Omnibus (week of July 2, 2017)

Greetings! Here’s the latest radio segment. I’m at 27:27. It didn’t occur to me until sometime after we’d taped it that a theme connecting the three things I talk about could be “uncharted territory” — both in the sense that all of these things come from media that I hadn’t covered on the show yet (movies, games and podcasts) and in the sense that each one of them deals with characters who are attempting the seemingly impossible. I dunno how I missed that. Anyway, it’s out there now.

29 reviews.

Live Events

The Winter’s Tale (Bard on the Beach) — Far and away the better of the two mainstage productions at Bard this year. This production has one big setpiece at the end of the first act, and aside from that they just do the play. Which is all I want out of life. The production itself doesn’t really have its own premise: it’s just sort of set in a pretty-looking, abstractly ahistorical Sicily and Bohemia. The story plays out of its own devices. The setpiece, by the way, is “exit, pursued by a bear.” Since this is the only Shakespeare play whose best-known quote is a stage direction, that moment has to pay off. We paid to see a bear, and a man exiting pursued by it. This production employs a wonderful and impressively large puppet for the bear. Aside from a couple of adorable, simpler, sheep puppets, that’s the only bit of complex stagecraft employed here. Lovely of director Dean Paul Gibson to just let the rest of the play exist. The Winter’s Tale is the first Shakespeare play I’ve seen on stage or film without having read the script first. Frankly, its unfamiliarity to all but the most enthusiastic Shakespeareans is probably part of what makes The Winter’s Tale easy to stage straightforwardly. Save for the bear, there are no memes in this play. No “to be or not to be,” or “double, double, toil and trouble,” or even “O, that way madness lies.” Nothing to emphasize or undercut, in anticipation of the audience’s familiarity. I feel like this was a good introduction to the play, and I enjoyed the story quite a lot in spite of certain structural oddities. Namely, the first half of this is straightforwardly a tragedy and the second half is straightforwardly a comedy. The comedic half took the edge in this production because Bard’s company has an excellent roster of clowns, with Ben Elliot especially standing out as Autolycus the pickpocket. But the first half packed enough clout that by the end of the play, I hadn’t forgotten the tragedies that befell the characters in the early story. So, when the story ends on the note of “a sad tale’s best for winter” — which a casual perusal of the script just now finds not to be the case in Shakespeare’s original — it feels like an earned moment. I totally enjoyed this. Now to read the play.

Movies

The Beguiled — So far, this is second only to Get Out in my personal 2017 movie sweepstakes. Sofia Coppola’s rethink of an evidently somewhat dated Clint Eastwood vehicle from the ‘70s is a brilliantly twisted exploration of what happens when toxic masculinity meets the more discreet consequences of patriarchy. But that makes it sound deathly boring, which it isn’t. Rather, it’s a tense and thrilling coiled snake of a movie with uniformly wonderful performances and some of the most beautifully composed shots outside of Wes Anderson’s filmography. The premise is simple: a seminary school full of women loyal to the south is shaken by the arrival of a rather dashing but grievously injured Union soldier at their doorstep. Nicole Kidman particularly stands out as the matriarch of the seminary: the decision maker who is wise enough to be slightly more resistant to the northerner’s charms than her younger charges, but who is nonetheless afflicted with the loneliness of war. But Colin Farrell is a match for her. He never allows his charming soldier character to seem like a deliberate temptor or sly devil. Rather, he behaves politely and graciously, and efficiently manipulates each of the women around him differently. Coppola’s best decision in the whole movie is to never have the camera cast suspicion on Farrell, nor to allow his performance to attract suspicion intentionally. Instead, a sceptical audience will come to distrust him simply because of the fraught nature of this setup. And then, about halfway through, when a cataclysmic event changes the movie drastically, we’re made to think differently of him once again. Never once does the movie lose sight of the fact that this man has just come from a brutal, traumatizing war. And never once does it lose sight of the fact that the women in it are deeply subject to social iniquity. The exploration of the resulting power dynamic in the film’s third act is totally riveting. And it contains maybe the single most jaw-dropping smash cut to black since The SopranosPick of the week.

