Harsh Lily

A friend challenged me to write a story based on a phrase from a random word generator. My phrase was “harsh lily.” This is the result.

It was the opinion of most students at the Barrhead Flower Arranging Institute that no flower arranger’s course of education was truly complete without fighting at least one duel. The faculty and registrar of the institute naturally disavowed this tradition in their public statements, and no mention of it was made in official recruitment materials or the quarterly journal of the alumni association. But among those who earned the school’s coveted Certificate of Good Taste, the most respected were those whose reputations for balance of colour and gracefulness of line came paired with a slew of bested adversaries in bouts of fisticuffs and gentlemanly swordplay. These masters were referred to by their peers with the honorific “Harsh Lily.”

The title was first applied to Emmanuel Arboros, now recognized as the father of the neoclassical school of Central Albertan Ikebana.1 For a generation, Arboros was virtually synonymous with the phrase; one could refer to the teachings of the great Harsh Lily, and others would simply understand you to mean Arboros. This remained the case until the arrival of Marigold Shen to Barrhead. 

Shen’s scores of acolytes regarded her as the enfant terrible that the Barrhead Institute needed to shake it out of a period of drab stoicism. Under the directorship of Arboros — then in the throes of his late-career foraging period — there was a serious vogue for weeds and twigs, which critics and audiences alike were beginning to find tiresome. Arboros had thus far fended off his most serious detractors with a well-honed bare-knuckle brawling technique. And while Shen’s fists had loosened many a tooth from its socket, she had begun to champion a brave new fighting style. Her most eminent biographer tells us that Shen’s primary innovation (aside from the reintroduction of the lilac into arrangements in the serialist style) was the use of a cutlass.2

It was ultimately this innovation that cost Arboros his mass esteem, and eventually his title at the Institute. As a mere student, without any taste certification to her name, Shen had the audacity to challenge the director of the school, and the skill to best him. Naturally, Arboros’s remaining defenders rallied around him, crying foul over Shen’s use of a non-regulation weapon in a fight on Institute property. But the rules of Harsh Lily duelling were as flexible as the principles of flower arrangement itself. And ultimately, no matter how many rematches the elderly Arboros demanded, he could not muster enough vigour to defeat such a young and ingenious opponent. The final Arboros/Shen duel even brought us the sad spectacle of Arboros attempting swordplay, a practice he had disdained since his days as an apprentice gardener.

By this time, even the most conservative voices in the floral theory community had abandoned Arboros. Irrelevant and alone, he had no choice but to resign the directorship.  After a brief and inconsequential stewardship by the minor classicist Rose Rosé, the directorship was passed on to Shen with great pomp and ceremony, almost immediately after her convocation.

It was around this time that the term “Harsh Lily” became democratized. Shen herself had taken up that sobriquet as a final blow to her defeated predecessor. In private, she encouraged her most gifted and violent students to do the same. They began to sign their letters with it, for example: “James Augustus Anthurium, Harsh Lily.” Anybody could bequeath the title on themselves, but it became a special honour at the Institute to have Director Shen herself refer to you by it. By most accounts, this is what precipitated the escalation of student violence that led to the massive proliferation of confirmed Harsh Lilies, and eventually to the outlawing of the Barrhead Institute by the king.

***

Much has been made of the ephemeral nature of the Harsh Lilies’ masterpieces.3 Photographs cannot accurately represent their effect in three-dimensional space. They cannot be preserved in resin or lacquer without losing something of their sublime delicacy. Even the meticulous reconstructions of past masterworks being made in secret by contemporary florists cannot be taken as representative of the originals — however specific the artist’s notes may have been — because nature simply does not produce the same configuration of petals, leaves and stem twice (prohibitively expensive genetic engineering notwithstanding).

My opinion is that the entire tradition of legendary violence practiced by the Harsh Lilies stems (pardon the pun) from this fact. The urge to leave a mark on the world is a basic human impulse. To move through the world with the divine gifts of an Arboros or a Shen and to know nonetheless that your artistic legacy will not outlive you is a perverse fortune indeed. But, by expressing their frustration at their own impotence through the medium of punching, they ironically secured their legacies. For who among us doesn’t know these stories today?


1 Bellis-Perennis, Nicole: A Tree Among Flowers: The Life of Emmanuel Arboros
Black, Dahlia: Marigold Shen: A Life in Bloom
3 To provide only a few of the most notable examples, Tulp, Aleta: The Withering Art; Frye, Flytrap: Sublime Decay; DeLion, Daniel: Compost.

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Omnibus (week of July. 8, 2018)

Ooh, look how pithy I am this week!

15 reviews.

EDIT: I wrote a short story. Check it out.

Movies

Late Spring — I’ve decided to rewatch some movies I first saw in my late teens and early twenties, during that phase everybody goes through in their undergraduate studies when you watch a bunch of arty, “important” movies. Let’s see if they hold up. I feel like they mostly will. This one sure does. To be fair, when I first saw this masterpiece by Yasujiro Ozu in a film studies survey course, I didn’t really get it. I do now. The story, minimalist as it is, is very moving. It’s about a young woman who’s trapped between her social obligation to marry and the responsibility she feels to stay home and care for her aging father. Setsuko Hara’s performance as the young woman, Noriko, is a thing of profound nuance — much more so than you’re given to believe at the start of the movie. At first, she presents as an image of genial femininity, always with a smile on her face. Ozu lures you into believing that you’re witnessing a two-dimensional idea of a woman, rather than an actual woman. And then he unleashes his mastery of interiority. Witness the scene in the Noh theatre, in which Noriko’s heightening anxiety over her father’s possible remarriage is conveyed without a word of dialogue. Much of this is thanks to Hara’s performance, which becomes progressively more melancholy as the film progresses. But a lot of it is simply in the way the scene is directed. A polite nod, another, a third, but awkwardly, and a sidelong glance. It gives you everything you need to know. But more than any of this, I just love Ozu’s eye for beautiful details. He does this thing where he transitions from scene to scene by just throwing in a few exterior shots of trees and houses with no people in them, and it gives this sense of stillness, even when the story starts to pick up tension. There’s a lot to be said for straightforwardly showing beautiful, mid-century Japanese homes and gardens on film. This is the sort of movie I want in my life in 2018. It provides a stretch of time where you’re not constantly connecting to all of the world’s problems; you’re just concerned with one very specific set of problems that play out very slowly. In spite of the story’s bittersweetness, the sensation of watching the movie is almost therapeutic. Pick of the week.

City of God — I’m amazed at how little of this movie I remembered. It’s good. I’m not sure it’s as good as I initially thought it was. There are details that rankle, like the character of Angelica, who is so important at the start of the film, disappearing completely about halfway through and never coming back. But it is a stylish and intensely watchable movie — it’s like something Quentin Tarantino would make if he had a firm grip on reality. I’m not much for gritty crime movies, generally. But if you’ve got a hankering for one — and you don’t mind several scenes of incredible brutality, including towards children — watch this.

Music

Let’s Eat Grandma: I’m All Ears — My first impression is a sense of general disappointment at their embrace of a producer-driven aesthetic, all dance beats and drops. But there is enough of their previously dominant aesthetic of DIY strangeness that I feel relatively confident that it’ll grow on me. The bells at the end of “Hot Pink” are reassuring, for one thing. So are the long tracks “Cool and Collected” and “Donnie Darko,” the latter of which being flat out prog. I need time with this, but it’ll be on the year-end list, never fear. If anybody can overcome my biases, it’s these two.

Podcasts

ZigZag: “Meet the Stable Geniuses” — This is fun, immediate, and high stakes. But it threatens to address things that go beyond its two hosts’ personal narratives, and that’s really what I’m in for. We’ll see if I rouse myself to hear more.

Song by Song: “I’ll Take New York” & “Telephone Call From Istanbul” — I really feel like they’re not addressing the irony enough. I’m all for taking artists at face value, but when presented with such an obvious piss take as “I’ll Take New York,” isn’t the only valid approach to examine who specifically the piss is being taken from? All talk of vibrato is irrelevant in the face of this. The “Telephone Call From Istanbul” episode sent me down a rabbit hole of listening to the first five tracks on They Might Be Giants’ Flood again and again. We’ll see if I ever get through the rest.

The Daily: “Trump Picks Brett Kavanaugh,” “Brett Kavanaugh’s Change of Heart” & Why Peter Strzok Wanted to Testify” — What a week of news. You can trust The Daily to at the very least bring you the best tape from the news cycle, i.e. Strzok’s testimony. But you can also trust them to analyze that tape better than any other show.

Arts and Ideas catch-up — I’ve been saving a bunch of these in my feed for ages, and mainlining them was satisfying. Seek out the recent episode that features Olivia Liang in particular — she wrote one of my favourite non-fiction books of the last several years (The Lonely City) and she’s just put out a novel. Got to read that.

Lend Me Your Ears: “King Lear” — Here is a podcast that dares to ask the question, what happens when a leader demands unequivocal loyalty and constant flattery from those who surround him? And it finds the answer to that question in Shakespeare’s most brutal play. Pick of the week.

You Must Remember This: “Olive Thomas” — Karina Longworth is good at finding sad, sad Hollywood stories, and she’s even better at telling them in a way that makes them reflect the world today. This series about the facts and fictions of Kenneth Anger’s Hollywood Babylon is shaping up to be the most direct proof-of-concept the show has had thus far. Not that it has anything to prove at this point.

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “Jeopardy!” “Sharp Objects and What’s Making Us Happy” — I’m really glad they’re committing to some themes that aren’t immediately contemporary. The Jeopardy! episode is great. No Sharp Objects for me, though.

Code Switch: “Word Up” — I always like this show when it’s about education. They’ve done a fair bit on that, and it’s always good. Just an observation.

Theory of Everything: “The Power of Magical Thinking” — I’ve liked this series about fake news and its historical precedents from the beginning, but now that there’s magic involved I’m ALL IN.

99% Invisible: “Interrobang” — What if question mark, but also exclamation point?! That is the question this episode poses, and comes up with an answer that has actually been used as a single punctuation mark in an American legal decision.

Criminal: catch-up — The highlight here is a two-parter about the Gilded Age starlet Evelyn Nesbit, which is worthy of You Must Remember This. High praise.

Imaginary Worlds: “Imaginary Deaths” — One of the small problems with this podcasts comes with the territory of talking with fans, which is that they have really dumb readings of their favourite shows. I’m all for the sort of emotional engagement that makes a reader mourn a fictional character. But when you get actually angry at J.K. Rowling for killing Fred Weasley, that’s a misunderstanding of how fiction works. Authors aren’t taking dictation from on high. They’re just making stuff up. When bits of a story rankle, those aren’t mistakes; they’re choices. Not necessarily good ones, but the idea that a writer is somehow betraying their own creation when they make a choice you don’t agree with is… come now, people.

Omnibus (week of July 1, 2018)

It’s been a year light on instant favourites. There are a couple in here, though.

19 reviews.

