Mementos from the pre-millennium

Dredged from the 1998 archives of art, pop culture and politics, Steve Erickson offers his own private cultural canon.

Topics: Jonathan Lethem,

Hurtling faster and faster toward the event horizon of a year from now, here
is the Unspun Top 10 of 1998 — artifacts to take with you down the wormhole:

1) “Memory Gospel” by Moby: When time so outraces memory that all we can do is try to remember the future, when psychic rootlessness and cultural entropy
constitute the only aesthetic anyone can believe in anymore, this soaring B-side clandestinely hidden on the latest single by the most willfully alienated
artist of the decade provided a subliminal soundtrack for everything else. A pop response to Henryk Gorecki’s “Symphony of Sorrowful Songs,” it short-circuited spiritual foreplay and cut straight to the ecstasy, the blur of orgasm merged
with the careen of history.

2) Angelina Jolie in “Gia”: This HBO special never really knew what to make of its subject and didn’t much care, figuring if it stripped ’80s supermodel Gia Carangi bare enough it could have things both ways, making her descent into AIDS as much fun for us as it was tragic for her. But in so exposing Gia, the film also unleashed actress Jolie, and got more than it bargained for. Spitting in the face of whatever glamorous delusions the filmmakers had about Gia’s life, Jolie’s ferocious exorcism was in a tradition that most recently includes Emily Watson in “Breaking the Waves” and Sheryl Lee in “Twin Peaks Fire Walk With Me,” but goes back 70 years to Maria Falconetti in Carl Dreyer’s “Passion of Joan of Arc” — the first truly transcendent performance in the history of celluloid. Given even the most cursory reflection, it shouldn’t be particularly surprising to anyone that this tradition has been, again and again, most boldly and relentlessly and laceratingly written by women.

3) The Linda Tripp Telephone Tapes: One of the more remarkable things about Madame Tripp is how she defies even the most overwrought effort at empathy. In an age of moral ambiguity and confusion, the genius of the Tripp tapes is their exquisitely uncomplicated villainy, the most clear-cut, black-and-white case in memory of betrayal beyond the pale, however much ghastly apologizing may be done on her behalf by the likes of Weekly Standard editor Bill Kristol, who has suggested that Tripp was only, after all, “protecting herself.” I admit that when she met the press following her grand jury testimony and intoned to America, “Who am I? I am you,” it gave me pause; I wondered if she was right. But the plain fact of the matter is that whatever doubts I have about a thousand other things in my life, I can say with complete confidence I haven’t a single close friend who would secretly tape a telephone conversation of mine even to save himself or herself from jail, and my guess is you probably haven’t either. Unless it’s Bill Kristol.



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4) “Traveller” by Talvin Singh: Alternately harrowing and gorgeous, a thousand vividly hued visions of an ancient yesterday flowing into the black void of the electronic tomorrow, the karmic Indian swells in this opening track from Singh’s CD “OK” finally overwhelm the underlying moan of technonihilism. In so doing, it sounds like nothing less than the first music you’ll hear
sputtering across the airwaves at 12:01 in the morning on Jan. 1, 2000, having arrived, through some Einsteinian warp, a year ahead of schedule.

5) “Girl in Landscape” by Jonathan Lethem: For some fans of this author’s
earlier novels — genre-busting fun and games such as “Gun, With Occasional
Music” and “As She Climbed Across the Table” — this book was something of a
letdown. In fact, with its insightful and unsettling portrait of adolescence
on a bleak, distant planet (isn’t one of the great traumas of life moving to
another neighborhood when you’re a teenager?), this is Lethem’s most emotionally radical work yet. Slipping back and forth across the border between exotic and
ruined exterior landscapes on the one hand and a young girl’s
familiar and claustrophobic interior drama on the other, the novel renders her life a no man’s land even as it reveals that the most exotic landscape of all is the vista of the soul.

