Category Archives: Movies

Omnibus (week of May 20, 2018)

A number of people at my workplace and otherwise have occasionally identified a phenomenon they call “peak Parsons.” I have become adept at recognizing this phenomenon myself, and I daresay my review of Julie Taymor’s film of The Tempest is a prime example. So is my most recent NXNW column, in which I recommend geometry as a form of self-care. Enjoy.

19 reviews.

Movies

The Tempest — When this came out in 2010, I was bonkers excited. I watched the trailer over and over. Opening weekend was a scheduling no-go, but one week later I was there. Alas, the movie no longer was. This actually happened. I went to the movie theatre to see Julie Taymor’s The Tempest — starring Helen Mirren as the now-genderswapped Prospera and a bizarre assemblage of personalities from Alan Cumming to Russell Brand in supporting roles — and the movie theatre was no longer showing it. None of them were. Not in Edmonton. Guess I’m waiting for the DVD I said to myself, in those shockingly recent, pre-Netflix times. Eight years later, I still hadn’t seen it. But now I have, and all is right in the world. Except for the fact that the movie itself is… uneven. Much of it is bad; still more is baffling. Elliot Goldenthal’s score is deeply ostentatious. Ferdinand sings a song from Twelfth Night for no reason. Russell Brand is kind of a lot. The CG, and overreliance thereupon, is very 2010. (Though, I do think this is a valid and intentional choice, though not necessarily a fruitful one. I’ll get to it.) And even the one universally acclaimed aspect of the film, Helen Mirren’s performance, is undercut by some deeply bizarre editing, including her introduction with a very Ken Russell quick push into her screaming face. What keeps The Tempest from being a complete trainwreck is the sense that Taymor’s decisions, however crazy, are all deliberate and pointing in the same direction. There are little choices here and there that make you go, ah yes, here we have a good filmmaker. Take Ben Whishaw’s air spirit Ariel. He spends most of the movie morphing proteanly through various computer-generated forms. (This is not the good choice; some of these bits are a little embarrassing.) But his most important scene with Prospera works differently. I’m talking about the scene where Prospera ponders what to do with her prisoners, and Ariel suggests mercy. In one of the play’s biggest gut punches, Ariel reminds Prospera that he is not human, and therefore implicitly that she is. And thus, she must act humanely. Done right, it’s one of the best parts of The Tempest. Ariel doesn’t earn his freedom by doing Prospera’s bidding, like she says he will. He earns his freedom here by giving unexpectedly good, unexpectedly human, counsel. This is the turning point in their relationship. If this scene works, the moment Prospera frees him from their contract later on will work too. In Taymor’s rendition, this scene is the only one where Ben Whishaw appears opaque. He’s right there, in frame with Helen Mirren, which has almost never happened before in the film. It’s marvellous. But even if every single decision Taymor made throughout the film was as pitch-perfect as this one, it still might not work. Making a film out of The Tempest is a bit of a mug’s game to begin with. (I am about to get perverse. Be warned.) The Tempest is ostentatiously theatrical. More than any other Shakespeare play save possibly Hamlet, it is explicitly about the act of performance. The fourth wall is paper-thin in this play, with Prospero/Prospera threatening to break it several times during the “such stuff as dreams are made on” speech, and ripping through it completely in the final monologue, when they explicitly solicit the audience’s applause. That last speech is impossible in film, and Taymor wisely cuts it. Penetrating though her gaze may be, Helen Mirren cannot literally see us through the screen. But the broader challenge is simply that film is a more naturalistic medium than theatre. Its grammar (editing, camera motion, etc.) is usually intended to be invisible. On the other hand, I dare say that the word “theatricality” can almost be defined as the opposite of that: benign yet obvious artificiality. And indeed, Taymor almost manages to conjure the spirit of a staged Tempest in her film by making much of it appear deliberately fake. But our relationship to theatrical fakeness is different from our relationship to CGI fakeness, in that we can intuitively understand how the fakery is done on stage. In some cases, we can literally see the strings. CGI, on the other hand is inexplicable to most of us. It might as well be actual magic — magic that is well beyond our grasp. And this is where any film adaptation of The Tempest is bound to relate to its audience differently than a stage production: when we watch The Tempest on stage, we all become sorcerers. We marvel at the magic we see, but we also understand how it has come into being. This makes us coextensive with Prospero/Prospera for the play’s duration. And once they’ve broken their staff and drowned their book, relinquishing their powers, they demand release from a spell of their own making from us. By applauding their final speech, we magically free them from our plane to go off and be the Duke/Duchess in another, fictional one. They are to us as Ariel is to them. This is what Taymor cannot accomplish. And her replacement of the final speech with a visual image — the shattering of Prospera’s staff — reads as a tacit acknowledgement of that. (But the fact that the speech remains in place as the end credits song feels like a half measure. Do it or don’t. By the final lines of the song, the demand for applause, most of the crowd will have filed out of the theatre. Why bother?) So basically, this movie is not successful, and this was inevitable from the start. But in spite of that, I enjoyed a lot of it for its sheer weirdness and willingness to take one big swing after another. Really, the best and worst qualities of this movie are both defined by the fact that it has Russell Brand in it. You don’t cast that guy in Shakespeare if you don’t have a really specific vision. I almost recommend this. As for me, I think I’ll watch Titus again.

Literature, etc.

Alison Bechdel: Are You My Mother? — Bechdel’s second family-related memoir is consciously designed as a companion piece to Fun Home. Where Fun Home was a book about Bechdel’s relationship with her father, Are You My Mother? is (ostensibly) a book about her relationship with her mother. Where Fun Home was drawn in black, white and teal, Are You My Mother? is drawn in black, white and… I want to say magenta? (I’m not great at colours.) Where Fun Home was a book about reading, Are You My Mother? is much more a book about writing. And where Fun Home is a book about the impact of literature on Bechdel’s thinking about her own life, Are You My Mother? is about the impact that therapy and psychology texts had on her. If that makes it sound a bit abstruse, well yes. Bechdel’s graphic novels are essentially essays told in prose accompanied by narratives told in pictures. The essayistic portion of Are You My Mother? requires the reader to keep track of an armful of psychoanalytic concepts that build on each other and intertwine with the story such that you’ll get lost if you lose focus. This is by no means a problem, lest anybody misunderstand. Artists of Alison Bechdel’s calibre have every right to demand our full attention. But with all the focus on these psychoanalytic concepts, the story gets short shrift. I’ve mentioned a lot of differences between Fun Home and Are You My Mother? But perhaps the main one is that Fun Home’s main subject was deceased, whereas this book’s was very much alive at the time of writing. It’s very clear that Bechdel felt a certain awkwardness about mining her mother’s life for literature that she did not feel about her father, who would never see the end result. As a result, we get a far less fulsome picture of Helen Fontana Bechdel than we did of Bruce Bechdel: less biographical detail, less insight into her relationships with those around her — in short, less story. What we get instead is a great deal of friction and outright conflict between Bechdel and her mother about the writing of the book itself. While writing the book, Bechdel meticulously transcribed her phone calls with her mother. Much of the characterization we get comes from those conversations, which are wonderful but limited to a certain time frame and set of circumstances. Still, this is worth a read for many of the same reasons that Fun Home is remarkable. It weaves together Bechdel’s thoughts on not just psychoanalysis (and particularly Donald Winnicott) but also Virginia Woolf, Winnie the Pooh and Dr. Seuss. Even in this somewhat lesser masterpiece, Bechdel is still very best artist out there at building a sophisticated understanding of human behaviour through living, reading, and linking those two practices together.

