Omnireviewer (week of Aug. 21, 2016)

33 reviews! Holy smokes!

Television

Deadwood: Season three, episodes 10-12 — Okay, so Deadwood doesn’t get a series finale with the intentionality of The Wire and The Sopranos (whose finale was a piss-take anyway; a beautiful piss-take). But I’m not convinced that the lack of an ending actually compromises the show all that much. Deadwood’s a show about a continuing process: the formation of a community. It’s also a show about its own genre, and a critique of the classic western movie value of rugged individualism. It isn’t so much a show with tightly woven, neat narrative arcs. In that sense, it may be one of the most discursive shows ever on television. Even Orange is the New Black, discursive as it can be, walks a traceable line from the beginnings to the ends of its seasons. Deadwood doesn’t so much walk from one place to another as it, to borrow a word from a favourite character, perambulates. These final three episodes of the show are three more hours of time spent in an interesting place, populated by interesting people. The people have changed gradually, along with their community. Regardless of whether that’s the point where the show was meant to end up or not, it’s a fine place to leave off. Deadwood is one of the best series in the history of television. I’ll watch it again for sure.

Last Week Tonight: August 21, 2016 — The chartered schools segment is a bit joke-light, but segments about Ryan Lochte and getting Trump out of the race compensate, mostly.

Comedy

David Cross: Making America Great Again — Does it make me a really good person that I thought all of these jokes were very very obvious? I think it does. This is an okay special. But I really don’t think that most of the people who’ll be inclined to watch it on Netflix will come away with their views challenged, and they probably won’t laugh much either. Because, when you laugh at, for instance, a great bit by Louis C.K., you’re laughing because he’s helping you see a thing in a way you hadn’t been able to see it before, because it was counterintuitive until it was communicated in a certain way. (“People have to do their favourite thing!”) David Cross has a few of those moments. There’s a completely brutal, absolutely wonderful bit about guns in schools that is a real highlight. But depending on who you are, most of these jokes will either make you very angry, or make you feel validated. That’s what Facebook does, and I hate Facebook. Comedy for the age of the viral mill. 

Music

The Tragically Hip: Fully Completely — Definitely not as good as Day For Night. I understand that this is the album where the Hip “broke through,” but they still sound a bit like a very good pub band on this. A very good pub band with several obvious hits in their set and extremely high-calibre lyrics, but still. “Nautical Disaster” is in a different universe to this music. I’ll still probably listen to it a bunch, because it’s compelling nonetheless. And I do have this one very large caveat to my general indifference: “Wheat Kings” is glorious. It tells a bittersweet story by way of small images, and it ties that story inextricably to its setting. And it does all of this in three verses and a minimalistic chorus. The band always plays beautifully in these acoustic ballads, and Downie’s voice delivers pathos without ever stepping over the line into indulgence. “Wheat Kings” easily eclipses the rest of the album, but that’s not so much an indictment of Fully Completely as a demonstration of this particular song’s power.

The Knights: The Ground Beneath Our Feet — I like it when a classical disc is programmed around an idea. This live recording by a new music ensemble I hadn’t heard before is based around the concept of the concerto grosso — a form where a small group of instruments is pitted against a larger group. It’s a broad enough notion that it can encompass a huge range of musical styles. The record is divided into halves that can roughly be characterized as “old stalwarts” and “proper new music.” The oldest of the stalwarts is Bach, whose Concerto for Violin and Oboe is well played here. I wonder why they didn’t go for Corelli, given his importance to the concerto grosso as a genre. Nonetheless, in this setting, Bach shines. It may be simply the company he’s keeping on this record, but it occurs to me that he’s got a more modern sensibility than many composers who came after. It’s got to do with his working within rule structures rather than prioritizing a personal idiom. Compared to, say, Beethoven, he’s a glib hipster. Historically, the next figure on the program is Stravinsky, whose Dumbarton Oaks concerto is an absolute gem that I’d never heard before. I’ve always loved Stravinsky’s neo-classical works, for similar reasons to why I love Bach. There’s something unforced about both of those bodies of work, but still beautiful. The other stalwart is the ubiquitous new music god Steve Reich, whose Duet for Two Violins and Strings finds him in a meditative mood. It’s quite wonderful. As for the proper new music, we’ve got two collaborative compositions. The first, by Brooklyn Rider’s Colin Jacobsen (whose music I adored on A Walking Fire) and the santur virtuoso Siamak Aghaei, is a double concerto for their two instruments. It has its moments, but it’s the weak point of the disc by a long shot. The second, the disc’s title track, is collaboratively composed (semi-improvised?) by various members of the ensemble. It’s based on a ground bass by the obscure Italian Baroque composer Tarquino Merula (get it? Ground beneath our feet?) and when it picks up, it’s absolutely thrilling and often ridiculous and stupid, which are characteristics I like in new music. This is the kind of disc that I really love from classical-derived ensembles these days. It devotes half of its running time to traditional but not overplayed selections from the rep, and the other half to taking risks. Whether the risks pay off or not is almost beside the point, though I’d say that about half of the new material on this disc is really good. I don’t review all of the classical music I listen to on this blog, because I listen for work, and a lot of the time I don’t make it through the whole disc. But I have heard a bunch of classical recordings from this year, and this is one of the standouts.

