Grief Online, Superheroes in Love: The Week's Best Pop-Culture Writing

The most intriguing articles about entertainment we've come across in the past seven days

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Entertainment Weekly
So Let's Talk About Captain America and Black Widow
Darren Franich

You could read the end of Winter Soldier as an indication that the sub-franchise is building forward in a few different directions: To a Black Widow spinoff, to a Cap sequel with more Agent 13, to an Avengers movie already so overstuffed with new kids that it seems highly unlikely that Cap and Widow will get more than a couple of moments to banter witfully about That Time They Kissed. (“You guys kissed?” says Stark. “It was just for a job,” says Cap. “You really know how to butter a girl up, Rogers,” says Widow. “Ha!” chortles Thorsworth.)

But c’mon. “You should call Sharon”? Sharon is BORING. We know Marvel’s got the next couple of decades planned out, but a bit of narrative improv might be at hand. Soldier and Spy, Innocence and Experience, skintight kevlar and skintight leather, bright American colors and jet-black: The Widow/Cap duo has all the makings of the most interesting super-romance since Batman Returns.

The New York Times
Like, Degrading the Language? No Way
John McWhorter

Texting’s famous “lol,” for instance, started as literally meaning “laugh out loud,” but now serves the same function as the quiet chuckles and giggles that decorate most casual conversations, as I learned in research I did with my student Laura Milmed. Lol creates a comfort zone by calling attention to sentiments held in common. “I just studied for three hours lol” — no one would say that guffawing. It is a graphic titter, channeling the very particular drudgery the texter and the receiver both associate with studying. It warms texting up into a graphic kind of spoken conversation.

In this vein, the “because X” expression recently celebrated by the American Dialect Society as the word of 2013 is just more of the same. “ ‘Five Second Rule’ May Be Real, Because Science,” a blogger noted recently. The usage has a specific meaning, implying a wariness toward claims of scientific backing that all readers presumably understand when, in this case, it comes to whether we can actually always feel safe eating food off the floor. We consider the views of others, we step outside of our own heads. “Because X” is another new way to say “we’re all in this together.”


In These Times
Game of Thrones Could Have Been Much Worse
Sady Doyle

In the summer of 2011, I spent a week or two reading George R.R. Martin’s popular book series A Song of Ice and Fire. It was an act of desperation: I was unemployed, I had no money, I had run out of things to read and re-read, and I could get my hands on Martin’s books for free. I read George R. R. Martin rather than real books for the same reason that broke college students eat ramen noodles rather than real food. It was all I could afford, and I was hungry.

Well, I paid for my mistake. I walked away from the experience entirely confused (and borderline-disgusted) by the series’ popularity. This best-selling American book series read like the hideous mutant offspring of a Dungeons and Dragons manual and a Penthouse letter written by someone’s creepy uncle. Worse yet, merely pointing out some of the series’ problems—which I did on my blog, the more fool I—induced some of the most prolonged, irrational, comically over-the-top fan defensiveness I’d ever seen on the Internet. By the time I was finished with A Song of Ice and Fire, I was confident I would never want to think about George R. R. Martin again. Which makes it all the stranger that I actually tuned in for last night's premiere of the HBO adaptation, “Game of Thrones,” and that I’ve developed a grudging respect for the series. A Song of Ice and Fire is a terrible book series that makes for very good television. And it’s succeeded largely by correcting George R. R. Martin’s mistakes.


The Dissolve
Clueless’ Big Confidence Sells Its Small Stakes
Genevieve Koski

Cher’s self-assurance is key to her appeal, the quality that casts her ignorance in the forgiving light of youthful naïveté. As a group, teen girls are notoriously unconfident and invested in what others think of them, a quality that often manifests in girl-on-girl emotional violence. Compare Cher and her friends to the “Plastics” of Mean Girls, which is Clueless’ spiritual successor in some ways, but with a sharp, post-millennial antagonism in place of the earlier film’s sunny mid-’90s optimism. Cher has the occasional mean-girl moment, mostly regarding her sneering rival, Amber (Elisa Donovan)—who, let’s be honest, sort of has it coming. But for the most part, Cher is concerned with building up her peers—the ones she deigns worthy of her attention, at least—with helping them attain the same enlightened, successful space she has. She’s unfailingly supportive of her best friend Dionne (Stacey Dash), who makes questionable fashionable choices and has a volatile relationship with the saggy-pantsed Murray (Donald Faison). She throws herself into turning awkward, scared transfer student Tai (Brittany Murphy) into a confident, desirable, popular girl, even though that could make her “stock” plummet, as Dionne puts it. Sure, Cher’s motivations are rooted in no small amount of narcissism—as her ex-stepbrother/antagonist-turned-love-interest Josh (Paul Rudd) puts it, she’s “acting out on that poor girl as if she was your Barbie doll.” And her advice tends to be of the dubious self-help/ladies’-mag variety. (“Sometimes you have to show a little skin. This reminds boys of being naked, and then they think of sex.”) But she does genuinely mean well, which is more than can be said for most of filmdom’s “popular girls.” 

