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.

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

If the detective was the defining pop hero of the 20th century, in the 21st, it's the hacker. From The Matrix to The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo — not to mention Julian Assange and Edward Snowden — hackers have become inescapable.

After the Republicans held their lively first debate, you heard people saying what they always say nowadays — that our media-driven political discourse has become shallow and petty, even clownish. Hearing this, an innocent young person might believe that, not so long ago, America was a latter-day Athens in which political arguments were magnificent in their purity and eloquence.

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Back in college English, I was taught that it was foolish to think that fictional characters have any reality beyond the page. You shouldn't speculate about how many children Lady Macbeth had or what job Holden Caulfield wound up doing as a grown-up.

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In his famous essay, "The Simple Art of Murder," Raymond Chandler put down the classic British mystery, making fun of its arcane killings and hokey air of gentility. He preferred the tough American style and praised Dashiell Hammett for, as he put it, taking murder out of the vicar's rose garden and dropping it in the alley where it belonged.

It seems like there's always some writer you're supposed to be reading. These days, it's Karl Ove Knausgaard, the 46-year-old Norwegian whose six-volume, 3,600-page autobiographical novel, My Struggle, has become a literary sensation. Over the past couple of years, I haven't been able to go to a social gathering without someone asking what I thought of his work. When I've said that I hadn't read a word, they would look genuinely startled and tell me, "You have to."

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America is hooked on stories of redemption and rebirth, be it Cheryl Strayed rediscovering herself by hiking the Pacific Trail or the late David Carr pulling himself out of the crack-house and into The New York Times. We just love tales about healing.

The satisfying thing about TV crime shows is that they offer a sense of closure. The unsatisfying thing is how much of life they must leave out to do it. Like, history. Whether you're talking CSI or Sherlock, crime shows tend to take place in a weirdly hermetic universe where the characters may change — like in True Detective — yet the historical moment in which they live remains largely irrelevant background.

In the years following the invasion of Iraq, it became a truism that Americans simply didn't want to hear about the war — especially at the movies. While there were scads of films about Iraq, including Kathryn Bigelow's Oscar-winning The Hurt Locker, none was able to attract a big audience. Until American Sniper.

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There are lots of good filmmakers, but only a handful are always, unmistakably themselves. One of these is Werner Herzog, the 71-year-old German director who now lives in L.A. Herzog has done things nobody else would do for a film — like trying to tug a 350-ton steamship over a small mountain. This has made him notorious as a wild, love-him-or-hate-him monomaniac — an image he's been canny enough to milk.

Back in 1964, movie audiences were treated to three hit musicals. Two of them — Mary Poppins and My Fair Lady — won scads of Oscars. But it was the third that announced the future, and it did so from its opening chord.

What followed from that chord was what we call The Sixties.

Americans put a lot of stock in being likable. Pollsters take surveys of the president's likability. Test screenings check whether we like the characters in movies. And when a literary novelist like Claire Messud mocks the notion that fictional characters should be someone we'd like to be friends with, writers of popular fiction attack her for snootiness.

If the road movie has a home, it's surely the United States. After all, the settling of America was itself a kind of humongous road picture — all those wagons rolling across the new continent's spectacular vastness. And with our ceaseless love of movement, we became the first people to be transported — in every sense — by the automobile. Small wonder, then, that so many famous Hollywood films, from It Happened One Night to Thelma & Louise, are all about hitting the road.

Although there's no rigid dividing line, fans of the crime genre generally fall into two camps. There are those who prefer stories which, after titillating us with dark transgressions, end by restoring order — the show Law & Order is an aptly named example. And then there are those who prefer stories which, even after the mystery is solved, leave you swimming in the murk — think Chinatown. This is the male-dominated realm of noir.

Here's an old joke you may have heard: "How many Vietnam vets does it take to screw in a light bulb?" Answer: "You wouldn't know, you weren't there."

