Omnireviewer (week of May 22)

19 reviews. One of my favourite picks of the week ever (the first one).

Music

The White Stripes: Under Great White Northern Lights — Based on the bits and bobs I’ve seen online, I’m not sure this is the best available document of the White Stripes’ live show. It’s a lot of fun, but it’s all one song into the next, into the next. And my understanding was that they could really play fast and loose (in both senses) with their material in a live setting, since it’s just the two of them and they’re basically telepathic. I will investigate further.

Pink Floyd: A Saucerful of Secrets — For my money, better than The Piper at the Gates of Dawn. I used to be astonished at how quickly the other members of the band, and especially Roger Waters, were able to fill the void left by Syd Barrett. But after reading some of Mark Blake’s book about the band, it’s clear that Waters always had rock star aspirations and wouldn’t soon settle for being just some bassist. It’s also clear that Richard Wright was the most musically knowledgeable member of the band from the start. If Barrett had been able to continue on in the band, I highly doubt that he would have continued to exert such creative dominance. But as it stands, he wasn’t able to continue on, and the people around him were more talented than anybody gave them credit for. I like Barrett’s music a lot, but this is my pick for the best early Pink Floyd album (certainly the best prior to Meddle), and it’s only partially because of “Jugband Blues.”  A final note: it is astonishing to hear the version of Pink Floyd that made “Interstellar Overdrive” and that will go on to make the bulk of More and Ummagumma gradually give way to the version of Pink Floyd that will make “Echoes” and “Shine On You Crazy Diamond” through the course of the title track’s 11 minutes.

Literature, etc.

Thomas Ligotti: “The Town Manager” — This is the second story of two in this collection that has reminded me of a favourite piece of internet media, which it predates. “The Town Manager” has all of the hallmarks of Welcome to Night Vale, including the dark humour. But, being Ligotti, the darkness ultimately wins out over the humour. It’s about a town that abides by the arbitrary dictates of a series of town managers and a barely-remembered town constitution that nobody has understood for decades. One suspects it is not Ligotti’s goal to write fiction that is #relatable, but “The Town Manager” fits the bill.

Thomas Ligotti: “Sideshow, and Other Stories” — A high-concept story, the premise of which is that Ligotti met another writer in a coffee shop and he gave him a sheaf of tiny stories. The framing device makes it — since we know who this guy is, his writing takes on deeper meaning. Nice.

Thomas Ligotti: “The Clown Puppet” — A bit dumb, honestly. I feel like creepy puppets have been played out since before this story was written. The prose is great, though, and it’s repetitiveness and sense of alienation remind me of “The Yellow Wallpaper,” which is a very good thing to be put in mind of.

Television

Last Week Tonight: May 22, 2016 — Brilliant from start to finish. In the segment on Trudeau’s apologies for elbowgate (oh my god am I actually going to use that word in a blog post yes I am), Oliver and his writers demonstrate something they’ve demonstrated before, which is that they understand Canada better than our own comedians and indeed better than much of our media. The main segment on primaries and caucuses demonstrates what we all pretty much knew, which is that this system is madness, and it contains one of my favourite comedic tropes, which is a person explaining a concept factually but the concept is so arcane that it becomes absurd after a few lines. And his final segment on the leader of Chechnya contains the best joke to have been hand-delivered to them by a horrible tyrant: “we have completely lost our cat.”

Game of Thrones: “The Door” — Things are picking up, now. Obviously, the headline is Hodor and generally everything in the Bran plotline, which I’ve been excited about from the start, but there’s much more to love in this. Tyrion and Varys are working as characters again, and Varys gets one of his best moments ever, when he spouts a rather eloquent screed against fanaticism, only to be seriously unsettled by the possibility that the Red Priestesses actually have a power he’d never considered real. The Wall continues to benefit from the presence of characters we’re not accustomed to seeing there: Littlefinger is at his most loathable here, and Sansa’s just-frank-enough account of her rape by Ramsay is a satisfying expression of power on her part — though it doesn’t come close to justifying that plotline in the last season. Jorah and Daenerys get their best scene together, and it’s only slightly undercut by Daario standing there awkwardly. Considering how angry I was at this show four episodes ago, the fact that it’s won me over is a minor miracle. I would like to stop seeing Arya get beaten up, though.

