Category Archives: Books

Omnibus (week of June 18, 2017)

Yeah, I changed the name. I never liked the old name. Onwards.

The second instalment of the NXNW segment aired yesterday on Radio 1, and it is a whole level weirder than the first. Basically, I tried to convince Sheryl MacKay that the central tenets of medieval alchemy are still alive and well and living in pop culture. Every so often I make something I’m really proud of. This second segment is for sure one of those. I’m at 1:22:34 in this podcast of the show.

Ran a 5K this morning. Boy oh boy were there a lot of people in that. You’ll see more podcasts here than there have been in weeks, because I figured even a 5K shouldn’t be approached with a totally cavalier attitude. Many kilometers were run, and many hours of audio accompanied them. If you’re new to this, this instalment is a bit closer to my usual approach than recent weeks have been: lots of podcasts, shorter reviews. 38 of them, to be precise.

Television

American Gods: “Come To Jesus” — After last time, I didn’t actually expect Jesus to be played for laughs. But there is honestly nothing funnier than seeing a whole herd of diverse Jesuses just milling about. Except for the bit where Wednesday refers to them collectively as “these assholes.” That’s funnier. This season finale is actually my least favourite episode of American Gods so far, but that’s a very relative thing to say. Mostly, I’m just mildly peeved that the story hasn’t gotten to a point where the supporting deities like Nancy and Czernobog are relevant to the story on a consistent basis. I’m as happy as I thought I’d be to see Nancy again, but it would have been nice to see him do more than offer exposition for another character. (I miss the story about tiger balls from the book.) Also, the somewhat overwrought segment where Wednesday reveals his real name to Shadow is the first sequence in the show that hasn’t worked for me. Partially it’s just the Michael-Bay-spinning-cameraness of it all, but mostly I just find it hard to accept that Shadow, or any portion of the audience, would be surprised to learn that a one-eyed god who goes by “Wednesday” would actually be Odin. (This is a problem the show inherits from the book.) On the other hand, this episode makes two substantial improvements on the book. One is in the relationship between Bilquis and the Technical Boy. I suppose it’s still possible that Technical will kill Bilquis at some point, but that moment was one of the most jarring parts of the book, and I’m very glad that she’s survived their first meeting. The other improvement is Kristin Chenoweth’s Easter, who is angrier, funnier and altogether more ruthless than her book analogue. I especially love the way she listens to her adorable messenger bunnies, only to invariably respond “oh, shit!” I realize that throughout these American Gods reviews, I’ve focussed an awful lot on the relationship between show and book. Probably that’ll subside next season, at which point I will have read the book substantially less recently. But I still think that American Gods is as compelling an act of adaptation as a show to be taken on its own merits. Between this and Hannibal, I think Bryan Fuller has confirmed himself as the master of the modern television adaptation. Benioff and Weiss wish they were this good. Season one of American Gods has been some of the best television of recent years. I can’t wait for the next season. Hope it’s longer.

Better Call Saul: “Lantern” — Sometimes I start to write these reviews before I’m finished watching the episode. Here is a brief passage from what I’d written before I watched through to the end. “Chuck. Is. Noxious. The writers of this show, and Michael McKean, should pat themselves on the back for creating such a convincing yet completely insufferable character. The thing that makes him so hard to take is a simple juxtaposition of two traits: he has no compassion at all, and he always perceives himself to have the moral high ground. This episode features one of the most painful scenes in the show so far, in which Chuck intentionally tries to hurt Jimmy, and feels entirely justified in doing so because Jimmy colours outside the lines. He feels no complicity in the rift between the two of them. This is the worst kind of person, and this is a kind of person who exists. I know these people and so do you. Chuck is scum. Chuck is irredeemable.” At the end of the episode, I softened my view rather dramatically. In his more loathsome moments, Chuck makes it easy to forget that he is not at the peak of mental wellness. In retrospect, he might be the highlight of this season, because of the way both McKean and the story emphasize his uncompromising cruelty and his struggle with mental illness at the same time. The show even gives us a handy yardstick by which to assess the reasonableness of our hatred for Chuck: Howard Hamlin. Since the season one reveal that he actually isn’t that bad, Howard has been one of the most sympathetic characters on Better Call Saul.  And even he would rather part with millions of his own hard-earned dollars than work with Chuck any longer. He has become genuinely impossible, and well and truly cruel. He was also in a lot of trouble. And he completely alienated his one-man support system, who to be fair, is a person with no small amount of flaws himself. I expected this episode to be all about Kim after last week’s cliffhanger. And while it is bittersweet to see her finally realizing that she needs to take time to breathe, her season arc basically ended with her car crash. This episode belongs to Chuck. But its subtext belongs to Jimmy. It’s easy to read Chuck’s suicide as a final “fuck you” to his brother. This is only a small part of an inevitably complex equation, but think about this: their last conversation consisted of Chuck telling Jimmy that he would always hurt people and he might as well embrace it. Then he kills himself. Meanwhile, Jimmy has alienated himself from the elder law practice that could have been his saving grace. (I’m delighted that Mrs. Landry is okay.) The path to Saul Goodman has never been clearer than it is now. Pick of the week.

Twin Peaks: The Return: Parts 3-7 — Okay, the internet was right. This Dougie Jones business needs to stop. At first, I was amused — not so much by Kyle McGlaughlin’s performance, which finds him working substantially below his pay grade, but by the constant way that everybody around him basically fails to acknowledge that there’s something really wrong. Particularly wonderful is Naomi Watts as his wife. The fact that she’s not more concerned really makes you wonder what kind of shit-for-brains asshole the real Dougie Jones was. I love the idea that this might not actually be that out of the ordinary. Suppose that’s what you get for marrying a homunculus. But after four episodes of this, I’m ready to have Coop back. I don’t even need to hear him talk about coffee and pie. I don’t even need a thumbs up. I just want him to be here so that the show has a central intelligence in it again who can start to put together the disparate threads that are remaining maddeningly allusive without him. In general though, I’ve really been enjoying this. I don’t have that much to say about it because it’s still got its cards super close to its chest. I’m definitely hoping that we’re not done with David Lynch’s modernized, expanded take on the Black Lodge. The sequences that take place there are truly terrifying, and among the most compelling television I’ve seen in recent times.

Doctor Who: “World Enough and Time” — Okay, now we’re cooking. This is classic Steven Moffat, operating in “hey here’s a fun idea” mode. In this case, the idea is that there’s a huge spaceship right by a black hole, so time works differently at one end of it and the other. The real storytelling masterstroke, though, is stranding the Doctor at the slow end of the ship, so that the situation seriously escalates before he’s able to formulate a plan. Aside from that, this is notable as a real return to Moffat’s signature horror. You could say that the monks constituted horror, as did the notion in “Extremis” that the entire universe is a projection and you cease to exist if you step outside of the beam. But nothing since “Listen” has really gone whole hog into horror territory the way that this does. The scene with the volume dials is one of the most disturbing things Moffat has ever written. And the patients in general, all on their way to becoming Cybermen, are terrifying in that existential way that the Cybermen manage to be when they’ve got a good writer behind them. (Unless that good writer is Neil Gaiman, in which case they still don’t work.) And all that good stuff happens even before we get the big reveal of John Simm. Which, I mean, we all knew he was going to be in this, but am I stupid for being INCREDIBLY FUCKING SURPRISED that character was him? Am I? Come on, be honest. This was an amazing episode: straightforwardly the best of the season. Can’t wait to see what comes next.

Games

King of Dragon Pass — So, the Steam summer sale is on, but I realized that I’m not actually even close to finishing the games I bought during the Steam winter sale. Because *some of us* like to go outside sometimes, amirite? At this point I think the Half-Life series is a lost cause for me. I was so terrible at the first one, and the story is so minimal, that I’m forced to conclude it is literally the opposite of what I appreciate in a video game. Moving on to King of Dragon Pass, then: another classic of an entirely different sort. This is dated, and its high fantasy aesthetic isn’t really my thing, but I’m compelled regardless. Basically, it’s a text-based resource management game with elements of choose-your-own-adventure. So, it’s kind of Sunless Sea before its time. Except that the writing isn’t anywhere close to that level. It has its moments, mind you. I quite like this: “Your men whooped with Orlanth and drank the Eight Known Drinks, so that your heads would hurt during the ceremony.” Also unlike Sunless Sea, its representation of women oscillates between fairly progressive and a bit, erm, medieval. But there’s enough in this to compel me. I’m particularly fond of the way that your progress is compiled into a document called “the Saga,” which actually reads a bit like an Icelandic saga, given that those stories basically are just lists of accomplishments. So far, this seems like the sort of thing I’ll probably play until I manage to beat it on the easiest setting and then I might put it aside. Still, it’ll probably grow on me.

Literature

Jorge Luis Borges: “The Lottery in Babylon” — A substantially simpler and more direct story than some of the others I’ve read recently. Still brilliant, and the way that Borges casually drops details into the framework of ideas that makes up the narrative reminds me once again of how much Neil Gaiman owes to him. Look at this bit: “A slave stole a crimson ticket; the drawing determined that the ticket entitled the bearer to have his tongue burned out.” This comes at a point in the story where it’s been established that owning tickets can result in terrible things happening to you as well as good things, but the specifics have been vague. Borges just drops this punishment into a sentence that’s actually a rumination on what’s supposed to happen in the case of the theft of a ticket. His narrator doesn’t make a big deal of it. That, more than anything in this story, gives the sense of a fully-formed world with defined parameters that are simply taken for granted. I continue to be astonished by this writer.

Kieron Gillen & Jamie McKelvie: The Wicked and the Divine, Volume 4: “Imperial Phase, Part One” — I don’t know how anybody reads this issue-by-issue. When the trade collections come out, I wolf them down in one sitting and I still feel like I need more. This is probably the most exciting collection so far from this perpetually exciting comic. The real showstopper is the the first issue in the collection, formatted as a (beautifully designed) fan magazine in which members of the Pantheon are interviewed by actual journalists (with Gillen filling the role of each god at the other end of a chat window). The best of them is Laurie Penny’s piece on Woden, who is self-evidently the shittiest god. Having read Penny’s piece on Milo Yiannopoulos, it just felt right. My favourite part of the story in this issue is the way that the Pantheon is forced to reorganize and rally behind their logical leaders, Baal and Urdr, in the absence of Ananke. The dynamics between all of these characters just keep getting more interesting. Persephone in particular is the best thing going on in this book right now. Love it.

Kelefa Sanneh: “The Persistence of Prog Rock” — An excellent piece on the contemporary reception of 1970s prog, with reference to David Wiegel’s recent book on the subject. I’m reminded that I need to eventually finish the books cited by Edward Macan, Bill Martin and Will Romano, though I think all of them (especially Romano’s) are quite bad. The most interesting idea raised here is that progressive rock was parochial. This is something that I struggle with. It definitely was parochial — the most recognized bands in the genre were such idiomatically British eccentrics that albums like Selling England by the Pound almost seem a bit Brexity in retrospect. On the other hand, that means that prog largely avoided the garish spectacle of cultural appropriation that a lot of other British rock proffered. The Rolling Stones and John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers seem a hell of a lot more retrograde in retrospect than ELP does. And ELP, lest anybody forget, was the band whose use of classical music in their performances was meant to get the kids listening to “music that has more quality.” The mind reels. I sympathize with Lester Bangs’ distaste for this sentiment. But I’m not sure he ever really saw the other side of the coin. I’ll be reading Wiegel’s book very soon.

Music

Sufjan Stevens, Nico Muhly, Bryce Dessner & James McAlister: Planetarium — Well, it doesn’t make it easy for us. Planetarium is enormously ambitious and enormously long. Every song on this gave me the sense that I’d definitely like it a lot more next time I listen to it. Honestly, that’s one of my favourite reactions to have to a piece of music, but this does meander a bit. I’m curious to know more about the process of this: I’m familiar enough with Stevens, Muhly and Dessner’s work (the latter only as a composer, admittedly — I’ve never liked the National) that I feel like it should be easier than it is to isolate their particular contributions. They seem to have genuinely merged into a many-headed beast. My personal highlights here are “Jupiter” and especially “Mercury,” which has a melody worthy of Carrie & Lowell. But I’ve now heard “Saturn” a few times and it has grown on me from the point of initially leaving me cold to the point where now I actually bring up Apple Music to listen to it specifically. And the 15-minute “Earth” hits my prog rock structural pleasure centres, but there’s too much in it to take in for me to assess it yet. I think this is really good. I’ll probably check back in about it when I listen to it a bit more.

Neil Young: Live at the Riverboat 1969 — Like the Canterbury House instalment of Neil’s archives series, this is most notable for his amusingly awkward, stoned audience banter. I wish I’d been at one of these early acoustic shows, but I wasn’t born until 21 years later. Anyway, I’m actually pretty happy to be moving past the pre-Crazy Horse segment of my quest to hear the Complete Neil Young. Solo acoustic guitar music gets tiresome.

Neil Young: Live at Fillmore East 1970 — Ah, now we’re talking. What’s most notable about this is how much it sounds like Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere. Crazy Horse has always sounded really live in the studio. All the same, the presence of an audience makes “Cowgirl in the Sand” pop a bit more, with the band really trying to ratchet up the tension to keep them into it. I suspect 1970 is the year when things really get interesting. I’ve enjoyed my exploration of Buffalo Springfield and the late-60s limbo state from which the self-titled album emerged. But it’s with the foundation of Crazy Horse and Neil’s induction into CSNY that the phase of his career we know him for really began.

Podcasts

Ear Hustle: “Cellies” — This podcast is a beautiful idea. It’s also staggeringly ambitious. I can only imagine the logistical nightmare it must be to produce a podcast in prison. But these are stories that don’t get told. And when they do, they sure aren’t told by the inmates themselves. This premiere episode introduces some fun characters, including two brothers who ended up as cellmates and nearly drove each other out of their minds. I’m also rather endeared by Earlonne Woods’ resistance to his non-incarcerated co-host’s attempts to apply relationship metaphors to cellmates. He ought to know what metaphors are and aren’t apt. This is the most promising addition to Radiotopia since Song Exploder.

The Pitch: “Babyscripts” — Not for me. This has a solid premise that’s basically guaranteed to yield drama: it’s basically Dragons’ Den. But I’m just not interested enough in business to be interested in these kinds of conversations. Worth a shot if you are.

StartUp: “Life After Startup” — A catch-up session with some of the people in previous StartUp episodes. Most notably, we revisit Dating Ring, the company followed in the show’s underrated second season. I really found the ending of that season heartbreaking, so it’s good to know that even though the business didn’t pan out, the founders are living happy lives these days.

Imaginary Worlds: “Imagining the Internet” — It’s a common refrain among science fiction critics that the internet is the modern technology that the genre failed most egregiously to predict. But this provides a corollary to that view by, in part, bringing Mark Twain into the fold. One highlight of this is hearing the actor who does the readings adopt the personas of their respective authors. I’m especially struck by how similar his Twain is to the genius voice actor that I brought in to do Twain at the end of the last episode of the Syrup Trap Pod Cast. I guess he’s just a voice that people have a sense of.

In Our Time: “The American Populists” — A pleasingly contentious conversation about the short-lived party that briefly promised to offer a real alternative to the Democrats and the Republicans. So no, it’s not about Donald Trump. Trust In Our Time to remind you that history is worth knowing about, and it doesn’t always have to be covered with explicit reference to current events to be relevant.

Love and Radio: “Relevant Questions” — A middling episode of one of the best shows around, so quite good. It’s about the first polygraph operator to speak out against its use. But he’s not straightforwardly heroic, even if he sees himself that way. It’s got a twist that’s done cleverly, in a similar way to the twist in “A Girl of Ivory,” but that’s not a comparison that does this any favours because that episode was a classic. Still, pretty great.

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “Wonder Woman And The Tony Awards” — Okay, I’ll see Wonder Woman. I was kind of going to anyway, in spite of my serious superhero fatigue. This is different. Man, the Tonys seem to have nothing for me this time around.

Radiolab: “The Gondolier” — This is a good story by the standards of recent Radiolab episodes, but I can’t help but hear the Love and Radio episode that could have been. It’s a story about a person who was touted internationally as “Venice’s first female gondolier,” which turned out to be super wrong because he’s a trans man. That last sentence is almost a spoiler, because this episode actually treats Alex, the main character, as a woman for a portion of its duration, in accordance with the reporters’ misunderstanding of his gender identity. The media has traditionally been Alex’s enemy, and this is supposed to provide an antidote to that. I’m not at all the person to judge how it succeeds at that, but I do feel like this is a case where the Love and Radio approach of cutting out the reporter’s voice altogether would be useful. I’d love to hear the version of this story that’s just Alex telling his own story. But Radiolab’s gonna Radiolab, so we have to have a certain amount of ponderous processing and deconstruction. It’s fine.

Home of the Brave: “The Continental Divide” — One of the things I really like about Home of the Brave is that Scott Carrier will sometimes release one of these brief missives in between proper radio projects. I sympathize with his inability to talk to people who disagree with him right now, but I admire his decision to give it another go.

Fresh Air: “Jay Z” — An old interview, from just after the release of Decoded. Terry Gross sounds slightly uncomfortable interviewing Jay Z because she kind of thinks he’s sexist. But Jay is charming and indulgent, even if he does get super defensive when Gross actually brings up sexism. Mostly a very good interview.

This American Life: “Say Anything” — The bulk of this is taken up by a tape that a guy made for his suicidal friend, without ever intending for it to end up on radio. It’s very affecting. But the real highlight is a list of fears written by a developmentally disabled man. It is both funny and insightful. A cameo from Jonathan Goldstein is always appreciated as well.

Fresh Air: “Roxane Gay” — A marvellous interview about Gay’s new book, which sounds like a deeply insightful, really rough read. She’s one of those articulate people you’ve just got to be thankful for.

WTF with Marc Maron: “Alison Brie and Betty Gilpin” — To some extent, this is shameless self-promotion for GLOW, the new show he’s in. But it sounds like a really great show, and I’m always in for an Alison Brie interview. She is completely charming. I didn’t realize that I knew Betty Gilpin, but her American Gods performance is really hilarious and the way she describes it as a wilful misunderstanding of the tone of the whole show is amazing. A good listen.

It’s Been A Minute: “Hey Y’all” — I’m reservedly excited about this. I love Sam Sanders. He’s always been one of my favourite guests on Pop Culture Happy Hour and I miss him on the NPR Politics Podcast. I just hope it doesn’t keep explaining ordinary idioms like “it’s been a minute” to me.

Sampler: “Introducing The Nod!” — Thank god Gimlet found something for Brittany Luse to do. She’s brilliant, and she was always above Sampler. Looking forward.

WTF with Marc Maron: “Sofia Coppola” — This has its moments, and Maron clearly admires and understands Coppola’s filmmaking. But did he have to talk about her dad so much? Surely she’s sick of that. In any case, Sofia Coppola is a genius and I can’t wait to see The Beguiled.

99% Invisible: “You Should Do A Story” — A roundup of miscellaneous stories that didn’t become full episodes. It’s worth hearing for a few simple descriptions of household design solutions from specific places.

The Heart: “Doing Time” — I heard an interview with Kaitlin Prest on a great podcast I don’t review called The Imposter where she said that the launch of Ear Hustle and the themed episodes Radiotopia did for its launch resulted in a hurried finish to the “No” season, which doesn’t actually come off in the last episode, but it sucks. In any case, this brushed-up episode from the back catalogue is perfectly fine.

Code Switch: “What To Make Of Philando Castile’s Death, One Year Later” — This won’t help you process the acquittal of Philando Castile’s killer, but it does feature an interview with a friend of Castile’s that is heartbreaking.  

What Trump Can Teach Us About Con Law: “Pardon Power” — Is this presidency really so unprecedented that we’re entertaining the notion that a sitting president could pardon himself? Guys this is not normal.

The Gist: “Scaachi Koul on Surviving the Trolls” — Scaachi Koul is one of the funniest and best writers about sexism and racism. If you don’t read her on Buzzfeed, what are you even doing. I’m really looking forward to reading her book. This interview isn’t one of Mike Pesca’s best moments, but it is plenty good on Koul’s part. He gets all tone policey and she doesn’t let him get away with it. Satisfying in a way.

StartUp: “How To Invent A New Sport” — This is about a guy who made a new version of basketball. The best part is the story of a pitch meeting in China. Listen for that alone.

The Gist: “Do Radicals Change the World?” — Jeremy McCarter is familiar to me from the Hamiltome, but this new book doesn’t sound like something I’ll especially enjoy. I’ll take China Mieville’s 1917 book, thanks. He’s got no doubts that radicals change the world.

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “GLOW And Lena Waithe” — Hmm, here are two shows that make me wish there was more time in a day. I’m finding it hard to commit to the idea of watching GLOW and Master of None. The former has a bunch of people I love involved, but I’m not sold on the hype. And Master of None sounds like it’s got a slow first season and a killer second. That’s a stumbling block. You’d never think it from reading this blog sometimes, but I’ve got to be judicious in my choices. Even I only have so much time to allot to this stuff.

