Let’s face it. 2016 sucked. It will go down as one of the cruddiest years in the 50 or so that I’ve walked the earth.
It started sucking right away, with the death of one of my favorite musicians, David Bowie, on Jan. 10, and the death of one of my favorite poets, C.D. Wright, two days later. Maybe it’s not fair to call Bowie’s Blackstar a literary achievement, but it’s an act of deep hubris and generosity and fearlessness that I aspire to as a novelist. So it’s on my list. So too is the first of C.D. Wright’s posthumous collections of poetry, Shallcross, which shows her at the height of her astonishing powers, a book that helps me grieve and shakes me up at the same time.
In February, Peter Straub, one of my literary heroes, put out a collection of his selected stories, Interior Darkness, which I recommend to anyone who thinks the “New Weird” is a new thing. I also discovered the cartoonist Michael DeForge, whose new graphic novel, Big Kids, is a trippy, disturbing, utterly original coming-of-age tale that is still haunting me today.
Also in February: Umberto Eco and Harper Lee died. “Uptown Funk” won a Grammy.
In March, there were primaries, and I read Samantha Hunt’s Mr. Splitfoot, a dazzling and inventive novel about orphans and ghosts and swindlers and religious fanatics. I also read Thomas Frank’s Listen, Liberal, also about orphans and ghosts and swindlers and religious fanatics. It was good but upsetting in many many ways. That Thomas Frank is too cynical!, I thought to myself, hopefully.
In April, Prince died.
Prince? Died? 2016, could you be more sadistic?
So I read some poetry, which sometimes helps: The Big Book of Exit Strategies by Jamaal May, who is one of my favorite younger poets; The Black Maria by Aracelis Girmay, which has an amazing long poem about the childhood of Neil deGrasse Tyson; Night Sky with Exit Wounds, a very painful and sad book by Ocean Vuong.
Then, I immersed myself in The People in the Castle, selected “strange stories” by Joan Aiken, published by the wonderful Small Beer Press, with an introduction by Kelly Link, and Aiken’s tales were a kind of balm for troubled times. Another balm was the novel Rich & Pretty by my former student Rumaan Alam, which is so funny and beautifully written and precisely described I almost forgot how depressed I was getting.
Summer came at last, and 2016 immediately killed off Muhammad Ali, just to show us it meant business. There was a convention in my home town of Cleveland which I was trying to ignore, so I read A Natural History of Hell: Stories by Jeffrey Ford, whom Joyce Carol Oates calls “…a beautifully disorienting writer, a poet in an unclassifiable genre…,” and I decided that Jeffrey Ford is an important figure who needs to be recognized more. I read Ninety-Nine Stories of God by Joy Williams, who is another one of my idols, and I love that she’s still so weird and crazy, after all these years.
Another of my former students, Sam Allingham, sent me his new book of stories, The Great American Songbook, and it is so good! He is super-talented and gives me hope for the future!
And a kind acquaintance, Jacob M. Appel, sent me his new book of stories, Coulrophobia & Fata Morgana, and it was also really good, very Grace Paley and smart and wise (he’s a psychiatrist and a lawyer and a professor and has, I kid you not, seven master’s degrees), and then I realized that I was supposed to blurb his book and I screwed up and forgot to do it, so I was ashamed. I’m sorry, Jacob. Your book is awesome.
And then it was August. I read The Fire This Time, an anthology of essays about race, edited by the brilliant Jesmyn Ward; I read In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror and an American Family in Hitler’s Berlin by Erik Larson. I had a panic attack, and I got some medication — not a moment too soon, because 2016 then decided to take Gene Wilder, and if it wasn’t for Clonazepam I’d still be watching YouTube clips from Young Frankenstein and Willie Wonka, singing along with “Pure Imagination” and weeping, weeping.
Afterwards, I spent a good part of the fall rereading a YA fantasy series by Garth Nix. It was a retreat of sorts, I guess.
One of my fondest memories is reading with my two sons, which we did all through their childhood. They loved fantasy series. Yes, we read all the Harry Potter books, and The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, and Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials series, Susan Cooper’s The Dark Is Rising Sequence, Jonathan Stroud’s Bartimaeus books. The Chronicles of Narnia.
One series that we were particularly fond of was Garth Nix’s Abhorsen trilogy. We listened to them in the car on audiobook: read by Tim Curry in a rich, plummy, intensely funny and felt performance. We were mesmerized by the adventures of Sabriel, the girl necromancer who inherits the heavy weight of her father’s obligation to protect the world from the Dead; her half-sister, Lirael, a lonely librarian who goes on a journey with her magical companion, The Disreputable Dog, finds that she is the only one who can save the world from evil. There is also Mogget, a powerful magical creature who has been imprisoned in the body of a house cat. (Tim Curry’s performance of Mogget is a particular hammy delight.)
