December 21, 2013
Consider this a purge.
A necessary year-end draining of the snippets, moments and bolts of cultural lightning that burned hot in my skull, sometimes left a mark, sometimes faded quickly, but always jolted me awake in 2013 and became, if only for one bracing moment, the answer to my dreams, the greatest thing ever.
If I had my way I would do this "Hunger Games"-style, pushing Kanye West's urgent "Saturday Night Live" performance of "New Slaves" into battle against, oh, Bill Murray's appearance as Liberace on "The Late Show with David Letterman," forcing these memories to fight for a permanent spot on my internal timeline. But frankly, there is too much of everything these days, and I have stopped pretending to think that I can remember what any year felt like — we have become too culturally promiscuous, too cross-disciplinary, too eager to move on.
What remains are flashes.
A montage reel of emotions from the past 12 months is all I can ask for before moving on to the next 12. And so, in the interest of posterity (and maybe jolting your own cultural synapses), from 2013, I remember …
Sitting in a packed theater in Evanston, watching the haunted-house picture "The Conjuring" (my favorite film of the year), noticing that not a soul in that roomful of riveted people dared stir, then falling in love with movies yet again.
Getting an impromptu performance piece from Bjork as confusion, bemusement and annoyance played across her face: A Pitchfork Music Festival stagehand had just told her to stop because it was about to rain.
Then driving past Wrigley Field later that night and hearing rain-delayed Pearl Jam still blasting at 1:30 a.m.
Killing an hour playing with the ingenious, interactive (only six decades late) video for Bob Dylan's "Like a Rolling Stone" — then happily squandering another 10 minutes on MGMT's video for "Your Life is a Lie," which takes its cue from Dylan's classic "Subterranean Homesick Blues" video, spelling out the lyrics.
Listening to a pair of Irish tourists fiercely debate whether or not they could actually sit in the wooden pews that greeted visitors at Chicago artist Theaster Gates' solo exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art.
Delighting in the deeply metaphorical opening minutes of "American Hustle," in which Christian Bale painstakingly assembles a ridiculous comb-over only to have it immediately disrupted by Bradley Cooper.
Watching with real suspense as choreographer Bill T. Jones set the clock to 70 minutes for "Story/Time," his memoiristic performance piece at the Dance Center at Columbia College, then finished at exactly — to the second — 70 minutes.
Wondering how believable it was that Lena Dunham and Patrick Wilson, on HBO's "Girls," would spend two days playing naked ping pong (but also wishing that TV took more left-field turns).
Luxuriating in the long, thoughtful and daring (near-motionless) silences that punctuated "The Aliens," Annie Baker's modest, moving play at A Red Orchid about restless and shy bohemians stuck in small-town Vermont.
Admiring the commitment that director Jason Osder showed to simple, direct (and ultimately inconclusive) storytelling in "Let the Fire Burn," a masterful recounting — entirely though archival images, TV news reports and surveillance footage — of the 1985 Philadelphia police-led bombing of the radical organization MOVE.
Being unable to put down critic Hilton Als' "White Girls," the best book of the year, an exhilarating, original blur of memoir, fiction and cultural essay that takes Richard Pryor and Flannery O'Connor in equal measure, and argues, with a virtuosic, iconoclastic wit that Michael Jackson and Truman Capote count as white girls.
Reclining on the floor of a Logan Square loft and losing myself inside the charm of the Manual Cinema, a Chicago-based shadow-puppet theater that constructs hypnotic, undeniably cinematic (feature-length) plays.
Rising out of my seat (quite literally) and feeling 8 years old again during the feverishly inspired 20-minute battle of Hong Kong in "Pacific Rim," the centerpiece of Guillermo del Toro's underrated, pop-art-ish, robots-vs.-monsters epic (the best reason for blowing $190 million on a special-effects movie in years).