It’s Been A Minute: “Likes Don’t Matter” — I don’t know how to feel about this. Part of me wants to think that it’ll find its legs, but it’s also totally clear that this has been given dry run after dry run, so it’s already got a fair bit of mileage behind it. Sam Sanders is one of the cleverest, most magnetic people at NPR. But this feels kind of forcedly colloquial to me. I liked Sanders a lot on the NPR Politics Podcast, where they had a mandate to really get into the grains of it, because Sanders was the guy who could inject a bit of air into the proceedings. He was as good at talking politics as the rest of the panel, but also funnier. In a less explicitly focussed situation, I’m not sure what to make of him anymore. I’ll keep listening, because I really do think he’s great. But I have reservations.

Beef And Dairy Network: “Gareth Belge” — Ahh, I like this. I like this show a lot. This features a hilarious segment about how cows act as body doubles for actors more than you’d know. That’s this show in a nutshell. Beautiful.

Mogul: Episodes 1 & 2 — I resisted this at first because it came out initially on Spotify, and I’m dead set against windowing in the podcast world. But I had to hear this story. It is magical. It is the story of Chris Lighty, the powerful hip hop executive: how he rose to prominence and how he died. Combat Jack hosts (going by his birth name here, Reggie Ossé), and he brings a level of expertise on this topic that probably nobody else in the world could top. The joy of listening to this is not just in the character-driven story of Lighty, nor is it even in the brilliantly rendered history of hip hop’s evolution. It’s in Ossé’s intense engagement with the material. I’ve always known somebody would make a podcast like this sometime — a show that deals with the history of music in a story-driven, audio rich way. Song Exploder isn’t quite it. This is it. I’ve been waiting for this. If you have any interest at all in hip hop or in knowing something about the music of the last forty years, check this out. It’s a beautiful thing. Pick of the week.

Omnireviewer (week of June 11, 2017)

It strikes me that we’ve got a few new readers since the radio segment started. (Listen for another one coming up this weekend!) So, I figured it might be a good time to casually restate the premise of this blog.

Basically, I write discursive blurbs, which I charitably refer to as reviews, about every podcast episode, album, movie, comic, short story, novel, nonfiction book, television episode, concert, art exhibit, feature article, comedy special and video game that passes through my life. The idea was to put all of my unformed thoughts about the massive amount of media I consume into one easily avoidable place so that I wouldn’t feel compelled to talk so damn constantly. Didn’t work. But I’m having fun, and now I’m doing this on the radio also!

I have a few tentative guidelines for myself that I established at the start of this project. I generally don’t review:

  • Stuff made by people I know, or people who people I know know. I’m doing this for fun, not to make my life awkward.
  • Fragments. If I listen to a single song on the way to the grocery store, no. If I listen to a whole album walking home from work, yes. If I watch a John Oliver segment on YouTube, no. If I watch a full episode of Last Week Tonight, yes.
  • Blog posts/articles/essays etc. This accounts for a lot of what I read in any given week. But actually reviewing that stuff seems needlessly far down the rabbit hole, even for me.

For things that will take me more than a week to get through (i.e. books and games), I’ll give them a mention when I start them, review them when I’m finished them, and give updates periodically in between. That’s unless the book or game breaks down logically, like episodic games or collections of short stories. In that case, I’ll review each part. Also, in the event of binging on anything serialized (esp. TV and podcasts), I will often cover multiple episodes in one review. You’ll see a lot of that in this week’s podcasts section, because I had fallen behind on a few favourites.

Not everything I review will be new, nor will it all even be new to me. I revisit old favourites as frequently or more than I seek out new favourites — especially where music’s concerned. But I’ll only review something in an Omnireviewer post once. Subsequent revisitations will occur anonymously.

Finally, none of what I’ve said above constitutes “rules.” By which I mean: I reserve the right to break them at my convenience.

Other things you should know: I also post my reviews on Tumblr, where they come with better formatting, videos, audio embeds, links, and all that good stuff. But every Sunday I gather all of the week’s reviews here, where I sort by medium but leave them as austere walls of text. So, pick your poison. The Sunday omnibus posts are also the home of my picks of the week. I award two of these per week, one to a podcast and one to something else. (This is the rule that I break most frequently. Sometimes I can’t help awarding three.)

Finally, consider this your one and only spoiler warning. I am categorically against the idea of spoiler warnings, because I’m dubious on the idea that it’s possible to spoil something. (I am overstating my case for effect. But only by a little.) In general, I’m told that these reviews are more valuable to those who are already invested in the thing in question. So, I tend to spoil away, in the interest of parsing my own reactions to what I’ve seen. I promise if there’s ever something that is obviously better unspoilt, I will not spoil it. But I can only think of a handful of examples. You’ve been warned.

This week, we’ve got 28 reviews, including a gigantic podcast catch-up (this is how you know I’ve been running a lot), two weeks’ worth of television (I shamefully didn’t finish my reviews last week) a bit of literature, and an odyssey through the music of Tool, who I also saw live on Thursday. Let’s start with Tool, shall we?

Music

Tool: Lateralus — With this, possibly only my second or third ever full listen to Lateralus, I am properly excited to see Tool live. That’s happening in three days, as I write this. There’s no good reason why I haven’t listened to this album more. 10,000 Days was my way into Tool, and I didn’t get around to anything else by them until near the tail end of my first metal phase. So, Lateralus has gotten short shrift from me in spite of being objectively much better than 10,000 Days and generally one of the best metal albums ever. Tool sounds unlike any other metal band, and not just for the reasons that get trotted out endlessly, like the odd time signatures — though they are a few levels odder than most prog metal bands’ metric adventures. Tool sounds different because there’s a transparency to the way they write for and record their instruments. This is heavy music, and it has its moments of crushing chords and big loud climaxes. But in general, Tool’s music is made up of four distinct musical lines being performed by four musicians with the highest possible premium placed on clarity. Every decision that went into this record — from the choices of guitar and bass tones (fairly restrained, in general) to Adam Jones’s preference for melodic lines over chords in the guitar, to the way that Maynard James Keenan’s voice is mixed so you can understand every word — demonstrates a commitment to clarity above all else. That’s rare, if not unique in heavy metal. The result is metal that beckons you to come to it, rather than bowling you over with an unavoidable flood of sound. (My favourite metal band, Opeth, can serve as a useful corollary. Blackwater Park is a flood of a record, if ever I’ve heard one.) Lateralus is an overwhelming album, but it isn’t overwhelming in a visceral way. It isn’t Mahler symphony overwhelming. It’s intellectually overwhelming, like listening to Glenn Gould play Bach. There really is something Baroque about Tool, and I don’t mean “baroque” in the sense of it meaning “needlessly complicated.” What I mean is that, like the artists of the Baroque, Tool seems to strive towards a rational ideal of beauty that provokes an intense emotional response from having been so perfectly wrought. The title track is the obvious apex of this, given its famous reliance on the Fibonacci sequence, which is associated with the Golden Mean, and therefore beauty itself. Throw in lyrics that touch on alchemical themes of boundless self-improvement and you’ve got one of the most classically ambitious metal songs ever. This ties in with something that has surprised me in my recent rediscovery of the last two Tool records: they constantly undermine their image as a band obsessed with the dark and grotesque. Sure, there are lyrics and videos that support that notion of the band. But Lateralus is a striving, nearly celebratory record in a lot of places — a piece of art that seeks to find the best way to be human, and through its intense discipline, demonstrates one possible answer. Even in a song with a title like “Schism,” the key line is “I know the pieces fit.” That’s very hopeful. And if they undermine themselves through striving and celebration on Lateralus, they do it again on 10,000 Days with intimacy. The “Wings for Marie” songs are as human as anything in this genre. I feel as though Tool is falling into place for me at the perfect moment. This is going to be a good concert. But I’ve still got some cramming to do, because I haven’t heard any of the early stuff at all.

Tool: Ænima — After the fawning encomium I just wrote about Lateralus, it kind of sucks to come back to this, which is a very good album that I’d be super happy to hear some stuff from at tomorrow’s concert. But it’s definitely not Lateralus. One of the downsides of writing about everything you watch, read and listen to is that you get really good at intellectualizing specifically why you like something. And I determined that the thing that sets Lateralus apart and makes it a metal album that I would put in my top tier of metal albums is its clarity and transparency — and also its latent hopefulness. Realizing that and framing it in writing makes it difficult not to judge other Tool albums by those incredibly specific standards, which is a terrible way to judge anything and basically means that I’m no longer taking non-Lateralus Tool albums on their own terms. So, listening to Ænima and finding it to be a level louder, more distorted, more opaque and more cynical was naturally disappointing. But I think it’ll grow on me. I’m already fairly fond of “Stinkfist,” “Forty-Six & 2” and “Third Eye.” Though, in the case of the latter, I could do without Bill Hicks. I really don’t like Bill Hicks, because he thought that having a point was the same as having a joke. And that ties in with the one thing I really don’t think will ever grow on me about Ænima, which is the smugness of it. Maynard Keenan is extremely convinced of his moral rectitude, here. He spends a lot of time putting down people that aren’t him. I prefer him in learning and growing mode. This is a solid, and extremely ambitious metal album, but its magnificent successor doesn’t do it any favours.

Tool: Opiate — In an effort to effectively cram for tomorrow evening’s Tool concert without ruining the setlist for myself, I looked at the setlist.fm entry for their latest show, and scrolled past the actual setlist as fast as I could to just see the album breakdown. Looks like it won’t be an issue that I’ve never heard Undertow, but this even earlier EP will surprisingly be represented. I’d say it’s more promising than good, but hearing them play music from this alongside stuff from Lateralus and 10,000 Days is going to be awesome.

Live events

Tool: Live at Rogers Arena — I’ve deliberately left some time between this concert and this review, because I wanted to avoid having the post-concert glow affect my assessment. Let’s begin with some general observations. Firstly, Tool puts on an amazing show. The musicianship is second-to-none, and the spectacle is Pink Floyd calibre. In fact, this show made a case for Tool being the closest thing to a modern-day Pink Floyd. (The standard point of comparison between Tool and classic prog rock tends to be the mathy, mid-70s output of King Crimson. But the spectacle, psychedelia, catharsis and mood painting of their live show evokes a hybrid of Pink Floyd’s Wall period and their pre-Dark Side avant-guardism. All fed through the lens of heavy metal, of course.) Through the course of the show, I found myself switching back and forth between concentrating on the details of the music and just getting lost in the H.R. Giger-in-the-summer-of-love visuals that were projected onto the vast screen behind the band. I’m sure there are those who feel like this kind of spectacle is a cop-out and that bands like Tool should just grow some charisma. But this is a band whose lead singer has taken lately to standing in the darkness at the back of the stage and never emerging from the shadows. Watching the band themselves is clearly not supposed to be the point of this show. (For what it’s worth, it was never the point of a Pink Floyd show, either.) The setlist was basically pretty solid. I confess that I enjoyed the material from Aenima a lot more in a live setting. They even solved the biggest problem with “Third Eye” by excising Bill Hicks altogether. That made it substantially less smug than its studio counterpart, and it turned out to be one of the best songs of the night. I would have liked to hear more from Lateralus. They started the show with a triple shot from that album: “The Grudge,” followed by “Parabol/Parabola” and “Schism.” But they didn’t return to it afterwards. I would have really loved to hear the title track, and maybe “The Patient.” But we did at least get two of the best songs from 10,000 Days, a very underrated record in my opinion. “Jambi” is one of my two or three favourite Tool songs, and has been since it came out when I was sixteen. It was massively cathartic to hear it live, even if Maynard James Keenan’s voice did give out in the middle of a line. He’s getting older, but he still sounds great. It would have been nice to have him a bit higher in the mix, but given his onstage place in the shadows, I wouldn’t want to impinge on the whole self-abnegating thing he’s got going on. “The Pot” gave an opportunity to hear him a bit more clearly, and even though it’s been transposed down, it was still a powerful vocal performance. (And it was fun to remember the summer I spent stocking shelves on the night shift of a grocery store, when “The Pot” would be the only song that ever came on the radio that I liked.) But the aural portion of the evening really belonged to the instrumental trio. Danny Carey is a godlike drummer. His solo, backed by a ⅞ arpeggio pattern on a modular synth he just happened to have on hand, was one of the grooviest, most musical parts of the evening. And the frontline of guitarist Adam Jones and bassist Justin Chancellor is less like a lead/accompaniment relationship than like the two hands of a pianist playing a Bach fugue. The show’s second half was needlessly brief; they needn’t have taken an intermission. (Though its twelve-minute duration, marked by a countdown clock projected on the screen, seemed pleasantly arbitrary.) But this is quibble territory. Again, Tool puts on a great show. Allow me a broader observation: there were a whoooole lot of dudebros at this concert. Which is not to say that there were no women. Women represented a small but enthusiastic component of the audience. But there was a particular type of dude who seemed prevalent at this concert that I didn’t see so many of at the other metal concerts I’ve been to, which were both Opeth concerts. I’m talking about rowdy dudes. Drunk, shouting dudes. There were people who were drunk and shouting at the Opeth concerts too. (Full disclosure, I got kicked out of one of those before Opeth even started, for being under 18 and standing in the wrong place.) But I got the sense that there are a lot of introverts at Opeth concerts, and that’s their release. The vibe at the Tool show was a lot different. It was kind of aggro. Not aggressive. Just aggro. There’s a difference. I get the vague sense that there were probably people at that show who really love Richard Dawkins and really hate feminists. The presence, real or imagined, of this kind of people at the show made for a moment of cognitive dissonance for me. I had somehow expected Tool fans to be quiet, thoughtful people because the Tool music that I love the most (Lateralus and 10,000 Days) is thoughtful music, the aggression of which belies a deeper commitment to discipline and contemplation. But the Tool fans I observed at this show were a mix of Lateralus personified (these folks are not unlike the Opeth fans) and Aenima personified. Aenima, while undeniably accomplished, is not a record I especially identify with. And I couldn’t help but think as I looked around me, heard snippets of conversation, and realized that the one woman seated in the row in front of me had seemingly been forced out of her seat, that Aenima might not be a great album to have in your DNA. Aenima has many sides, and it reveals a different side of itself on every listen. But one of its sides is smug, self-righteous pseudo-intellectual, dudebro stoner rock. Concerts have a way of making you step outside your own idiosyncratic relationship with a given piece of music. They have a way of making you hear music through the ears of others. And sometimes it doesn’t sound as good that way. Maybe that’s why I don’t go to many concerts. I really do prefer to think of music as a thing that only exists in my own head. That way it can be anything I want. Solipsism aside, this was a great show.

Literature, etc.

Jorge Luis Borges: “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius” — A masterpiece. I’m hard-pressed not to say that this is my favourite Borges story I’ve read so far, but I won’t go that far. The only reason for that is I definitely need to read it again, because it is both longer and denser than any other Borges story I’ve read. Where my other favourite Borges story, “The Library of Babel,” is basically one self-contained thought experiment, “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius” is several thought experiments shoved into one incredible story. Most notably, of course, there’s the idea of a civilization that so radically adheres to Berkeleyan idealism that they deny the existence of empirical reality. This big thought experiment leads to many smaller contentions, my favourite of which is the idea that, for this civilization, groups of things don’t come in specific amounts — they only acquire amounts once they’ve been counted by somebody. But there’s more to this than just that one thought experiment. There’s also the idea that if a cadre of people invented a fictional country or planet with enough detail, it could actually come into being. (I especially like the way Borges relates this to the origins of Rosicrucianism, which apparently owes its existence to an older, fictional order of that same name.) Those two ideas are basically the same idea, actually: ideas are potentially more powerful than empirical reality. The ending of this story, which I won’t spoil because it’s amazing and I want everybody to go read this, really drives that home. It’s hard to believe that this was written in 1940 — Borges has effectively predicted the world of alternative facts and the sense of unreality in which we currently live. Pick of the week.

Neil Gaiman, J.H. Williams III & Dave Stewart: The Sandman: Overture — It has been long enough since I read the original run of Sandman that I can’t reliably say how this stacks up against it. What I will say is this: on Gaiman’s part, it is a big ambitious story that I enjoyed very much. But the star of this collection is J.H. Williams III, whose art is maybe the most astonishing comic art I’ve ever seen. I haven’t actually encountered him before, though I’ve meant to read Promethea for ages. At no point in this book is there a page with anything resembling a conventional panel layout. The story is told through dense, fluid drawings that take up full pages, folding time and space into each other in a more dreamlike fashion than I remember any artist managing in the original run of Sandman. The worlds of Sandman: Overture are full of impossible staircases, cities made of light, and non-linear time. (There’s also a fabulous riff on the gatefold design of the Dark Side of the Moon album cover.) Gaiman’s real accomplishment here is just giving Williams the seeds of ideas for crazy stuff to draw. It is visual storytelling of an incredibly virtuosic standard. Don’t read it if you haven’t read the rest of Sandman. But it’s definitely another reason why you should read Sandman if you haven’t.

Television

American Gods: “A Murder of Gods” — So hey, America sucks. It really does! One of the things I’m loving about American Gods is how little patriotism there is in it. I actually like Neil Gaiman’s more pro-America passages in the novel, because they’re always about rinky-dink, out-of-the-way bits of Americana like roadside attractions and diner food. But the time has come and gone for Gaimanesque whimsy in tales of modern America. Bryan Fuller and Michael Green know this well, so they created a new version of Vulcan, the god of fire. And through him, they offer an extremely blunt but completely identifiable critique of American militarism and gun culture, with a side order of labour exploitation. It’s a fantastic sequence, and it resonates nicely with the brutal opening of the episode, in which immigrants crossing the border are gunned down by vigilantes whose weapons bear the inscription “Thy kingdom come.” Another great addition to the show’s cast: Jesus. Best of all, the most notable thing he does in this episode is die. Clever. Don’t worry, I have a feeling he’ll be back. I’m not sure this episode works for me as well as “The Secret of Spoons” or “Git Gone” on a scene-by-scene basis. But it might be the most focussed episode of the series so far, thematically. This is an episode about prayer: the reasons people do it, what people get out of it, and what the gods they pray to get out of it. Prayers to Vulcan are particularly disturbing at this point. (“Every bullet fired in a crowded movie theater is a prayer in my name. And that prayer makes them want to pray even harder.”) But this show’s attitude towards faith is not wholly critical. We unexpectedly meet Salim again in this episode, and his attitude towards prayer is one of the more beautiful and uncynical sentiments in the show. I’m really looking forward to seeing how the relationships between Salim, Laura and Mad Sweeney evolve. Last week, I noted that it was a good idea to have Laura and Sweeney in a scene together. This week confirms that, indeed, it is a good idea to have them share an entire plotline. And making Salim a series regular, and the third in their motley posse, can only be good. This show. I tell ya.

Doctor Who: “Empress of Mars” — Okay, I mean, it has problems. The Doctor’s plan to crash the ice cap down on everybody is total nonsense, and I’m a little miffed that a character got to say something to the effect of “Hey, don’t judge British imperialism on the basis of one bad apple!” But basically this is a fun, silly story of exactly the sort I tend to dislike in really good seasons, but which seems to be what I’m into this year. I like the Victrola horn on the Victorian spacesuits. I like how dumb and B-movie-like they continue allowing the Ice Warriors to be. I don’t really like much else, but it was fun watching this dance in front of my eyes for an hour. Evidently, my standards are dropping. By Gatiss’s standards, it’s fine. Take from that what you will.

American Gods: “A Prayer For Mad Sweeney” — Beautiful. Here’s the point where the makers of American Gods finally focus in on the sweetest moment of Gaiman’s novel, thus producing a marvellous corollary to last week’s particularly dark and cynical instalment of American Gods. This contains maybe the most outwardly pro-American utterance in the show so far: the idea that in America, you can be whoever you want. It’s a statement that has an element of truth in it, and is all the same pleasantly simple to problematize. Thankfully, even in its more charitable moments, American Gods maintains its troubled attitude with the country at its heart. I’ve been asserting for weeks that this show is surpassing its source material, and I continue to think so. However, the one thing that Neil Gaiman always brings to the table that Bryan Fuller does not is a sort of heartstring-tugging expressiveness. Think of Dream’s wake in Sandman, basically any random page in The Ocean at the End of the Lane, or “I wanted to see the universe, so I stole a Time Lord and ran away.” American Gods, the novel, has less of this than much of Gaiman’s work, but the segment about Essie Tregowan, the clever Irish woman who uses her wits and her abiding belief in the Irish legends of the fairyfolk to make her way in America, is the one moment in the novel that reflects that side of Gaiman. It is a beautiful story, with a heartstopping ending. Fuller, Michael Green and screenwriter Maria Melnik need not really do much with the story to make it resonate in exactly the way it does in the book. But of course, they do make alterations, because they’re pros who don’t mind working for their living. And the changes made do generally fall under the category of “Bryan Fuller complicated formalism.” But the formal idea at the core of this adaptation — the Essie Tregowan story is also the story of Mad Sweeney’s arrival in America, and the relationship between those characters resonates through time with the relationship between Sweeney and Laura — actually heightens the emotional resonance of Gaiman’s powerful original. Pablo Schreiber’s Sweeney gets to take this opportunity to reflect on the way that his present-day travelling companion is in some way connected, if only in his own head, to the brave woman who believed in him centuries earlier. Which, of course, complicates the fact that he was responsible for her death. The moment where we see Sweeney decide to resurrect Laura, voluntarily giving up the lucky coin that’s his whole reason for travelling with her to begin with, is one of the best in the series so far. So is the moment right after that, where Laura punches him and sends him flying. This is Emily Browning’s best episode so far, with her double-casting as both Essie (renamed “MacGowan,” for some reason) and Laura showing her range, but also the distinct personality she’s drawing on in this show. It was a good decision to leave the other main characters out of this episode altogether. There’s no Shadow here, and Wednesday is only around by implication: Sweeney talks to his messenger crows. Ian McShane would needlessly take up oxygen in this episode if he were in it. But, to its credit, this episode picks two characters and runs with them. Even Selim gets dismissed at the start of the episode, so we can really focus on Laura/Essie and Sweeney. (But given where Selim’s off to, I’m sure we’ll see him again.) This is, by my estimation, the third stone cold classic episode of this show, which is only seven episodes old. A couple of final notes: for those fascinated by the character of Mad Sweeney, I highly recommend Flann O’Brien’s novel At Swim-Two-Birds. It’s a complicated, many-headed beast of a novel, but one of the many things going on in it is an interpolation of O’Brien’s own English adaptation of Buile Shuibhne, the old Irish tale in which Sweeney first appears. At Swim-Two-Birds bears comparison to American Gods in the sense that it also explores the impact, or lack of impact, of old stories on contemporary life. And both novels choose Mad Sweeney as one of their points of reference. Also, here is the start of a whack-a-doo theory. This episode uses the song “Runaround Sue” by Dion, which is a fantastic song, first of all. What a voice. It’s also the lesser known single of a singer known for a song called “The Wanderer.” “The Wanderer” is also a moniker for Wotan in Wagner’s Ring cycle. (Wotan is the Germanization of Odin.) I dunno where I’m going with this. But if Dion makes another musical appearance, I daresay it’ll be with respect to Mr. Wednesday, and it’ll be “The Wanderer.”