In any case, reading these books with my kids was an intense, formative experience, and I was excited to learn that Nix had a new book in the series that was coming out in October. I prepared for it by listening to the entire oeuvre — about 50 hours of audio — and it lent me a crutch to hobble on through our hideous American Autumn. Reading these books again, along with the new one, Goldenhand, brought back a certain kind of joy, a certain kind of honest excitement, to return again to this wide, richly imagined world that Nix has created with such breadth and texture. I got to relive those times I had with my kids, which is not an insignificant thing. My boys are now 25- and 26-year-old men, but for a time, reading this book, I was able to commune with the children they once were.
I was also able to remember the way that certain kinds of books could help in a dark time — I remembered the kid I once was, living in a difficult and abusive and violent family situation — and how books may have saved me.
I worry that this last bit seems stupid and childish and cowardly?
But so what? I lifted out of the dream of those books a sliver of faith in bravery and honesty and courage, and a hope that evil won’t win in the end. I could use the reminder.
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My wife and I recently watched I Love You Again, a 1940 comedy starring William Powell and Myrna Loy. The film’s setup is preposterous: Powell plays a small-town stuffed shirt who, conked on the head at sea, develops an amnesia that reverts him to his former self — a smooth-talking con artist with no recollection of the tedious man he’d become. When his ship returns to harbor, Loy, his bored and long-suffering wife, is there with divorce papers — but she soon becomes intrigued by this magnetic version of her husband.
Complications ensue, and as is generally the case with Powell and Loy, the movie glides along on a draft of high-toned pleasure. Though its running time is roughly an hour and a half, it felt like forty minutes. And as the credits rolled, my wife and I asked what we always ask when such comedies — not just those of Powell and Loy, but of Grant, Stewart, Katherine Hepburn and the rest — come to an end: Why don’t they make movies like that anymore?
The question isn’t rhetorical, but neither do we need it answered; the reason seems fairly clear. Films like I Love You Again, Bringing Up Baby, and The Philadelphia Story aren’t made anymore because they’re simply out of style, like short ties or fedoras or Chicken à la King.
This explanation, though, does not satisfy. Unlike adventure movies or “issue films” of similar vintage — the Oscar-winning but now-excruciating Gentleman’s Agreement comes to mind — those old comedies haven’t aged. Both Holiday and Judy Holliday remain sharp and smart; decades later, they still do what they were meant to do — extract our laughter — as efficiently as anything made today. To watch a Cukor or Thin Man film is to take a Packard for a spin and find, to your shock, that it outdrives current models.
So why don’t they make such Packards anymore? A recent New York Times Magazine essay, “‘The Hangover’ and the Age of The Jokeless Comedy,” touched on an answer as it outlined the movement from joke-a-minute comedies to The Hangover, Part II — which it called a “Saw-style torture-porn movie with a laugh track.” But the piece, for all its passion, didn’t say much about a possible root cause for the change: modern audiences’ overall sophistication, which has paradoxically rendered comedy less sophisticated.
There was a time when sci-fi directors could hang planets from strings and Dr. Zaius could speak through laughably stiff ape-lips. Audiences understood that effects had limitations, and could tolerate hand-painted backgrounds and monsters in rubber suits. But in 1977, Star Wars slashed a light saber through that tolerance. George Lucas’ exacting visual sense, aided by his own technology, instantly made his antecedents look baldly ludicrous. Godzilla was trounced by a nerd with a pompadour.
As he and Steven Spielberg bulldozed through the ‘80s, audiences came to expect no visual seams at all — and in the process, lost the willingness to do some of the work themselves. This expectation — that movies, whether set in space or in a Temple of Doom, should be effortless to watch — bled into comedy. The genre, dependent on setup and dialogue rather than effects, did more of the work by becoming more believable. The biggest comedies of the pre-Star Wars ‘60s and ‘70s — A Shot in the Dark, What’s Up, Doc?, Blazing Saddles, Young Frankenstein, M*A*S*H — felt no need to put us at narrative ease. Much like their screwball forerunners, they burst from the gate at a sprint and didn’t slow for stragglers.
Through the ‘80s and into the ‘90s, however — as film technology advanced, culminating with Terminator 2 and Jurassic Park — comedy grounded itself, its setups and settings becoming fully mundane: two Illinois losers do public-access TV and sing along to Queen. Texas teenagers get high and drive around. Clerks crack wise at work. Even hits of the era that in retrospect seem outlandish — Mrs. Doubtfire, Liar Liar, The Santa Clause — took ample time to explain their premises lest audiences squirm. Tim Allen couldn’t just be Santa Claus; we had to have the details — as well as a side-story about divorce, insanity, and visitation rights.
In recent years Judd Apatow and friends, with their hyper-familiar brand of hairy-assed humor, have issued a crushing blow to the suspension of disbelief — and made the gap between old comedy and new unbridgeable: William Powell’s amnesiac con man is now Bradley Cooper’s rohypnoled best man. My Favorite Wife was set into motion when Irene Dunne returned from a desert island; Forgetting Sarah Marshall begins when Jason Segel gets dumped and flies to Hawaii to sulk. The comedies of today must make us feel as if these things could happen to us: events like getting drunk, dumped, and knocked up are, rather than minor elements, now the meat of the thing. Seth Rogen, rumpled and unshaven, doesn’t look like a movie star, and that’s exactly the point. We’ve become unable to laugh along with anyone but ourselves.
