It was more of an audiobook week than a podcast week, so once again we’ve got two non-podcast picks of the week.
Jane Mayer: “The Danger of President Pence” — This satisfyingly lengthy feature details all the many wondrous failings and creepinesses of the Vice-President. You’ve probably seen bits of it excerpted on Twitter, but you owe it to yourself to read it in full. Pence would be a disastrous president, because he’s a more efficient political operative than the orangutan who employs him, but he also has no spine with which to stand up to the Kochs, and a truly terrifying case of Jesus freakiness. I’ll decline to quote anything because you should just go read it all.
Stephen King: It (audiobook) — I’m nine hours into this 45-hour behemoth, and I have no regrets. The primary advantage of hearing this as an audiobook rather than reading it is just that you can’t cheat and steal a glimpse at the next page. There’s no way out of the tension. Steven Weber is a marvellous narrator, with a wide range of character voices that don’t feel too over the top. His Pennyworth is more restrained than, for instance, Tim Curry’s (based on the clips I’ve seen). But it’s still creepy as hell. As a book, It is thrilling, and surprisingly ambitious. I shouldn’t make too many judgements yet, because I’ve got 80% of this left to go. But so far, it’s both a convincing picture of the unique horrors of childhood and an interesting exploration of the human tendency to repress trauma for the sake of our sanity. The way it tells two stories at a time — the story of a group of adults reuniting after years apart, and the much earlier story of the horror that haunts all of them subconsciously — works really well. The horror in this first part arises mostly from seeing our main characters through the eyes of others, who are forced to acknowledge that there’s something terrifying about their husband/wife/employee etc. that they’ve never seen before. The best and most frightening scene in the book so far is one in which the author William Denbrough (an obvious King self-insert) tries to communicate as much of his hidden past as he can to his wife without driving her completely insane. It’s the kind of scene in which the book validates its massive length. We’ll see if I still feel that way after 36 more hours of it.
Philip Pullman: The Golden Compass — I never thought we’d get another full novel that ties into His Dark Materials, let alone another whole trilogy. I am delighted on behalf of my inner child, and also young weirdos growing up today. I will be reading La Belle Sauvage with relish, but I need to brush up because I haven’t read the His Dark Materials trilogy since I was eleven. So far, The Golden Compass is as magical as I remember it being. Lyra is one of the great protagonists in children’s literature, and Pullman succeeds in making a university full of fusty old scholars seem like a wonderland in the early chapters. This is like encountering an old friend.
Blade Runner 2049 — Let’s take a few runs at this. Firstly, let’s look at it as a movie in itself. Blade Runner 2049 is the latest film from Denis Villeneuve, the director of at least two previous masterpieces. (This is the third film of his I’ve seen.) It is his first blockbuster franchise film (even if the box office figures suggest that the block has not been busted to the extent that the studio probably hoped), and the most lavish and ostentatious of his recent movies. It is shot by cinematographer Roger Deakins, whose lack of an Oscar has at this point exceeded pre-2007 Martin Scorsese levels of ludicrousness. As a sensory experience, it is one of the best movies in recent memory. The way the camera hangs and drifts across the film’s beautiful production design invokes a sense of elegance that gets periodically blown away by the film’s shockingly aggressive, kickass score by Hans Zimmer and Benjamin Wallfisch. (See this in cinemas for the sound alone. It’s Zimmer’s best work.) It contains some specific sequences that deserve to go down in history, such as the construction of a dream of a birthday party, and a fistfight backed by a hologram of Elvis. It tells the story of a person who has to reckon with the notion that he may not be what he thinks he is, and it tells this story without any ostentatious philosophizing. It