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28 December 2017

From Moonlight to Harvey Weinstein: the New Statesman year in culture

New Statesman writers on the drama of 2017. 

By New Statesman

At the start of 2017, the biggest question for the cultural world seemed obvious: how to react to the election of Tweet-spitting, attention-grabbing Donald Trump. Perhaps, then, it was fitting that by the end of the year, the biggest cultural upheaval involved toppling a sleazy starstruck bully from his place in the power structure. It may also explain why some of the biggest hits of the year were works that reflected a different perspective: Moonlight, Lincoln in the Bardo, and Hamilton. 

Here is the year in culture, as reported and reviewed by New Statesman writers. 

La La La… Moonlight?

The year opened with everyone talking about two films – the stylish musical romcom La La Land, a $30m production starring A-lister Ryan Gosling, and the coming-of-age Moonlight, which had a budget of just $4m and featured that rare thing in Hollywood, an all-black cast. So which one would win big at the Oscars? 

The answer, for a couple of stunned seconds, seemed to be both. “You know things are bad when, at possibly the most anticipated cultural moment of the year, you have to keep insisting what’s happening is not a bad skit,” wrote Anna Leszkiewicz. Here is her account of the whole painful saga in which La La Land was announced as winner of the Best Picture at the 89th Academy Awards, but it later turned out that Moonlight had actually won the prize. 

Reading in a Trumpian world

Donald Trump’s election in November 2016 may have taken the world by surprise, but by the early months of 2017 writers and critics alike were discussing the Trumpian narrative. In March, Giles Smith bravely went where others feared to turn a page and read all of the new US president’s books: How to Get Rich; Think Big; Think Like a Champion; Think Like a Billionaire; Midas Touch; Trump 101: the Way to Success and more. Here’s what he learned from the experience

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Novelist Ali Smith had already responded to the upset of Brexit in her novel Autumn, and in 2017 she delivered the Goldsmiths Prize lecture, “The novel in the age of Trump”, available on the New Statesman website here

The poignancy of pop

Late on 22 May, as fans of the American singer Ariana Grande left the Manchester Arena after her concert, Salman Abedi detonated a bomb that killed himself and 22 others. The youngest victim was eight years old.  

In the immediate aftermath, many commentators focused on the fans, and the contrast between an upbeat concert and the dark event that followed. “The joy of teenage girls is the heart of pop,” wrote Dorian Lynskey in the New Statesman on 23 May. Anna Leszkiewicz, meanwhile, shed light on a pop star that many older readers had not heard of before. Ariana Grande’s songs empowered her listeners, who included young gay men as well as teenage girls. One fan described the community as “a family”

We need to talk about grooming

The grooming of vulnerable young women in Rochdale and other British towns by groups of predominantly Asian men has proved difficult for many progressives to talk about (and too easy for those on the far right). The BBC’s contribution was a three-part drama based on the experience of three girls at the heart of the 2012 Rochdale Grooming Case. Would it get it right? “Three Girls is a masterclass in how to explore violence against girls without objectifying the victims,” wrote Anna Leszkiewicz in her summary of the series

Reality TV reactionaries

“Why is Love Island so Tory?” demanded Anoosh Chakelian in July of the marooned lonely hearts dating show. She explains why the show is “basically a feverish display of right-wing moral panic” here. In the autumn, former Scottish Labour leader Kezia Dugdale attempted to redress the balance by joining other “celebrities” in the jungle, but was beaten by Toff, a posh Tory pin up who was crowned Queen of the Jungle

Couldn’t make it up

With an increasingly farcical Brexit, a blond blunderbuss as foreign secretary and a snap election that went horribly wrong, comparisons between British politics and the TV satire The Thick of It have become commonplace. For those bored of reruns, though, there’s the playwright James Graham, whose play about the Labour party, Labour of Love, was written during this tumultuous year. Helen Lewis met the man seen by many as the new king of political theatre

Death and resurrection

On 8 August the American singer Glen Campbell died. Kate Mossman wrote of his life: “He was the real deal not because he turned his personal experience into a marketable commodity but because he made a trade of music, and made it look easy.”

