Omnibus (week of Sept. 10, 2017)

Greetings! 19 reviews.

Television

BoJack Horseman: Season 4 — There are four ongoing Netflix original series that I watch. Of those, I am a season behind on two of them: Orange is the New Black and Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. When seasons five and three of those series respectively dropped earlier this year, I decided I didn’t have time for them right that moment. But I dropped everything for BoJack Horseman. The last two seasons of this show have both been flawless. Each of them contains one or more episodes that I consider among the best television ever made. New BoJack is a run-don’t-walk cultural event. This season is extraordinary, but it does strike me as the first one to be slightly less enthralling than the last. Seasons two and three were blazingly effective because they presented one new set of circumstances after another for BoJack, gradually making it clear that no set of circumstances is sufficient to repair him. Season four takes a break from throwing new shit at BoJack to instead examine the old shit that got him to this place. It’s a logical move for a show that’s always been fascinated with the convergence of unlikely causes to produce unlikely effects. (Recall that this is the show that ended its last season by throwing all of its B-stories together into a bizarre culmination in which Mr. Peanutbutter saves an aquatic city from a huge mound of spaghetti.) But this new focus on the past also leaves open the question of whether there’s actually anywhere left for BoJack Horseman to go. But let’s look beyond the big-picture narrative stuff. What about the jokes? In that respect this season is at least as strong as any of its predecessors, with its language-based humour at a particular apex. The show’s linguistic pot runneth over to such an extent that one of its best gags gets relegated to a news ticker: “Kathmandu Cat, Man, Doe Man Canoe to Timbuktu.” Anything to do with the assonance-prone Courtney Portnoy is equally marvellous. The outright funniest stuff in the season generally revolves around Mr. Peanutbutter’s extremely ill-advised gubernatorial run, which brings him back into contact with his ex-wives Katrina Peanutbutter and Jessica Biel. (Biel plays herself with hilarious disregard for her real-life personal brand.) BoJack’s best episodes are often its most conceptual, and this season carries that on, with one standout being an episode in which the Peanutbutter residence collapses into the ground, burying a bunch of wealthy showbiz and politics types. Things go Lord of the Flies as quickly as you might expect. The other best episode in the season is as heartbreaking as “Underground” is jokey. As much as BoJack’s character arc decelerates this season, the supporting cast gets some devastating stuff, especially Princess Carolyn. The frame narrative of “Ruthie,” in which PC’s distant descendent in a far-off future tells the story of her esteemed ancestor’s worst day ever, turns out to be one of the most adventurous and saddest things the show has ever done. I dare say it’s more effective than the main tragedy that the show wants us to get invested in this season, which is the life story of Beatrice Horseman, née Sugarman. Previously, we’ve seen Beatrice almost entirely as a monster — a destructive presence in her son’s life. This season doesn’t so much humanize her as show how she’s a product of her circumstances: specifically, the oppressive upper-crust society of post-war America. We see this story play out in two episodes, the more effective of which is the season’s second episode, “The Old Sugarman House,” in which past and present are shown to play out simultaneously through the wonders of animation. It’s an almost theatrical effect: we repeatedly see our present-day cast in the same frame as characters from two generations previously, with only the story to differentiate between the two layers of reality that we’re seeing simultaneously. It’s a canny technique for illustrating the chains of cause and effect that so obsess this show. The show’s penultimate episode, “Time’s Arrow,” doesn’t fare so well. This one seems to be a particular hit with the critics, but I’m not convinced. The decision to show the episode’s events through the lens of the deteriorating mind of the now-senile Beatrice is a good one, but unlike in “Ruthie,” the mode of storytelling entirely outpaces the content of the story, which is rote and predictable in a way that this show usually isn’t. It doesn’t help that the season’s denouement revolves around Hollyhock, the season’s newcomer. Hollyhock is brilliantly performed by Aparna Nancherla, but she is more clearly a plot device than any other character in this show so far. She is the motivating factor for the show’s journey into BoJack’s family past. Given the comparative thinness of her characterization (thinner than the comparatively brief role of Penny, I’d wager), I found the central plot reveal at the season’s end a bit underwhelming. Still, this is only lacking by comparison to the two perfect seasons that precede it. At its most brilliant (“The Old Sugarman House,” “Ruthie,” “Underground” and “Hooray! Todd Episode!” which I somehow didn’t even get to in this wall of text) it is still among the best television being made today. At its least brilliant it’s only excellent. I halfway hope that season five will be the end for BoJack. I want a proper ending for this show, but I never want to see it lose steam. This remains my favourite thing Netflix has ever brought into existence. We’ll see if it maintains the title once Stranger Things season two comes out.

