The Year in Culture

Neil LaBute, Lemony Snicket, Kenneth Pollack, and others on 2004’s most notable cultural happenings.

This year, Slateasked a collection of writers, critics, editors, and artists to answer the following question: Which cultural happening most amazed or disappointed you this year? Here are their responses:

Hilton Als: Medulla, Björk Björk’s Medulla is, perhaps, the most brilliant cultural artifact produced this year. Armed only with vocalists—Razhel from the Roots provides many of the beats; the brilliant Inuit throat singer Tanya Tagaq undercuts but never overwhelms Mlle. B’s astonishing mezzo-soprano—Björk sets about filling the sonic landscape with a presynthesizer world of her own imagining. Ostensibly about a return to basics (the title is Latin for the inner part or core of a plant or animal structure), Medulla is really about Björk’s re-exploration of her voice in a Third World context. That the world outside of her native Iceland has always been immensely important to her, musically, is without question; now, she makes clear that she is unequivocally interested in racial and thus social integration as well. Which is just another phrase for politics.—Hilton Als is a staff writer for The New Yorker and the author of The Women.

Rachel Cohen: The Colonial Andes: Tapestries and Silverwork, 1530-1830, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City
One of those exhibits for which I’m so thankful to the Metropolitan Museum, an erudite and thoughtful documentation of a whole field and period of artistic endeavor that I knew nothing about—in this case the tapestries and metalwork of what are now Peru and Bolivia from the moment of the Spanish arrival through 300 years of adaptation and invention on the part of the Inca residents of the Andes. And such beautiful work. Each tapestry—some meant to be worn, some to hang—moving with wonderful control through a beautifully complex visual field. Certain of them deeply satisfying abstract patterns—checkerboards, narrow and broad stripes—others with a sense of life in all its variety: dogs, angels, small running creatures, Chinese dragons (the Spanish had an annual shipping route between Acapulco and China), twining vegetation, heraldic shields, and birds. Such birds as you imagine you will never come across elsewhere—perhaps they have disappeared even from the trees of Peru and Bolivia and can only be seen here, hesitating near each other on the borders of a woman’s dress from the 17th century, or feeding their young in a most graceful curving silver urn that the gentle curators of the Metropolitan Museum have kindly arranged to borrow from Bolivia or the Czech Republic or the National Museum of the American Indian, for the edification of the grateful citizens of New York.      
—Rachel Cohen is the author of A Chance Meeting: Intertwined Lives of American Writers and Artists, 1854-1967. 

Stanley Crouch: The Wire on HBO
One can never underestimate the human importance of the aesthetic contributions to television narrative that HBO continues to make. One easily recognizes the impetus for the late-night trash that it presents as a neon sop of barely soft-core pornography for the masses, but that would not explain all of the other things that this adventurous station offers. In aesthetic terms, I think this is especially true of The Wire, a dramatic series with much wider scope than The Sopranos, an unprecedented classic.

The human importance of The Wire is that it avoids the caricatures that we are too often given of black people in rap’s pervasive minstrelsy and the other fast-food ethnic images of mass media. The Wire is the best crime show since Hill Street Blues, Law & Order, and NYPD Blue. Like its predecessors, the show has a breadth of human vision that moves us far beyond the stereotype and does the best that it can with the mysteries of human personality.

The Wire is set in Baltimore and does not back away from the monstrous elements of the black drug trade in American cities, but it also gives great variety to the criminal characters, from extremely stupid to extremely clever. Even more impressive than that already impressive achievement is the range of black people in law enforcement and the complex rendering of urban politics as played out along racial, sexual, and class lines. For one long stretch its focus was white ethnic crime on the Baltimore docks, and the series was as successful in creating complex scenarios, providing the viewer with maddening, flawed, corrupt, heroic, and tragic characters. Within the limits of its form (which seem to be no more than the width of the screen, since cable television is not, for good and for bad, held in check by censorship), The Wire is a masterpiece and will continue to be as long as it can maintain the depth of the standards it has set for itself.
Stanley Crouch is the author, most recently, of Don’t the Moon Look Lonesome: A Novel in Blues and Swing.