6) “Chinese Box,” directed by Wayne Wang: Dismissed by a culture too glib to get it,
writer-director Wang’s film came and went last spring with undue haste, though
considering how it existed so much on the edge of the present moment, its
premature fade-out now seems as inevitable as the built-in obsolescence of the latest computer. The only film of 1998 that
couldn’t have come out in any other year but 1998, it captured the sense of everything breaking down, with Jeremy Irons’ photojournalist dying in
lockstep with the 20th century around him, and all our meanings up for grabs.
Busy videotaping what he calls the “Pompeii Tapes” as Hong Kong is handed over
from Britain to China, Irons records the streets teeming with people clinging desperately to emotional truths that only rarely have to do with economics and ideology but more often with love and sex and possession. At an hour and 45 minutes, the film felt epic, a hole blown in the screen of our times.

7) Steve Wynn’s Bellagio Hotel in Las Vegas: Come on, you have to love it.
For all its European high-art pretensions, it is the most
American of enterprises, the purchase of “class” no matter what the price; for
all its scope, it is the most ephemeral of spectacles, no more likely to still be
there 10 years from now than an iceberg — unless it’s a man-made iceberg for
an arctic-themed casino. This is a pure Gatsby-like gesture writ grandiose, in its conviction that identity is the most valuable artifact of all, and that sheer self-invention — by a person or a city or a nation — was the real inalienable right the Founding Fathers were getting at all along, before they got carried away with all that life-and-liberty crap. And if you doubt it for a moment, my wife won a $900 jackpot there the first week it opened.

8)”Siren” by Heather Nova: At the end of a decade in which they were clearly
the single most creative force in popular music, women finally had somewhere
to go other than up, which accounts for the systemic critical backlash against
so many of them for having the effrontery to grow beyond the preconceptions of
male critics. With all due respect to the equally fine, undervalued work this
year by Liz Phair and PJ Harvey, Nova’s almost universally ignored album is
the one that took over my CD player. After she invited us to “Walk This World
With Me” a couple of years back, “Siren” was the homecoming gone wrong, when
the lover she thought was patiently waiting could barely withstand the assault
of either her unchecked obsessions or unabashed carnality. Along with a mesmerizing sense of atmospheric grandeur, the
record was most often characterized by singing so emotionally abandoned one
would occasionally mistake her voice for the higher register of a particularly
unhinged guitar. Nova is the female Leonard Cohen with hooks, more at home
wandering the world than when she’s at home, freely vacillating between the
depraved and the delirious.

9) “The Culture” by Greil Marcus: A flying dutchman for most of the last 12
months, sailing from print port to print port, the best and most original
American critic since the late-’60s/early-’70s glory days of Pauline Kael
finally found a national forum in Esquire. Now the only
question is whether Esquire — having been smart enough to hire him in the
first place — is also smart enough to let Marcus be Marcus, navigating his own
idiosyncratic course by way of his own intellectual compass and whatever
Sargasso Sea or Bermuda Triangle holds allure for him; some of us will follow
him off the edge of the earth.

10) Tom Hanks in “Saving Private Ryan”: He’s been the most overrated actor
of the ’90s, beloved mostly for his decency; but here he justifies every Oscar
given to him. The film itself is uneven, jaw-dropping battle sequences
interrupted by the more dramatically contrived scenes that never let you
forget it’s a movie, and the vague anti-war message is liberal thinking at its
most dubious: If there were ever a case where pacifism verged on the immoral,
it was World War II. But at the heart of the film is Hanks’ interpretation of
modern heroism at its deepest and most complex. On the run across occupied
Europe with some absurd honor always out of reach and sheer abject terror
always nipping at his heels, he’s so moving you can only wish director Steven
Spielberg left well enough alone — but then he wouldn’t be Spielberg, would
he? — and began the film where it should have begun, with the close-up of
Hanks’ shaking hand on the beaches of France, and ended where it should have
ended, with the close-up of Hanks’ face on an anonymous French bridge in a
final quiet burst of death.

Steve Erickson's new novel, "The Sea Came in at Midnight," will be published next spring by Bard/Avon.

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