Every so often I write a review on here that I’m actually pretty proud of. The Captain America: Civil War review comes to mind. I’ll just flag right here that I’m very happy with my brief assessment of the final story in Thomas Ligotti’s Teatro Grottesco. It is a very good story and I nearly gave it pick of the week, but not quite, because apparently I like indie games better than anything else these days.
Kiss Kiss Bang Bang — Really really fun. Just, concentrated fun in every scene. Naturally, since this is the classic, beloved Shane Black movie that The Nice Guys isn’t, I’m obligated to stack them up against each other. I’ll say this: it’s not as clear a victory as some would have it. Kiss Kiss Bang Bang has a better story and sharper dialogue, but I find Robert Downey Jr.’s overtly ironic narration a bit dated. Maybe it’s just that over the course of the decade since this movie, the tropes that he’s lampshading have begun to parody themselves. You know: a straightforward iteration of the “clearly-dead-man-survives-wait-WTF” trope might be funnier than having it highlighted in the voiceover. But it’s a quibble. The real area where The Nice Guys outshines this is the performances. Robert Downey Jr. is great here in the Robert Downey Jr. role. But if we’re comparing apples with apples, Ryan Gosling ekes out a narrow victory in the Hapless N’er Do Well category, Russell Crowe far outdoes Val Kilmer in the Goon In Over His Head category, and as wonderful as Michelle Monaghan is in this movie she is handily outclassed in the Smarter Than She’s Given Credit For Sidelined Female Role category by the 14-year-old Angourie Rice. Nice Guys has more ingenious action set pieces, too. What I’m saying is not that Kiss Kiss Bang Bang isn’t as good as its reputation. I think it’s almost exactly as good as its reputation. It’s just that The Nice Guys is fantastic and deserved way better than its lukewarm reception.
Chef’s Table: Season 1, episodes 1 & 2 — First off, if you’re going to use the Richter Four Seasons in your show, why on earth would you pick that dumb 7/8 movement? It’s literally the only bad part of that piece, and they picked it as the theme song. As for the actual content of the show, it’s amazing to get a look inside the kitchens of these really interesting chefs, but I can’t help but feel like the director’s camera is a tool for worship. These portraits are hagiographies, which I don’t necessarily mind. But there are only so many slow-motion shots of a man talking with his hands that you can see before you start to wish they wouldn’t manipulate you quite so obviously. It gets to the point where these episodes start to feel like they were made by marketing professionals, helping these chefs leverage their personal brands. It’s chefs presented as Silicon Valley magnates. They seem really cognisant of the camera. (“Let’s go do some good,” one chef says to his crew after a pep talk. Fuck you, chef.) In the second episode, there are long stretches of people spouting platitudes. There’s a promising hint of tension at one point, when the chef in question cops to having a temper. You suspect that maybe it was prompted by something that a sous-chef said in an interview, or some tape they got of him blowing up in the kitchen that he felt he needed to address, but you never see it. So, instead of being a guy with a temper, he gets to be a guy who’s “working on his temper.” It only contributes to the sense that these documentaries are worshipful above all else. Also, it may just be because I’ve been editing audio for hours a day for weeks on end, but I’ve been hearing every single edit in the interview tape. I know it’s less important to be seamless in video than in radio, but come on. It’s distracting. I’ll probably watch more of this, because good god this is some interesting food, but as a show it has some serious problems.
Ta-Nehisi Coates: “How Breitbart Conquered the Media” — Hillary Clinton needed this. Ta-Nehisi Coates does a brilliant job defending Clinton for her recent statement (containing the only memorable turn of phrase in this brutal election cycle) that half of Trump’s supporters were in the “basket of deplorables.” If anything, he suggests, that figure is too low. No shit.
Ta-Nehisi Coates: “What O.J. Simpson Means to Me” — It’s basically a re-hash of the themes in O.J.: Made in America (still the best thing that’s been made this year, for those keeping score), but it’s in Coates’s prose and it contains a really wonderful extended metaphor involving Houdini, as characterized in E.L. Doctorow’s Ragtime.