Literature, etc.

Lois Tyson: Critical Theory Today: A User-Friendly Guide — You may have realized that there are never any books or stories in Omnireviewer these days. I mean, I’ve been busy. But I’ve also been catching up with a lot of my favourite bloggers (whose work I don’t review because of my rabbit-hole rule, see Omnireviewer no. 1). And I’ve been reading this. Tyson’s prose is engaging and she takes on the explicit role of a teacher throughout, and not just a scholar. It’s trivial to breeze through a chapter on a long bus commute. I’ve done so on three commutes, now: one each devoted to the chapters on psychoanalysis, Marxism and feminism. The really great thing about this is how the chapters are structured. Each one starts with a series of simple explanations of the given theory’s terms and premises (sign-exchange value, materialist feminism, etc.) with even-handed accounts of the debates within these scholarly communities, and concludes with a practical application of each theory to The Great Gatsby: a short, good book that everybody has read. I have no specific need for these theories in my own work at the moment, but I do hope to do some of the sort of writing where they could be useful in the near future. I’d recommend this to anybody who wants to sharpen their criticism chops.

Tom Scocca: “Gawker Was Murdered By Gaslight” — I find many defences of Gawker’s ethics a little dubious, but there’s no arguing with Scocca when he says that the publication’s practices don’t really have anything to do with why it is ceasing to exist. The fact that we’re living in a world where journalism outfits have no legal defence against powerful rich people with vendettas makes me very uncomfortable.

Nick Denton: “How Things Work” — Denton comes off as a bit compromising in Scocca’s piece, but here he gets to be an idealist. Not a kind of idealist I like, mind you. The idea that Gawker’s goal was to “reduce the friction between the thought and the page” troubles me. There should be things that keep you from saying exactly what you think in public forums. Lots of things. People’s unfiltered thoughts are dangerous garbage. But I understand Denton’s impulse towards radical freedom of information in principle, even if it was practiced poorly. Plus, the site’s ahead-of-the-curve realization that a form of intensely critical journalism was needed to cover the new powerbrokers in Silicon Valley is a major moment in the culture of the internet. Which, of course, only makes the source of its demise more ironic and troubling.

Joseph and Amanda Boyden: “For Gord Downie, Seven Love Songs” — I mean, it’s a bit gushy. It’s a bit like rock criticism of old, where the subject is to be idolized and venerated. But, come on. The Boydens are friends of the Hip. They deserve to wax grandly poetic in public for a few thousand words. I think I’m done reading about the Hip now.

Jorge Luis Borges: The Book of Imaginary Beings — I found this for six bucks at one of my favourite used bookstores (MacLaod’s on Pender; seriously, it’s the best shop wander in the city) and figured what the hell. Trust Borges to elevate the encyclopaedia to literary status. This is literally what it says on the cover: an alphabetical listing of fictional beasts from various cultures. Most are described in Borges’s own prose, translated by Norman Thomas di Giovanni, working with Borges himself, but some are simply extracts from the prose of local experts. It’s not meant to be read from cover to cover, so I won’t. I’ll just keep it around and pick through it occasionally. A few highlights so far: the entry on the Squonk of Pennsylvania is excerpted from a guidebook by William T. Cox, which is the source for the Genesis song of the same name. Borges’s entry on the Golem focusses in a fascinating way on the idiosyncrasies of Kabbalistic magic. Also, there is apparently a fictional monkey in northern China that is only about four inches tall, jet black, and likes to drink India ink. It is described as waiting patiently with one forepaw resting on the other, until a person is finished writing, and then it drinks whatever ink is left in the inkwell, resting satisfiedly afterwards. Adorbs.  