All this has turned comedy — once a genre of experimentation — into cinema’s narrowest style. 1976 saw the release of the following comedies: Monty Python and the Holy Grail, Love and Death, The Sunshine Boys, Shampoo, Smile, The Return of the Pink Panther, Let’s Do It Again, Cooley High, and The Adventure of Sherlock Holmes’ Smarter Brother. There is no clear through-line here; it was a year of satire, farce, screwball, and silliness. By contrast, this year’s comedies have been The Hangover Part II, Bad Teacher, Bridesmaids, Hall Pass, Take Me Home Tonight, and No Strings Attached — all featuring People Sort Of Like Us doing Naughty Things. Even The Change-Up dulled its body-switch setup with crap joke after crap joke. Individually, these may be funny movies; as a whole, the effect is smothering.
So this is not a heady time for fans of an older, less common comedy; Powell and Loy, breezing through nonsense plots, have never seemed more distant. Yet even now, there is hope from an unlikely source (and it’s not Johnny Depp, driver of a dreaded Thin Man remake). Woody Allen, once a specialist of just-go-with-it comedy — Bananas, Sleeper, Stardust Memories — has a legitimate hit with his Midnight in Paris. In it, Owen Wilson’s Gil Pender time-travels to the Paris of the past, getting his novel reviewed by Gertrude Stein and hanging with Dalí. He falls for a beautiful girl even though she might not exist. The film’s time-travel mechanics are never explained; Gil just hops into a limousine and gets out in the ‘20s. As vague and irrational as the device is, it works because it allows us to fill the blank spaces ourselves. Midnight in Paris proves that a sense of familiarity is an unnecessary cinematic crutch. One might say that they don’t make ‘em like that anymore.
Hey! How excited are you about seeing Real Steel 2? Are you stoked? Are you drooling with anticipation to see what happens next to those memorable characters? No? Well I’m not a bit surprised. Real Steel (part one) is a forthcoming Disney/Dreamworks film starring Hugh Jackman about a washed up former boxer who trains a robot to excel in the sport. From what we’ve seen, it looks like a cross between Short Circuit and The Champ. The filmmakers are so confident in Real Steel that they’ve already begun work on a sequel. Sit back and think about that for a minute or two: a film you haven’t seen yet (and possibly haven’t even heard of) has a sequel in development. It’s the most depressing thing I’ve heard since the 1-2 punch of Cars 2… in 3D.
You might think that Real Steel 2 is an exception. You might think that, even by the standards of Hollywood conservatism gone mad, work on Real Steel 2 is a damning, individual act of hubris. But it’s far from the only example. On numerous occasions (that we know of), studios have started work on sequels to films that haven’t even been released, and in some cases aren’t even finished. And we’re not just talking about three-part stories like the Lord of the Rings or Girl with the Dragon Tattoo films.
It used to work like this: if a film was a hit and a follow-up was appropriate, then, and only then, would we see a sequel. So we saw second chapters to The Godfather, Jaws, and Raiders of the Lost Ark, but not to Cabaret, Network, or (sadly) Young Frankenstein.
Then, sometime around the 80s and 90s, it became a case of making sequels to films (usually surprise hits) that didn’t really feel like they needed one. Hence, Father of the Bride Part II, Teen Wolf Too, and Grease 2. Thankfully they drew the line before Large Man Tate and Beaches: The Revenge.
Surprise hits put studios in an awkward position; the dilemma isn’t whether to desecrate the original with a shoddy follow-up (they will), but what to do with a film that has no sequel-friendly ending. The solution is as ingenious as it is crass: now studios don’t bankroll individual films – they green-light franchises.
As well as Real Steel 2, follow-ups were planned for The Hangover, for Sherlock Holmes, for The Hunger Games and The Amazing Spiderman, as well as for Green Lantern before part-one was released. What’s more – even the mediocre reviews and disappointing box office didn’t change plans for Green Lantern 2. Like the eponymous robot in The Terminator, these sequels seem to be unwelcome, unstoppable machines with no “off” switch.
It seems once a studio decides on a franchise, nothing can stop it – not bad reviews (Cars), disappointing numbers (Superman Returns), or bad reviews combined with disappointing numbers (Hulk). A possible, and deeply cynical, explanation is that the studios don’t want to waste all that money that they spent on creating brand awareness; they’ve splurged a fortune telling us what a Green Lantern is, and they’ll be damned if they’re going to spend it all over again on a whole new character. Not only is this insulting to you, the filmgoer (“you’ll eat what we feed you”), but also to the filmmakers themselves (“your film is not a stand-alone product”).
So what can be done? It used to be the case that you could vote with your feet – don’t see a film and they won’t make a sequel. But now it’s too late for that. All we can ask you to do is avoid any films that might have a franchise in mind, and eventually, with a hive mind, nudge the trend back to character-driven, stand alone films. Good luck with that.