Movies

La Règle du Jeu (The Rules of the Game) — It is really great to have a public library in your city that lets you stream the bulk of the Criterion Collection. The Rules of the Game has been one of my favourite movies since I first saw it in a film studies class, at exactly the point in my life when seeing movies like The Rules of the Game in film studies classes would have the greatest impact. It contains what is still my favourite movie quote ever. Approximately translated: “The awful thing about life is this: everyone has their reasons.” That perfectly describes the way that everybody acts in this movie, and mostly in real life too, I think. Nobody in The Rules of the Game is evil. Self-interested, certainly. Inconsiderate, also. Myopic, certainly. But for the most part, the characters in this movie do what they feel is right. And when they don’t, they jump through hoops to justify their actions to themselves. And people still get hurt. The worst things that happen in the world don’t happen because humans are malicious; they happen in spite of the fact that they’re not. “The awful thing about life is this: everyone has their reasons.” There is only one other movie I can think of that recognizes this is true, and that is A Separation, which is the closest thing to a 21st-century Rules of the Game. If you’ve seen one and not the other, see the other. If you’ve seen neither, watch them both tonight.  

Games

EarthBound — Finally beat it. The fact that this game is a masterpiece really crept up on me. I was totally lukewarm on it at first. But in retrospect, its relatively innocuous opening chapters are a long con, designed to ease you into the game’s philosophy, which is basically that you cannot trust authority. The fact that this is such an obvious theme in a game intended for children, and that it is obvious without ever being stated outright, warms the cockles of my heart. In EarthBound, you play as a seemingly ordinary child called Ness. Pains are taken to establish the fact that Ness’s family is lower-middle class at best, and that their neighbours, the Minches, are wealthy. The Minches’ eldest son Pokey is an especially entitled little wanker who consistently anchors one of my favourite plot threads in the game, more on which in a moment. Ness’s family is loving, but his father is a lazy absentee who never appears in the game: he is only reachable by phone. (Possibly the saddest and most poignant moment in EarthBound is in the end credits: each of the characters’ names scroll across the screen, accompanied by an image of the character. But when “Dad” scrolls across the screen, the image is simply of a rotary telephone.) As the game pushes along, it isn’t only family and the trappings of wealth that get a raised eyebrow from EarthBound’s devs. It’s also the police, (Ness gets attacked by cops almost immediately when the game begins) organized religion (a cult paints an entire town blue as a matter of dogma), and consumer culture (you’re attacked by anthropomorphic records and coffee cups during a power outage in a department store). It’s power in all of its forms that EarthBound distrusts. In the final moments of the game’s last battle, Pokey appears again to gloat about how he’s able to ally himself with the powerful. One assumes that this is what he has learned from his privileged upbringing: associate with the powerful, regardless of morals and ethics. Throughout the game Pokey allies himself with a ridiculous but terrifyingly effective cult leader, a millionaire property developer under the influence of mind control, and Cthulhu. (Well, not technically Cthulhu, but more or less. The game goes full-bore Lovecraft at the end, more on which in a moment.) He’s an absolute weasel, he’s totally unrepentant, he’s allowed to get away with everything, and crucially, he is not redeemed. He’s just bad. A bad rich person, against whom an upright poor kid has to fight. In a summer where the biggest movie is about a clash between a soldier and a wealthy industrialist, it is incredibly refreshing to see something so openly sceptical of power. And the game’s best trick is that it reveals itself to be a dramatically different game than you thought you were playing right at the end, when your fight with an unknowable, incomprehensible consciousness takes on the tenor of Lovecraftian horror. But the game has prepared you for this by the end: no authority is worth taking at face value. Even the seemingly sedate narrative of a seemingly trustworthy little Nintendo game can turn on you. I think EarthBound is available on Wii U, or whatever that thing is called. So, parents: get this game for your kids. I honestly believe that it has the capacity to instil important values and make them better citizens. And beyond that, it’s just a grand old yarn. Pick of the week.

