Omnireviewer (week of Feb. 19, 2017)

Oh, jeez, for the first time since I’ve been doing this I didn’t get it out on Sunday. Not that you care, of course, but I have standards. Usually. This week, I just completely forgot. Anyway, here it is. Also, I am happy that Moonlight won.

Movies

Manchester by the Sea — Yeah, I saw Manchester by the Sea again. It’s worth seeing a second time if you can handle it. On a repeat viewing, I found myself focussing much more on what a beautifully made clock it is. The pivotal scene that flashes back to Lee’s tragedy is particularly well directed and edited so that we simultaneously come to know what happened to him and understand why his present-day situation is so challenging. Also, I had forgotten about the actual best character in this movie: Otto the drummer. Keep at it, buddy. They’ll realize it’s the bassist’s fault soon enough.

Dream of a Rarebit Fiend — Funny how sometimes silent shorts from 1906 just come up in conversation, isn’t it? Anyway, I watched this again for the first time since undergrad film studies, and it totally holds up. Holds up since my undergrad, holds up since 1906. Watching super early film is like watching a magic show. It really reconnects you with the basic miracle of the medium as equal parts art form and technological marvel. It’s easy to take that for granted these days. Interestingly, another movie that came up randomly in conversation on the same night was Hugo, which I love primarily because it is the only modern movie (when seen in 3D, at least) that has ever been able to reconnect me with the basic wonder that movies exist like early film does. I wish it would return to theatres. I’d love to see it there again.

I Am Not Your Negro — As good as I expected, and another outstanding entry in the most interesting category at this year’s Oscars. Since Life, Animated and Fire at Sea look to have no chance, Best Documentary Feature is a win-win-win situation. I Am Not Your Negro takes an approach that I am increasingly drawn to in documentary, which is that it takes a spoken text (in this case, not an original one, but one drawn from the writing of James Baldwin) and lays it over archival footage. There is no reporting in this documentary, as there is in 13th and especially O.J.: Made in America. But its goals are different: namely to illustrate and gloss the argument and storytelling of James Baldwin: one of the most powerful of all American writers. The film’s greatest asset is Baldwin’s unparalleled command of language, both in his written work (read here by Samuel L. Jackson) and in his extemporaneous speech in interviews and assorted television appearances. It’s second-greatest asset is director Raoul Peck’s Adam Curtis-like facility for pairing Baldwin’s outpourings of language with striking and often counterintuitive images. When you think about what Baldwin’s much-planned, never written book Remember This House could have been like — a critical account of America told through the stories of Medgar Evers, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. — it’s gutting that the book doesn’t exist. But this film fills the gap as well as anybody could manage. Pick of the week.

La La Land — I’m writing this just after this movie lost Best Picture to the much nobler and more interesting Moonlight. And while I’m mostly feeling sorry for Warren Beatty for having to deal with that whole situation, I’m sort of sad for the people involved with this movie as well. Not super sad, though. La La Land is a virtuosic piece of filmmaking, with plenty of the sort of showy, ostentatious cinematography that made me fall in love with Emmanuel Lubezki, who apparently didn’t do anything this year, because it is now the law that he must always win the Oscar for cinematography. However, it is also incredibly boring for most of its duration, and it somehow made me hate both Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling who are both actors that I really like. It starts strong, with an incredible opening number that occurs before either of the leads make an onscreen appearance, and it ends strong with a virtuosic fantasy sequence. But the entire middle of the movie is pablum with weak songs, shitty dancing and poorly drawn characters. Basically, I didn’t like this. But don’t interpret that as a refutation of nostalgia or romance, because I’m in favour of both of those things. They just need to be more subtly employed than they are here.

Games

Half-Life  — I got this as part of a bundle of all of the Half-Life games and DLC during the Steam Winter sale. I bought it purely out of love for the Portal games, and general curiosity about the other franchise that Valve is known for. So far, the game possesses the same dour sense of humour, but without the same emphasis on writing. I am generally optimistic about liking this, in spite of it being basically just a standard first-person shooter, which isn’t the sort of thing I tend to enjoy. It is also insufferably buggy, though, so I may well switch to Half-Life: Source before I next check in. I was bound and determined to play through the most authentic Half-Life experience, but if I’m going to constantly get stuck at the tops of ladders, unable to move at all, I’d rather sacrifice period accuracy for a bit of convenience.

Music

Max Richter: Three Worlds: Music from Woolf Works — Max Richter’s strongest music is among my favourite of recent years. I’m particularly fond of his album The Blue Notebooks and his recomposition of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, which I still submit is superior in every way to the original. I know it isn’t a contest, but I’m just saying. It’s true. But Richter is by no means a sure bet. At his worst, he makes ersatz movie music passed off as self-sufficient art. This album of music from his ballet score Woolf Works contains more of that that I’d like. It’s broken into three sections, inspired by three separate Virginia Woolf novels: Mrs. Dalloway, Orlando, and The Waves. Of these, the Dalloway music is the worst by far, consisting almost entirely of grandiose crescendi. The Waves is more subdued, but still veers off into crass emotional manipulativeness toward the end. Fortunately, Richter’s modular synth-based music for Orlando is in itself worth the price of admission. Using the classic form of a theme and variations, Richter reflects the transformations of Woolf’s protean novel through the gradual development of a single theme — and by processing recordings of acoustic instruments into something else entirely. Woolf Works contains both poles of Richter’s work: the very worst and best that he’s capable of. It isn’t a modern masterpiece, but you should definitely check out the Orlando section because that, at least, is fantastic.