American singer-songwriter Tom Petty died on 2 October 2017, but only after multiple news outlets reported him as dead, then alive, then dead again. Anna Leszkiewicz reported on what happened when the complications of an individual’s last hours collided with the demands of a 24 hour news cycle.

Blade Runner for the 2010s

The 1982 cult film was set in a dystopian 2019, so this sequel – projected into 2049 – was timely. New Statesman film critic Ryan Gilbey looked back at the past to compare it to the original, but for Robin Bunce it also played upon the environmental politics of today, while Helen Lewis detected “a Madonna/Whore dichotomy” in the male protagonist’s relationship with virtual and real women. 

Why Weinstein fell

The allegations about Hollywood studio boss Harvey Weinstein came to light in early October after extensive reporting by both the New York Times and The New Yorker. Since then, “the Weinstein effect” has shaken Britain’s theatre community and its political institutions. Often obscured by this is a simple question: Why did it happen now?

In the early days of the scandal, Anna Leszkiewicz observed that Weinstein’s malevolence had long been an open secret. So what had changed? “Weinstein is no longer the industry kingpin he once was.” Days later, when the wave of revelations about other Hollywood figures was yet to emerge, she wrote about another film that made her uneasy: American comedian Louis CK’s new film, I Love You Daddy, with its main female character “hovering somewhere between sexual fantasy and misogynist anxiety”. It would take several more weeks before Louis CK too admitted to past sexual misconduct on multiple occasions (the film was quietly scrapped). Two months on, both articles are a reminder that there is nothing inevitable about the toppling of predatory men. 

Lyra returns

In October, Philip Pullman fans could finally get their hands on the first in his “equel” to the much-praised His Dark Materials trilogy. Set in the world of Lyra, but at the time of her birth, La Belle Sauvage was inspired by classic tales of journeys including The Odyssey and Edmund Spenser’s epic The Faerie Queene

Pullman’s original trilogy, with its themes of heresy and challenging organised religion, is beloved by atheists. But former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams wrote in the New Statesman that: “Pullman is… an intensely ‘spiritual’ writer” whose words can also connect with readers of a religious conviction. 

The novelist resistance

In October, George Saunders won the Man Booker Prize for his novel Lincoln in the Bardo. The same month, he shared his personal manifesto with the New Statesman. “Last Thursday, my organisation, PRKA (People Reluctant to Kill for an Abstraction) orchestrated an overwhelming show of force around the globe,” it begins. “At precisely nine in the morning, working with stealth and focus, our entire membership succeeded in simultaneously beheading… no one.” Read it here

Less-than-fantastic Beasts

Among the messages that emerged from the Weinstein saga and the consequent #MeToo movement, one was very clear – believe the victim. This was somewhat awkward for the promoters of the second film in the Fantastic Beasts and Where To Find Them franchise, since the stars included Johnny Depp. The actor’s ex-wife Amber Heard accused him of domestic abuse, and Depp’s allies were very keen to make sure the alleged victim was not heard. (The couple have released a joint statement saying neither party had lied for financial gain and that there was “never any intent of physical or emotional harm”.)

As Anna Leszkiewicz reported, while the film producers, and JK Rowling, the writer, want to move on from Depp’s marital troubles, many fans are deeply troubled by his inclusion in the film. In a follow up story, Leszkiewicz captured this emotion, describing, as a former Depp fan and active lover of the Harry Potter series, how she battled between her intent on believing Heard, and the “11-year-old rising up in my brain, trying to persuade me not to”.

Hello, Hamilton

In December, the US hip hop musical Hamilton finally crossed the Atlantic, having already gained a large following in Britain. Hamilton superfan (and New Statesman deputy editor) Helen Lewis introduced readers to the story of a musical intertwined with the age of Obama. 

Cat Person in space

The internet is not normally known for its attention span, but after a tumultuous year for women in culture, a short story published in The New Yorker went viral. “Cat Person”, by Kirsten Roupenian, explored male privilege and misunderstandings in the age of social media. 

“So the Cat Person short story has made straight men feel uncomfortable. Good,” wrote Glosswitch in the New Statesman. The story was quickly followed by the arrival of the latest Star Wars film, The Last Jedi, leading at least two viewers to spot an uncanny parallel. Here are Star Wars buffs Rebecca Harrison and Will Brooker on what the two tales have in common