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This is FRESH AIR. Harold Ramis, who died earlier this week, was a writer, director and actor who played a key role in several of the most popular comedies of the last half-century. His list of credits includes "Animal House," "Caddyshack," "Meatballs," "Stripes," "Ghostbusters," and of course "Groundhog Day." Our critic-at-large John Powers is a fan and says there was more going on in Ramis' work than you might think.

When you're faced with something as heinous as the Holocaust, it's tempting to turn it into a simple morality play. This isn't to say one can't pass moral judgments — Hitler and his cohort were undeniably evil. But judging can become a form of lazy evasion, a way of closing the book on the tricky realities of failure, guilt and complicity.

The Danish television series Borgen about a female party leader who unexpectedly becomes Denmark's prime minister was a hit in its home country and in the U.K. It won numerous international prizes, and a cult following in the U.S. after its sporadic TV broadcasts — Stephen King named it his favorite piece of pop culture of 2012. The third and final season has just been released on DVD by MHz Networks, which also brought out seasons one and two.

A revolution is a bit like a writing a mystery novel. It's hard to start but even harder to come up with a satisfying ending.

They're still working on that in Egypt. Three years after the toppling of dictator Hosni Mubarak — the crowning moment of the Arab Spring — the army's running the country again; the elected president, Mohammed Morsi, has been arrested and charged with treason; the Muslim Brotherhood has been banned; and Tahrir Square's secular protesters are getting arrested. All this in the name of order and country.

There's an unforgettable moment in the diary of the great Polish writer Witold Gombrowicz. He's on the beach and he spots a beetle that's been blown on its back by the wind and now lies there helplessly, legs wiggling, unable to right itself. Gombrowicz saves it by turning it over. He sees another upside-down beetle, and turns it over. Then, another. Looking along the sand, he realizes that there are so many beetles he can't possibly save them all. Eventually, he gives up trying.

In The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, William Blake served up one of those mind-bending proverbs he's known for: "The road of excess leads," he wrote, "to the palace of wisdom." I thought about this line as I watched two terrific new movies that put Blake's words to the test.

Paolo Sorrentino's thrillingly good The Great Beauty tackles the idea head-on — it's an excessive film about excess. Sorrentino doesn't merely aim to update one of the most famous movies of all time (Fellini's portrait of decadent Rome, La Dolce Vita). He intends to better it.

Some writers you read and move on, but every now and then you read one whose work knocks you back against the wall. This happened to me with the great Italian novelist Elena Ferrante.

I first encountered her through her scalding 2002 novel, The Days Of Abandonment, whose narrator, Olga, may be the scariest jilted wife since Medea. What makes Olga scary is not what she does, but what she thinks and feels, and her ferocious precision in describing everything from lousy sexual encounters to her not-altogether-maternal feelings about her children.

Way back in the 1950s — before people tweeted snapshots of their privates or posted their hookup diaries online — it was considered inappropriate to talk too much about sex. The guardians of culture treated it as something better kept in the dark.

When Raymond Chandler first set Philip Marlowe walking down the mean streets of L.A., he couldn't have imagined that eventually every city, from ancient Athens to 21st century Bangkok, would have its own detective series. Of course, they're not all equally good.

If you're like me, you probably feel exhausted just thinking about how much cultural stuff is out there. A friend recently told me he was reading an acclaimed Hungarian novelist whose books I've never opened. "Please tell me he stinks," I begged, "so I don't have to read him."

"Actually, he's great," came the reply, and I groaned. This was something I didn't want to know.

If you asked me to name my favorite movie scene, I'd choose the one in Citizen Kane when newspaper owner Charles Foster Kane steals his rivals' best reporters, then throws a party in his own honor. As musicians literally sing his praises, we watch Kane dance with chorus girls wearing a look of radiant delight. It's a moment bursting with promise and cockiness and joie de vivre, made all the more exuberant because Kane's pleasure is so obviously shared by Welles himself.

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