Omnireviewer (week of Nov. 13, 2016)

So, I was just sitting in a restaurant next to what seemed like a second or third date. And the guy was trying to come off as being way less into video games than he obviously was. Like, the conversation about how he’s not really much of a gamer went on for a lot longer than it would have needed to if he actually wasn’t one.

Anyway, here are 20 reviews of things that are not video games and one comparatively long review of a video game that I didn’t even really think about all that much, honestly. Didn’t really even register.

Live events

A Tribe Called Red: Live at the Commodore — I’m not much of a dancer. Fortunately, in Vancouver you can go to a show like this and not worry too much about it. I wasn’t the only one. A Tribe Called Red is a phenomenon. And it seems to me that their live show is a better illustration of their basic musical thesis — that First Nations chanting and drumming works really well as an element of EDM — than their recordings. We Are the Halluci Nation is still one of my favourite records of the year, but it strikes me that genre fusion is easier when you are ostentatiously making a Work Of Art. Whereas, when you’re in front of a dance floor, on which people are dancing (or not, as the case may be), there’s another set of expectations at play. It’s perhaps a more workmanlike task, and the result was for me still less effective than listening to We Are the Halluci Nation (this was inevitable). But the fact that A Tribe Called Red can do as good a live set as this and get people moving is the ultimate proof-of-concept. And while they can’t just have Joseph Boyden show up from time to time in a live show to read about Chanie Wenjack, their social message remains intact through a clever video accompaniment composed entirely of culturally appropriative images. There were also kickass dancers onstage. A Tribe Called Red is one of the most inventive and skilled acts in the country. Saul Williams was a hell of an opener, too. Pick of the week. 

Music

Depeche Mode: Speak and Spell — I found myself unexpectedly in the mood for some plinky synthpop after hearing Yazoo’s “Only You” on an episode of This American Life. After discovering that the writer of that song was the creative force in early Depeche Mode, I decided on this as my poison. “Just Can’t Get Enough” isn’t a strong enough song to survive its overexposure, but everything else on this album is viscerally satisfying. Hits you right in the lizard brain. Plus, it’s so dated that it sounds exactly like modern music. It sounds a little bit like what I’d imagine a collaboration between Brian Eno and Tangerine Dream would sound like, provided Eno had his pop songwriter hat on. Really enjoyed this. I understand it’s drastically different from the music that Depeche Mode would become more esteemed for in the late eighties and nineties, so I’ll go on to check that out too. But this is definitely worthwhile in itself. “New Life” is endlessly repeatable.

Depeche Mode: Violator — This is objectively a better album than Speak and Spell, but it’s less what I was looking for at this very moment. This is a gritty, rock’n’roll electronica record. If I hadn’t come to Depeche Mode specifically for really 80s-sounding synthpop, I think I would have loved this immediately. I’ll probably listen again real soon. “Policy of Truth” and “Personal Jesus” strike me as the real highlights.

Justice: Woman — I’m tempted to say it’s Justice’s best album. Being more a fan of their second album than their first, this is probably going to be an easier opinion for me to arrive at than many. But this has the initial effect of making me want to listen to nearly all of its tracks on repeat. The three singles they released in advance are all album highlights, particularly “Safe and Sound,” which may be their most infectious track ever. Of the album tracks we’re now hearing for the first time, the highlights for me are “Chorus” (the least rock and roll track on an otherwise very rock and roll album), and “Heavy Metal” (which takes its gothic vibe from a tiny Bach paraphrase: very metal, indeed). This is up there with Coloring Book as one of the most purely joyful releases of 2016.

Patricia Kopatchinskaja & the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra: Death and the Maiden — This is the second time this year that Patricia Kopatchinskaja has sold me on a piece of music that I hadn’t previously cared much about. Schubert’s Death and the Maiden is obviously a masterpiece, but it’s never been one that I’m actually compelled to listen to. But Kopachinskaja’s imagination in interweaving the movements with adaptations of early music by Dowland and Gesualdo as well as the contemporary composer György Kurtág, emphasizes the most dramatic and existentially terrifying dimensions of Schubert’s piece, which has otherwise been rendered a bit tame by way of canonization. If there’s a downside, it’s simply that Kopatchinskaja’s playing is less prevalent here than on her excellent duets album or her wonderfully cracked recording of the Tchaikovsky concerto. But as a record in general, it is marvellous, and suffused with the particular idiosyncratic intelligence of an artist who is quickly becoming my favourite person in classical music.