Better Call Saul: “Slip” & “Fall” — “Slip” is an endgame preparation episode without any particularly outstanding scenes. It’s nice to see Jimmy threaten to sue the guy who keeps refusing him his community service hours, but that’s a fairly straightforward play without any of the specific manipulative genius that makes watching his best schemes so much fun. And while I appreciate the time taken to build suspense for Nacho’s switch-up of Don Hector’s pills, this plotline is ever so slightly straining my credulity at this point. I can always get behind a byzantine Jimmy scheme because it’s part of his personality. And Mike’s schemes usually have an elegant simplicity to them. But “scheming Nacho” is a difficult thing to pin down, and around the time he disconnects the restaurant’s AC, I started to think maybe this was going a little too far down the rabbit hole. But “Fall” recovers completely. It does this amazing thing where it has one scene involving Kim, a car, and the audience’s sudden and intense anxiety — but then, nothing bad happens. And then it invokes the same combination at the end of the episode, in a basically unrelated situation with no cause/effect relationship with the earlier car mishap, and pays it off. It’s a weird sort of half-application of the Chekhov’s gun principle. That sustained sense of dread that something’s going to happen to Kim is excruciating. She’s probably the TV character that I’m most emotionally invested in. This position that the writers have consistently put her in, where she does everything right but she’s at constant risk of being pulled off the rails by the people around her is such a good source of tension, and Rhea Seehorn is consistently incredible. Also, sometimes I’m not sure I’m supposed to love Howard as much as I do, but I definitely still love Howard. I love how willing he is to think people will be reasonable, even when all of the evidence suggests that they are innately unreasonable people. The scene of him starting to plan Chuck’s retirement party before he’s even opened the envelope he wrongly assumes contains Chuck’s resignation is a magnificent penny drop moment, because we as the audience know Chuck well enough to realize that Howard is wrong before he does. Also, back on the subject of byzantine schemes, I don’t think this show has ever come up with anything on the level of Jimmy’s manipulation of poor Irene. The whole sequence of this adorable old granny becoming isolated gradually is somehow the funniest thing Better Call Saul has ever done.

The Simpsons: “Itchy and Scratchy and Marge” — A classic. This is one of my favourite Simpsons episodes because it’s such a wonderful bit of metafiction. It’s ostensibly a parody of the idea that cartoons (and television more broadly) can exert a negative influence on children — a criticism that The Simpsons came in for in spades during the Bartmania of 1990. (As below, so above. I’ll elaborate on next weekend’s NXNW segment.) And it certainly demonstrates why violence and conflict are necessary for good TV storytelling (the declawed Itchy and Scratchy segment is one of the episode’s best moments). But it goes further than that. This episode could have just stopped at the contention that television requires an unsavoury element to be compelling. But instead, it goes on to suggest that a world without compelling television might actually be better. Speaking as a person who has reviewed five-and-a-half hours of television so far this week (and more to come), I wonder if maybe that’s true. Certainly, the very best part of this episode is the sequence in which Springfield’s bleary-eyed children step away from their screens and reintegrate with the real, tangible world in front of them. This isn’t even played for laughs. It’s just a beautiful mini-ballet, scored with Beethoven’s sixth. That segment is the lynchpin of the episode for me. The episode’s critique of censorship, its discussion of what constitutes art and what you should be able to show on television is all beautifully undermined by the idea that maybe we put too much emphasis on those questions anyway, and we should probably just go outside — children and compulsive bloggers alike. I might even take my own advice. But first I’ve got Twin Peaks to review.

Twin Peaks: The Missing Pieces — Alright, one more thing before I move on to the new series. I only just learned of the existence of this meticulously constructed collection of outtakes from Fire Walk With Me. And while “outtakes from Fire Walk With Me” might not sound like a promising premise, I actually enjoyed watching this disjointed set of barely related scenes more than I enjoyed Fire Walk With Me. It actually feels a lot more like Twin Peaks than Fire Walk With Me does. That’s partially because it actually features the bulk of the returning cast, whose scenes were largely cut from the movie. But it’s also because it shares television’s tendency to juggle plotlines and throw unrelated scenes one after the other. Fire Walk With Me is very much a movie, focussing first on the Theresa Banks investigation, and then the final days of Laura Palmer. The movie is so focussed on these two stories that the stuff that doesn’t pertain to either of them but still made the final cut (e.g. the infamously confusing scene with David Bowie as Phillip Jeffries) really feel like they shouldn’t be there. But The Missing Pieces fleshes out the narratives that were only tantalizingly suggested in the original movie, particularly where Bowie’s character is concerned, and also with respect to Agent Cooper’s status in the Black Lodge. The “sequel” element of Fire Walk With Me was always subjugated to the “prequel” element. The Missing Pieces shifts the needle ever so slightly in the other direction, setting up what I assume will be the starting point of the new series, albeit with the passage of 25 years. And while the continuity-heavy stuff is the real highlight, it’s also well worth watching The Missing Pieces for the smaller moments. The stuff involving Truman, Andy, Hawk and Lucy never really gets off the ground, but that’s really the only stuff that isn’t great. There’s some lovely stuff with Norma and Ed. There are a few extra scenes for Kiefer Sutherland’s overeager toehead, who I really enjoy. (He even gets to meet Coop, who is unimpressed as all get out.) There’s an extended scene with Frank Silva and Michael J. Anderson as BOB and the Man From Another Place, just being creepy and laughing backwards. And best of all, there’s some incredible moments with the Palmers. Sarah’s constant smoking causes her a hilariously choreographed problem in one of the best mother/daughter scenes in the movie. And best of all, there’s a scene where Leland tries to teach his wife and daughter to introduce themselves in Norwegian, ending in the whole family laughing hysterically, in a way that’s both genuine and creepy in a way that only David Lynch can conjure out of actors. I love Grace Zabriskie so much in this scene. The say she makes Sarah sort of half try to say her name with a Norwegian accent just kills me. Basically, this seems like it should be the definition of superfluous. But it’s super not. For all its inevitable disjointedness, this is top-flight Twin Peaks, on par with the good parts of the TV series and superior to the movie from which these scenes are outtakes.

Twin Peaks: The Return: Parts 1 & 2 — Wow, Bob, wow. I know that I absolutely loved this, but I have no idea what to make of it. The fact that it spends most of its duration on new characters in places that aren’t Twin Peaks is both gutsy and a bit of a callback to the less successful elements of Fire Walk With Me. And the fact that Kyle McLaughlin is primarily being tapped to play Coop’s evil doppelganger and the taciturn version of good Cooper who appears in the Red Room is, at this point, making me long for the return of the cheery version of that character we know and love. But I’m burying the lead, which is that Twin Peaks in 2017 WORKS. David Lynch can still direct, and it is possible to convey the alienating strangeness of the original series’ best moments in the context of modern prestige television. The surreal elements are what’s working best for me as of yet, with the sequence in the Red Room with the electric arm tree (if ever there were a way to compensate for the absence of Michael J. Anderson, it is this) and its doppelganger emerging as an early highlight. But I’m going to reserve judgement about this, because it’s holding its cards so close to its chest that I basically have nothing to say about it yet. Except that it’s good and that I’m entirely willing to contemplate the notion that it will be straightforwardly the best iteration of Twin Peaks we’ve seen so far. If you’re farther along than me, don’t tell me otherwise. Please.

Doctor Who: “The Eaters of Light” — A modest highlight of a middling season. It is kind of remarkable that this is the first time in the new series’ history that a classic writer has been invited back. But Rona Munro is a good choice, given that her first Doctor Who story turned out to be the very last Doctor Who story until the TV movie. And what a story it was! “Survival” is an idiosyncratic favourite of mine, from a period in the show’s history that I wish more new fans would check out. It’s a high bar to clear, even given the extent to which the general standard of Doctor Who has risen in the new series. And I’m inclined to think that it does not clear that bar. But that’s not what anybody should be concentrating on. We should think about what it is, not what it isn’t. And what it is is a story about a light-eating alien monster that inserts itself into the story of the massacre of the Ninth Legion. That is a thing that only Doctor Who can do, and it is the sort of thing that makes me remember that Doctor Who is always a good idea and always has been, even during the bits of its history where it isn’t quite so inspiring. Still, big ‘splody Moffat story coming up! My hopes are undimmed.

Podcasts

Code Switch binge — One of my periodic catch-up sessions. I listened to the one about Master of None (which is sounding distressingly like a show I need to make time for), one about the Japanese Americans who effectively exiled themselves to Utah to avoid the internment camps during WWII, a fascinating episode on what the hosts call racial imposter syndrome, and best of all, an episode about the way that white DJs have co-opted black identities for various bullshit reasons. This last episode is actually maybe the best episode of Code Switch. Maybe I’m just saying that because I’m a music geek and I’m really interested in how something as abstract as sound can come to mean very specific things. But this is probably one of the best pieces of music journalism I’ve encountered in the last year or more. And I consume a metric boatload of the stuff. That episode is called “Give it Up For DJ Blackface!” Extremely worth your time.

Imaginary Worlds: “The Real Twin Peaks” & “Do the Voice” — Eric Molinsky’s Twin Peaks episode is interesting enough, but it’s not subject matter that he’s able to wring the best material out of, like Harry Potter or H.P. Lovecraft were. On the other hand, his audio drama collaboration with The Truth, “Do the Voice,” is pretty marvellous. I’ve always been dubious about The Truth. I admire its tendency towards experimentation, and I love that its short-form stories allow it to be a bit of a storytelling laboratory. But I just never like the writing. Surprisingly, Molinsky has turned out one of the best scripts I’ve heard on The Truth, in spite of not being primarily a fiction writer, to my knowledge. It helps that the premise of the episode is based on a cartoon show, which allows for a certain amount of contrivance in the dialogue. Worth a listen.

Crimetown: Post-season bonus episodes — The episode about the soundtrack is worth it specifically to hear Rosaleen Eastman’s awesome cover of “Rhode Island is Famous for You” in full. The live episode is fun, but in general I’m still suspicious of this show’s attitude towards the charm of gangsters and the charisma of the life. We do get one moment in there where a former gangster explains how his family background led him down the pipeline to a life of crime. But there’s a disconcerting sense here, and throughout Crimetown, that regardless of those circumstances, these ex-mobsters’ recollections of their tenures in organized crime are filled with wistfulness and nostalgia as much as regret for the lives they ruined — or ended. I’m not okay with that. But it is finally addressed in the bonus episode about Ralph DiMasi, an armoured car robber in the Patriarca crime organization who the producers allow to reminisce fondly about his crimes in front of the microphone, only to undercut him with an interview of one of his victim’s wives. If Crimetown season one had been that circumspect all the time, I’d be more likely to tune in for season two. As it stands… jury’s out.

The Heart: “No,” episodes 2-4 — This is some pretty brave radio, right here. The Heart is always intimate, and it always pushes against the boundaries of social taboos, but in this series, Kaitlin Prest has exposed her own most uncomfortable, sometimes traumatic moments in the interest of talking about consent. And it isn’t just a piece about the consent breaches that we call rape, or sexual assault. (Though, there’s a really thoughtful discussion in the fourth episode about why somebody might or might not choose to use those labels.) It’s also about the ones that fall into what Prest calls “grey areas.” The third episode is radio that, speaking as a cisgendered straight dude, every man should hear. That’s the one where Prest interviews people, mostly men, who’ve perpetrated consent breaches of one type or another with varying levels of remorse and subsequent understanding. One of these interviews, without going into detail here, is a masterclass in negation and defensive bullshit. It’s good to have a model for how not to be. Listen to the whole series. Pick of the week.

Radiolab: “The Radio Lab” — Aww, this is fun. For Radiolab’s 15th birthday, they go right back to the early days of the show. And then they fast-forward to the days that were early but also good. I actually have heard the episode that they play at the end of this — the one they say people probably haven’t heard. I think this may actually be my third time through it, in fact. I tend to be a little hard on Radiolab in these reviews, because I do think it’s a little past its prime. But the reason I hold it to such a high standard is that it was the first radio I ever really listened to, and it blew my mind. I don’t mean the first podcast I ever listened to, by the way. I mean, before I went to grad school for journalism and somebody told me about Radiolab, I’d pretty much never listened to radio in any form. I think it may also have been before I discovered podcatcher apps, so I was listening to the show on my laptop, with huge headphones and a long cord plugged into it on the kitchen table while I did my dishes. (Still how I do a fair amount of my podcast listening.) And while the episode about time may have fallen off of iTunes a while ago, I’m certain that it was on their website when I initially binged the bulk of the back catalogue. And to be perfectly honest, listening back to it now, I like this version of Radiolab better than the one that exists today. I like the sense of untethered curiosity about difficult questions, and I like the bonkers sound design. That old version of Radiolab still feels like mad science. There is even today nothing that sounds like it. On the other hand, it’s hilarious to hear the version of the show that existed before Robert Krulwich joined up. Jad Abumrad sounds ponderous, insufferable, and unbelievably stoned. This is well worth a listen, if only to demonstrate why this show was once the very best in nonfiction audio storytelling.

Memory Palace binge — I could listen to this show forever. This catch-up session found me listening to an episode about the U.S. Camel Corps (which existed), one of Nate DiMeo’s Met residency episodes about a room in the museum that he doesn’t like (which contains the memorable line “If you have to be a floor, be a dance floor”) and a year-later rebroadcast of “A White Horse,” DiMeo’s beautiful tribute to the oldest gay bar in America for the week after the Pulse nightclub shootings. But the highlight of this clump of episodes was “Cipher, or Greenhow Girls,” a story about the Confederate spy Rose O’Neale Greenhow and her daughter. This is one of those episodes where DiMeo isolates and fleshes out a historical character about whom little is known (the daughter, not the mother). It’s quite beautiful, and the last line is breathtaking.

Fresh Air: “David Sedaris,” “Giancarlo Esposito Of ‘Better Call Saul’” and “Former Vice President Joe Biden” — Three great interviews by the radio host that Marc Maron called ”the industry standard.” Esposito is the highlight of the three, if only because interviews with David Sedaris are easy to come by. Hearing about Esposito’s family (his mother sang with Leontyne Price!!!) is really fascinating, and hearing him talk about inventing the character of Gus is maybe even more fascinating. Honestly, it’s just fun to hear him talk out of character. It isn’t just the hint of a Chilean accent that distinguishes Gus’s speech from Esposito’s own — it’s the care and intensity with which every word is spoken. Esposito is not a cold person. Not remotely. This David Sedaris interview sticks out from the pack because of the book he’s promoting, which is a collection of his diaries. So, there’s more of his life even than usual on the table. As for Biden, he’s charming and soulful, but still very much a politician.

What Trump Can Teach Us About Con Law: “Judicial Legitimacy” & “The Appointments Clause and Removal Power” — Okay, so this promises to make the Trump administration a bit less head-spinning, if not any less horrifying. The premise of learning about the constitution through the lens of a president who is challenging it in heretofore unseen ways is a good one for a podcast. I confess some of the details of these first two episodes slipped past me because I was on a particularly tiring run at the time. But I’m legitimately excited about this.

Reply All: “Fog of Covfefe” & “Black Hole, New Jersey” — I think it’s possible that Reply All brings more joy into my life than any other podcast. I just really enjoy listening to Alex Goldman and P.J. Vogt talking to each other. Wonder what Sruthi Pinemeneni’s up to? Been awhile since we’ve heard from her, so probably something complicated. In any case, the two hosts can easily fill the time with segments, if need be. “Fog of Covfefe” is a deep dive into the Twitter overdrive that was covfefe night, dressed up as a Yes Yes No. Two notes. One: it’s nice to see that Google Docs, in which I’m currently typing this, still does not recognize covfefe as a word. Yes, language is fluid and subject to serendipity, but there must be standards. Thank you, Google Docs. And two: I’m happy that Yes Yes No still exists after Alex Blumberg’s audible discomfort with being perceived as a Luddite in the phishing episode. “Black Hole, New Jersey” is a somewhat anticlimactic Super Tech Support episode. I still had fun.

All Songs Considered: “Sufjan Stevens, Nico Muhly And Bryce Dessner On Creating ‘Planetarium’” — Nico Muhly is a really clever guy. He has as much of a handle on what this project is actually about as Sufjan Stevens does, even though Stevens is the guy who had to make it explicit through lyrics. The snippets of the album that are featured here are more promising than what I’d heard previously. Now I’m actually kind of excited to hear it.

Desert Island Discs: “Rick Wakeman” — Rick Wakeman was my first childhood idol. I know, I know, it’s a weird idol to have. But something about the image of a guy with waist-length hair in a sequined cape playing an implausible number of electronic keyboards just made me think “that’s what I want to be.” I even dressed up as him for Halloween. My obsession has abated over the years. With the occasional exception of The Six Wives of Henry VIII, I can’t tolerate any of his solo albums. And his post-Going For The One contributions to Yes have tended to be lukewarm as well, I’d wager. (It’s mostly been live shows, though his digital keyboard sounds do appear on the Keystudio record, and are the worst thing about it.) But I continue to admire Wakeman for his wit and warmth, and there’s plenty of that here. His choices of records are made mostly for autobiographical significance, one suspects, though Verdi’s anvil chorus does seem like something he’d hold up as a musical ideal.

The Kitchen Sisters Present: “Warriors vs Warriors” — A very short but very lovely story about the Golden State Warriors’ tradition of playing periodic basketball games against the San Quentin Warriors, a team made up of San Quentin inmates. Particularly amusing is a short interview with an inmate who cheers on the Golden State Warriors just for variety.

The Moth: “The Moth’s 20th Anniversary Special” What’s with podcasts and birthdays this week? Anyway, it’s been awhile since I listened to The Moth, but whenever I return to it I’m pleasantly surprised by how entertaining its low-rent premise is. The three stories told here in front of live audiences are all wonderful. I’m particularly fond of the second, told by Jessi Klein, which is about how a breakup became much much more difficult than it would otherwise have been because of Google. It’s funny, she’s funny, and the rest of the episode is fun too.

99% Invisible: “In the Same Ballpark” — Another sports story! But actually it’s an architecture story, so I enjoyed myself just fine.

Omnireviewer (week of May 7, 2017)

23 reviews. My most frequently-occurring number of reviews, I’d wager. I don’t know why that is. I just seem to do 23 reviews a lot.

Television, etc.

