seems to me to be overly cautious.

3) I totally agree, although that sort of puts Ted in the position of mildly harassing a candidate in a way that would probably blow back on him.

Can it be done? How does that even work? I've never read it but my WoT source is skeptical because the viewpoint character is supposedly a very minor character who just vanishes from history half-way through the book series.

I am extremely curious to see this as well! My feeling in general is that the camera provides the point of view in television storytelling, so that shouldn't be a huge problem. But the world is definitely huge and complicated, and my sense from my husband is that the timeframe for the storytelling is compressed in some weird ways, so we'll just have to see how it all comes together. That they landed Rosamund Pike seems potentially promising to me, though; she has pretty good taste and should be someone that other actors want to work with.

Your thoughts? Should only gays play gays, ttransgenders play transgenders, etc.? (I do recall the abomination of casting Mickey Rooney as an Asian man in "Breakfast at Tiffany's).

Let's talk about this in this week's newsletter.

I will probably get around to seeing "Spider-Man: Homecoming" pretty soon, but I have to admit there's not that much coming out this summer that I'm really looking forward to. I am not particularly interested in seeing the remade "The Lion King," or the new Tarantino, or "Hobbs & Shaw," or "Where'd You Go Bernadette?" I had hopes for "Yesterday" but have heard bad things about it. What are you excited about?

I am an enormous dork who very much enjoys watching strong, handsome men punch each other and engage in acts of automotive destruction, so I am *extremely* excited for "Hobbs & Shaw," which is not to say I think it will be a great work of cinema. I couldn't bring myself to watch either "The Lion King" or "Toy Story." I cannot wait to see "The Farewell," which looks fantastic. But yeah, it's a really slow-feeling summer.

I think the closes contemporary society will have to being united by the space race will be about climate change. If we'er lucky developing and implementing technology that decreases our carbon foot print dramatically. If we're unlucky it will be just being stunned and horrified by increasingly terrible natural disasters.

Or colonizing Mars! Kim Stanley Robinson's Mars trilogy is my favorite semi-hopeful series about this subject.

What is this newsletter of which you speak?

There's a Wednesday Act Four newsletter. You can subscribe to it on the same page with all the other Washington Post newsletters. I use it to answer a question from the chat at greater length every week.

It was great. I have vague recollection of watching Armstrong coming down the ladder so learning more about the space race and what these dedicated public servants did for the nation and the world was amazing. Mostly contemporary interviews and news accounts, no talking heads looking back. Frightening audio from the Apollo 1 cockpit after the fire broke out. I also applaud that it was on PBS, making it accessible to more people.

Great to know!

I don't think a similar unifying can happen today for a number of reasons. One the threat of the Soviet Union was recognized by the right and left, and most Americans felt the need to best them. The 60s was a time of great optimism in terms of wonder about what science and technology could do -actually I'm still amazed they pulled it off. We'd have to have a compelling reason to go back out there, and so far I haven't heard of one that will rally the public. On Grantchester -I read that the current Vicar will be on for a few episodes, then leave and they will introduce the new one. Since I liked the actor and role, will likely skip these ones especially given what poster said about the character spiralling downward.

This strikes me as one of the biggest challenges: "One the threat of the Soviet Union was recognized by the right and left, and most Americans felt the need to best them." I don't know what we could achieve consensus on like that today, which is what makes me fairly pessimistic about our prospects for doing what we need to on climate change.

This episode contains very graphic audio of Gus Grissom, Ed White and Roger Chaffee being burned alive in the cabin fire. Thankfully, they cut out the video right beforehand.

That's a useful warning; thanks for letting us all know.

Just as an interesting note on this subject, one area where I happen to know this has been happening is with tabletop RPGs. A lot of older adventures and other documents are now available online as print-on-demands, which is a nice alternative to trying to track them down on eBay or print out massively long pdfs yourself (plus you get them bound!).

It's always so nice to hear that things like this are working some areas.

Isn't it Spider-Man: Far From Home which is currently in theaters the sequel to Spider-Man: Homecoming? It's very confusing when sequels don't have numbers in the title but with Spider-Man movies that effort seems almost futile.

Yes, sorry for my broken brain! "Far From Home." 

My television (27 inch CRT that I got for $25 and picking it up off Craig's list) died Saturday morning. I didn't bother/figure out how to logon to my Comcast account until Sunday just as the Wimbledon men's final was finishing. Not fun, but much less difficult than living without a computer for a week when the power source went out and I decided to fix it rather than replace. Though I find myself very drawn to the new type of set where you can put it into an "art mode" to see pictures rather than a gaping maw of black when it is not showing programming.

Any readers want to chime in with recommendations for our chatter?

A bit disappointed... but only because TS is such a high bar to clear. I didn't hate it, but I thought it did not measure up t the other three. I wanted more from the antique store, they could have done the whole movie in that setting!

The ending of "Toy Story 3" was just so perfect I couldn't convince myself to see the story through to a new iteration! Maybe once the kiddo is old enough to watch Pixar movies, we'll check it out.

Okay, folks, we'll be back at our regular time on the 22nd. Thanks for chatting, and don't melt today!

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