Kentucky Route Zero interludes: “Limits and Demonstrations,” “The Entertainment,” and “Here and There Along the Echo” — Like every fan of Kentucky Route Zero, I am anxiously awaiting the next, profoundly delayed, instalment. But unlike many Kentucky Route Zero fans, I had completely missed the fact that there are mini-games available for free that add depth to the main story. They’re not just trifles — It took me a couple of hours to get though all three. And they make substantial additions to the story’s canon. “Limits and Demonstrations” is in retrospect the first part of the game to make its metafiction explicit: this is a game about computer games, though the main story doesn’t quite make it there until Act 3. “The Entertainment” broadens Kentucky Route Zero’s engagement with the subprime mortgage crisis, which is somehow also a major recurring theme. It also contains a nice Waiting for Godot riff, as the bar patrons await the arrival of the entertainment. (When we meet the entertainment in Act 3, she explicitly quotes Beckett.) “Here and There Along the Echo” is certainly the most novel of the three — the entire game consists simply of a touchtone telephone that can only call one number. When you call that number, you’re faced with an inscrutable tree of menus read by an eccentric Southern gentleman who claims to represent “The Bureau of Secret Tourism.” The world of Kentucky Route Zero is so well defined that the devs can strip it down to a hotline and it’s still aesthetically recognizable. I can’t wait for Act 4.

Podcasts

The Heart: “Not the Right Time” — This is heavy stuff. It’s a first-person narrative about a woman having been sexually abused as a child. It’s beautifully produced, and exactly as hard to listen to as it’s meant to be. But it’s hard to judge this just yet, since it’s just the first episode of a mini-season that sounds like it will be very eventful, and very troubling to follow. I still will, though.

Reply All: “On the Inside, Part II” — So, at this point this actually is just Serial. And in spite of being less obsessive and rigorous than Koenig’s team’s production, it is entertaining me more than the second season of Serial did.

Fresh Air: “Marc Maron On Sobriety And His ‘Uncomfortable’ Comfort Zone” — I’ve heard Maron interviewing Terry Gross. Time for the opposite. What’s notable is how obviously Gross likes Maron: she wants the best for him and finds him excellent company, even though he can be overbearing. (I suppose interview subjects are allowed to be overbearing, but it still doesn’t speak well of them.) What’s also notable is how bad Maron’s TV show sounds like it is.

Fresh Air: “ Bryan Cranston” — I don’t know why Fresh Air is my favourite show to cook to, but that does seem to happen a lot. This is an old interview, but Cranston is such a charmer. A fun chat.

StartUp: “The Runway” — GOOGLE SPONSORS GIMLET NOW!?!?!? Ahem. This was lovely, and I liked that they broke it up into small vignettes. But in general, if you have to announce the structural gimmick at the start, you’re either not doing the gimmick right or you’re just generally not adventurous enough. I’ll go with the second one, with the provision that almost every podcast has the same problem. Somebody really needs to tear the walls of this medium down. And I say that as a devotee.

All Songs Considered: “A Conversation With Paul Simon” — On one hand, it’s cool to hear Bob Boilen basically do Song Exploder redux and just talk to an artist about one song. And the song is pretty good. On the other, it’s awkward to hear Paul Simon talk about studio practices that are a matter of course for any hip-hop producer as if they’re the most innovative thing in the world.

Criminal: “39 Shots” — This is the story of the time when leftist protesters got shot up by the Klan and the Klan was deemed not guilty on the grounds of self-defense. The most compelling and damning aspect of this is that the police were not there, in spite of them having issued the permit for the protest that was taking place, and saying they would be there to protect the protesters. As usual, Phoebe Judge does not try to influence your opinions directly. Nonetheless, it will disgust you.

Radiolab: “Coming Soon: More Perfect” — A show from Radiolab about the Supreme Court? Will Brooke Gladstone be involved? Because then I’m in.

99% Invisible: “Loud and Clear” — The story of why cassette tapes are still popular in prisons. There are so many interesting things in the world. At the best of times, 99pi reminds me of that. Plus, the Theory of Everything clip they play at the end is gold. I’m going to have to check that episode out. Pick of the week.

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