Bursting out in embarrassed laughter on an airplane while reading Lisa Hanawalt's incisive and absurdist "My Dirty Dumb Eyes," her very random collection of comics, oddball journalistic riffs and terrifically sharp illustrated reviews of blockbusters such as "Rise of the Planet of the Apes": "The boss character, Jacobs, just shouted 'I run a business, not a petting zoo!' Hey screenwriter, petting zoos are totally a business."
Standing in front of Chris Bradley's hilarious, realistic-looking "Crust Ring," a sculpture of a pizza with the center eaten (only cast in bronze and painted), and realizing curator Michelle Grabner's group show at the Hyde Park Art Center, "A Study in Midwestern Appropriation" (through Jan. 12), throws its title around quite liberally.
Being caught off guard (along with all of America) when politics met reality TV and Florida Sen. Marco Rubio paused in the middle of the Republican response to the State of the Union address to take a sip of water.
Laughing in surprise and alarm at the deliciously over-the-top knockout punches in the DC Comics-adapted, Chicago-made "Injustice: Gods Among Us" video game, which, for instance, allows the traditionally set-upon Aquaman to not merely spear his opponents with a trident but also feed them to a shark while summoning tidal waves.
Feeling enveloped by the sprawling, pounding abstractions of pianist Matthew Shipp in the small, sonically-tight studio/performance space at Constellation, musician/promoter Mike Reed's sweet new place.
Wishing the 28-page digital "cookbook" included with rapper 2 Chainz's new album (offering such advice as "Put on your Versace apron" and "Serve in a gold bowl, garnish with remaining parsley") were a real book.
Recognizing after a few episodes that Kerry Washington could deliver the needed sliver of humanity to the intentionally over-ripe, self-conscious, wild-eyed, dizzyingly verbose ABC series "Scandal," but knowing that she would also become a superstar after single-handedly stealing an entire episode of "Saturday Night Live."
Speaking of over-the-top: Hate-loving "Salinger," a preposterous, unconvincing, sub-literate documentary on the life of writer J.D. Salinger that, in its first minutes, with the kind of pounding score and frenetic editing best left to Michael Bay, tells the story of how, well, a guy for Newsweek, uh, once took Salinger's picture …
Speaking of delightfully oblivious: Reading the jaw-dropping tweet of Hollywood reporter Nikki Finke, who "honored" Nelson Mandela by posting "R.I.P." alongside a reminder that the Weinstein Co.'s Mandela film was drawing award-season buzz; resulting in a wonderful wave of satiric mock-historical tweets that demolished a certain myopic, movie-industry mindset (for example, "RIP MLK, who has three biopics in development …")
Now speaking of over-the-top in a good way: Watching (and re-watching) the straight-faced, knowingly preposterous trailer for the latest "Fast & Furious" movie, which asked us to believe that not only can a team of car thieves bring down a military transport plane but, in the event of a vehicular terrorist threat, the Feds will ignore the Navy SEALs, the CIA and the Avengers and opt instead for five guys who can drive very fast.
Loving the intense commitment that Lula Cafe showed to its Halloween disguise when it paired with hot-in-2013 restaurant Fat Rice and, for Halloween night only, became "House of Human," a dim sum restaurant of the dead that served bugs, dressed its bartenders as zombies and splattered the bathrooms in fake blood.
Walking around the peak-roofed modernist boathouse that Chicago architect Jeanne Gang constructed for Clark Park and realizing that it looks like a very expensive ($8.8 million) Burger King crown, and it's brilliant.
Watching school children stand beside and adopt the stance of the aviator-goggle-wearing kid superheroes of "The Watch," a colorful pop sculpture Pilsen-based artist Hebru Brantley installed on Michigan Avenue.
Laughing at the prodding, self-referential closing provocation of Tracy Morgan's character in the finale of "30 Rock": "That's our show! Not a lot of people watched it, but the joke's on you because we got paid anyway!"
Dragging my heels about seeing the never-predictable, anti-careerist Replacements reunite at Riot Fest in Humboldt Park and squander a generation of memories, then being charmed, energized and surprised when the band, far from treating the show like a professional inevitability, simply played, then genuinely smiled.
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