The Year in Culture

Judd Apatow, Noah Baumbach, Curtis Sittenfeld, and others on 2005’s most notable cultural happenings.

To mark the end of 2005, Slate asked writers, artists, and other luminaries to name the most amazing—or most disappointing—cultural happening they stumbled on during the course of the year. Here are their responses:

Judd Apatow, writer-director, The 40-Year-Old Virgin
My favorite cultural event was the release of the documentary about Bob Dylan, No Direction Home. It is almost always a letdown when press-shy artists speak. Remember Marlon Brando on Larry King. It made me want to scream at the TV, “You didn’t talk to the press for so long. Why ruin it now by kissing Larry King?! The mystery is gone.” Fortunately, this documentary is illuminating and inspiring. Bob Dylan, with great dignity, takes us through his story, and it only makes me admire him more. It also reminds all creative people why we need to take risks to do great work.

Noah Baumbach, writer-director, The Squid and the Whale
The transit strike temporarily brought Manhattan back to me. In recent years, I’ve felt dismayed watching neighborhoods like the Meat Packing District turn into playgrounds for tourists. I hate the grotesque mall that is the Time Warner building. New York is becoming more and more a place for other people. As infuriating and crippling as the strike was for so many, I selfishly appreciated having a city that was uninviting and briefly in turmoil.

Mark Bowden, national correspondent, the Atlantic
The cultural event that most disappointed me in 2005 was the Nobel address given by Harold Pinter. On the occasion of receiving the world’s most prestigious literary prize, the brilliant playwright chose to deliver a passionate anti-American speech. This was not just a criticism of the Bush administration, or of the invasion of Iraq (popular and legitimate targets), but a sweeping indictment of the United States of America as the taproot of evil in the world over the last 60 years. Lord knows, America deserves criticism (we are pretty good at criticizing ourselves), but when you consider the millions slaughtered by Pol Pot in Cambodia, the widespread and ruthless repression of the late Soviet Union, the fact that one-fourth of the world’s population still lives under the thumb of a repressive Chinese Communist regime, that Islamofascists are plotting acts of mass murder (including an attack that killed 52 and injured more than 700 in London last year) as the vanguard of an effort to sweep away from a large portion of the planet the cherished freedoms and tolerance of Western society, Pinter’s reading of history old and new was juvenile, bizarre, and willfully narrow. At one point he compared the (appalling) persistence of the death penalty in America to the murderous practices of Saddam Hussein and Osama Bin Laden. Pinter is, of course, entitled to his opinion, and thanks in no small measure to the sacrifices of Americans, he is free to express it. But we are free to be disappointed in him. I was.

Stephen J. Dubner, co-author, Freakonomics
I am grateful, nearly every day, for Larry David. (It should also be said that HBO’s best show of any given season is reliably better, by a factor of at least five, than anything else coming out of that noisy box on my dresser.) At long last, we have been given a suitable replacement for the Woody Allen who made us laugh. And that would have been enough. But David is even better than that. A lot of the Freakonomics workthat Steve Levitt and I do is about abritraging the gap between people’s declared preferences and their expressed preferences—that is, the difference between what people say they will do and what they actually do. Larry David simply eliminates that gap. He says what he thinks and does what he wants. He makes the rest of us look like a bunch of phonies.

Malcolm Gladwell, author, Blink
2005 was the year I discovered the Streets. Oh my. For the second time in 30 years, the British take an African-American musical form and wonderfully reinvent it.

Christopher Hitchens, columnist, Vanity Fair
At the opening of Brideshead Revisited, Evelyn Waugh wrote of hearing one sweet and civilized word, and of the effect it had—as if a fatuous, bawling voice on a loudspeaker had been suddenly switched off. The judge’s highly literate and elegant ruling in the Dover, Pa., intelligent-design case has had precisely that effect upon me. Just for once—for once—the raucous, boring, bullying noise of the religious morons is turned off, and one can hear the lucid tones of reason, detachment, culture, and irony. That the voters of the same town should have firmly retired the demagogues and dolts of their school board, and that both they and the judge should have been of a Republican tendency, only adds to my sense that the resources of civilization are not yet exhausted, and that we have wells of real intelligence upon which to draw. Please don’t wake me up.

Jim Holt, “Egghead” columnist, Slate; contributor, The New Yorker and the New York Times Magazine
The cultural development that most pleased me had to do with the movies. As someone who lives within easy walking distance of four art/revival houses, I was cheered to observe that the inverse correlation between cinematic cost and quality is edging ever closer to unity. This is especially true at the dirt-cheap end of the spectrum. Two of the best films I saw in theaters this year cost just a few thousand dollars to make. One of them, Tarnation, was created by a gay kid in Texas who spent his boyhood shooting home movies of his flamboyant self and his exuberantly dysfunctional family; by stitching them together with clever titles and a thumping good soundtrack, he made an unforgettable autobiopic without even maxing out his credit card. An equally cheap masterpiece was Funny Ha Ha, a slacker film that was minimalist in every way, except for its humor and emotional power. (Minimalism in decor—expensive! Minimalism in film—cheap, if you do it right.) The Squid and the Whale, made for just a few million, might have been the best picture of the year, so funny and moving that I forgot to breathe, thus having my first ever carbon-dioxide-induced panic attack in the packed theater. Even the magnificent Brokeback Mountain was put together for around a tenth of what it costs to make a “blockbuster.” All of which ought to be a stinging rebuke to Hollywood, which sends one big-budget turkey after another gobbling and squawking and flapping into the nation’s multiplexes. 