is a massively good movie. Next, let’s look at it as an expansion of Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner. The original film is in my opinion a sublime masterpiece, and even a great film from one of the best directors of our time is going to have a hard time measuring up. That’s why this is step two in the process. Even though Blade Runner 2049 is not as good a film as Blade Runner, it is one of the best examples of respecting without replicating in this era of endless rehashes. It would have been simple to remake the original film beat for beat, like in Star Wars: The Force Awakens (which Iike). But Blade Runner is a different kind of film from Star Wars and calls for a different kind of engagement in a sequel. Blade Runner is slow, thinky, painterly, and not culturally ubiquitous. In keeping with that, Blade Runner 2049 is a slow, thinky, painterly film that relies as much on its director’s unique vision as on the canon it inherits from its generative nostalgia object. This film’s exterior scenes take place in locations with three hues: it starts in a grey place, moves to a black place, and eventually carries us to a red place. Of these, the grey and red places are new. Maybe it seems absurd to suggest that this movie distinguishes itself from its predecessor by adding Two New Colours! But I’ve always thought of Blade Runner as a moving painting as much as a work of storytelling. So, introducing these two new locations with their vastly new aesthetics is a very substantial choice indeed. And right from the start, no less. Only once the story’s new protagonist has been properly introduced in the grey place are we allowed back into the theatrical, horizonless blackness that is the original film’s defining visual feature. Even the elements of the story that involve Rick Deckard, the first film’s protagonist, show facets of him that haven’t seen before. (This is by some margin Harrison Ford’s best role reprisal of recent years.) The new film has nothing to offer in place of Blade Runner’s one truly excellent character, Roy Batty. But it was wise of them not to try. Any attempt at “Rutger-Hauer-but-not” would have been doomed to ridiculousness. Jared Leto’s character flirts with it as it is. Also: the fact that the film reintroduces Philip K. Dick’s idea of non-robotic animals being sought-after items (largely excised from Scott’s film) is a fun touch. I haven’t read Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, by the way. But I have heard Terry Gilliam describe the plot, which I imagine is just as good. Now let’s look at it as a piece of fanservice. The most gratifying thing about this movie is that it is not primarily fanservice. But when they go that route, by god, they do it well. Gaff’s origami sheep is the best specific example. But the most satisfying element of fanservice in the movie is simply how beautifully recreated all of the environments from Scott’s original are. When we’re in the black heart of future Los Angeles, this movie looks almost exactly like the original, down to the huge Atari logo (a company which we now know will not have survived to 2049). Villeneuve is canny enough to realize that Blade Runner’s visuals are among the least dated of its time, and that its bleak cityscapes don’t require visual modernization to the same extent as, say, the starship Enterprise. The same goes for the hazy, gold-lit halls of power. The light’s a bit more liquid and a bit less gaseous these days, but it’s familiar enough. We also get a curiously lengthy sequence in which an image is enhanced on a screen. And best of all, we get a beautiful ending in which Zimmer and Wallfisch’s brilliant score dissolves into the music that inspired it: Vangelis’s original score for Roy’s death scene in the first film. As a fan of the original, I feel respected without being pandered to. Finally, let’s acknowledge that this film is maddeningly sexist. The original was no great feminist touchstone, but this one is maybe worse. It’s a huge blight on an otherwise excellent film, and it colours my impressions of it accordingly. Devon Maloney’s take in Wired is excellent. Still, I loved Blade Runner 2049, for the same primary reasons as I loved Blade Runner: it is an almost unimaginably beautiful thing to look at and listen to. Pick of the week.