Bryan Curtis: My Prison Without Bars, by Pete Rose
As a document of false contrition, Pete Rose’s book is a treasure—from the woe-is-me title to the rear-cover photo of Rose in tears, standing on first base. Rose published My Prison in January as part of a literary plea bargain: By admitting he placed bets on the Cincinnati Reds while serving as their manager, he hoped to grease his path into baseball’s Hall of Fame. Well, as Pete might say, no dice. The problem is that Rose didn’t cop to much of anything. He blames his dad for turning him into a horsetrack addict. He imports a doctor, David E. Comings, to ascribe his personality flaws to attention deficit hyperactivity disorder: “ADHD kids are very strong-willed. They don’t like anyone telling them what to do. … In Pete’s case, these characteristics helped him to become one of the greatest hitters in baseball history. … In fact, Pete Rose is not unlike Einstein, who flunked English but excelled in math.” Hey, thanks, doc!

Those of us who cherish jock confessionals—who believe against all evidence that athletes have something to say—lost a little bit of our souls after reading My Prison. The sports confessional was once a flourishing literary form, practiced by jock-litterateurs who wanted to show how dehumanizing team sports really were. Now, the typical author is more along the lines of Rose, who seems determined to prove that athletes have moral compasses indistinguishable from toads. My most dispiriting cultural event for next year: Juiced, a memoir by Jose Canseco, who will surely make Rose look like Scott Fitzgerald.
—Bryan Curtis is Slate’s deputy culture editor and a staff writer.

David Edelstein: The Passion of the Christ and Fahrenheit 9/11
Never the twain shall meet: Two movies that highlight our cultural schism, The Passion of the Christ and Fahrenheit 9/11. I suppose there might be someone, somewhere, who loves them both, but in general, neither side will ever see the other’s point of view. Each film is punishing in its single-mindedness, but is, for its intended audience, a sort of turn-on. Every bloody lash and gouge out of Mel Gibson’s Jesus is transfiguring: It cannot be too bloody, it cannot be too horrible. Gibson can talk disingenuously about Christian forgiveness, but the pain that his movie inflicts is meant to engender anger—at what or at whom is the question of the hour (if not the millennium). I know my characterization of it as “The Jesus Chainsaw Massacre” engendered anti-Semitic e-mails and vague death threats. (The most charitable e-mail said that one of those bloody lashes had my name on it—that Christ died for me, too.) Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11 gives no inkling of the brutality of Saddam Hussein or the very real peril of what some call “Islamofascism.” Firmly grounded in a view of the United States as run by corporatist greedheads (and cowards) who hide their true motives behind bogus piety, Moore traffics in sniggering innuendo and lingers on the bloody corpses of Iraqi children. But (here is where my own biases come into play), Moore’s demagogic techniques are in the service of attacking a misbegotten war waged by arrogant fools, a war that has ended up costing thousands upon thousands of lives, with no end in sight. In any case, we will continue to demonize one another and celebrate the films (and propagandists) that help sustain our convictions. You think your side is right; I know mine is. In the end it will come down, once more, to who can sway the undecided, those idiots.
—David Edelstein is Slate’sfilm critic.

Daniel Handler: The DVD release of Aventurera This year, the greatest film in the entire world was released on DVD. The film, Alberto Gout’s Aventurera, was made in Mexico in 1950. It is the greatest film in the world. If I could, I would force you to see it. Once I saw it with my friend Matt, who was jet-lagged and fell asleep halfway through so I jabbed him in the ribs, hard, to wake him up. Once I saw two showings of the film on the same day—right in a row. I saw the film, bid my friend goodbye, lingered outside the theater, met another friend and pretended I had just arrived, went inside, and saw it again. Once I bought a VHS copy online from a very iffy-looking Web site, but it turned out there were no subtitles. I don’t speak Spanish but my brother-in-law and his wife do, so I sent it to them. They have never acknowledged receiving the film, which I can only interpret as awe.

What is the film about? Ninon Sevilla, in a fervent, twitchy performance, plays Elena, a young girl who endures sexual temptation, the breakup of her family, a suicide, and dance lessons in the first 10 minutes of the film. Following that, Gout thoughtfully provides a brief flashback encompassing all the events of the past 10 minutes. Murder and champagne follow. White slavery is involved and unrequited love. Also, table tennis. Ms. Sevilla has apparently been costumed with a vengeance—i.e., by someone with a fervent desire to get revenge on her. Do you know that feeling, way past admiration and quite a bit past campy admiration, when you realize that you literally can’t believe what you are seeing? Also, it is a musical.
—Daniel Handler writes the children’s books A Series of Unfortunate Events under the name Lemony Snicket.