Thomas Ligotti: “The Shadow, The Darkness” — The last short story in a collection doesn’t really need to be a summation of everything that came before it, but this is a really fantastic way to finish Teatro Grotesco. (I am aware of an alternate edition that contains three more stories past this, and I regret not having access to them, but none could be a more fitting conclusion.) Like the other stories in the book’s third chunk, subtitled “The Damaged and the Diseased,” this final story deals with the creation of art: specifically its futility. It’s a story that will resonate with any creative person who has ever found themselves in a situation where success seems contingent on the extent to which you can sacrifice your sense of self. Any number of characters, from the narrator to the failed artist Grossvogel (Big Bird?) to the man penning a pamphlet on “the conspiracy against the human race” (the title to a book that Ligotti himself would later publish) could serve as plausible authorial inserts. Given that I don’t know anything about the man — nor does anybody, seemingly — I’m at pains to decide what that could mean. But maybe it’s totally irrelevant. Without spoiling anything, because this is a story that definitely starts in one place and ends in another, “The Shadow, The Darkness” calls into question the very notion that meaning can be communicated through words. For Ligotti, the ultimate horror is that everything we can understand is fake (“nonsense and dreams,” he phrases it in this story, “nothing but show business,” he suggests in another) and everything that’s actually real is incomprehensible. The idea that the entire communicative infrastructure that he’s been using throughout all of these stories that seek to pull back the veil on the world’s horrors is itself false and fruitless is the biggest, most all-encompassing horror of all.
Oxenfree — Looks like creepy 80s throwbacks are just on the air these days. But in spite of being a mysterious, Stephen King-esque horror story with teen movie tropes and a synth score, Oxenfree feels like much more than Stranger Things: the game. While Stranger Things wore its tropes on its sleeve, it does not necessarily allow those tropes to control the narrative in the way that, say, Doctor Who or Mulholland Drive do. Oxenfree, on the other hand, is a game whose horrors live in media-within-media, like Doctor Who’s Weeping Angels, or Mulholland Drive’s entire first two acts (ask me to explain this at your peril). And delightfully, the media in which they live is radio broadcasts. I did not mean to play two brief indie games involving radios in as many weekends, but somehow I have. Thank you 2016, for this at least. I feel like I will definitely have more to say about this after I’ve played it once or twice more, which I hopefully will by the end of the year. I’m sure there are some staggering alternate endings. I have ideas on the tip of my brain about how this game distinguishes between the possibilities for horror in live radio broadcasts versus the possibility for horror in reel-to-reel tape. But I’m not going to be able to articulate them until things have percolated a bit. I’ve only played two new games this year, but both have been corkers. Pick of the week.
Pop Culture Happy Hour: “HGTV and Cooking Shows” — Pop Culture Happy Hour is to me what HGTV is to the panel on Pop Culture Happy Hour. It just makes me feel comfortable. This was all the way at the bottom of my feed and I listened to it anyway this past Sunday, because I just wanted my comfort food podcast. This is great.
A Point of View: “The Ring of the Nibelung” — Note: this positive review is about to be almost totally negated by the one below it. But let’s start where we must start. This essay, which comes from a BBC essay program I only just discovered, is the sort of thing I’d like to hear on the radio about the arts all of the time. Roger Scruton, the writer and reader of this treatise on Wagner’s Ring, is an influential philosopher of music whose work I’ve read in small bits. Like Harold Bloom, he is absolutely fascinating when he is talking about art he loves. And he clearly loves the Ring. His reading of it as a story of gods for a modern people with no gods left to believe in is absolutely compelling and made me want to go listen to the Ring again. It also made me slightly regret what I wrote in last week’s Sweeney Todd review about no operas being great works of literature. Beautiful, smart radio from a beautiful, smart public broadcaster.