Downton Abbey: Season 6, episodes 4-9 — “You couldn’t be harder on those potatoes if you wanted them to confess to spying!” Mrs. Patmore, always and forever. This final run of Downton Abbey was engineered to be satisfying, and with a few exceptions, it is. For me the biggest exception is the plotline involving Mr. Carson and Mrs. Hughes’ marriage. Carson’s tendency to prioritize his responsibility to the Crawley family and their way of life over his responsibility to his wife is played for laughs, and he’s never adequately put in his place for it. He suffers a bit, sure, but I don’t feel like we really got to see him come to understand that there are more important things than the rigorous performance of his duties. He is a terrible husband, and this season paints him as a more ruthless and doctrinaire man than previous ones. Mrs. Hughes can’t help but be steamrolled. But most of the rest of the season is fine. We don’t really ever get to know the fellow Mary ends up with, which is too bad considering that her romantic travails made up the bulk of the tension in early seasons. But I do love that he gets a job as a used car salesman and she’s okay with it. Progress is hard to come by in this show, so we’d best take what we can get. On to the finale. Old Lady Grantham gets the two most apropos benedictions, the most relevant of which being “There’s a lot at risk, but with any luck they’ll be happy enough. Which is the English version of a happy ending.” At first glance, it may not seem like the show itself shares her view — nobody comes off especially badly in the end, and even those characters whose futures we don’t know get sent off with the suggestion of better things to come. Let’s nobody pretend like Tom isn’t going to end up married to that editor. But Lady Grantham is correct when she says “there’s a lot at risk.” If there’s one thing we should have learned by now about the world of Downton Abbey, it’s that present-day happiness does not imply everlasting happiness. It’s all well and good for the show to leave all of its characters in a good place at its close. In fact, it barely even seems cheap, because there’s every chance that Downton won’t make it into the next decade. Lady Grantham’s other benediction is the series’ proper final line. “Makes me smile,” she says, “the way every year we drink to the future, whatever it may bring.” Cousin Isobel responds: “Well, what else could we drink to? We’re going forward into the future, not backward into the past.” To which old Lady Grantham replies: “If only we had the choice.” It’s a joke, but Isobel’s face tells the rest of the story. She is looking at a woman who would gladly reverse a century of progress to regain the prestige she once knew. That’s what Downton Abbey is about, maybe as much for its creator as for its characters: the desire to live in a rose-tinted, imaginary version of a barbaric past. I have enjoyed this show immensely, but I have no idea whether I’ve been reading it against the grain this whole time or not. I suppose that’s the greatest demonstration of its virtues.
Patton Oswalt: Annihilation — This has been a good year for sad comedy. Chris Gethard’s Career Suicide is barely comedy for much of its duration. Maria Bamford’s Old Baby finds her in better shape than previous specials, but she’s still playing emotional sudoku. Annihilation is Patton Oswalt’s public reckoning with the death of his wife. That’s not all it is — there’s some Trump material that’s relatively similar to Marc Maron’s Trump material from his special this year. (If ever there were a topic about which two comics were going to arrive independently at the same jokes, it’s Donald Trump.) There’s some outstanding crowdwork. And there’s a hysterical story about the best fight Oswalt ever witnessed. But the meat and potatoes of the set is Oswalt’s material about trying to help his daughter through the loss of her mother, while he himself wasn’t even close to finished grieving. The rawest emotional territory is often the most fruitful for comedy, and that’s clearly the case here. Grief has made Oswalt notice the tiny absurdities that interrupt his numbness very acutely, and he spins it into some great jokes, including a particularly excellent bit about a well-meaning Polish airport security officer who ruins his daughter’s day. This is draining stuff at times, but it’s very good.
Dr. Langeskov, The Tiger, and the Terribly Cursed Emerald: A Whirlwind Heist — This 20-minute free game from one of the folks behind The Stanley Parable is delightful. I played it twice, once in the suggested 20-minute fashion, and once in a more luxurious 50 minutes. It’s worth playing twice, since the second time bequeaths you with a tape deck that allows you to play cassettes littered about, which contain voice work by Rick and Morty’s Justin Roiland. But even without him, the voice work is great. The narrator is Simon Amstell, in full-on panic mode. As a meta-comment on walking simulators and choice in games, it’s nowhere near as insightful as The Stanley Parable, but it’s free! And it’s funny! And it’ll take almost none of your time. And it’s more detailed than you might initially detect. What excuse do you have?
Kendrick Lamar: DAMN. — It took a while, but I’ve come around to thinking this is one of the best albums of the year. “DUCKWORTH.” in particular blows my mind, but “FEAR.” is one of Kendrick’s best tracks too. “HUMBLE.” is super catchy, definitely this album’s “King Kunta.” It’s a grower.
