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John Powers

Ever since Watergate, it's become commonplace to say that it's not the crime but the cover-up that takes you down. While this may be true of political or financial malfeasance, sometimes a crime is so grievous that covering it up might seem to be the smart move.

Back in the 1960s, the late, great film critic Pauline Kael wrote an influential essay called, "Trash, Art and the Movies." In it she championed the pleasure we take from movies with no artistic claims or pretensions. Among other things, Kael noted that, for many people, loving trash actually creates an appetite for art.

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DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST:

If you regularly watch police shows, you know that very few of them make you feel anything. For every Mare of Easttown, there are 20 fast-paced crime dramas — from CSI to Line of Duty — that pass off sensation as emotion.

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TERRY GROSS, HOST:

Copyright 2021 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

DAVE DAVIES, HOST:

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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TERRY GROSS, HOST:

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.

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DAVE DAVIES, HOST:

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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TERRY GROSS, HOST:

Copyright 2021 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

Copyright 2020 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

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Copyright 2020 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

Copyright 2021 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

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Copyright 2020 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

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