Movies

The Kid — Every so often I get a hankering for silent comedy. I haven’t seen The Kid since my film studies class in the third year of my undergrad. So I figured, why not revisit the Charlie Chaplin movie that I recall being my favourite during that brief period where I watched a ton of Charlie Chaplin movies? The reason I love The Kid is that it demonstrates how even canonized masters like Chaplin can make a very “first movie” kind of first movie. Chaplin had directed some classic shorts prior to this, but The Kid is his first feature. (Though, at under an hour, it barely qualifies by today’s standards.) This is the movie where Chaplin’s aspirations to be not just the greatest comedic entertainer of his generation, but also the new Charles Dickens are most obvious. It tells the story of a single mother who is forced to abandon her child, which unexpectedly ends up in the care of a wily tramp — Chaplin’s famous hatted, moustached character. And while the non-comedic scenes with the mother land with a thud compared to Chaplin’s own plotline, the genuine bond between the tramp and the kid is an undercurrent of genuine drama that fits remarkably well into a film that is also full of Chaplin’s famous physical comedy. I’ve heard Buster Keaton referred to as silent comedy’s resident modernist. His detachment certainly feels less of-its-time than Chaplin’s pathos. Still, for all his Dickensian tendencies, the tramp prefigures modern comedy in a remarkable way. We live in an era of comedy when comedic characters are expected to have the depth and internal consistency to function in dramatic settings as well. (Think of BoJack Horseman for half a dozen examples.) For all of his broad clowning, the tramp is one of the most subtle creations in all of comedy. And I daresay The Kid provides his defining moment: when the child he’s come to love is taken from him, his impulse is to escape his aggressors by taking to the city’s rooftops — a typically counterintuitive, and openly comical, move. But as he traverses the skyline in pursuit of the truck that’s taking his son away, he exudes desperation. It’s one of the most beautiful scenes ever. Take an hour and watch this. It’s ageless.

Rosemary’s Baby — Well, I’m going to see mother! We’ll see how that goes. (Ed. see below for how that went.) In the meantime I figured I should prepare by watching the classic movie that it supposedly draws heavily from. Polanski’s a creep and that has deterred me from really diving into his filmography. But this is a damned good movie. Mia Farrow’s performance is a welcome departure from the screaming hysterics of many classic female horror leads, though that’s partially down to the kind of horror movie this is — a slow-burning psychological one. It’s certainly a step up from Repulsion, the other Polanski apartment building horror movie I’ve seen. That movie’s portrait of sexual repression seems banal by comparison to this movie’s assertion that all of the men in its protagonist’s life actually are conspiring against her. Oh, and also a couple of fabulously batty old women. Ruth Gordon’s performance as the forcefully friendly senior citizen Minnie Castevet is maybe the best part of Rosemary’s Baby. Also, the ending is incredible. For a second I was a bit let down that the ambiguity of the film was washed away by a surge of “Hail Satans,” but that final shot of Mia Farrow rocking the crib of her demon child introduces an entirely new kind of ambiguity that wasn’t there before. Marvellous stuff. I might even swallow my distaste and rewatch Chinatown, now.