Matt Taibbi: “Can We Be Saved From Facebook?” — Seemingly, we cannot. Taibbi is a famously forceful writer, and this is a good summation of the case against Facebook. It doesn’t contain much that is new on the subject, nor is the solution Taibbi suggests (an antitrust action) a new one. But if you don’t read a lot on this subject, this is the second-best magazine feature on it, next to John Lanchester’s essay in the London Review of Books, which predates Zuck’s congressional hearings and the whole Cambridge Analytica thing and therefore doesn’t cover that.

Bryan Lee O’Malley: Scott Pilgrim — I just read all six volumes of Scott Pilgrim in less than 48 hours. That in itself ought to tell you something about it. This is a deeply immersive comic that is far more relatable than I’m comfortable with. The relatability is in the broad strokes, i.e. our hero’s propensity to withdraw from all social contact in the aftermath of heartbreak. But much of the delight is in the details, such as: (1) We see Scott wearing a shirt of a (real) album called Mass Teen Fainting shortly before a mass teen fainting transpires. (2) Fully half of the band at Scott’s high school consists of Girls Who Play The Flute. (3) Knives Chau discovers heartbreak and immediately starts quoting Blood on the Tracks, possibly never having heard it. (4) A sequence in the last volume, where Scott descends to a basement and hence to his final confrontation is a mashup of Brazil and Daft Punk’s pyramid shows. There’s a satisfying experience to be had just reading Scott Pilgrim looking out for these sorts of details. But the real triumph of this series is the fact that as you progress through it you always sympathize with every member of its cast, even though they are frequently terrible people and many of them are consistently at odds with each other. Knives Chau, for instance, is extremely stupid for the bulk of the series’ duration. But, as we are constantly reminded, she is also 17 years old. Bearing that in mind, her bad decisions are just how everybody is at that age. And the moment when she ceases to be that way comes shortly after the book informs us that she’s turned 18. There’s nothing magical about that number; it’s just the book’s first indication that she’s growing up — and she immediately begins acting the part. There are complaints to be had, and there are rejoinders to those complaints. Firstly, Scott Pilgrim is a loser. He spends most of his time playing video games and sleeping in until noon, he is enormously reluctant to get a job, and the band he’s in is crap. One of the book’s more amusing heightenings of reality is the fact that this feckless bastard is also a staggeringly good fighter. But the other side of that coin is — why valorize a dude who never worked at anything? (Related: does the art rock band have to be evil?) Do we really need more illustrations of the fact that men don’t have to work that hard to succeed in the world? On that note: given that I’ve also been reading Alison Bechdel this week, we may as well observe that nearly every scene involving two women involves them talking about or literally fighting over boys. The women in Scott Pilgrim are mostly defined in relation to Scott. We have an object of obsession, a traumatizing ex, an obsessive hanger-on, the one that got away, and the taken-for-granted friend. None of these characters are particularly well defined outside of these relationships. However, I’m tempted to read this redemptively by looking at the entire series as a parody of a (specifically male) limited perspective on the world. Throughout the final chapters, we’re treated to various men’s “memory cams” of their past relationships, which are always hilariously inaccurate. We also see a recap of a previous fight scene that implies that the first iteration of that scene may have been sensationalized — opening up the possibility that most of what we’ve read may be unreliable. Basically, we spend the entire series tethered to Scott Pilgrim’s way of thinking about the world, which is as limited as any single person’s will inevitably be — and is limited further still by the fact that he possesses very little empathy. Naturally the book will fail the Bechdel test, because as far as its narrator is concerned, if a woman isn’t thinking or talking about him, what they’re saying can’t possibly be important. This is illustrated by a bit where two women are having a conversation about something Scott doesn’t perceive to be important, so it’s rendered in “blah blah blahs.” I believe that we’re meant to take careful note of all of this. Scott Pilgrim is acutely aware of the tropes it employs — even the sexist ones. That’s part of why it’s so satisfying when Scott defeats the comic’s “final boss” Gideon. It feels like he’s defeating the worst part of himself: the part that sees women solely as potential partners, devoid of potential in themselves. What you should take from all this is that Scott Pilgrim is complicated. But the fact remains that I cared more about this comic for a whole weekend than I did about anything else. The periodic reversals of fortune that it puts its characters through twisted me around for two days. I loved it. I’ll probably read it again. Pick of the week.

Music

Talking Heads: Remain in Light — One of these days I’ll move on to another Talking Heads album. Seriously, I think I may have heard Fear of Music once. I’ve seen/heard Stop Making Sense a bunch of times. And I’ve heard a smattering of stuff from their first couple of albums. But for the most part my interface with Talking Heads has been entirely through Remain in Light, which has oddly been one of my favourite albums for years, in spite of having failed to inspire me to dig into this catalogue any further. “Once in a Lifetime” is a rare case of the hit being my favourite track, because it is flawless. It is the perfect evocation of a familiar feeling: that your life is happening to you in spite of your own actions rather than because of them. I could listen to “The Great Curve” over and over. It’s the purest distillation of this album’s guiding principle of building everything from one-chord vamps. There is a huge amount of unique musical material on parade in “The Great Curve,” and nary a chord change to be found. This is Brian Eno’s doing, I suspect. In much the same way as he did with his early solo albums (especially Another Green World), Eno encouraged the band to come to the studio with as little prepared as possible. And nothing encourages spontaneity like a song with no chords to keep track of. It’s one of those limitations that Eno loves so much, and that always turn out to be so freeing in practice. “Crosseyed and Painless” is painfully relevant in the Trump era. Setlist.fm tells me he hasn’t been playing it on his current tour. Too on the nose? Anyway, this is a classic. I love it and I really regret missing Byrne at the Queen E the other night.

Podcasts

In Our Time: “The Almoravid Empire” & “The Mabinogion” — The second of these is the highlight, about a collection of 12th- and 13th-century British stories of women made of flowers and magicians with weird senses of humour. Some of the stories from The Mabinogion were familiar to me, but I did not know where they came from, so that was cool. The Almoravid Empire kind of evaporated upon contact, honestly. I was busy cooking.

Radiolab catch-up — This last batch of Radiolab episodes has some stuff I’d heard before and elected not to listen to again, some stuff I’d heard before and elected to hear it anyway, and some new stuff that left me a bit cold. I liked the conclusion to the border trilogy, but not as much as the first two parts. It’s just so brutal.

Sandra: “Hope is a Mistake” — Okay, time at last to check out the new offerings from Gimlet. First up, their latest fiction podcast, which is very dull and occasionally cringeworthy, i.e. the comedic in-universe ads. The first episode is almost pure setup, and while there’s a possibly interesting concept in here — an A.I. that’s actually driven by a bunch of humans in a building rather than machine learning or anything like that — this introduction fails to do the most crucial thing to do when you’re starting up a science fiction story, which is hint at the various directions that your cool premise might go. This only gets around to letting us in on the premise at the end. So, I’m out. Thanks for playing. I’ll always give a new Gimlet show one episode, but that’s all this one’s getting.

The Habitat: “This Is the Way Up” — Another of Gimlet’s new offerings, this is essentially Big Brother, but for actual science as well as for our entertainment. The characters in this show will be spending a year in isolation, with only each other for company. They’re doing this to emulate the psychological conditions of a hypothetical mission to Mars. But that doesn’t make the experience of listening in on it any more edifying or noble than standard issue reality television. Hard pass.

We Came To Win: “How the 1990 World Cup Saved English Soccer” — Shock; horror; the one podcast in the latest slate of Gimlet releases that I actually like is the sports one. The brilliance of this concept is in the limits it has set for itself: it’s just about the World Cup. By the standards of the sports podcasting world, that is by no means a narrow focus. But I feel like it would have been completely unsurprising if Gimlet’s first sports show had been about sports in the same way that 99% Invisible is about design. Instead, it is about the World Cup in the same way that 99% Invisible is about design, which is so much more promising. This particular episode is structured around the fall and rise of English soccer. We get a gut-churning retelling of the Hillsborough disaster, where 96 people died because too many people were packed into a section of a stadium. (The organizational stupidity it takes for this to happen boggles the mind. This episode tells the story in excruciating detail and I still don’t understand how a disaster like this could happen.) We hear about the culture of football fandom in the wake of that disaster. But that’s all context for the meat of the story, which is about the 1990 English World Cup team. The reason that story is fun is because the producers have really taken the time to establish the stakes with their retelling of the Hillsborough disaster and its aftermath. Also it involves New Order. This is really good. I’ll probably listen to more of this.