Benny Snyder / AP

George W. Bush's Painterly Promise Unfulfilled
Jerry Saltz

And now? Once again, the paintings are weird. The bizarrely skewed portrait of Vladimir Putin makes no pictorial sense whatsoever but somehow coheres as a painting, and I'd buy the one of Tony Blair that looks like it has a face painted over another face and reedy pinkish lips that might start speaking, as in the old Clutch Cargo cartoons.  But truth always will out. Bush has returned once and probably for all to aping the idea of what a painter does. Now, as during his presidency, he acts the role. He lacks his own ideas, and substitutes a notion of how past leaders have acted. We get an ersatz picture of how he learned to behave like a leader—just as in the funny way he used to hold his arms out when he walked around the White House, or when he was on the golf course threatening terrorists and then telling reporters "Now watch this drive." The new paintings include a self-portrait. Tellingly, it is the least finished, least focused, and most vague of all his pictures. There's a labored portrait of his father, the largest head he's ever painted, as if this is the face and figure that really fills his world. In Putin, the man who had Bush at hello, we see W still trying to fathom how he got so played. We see the Dalai Lama (one can only imagine what he made of Bush), King Abdullah (the painting that looks the most like a Luc Tuymans), and—in another painting I might buy because it has some of the collapsed strangeness and fleshy light of the Blair picture—Japanese prime minister Junichiro Koizumi.

C. d'Ettorre / AP

The Guardian
For Peaches Geldof: A Gruesome Grunt of Synthetic Grief
Tanya Gold

Geldof was prescient about her end, but not in the way that people think when reading such headlines as: "Peaches posted this picture with her tragic mum; hours later she was dead herself"; or worse, with the same illustration: "Together again". (I didn't know tabloids did eschatology.) She once told a newspaper: "Joe Bloggs who only earns 20 grand and really has to struggle doesn't want to see Brad and Angelina strolling round in their million-dollar mansions. He wants to see them falling apart because that will make him feel better about himself. It's deep in the mid-brain below the survival instinct. That lust to see a downfall. It's animalistic." How true; that is good journalism. After Twitter's defenestration, she led the News at Ten.

Television, where Geldof (and her mother) worked, murders genuine emotion; it is the parent of social media. The screenwriter Paddy Chayefsky, in his film Network (1976), foretold it all; he would have recognised Geldof instantly, seen her value. His characters, who worked in television, thought only in cliche and narrative arc (of which she had plenty because her mother is dead and her father is famous), scheming to produce "suicide of the week … execution of the week … the death hour!".

Robin Harper / Invision / Parkwood / AP

Beyoncé Liberated
Aaron Hicklin

That sanctum is hidden in a nondescript Midtown office block in New York, high enough to have good views of the city, and a short walk from Macy’s. Decorated like a boutique hotel—plush sectional sofas, hardwood floors, an enormous contemporary chandelier—the most visible sign of Beyoncé are the 17 Grammys that line one end of the conference room and a cool portrait of a young Michael Jackson, her idol. It was in that room, on the night of December 12 last year, that the staff at Parkwood (named for the street Beyoncé grew up on) gathered to mark the countdown to the surprise release of Beyoncé, her fifth album. For such a solid hitmaker, the new material was a departure, suffused with a raw, earthy sexuality that was more personal than fans were used to—and less polished. And by managing to keep the album under wraps until the moment of its release, Beyoncé was able to do something that has become all too rare for a global star: control the way in which her fans experienced her music. It’s hard to remember a major album of the past few years that wasn’t leaked in advance, or that didn’t reach the critics and overly opinionated bloggers before it reached the fans. As Noel-Schure likes to say, “Perception unchallenged becomes reality.” That’s actually a line from Motown: The Musical, but when she heard it earlier this year, it resonated. “The Internet is equivalent to a nice big jar of glue,” she tells me in her office. “It doesn’t go away.”


The Hollywood Reporter
Why Hollywood People Never Say 'No'
Michael Walker


No by proxy is Hollywood's version of the pocket veto, delivered by the equivalent of a Senate page, only with a Beverly Hills zip code and keys to a Tesla. "We are very good at getting our personal assistants -- and our business partners, agents and lawyers -- to say no for us," says producer Steve Tisch. When a former A-list actor wishes to turn down the C-list role he or she finds insulting without losing face, that is when the agent earns his 10 percent. "They just have their agents say that they're booked," says producer Keri Selig. Encumbering a script with impossible-to-secure attachments -- without alienating the screenwriter down the road -- is a favored straw man, says producer Celine Rattray. "When you send out a $5 million indie script to a financier, instead of saying no, they will say, 'We would greenlight this if Leonardo DiCaprio, Tom Cruise or Will Smith will star,'" says Rattray.


