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My ten favorite Open Culture posts of 2023

For nearly a dozen years now, I’ve written a post every weekday at Open Culture, usually to do with literature, film, music, art, architecture, television, radio, or language. The total comes to more than 3,000 so far, and here are ten of my favorites from the more than 250 I wrote in 2023:

See also my ten favorite Open Culture posts of 2012201320142015201620172018, 2019, 2020, 2021, and 2022.

New Yorker: The Return of Frasier

A new “Frasier” has débuted nearly two decades after the conclusion of the original series, and it moves Kelsey Grammer’s eponymous psychotherapist back to Boston, the city where he was introduced, in 1984, as a minor character on “Cheers.” By the time that show ended, in 1993, Frasier had become a major character, present in most of its episodes; the “Frasier” spinoff began just four months later, and soon became its own pop-cultural phenomenon. The sophistication exuded by its look, feel, and banter was so unusual for a network sitcom that it was often described as “the smartest show on television.”

“Frasier,” in its initial iteration, took place in Seattle, Washington, whose cachet had skyrocketed in the nineteen-nineties with the rise of Microsoft, Starbucks, Nirvana, and films such as Cameron Crowe’s “Singles” and Nora Ephron’s “Sleepless in Seattle.” Frasier Crane is a divorced, fortysomething, opera- and wine-loving protagonist who has given up his psychiatric practice to host a therapy-themed radio show, and is intent on building a new life in his home town. His efforts are often frustrated by conflicts with his brother, Niles (David Hyde Pierce), a fellow-psychotherapist who behaves even more pompously and fastidiously than Frasier, or with his father, Martin (John Mahoney), a police officer forced into retirement (and cohabitation with Frasier) by a gunshot wound. Together with Daphne (Jane Leeves), at once Martin’s live-in physical therapist and Frasier’s housekeeper, and Roz (Peri Gilpin), the blunt career-woman producer of Frasier’s radio show, these characters constitute the close-knit ensemble at the core of all eleven seasons.

To some extent, “Frasier” has been overshadowed by “Seinfeld,” which, like “Frasier,” was also a hit for NBC, but whose comedic ambitions transformed the sitcom as a genre. “Frasier” perfects the format in its own way, as the descendant of theatrical farce, in which misunderstandings, miscommunications, deceptions, incidents of mistaken identity, and moments of perfectly bad timing pile upon one another until the unstable narrative edifice comes crashing down into a state of normalcy. These stories might have Frasier pretending to be Jewish on Christmas Eve in front of the mother of a girlfriend-of-the-week, or Martin pretending to be gay to avoid being set up with the mother of a woman who catches Frasier’s eye at the opera, or Niles trying to host a dinner party for the neighbors in his prestigious new apartment building even after a talking bird perches immovably on his head. The show’s dedication to this classic form makes it comparatively timeless—apart from the occasional one-liner about subjects like Prozac, “Got Milk?,” Windows 95, and Dolly the sheep—as does its fixation on the venerable art of social climbing.

Read the whole thing at the New Yorker.

Books on Cities: David Maraniss, Once in a Great City (2015)

The twenty-tens brought forth a spate of books about Detroit, each of which takes a different angle on that troubled city: the straightforward history of Scott Martelle’s Detroit: A Biography, the bleak reportorial machismo of Charlie LeDuff’s Detroit: An American Autopsy, returned Detroiter Marc Binelli’s Detroit City Is the Place to Be: The Afterlife of an American Metropolis, new arrival Drew Philp’s A $500 House in Detroit: Rebuilding an Abandoned Home and an American City. In the middle of all of these, in more than one sense, we have journalist David Maraniss’ Once in a Great City: A Detroit Story. Though born in Detroit, Maraniss didn’t come of age there, nor did he return to live there in adulthood, but in light of his career-long focus on twentieth-century American history, it isn’t hard to understand why he would regard it as a promising subject.

