Omnibus (week of June 25, 2017)

Greetings! A normal week. 18 reviews.

Television

Twin Peaks: The Return: Part 8 — I’m willing to entertain the notion that this is the strangest, most obscure thing ever to be seen on television by an audience that exceeds the low dozens. This is the hour of television in which David Lynch reveals himself as the Black Lodge doppelganger of Terrence Malick. It is the second story I’ve seen this year that frames the origins of an iconic, totemic evil from a beloved old franchise as a consequence of human technological progress. But unlike Alien: Covenant, Lynch’s account of BOB’s birth in the crucible of the Manhattan Project is expressed through lyrical, abstract, largely wordless filmmaking. This helps to mitigate the potentially prosaic quality of the plot point that goes: “BOB is an evil spirit summoned by a nuclear bomb.” In practice, it doesn’t seem prosaic at all. Instead of focussing on the narrative, the cause and effect, Lynch tells us the story with reference to its abstract emotional quality. This type of filmmaking talks past our rational brains and communicates a sort of meaning to us that is ineffable. It works in a similar way to instrumental music in that way, and indeed, it gets a significant assist from Penderecki’s Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima. That piece of music is connected to nuclear weapons by its title, but the music itself wasn’t written with any such thing in mind. It was meant to be an abstract, academic piece of music. Regardless, it seemed from the first to elicit a muted version of our universal human response to inconceivable horror. So, title or none, it is music with the same goal as Lynch’s Stan Brakhage-like terror painting in this episode. So, instead of simply expressing a new piece of continuity in the usual way, Lynch’s approach offers a sense of the horror and disorientation of a world that’s recently been made aware of a new outer limit in human ruthlessness. Given that, it seems totally natural that BOB should arise from this. Pretty much any other approach would have seemed dumb and overwrought. Like Alien: Covenant. But in bypassing rationality entirely and speaking to something more primal in us, Lynch has deepened the world of Twin Peaks more here than in any other single episode of the show — possibly including the one that introduces the Red Room in the first place. Pick of the week.

Doctor Who: “The Doctor Falls” — A more than serviceable finale, though one that I feel works better on a scene-by-scene basis than it does all-in-all. I’ve said before that I like Moffat best in “big idea” mode, and he got most of that stuff out of the way last week with the time differential stuff. But what’s left to do is the emotional labour of a season ending, and this manages that just fine. Still, two characters overshadow the Doctor’s story here. The first, obviously, is Bill. Her arc from Cyberman conversion through her departure from the series (I think?) is the highlight here. I’m particularly fond of the mirror scene, which Pearl Mackie plays brilliantly. Also, this is the second companion departure in a row that feels like a spinoff waiting to happen — and a pretty killer crossover that would be! Bill and Heather the water creatures meet Clara and Ashildr the immortals in a diner-shaped TARDIS. Somebody write that. The other highlight is the two Masters, and who knows how that’s going to turn out. These are self-evidently the best (Michelle Gomez) and second-best (John Simm) renditions of this character the series has ever managed, and I’m delighted to have seen them together. I do hope Gomez isn’t finished with the role yet, but it would be a good way to go out. Also interesting how pigheaded misogyny is the Simm Master’s new calling card. Perhaps when he was last on this show, the possibility of such a blatant sexist being elected to public office seemed a bit of a hard sell. Oh, what a world. And as for the Doctor, this is to some extent a less impactful retread of Eleven’s last stand on Trenzalore, but we’ve still got a proper regeneration story to go. And what a corker it promises to be. I’ve been saying since the beginning of Peter Capaldi’s tenure that this is a Doctor who somebody needs to pair with the First Doctor. I always assumed that if it were to happen, it would be in a comic or a novel. But David Bradley has a history with playing William Hartnell, so why not playing his character as well? Part of me thinks it feels like a bit of a slight to Hartnell that he’s the only Doctor whose character has been played by not just one but two other actors. But the promise of what these two characters can do together is too much to pass up — especially since Moffat and his writers spent so much of the early part of this season focussing on the legacy of Doctor Who, right from 1963 on. This looks like it’ll be an opportunity for Moffat to say goodbye to the series with one more rumination on what it is at its core and why it’s great. This is now the primary reason I am looking forward to Christmas.

