Omnireviewer (week of Mar. 27)

12 reviews. What? I have a life, lately.

Television

Horace and Pete: episodes 6-8 — I’ve been enjoying the fact that Horace and Pete is unlike anything on actual TV. But in the sixth episode it briefly turns into everything else on TV — namely, a story about an insecure man getting tripped up by his insecurities. Of course, Steve Buscemi is brilliant and his character Pete is more genuinely marginalized than, say, Louis C.K.’s fictionalized self on Louie. Still, the drama in this episode is complicated by America’s divided politics, which remains the key theme of the show, and is explored differently here than anywhere else. The following episode, with its discussion of trans issues, is bound to be flawed from the outset — Louis C.K.’s take on trans issues isn’t really something anybody asked for. But, as a fellow cisgendered straight dude without the lived experience necessary to properly parse this, I do think that C.K. should generally be commended for his willingness to point out the hypocrisy of social liberalism as practiced by many cis straight white dudes. I’m just not sure that this specific instance of that is especially commendable. The eighth one is fine.

Better Call Saul: “Inflatable” — Well, the flashback off the top was a bit hacky, wasn’t it? Still a fine episode, but after the last two I mostly just want to watch Kim’s story play out, and there was less of that here than there has been recently. I do really love those montages with the colourful suits, though.

Games

The Dream Machine: episodes 4 & 5 — First off, I have confirmation from the devs on Twitter that at least one of them is an Eno fan, so the recurring references to “On Some Faraway Beach” can’t be an accident. (I’m already speculating about how the line “given the choice, I’ll die like a baby” will factor into the ending…) Let’s take the fourth episode first. In isolation, it’s one of the best adventure games I’ve ever played. Even if it lacked its headline gimmick — the stop-motion clay and cardboard presentation — it would still be. I’ve played games with stories that appeal more (Kentucky Route Zero springs to mind, but that might just be because it scratches my perpetual itch for clever metafiction), but I’ve never enjoyed solving puzzles as much as the ones in The Dream Machine episode four. These puzzles made me think, and try stuff, and go down blind alleys, but they never felt unfair or counterintuitive, and solving them felt amazing. Episode five doesn’t fare quite as well in this respect. There were a lot of puzzle solutions in there that I happened upon by chance and only understood in retrospect. There was a lot of “maybe if I try using this item with this item,” which isn’t a very satisfying gameplay experience. But at the same time, the fifth episode is far and away the largest of the bunch, and it certainly has the most ambitious premise. There’s a jaw-dropping twist midway through that makes it fundamentally different from the episodes that precede it. And of course, there’s still the fact that somebody made a sprawling adventure game out of clay and found materials. That will never be less than astonishing. Quibbles aside, this is pretty spectacular, and I honestly don’t know what I’m looking forward to more: the next episode of this, or Kentucky Route Zero. Adventure game fans should really try and find time for both.

Music

Joseph Bertolozzi: Tower Music — This is possibly the strangest recording ever to randomly land on my desk. The whole thing is constructed from samples of the Eiffel Tower being struck by mallets. Bertolozzi traversed the entire structure, painstakingly recording the sounds of different parts of the tower being struck by mallets of varying size and firmness, and then used the resultant library of 10,000 samples to compose this piece. It seems like it’s essentially destined for the broad ranks of fascinating musical marginalia, but that’s not to say it isn’t actually pretty good in places. There are moments that are explicitly gamelan inspired, as you’d expect from music made by striking metal repeatedly. Some of it has a dancelike quality, and much of it calls John Cage’s Sonatas and Interludes for prepared piano to mind. I can’t say I actually recommend it, but it’s nice that it exists in the world.

Giacomo Puccini/Victor de Sabata, Maria Callas, Tito Gobbi et al: Tosca — Is it bad that I’d never actually heard Tosca from start to finish? In any case, this recording is basically perfect. Callas is one of those rare artists in classical music who sounds like absolutely no one else — like Glenn Gould or, I’m increasingly convinced, Patricia Kopatchinskaja. Tito Gobbi and Giuseppe Di Stefano both sing wonderfully as well, and Gobbi is properly terrifying as Scarpia. The orchestra sounds great, though the recording quality is of its time. If you want to experience recorded opera with its best foot forward, this might be the very best recording you could try out. (Though dramatically, Tosca is completely inane and nonsensical. Just listen to the pretty music.)

