Omnibus (week of March 11, 2018)

Another busy week, another paltry instalment of Omnibus. Still, some good stuff here.

Eight reviews.

Movies

Thor: Ragnarok — I don’t normally watch Marvel movies unless I’m seeing them in a theatre with friends. That’s what they’re for. They’re an outing. But I’d heard enough good things about this one that I made a point of actually sitting down and watching it myself. It is without a doubt one of the very top-tier Marvel movies. Black Panther, this, Civil War, and maybe the first Avengers. Those are the ones that really make the MCU concept worthwhile. In this particular case we have a movie directed by somebody with a distinctive comedic sensibility, Taika Waititi, packed with a cast of outstanding comic performers — some of whom haven’t gotten to do as much straight comedy in their Marvel roles as you’d like. Partially I’m thinking of Chris Hemsworth. But it applies even more to Mark Ruffalo, who is hysterically funny in this, as both Bruce Banner and a slightly more verbal incarnation of Hulk. But the scene stealers are all newcomers. Tessa Thompson is brilliant in the hitherto unconceived-of role of “drunk Valkyrie.” Waititi himself absolutely kills as the universe’s most ineffectual revolutionary. (My favourite line in the whole movie is “Piss off, ghost! … He’s freakin’ gone.”) Best of all, Jeff Goldblum is here, and he Jeffs as Goldblum as he’s ever Jeffed, all over this whole damn movie. (“Wow, I didn’t hear any thunder, but out of your fingers — was that, like, sp-sparkles?”) Also, let’s talk aesthetics. Firstly, the Marvel Symphonic Universe problem is solved at last by none other than Mark Mothersbaugh, who delivers an electronic score that kicks ass when it needs to, and is just as content to camp it up in the comic scenes. Also, this is the first Thor movie to really take advantage of the fact that a key element of Norse mythology is the RAINBOW BRIDGE. We have some colours going on. Thank god. Also — and I don’t want to overemphasize this, because ultimately Thor: Ragnarok is just a well-made, silly fantasy comedy — we have a sly anti-colonial narrative on our hands, here. We learn that Odin took the nine realms by force with Hela as his executioner, then covered the whole thing up because of, I dunno, public image troubles? The need to suppress revolution? This is how colonialism works. This movie isn’t Black Panther — it is not explicitly political. But for every couple dozen good gags, there’s one halfway decent insight. I’ll take it. Pick of the week.

Annihilation — I liked it, but I wanted to love it. It’s possible I was overhyped for it. I was told it was bonkers. I’d heard comparisons to 2001, which is always going to be hyperbole. But I was hoping at least for something with a layer of abstraction to it — something that would cause me to leave the theatre wondering what actually happened. This isn’t that kind of movie. It isn’t especially open to interpretation. It isn’t The Tree of Life. It isn’t The Fountain. It’s a movie I will inevitably like better on a second viewing, because I will be able to approach it on its own terms, rather than on the terms of the movie I hoped it would be. That said, there is much to love about it on a first viewing: the casting is good, with Natalie Portman giving a creditable lead performance bolstered by outstanding supporting performances from Jennifer Jason Leigh, Gina Rodriguez and Tessa Thompson. And it really is a visual feast. Even its mundane shots are elegant. (It envisions the savage wilderness with more atmosphere than The Lost City of Z did, and that movie’s visuals were the one thing that lived up the the hype.) And when the monsters, mutant plants, and hallucinatory cosmic phenomena begin to crop up, it truly becomes a wonder. Annihilation is a good movie. Chalk it up to unreasonable expectations.

Literature, etc.

Jorge Luis Borges: “When Fiction Lives in Fiction,” “A Defense of the Kabbalah” & the prologue to Bartleby the Scrivener — I waltzed into the Paper Hound the other day, a rather excellent small bookshop on Pender Street. “Just browse a little,” I said to myself. “Maybe pick up something light,” I said to myself. Six pounds of books later, I find myself leafing through the selected non-fictions of Jorge Luis Borges, whose essays read much like his fiction does — because so many of his stories are formatted as essays on books that simply don’t exist. My first casual flip through these characteristically miniature pieces includes three essays on topics I find particularly interesting these days: metafiction, the Kabbalah, and Herman Melville. The Bartleby prologue is primarily about Moby-Dick. It is the piece in which he refers to it as “the infinite novel,” an appraisal that many editions of Moby-Dick still trumpet on their back covers today. He should have said “the fathomless novel,” but this is a translation and I shouldn’t quibble. In any case, I should also probably actually read Bartleby the Scrivener, because I sort of have no idea what this is all about. “When Fiction Lives in Fiction” contains a suggestion that I find intensely seductive. Borges suggests that we find metafiction creepy because we look at a story within a story and feel as though we ourselves may only be part of an endless chain of fictions, subject to the wills of the storytellers beyond the veil. (I brought this up in my comics writing class today, and our instructor compared the idea to the distressingly popular Silicon Valley notion that we are all in a simulation, because simulations would exist within simulations, ergo there must be a long chain of simulations and it’s infinitesimally unlikely that we’re at the top of the chain. I thought that was quite clever. My instructor’s comparison, mind you — not the actual idea. The idea is nonsense.) I feel as though I’ve read Borges saying this in a more direct way, but it’s hinted at here. Maybe I’m just connecting the dots myself. Who can say. This essay also contains some favourable remarks on Flann O’Brien’s At Swim-Two-Birds, one of my favourite novels, and a deeply Borgesian book — by design or not. The Kabbalah essay contains a contention that I find rather interesting: “every object whose end is unknown to us is provisionally monstrous.” He’s talking about God, whose endlessness isn’t necessarily something to be worshipped in Borges’s view, but rather something to be put off by. That idea that the things that extend beyond our field of vision — things we can only see in part, if at all — connects this essay with the metafiction essay. Borges is distressed by the notion of God for the same reason he’s distressed by stories within stories: both make him feel like he’s not in control of the strings. I sympathize. Again and again, reading Borges feels like talking to a really smart friend.