The Tragically Hip: Day For Night — Look: those of you who think this band is undistinguished generic rock, I hear you. I think lots of their albums fit that description. But Gord Downie’s lyrics are the exact opposite of generic. They approach Kate Bush levels of specificity. And that is always the case. But here is an album where the music actually rises to the challenge of illustrating Downie’s poetry. It’s an album of moody sonic landscapes as much as it is an album of guitar shredding. I was actually surprised to find that it wasn’t produced by Daniel Lanois. It doesn’t have the same density of recognizable classics as Fully Completely, but it is for my money a much more satisfying start-to-finish listening experience. Tracks like “Thugs” and “Titanic Terrarium” are as good a demonstration of why the Hip are a good band as “Courage” and “Wheat Kings.” If you pay close attention to Gord on this album, I’ll wager there’s a lyric in every song that’ll lodge in your head. “I want a book that’ll make me drunk/full of freaks and disenfranchised punks,” he sings on “An Inch An Hour,” which is a song you’ll only hear if you’re listening to the record. Ditto for “Yawning or Snarling,” the chorus of which goes “Take a look at this photograph/clearly his teeth were bared/he could have been yawning or snarling/the story was never clear.” By most estimations, the classics from this disc are “Grace, Too,” “Nautical Disaster” and “Scared,” all of which are brilliant, the last of which is probably my favourite song by this band. I have no idea what it means. I just know I have a visceral response to it. Maybe because I’m scared of everything? Who can say. In any case, I humbly suggest if you’ve never heard the Hip that this is the album you should hear. I knew very little about them until this whole country went into a completely understandable fit of acute sadness over his cancer diagnosis. This was the album that made me understand why. I miss him already. Pick of the week.
The Rolling Stones: Goats Head Soup — Why stop at Exile? We’re on a roll, SO TO SPEAK. And besides, it looks like three of the next six albums in their catalogue are reasonably well regarded, so I may as well get at least up to Tattoo You. This album is nearly as unfocused as Exile, but without the sprawling length that makes it feel like a purposeful lack of focus. Still, it sounds like a band fully in control of their dynamic, and its best songs are outright classics that would have fared well on any previous album. The lead single, “Angie” is not one of those songs. Not that it’s bad, but it’s hard not to compare it to previous ballads like “Wild Horses” and “Shine A Light,” in which context it falls hugely flat. The best stuff here is “Doo Doo Doo Doo Doo (Heartbreaker),” which is the most successfully funky the band has ever been (thank you, Billy Preston), and “Winter,” which is like “Moonlight Mile” having been brought back down to earth. I like this. I’ll listen to it again. I think I like it better than Beggars Banquet.
The Rolling Stones: It’s Only Rock ‘n Roll — The best thing on this album is the rim shot sound on “Time Waits For No One.” The way it’s recorded is so satisfying. It’s like snapping a particularly snug top back on a bottle. But there isn’t really much on this that I loved. “Till The Next Goodbye” is a pretty good ballad, but the rockers feel like pale imitations of earlier, better hits. So begins the fall, I suppose. Well, at least Some Girls is coming up soon.
The Daily: Oct. 18 & 19, 2017 — Two great instalments: especially the October 18 episode, which features a fantastic interview with Shannon Mulcahy, a steelworker who found great freedom in her job, until it was shipped to Mexico. President Trump hasn’t fixed the problem the way she hoped. This is an adaptation of a print story, but it’s told as a true radio story, with tape and everything. Thursday’s episode on the state of the Islamic State is a good summation of a topic I can’t keep track of.
Constellations: “miyuki jokiranta – no event” & “Is This an Exercise? By Julie Shapiro” — I’m noticing a pattern in the episodes of this sound art focussed podcast: the sort of experimental audio they favour is the lyrical, lugubrious sort. This is all well and good, but I’m looking forward to hearing something really propulsive at some point. Anyway, these are two great pieces, especially the one by Miyuki Jokiranta about a medical procedure and our perception of time. You should be listening to this.
Imaginary Worlds: “The Haunted Mansion” — Let’s just say it’s the second best horror-inclined, Disney-related podcast of the month. Not that I’m biased.
What Trump Can Teach Us About Con Law: “Impeachment” — I’ve decided I like this show. I particularly love how aware Roman Mars is that his audience wants to see the back of President Trump. I will keep listening.