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March 16, 2011

Mad world

My friend Marcus went to see “Les Misérables” at the Kentucky Center last week. It was the realization of a dream that he had harbored since he was first exposed to the musical as a teen. The work appears on his “Top 10 of Everything” list.

Over the years, we have talked about the movies, music and books that have meant the most to us, so when he shared his written list with me recently, I was not surprised to see the items that were included. Not meaning to be reductive, I will report that the most consistent themes among his selections seem to be perseverance and grace. In addition to “Les Mis,” there’s Paul Simon’s “The Boxer,” the movies “A Man for All Seasons” and “Cyrano de Bergerac,” and the books “Ender’s Game” and (its sequel) “Speaker for the Dead.”

Since he first mentioned his list to me some time ago, I have maintained an abstract response, my own “Top 10 of Everything” list, but I have never reduced it to a writing; it may have changed any number of times as I have thought about it now and then, but there are a number of consistent entries.

Marcus and I agree on “The Little Prince” by Antoine de Saint-Exupery. The book is a perfect, magical metaphor for the kind of wonder that is appropriate in friendship and life, stripping away “adult” concerns and finding what is essential and important to the shared experience of life.

Thereafter, our lists diverge significantly. My list goes in two directions. Several items, George Harrison’s album All Things Must Pass and Neutral Milk Hotel’s In the Aeroplane Over the Sea move me to tears. Both musically powerful, both represent soul-searching journeys, spiritual and existential, and both feature enigmatic resolutions, celebratory and serene.

The narrator’s perspective in Richard Brautigan’s “In Watermelon Sugar” is perhaps more significant than the activity around him, but, like the Little Prince, he embodies a simple, graceful sense of wonder and acceptance, even as several characters around him engage in self-destructive activities.

While those items move me emotionally, the movies on my list generally appeal to me intellectually. I can’t deny that “Citizen Kane” is on my list, although I suppose it is an obvious choice. The history behind its creation and cultural ramifications suggests the very definition of the most common American tragedy.

“Rashomon,” like “Kane,” explores the imperfect nature of perspective: A single story of rape and murder is recalled by four different characters, each with radical, irresolvable differences.

Similarly, William Faulkner’s “Absalom, Absalom” represents the attempt to reconstruct a history; most of the second half of the book is narrated by a disinterested observer trying to resolve discrepancies in a collection of details from previous accounts.

That brings us to “Network.” Originally released in 1976, this astonishing portrait of American media focuses on the process by which news became entertainment. Featuring the Academy Award-winning performance by Best Actor Peter Finch as the unhinged news anchorman Howard Beale, “Network” injected the concept of mindless outrage into the mainstream conversation.

On the other hand, like “The Wizard of Oz,” it features a devastating revelation about “the man behind the curtain,” represented, in this case, by corporate television executive Arthur Jensen, played by Ned Beatty. Unlike the Wizard, however, whose revelation was that he had no extraordinary power, that all individuals were equal, Jensen tells the deluded Beale, “There is no America. There is no democracy.” He explains that corporations are our nations, that the world has become “one vast and ecumenical holding company.”

Thereafter, Beale reports (preaches) that democracy is dead and that, “What is finished is the idea that this great country is dedicated to the freedom and flourishing of every individual in it. It is the individual that is finished.” “Network” introduces ideas that suggest the eventual appearance of “reality” programming as well as post-rational absurdists like David Letterman and Glenn Beck. It is an “adult” entertainment incorporating concepts that are simply too complicated for the average 21st century American moviegoer. Its darkness defies identification as either comedy or tragedy. It should have been seen as a warning; instead, it has proven to be all too prescient, a nightmare vision of imbalance, the depths of which we continue to discover.

For next time: Consider what you would include on your “Top 10 of Everything.”