In no particular order, and for no particular reason, here are a few of my favorite things from the world of culture in 2010. (Caveat: not a “best of,” mind you, just some stuff I liked.)
(Film) Exit Through The Gift Shop – Elaborate art stunt or stranger-than-fiction documentary? In the end, it doesn’t really matter. Elusive street artist/prankster Banksy’s film is the most fun I’ve had at a documentary, or “documentary,” screening this year.
(Chapter of a Book) Bob Dylan in America – Sean Wilentz, Chapter 4, The Sound of 3:00 am: The Making of Blonde on Blonde, New York City and Nashville, October 5, 1965-March 10(?), 1966: For the most part, Wilentz’s book is a bit of a frustrating letdown, a scholarly assessment of Dylan’s work rife with conjecture. It should have been titled “Aaron Copland, Blind Willie Mctell and Bob Dylan in America” and published as a musicology thesis. He’s clearly a fan and scholar, and means well, and the book does have moments that sent me off to do research or on to iTunes to check out music I hadn’t heard. The highlight of the book, though, is the engrossing chapter 4, which places the reader inside those mysterious and historic Blonde on Blonde recording sessions.
(Film/Music/Liner Notes/Notebook Reproduction) The Promise: The Darkness on the Edge of Town Story – The Holy Grail for those Springsteen fans, myself included, who love Darkness on the Edge of Town above all else. The documentary on its own is a revelation, full of interviews with Springsteen, The E-Street Band and the record’s engineers that take you inside the artist’s mind, and what appears to have been grueling studio sessions to realize his vision. The box set, with the 2 CDs of tracks that didn’t make the record, a remastered Darkness and several DVDs of concert footage is a Springsteen geekfest.
(Music) The Gaslight Anthem – American Slang: There are moments when I think The Gaslight Anthem are the only band that matters right now, but I know that’s not fair, to them or the memory of The Clash. But still, it’s hard to listen to this record, which i did hundreds of times it seems this summer, and not get caught up in their energy and lust for life. They’re going for it, and taking us with them. And maybe we need that sometimes. Or at least I do.
(Film) I Am Love: Dramatic, sensual, epic and tense, Tilda Swinton and director Luca Guadagnino have created a near masterpiece. A metaphor for a changing world and an homage to great Italian cinema. The film is full of passion, style and food.
(Concert) The Hold Steady at the Exit/In: Finally seeing one of my favorite contemporary rock bands in a small club was everything I had hoped and more. The new record, while slightly uneven comparatively, is great as well.
(Art) Marina Abramovic: The Artist is Present – a new work and Career Retrospective at MOMA, NYC: I knew very little of performance artist Marina Abramovic’s work before catching this exhibit at MOMA in the spring. My relationship with art and my understanding of it changed a little that day. It was deeply affecting, and to this day, I still think about it. It’s tempting to incorrectly take in contemporary or performance art and ask “What does it mean,” but this exhibit forces you to ask “What does it mean to me?” What do I feel while experiencing this?” I only wish I could have sat across from her in the atrium. She’s a new hero.
(Book) Just Kids – Patti Smith – Every year, if I’m lucky, there’s one thing, a book or a movie usually, that I just can’t stop talking about. Something I want everyone to read or see; something I might give everyone as a gift. This year, it’s Just Kids. Smith’s memoir of her young artistic life in NYC with fellow artist Robert Mapplethorpe is astonishing in its beauty and tenderness. It’s about art, and love and New York City, and dreams we’ve all had, and maybe can still.
(Television) Mad Men Season 4 – For someone who works in television, I don’t watch it that much. But in four years, I haven’t missed an episode of Mad Men. I know this can’t go on forever. There’s bound to be an off season soon, but it hasn’t happened yet. This season, our antihero became a hero, and then an antihero again, and then did something so impulsive and out of character, we didn’t know what to think anymore. And it was beguiling.
(Book) Super Sad True Love Story – Gary Shteyngart: Hilarious and frightening, uplifting and depressing all at the same time, Shteyngart’s near-dystopian future America doesn’t seem like much of a stretch. Everyone is either Media or Credit, streaming, checking their iPhone like apparats, using the spawn of Facebook- Globalteens – and shopping at JuicyPussy and Ass Luxury. If it sounds crazy, it’s because it is. Much of this book is crazy. But it’s also tender. And as its title suggests, is a love story, albeit a sad one. A unique novel I absorbed in a two-day binge because I couldn’t let it go.
(Music) James Maddock, Sunrise On Avenue C – Every song on this former member of Wood’s independently released album makes me happy. “When the Sun’s Out” is the best summer song ever to use a harmless shoplifting incident as a backdrop for loving life. This record came out mid-to-late 2009, but I only discovered it in 2010. Thank you WFUV for introducing me to Maddock, and Maddock, thank you for coming out of whatever exile you were in to deliver this record.
(Art) Salvador Dali: The Late Work at the High Museum, Atlanta: I had a pedestrian understanding of Dali before this exhibit — all melting clocks, surrealism and long mustaches. But this outstanding show, complete with some of Dali’s iconic works, went deep into the artist’s work post-surrealism. Most interesting to me was discovering his early work in video art and his later embrace of Catholicism, where paintings meditated on the Madonna and Child and the crucifixion. He considered himself a Catholic without faith in those years. For someone who seemed publicly so unique and outside of the rest of us, discovering that honesty in soulful exploration is moving.
(Film) Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work: All documentary filmmakers should be as blessed as Ricki Stern and Annie Sundberg to have had as entertaining and honest a subject as Rivers. The film is raw, because Rivers is raw, opening herself up in ways I would have never expected. What you come away with is a deep understanding of a woman and an entertainer who has stayed young not because of the work she has had done, but because of the work she continues to do, obsessively and passionately. A film that’s funny, heartbreaking and inspiring. May all of our calendars stay full.
(Book) Mr. Peanut – Adam Ross: Forget for a moment that Ross’s tour de force of a novel revolves around massive marital dysfunction and husbands who may or may not have killed their wives. The guy can write. There are times I reread entire passages just to be sure I read what I did. You’ll want to stop reading during the part in the airplane bathroom, or during the hike in Hawaii, but you won’t be able to. He’s got you. And then you won’t be able to sleep if you read it anywhere close to bedtime. It’s a scary book. But it’s frightening if you love literature the way Hitchcock films are frightening if you love film. A truly unique and exhilarating reading experience.
(Book) Eat, Pray, Love – Elizabeth Gilbert: Of course the book came out a few years ago, but the release of the movie – widely panned critically and universally dismissed by fans of the book – sparked a renewed interest. Culturally curious as I am, I set out on a quiet marathon reading. When in public killing time, or at a coffeeshop for lunch, I folded the front cover back and wished, just this once, that I had a Kindle. The verdict? Well, it overstays its welcome in spots, but ultimately, Gilbert’s a fantastic writer, and it’s hard not to get pulled into her prose and positive search for answers to her own, and the world’s, mystery. It resonated with me in many spots. I’m glad I read it. I understand the love that many have for it.
(Music) Arcade Fire – The Suburbs: Not since The Wrens’ The Meadowlands has a record sonically enveloped me so quickly. Even before you begin absorbing what the songs are about, you’re caught up in what they SOUND like they’re about. And that sound is isolation. With each listen, I’m wrapped up more. Beautiful stuff. Art on record.
(Book/Celebration) 50th Anniversary of To Kill a Mockingbird – Harper Lee. In honor of the 50th Anniversary of it being published, I reread Lee’s novel. And reloved it. I wish we could have a nationwide book club, and that this book would show up in everyone’s mailbox, and we could all read it together. Again.