A Point of View: “Roger Scruton: The Tyranny of Pop” — So, I went on to check out Scruton’s most seemingly notorious contribution to this program, which is an act of witless intellectual cowardice the like of which any broadcaster should be embarrassed to host on their airwaves. Scruton argues against a few key phenomena associated with pop music. Firstly, that it is foisted upon us in public places. He believes that music should be exclusively for the purpose of active listening and that humans have lost something through the proliferation of recorded music. (RECORDED MUSIC. He’s questioning the value of recorded music in 2015. This man is a walking sweater vest.) Needless to say, this argument would have drastically displeased Erik Satie. And it would have robbed the greatest composers of the Baroque of their livelihoods, given that many of them wrote ceremonial music that was explicitly intended as ornamentation. He suggests at one point that pop music may have something to do with modern young people’s inability to speak properly, by which he clearly means our inability to speak like him. I know this is what he means, because he goes on a lengthy tear about how to solve this grievous problem in which wise, classical music-loving teachers must play their students the music they love, and then tell them all that other music is bad. That’ll show ‘em. Nothing changes a teenager’s mind like the opinion of an authority figure. But beyond the impracticality of his strategy, what kind of person even thinks like this? That the solution to the world’s problems is to indoctrinate the young with the most reactionary value system possible, while stomping out all traces of the modern? I’ll tell you what kind of person thinks like that: the sort of person whose views fit so squarely into the intellectual hegemony of the Eurocentric consensus that they’ve never ONCE in their life had to interrogate their own prejudices. That is where my charge of intellectual cowardice comes from. When I first heard this, I was most bothered by what I saw as Scruton’s cardinal sin of refusing to engage with art on its own terms. But that’s not even quite it. Anybody can feel free to engage with art on whatever terms they like, as far as I’m concerned. But, Scruton only possesses one set of terms with which to deal with art, and they are the terms that have been set by the generations of straight, white, male academics who have determined what constitutes great art. He has not even established his own set of terms, and that is why his brain falls out when he hears Lady Gaga. He is obviously a fine thinker when he is dealing with art in his ultra-limited wheelhouse, but this essay is far more intellectually lazy than the pop gobbling youths he so disrespects. Ah, well. ‘Twas ever thus.
Fresh Air: “Actress Pamela Adlon On ‘Better Things’” — My my, Terry Gross is in a good mood! Obviously, Adlon is great conversation, and that must help. This was a fun discussion that really helps to shed some light on how Adlon’s sensibility has helped inform Louis C.K.’s various TV projects. Now that they’re collaborating in the other direction, I’m really excited to see where it goes. I’ll be checking out the first episode of Better Things sometime in the coming weeks. We’ll see if it grabs me.
On The Media: “Brooke Gladstone is a Trekker” — Obviously, she is. This is a decent whistle-stop tour of Star Trek’s cultural impact, and it’s got clips of some great lines from the various iterations of the franchise. Hearing stuff like this always makes me think I should redouble my efforts to get into Star Trek, but I just find it so bland. Maybe someday.
Imaginary Worlds: “The Hobbits and the Hippies” — Now this is some serious SF/F history. The story of J.R.R. Tolkien writing The Lord of the Rings is familiar, but the story of its widespread adoption in America by the hippie counterculture is not. And the discussion of how, oh how, it could be possible for so retrograde a text to have countercultural importance is truly fascinating. I’m enormously looking forward to this new season of Imaginary Worlds. Pick of the week.
The Heart: “No Way Out” — This isn’t one of The Heart’s more unconventional stories. It’s basically just a window into an unpleasant adolescence. Certainly, it’s a more unpleasant adolescence than most, given that it involves physical violence by an alcoholic stepfather, but altogether this is a fairly conventional story that’s made interesting by sheer emotional honesty. I’m liking this season a lot.
Code Switch: “The Dangers Of Life As An American ‘Nobody’” — Marc Lamont Hill is an extremely persuasive speaker, to the point where his view that we should abolish prisons doesn’t seem completely outrageous by the end of this episode. The guy’s thought this through.
The Allusionist: “The Key part I: Rosetta” — I should have seen the Long Now Foundation’s fingerprints on this from just reading the episode description. This is a wonderful, and typically funny, discussion of how a language might be transmitted to humans thousands of years into our future. Fascinating.