Movies

Won’t You Be My Neighbor? — Morgan Neville’s Mister Rogers documentary has already acquired a reputation for being a tearjerker. It is that. On the way home, I tried to figure out why. Nothing sad happens in it. True to its subject, nothing much happens in it at all. For me, it isn’t particularly nostalgic, either. I watched Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood as a child, but I was so small that I barely remember it. My memory of television only extends back to Bill Nye the Science Guy, or thereabouts. So what is it about this nice movie about a nice man that hits me and everybody else so hard in the feels? For me, it might have something to do with my Pavlovian response to the music of Michael Nyman. But more broadly I think it’s basically this: Neville sets up the beatifically decent Fred Rogers as an alternative to the cynicism and mean-spiritedness that dominates public discourse today, and that periodically dominated it for the entire thirty-year run of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. There’s no mention of Donald Trump or contemporary politics in the movie, but there doesn’t have to be: celebrating Rogers’ big-heartedness is an implicit, gentle act of resistance to an administration that has of late been particularly cruel to children. The closest the movie comes to naming and shaming its target is in a sequence about the first episode of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, in which King Friday XIII tries to build a border wall. But even that is more amusing than preachy. The most moving moments of the film are the places where television intersects with history. Rogers dared to address the assassination of Bobby Kennedy in the forum of children’s television in his first season. And he stayed the course, casually delivering civil rights messages and folksy explications of intensely sad subjects. His rapport with children who have suffered trauma, be it the death of a pet or a serious medical condition, is a wonder to behold. As moving as any of this, though, is Rogers’ simple respect for children’s intelligence and curiosity. His show was famously slow, famously lo-fi, and famously concerned with, as Linda Holmes put it on Pop Culture Happy Hour, teaching kids how oboes are made. Obviously, all of this is catnip to me. Fred Rogers was a defining figure in the history of public broadcasting because he steadfastly refused to simply give the people what they want. He strove for the higher ideal of Making People Better, which is what public broadcasters are supposed to do. It’s just as instructive to look back on Mister Rogers in the era of Facebook as it is to look back on him in the era of Trump. That said, Rogers’ attitude (and by extension, the film’s) towards other approaches to television can be needlessly dismissive. There is an uncomfortably small distance between Fred Rogers’ distaste for conventionally entertaining television and Mary Whitehouse’s boneheaded attempts to censor the BBC. There’s an uncomfortable parallel between Rogers’ anxiety that children would watch superhero cartoons and think they could actually fly and Whitehouse’s media illiterate claim that children would see a cliffhanger where Doctor Who’s head was held underwater and think that he’d be held that way for the entire week until the next episode started. But ultimately, Rogers’ straightforward attempts to bring out the best in his young viewers overrides all of this. His is a philosophy that has vacated much of public discourse, including in the media, and we need it back. Fred Rogers believed in people, particularly children, and wanted to help them be better. That is why Won’t You Be My Neighbor is the year’s most beautiful film. See it while it’s in theatres if you can. It is best experienced collectively. Pick of the week.

Live events

Converge & Neurosis live at the Commodore — I don’t really do metal these days. But when invited, I don’t mind taking in a show. This triple bill (counting openers Amenra, who were not a major part of the advertising) featured exclusively bands that I had never heard. Amenra didn’t make much of an impression on me. I see what they’re doing, which is basically leaving as many elements out of their music as possible. That includes colour in their presentation, which consists of evocative, serene video projections in black and white. They build whole songs with almost no harmonic motion. They are admirably committed to their minimalism, but it’s not for me. In retrospect, Converge would appear to be the odd ones out on this bill — a hugely charismatic hardcore band sandwiched between two uncompromising metal behemoths. That charisma is largely the reason why Converge was the band that left the strongest impression on me. Where Amenra and Neurosis would never do anything so gauche as acknowledge the audience, Converge lives for the crowd. (The crowd lives for them, also: the mosh pit that formed during their set could almost be described as a ‘fight.’) Their frontman, Jacob Bannon, never stops moving. He greets the audience between songs, offering rousing encouragement to anybody in the crowd who may be a survivor of depression or family dysfunction, or who’s just learning how to be a parent. There is an odd warmth to Converge. I feel strangely compelled to draw a parallel to their polar opposite, Belle and Sebastian, who I saw last week. Like Bannon, B&S’s frontman Stuart Murdoch also wears his triumph over circumstances proudly. After such an unlikely charm offensive, what a shock to encounter Neurosis. They are the bill’s resident metal royalty, and they present themselves accordingly. Their songs stretch to ten or twelve minutes apiece, and when one of them ends, the lights go out. Spacey noises fill the venue. And we only catch another glimpse of these Old Gods when their performance begins anew. We don’t see them tuning up. We don’t see them moving equipment around (well, we do a little, but we pretend we don’t). We only see them when they are playing their instruments. They don’t wave or bow at the end of the set. They don’t do encores. They establish a stark and total divide between us and them. And in doing so, they make themselves terrifying. Heavy metal is inscribed on their faces. You pay attention. Loudness isn’t the half of it. In spite of this, and probably a little bit because of it, I spent the first three quarters or so of Neurosis’s set feeling distinctly that Converge had won the night. I surprised myself with that feeling, since Neurosis’s music is much more my style. There’s more transparency in it — enough variety in the texture that you can hear detail. In case anybody had any doubt that they’re musical iconoclasts, the keyboardist has even mounted a set of bass pedals to the top rack of his rig. Still, it wasn’t until the final two songs of the set that they totally won me over. “Reach” is from their latest album, and reminds me of what I loved about Opeth when I first discovered them: every minute of this long song is packed with as many musical ideas as most bands would put on a whole album. And the set ender, the title track from their apparently legendary 1996 album Through Silver In Blood was so mercilessly heavy that it left at least a portion of the crowd completely helpless as to how to respond. The atmosphere after Neurosis disappeared from the stage was of dumbfounded shock. None of these bands make the sort of music that I have space for in my life these days. I doubt that I’ll spend a lot of time listening to their albums. But the show was a thing to behold.

Music

Belle and Sebastian: Write About Love — Deeply underrated. A gem on par with Dear Catastrophe Waitress, featuring several of the band’s best tracks — especially “I Didn’t See It Coming,” which is a top five classic Belle and Sebastian song. Other standouts include “I Want the World to Stop,” “I Can See Your Future,” and the slightly Phil Spectory title track. Title aside, even “Calculating Bimbo” has a winning melody.

Belle and Sebastian: If You’re Feeling Sinister: Live at the Barbican — I feel weird saying this is better than the studio version. I came away from last week’s concert with a new appreciation for the early B&S material, and a general sense that it isn’t served well by the recordings it’s featured on. Ergo, this live album. It’s got a lot more energy than its studio counterpart, but Stuart still doesn’t quite sound like his energetic contemporary self. This is still 13 years ago, after all. People change. Anyway, I really like this. If You’re Feeling Sinister has been the hardest Belle and Sebastian album to get into for me, but this helps.

Comedy

Hannah Gadsby: Nanette — The premise of this is that Gadsby is leaving comedy and wrote this show to explain why. In practice, she effectively quits comedy halfway through the show. It is a deeply intelligent deconstruction of comedy. Gadsby points out the ways in which it differs from conventional storytelling, the way it prizes the release of tension over all other concerns, and the way it has been used as a tool of oppression as much as a vehicle for protest. There’s also a very resonant thread about art history in this, which ought to force anybody who has recently read E.H. Gombrich’s The Story of Art, just for example, to reconsider some things.

Games

West of Loathing — For a brief time in high school, I was an enthusiastic player of a browser game called Kingdom of Loathing. Its intensely lo-fi aesthetic of stick figures moving through a world that looks like a 10-year-old’s Hilroy scribbler drew me in immediately, and the mercilessly consistent comic writing kept me there until I moved on to the next thing. It’s a type of gaming experience I wouldn’t have again until Fallen London, years later. Now, just like Fallen London has its one-player downloadable offshoot Sunless Sea, KoL has West of Loathing: a point-and-click adventure that takes its parent game’s pencil-drawn aesthetic and builds a Western out of it. It’s a total delight, and it’s been filling my free evenings for a couple weeks now. Here is a single moment that I think encapsulates the delightfulness of this game: at one point you find a pile of boards and nails, and you’re informed that you could probably build a crate out of these things. If you do, the game’s like “hey, it’s a crate!” And when you open it there are items inside. Brilliant. Aside from its wonderful comic writing, West of Loathing also plays well as a tribute to adventure games past and present. There’s a subplot involving alien technology where the puzzles play like something from Riven (but easier), and there is a culture of creepy clowns that could come straight from Sunless Sea. Both of these plot threads are semi-Lovecraftian in the way that all indie games are now. But that’s one genre among many that this game is juggling. I loved this. If you want to play a game that will make you smile, I highly recommend it.

Podcasts

Constellations catch-up — I’m all for sound art and experimental radio. I’m so for it that I’m frequently exhausted by mainstream podcasting. (Yes, there is such a thing as mainstream podcasting, for you terrestrial radio listeners out there.) But a lot of what I heard in the last spate of episodes from this podcast left me unmoved. They seemed to convey little except a cultivated aesthetic of artsiness. When the only thing to help you see the beauty in a piece is an interview with the artist after the fact, there’s a problem. But listening to this is worth it for exceptions like Meira Asher’s “refuse: military.01” which is a marvellous commentary on Israeli compulsory military service. It’s the perfect example of why it’s important to search outside the big podcast networks and public radio behemoths for good radio.

Bullseye: “George Clinton & Cristela Alonzo” — This is most worthwhile for the George Clinton interview, which is a real trip. He’s a genius that ought to be upheld more as one of the foundational figures in ‘70s popular music. He’s also very funny.

The Daily: “Assigning Blame in the Opioid Epidemic,” “How the Opioid Crisis Started” & “One Family’s Reunification Story” — The two opioid epidemic episodes are great and infuriating, particularly the first. The reunification story is very moving, and everybody involved is admirably committed to making it clear that this is the exception to the rule. It can be tempting to think of a story like this as the tail end of a narrative: children and parents were separated, and then because we heard the story of one reunification, it must be all over. You can’t listen to this story and feel that way, which makes it very responsible journalism, in my view.

In the Dark: “The End” — By necessity, this is an open ending. But it’s a good summation of a categorically effective investigation. I have nothing more to say about this season than I’ve already said. Suffice it to say it’s one of the best pieces of investigative journalism I’ve encountered all year.

The World According to Sound catch-up — The episode of this show that focuses on the first few minutes of the show that would become This American Life is fascinating. If there’s any takeaway from the “Sound Audio” season thus far, it’s that there are an infinite number of ways to make radio, and that shockingly few of them are represented in mainstream public radio and podcasting. TAL is where the aesthetic that has taken over those spheres came from, but it’s interesting to look back on how radical it was in its infancy.

You Must Remember This: “D.W. Griffith, the Gish Sisters and the origin of ‘Hollywood Babylon’” — I have been waiting for this for what feels like years, even though I didn’t know what I was waiting for. As it turns out, I think this season has the potential to be one of Karina Longworth’s best. The premise is outstanding: take one of the most influential books in the history of filmmaking, Kenneth Anger’s Hollywood Babylon, and fact check it. In the process, we’ll inevitably cross paths with some of the most notable characters in Hollywood history. This first episode about D.W. Griffith and the Gish sisters offers proof-of-concept for that. It’s well known that Griffith was blithely racist, but this episode makes it clear that he was also a creep. Nice.

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “The Mister Rogers Documentary ‘Won’t You Be My Neighbor’” & “Ant-Man And The Wasp, Plus What’s Making Us Happy” — An accurate appraisal of Won’t You Be My Neighbor, and further permission to sit out the new Ant-Man.

Code Switch: “Code Switch’s Summer Vacation” — A light episode, for once, but a good one.

Fresh Air: “The State Of The Supreme Court” — It is not a happy state.

Out of the Blocks: “A Conversation with Mayor Catherine Pugh” — This is weird. The mayor of Baltimore is a fan of this podcast, so she interviewed the host in public. The result is a conversation between a journalist and a politician where it feels like the politician is not taking a risk. I know that’s not the point of this interview, and Out of the Blocks isn’t that kind of show, but that power dynamic implicitly makes me uneasy. Anyway, the mayor is correct to observe that Out of the Blocks is excellent.

Trump Con Law: “Justice Kennedy” — A good breakdown of why Kennedy’s retirement has thrown everything into disarray — but it’s also a bit less useful than most other episodes of this show, because everybody else is covering this too.