To tell the story of Detroit, Maraniss writes in an “author’s note” before the main text, “I chose to go back not to the fifties, when my family lived there, but once again to the sixties, a decade I’ve explored in various ways in many of my books” (not least They Marched into Sunlight, which is about the Vietnam War and its protestors). He then gets even more explicit about the parameters of his project, explaining that its chronology “covers eighteen months, from the fall of 1962 to the spring of 1964. Cars were selling at a record pace. Motown was rocking. Labor was strong. People were marching for freedom. The president was calling Detroit a ‘herald of hope.’ It was a time of uncommon possibility and freedom when Detroit created wondrous and lasting things.”

Read the whole thing at Substack.

Books on Cities: Georges Perec, Lieux

Georges Perec was born in Paris and died in Paris (or at least a suburb just across the Périph), which didn’t necessarily qualify him to write about the city. Natives of a place tend to suffer from a degree of what-do-they-know-of-England ignorance of context, or even, to get more metaphorical and more clichéd, the fish’s unconsciousness of water. Why Perec could pull it off surely owes in part to his stints living elsewhere — boarding school in the Alps, a newlywed year in Tunisia — and in larger part to his sheer unconventionality as a writer. This is a man who wrote one novel structured by an all-knight’s-move journey through an apartment block, and another that, in 300 pages, never once uses the letter e: just two of the best-known achievements in a body of work mostly composed under similarly strict rules, methods, and constraints.

A member of Oulipo, the Ouvroir de littérature potentielle whose members dedicate themselves to the use of just such rules, methods, and constraints, Perec is remembered today as an experimental writer, albeit one whose work is credited with an accessibility, humor, and even feeling not usually associated with that label. These products could emerge from improbable processes: take the minor entry in his canon Tentative d’épuisement d’un lieu parisien (An Attempt at Exhausting a Place in Paris), a 60-page book consisting of neutral-sounding observations made during three days in 1974 spent sitting at Place Saint-Sulpice: “I am sitting in the Café de la Mairie, a little toward the back in relation to the terrace.” “A woman goes by; she is eating a slice of tart.” “Two free taxis at the taxi stand.” “Three children taken to school. Another apple-green 2CV.” “A bus. Japanese.”

Read the whole thing at Substack.

New Yorker: A Defense of the Ugliest Building in Paris

The sole skyscraper in central Paris celebrated its fiftieth anniversary recently, though “celebrate” may not be le mot juste. When the city’s official Twitter account wished the Tour Montparnasse (“Montparnasse Tower”) a happy birthday, the responses were hostile even by the standards of that platform, ranging from “Quelle horreur” to “La pire chose qui soit arrivée à Paris depuis les Nazis” (“The worst thing to happen to Paris since the Nazis”) to simply “Non.” Since I happened to be in town, I went to visit Paris’s least beloved building for the commemoration of its first half century. Nothing was out of the ordinary for a quiet Sunday afternoon: Falun Gong members sat in cross-legged protest on the concrete plaza; rough sleepers huddled against the walls and stairways of the complex’s shopping center; T-shirted tourists went straight up to, and came straight down from, the fifty-sixth floor.

That floor is occupied by a panoramic observation deck, which offers the most expansive view of Paris from above—and, more important, the only such view that doesn’t show the Tour Montparnasse itself. That oft-heard half-joke repurposes a similarly waspish remark attributed to the playwright Tristan Bernard about the Eiffel Tower, which, despite his resentment, has become a globally beloved symbol of French civilization. It’s a rare Paris postcard that fails to include the older tower, and a rarer Paris postcard still that fails to exclude the newer one. (Even the hooded sweatshirts for sale in the Tour Montparnasse’s own gift shop bear the image of the Eiffel Tower.) Nowhere else has such a physically conspicuous building arguably made so little obvious cultural impact; if, after fifty years, Parisians no longer ignore the Tour Montparnasse, that may be because they no longer see it in the first place.

Read the whole thing at the New Yorker.