Thomas Ligotti: “Teatro Grottesco” — It is good/terrible to be back in the world of Ligotti. The title story from the collection I’m reading proves not only to have the most demonstrative and catchy title, but also to be one of the highlights of the book. I’d place it alongside “The Red Tower” as the best I’ve read so far. It’s a story about weird art, written by one of the great weird artists. And, though it doesn’t obsess over its own structure as much as “The Red Tower” does, it is equally concerned with concepts and processes. Several pages are just the protagonist agonizing over what logical process could bring down the nebulous force called the Teatro, and it’s fascinating and horrifying. There’s not much to say about this without explaining the mystery away, so I’ll just encourage you to read it when it’s dark and shitty and you want to feel unsettled. Pick of the week.

Games

Pokémon Go — I don’t get it. I really don’t. It’s possible that I’m just doing it wrong, but I found so few Pokémon during the half-day I spent periodically doing this thing that I have very little inclination to continue. I have no prejudice against “casual games,” but I do tend to prefer when games are discrete units of experience with beginnings and endings, like movies. They fit into my life better that way, because I can decide that I’m going to devote X hours to them, and then be done forever. (Regular readers will know that I’m especially predisposed to games that only take a few hours to beat. I like my games to be as much like movies as possible.) Games with the potential to expand outward into the rest of my life are more inconvenient than anything. I don’t think I’m going to get into this.

Podcasts

Theory of Everything: “pass” — I’ve heard this before, but it bears repeating. It’s a not entirely comedic monologue about what happens when the self-driving cars become self-aware. Walker is a really good writer, and I’m just as happy for him to do stuff like this as I am to hear him do docs.

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “Small Batch” You’re Listening To Delilah” — This is worthwhile just to hear the rapport between Linda Holmes and David Greene, whose show I have never heard because I am neither American nor a morning person. I have also never heard Delilah’s radio program, which is one of those funny artefacts that’s just as much a part of a place as an old road or a gaudy neon sign. This interview is really great, though, because it demonstrates why she’s exactly the right person to be doing this job, and it also puts her opposite Greene, who gets to be a radio listener in the context of this piece, as well as a radio personality. Fun.

99% Invisible: “Photo Credit” — The best episode of 99pi in a while. Lucia Moholy took iconic photographs of Bauhaus architecture and Walter Gropius, like a shit, denied her any credit for years. This contains some basic context about the Bauhaus, a diversion into copyright law as applied to photographic images, and also Nazis. Fantastic.

The Heart: “The Big House” — The memoir of a dominatrix brought to life. This doesn’t even really need to have a narrative arc to be fascinating. It’s a glimpse inside a world most people will never see, for our own various reasons.

All Songs Considered: “Bon Iver, the White Stripes, Ed Harcourt, Lambchop, More” — I’ve always resisted Bon Iver, but I really liked this track, I’ve got to say. I may even listen to the album. I was also super into the tracks by LVL UP and Lambchop. I want to like the instrumental, percussion-heavy track from Thor and Friends but I actually thought it was pretty bland. Good episode altogether, though.

The Gist: “The ‘80s Really Were the Best” — Were they, though? Both host and interviewee are very nostalgic for the original Ghostbusters, and I cannot figure out why the hell anybody still gives that movie the time of day. But I can listen to Pesca talk about anything.

Planet Money: “Oil,” episodes 3-5 — My podcast feed is obsessed with fracking, these days. This series was a wonderful, wild venture, and the contextual stories about the invention of fracking (by accident, no less) and how oil got into all of our consumer products are just as interesting as the tale of two intrepid NPR producers trying (and failing) to make a profit off of 100 barrels of oil. The mini-series finale is a lovely speculative exploration of how history might have unfolded differently if there were no fossil fuels. It is in itself a really great podcast episode that I think everybody should hear.

On The Media: “Bob’s Grill” parts 1-4 — This is a brilliant concept for an ongoing series of mini-episodes: Bob Garfield grilling people in the media who’ve been shitty. It isn’t uniformly great listening, but it’ll scratch the itch. These four focus on Judith Miller, who misreported on the alleged presence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, Hunter Moore, a revenge porn enabler who is the honest to god scum of the earth, James O’Keefe, a gotcha videojournalist who habitually distorts quotes and manipulates footage, and ExxonMobil’s Richard Keil, who denies that Exxon funds climate change denial. Garfield is adequately hard on Miller and Keil, but he doesn’t corner O’Keefe as thoroughly as I’d like. The real disappointment is Hunter Moore, whose very existence seems to depress Garfield so thoroughly that he can’t tear into him adequately.  

Code Switch: “Struggling School, Or Sanctuary?” — This is a crossover with Embedded, a podcast I likely won’t listen to, because I hate “ostentatious journalism,” even when the reporting is solid. But this story of a low-performing school in a predominantly black suburb that got closed down is a real heartbreaker. I’m reminded of This American Life’s two-parter about Harper high school. It’s not quite that good, but worth a listen.

