Omnireviewer (week of Dec. 4, 2016)

Okay, I’ve given up on links, by and large. If you want the multimedia experience, go to the Tumblr. I’ve beefed that up a bit in terms of embedding things. These posts, on the other hand, will remain austere walls of text. Because there needs to be a place for austere walls of text.

Literature, etc.

Alex Ross: “The Frankfurt School Knew Trump Was Coming” — How amazing a magazine do you have to be when your classical music columnist writes this piece? That is, of course, almost cruelly reductive: Ross is as much an expert on Theodor Adorno and Thomas Mann as he is on Gustav Mahler and Alban Berg — at least partially because you can’t be that much of an expert on Mahler and Berg without being an expert on Adorno and Mann (he says, and slumps shamefully in his chair). Ross gets closer to a key element of Trump’s election than any other commentator I’ve read: how our contemporary media (social and otherwise) is essentially designed to make Trump happen. Adorno saw this coming from more than half a century away. Fascinating.

Anne Midgette: “Martha Argerich is a legend of the classical music world. But she doesn’t act like one.” — This WashPo profile of Argerich reveals her to be exactly the sort of person you’d expect to play like that. She’s always been one of my favourite pianists, with her debut recording being a particular classic. (Check out that Prokofiev. Seriously.) Her ferocious, spontaneous style of playing is more exciting than anybody else in the classical piano world, and it seems that she has led her life in the same way. It’s strangely gratifying to learn that. So many classical musicians today are dull careerists whose playing you couldn’t pick out of a crowd. This is the real thing.

Kurt Vonnegut: Slapstick — Yeah, I was planning on devoting my fiction time for the rest of the year to Jerusalem, but I occasionally get a hankering for Vonnegut. It’s best to heed these hankerings, or I spend the rest of my reading time wishing I was reading Vonnegut. I only started this a couple hours ago, so I’m only about a quarter through (one thing I love about Vonnegut is how quickly I can get through his books) but I’m already sinking into the familiar rhythms. It’s similar to Hocus Pocus, and Galápagos, the last two Vonnegut novels I read, in that it’s narrated in first person from the aftermath of a disaster of some kind. Already, the strange details about how the world is now, in this aftermath, are starting to be explained. I imagine the penny will continue to drop slowly. I know how this game works. The thing that is intriguing me more than anything is Vonnegut’s promise in the (extraordinary) introduction that this is the closest thing he’ll ever write to an autobiography. And considering that this comes right after Breakfast of Champions (my favourite) in his corpus, maybe he’s got a few unexpected tricks in store for the final act of this one.

Music

Steve Hackett: Voyage of the Acolyte — This album didn’t connect with me during my most prog-obsessed phase, so it’s a bit odd that it’s hitting me now. It’s a subtle thing, to be fair. (Except for the bits where it’s not.) But it is as typical a prog album as you’re likely to find. The comparative focus on Hackett’s virtuosity as a guitarist makes it almost proggier than the later Peter Gabriel-fronted Genesis albums. It isn’t entirely consistent, but “Ace of Wands” is a classic prog instrumental and “Shadow of the Hierophant” is actually beautiful, and I don’t use that word lightly. The melody is sublime, Sally Oldfield’s voice is perfect for the material, the way the flute comes in and restates the secondary melody of “Ace of Wands” ties everything up in a nice bow, and the album ends with a huge crescendo. Everything you could want. It’s amazing that Tony Banks doesn’t like this album. It’s also amazing that Banks tried to keep Hackett’s “After the Ordeal” off of Selling England. It’s appalling that Banks would slag either of those things off in interviews. No wonder Hackett left the band.

Solange: A Seat at the Table — A subtle, righteous album that I won’t pretend I didn’t constantly compare with her sister’s record from earlier this year. Which is a terrible thing to do. Asking A Seat at the Table to be Lemonade is like asking Led Zeppelin IV to be Madvillainy. But truth be told, I’m not dying to hear this a bunch more times the way that I have been with certain other albums. Still, very very good.

