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. His latest book, WKW: The Cinema of Wong Kar Wai (co-written with Wong Kar Wai), is an April 2016 release by Rizzoli.

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

Every movie is set somewhere, yet most movies feel as if they're happening nowhere at all. They're set in a Manhattan so generic that the filming was actually done in Toronto, or in a Paris we only know is Paris because we get a shot of the Eiffel Tower, or in an imaginary small town from some unnamed state whose purpose is to be every small town. Such settings have no presence, no weight, no humidity, no purpose — they're background.

Copyright 2016 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

Brazil has been in the news a lot these days, but not for happy reasons. As it prepares to host the Olympics this August, the economy is tanking, the president is heading toward impeachment and the country has become ground zero for the Zika virus. All this is enough to make one recall Charles de Gaulle's famously dismissive remark, "Brazil is not a serious country."

Copyright 2016 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

Copyright 2016 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

Transcript

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

Back in the early 1960s, Philip Roth wrote a famous essay declaring that modern American life had gotten so delirious that it dwarfed fiction's ability to match it. Never did his words seem truer than in 1994, when O.J. Simpson — football god, mediocre movie actor and amiable pitchman for Hertz — was charged with butchering his wife, Nicole Brown Simpson, and her friend Ronald Goldman.

It's that time of the year when critics proudly unveil their "10 Best" lists. But every December, I find myself compiling a private list that's different and guiltier. I call it my Ghost List, and it's composed of all the terrific things I've read, watched or heard that, for reasons ranging from bad timing to laziness — yes, critics can be lazy — I didn't get around to praising on Fresh Air. This year, I've decided to rectify that by conjuring up six ghosts I wish I'd shared with you earlier.

The most intractable conflict in modern life is the battle between those who want society to be somehow pure — religiously, say, or racially — and those who see society as an ever-changing mix and actually prefer it that way. You could hardly find a more horrific example of this split than the Islamic State's terror attack on the proudly diverse city of Paris.

If you asked me the difference between modern American novels and modern French ones, I'd start by saying, the French ones are shorter.

Now, I realize this isn't universally true — Proust's In Search of Lost Time makes The Great Gatsby look as thin as a SIM card. But where our writers tend to fatten their books in hopes of the Great American Novel, France has a taste for elegant concision that runs from Gide through Camus to the 2014 Nobel Laureate, Patrick Modiano. French readers don't feel cheated if a book runs only 120 pages.

If you asked me the scariest place I've ever been, I would instantly say the Democratic Republic of Congo, formerly Zaire, whose cruel past has led to a disastrous present. I'll never forget lying in my hotel bed and hearing the nightly machine gun fire on the nearby streets. And this was during peacetime, not during Congo's two largely ignored wars of the 1990s and early 2000s that killed three times as many people as the current wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria combined.

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