American Gods: “The Secret of Spoons” — Wow, it got better. This episode is, on balance, less flashy than the first. Though it has its moments of visual splendor, such as the way Chicago’s dot on the map of America crossfades to Zorya’s padlock, the tumblers of which are then juxtaposed with a slot machine (foreshadowing of the coming fateful checkers game). But by and large, this is a less cinematic, more theatrical episode of television than “The Bone Orchard.” They always used to say television was a writers’ medium, but in a post-Breaking Bad — and indeed, post-Hannibal — world, that’s becoming a more dubious claim. David Slade has directed both of those shows, and his style is abundantly evident here. Still, the measure of this second episode comes from the writing and acting, much more so than the first. And that starts in the opening scene, which introduces a radically different, much more interesting version of Anansi than the one readers will know from the novel. (I loved the version of Anansi in the novel, but he’s too nice for 2017. Better by far to have him be angry, sardonic and powerful.) Orlando Jones may be my favourite thing about this show so far, which is not nothing when the show also has Ian McShane in it. Everything about this scene is perfect, from the writing for Anansi to the prayer that his supplicant speaks to summon him, to THE SUIT OH GOD THE SUIT. What’s amazing about this scene is that Anansi, without saying a single untrue thing, tricks his followers. He tricks them into sacrificing themselves so that he could find his way ashore to America. (And how great is that shot of the spider — whose colouring is as flamboyant as its human form’s wardrobe — creeping off of the floating plank and onto the shore?) But he’s also not wrong that the sacrifice is potentially more meaningful than what many of the captives on the boat had ahead of them. This is not only a better version of Anansi than in the book, it’s also more thoughtful and up-to-date take on the Middle Passage than the one in the book. This scene would be an effective short film in itself, with absolutely no other context from American Gods. And it basically functions as one in this episode, since Anansi doesn’t enter the main story until later. Still, its themes resonate with the aftermath of Shadow’s lynching (an unexpected valence to add to the image of Odin hanging from the world tree; yet another addition on the part of the show) and the extremely uncomfortable conversations he has with Czernobog. Oh, yes, can we talk about Czernobog? Peter Stormare is third of three perfect casting choices for this show’s main trio of Old Gods. Given that I am primarily familiar with him from his famously taciturn performance opposite the famously verbose Steve Buscemi in Fargo, it’s nice to hear him get some dialogue to wrap his mouth around. And they’ve really made him look disgusting. His grubby, blood-soaked wife-beater is as brilliant a costume choice as Anansi’s suit (OH GOD THE SUIT). I am very much looking forward to the part of the story where we get to see Czernobog, Anansi and Wednesday together, because these actors are everything I love about television. I’m also extremely fond of Cloris Leachman’s performance as Zorya, and I hope the show contrives to give her more to do than in the book. And as if this isn’t enough, we’ve got Gillian Anderson doing “sinister Lucille Ball,” which is the role she was born to play. What I’m trying to get at here is that sure, American Gods is proving itself to be a televisual feast worthy of the creator of Hannibal. But this episode proves that the basics are so solid you could just take these actors and this script and play it out on a stage and it would still work. Easily my favourite episode of TV I’ve seen so far this year. Pick of the week.  

Better Call Saul: “Chicanery” — My wish for the Jimmy/Chuck/Kim plotline to move forward was granted. This is the side of the show that I’m usually close to 100% confident in. Jimmy’s transformation into Saul was always the impetus for this show’s existence, story-wise. I sometimes feel as though the presence of Mike, and now Gus, is only to maintain Better Call Saul’s connection to the violent, shocking world of Breaking Bad, where crime is right in front of you and not a matter of courtroom litigation. But this show has always been good at making a comparatively everyday story into something with equal dramatic weight to the sordid tale of Walter White. This week’s episode is maybe the best the show has ever done, and it’s basically a straightforward courtroom drama. What’s most satisfying here is seeing the two drastically different legal strategies of Jimmy and Kim employed in tandem. Kim’s meticulous and strategic in her cross-examination and Jimmy employs a pickpocket. (Huell!!!) The moment when Chuck realizes that he’s genuinely betrayed himself at the end of the episode is one of his best character beats in the show so far. Like courtroom dramas often do, this offers an opportunity to put this story’s conflict in the starkest relief it’ll probably ever get. Jimmy: the compassionate grifter. Chuck: the ruthless champion of justice. Outstanding stuff.

Doctor Who: “Oxygen” — Not bad. I always like the feel of Doctor Who episodes that take place on a spaceship/station with plenty of emphasis on the void of space. (“Kill the Moon” comes to mind in particular.) I dunno what I find intrinsically compelling about the void of space, but I to tend to like stories that take place there. I also like critiques of capitalism. And I love the note tacked onto the end of this that indicates the events of this episode were the impetus for some sort of space communist revolution. But I can’t help the feeling that the monster-based horror of this episode is awfully familiar from last season’s (awful) “Before the Flood.” This show is contriving more and more ways to do zombies without doing zombies these days. Fun to have Nardole actually on a TARDIS trip. I like him in limited doses. I’m curious about how the Doctor’s blindness will factor into the series’ main plot arc, which I”m hoping will start in earnest next week. But that final line, “I’m still blind!” was a bit much, wasn’t it? May as well have been followed by a huge DUN DUN DUUUUUUHHH. This was alright. Better than “Knock Knock.” Much better, in fact. But not a destined classic.

Bill Wurtz: history of the entire world i guess — I guess there is a point to YouTube. The cosmic stuff at the beginning of this is the highlight. Wurtz is funny, obviously. But he also manages to convey the inconceivable weirdness and complexity of the universe having at some point been empty and timeless. The closer we get to society, the easier a job he has. But he doesn’t hue too closely to the usual narratives and makes sure to not just do European history. I already feel like I’m taking this too seriously. I’m going to stop now.

Movies

The Darjeeling Limited — Hmm. Well, it’s got some really good stuff in it. Adrian Brody, Jason Schwartzman and Owen Wilson are three actors who are wont to give excellent Wes Anderson performances. This is a very particular kind of performance. You have to be really good at listlessly staying in the same place. You can’t move your face too much. All three leads do this very well. Also, the movie is very distinctly not in these characters’ camp. Not entirely, anyway. The film is set in India, and is a Western portrayal of India, but doesn’t convey India as a fountain of exoticism for its white protagonists to dip into. The protagonists themselves certainly see it that way, which is the source of much of the movie’s humour. Still, I retain some suspicions about whether the more sincere moments in the movie (especially the young boy’s funeral) are accurate. If not, then I think this film is making some assumptions about its audience that it probably shouldn’t. Still, I don’t have the information to make the final judgement. Dramatically, I liked this as much as The Royal Tenenbaums (which I very much wanted to enjoy more than I did), but not quite as much as The Life Aquatic, and certainly not as much as my two favourite Anderson movies: Moonrise Kingdom and the spectacular masterpiece that is The Grand Budapest Hotel. But I’m a sucker for Anderson’s brand of intensely mannered filmmaking and this fits that bill.

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 — Basically, I enjoyed this. I like these actors, these characters, and the general tone of these movies. But this isn’t quite as fleet-footed as its predecessor. The issue isn’t just repetition; it’s that this movie doesn’t execute its jokes as thoughtfully as the first Guardians did. There’s nothing here that rivals that movie’s most iconic shot: the slow-motion corridor walk where instead of stoically staring ahead, they’re yawning and crotch-scratching and whatever. The joke being, they’re doing a thing that people only do in movies, except they’re all acting like they’re not in a movie. This has ideas that come close to that, but it doesn’t really follow through on them. The opening credits have a similarly promising premise: the Guardians fight a giant space monster, out of focus in the background while Baby Groot dances adorably in the foreground. But that’s the whole of the joke, basically. There aren’t really any beats to the scene except for the other characters getting thrown towards the camera one at a time. If we could actually follow the battle and watch it get progressively more disastrous as Groot dances, that would have been funny throughout its duration, instead of just at the start. The monster should be dead by the end of the credits. Then we should see the Guardians up close for the first time, exhausted and covered in goo. And somebody should snark about how Groot used to be helpful. Or something. I’m not a screenwriter. I’m just saying, that’s the definitive way that scene should have worked. The rest of the action-comedy in the movie is often fun, but I couldn’t shake the feeling after a while that in its action sequences, this movie only has one joke, and it’s basically “terrible violence is wrought upon villains to a sunny, 80s soundtrack.” Contrast with the master, who has scores of specific, bespoke jokes in every fight. Other problems! Chris Pratt can’t do feelings! Chris Pratt can do banter. That’s what you’re supposed to hire Chris Pratt to do. The story makes no sense! Why did Kurt Russell give Chris Pratt’s mom brain cancer? He didn’t have to do that! And at what point was it explained that Chris Pratt would lose his short-lived god powers if he killed his dad? How does that even work?!? Also, the characters are all split up so we don’t get to see any of the relationships between them! This is an observation I semi-nicked from Pop Culture Happy Hour, but the panelists there are definitely right about it. We don’t really get to see the dynamic between the members of the team we got to know in the first movie, because every one of them gets paired with a minor character instead. This hurts Zoe Saldana the most, because she gets lumped in with the not-reliably-brilliant Karen Gillan. But it doesn’t really do Pratt any favours either because he gets stuck in an emotional arc with a Kurt Russell character who does not crack wise, thank you very much. Rocket and Drax fare better with Yondu and Mantis, respectively. (Evidently, the less humanoid you look, the more likely I am to refer to you by your character’s name.) But I miss the Rocket/Pratt dynamic from the first movie a lot. Also! There are platitudes o’plenty in the screenplay, and not all of them get comedically undercut by Drax! They should. “I control the arrow with my heart” is one of the most unforgivably shitty sentiments ever to be allowed into a Marvel shooting script. And if I see one more genre film where the entire resolution rests on the intrinsic nobility of humanity I will lose my mind! Ahem. But it’s not all bad! Dave Bautista is consistently hilarious as Drax, and steals this movie to a much larger extent than he did the first one. Baby Groot is adorable! But they would do well to retire that version of the character now (as it appears they will), since his entire characterization is based on a single gag in the first movie’s post-credits scene. That cannot hold for long. There are a number of very funny jokes! That is much appreciated. There is a spaceship with lasers that roll around its exterior on tracks! It’s hard to describe, but it’s a lovely bit of design that spices up the huge space battles substantially. There is a certified dank special effect where their faces go weird from doing too many hyperspace jumps! I love that. There is Cat Stevens! I love Cat Stevens. So basically, there are many problems with this. But the Guardians of the Galaxy remain a pretty solid second place among my favourite properties in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (next to Captain America). I’ll watch Vol. 3, and I won’t even complain about it, probably.

Comedy

Maria Bamford: The Special Special Special — This is distinctly less excellent than her more recent special that I watched last week, but I think I’m pretty much always on board for Maria Bamford at this point. This is the special that she shot for an audience of only her parents. I confess that while I appreciate this choice as a joke in itself (and I certainly appreciate Bamford’s ability to talk openly about the darkest elements of her inner life right in front of her parents) I’m not sure it shows her material in its best light. I do generally prefer comedy specials to be as verité and sketch-light as possible — incursions of surreal sketch comedy mar specials that I otherwise love by Chelsea Peretti and Zach Galifianakis, for example. And to a certain extent, this entire special is a sketch with standup in it. Old Baby also has elements of this, but for the bulk of its running time, Bamford is at least telling jokes to a crowd large enough to have a homogenous reaction to those jokes. No such luck with the ‘rents. The material’s still awesome, though. The bits about Paula Deen and the double standard that applies to mental vs. physical illnesses are both perfect demonstrations of what’s great about Maria Bamford. But on balance, I think she stepped it up for this year’s special. It’s actually nice to find that an artist you’ve recently discovered is on an upwards trajectory rather than a downwards one. It doesn’t usually work that way for me because I’m wilfully late to every pop culture party. But yeah, this cements Maria Bamford among my top three or four comics, probably.

Chris Gethard: Career Suicide — I really like listening to somebody just tell a story. That’s ultimately why I like Mike Birbiglia so much, even though I generally think his jokes don’t rise to the level of some of my other favourite comics. Neither do Chris Gethard’s. But that doesn’t stop this from being wildly compelling viewing. This is a 90-minute (!) account of Gethard’s lifelong journey through intense mental illness. Gethard’s gift is that he can see how the following two things can both be true: depression is awful and has taken him to some truly dark places, and the experience of being depressed has provided him with some objectively funny stories. This is also a really excellent corrective to certain specious narratives about mental illness, especially the one about antidepressants taking your creativity away. I’ve watched three new comedy specials so far in 2017. It speaks to the caliber of the first two that I would rank them as follows: Maria Bamford, Chris Gethard, Louis C.K.

Literature, etc.

China Miéville: October — China Miéville’s self-admittedly partisan history of the Russian Revolution is off to a good start. That said, as a fan of his fiction, it is almost offputtingly straightforward. Aside from a few words necessitating a quick Google (ogee?) Miéville has basically put aside his most obscurantist tendencies here. And I confess, I always kind of loved him for those. I’ve read the first chapter of this book, and so far, Miéville’s introductory portraits of Lenin and Trotsky are the most promising elements. Though, the best single moment in this opening chapter is Miéville’s marvellous, withering depiction of Nicholas Romanov: “Absence defines him: absence of expression, imagination, intelligence, insight, drive, determination, élan. Description after bemused description turns on the ‘otherworldliness’ of a man adrift in history. He is a well-educated vacuity stuffed with the prejudices of his milieu — including pro-pogramist antisemitism, aimed particularly at revolutionary zhidy, ‘yids’. Averse to change of any kind at all, he is wholeheartedly wedded to autocracy. Uttering the word ‘intelligentsia’, he makes the same disgusted face as when he says ‘syphilis’.” So, yeah. He doesn’t hold back. And even in a comparatively simple idiom, Miéville’s use of English is still impressive. This bodes well.

Games

Fallen London — With last week’s encomium to Sunless Sea, I inspired myself to go back to the original. I found Fallen London a few years ago when I was really into interactive fiction in general — Twine, parser-based stuff, the whole works. Fallen London stuck out to me for all of the reasons I’ve already praised Sunless Sea, i.e. the prose is incredible. But it’s been a while. I can’t remember where I was at in the game and it’s taking me awhile to figure it out. But that’s fine! Because everything you do in Fallen London is a delight. It’s clear to me that a huge amount of the mythology that underlies Fallen London is still a mystery to me. (What the hell even is the Bazaar???) At first, I thought that the aura of mystery was the whole of the game and that you’re never really meant to get past the protective coating that sits on top of all of the lore. Certainly, most of the characters walking around seem to have just as incomplete an understanding of what the hell is going on as I do as a player. But playing a bunch of Sunless Sea made me realize that there are answers to the questions. Some of them, anyway. I’m looking forward to learning them. Also! There’s an app now! And it’s really pretty. Way prettier than the browser game. Now this feels like a bespoke product the same way Sunless Sea does. It’s a cosmetic thing, but cosmetics are important.

Music

Buffalo Springfield: Buffalo Springfield — Ah, fuck it. If I’m doing a Neil Young binge, I’m going to do it properly. From here on out, we’re going for completion. I’m defining that as “everything that’s been officially released by Neil Young or an act he was a member of.” This includes official and archival lives, and rarities on odds and sods collections. This is going to be taxing, but I’m experiencing a severe compulsion that I don’t think I’m going to best. Buffalo Springfield is not a bad album by any means, but it is first and foremost a period piece. It is interesting primarily for being an early work by Neil Young and Stephen Stills, both of whom would go on to do work that has aged much better than this. (The former in particular, obviously.) But I am always in favour of listening to things that are of primarily historical interest. In general, Neil’s songs are more adventurous and interesting than Stephen Stills’, but Stills penned the obvious standout, “For What it’s Worth.” It was tacked on in the second pressing after it became a hit. It would be a far poorer album without it, honestly. That’s how much better and more iconic it is than anything else on here. And the track it replaced, “Baby Don’t Scold Me,” is about as good as its title promises it will be. Neil’s songs don’t quite sound like Neil Young songs except for when he sings them. (Everything sounds like a Neil Young song if he’s singing it. Even if it’s a Beatles song.) And he only sings two of his own songs here. “Burned” is the stronger of the two, but I know from the Decade compilation that Neil’s best contributions to the Buffalo Springfield oeuvre will come later. Strangely, this record’s most notable “oh, Neil Young’s here!” moment isn’t on a track that he wrote. His guitar playing on “Leave” is remarkably similar to the way it’ll sound four years later in the outro of “Woodstock” with CSNY, or on “Southern Man.” A really interesting and intermittently good album.

Podcasts

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 and W. Kamau Bell” — Sounds like Guardians 2 is basically what everybody expected it to be. (He says, having written this before he saw the movie, which he reviewed above.) I’m in. (He says, not knowing he’d see the movie within the same week as this review, and that this would later read really weirdly because of my structural choice to always put podcasts last.) W. Kamau Bell is very funny.

Reply All: “The Silence in the Sky” — Nice to hear something where P.J. Vogt did the reporting. Seems to me that’s rarer than Alex Goldman-reported segments, but I don’t have the stats in front of me. I agree with Vogt that “Across the Universe” is not the best Beatles song.

The Media Show: “Secrecy and whistleblowing, Times Literary Supplement editor Stig Abell, Radio style guides” — Ah, good, there’s an excellent media-focussed show on BBC Radio 4. I love BBC Radio 4. I got linked to this from I can’t remember where and listened to it to hear the segment on the Times Literary Supplement. Maybe I’ll subscribe to a literary magazine. I could see myself doing something like that.

WTF with Marc Maron: “John Michael Higgins / Maria Bamford” — Too bad the Maria Bamford spot is so short. I need to go back into the archives and listen to previous Maron/Bamford conversations. These two understand each other. John Michael Higgins is not a person I know (the only Christopher Guest movie I’ve seen is, wait for it… Waiting for Guffman) but he’s super interesting and Maron’s good at getting him to tell the story of his crazy road through showbiz. Fine listening.

Every Little Thing: “Rapture Chasers” — Not bad, but not as substantially different from Surprisingly Awesome as I’d hoped it would be. If your premise is basically “things are great when you look into them,” you’d better have some serious personality in your show. Because that is essentially the premise of all journalism that isn’t hard news. This is the sort of show that I think will likely produce a lot of great episodes, but I’m having the same sort of hard time figuring out why it exists as I had with Undone, and we all remember how that worked out.

Beef and Dairy Network: “A Tribute to Paul Kitesworthy” — A segment based around a slightly predictable joke: the dead guy isn’t really dead; he just owes everybody money. Still funny and well-made. If I wasn’t so behind on my subscriptions, I’m sure I would have gulped this whole thing down.

Code Switch catch-up — Wow, I just listened to six episodes of Code Switch. (The most recent six.) I am sad and confused! Highlights include a segment in the mailbag episode where the problems with the Native American hunting rights episode get addressed (thank god), Audie Cornish talking about writer/comic John Leguizamo, and the entire episode about the L.A. unrest (as relevant a topic as ever). But the real standout episode is the most recent one, co-hosted by Shereen Marisol Meraji and Kat Chow, about Miss Saigon. This is the musical where, the first time around, a bunch of the characters were played in yellowface makeup, but now they’re not, but it’s still an intrinsically problematic piece because of “fragile Asian woman” stereotypes, etc. Maybe this is only the standout to me because this comes up frequently in the opera world (Miss Saigon is based on the same text as Madame Butterfly) except it’s even worse in the opera world. Yellowface is still considered acceptable at many (most?) opera houses and the drama of Madame Butterfly is so wrapped up in shitty racism of the century-old variety that it is actually not a good opera anymore. (Well, I mean, it never was. But I can understand why an early 20th-century audience in Italy might have thought it was.) I’m not sure if this applies to Miss Saigon or not, but Madame Butterfly has a protagonist that we’re expected to sympathize with and feel bad for in spite of the fact that she has absolutely no strength of character. We’re expected to feel gutted at her fate because she can’t help being the sort of person she is, because of her race. If Butterfly had been a white character and acted the same way, nobody in the opera’s original audience would have believed it. And yet, here we are today, still believing it. I really hate Madam Butterfly. And I think I hate Miss Saigon by extension now.

The Memory Palace: “Met Residency #5: Temple” — Fun to hear Nate DiMeo do one of these Met episodes that’s a little bit critical of the Met. Basically he follows a timeline posted in the Met’s reconstruction of an Egyptian temple and points out the interesting bits (and the boring bits). Not one of my favourites of these stories, certainly. The one about Prince Demah Barnes is still the best one, followed closely by the one about John Vanderlyn’s panorama. But this is probably number three.

The Memory Palace: “Notes on a Plaque, Still Imagined” — This was one of the first Memory Palace episodes I heard, back before I was completely sold on it. Listening again, I don’t know what I was thinking. This is a beautifully written proposal to affix a big, gaudy plaque to a statue commemorating the military record of a racist. And not just any racist: the first Grand Wizard of the KKK. Nate DiMeo muses about how the plaque should be designed and what it should say to convey the message that this statue of this man is a product of its time, and of a morally inexcusable value system. Beautiful stuff.

The Memory Palace: “The Year Hank Greenberg Hit 58 Home Runs” — Outstanding. This is that rare thing: a story about American Nazism in the years prior to Pearl Harbour. Which was very much a thing and quite a popular one, though it’s been conveniently scrubbed from American history. Nate DiMeo finds his way in through two sports figures: the Jewish baseball virtuoso Hank Greenberg and the Jewish strongman Joseph Greenstein (“The Mighty Atom”). Most satisfyingly, it features said strongman beating up some Nazis with a baseball bat. What kind of baseball bat? Listen to the episode. It’s a more satisfying revel than you might think. Also, on the show’s website, DiMeo tagged this episode “Richard Spencer sucks,” just in case the subtext wasn’t clear. Pick of the week.

99% Invisible: “Sounds Natural” — Way to be buzzkills, 99pi staff. Honestly, I’ve always wondered how nature documentaries get such clear sound. But I never looked into it because I feared that the answer would be “it’s all fake,” which it is. I don’t really mind, but I’m going to be conscious of it now.

99% Invisible: “Reversing the Grid” — A strangely compelling policy story about how governments should deal with the phenomenon that power meters are reversible: i.e. they go backwards when you put power back into the grid. Like with solar panels.