Music

Fairport Convention: Liege & Lief — I’ve been really enjoying the tracks from the upcoming Olivia Chaney/Decemberists collaboration, which have been slowly coming out over the past months. (The record is due out this week.) So I figured I should finally get informed about the British folk revival that inspired it and the bulk of the Decemberists catalogue. I’ve been aware of Fairport Convention, Steeleye Span, the Pentangle and all the rest of them for ages, largely because Jethro Tull flitted on the edges of that scene. And I’ve heard assorted songs of all of these bands. But never a full album, that I can remember. So, Liege & Lief, the most acclaimed of the bunch. I have to say I’m underwhelmed. There’s a lot of great stuff on this, but there’s nothing that reaches out and grabs me the way that the tracks from the Offa Rex record have, or even the way that the select tracks from the Pentangle have. This is a clear case where I need to hear more of this sort of thing before I can really appreciate this album specifically. So, I’ll do that, and report back then.

Literature, etc.

John Hermann: “Why the Far Right Wants to be the New ‘Alternative’ Culture” — A persuasive though fairly basic account of the appeal of the specious “alternative” label to Trump supporters and assorted Nazis, from my favourite analyst of the internet. Hermann has toned his voice down since moving from the Awl to the Times, but he’s still always worth reading.

Jorge Luis Borges: “A Survey of the Works of Herbert Quain” — Much like “The Approach to Al Mu’tasim,” this is a quite simple iteration of Borges’s central notion that a story can entail an essay about fictional books. One of the things that I love most about him is that he knows his strengths and he knows his voice. Borges is a genius for premises, but he knows that if he were to actually try and write any of the books he describes here, they would be subject to the same muted and occasionally negative criticisms that he levels on them. Far better to simply state the premises outright. If the central idea is the whole point, why belabour it?

James Errington: Centuries of Sound — Errington’s blog was featured on the A.V. Club this week, and I’m delighted by this. It feels like old school, pre-social internet fare, except with impressive professionalism. Basically, Errington is making a mixtape for every year of recorded sound. He’s in the nearly prehistoric phase of the project at the moment, dealing with Edison phonographs and all that. But he started out with a two-hour mix of music and sound from 2016 as a proof-of-concept, and boy what a thing it is. If you care to relive the trauma of that year, with a newfound awareness of just how inseparable from that context all of the music is, I highly recommend it. I’ll be making an effort to catch up on this so that I can follow Errington’s progress as he goes along.

Harold Bloom: Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human — I revisit this every time I partake in a new Shakespeare play. Or so I thought, but as it turns out I never read the entry on Cymbeline, which I rectified this week before turning to his chapter on The Winter’s Tale, which is genuinely new to me. Bloom’s take on modern literary criticism and theatre has its obvious problems, but I am an absolute sucker for his readings of the texts themselves, and particularly of the way he never fails to see the whole future of culture in Shakespeare. He even manages to hear a magnificent insight in the mouth of one of Cymbeline’s least memorable characters: “Through Posthumus, I hear Shakespeare observing that the action of our lives is lived for us, and that the desperate best we can do is to accept (“keep”) what happens as if we performed it, if but for ironic sympathy with ourselves. It is another of those uncanny recognitions in which Shakespeare is already beyond Nietzsche.” I’m also quite amused by Bloom’s suggestion that the openly comical second half of The Winter’s Tale was designed specifically to infuriate the trite moralizer Ben Johnson. Indeed Bloom, usually a deeply melancholy critic, never seems happier than when he’s writing about the great knave of The Winter’s Tale, Autolycus. I’ve now read enough Bloom that I’ve started to regard him as a literary character, and though he is a problematical one (to borrow his preferred form of that word), I seem to wish him happiness nonetheless. I continue to stubbornly find him essential reading on Shakespeare.

Alex Ross: “The Occult Roots of Modernism” — “As an orchestra plays Wagner, the women fall to worshipping a giant phallus.” Man oh man, there was something in the water in the late 19th century. This is a wonderful feature about Joséphin Péladan, the occult lunatic/charlatan who took Paris by storm and inspired and collaborated with artists from Eric Satie to Ferdinand Hodler. He also wrote novels, one of which contains the scenario quoted above. Ross’s feature is a great reminder that beneath the supposed rationality and distance of the modernists there lay an irreducible weirdness of a spiritual sort. I’m particularly gratified to see Ross contextualize Schoenberg in this light. People often characterize him as a chilly mathematician, at least after he abandoned his passionate atonal idiom for the twelve-tone method. But numbers meant something different to Schoenberg than they do to the rest of us: he was a devotee of Kabbalistic number symbolism. It’s that sort of thing that fascinates me so much about the art of this period.

