The Year in Media
1. Lose Yourself (Geriatric Remix)
In a series of triumphs that may actually mean he's over, 2002 belonged to Eminem a hit movie, a hit CD, the year's best song ("Lose Yourself") and the year's cleverest video, "Without Me," which has him frying Dick Cheney and dancing as Osama bin Laden. He was embraced by the graying mainstream media, which obviously felt so empty without him. The New York Observer ran a dweeby article headlined "Guess Who Thinks Eminem's a Genius? Middle-Aged Me." Andrew Sarris compared him to James Dean, Frank Rich to Elvis (a comparison Eminem himself had, of course, already made), and Maureen Dowd wrote a hilarious column about how her women friends gleefully blast his songs as they drive. (I like to picture these ladies rapping about the "bitches on my dick.") Now, there's nothing wrong with over-40s loving the guy, but do they have to brag about it? That comes too close to the scene in 8 Mile when Kim Basinger tells Eminem that her boyfriend won't go down on her, and he shrieks in horror, "MO-OM!"
2. "Grown Into the Job"
Last year, George W. Bush answered questions about the Middle East while sitting in his golf cart, picking turf from between his cleats with his fingers. But that was before 9/11 gave him gravitas. This year, once again on the links, he displayed his newly Churchillian self. Standing at the golf tee, he spoke about a bombing in Israel: "I call upon all nations to do everything they can to stop these terrorist killers. Thank you. Now watch this drive." I don't know what's scarier: that our president feels such contempt for the real world or that he still hasn't learned how to hide it from the TV cameras.
Back in May, Entertainment Weekly gave its cover to Tina Fey and Jimmy Fallon, who host Saturday Night Live's "Weekend Update" (which too often curdled into bigotry this season). In a just world, the cover would have been given to the funniest person on TV, The Daily Show's Stephen Colbert. Whether celebrating the angelic nature of Winona Ryder or explaining Henry Kissinger's qualifications for heading the 9/11 investigation commission ("The man nailed Liv Ullmann"), Colbert's literate, buttoned-down newsman persona wins laughs not by desperately hamming it up but by playing his lunacy straight. "You haven't lost your freedoms," he said the other night, brightly explaining Homeland Security, "you've gained limits on your civil liberties."
4. Guess Who's Still Coming to Dinner?
Although it's nice to think that old-school racism belongs only to dim Southerners "I don't think we should lynch him," said Alabama Senator Richard Shelby of Trent Lott most of white America still hails passé notions of acceptable black style. Of course, the Bush administration flaunts strait-laced Colin Powell and Condi Rice. But have you noticed how the sports media heap praise on Notre Dame football coach Tyrone Willingham for giving the Domers gasp "dignity"? As code words go, this ranks a step above "articulate" and miles beyond "athleticism." (Look for more of the same with UCLA's just-hired Karl Dorrell.) Even Todd Haynes' stereotype-busting Far From Heaven serves up the kind of noble black gardener that had African-Americans chortling decades ago. He's played by the superb Dennis Haysbert, who brings a similar, er, nobility to 24's President David Palmer. Faced with such flashbacks to the Poitier Era, it's small wonder that Harry Belafonte would go after Powell's "house slave" mentality or that Arkansas' ousted basketball coach Nolan Richardson should provide the year's most spectacular meltdown, ripping the sports media for (among other things) their lack of racial diversity: "When I look across the people in this room, I see no one who looks like me, talks like me or acts like me," Richardson growled. His words were widely thought to lack "dignity."
5. Ratner's Star
Every line of work produces its designated bum, a hugely successful figure who insiders know is actually no good. In late-night comedy, that's Jay Leno. In reporting, it's Bob Woodward (whose number-one best-seller Bush at War is his usual journalistic Metamucil). For years, Hollywood's prize bum was Chris Columbus, who cranked out hits (Home Alone, Mrs. Doubtfire) that neither critics nor the industry respected. But he's finally been dethroned by a young director known for hustling, impersonal hackwork: Brett Ratner, of Red Dragon and Rush Hour fame. Even as The Wall Street Journal made the transition official, referring to Ratner as "the new Chris Columbus," the poor bastard was being dissed by vain-twit Red Dragon star Ed Norton: "I think Brett had moments where he felt that knot of fear that comes with not having a frame of reference for performance at a certain level." Jeez, dude. And speaking of bums, who would you rather see: Jackie Chan and Chris Tucker, or Ed Norton giving yet another generic performance "at a certain level"?
