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Highlights of recently consumed cultural products include

Regarding the Pain of Others, Susan Sontag (2004). Nothing particularly surprising here, but the utter sanity of the essay is a real tonic. Honest and deeply moral exploration of contemporary culture’s relationship to images of pain, war, torture, and so forth. The most compelling moment, to me, is the one where Sontag demolishes the conventional wisdom that our steady diet of such images must inevitably inure us to them. She won’t let us off the hook that easily. If we’re going to look, she demands that we also see.

As Is, William M. Hoffman (1985). Excellent play; anyone who calls it sentimental is too cool for their own good.

Standard Operating Procedure, Philip Gourevitch (2008). Quiet, sane, systematic account of the experiences of the notorious Abu Ghraib soldiers. Gourevitch is painstakingly objective, except for a few sections where he indulges in some Sontag-like theorizing about the nature of the documentary image, and a few others where he can’t help but call attention to some of the scandal’s more vertigo-inducing conundrums. Among the most pointed: Sabrina Harman went to prison for photographing the corpse of Mandel al-Jamadi, but the CIA interrogator Mark Swanner, in whose custody al-Jamadi died, has never been accused of a crime.

Death and the Maiden, Ariel Dorfman (1991). Inspiring walk along the high wire of literature above the abyss of propaganda.

The Theater and Its Double, Antonin Artaud (1938). Yum.

Baghdad ER, Jon Alpert and Matthew O’Neill (2006).

Alive Day Memories: Home from Iraq, Jon Alpert and Ellen Goosenberg Kent (2007). Some very moving stories from veterans about deadly days they lived through. Having Tony Soprano interview and offer encouragement is a little schmaltzy, though.

Complete Plays, Sarah Kane (2001). Terrifying and brilliant playwright. I don’t know why I’d never heard of her. It’s somehow sad when your Amazon recommendations get to know you this well.

Mad Men, Matthew Weiner (2008). This show is so sad. I love it.

Planet of the Apes, Franklin J. Schaffner (1968). Boring.

4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, Cristian Mungiu (2007). Sorry, hate to be a spoilsport, but this is a really turgid, sloppily directed, and indifferently acted movie, and I can’t help but think that all the international acclaim for it is actually somehow condescending and patronizing, like, “Oh, isn’t that sweet, a Romanian who thinks he can make a movie.” The film’s bleakness has some power, and it’s certainly a fine documentation of the insane Ceausescu regime, but it’s not great cinema.

About 6000 hours of the 2008 Summer Olympics. I heart Guo Jingjing.

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