Zadie Smith and ' Netherland '
Years ago, I saw a man tangoing with a life-size female puppet in the Times Square subway station. Last spring, I came across this passage in Joseph O'Neill's "Netherland": "Dressed entirely in black and gripping his inanimate partner with grotesque eagerness, the man sweated and pranced and shuffled his way through a series … of fox trots and tangos and fandangos and pasodobles ... There was something dire going on—something that went beyond the desperation, economic and artistic, discernible on the man's damp features, beyond even the sexual perverseness of his routine." I felt that shiver of recognition that a spot-on description can give you. Later I read Zadie Smith's essay "Two Paths for the Novel." While praising O'Neill's skill, she asks if he did his job too well. In its quest for the perfectly wrought image, she argues, fiction like "Netherland" is inauthentic because life consists of so much simulacra and confusion: " Is this really Realism?" But rather than making me feel embarrassed for enjoying "Netherland," Smith's piece deepened my reading of it, and of all the novels I've read since.
The Prison Scene In 'Young @ Heart'
The documentary "Young @Heart" follows a chorus of men and women in their 70s and 80s who sing covers by the likes of Coldplay and Sonic Youth and, in one scene, they perform Bob Dylan's "Forever Young" for inmates at a Massachusetts prison. The smooth young men facing a future of confinement; the wrinkled faces bringing a lifetime of experience to Dylan's lyrics; the bittersweet tangle of hope and regret floating in the charged air. Just thinking of that scene brings a lump to my throat. Lots of movies make me cry—it's not that hard to do—but this moment cut so deep, it left me gasping for air.
Beyonc é 's Video For 'Single Ladies'
In these lean times, the trick is figuring out how to cut costs without sacrificing quality. Beyoncé would seem an unlikely person to lead by example, but there she is in the mesmerizing video for "Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It)," making a blank backdrop and a light dimmer look like a break-the-bank production. She kicks, twirls and prances with such conviction you need to wear a sweatband just to watch her. The choreography is deceptively simple—hence the valiant, unsuccessful scores of YouTube imitators. While Beyoncé's working her voodoo, she's also belting out the pop song of the year, in which she taunts an ex-lover who left her rather than seal the deal. Troubling questions arise: Who is this moron? And can we assume he broke up with her before he saw this dance routine? No matter. His loss is our gain, and who among us could quibble about such a generous transfer of assets?
The Basement Scene In 'Breaking Bad'
Let's say you've got a guy shackled in your basement. His name is Krazy-8, and he's a vicious meth dealer who's already tried to kill you and may, if he ever gets free, kill your family. What do you do? If you're Walter White, the milquetoast chemistry teacher played by Bryan Cranston on AMC's "Breaking Bad," you make him a bologna sandwich, and neatly trim off the crusts. You share a couple of beers and chat about family. Then you go upstairs and make a list. On one side you write "Kill Him." On the other, "Let Him Live." What's so thrilling, and chilling, about these scenes is that you can feel the choice nibbling at Walter's soul. When it's all over, your thirst for wanton TV violence will be shaded by the darkness in that basement.
Amy Poehler as Hillary Clinton on 'SNL'
Tina Fey's parody of Sarah Palin got all the ink, but me? I'll remember Amy Poehler. Her Hillary Clinton impression played like a mosaic of ambitious women through decades of pop culture: Tracy Flick's high-strung "Election" striver, CruellaDe Vil (that cackle), Madame Bovary. Even the most passionate Hillary groupies, like me, couldn'tresist. As the primary battle dragged on, and on, Poehler's Hillary also became a symbol of a dream deferred. When I think about Clinton's loss, I don't see her cool face. I see Poehler, blinking, twitching, that smile of exasperation. "Mine!" she snaps at Palin/Fey in their marvelous "SNL" sketch together. "It's supposed to be mine!" If it's still destined to be hers someday, if Hillary makes a presidential comeback in 2016, here's hoping Poehler does, too.
Nadal vs. Federer At Wimbledon
When sports junkies describe the games we love as art, the Rafael Nadal-Roger Federer final at this year's Wimbledon is what we mean. It stretched across an entire Sunday, including five hours of much-needed, nerve-settling rain delays—one stupefying rally after another. I don't think I've ever said "Oh, my God" so many times in a single day. The match began at about 9 a.m. here in New York, and I woke up to Nadal steamrolling the champ in the first two sets. Tennis's long-awaited changing of the guard was unfolding with little drama. Then the rains came. Time for brunch. I watched on a restaurant TV as the match turned on a dime. Federer lives! A roaring comeback! More rain. Brunch turned into afternoon beers. An exhilarating fifth set. The dawning, goose-fleshy awareness that we were—clichés groan to life—watching history. As dusk crept over England, it seemed as if the match would have to be suspended for darkness. A cruel, truncated joke of a Monday after this towering Sunday. But then, with thunderclap suddenness, it was over. Nadal won and crumbled to the grass. My favorite part: NBC's John McEnroe, no font of modesty, was so awed, so humbled by what he'd seen that he bearhugged both players as they walked off the court—even though he knew the match had eclipsed his own 1981 classic against Björn Borg. In 2008, Nadal-Federer at Wimbledon was the best movie I saw, the best novel I read, the best symphony I heard. It was better than art. It was a masterpiece.
Cai Guo-Qiang's 'Head On'
Of all the astonishing works in Cai Guo-Qiang's exhibition "I Want to Believe" at New York's Guggenheim Museum, the one I can't get out of my head is "Head On." The piece consisted of 99 full-size synthetic wolves stampeding up the museum's spiral ramp with such force that the front of the pack lifts up into an arc of flight, like Santa's reindeer—only to crash headlong into a wall of glass. Oof! Cai is best known for art events using choreographed explosions—shown off to spectacular effect at the opening ceremonies of the Beijing Olympics—and his art is filled with multiple meanings: celebratory but also resonant of war and terror. Those wolves are as cuddly as any furry toy, but also as scary as snarling animals. Maybe they linger in my memory because so much has happened since they careered through the museum last spring. Now there's the wolf at every door. That wild pack of Wall Streeters that finally hit the wall. Or perhaps it's just the quieter hint in "Head On" that every living creature is racing toward oblivion.