The Great Struggle: Pop Culture Favorites in 2015

History, which is a simple whore, has no decisive moments but is a proliferation of instants, brief interludes that vie with one another in monstrousness.
— Roberto Bolano

I am not as bleak about the future as Bolano, or so I set out to be. I am writing from a computer in a car as makes its way northward through what feels like the bowels of LA. South of here, in the heat of some forgotten desert, I can imagine the frantic mind of a tired novelist as he strikes at keys like a demigod to finish one final, apocalyptic sigh. It took me a year to finally finish Bolano’s 2666. The pages spanned the year’s breadth and I finished it just days before Christmas; without realizing it, it became the lens that colored the rest of the culture I experienced this year.

2666 is a book mostly concerned with violence and death; it seemed a fitting read for this violent year. Against its savage backdrop, I became mostly interested in cultural works that really struggled against something, whether themselves or some greater force. To borrow from Bolano, I wanted to observe “the great masters struggle against that something, that something that terrifies us all, that something that cows us and spurs us on, amid blood and mortal wounds and stench.” It was a year to get to know fear. How peripheral that task can feel at times; and yet, how essential it can become. Three interludes—a book, a television show and a documentary—stood out in their attempt to wage the struggle.

2666, Roberto Bolano

It turns out the future is bleak. The dessert is full of nightmares and each one appears like an apparition—hazy, determined and dressed in macabre robes. Composed of five parts, and originally intended to be released individually, the novel was instead released after Bolano’s death as one giant juggernaut of tensions that nearly crawl off the page as they beat towards a future that looks like a gathering baroque graveyard.

The novel focuses on a series of events and people that all converge around a growing sense of doom in Santa Teresa, Mexico (based on Cuidad Juarez): a group of literary critics looking for a reclusive German author, Benno von Archimboldi; a Chilean professor who arrives in Santa Teresa with his daughter and fears she will become another victim of the femicides that haunt the area; an journalist from Harlem named Fate who comes to Santa Teresa to report a story; a chronicle of all of the murders of hundreds of women and the police efforts to stop them; and a young German soldier and writer named Hans Reiter. Bolano brings all of these stories together will a mastery that is chilling. To read this book is to understand how a great master quarrels and bucks against wreckage and chaos. The pages are alive with mess and obsession and the story is a testament to the unfathomable nature of an evil that lurks outside every door.

The Auteur Spars: The Leftovers

With your feet on the air
And your head on the ground
Try this trick and spin it, yeah
Your head’ll collapse
If there’s nothing in it
And you ask yourself

Where is my mind?”
— The Pixies

We are in position to be overwhelmed with the sheer amount of great television. There is much too see and not enough time to keep up, or binge-watch everything that Netflix, Hulu and Amazon can produce. Earlier this year as Don Draper sat on that Big Sur cliff and reinvented himself yet again and Jon Hamm crawled onstage to finally accept his Emmy, a curtain fell upon the so-called Golden Age of Television and it was clear that another trend was forming: the uncompromising vision of the auteur. 

The best shows of 2015 demonstrated an unyielding, dazzling and often jarring vision: Jill Solloway’s Transparent, Noah Hawley’s Fargo, Sam Esmail’s MR. ROBOT, Ray McKinnon’s Rectify, and finally Damon Lindelof’s The Leftovers. I’ve had my challenges with The Leftovers since the first season, which left me battered but still committed to watching. The second season—with a change of location and a corrected course for the problems that plagued season one—was a chance to see Lindelof take novel, brave and desperate chances with storytelling, and it became (with some admitted reluctance) my favorite show of the year.

Lindelof's work in season two proves that he is a storyteller who is unafraid to take risks, and right mistakes of the past by doing so. International Assassin—arguably one of the best episodes of television this year—read as bold and strange and human, when it could have easily been penned as Lost-runoff, or showy storytelling with no substantive backbone. Though it may be tormenting to some, it is a show that never has been about answers. The great auteurs will go to battle with their most oppressing themes, and in many ways The Leftovers is just that—a return to a theme that seems to haunt Lindelof: understanding how humans behave when exposed to the most tragic and unfathomable situations, and the great mystery of existence that we’ll just have to let be.

FootnotE

For a very informative, funny and intelligent conversation about Lost, The Leftovers, storytelling and the perils of criticism listen to the Channel 33 Podcast with Andy Greenwald and Damon Lindelof.

The Leftovers, HBO

The Leftovers, HBO

Romeo is BleedinG

But romeo is bleeding but nobody can tell
and he sings along with the radio
with a bullet in his chest.
— Tom Waits

I stood in the back of the theatre pressed inbetween a wall and a man who surely thought I was a coat rack to see this documentary. It was the one feature I didn’t want to miss at the Napa Valley Film Festival and it was the best documentary I saw this year. In fair Richmond, where we lay our scene, the documentary follows Donté Clark’s journey to transcend violence through spoken word poetry in a city torn apart by a turf war between neighborhoods. Donté sets out to write an adaptation of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet set in Richmond—a devastating plea to a city and a population of youth splintered by a senseless war that plays out much like the fates of the Montagues and Capulets. In this case violence is deeply rooted—inherited like a family heirloom—and grown into something much stronger than an epidemic, it’s an ideology.

Donte’s efforts—along with a very dedicated teacher and a local community organization—provides a platform for the community to speak out, and a reminder that a voice can fly as sharp as those rogue, cylindrical projectiles that ended so many lives this year. It’s a love letter to a city torn asunder, to youth, to the power of a voice, and certainly a plea for a peace—even if that plea may go unheard in the dark.

Directed by Jason Zeldes, best known for editing Twenty Feet from Stardom, the film traveled the festival circuit this year and is out for very limited release. I can only hope this film spreads into the places where it belongs—living rooms, schools, juvenile prisons, and places like Richmond where the only chance for peace might be something as unexpected as poetry. And if that may be the weapon, wage on.

Romeo is Bleeding, A Documentary Film by Jason Zeldes

Romeo is Bleeding, A Documentary Film by Jason Zeldes