Movies

O Brother, Where Art Thou? — I’m not sure this isn’t my favourite Coen brothers movie. Usually, I’ll cite Fargo. But this film’s sheer verbosity makes it a bit more fun. There are lines in this movie that could only be from this movie. Lines like: “Say, uh, any a you boys smithies? Or, if not smithies per se, were you otherwise trained in the metallurgic arts before straitened circumstances forced you into a life of aimless wanderin’?” Or: “Well, Pete, I just figured it should be the one with capacity for abstract thought. But if that ain’t the consensus view, hell, let’s put her to a vote!” Or: “I’ll press your flesh, you dimwitted sonofabitch! You don’t tell your pappy how to court the elect ‘rate!” And speaking of Pappy O’Daniels, this is one of those movies with two stories: one about a group of protagonists, and one larger narrative that they find themselves unexpectedly crossing paths with. These days, the state election between O’Daniels and Homer Stokes almost reads as a cruel inversion of the recent catastrophe: an outsider candidate who claims to represent “the little man” but who is actually just a virulent racist loses the election to an uninspiring establishment figure. There’s a decisive moment in the middle of the film where Stokes seems to go from being a Bernie Sanders analogue to a Donald Trump analogue, so this film is in a sense a forecast of Hillary Clinton’s entire campaign — which gets most everything except the ending correct. But if we may put aside these comparisons for a moment, the election storyline in O Brother is one of the most classically absurdist Coen brothers plotlines ever to not be Burn After Reading. It shows a fictional electorate blindly stumbling into the better decision because of how much they love the music of an integrated folk band whose very existence is part of a harebrained scam. And the decision that they make is still clearly not a very good option: O’Daniels is comically insincere and probably corrupt. (Again, we’ve put aside the comparisons at this point. Lest anybody misunderstand.) But there’s a major difference between this and many other Coen comedies. To a certain extent it shares the nothing-happens-for-a-reason-and-the-universe-is-indifferent mentality of other films. (“Ve believe in nossing.”) But this movie goes out of its way to sow doubt in that. It essentially sympathizes with its rationalist protagonist, and assumes that we will as well. But even after all of the proto-Burn After Reading meaningless bullshit that’s happened by the end of the movie, it still goes out of its way to leave a supernatural interpretation open. The sight of the prophesied cow atop the cottonhouse is the most obvious tactic, but it’s also there in the implication that the old man on the railroad might be God and that the sheriff might be the Devil. (“The law. Well, the law is a human institution.”) Given that things do work out, relatively, for the best at the end of the movie, this suggestion that there may indeed be a benevolent force at work makes O Brother, Where Art Thou? maybe the Coens’ most optimistic movie.

Television

Last Week Tonight: November 13, 2016 — Well, after all of those shit opening jokes characterizing the 2016 election as various species of can’t-it-be-over-yet, Oliver gets a punchline. Because yeah, this is worse. And, for all of the crap I’ve said about Oliver over the past few weeks (which I stand by) I feel the need to defend him against those who have written him off for failing to prevent Trump’s rise. Because that’s obviously not the point. The point is to write good, prescient jokes — which is something that you can rightly critique him for not always doing. But Oliver was one of the first to treat Trump as a threat worth joking about rather than implicitly a joke. And now that the worst has happened, Oliver is goal-oriented. Rather than encouraging the sharing of the episode, which he can usually pass off as a sort of righteous-minded quasi-activism (only last week, for instance), Oliver basically acknowledged that such minuscule acts are empty virtue signalling and only play into the echo chamber problem that got us here. Instead, he highlighted a number of organizations that you can donate actual money to which will work to mitigate some of Trump’s inevitable atrocities. And in terms of messaging, Oliver hits a home run by imploring his viewers to remember that this is not normal. The worst thing that can possibly happen at this point is for Donald Trump to be viewed as an ordinary political figure. The season’s end fell in an appropriate place, given Oliver’s ongoing rhetorical war with the man who has just become the most powerful person in the world. The outro montage is a bit damp, though. You can’t just say “Fuck 2016” over and over and expect it to be funny or cathartic. You need to write jokes. At the beginning of Oliver’s third season, I thought Last Week Tonight was the best thing on TV. Now it frustrates me immensely. But I still think that it’s valuable on balance and I’ll keep tuning in next year.

Full Frontal with Samantha Bee: November 14, 2016 — Even on the most high-minded comedy shows, it’s sometimes the dumb jokes that work best. “Eerie R.N.C. Pubis,” indeed.

QI: “Danger,” “Jeopardy” & “Jumble” — I was planning on doing some work this Saturday evening. Even made sure I had no plans because, important things to do. Instead, I mainlined three episodes of QI. I have no regrets.

Literature, etc.