Jethro Tull: Stand Up — More research for a bunch of upcoming writing. This isn’t a Tull album I revisit frequently, and I can’t honestly say that I agree with the consensus that it’s one of their best. I see the appeal: it’s tremendously heterogeneous and experimental while still hewing largely towards the general shape and sound of heavy late-60s rock. But it feels immature to me in a way that the following record, Benefit, doesn’t — even though I have to say I like Benefit less. “A New Day Yesterday” defines the problem. The titular line, “it was a new day yesterday but it’s an old day now” is one of those pleasantly meaningless koan-like lyrics that the 60s are so good for. But for the rest of the song, it feels like Anderson is just using words to fill space, which is something that the Ian Anderson of Aqualung, let along the Ian Anderson of Thick as a Brick or Minstrel in the Gallery, would never do. And for what purpose is the space being filled? Essentially, a blues jam. Granted, it’s a blues jam with a magnificent riff and a flute solo, which distinguishes it from other blues jams. But it’s nothing special in a way that later Tull would never be nothing special. There are moments that strike me this way throughout the album. Essentially all of the heavy stuff is better on live albums. But there’s also plenty to love. “Fat Man” isn’t the most body-positive song in the Tull canon, but it is melodically irresistible, and I love that there are balalaikas in it. “Jeffrey Goes to Leicester Square” points the way towards similarly whimsical bits of nicely arranged fluff like “Mother Goose” and “Ladies.” And “Reasons for Waiting” proves that even with a deep familiarity of the Tull canon, your expectations of Ian Anderson can still be confounded. It’s just a simple, pretty love song, and it actually works. Imagine. Not a favourite, but I do understand why it is venerated by many.

Jethro Tull: Songs from the Wood — This is a classic. I’ll say no more because I have far too many words coming up shortly on One Week // One Band. But this is in my top five Tull albums, for sure, which means it’s probably also in my top 20 albums ever.

Literature, etc.

George Saunders: “Escape from Spiderhead” — Upon reading the raves about Saunders’ new novel, I figured I should check out a short story to see if it might be my sort of thing. It is. This is a pretty standard sci-fi set up: something a young Vonnegut might have come up with. But it is distinguished by the brutality of its conclusion and the florid brilliance of its language. I still like his Trump rally thing better, but this is great and he’s obviously a writer I’m going to be into.

Podcasts

Fresh Air: “James Baldwin/I Am Not Your Negro” — I would have been just as happy to hear a full rerun of Terry Gross’s interview with Baldwin, but Raoul Peck is really insightful about how Baldwin reframed a generation’s thinking. I can’t wait to see I Am Not Your Negro.

You Must Remember This: “Jean Harlow Flashback (Dead Blondes Part 3)” — This is You Must Remember This at its most You Must Remember This. Karina Longworth’s love for Hollywood doesn’t just stem from a love of movies: it’s also a love of the sort of lurid gossip that it inspires. She’s really good at capturing the tone of that gossip while also being careful to contextualize it as dubious or outright false. Jean Harlow’s life story is dramatic as all hell, and gives Longworth the opportunity to say something like “But if they could see beneath the glamorous exterior, they’d have known that Harlow was slowly going to seed.” (I’m paraphrasing out of laziness, but it’s something like that.) This is the kind of extremely dramatic writing that keeps me coming back. Pick of the week. 

The Memory Palace: “Met Residency #4 (A Portrait)” — Easily the best of Nate DiMeo’s pieces for the Met so far. At first, it feels like it might be too specific to his Met residency to really have resonance for the rest of us who just found it in our feeds this week. But there’s a flip part way through where the story turns into something else, and it suddenly becomes much more compelling.

Chapo Trap House: “President Wario” — This may be the first episode I’ve heard with only the original three Chapos. It feels a bit like nothing new, at this point. There is a certain amount of gasping, head-in-hands incredulity at the continuing awfulness of Donald Trump, but I can get that anywhere. But there’s at least a wonderful reading series at the end, about a conservative who stands up for everything that’s good in the world by telling two uncouth twenty-somethings not to say “fuck” on a plane.

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “Our Oscars Preview” — No “should wins” for Manchester by the Sea? Alriiiiight. Anyway, these Oscars are going to be a fiasco.

A Point of View: “The Spectre of Populism” — I agree with John Gray insofar as I believe that the ineffectiveness of political centrism is the cause for the current swing to the far right that is overtaking Europe and North America. I’m not sure I agree with him on much else.

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