The Memory Palace: “Patience” — Nate DiMeo is very good at finding stories from history that resonate with the news cycle. This one is about a slave who was separated from her child by ruthless slave traders. It is devastating, and it does not resolve neatly. Listen to it. Pick of the week.

99% Invisible: “Roman Mars on ZigZag” — This is the fourth episode of a serialized story, but it’s the first to appear on a show that I listen to regularly. It reminds me of StartUp season one, because it is straightforwardly similar to that — both are stories of people trying to start podcasting companies. I think I’ll listen from the beginning, though I’m not 100% sure I’m sold. It depends on how much talking about blockchain there is.

Omnibus (week of June 24, 2018)

This contains one of my longest reviews ever, though a bunch of it is just a list of paintings, sculptures, woodcuts, lithographs, cathedral facades and interiors, ornate candlesticks etc. It also contains some of my shortest reviews ever because reviewing podcasts can be tedious. It also contains a lot of Belle and Sebastian. Enjoy.

25 reviews.

Music

Belle and Sebastian: Dear Catastrophe Waitress — In the past few weeks I’ve stumbled upon a couple things with unexpected connections to Yes’s unexpected commercial breakthrough 90125. It is not a particularly good album, so I’ll likely not heed the signs that are telling me to revisit it. But the two Trevors who made that album into a Yes album like no other (Rabin, a.k.a. the composer of the Hot Rod score, and Horn, a.k.a. half of the Buggles and the producer of this Belle and Sebastian album) are admirable people in their own right. This is my first listen through the full album, but I’d heard “I’m a Cuckoo” before. Trevor Horn’s influence on it was less obvious to me when I’d only heard The Life Pursuit. But now that I know what this band sounded like before they committed to actually sounding good, I get it. This is far from the high-gloss production we identify with Horn, i.e. 90125 and the first Frankie Goes to Hollywood album. But by B&S standards, it’s basically Purple Rain. It’s a great record. My favourites are probably “Step Into My Office, Baby” and “Lord Anthony,” but this will doubtless be subject to much reassessment.

Belle and Sebastian: The Boy With the Arab Strap — I’ll continue my odd habit of referencing Yes in Belle and Sebastian reviews, because this reminds me of Fragile in a very specific way. For Yes, that album was undeniably a step forward — the first to feature their classic lineup, and the home of several of their most accomplished tracks. It also contained five tracks designed to feature the band’s individual members, which are slight by design and hold the album back from unqualified masterpiece status. The album that had preceded it, The Yes Album, was a huge step forward in itself: the first album to consist entirely of originals, and the one that cemented them as critical favourites. Looking back on the two albums, the earlier one is the more consistent of the two. But nothing on it quite has the sublime confidence of “Roundabout” or “Heart of the Sunrise” from Fragile. I think this comparison is roughly analogous to If You’re Feeling Sinister and The Boy With The Arab Strap. The latter demonstrates a real advancement over the former in terms of the band’s performance and willingness to try out new instrumentation. “Sleep the Clock Around” is an album highlight for that reason: its synths and horns lend it the euphoric feel of much later Belle and Sebastian songs, like “We Are the Sleepyheads.” Even the Rhodes piano of the title track (which I only now realize the Decemberists totally ripped off in “Days of Elaine”) is a nice touch. But is anybody really going to think back on an album with tracks like “Chickfactor” and “A Space Boy Dream” as an unmitigated classic? Basically, I like this album a lot and its best songs are classics. But its restless need to try things makes it patchy in a way that its esteemed predecessor is not.

Belle and Sebastian: Tigermilk — Last week I expressed that I was slightly underwhelmed by If You’re Feeling Sinister, but I did think it was more than just nostalgia that made that album so revered. Now I’m reconsidering the role nostalgia might play. Because Tigermilk — Belle and Sebastian’s debut, made the same year as Sinister, first pressed on only 1,000 vinyl records, containing the first few recordings of songs from Stuart Murdoch’s massive songwriting backlog from his years with chronic fatigue, and presumably the ones in which he was most confident — is outstanding. It’s confident, it has hooks all over, Murdoch’s voice is strong, and it’s even fairly well recorded, which is not something anybody’s likely to say about If You’re Feeling Sinister, whatever its virtues. But only one thousand people at maximum heard it when it was released. Most people didn’t hear it until it was reissued in 1999, post-Arab Strap, at which point If You’re Feeling Sinister had already been enshrined as, if not a classic, then at least the Moment Of Revelation for the first wave of Belle and Sebastian fans. It strikes me that this album is similar enough to Sinister, and good enough on its own merits, that had it received wider distribution on its first release it might have had the same impact its successor did. That calculus reduces Sinister slightly, suggesting that the biggest thing it has going for it is the fact that it was the indie community’s first contact with the band. Don’t get me wrong, I really like If You’re Feeling Sinister, and it’s grown on me the couple more times I’ve listened to it since last week. But I love Tigermilk. “We Rule the School” is the most beautiful and delicate thing I’ve heard of theirs from before “Dress Up In You.” There are hints of the sonic variety I had assumed were first introduced on The Boy With the Arab Strap. The synth lead on “I Could Be Dreaming” is irresistable. And “The State I’m In” is delightfully funny and vulnerable at once. The Life Pursuit is still my favourite. After all, that was my first point of contact. But this is a close second.

Belle and Sebastian: How to Solve Our Human Problems — The last phase in my cramming for the concert. This is a compiled version of their three EPs released a few months back. It’s fine. There are some standouts, like the single “We Were Beautiful,” the leadoff to the first record, “Sweet Dew Lee,” and the Sarah Martin feature “Poor Boy.” But there’s a fair bit of chaff alongside it. Worth a listen, but only a few moments are worth returning to.

Live events

Belle and Sebastian live at the Vogue — What you don’t expect from a Belle and Sebastian concert, if you’ve never been to one and you’ve been marinating in their lo-fi early work for a week, is relentless energy. But you get it. This band, and particularly Stuart Murdoch, has mastered the fine balance of spreading catharsis without forcing it. There is no desperation in Belle and Sebastian — they aren’t Arcade Fire. Murdoch’s magnetism comes from the sense that he’s proven all he needs to prove to himself, and that it was a hard-won victory. It’s a confidence that radiates outwards to the rest of the band, with the effect that you can’t help but love them all. This was a great show. Musically, the band has the tightness of their post-Catastrophe Waitress records, and none of the sloppiness of their early ones. Excellent as those early records are, at least conceptually, nobody should mistake this for a loss. Many fans appreciate the sincerity of B&S’s lo-fi era — but they’re mistaking sincerity for an aesthetic. Nothing puts the lie to this notion like hearing the far more experienced modern iteration of the band play the snot out of “Judy and the Dream of Horses.” Songs from that era struck me as being better live — but only because they’re a better band now. Many of the highlights were early songs: a delicate reading of “We Rule the School,” a rollicking “Boy with the Arab Strap,” and “Me and the Major” transformed into a rousing encore. All of these hit harder in the room than on record. That’s less true of the later material, but a live performance only solidifies the brilliance of “I’m a Cuckoo,” “Sukie in the Graveyard” and especially “I Didn’t See It Coming.” Music aside, Murdoch also dispensed relationship advice and love hearts (one package of which he tossed cleanly into the balcony, which shouldn’t have been impressive but kind of was). Stevie Jackson wore a suit and was the spitting image of a British Invasion lead guitarist. Sarah Martin played a dozen instruments. A huge screen played wistful black and white video, which in the haze of the coloured lights became an animated rendition of the band’s album covers. The crowd was all about it. I am notoriously unmoved by most rock shows. But I left this show liking Belle and Sebastian a lot more than when I went in. Pick of the week.

KNOWER live at the Imperial — This concert preceded Belle and Sebastian in my week, but I’m reviewing it after. The contrast between these two concerts in a single week is not lost on me. The fellow nerd I saw both shows with summed it up rather well by pointing out that Louis Cole and Genevieve Artadi make music that is as counterintuitive as Stuart Murdoch’s is natural. Their melodies go off in every direction at once, they use complicated jazz school chords I don’t even understand, and they can change tempos on a dime. And yet it still all holds together. This was one of the few concerts I’ve been to by a group of professional musicians where it genuinely felt like anything could happen. This is the line that jazz fans use to explain the appeal of that music, and indeed this was a Vancouver Jazz Festival event. But this isn’t that. (Indeed, it’s not jazz — I’ll spare you my explication of the emerging genre of “meme funk” for now, but expect it in the medium-near future.) This is ludicrous dancing and drumstick throwing and lyrics about pizza. And I highly doubt that anybody else at Jazz Fest will be dressed as poorly. Cole was sporting a black t-shirt tucked into tiger-striped pajama pants and dark shades. It’s a look. Point is, KNOWER’s show is definitely not anybody else’s show. They are compulsively unpredictable. The most illustrative moment in the show came when Louis Cole called out to the audience to see if his cousin was still around (he’s got family here, shout out to the Coles). Turns out, Cole’s cousin is also an excellent drummer. When he joined the band onstage, the band started playing a song he hadn’t heard before. The premise of this song is that the band only plays for a few bars at a time before the drummer takes a solo. He goes wildly off in a direction that has nothing to do with the song itself, then counts the band back in and we’re back to where we started. So it would have presumably continued for several iterations, but in this case, the two Coles switched out on the drum stool every time the band started up again. And it worked. This kind of logistical fast-and-looseness only works for groups of supremely confident musicians. And they all are — the three touring band members included. Fun shit.

Literature, etc.