Omnireviewer (week of April 30, 2017)

Hey, remember last week when my post only had seven reviews in it and was super short? Prepare yourself. This one’s 6000 words. Also, I decided to allocate my two picks of the week to non-podcasts, because podcasts aren’t making up such a staggering preponderance of these reviews, these days. Never fear, this will likely be a temporary state of affairs. Incidentally, this was another week when I would gladly have given out more than two picks of the week, but I failed to exercise restraint last week and I’m not making it a trend. No sir.

29 reviews.

Games

Sunless Sea — It is with intense satisfaction that I would like to report that after 130 hours of playing this over the course of two years (and seven dead captains, to boot) I have completed the main story of Sunless Sea! By “main story,” I mean the ambition called “Your Father’s Bones,” which you can choose at the start of a game. (This ambition has a narrative hook: you’re looking for the final resting place of your departed father. Whereas the other starting ambitions are essentially opportunities to explore freely while amassing fictional money or items that will eventually allow you to end your game with a win if you choose. So, the Father’s Bones option seems like a “main story” to me.) I confess that playing through this ambition was very much a “journey not the destination” sort of experience. The ending of the story is entirely fine, and beautifully written. But the true appeal of this storyline is in the subplots you have to follow while collecting a series of rare items. True, a fair chunk of the quest falls under the category of that hoary old video game trope “find X things.” But seldom does a quest to find things result in such rich storytelling. I got to know my ship’s gunnery officer a bit, and realized he’d built munitions for some truly shady people. I aided in my chef’s training and watched as he prepared a meal for a retinue of the living drowned. I hunted a ship crewed entirely by spiders. And it was all expressed through, bar none, the best written prose in the industry. I say this every time I write about this game, but Sunless Sea and its sister title Fallen London are the only games I’ve played with a distinctive and sure-handed approach to language that rivals literature. The humour, terror, characterization and poignancy of the various stories contained within this game all arise from the writers’ ingenious and idiosyncratic use of English. It’s a thing to behold. I will likely put aside Sunless Sea for a while now (and perhaps take up Fallen London in a more serious way), but I’m sure I’ll return to it at some point. I still feel as though I’ve only made a cursory survey of many of its moving parts. I don’t understand the full significance of the island of mute exiles in the north. I don’t understand why the locals at Mutton Island, just off the coast of London, suddenly started acting so weird. And I definitely don’t understand where the terrifying artificial sun in the corner of the map came from. Plus, I haven’t really dove into (excuse the pun) the excellent Zubmariner expansion, which has a starting ambition of its own. I think I’ll make it my goal to finish at least one more ambition in Sunless Sea before the sequel, Sunless Skies comes out. I never tire of this game, and I increasingly love the parts of it that annoyed me at first — namely the long, slow trips from port to port — best of all. While these moments can become extremely stressful under certain circumstances, they are usually fairly placid. This lends a contemplative element to a game that otherwise serves up plot pretty swiftly. Like baseball, I suppose. For a game that is so concerned with (and so effective at simulating the experience of) abject terror, it can feel curiously therapeutic to play. Sunless Sea is for me the most magnificent escape into an alternate universe that gaming has ever offered. I cannot recommend it highly enough. Pick of the week.

Television

Bill Nye Saves the World: Season 1, episodes 1-3 — It was Bill Nye who first made me want to be a scientist. It is crucial to note at this juncture that I am not a scientist, and in fact have a tenuous understanding at best of many very basic scientific concepts. However, when I was about eight or nine, when Bill Nye the Science Guy was nearing the end of its run, I wanted nothing more than to be a madly gesticulating, eccentric, bowtied fellow in a lab full of Tesla coils and beakers of colourful fluid. It was only partially the whimsical aesthetic of the show that pulled me in: it was just as much the spirit of joyful curiosity about the way the world works. The Nye Labs point-and-click adventure Stop the Rock! likely had an even more formative influence. That game let you actually explore Nye Labs. The wonder! The part of me that got sucked into early Radiolab is a part that was probably put there by Bill Nye. So I feel a tremendous amount of goodwill towards this guy. And basically, I think his new show is good. Certainly it’s noble. But by focussing specifically on the controversial global issues that require us all to have a better understanding of science that we do, he gives up something really crucial about the science communication work he’s done in the past: he loses sight of the sheer mad joy of understanding as an end in itself. Yes, it’s true that science is crucial to helping us navigate the biggest challenges we face. But that’s only one side of it, as far as I’m concerned. The other is that it’s just better by definition to know more about the world than you do. And that experience of joy in knowledge is essential to winning people over onto the side of science. I’d like to see Nye do a show that is similarly aimed at adults, but which balances topics of substantial-to-massive contemporary importance (alternative medicine, climate change) with scientific topics that are complex but maybe not quite so tied into the nightly news. When I was a kid, Bill Nye taught me about things I’d never heard of before, from underwater life to plate tectonics. I kind of still want him to do that. And also talk about climate change! We should never shut up about climate change. But… also fun new science facts. And the celebrity guest appearances can go. The not-famously-charismatic Steve Aoki’s guest spot is so arbitrary I kind of enjoyed it in spite of myself. But why Zach Braff is in the first episode, I’ll never understand.

American Gods: “The Bone Orchard” — Hugely, enormously promising. Like, “maybe this will be better than the book” promising. There are so many blazingly good sequences in this first episode that it almost seems ostentatious. The casting is flawless, with Ian McShane being a particularly obvious but magnificent choice for Mr. Wednesday and Ricky Whittle offering a harder, colder Shadow than the one in the book. A good choice, since it gives him a direction to move in. The look of the show is much more similar to Hannibal than I’d expected. Clearly Bryan Fuller is in the habit of bringing his own aesthetic to stories originated by others. Shadow’s dreamworld is rich and hallucinatory. I’m particularly fond of the way the ceiling of his cell breaks open to reveal Laura. And the entire ending sequence with the Technical Boy is brilliantly creepy in a way that only tech-based horror can be. The way that the Technical Boy forms out of weird claymation is the sort of bizarre, entrancing choice that is making me feel like this might actually kick the book up a notch. It’s really trying to be its own thing. But there are standout segments straight from the book as well. Shadow’s first conversation with Wednesday on the plane is a delight, and gives McShane the opportunity to be as gruff as we Deadwood fans are used to seeing him, but with an unfamiliar note of whimsy. Likewise, the bar fight with Mad Sweeney plays out almost exactly as in the book, and the gradual escalation from coin tricks to full-on brawling is as satisfying in this medium as that one. But the appeal of this so far is definitely not the basic joy of seeing a familiar work of fiction play out onscreen. It’s the much more complicated thing of seeing a familiar work of fiction get filtered through another auteur’s sensibility. I didn’t expect so much stylized gore, nor so many scenes with the dialogue almost entirely re-written. These are indications that Bryan Fuller (and, I suppose Michael Green, who is ostensibly an equal partner in this) will be making this his own. This is going to be so great.

Doctor Who: “Knock Knock” — Again, the best thing about this episode is the riffing on Doctor Who as a cultural force. “Oh, you’re the Doctor?” “Yes.” “Cool!” So, that’s a theme that’s continuing. But man, this was pretty blah. I enjoyed it in the sense that it was good performers filmed well while saying witty lines. But as horror stories rooted in the confused dynamic between a parent and child go, it’s sure not “The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances.” I like seeing Bill just go about her life outside the TARDIS, but we don’t get much of that before the generic haunted house story starts up. Competent. Not great. The weakest of the season so far, by a substantial distance.

Better Call Saul: “Sabrosito” — I should have mentioned last week how satisfying it is to see Patrick Fabian’s Howard Hamlin gradually transition into a really wonderful comic performance. His fence-climbing antics last time around were a highlight, but this week all he has to do to get a laugh is say “well that is a shame” in the most transparently ingratiating tone of voice possible. I really like this character. Fring’s plotline in this is notable mostly for his final speech to his employees at Los Pollos, which is a terrible speech. Intentionally so, obviously. It really drives home the point that Fring is intensely cynical: he knows he can anticipate a certain amount of critical thinking on the part of the people he associates with in the drug business. And certainly on the part of the cops. But employees at a fast food restaurant? Nah, they’ll buy anything. I’m not sure we’ve seen this from him before. It’s the only time he’s been less than completely convincing in his cover, but he knows he only has to be convincing enough. And he is. Jimmy’s plotline only surfaces halfway through the episode, once we’re through with Fring and Hector Salamanca. (Mark Margolis is continuing to add depth to this character, which both makes him fun to watch in this show, and deepens the tragedy of his barnstorming mute, wheelchair-bound performance in Breaking Bad.) I do wish that this story would move a little faster. I’m enjoying the Mike/Gus side of this season, but I feel as though the emphasis on that is slowing down progress on the story that has always fascinated me the most, which is anything involving Jimmy and Kim. Still, this is great.

Comedy

Maria Bamford: Old Baby — This is the best comedy special I’ve seen since about three Louis C.K. specials ago. I will repeat none of the bits, because the trailer for this proves that they are not funny out of context. I will say that Bamford has the perfect mix of three characteristics I like in a comic: jokes that frame the familiar in a new way, a delivery that complicates and deepens the writing itself, and uncommon life experiences to draw on. Regarding the second-last one of those, Bamford’s characters are hilarious, particularly when they’re her parents. And regarding the last, Bamford’s experience with mental illness is (silver linings) a fruitful source of material for her. I’m underselling this by making it tediously abstract. But I’m not about to explain comedy, here. This is on Netflix. Go watch it now. Pick of the week.

Movies

The Road Forward — The opening film of this year’s DOXA festival, this is a musical semi-documentary by Marie Clements, one of our local visionaries. It uses a gigantic storytelling toolbox including songwriting, music video, interviewing, visual symbolism and archival footage to tell a vast, nuanced story. The story is about the untold history of First Nations activism on the West coast of Canada. And it would be a hell of a story, even told straightforwardly. There are stories here, like the origins of the Native Brotherhood and Sisterhood and the Indian Constitution Express movement, that are the sorts of incredible tales that inevitably prompt white people such as myself to say things like “how was I never taught this?” (Which is a sentiment that the film pokes fun at once or twice.) It’s moving, important and enormously ambitious. Its flaws are flaws it shares with virtually all movie musicals and some music videos: a certain ostentatious theatricality keeps it slightly at arm’s length (this started life as a theatre piece). But it’s still something I think every Canadian should see, not out of a sense of duty, but because it features contributions from a huge number of really great artists, with Clements at the top of the pile.

Literature, etc.

Jorge Luis Borges: “Ibn-Hakam al-Bokhari, Murdered in his Labyrinth” — I’ve decided not to read this Borges collection in order, but rather to skim through and read the ones whose titles or first sentences jump out at me. The first sentence of this story is as follows: “‘This,’ said Dunraven with a vast gesture that did not blench at the cloudy stars, and that took in the black moors, the sea, and a majestic, tumbledown edifice that looked much like a stable fallen upon hard times, ‘is my ancestral land.’” I’m in. This is a fairly restrained application of Borges’s genius, but it’s definitely Borges. (One thing I recall from my long-ago reading of “The Garden of Forking Paths” is that it’s about a labyrinth. Sounds like this will be a theme.) Again I’m curiously reminded of Neil Gaiman. A cursory Google (and the slightest bit of common sense) reveals that Gaiman is a fan of Borges. And this story about stories feels like the sort of thing that wouldn’t be out of place in Sandman. Basically, one man tells a friend a story about a man who hid away in a labyrinth. And another man ponders the story, finds it insufficient and tells another version that’s more convincing based on the same facts. Simple, direct, ingenious. And also fable-like. Borges’s recurring motifs of labyrinths and libraries appeal to me on an aesthetic level as well as a thematic one. This is going well.

Jorge Luis Borges: “Borges and I” — An extremely short, vaguely troubling autobiographical sketch that finds Borges negotiating the difference between his public and private personas. This is part of The Maker (AKA Dreamtigers), and I think I’ll probably hold off on reading any more of that until I get a copy of the complete text. (My complete fictions collection dogmatically refuses to include the poems in The Maker, which are apparently crucial to its flow.) But this is a lovely little observation. If it’s any indication of what The Maker is like in general, it seems like the sort of thing I’ll enjoy more once I’ve got a better sense of what made Borges into the public figure he describes here. Perhaps I’ll focus on the earlier stories.

Jorge Luis Borges: “The Garden of Forking Paths” — You know, it’s possible that I hadn’t actually read this like I’ve been saying I have this whole time. Having read it now, it’s clear to me that the reason I was familiar with it is primarily because of the extraordinary way that Borges poses a thought experiment that prefigures hypertext literature decades before its actual invention. This is definitely something I’d read about this story. But the story itself seems unfamiliar to me. Maybe I just read it in a different translation? I dunno. I can’t imagine it would have made such a weak impression. This is deservedly a classic. Not as mindbending as “The Library of Babel,” but it’s also spinning more plates. It’s got a narrator with a motivation, a framing device, and an espionage plot all surrounding the main event, which is clearly the conversation about the labyrinthine novel that is effectively hypertext. One of the things I love most about the Borges stories I’ve read so far is they’re very short, and thus make rereading a completely non-daunting proposition. Future rereads of this will likely find me trying to decide why Borges decided to place this idea in this particular story. What difference does it make that the narrator learned the secret of his ancestor’s novel during the course of an act of espionage? How does the detective story connect with the metafiction? I’m sure somebody could explain this to me, but I’m just as happy to figure it out at my own damn pace.

Jorge Luis Borges: “The Circular Ruins” — This is the one Neil Gaiman cited as a favourite. It’s a good one, with a fantastic premise and a twist ending that renders this much better upon re-reading, or at least re-considering. The premise is that there’s a place with gods who will allow you to imagine a person into existence. The detail with which Borges describes this process makes this a good read on the first time through. But really it’s about the ending.

Jorge Luis Borges: “Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote” — This is second only to “The Library of Babel” in my survey of Borges thus far. This is ingenious for so many reasons: 1) Its form, which is a sort of academic memorandum complete with all of the resentfulness and spite for one’s rivals that those can often contain. 2) Its premise, which is that a 20th-century author made it his life’s goal to write Don Quixote (i.e. writing the exact same novel as Cervantes, word for word, but arriving at it independently and centuries after Cervantes already wrote it). This is wonderfully absurd and highlights a side of Borges that I don’t hear talked about that much, namely that he’s really funny. 3) The way that Borges chases this premise down several compelling rabbit holes. (This is a similar approach to the one he takes in “The Library of Babel,” which is perhaps why I like it so much.) Borges’s narrator analyses the content of Menard’s Quixote alongside the content of Cervantes’ original (which, remember, is exactly the same) and finds them to be entirely different works by virtue of their authors’ differing contexts and intents. Borges manages to be both instructive on how context is crucial to criticism (and the nature of criticism is explicitly discussed in the text) and he also satirizes this very same approach by way of reductio ad absurdum. This is outstanding. So far, reading Borges has felt like coming home.

Jorge Luis Borges: “Deutsches Requiem” — A slightly less effective Borges story, though that might be an unfair judgement on my part, because it just doesn’t have the specific things I’ve loved about the few Borges stories I’ve read so far. It’s not a premise-driven story, it’s a character-driven story. And the character is, apparently, the ultimate Nazi. I’m not going to lie, I picked this one out because I love the Brahms piece it’s named after. Not a highlight of my Borges reading thus far. But here’s a miscellaneous note I haven’t been able to work into any of my previous Borges reviews: I’m really reminded of China Miéville in a few of these stories. Neil Gaiman has been the modern reference point I’ve gone back to again and again when discussing Borges, but Miéville shares Borges’s gift for the mindblowing premise. Some of the stories from Three Moments of an Explosion could practically be Borges stories. I’m thinking particularly of “A Second Slice Manifesto,” in which Miéville describes an art movement that exposes new sides to classic works of representational painting by imagining a “slice” down a certain point in the image, revealing cross-sections of people and buildings that were whole in the original picture. That’s damn close to Borges in “Pierre Menard” mode.

Farhad Manjoo: “Can Facebook Fix Its Own Worst Bug?” — This piece about how Facebook is handling its post-election flail is not encouraging. A couple of choice excerpts: “For the typical user, Cox explained when I met him on a morning in October at MPK20, News Feed is computing the relative merits of about 2,000 potential posts in your network every time you open the app. In sorting these posts, Facebook does not optimize for any single metric: not clicks or reading time or likes. Instead, he said, ‘what you really want to get to is whether somebody, at the end of the day, would say, ‘Hey, my experience today was meaningful.’’” This is notable because I have never once felt this way on Facebook. The lack of meaningful interactions with people or content is the basis of my entire objection to the news feed. It promotes (and thus encourages the production of) the content equivalent of marshmallows: you consume them because they’re there and they have a sort of outward appeal. But you never actually enjoy yourself and eventually you start feeling shitty and resenting all the marshmallows you ate and the source where you got them. (This is Facebook’s shit to take responsibility for, but it’s also on every news organization and producer of web content to not fall into the trap and reject what value they have.) The piece then goes on to detail Facebook’s moderately successful efforts to combat clickbait — efforts that were predicated on a logic that I cannot imagine applying universally: “Facebook’s entire project, when it comes to news, rests on the assumption that people’s individual preferences ultimately coincide with the public good, and that if it doesn’t appear that way at first, you’re not delving deeply enough into the data.” Evidently, Facebook’s internal method for fixing problems is as pig-headedly metrics-focussed as it has forced the entire rest of the world to be. This piece is fascinating, and leaves me with more of a sense of Mark Zuckerberg’s good intentions than I had before, but absolutely zero faith in his (and his company’s) ability to fix the problems they’ve caused, let alone the ones they set out to remedy from the beginning.

Music

Neil Young: Neil Young — So I thought to myself, how deep should this deep dive go? Shall I make a detailed survey of the early material from Neil’s time in Buffalo Springfield — or rarer still, the Squires? Shall I finally listen to those other two CSNY albums? No, I decided. This will be a survey of Neil’s solo career, with that defined as any album that has his first and last name on it as a principal artist. Crazy Horse albums count, as does anything he released with ad-hoc bands like the Stray Gators and the Shocking Pinks. And Pearl Jam. I won’t obligate myself to listen to every live and archival release, though I’ll likely check out some, because the ones I’ve heard are among Neil’s best work, and albums like Rust Never Sleeps and Time Fades Away make the secondary designation normally afforded to live albums sort of inapplicable in Neil’s case. By my count, these guidelines will still find me listening to at least forty albums. So, we begin a fair ways from the beginning, actually, with the self-titled album. At this point, he’s already written and recorded classics like “I Am A Child” and “Mr. Soul.” He was five years past his earliest recordings. But this marks the start of Neil Young as “Neil Young” as opposed to “guy in band.” And it’s… well, it’s an anomaly, but it’s a compelling one. This is one of those albums like Jethro Tull’s This Was that feels like the start of an alternate history that forked a different way in our reality. (Maybe I’ve been reading too much Borges.) It’s the album that finds the now-anointed godfather of grunge sounding like a well-heeled young folkie with aspirations towards glossy marketability. The arrangements on this have a similar feel to the ones on Nick Drake’s Bryter Layter in the way that they never just leave the singer alone. This isn’t bad by definition. Far be it from me to criticize polish while being a huge prog fan. But Neil is an artist who feels more radical by far when he’s being noisy and sloppy and spontaneous. With this much fuss applied, he sounds a bit MOR. (To use his own nomenclature, I prefer Neil in the ditch.) “The Old Laughing Lady” suffers particularly from its arrangement, which almost works — until the midsection with the wordless backing vocals comes around. I could live with the little electric piano riff in 5/4 that breaks up the verses, but I don’t understand what that wordless midsection has to do with the rest of the song. It’s empty bloat, and it would be profitably excised on the Unplugged album years later. “The Loner” fares better, if only because it’s familiar enough that it seems unfathomable without its arrangement. The less familiar tracks range from hidden gems (“Here We Are in the Years”) to unmemorable instrumentals (“The Emperor of Wyoming”) to “The Last Trip to Tulsa,” which is the one truly unvarnished performance on the album but isn’t necessarily one of Neil’s best lyrics. Neil Young has its undeniable pleasures, but it’s best heard as a piece of Neil’s history. This polished side of him wouldn’t vanish outright after this: it would continue to marvellous effect in his work with CSNY and to blockbuster effect on Harvest. But immediately afterwards, the radically unvarnished side of Neil would come to the fore and mark the point where it’s clear that he’s a real creative force.

Neil Young & Crazy Horse: Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere — If Neil’s self-titled debut represented his introduction to us as something other than “guy in band,” Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere is where Neil Young arrives as a legend. This is a hell of an album, and though I’d heard the majority of it before (because more than half of it is on the Decade compilation), this was my first time through the whole thing. Crazy Horse is the kind of band I ought to hate, being who I am. But their committed sloppiness feels less like the result of laziness than like a progressive musical experiment. This is the point where noise becomes a major part of Neil Young’s sound. This is the album that starts the thread of Neil’s career that will climax on Rust Never Sleeps and go gloriously over the top on Weld. “Down by the River” and “Cowgirl in the Sand,” both feature sprawling jams where Neil strains at the very edges of his extremely limited technique as a lead guitarist and they set the template for all great Crazy Horse jams to come. The shorter songs are all excellent, especially “Cinnamon Girl,” obviously. And the title track is maybe the most Canadian song ever recorded. This is also the album that makes it clear we can never know what to expect from Neil Young. Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere is as unlike the debut as it is possible to be. And within a year of this album, Neil would join CSNY and go back to making radically structured music, albeit of an entirely different persuasion from on his first solo record. This is already an exciting ride. But Neil’s next solo album is his first proper masterpiece.