Ben Karlin, co-executive producer,The Daily Show With Jon Stewart.
I still can’t believe they picked the Hitler Youth guy to be pope. I thought for sure that would take some of the shine off. Also, having the signal for “we haven’t made a decision yet” being the same as “the room is on fire” may not be the best way to communicate information. A messenger eunuch will do the job just fine.

Neil LaBute, writer-director, The Wicker Man
Lucky enough to get tickets to a fantastic Katrina relief concert put on by Wilco in Chicago. My son Spencer and I sat blissfully through a blistering set by Jeff Tweedy and the boys, enjoying ourselves shamelessly at the expense of everyone in New Orleans. Very sorry that the hurricane hit; very happy to hear Wilco play at the top of their game—they remain the most adventurous and gifted band currently at work in American music.

Michael Lewis, author, Coach
The post-Katrina New Orleans Times-Picayune. It was never a bad paper but for the past four months it has been riveting in a way I never imagined it could—and it has been written and edited by a bunch of homeless people! It’s a tribute to the role of purpose in the creation of anything. Artists should take note.

Wyatt Mason, contributing editor, Harper’s
I’ve returned repeatedly to two pieces of storytelling from the past year—one dramatic, one comedic—that focused on how we die and how we live with death. I thought Mary Gaitskill’s new novel Veronica was the best book of fiction in recent memory. It’s also the most fully human of her four books, broadening both our idea of novel form and, more importantly, our understanding of how other people feel when faced with the unfathomable. And then there was “Best Friends Forever,” an episode of South Park inspired by the grim theater surrounding the death of Terri Schiavo. It put the tooth back in what has become an era of gummy satire and marks a high-point of both narrative nuance and dirty yucks (the angel Gabriel huffs dry-erase markers throughout) in Parker and Stone’s decade of giddy, construction-paper libertarianism.

Scott McGehee and David Siegel, directors, Bee Season and The Deep End
One of our favorite films is a little-seen Teshigahara masterpiece called The Face of Another. We like it so much that our own first film, Suture, was something of an homage. Both films’ lead characters suffer horrible accidents, and both have their faces radically reconstructed. When we read earlier this year about the first successful face transplant we were amazed, but more amazed by the people who seemed bothered by the implications of this medical miracle. Funnily, what seemed to occupy the minds of far too many social thinkers and political pundits was the ethical nature of being someone else. Huh? Hadn’t the poor woman’s face been half-chewed off by her dog? Perhaps a better solution would have been a featured spot on Fox’s The Swan. That makeover might have gone down more easily.

Robert Pinsky, former poet laureate; author, Jersey Rain
2005 was the year I recognized a cultural force alien to me: a rebellious, defiant vitality rooted in the American suburban West.

That may sound like a joke. It sounds paradoxical or absurd to me, an Easterner. Here are two examples, profoundly disparate, of what I mean, one from television and one from art photography: the animated series South Park and Steven B. Smith’s collection of photographs, “The Weather and a Place to Live”, winner of the 2005 Honickman Prize in photography.

With each new season, the pre-adolescent characters in South Park, Col., enact more daring, unruly versions of reality. Those foul-mouthed yet innocent falsetto voices demolish cant from the left and the right. Mealy-mouthed moderation and evangelism, sanctimony secular as well as religious, get what they deserve, and the setting is a Western town a half-hour from Denver, a place where shopping mall culture and Main Street (site of “Tom’s Rhinoplasty”) thrive in co-existence. Even Hell and Heaven become part of the system with South Park Elementary School at the hub.

Smith’s black-and-white photographs share some visual qualities with the cartoon-colored townscape of the TV series: stark expanses where the monumental blankness of a Utah or Colorado sky meets the equally blank geometry of irrigation pipes or two-car garages. Between mountains and fences, between a tremendous rock face and giant stacks of plywood, Smith’s images record not so much a contrast as two violent absences joining as a single force. Landfill, seedling, turnabout, heating coil collude with the sky and mountains in a triumph of disproportion: scale not so much confused or lost as irrelevant: a loss of footing that is a visual equivalent for the moral goofs and chasms of South Park.

The deadpan, improvised juncture of immensity and triviality: that harsh, uninflected tone shared by these amazing works is different from my New Jersey ways and sensibilities. It is different from the language of poetry, too. (On the other hand, Smith’s title does come from a poem, James McMichael’s book-length meditation on Pasadena, “Four Good Things.”) But like true poetry, they peel away my automatic responses, and invite me to look again.

