A number of people at my workplace and otherwise have occasionally identified a phenomenon they call “peak Parsons.” I have become adept at recognizing this phenomenon myself, and I daresay my review of Julie Taymor’s film of The Tempest is a prime example. So is my most recent NXNW column, in which I recommend geometry as a form of self-care. Enjoy.
The Tempest — When this came out in 2010, I was bonkers excited. I watched the trailer over and over. Opening weekend was a scheduling no-go, but one week later I was there. Alas, the movie no longer was. This actually happened. I went to the movie theatre to see Julie Taymor’s The Tempest — starring Helen Mirren as the now-genderswapped Prospera and a bizarre assemblage of personalities from Alan Cumming to Russell Brand in supporting roles — and the movie theatre was no longer showing it. None of them were. Not in Edmonton. Guess I’m waiting for the DVD I said to myself, in those shockingly recent, pre-Netflix times. Eight years later, I still hadn’t seen it. But now I have, and all is right in the world. Except for the fact that the movie itself is… uneven. Much of it is bad; still more is baffling. Elliot Goldenthal’s score is deeply ostentatious. Ferdinand sings a song from Twelfth Night for no reason. Russell Brand is kind of a lot. The CG, and overreliance thereupon, is very 2010. (Though, I do think this is a valid and intentional choice, though not necessarily a fruitful one. I’ll get to it.) And even the one universally acclaimed aspect of the film, Helen Mirren’s performance, is undercut by some deeply bizarre editing, including her introduction with a very Ken Russell quick push into her screaming face. What keeps The Tempest from being a complete trainwreck is the sense that Taymor’s decisions, however crazy, are all deliberate and pointing in the same direction. There are little choices here and there that make you go, ah yes, here we have a good filmmaker. Take Ben Whishaw’s air spirit Ariel. He spends most of the movie morphing proteanly through various computer-generated forms. (This is not the good choice; some of these bits are a little embarrassing.) But his most important scene with Prospera works differently. I’m talking about the scene where Prospera ponders what to do with her prisoners, and Ariel suggests mercy. In one of the play’s biggest gut punches, Ariel reminds Prospera that he is not human, and therefore implicitly that she is. And thus, she must act humanely. Done right, it’s one of the best parts of The Tempest. Ariel doesn’t earn his freedom by doing Prospera’s bidding, like she says he will. He earns his freedom here by giving unexpectedly good, unexpectedly human, counsel. This is the turning point in their relationship. If this scene works, the moment Prospera frees him from their contract later on will work too. In Taymor’s rendition, this scene is the only one where Ben Whishaw appears opaque. He’s right there, in frame with Helen Mirren, which has almost never happened before in the film. It’s marvellous. But even if every single decision Taymor made throughout the film was as pitch-perfect as this one, it still might not work. Making a film out of The Tempest is a bit of a mug’s game to begin with. (I am about to get perverse. Be warned.) The Tempest is ostentatiously theatrical. More than any other Shakespeare play save possibly Hamlet, it is explicitly about the act of performance. The fourth wall is paper-thin in this play, with Prospero/Prospera threatening to break it several times during the “such stuff as dreams are made on” speech, and ripping through it completely in the final monologue, when they explicitly solicit the audience’s applause. That last speech is impossible in film, and Taymor wisely cuts it. Penetrating though her gaze may be, Helen Mirren cannot literally see us through the screen. But the broader challenge is simply that film is a more naturalistic medium than theatre. Its grammar (editing, camera motion, etc.) is usually intended to be invisible. On the other hand, I dare say that the word “theatricality” can almost be defined as the opposite of that: benign yet obvious artificiality. And indeed, Taymor almost manages to conjure the spirit of a staged Tempest in her film by making much of it appear deliberately fake. But our relationship to theatrical fakeness is different from our relationship to CGI fakeness, in that we can intuitively understand how the fakery is done on stage. In some cases, we can literally see the strings. CGI, on the other hand is inexplicable to most of us. It might as well be actual magic — magic that is well beyond our grasp. And this is where any film adaptation of The Tempest is bound to relate to its audience differently than a stage production: when we watch The Tempest on stage, we all become sorcerers. We marvel at the magic we see, but we also understand how it has come into being. This makes us coextensive with Prospero/Prospera for the play’s duration. And once they’ve broken their staff and drowned their book, relinquishing their powers, they demand release from a spell of their own making from us. By applauding their final speech, we magically free them from our plane to go off and be the Duke/Duchess in another, fictional one. They are to us as Ariel is to them. This is what Taymor cannot accomplish. And her replacement of the final speech with a visual image — the shattering of Prospera’s staff — reads as a tacit acknowledgement of that. (But the fact that the speech remains in place as the end credits song feels like a half measure. Do it or don’t. By the final lines of the song, the demand for applause, most of the crowd will have filed out of the theatre. Why bother?) So basically, this movie is not successful, and this was inevitable from the start. But in spite of that, I enjoyed a lot of it for its sheer weirdness and willingness to take one big swing after another. Really, the best and worst qualities of this movie are both defined by the fact that it has Russell Brand in it. You don’t cast that guy in Shakespeare if you don’t have a really specific vision. I almost recommend this. As for me, I think I’ll watch Titus again.