E.H. Gombrich: The Story of Art — Two flights and a quiet evening later, I know 99% more about art than before. As a person with very little visual imagination, who tends not to pay much attention to what’s happening in front of my eyes, this book made me see differently. Now I feel like I can go to a gallery and just enjoy the pictures, rather than spend 90% of my time reading the curatorial text. I’ve even started to look at photographs differently, making careful note of the compositions in news photos, and the expressions on people’s faces. (Check out the sneer on the woman near the centre of this story’s top photo. Or the play of light in this one.) This in turn has given me a greater appreciation of the work of painters who conceive of and craft scenes like this from scratch, or nearly. It seems to me that the biggest barrier to entry for appreciating works by painters like Vermeer and Rembrandt is how accustomed we are to seeing similar images in photographs. At the time, it must have seemed like magic for a painter to conceive of a scene like this one, with all of its personalities and reactions conveyed as if they’re of a piece with each other. Nowadays it takes a jolt of realization to fully recognize that a painting like this is the construction of a single mind. The Story of Art’s greatest asset is providing that jolt, without ever resorting to didacticism. This isn’t a book about arguments and value judgements. It is what it says it is: a story. Specifically, it’s the story of dozens of generations of artists trying to solve particular problems, like how best to represent nature in art, or how to convey depth in two dimensions. Gombrich’s central contention is that every artist, whether they know it or not, works inside a set of parameters that pose problems that need to be overcome. And if the artist is a great artist, we admire the resulting work of art for its beauty without even thinking about the reasons the artist had for making the choices they did. If Brian Eno could be bothered to write a survey of the history of art, it might not be so unlike this. Some of the problems solved are things you wouldn’t even think of as problems until you try to imagine a world where they hadn’t been solved. Here’s a crazy insight: think of an Egyptian relief carving. You know the ones I’m talking about — the ones where the head is in profile but the body is front on. You know why they look like that? It’s because the Egyptians hadn’t yet thought through the idea of conveying things as they saw them. Instead, they conveyed them as they thought about them. You can show more of a thing if you show it from different angles simultaneously. These images even have two left feet for this same reason. This is by no means a value judgement. In fact, the 20th century found Picasso doing much the same thing deliberately. One more example: think about what it would have been like to see a painting in perspective for the first time. You’ve never seen depth represented on a flat surface before, and suddenly there it is. Must have been like seeing Avatar. If you’re thinking about reading this book but wondering whether you might be better served by reading something more recent — I kind of can’t help you, because I don’t know any more recent books. But I can counsel you thus: Gombrich was clear-headed and sceptical enough to distrust certain fashions of his age that have come and gone, i.e. that creativity and madness are somehow intertwined. Even if this scepticism also made him discount Warhol, Rauschenberg and the other pop artists whose works still seem penetrating to us today, it seems to me a fair tradeoff. Gombrich’s outlook makes this book far less of its time than it might be. Of course, it is parochial in the way that all mainstream histories of creative endeavour have been until quite recently: people of colour are underrepresented save for the chapters on prehistoric art, which to Gombrich’s credit he clearly admires. And women are almost entirely absent — though even a critic writing in 1950 couldn’t ignore the stunning works of Käthe Kollwitz. The histories of these artists are something I’ll need to supplement my reading to learn. Gombrich saves his best writing for last. The final chapter of his original book (which, in my 16th edition is followed by an additional chapter on developments since then) sums up Gombrich’s idea that art tends to form around a central core of requirement, either from a patron or a flummoxing artistic problem: “We know that in the more distant past all works of art gained shape round such a vital core. It was the community which set the artists their tasks — be it the making of ritual masks or the building of cathedrals, the painting of portraits or the illustration of books. It matters comparatively little whether we happen to be in sympathy with all these tasks or not; one need not approve of bison hunting by magic, or the glorification of criminal wars or the ostentation of wealth and power to admire the works of art which were once created to serve such ends. The pearl completely covers the core.” Gombrich, circa 1950 is concerned about the fact that artists now exist for the sole purpose of creating “art with a capital A.” Maybe it’s our fault we don’t understand modern art: “If we do not ask them to do anything in particular, what right have we to blame them if their work appears to be obscure and aimless?” The point is: critics are important. Now that we no longer live in a world that accepts portraiture of the wealthy as great art for our times, there need to be people in the public who hold artists to specific standards. Today, this is a more resonant point than ever. Alex Ross wrote about it in the New Yorker only last year. So, read The Story of Art. You will enjoy yourself, and you will not necessarily even feel that you’re living in the past. A postscript: this is a dense book, and I feel the need to look through it again. So here, for your Googling pleasure, is a list of some of my favourite works featured in Gombrich’s book, upon a quick skim through. I can’t be bothered to link them. There’s only so much work I’m willing to do for y’all. Firstly, I love all of Gombrich’s tailpieces to his chapters, which are all images of artists at work that Gombrich does not comment on at all. It’s a nice touch. Here are more favourites, in order of appearance, with occasional notes: Caravaggio, Saint Matthew (both versions); Pablo Picasso, Cockerel; 19th century Haida chieftain’s house; Inuit dance mask from Alaska; Tutankhamun and his wife (c. 1330 BC); Hagesandros, Athenodoros and Polydoros of Rhodes, Laocoön and his sons (a favourite among favourites; enormously powerful; I desperately want to see it in person); Trojan’s Column (Google close-ups of this; crazily detailed); Court of Lions, Grenada; Mu Yüan, Landscape in moonlight; Liu Ts’ai, Three fishes; Saint Matthew (830 AD; artist unknown, but oh my god it’s practically Van Gogh 100 years early); the Gloucester Candlestick; Amiens Cathedral; Giotto, The Mourning of Christ; Virgin and Child (silver gilt statue, 1339); Paul and Jean de Limbourg, May; Masaccio, Holy Trinity with the Virgin, St. John and donors (the origin point of perspective); Donatello, The Feast of Herod; Jan van Eyck, The Ghent altarpiece; Jan van Eyck, The betrothal of the Arnolfini (there’s a mirror at the back of the painting, in which the painter paints himself painting; this is one of those decisions that seems almost unbearably clever when you think that he’d never seen a photograph); Benozzo Gozzoli, The Journey of the Magi to Bethlehem (one thing I didn’t expect is how colourful pre-Renaissance art can be); Leonardo da Vinci, anatomical studies (not so much for their aesthetic virtues as for their insight into one of the most obsessively probing minds of all time); Leonardo da Vinci, The Last Supper (it holds up); Leonardo da Vinci, Mona Lisa (so does this); Michelangelo, Sistine Chapel ceiling (quite possibly the greatest work of art ever made; there is much to be said for the intersection of skill and spectacle); Correggio, The Holy Night (the most convincing faces in the book); Correggio, The Assumption of the Virgin; Albrecht Dürer, St. Michael’s fight against the dragon (some of these figures could come straight from comics); Grünewald, The Resurrection (Blake before Blake); Albrecht Altdorfer, Landscape (better than landscapes from the heyday of landscapes); Hieronymus Bosch, Paradise and Hell; Federico Zuccaro, window of the Palazzo Zuccari (this one I will link because it’s bonkers for 1592); Giambologna, Mercury; El Greco, The opening of the Fifth Seal of the Apocalypse (the most shockingly modern thing from before the 19th century); Pieter Bruegel the Elder, Peasant Wedding; Anthony van Dyck, Charles I of England (so dashing); Diego Valázquez, Las Meninas (so meta; so Borges); Frans Hals, Pieter van den Broecke (maybe my favourite portrait in the book; very loveable); Rembrandt van Rijn, Self-portrait (c. 1655-8; probably objectively better than the previous portrait, but I still like it a little less); Jan Steen, The christening feast; Jan Vermeer, The kitchen maid; Gian Lorenzo Bernini, The Ecstasy of St. Teresa; Melk monastery; Francisco Goya, The giant; William Blake, The ancient of days; Joseph Mallord William Turner, Steamer in a snowstorm (basically impressionism); John Constable, The haywain; Claude Monet, Gare St-Lazare; Katsushika Hokusai, Mount Fuji seen behind a cistern; Victor Horta, Hotel Tassel; Vincent van Gogh, Cornfield with cypresses; Ferdinand Hodler, Lake Thun; Frank Lloyd Wright, 540 Fairoaks Avenue; Käthe Kollwitz, Need; Paul Klee, A tiny tale of a tiny dwarf; Piet Mondrian, Composition with red, black, blue, yellow and grey; Marc Chagall, The cellist; Grant Wood, Spring turning; René Magritte, Attempting the impossible; Salvador Dali, Apparition of face and fruit-bowl on a beach; Jackson Pollock, One (number 31, 1950); Zoltan Kemeny, Fluctuations; Giorgio Morandi, Still life (1960); Henri Cartier-Bresson, Aquila degli Abruzzi; David Hockney, My mother, Bradford, Yorkshire, 4th May, 1982, terracotta army.

Stephen Rodrick: “The Trouble with Johnny Depp” — A showbiz tale for the ages. This story of how Hollywood’s most bankable star went broke is worth a read even if you’re not interested in him. Rodrick at one point compares Depp to Elvis, which is very apt. Johnny Depp, circa 2017, comes off here like a man child with access to vast riches and no sense of personal responsibility. This piece also casts Depp’s domestic abuse allegations in a larger context of increasingly troubling behaviour.

Podcasts

On the Media: “Chaos Agents,” “Polite Oppression” & “The Worst Thing We’ve Ever Done” — The first two are standard episodes, and good ones. But “The Worst Thing We’ve Ever Done” is a feature episode with no specific time hook, and those are often the best episodes of this show. This one is about America’s insistence on rewriting history and not confronting the reality and aftermath of slavery. The comparison between this problem and Germany’s total acknowledgement of the Holocaust has been made before, but maybe never as deeply as here. For one thing, this episode brings up the fact that the Allies dictated the narrative for Germany going forward — an example of history being written correctly by the winners. But the rest of the episode points out that this is a coincidence of history, and it isn’t always like that.

Reply All: “An Ad for the Worst Day of Your Life” — Alex Goldman helps a guy whose wife died tragically take down the clickbaity ads that take advantage of his story. In the process, he elucidates the shady (but very profitable) world of those ad boxes with terrible stories in them. It’s good.

Decoder Ring: “Clown Panic” — Willa Paskin is a welcome addition to the pop culture podcast world. This show is turning out to be as much about analysis as storytelling, and that is good. This is the story of how scary clowns became more ubiquitous than happy clowns and what that says about us.

Song by Song: “Wire Stripped Special” & “Straight to the Top” — Sometimes this show is a bit dumb and I wonder why I listen to it. The idea that anybody could ever listen to “Straight to the Top” and see it as anything other than a complete piss take is ludicrous to me. Oh well.

Theory of Everything: “It is happening again” — More stories of fictional artists from Benjamen Walker. No complaints.

99% Invisible: “Post-Narco Urbanism” & “Right to Roam” — Two stories from two continents that aren’t North America. Nice. The Latino USA collaboration “Post-Narco Urbanism” is especially good, outlining how urban planning played a role in rehabilitating a Colombian neighborhood after the fall of Pablo Escobar’s cartel.

In the Dark: “Discovery” — This season of In the Dark has something that the first season of Serial had that no true crime podcast I’ve heard since (including Serial season two and In the Dark season one) has had, which is the occasional incursion of innocuous but surreal investigative side streets. In this episode, the team speaks to more than six different men named Willie James Hemphill, searching for one person with that name who might be connected with the case. It’s like something Peter Greenaway would write. I’m not sure if this or Caliphate is my favourite podcast of the year so far, but it’s a two-show race.

Ear Hustle: “So Long” — Stories of people getting out of prison. It takes a lot of planning. Imagine dating. This is really good.

Slow Burn: “What If Nixon Had Been Good At Football?” & “Live in New York” — The first is a crossover with Mike Pesca’s new sports podcast Upon Further Review, which sounds good but not good enough to impel me to listen to multiple episodes of a sports podcast. The live episode doesn’t really add much to the series. I am looking forward to season two, though. My lack of enthusiasm for these specific episodes notwithstanding, Slate’s killing it these days. This has been followed by Decoder Ring and Lend Me Your Ears, both of which I love. Good work, Slate.

Code Switch: “Immigration Nation” — This is a long-term look back on the times when anti-immigration fervor reached similar heights as it has in America today. History. It’s useful.

The Truth: “The Jesse Eisenberg Effect” — Starring the real Jesse Eisenberg! As the fake Jesse Eisenberg. This is the best episode of The Truth I’ve ever heard, and it’s basically an episode of Upon Further Review. It’s the fully dramatized, and hugely exaggerated, story of how Jesse Eisenberg’s letter to his favourite basketball player ruined the world. I love it. Pick of the week.

We Came to Win: “How Soccer Made It in America” — Another underdog story, and a perfectly good one. But I think I’m done with this show now.

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “The Songs of Summer” — An NPR Music takeover featuring a great many songs that I cannot rightly say I care about. I dunno. Some years I’m in new music mode. Some years I’m not. 2018 isn’t a new music year.

Home of the Brave: “Lick the Crickets by Larry Massett,” “Rumble Strip: It’s a Podcast” & “End of Season One: A Walk On the Beach” — “Lick the Crickets” is bonkers and I don’t understand it, nor do I feel the need to. I need more of this Larry Massett fellow in my life. Rumble Strip isn’t for me. But the story Scott Carrier replays to finish off his “first season” of Home of the Brave is beautiful. Just a conversation with an old friend as they walk along the beach. Simple. It’s the sort of thing people should do more of.

Trump Con Law: “Taking the Fifth” — This ties the Hollywood blacklist to the Russia campaign — but only conceptually! Though, I really would like to hear that conspiracy theory. Anyway, it’s really good.

Bullseye: “Special: The Wire!” — I don’t know if I’ve ever heard an interview with Wendell Pierce before, but that man is interesting. This whole episode is great and made me want to watch The Wire again. Wherever will I find the time.

StartUp: “Arlan Hamilton” episodes 1 & 2 — I’ll always give a new season of StartUp a shot. But as interesting as Arlan Hamilton is, this show has become Gimlet’s “business podcast.” It’s no longer about the real-time tribulations of startup founders who may or may not succeed, like it was in its epochal first season and its hugely underrated second. For now, I’m out.