Dan Fox: Pretentiousness: Why It Matters — Yeah, I’m reading a book about why it’s not bad to be pretentious. Laugh it up, folks. It’s very short and I’m almost finished it, so expect a report back soon. For now, I’ll just say that the central argument — that pretentiousness need not be dismissed as a symptom of elitism when it can just as easily be a side-effect of a healthy, open mind — is only about a quarter of what’s going on here. There is historical context o’plenty, including a short history of notions of authenticity in acting — professional pretentiousness. It’s well worth reading, as I think Fox’s arguments tie into some of what’s wrong in contemporary politics, and certainly what’s wrong with the media. It’s also well worth checking out Steven Poole’s Guardian review of the book, which takes its argument in a couple of new directions. More when I’m done.

Alan Moore: Jerusalem — Speaking of things I’ve just started reading, but not of things that I am likely to finish any time soon, there’s this. I am eleven pages into Alan Moore’s 1200-page literary epic and already thinking “what have I done.” It is entirely readable thus far, but its sheer bricklikeness is causing me inertia. Perhaps I’ll really put some time into it over Christmas. Until then, I foresee progress being slooooowwwww.

Games

Pony Island — I’ve always thought that there’s nothing scarier than metafiction. Borges speculated (pretty sure it’s Borges, though I can’t place the citation off the top of my head) that the reason for this is that when we see the characters in a story becoming aware of their unreality, it attunes us to the idea that we may also be unreal and thus trapped in an infinite regress of fictions all the way down. (It’s notable that this idea can be seen as either horrifying or absurdly hilarious, accounting for metafiction’s twin strong suits of horror and comedy.) But I’m not entirely sure that it works quite the same way in metafictional games. In fact, the anxiety that the most effective metafictional horror games play off of is almost the inverse of what Borges suggests. Rather than beginning to suspect one’s own unreality as the reader of a metafictional story does, the player of a metafictional game may begin to suspect that the characters in the game are more real than they initially seemed. (Spoilers ahead for both Pony Island and Undertale. But, you should really mostly be concerned about the Undertale ones, because Pony Island is far less effective and very derivative — at least in its themes.) If Pony Island is disquieting, it is so primarily because it shows you a basic arcade game interface that gradually reveals itself to be able to do things it shouldn’t be able to do. It takes advantage of the fact that our PCs are astronomically more advanced than arcade games to portray an arcade game that’s uncanny and occult. What’s that Asimov aphorism? Any sufficiently advanced science is indistinguishable from magic? Then, what’s a modern PC but a magic (and/or haunted) arcade cabinet? I digress: the thing that makes Pony Island’s scariest moments scary is that the characters inside the arcade game (e.g. literally the Devil) gradually appear to have greater capacities than they should, given that they’re in an arcade game. They begin to appear real. The opposite of Borges’ anxiety about self-aware literature. Conceptually, it is genuinely horrifying. And the reason I’ve gone into this much detail about how I think it works is that this sort of thing in games generally has a shattering impact on me. Metafictional horror in video games is one of very few sets of tropes in media that can actually keep me up at night. And if I’m tuned into this on such a fundamental level, you might expect that any iteration of those tropes should prove preoccupying for me, almost without regard for everything else in the game. But it didn’t work in Pony Island. And I think it didn’t work because I’ve seen all of these tricks before. So, I’ve learned something about myself: these tropes need to be employed in a surprising way if I’m going to be affected. For reference, there are two older games which, when combined, account for everything that should be scary in Pony Island. Obviously, there’s Undertale, the most frightening moment of which is recreated nearly verbatim here. More on that in a second. But there’s also The Uncle Who Works For Nintendo, the monster of which manifests as glitches in the game’s interface — moments where the game appears to be able to do more than it had initially seemed it could. (And aside from merely coming first, that game also has some social commentary going on that Pony Island doesn’t remotely attempt. Which is fine. I’m just saying: TUWWFN has more plates spinning.) Anyway, the most frightening moment in Undertale is also probably one of my top five most frightening moments in all fiction. And that’s the moment at the end of the standard, neutral story that you’re most likely to get on your first time through where the primary antagonist shuts down the game. That moment nearly coincides with the game’s most clever reveal, which is that “saving” is an in-universe superpower possessed by your character, and not a mere administrative task you perform as a player. The thing that’s horrifying here is that the game’s final boss is becoming aware of the organizational infrastructure that exists just outside of the story. He knows about saving, and that it’s possible to shut down the game — and he’s learned to do those things, in order to turn the tables on you. For a moment, he appears terrifyingly real. (Would this be a weird place to quote Hamlet? Nah, couldn’t be bothered, anyway.) There’s nothing nearly this sophisticated going on in Pony Island. There are moments where the game appears to have the capacity to shut itself down. And there’s a sort of internal consistency to the logic of this, much like in Undertale. But I didn’t detect any further twist on the trick. So, I wasn’t discomfited in the least. Which is actually really disappointing. Anyway, as reviews go, I feel like this has been a very idiosyncratically negative one. I’m sure than most of these concerns are of absolutely zero consequence to most of the people who will play this game. So, aside from all this, Pony Island is good. I do think that the premise of “video game haunted by literally the Devil” is a bit limp. But the gameplay is completely fantastic, both in its action sequences and its puzzles. Both are challenging, but never unfair. And at six bucks, it’s a hell of a deal. So, if you happen to have read this far without having played Pony Island, I guess I… recommend it???