Jim Holt: The 20th anniversary of Miami Vice
The cultural happening that most disappointed me—because it went almost entirely unnoticed—was the 20th anniversary of Miami Vice. From its inauspicious beginnings when one television executive handed another a slip of paper that said simply MTV COPS, Miami Vice became the most aesthetically interesting show of the 1980s. The genius behind it was executive producer Michael Mann. No one is better at blending music with visuals than Mann. (Just look at his later movies, like Heat and Collateral.) Miami Vice was set in South Beach—then a derelict ghetto of boarded-up buildings and street crime, since transformed into the American St. Tropez. The visual language was art deco and art moderne: bright pastels in the daytime Miami sun, city lights reflected in water at night. The music was created by Czech musician Jan Hammer, a classically trained alumnus of the Mahavishnu Orchestra. Hammer composed leitmotifs for the main characters to dramatize them musically, created heightened excitement with a droning bass ostinato, and liberally used some of the better pop music of the time (Peter Gabriel, Phil Collins). Then there were the guest stars: future mainstream greats like Julia Roberts, Bruce Willis, and Liam Neeson, and cult favorites like Frank Zappa, Penn Gillette, poet and singer Leonard Cohen, Warhol superstar Joe Dellasandro, Watergate burglar Gordon Liddy, avant-garde opera director Peter Sellars, and even the French actress who played Marion in Erich Rohmer’s Pauline at the Beach *. Mann chose arty young guys, often just out of film school, to direct the episodes. The result was, by television standards, a Gesamtkunstwerk—a total artwork comprising drama, music, spectacle, and choreography (gunfights and car chases instead of actual dancing). Why can’t we revive its legacy? Today’s “realistic” cop shows are so dull by contrast. And the only show that uses music anywhere near as effectively is Curb Your Enthusiasm, with its Jacques Tati-like soundtrack. One personal note: Quite apart from aesthetics, the reason I liked Miami Vice so much was that it represented the diametrical opposite of my own existence—tropical sexy, violent, steamy, corrupt, anti-intellectual, anti-rational. Wouldn’t you rather have Vice than Law & Order?
—Jim Holt writes the “Egghead” column for Slate. He also writes for The New Yorker and the New York Times Magazine.

Ben Karlin: John Kerry and Bruce Springsteen
I thought Bruce Springsteen’s appearance with John Kerry in Madison, Wis., perfectly captured the heightened spirit and raised stakes of this year’s election, while at the same time demonstrating the utter uselessness of the celebrity endorsement. If the nonpolarizing, universally loved Boss can’t help, maybe Messrs. Kutcher and Penn, Goldberg, and Streisand will take the cue and shut the fuck up next time around. Just sayin’.
—Ben Karlin is co-executive producer of The Daily Show With Jon Stewart.

Neil LaBute: The national elections
In a year of cultural highs and lows, nothing was more thrilling, amusing, demented, silly, depressing, and madcap than the national elections. From the groundswell of a renewed morality to the declamations of expatriation—do you really know anyone who packed up and moved away?—the parties Democrat and Republican certainly know how to put on a show! No Broadway house was filled with more gasps and tears, no sporting event ran a tighter race, no comedy club played to larger crowds and garnered bigger yuks. I’m no creature of politics, but the Fellini-esque quality of the freak show that is our electoral process was worth twice the price of admission; I only thank God that it was free. If this happens again four years from now, I for one am moving—but just down the street, so I’ll have a better view.
—Neil LaBute’s films include In the Company of Men, Nurse Betty, Possession, and The Shape of Things. His latest play, Fat Pig, is currently playing off-Broadway.

Stephen Metcalf: The left and the right
To me, the biggest cultural happening of ‘04 was the final and official swapping of worldviews between the left and the right. The theoretical left—in the person of spokesman Terry Eagleton—discovered transcendental human values, such as friendship and justice, while the right became full-fledged relativists. The famous instance was reported by Ron Suskind, repeated here by Timothy Noah, in which a senior Bush aide told Suskind that people like Suskind were “in what we call the reality-based community,” and that we, America, “an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality.” Just the other night, in his farewell broadcast, Bill Moyers confronted Richard Viguerie with the distortions behind the Swift Boat ads. Viguerie, a direct mail pioneer and yet another of the creepily cheerful poo-bahs behind the conservative ascendancy, dismissed Moyers with a wholesomely wicked grin. “That’s a matter of opinion, as to whether there was a basis to this story or that story …” adding, “That’s what journalism is, it’s just all opinion.” So there we have it; Nietzschean brio and the convenient destruction of the ethical and professional norms behind objective truth. Some of the sillier beliefs of adjunct humanities faculty now find themselves yoked to imperial power. This would be amusing, if it weren’t so terrifying.
—Stephen Metcalf is a writer living in New York City.