Omnibus (week of June 17, 2018)

Hang on tight, it’s a wordy one.

18 reviews.

Movies

The Iron Giant — Some combination of the hype surrounding The Incredibles 2 and being down and out with seasonal allergies on a Sunday morning inclined me to revisit a portion of my youth. I haven’t seen The Iron Giant since I was about 10, and I have never been a member of its sizable nostalgia cult. But Brad Bird is a darn good filmmaker, and all of his movies go the extra mile to deal with themes that young audiences won’t grasp the specifics of, but which will resonate more generally. In The Iron Giant’s case, that tendency manifests in the fact that it is a very good Cold War period piece. Its message isn’t a blandly pacifist one, but a specific one about the way we come to see the world when the powerful insist on stoking paranoia and framing everything in “us vs. them” terms. It even includes a parody of the ludicrous “duck and cover” PSAs played in classrooms in the 50s. It’s a story about Hogarth Hughes, a curiously wise child who delivers animist monologues about the integrity of the soul, and the huge metal E.T. he befriends and tries to protect. Pretty standard fare, but the beauty is in the specifics. The animation is beautiful, and has aged brilliantly — its use of primitive computer animation is restrained enough to simply appear as emphasis on the traditional animation. One of the film’s most ingenious moments involves the reveal of the giant’s origins: he has a nightmare about his home planet, which ends up appearing on a nearby television, intercut with scenes from an actual Jack Parr show. More animated movies should handle exposition wordlessly. They should also build up their principal characters’ relationships such that their climaxes can be as emotive as this one. They should also humanize their villains as well as this film does. The grinning FBI agent who antagonizes Hogarth even before he knows anything’s amiss is painted with a certain amount of sympathy. He’s an undistinguished buffoon who’s only trying to earn the respect of his peers. I hope parents still show this movie to their kids. It’s a genuine classic. Also, another ‘50s-style TV ad proclaims: “Tomorrowland! Promise of things to come!” Did Bird know even then that he’d made that (apparently disappointing) Disneyland movie with George Clooney?

Raising Arizona — I like to try and maintain a certain amount of unseen/unheard/unread works by my particular favourites. I’m extremely glad, for instance, never to have heard Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps), The Man Who Sold the World, Earthling, or Lodger in their entirety. The fact that they’re still there to experience for the first time is gratifying in itself, and I’ll savour that until I break down. The Coen Brothers are another artist with whom I’ve taken this approach. But they have the advantage over Bowie of still being alive. So even if I do complete their filmography, there’ll still be new ones every now and then. Their corpus is not yet finite. It was with that in mind that I finally allowed myself to watch Raising Arizona. Once you get over the shock of seeing a Coen brothers movie that doesn’t have the distinctive visual touch of Roger Deakins, it’s great fun. (I am convinced that the absence of Deakins from the much later Burn After Reading is the real reason why people don’t like it, whether they know it or not.) It spends the bulk of its duration content to be a very good caper comedy, with a very game Nicholas Cage giving a more openly ironic version of the career-best performance he’d offer in Wild at Heart three years later. Holly Hunter is given less to do, but she is admirably committed to the Coens’ total lack of subtext. The caper comedy reaches its zenith with one of the best chase scenes in all of cinema, scored by yodelling. Bless. But Raising Arizona turns into something altogether stranger and more grand in its final act, where Cage dispatches a surreal villain that seems to have invaded the film from a George Miller movie, and changes, possibly for the first time in his life. What’s really remarkable about Raising Arizona is that the protagonist doesn’t have a character arc so much as a character hockey stick. He has all the one-dimensionality of a genre character, until the very end of the movie, where he gains a modicum of self-awareness. It’s an unfamiliar structure, and it makes Raising Arizona into something more than a great comedy. I really loved this. It isn’t quite Fargo, but it’s up there with my idiosyncratic faves O Brother, Where Art Thou? and A Serious Man.

Page One — I decided to finally watch this after reading New York Magazine’s recent piece on Shane Smith and Vice. Suddenly, watching David Carr chastise that vapid skin balloon sounded like a hell of a good time. Page One is a fascinating time capsule. Its talking heads’ pontifications about the future of media seem as quaint now as they were obviously myopic at the time. (“Albany corruption stories, they may be important,” says Nick Denton. “But nobody really wants to read them.” That’s right, Nick. Give the people what they want. It’ll be fine.) One of the key ways in which this documentary’s reality differs from the world in 2018 is that it portrays Jeff Jarvis as an actual human, whereas now we know him primarily as a parody Twitter account. But nobody’s coming to a documentary from 2011 for perspectives on the future of the media. On the other hand, the behind-the-scenes element of the doc is fascinating. Admittedly, I am a bit of a Times partisan these days, but I found the scenes involving editors making decisions completely thrilling. It’s a clever idea for the doc to focus specifically on the writers at the Times who are covering the media, and particularly the crisis in the newspaper industry. David Carr is far and away the most entertaining part of the film, but the most prescient point anybody makes in the whole movie is a collaborative effort between him and media editor Bruce Headlam. When everybody suddenly sees the iPad as the saving grace of the news business (hahahahahahahahahahahaha), they both have the presence of mind to consider the fact that you don’t want to depend on a private tech giant for the survival and health of your publishing endeavour. I feel as though that’s not something most people had begun processing until substantially later. I don’t think I got there myself until I started reading John Hermann. The best single scene, though, involves a nonplussed Bruce Headlam watching a completely made-up segment on NBC about the end of the war in Iraq. The Coen brothers couldn’t have written something this epistemologically crazy, and they made Burn After Reading. That scene indicates that reality was out of joint long before Trump started campaigning for office. This is great, out of date or not.

The Incredibles 2 — Outstanding. In the theatre, there was a pretty even split of families and nostalgic millennials. It was one of the rare occasions when I heard adults and kids laughing at the same things. The comedy of The Incredibles 2 is primarily visual — animation like this is one of the few corners of modern cinema that truly reflect the legacy of Chaplin and Keaton. And a well-constructed sight gag is universal. Brad Bird’s visual imagination has always been his primary asset, and this is the best that it has ever been. The action sequences are better than anything the Marvel Cinematic Universe has offered in recent memory. One particular motorcycle chase featuring Elastigirl is one of the most riveting things I’ve watched since Fury Road left cinemas. On a smaller scale, the Incredible family’s youngest member has powers now, and he is the best and most imaginative part of the movie by far. Watching Baby Jack-Jack sneeze and inadvertently send himself flying clear through the high ceilings of the family’s new mid-century modern house is one of the simplest, purest pleasures of 2018’s cinema. Watching him get in a tussle with a raccoon is one of the most enjoyable things in any Pixar movie, ever. The premise of the Jack-Jack bits is elegant: if a baby had superpowers, they would not be governed by reason, and they would therefore be maddeningly unpredictable to that baby’s caretakers. The movie’s other successes come down to sheer attention to detail. The mid-century modern design and World’s Fair retrofuturism are endlessly fun to look at. Michael Giacchino’s music doesn’t do anything it wasn’t doing in the first movie, but it’s a brilliant score with themes that feel like they’ve always existed. The story is driving at some things it doesn’t quite manage — a subplot involving body cams, for example, fails entirely to comment on police violence. The movie’s admiration for a man who stays home with the kids is a little over the top. And the franchise’s relationship to the question “superheroes: are they good?” remains fraught. But that’s well beside the point. This is so much fun. My face hurts from smiling. Pick of the week.

Music

Belle and Sebastian: If You’re Feeling Sinister — I’m seeing Belle and Sebastian next week and I need to study up. My entry point was idiosyncratic, and I’m still basically ignorant of most of their classics. I’ll be honest: I don’t like this universally-acclaimed record as much as The Life Pursuit. But I do think it’s more than just nostalgia that inclines people towards it. The Life Pursuit is an album that boasts some good songwriting as well as really good playing. This one only has the former, and clothes it in simplistic, lo-fi arrangements. But that in itself is an aesthetic that appeals to the sort of people who love Belle and Sebastian. Myself, I struggle with it. But when you listen past the sonic quality to the songs themselves, they’re easily as strong as the ones I’ve come to love on The Life Pursuit and they don’t have as many slightly cringe-inducing lines. (“She made brass rubbings, she learned she never had to press hard.” ???) On a first listen, “Stars of Track and Field” is the obvious standout. It’s Rushmore as a pop song. But the title track and “Judy and the Dream of Horses” strike me as likely growers. Here beginneth the cramming.

Kanye West: ye — The ugliness of Kanye’s present worldview obviates the possibility of engaging with this album’s aesthetic merits. That’s all I have to say.

Stephen Sondheim/Mandy Patinkin, Bernadette Peters, et al: Sunday in the Park With George — I’m still gradually making my way through E.H. Gombrich’s The Story of Art. Naturally, when I got to Georges Seurat, I remembered that this existed. I sheepishly confess that I had hitherto known it only by reputation. I had only heard “Finishing the Hat,” a song that has the single best explanation of why people create things ever written: “Look, I made a hat! Where there never was a hat!” I have known that feeling. It’s intoxicating. The full musical is one of Sondheim’s strangest and subtlest creations. Listening to the cast album without context is hopeless. The story apparently happens largely in the spoken dialogue. But I read a synopsis and looked at a few clips of a filmed performance (that I’ll be watching in full) to get a sense of the staging, and once I’d done that, everything started to fall into place. An uncharitable reading of Sunday in the Park With George would describe it as a musical about difficult men and the women who suffer for them. A more charitable way to look at it would be to view it as a musical about two people compelled to leave legacies, and the legacies they leave. Act one tells the story of the doomed relationship between the painter Georges Seurat and his lover Dot. It culminates with the two of them apart, but with George (as he’s known in the show) having completed his masterpiece, A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte, which truly is a marvellous picture. You should Google it. In completing that, George has left his own legacy, and Dot has left a legacy as well — in the way that she chose, which was to be an artist’s model. Act two jumps ahead to 1984, the year of the musical’s premiere, when George and Dot’s great-grandson is himself an artist, though one of a very different temperament. This George, like Dot, is fictional. The musical can’t be regarded as in any way true to life. Like Seurat’s art, it is a view of real things through the perspective of an artist with a singular vision. The second act is often considered vastly inferior to the first, but I love it, because it explores the way that the legacies George and Dot chose for themselves played out. They both attained a measure of immortality through art. And they both attained a measure of immortality through their offspring. The story of the second act is the story of one legacy reconciling himself to the other. Both acts end with a rendition of one of Sondheim’s most straightforwardly beautiful songs, “Sunday.” In the first, this song conveys the final completion of La Grande Jatte, with the noisy reality of the characters in the part made into harmonious beauty through George’s vision. (The way Sondheim expresses this musically is a thing only he could do.) In the second act, it conveys the second George’s realization that the painting belongs to him, and he belongs to it. It is emotionally and thematically complex stuff, far stranger and better than the vast majority of Broadway musicals. Plus, the recording features two of the most inimitable voices in musical theatre: Mandy Patinkin and Bernadette Peters. Both, especially the latter, are acquired tastes. But they are infinitely expressive. Can’t wait to watch the film.

Literature, etc.

Zach Ferriday: “Schism Symphony” — This is the only piece I’ve read that really confronts the uncomfortable relationship between the importance of tradition in classical music and social conservatism. It articulates a point of view I’ve been failing to articulate for years. Read it if you’re one of the classical music types who sometimes listen to things I say.

