Cultural Artifacts from July 2017

Hello, Internet! It’s been a while since I’ve posted and that’s because I’ve been so busy! I’m wrapping up some freelance projects and a few drafts at work, so I’m back for the moment. Here are some of my favorite picks from July that I wanted to share with you.

Twin Peaks 

twin peaks

Twin Peaks isn’t new. In fact, it’s been around since the nineties. Out of sheer curiosity, I decided to stream it on Netflix, since I’m a huge fan of quirky, creepy shows like The Twilight Zone and The X-Files. Unlike these two shows, Twin Peaks is built upon an involved storyline (as opposed to mostly one-off plots) which revolves around the murder of a very wholesome, all-American high school teenager named Laura Palmer. As the mystery unfolds, we learn that Laura died with some crazy secrets.

Twin Peaks is weird, but a good kind of weird. If you’re a very linear and structured thinker, it might not be the show for you. The director David Lunch really goes above and beyond to flesh out the ambiguities of reason, logic, and basic science. His narrative structure reminds me a little bit of that of French director Olivier Assayas (who worked with Kristen Stewart in Personal Shopper and The Clouds of Sils Maria). Basically, there is very little narrative structure and it’s all up to the viewer to put the pieces together. The characters are also wonderfully nuanced. Everyone in the show is a little morally ambiguous. The ambiguous Bobby Briggs has a sweet and caring side and the forthright Special Agent Cooper has a dark, reserved side.

I started watching the show with the impression that the female characters were relatively loosely drawn. They are to a certain extent. But in their looser characterization, I saw them as full characters. They’re not sassy and brazen or cripplingly withdrawn as female characters with “depth” often are. They’re multi-faceted. We see the ostensibly Shelley Johnson find agency out of an abusive relationship in a torrid affair. We see the brave and self-sufficient Norma stuck between two dysfunctional relationships.


bird man

Again, Birdman is another piece of cultural history that isn’t new. I quite enjoyed it, though. Michael Keaton depicts a washed-out celebrity who once played a superhero named Birdman. His fame is no ticket out of misery.  His relationship with his ex-wife, daughter, and girlfriend are fairly broken. The film excavates and blurs the lines between a multitude of dualities—the actor and the critic, life and death, and reality and the stage.

Emma Stone truly moved me in her performance as Keaton’s daughter. Usually, I am simply charmed by Stone. I didn’t really enjoy La La Land, but I loved her performance in this movie as a recovering drug addict. She is fierce, brazen, honest, and unlikeable at times. But she’s also soft, insightful, and wandering.

The Incredible Jessica James 

jessica james

These days, most of the culture that I consume is funneled through NPR, usually Fresh Air or Pop Culture Happy Hour. Recently, I listened to Jessica Williams’ interview with Terry Gross (who she calls Ter-Ter) and I just fell in love with her candid and funny personality. You might have heard of her from The Daily Show when she worked with Jon Stewart.

Anyway, she stars as the absolutely incandescent protagonist in The Incredible Jessica James, which is a fairly short original Netflix Film. A few critics have called the film “predictable.” I’m a sucker for romantic comedies, so I am usually complacent with predictability. It’s a romantic comedy with a modern romantic comedy-esque beginning, middle, and end. There’s a quirky meet cute, a tense road block, and the happy ending (or is there?). I was perfectly happy with Chris O’Dowd’s performance as Jessica’s love interest Boone, a pleasant English divorcee. The real star of the film is Jessica Williams, who also executive produced the film. She plays a 25-year old playwright who makes ends meet by teaching children’s theater at a nonprofit and taking up catering gigs.

The movie’s romance is fairly subdued and mundane, which, I think, is the point. The point is really about Jessica, who is struggling, yet also unflappable and rarely ever selfish (unlike, cough, certain characters in Love and Girls). Jessica is reeling over a failed relationship in which she lost a lot of herself. She’s in the process of reclaiming her identity. We see her focus intensely on her dreams as she stares at her wall of boilerplate rejection letters. Her process of self-discovery, though is not selfish and isolated. Jessica is absolutely joyful when it comes to teaching children theater, the craft she’s cherished for so long. One of the sweet spots of the films lies in her relationship with Shandra, one of her students who is a tremendously gifted writer. Where her connection with Boone is lackadaisical, her passion for pushing and nourishing Shandra’s gift is incredibly poignant.

A Tale for the Time Being (Ruth Ozeki)

ruth ozeki

I really enjoyed this book. It’s a novel about a writer named Ruth who discovers the diary of a Japanese American teenage girl named Nao. The girl’s father is an expat working as an engineer in Sunnyvale. When he loses his job, he moves his family to Japan, where Nao is constantly bullied at school. The book, begins, in fact, with her contemplating suicide. The novel alternates between Ruth sleuthing for clues about Nao’s fate and Nao narrating her jarring life in Japan as she faces bullying and watches her father atrophy into a depressive state.

I loved the conflation of different dualities in the novel. It’s always very much stays in the gray about the fate of its characters and never gives you clean, symmetrical cuts, if that makes sense. We see, for example, Ruth’s intellectual maturity while she is still in the unknown about Nao’s situation and Nao’s deep questions and confrontations with life despite her guilelessness and lack of experience in life. It’s not always a pretty picture of a young girl’s life or of life itself. It deals with horrific instances of bullying, the incredible probing capacities as well as limitations of technology, etc. But it always feels very tender to read and it always reminds the reader of the possibility of feeling and enjoying life while also realizing its nastiness and its ephemerality.


Published by Stacey Nguyen

Stacey is an entertainment and lifestyle writer with 4+ years of writing experience in journalism, marketing, and nonprofit communications. Her byline appears on websites such as The Balance, TripSavvy, HelloGiggles, PopSugar, HuluWatcher, StyleCaster, and The Bold Italic.

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