The Mountain Goats: The Sunset Tree — We interrupt this Neil Young binge for yet more erudite early-2000s indie rock. (Because the full Decemberists catalogue wasn’t enough.) I’ve meant to properly get into the Mountain Goats since I heard “Heel Turn 2” on Welcome to Night Vale. (I understand they’re working on a podcast together now? I’m curious.) This was apparently something of a breakthrough for them, though they have more acclaimed albums that predate this than postdate it. Still, The Sunset Tree served its purpose. I’m hooked. “This Year,” which I’m told is a very famous song in certain circles, is exactly what I needed right now. “I am going to make it through this year if it kills me” is one of those lyrics that seems obvious in retrospect, except that nobody wrote it before. Other highlights include “Dance Music,” which belongs to a niche subgenre I’m particularly fond of, namely songs with really chipper music and really dark lyrics. I’m also a big fan of “Dilaudid,” with its string arrangement and escalating vocal performance from John Darnielle. I need a few more listens for this to sink in, but this is definitely a band I’m going to listen to now.

Shugo Tokumaru: Toss — I’ve gotta say, it doesn’t live up to the promise of “Lita Ruta,” which is still my favourite song of the year so far. (Provided we don’t count cantatas based on Supreme Court decisions as “songs.”) Unlike In Focus? which is the other full Tokumaru album I’ve heard, this is really uneven. It is also sparser and simpler on balance than In Focus? is, and I’m not sure simplicity suits Tokumaru. Naturally, the best parts of the album are almost dizzyingly complex, with “Lita Ruta” being the clear winner but the first track, “Lift,” is glorious as well, as is the magnificently-titled “Cheese Eye.” This album is apparently the first time Tokumaru has gone out of his way to work with a variety of other instrumentalists, which makes for an album which is at times extremely timbrally diverse, but I would have preferred if it stayed that way for its whole duration. If I’m going to listen to this guy, I want total sensory overload. Honestly, there’s still enough great stuff on it that I’m confident in calling it one of my favourite albums of the year so far, but I suspect that has more to do with how badly I’ve fallen off the music discovery wagon than anything.

Podcasts

Crimetown: Episodes 16 & 17 — Good episodes. The problem with this season has just been lack of focus. If they’d just found a way to really hone in on two narrative threads: Buddy Cianci and the Patriarca crime family, this would have been great. And I suppose everything does tie back to that to a certain extent, but this feels like it’s really gone everywhere. But this focusses on Cianci, which makes it feel of a piece with the season’s arc as I’d originally perceived it. Still, I have other problems. In their promo for the big party they’re holding to celebrate the end of the season, the hosts of this say something to the effect of “by the end you won’t be sure who are the good guys and who are the bad guys.” Except yes I will. The ones who committed or were implicated in murders for business reasons are the bad guys. That’s pretty clear to me. I wish it were clearer to the people who make this show. (To be fair, cops and government officials are often also the bad guys. But my point is that Crimetown sometimes can’t resist saying “look how great these criminals are!” And I wish they wouldn’t.)

All Songs Considered: “Todd Rundgren On Technology, Creativity And His New Song With Trent Reznor” — Rundgren’s a good interview. You can tell somebody’s a good interview when they’re even interesting on All Songs Considered. Can’t say the song does anything for me. But I’ve always meant to check out Rundgren’s catalogue, especially A Wizard, A True Star. So maybe it’s time.

StartUp: Season 5, episodes 1-3 — I wish they’d stick to serialized seasons. The Dov Charney season was one of the undersung wonders of last year’s podcasts, and probably journalism in general. The first episode of this is a story of one businessman’s foray through “the surprisingly cutthroat world of toys.” I’m honestly kind of sick of journalism that starts from the premise of “look how interesting this seemingly mundane thing is!” So that didn’t work for me. But the two-parter on Friendster is really solid. What a catastrophe. It concludes with a comparison of the way Friendster was managed with the way Facebook was managed, and that really drives home the point that Friendster was the biggest idea of the early millennium, deployed by the wrong people.

You Must Remember This: “Barbara Loden (Dead Blondes Part 12)” — I’m starting to feel similarly about this as I am to Crimetown, though to a much lesser degree. The beginning of this season promised a point would be made about “blondeness” in Hollywood, and it hasn’t really come to that. This is still a good story about a compelling historical person, and how she was misrepresented by her powerful husband, Elia Kazan. But I’m hoping that Karina Longworth finds a way to tie everything together in the last episode of this series the way she almost did in the Barbara Payton episode several weeks ago.

Judge John Hodgman: “Live From the London Podcast Festival” — Nice stuff, but the highlight by far is a moment where the hosts of No Such Thing As A Fish argue over whether the existence of a conspiracy theory counts as a fact. The conspiracy theory in question? That the Titanic was sunk by time travellers who all wanted to see the last moments of the Titanic and thus all arrived at the same time, causing it to sink. This is bonkers in itself, but I won’t spoil the best moment of this exchange. I’ll just say that somebody definitely doesn’t understand the concept of a bootstrap paradox.

All Songs Considered: “The Decemberists’ Colin Meloy & Olivia Chaney Talk About New Collaboration, Reimagining British Folk” — ALERT ALERT NEW DECEMBERISTS sort of. Offa Rex is a side project where the Decemberists cover old British folk tunes (the sort of ones that inspired the band’s trilogy of bona fide classics: Picaresque, The Crane Wife and The Hazards of Love) with the brilliant Olivia Chaney on vocals. God, can she ever sing. And the arrangements are so ‘60s I can barely contain myself. I will be listening to this album in full as soon as I can, and I am overjoyed to see that Chaney will be joining the Decemberists at the August tour date I’m seeing here in Van. Also, I feel like I’ve been a right dickwad about Bob Boilen’s interviewing, lately. This is a really fun conversation and Bob really keeps it frothy, pointing out Meloy’s mispronunciations of things and everything. Nice stuff.

Reply All: “The Secret Life of Alex Goldman” — The payoff to the “P.J. hacks Alex’s phone” arc. This is actually really fantastic in spite of Alex Goldman having a really boring life, because 1) Goldman and Vogt have a compelling enough dynamic that they can talk about nothing and still be fun and 2) there turn out to be broader implications. Reply All can spin gold out of very thin material.

Imaginary Worlds: “Healing Through Horror” — I’d like to hear more episodes of this show that deal with horror, especially modern horror, but this isn’t really a highlight. This features two people who have both used horror as a means of escaping trauma, but their reasoning for why this is helpful to them is more obvious and less compelling than the episode that deals with this same thing with respect to Harry Potter. Seriously, that Harry Potter series was really great.

On The Media: “Rewriting the Right” — Nice to see OTM explaining the American right. Because god knows I would never understand it otherwise. I’m only half snarking. This trip through the horrible odyssey of right-wing think tanks and their campaigns to influence academia and policy is truly horrifying and I feel bad now.

Imaginary Worlds: “Designing BoJack’s World” — This features an interview with the cartoonist who was hand-picked (with no animation experience) by the creator of BoJack Horseman to design the show’s aesthetic. Given that this show’s host is a former animator himself, this is really interesting. BoJack is the adult cartoon that I feel gets the most out of its choice of idiom. All of the character drama would play out fine in a live-action dramedy, but the animation allows not only for great sight gags, but also for the sense that this is a bizarre and alienating world — a great mood to strike in a narrative about show business.

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “Summer Movie Preview 2017” — I, too, am looking forward to Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2.

Omnireviewer (week of Apr. 23, 2017)

Well, this is an odd instalment. For the first time since starting Omnireviewer in October 2015, I went a week without listening to any podcasts. This is because I was listening to an audiobook instead. It also means that this week we only have seven reviews, which is an all-time low. Given that, it would seem logical to only do one pick of the week. But, you know what? I’m going to allow myself not just my usual two, but THREE. It was a very high-performance week and I make the damn rules, here. And a seven-review Omnireviewer with no podcasts is an anomalous farce to begin with, so fuck it.

Here are your seven reviews.

Literature, etc.

Jorge Luis Borges: “The Library of Babel” — I have purchased a rabbit hole full of rabbit holes. Namely, the collected fictions of Jorge Luis Borges as translated by Andrew Hurley. I am essentially unfamiliar with Borges, given that the only things I’ve actually read of his are excerpts from The Book of Imaginary Beings and a long-ago, half-attentive read of “The Garden of Forking Paths.” But I’ve always meant to dive into his work, primarily because of my personal obsession with metafiction (note that Neil Gaiman also figures largely in my media consumption this week). There’s a quote I happened upon once (I think it’s Borges, but I may be wrong because I can’t source the quote no matter how hard I Google) that explains what’s creepy about metafiction. The quote posits that we’re unsettled by stories where the characters become self-aware as characters in a story, because it makes us feel like there’s a possibility that we too may be fictional. Stories within stories suggest infinite regress of which we are only one level, and by definition in between two others. (I may be thinking of the second paragraph on the second page of this essay, where Borges discusses Hamlet’s play within a play, which kind of outlines the same idea. Though in my memory, the quote was more on-the-nose than this.) I love this. It’s like Borges predicted The Matrix, and also every Silicon Valley conspiracy theory about how we’re actually all in a computer simulation. More to the point, it pins down my exact morbid fascination with metafiction. This is why I suspect Borges might be a writer I should seriously investigate. “The Library of Babel” is a much-suggested starting point, and I adore it. At a mere seven pages long, it establishes a complete universe governed by a simple premise with some unthinkably mindfucky implications. The premise is that the universe of this story is an inconceivably vast (but not infinite) library, in which every possible combination of 25 characters is present. The most astounding implication of this is that all meaning, even impossible meaning, can be expressed flawlessly through language. An example: in this library, there is a book that tells the true story of your death. Because there would have to be. Read this goddamn story. I enjoyed Hurley’s translation and the one linked here is not that, but a cursory glance finds it to be adequate, though it regrettably does not contain Borges’s footnotes. Pick of the week.

Neil Gaiman: American Gods (The Tenth Anniversary Edition audiobook) — I feel as though my initial impressions of this novel from last week carried through to the ending, so I won’t belabour this. I’ll only say that this is straightforwardly one of the greatest fantasy novels ever. Still, I think it’s in third place out of the four Neil Gaiman works I’ve encountered (numbers one and two being, respectively, The Ocean at the End of the Lane and Sandman. “The Doctor’s Wife” is a respectable number four.) This is at turns immensely moving and terribly clever. As a mythology enthusiast in general, I got a lot out of this. I’m incredibly psyched for the TV show. I’m certain Ian McShane will knock it out of the park. Also, a word on audiobooks: I’ve decided I like them. I got through this a hell of a lot faster than I would have if I’d read it, because I seemingly spend most of my life on busses, running, or doing chores: none of which are settings I tend to enjoy reading in. This is going to be part of my life now, I’ve decided. And now, a few more specific notes. Firstly, Neil Gaiman has a very specific and nuanced sense of the epic. In American Gods, that manifests in many ways, some rather unlikely. Food, for instance. In The Odyssey, everybody is constantly eating. They eat roasted meat and fruits and they drink sweet wine, and the way Homer (and his translators) describe it draws me into the adventure as surely as any story of a cyclops or siren. In American Gods, everybody is also constantly eating. And the meals they eat are every bit as decadent and as lavishly described as the feasts in Homer, but of course they’re modern and American. One of the first things that happens in the novel is a man eats a burger with a side of chili. A burger with a side of chili. It may simply be that I’m Canadian, and thus used to a touch more restraint in my pub fare. But to me, chili is under no circumstances a side dish. So this plot detail is deliciously and, yes, epically gluttonous. I love it. It makes me want to live in this world of heroic, divine eaters. It makes me want burgers and chili and french fries and meatball subs and macaroni and cheese and fried chicken and lager and black coffee. Not chocolate cream pie, though. I’ve never liked chocolate cream pie. But when I read about it in American Gods, I kind of wish I were the sort of person who would enjoy chocolate cream pie. Another note: the “Coming to America” chapter about Essie Tregowan is everything I love about Neil Gaiman in a nutshell. Essentially, it’s a story of a woman whose love for fantasy stories helps to bring a god over to America. Stories about the value of stories are not rare in Gaiman’s oeuvre, but he does them more movingly than anybody else. Hearing this in audio form makes me wonder if Nate DiMeo has read or listened to this. Because, supernatural element aside, that segment could easily be an episode of The Memory Palace. I’m not sure whose writing that’s a greater compliment to: DiMeo’s or Gaiman’s. Finally: it’s nice to now have read two novels with Mad King Sweeney as a character. He is a highlight of At Swim-Two-Birds as well, and that is my favourite novel ever. American Gods has an entirely different take on him, and that take deepens my impressions of this mythological personage. I adored American Gods. Neil Gaiman is a class act in a generation of genre fiction writers that I mostly don’t like. He articulates a vision of America from the outside that is deeply consistent with my Canadian perspective, and thus I’m certain the perspectives of many many non-Americans living in a world inundated with American culture against our will. He strings you along like the finest con artists the world has ever known. Pick of the week.

Television

Better Call Saul: Season 3, episodes 1-3 — I always forget how much I love this show when it isn’t in season. I wouldn’t say that any of these three episodes find the show at its very best. But we’ve got several promising elements, here. Firstly, it looks like this season’s arc will primarily deal with Jimmy being on trial. That’s a good story arc idea, and it gives plenty of opportunities for development in my favourite element of this show, which is the relationship between Jimmy and Kim. Rhea Seehorn continues to be outstanding, and I love every scene with the two of them together, not just because of the dynamic established between the two characters in the scripts, but also because Seehorn is really good at reacting in a traditionally actorly way to Bob Odenkirk’s often idiosyncratic approach to delivering lines. It’s easy to forget, given the increasing esteem in which he is held for this role, that Odenkirk comes from sketch comedy, which is a writer’s medium, not an actor’s one. He’s not at all the usual sort of person you see headlining an hour-long drama. That’s a big part of this show’s appeal. Of course, the other promising element is the return of the magnificent Giancarlo Esposito as Gus Fring. I must admit, I felt a bit trepidatious about this when I first heard they were doing it. I’m not a fan of overreliance on favourite elements from any given narrative’s canon (see basically any review I’ve ever written of Welcome to Night Vale). And this show has generally been very good about ensuring that its story works independently of Breaking Bad — quite the trick given that show’s long shadow. But so far, it seems like Gilligan and Gould are managing to integrate Fring into their narrative fairly organically. The origins of Mike Ehrmantraut’s relationship with that character is narratively rich ground, and I’m looking forward to seeing how it turns out. The episode that he first appears in is brilliantly stage-managed as well, with the delayed reveal of the Los Pollos Hermanos sign and then the extended sequence where Fring is an extremely conspicuous blur in the background of a shallow-focus shot. You have to be really paying attention to see it, but when you do, you know it’s completely intentional. This is what I love most about Vince Gilligan as a television auteur: he takes the audience’s intense attention for granted, and uses it to his advantage. I’m really looking forward to the rest of this season. Maybe this will be the year when I remember how much I love Better Call Saul even when the season ends.

Doctor Who: “Thin Ice” — So much of this season so far feels like a victory lap. I don’t mean that in a bad way, nor do I mean to credit Steven Moffat with every decision on this show, which has been written by three different people in as many weeks. (The usual state of affairs.) But aside from this season’s interest in reiterating the basic appeal of Doctor Who at its core, it also feels like an excuse to just have a hell of a lot of fun. If there was a non-tragic component to the Doctor’s loss of Clara’s memory (*sniff*), it’s that he’s been able to move on from his most recent loss faster than usual. There’s none of the brooding that was necessary after the departures of, say, Rose or the Ponds. This gives Peter Capaldi the opportunity to show off the side of Twelve that shares DNA with Tom Baker’s whimsical Fourth Doctor and Sylvester McCoy’s hammy, performative Seventh. Twelve will probably still go down in history as a curmudgeon with a heart of gold (the previous reference points always seemed to be William Hartnell and Jon Pertwee), but it’s lovely to see him cast off the shade and just have a ball being a mercurial pot-stirrer. Which, of course doesn’t last for long, because we need a story. And what a moment when Spider disappears under the ice. This character moment is communicated through acting, and without a single word. The Doctor, thinking pragmatically, retrieves his sonic screwdriver. He does not show an outward sign of concern for the death that’s just taken place. He busies himself examining the screwdriver. Bill is appalled. We as viewers are not made to think the Doctor monstrous. He is not, after all, openly cavalier. (This would have been a tempting but bad place for a one-liner.) But neither are we allowed to think that what’s just taken place isn’t a terrible thing, because Bill is there to offer the expected reaction while the Doctor behaves in the idiosyncratic way he believes to be most useful. Our brooding Twelve from two seasons ago (“You would make a good Dalek”) doesn’t make an appearance, however. This is a more stable version of the character. We seem to be done with the stories about whether or not the Doctor is truly a hero. I predict that this is the closest we’ll come to that this season, and it’s a subtly different sort of thing: it’s a story about confronting the unpleasant realities of throwing in with a character from an adventure serial. This comparatively sunny setup is going to make Twelve’s regeneration absolutely gutting. Let’s be prepared.

Movies

The Lost City of Z — I had high hopes for this that weren’t quite realized, but it’s definitely two and a half hours well spent in a movie theatre. And I do mean that precisely: this is a movie that you need to see in theatres, because it is conceived as an experience. This is an epic in the David Lean tradition: it’s the closest thing to Lawrence of Arabia that I’ve seen this decade. I do have a weakness for huge movies like this. (There’s a hint of Apocalypse Now in it too, which is always a compliment from me.) But I freely confess that my bar for these movies isn’t hard to clear: show me some pretty scenery framed nicely by the cinematographer, maybe with some elegant slow pans, and I’m pretty much good. This did that. But I won’t pretend to have been especially engrossed by the story or characters. The key tension comes from Charlie Hunnam’s protagonist, Percy Fawcett, struggling to balance his compulsion to explore the Amazon with his obligation to be present for his family. This is not psychologically complicated. And this movie is not psychologically complicated. The hardships of jungle exploration are mostly conveyed as physical struggles. This is where it breaks from Apocalypse Now, which finds a source of delirium in the jungle, rather than just a straightforward threat to life and limb. I can’t help but see this as a missed opportunity. Also, I’m not convinced that this movie is the corrective to certain colonial narratives that some critics seem to think it is. It is still focussed on a white man, and it has tinges of the “white saviour” trope about it. I dunno. I enjoyed looking at this movie, but I haven’t got much to say about it, apparently. The acting’s fine. Hunnam is more capable than I’d thought. And it’s lovely to see Robert Pattinson settling into the role he was always meant for, namely, second-fiddle eccentric character actor. Pattinson is a genius in this context and it was a criminal offense for any casting director to ever mistake him for a leading man. This is not a masterpiece. It’s awfully pretty, but it isn’t narratively or thematically ambitious enough for me to really consider it great.

Music

Neil Young: On the Beach — This was the one instalment in Neil’s “Ditch Trilogy” that I’d never heard from start to finish. I’ve always considered the other two chapters, Time Fades Away and Tonight’s the Night to be among his most effective work. But On the Beach might be the best of the three. Of the three, Time Fades Away is always going to be the odd one out, since it’s completely live. So, if we judge this against Tonight’s the Night, we find that this is substantially more put together, even if its songwriting moves in the same general direction of desolation and despair. But in music, sound is everything. So, in its comparative restraint, On the Beach takes on a substantially different meaning than its predecessor/successor (depending on whether you consult the order of recording or release). If Tonight’s the Night is the sound that emerges from an open wound, On the Beach is the residue from a recently cauterized one. Given this interpretation, “Walk On” is one of the most uplifting and glorious tracks in the Neil Young catalogue. It opens the album with a sense of genuine fortitude in the face of trauma. “See The Sky About To Rain” is a sad song, but it’s wistfully sad, in the same way as certain songs on After the Gold Rush or Harvest. (It is also quickly becoming one of my favourite Neil Young songs, up there with “After the Gold Rush,” “Powderfinger” and “Tired Eyes.” I cannot listen to this enough.) The rest of side one keeps the pace, with a general sense of a person in possession of his faculties, in spite of having recently walked through the valley of the shadow of death. But side two gets darker. Here we have Neil really sinking into the feelings of paranoia and worthlessness that plagued him at the bottom of the ditch. “Ambulance Blues” is especially dismal, in the best way. If we look at the Ditch Trilogy in its intended order with Time Fades Away representing the descent, Tonight’s the Night representing the nadir, and On the Beach representing the emergence, then I think it’s a magnificent choice to have something as dark as “Ambulance Blues” to finish the whole thing off. “Walk On” is a great way to start the final instalment in a trilogy about pain and despair, but it would be a needlessly pat way to finish it. By putting the triple shot of “On the Beach,” “Motion Pictures” and “Ambulance Blues” at the end of the trilogy, Neil suggests that the hard times don’t dissipate so easily. Nothing here has the bloodshot suicidal terror of “Tired Eyes,” but much of it acknowledges that such a state existed in the past. On the Beach is a tremendously cathartic record. It has everything. It might be Neil Young’s finest achievement. Pick of the week.