Podcasts

The Gist: “The Autopsy” — Okay, I guess I’m still listening to election wrap-ups. I said I’d stop, but it’s what all of my favourite news-hooked podcasts are talking about, so I guess I’ll just cede a portion of my sanity and continue. This is terrifying, because it doesn’t focus on why Trump won like everything else, but on what his early presidency will actually be like. Sample horror: Newt Gingrich could be in the cabinet, and he’s expressed interest in reinstating HUAC. Smile into the abyss.

Code Switch: “Apocalypse Or Racial Kumbaya? America After Nov. 8” — Good lord, were we ever so optimistic as to even ask the question? These panelists, speaking before the election, express the thought that America will inevitably be in a better place in four years after having been forced to reckon with the racism of this campaign. I wonder if they took the possibility of a Trump win into account at all???

This American Life: “The Sun Comes Up” — A basic, bare-bones series of interviews with Americans from various backgrounds reacting to the news of Trump’s election. It’s the best thing TAL could have done this week. The highlights are the saddest segments, alas: a Mormon woman petitions for gender equality within her religion, supports Hillary Clinton, and gets ostracized; and a black British TAL producer phones his mom to talk about their immigration status. It’s not an earthshaking hour of radio, but it’s exactly what you want This American Life to be the week after Donald Trump’s election.

WTF with Marc Maron: “Lin-Manuel Miranda” — If anybody can get Marc Maron singing, it was always going to be Lin-Manuel Miranda. This is a great chat, with both of them seeming at-ease. Must help that they’re fans of each other, and they know they’re fans of each other. It’s especially great to hear Miranda’s stories of finding himself in the school play. And it’s gratifying to see that somebody who was obviously so precocious has turned out so normal.

The Gist: “The Liberal Hegemony of Pop Culture” — Mike Pesca has a knack for finding reasonable voices on the right. And honestly, listening to reasonable voices on the right is probably important right now. Because as much as I think that voting for Trump was a morally wrong thing to do — no grey area there — it’s probably not right to write off all of those voters as people. Which is what Ross Douthat is accusing virtually all of pop culture of doing. I definitely don’t agree with that, but I can muster a certain amount of sympathy for his case in the abstract. That’s about as much as I’m willing to budge at this very moment.

Radiolab: “One Vote” — This is a fantastic episode, with three great stories (multiple stories per episode has always been my preferred mode of Radiolab) about the extent to which a single vote counts. And it survives the election (which hadn’t happened yet) right up to the point where Robert Krulwich talks about how decisive the difference between male and female voters is. And certain metrics would now seem to undermine the point he’s subtly trying to make. It’s a quibble, and it’s not even really his fault. This is good Radiolab.

All Songs Considered: “Guest DJ Nick Mason On Pink Floyd’s Early Years” — Inevitable nitpick: Bob Boilen mistakes an actual flute for a Mellotron in this episode. But at least he has the forethought to play “The Grand Vizier’s Garden Party” while he’s actually got Nick Mason in the studio. Admirably, Mason doesn’t even seem that embarrassed.

Code Switch: “Another Black President Says Goodbye To Washington” — Chris Jackson is a wise fellow. The way that he’s chosen to think about Washington’s resignation gives him a legitimately unique perspective on how we ought to respond to the election result. And as for Hamilton, I’m sure whoever plays Washington next will be at the top of their profession but Chris Jackson was the perfect choice for the role and his interpretation is one of the strongest in a strong bunch.

Imaginary Worlds: “Dumbledore’s Army” — This mini-season about Harry Potter is maybe the best thing Eric Molinsky has ever done. (Except that semi-fictional Cthulhu thing. That was amazing.) Between this series and The Cursed Child, I’ve recently come to realize exactly how much Potter nostalgia I have. We all kind of marinade in shit-talk about J.K. Rowling, and her various indiscretions in storytelling (the house elves being “happy slaves”; the probably-accidental-but-still-regrettable anti-Semitic caricatures who work at Gringotts). But hearing about people who have used Harry Potter as a springboard for various causes, and as a way to deal with trauma has brought back all of the warm feelings I once had for these stories. I may even re-read a couple favourites within the next year. I haven’t read any of the original seven novels since they came out. Easily rectified. Pick of the week. 

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