Alison Bechdel: Are You My Mother? — Bechdel’s second family-related memoir is consciously designed as a companion piece to Fun Home. Where Fun Home was a book about Bechdel’s relationship with her father, Are You My Mother? is (ostensibly) a book about her relationship with her mother. Where Fun Home was drawn in black, white and teal, Are You My Mother? is drawn in black, white and… I want to say magenta? (I’m not great at colours.) Where Fun Home was a book about reading, Are You My Mother? is much more a book about writing. And where Fun Home is a book about the impact of literature on Bechdel’s thinking about her own life, Are You My Mother? is about the impact that therapy and psychology texts had on her. If that makes it sound a bit abstruse, well yes. Bechdel’s graphic novels are essentially essays told in prose accompanied by narratives told in pictures. The essayistic portion of Are You My Mother? requires the reader to keep track of an armful of psychoanalytic concepts that build on each other and intertwine with the story such that you’ll get lost if you lose focus. This is by no means a problem, lest anybody misunderstand. Artists of Alison Bechdel’s calibre have every right to demand our full attention. But with all the focus on these psychoanalytic concepts, the story gets short shrift. I’ve mentioned a lot of differences between Fun Home and Are You My Mother? But perhaps the main one is that Fun Home’s main subject was deceased, whereas this book’s was very much alive at the time of writing. It’s very clear that Bechdel felt a certain awkwardness about mining her mother’s life for literature that she did not feel about her father, who would never see the end result. As a result, we get a far less fulsome picture of Helen Fontana Bechdel than we did of Bruce Bechdel: less biographical detail, less insight into her relationships with those around her — in short, less story. What we get instead is a great deal of friction and outright conflict between Bechdel and her mother about the writing of the book itself. While writing the book, Bechdel meticulously transcribed her phone calls with her mother. Much of the characterization we get comes from those conversations, which are wonderful but limited to a certain time frame and set of circumstances. Still, this is worth a read for many of the same reasons that Fun Home is remarkable. It weaves together Bechdel’s thoughts on not just psychoanalysis (and particularly Donald Winnicott) but also Virginia Woolf, Winnie the Pooh and Dr. Seuss. Even in this somewhat lesser masterpiece, Bechdel is still very best artist out there at building a sophisticated understanding of human behaviour through living, reading, and linking those two practices together.
Matt Taibbi: “Can We Be Saved From Facebook?” — Seemingly, we cannot. Taibbi is a famously forceful writer, and this is a good summation of the case against Facebook. It doesn’t contain much that is new on the subject, nor is the solution Taibbi suggests (an antitrust action) a new one. But if you don’t read a lot on this subject, this is the second-best magazine feature on it, next to John Lanchester’s essay in the London Review of Books, which predates Zuck’s congressional hearings and the whole Cambridge Analytica thing and therefore doesn’t cover that.