Television

Last Chance To See: Episodes 5 & 6 — This is a magnificent series. Mark Carwardine’s genuine excitement and affection for the endangered animals that he and Stephen Fry go looking for is absolutely contagious. And if Fry in his voiceover is a less profound and slightly less witty companion than his predecessor Douglas Adams, he’s nonetheless an extremely companionable screen presence. This show does as much to convey the wonders of the animal kingdom as Planet Earth or Life from the BBC Natural History Unit, but with a more elegiac tone and a focus on human threats and conservation efforts. I completely enjoyed it, and it has inspired me to add the BBC Radio version of the Adams/Carwardine original to my list of things to check out. This is on Netflix, at least in Canada. Watch it. It’s wonderful.

Planet Earth II: Episodes 1-5 — It’s got all the stuff that became familiar by the end of the first Planet Earth. Same storytelling, same incredible footage. David Attenborough still does that thing where he figures if his sentences are pretty enough I won’t notice he’s doing an awkward transition. Attenborough still hilariously talks about the film crew in the behind the scenes segments the exact same way he talks about animals. Glibness aside: this is outstanding, and it’s making me slightly regret writing so effusively about Last Chance to See. That series is truly excellent and worth your time, but Planet Earth — both instalments of it — is among the most virtuosic filmmaking ever done. There are events captured here that are so momentary, so hidden, and so infrequent that it’s astonishing it even makes sense. There’s a sequence in the grasslands episode where a mouse climbs to the top of a blade of tall grass, has to dodge an approaching barn owl, and falls off of the blade of grass, into the frame of another shot. The whole thing is seen from several different angles. Surely there’s a certain amount of fakery at play here, but the amount of (quality, beautiful) footage that they must have had to shoot to tell complete, engaging stories must be gigantic. Will wonders never cease? No. No they won’t. That’s why people still make nature documentaries. It’s still got one more chance to be pick of the week. It would be, this week. But…

Movies

Manchester by the Sea — This made me have every feeling I am capable of. I’m not sure that I have ever in my life been so pulled in by a movie with so little artifice. This is very much one of those movies that feels like dropping in on a period in somebody’s actual life. There’s nothing stylized about it. The framing of every shot is beautiful, but understated. The music is ever-present, but never ostentatious. Casey Affleck gives an Oscar-worthy performance as the protagonist, Lee, yet it’s the very opposite of the “big” performances that have seized the Academy’s attention in recent years. Even the jokes (which exist) are timed in the way that real people with good timing time their jokes in conversation, rather than like actors who have studied the script. It is, in other words, the opposite of nearly every movie I like. So why did it make me respond like this? I think it’s because it tells a story that is genuinely gutting without a smidgen of what we’d often call “emotional manipulation.” (Okay, maybe the Albinoni is a bit manipulative, but it’s in the saddest scene, so…) It’s the story of a naturally aloof person who has had something so horrifying happen to him that his only response is to completely cut himself off from the world he’s known. The movie itself takes a hint from its protagonist and declines to be openly expressive, opting instead to just be sad. It’s telling, I think, that a movie so focussed on its main character should be titled after its setting instead: you might think that a film called Manchester by the Sea would focus more on the community around him. But aside from Lee’s nephew and a short but shattering performance from Michelle Williams as his wife, it really doesn’t. As far as I can tell, it’s called that because Manchester-by-the-Sea is the place from which Lee can’t escape. Why is Lee miserable? Manchester-by-the-Sea. The name of the town is as much a metonym for Lee’s personal tragedy as Wall Street is for high finance. There’s an alternate universe where Manchester by the Sea is a horror movie: a haunted house story about what happens when you force a person to live in a place that’s full of ghosts. And to make matters worse, he’s saddled with the care of a nephew who is just in the process of becoming the person that Lee wishes he could still be. This is a profound film. It’s a paradigm-shifting dissertation on what hides behind the facades of difficult, impenetrable people. And while half of me will be rooting against it come Oscar season in favour of Moonlight, which is the nobler picture and the one whose victory has the greater potential to cause positive change in the film industry, I really think this is one of the best movies in recent years. Looking back briefly through my favourite movies of 2014 and 2015, only Mad Max: Fury Road, Carol, and The Grand Budapest Hotel can compete. I would have watched five more hours of this. Pick of the week.