Elaine M. Will: Look Straight Ahead — A webcomic assigned in the comics writing class I’m taking. I was uncertain about it at first, because if anything it is a too accurate portrayal of the overwrought inner monologue of a high school student. But once the main thrust of the story gets underway, which deals with a psychotic break that goes far beyond standard adolescent alienation, it picks up steam. The visual presentation of the protagonist’s psychosis is deeply immersive and makes up for some lingering weaknesses in the dialogue and captioning. Fine.

Music

Gustav Mahler/Leonard Bernstein, Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra & Helmut Wittek: Symphony No. 4 — Oftentimes when I’m writing these reviews, I’ll throw on a symphony. Usually it’s something I’ve reviewed before, or else I don’t get through the whole thing and it’s not worth remarking on, so I don’t. I’m not sure why I love symphonic music particularly for this kind of writing, but it’s increasingly what I fall back on. As I type this, I am listening to this particular recording over a glass of rather good Australian petite sirah. One must have these little rituals — even at the risk of becoming a caricature of one’s self. *sip* As for the recording, it’s one of two Mahler fours I return to, the other being the CanCon preference, Yannick Nézet-Séguin’s recording with Orchestre Métropolitain. I believe that was the second Mahler recording I ever bought, after a deeply dodgy Naxos recording of the eighth, which remains one of my least favourite Mahler symphonies, even in a good recording. (Chailly’s recording wins, BTW, and not only because it’s got Ben Heppner at his best. That does help, though.) Still, as much as I find nostalgic value in the YNS recording, I’m always going to go for Bernstein in a pinch. He’s a legendary Mahler conductor for a reason: he brings out all the music’s extremity and drama. There’s nobody who imbues this music with more energy than Bernstein, and energy is what’s called for. Mahler is not Bach. He is not one of those composers whose music seems to unveil natural laws. He is a composer who writes his own rules — his music is intensely human and requires a human interpretation. I’ll always prefer hearing an adult soprano (i.e. Karina Gauvin in YNS’s recording) to a boy soprano. But that aside, Bernstein’s rendition of this most light and pleasant Mahler symphonies is a treasure.

Podcasts

This American Life: “20 Acts in 60 Minutes” — A classic of the genre. Ira Glass once told Chris Gethard that his favourite episodes of This American Life are the ones where they break the format. This episode from 15 years ago is one of the most explicit of those. It features no fewer than 20 stories, many of them from producers who have gone on to become icons. Jonathan Goldstein tells the story of the time the Penguin (the Batman villain) meets Mary Poppins, and they find they have little in common save for airborne umbrella travel. Starlee Kine talks to an actor about the most mortifying moment his quasi-celebrity has ever brought him. Scott Carrier falls in love. Davids Sedaris and Rakoff do their respective things. Chuck Klosterman compares things to other things. But the best stories come from incarcerated youths. A pair of newly-minted investigative reporters in a juvenile delinquency centre look into the possibility that the kitchen staff has been urinating in the pudding. And a troupe of teenage girls in another facility apologize to their families — in song. Outstanding. The sort of thing that makes people want to become radio producers. Pick of the week.

All Songs Considered: “New Mix: Courtney Barnett, Exitmusic, Okkervil River, More,” “Margaret Glaspy Writes A Bookend to ‘Emotions And Math,’” “Guest DJ: Nathaniel Rateliff & The Night Sweats Hop Across An Eclectic Playlist” & “SXSW 2018 Preview” — I have decided that All Songs needs to be a bigger part of my life this year, because it is a legitimately excellent way to get turned on to music that might be part of the critical conversation — but also weird stuff that’s going to get overlooked. In these episodes, I heard music I loved by Courtney Barnett (whose debut I still need to hear in full), Margaret Glaspy, Les McCann (thank you, Guest D.J. Nathaniel Rateliff), Chloe Foy & Skyway Man. Who’s to say if I’ll ever dig in further, but their names are now on my blog, and I’ll know if I ever look back here that these are musicians I once enjoyed, and should maybe have a listen again. I intend to listen to their complete SXSW coverage this coming week. Should be enlightening.

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “Atlanta” & “Talk Show Talk” — I have to watch Atlanta. I’ve been told by many many people, and by one person many many times, that I have to watch Atlanta. Soon. But this week’s standout PCHH is the talk show episode, featuring Guy Branum, host of Pop Rocket, a ruder and less insightful PCHH on which he is the bright light. They even momentarily made me understand Jimmy Fallon. Also, there’s a particularly nice moment here where Linda Holmes rediscovers why she’s friends with Glen Weldon by way of Cole Porter. This show almost never gets my pick of the week, nor will it this week. And it doesn’t show up on my year-end lists, because it’s a really weird thing to stack up against, I dunno, The Heart. Or even Code Switch, which does get out of the studio from time to time to make something a bit more ambitious than your standard panel chat. But I routinely enjoy Pop Culture Happy Hour more than anything else on my subscription list, and I love when I’ve got a backlog of episodes to listen to, because it’s so much fun.

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