Kenneth M. Pollack: The Lord of the Rings trilogy
I suspect that one reason that The Lord of the Rings trilogy struck so receptive a chord with the American people is that (in addition to being a wonderful story superbly portrayed) it satisfied our craving in the uncertainty of our post-9/11 lives for a simpler way of thinking about our lives and our role in the world. I suspect that Frodo and Sam’s struggle against the forces of evil was even more appealing because it helped Americans frame their own thoughts about the far more baffling and uncertain—but seemingly just as menacing—struggle against terror.
—Kenneth M. Pollack is a fellow at the Brookings Institution and the author of The Persian Puzzle and The Threatening Storm: The Case for Invading Iraq.

Jody Rosen: The Red Sox Boston bums me out, in the special way that a city can bum out a person who spent his formative years there before fleeing. There’s the High Yankee starchiness, and the blue laws, and the pride Bostonians take in dinky tourist attractions like the little Beacon Hill bar on which Cheers was based, and the local press’s insistence on referring to their quaint city of 600,000 as “The Hub”—as in “The Hub of the Solar System,” an Oliver Wendell Holmes coinage.

But I have to admit: The town knows how to throw a parade. When the Red Sox finally broke their 86-year losing streak and won the World Series in October, city officials began planning for the great ceremonial purging of New England Calvinist fatalism, a victory parade, which everyone assumed would follow the route of past Patriots and Celtics celebrations, snaking through the stately streets of Back Bay, culminating with a rally at City Hall Plaza. But police worried that there would be no way to control the crowd, which was expected to exceed 3 million—far more people than had ever before converged on downtown Boston. 

At this point someone must have taken a look at the city map and realized: Hey, a river runs through it. Which is how the victorious Red Sox found themselves on a drizzly Saturday in a motorcade of 17 amphibious “Duckmobiles” that wended through the city, hooked a left on Cambridge Street, and plopped into the Charles River. There, they floated between the Longfellow and Massachusetts Avenue bridges for another two hours, to the delight of fans who thronged the bridges and riverbanks, and others who launched their own small pleasure craft for a better glimpse of the conquering heroes. The Red Sox Flotilla may well have been the most inspired use of an urban waterway since renaissance Venice (or, at least, since Op-Sail ‘76), and should remind city planners that our postindustrial waterfront spaces offer possibilities other than square footage for luxury housing or the world’s biggest Ikea. It was also—with the possible exception of that other nautical lark, the Tea Party—by far the coolest thing that’s ever happened in Boston.
—Jody Rosen is The Nation’s music critic and the author of White Christmas: The Story of an American Song.

Judith Shulevitz: Gileadby Marilynne Robinson
Is godliness a fit subject for a novel? Gilead, the second novel by Marilynne Robinson, is a deceptively plain book that takes the enormous risk of making it one. The narrative consists of a letter written by an elderly Calvinist minister to his young son laying out the lessons he feels the boy should learn, since he won’t get the chance to teach them himself. Skilled preacher that he is, he takes his lessons from life—from his family’s violent abolitionist past (his grandfather abetted John Brown); the anguished, unloving relationships among grandfather and father and grandson, all ministers; his quixotic choice to remain in a deteriorating Iowan town; his late-in-life marriage to a much younger woman, mother of his son and possible prey of his best friend’s prodigal son.

The stuff of the novel, though, its language and mode of processing experience, is homiletics. Robinson gives the minister’s voice an immediacy so fluid it feels like true thought, so that as he ruminates he stops and considers every passing insight as a potential sermon, exactly as a preacher would do, exposing us as he goes to the art and mechanics of sermon-making. Robinson does not approach this in a spirit of irony. The clergyman does not turn out to be a hypocrite, or liar, or lunatic. He is what he purports to be: the modest, compassionate servant of a loving, demanding God. And therein lies Robinson’s courage, because sermonizers are universally assumed to be bores. “Sunday-strolling through too many homiletic passages,” wrote the most dismissive critic in an unsigned brief in the New Yorker. But even more favorable critics (with the exception of Ann Hulbert in Slate) judged the novel against its piety, as if the two were incompatible.