Jody Rosen, music critic, Slate
This past Nov. 16, the University of California-Santa Barbara’s Donald C. Davidson Library posted an astonishing trove of early sound recordings to the Internet. The Cylinder Digitization and Preservation Project Web site features more than 5,000 wax cylinders, the first commercially available records ever produced, converted to downloadable MP3s and streaming audio files. There are classical, operatic, and solo instrumental pieces; yodels; poems; comic monologues; band music; even Teddy Roosevelt delivering a populist stump speech and Ernest Shackleton discussing a brush with death in Antarctica in a weirdly hypnotizing monotone. Above all, there are the pop tunes churned out by Tin Pan Alley’s song factories at the turn of the century: rags, sentimental ballads, novelty songs, and a dizzying range of dialect numbers written for vaudeville’s blackface comedians and other “ethnic impersonators.” 

As slices of cultural history, the songs are rich, offering glimpses of a nation shaking off its Victorian inhibitions, one quaintly “racy” lyric and syncopated tune at a time. They are also a reminder that the standard pop music historical narrative is badly in need of revision. When critics discuss the antecedents of rock and soul and hip-hop, they invariably invoke The Folk—the Appalachian balladeer, the Delta bluesman, the cowpoke in the prairie with his banjo. But today’s hit-makers are equally indebted to the tunesmiths and vaudevillians who stalked Tin Pan Alley in 1900; Progressive Era pop is the other roots music. Spend just a few minutes browsing the UCSB site and you will stumble on forgotten heroes of American song and discover a body of recordings easily as rich, exciting, and exotic as that much-mythologized rock snob icon The Anthology of American Folk Music. The records hold up, and not just as curios. Listen to Billy Murray’s recording of Irving Berlin’s “Alexander’s Ragtime Band,” and you will hear, through nearly a century’s worth of hiss and crackle, an irresistible tune and a singer swinging it stylishly. It was a huge hit in 1911, and it still sounds like one.

Ron Rosenbaum, columnist, New York Observer; author, most recently, The Secret Parts of Fortune
Nothing felt so once-in-a-lifetime for me as Claire Bloom and John Neville’s live dramatic reading of Venus and Adonis, the exquisite, erotic-bordering-on-obscene 1,200-line narrrative poem, the one that made Shakespeare’s reputation as a literary (as opposed to dramatic) artist, when first published in 1593.

In the reading—a one-night affair at New York’s 92nd Street Y sponsored by The Unterberg Poetry Center—Venus and Adonis, which had once seemed a somewhat precious work on the page to me, galloped like a wild horse when vocalized by Bloom and Neville. (And you can imagine what they did with the stallion-and-mare scene.) As someone whose life was changed by seeing Peter Brook’s Midsummer Night’s Dream, I felt a similar sense of hearing something sound as if never uttered before. If you missed the performance, it’s still worth rereading the unjustly neglected poem. In a year focused on biographical Shakespeare, it’s a reminder of what is most worth caring about; the language.

Sarah Schulman, author, The Child
Brokeback Mountain. The two fundamental dynamics of homosexual life—heterosexual cruelty and gay resistence—have had a hard time making it to the screen. Without them, gay representation has mostly been built around a number of distortions: 1) The noble queer who rises unscathed to redemptive human triumph, thereby proving that homophobia isn’t really so bad. 2) The pathological, self-hating gay man who is that way inherently, not as a consequence of someone else’s cruelty, and 3) The self-oppressed alone homosexual who needs a heroic straight person to rescue him.

Brokeback opened the door to a far more complex look at how homophobia destroys people’s lives, the consequences of cruelty on gay people’s emotional stability, and how familial homophobia is the place where much of this is enforced. Where the movie fell short was in the acknowledgement of gay subculture and rebellion. It seems unlikely to me that Jack Twist would have missed the existence of the gay revolution. All he had to do was turn on the television or go to church to hear about Anita Bryant and Gay Liberation in Dade County, or stumble onto the Gay Rodeo circuit, or go to a dentist’s office to see Leonard Matlovich on the cover of Time magazine.

Curtis Sittenfeld, author, Prep and Man of My Dreams
I thought the documentary Murderball was excellent—it’s about quadriplegic rugby players, and it literally made me laugh and cry. It shows people in a very real way, as simultaneously imperfect and endearing, and it’s full of amazing moments. Normally, I sort of cringe when the audience in a movie theater claps as the credits roll, but in this case, the applause was completely justified.

Dana Stevens, television critic, Slate
I don’t know if you’d quite call it a cultural event, but as a piece of political theater, Cindy Sheehan’s summer standoff with George Bush outside the Crawford ranch was extraordinary. Even if, like Christopher Hitchens, you thought Sheehan was “spouting sinister piffle,” there’s no question she mobilized the most sharply focused anti-war protest to date and, with Karl Rove-ian craftiness, put her opponents in the position of having to character-assassinate a grieving mother to make their point. And when Hurricane Katrina came swooping in—ka-blam!—to put an end to both Bush’s vacation and Sheehan’s vigil, the administration’s pitiful response was like cosmic proof of the very out-of-it-ness her camp-out had sought to illustrate.