Genesis: Foxtrot — I loved this so much when I was 12 that I can’t hope to ever assess it objectively. But, for what it’s worth, I’ve lived with this album (and most of Genesis’s other albums, and Yes’s and Jethro Tull’s and King Crimson’s…) for half of my life, and it still holds up. It isn’t merely comfortable: I get the same rush of endorphins from the end of “Supper’s Ready” now as I ever did. It isn’t all like that: “Time Table” remains a bit of regrettable filler and “Get ‘Em Out By Friday” has moments that don’t charm me like they used to. But “Watcher of the Skies” has actually grown on me, if anything. By and large, Foxtrot has held up over a truly astonishing number of listens. I hope I can say that in 13 years about some of the music I’m discovering now.

El-P: Fantastic Damage — Like this, for instance. I actually have nothing much to say about this, at the moment. I feel like I’ll need to listen to this about ten more times before I even know what’s going on. I hadn’t realized that El-P is exercising  restraint in Run the Jewels. This is madness. 

Literature, etc.

Jia Tolentino: “Is This the End of the Important, Inappropriate Literary Man?” — Just get past that headline and read this piece. It’s a rigorous, reasoned and troubling appraisal of the widespread harassment that happens when men are made so important that they can get away with anything. Actually, that’s a really inadequate summary. It’s also an investigation into mob justice. That’s still an inadequate summary. Here, have a quote: “Our awareness of the prevalence and magnitude of sexual assault has outpaced the systems that expose and adjudicate it.” Still not perfect. But then, if I gave a perfect summary, maybe you’d be less inclined to read it. Read it. Pick of the week.

Podcasts

Radiolab: “Update: 23 Weeks 6 Days” — It’s strange to hear Jad say at the start of this repeat episode that this was the first show where they devoted the whole hour to a single story. I suppose it was the beginning of the decline, in some sense. But nobody could have known it at the time. This is one of the very best episodes of Radiolab, and thus one of the best radio stories ever told. It’s horribly, gut-wrenchingly sad for most of its duration, and it grapples with impossible questions, but it makes no concessions to either the complexity or the sadness. It’s just all there. No attempts to mitigate it were made. And that’s such a wise decision. Marvellous, staggering, superlative. The whole point of radio. Pick of the week.

The John Peel Lecture: Brian Eno — Firstly, I love that the John Peel Lecture is a thing that exists. Secondly, I love that they’re available as podcasts. And thirdly, Brian Eno is really one of the people you’d most want to do one. His lecture isn’t entirely groundbreaking — it’s based around the idea that art has a purpose that can’t quantified, which is a well-established line of thought, albeit not one that has found adequate footing in Western governments. But there are two very interesting things here. One is Eno’s broad definition of art: “everything that you don’t have to do.” That just serves to remind us that there are two things Eno is very, very good at: music and aphorisms. And the second interesting thing is Eno’s notion of “scenius,” rather than genius (also wonderfully extrapolated upon in Sheppard’s Eno biography). The idea is that we place too much emphasis on the accomplishments of individuals, and too little on the community — the scene. Eno extrapolates on this by telling his own early story in terms of community support for his art. He went to art school for free. He went on the dole immediately after graduation so that he could continue developing his art and not get stuck in a job he hated. He got his first national exposure as a member of Roxy Music on the BBC, thanks to Peel himself. The point is clear: art is the result of the circumstances imposed by the artist’s community. So, it shouldn’t necessarily be conceived of in the terms of an industry. Even if it isn’t totally revolutionary, Eno’s argument should be heard loud and clear, preferably by policy makers around the world.

Imaginary Worlds: “When Cthulhu Calls” — This is the best new thing I heard this week. It really is pretty brilliant. For just this one episode, Eric Molinsky assumes a Jonathan Goldsteinian relationship to the truth and tells us about the cultural significance of H.P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu mythos, only to get sucked into a Lovecraftian horror story himself. He thus answers the question “Why do people make/buy cutesy Cthulhu tchochkes?” by putting himself in a fictional situation where he needs them. I want to make it pick of the week, but it can’t beat Radiolab at its best.

All Songs Considered: “New Mix: Explosions In The Sky, Parquet Courts, Wire, Told Slant, More” — It’s amazing how quickly All Songs went from being a show I’d never considered listening to, to a show that I almost never miss. The highlight here is the new Explosions in the Sky, though I can’t quite tell if I’m interested enough to check out the album or not. We’ll see.

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