In the Dark: “Privilege” — A whole episode on the story of the prosecution’s key witness in the Curtis Flowers case: Odell Hallmon. The long and the short of it is, he kept testifying that Flowers confessed to him in trial after trial, and also seems to constantly be able to evade prison time for horrible crimes. Being good journalists, the In the Dark team does not come right out and say what it sounds like. But if there is some connection between Hallmon’s propensity to get out of jail free and his role in the Flowers case, that complicates matters for the prosecution, because Hallmon ended up confessing to a triple murder himself in the years following the trials. This is troubling, captivating radio. Every week I look forward to hearing new evidence.

Lend Me Your Ears: “Reading Julius Caesar in Modern Context” — A minor extra, intended to plug Slate Plus. But I’m enjoying this show enough that I’ll listen to whatever comes through the feed.

The World According to Sound: “Sound Audio: Father Cares” — Here we have something I need to remember to listen to in its entirety. The host throws a bit of shade on contemporary NPR for not being as adventurous as the producers of this documentary, which is semi-fictional, though the tape it uses is all real. And he’s right to throw that shade: Benjamen Walker is the only person I know of who’s still doing that, and it’s an enormously effective way to explore the space of possibility that exists just outside of actual reality — things that didn’t happen but could have.

The Daily: “Putting ‘Fake News’ on Trial” — This is about the Alex Jones lawsuit. It’s crazy making, but you should hear it if you are unaware of how batshit the world has become.

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “Solo: A Star Wars Story and What’s Making Us Happy” — I will likely see Solo in spite of it probably being kind of bad. At least there is Donald Glover.

Caliphate: “Paper Trail” — The best episode so far. Turns out their source was unreliable (not a surprise). So this episode traces the process of verifying what is and isn’t true in the story we’ve already heard. Caliphate is becoming not just a disturbing look inside ISIS recruitment, but also a revealing look inside the process of doing journalism for the world’s best newspaper. Pick of the week.

On the Media: “Glenn Beck Reverses His Reversal” — This is mostly a rebroadcast of Bob Garfield’s interview with Glenn Beck from 2016. It’s worth hearing again in the wake of Beck’s recent pledge of support for Donald Trump — a thing which, let’s remember, he did not do in 2016, in spite of being completely horrible in every way.

The Media Show: “The Evolution of Radio” — An extremely weird conversation about podcasts that is clearly meant for people who heard this on the radio rather than as a podcast. I say that because it assumes almost no knowledge about podcasts. This is the first time I’ve experienced a podcast that assumes that. It is disorienting and made me lose faith in this show, which I have often enjoyed.

Reply All: “Pain Funnel” — A Sruthi Pinnamaneni-produced episode about fraudulent rehab centres. It’s not a laugh riot, but it’s worth your time.  

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Omnibus (week of May 13, 2018)

Let’s see, what have we got here. We’ve got a movie I should have seen a long time ago, a great season of TV, a couple albums, and a broad assortment of journalism in written, audible and even visual form. There’s some stuff I’ve got on the go right now that’s not accounted for here that you will hear about next week. This particular omnibus may lead you to wonder about my seemingly arbitrary use of links. I link the things I review when they are both linkable and urgently worth your time. Other that that, links are for reference. That is all.

Oh, also, I had a review column on NXNW for the first time in a while this morning. But to hold you over until it’s online, here is a thing I made about how I don’t like Gilbert and Sullivan so I went to find some people who really really do in the hope that they can make me see what I’m missing. (They didn’t. But they were lovely.)

20 reviews.

Movies, etc.

This is Spinal Tap — Possibly the most frequently referenced movie that I had not actually seen until yesterday, This is Spinal Tap is also a remarkably durable parody that has aged pretty much impeccably. As an avid fan of quite a lot of music that sounds a bit like “Stonehenge” and quite a lot more music that sounds like “Jazz Odyssey,” I can attest to the calibre of the style parodies themselves. But this movie’s greatest success is the fact that its jokes don’t rely specifically on recognition to succeed. Certainly, if you’ve heard your share of Led Zeppelin, Queen, Scorpion, Motley Crüe, the Zombies, Yes, King Crimson, Lonnie Donegan, and any number of other artists of variable consequence throughout the history of rock and roll, you will get something out of this that those without that context will not. But fundamentally, This is Spinal Tap is character-based comedy, with the jokes coming from the same place that the stakes of the story do, which is relationships. Michael McKean and Christopher Guest do the heavy lifting here, but there’s comedy even in the occasional shot of actual prog rocker David Kaff playing keyboards, at an almost complete remove from the story at large. Parody is hard. This is the benchmark.

Lindsay Ellis: The Hobbit: A Long-Expected Autopsy, etc. — Lindsay Ellis’s justifiably three-part video essay on the un-justifiably three-part Hobbit trilogy is some of the best media criticism I’ve seen in a while. The first and second parts tackle the low-hanging fruit: namely the myriad ways in which the movies themselves are narrative failures driven more by studio fiat than creative control. But the third part is a work of honest-to-god journalism, telling the story of the labour disputes that nearly sundered the production of The Hobbit and the laws that were passed to exploit the New Zealand-based actors who took part. It’s worth a watch as much to learn about all of that as to remind yourself why the original Lord of the Rings trilogy is a masterpiece worth revisiting.

Television

Atlanta: Season 2 — Donald Glover is the pre-eminent creative person right now. Atlanta is farther out than anything else on TV, and its experiments didn’t let it down all season. In “Teddy Perkins” we got a horror movie with a monster as simultaneously ghastly and tragic as Frankenstein’s. In “FUBU” we got a coming-of-age story that takes place over barely more than a single day. In “Champagne Papi” we got Waiting for Godot with(out) Drake. In “North of the Border” we get a road movie that isn’t insufferable. And those are only the best episodes. I always have trouble finding things to say about shows I watch quickly, and this one contains such multitudes that I feel this review was doomed from the start. Watch Atlanta. Pick of the week.

Literature, etc,

Tad Friend: “Donald Glover Can’t Save You” — The profile is not a genre I am always fond of. Too often, they are excuses for a writer to show off their own character in relation to their subject’s rather than simply focussing on the ostensible task at hand. But this one’s really good. Friend focuses on simply recounting what Glover did and, more to the point, said while they spent time together. Witness this paragraph: “Do you look up to anyone? ‘I don’t see anyone out there who’s better,’ he said. ‘Maybe Elon Musk. But I don’t know yet if he’s a supervillain. Elon is working on ways for storytelling not to be the best way of spreading information.’ Musk’s new company, Neuralink, intends to merge human consciousness with computers, allowing us to download others’ thoughts. ‘It will turn us into a connected macroorganism, but it will make our individual desires seem trivial,’ Glover went on. ‘Sometimes I get mad at him—”You think people are insignificant!” But we probably are at the end of the storytelling age. It’s my job to compress the last bits of information for people before it passes.’ He sighed. ‘The thing I imagine myself being in the future doesn’t exist yet. I wish it was just “Oh, I’ll be Oprah,” or “I’ll be Dave Chappelle.” But it’s not that. It’s something different and more, something involving fairness and restoring a sense of honor. Sometimes I dream of it, but how do you explain a dream where you never see your father, but you know that that’s him over your shoulder?’ It was very quiet. ‘It’d be nice to feel less lonely.’” Go read.