Movies

Lost in La Mancha — A bit of pop culture news you might have missed if you’re not me is that Terry Gilliam finally finished shooting The Man Who Killed Don Quixote, a movie he’s tried and failed to make eight times over the course of twenty years. I am super happy about this, especially since it will reunite Gilliam with his Brazil leading man Jonathan Pryce, who is only now the right age to play Quixote. I’m prepared to completely love this movie, but the truth is that I’m not sure it’ll surpass the story of Gilliam’s struggle to make it. (Many would say the same about Brazil, though I’m sure as hell not one of them.) Lost in La Mancha tells the story of Gilliam’s first attempt to film the movie in 2000, which was a complete disaster. The frequent reference points for what went wrong are big, obvious problems like unexpected noise from a nearby NATO base (F-16 target practise turns out to be very loud), a lead actor with a herniated disc, and a flash flood that nearly carried the crew’s equipment away. But the film documents a thousand tiny hurdles as well. The narrative doesn’t just play out in setpieces of acute misfortune — it plays out in the looks on the crew’s faces. If you like watching people’s expressions grow from contented to concerned to worried to frantic, then this is the film for you. There’s a costume designer who is particularly wonderful in this respect. You will know her when you see her. But in the middle of it all is Terry Gilliam. “How are we doing for time?” he asks his first assistant director. “Badly,” the first AD replies. “Good,” says Gilliam without missing a beat. It’s hard to judge the extent to which he’s deluding himself throughout this process. Certainly, he’s always aware that things aren’t working. But it’s Gilliam’s occasional sense of total imperiousness in the face of harsh realities that makes Lost in La Mancha so captivating to watch, if possibly through your fingers. And it’s that quality that may yet make this documentary an even better modern adaptation of Don Quixote than Gilliam’s own film will turn out to be.

Live events

Much Ado About Nothing (Bard on the Beach) — I always look forward to Bard on the Beach, because I am from a small town and I think it’s a damn miracle that it’s possible to see several productions of Shakespeare mounted by professionals every year. So, all snark must be weighed against a sense of perspective. However, I’ve seen theatre at Bard over the past four seasons that has run the gamut from extraordinary (Kim Collier’s multimedia saturated Hamlet, Anita Rochon’s refreshingly minimal Cymbeline) to garbage (an appalling massacre of Love’s Labour’s Lost with showtunes). More than that, though, they’ve been fine. They’ve been the sorts of productions that can run for a whole summer in a city of Vancouver’s size. This Much Ado is basically that. Set, completely arbitrarily, in an Italian movie studio in the 1950s, it evokes the glamour of black and white cinema in a way that mostly made me wish I were watching Joss Whedon’s wonderful film version from a few years back. The performances here are mostly good, but suffer from the expectation that the actors will deliver Shakespeare’s fiery repartée while also performing hackneyed physical comedy. The impulse to over-choreograph pays dividends in only one scene: the masked ball where Beatrice and Benedick pair their verbal fencing with dancing. That’s really the one scene where I got the sense that this production understood the point of this play, which is listening to two world-class wits spar with each other. There are other good scenes, but I mostly found this a pretty dull production of a comedy that I actually really like.

Literature, etc.

George Saunders: Lincoln in the Bardo (audiobook) — The last time I reviewed a full-cast audiobook, I basically reviewed it in two layers: the basic text of the book, and the performance layer on top of that. I don’t think I can do that with this one. The audiobook production of Lincoln in the Bardo feels like its own thing. The book isn’t written in the standard third-person or first-person voice, so its audiobook edition is going to work a bit differently. (The 166 narrators advertized on the cover art might have tipped you off.) This is a very stripped-down radio play, basically. And the performances feel like an integral part of the text — not an additional layer that you’ll endeavour to see past to the basic elements. The Nick Offerman/David Sedaris double act is reason enough to choose the audiobook over the paper book. The former gives as good a performance here as he does in film and television roles, and it’s fun to hear the latter reading somebody else’s work. I’ll leave discussion of the story for next week, by which time I’ll have heard all of it.

