John Powers

John Powers is the pop culture and critic-at-large on NPR's Fresh Air with Terry Gross. He previously served for six years as the film critic.

Powers covers film and politics for Vogue and Vogue.com. His work has appeared in numerous publications, including Harper's BAZAAR, The Nation, Gourmet, The Washington Post, The New York Times and L.A. Weekly, where he spent twelve years as a critic and columnist.

A former professor at Georgetown University, Powers is the author of Sore Winners, a study of American culture during President George W. Bush's administration.

He lives in Pasadena, California, with his wife, Sandi Tan.

There are lots of good filmmakers, but only a handful are always, unmistakably themselves. One of these is Werner Herzog, the 71-year-old German director who now lives in L.A. Herzog has done things nobody else would do for a film — like trying to tug a 350-ton steamship over a small mountain. This has made him notorious as a wild, love-him-or-hate-him monomaniac — an image he's been canny enough to milk.

Back in 1964, movie audiences were treated to three hit musicals. Two of them — Mary Poppins and My Fair Lady — won scads of Oscars. But it was the third that announced the future, and it did so from its opening chord.

What followed from that chord was what we call The Sixties.

Americans put a lot of stock in being likable. Pollsters take surveys of the president's likability. Test screenings check whether we like the characters in movies. And when a literary novelist like Claire Messud mocks the notion that fictional characters should be someone we'd like to be friends with, writers of popular fiction attack her for snootiness.

If the road movie has a home, it's surely the United States. After all, the settling of America was itself a kind of humongous road picture — all those wagons rolling across the new continent's spectacular vastness. And with our ceaseless love of movement, we became the first people to be transported — in every sense — by the automobile. Small wonder, then, that so many famous Hollywood films, from It Happened One Night to Thelma & Louise, are all about hitting the road.

Although there's no rigid dividing line, fans of the crime genre generally fall into two camps. There are those who prefer stories which, after titillating us with dark transgressions, end by restoring order — the show Law & Order is an aptly named example. And then there are those who prefer stories which, even after the mystery is solved, leave you swimming in the murk — think Chinatown. This is the male-dominated realm of noir.

Here's an old joke you may have heard: "How many Vietnam vets does it take to screw in a light bulb?" Answer: "You wouldn't know, you weren't there."

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DAVE DAVIES, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. Harold Ramis, who died earlier this week, was a writer, director and actor who played a key role in several of the most popular comedies of the last half-century. His list of credits includes "Animal House," "Caddyshack," "Meatballs," "Stripes," "Ghostbusters," and of course "Groundhog Day." Our critic-at-large John Powers is a fan and says there was more going on in Ramis' work than you might think.

When you're faced with something as heinous as the Holocaust, it's tempting to turn it into a simple morality play. This isn't to say one can't pass moral judgments — Hitler and his cohort were undeniably evil. But judging can become a form of lazy evasion, a way of closing the book on the tricky realities of failure, guilt and complicity.

The Danish television series Borgen about a female party leader who unexpectedly becomes Denmark's prime minister was a hit in its home country and in the U.K. It won numerous international prizes, and a cult following in the U.S. after its sporadic TV broadcasts — Stephen King named it his favorite piece of pop culture of 2012. The third and final season has just been released on DVD by MHz Networks, which also brought out seasons one and two.

A revolution is a bit like a writing a mystery novel. It's hard to start but even harder to come up with a satisfying ending.

They're still working on that in Egypt. Three years after the toppling of dictator Hosni Mubarak — the crowning moment of the Arab Spring — the army's running the country again; the elected president, Mohammed Morsi, has been arrested and charged with treason; the Muslim Brotherhood has been banned; and Tahrir Square's secular protesters are getting arrested. All this in the name of order and country.

There's an unforgettable moment in the diary of the great Polish writer Witold Gombrowicz. He's on the beach and he spots a beetle that's been blown on its back by the wind and now lies there helplessly, legs wiggling, unable to right itself. Gombrowicz saves it by turning it over. He sees another upside-down beetle, and turns it over. Then, another. Looking along the sand, he realizes that there are so many beetles he can't possibly save them all. Eventually, he gives up trying.

In The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, William Blake served up one of those mind-bending proverbs he's known for: "The road of excess leads," he wrote, "to the palace of wisdom." I thought about this line as I watched two terrific new movies that put Blake's words to the test.

Paolo Sorrentino's thrillingly good The Great Beauty tackles the idea head-on — it's an excessive film about excess. Sorrentino doesn't merely aim to update one of the most famous movies of all time (Fellini's portrait of decadent Rome, La Dolce Vita). He intends to better it.