Robert Silverman: “My dad painted the iconic cover for Jethro Tull’s ‘Aqualung,’ and it’s haunted him ever since” — Not to be confused with the Canadian pianist of the same name who is celebrating his 80th birthday this week, Robert Silverman is a writer whose father is the painter Burton Silverman. This feature tells the story of how Silverman Sr. painted the cover of one of my least favourite albums by one of my favourite bands, and how he received no royalties for it. Robert Silverman does a great job of emphasizing how shitty this is. It’s not clear that he was actually stiffed out of any money — nobody did anything illegal, it seems. Burton Silverman simply had no way of predicting that the album he was working on would turn out to be iconic and that his cover would become Jethro Tull’s most merchandisable image. He had no reason to think that he should request royalties, or the continuing ownership of his intellectual property. He caught a bad break, and he’s mad about it. Who can blame him? But what’s to be done? All the same, Ian Anderson comes off as a complete shit in this, even refusing to be interviewed at the last minute. I always knew that Ian Anderson didn’t like the cover. But it now seems even shittier for him to have said that so freely when the artist was so poorly compensated. Insult to injury. Also, given Anderson’s own efforts to maintain copyright over his work, there’s irony here.

Jennifer Egan: “Children of the Opioid Epidemic” — Jennifer Egan’s portrait of several different mothers and their struggles to do right by their children while suffering from addictions is a thing that not only exhibits empathy, but manages also to explain the lack of empathy these women receive in a way that makes it seem ludicrous. It is heartrending journalism without the barest hint of voyeurism. Read it.

John Luther Adams: “Becoming Desert” — I was shocked to learn that my favourite living composer, John Luther Adams, had left Alaska. It’s a place he’s identified with as much as Prince is identified with Minnesota. But at least he lives in a desert now. I don’t need to reconsider my image of him as a man of extremes. I haven’t heard his new piece Become Desert yet, because it hasn’t been recorded. But I’m told it’s spectacular and worthy of the legacy of its predecessor, Become Ocean, which is my favourite orchestral work of the past decade. Can’t wait.

Music

Nathaniel Rateliff and the Night Sweats: Tearing at the Seams — My experience with prior Night Sweats albums has been primarily in cars paying little attention, save for their amazing single “S.O.B.” So, Tearing at the Seams is in a sense my introduction to them as an albums band. And it’s great! It’s a lot of fun. It’s primarily made up of soul and R&B music with a full horn section and plenty of Hammond B-3. But every so often, as with “I’ll Be Damned” and “You Worry Me,” it sticks a toe into piano pop territory. Nice to know they’re not purists. “Intro” is the track I can’t stop listening to, though if it has ever been an intro to something, that context is lost on this album. All the same, whenever somebody asks me about a thing I am proud of, I shall henceforth reply “Ahhh-aaaahhh-HEEEY-Yeah!”

The Flaming Lips: Zaireeka — The first Flaming Lips album I haven’t entirely enjoyed. These days, the 0.0 Pitchfork review of this is arguably more famous than the album itself. It’s an interesting read if you haven’t seen it — not because it’s good criticism, because it isn’t. But it does probably read more sympathetically today than it did at the time. If you’re unfamiliar, Zaireeka is a bonkers piece of concept art that consists of four CDs to be played simultaneously in four separate CD players. This concept was born of some genuinely interesting live experiments that Wayne Coyne and co. had done where they put their audience in control of car stereos and boomboxes and made genuinely participatory performance pieces. But as a commercial product for home consumption, Zaireeka made itself inaccessible to the vast majority of its potential audience, who likely wouldn’t have four CD players just lying around. This is the crux of the Pitchfork reviewer’s complaint. In a post-Occupy world, this seems entirely reasonable. In 1997, I imagine it was scandalous. But lest I seem like I’m needlessly extolling a piece of writing that was merely ahead of its time, let me clarify that Jason Josephes, who wrote the review, appears not to have bothered with any sort of aesthetic appraisal of the record. And while I can get on board with the notion that mere aesthetics may be secondary to the basic fact of accessibility for audiences of all income brackets, if you are being paid to assess a work of art, you have to clear a higher bar than just being pissed off about how you can’t listen to this record because you’re broke. Call me old-fashioned. It’s just how I feel. The irony of all this is that the way I chose to hear Zaireeka was through a YouTube video that mixes down the four CDs into a single stereo signal that I can listen to through a single pair of headphones. And what makes this doubly ironic is the fact that the four CDs taken together actually sound like four separate things happening simultaneously, having little to do with each other. It’s entirely possible that Josephes, listening to the record in piecemeal fashion, had a more aesthetically pleasing experience than I did. Pity he couldn’t be bothered to say anything about it.

Podcasts

In the Dark: “The Confessions” — It continues to be a convincing argument for the prosecution’s shoddiness in the case of Curtis Flowers, and it continues to introduce compelling voices that will ring in my head long after the season’s over. In The Dark has officially proven itself to be a more durable investigative operation than its blockbuster big sibling Serial.

The World According to Sound: “Sound Audio: Edward R. Murrow” — Stunning. Those of us who only listen to podcasts, and are too young to remember a world where terrestrial radio was king would do well to pay attention to this series, which highlights recent and long-past audio alike. This time around, the wartime bulletins of Edward R. Murrow, complete with an explanation of how he strung together mic cables to reach the roof of the BBC, so he could report on a proper aerial view of the London blitz. It’s tempting to say they don’t make them like this anymore, though of course they do. (Witness Caliphate.) But Murrow was an original, and I’ll be seeking out more of his work, out of professional interest.

Out of the Blocks: “200 W Read St.” parts 2 and 3 — Any show whose mandate is simply to tell “everybody’s story” is going to get saccharine at some point. And I do bristle a bit at the forced pathos of some of the stories here. But ultimately that’s secondary to my appetite for simply hearing people talk about their lives. I don’t care what the stakes are; ultimately I’m fine with just listening to people — mostly, people don’t talk about themselves, so it’s fun to hear how they respond when they’re asked to. This is a great show. You should hear it.

Caliphate: “The Heart” — The most disturbing episode so far details an incredibly garish murder, perpetrated by the main interview subject of the series thus far. It is a hard listen, but a worthwhile reality check. I am confident that what’s coming up in this series will problematize the content of this interview to no end. If it doesn’t, that would be a problem.

Judge John Hodgman: “Wedding Clashers” — It’s been a while since I listened to this, and I had nearly forgotten how satisfying it is. The premise here is that Hodgman must decide whether a couple will have a traditional wedding, like the dude wants to, or go off and elope, like the lady wants to. His decision is not straightforward, which is in itself a demonstration of how seriously Hodgman takes the ludicrous task he’s set out for himself within the context of a comedy podcast. I love that he’s never dismissive of the decisions that people have to make in their lives. It takes a show that could so easily be mean spirited and makes it the opposite.

Theory of Everything: “S-Coin” — Benjamen Walker’s continuing exploration of fakery forays into cryptocurrency. It’s everything you ever wanted from Benjamen Walker. This mini-season has been a lot to process so far, but I’m finding it rewarding — even just to puzzle out what’s real and what isn’t.

On the Media: “Africatown” — This episode, focussing on a town formed by the last slaves to be brought to America from Africa (illegally) on the Clothilde, gets into so much more than just the story of that town. I won’t go into it, just listen to it. It’s a Brooke Gladstone solo episode (in the sense that there’s no Bob Garfield; Alana Casanova-Burgess is here in full force), which means it’s going to be complicated and it’s going to take the long view. Listen.