Games

The Legend of Zelda: Oracle of Ages — I believe I started playing this in 2017. That should tell you how good I am at video games. The Zelda franchise is a thing I maintain a childish loyalty to. I have fond memories of the N64 instalments, of which I maintain that Majora’s Mask is an enduring masterpiece. The footage of Breath of the Wild that I’ve seen almost makes me want to break down and buy my first console since the fifth generation. But I was really more of a Game Boy kid, so my loyalties to some extent still lie with the 2D, top-down format of Link’s Awakening and the GBA port of A Link to the Past. For whatever reason, I never got around to the Oracle games as a kid. (Context: Oracle of Ages and Oracle of Seasons are partner games that can be played in either order, and can be customized to reflect which you played first.) As Zelda games do, Oracle of Ages provided me with wave upon wave of pleasing familiarity. (The differences between Zelda games are a bit like the differences between Yasujiro Ozu films: subtle.) And I was, after all, mostly in it for the nostalgia. But satisfyingly, Oracle of Ages is also a fabulous, eminently recommendable game that holds up marvellously. Plus, for those nerds among us who are interested in the series’ development over time, the Oracle games occupy an interesting place in the Zelda corpus. Nintendo farmed them out to Capcom rather than making them in-house — a surprising development. More notably, it’s the first 2D Zelda game to be made after the series had entered the third dimension. It’s quite clear throughout that Capcom was thinking hard about the value proposition of a 2D Zelda in the wake of the enormous success of the N64 Zeldas. There is some implicit novelty in playing a post-Ocarina of Time 2D Zelda game. None of the other 2D Zelda games I’ve played have Goron or Zora civilizations — a continuity idea that originated in Ocarina. The Zora segment of the game is particularly reminiscent of its N64 predecessor. That section’s dungeon is the innards of the guardian fish spirit Jabu-Jabu, a dungeon also seen in Ocarina. But the mechanics of this game’s version of Jabu-Jabu are maybe its best argument for the value of 2D gaming. Its aesthetic cribs from Ocarina’s Jabu-Jabu, but its central puzzle is a seemingly conscious attempt to better the mechanics of Ocarina’s infamous Water Temple. The need to raise and lower the water level in the dungeon implicitly works better in two dimensions, with discrete divisions between floors. It’s a brilliant design. However, why Jabu-Jabu’s belly is so full of switches is anybody’s guess. In general, the water-based parts of the game are the most enthralling. Link’s diving ability arrives at a moment in the game where the map has totally opened up. The early parts of the game are based around Link having a limited ability to move backwards and forwards in time, with a similar effect as in the dark and light worlds of A Link to the Past. But things really get fun when you’re finally able to move between the two times at will. And almost immediately after, you’re given the ability to dive underwater, revealing another whole world on the ocean floor. That means that lots of the map squares in Oracle of Ages’ overworld have four distinct forms: above water and below water, in past and present respectively. This is magnificently dense, and the source of many excellent puzzle solutions. On that note: Ages’ puzzles and level design in general is among the strongest in the franchise up to this point. I’m not familiar with many of Capcom’s games, but it strikes me as predictable that non-Nintendo Zelda games would excel in gameplay more than mood or story. Usually I find boss fights tedious. Honestly I sometimes find dungeons tedious, which calls into question why I bother with Zelda games at all. But Oracle of Ages’ dungeons are a joy. The best of them (Jabu-Jabu, Mermaid’s Cave, Skull Dungeon) are one big puzzle with many moving parts that each relate to each other intuitively. Rooms are designed to teach you things. Some puzzle solutions are as simple and elegant as simply realizing that you won’t fall down holes when you’re swimming. The Indiana Jones-inspired Ancient Tomb even foregoes complex puzzle mechanics in its opening stages to conjure the feeling of descending into a haunted ruin. You don’t have to figure anything out, but you do have to throw bombs around to clear away the rubble. (The dungeon doesn’t concern itself especially with who is buried there, but whatever.) And each dungeon is capped off by a boss fight that’s actually fun and innovative. I’m particularly fond of Octogon in the Mermaid’s Cave, who you have to fight both above and below water, and Smog in the Crown Dungeon, who is not so much a boss as a malevolent puzzle. There are a few types of rooms that repeat themselves more than one would like across multiple dungeons — rooms that the devs may have thought to be cleverer than they are. But overall, the experience of playing this game is extremely satisfying. Its disappointing elements are only evident when you compare it with other Zelda games. Link’s Awakening is the most obvious point of comparison, since the interface of this game is basically identical to that one. It’s been a while since I played Link’s Awakening. Based on my hazy memory, it didn’t have puzzles anywhere close to this satisfying. But that’s a game that stays with me, because its premise and the way it has of presenting its world are unique. Link’s Awakening feels dreamlike and fairy-tale-esque, rather than the straightforward high fantasy of other Zelda instalments. Oracle of Ages has plenty of fun interactions with characters who are more than willing to spout this franchise’s signature one to two lines of flavour text. But the writing doesn’t contain any of the charming non-sequiturs that have given Zelda its slightly surreal feeling since the very beginning. (“It’s a secret to everyone!”) In general, this game’s world, Labrynna, feels more like a collection of the necessary Zelda locales (big town, smaller town, Goron town, Zora town, fairy forest, graveyard…) thrown together by fiat than it does an attempt to do anything new with those elements. And as similar as the early Zeldas sometimes are to each other, I think you can argue that every Zelda game prior to this attempted to display its constituent parts at a slightly different angle, with varying degrees of success. The world in Oracle of Ages is simply a mode of conveyance for its outstanding puzzles. And that’s fine. But in the long run, I feel like it’ll mean this is a game that I enjoyed more in the moment than I do in retrospect. Still, I confess to having been tickled by segments of the game’s story, particularly where the character Ralph is concerned. He’s desperately in love with the titular Oracle of Ages, and he tries his best to be the hero in the story, only to be constantly usurped by Link, whose only advantage is being the player character. I am team Ralph. Ralph is good people. I had a great time playing this. I’ll be taking a break from Zelda now, because a little goes a long way. But I’ll be back for Seasons eventually.

Podcasts

Trump Con Law catch-up — The latest spate of episodes is much the same in quality as the rest. I like the spirit of this show, which takes an increasingly crazy political situation and tries to use it for all of our educational advantage. Small compensation, but here we are. Also: the Twitter episode, which explores the nature of a presidential Twitter feed and whether it constitutes a “public space,” made me realize a crazy thing: in the social media age, we have started to think about things as places. *shudder*

99% Invisible catch-up — This run of episodes introduced me to Decoder Ring, contained an interview with John Cleese, explained the catch-22 of living in mobile housing, alerted me to the concept of “curb cut design,” informed me of a vault full of seeds in case we wipe out all the nature, and briefly made me care about basketball jerseys. Not bad.

Decoder Ring: “The Johnlock Conspiracy” — This looks set to become my favourite pop culture podcast. This is a story about a community of Sherlock fans who took fandom too far. It starts off with an exploration of shipping, a perfectly fine thing. But gradually, the story descends into the depths of a conspiratorial community who are, as far as I’m concerned, media illiterate. The idea is: eventually, Benedict Cumberbatch’s Sherlock Holmes and Martin Freeman’s John Watson will be written into a relationship, and the showrunners of Sherlock have been lying constantly when they say this won’t happen. This is more than just a careful examination of the show’s homoerotic subject: it’s an insistence that the show is one thing, and only one thing, and everything that it is aside from that one thing is a red herring. It reminds me of the particular kind of media illiteracy that runs rampant in the gaming community, where every ounce of ambiguity in the storylines of games like Night in the Woods or Virginia has to be resolvable in a single, internally consistent interpretation if the games are to be taken seriously. Games that actively invite this type of meticulous internal reconciling, like Undertale and the Bioshock franchise, seem to invite less controversy from this crowd. One comes away from these critiques feeling that the people who make them need more Virginia Woolf in their diet. Also, aesthetic concerns aside, the adherents to the Johnlock conspiracy can be very mean. Mean to the point that I’m not posting this review on Tumblr. Yes, I’m a coward. Sue me, it’s my own damn blog.

Imaginary Worlds catch-up — Of the past five episodes the most recent one is the best, in spite of somewhat inauspicious subject matter: Magic: The Gathering. I have fond memories of this card game, but I remember its “storyline,” such as it is, as being best ignored in favour of the game’s wonderful mechanics. I wasn’t persuaded otherwise by this episode, but I do see a little more of what they’re trying to do.

In the Dark: “Why Curtis?” — The latest episode in APM Reports’ evisceration of the prosecution’s case against Curtis Flowers paints a picture of an investigation that just went with the first suspect they found.

Caliphate: “One Year Later” — I read a piece in the London Review of Books that expressed doubts about the New York Times’ practice of taking documents from Iraq to report on ISIS from the U.S. I sympathize with these doubts, so I was happy to find that this final episode of Caliphate ends with Rukmini Callimachi escorting the boxes of documents that have been so vital to her reporting to the Iraqi consulate. In my view, the quality of Callimachi’s reporting justifies her having the first look at these documents. Her stories, and this podcast, have been outstanding journalism. This episode circles back to the Canadian former ISIS recruit who was the subject of the first several episodes, before Callimachi went to Mosul. It finds him expressing a conflicted worldview that his counsellor finds worrying. At the end of Caliphate, you’re left with the impression that perhaps the most important way to fight ISIS is to fight against the xenophobia that leads to the radicalization of people like this. All the same, Callimachi and her producers never goad you into feeling this way by explicitly sympathizing with him. To do that would be slightly monstrous, considering his story. It’s a fine balance, struck with the poise of a considered ethicist. Caliphate is hard listening. It is not “enjoyable,” in the conventional sense of the word. But it is probably the best podcast of the year. Pick of the week.

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “The Great Big Stand-Up Roundup” & “Jurassic World, Jurassic Park and What’s Making Us Happy” — Sad no Tig Notaro in stand-up roundup. Happy no love for Jurassic World in Jurassic World episode.

The Daily: “How Separating Migrant Families Became U.S. Policy,” “Father and Son, Forced Apart at the Border” & “Trump Ends His Child Separation Policy” — The news this week has been the saddest it has been in ages. These episodes helped make sense of it in a factual way, if not an emotional way.

Code Switch: “Looking for Marriage in All The Wrong Places” — Here’s something: dating apps based in India can’t accommodate LGBTQ people, because gay sex is illegal there. I hadn’t thought about that. This is a story about it.

Omnibus (week of June 10, 2018)

And he slides in under his self-imposed, flexible deadline with seven minutes to spare.

14 reviews.