Podcasts

In The Dark: “Update: A Sentencing, A Demand, No Closure” — This epilogue to In The Dark doesn’t especially further the investigation’s key findings so much as put a final button on the personal side of the story, which is that many people’s lives were ruined by Jacob Wetterling’s murderer, and that said murderer is as much of a cold monster as you would expect him to be. It’s not especially enlightening, but it is compassionate, and that’s just as important in investigative journalism.

The Memory Palace: “Peregrinar” — The hundredth episode of The Memory Palace! It’s hard to imagine how much work could go into a show like this: the time spent researching so that there can be details to colour the story, and the time spent finessing the prose so it sticks in your head. And all for a show that’s much shorter on average than most podcasts. But it’s a counterintuitive process that results in a profoundly worthwhile product. This episode is a firmly middle-of-the-pack instalment about Cesar Chavez’s campaign for worker’s rights. Which means it’s still going to be one of the best things I hear this week.  

Radiolab: “Alpha Gal” — Welcome back to ye olde Radiolab. It’s been awhile since I felt like all of the old gears were working this well in tandem: This is a personal story about a person who loves food. (The interview that most of this is drawn from was done by Dan Pashman, which is a good start.) But it’s also a science story about how an extremely unlikely instigator started making people allergic to red meat. Everything you want from this show. Except for a multi-story format, which I still miss.

All Songs Considered: “Run the Jewels, Flaming Lips, John Prine, More” — This is an old as balls episode of All Songs but I still hadn’t heard this RTJ single, so I’ve kept it in my feed while I catch up. This is one of the good ones, and not just because of the three eminent artists in the title. There’s also a great track by Laura Burhenn.

Love and Radio: “Upper Left” — Like so many stories on this show, this starts off seeming like it’s going in one direction and then abruptly goes in another. It’s the story of a woman who tries to explore her sexuality and ends up a member of a Scientology-like organization that tries to silence dissent and bilk women out of their money. Only on Love and Radio would that be a “lighthearted” episode.

Love and Radio: “Doing the No No” — This is one of the best episodes of Love and Radio. It’s not the emotional rollercoaster of “The Living Room” or “Greetings From Coney Island.” And it’s not the intensely controversial sort of thing that they did with “A Red Dot.” But it features a character who is dealing with something that will horrify people at least until they hear him talk: making transgenic organisms as art. He is wilfully transgressive, but also extremely thoughtful and not entirely unsympathetic. Which makes it all the more compelling when the story takes a typically Love and Radio-style turn more than halfway through its duration.

Census: “talking about sex on facebook” — This guy contacted me on Twitter to listen to his podcast, and months later when I finally get to it, he seems to still have only made one episode. Well, anyway, it’s fine. It’s alternately funny and intense and it’s frank. But it doesn’t seem to fill much of a gap in my podcast feed. There’s nothing here that some combination of The Heart and Love and Radio doesn’t do better.

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “Small Batch: Younger” — Linda Holmes talks to a millennial! I have no interest in Younger. But I am always happy to hear people talk about why the tropes associated with millennials are dumb.

The Gist: “It’s Much Bigger Than O.J.” — The whole reason to listen to The Gist is that Mike Pesca almost never has the same angle on a story or interview as anybody else. I’ve heard a couple of interviews with Ezra Edelman about his masterful O.J. Simpson documentary series, but none of them were recorded after the election and focussed on the parallels between O.J. supporters and Trump voters. Super interesting.

99% Invisible: “Guano Island” — This is one of those episodes of 99pi that really makes me think about how it relates to the show’s design-oriented premise. But it’s a great story about how the United States gradually stuck its toe into the murky swamp of imperialism (the European kind, where you claim new territories, as opposed to the kind that the actual foundation of America was based on). Who knew it had anything to do with bird shit?