Geoff Edgers: “Why My Guitar Gently Weeps” — There are a few points of interest in this story, namely the numbers. It’s kind of amazing to read about the economic troubles of Guitar Centre, Gibson, and other businesses who rely on the fashionability of the guitar. But I actually think it’s mostly a pretty bad piece of journalism. Speaking as somebody who deals a lot with classical music, a musical tradition that is in a long-standing and seemingly permanent economic/identity tailspin, I have seen all of this before. The story that Edgers is telling is the story of the culture changing in a way that displeases the people who thrived in the previous version of the culture. And nothing that Edgers writes in this piece really indicates that he understands the extent to which the phenomenon whose demise he is mourning lines up with white supremacy and patriarchy. This is as true of the particular species of baby boomer/Gen X rock music that he’s discussing as it is of Western Art Music. (Say it like “WEST-un AHT mew-zik.”) That’s not to say that either kind of music is bad, or even badly intentioned! But things change, and they should. Insofar as the much vaunted “death of the guitar” is a real thing, it’s not by definition a bad thing. (And the best thing about this piece is the extent to which it uses sales figures to demonstrate that the guitar is materially less enticing to potential musicians today than it has been.) This is the same feeling I’ve had when I’ve read stories about how symphony orchestras are struggling to stay in business, opera companies are folding, and classical music audiences are aging. Of course they are. You can’t expect a generation’s music to outlive that generation and maintain the same popularity. Everything becomes a niche at some point. (Granted, the classical canon has managed to hang on an awfully long time. I’d say that has a lot to do with how it brands itself as “timeless.” Say what you will about the ineptitude of classical music’s modern-day branding professionals. Their late-19th century counterparts did their job so well that it stuck for a hundred years.) It’s almost surreal to read in Edgers’ piece about guitar classes where kids find a sense of community while learning about the great classics of the rock and roll repertory. (I find it intensely gratifying that “The Spirit of Radio” is among the lessons on offer.) This is the same sense of guardianship of a dying tradition that exists in the classical space. And frankly, more power to them for doing that. Classical and rock music are both traditions that deserve defending — but not with the end goal of retaining their cultural dominance. That ship has sailed, and good riddance to it. On the other hand, it’s worth checking out the Cut’s riposte to Edgers, which is simply a playlist of kickass recent guitar music being made by women. This is an altogether better argument than the one I’ve just made. Basically, “Brittany Howard, St. Vincent. Your argument is invalid.” Yes, fine. I’ll round out my metaphor by recommending you go listen to Caroline Shaw, Nicole Lizée and Jennifer Higdon.

Jorge Luis Borges: “The Approach to Al-Mu’tasim” — Solidly middle-of-the-pack by the standards of Borges’s Fictions collection, but that’s only to say it’s really great. This is the most straightforward iteration of Borges’ strategy of writing a critical essay about a fictional book that I’ve seen. It’s clever, but it doesn’t have the imperious ambition of “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius” or “Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote.”

Music

Felix Mendelssohn/Yannick Nézet-Séguin, Chamber Orchestra of Europe, RIAS Kammerchor: Symphonies 1-5 — I honestly rarely listen to new classical discs in their entirety, at least when they’re recordings of familiar rep like this. But it occurred to me that I might not actually have heard all of the Mendelssohn symphonies (the fact that I’m not sure ought to demonstrate what I think of a few of them), and I am in general favourably disposed towards YNS. So, why not binge them along with a few of my coworkers. The best thing that can be said about Nézet-Séguin is that he’s a clean windowpane: he gives you a clear picture of the music. And while I’ll always fall on the side of classical artists who offer personal, idiosyncratic interpretations, there’s value in the sort of artist who is a superb technician with a firm grasp of any given score, but who will defer to tradition when it comes to interpretation. (I’m not saying that’s what he’s doing here, because I don’t know most of this music well enough to judge. But I’ve heard a lot of his other recordings, and I think it’s a valid general characterization.) This is especially valuable when there’s a great orchestra involved, and up-to-the-minute recording techniques. Judging by YNS’s readings of the two symphonies I do know quite well (numbers three and four), this is a Mendelssohn set that could easily serve as a new standard for anybody wanting to familiarize themselves with these works. (I’d then send any such person straight to Leonard Bernstein’s “Scottish” with the Israel Philharmonic, to hear what it sounds like with a lot of energy.) All that said, the truth is that I’m unlikely to revisit any of these recordings aside from the two symphonies I know and love. Because my milage with Mendelssohn varies, and ultimately I only connect with him when he’s at his most joyful. Mendelssohn is that rare composer who can express actual joy, and not just contentedness, in a way that makes it contagious. And for that you should turn to the third and fourth symphonies, because the others are a bit serious and Beethovenesque. I’ll take actual Beethoven instead, thanks. In any case, this is a marvellous set that you should hear if you want to hear some good Mendelssohn. And you should check out the first movement of the “Italian” regardless of what you want.  

Podcasts

WTF with Marc Maron: “Jenji Kohan” — This is a lot more fun than the interview I heard with Kohan on Fresh Air a few years back. Maron gets her in anecdote mode, so we get to hear about her enthusiasm for dominoes and how her dad wrote David Bowie’s countermelody in the Bing Crosby Christmas special. It’s a fun chat, and she’s a genius.