mother! — I saw this with my friend Sachi. Her immediate response at the end of the movie is the most appropriate review I can imagine of this, and that was to laugh hysterically for several minutes. Mother! is an aggressively fucked up movie. It begins as an Edward Albee-reminiscent black comedy of manners, and then it descends precipitously into a nightmare scenario so over-the-top that it’s impossible to take seriously. This, I am certain, is by design. From the moment that the exclamation point appears in the title card, mother! is arch and theatrical. Jennifer Lawrence and Javier Bardem give completely committed and sincere performances, but nothing else in the movie is like that. Once Ed Harris and Michelle Pfeiffer show up as a pair of oddly childlike uninvited guests, the movie crosses a Rubicon, and there’s no hope of dealing with it as character drama anymore. Interestingly, director Darren Aronofsky has essentially taken to the internet to explain the movie. A couple key remarks on Reddit have basically confirmed that Bardem = God, Lawrence = Mother Earth, Harris and Pfeiffer = Adam and Eve and the brothers Gleeson = Cain and Abel. I say “interestingly” because this doesn’t seem to me like the sort of thing you’d want to directly point out to your audience. Allegories are bland. They reduce stories that offer a whole world of possibility into one tidy interpretation. Suddenly, the disquieting scene where Bardem comforts a vomiting Harris while ostentatiously hiding a wound in Harris’s side can only represent the creation of Eve, stolen rib and all. Why would Aronofsky want this for his movie? Surely he’d rather see us puzzle through it, arriving at many disparate interpretations, the way we do with Eraserhead — a movie that this one evokes from time to time. I think the answer lies in the movie’s archness — in that anomalous exclamation point in the title. One of our key characters is an artist (the God one, obviously) and every single time the movie addresses his creativity, or the reception of his work, it devolves into clichés. We see him sit bolt upright in bed with inspiration exclaiming “Pen! Pen!” We hear a fan proclaim “I feel like these words were written… for me!” The movie goes out of its way to make God’s work appear ridiculous, and by extension his followers. To me, it seems like the movie is primarily commenting on the slipperiness of interpretation, particularly the sort of interpretation that attempts to reconcile the vastly complex into one internally consistent narrative (If you’ve been following Twin Peaks fandom this year, you’ll be familiar with this.) Mother! comments on the most high-stakes version of that practice: theology, and particularly the dunderheaded literalist sort. Fittingly, it culminates in a huge, gaudy apocalypse, tempting us to read it in dunderheadedly literalist fashion. That’s my take. I mean, I could be wrong. It’s entirely possible that I’ve gone too far down the rabbit hole in my attempts to justify the ways of Aronofsky to man. The real truth is just that I enjoyed the hell out of this movie, and I want it to be more than a banal Biblical allegory. In any case, mother! is completely bonkers crazy and you’ll probably feel a little cracked at the end. Good enough for me. Pick of the week.

Games

Everything — I played this for a frustrating half hour a few weeks ago, but it was only this week when I decided to actually get the settings adjusted so it works on my janky laptop. Once I got that sorted, I found this completely immersive. If you don’t know what this is, it is a game in which there is no specific objective, but which allows you to explore a vast world (many worlds, in fact), while playing as every object in the game, from animals to bacteria to inanimate objects to stars to planetary systems. Its basic contention is a simplistic one, familiar to anybody who’s ever heard a psychedelic rock album: everything is connected, and the whole universe is contained within its each and every component. The game expresses this partway through narration by the philosopher Alan Watts, something of a proto-hippie figure, though he might chafe at that characterization. Still, the actual experience of playing the game mitigates its potential heavy-handedness with a pleasant absurdity. Most of its playable characters aren’t actually animated. Rather, they move around by doing somersaults like a misshapen bicycle wheel tossed down a hill. It’s hard to accuse a game of ponderousness when you’re playing as a wooly mammoth and it’s flipping head over heels through a grove of palm trees. And that’s a conservative example. I spent a fair bit of time playing this as a pair of rubber boots. Because of the game’s mechanics, it is possible and encouraged to make these rubber boots dance around like any living creature would. And as a result of this dancing, they reproduce and make little baby rubber boots. It’s a lovely construction, worth far more than the hour or so I’ve spent on it, and I do hope I make it back to really unravel its secrets. Because it’s also incredibly relaxing, and I need something like that in my life right now.

Music

Sigur Rós: Takk… — I have a theory that Sigur Rós are Coldplay for snobs. Take a good listen to “Hoppípolla.” I don’t necessarily mean that as a dig, though. This is the Sigur Rós album where the memories live, for me. It’s the only one I heard when it first came out, and I listened to “Mílanó” obsessively. It’s a lusher album than either of the ones that precedes it and a more generous one — fitting for an album titled “Thanks.” A beautiful record, and a lovely trip down memory lane.