Neil Young & Crazy Horse: Arc-Weld — I feel an intense Neil Young binge coming on. This is another album I’d meant to listen to for ages but never got around to. And oh my god is it heavy. It is hearing loss in an LP sleeve. It’s a return to shit-hot, dirty knucklehead rock and roll after a decade of bizarre (and sometimes interesting, but always bizarre) dalliances with other styles. But it’s more than that: Arc-Weld finds Neil doubling down on the heavy rock he’d done more than a decade prior on Rust Never Sleeps. The tracklist shares many songs with that earlier quasi-live album, but they are infinitely heavier, noisier, sloppier and better here. This is the Neil Young that they call the godfather of grunge. This Neil Young doesn’t do “Heart of Gold.” For background: you may have heard of Weld, which is the double live album that makes up the bulk of this collection, but it’s not really complete without the third disc, Arc, which is just abstract guitar noise culled from the same live dates as Weld. Basically, as far as I can tell, on this tour Crazy Horse did a ton of noisy extended endings and openings of the heavy songs (namely, all of them), and Arc is just a bunch of them sewn together. I saw Neil in 2009 (not with Crazy Horse, though I thought it was until a bit of recent Googling) and they were nearly this noisy, aggressive and abstract then, as well. (They did do “Heart of Gold,” though, and a handful of other acoustic tracks.) Noise is a huge part of Neil’s appeal for me, and that’s why I kind of feel like Weld alone is incomplete without Arc. The entirety of Arc-Weld highlights the extent to which Neil Young is as much a noise artist as a songwriter, but Arc throws it into starker relief. This is what puts Neil Young above many of his contemporaries to me: he embraces chaos and intensely esoteric modes of music-making such as harsh noise — even as he continues to epitomize the earthiest of North American songwriting traditions. The highlights are a 14-minute “Like a Hurricane” that seems to pass in three, a distortion-laden take on “Blowin’ in the Wind” with added air raid sirens that feels less like a pastiche than a much-needed update, and tracks from Ragged Glory that I hadn’t heard before, whose studio versions will surely pale in comparison once I get around to them. Also, apparently the backing vocals are overdubbed on this. I could care less. This has a rawness to it that you don’t get in a studio. I’m not often in the mood for Neil Young, but when I am I think maybe he is the definitive rock star: the one we can point to and say “that.” That’s what he sounds like on Arc-Weld.

Omnireviewer (week of Apr. 16)

Lots of good stuff this week. Also one very bad thing that I enjoyed regardless. 22 reviews.

Movies

The Wicker Man (2006) — Oh, good lord. Firstly, be warned (BEE warned) that the infamous “NOT THE BEEEES” scene is actually not in the theatrical release of this movie. It’s in an alternate ending only on the DVD. I guess when they were editing the movie they found the line they couldn’t cross, and that was it. If you haven’t seen this, you should definitely watch it. Watch it with some people around. Nicholas Cage’s scenery chewing results in one of the most compellingly terrible performances I’ve ever witnessed. Everything about this movie is so crazily off the mark that I have trouble believing any actor attached to it (maybe Cage more than anybody) took it seriously as they were making it. It’s laden down with severely inept writing (“Of course. Another plant!”), weirdly benign jump scares (that bit where he wakes up twice) and badly-directed child extras (“Phall-ic sym-bol, phall-ic sym-bol”). I must confess, I never saw the appeal of the original, acclaimed version of The Wicker Man. But seeing some of the stuff that this version gets wrong makes me appreciate it a little more. For one thing, the remake de-emphasizes the protagonist’s religion. We do see a crucifix in Cage’s house early in the film, but that’s about the extent of it. In the original, the detective’s religiosity is what compels him to investigate the missing girl’s disappearance with such vigor: he inherently distrusts the Hebridean islanders because of their paganism. And that’s really what the original film is primarily about. Its horror derives from Christian anxiety over lingering paganism in rural places. This is substituted out in the remake for two ill-advised alterations: making the missing girl the detective’s daughter (“there has to be stakes” says American cinema) and making the island not merely pagan but also a matriarchy. Because to secular, urbane, 21st-century Americans, paganism isn’t scary. But women running society? Heaven fucking forfend. And then there’s the fucking bees, which are somehow both ham-fistedly symbolic and a seemingly arbitrary addition to the story. But all of this is just me wilfully missing the point of watching this movie. I said before that I didn’t really enjoy the original Wicker Man all that much. I think it has a good story with interesting implications about religious anxiety. But it also has tonally jarring musical numbers and Christopher Lee at, frankly, not his best. On the other hand, I completely enjoyed the Nic Cage remake. This is the rare case where I’ll happily recommend a ridicule-watch of a bad movie over a sincere screening of an objectively more accomplished one. Seriously. Watch this.

Television

Battlestar Galactica: Season 3, episodes 14-20 — Let’s make this a full-on appraisal of the complete season, shall we? Okay. Starting at the beginning. The New Caprica arc is outstanding, if far shorter-lived than I’d expected. It’s remarkable how close to the season two status quo (and in fact, the pre-”Pegasus” status quo) we end up in, a mere four episodes after everything changes. Still, the decision not to belabour the point of New Caprica is probably a good one, and it allows for a remarkably brisk start to the season. The “Exodus” two-parter is up there with the season two finale, the first episode of the miniseries and “33” among my favourites in this series. Once we’re past that arc, the show returns to something like business as usual, but with the extremely satisfying addition of a plotline that takes place on a Cylon baseship. I brought this up last week, but it bears repeating: the set alone is one of the best things this show has ever done. The way that the editing is deliberately disorienting in the baseship scenes is brilliant. And every new glimpse we get of Cylon society — of the ways that they interact with their surroundings and each other in ways that are both human and alien — adds depth to the show. It’s in the small choices: like the way that red characters are projected over the Cylons whenever they’re in their control room and the water-filled interfaces with the consoles. The Cylons aren’t creepy because they’re mechanical. They’re creepy because they’re weirdly organic, and yet they live like this. I’m particularly enamoured with the Hybrid: a Cronenbergian horror that puts the interior of the Cylon raiders to shame. Number Three getting her own honest-to-god(s?) plotline is a welcome development. At this point in the show, nearly half of the known Cylon models (Three, Six and Eight — the women, not coincidentally I imagine) have at least certain sympathetic aspects. I love that we’re seeing more from that side of the conflict. The Galactica-based plotlines of the mid-season are more hit and miss. Starbuck, my favourite character in the first two seasons save possibly for Roslin, gets particularly short shrift. She’s jammed into an inelegant love quadrangle in which neither of the inconvenient marriages involved makes a lick of sense. (There’s still satisfaction in seeing her at her triumphant moments, though. Every time she triumphs I get this warm fuzzy feeling like I’ve just punched Dirk Benedict in the face.) Still, one episode takes these flawed storylines and makes them sing, and that is “Unfinished Business.” Weaving together a recreational boxing tournament onboard the Galactica and flashbacks from the almost good times of early New Caprica, it establishes that the characters in this show don’t need to be dogfighting, fomenting revolution or barking commands to be compelling. It leaves out everything I love most about this season — the Cylon baseship, Baltar’s plotline aboard said baseship, weird spirituality — and still manages to be the best episode of the season. However, like season two, this has some serious clunkers in its second half. “The Woman King” is a shitty would-be conspiracy thriller with Helo in the lead. Even so, while the actual crimes that Helo’s investigating are deeply unconvincing plotting, it does develop his character in an interesting way that I wouldn’t have thought to observe: he’s the character on the ship who is constantly on the wrong side of everything. Among the crew, he’s possibly the most liberal. Speaking of politics, another disappointment in this season is the transformation of Tom Zarek from a revolutionary freedom fighter to an abuser of executive power. That’s dispiriting. But then, it has happened frequently enough throughout history. What’s really bizarre is how the show suddenly recast Baltar as a farmer’s son and he was briefly the fleet’s primary voice of radical politics. So, effectively, both of Battlestar Galactica’s far-left figures are compromised: Zarek because he eventually perpetrates the abuses he once professed to hate, and Baltar because he’s using leftist rhetoric for cynical, personal means. At least there’s kickass union boss Chief Tyrell. (I also love that this entire plotline is scored with a sort of quasi-bluegrass from space.) And I do like that the show is willing to have its two broadly sympathetic leadership figures, Adama and Roslin, be completely and committedly wrong and insensitive about labour organizing and issues of class in general. That rings true. But back to the negatives for a moment. “A Day in the Life” is an Adama feature episode that’s not worthy of the character. It finds him wilfully hallucinating his own dead wife, whose line readings are bizarrely terse and suck the energy out of every scene she’s in. That takes us to the season’s endgame, I suppose. In general, I approve of the plot developments in these episodes as broad strokes — Starbuck dies and returns enlightened, Baltar is found not guilty, everyone is a Cylon, etc. — but I don’t think they make especially good television on a micro level. It’s little choices that let them down, not big ones. I understand that there’s a twist in this show somewhere that people disapproved of. I can’t figure out what it is. But there are little things creeping in that make it seem a little bit less sure-handed than it once was. The whole contrived thing of Apollo being called as a witness at Baltar’s trial to deliver his speech, for instance. That speech needed to happen, but why go about it in such a weird way? And really, the whole decision to focus such a big chunk of the season finale on something as relatively low-stakes as Baltar’s trial. Or the “All Along the Watchtower” thing in the finale. That was a little overcooked. (Though I’m curious about how a song from contemporary Earth ended up in this show, given what we’ve been made to understand about when in human history it takes place. I have an obvious theory. Don’t tell me if I’m right.) The final shot of the season, with all of the cosmic zooms finishing on the reveal of Earth feels like it’s from a completely different show, aesthetically: a much more 2001 sort of science fiction show. Could it be that we’re hurdling headlong into crazy for season four? (That much I know.) And finally. Fat Apollo. Fat fucking Apollo. This is a good season of television. The highs are super high, and the lows aren’t much lower than previously.

Doctor Who: “The Pilot” — Ohhhh yes. Oh, I’m so glad it’s back. The title flags the most interesting thing about this episode, which is that it is functionally a new start. Doctor Who isn’t the first show to make a pun on the word “pilot” in an episode title. Lost comes to mind immediately, and there must be others. But I don’t know of another that does one 10 seasons into its run (or, indeed, 36 seasons in). This feels like Steven Moffat challenging himself to restate the premise of the show and express its fundamental romantic joy without too much reference to continuity. It is enormously successful in that, and I found myself as overwhelmed as ever by the reveal of the TARDIS interior. I’ve written before about a concept I call “wonder surrogacy,” where a show or movie establishes a character inside of its narrative whose specific role is to marvel at what’s going on around them in the hopes that their wonder will rub off on an audience who may be skeptical. I first noticed this in Jurassic World, and I’ve been extra cognizant of it ever since. It nearly never works. Certainly, Doctor Who is the sort of text you may expect wonder surrogacy to rear its head in. It’s been around for over 50 years, and the key elements (the TARDIS, Daleks, regeneration, etc.) are part of the public consciousness. And yet, every time a new companion is introduced, we’re treated to the phenomenon of a person being surprised and aghast and overjoyed to find the TARDIS “bigger on the inside,” as if this is not common knowledge. So, why does the elongated “bigger on the inside” sequence with Bill work so well? Why does this seeming example of wonder surrogacy (like all of the “bigger on the inside” scenes in the new series) give me chills while the rest leave me rolling my eyes? The best answer I can come up with is that the TARDIS is a genuine wonder. A CGI dinosaur is not a genuine wonder. It’s just an image, and an increasingly banal one. The TARDIS is the entry point to an entirely new understanding of the cosmos. Crossing the threshold from its outside to its inside requires an entirely new concept of how physical space works, and when you cross the threshold again to the outside, everything may well have changed completely. As an image, the TARDIS is purposely banal. As a concept, it is the perfect metaphor for imagination itself. There is no wonder surrogacy required for such a thing. Only wonder. Love him or hate him (and I believe there are reasons for both), Steven Moffat understands this better than anybody else who has ever written for this show. That’s why I’m excited for this season, and why I’ll be fairly disconsolate about his departure.

Doctor Who: “Smile” — Still the most interesting thing about this season so far (and I am quite favourably disposed to this season so far) is the way that it is reiterating certain basic elements of the appeal of Doctor Who. The moment that really stands out in this episode for me is a small one right after Bill asks the Doctor why it has to be him that saves the people of the planet they’re on. Naturally, being Twelve, he doesn’t give a satisfactory answer. But Bill, being cleverer even than the people who initially dreamed up this show, sees the notice on the outside of the TARDIS that proclaims, in the manner of even the most non-bigger-on-the-inside police boxes, “advice and assistance obtainable immediately.” Why does the Doctor keep the TARDIS in its police box form? Because he lives by that notice on the door like a code. This is fundamental to the show, and it squares with Steven Moffat’s view of the Doctor as a different, worthier kind of hero. So far, it looks like Moffat has decided to use his final season on the show to revisit the first principles of the show, and compose a love letter to the glorious legacy of Doctor Who, which he recognizes that he’s an infinitesimally small part of. A good part, though. A really good part. The rest of this, with a script written by Frank Cottrell-Boyce (whose “In the Forest of the Night” is an idiosyncratic favourite of mine), is a fun Doctor Who romp that allows Bill and the Doctor plenty of time alone to get to know each other. The Emojibots are deeply scary in a way that conventionally terrifying monsters are not. They throw our own vapidity back in our faces and then kill us. I love that. This series is two-for-two. If Sarah Dollard delivers next week like I think she will, it’ll be off to a massively better start than its predecessor.  

Literature, etc.

David A. Banks: “Podcast Out” — An interesting critical look at the limitations and potential consequences of NPR’s major podcasts. Broadly I agree with Banks’s assessment, though to me the biggest problem with Radiolab and its ilk is not their reliance on the sciences to explain the world, but on the stories of individuals to explain science. There’s no room in most public radio-derived podcasts for any huge, world-defining story that can’t be localised into a personal narrative told by, like, a single dad in Newark or whatever. It’s a weirdly closed-minded approach to curiosity. Note that I still listen to a boatload of these kinds of podcasts, but I increasingly appreciate the ones like Theory of Everything and Love and Radio that break from the structure and challenge rather than confirm the listener’s assumptions.

Neil Gaiman: American Gods (The Tenth Anniversary Edition audiobook) — Okay. Enough podcasters have told me to check out Audible that I’m doing it. This edition of the audiobook features a full cast, including a really brilliant fellow (Ron McLarty) doing the role of Mr. Wednesday, and it features Neil Gaiman himself reading certain interstitial chapters. As a listening experience I’m pretty sold on full-cast audiobooks. Gaiman’s presence is much appreciated as well, as he’s always an engaging reader of his own work and he’s got a wonderful and distinctive voice. I also appreciate that he’s deployed sparingly. Makes you really lean in when you hear him. The only issue with the audiobook so far is a sex scene that becomes distinctly unsexy when read aloud. These actors can only act so much. It’s not a play, after all, and we listeners have lives to get on with. But hearing a sex scene read aloud in a fashion somewhere between matter-of-fact and actually dramatic is, well, awkward. As for American Gods itself, I’ve been meaning to get around to this since I read and adored The Sandman a few years back. With the show coming up soon, with both Bryan Fuller and Ian McShane attached, I figure I’d best do it now. I’m three chapters in and I love it already. The idea of ancient gods finding their place in America is outstanding, and I’m already very curious about who this youngster is who wants them gone. I know enough of Norse mythology to know that Odin won’t live forever, so the stakes are already high. As for Shadow, he’s a compelling enough protagonist. His relationship with his dead wife is proving to be the most interesting thing about him. But so far, I’m really in it for the lore. I’m enjoying this enough that I’m actually rushing through writing this so I can get back to it. More next week, I’m sure.

Music

Ted Hearne/The Crossing: Sound from the Bench — This is my favourite music of the year so far. Admittedly, it hasn’t been a busy year for me in terms of discovering new music. But this is really, really good. I was familiar with Hearne from his oratorio The Source, which has moments of staggering brilliance (especially the chorus “We called for illumination at 1630”) but which I generally found a bit literal and earnest. The choral music on this collection has no such problem. The title work is the centrepiece and the highlight, featuring guitars and drums backing up the chorus. The text is drawn from both Supreme Court decisions and ventriloquism textbooks. This unorthodox and rich choice of texts helps to combat the earnestness that I found slightly offputting in The Source. Sound from the Bench is a genuinely funny piece of music. Its primary subject is the Citizens United decision that deemed corporate campaign spending to be a form of free speech protected under the first amendment. This is patently absurd and implicitly hilarious. Of course, it has some rather dire connotations, but unlike the war-adjacent texts of The Source, it isn’t directly a matter of life and death. But holy crap is it ever musically powerful. The other three works on the disc are nearly as good as the main event, but the short piece “Consent” stands out. It gets dark partway through, but the opening — is simply a mixed chorus singing the words “I want you, I want to” — is absolutely staggering. Hearne is one of the most explicitly socially-conscious composers working right now, and while I wasn’t certain whether it was working when I heard The Source, I have no doubt now that it absolutely can. And the recording itself is fantastic as well. None of the fuzziness that you sometimes hear around the edges of choral recordings. This isn’t pretending to be a live concert. It’s music that happens right in your head. The Crossing is a miraculous ensemble with a distinctive sound that ranges from symphonic choir to glee club. I can’t wait to hear more from them. This is beautiful. I desperately want an opera from Ted Hearne. Not the usual kind with arias and duets and things, but an Einstein on the Beach sort of opera that takes advantage of his facility with found texts and choral writing. If someone could please commission that from him (I’m looking at you, Opera Philadelphia) it would be epochal. Pick of the week.

Kendrick Lamar: Damn. — Ah man, this is going to make me work, isn’t it? Kendrick Lamar’s music always takes a gigantic amount of listening to sink in for me. It’s entirely possible that he’s my favourite rapper around right now, but I’ll never connect with him as directly as, say, Run the Jewels, because the beats are so raw and spare that my mind wanders. And you can’t let your mind wander with this guy. Here’s what I love: “DNA,” with its Fox News samples. “DUCKWORTH,” with its (maybe specious?) storytelling. “FEAR,” with its tripartite structure and uncharacteristic repetition. And “LOYALTY” with Rihanna rapping. This is approximately the same number of high points I detected on my first listen of To Pimp a Butterfly. If things proceed similarly, I will like and understand this better many many months from now.

Car Seat Headrest: Teens of Denial — Here’s an album that took a while to creep up on me. I’m still not convinced it’s the second coming that some claim it is, but I enjoy a larger percentage of the many many tracks on this than I did when I first heard it. “Vincent,” “Drunk Drivers/Killer Whales” and “The Ballad of the Costa Concordia” are still the highlights, but I’ve come to love “Fill in the Blank,” “Cosmic Hero” and “Drugs With Friends” as well. In general, this is music that occupies the same space as the Smiths and Belle and Sebastian: you listen to it for a catharsis. It’s at its best when your life isn’t. But for all its structural ingenuity, Will Toledo’s songwriting doesn’t have the wit of Stuart Murdoch, let alone Morrissey. So I’m not sure this can transcend those moments of needing catharsis the same way that other sad guy music can. This isn’t every day music the way that Strangeways, Here We Come is, for instance. No shame.

Podcasts

Containers: “Welcome to Global Capitalism” — The episode on 99pi convinced me to check this out, but I’m not going to make it through. There’s some good tape in this, but there’s also tape of the host literally flipping through archives. An eight-part series on how shipping containers changed the world was always going to be a maybe/maybe not proposition. At another time, in another state of mind, I would love this. But I think I’d prefer it if it didn’t take such a public radio approach of insisting that its subject matter is interesting every step of the way. Maybe I don’t need all these personal narratives to keep me involved. Maybe I can just hear you out and be interested in your thesis for its own merits. Anyway, I tried.

Love and Radio: “The Secrets Hotline” — This has been a truly great season of Love and Radio. As a final episode, this is a nice capper, though it’s insubstantial compared to, say, “A Girl of Ivory,” “Doing the No No” or “Blink Once For Yes,” which are three of my favourite episodes the show has ever done. The original scoring in this is a nice touch, and some of the secrets proffered here by anonymous callers are truly juicy. The feeling of sanctioned voyeurism is a good one. If you’re reading this, do listen to this episode, but seek out the three I’ve mentioned first if you’ve never heard this show. It is one of the miracles of podcasting.

Home of the Brave: “Trump’s Wall: Part 1” — My god, the tape in this is so beautiful. It’s just nature sounds from a riverside, recorded beautifully. More broadly, I’m very happy that Scott Carrier is doing a larger piece on Trump’s wall. That promises to be some of the best radio of recent years. And doing short updates like this is a good way to keep us sated.

Radiolab: “Nukes” — For everything I said about Radiolab earlier, they can make straightforwardly compelling radio. This episode poses the question, who gets to call the President’s decision to use nuclear weapons into question? The answer: it has differed from one administration to another. But the specifics are really fascinating.

Criminal: “420” — Ah, hilarious. This episode tells the story of how three teenagers’ tongue-in-cheek codeword for pot became universally acknowledged, with a substantial assist from the Grateful Dead. It also broaches the hilarious subject of Colorado’s 420 mile-marker signs getting stolen so consistently that they had to be replaced with 419.99 mile-marker signs. This is why Criminal is the best true crime podcast.  