Bryan Lee O’Malley: Scott Pilgrim — I just read all six volumes of Scott Pilgrim in less than 48 hours. That in itself ought to tell you something about it. This is a deeply immersive comic that is far more relatable than I’m comfortable with. The relatability is in the broad strokes, i.e. our hero’s propensity to withdraw from all social contact in the aftermath of heartbreak. But much of the delight is in the details, such as: (1) We see Scott wearing a shirt of a (real) album called Mass Teen Fainting shortly before a mass teen fainting transpires. (2) Fully half of the band at Scott’s high school consists of Girls Who Play The Flute. (3) Knives Chau discovers heartbreak and immediately starts quoting Blood on the Tracks, possibly never having heard it. (4) A sequence in the last volume, where Scott descends to a basement and hence to his final confrontation is a mashup of Brazil and Daft Punk’s pyramid shows. There’s a satisfying experience to be had just reading Scott Pilgrim looking out for these sorts of details. But the real triumph of this series is the fact that as you progress through it you always sympathize with every member of its cast, even though they are frequently terrible people and many of them are consistently at odds with each other. Knives Chau, for instance, is extremely stupid for the bulk of the series’ duration. But, as we are constantly reminded, she is also 17 years old. Bearing that in mind, her bad decisions are just how everybody is at that age. And the moment when she ceases to be that way comes shortly after the book informs us that she’s turned 18. There’s nothing magical about that number; it’s just the book’s first indication that she’s growing up — and she immediately begins acting the part. There are complaints to be had, and there are rejoinders to those complaints. Firstly, Scott Pilgrim is a loser. He spends most of his time playing video games and sleeping in until noon, he is enormously reluctant to get a job, and the band he’s in is crap. One of the book’s more amusing heightenings of reality is the fact that this feckless bastard is also a staggeringly good fighter. But the other side of that coin is — why valorize a dude who never worked at anything? (Related: does the art rock band have to be evil?) Do we really need more illustrations of the fact that men don’t have to work that hard to succeed in the world? On that note: given that I’ve also been reading Alison Bechdel this week, we may as well observe that nearly every scene involving two women involves them talking about or literally fighting over boys. The women in Scott Pilgrim are mostly defined in relation to Scott. We have an object of obsession, a traumatizing ex, an obsessive hanger-on, the one that got away, and the taken-for-granted friend. None of these characters are particularly well defined outside of these relationships. However, I’m tempted to read this redemptively by looking at the entire series as a parody of a (specifically male) limited perspective on the world. Throughout the final chapters, we’re treated to various men’s “memory cams” of their past relationships, which are always hilariously inaccurate. We also see a recap of a previous fight scene that implies that the first iteration of that scene may have been sensationalized — opening up the possibility that most of what we’ve read may be unreliable. Basically, we spend the entire series tethered to Scott Pilgrim’s way of thinking about the world, which is as limited as any single person’s will inevitably be — and is limited further still by the fact that he possesses very little empathy. Naturally the book will fail the Bechdel test, because as far as its narrator is concerned, if a woman isn’t thinking or talking about him, what they’re saying can’t possibly be important. This is illustrated by a bit where two women are having a conversation about something Scott doesn’t perceive to be important, so it’s rendered in “blah blah blahs.” I believe that we’re meant to take careful note of all of this. Scott Pilgrim is acutely aware of the tropes it employs — even the sexist ones. That’s part of why it’s so satisfying when Scott defeats the comic’s “final boss” Gideon. It feels like he’s defeating the worst part of himself: the part that sees women solely as potential partners, devoid of potential in themselves. What you should take from all this is that Scott Pilgrim is complicated. But the fact remains that I cared more about this comic for a whole weekend than I did about anything else. The periodic reversals of fortune that it puts its characters through twisted me around for two days. I loved it. I’ll probably read it again. Pick of the week.
Talking Heads: Remain in Light — One of these days I’ll move on to another Talking Heads album. Seriously, I think I may have heard Fear of Music once. I’ve seen/heard Stop Making Sense a bunch of times. And I’ve heard a smattering of stuff from their first couple of albums. But for the most part my interface with Talking Heads has been entirely through Remain in Light, which has oddly been one of my favourite albums for years, in spite of having failed to inspire me to dig into this catalogue any further. “Once in a Lifetime” is a rare case of the hit being my favourite track, because it is flawless. It is the perfect evocation of a familiar feeling: that your life is happening to you in spite of your own actions rather than because of them. I could listen to “The Great Curve” over and over. It’s the purest distillation of this album’s guiding principle of building everything from one-chord vamps. There is a huge amount of unique musical material on parade in “The Great Curve,” and nary a chord change to be found. This is Brian Eno’s doing, I suspect. In much the same way as he did with his early solo albums (especially Another Green World), Eno encouraged the band to come to the studio with as little prepared as possible. And nothing encourages spontaneity like a song with no chords to keep track of. It’s one of those limitations that Eno loves so much, and that always turn out to be so freeing in practice. “Crosseyed and Painless” is painfully relevant in the Trump era. Setlist.fm tells me he hasn’t been playing it on his current tour. Too on the nose? Anyway, this is a classic. I love it and I really regret missing Byrne at the Queen E the other night.
In Our Time: “The Almoravid Empire” & “The Mabinogion” — The second of these is the highlight, about a collection of 12th- and 13th-century British stories of women made of flowers and magicians with weird senses of humour. Some of the stories from The Mabinogion were familiar to me, but I did not know where they came from, so that was cool. The Almoravid Empire kind of evaporated upon contact, honestly. I was busy cooking.
Radiolab catch-up — This last batch of Radiolab episodes has some stuff I’d heard before and elected not to listen to again, some stuff I’d heard before and elected to hear it anyway, and some new stuff that left me a bit cold. I liked the conclusion to the border trilogy, but not as much as the first two parts. It’s just so brutal.