Pop Culture Happy Hour catch-up — I did not watch the royal wedding. I will likely not watch Deadpool 2. And while Vida sounds great, if I’m being honest with myself I will not get to that either. My ability/willingness to keep up with pop culture has waned enormously over the past year, and listening to this show has made it clear just to what extent that is the case. I am okay with that, and I’ve still got this podcast to at least let me know what I’m missing.

The Memory Palace: “Snakes!” & “The 8th Story” — Two episodes of The Memory Palace that reinvigorated my love for the show — a love that never goes away entirely. “Snakes!” is an outright laugh riot, which is a rarity for Nate DiMeo. And even though it gets all of its milage out of the absurdity of cobras being released in a Missouri town, it does contain one genuinely affecting line: “In the absence of laws, and in the absence of shame, you can just lie and lie and lie.” The next episode, “The 8th Story,” features a formal trick I’ve never heard before on this show, namely DiMeo’s narration being interrupted by SFX. Given how much of an anomaly it is, it works really well. It’s also a great story, but it doesn’t involve cobras being loose in Missouri. Pick of the week.

WTF with Marc Maron: “Melissa McCarthy” — She’s funny. No surprises there. It’s a fun conversation, but nothing earthshaking.

All Songs Considered: “New Music Friday: May 18” — Some nice stuff here. Many albums I should check out but likely won’t, due to my general sense that I’d rather fill gaps in my existing knowledge than keep up on what’s new — thereby forming new gaps in my knowledge. But I may actually listen to the Remember Sports and Courtney Barnett records.

Omnibus (weeks of Apr. 22 & 29)

I’ve been away for a week, and that always throws off my schedule here. So, we’ve got two weeks worth of reviews, and they are ALL OVER THE PLACE.

I think I’m actually proud of this particular Omnibus. There’s a lot going on here. There’s opera and paintings and other hoity-toity shit like that. There’s the new Avengers. There’s a pair of films about rock and roll, and a pair of albums by a band I’m currently obsessed with. There’s stuff that made me laugh. There’s a weird game. And there are not so many podcasts as to tip the balance away from the other stuff. I think this may be good. Anyway, it was fun.

I will also take this opportunity to direct you to the Tumblr associated with this blog, in case you would like a more media-rich experience that also includes paragraph breaks. Paragraph breaks are good, but we have a house style here and some rules are not made to be broken. Even when the paragraphs clearly are. I think the Tumblr may be particularly advisable in the case of the Vancouver Art Gallery entry, because pictures. Regardless of your choice, enjoy.

Does three picks of the week sound reasonable? I think that sounds reasonable.

20 reviews.

Events

Gaetano Donizetti: Anna Bolena (Canadian Opera Company) — I only had time to take in one show while I was in Toronto. It might have been a hard choice if Sondra Radvanovsky hadn’t been singing at the COC. That made it damn easy. I’ll be honest: I don’t like Donizetti. I don’t find his music memorable, and the librettos in these Tudor operas make me cringe. But in this case, that didn’t matter at all, because I was in this for Radvanovsky specifically, and she was magnificent. She’s a singing actor who puts intensity front and centre, in the tradition of Maria Callas — except, in my opinion, with a more innately attractive voice than Callas. And intensity is what you need for Bolena, a role that encompasses imperiousness, regret, madness, spite, and maybe love. Radvanovsky’s Bolena seems ready to spit in the king’s eye at any moment — a dramatic task made easier by baritone Christian Van Horn, who plays Enrico (Henry) VIII as a louche slimeball with no sense of his own hypocrisy. Van Horn and Radvanovsky have that delicious dynamic of intense loathing that’s hard to come by outside of the Lannisters on Game of Thrones. Remarkably, soprano Keri Alkema holds her own alongside Radvanovsky. The role of Giovanna Seymour is intrinsically less interesting than the role of Bolena, even if she does get some nice coloratura stuff to sing. Seymour is merely a lover — and a tediously sincere one at that, who knows Enrico is objectively horrible and loves him anyway. Bolena’s concerns are more complex: she wants power, and she’s concerned about her legacy. There’s a great love in her past, but when she looks back on it fondly, you get the sense that she’s really just regretting the pickle she’s gotten herself into by marrying such a terrible man. But it’s precisely this contrast between the two characters that makes Radvanovsky and Alkema so effective together. They understand that relationship completely. Of the smaller roles, Allyson McHardy stands out in the pants role of Smeton, a character whose only narrative purpose is to drive the tiresome intrigues that are a mandatory part of all bel canto opera. What the character lacks in narrative interest, McHardy compensates for with wonderful singing. If I haven’t made it clear already, this is a very well-directed production. Even though the libretto (or at least its translation) is made up exclusively of things that nobody would ever say, the actors commit. And their understanding of the relationships that underpin the drama goes some distance to papering over the weakness of the text. The set is spectacular without being overbearing. It is essentially a Jacob’s ladder of connected, tall wood panels that can slide back and forth across the stage to produce the impression of intimate spaces when they’re close to the audience and grand spaces when they’re far back. They can become corridors and gates. It’s nifty. It also aids the drama: Bolena’s chambers seem tiny and claustrophobic, while Enrico seems particularly frightening slouched on a throne in the middle of a huge, empty stage. Director Stephen Lawless and set designer Benoit Durgardyn have done well, here. I enormously enjoyed this. I still think it’s a dumb opera, but it hardly seems to matter. (Okay, fine, “Al dolce guidami” is gorgeous.)