6. Unhappy When It Raines
Ever since Howell Raines became executive editor of The New York Times in September 2001, the Coultering right has accused him of turning the Gray Lady into a left-wing paper. (If only we were so lucky.) As brainy William Powers (no relation) pointed out in the National Journal, many of the Times' critics are bashing it for no longer being "the paper of record," as if it, or any daily, could ever be such a thing. Indeed, it's a succulent irony that conservatives who today flog the paper for being too liberal often do so in the name of an earlier, "more objective" Times that they hated 20 years ago, too. Actually, one sign that we're being dominated by Bush's Mayberry Machiavellis is that a newspaper that routinely neglects the anti-war movement is constantly assailed for being too liberal. Just to put this in international perspective, I was recently visited by a filmmaker from Australia who asked me bluntly: "When did The New York Times become so right-wing?"
7. Suddenly, Last Summer
When Robert Horry's buzzer-beater swished through the net to win game four against Sacramento, he ran toward the bench with "Look, Ma, no hands!" ecstasy, and the Kings slunk from the court like the vanquished orcs near the end of The Two Towers. In the post-game press conference, Kings forward Chris "Mr. First Half" Webber wore the trademark smile of ironical disbelief that should serve him well at his upcoming perjury trial. He grumbled about "luck." But luck didn't win that astonishing series. The refs did, jobbing Sacramento in the fourth quarter of game six. Luckily, bad karma doesn't carry over from one season to the next. Er . . .
8. Y Tu Hijo También
After decades of movies about older men bonking much younger women, the genders finally flipped roles. Diane Lane in Unfaithful, Jennifer Aniston in The Good Girl, Catherine Keener in Lovely & Amazing, Isabelle Huppert in The Piano Teacher, Maribel Verdú in Y Tu Mamá También they all got it on with young fellas. While such female fooling around may sound like worldly fun after all, none of these women were priests there wasn't a zipless fuck in sight. These movies wound up inflicting punishment on their heroines, whose sexual desires end in murder, suicide, self-mutilation, cancer, arrest or voluminous humiliation. For an antidote to such bleakness, you had to go to (of all places) 75-year-old Shohei Imamura's wonderful Warm Water Under a Red Bridge, a comedy that celebrates the oceanic, life-affirming power of women's sexuality: During orgasm, its heroine releases so much water that flowers bloom and fish fill the rivers.
9. The New Condoleezza Barbie
The editors of the December 16 Newsweek cover story, "The Real Condi Rice," were so impressed by our national-security adviser that they included a sidebar on her favorite accessories Ferragamo pumps, Yves Saint Laurent No. 10 red lipstick, copies of Vogue, Scott Turow novels. Rather than accuse the magazine of sexism, I assume that future profiles of male officials will also contain such sidebars. I'm looking forward to reading all about Dick Cheney's Hai Karate after-shave, Don Rumsfeld's candy bowl filled with Viagra (for press conference use only), and John Ashcroft's Special Edition DVDs of The Omega Code and Jonah: A VeggieTales Movie.
10. Who Do You Antitrust?
Ashcroft's Department of Justice is investigating possible antitrust violations on the part of two alternative news companies, New Times Media and Village Voice Media (of which the L.A. Weekly is part). While I'll leave it to the lawyers to limn the merits of the case, I must say it's striking that two comparatively small chains should face the scrutiny of the same DOJ that notoriously gave Microsoft a cushy deal in its antitrust settlement, takes no steps against America's broadband monopolies, and does nothing to limit huge "synergistic" empires like Fox, AOL Time Warner and Disney. If I were of a politically suspicious nature, I would wonder whether the DOJ is targeting alternative papers like this one because we are an alternative to the corporate media opposing the Iraq war, chronicling Ashcroft's efforts to dismantle the Constitution and challenging our government's near-religious faith in the market. In fact, there's something worthy of Joseph Heller, if not Kafka, in the idea that, at this point in history, the secrecy-obsessed Bush administration is going after free weekly papers in the name of defending free expression.