Games

King of Dragon Pass — Okay, I’m done my first playthrough. It ended badly. And, more out of frustration than disappointment, I think I may not return to this. Given that the game is almost entirely text-based, I thought I could expect something substantially more story driven than this actually is. The truth is that it’s much more a simulation/resource management game than an interactive story. There is a story, of course, and there are even characters who behave consistently. But in general, the choices you make are not a matter of where you want the narrative to go, but rather what’s best to stay afloat. Contrast this with Sunless Sea, for which this is a clear forerunner. In Sunless Sea, there are storylines to pursue, and these are fully integrated with the resource management and stat boosting tasks that are that game’s form of “progress.” And it goes without saying that Sunless Sea has better writing and worldbuilding, but credit where it’s due: King of Dragon Pass does a more than passable pulp fantasy novel impression. I realize that I frequently make this same perverse complaint, where I play a game and get frustrated by the “game” elements. This is why I suspect I’ll always feel like a tourist in this medium. It is not where I live. But that’s fine. Also, I think I got this for a dollar. So, no harm done. I hear The Dream Machine’s finally finished. That sounds like it’ll suit my mood a bit better.

Podcasts

The Truth/Theory of Everything: “Influencers” — The issue I often have with The Truth’s stories is that they’re just so on the nose. But Benjamen Walker’s particular kind of on the nose is a kind that I like a lot. This is a really fun story that touches not just on the president’s acrimony towards the media, but also on the ludicrousness of the idea that social follower counts connote influence. It’s also about the fact that the most well-intentioned in our society are often the least able to ascertain what’s really going on. A worthy crossover.

It’s Been A Minute: “They’re Still Here” — Two things can be true: Sam Sanders and his panelists are wonderful, and this show is overproduced. I don’t tune into podcasts for a parade of segments. I’m entirely comfortable with conversations dragging on a bit, but I’m not fond of the whiplash that the format introduces into this show. This is the point where I’ll duck out of this for a while and wait for it to find its footing. Still, it’s promising.

Arts and Ideas: “Canada 150: Sydney Newman and British TV; Vahni Capildeo; Shubbak Festival 2017” — This is well worthwhile for the Sydney Newman segment alone. What I love about this is that without necessarily meaning to, the BBC has broadcast the perfect Canadian arts story here. They’re probably just trying to localize Canada’s 150th as something with relevance to British audiences, so they chose a Canadian figure with a huge influence on British television. But what they’ve actually done is tell an iconically British story about the BBC itself that’s all about how an exodus of Canadian talent to the U.K. helped define British television, while completely impoverishing Canada itself of similar talent. The story of Sydney Newman is the story of the rise of British television and the perpetual shittiness of Canadian television. Happy Canada Day.

Reply All: “Friends and Blasphemers” — P.J. Vogt tells the story of how Russia killed LiveJournal, and Alex Goldman is mortified to reveal the writings of his 21-year-old self on that platform. Good thing I don’t ever write anything on the internet to be embarrassed of later.

Imaginary Worlds: “World War EVE” — This is a fun story about a world I knew nothing about. It also manages to say what’s specifically extraordinary about EVE as a virtual world, distinct from others like World of Warcraft. (I love the idea that EVE has a whole in-universe news reporting infrastructure.) Which is all to say that there’s just enough explanation in this for a neophyte. I’m consistently impressed by Eric Molinsky’s ability to walk this fine line. One of the key things that makes this show work is the extent to which he’s a curious semi-outsider to the cultures he explores. He assumes a position that isn’t so far outside of the culture that he’s required to offer condescending explanations, but he also manages not to alienate me by assuming a higher calibre of specialized geek knowledge than I have.  

Homecoming: “Season Two: Coming Soon” — “Hum three ascending notes into your phone” is what the first season of this was missing. Just, some weirdness to detract from the portentousness of it all. Also, Chris Gethard’s in it now. Looking forward.

What Trump Can Teach Us About Con Law: “The Spending Clause” — One of the most consistently fascinating things about the history of law is how tiny, seemingly inane things have huge consequences later on. Like weak beer, for instance. This is good stuff.

On The Media: “The American people elected a fighter” — Sometimes the only thing that keeps me going through the news cycle of the Trump era is Bob Garfield’s essays about what a catastrophe it all is. This is a good one.

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “Pop Culture Summer Stories And ‘Playing House’” — The Playing House segment contains a frank discussion of these writers’ decision to deal with an illness that affected their lives in their show. That’s great, but the real reason to hear this is more live stuff. The summer stories segment features Glen Weldon at his most curmudgeonly and Stephen Thompson as his most adorable.

