By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
5. Yeeeaargghhhh. When Howard Dean unleashed his primal scream after the Iowa caucuses, this wasn’t just a fabulous pop culture moment — people were dancing to remixes of it before he’d even caught his breath — but a transformative moment in the 2004 campaign. Shipwrecking Dean’s chances, it made the front-loaded primary schedule a cakewalk for John Kerry, who, in a matter of weeks, went from being a dead dog to his party’s Rin Tin Tin. Of course, it was the Democrats who went Yeeeaargghhhh when their "electable" candidate told the press that, even granted the benefit of hindsight, he would’ve still voted for the Iraq war resolution. Kerry wound up back in the Senate, reportedly pondering a 2008 presidential run that made even (especially?) his wife cringe. Meanwhile, Dean was strolling along the high road to rehabilitation. Although he’d often been bashed on the campaign trail for foolishly shooting from the hip — such as noting that America was no safer after catching Saddam — many of his "outrageous" pronouncements had proved correct. By the end of the year, Dean was on Meet the Press, where he seemed like the sharp, tough, brainy guy he’d been before being the champion of reform went to his head.
4. The Novel as History, History as a Novel. In a 1950s essay on middlebrow fiction, critic Dwight Macdonald filleted America’s national taste for treasuring "facts in themselves, collecting them as boys collect postage stamps, treating them, in short, as objects of consumption rather than productive tools." He could well be describing this year’s number-one best-seller, The 9/11 Commission Report, which strings scads of interesting facts into a gripping narrative that rarely gets to the heart of the matter. You don’t have to be as paranoid as Kobe to know you aren’t being told the whole truth. As my old colleague Michael Ventura noted, one can pore over the 11 pages on the Bush administration’s behavior on September 11, 2001, without ever learning exactly what the president was up to for all those hours. Like so much of the government’s reaction to 9/11, the commission’s report puts a "bipartisan" premium on making sure no individuals, Democrat or Republican, are made to bear any responsibility for what happened. The buck stops nowhere. And so, just as Donald Rumsfeld stays on the job despite the debacle of the Iraq occupation, nobody has gotten fired after the worst terrorist attack in U.S. history. Remember when the powerful sneered at anyone who blamed The System? Now, they’re doing it themselves.
3. Mining Neverland. Whether it’s Jim Carrey’s inexpressive nerd getting Kate Winslet in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind or Quentin Tarantino idolizing his dream chick in Kill Bill Vol. 2 — she’s a kung fu mom who looks like Uma Thurman — this is a year in which even art movies specialized in fulfilling the wishes of immature men. Nowhere was the -fantasy balder than in the wonderful, voluminously praised Sideways, where Paul Giamatti’s homely, self-absorbed wine-geek Miles finds a soul mate in Maya, a gorgeous divorcée who knows her vintages, understands his pinot noir touchiness, even praises his unpublished -(perhaps -unpublishable) novel and, of course, looks like Virginia Madsen.
2. The Looking-Glass War. Scarier than the last five Japanese horror remakes, more vivid than the sharpest anti-Bush poster, the year’s most memorable image shows an Iraqi man standing on a chair, his head and body covered with what looks like a huge, black, eyeless Ku Klux Klan robe. Man, is it spooky. And like nearly all the infamous shots from Abu Ghraib prison, it seems to be a gloss on Nietzche’s line, "Whoever fights monsters should see to it that in the process he does not become a monster. And when you look into the abyss, the abyss looks into you." Naturally, this is a thought that the powerful don’t like to entertain, lest it get in the way of blaming others: Although Seymour Hersh has traced the Abu Ghraib torture all the way up to Rummy’s office, so far only "bad apples" (read: dispensable underlings) have been punished. And America has spent too little time pondering what it says that we would so easily forgive our troops — and ourselves — for rounding up innocent Iraqis and then making them submit to torture and sexual humiliation. The Daily Show’s Rob Corddry brilliantly summed up this attitude: "It’s not important that we did torture these people. What’s important is that we are not the kind of people who would torture these people."
1. Not So Great Awakening. In the months leading up to the release of The Passion of the Christ, both The New York Times and Los Angeles Times cranked out stories warning us (sight unseen) that the movie was anti-Semitic. Underlying all this was fear that it might spark violence against Jews. Mercifully, that didn’t happen. Although Gibson’s film is anti-Semitic, most Christians who saw it treated it as an occasion not for blame but for an affirmation of their own faith. Ironically, The Passion of the Christ probably had a less transformative effect on ordinary Christians than it did on our media. With the start of 2004’s inescapable religious deluge, outlets that once scoffed at the movie began running huge stories on everything from evangelical preachers to the wacko series of Left Behind novels (whose satanic villain, uproariously enough, was once People’s "Sexiest Man Alive"). Hollywood, too, had a Great Awakening. Movie execs who shrieked in horror at Gibson’s film before it was released — and would still sooner die than give him an Oscar for making it — began seeking out Bible-themed projects that would let them reel in those Christian greenbacks. Months before November’s triumph of the evangelical electorate, Gibson demonstrated Christianity’s clout in the time-honored American way — by making huge profits.