Movies

Drowning by Numbers — The first movie I watched this week was Green Lantern. (I’m not going to review it; it was part of a live show I’ve covered before.) This was the second. Consider my palate cleansed. Peter Greenaway is a filmmaker I connected to from the first frame of the first movie I saw of his (The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & her Lover). So it’s odd that it’s taken this long for me to watch a second. Drowning by Numbers has instantly become one of my favourite movies. It has everything I love in a movie: pitch dark comedy, scrupulous attention to detail, complete sensory overload, and hysterically British restraint in the performances. It’s a story about three women from three different generations of the same family, all named Cissie, all of whom drown their husbands, and all of whom manipulate the local coroner into covering for them. I haven’t processed what I’m meant to take away from this story yet, because I’m still marvelling at the crazy garb Greenaway clothed it in. The movie’s primary gimmick (in the most complimentary sense of the word) is the appearance of the numbers 1 through 100 in sequence throughout the movie. Some of these appearances are rational, like the numbers that appear on runners’ jerseys. Others are not, like the ones painted onto cows. But the gradual progression from 1 to 100 provides the movie with an unexpected secondary source of narrative thrust. The closest thing we get to an explanation of why this is happening comes right at the beginning of the movie, when a girl jumping rope explains that once you count to 100 once, all the other hundreds are the same. She’s not wrong. But how that connects with anything is the sort of question that’s bound to result in hacky, unsatisfying readings of a work of art that isn’t meant to be pinned down. Here’s one detail that I think demonstrates something about Greenaway’s approach: when a huge number 50 is seen in yellow cardboard numerals from one angle, and then from the opposite one, the ‘5’ is switched around so that it won’t appear backwards. From the other side it reads ‘05.’ This is, paradoxically, an intentional continuity error. Greenaway wants us to be aware that we’re seeing the number 50 from the other side, but doesn’t want a backwards 5 in his movie because, ugh. He switches the 5 around for the same reason that the disciples are all on the same side of the table in The Last Supper: because we’re looking at a flat image. That’s how Greenaway thinks about cinema. His camera doesn’t represent a single point of view in a three-dimensional space; it reduces everything in front of it to a single, two-dimensional plane. Greenaway is the opposite of Jean Renoir in The Rules of the Game, in which Renoir moves the camera around specifically to call your attention to the things that aren’t onscreen at the moment. But in a Greenaway film, does anything even exist behind the camera? Who knows? Greenaway’s ninja move is a thing he does where he moves the camera laterally through a long take, and every time it stops, the picture has the framing and composition of a Rubens painting. That’s as many as three Rubens paintings in one take. (Rubens is the reference point of choice, because his work appears in the movie. Greenaway loves painters.) All of the performances are fantastic, particularly Joan Plowright as the matriarch of the three drowneresses and Bernard Hill (a.k.a. Theoden from Lord of the Rings) as Madgett, the hapless coroner who turns scary when he doesn’t get what he wants. The restraint of the performances is one of the many, many elements of this film that seems to anticipate the entire aesthetic of Wes Anderson. Others include the immaculate, flat compositions shot with a laterally moving camera (much like the opening of Fantastic Mr. Fox), the voiceover by Madgett’s precocious son Smut (a tragic figure who presages the child protagonists of Moonrise Kingdom), explanations of incredibly convoluted processes (think of the heists in Bottle Rocket)  and a general sense of airlessness. Greenaway lacks the pathos and fundamental optimism of Wes Anderson, but so many of the ingredients are here that it almost makes Anderson seem like less of an original. A final remark: Greenaway’s musical collaborator (and perfect aesthetic analogue) Michael Nyman is at his absolute best here. The score is based entirely on the Mozart Sinfonia Concertante, from which Nyman wrestles an impressive diversity of themes (one of which will appear to even greater effect in The Cook, the Thief His Wife & Her Lover). I’m used to hearing this music on accordions, so it was nice to hear it in its original context. Anyway, I’ve gone on long enough. I’ve got nothing to say to sum up this review, because this is a baffling movie that I have only a cursory understanding of. But it is one of the best movies I’ve ever seen in my life. Pick of the week.

Ocean’s 8 — It’s better than Green Lantern, but not as good as Drowning by Numbers. (God help you if you’re reading this on Tumblr, devoid of any context.) My memories of having seen Ocean’s Eleven and Ocean’s Twelve (did I see Ocean’s Twelve???) are hazy, which probably works in this movie’s favour. I love a good caper movie. The thing that I love about them, whether they’re made by Steven Soderbergh or Wes Anderson, is their elegance: the sense that the often glamourous cast of characters is just waltzing merrily through a byzantine storyline full of snake traps. Ocean’s 8 ups the ante on that elegance by presenting a heist that depends not only on criminal knowhow, but impeccable taste. This is partially a function of its all-female headlining cast. The idea is that this heist relies partially on traditionally ‘feminine’ knowledge, like fashion, gossip and party planning. This is… bad? I’m not sure. The fact that there’s an Ocean’s movie with a bunch of the best actresses around in it is straightforwardly good. But whether or not the execution is a little problemsy is a thing I’ll have to think about more. Still, the extent to which this caper is ripped from the society pages makes it a very different feeling and fresh story. Everybody in it is great, but mostly Cate Blanchett is great. No wait — also Anne Hathaway. I was also very happy to see some brilliant actresses of an older generation make cameos. There’s a reading of Ocean’s 8 that sees it as first and foremost a celebration of women in movies. I’m there for that.

Literature, etc.

Pamela Colloff: “Blood Will Tell” — I started this month trying to read “The Tower” by Andrew O’Hagan. For those unfamiliar, that is a recent 60,000-word investigative piece about the Grenfell Tower fire in the London Review of Books. It is the first story in that weird-ass publication’s history to take up an entire issue. Truly, it is the Thick as a Brick of investigative journalism about horrible tragedies. I couldn’t get through it. It is too meandering even for me. I will stick to news coverage on that particular infuriating story, I think. I bring it up as a point of contrast with this incredible, immersive story about a possible miscarriage of justice in a small town — a man was convicted of murdering his own wife based largely on the questionable practice of blood spatter analysis. Colloff is intensely concerned with the social implications of her reporting — she emphasizes how widespread blood spatter analysis has become. And she’s also careful not to leap to the conclusion that her subject is innocent. But in addition to those concerns, she is also deeply concerned with telling a story by putting one sentence in front of another. It’s masterful and you should read it. Both parts. Also, as a side note, I heard a concert performance of Peter Grimes this week (one of those things I don’t review) and was struck by that opera’s continuing relevance in a world where we still read stories like this.

Television

Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, Season 4, episodes 1-6 — Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt is extremely silly and extremely good. The standout episode of this is a mockumentary in which a vacuous DJ is converted to the cause of “men’s rights activism” by learning a fun-house mirror version of this show’s whole backstory. That means Jon Hamm gets to play the buffoonish abuser Reverend Wayne Gary Wayne as a would-be martyr. And that is a delight to behold. That episode aside, Carol Kane runs away with this half-season, relishing the role of “that distasteful person who apparently used to sleep with my dad.” I wish it were a whole season, but that’s my only complaint.

Comedy

Tig Notaro: Boyish Girl Interrupted — The lede here is that Tig Notaro does the last third of this set shirtless, post-mastectomy. But that’s just one element of what is a very, very good special for many reasons. Notaro’s best bits are extended stories. Here, I’m particularly fond of her story about bombing 14 shows in Vegas. But I’m also a fan of the story of her accidentally meeting Santa. (It wasn’t Santa.) She’s also brilliant, as always, at responding to and manipulating the audience. I think she’s in my top three comics right now.

Podcasts

Pop Culture Happy Hour catch-up — HAVE WATCHED: Ocean’s 8. WILL WATCH: The Incredibles 2. DIDN’T WATCH: the Tonys. WON’T WATCH: Cobra Kai; Law & Order. UNDECIDED: Paddington…?

The Memory Palace: “No Summer” & “A White Horse” — I recall having heard podcasts about the year without a summer before, particularly as it relates to the origins of Frankenstein. But this is the best telling of that story I’ve encountered. And, I’ll listen to “A White Horse” every time Nate puts it in the feed. It is one of the most beautiful, most heartbreaking pieces of radio ever made.

Lend Me Your Ears: “Richard II” — I adore this podcast, and I adore Richard II. I’m toying with the idea that this is the most underrated Shakespeare play. This episode teases out a political theme that’s quite obvious in the text, but not something I’d especially thought about, which is the notion of legitimacy. In a sense, the story of Richard II is the story of two leaders whose legitimacy is called into question. Richard has the divine right of kings on his side, but that can only take him so far in a country with a government. Henry Bolingbroke is a boldfaced usurper, but he jumps through hoops to try and ensure the legitimacy of his own reign. Famously, he fails. In an age when a sitting president lost the popular vote and is thus despised by a substantial portion of the citizenry he governs, this is a deeply relevant play. I might not have noticed the extent to which it is relevant if not for this show. Highly recommended.

In The Dark: “The D.A.” — This is an episode that gradually builds up to a climactic interview with the D.A. who’s been the focus of so much of this season so far. It is an interview that is cut from 11 minutes of raw tape. 11 measly minutes. That’s all they could get out of him. That in itself speaks volumes. The rest of the episode comprises a capsule biography of this person, which also serves as a short-term social history of the region where the story takes place. This is a good illustration of why I’m enjoying this season of In the Dark more than the previous one: it is equally rigorous in its journalistic integrity and nearly as insistent on the broader implications of its story. But its storytelling is subtler and cleverer. Much is accomplished by implication. This is one of the best podcasts of the year so far.

Reply All: “The QAnon Code” — Here is a big long episode about an insane internet conspiracy and a sports thing involving Gene Demby. It is very good. I wonder what the story was with that incredibly long wait time for Demby to answer the phone.

Code Switch catch-up — A lot of Code Switch at once is a dangerous thing. Highlights: stories about the origins of a particular prison tattoo aesthetic, and a story about intergenerational trauma in an Alaskan community.

Theory of Everything: “Real Costs Extra” — Here we have a crossover episode between Theory of Everything, at its most tangential to reality, and 99% Invisible, which does not do fiction. It’s like Roman Mars’ presence in the episode is a marker of the line between reality and the murky zone that Benjamen Walker lives in. And, true to expectation, as soon as he departs from the episode, things take a turn for the fake. Also notable: this contains the closest thing we’ve gotten to Starlee Kine talking openly about what her experience at Gimlet was like. It was bad. She doesn’t name Gimlet. But that’s pretty clearly what this is about.

Song by Song catch-up — We continue through Frank’s Wild Years, which the hosts of this show continue to underrate, IMO. The highlight is an appearance by Ivor Cutler as a point of comparison. I love Ivor Cutler. I should listen to him more.

Caliphate: “Prisoners” — This two-part episode of Caliphate is one of the most devastating pieces of audio storytelling I’ve ever heard. It is hard to praise, and harder to recommend, simply because the events it depicts are so dreadful. The first part tells the story of Rukmini Callimachi’s excursion to an Iraqi prison, where she meets a condemned ISIS member who claims to have bought a sex slave for the purpose of saving her — and Callimachi’s discovery that this was far from the case. The second part builds on a story, and a memorable episode of The Daily, about young women being rescued from slavery and returning to their communities in catatonic states. There is light at the end of the story, but it is a draining and horrible listen. It is also incredibly important, compassionate, brave reporting. It cements Caliphate as one of the tentpole achievements of serialized podcasting. Pick of the week.

Omnibus (week of June 3, 2018)

Greetings. What you don’t see represented here is the substantial amount of reading I did this week, mostly of New York Times features and things linked to in New York Times features. These sorts of things generally do not justify a review in my opinion, though there’s one I’ve started that will recieve one next week. I love the New York Times. I’m starting to love that paper the way people love bands.

Of my week’s reading, a not insubstantial part of it consisted of memorial pieces to the wonderful Anthony Bourdain, who I at some point, however briefly, wanted to be. When Bourdain had a conversation with somebody on television, he always ensured that the other person was the most important part of the scene. That’s in spite of the fact that Bourdain himself had a huge personality, a tremendous amount of expertise in his subject area, and an incredible ability to tell a story. He was the rare media figure who managed to have it both ways: he could be the show when the occasion called for it, and he could also be a conduit to focus our attention on people and places we wouldn’t otherwise have thought about.

Unrelatedly to all of this, there was a poignant quote from Bourdain in one of those pieces I read: “I will find myself in an airport, for instance, and I’ll order an airport hamburger. It’s an insignificant thing, it’s a small thing, it’s a hamburger, but it’s not a good one. Suddenly, I look at the hamburger and I find myself in a spiral of depression that can last for days.”

I see you, Tony. R.I.P.

17 reviews.

Music

CHVRCHES: Love is Dead — It’s fine. It’s CHVRCHES. I’m less enamoured of it than I was of their previous albums on a first listen or two. Particularly not the last one, which is still one of my go-tos when I feel the need for rousing pop. But Love is Dead has some great tracks, including and especially “Graffiti” and “Get Out.” The rest is likely to grow on me.