The Sporkful: “Beyond Pot Brownies” — Dan Pashman and Jad Abumrad getting high together was not something I knew I needed in my life. But, there you go. Pashman’s key point in this episode are that in order for weed edibles to provide a good eating experience, in tandem with the intoxication experience, you need to be able to eat a full serving of whatever the weed’s baked into and not go out of your mind. It makes you wonder if some point in the future, weed edibles will become something like beer or wine, as opposed to being like tequila shots: you consume them for both halves of the experience, the taste and the high. I’m not super sure what Abumrad and the other Radiolab staffers are doing here. There’s a great moment when Jad gets too high and the sound design goes all Jad, to the point where I halfway thought he must have done it. The credits proved me wrong, alas. Maybe the Radiolab folks are just infamous stoners in the WNYC building?

This American Life: “The Incredible Case of the P.I. Moms” — Holy moly. This is honest to god the most enthralling radio I’ve heard in weeks. I love a lot of shows for a lot of reasons, but I really understand why TAL maintains its radio dominance: it can string you along like nothing else. This is a twisting, turning, film noir of a story about a horrible person who tried to make a reality show by committing crimes and staging stings — with a troupe of “soccer moms” who doubled as P.I.s. It’s amazing. I heard Ira Glass speak one time and he said that storytelling is as simple as saying what happens, and then what happens next, and then what happens next. This story could serve as proof-of-concept for that idea. Pick of the week.

Radiolab: “Playing God” — A good week for the juggernauts. This is a deep dive into the ethical considerations involved with hospital triage. It’s a collaboration with the New York Times, and their reporter Sheri Fink, who wrote that book about the hospital in Hurricane Katrina that I’ve been meaning to read since it came out. This hour asks the impossible questions that Radiolab always does at its best, and tells engaging stories. It’s got some great original music. It also has an incredible line from Robert Krulwich at the very end. It’s their best of the year for sure, not counting every episode of More Perfect

Sampler: “Paul F. Tompkins, The Mayor of Podcastland” — I listened to this in the hopes that it would make Paul F. Tompkins’ massive offering in the medium of podcasts more approachable and comprehensible. It didn’t, but I did get a great interview with Paul F. Tompkins, and that’s not nothing.

The Gist: “The Year Nirvana Lost Out to Bryan Adams” — Mike Pesca should not sing Hamilton parodies. But he should definitely keep talking to this music critic, who I’ve heard on this show a couple of times now, and he’s always great. And at least Pesca’s a bit less religious about fucking Ghostbusters this time around.

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “Small Batch: Stranger Things Creators The Duffer Brothers” — I am beyond excited to finally watch this series. Next week.

99% Invisible: “On Average” — Man, I feel like it’s two years ago. This week, I’ve listened to two great new 99pi episodes, and the other best shows of the week are This American Life and Radiolab. This piece on why designing things for “the average person” is a bad idea should serve as a parable for anybody making anything ever. But, even as a straightforward piece of journalism, it’s a remarkable story about how a seemingly good idea got way out of hand.

Code Switch: “Nate Parker’s Past, His Present, And The Future of ‘The Birth of a Nation’” — A nuanced, complex discussion of whether or not Nate Parker’s very righteous movie about a slave rebellion ought to functionally expunge his past as an alleged rapist. And, nuanced and complex as it is, it mercifully comes to a conclusion nonetheless. The answer is no. No it shouldn’t.

All Songs Considered: “The Beatles are Live And Sounding Better Than Ever” — Giles Martin is as much a gentleman as his father. And he’s also doing God’s work by cleaning up old live Beatles records. I can’t wait to hear the new Hollywood Bowl reissue. Even considering that those years are not my favourite part of the Beatles’ career, it’s really exciting to have these recordings back, and sounding good.

Reply All: “Making Friends” — This is a lovely story of a person who is living on a fine line between mental illness and a healthy imagination. She has four imaginary friends who help her through her life. She belongs to a community of people who have these so-called “tulpas” (a great, great word), but she’s also trying to exist within the institutions of conventional human society (for example, marriage). One thing I love about Reply All is that, being focussed on the internet and the communities that form there, it covers a vast swathe of humanity. All of the strange, wondrous, troubling corners of modern human experience are fair game on this show.

Theory of Everything: “revolutionary slogans will be written by the winners” — The story of a definitely totally real drinking contest between Guy Debord and Mitt Romney. There’s only one podcast that could happen on.

Science Vs: “Organic Food” — Here’s another issue with this new show that I desperately want to love: when the science is inconclusive, it makes for frustrating radio. I’m going to keep listening to this, though, because its best moments are truly great.

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