Crimetown: “Family Ties” & “Bonus Episode: Gangster’s Daughter” — I have nothing more to say about this season of Crimetown. These are both adequate standalone episodes of this season. But I’m basically still in this solely because I’m susceptible to the sunk costs fallacy. Good thing it’ll soon be done.

The Kitchen Sisters Present: “Tony Schwartz: 30,000 Recordings Later” — This may be the third time I’ve heard this, but it’s good every time. The story of a guy who devoted his life to going out into the world and preserving sounds with a microphone, only to succumb to agoraphobia late in life. There’s a doc like this to made about R. Murray Schafer, but don’t tell anybody I said that or they’ll beat me to it.

99% Invisible: “The Architect of Hollywood” — A new classic from this old standby. It’s the story of Paul Revere Williams, the architect who single-handedly conceived the Hollywood style of architecture. This story reveals how that  intensely hybridized style grew out of this one architect who learned to do every style out of necessity, because he was a black man working almost exclusively for white people whose instincts were not to trust him. This is super. I’ve missed Avery Trufelman’s stories. Is it just me, or has it been a while?

Code Switch: “The Beef Over Native American Hunting Rights” — I dunno, there’s a major source in this who kind of sounds like a bigoted fool to me. Maybe I’m wrong, but this is the first time I’ve felt the bad kind of uncomfortable while listening to this show. Also, there’s some super ham-fisted writing at the end. An off week.

The Gist: “The Handmaid’s Fail” — Alexandra Petri is a fantastic guest host, though I do wonder if she’s just doing a Mike Pesca impression here. She really is a lot like Mike Pesca in her questions and her delivery. Also, this reminded me that I really need to read The Handmaid’s Tale. I don’t know how I’ve read four Margaret Atwood novels and that isn’t one of them.

This American Life: “The Other Mr. President” — The best part of this Sean Cole’s segment on Vladislav Surkov, and that’s not nearly as good as Benjamen Walker’s.

Slate’s Political Gabfest: “Bill Comes Due Edition” — I had forgotten how dull I find this. There’s been some stuff happening that compelled me to return to it — I mean, North Korea, Bill O’Reilly… this is fascinating, disgusting stuff — and I still couldn’t help myself from getting bored.

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “The Fate of the Furious Plus Clapbacks and Feuds” — I hadn’t realized how funny Sam Sanders is. Now I’m extra excited for whatever the hell he’s developing. This is really good episode of this show, by the way. If you want to know why it is my preferred example of this format, this is a good episode to go with. Pick of the week.

Omnireviewer (week of Mar. 12, 2017)

Cracked 30 for the first time in a while! Only by one, though. Here are this week’s 31 reviews.

Movies

Looper — I watched this during a rare case of “oh, I’ll just put on whatever’s on Netflix,” and it led me into a weekend-long Rian Johnson binge. Looper unexpectedly scratched the itch that Arrival left me with, for thinky science fiction with all of the filmmaking basics in high gear. This is a brilliantly written, brilliantly shot, brilliantly acted movie based on a brilliant premise that it knows not to take too seriously. It’s a time travel movie where the mechanics of the time travel are both important and deeply inconsistent, but which is constructed expertly enough that the story never stops making sense. Everything else about the movie is meticulous — from the comparative advantages of the characters’ various firearms to Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s prosthetic nose. Like Arrival, Looper uses its sci-fi premise to achieve its emotional payoff. But also like Arrival, it would all be for nought without performances that invest the characters with our sympathies. In this regard, Emily Blunt is particularly excellent, as is the extremely promising Pierce Gagnon, who plays her precocious 10-year-old son with magnificent superciliousness. Of the main duo, Gordon-Levitt and Bruce Willis as the former’s older self, Willis stands out for his ability to convey a similar ruthlessness to Gordon-Levitt, but with the world-weariness of 30 extra years. To be honest, I’ve never really been that excited for a new Star Wars movie. But after seeing this, I’m extremely psyched to see what Rian Johnson does in that universe. Because Looper is at least twice as good as The Empire Strikes Back. That’s a quantifiable thing. I measured it, and it’s definitely true. Pick of the week.

Brick — An astonishing debut from Rian Johnson, with some of the tendencies that make Looper great already in place. Like Looper, this is a movie built on deep awareness of genre tropes — from action/sci-fi movies in Looper’s case, and from hard-boiled crime and noir in Brick’s. But both of those movies cast the tropes of their respective genres in slightly new and different lights, without actually crossing the line into parody. Brick comes closer, given that it’s a proper crime movie about drug dealers with actual life-and-death stakes, and it also takes place in a high school. But Johnson almost elides that last part entirely, only pointing out the absurdity of his own premise in the few scenes that have adults in them. Aside from that, this is played almost entirely straight and the high school setting is basically aesthetic. It’s kind of great to see so many of these classically noirish scenes play out in broad daylight. And speaking of classical noirishness, this movie goes a step or five beyond it in its writing. The dialogue in Brick is entirely its own beast and it’s beautiful. A young Joseph Gordon-Levitt delivers the movie’s best lines with total commitment. I really enjoyed this, and it makes me hope that Johnson doesn’t rule out doing smaller budget movies in the post-Star Wars period of his career.

The Brothers Bloom — Without a doubt the weakest film in Rian Johnson’s oeuvre so far, but still worthwhile for the wonderful performances by Adrien Brody, Rachel Weisz, Mark Ruffalo and Rinko Kikuchi. All four bring a totally different energy to the movie: Brody is romantic and brooding, Weisz childlike, Ruffalo charming, and Kikuchi brings the snark while hardly saying a word. It’s the kind of comedy I’d like to see more of but there are times when it feels like a slightly less committed film by Wes Anderson. (Maybe it’s just the presence of Brody.) The movie is at its best when it’s at its least subtle: it’s a movie about storytelling, with its themes applied to con men. Ruffalo’s character writes elaborate cons for his younger brother (Brody) to play the lead role in. The key tension is that Brody’s character is afraid that he won’t be able to tell fact from fiction much longer. The ideas of lies that tell the truth, or cons where everybody gets what they want are everywhere in this movie, to an almost Steven Moffat level of obsessiveness. Particularly striking is a sequence in which Weisz’s character demonstrates her pinhole camera to Brody’s, explaining how it distorts images in interesting ways that show you things not as they are, but as they could be. More compelling is the extent to which she doesn’t know why this resonates with the person she’s talking to. As with Brick, the writing is where this movie shines. Everybody constantly means two things at once, both being equally true. But it all feels a bit less than the sum of its parts. Still worth a watch. But I can see this being considered the Hudsucker Proxy of Johnson’s catalogue a little bit farther down the line.

Television

Last Week Tonight: March 12, 2017 — Best episode in a very long time. Just watching Oliver get upset about Trump’s whole “who knew healthcare was this complicated?” thing is worth the time.

Ways of Seeing: Episodes 3 & 4 — What a marvellous series. These latter two episodes focus on the ways in which oil painting was primarily a tool for the self-aggrandizement of the wealthy and the ways in which modern (read as: 1970s) advertising uses the same techniques to reflect a fantasy of wealth at a population that does not, but might be persuaded that they can enjoy it. I understand now why a segment of my social media circle was so saddened by his death. His television programmes are the sorts of things that simply aren’t being made anymore: no frills, non-pandering, direct intellectual arguments accompanied by clever and knowledgeable juxtapositions of images. Well actually, I suppose there’s Adam Curtis. Still, this would be focus-grouped out of pre-production today.

Literature, etc.

Alex Ross: “The Fate of the Critic in the Clickbait Age” — Oh man, it’s nice to see that the writer who made me want to go to journalism school still thinks the same way as me about everything, except better. Ross argues cogently that slavish devotion to analytics is unconscionable: “The trouble is, once you accept the proposition that popularity corresponds to value, the game is over for the performing arts. There is no longer any justification for giving space to classical music, jazz, dance, or any other artistic activity that fails to ignite mass enthusiasm. In a cultural-Darwinist world where only the buzziest survive, the arts section would consist solely of superhero-movie reviews, TV-show recaps, and instant-reaction think pieces about pop superstars. Never mind that such entities hardly need the publicity, having achieved market saturation through social media. It’s the intellectual equivalent of a tax cut for the super-rich.” Brilliant. But if you’re really going to champion the little guy, Alex, is the New Yorker really the place to do it??? I mean, wouldn’t it be more consistent with your argument to, I dunno, express the same outlook in the form of obscure essays about Jethro Tull on Tumblr? Or something? It’s a minor quibble though. All I’m saying is I’m coming for your job. Don’t worry about it, just let it happen. You’ll land on your feet.

Louis Menand: “Karl Marx, Yesterday and Today” — Super interesting. Manand contends that while biographical efforts to put Marx back in his 19th-century context are noble enough, we ought to push back against the notion that a figure from the increasingly distant past can’t have any practical use in the modern world. It’s got some biographical info on Marx that’s new to me, but then most things to do with Marx are relatively new to me. One of these days I’ll get off my ass and read Capital. Just lemme get through this stack of comics first.

“25 Songs That Tell Us Where Music Is Going” (2017) — I do hope this becomes an annual thing for the NYT Mag, because both editions have featured some top-shelf music writing. The short-form podcast version of this feature is even better, but this is worth reading for a few of the longer segments. Amos Barshad’s feature on the ever-elusive Future and Jenny Zhang’s heartbreaking essay on “Your Best American Girl” by Mitski are particularly worth reading.

Ta-Nehisi Coates & Brian Stelfreeze: Black Panther vol. 1: “A Nation Under Our Feet” — I wanted to like this so much more. Obviously, Coates is a brilliant prose writer, but his first foray into comics relies much too heavily on the repeated juxtapositions of portentous inner monologues with straightforward fight scenes. There are only a handful of scenes in these first four issues where I really got a sense of character, and it suffers from the perpetual superhero comic problem that the worldbuilding is basically taken as read — when for most of the people who’ll probably pick this up, it’s definitely not read. Did anybody read this book before Coates took over??? Anyway, I’m happy that Marvel was interested in working with Coates. That bodes well for the future. But this book just isn’t that good.

J. Kenji Lopez-Alt: The Food Lab — I picked this up a month or so ago and I’ve been picking through it gradually, rather than reading it cover to cover. Mind you, it definitely is the kind of cookbook that you can read cover to cover, and ultimately I think I’ll do that. Because Lopez-Alt’s entire focus is to make you pay attention to the small details in technique and process that affect the end result of the food you prepare. Reading the lengthy preambles to each recipe and his accounts of his rigorous applications of the scientific method to cooking is ultimately what helps you avoid the mistakes that make your food sub-par. It also helps to clarify why Lopez-Alt is so specific in his directions in the recipes. An example: one of the first recipes that I tried from the book was Lopez-Alt’s buttermilk biscuits. Altogether, they turned out much better than any of my previous, tepid attempts at this seemingly simple American staple. Lopez-Alt’s method of folding and rolling the dough multiple times as you would in a French pastry helps form stacks of flaky layers, and his advice to pulse the butter and dry ingredients in a food processor before adding the buttermilk leaves just enough big chunks of butter in the dough that the layers are separated from each other during baking. But the one instruction that I failed to follow was to place the raw biscuits on parchment paper over the baking sheet. I didn’t have any, so I substituted aluminum foil and thought nothing of it. In retrospect, it should have been obvious that this would cause the bottoms to burn. But I thought of that too late. Later, upon reading a bit more of Lopez-Alt’s introduction, I learned the science words to frame what went wrong. The bottoms of my biscuits cooked by way of heat conduction: they were in direct contact with the hot aluminum foil, and that was the primary source of the energy transfer that caused them to cook. By contrast, the tops and edges of my biscuits cooked by way of heat radiation from the elements of the oven. This is a less efficient way of transferring energy to food, so those parts of my biscuits didn’t overcook. So, the purpose of the parchment paper in Lopez-Alt’s recipe was to reduce the efficiency of the heat conduction onto the bottoms of the biscuits, ensuring a more consistent outer texture. Now I know. I think it says something about the kind of book this is that the most impressed I’ve been with any recipe has been a recipe for scrambled eggs. Yes, The Food Lab contains an actual recipe for the most basic undergraduate food you can prepare from scratch. Actually, it contains two: one light and fluffy and one creamy and custard-like. I’m a light and fluffy eggs kind of guy, so that’s the one I’ve been using. The key revelation is an astonishingly simple thing: if you salt your whisked eggs and let them sit for 10 or 15 minutes before cooking, rather than whisking, salting and then cooking them immediately, the eggs retain their moisture and don’t weep onto the plate. The difference completely blew me away. I will never not do this when I make eggs, now. Those are just two examples of how my initial explorations of this book have improved my cooking already. Other recipes have introduced useful new techniques to me, even if Lopez-Alt is not especially innovative or bold with flavours. Yotam Ottolenghi he is not. But he clearly has no interest in being Yotam Ottolenghi, and it takes all types. The Food Lab and my two editions of The Flavour Bible (vegetarian and not) have made me a measurably better home cook over the last few months, and I’d encourage anybody with a passion for food and a bit of time on their hands to check them out.

Music

Sxip Shirey: A Bottle of Whiskey and a Handful of Bees — The title is a line seemingly taken straight from the Tom Waits playbook, and this whole album by electroacoustic new music dude Sxip Shirey is brimming with the sort of scuzzy Americana that is the near-exclusive province of Waits and his imitators. Much in the same way as it’s fun to hear roots music collide with glam on Kyle Craft’s debut, it’s fun to hear a New York composer’s take on folk in the O Brother, Where Art Thou? vein. (It’s even got a genderswapped adaptation of “I Am a Man of Constant Sorrow” with Rhiannon Giddens singing.) The other strand running through the album is a sort of avant-garde electronica, which is generally more successful when Shirey steers clear of dance music conventions. In general, I’ve found that people who get called “composers” aren’t great dance music producers. The album would have been better if it wasn’t so gigantically long. But then, there’s virtue in throwing everything at the wall. If you’re willing to skip (pun?) tracks that don’t take your fancy, this may yield more fascination. Many tracks are worth seeking out: the fantastically freaky harmonica jam “Grandpa Charlie” is great. Also, the electronic thing “The Land Whale Choir Sinks the Albert Hall” lives up to its title, if such a thing is possible. And the Neil Gaiman-inspired “Palms” is the closest Shirey gets to a really good pop song, with a touch of Belle and Sebastian to it. It’s better still when sung by Puddles Pity Party, as in the music video. These are not the only good tracks, to be clear. But I will definitely not listen to the album straight through again.

The Flaming Lips: Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots — After all of the Jethro Tull I listened to last week, I needed to find a new favourite. I’ve always meant to check out the Flaming Lips. I don’t know why it took me so long. Honestly I’m… not overwhelmed. I liked this enough to probably check out at least one more Flaming Lips album, but I generally find myself wishing that the fun spacey sounds and weird beats would occasionally also yield to a nice melody or a good lyric? But I do love that cut up acoustic guitar at the beginning of the title track. I’m not giving up. It’s just not quite as easy a sell as I thought it would be.

Beyoncé: Beyoncé — Man, I love this album, and I don’t think I’ve listened to it start to finish since it first came out. It’s far less cohesive than Lemonade, and maybe a bit less ambitious. But it’s every bit as perfectly crafted. It feels like Revolver to Lemonade’s Sgt. Pepper. So basically, I’m expecting a White Album from Beyoncé within the next couple of years: something sprawling and weird and awesome.

Podcasts

Love and Radio: “Understood as to Understand” — A classic sort of episode of Love and Radio where a person who is likely to be controversial to different people for different reasons is allowed to state their case. It’s not the best of the season, or anything, but this show hasn’t set a foot wrong in a long time.

The Memory Palace: “Amok” — Nate DiMeo tackles fake news. That’s almost a spoiler, except that if you believe the story in the opening of this episode, you are concerningly credulous — as was, apparently, most of New York City.

99% Invisible: “Sanctuary, Parts 1 & 2” — This isn’t a design story in any way that I can detect, but it’s a good one, about the movement among churches to harbour migrants who the government was turning away. If this is 99pi doing a legal story, maybe they should spin off like Radiolab did with More Perfect. I’d listen to that.

Code Switch: “Safety-Pin Solidarity: With Allies, Who Benefits?” — This is the most essential Code Switch episode for privileged people to listen to. That means everybody should hear it, because as argued in the episode, almost everybody has some form of privilege they ought to recognize. Consider me edified and a little chastened.

Reply All: “Matt Lieber Goes to Dinner” — I can’t wait to learn what P.J. finds out from hacking Alex’s phone. Also, I’m 100% on board with Cory Doctorow’s concern about this new black box DRM bullshit. That’s end of days nonsense, there.

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “Get Out and The Americans” — More than anything, I’m glad that nobody disapproved of the final act of Get Out. I don’t know why, but I had a strong suspicion that someone would do a “the movie could have just kept doing what it was doing!” thing. And I’m still in the frame of mind where I can’t acknowledge anything wrong with Get Out. I’m probably not going to catch up with The Americans. I’m intrigued, but not intrigued enough to watch four seasons.

Code Switch: “In Search of Puerto Rican Identity In Small-Town America” — Here we have an honest-to-god reporting trip, tape-driven story about the complicated attitudes of the Puerto Rican diaspora. I’ve always liked Shereen Marisol Meraji as a host, but I love hearing her work as a reporter. The school shutdown story was fantastic, and so is this. The tape is really compelling, and takes you right inside the conflicts occurring in each character’s head. It’s for sure one of the strongest episodes of this podcast in terms of narrative and emotional punch.

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “Big Little Lies and Feud” — Won’t be watching either of these, but I’ll certainly be trawling through Stephen Thompson’s Austin 100 again. That was awesome last year. And I appreciate his only mentioning it this once, as opposed to at every opportunity last time around.

The EP — 45 minutes of fantastic audio-rich music criticism from the New York Times. It’s drawn from conversations with the writers of their second gigantic music feature about 25 current songs. And while it clearly lacks the amount of detail and analysis of the written feature, these thirteen tiny snippets do what every music podcaster should be doing, which is to use the techniques of radio editing to unspool the various meanings of the songs in question, and to illustrate points made by the interviewees. It sounds absolutely great, and it’s definitely a sort of thing I want to hear more of. Pick of the week.

All Songs Considered: “SXSW Late-Night Dispatch: Tuesday” — Think I’ll sit the rest of these out. I’ve got a lot of podcasts to get through and while I’m always happy to let these folks be my proxies at a festival that sounds to me like a panic attack waiting to happen, I just can’t justify the time expenditure if they’re not going to play the music. Still, it’s really gratifying to hear that Let’s Eat Grandma were popular in Austin. I still think they’re the most promising new act in ages.

Love and Radio: “La Retirada, Parts 1-2” — A fascinating start to a three-part series about how a family got into and out of the drug trafficking business. I’ll reserve final judgements until the conclusion next week.

Crimetown: Episodes 11 & 12 — I’m ready for this season of Crimetown to be over now. It started off pretty focussed on a couple of key stories, but it’s been meandering for a while. Still, the episode about Raymond Patriarca’s doctor is the best standalone story that this show has done so far. I do think that in future seasons, though, these guys will need to figure out whether they want to be serialized or episodic. Because mixing and matching doesn’t work.

You Must Remember This: “Marilyn Monroe (Dead Blondes Parts 6 & 7)” — The highlight of this season so far, by far. The first episode of this is a repeat, and a good one, but the second part does something a little different from what Karina Longworth has done before on this show, which is: it focusses specifically on Monroe’s persona and public perception and the decisions that went into it. It’s less narrative than it is analytical. I like this. I’m very much looking forward to next week’s conclusion.

Imaginary Worlds: “The Spirit of Will Eisner” — A live show from Eric Molinsky, on the comic writer who represents the greatest gap in my comics reading career. This is a fascinating look at Eisner’s relationship with later generations of comics creators. Maybe it’ll inspire me to finally pick up A Contract With God.

Theory of Everything: “Nothing to Hide” — Benjamen Walker’s surveillance series gets a shaggy dog ending, but it does confirm that he and I share a favourite apocalyptic movie: Brazil. This series has been intermittently among the best of what Walker’s done on this show. But I’m still left uncertain about what to do about any of this.

Fresh Air: “‘Get Out’ Director Jordan Peele” — Peele is funny and thoughtful, but that’s no surprise. The best parts of this are hearing him talk about horror movies. Guess I should watch The Stepford Wives.

Arts and Ideas: “Thinking – Neil Jordan, Flat Time House, Teletubbies” — This begins with an insufferable debate over whether Teletubbies is any good as children’s programming, continues with a Neil Jordan interview that I had higher hopes for than I probably should have (The Company of Wolves is one of my favourite movies, but I don’t know his work outside of that) and finishes with an out piece on John Latham, a conceptual artist who I’d never heard of. I came for Neil Jordan, but this Latham thing is ultimately what saved an otherwise deeply underwhelming show. I do like the fact that this podcast pairs pop culture with art that isn’t “pop.”

Serial: “Preview of S-Town, Our New Show” — Oh, this is exciting. If Sarah Koenig says it’s weird, I’m in. I love this preview. I love how it starts with an account of clock repair that’s obviously a metaphor, but then the penny doesn’t drop. I won’t spoil it. Just listen to this. I’m much more psyched about S-Town than about season three of Serial.