On The Media: “What Ails America” — This starts with a segment where Stephen Marche explains how Canada is better than the U.S. because we’re less patriotic up here. It’s a nice idea, and I’d certainly love to live in that version of Canada, but he’s wrong and we don’t. Canadian patriotism is a bit of a joke, sure. But it does exist. We don’t know what we’re celebrating, but we sure love to go through the motions. And since we’re so uncertain about what patriotism is supposed to look like, we look abroad (mostly south) for cues. And today, Canadian conservatives are gradually cottoning on to the Trump/UKIP/National Front model of patriotism, i.e. nativism. And yet we’re still getting this barrage of American stories about how this is not happening in Canada, when it is. Marche cites the gigantic defeat of Kellie Leitch in the Conservative leadership race as supporting evidence for his insufferable neoliberal smugness. But it’s not just Kellie Leitch up here. It’s Stephen Harper’s divisive campaign in the last election, it’s the clowns in Alberta’s Wildrose Party (and whatever they’re about to morph into), and it’s the Rebel: a Canadian version of Breitbart that has a small readership but that we should ignore at our peril. Canada is not a liberal paradise. It is slow-motion America. But it’s not Bob Garfield’s fault that he doesn’t know that; he doesn’t live here. I dunno what Marche’s excuse is.

StartUp: “Ask Alex” — This is most notable for featuring Alex Blumberg’s take on the upcoming ABC sitcom where he’ll be played by Zach Braff. Evidently, he and Gimlet have no input into this and will not see much money from it because they made a mistake that they’ll not be making again. Still, I can’t help but think he must be happy he can say he had no input. The trailer for Alex, Inc. looks absolutely dire. It looks like a gag gift somebody really rich made for Blumberg’s birthday.

Mogul: “Rice Pilaf” — The story of the signing of Warren G and the resulting confrontation between Chris Lighty and Suge Knight. Mogul is completely thrilling. I won’t describe this, I’ll just say go listen from the beginning. This is second only to S-Town in my 2017 podcast sweepstakes thus far. Pick of the week.

The Memory Palace: “The Taking of Tom Sawyer’s Island” — Nate DiMeo tells the story of a left-wing youth protest at Disneyland, and manages not to undermine their correctness when he points out that they were also ridiculous and willfully misunderstanding the point of Disneyland. He’s especially good at evoking both the wonder and the extreme creepiness of Disneyland itself. Lovely stuff.

The Turnaround: “Ira Glass” — This is Jesse Thorn interviewing Ira Glass about interviewing. That’s obviously going to be worthwhile for those of us interested in that craft. But there’s one especially great moment in it that got me thinking. Thorn and Glass are talking about Terry Gross, when Thorn accidentally draws the interview to a momentary halt by starting to exposit about something Glass said about Gross and how it reflects on his own practice on This American Life. Glass’s whole project, Thorn says, is trying to get his guests to offer examples. They’ll want to answer in an intellectual, theoretical way, and Glass tries to pull examples out of them so that what they say can fit as part of a story. Thorn finishes his analysis, and Glass is simply left with nothing to say. He comments, jokingly, that he has no illustrative example to give, because Thorn has just analyzed the situation with total accuracy and tied it up with a nice little bow. Thorn’s solo trip is possibly the closest that this episode gets to defining what’s great about This American Life. The rest of it is brilliant at exposing elements of how it is made, but that is a completely different question. And that leads me to a conclusion that I’ve been threatening to reach for some time: interviewing creative people is not actually a very good way to try and understand creative products. (I will henceforth use the term “art,” though I suspect Ira Glass would be uncomfortable hearing This American Life referred to as such. However, his role in this interview, as an “artist” who is creating something is exactly analogous to any interview with a songwriter, filmmaker, etc.) I am an arts journalist myself. I don’t do a lot of interviewing these days, but when I did I always found myself wanting to do the thing that Thorn does in this interview that leaves Glass with nothing more to say. If you’ve heard or seen a lot of a given artist’s work and you’re a reasonably clever interpreter of art, as anybody who gets a job as a radio host should be (and Thorn is), then you already know what the artist wants to communicate. The most valuable thing you can do, in my view, is to unspool the meaning that you derive from the art itself. Art is condensed meaning. A journalist’s job should be to un-condense it. As an interviewer you can ask an artist what they mean by their art, but they’re not obligated to tell you, nor are they guaranteed to even know. You can also just offer up your analysis freely during the course of the interviewer, but the only question that could really be leading towards is “do you agree with that?” which is not really a question at all. You’re plunging headlong towards that exact same moment Thorn had with Glass. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been faced with putting together an interview piece where the format precluded me from offering any insight of my own, even though the artist I interviewed had nothing to say. Granted, this is at least partially a result of me not being a very good interviewer. But in my defence, what interests me above all else is what art means. And I don’t think that the fact I can’t get at that in an interview is entirely my fault, because I’ve never heard anybody else do it either. I’ve heard plenty of great interviews that get into the process by which art is produced or the human stories that lead artists to make it. These are both much more suitable ground to cover in interviews. Song Exploder is the gold standard for process stories about art. And a number of interviewers including Marc Maron, Terry Gross and, yes, Jesse Thorn are very skilled at getting artists to talk about the lives that led them to make what they make. But those stories don’t get me any closer to understanding art: they make me understand people. They’re not arts stories, really; they’re just normal human interest stories. And honestly, I’m not convinced that famous artists are actually more interesting or better storytellers than any other random people. I’m not sure that WTF would be any worse a show if Maron just interviewed whoever happened to be walking past his garage instead of comics and musicians and the president. It would definitely be less popular. And that, ultimately, is what I suspect the real motive is for most arts journalists to want to do interviews rather than focussing on analysis: this is an industry that places the ultimate premium on the “get.” If you can have a big name on your show, or get a big profile in your magazine — maybe shoot a bit of video that’ll autoplay as people scroll down their feeds and pull in those coveted attention economy eyeballs — people will take notice. This is fine, but it doesn’t really contribute to the discourse in my view. And those interviews are boring as often as they’re exciting. This is why I sometimes skip ahead to the ending of episodes of Bullseye, the “Outshot” segment where Thorn just takes a moment to exposit on something he likes. These are always great because Thorn is clever and funny and has great taste, and I’d rather hear him be that way without anybody else in the room to distract from it. So yeah, this is probably a really idiosyncratic take, but I genuinely think we should have fewer arts interviews in the world. I don’t mean to denigrate the entire practice, because as I’ve said I find some value in much of it. (And yes, I’m acutely aware that I’m currently a regular contributor to a regional radio show that mostly consists of interviews with artists. But I’m safe in that case, because I genuinely believe that show is brilliant — in large part because it isn’t about the “get,” it’s about the stories.) I think people who interview artists as their main bread and butter shouldn’t necessarily stop in their tracks, but they should have a long, hard think about why it’s a worthy use of their time. I realize this has not been a review of this episode. If anything, it’s a review of Jesse Thorn’s other show, Bullseye. So I’ll quickly say that I think The Turnaround is a fantastic idea, because it does focus on craft and process so much. And this was a great first episode that obviously got me thinking about some stuff.