Homecoming: “MANDATORY” — An intriguing start to a series that promises to be at least one of the best produced fiction podcasts ever. And certainly the most ostentatiously prestigious. I mean, Catherine Keener. David Cross. Amy Sedaris. Ross from Friends. Tadd Dameron. The story hasn’t really got rolling yet, so it’s most interesting to focus on the format, which relies heavily on scenarios that diegetically justify the presence of microphones — though not exclusively. Eli Horowitz is careful to point out in the interview after the show that they didn’t tie themselves in knots to justify the very existence of the story in this format. Which is wise. But about that aftershow. I get that it’s a big advertising opportunity to partner with Apple. But I fear that eventually putting an interview segment after every episode — in the actual episode, mind you; packaged together with it — will feel like too many peeks behind the curtain for a show that is trying to be suspenseful. I may turn out to be wrong. Anyway, this is really promising. I’ve got the next few episodes cued up in my feed for pretty soon.

Crimetown: Episodes 1-3 — If Homecoming demonstrated instant promise, then its Gimlet stablemate Crimetown forced me to start binging immediately. This is my favourite of the new slate of Gimlet shows that came out in the last month, by miles. And that’s in spite of it being part of the slightly overcrowded genre of true crime. I’ve read comparisons to The Wire already, and those are indeed more apt comparisons than that more obvious Serial ones would be. This is a story about a corrupt mayor, sure. But it’s also a story about how crime becomes a defining element of a city’s culture. And with a promise to cover a different city in every season, it’s got an endlessly renewable premise that makes it one of the most exciting new podcasts of the year.

Undone: “Disco Demolition Night” — The clear underdog of Gimlet’s fall season. This story in itself is quite good, and would be a highlight in any given episode of This American Life. But the premise of the show seems to lack focus, and I can’t muster up the enthusiasm to listen to more of this until there’s another topic I’m especially interested in. Not one of those podcasts that sells itself by simply existing.

Reply All: “Voyage Into Pizzagate” — Is it possible that this is the most ludicrous of all of the lunatic fringe’s conspiracy theories? The fact that it’s not a question I can immediately answer is distressing in itself. This is Alex Goldman in On the Media mode, trying to figure out how the internet, and specifically Reddit, made it possible for a shockingly large number of people to believe something patently ridiculous in the absence of any evidence at all. Really, really good. Angry-making, but good.

Fresh Air: “NYT Exec. Editor On The New Terrain Of Covering Trump” — A fantastic interview with the editor of the paper that Donald Trump has essentially declared his mortal enemy. I like him. He clearly thinks a lot about what words mean. I’ve recently gotten myself a digital subscription to the Times and it was a very very good decision, and you should do that too. Or whatever other newspaper. But the Times, though.

All Songs Considered: “The Year In Music 2016” — First off, I’d halfway like to hear Stephen Thompson and Ann Powers take over as hosts on this show. It’s not that I don’t love the dynamic between Bob Boilen and Robin Hilton, but these two just have more to say. They represent the really insightful side of NPR Music, as opposed to just having their ear to the ground and having great taste, which is what makes Boilen and Hilton effective on this show, at least in terms of selecting music to feature. Secondly, there is a lot of great music in this episode, and it is as good a wrap-up for the painful, confusing year that was 2016 as you’re likely to find. It really does exemplify my feeling that music, more than maybe any other art form, is the means by which we take our own temperature. The music of 2016 is going to be super meaningful in the future, just like the music of 1967 or ‘77 is now. I’m really happy that Boilen closed it all out with Let’s Eat Grandma. They’re one of the most promising new acts of the year, and they are one of relatively few who managed to be brilliant in a way that doesn’t constantly remind you of the shitty historical context in which the art was made. Which, I mean, is definitely a thing that art should do. But it’s nice that there’s at least something out there that’s weird and awesome and totally from its own world. I love Let’s Eat Grandma. And I wouldn’t have heard them if not for this show, which is one of my favourite personal discoveries of the year. Pick of the week.

StartUp: “Suits” — Yeah, I have no sympathy left for Dov Charney. I mean, I hope that somebody learns from his better decisions and incorporates certain of his ethical principles into their own businesses. But I couldn’t care less if Charney gets back on his feet at the end of this story.

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