A visit to the Vancouver Art Gallery (April 24, 2018) — As I’m writing this, it has been nearly two weeks since the visit in question, and the network of connections and ideas that formed in my head as I traversed the five exhibitions present at the time has largely disintegrated. But I did see a bunch of art that’s stuck with me and will continue to. So I’m just going to rattle some of it off. The reason I was at the gallery was that it was my last chance to see Takashi Murakami’s retrospective exhibition “The Octopus Eats Its Own Leg.” Given what a hit it’s been, I figured I’d see it last, so as not to be completely underwhelmed by the rest of the art in the gallery. In practice, I think the opposite happened. I was at the VAG for more than four hours. By the end of that, I was completely overstimulated and my brain was having trouble processing images. That’s not the state you want to be in when you walk into a whole floor of brightly coloured, enormously detailed, narratively complicated art with influences ranging from ancient Japanese painting to Instagram. I’ve never seen Picasso’s Guernica or Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights in person, but I imagine that some of Murakami’s most gigantic paintings rival those works for sheer impact of spectacle. Seeing Tan Tan Bo Puking on a screen or an advertisement makes it look like a comics splash page or a Roger Dean album cover: you may be drawn in by its whimsy and impressed by its minute detail, but you’re unlikely to be overwhelmed. Seeing it in person is overwhelming because it is seven metres long. I have no idea what, if anything, it is meant to convey. But it doesn’t seem to matter because the spectacle is so effective. That’s a reasonable summary of my whole experience with the Murakami exhibit. I wish I could see pieces like 100 Arhats or Dragon in Clouds again while not being quite so spent, because they require a lot of energy. Knowing that I would need at least a fragment of my energy left for Murakami, I breezed through the small exhibition on the fourth floor somewhat inattentively. In addition to the traditional selection of Emily Carr paintings (which I never tire of), the VAG was showing some prints of photographs by Mattie Gunterman, a photographer born in 1872 who walked six hundred miles with her husband to get to B.C. to mine for silver. Seeing her photographs alongside Carr’s famous forest pictures made perfect sense, prompting me to go “ah” as I slingshotted around this floor and headed for Murakami. This brings us to “Bombhead,” maybe my favourite exhibition I saw on this visit. It’s a selection of art and artefacts focussed around the idea of nuclear disaster, curated by John O’Brian. It’s accompanied by a nifty little booklet designed in the style of Canadian nuclear survival guides that were published in the 50s and 60s. The exhibition takes its title from a Bruce Conner picture that sets the tone for the whole thing: the nuclear age is a void too dark to stare into, so we resort to whimsy. Accordingly, the exhibition is exhausting and marvellous. I spent more time than I needed to in an alcove, watching an old Cold War era documentary called The Atomic Cafe, while a Globe and Mail story about Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un loomed over me. I stared at a wall lined with photographs from Robert del Tredici’s epochal book At Work in the Fields of the Bomb. I surveyed unexpected images of nuclear detonations in popular culture. And I nearly barfed at the power of Nancy Spero’s bomb paintings. It’s a bonkers experience that feels terrifyingly relevant. The fallout from “Bombhead” seems to be drifting downwards to the lower floors of the VAG. Murakami’s exhibition is also concerned with the literal and figurative flattening of Japan by a nuclear bomb. And World War II looms large in the focus of “Living, Building, Thinking,” an exhibition of expressionist art building from the collection of McMaster University. I love expressionism. I do not know art, but this is where I live. This exhibition shuffles the entire history of expressionism and its influence around so that the expected wartime Germans rub shoulders with contemporary Canadians and others. Walking in, you’re greeted by Yggdrasil: an oppressive, overwhelming painting by the German painter Anselm Kiefer, who was born just as WWII ended. That sets the tone nicely. Shortly thereafter, we see Canadian painter Tony Sherman’s Poseidon, which stares bleakly at us from a sea of drab dribbles. At that point, we’re well prepared for an intensely German freakout by Jörg Immendorff and a moving work by the Montreal-based painter Leopold Plotek called Master of the Genre of Silence, depicting the Soviet journalist Isaac Babel being interrogated. But the real heart of the exhibition is a whole room full of wartime lithographs and etchings by Nazi-persecuted artists like Max Beckmann, Hermann Max Pechstein and Frans Masereel. Pechstein’s multi-part illustration of the Lord’s Prayer is the absolute highlight of the exhibit, and even more modest works like Beckmann’s The Draughtsman in Society and Masereel’s wordless graphic novel Passionate Journey have incredible power in their simplicity and expressiveness. I’ll explore all three of these artists in greater depth. We’ve been working backwards through my visit to the VAG, so we’ve now finally arrived at the beginning. The expressionism exhibition shares a floor with another one taken from the collection at McMaster, this one containing art that was donated by the private collector Herman Levy. With all due respect, I do not care about Mr. Levy, no matter how hard the annotations in this exhibition try to make me. However, he doubtless had excellent taste in art, and I totally enjoyed seeing some great works by Monet and Pissarro in the comfort of my own city. I enjoyed noticing for the first time that painters sometimes convey the motion of water by actually thickening the layers of paint on the ripples. And I definitely enjoyed being introduced to the work of George Braque and Roderic O’Conor, who I was previously unfamiliar with. You know what, I like art. Art is good. This was a fun afternoon. Also, during the course of my visit, two different people stopped to look at a fire extinguisher and jokingly said “so beautiful” to their friends. I wonder if that joke happens every day. Pick of the week.

Movies

Avengers: Infinity War — It is without a doubt the mostest movie I’ve seen this year. Avengers: Infinity War is a big fun spectacle that I had a great time watching. And it embodies all the best and worst tendencies of the Marvel Cinematic Universe in one movie. Weirdly, I think a useful way to look at this movie is in comparison with Game of Thrones. I’ll tell you why, and I’ll do so with no spoilers. Relax. The key question for me going into Infinity War is how the hell they’d be able to juggle all of these characters and still maintain a semblance of a cohesive story. The answer turns out to be that they structure it like an episode of GoT, which famously encompasses a vast range of characters and settings. Your standard episode of GoT pushes several independent stories forward at once, each of them linked to the others only in the sense that viewers are aware of the complex web of familial relationships and power dynamics that relates them. Tune into a random episode, and it might feel like you’re watching five different medieval soaps. Infinity War is structured much the same way, with characters from various bits of the MCU grouped off and pursuing stories independently of the others. But unlike GoT, this movie’s characters are pulled from separate franchises, some of which have drastically different tones than the rest. It’s great fun to see a Spider-Man school bus scene that could come straight out of Homecoming bump up against big silly Guardians of the Galaxy space opera scenes and climactic battles in Wakanda. If Infinity War operated along the same lines as the first two Avengers movies, with its cast largely concentrated on one threat in one area, it would be impossible. But the GoT approach makes it surprisingly fleet-footed. You can quibble with the underrepresentation of certain favourite characters (for many, Black Panther; for me, Hulk). But in a movie with a gazillion superheroes, this is inevitable. Infinity War strikes that balance more deftly than anybody could have hoped. (But seriously, though: when are we going to get a Mark Ruffalo-starring Hulk movie? That’s maybe my favourite performance in the whole MCU, and he’s only ever been a side-character.) The other way in which Game of Thrones can help inform a viewing of Infinity War is less flattering to the latter. GoT is famous for killing off major characters at the drop of a hat. So as not to spoil too much, I will only say that Infinity War also has a body count. But the funding models of these respective franchises prevent us from looking at them the same way. GoT can kill off characters and twist the plot around in crazy ways because its viewers are invested in a brand called “Game of Thrones” which will endure regardless until the story’s done. This is how television works. Infinity War, on the other hand, can’t easily kill anybody important off permanently because the MCU is a blockbuster movie generator buoyed by big, bankable characters. There is no end in sight to the overarching storyline of the MCU, and the brands that draw audiences in are “Spider-Man,” “Iron Man,” “Captain America,” and so forth. You can’t kill these characters because the characters themselves are brands. The brands need to stay alive if they can make money. In GoT, Tyrion Lannister is not a brand. He’s arguably a selling point for the show, but nobody’s tuning into a show called Tyrion. They’re watching Game of Thrones. These cold hard facts of capitalism are impossible to ignore while watching Infinity War, and they seriously undercut what would otherwise be some deeply affecting moments. Basically, I liked Infinity War. It’s a big, silly action movie. The villain is undercooked, and some of it is boring because of underdeveloped relationships. But it’s fun, and I don’t mind that it made a billion dollars.

Deconstructing the Beatles: The White Album — I went to this screening at the Rio expecting something else. This is a film of a multimedia lecture given by the Beatles scholar Scott Freimann. Freimann himself was in attendance, so I thought we’d actually be getting a live rendition of the multimedia lecture captured on the film. Still, the film was worth seeing, and it was fun to be able to ask Freimann questions after the fact. He’s been doing this whole series of lecture films on the Beatles, including ones on Sgt. Pepper, Rubber Soul, and Revolver. This particular film on the White Album covers the usual beats associated with that album — the move away from psychedelia, the trip to India, Yoko, George Martin getting fed up and leaving, Ringo getting fed up and leaving — but it also highlights the musical consequences of those events in a way that taught me a lot. I’m always worried going into a Beatles-related thing that I won’t learn anything. Martin Scorsese’s George Harrison documentary fell into that category. But this didn’t. It’s worth seeing for Freimann’s breakdowns of the multi-track recordings alone. Who knew the vibrato on Clapton’s “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” solo was done by manipulating the tape machine? Sounds like a whammy bar, but it isn’t. There are gems o’plenty along those lines in this. I’m curious to see the others, and may well do.