Mogul: Cameos and exclusives — This week we got three tiny episodes of Mogul, which are all a lot of fun. One featuring Maseo is pretty straightforward, but it’s fun to hear him and Reggie Ossé talk about clothes. The Fat Joe exclusive has him telling a great story about getting shot. But the extra bit of Warren G’s interview is the highlight of the three, because it involves Chris Lighty locating Warren’s missing sister.

Arts and Ideas: “Thinking: Food” — This is virtuoso radio. By that, I mean Matthew Sweet makes a prawn cocktail while interviewing three writers. This is really what I love about the BBC. Sweet is a bubbly and approachable host who is nonetheless not afraid to assume a certain amount of familiarity on the listener’s part with the works of David Hume. This is the only interview about food that you’re likely to hear this week that contains the sentiment “we can talk about the moral element in a bit, but I do want to stick with aesthetics for now…”

99% Invisible: “The Pool and the Stream” — A globetrotting design story about the kidney-shaped swimming pool from Avery Trufelman. Very nice stuff. The script is really good in this one. I love the way it ties the opening back in at the end.

On the Media: “It’s the End of the World and We Know It” & “Apocalypse, Now” — Bob Garfield is away this week so we get to step away from the tornado for a while and let Brooke Gladstone do some big thinking for us. The main episode is about science fiction’s recent turn towards intense pessimism in the age of climate change. It’s depressing, but compelling. And there’s a great extra in the feed right before it featuring Gladstone’s interview with Ben Winters, whose books deal with a more sudden but less deniable threat to humanity. Both are worth your time.

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “Baby Driver and When Auteurs Meet Film Franchises” — This is as essential as this show gets. The live segment about auteurs and franchises features Glen Weldon at his very very best, and Stephen Thompson trying in a wonderful way to follow him. I’ve got to see Baby Driver stat.

Code Switch: “The Supreme Court Decides In Favor Of A Racial Slur… Now What?” — This is crazy. It’s the story of a guy who tried to register his band’s name as a trademark, but it was denied because it’s a racial slur. (It was a reclamation effort, but good god, why trademark it?) So he appealed all the way to the Supreme Court. And he won, so now people can trademark racial slurs. Because there is never any middle ground. Ugh.

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