All Songs Considered: “Peter Gabriel, Nick Cave, King Creosote, L.A. Salami, More” — I was always going to hear the new Peter Gabriel track. May as well hear it on this show. Wow, he’s really abandoned subtlety, hasn’t he. I’m willing to be surprised, but I really feel like when he eventually releases his first proper album in 15 years, it’s going to be pretty damp. “The Veil” doesn’t so much have lyrics as a straightforward recitation of the Edward Snowden story. Compare with “Down to Earth,” another song he did for a movie, which succeeds in capturing the mood and sentiment of WALL-E without reference to the story at all. “The Veil” doesn’t stand alone. On the other hand, the new Nick Cave song they play on here is amazing, and L.A. Salami is one of the best discoveries this show has led me to.
The Gist: “Hillary’s Campaign Manager on Pneumonia, Swing Voters, and Strategy” — He goes a bit easy on the Clinton campaign manager. But to be fair, all of the major criticisms being levelled against that campaign, strategy-wise, have been bullshit. “Basket of deplorables” is the best thing anybody’s said in this election so far, and honest to god why does anybody care about the pneumonia.
Reply All: “Lost in a Cab” — First off, it’s interesting to hear Reply All finally bouncing up against the possibility of a conflict of interest with their advertiser, Google. I remember back in an old episode of StartUp, when Alex Goldman (maybe it was P.J. Vogt? but I don’t think so) expressed extreme anxiety over the prospect of tech companies advertising on their show, given that they cover tech. It’s taken a long time to rear its head, but here it is. They’re handling it well, though. Still, I feel like they’d really love to tear into Google Adwords, because who doesn’t. And they can’t, because not only is Google a Gimlet sponsor, Adwords is the specific product they were advertising on Reply All. Juicy. Also, this story is a good listen, even if it does have a shaggy dog ending. Plus… there’s some increasingly elaborate mixing on this show, including new renditions of the theme song. It’s almost like Breakmaster Cylinder is on their staff, or something. OR SOMETHING…
The Sporkful: “The Woman With A Keg In Her Coat Closet” — A fun, but not super immersive romp through the world of women drinking beer. Women drink beer. Also they make it! If there’s one really interesting thing in here, it’s the various women interviewed telling tales of horrible bros assuming they don’t know anything about beer. This is, of course, something that we already knew was happening, even if we’d never specifically thought about it.
The Gist: “‘Mrs. Robinson,’ ‘Hey Jude,’ and Some Utter Schlock” — I love when Chris Molanphy is on this show. I had never thought of 1968 the way that it’s portrayed here, because not all music that proves popular in the short term goes down in history. “Mrs. Robinson,” “Hey Jude” and “I Heard It Through The Grapevine” do. But it’s the very strange other stuff that’s played here that’s most interesting. Nice.
99% Invisible: “Making Up Ground” — Something you don’t think about: much of the earth we stand on is manmade. Virtually all of the Netherlands. Imagine.
Radiolab: “Update: Eye in the Sky” — The episode itself is not one of my favourites, and the update is consequential, but fairly short. I dunno. Fine.
Code Switch: “Why Do We Still Care About Tupac?” — One of the best episodes of this show yet. I know nothing about Tupac, and this was a great introduction. The presence of one skeptic, Gene Demby, only enhanced it.
On the Media: “After 9/11, Nothing Was Funny” — It’s most interesting to hear an interview with Marc Maron from five years ago, complete with a clip from Maron’s act fifteen years ago. When you’re used to only hearing him on his own turf, where little is left off the table, it’s easy to forget that he is the kind of thoughtful guy who sounds really authoritative in interviews. A little editing goes a long way.
Pop Culture Happy Hour: “Documentary Now! & A Documentary Roundup” — I really hope Sam Sanders is back on this show sometime. I can listen to him talk about anything. I’ll probably check out Documentary Now!, or at least a few of the episodes that this panel recommended. And, I will swallow my distaste for Chef’s Table for long enough to watch Jiro Dreams of Sushi.
On the Media: “Damned If You Do…” — More Ta-Nahisi Coates in here, which is just fine. But the best thing on here is the segment on why Facebook’s inability to find a middle ground between too much human editorial intervention and a dumb, dumb algorithm will not ultimately keep it from rolling on regardless. *Shudder.*