John Powers

The French adore their pop culture but they've never been the best at exporting it. Take the case of Arsène Lupin, the gentleman thief created by novelist Maurice Leblanc in 1905. Lupin's adventures spawned countless French books, movies and TV series, yet until a few months ago, most people I know had never even heard of him.

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If any story has been inescapable this century, it's surely immigration. The subject has spawned so many newscasts, books, movies and TV shows that it takes real imagination to find an invigorating angle on such a well-worn and difficult theme.

In one of his many hymns to drinking, Charles Bukowski, that great bard of the barstool, explained the eternal promise of drunkenness. "It [takes] away the obvious," he wrote, "and maybe if you could get away from the obvious often enough, you wouldn't become obvious yourself."

I was maybe 12 when I first saw The Third Man, the noir classic set in a post-World War II Vienna bursting with expressionist atmospherics and jaunty amorality. Ever since, I've been drawn to tales set in the wake of historical turmoil. You get juicy stories when individuals — and whole societies — must deal with the guilts, losses and compromises they'd rather not think about.

There are scads of talented spy novelists, but the ones who matter capture something essential about their historical moment. Back in the 1930s and '40s, Eric Ambler nailed the sense of ordinary people being caught up in the machinations of great totalitarian powers. A few decades later, John le Carré caught the personal and moral ambiguities of what John F. Kennedy dubbed the "long twilight struggle" of the Cold War.

The history of film is inseparable from immigration. Newcomers to America didn't merely pack the nickelodeons and movie palaces, they invented Hollywood.

Pop culture has a genius for transforming painful history into enjoyable entertainment. It can turn Nazi POW camps into the sitcom Hogan's Heroes. It can spin the murder of Israeli athletes into the thriller Munich. It can use the 1921 race massacre in Tulsa to kickstart the superhero saga Watchmen.

We're living in a golden age for women's writing. The wheels of literary justice are finally giving due process to great women writers whose work has been forgotten, ignored or insufficiently appreciated.

The latest revelation is Tove Ditlevsen, a Danish poet and fiction writer who I'd never even heard of until a few months ago. In her native Denmark, Ditlevsen, who killed herself in 1976, is a renowned author whose popularity survived the condescension of the male establishment.

During the Cold War, the movies we saw from the Eastern bloc were steeped in politics. They critiqued, more or less obliquely, life under communism. More than 30 years later, the Berlin Wall is long gone, but the films from Eastern Europe haven't lost their political edge. These days, they're critical of post-communist societies that remain harsh and oppressive.

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Although growing old is the most common of experiences, there are surprisingly few good films about old age. Maybe because there's no audience. The young are too busy being young to be interested in those with gray hair. And the people over 50 who I know shudder at the thought of watching comedies about cute bucket-listers or dramas where the aged spend their days grappling with disease, death and loss.

Like many people, I've spent the lockdown months looking for distractions. But even as I enjoyed watching Inspector Morse solve murder after murder in Oxford, what I want to highlight about 2020 are some books, films and TV shows that didn't simply distract me but delved into enduring questions of freedom, dignity and survival.

Square Haunting, by Francesca Wade (Penguin Random House)

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The poet W.H. Auden once wrote:

Private faces in public places

Are wiser and nicer

Than public faces in private places.

If any TV show bears that out, it's surely The Crown, the endlessly enticing Netflix drama about the reign of Queen Elizabeth II now entering its fourth season.

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Back when the Nazis were running roughshod over his homeland, Bertolt Brecht wrote a short poem that asked, "In the dark times, will there still be singing?" And it gave a reply: "Yes, there will be singing. About the dark times."

For nearly a century, spy stories were a male preserve, one dominated by the likes of James Bond, or — at the classier end — John le Carré. That has finally begun to change, especially on television.

The U.S. and Iran have had contentious relations ever since the Iranian Revolution in the late 1970s overthrowing the shah, and the subsequent hostage crisis — in which militants held 52 U.S. citizens for more than a year. Decades of scenes showing mobs burning the U.S. flag on the streets of Tehran have led many Americans to wonder why people in such a faraway country are so angry with the United States.

For an answer, you couldn't do better than to start with Coup 53, an exhilarating new historical documentary that unfolds with the pace and complexity of a thriller.

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The Russian poet Joseph Brodsky once said that prison is a lack of space counterbalanced by a surplus of time. Our current lockdown can't be compared to being locked up, but with so much surplus time on our hands, many of us are eager for stories that will help us escape endless thoughts of COVID-19. Here are three that did that for me:

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