Danny Brown: Atrocity Exhibition — I first came to this shortly after it came out, and I was not feeling it. But it also struck me as an album that, one day, I would return to when curiosity struck and it might win me over. It did. Brown’s voice is the most batshit thing I’ve ever heard, and the beats on this, produced largely by Paul White (and in one case by the excellently monikered Black Milk) are the freakiest shit I’ve ever heard. Atrocity Exhibition is a difficult listen. It is ceaseless sensory overload. And yet the pieces seem to all fit together. Brown himself is an enthusiastically outspoken user of a wide range of intoxicants, and also seemingly an anxious depressive. His music is a manifestation of his inner life, and thus his lyrics, delivery, and the beats he raps over are self-consciously disorienting and bizarre. Imagine being a rapper and hearing the beat that would become “Downward Spiral.” Where do you even start with that? Still, for all his capacity to alienate, Brown is also a good hand with a hook. “Ain’t It Funny” and “Dance in the Water” are both likely to get stuck in your head in spite of their manifest abrasiveness. I love this. It’s grisly, depressive and freaky. It’s dark psychedelia for the 2010s.

Belle and Sebastian: If You’re Feeling Sinister — It’s got some nice tunes. Ultimately I’m happy that my way into Belle and Sebastian was the much more varied and professional The Life Pursuit, but I can see reasons other than nostalgia why this might strike some as superior. The lyrics are openly sentimental, but also clever. The characters in the songs are well-drawn, which is a rare thing in songs. The melodies are nice. I like it. I probably would have written it off if it had been the first thing I’d heard from this band. But as it stands I’ll put it into rotation and it’ll certainly grow on me.

Pusha-T: Daytona — I’m trying to warm up for the inevitably confusing experience of listening to ye, and this seemed like the way to do it. The frustration of being a Kanye fan is summed up neatly in “What Would Meek Do?” in which he has an embarrassing feature verse, but also builds the beat out of a moment in Yes’s “Heart of the Sunrise” that’s so insignificant it changes in every live version. I almost didn’t spot it. It’s genius. The man has the ears of a god, anyway. I enjoyed this a lot, though it went by awfully fast. I quite like its brevity, which makes it the right length to walk home to from most of the places I’m likely to be walking home from. I don’t have much to say about Pusha himself at this point. Further listens required. But I will register my initial approval here.

Literature, etc.

Brooke Gladstone & Josh Neufeld: The Influencing Machine — I’m ashamed of not having read this earlier, given my line of work and my devotion to On the Media. But I was in the library the other day and picked up half by accident, and now I’ve read it. Gladstone is one of the most cogent explainers of complicated things we have in this world, and we should take her for granted at our peril. This book distils centuries of history in the way we process information en masse into a graphic format that’s readable in a couple of sittings. It’s a marvel. Still, Gladstone’s implication that our furor about the state of the media circa 2011 was just a continuity of affairs since the beginnings of collective communication seems pollyannaish today. It’s still worth a read, though there are other problems as well. The illustration is sometimes dissonant in unconstructive ways: for instance, depicting Brooke Gladstone as the statue of Saddam Hussein in Al-Firdos Square. Just because she’s the one talking and that’s what she’s talking about doesn’t make the two of them co-extensive with each other. That’s what the cartoon implies, which is obviously not what it means. These things are important. Scott McCloud, for instance, wouldn’t be so imprecise with his comics avatar, which works in a similar way. Given that I read a copy from my public library, I was gratified to see that a previous reader had made some cogent notes. Gladstone writes about Ray Kurzweil’s opinion that humanity has just over a 50% chance of making it through its hardest trials. She continues: “And he’s a glass-half-full kind of guy.” My predecessor has scribbled out the “and” and replaced it with “but.” Thank you, predecessor. I suspect you’re right. I enjoyed this. But it’s no match for the up-to-the-minute media analysis that Gladstone does on her show on a weekly basis.

Movies

A Trip to the Moon, The Astronomer’s Dream & The Eclipse — I went to a short program of films by George Méliès at the planetarium across the street from my apartment. Seeing Méliès screened on a dome-shaped screen in a planetarium is a whole thing — if ever there was an artist who looked out at the cosmos and envisioned it in art, it’s Georges Méliès. And the planetarium gives the opportunity to look out into models of the stars as we now know them to be. That juxtaposition of a dream of space travel with the contemporary reality of it was really powerful. Other elements of the presentation were less powerful, but I was honestly just there for the films. These were projected alongside fairly placid live music that brought out the movies’ dreamlike strangeness rather than their comic timing, but it worked reasonably well. All three of these shorts have aged remarkably well for films that will be a century and a half old in not too long. The Astronomer’s Dream is certainly the creakiest of the bunch, but it was 1898. Credit where credit’s due. The Eclipse is the latest of the three, and certainly the most technically accomplished, though not the best. It contains a wonderfully suggestive space ballet in which the sun and the moon have a thing, and it envisions a meteor shower composed of human women in white dresses. That shot may be one of the most beautiful and imaginative things in the history of film, though that’s a thought that passes through one’s mind relatively frequently when watching Méliès films. Something about the complete lack of cinematic grammar that existed when he was first making movies prompted a sort of aesthetic originality that few have ever matched. The presenters mentioned David Lynch as a contemporary reference point, and I can certainly see similarities. Though, Lynch’s dreamlike aesthetic is deliberate and fussy, whereas for Méliès it seems to have simply been his way of hooking viewers through novelty. That leaves A Trip to the Moon, the most familiar of Méliès’ films, and one of the best damn things ever. The most iconic shot is the one where a rocket lands in the man in the moon’s eye, but the one that received the most attention from this program’s presenters — and incidentally, the one that stuck out to me in a way it hadn’t before — is a shot of our wily astronauts, having just arrived on the moon, seeing Earth from afar. It’s a shot that imagines a moment that wouldn’t happen for more than fifty years — and the fact that Méliès thought to include it, however briefly, demonstrates his sublime eye for a poetic image. This is the only image that could have prepared us for how moving it turned out to be to see photographs of the Earth from space. Now, that moment in A Trip to the Moon stands as a historical signpost of human progress, both cinematic and exploratory: how great an achievement, and yet how far we’ve come. Old movies make me sentimental. I like it that way.

The Death of Stalin — Far from Armando Iannucci’s best work, but it’s got plenty of good stuff. Casting Steve Buscemi as Nikita Khrushchev was genius. My attention was slightly divided while watching it, which I imagine is not ideal for this movie. In fact, you know what, I’m just going to watch it again sometime and review it properly then.

Hot Rod — As much as The Death of Stalin does not play in a situation where you’re not quite paying attention, this movie almost certainly plays BEST in that situation. It is one instance after another of Andy Samberg getting hurt. It is actors taking words and making them into just sounds. It has the emptiest, most vapid love interest character maybe ever. Smartly, it never lampshades this, because that characterization is, in itself, the joke. Its best bits include a man aggressively giving high fives for no reason and a hapless AM radio host with a complicated tattoo. It is cleverer than it seems on the face of it, but still very stupid. It’s a good comedy.

Comedy

Tig Notaro: Tig Notaro LIVE & Happy to be Here — “Good evening, hello! I have cancer! How are you?” is probably one of the best jokes ever told. It’s almost unfair that Tig Notaro’s career was given such a boost by Tig Notaro LIVE, which is the set where she abandons all of her previous material to give a detailed explication of the absolutely terrible year she’d been having, which included not only her cancer diagnosis, but a terrible digestive disease, a breakup, and the tragic death of her mother. It doesn’t work because it’s “vulnerable” or “intimate” or any of the other reasons people are likely to give, which have nothing to do with comedy. It works because Tig Notaro is an expert at reading the room. By that, I don’t mean that she gives the crowd what they want. Rather, she uses their displeasure to her advantage. The funniest part of LIVE is when Notaro suddenly pivots from her cancer material straight back into the sort of absurdist observational comedy she would have done otherwise. Suddenly the jokes, which are funny in their own right, are hilarious because of the perversity of her telling them in this context. It’s a very good set. However, when I say it’s unfair that this set is the one that propelled Notaro to another level, that’s because she is an equally good if not better comic when she is dealing with totally quotidian subject matter. This year’s Netflix special Happy to be Here has very little talk of personal misfortune in it because, by the looks of it, Notaro’s life is pretty great now. The most significant thing to have changed between the two sets is Notaro’s marriage to the actor Stephanie Allynne, who sounds like she’s basically Karl Pilkington. Don’t meow at the kitten, Stephanie cautions Tig. You don’t know what you’re saying to her. Happy to be Here contains much of this domestic material, and it’s all great. But the thing that makes it an outstanding special is an extended bit about the Indigo Girls where Notaro uses the same sublime ability to take advantage of her audience’s annoyance that she does throughout LIVE. It’s worth watching for that alone. Pick of the week.

Podcasts

Love and Radio: “Counter Melody” — This is the story of a resentful obsessive who has a stupid idea about what the “enigma” in Enigma Variations is, and it ruined his life. It’s good.

In the Dark: “Punishment” & “The Trials of Curtis Flowers” — This is getting better and better. My question with journalism like this is often, how is it so easy for journalists to explain the weakness in the case of the prosecution, yet so difficult for defence lawyers? This goes some way towards answering that question, by demonstrating that the prosecutor did everything in his power to ensure an unfair trial. Listen from the beginning of the season. It’s well worth it.

Out of the Blocks: “Steal This Podcast” — This is a fun deconstruction of how an episode of this show is made. They go into a lot of detail about how to interview, and a fair bit about how to structure the tape you get from an interview. I do wish they’d talked a bit more about the design elements and the process of writing the music. But it’s still edifying, both as a listener and a producer.

Theory of Everything: “The Fake in the Crowd” — This episode of Benjamen Walker’s series on fakeness opens the door to the possibility that nobody advocating for any cause is actually who they are. This is clearly not true, but it’s a dangerous and fascinating idea because it’s the basis for a worldview where you can trust literally nothing.

The Daily: “Charm City” — This five-part series about race and policing in Baltimore follows one family through three generations and tracks the changes in black Baltimoreans’ relationship with law enforcement decade by decade. It’s magnificent journalism. The Daily is so good. The New York Times is so good.

Caliphate: “The Briefcase” — Speaking of the New York Times being very, very good, this is maybe the most affecting episode of Caliphate yet. In it, Rukmini Callimachi finds a briefcase full of documents that yield a great deal of information, and it traces back to one particular member of ISIS. The team tries to track him down, and only finds his family. And in that family, intense shame for what this man has gotten himself into. The story they tell about his childhood and how he came to his extremist views is the most penetrating single detail this series has offered about the process of radicalization so far. Pick of the week.

WTF with Marc Maron: “Anthony Bourdain from 2011” — Bourdain and Maron have a lot in common. But Maron seems to have escaped the darkness to an extent that Bourdain didn’t manage. This is a good conversation if you’re looking to understand Bourdain’s self-destructive side, which I imagine lots of people are right now.

Fresh Air: — “Anthony Bourdain,” “The Life and Death of Robin Williams/’Jessica Jones’ Star Krysten Ritter,” “Tig Notaro” & “Ronan Farrow” — The Bourdain remembrance is a Dave Davies interview and not a Terry Gross interview, but it’s still worthwhile. Though, there are a few moments that would appear to disprove the assertion in a few appreciations written this week that Bourdain didn’t repeat himself in interviews. If you want one audio interview to commemorate Anthony Bourdain, go with Maron. As for the rest of these, the interview with Dave Itzkoff about his new Robin Williams biography is well worthwhile, as is the Ronan Farrow episode. That last one doesn’t just focus on his Weinstein investigations, but his entire crazy life as a genius prodigy and son of celebrities. The Tig Notaro episode is fine, though there’s a weird moment where Terry Gross almost tries to defend Louis C.K. in spite of obviously finding him repulsive. It comes out of nowhere and is super weird and I don’t know why she felt compelled to do that, especially with Notaro seeming as viscerally uncomfortable as she is.