Some writers you read and move on, but every now and then you read one whose work knocks you back against the wall. This happened to me with the great Italian novelist Elena Ferrante.

I first encountered her through her scalding 2002 novel, The Days Of Abandonment, whose narrator, Olga, may be the scariest jilted wife since Medea. What makes Olga scary is not what she does, but what she thinks and feels, and her ferocious precision in describing everything from lousy sexual encounters to her not-altogether-maternal feelings about her children.

Way back in the 1950s — before people tweeted snapshots of their privates or posted their hookup diaries online — it was considered inappropriate to talk too much about sex. The guardians of culture treated it as something better kept in the dark.

When Raymond Chandler first set Philip Marlowe walking down the mean streets of L.A., he couldn't have imagined that eventually every city, from ancient Athens to 21st century Bangkok, would have its own detective series. Of course, they're not all equally good.

If you're like me, you probably feel exhausted just thinking about how much cultural stuff is out there. A friend recently told me he was reading an acclaimed Hungarian novelist whose books I've never opened. "Please tell me he stinks," I begged, "so I don't have to read him."

"Actually, he's great," came the reply, and I groaned. This was something I didn't want to know.

If you asked me to name my favorite movie scene, I'd choose the one in Citizen Kane when newspaper owner Charles Foster Kane steals his rivals' best reporters, then throws a party in his own honor. As musicians literally sing his praises, we watch Kane dance with chorus girls wearing a look of radiant delight. It's a moment bursting with promise and cockiness and joie de vivre, made all the more exuberant because Kane's pleasure is so obviously shared by Welles himself.

We live in a world filled with crimes, but most of them don't have much to tell us. They're cases of mere stupidity, cruelty or greed. But every now and then one comes along that invites larger thoughts about the culture.

If reality TV has a redeeming value, it's that it teaches you to be suspicious of claims that you're seeing real people doing real things. This is especially so in an age when memoirs bristle with made-up events, and everyone from the Kardashians to the Obamas orchestrate their media coverage. These days, it's hard to tell whether an article, book or TV show is showing you the real person or only a performance.

Awhile back, I went to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art to see its show on filmmaker Stanley Kubrick. It was jammed with visitors poring over his letters, eyeing the dresses worn by the spooky twins in The Shining, and posing for photos in front of the sexy-futuristic decor of the Korova Milk Bar from A Clockwork Orange.

In Chinua Achebe's novel The Anthills of the Savannah, one of the characters says, "Poets don't give prescriptions. They give headaches."

The same is true of novelists, and none more so than Philip Roth. If any writer has ever enjoyed rattling people's skulls, it's this son of Newark, N.J., who's currently enjoying something of a victory lap in the media on the occasion of his 80th birthday. The celebration reaches its peak with a new documentary — Philip Roth Unmasked — that will screen on PBS next week as part of the American Masters series.

These days politics and advertising go hand in hand. Mayors stage photo ops. The Bush administration compared the Iraq war to rolling out a new product. And just last year, Barack Obama and Mitt Romney spent nearly a billion dollars running for president. If you're an American, such wall-to-wall marketing has come to seem a natural phenomenon, like Hurricane Sandy or LeBron James.

The Irish novelist John McGahern once remarked that his country stayed a 19th-century society for so long that it nearly missed the 20th century. But in the mid-1990s, Ireland's economy took off, turning the country from a poor backwater into a so-called Celtic Tiger with fancy restaurants, chrome-clad shops and soaring real estate values. The country was transformed — until things came tumbling down during the 2008 financial crisis.

The director Francois Truffaut once remarked that it takes as much time and energy to make a bad movie as to make a good one. He was right, but I would add one thing: It takes extraordinary effort to make a truly memorable flop.

The best example is Heaven's Gate, the hugely expensive 1980 movie by Michael Cimino that is the most famous cinematic disaster of my lifetime. It's part of that film's legend that it not only took down a studio, United Artists, but was the nail in the coffin of Hollywood's auteur filmmaking of the 1970s.

It seems that every time you turn around, you find another anniversary of some big cultural or historical event. I'm weary of the media's habit of playing all these things up, so I'm abashed to admit I'm about to do just that.

But you see, in the same three-day period I recently saw the new James Bond picture, Skyfall, and Crossfire Hurricane, a new HBO documentary about The Rolling Stones. And because the Bond movies and the Stones both turn 50 this year, I began thinking about how they might fit together.

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