Sandra: “Hope is a Mistake” — Okay, time at last to check out the new offerings from Gimlet. First up, their latest fiction podcast, which is very dull and occasionally cringeworthy, i.e. the comedic in-universe ads. The first episode is almost pure setup, and while there’s a possibly interesting concept in here — an A.I. that’s actually driven by a bunch of humans in a building rather than machine learning or anything like that — this introduction fails to do the most crucial thing to do when you’re starting up a science fiction story, which is hint at the various directions that your cool premise might go. This only gets around to letting us in on the premise at the end. So, I’m out. Thanks for playing. I’ll always give a new Gimlet show one episode, but that’s all this one’s getting.
The Habitat: “This Is the Way Up” — Another of Gimlet’s new offerings, this is essentially Big Brother, but for actual science as well as for our entertainment. The characters in this show will be spending a year in isolation, with only each other for company. They’re doing this to emulate the psychological conditions of a hypothetical mission to Mars. But that doesn’t make the experience of listening in on it any more edifying or noble than standard issue reality television. Hard pass.
We Came To Win: “How the 1990 World Cup Saved English Soccer” — Shock; horror; the one podcast in the latest slate of Gimlet releases that I actually like is the sports one. The brilliance of this concept is in the limits it has set for itself: it’s just about the World Cup. By the standards of the sports podcasting world, that is by no means a narrow focus. But I feel like it would have been completely unsurprising if Gimlet’s first sports show had been about sports in the same way that 99% Invisible is about design. Instead, it is about the World Cup in the same way that 99% Invisible is about design, which is so much more promising. This particular episode is structured around the fall and rise of English soccer. We get a gut-churning retelling of the Hillsborough disaster, where 96 people died because too many people were packed into a section of a stadium. (The organizational stupidity it takes for this to happen boggles the mind. This episode tells the story in excruciating detail and I still don’t understand how a disaster like this could happen.) We hear about the culture of football fandom in the wake of that disaster. But that’s all context for the meat of the story, which is about the 1990 English World Cup team. The reason that story is fun is because the producers have really taken the time to establish the stakes with their retelling of the Hillsborough disaster and its aftermath. Also it involves New Order. This is really good. I’ll probably listen to more of this.
In the Dark: “Privilege” — A whole episode on the story of the prosecution’s key witness in the Curtis Flowers case: Odell Hallmon. The long and the short of it is, he kept testifying that Flowers confessed to him in trial after trial, and also seems to constantly be able to evade prison time for horrible crimes. Being good journalists, the In the Dark team does not come right out and say what it sounds like. But if there is some connection between Hallmon’s propensity to get out of jail free and his role in the Flowers case, that complicates matters for the prosecution, because Hallmon ended up confessing to a triple murder himself in the years following the trials. This is troubling, captivating radio. Every week I look forward to hearing new evidence.
Lend Me Your Ears: “Reading Julius Caesar in Modern Context” — A minor extra, intended to plug Slate Plus. But I’m enjoying this show enough that I’ll listen to whatever comes through the feed.
The World According to Sound: “Sound Audio: Father Cares” — Here we have something I need to remember to listen to in its entirety. The host throws a bit of shade on contemporary NPR for not being as adventurous as the producers of this documentary, which is semi-fictional, though the tape it uses is all real. And he’s right to throw that shade: Benjamen Walker is the only person I know of who’s still doing that, and it’s an enormously effective way to explore the space of possibility that exists just outside of actual reality — things that didn’t happen but could have.
The Daily: “Putting ‘Fake News’ on Trial” — This is about the Alex Jones lawsuit. It’s crazy making, but you should hear it if you are unaware of how batshit the world has become.
Pop Culture Happy Hour: “Solo: A Star Wars Story and What’s Making Us Happy” — I will likely see Solo in spite of it probably being kind of bad. At least there is Donald Glover.
Caliphate: “Paper Trail” — The best episode so far. Turns out their source was unreliable (not a surprise). So this episode traces the process of verifying what is and isn’t true in the story we’ve already heard. Caliphate is becoming not just a disturbing look inside ISIS recruitment, but also a revealing look inside the process of doing journalism for the world’s best newspaper. Pick of the week.
On the Media: “Glenn Beck Reverses His Reversal” — This is mostly a rebroadcast of Bob Garfield’s interview with Glenn Beck from 2016. It’s worth hearing again in the wake of Beck’s recent pledge of support for Donald Trump — a thing which, let’s remember, he did not do in 2016, in spite of being completely horrible in every way.
The Media Show: “The Evolution of Radio” — An extremely weird conversation about podcasts that is clearly meant for people who heard this on the radio rather than as a podcast. I say that because it assumes almost no knowledge about podcasts. This is the first time I’ve experienced a podcast that assumes that. It is disorienting and made me lose faith in this show, which I have often enjoyed.
Reply All: “Pain Funnel” — A Sruthi Pinnamaneni-produced episode about fraudulent rehab centres. It’s not a laugh riot, but it’s worth your time.