It was the critics struggling to determine whether a book this religious could also be literature who made me understand why I found it unforgettable. For inspiration Robinson has reached so far into the prehistory of American writing that she bypasses the Enlightenment conviction that art is distinct from religion. She takes us back to the time of the Puritans, to the era of great and garrulous and promiscuously confessional diaries and testimonials and yes, sermons, all written by men and women who brought a sense of high drama to their struggle to be good that we can hardly imagine anymore. In Gilead’s universe, as in theirs, the mundane is sacred and the sacred ubiquitous. God is entirely good but frighteningly unknowable. The past of one’s forefathers—whether biblical or abolitionist—has at least as much reality as the fleeting present. And in that conflation of past and present Robinson seems almost to be issuing a prophecy about American literature, to be pointing us toward a spiritual renewal after decades of ever giddier modernism, postmodernism, and moral indifference. The direction she heads us in strikes me as hopeful and fresh, as fresh as the Bible itself, and also slightly terrifying.
—Judith Shulevitz, former culture editor of Slate and former columnist for the New York Times Book Review, is working on a book about the Sabbath.

Jane Smiley: The Triple Crown
I gave a party for the Belmont Stakes. We put out dollar bills in the bet pool. I passed the hat with the horses’ numbers in it. We all envied those who drew Smarty Jones. Most of us had seen his move in the Preakness, where he just turned on the afterburners and rocketed around the field. I could have gone down to some broadcasting station, where I was invited to comment on the race for public consumption, but I didn’t even consider it—Smarty’s apotheosis had to be enjoyed with friends. The champagne was on ice. We explained to the children what the bet pool was, and how much money they would win if their number came in. It was wholesome, really. The sun was shining in New York, here in California, and, of course, all over the world. Only the horse was enigmatic. None of us had seen him. He seemed to be rather small. A chestnut with a little white on his face. When he went to the post, his neck was curled and he seemed turned in on himself, not a grand expansive personality like, say, Secretariat, or a big tough guy like Seattle Slew. But that was OK. When he won, we thought, the personality would come. But he didn’t have the same move, and he had to fight a little brown horse who eventually beat him. It was me who had the winning number. We divvied up the money and then everybody fled. My partner cried. The champagne stayed on ice. It was the first major disappointment of the year. A few days later, Michael Eastman, who had taken Smarty’s photo for the cover of Time just in case, e-mailed me his dramatic and elegant picture, the one that would probably have been pre-empted by the death of Ronald Reagan anyway. I printed it out and put it away. When they unearth it in a thousand years, I hope they take it as evidence that he won.
—Jane Smiley is the author of many novels and essays. She lives in California.

Dana Stevens: Blogs
The movie that most blew me away this year was Eternal Sunshine of the SpotlessMind, and the book, probably Stephen Elliott’s Happy Baby. But if I really think about the precise wording of Slate’s request, which asked about the “one cultural happening” that most affected my year, I’d say that the single biggest change in the way I experience culture can be summed up in one word, which is by now such an oversaturated media buzzword I can barely bring myself to type it: blogs. When I’d wake up in the morning in 2003, the first thing I did while my coffee was brewing was read the paper (or, let’s be honest: stare out the window and wait for the coffee, then read the paper). Now, at the end of 2004, it’s just as likely I’ll start my day online, checking in on the writers who are inventing a new literary genre all their own, somewhere between fiction, memoir, and personal essay. I’m not talking about the para-journalistic political blogs that caused such a stir during the election or the professional sites run by Nick Denton (though many of those are indispensable reading). The sites that have changed the way I read are intimate, diaristic personal sites like Dooce or Mimi Smartypants, paid for out of the writers’ pockets (or maintained for free through Web hosts like Blogspot). Everyone’s talking about how to turn blogs into books, but I, for one, like them exactly as they are: The serialized format, the uncertainty about when the next post is coming, makes for the equivalent of novelistic suspense. If I have only 15 minutes a day for my own pleasure reading, I’ll take to bed, not with a book, but with a Wi-Fi laptop. The only problem with blogs as pleasure reading: You can’t take them into the bathtub.
—Dana Stevens (aka Liz Penn) writes on television for Slate and on film and culture for the  High Sign.