The Fearless Freaks — I’ve seen a ton of rock documentaries, and I’m not sure that any of them capture the spirit of the band they document quite as well as this one. Director Bradley Beesley had known and worked with the Flaming Lips for years by the time this was finished, and it allowed him to get footage of them that feels like genuine fly-on-the-wall material, rather than just relying on talking heads like most rock docs do. It also helps that Beesley directed a bunch of Flaming Lips music videos, so he’s a person who actually contributed to their iconic visual aesthetic, which is represented here in spades — it’s a hectic, fast-edited movie full of overwhelming colour. Except for when it’s in black and white. Honestly, the black and white footage is nutty because watching it is almost exactly the same as watching black and white footage of the early Pink Floyd. Without the beard, Wayne Coyne even looks a bit like Syd Barrett. A lot changed between the late 60s and the early 90s. But the appeal of getting high and making loud noises on guitars evidently did not. What I did not expect was that Coyne is not the highlight of the film. He’s a compelling live performer, no doubt. But this movie makes it entirely clear that his key virtue is being incredibly hardworking. That’s admirable, but not super interesting. The hero of this movie is Steven Drozd, the band’s once-heroin-addicted drummer/guitarist/keyboardist/pantomath. Drozd is a naturally lucid talker, to the point where Beesley can even have a frank conversation with him while he shoots up. This scene is the cornerstone of the film, but it doesn’t feel voyeuristic at all, given the obvious trust that exists between the two people. The key tension in the movie comes from the fact that Drozd is the most talented musician in the Flaming Lips, and Wayne Coyne is well aware that the band’s sound depends on a guy who could die at any moment. I don’t know the Flaming Lips’ music very well, but this is a great primer on their story.

Music

The Flaming Lips: Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots — The first time I listened to this I was really distracted. My review at the time said that “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.” Did I just flat out fall asleep during “In the Morning of the Magicians?” That is a serious melody. Where was I right at the top of “Fight Test?” That’s a melody so good it’s actually by Cat Stevens. And as for lyrics, you can’t beat “you realize the sun don’t go down, it’s just an illusion caused by the world spinning round.” This is every bit the album I didn’t used to think it was.

The Flaming Lips: The Soft Bulletin — My second foray into the Lips discography, and the one that’s going to end up cementing me as a fan. This album is gorgeous. It has just enough of the archness I know from Yoshimi and the smattering of earlier Flaming Lips stuff I’ve heard to keep it from being tedious. But Wayne Coyne and co. seem much more concerned here with producing a thing of beauty rather than a thing that’s just fun. “A Spoonful Weighs a Ton” strikes the perfect balance between preening Broadway balladry and cheap, janky indie rock. The song itself is grandiose and cathartic, but it’s clothed in bad orchestral synths and Wayne Coyne’s detuned bleat. It’s perfect. I love every song on this. The ones I keep going back to are “Buggin’,” which is a very unexpected summer jam about mosquitoes, “The Spark That Bled,” which goes off madly in every direction, “The Gash,” which is psychedelic gospel music, and “Waiting for a Superman,” which is one of those songs that made me regret not being close to a piano right when I first heard it. I don’t know why it took me so long to get to this, but it’s one of my favourite musical discoveries I’ve had recently. Pick of the week.

Literature, etc.

E.H. Gombrich: The Story of Art — What book should I take on the plane, I asked myself. Maybe Moby-Dick, so it won’t take you a whole year to get through it? Or possibly something light, both physically and figuratively? You know, airplane reading? No, I said to myself. What you need to take on the plane is this hardback brick of a book about the history of visual art from prehistoric times through the 20th century. That is what you will enjoy. And you know what? I DID. I have only gotten up to the Renaissance so far, but this book is 100 percent living up to its reputation as a clear and lucid introduction to art with a layout that encourages you to look at the pictures discussed with a fresh eye. I’m learning so much — like, I didn’t realize that the reason Ancient Egyptian art looks like that is because they were trying, Picasso style, to show the whole of a thing from one angle. Nor did I realize how long it took for painters to devise a way to show an image from a perspective that makes it look lifelike. These are things I just took for granted. Thank you, Dr. Gombrich. I look forward to learning more.

Chris Onstad: Achewood — My plan for Achewood reading going forward is to read a year’s worth of the comics followed by a year’s worth of the affiliated blogs until I’m done. It’s too tedious to keep up with the blogs as I’m reading the comic, but I’ve realized that they are an essential part of the Achewood experience. If you’re unfamiliar, Chris Onstad wrote a series of in-character blogs for the various personages that populate his webcomic. Together, they expand the universe by a fair margin. And more than that, they provide Onstad with a more flexible platform to explore the language of his characters. Everybody in Achewood talks in their own particular way, and the blogs reflect that. Given that, some of them are virtually unreadable. Lyle’s blog is a tragically garbled account of life as an unrepentant blackout drunk. Little Nephew’s is an admirably committed performance of teenage affectation. Both are nearly as challenging as some chapters of Ulysses, or at least A Clockwork Orange. Molly’s is problematic for a different reason, namely that her entire identity revolves around her boyfriend. But aside from these, the blogs are a pleasure, and they add layers upon layers to the comic. If you noticed that Cornelius had been absent from the strip for a while, you might well take to his blog to see where he’s been. Sure enough, he’s in Russia, attempting to seduce an Olympian. (Cornelius’s blog contains my absolute favourite post I’ve read so far, which is this.) The other standout is Nice Pete’s blog, which contains a serialized novel of such derangement that your laughter is almost defensive. A sample: “Eustace ducked into the bathroom six seconds later. Six seconds is the amount of time it takes a man to really get into a good pee. He knew that Dimitri would be focused on the pleasure of his peeing sensation, and that he could have his way.”

Comedy

John Mulaney: Kid Gorgeous at Radio City — Mulaney remains the comic with the highest batting average. His two previous specials are both brilliant and this one keeps the pace. It’s a bigger venue (it’s Radio goddamn City Music Hall), and Mulaney is accordingly more physical. But his jokes are still things of immense precision. I’ve been off learning about how to write better for the radio for the last week. Radio producers would do well to listen to Mulaney’s writing. It is everything that is good in writing. If you are a radio producer and you are reading this, I specifically recommend the bit about Stranger Danger. It is a well-oiled machine of perfect construction. Also, this has a live appearance by Jon Brion playing Radio City’s weird old organ. He closes Mulaney’s set with Nirvana’s “Lithium,” which he’s talked about at length in interviews. That’s fun.

Games

OFF — I was listening to a recent episode of the podcast No Cartridge and this weird French indie game came up as a point of contrast with EarthBound, which I love. So, I downloaded it — for free; it is a non-commercial release. And I could not run it without it freezing constantly. But I was compelled enough by it to want to see it in some form anyway, so I watched a three-hour playthrough on YouTube. I wish I could have played it myself, because watching somebody else play a turn-based RPG isn’t the best experience. Still, I think I got a sense of the story and feel of OFF, and it is a hell of a thing. Firstly, it came out in 2008, before the recent pileup of recursive, meta indie games (The Stanley Parable, Device 6, Stories Untold, Pony Island, etc., etc., etc.). Nowadays, it’s par for the course for an indie game to put forth a Borgesian transgression of the boundary between fiction and reality, but it doesn’t seem to me that this was the case in 2008. Given all the praise that was quite deservedly heaped upon Undertale, which is also a deeply meta game with a fairly explicit debt to EarthBound, you could be forgiven for thinking that it was the first game to really question the mechanics of a video game in that particular way. But OFF did something remarkably similar, long before. That doesn’t lessen Undertale’s accomplishment — it is, execution-wise, by far the better game. But it does demonstrate how ahead of its time OFF was. In this game, you control a character known only as the Batter (seemingly a reference to Ness’s weapon of choice in EarthBound, though apparently the creator of the game denies this). The Batter is aware that he is being controlled by a puppeteer he cannot see — the player; you. At least one of the other characters in the game, a grotesque cat called the Judge, is aware of this as well and often addresses the player directly. This one idea — that the player character of OFF is aware of the player — completely changes the dynamic of the game, relative to your standard old-school game. Where a character like Ness or Link looks like a hero moving actively through the world and overcoming obstacles, the Batter comes off as a ruthless inquisitor. He kills because it is inevitable that he must kill, because that is why we are playing the game. Again, this is expressed more subtly in Undertale, but OFF has more going on that just that theme. Its final stage is a creepy masterpiece of bizarre reiterations and echoes. At one point, you have to navigate several different versions of a room by using a fake version of the menu screen. That’s very nearly an Undertale idea. I enjoyed this a lot. I only wish I could have actually played it.