New Yorker: the rise and fall of smooth jazz

Whenever I’m asked to provide a “fun fact” about myself, I usually say that I worked as a smooth-jazz radio announcer back in college. It wasn’t the kind of unsuitable, faintly ironic part-time job one falls into as a student but, rather, the culmination of years of serious and directed effort. In fact, I’d been seeking professional entry into the world of smooth jazz since adolescence: as a high schooler in the suburbs of Seattle, I made weekly rounds through the used-CD shops of University Way to build my personal library of artists from the smooth-jazz world; I frequented Dimitriou’s Jazz Alley, where practically all of those artists played, as a young Gen X-er might have hung out at punk clubs; I even persuaded the local smooth-jazz radio station to take me on as an intern. For all that, I’d never have claimed to like smooth jazz.

“I hate ‘classical music,’ ” Alex Ross once wrote in this magazine—“not the thing but the name.” I could say the same about “smooth jazz,” which I’ve always considered primarily a marketing term, the label not of a musical genre but of a commercial radio format. In Penny Lane’s “Listening to Kenny G,” a 2021 documentary about the saxophonist whose music—even more melodic and hooky than than those of his pop-jazz predecessors, such as George Benson and Grover Washington, Jr.—defined that format, the industry consultant Allen Kepler recalls how that label came about. Conducting focus groups with the market-research firm Broadcast Architecture in the late nineteen-eighties, Kepler asked participants to describe music like Kenny G’s however they liked. One woman, Kepler says, had the perfect answer: “She’s thinking. She says, ‘It’s jazz.’ She says, ‘It’s smooth jazz.’ It was almost like it just came to her like a lighting bolt.”

Read the whole thing at the New Yorker.

Books on Cities: Kate Ascher, The Works (2005)

Last year, the scientist and energy economist Vaclav Smil published a book called How the World Really Works, just a few months before I got it into my head that I should be reading a lot more about technology in general and infrastructure in particular. “For most of its inhabitants, the modern world is full of black boxes, devices whose internal workings remain — to different degrees — a mystery to their users,” Smil writes, and indeed, I read his book myself out of a desire at least to reduce the number of black boxes in my own world. If the Twitter thread of quotes I kept while doing so is anything to go by, much in How the World Really Works stuck me as notable. Yet, reading the thread less than a year later, I find that I recall reading barely any of the passages I included.

It particularly surprised me to have forgotten that Smil — a literate man, said on his Wikipedia page to read one or two non-technical books per week — quotes from Émile Zola’s Le Ventre de Paris. In a chapter on food production, he notes that “recycling organic wastes is hardly a topic addressed by famous novelists,” but Zola, “always a complete realist, captured its importance when he described Claude, a young Parisian painter who ‘had quite a liking for manure.’ Claude volunteers to toss into the pit ‘the scourings of markets, the refuse that fell from that colossal table, remained full of life, and returned to the spot where the vegetables had previously sprouted… They rose again in fertile crops, and once more went to spread themselves out upon the market square. Paris rotted everything, and returned everything to the soil, which never wearied of repairing the ravages of death.’”

Zola’s novel takes place in and around the market complex of Les Halles, just on the other end of rue Montorgueil from where I stayed during the past month I spent in Paris. Yet not once during that month did Claude or his liking for manure cross my mind, perhaps because Les Halles itself was demolished in the early nineteen-seventies, leaving behind a site since occupied only by a couple of unloved underground shopping malls. Still, you’d think an association would at least have been triggered by Kate Ascher’s The Works: Anatomy of a City, which I happened to read in Paris. Specifically, you’d think it would have been triggered by her chapter on sewage, which constitutes the central third of “Keeping It Clean,” the fifth and last proper section of the book, the preceding four being “Moving People,” “Moving Freight,” “Power,” and “Communications.”

Read the whole thing at Substack.

New Yorker: Murakami in the Movies

For enthusiasts of Haruki Murakami, last month brought two major events in two different countries. One is the publication, in Japan, of his latest novel, “Machi to Sono Futashika na Kabe” (“The City and Its Uncertain Walls”). The other is the release, in the United States, of “Saules Aveugles, Femme Endormie” (“Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman”), an animated feature based on several of Murakami’s short stories. In contrast to “The City and Its Uncertain Walls,” about which almost all information was withheld from the public before it went on sale, “Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman” has been publicized with all the means available to a production of its modest scale, including a trailer that emphasizes a host of identifiable pieces of Murakamiana: prowling cats, ethereal sex, dense Japanese urban landscapes, an absent wife, a descent into darkness, and a talking humanoid frog.