Long Now: Seminars About Long-term Thinking: “James Gleick: Time Travel” — Thus returns one of the strangest things in my podcast subscriptions to make its 2017 debut on this blog. I have, in my limited experience, found the Long Now Foundation’s podcast seminars to be totally engrossing listening, bland title be damned. This talk by the author of the brilliantly titled book Time Travel: A History is no exception. Particularly wonderful is the idea that before the technological maelstrom of the early 20th century, the idea of time travel didn’t really exist. It’s fun hearing James Gleick explain the pains that H.G. Wells took to explain the basic idea of time travel, which was totally anathema to basically every writer who came before him (except Mark Twain, and even he didn’t quite commit). But as is to be expected from these, the question and answer segment with Stewart Brand after the actual talk is the highlight. Brand is a loveable eccentric whose questions never adhere to a standard interview formula. He’s just a smart person who really listens to the talks from beforehand. Pick of the week. 

Arts and Ideas: “Canada 150: Robert Lepage, Katherine Ryan” — I had to hear this because I haven’t actually heard an interview with Lepage about 887, the incredible performance of his that I saw early last year. It seriously is one of the best experiences I have ever had in a theatre. But I didn’t enjoy this program very much at all, because the host, Philip Dodd, is an idiot. He handles Lepage reasonably well, although he spends altogether too much time huffing disapprovingly about Lepage’s identity as a “multidisciplinary artist.” I don’t see the issue there. (The one amazing upside to that part of the conversation is a bit where Lepage turns the tables on Dodd by referring to Wagner as a multidisciplinary artist.) But Dodd really shits the bed in his interview with Katherine Ryan. He is five to ten years out of date in the discourse about comedy. Ryan outlines the pretty standard rule for modern comedy that you punch up and not down, and Dodd seems to take this (or something else Ryan said, who knows what) to mean that comedy isn’t supposed to offend anymore. Sure it is! It’s just supposed to offend the relatively privileged or powerful! “You’re starting to sound like a Guardian reader,” he tells her. Who exactly does he assume his audience is? I’ve enjoyed the programs that come through BBC’s Arts and Ideas feed before, but I think I’ll avoid Dodd like the plague from here on out.

All Songs Considered: “Listeners Picks For 2017’s Best New Artists (So Far)” — Most of this didn’t catch fire for me, but it picked up at the very end of the countdown. Gracie and Rachel, Charly Bliss, and especially Overcoats are all now on my must-check-out list. The listeners’ number one pick, Diet Cig, worked for me too, but not like those other three. I’ve got to say, last year’s equivalent episode of this was better. This one has a lot of generic guitar rock.

It’s Been A Minute: “Lena Waithe from ‘Master of None’” — The first episode of this left me cold, partially because of its ostentatious format. But if these Tuesday episodes are going to all be like this, I’m in. Presumably the whole reason Sam Sanders has his own show now is that he’s a preternaturally gifted conversationalist. So, giving him the chance to just talk to people in a not toooo structured way (i.e. this is an interview, but it doesn’t feel like one) is probably the best way to leverage his talent. But even if only one of every two episodes works for me, this is still a really good thing to have in the world. Also, Lena Waithe is amazing and I’m going to have to resign myself to putting some time into Master of None.

99% Invisible: “Mexico 68” — This starts off like it’s going to be a sports story without an obvious design angle, but then it turns into a pretty awesome exploration of why it matters who is involved in a project and what happens when design is repurposed for political means. Also, the Mexico 68 Olympics are just really interesting. I’ve really reconnected with this show in recent weeks. I love 99pi.

Radiolab: “Revising the Fault Line” — Another revisit of an older episode, and a really great one, too. This is a story I remember well, about a guy who does something terrible, possibly because of a neurological condition he can’t entirely control. But it goes beyond that story — it gets to a point where Jad and Robert are actually debating with a guest whether free will is a thing that exists. Ye olde Radiolab.

Code Switch: “It’s Our Anniversary” — This episode revisits a few of the most contentious and noteworthy episodes from this podcast’s first year. Mostly, it’s just a really good reminder that Code Switch hit the ground running and is now one of the most valuable podcasts in the public radio space. Many happy returns.

Ear Hustle: “Misguided Loyalty” — There’s a moment here that really drives home a potential issue with this show, which is just that it’s absolutely crucial for the inmates who are telling their own stories be allowed to do so in a way that works for them. It’s possible that this means the show sacrifices a certain amount of emotional honesty. This features a man reading a script about the murder of his family in an almost shockingly affectless way. Better this than the alternative, though. I don’t want anybody’s emotions to be harnessed for the sake of radio art.

On the Media: “Newton Minnow Still Cares About the Media” — Newton Minnow is an interesting fellow. A former advisor to President Kennedy, he made the improvement of television his professional cause. I’m with him on this, though I do think there’s a place in the world for Gilligan’s Island.

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