Terry Teachout: Doubt by John Patrick Shanley
John Patrick Shanley did the impossible this year: He wrote an exciting play about the sex scandal in the Roman Catholic priesthood.

Having spent too much time of late nodding over the tendentious pontification of such agree-with-me-or-go-to-hell playwrights as Tony Kushner and Tim Robbins, I was delighted by Doubt precisely because it didn’t presuppose the unanimous concurrence of its viewers. Instead, Shanley used an explosively “political” situation as the occasion for an issue-driven drama whose characters act like human beings, not symbols, caricatures, punching bags, or marionettes. This was all the more surprising given the fact that the two principal characters in Doubt are a post-Vatican II priest suspected of child abuse and an old-fashioned nun determined to bring him down, evidence or no evidence. Who would have thought that out of such seemingly unpromising material, Shanley was capable of weaving a script so full of unexpected twists and turns that it made New York preview audiences gasp?

What a pleasure it is to be surprised by an American play—and how rarely it happens these days, especially when politics are in the driver’s seat. All praise to John Patrick Shanley, then, for daring to be counter-cultural.
—Terry Teachout is the drama critic of the Wall Street Journal and author of All in the Dances: A Brief Life of George Balanchine and A Terry Teachout Reader. He blogs about the arts at

June Thomas: The Seattle International Film Festival, The Sea Inside, and Warsaw Village Band
For me, the cultural highlight of 2004 was the Seattle International Film Festival. Seeing five or six movies a day over the course of three-and-a-half weeks messes with your dreams and subtly changes the movie-watching experience. The films don’t blur together, as people always expect, but judgment can become impaired, thanks to a combination of physical inactivity and protein deprivation (festival pass-holders survive on a diet of popcorn and smuggled-in sandwiches). I sometimes wonder if movies that strike me as moving (in 2004, Dear Frankie), erotic ( Nathalie), or profound (Julio Medem’s documentary The Basque Ball) would be quite so affecting if I experienced them under “normal” circumstances, but I love the sensation of immersion.

One movie that definitely affected me deeply was Alejandro Amenábar’s magisterial The Sea Inside. The “based on a true story” tale of a quadriplegic fighting for the right to end his life is really about the ways we find to show people that we love them, and Javier Bardem’s performance is astonishing. He can communicate so much with a look that it’s easy to forget how beautifully he uses his voice, and he has a talent for accents that would make Meryl Streep envious. The first time his character switched from “standard” Castilian Spanish to Gallego, the Galician language, several Spaniards in the audience gasped in what sounded like awe.

Musically, I was blown away by People’s Spring, the 2004 album by Warsaw Village Band, a group of young Poles who have taken traditional instruments and “white voice”—a melodic screaming used by shepherds to communicate over great distances—to create a style of music they call “hard-core folk.” It’s discordant and tuneful in just the right measure.
—June Thomas is Slate’s foreign editor.

Douglas Wolk: Mister O by Lewis Trondheim The French cartoonist Lewis Trondheim’s brief, perfect hard-cover comic book Mister O was the funniest thing I read all year—I fell off my couch laughing more times than I’m comfortable admitting. It’s also one of the most formally rigorous projects I’ve seen in a while: 30 pages, each containing 60 identically sized, wordless panels, and each telling a variation on the same story. The eight-line doodle Mister O wants to get to the other side of a chasm; everything else he sees can cross it easily, but every strategy he tries to get across ends in disaster. Imagine Raymond Queneau and Samuel Beckett collaborating on a Road Runner cartoon, and you’re on the right track. (It also seems like a joke that could be repeated infinitely, but Trondheim actually saves an existential coup de grâce for the end of the book.) Trondheim’s done more technically ambitious projects in the past, but this time he’s stripped his style down to ultraminimalist stick figures and a fixed perspective, to make the point that nothing matters here but the essence of the gag. Mister O is universally comprehensible; a dollar sign on one page is the only reference to anything outside its microscopic world. And it says nothing about its particular moment in history, although in the manner of all great jokes it can be made to.—Douglas Wolk is the author of Live at the Apollo.

Correction, Jan. 5, 2005: An earlier version of this article mistakenly referred to a French actress (Arielle Dombasle) as having played the title role in Pauline at the Beach. In that film, Dombasle played Marion, not Pauline. Return to the corrected sentence.