That last creature appears in Murakami’s short story “Super-Frog Saves Tokyo,” and it’s vaguely disconcerting to hear it speaking English—or French, for that matter, in the film’s original trailer. A French Luxembourgian Dutch Canadian co-production, “Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman” was directed by the composer-filmmaker Pierre Földes, whose official Web site says he was “born in the U.S. to Hungarian/British parents” but “raised in Paris.” Despite lacking any obvious connection to Japan—Murakami’s homeland, and usually his setting—Földes comes off as just the sort of international figure likely to be inspired by Murakami’s work. In adapting that work for the screen, he adds another volume to the saga of Murakami in the movies, which, like one of the writer’s own increasingly elaborate, oddity-filled novels, compensates for its frequent lapses into inelegance with the sheer fascination of aesthetic, cultural, and linguistic incongruity.

Read the whole thing at the New Yorker.

Books on Cities: Robert Fouser, Exploring Cities with Robert Fouser (로버트 파우저의 도시 탐구기)

Robert Fouser left Korea in 2014, the year before I arrived. By that time he’d spent a total of thirteen years living here, most of them working as a professor at Seoul National University. Over the previous few decades, he’d also lived for considerable stretches of time in Japan, where his work included teaching the Korean language — and doing so, I should note, as an American. This strikes Westerners as a stranger arrangement than it did his students themselves, for whom, in his telling, it seemed no more remarkable than being taught Korean by a Korean; a foreigner is a foreigner, after all, especially in Japan. Still, any American without east Asian heritage who manages to teach Korean in Japanese commands my respect, given my own years of sure-to-be-lifelong struggle with both languages.

Putting teaching behind him and returning to the United States seems to have shifted Fouser’s writing career into a higher gear, especially — and ironically — his writing in Korean. Over the past six years, he’s published five books in this country: A Manual of Democracy for Koreans (미래 시민의 조건), Seochon-holic (서촌 홀릭), Spread of Foreign Languages (외국어 전파담), Exploring Cities with Robert Fouser (로버트 파우저의 도시 탐구기), and Learning Foreign Languages (외국어 학습담). These titles suggest an uncanny overlap between his interests and my own. I have noticed, at least in my own circles, a tendency of Westerners invested in the Japanese and Korean languages also to be invested in architecture and urbanism. But as far as I know, no others have written entire books about languages and cities in Korean.

Read the whole thing at Substack.

New Yorker: Trapped in Robert McKee’s Story

This year’s list of Best Picture nominees feels dispiritingly familiar. “Top Gun: Maverick” and “Avatar: The Way of Water” are two colossally budgeted sequels written to internationally crowd-pleasing Hollywood specifications. And, though the non-sequel “Everything Everywhere All at Once” has been celebrated as a burst of cinematic creativity, its strenuous visual and sociopolitical exertions do not mask its adherence to the storytelling tropes of a superhero picture. No element of its narrative, in other words, would surprise the script guru Robert McKee, whose popular guide to screenwriting, “Story: Substance, Structure, Style, and the Principles of Screenwriting,” was published more than twenty-five years ago.

Among those averse to genre spectacle and Oscar-baiting melodrama, McKee has become a byword for screenwriting structures as cynical and manipulative as they are widely employed. (Akiva Goldsman, a specialist in big-budget adaptations of existing properties—“The Client,” “Batman & Robin,” “The Da Vinci Code”—is probably McKee’s most notable adherent.) When I lived in Los Angeles, it wasn’t unusual to be in a café, surrounded by aspiring screenwriters with laptops running Final Draft, who were obsessing aloud over Inciting Incidents, Turning Points, and Major Dramatic Questions. In “Story,” McKee bestows these concepts (and many more) with capital letters.

Read the whole thing at the New Yorker.