Please Kill the Expert Review: A Modest Proposal
Sam Adams

Here's the thing, and you might want to print this out and tape it somewhere you can see it: "Silicon Valley" is not meant to be realistic. It takes some of its inspiration from reality -- in the pilot, a budding programmer creates an app called Nip Alert, whose unapologetic sexism evokes the real-life Titstare controversy -- but that reality is sometimes heightened, or bent, or just plain ignored, because "Silicon Valley" isn't only, or even primarily, a show about Silicon Valley, any more than "House of Cards" is meant as a how-to guide for usurping the Presidency. (I don't, frankly, know what it's meant to be, but not that.) Auerbach might want to consult with Slate's own David Wiegel, who in spite of his background in political reportage understands that "Veep" is not a show where a surfeit of realism would be especially helpful, and that accuracy and truth are not always one and the same. That goes as well for the review of "Silicon Valley" by Vulture's Odie Henderson, who's both a veteran computer programmer and a fine critic.

One of the best things about watching movies and television for a living is that you get to inhabit other worlds on a regular basis, osmotically soaking in the details. But while details taken from the real world can inform and enrich those worlds, it's the story that allows us to inhabit them, and when the two are in conflict, story should win. Maybe "The Good Wife" isn't scrupulously accurate about every last aspect of the law; maybe "The Wolf of Wall Street"doesn't cover the full extent of Jordan Belfort's crimes. But in purposefully told stories, those omissions and even distortions are sometimes not only necessary but beneficial. Drama is life with the distractions pared away.

Owen Sweeney / Invision / AP

The New York Times Doesn't Know Shit About "Poptimism"
Maura Johnston

This is an untrue (and overly petulant) perception of the ideal, and in the context it sounds not unlike the whining of people about "men's rights" and "reverse racism." (Oh no, the back of the complainant's brain says,our ethos might be treated with the same amount of disdain that we give to other people.) "Poptimism"—which has long been in place in the ideological arsenals of music critics, from Robert Christgau on down—is not about blindly accepting every piece of radio-ready music that comes down the pike and hailing it as the next important thing. Instead, it's about throwing out the artificial distinctions that elevate Serious Mass-Appeal Music (usually made by men, and with guitars) over Frothy Bubbly Stuff (which often appeals to women as much as, if not more than, it does men). This is not to say that it tosses out complexity in favor of simplicity, or critical-mindedness in favor of a "She loved Big Brother" dullness. It's instead about understanding that the underlying musical complexities of Britney Spears's "Toxic" can be as intricate as, say, those lurking within Jellyfish's "New Mistake." Conversely, it can also be about how music comes off as technically perfect butaesthetically ho-hum—noting that Rihanna's crotch-patting during her live shows seemed kinda listless, or pointing out that the last album by the Brooklyn-beloved atmospheric band The National, who Austerlitz seems to feel are particularly maligned by the poptimist hordes, sounded to these ears like a very ornately accompanied EKG. (That National album did place at No. 21 on the Pazz & Jop Poll, which meant a substantial percentage of the 400 critics who voted liked it better than most of the albums they heard in 2013. Whether or not those critics make up a substantial part of the people Austerlitz is railing against is another story.)


The Telegraph
Far From Messing with Our Brains, the Internet Has Set Our Minds Free
Bryony Gordon

We like to blame the internet because it lets us off the hook. But it’s a bit like an alcoholic making a bottle of whisky bear the responsibility for his having drunk it, or a drug addict blaming her dealer for selling her a fix of heroin. The web is undoubtedly – pardon the rehab speak – a great facilitator for those of us who have a tendency towards distraction, and it is to blame for myriad pains in the buttocks: “lolcats”, “selfies”, “vaguebooking”, endless bloody passwords, endless bloody pictures of people’s coffee, know-it-all commenters, the phrase “Is this really news?” (as used by aforementioned know-it-all commenters), viruses, perverts, Viagra spam, porn for the perverts to watch with their Viagra spam.

But it’s my fault that I don’t sit down and read Tolstoy of an evening, not the web’s. The internet has opened up our world and allowed us to exchange ideas with people we previously would never have encountered. It has allowed people to fall in love and find long-lost relatives. And anyone who has ever watched Twitter for an evening will know that the art of conversation has not been lost, as Dame Gillian claims – it’s just changed, and got much, much bigger. On social networks, everything is a conversation waiting to happen. A debate is never more than a click away.