Movies

Wes Anderson’s short films and commercials — After last week’s marathon of (most of) the features, I figured I may as well be a completist about it. It is not at all jarring to see Anderson’s distinctive style in advertisements. Lavish set decoration and obsessively disciplined framing are advertising standbys anyway. His best ad is the Christmas-themed Darjeeling Limited riff starring Adrien Brody that he made for H&M last year. But that only holds if you don’t count the Prada-financed short Castello Cavalcanti, which is my favourite of his short films. It stars Jason Schwartzman as a racecar driver who fails dismally at his sport (“the steering wheel was screwed on backwards,” he whines) and coincidentally crashes in his ancestral Italian village, among a bunch of distant relations he’s never heard of. There’s a hint of that old story about the Sicilian village that waited in vain for the homecoming of Joe DiMaggio in this. It’s nice. I prefer it to Hotel Chevalier, which is a direct prequel to The Darjeeling Limited, so it’s probably better in context. But that leaves Bottle Rocket, the black and white short that Anderson’s debut feature was based on. It’s a fun artifact, with a slightly different and equally funny take on the scene where Bob won’t stop fooling around with the gun. But most of its scenes also appear in the feature, in substantially refined form. Anyway, this is a fun deep dive, if you’re in the mood for the untapped depths of the Wes Anderson barrel. That sounds pejorative. And I guess it kind of is, because Moonrise Kingdom these are not. But they’re fun.  

Podcasts

Imaginary Worlds: “Technobabble” — Helen Zaltzman sounds slightly half-hearted about this collaboration. But she’s the right person to bring in for a discussion about made-up words.

Mogul: “Behind the Beats” Parts 1 & 2 — Jeez, Mogul’s really taking a victory lap. Still, these episodes are a fun look into the nuts and bolts of making a big, glossy Gimlet show.

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “Outlander,” “People We’re Pulling For” & “The Deuce and What’s Us Happy” — Outlander is clearly not for me, but this conversation about it is goooood fun. Also, I think I’m going to watch The Deuce, but man oh man I bet it’ll be a slog.

Showcase from Radiotopia: “Ways of Seeing #5 – POWER” — This has been a mixed bag of a series for me so far. The first episode, about how digital recording has shaped our perception of time, was ingenious. Much of what has come after is obvious to anybody who’s thought about digital media distribution for any amount of time at all. This episode in particular is about algorithms, and the way that powerful companies hook us into filter bubbles for their own financial gain. This is all correct, but it seems banal when it’s stated outright in a polemical fashion. Because it’s something we all know.

StartUp: “Sex Dot Con” & “Sell the Apartment, Keep the Startup” — The CEO whisperer makes me really uneasy. I feel like this guy is a snake oil salesman who found his mark with Gimlet. Also, the episode about sex.com is kind of unsatisfying.

The Kitchen Sisters Present: “The Galveston Hurricane of 1900: No Tongue Can Tell” — There’s nothing like archival tape. One of these days I’m going to listen to the whole Kitchen Sisters archive, but that is a daunting task. This timely rerun of an episode about the most deadly natural disaster in American history is really moving. It’s nice just to know that somebody captured the voices of people who lived through it.

Radiolab: “Radiolab Presents: Anna in Somalia” — This promo of Rough Translation is a lot more convincing than its marketing campaign, which makes it sound noble and dull. This is the story of men who stayed sane in prison by inventing an alphabet of taps — like Morse code, but not that — and tapping the whole of Anna Karenina on the walls. It’s a remarkable story. Pick of the week.

99% Invisible: “Coal Hogs Work Safe” — This is a story about coal miners who love stickers. Take it or leave it.

Code Switch: “It’s Getting (Dangerously) Hot in Herre”  — This podcast is doing the good work again, with stories that demonstrate why “Mother Nature doesn’t discriminate” isn’t actually true.

On the Media: “Look What You Made Me Do” — Just Brooke Gladstone this week, and it’s a fun one. Particular highlights include segments on the alt right’s appropriation of medieval imagery, and Taylor Swift’s uncertain political allegiances.

The Memory Palace: “Sometimes the Rain Just Doesn’t Stop” — A flood-themed episode for a stormy week. I like that Nate DiMeo does episodes like this, that tie into devastating events, from time to time. Generally, I appreciate The Memory Palace as an escape from the ruthless churn of current events, into the world of historical context. Still, most episodes of The Memory Palace resonate strongly with contemporary discourses, even if they aren’t hooked to contemporary stories. That’s what DiMeo does, even in the episodes that are obviously responses to a specific event. This is in a category with his episode after the Pulse Nightclub shootings. And although it isn’t as beautiful a piece of writing as that, it’s as beautiful a gesture.

Love and Radio: “Seventy Weeks” — An old episode, but one I hadn’t heard before. This is about a pimp’s son who became a preacher who became a pimp who became a life coach. He’s a thorny figure, as are most people who appear on Love and Radio. You get the sense that he has equal potential to bust some harmful myths about prostitution, but also obscure some important and unpleasant truths.

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