Podcasts

On The Media: “Moving Beyond the Norm” & “Dog Whistle” — Two good episodes with some great segments between them. Highlights include a Ken Kesey retrospective, a piece on the history of self-immolation, and two bits of metacriticism on Roseanne and The Simpsons — the latter featuring Hari Kondabolu. So yeah, it’s On the Media.

The Daily: “Friday, Apr. 20, 2018,” “Tuesday April 24, 2018” & “Friday, April, 27, 2018” — Wow, I’ve been away from this blog a while. The first of these is Michael Barbaro’s excellent interview with James Comey, which is the best of the many Comey-related things I listened to during Comey Week. Remember Comey Week? The media declared Comey Week, a couple weeks ago. It was all really interesting. But Barbaro’s interview is the best one because he focussed specifically on the idea of ego, and whether that character trait might have a lot to do with the decisions Comey made during the 2016 presidential election campaign. He denies this, and argues persuasively against it, but it’s interesting to hear how hard he has to work at it. The second is a fascinating look at a story that had nothing to do with the news cycle we’re constantly bombarded by: a Hong Kong bookseller suddenly disappeared and all hell broke loose. It’s an incredible story. The third is the Cosby episode. It’s also good.

No Cartridge: “Videogames’ Citizen Kane w/David ‘TheBeerNerd’ Eisenberg” — This is a conversation about EarthBound, a game I love and am endlessly fascinated by, and OFF, a game I had never heard of but have now watched a full playthrough of in the absence of a download that will run properly on my computer. It’s a fun conversation, but both of those games are sort of self-explanatory, and I’m not sure this really enlivened my thinking about either. But it did bring OFF to my attention, and I’m grateful for that.

Code Switch: “Members of Whose Tribe?” & “It’s Bigger Than The Ban” — Here we have a pair of episodes taking the long view of anti-Semitism and Islamophobia in America. These are both things you should hear. Start with the anti-Semitism one because it is SUPER complicated, even by this show’s standards.

99% Invisible: “Gander International Airport” & “The Hair Chart” — The Gander airport episode is maybe one of my favourite things this show has ever done. I am intensely prejudiced about this, mind you, because one side of my family is from very near Gander and I grew up flying into the Gander airport to visit them. Nowadays the St. John’s airport has taken precedence, but I’m happy that the Gander airport’s foyer is still considered a modernist landmark. I’ll be honest though: the fact that it was considered that was a surprise to me. It’s one of those things you come to take for granted. Actually, there’s a lot of stuff in this episode that I was really surprised to learn for the first time in a podcast. I would have expected somebody in my family to have told me the story of Fidel Castro going sledding in Gander, but they did not. Thank god for Roman Mars. “The Hair Chart” is a really good episode too, about the endlessly complicated issue of how hair products are marketed to black people. Pick of the week.

Caliphate: “Recruitment” — Here we have the New York Times’ top ISIS reporter interviewing a guy who was recruited into ISIS. It is enlightening.

Theory of Everything: “Fake Nudes (False Alarm! Part ii)” — This series exploring fake news through the medium of fake news continues to be bewildering, clever, and one of my favourite things that any podcaster is doing right now.

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “Avengers: Infinity War and What’s Making Us Happy” & “Scandal” — Well Scandal sounds like a whole thing. If it was your thing, I’m sad for you that it ended badly. The Avengers episode is pretty much bang on. It’s one of those movies that it’s hard to have an original thought about because its virtues and problems are so self-evident.

All Songs Considered: “Swan Songs: Music For Your Final Exit” — As I finally come to the end of two weeks worth of review writing, I remember that the proximate cause of my Flaming Lips wormhole was a coincidence: I played one of their songs with a friend at a party one night, and woke up the next day to find “Do You Realize?” in this mix of funeral songs. It’s a maudlin premise, but there’s some good music here.

Omnibus (week of Apr. 15, 2018)

I have a house guest, so don’t expect much. Still, I found my way through some good stuff this week. And some terrible stuff.

Seven reviews.

Movies

A Quiet Place — Oh my god so stupid. SO STUPID. *gathers self* So, look: this was actually really good for about the first half of the movie. The premise is solid: there are blind monsters who hunt you if you make sound, so you have to be very quiet. That makes for some super tense scenes in the early movie, as well as some rather good bits that demonstrate how a family might remain close without being able to speak to each other. There’s a sequence involving a bathtub, an exposed nail, and some fireworks that works really, really well. But almost immediately after that, as the movie is beginning to near its resolution, something happens that exposes to the audience beyond a shadow of a doubt what the monsters’ weakness is — and the characters somehow manage not to figure it out. Let me be clear: I am a champion suspender of disbelief. I get viscerally upset at people who poke at plot holes or try to suggest that a movie doesn’t make sense because the characters don’t always do the smartest thing. To me that constitutes thinking outside of the linear story the movie is trying to tell. “Why didn’t they just xyz?” Because they didn’t! Get over it. But the actual contents of this movie’s linear story finds the characters acting in the dumbest ways possible in the face of incredibly obvious solutions. And the second that started happening, I was done playing along with this movie’s game. Where I might have at some early point in the movie been able to rationalize away the fact that the characters drive a TRUCK at one point, the rumble of which is conveniently elided by the sound mixing, in the third act I just couldn’t, no thanks. Also, this movie has that thing in it where a guy has clearly been trying to work out a complicated problem, so there are whiteboards and newspaper clippings everywhere, with lines underlined, and all that. And somewhere amidst all that paraphernalia is a scrap of paper that reads, in big red letters, “NO PATTERN.” WHAT. The most amusing thing about this movie was leaving the theatre and hearing the entire audience complain about how dumb it was in near-unison. So stupid. SO STUPID.

Literature, etc.

Rebecca Solnit: “Driven to Distraction” — An excellent essay that makes connections between several different tech-related anxieties, and also E.M. Forster. It is primarily about the notion of “connectedness,” and whether that’s actually a virtue. But there’s also a few paragraphs in succession where Solnit hopscotches from one tech anxiety to another, six degrees of Kevin Bacon style, and ends up covering Uber’s internal misogyny, Spotify’s underpayment of artists, Cambridge Analytica’s data mining, and the fact that Peter Thiel exists. That section in itself makes this worth a read.

Rutu Modan: The Property — I found this on the “shit you can take” table in my building’s laundry room. I was surprised to see it there, frankly. I’ve picked up a few worthwhile things from that table over the past couple years, but nothing so promising as this — nor anything that delivered on its promise so completely. Modan is seemingly best known for Exit Wounds, a comic about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The Property tells the story of a woman and her grandmother who travel from Israel to the grandmother’s home country of Poland to reclaim a property that she seemingly inherited after the second world war. It’s a small-scale, personal story that’s deeply rooted in mundane experience. But it has a story like a spy thriller, with secrets everywhere and motivations always obscured. It also has a cute love story and a darkly funny bit about a Holocaust re-enactor who really misses the ghetto. I sat down with it not knowing whether I’d finish it or return it to the laundry room. And I read it in one sitting. Pick of the week.

Podcasts

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “Pop Culture Dichotomies” & “Summer Movie Preview and What’s Making Us Happy” — The dichotomies episode is a fun flashback. The summer movie preview is always an annual highlight of this show’s calendar, partially because we get to hear Glen Weldon talk about stuff he hates. That’s always fun.

Fresh Air: “James Comey” — Comey is dangerously charming and sympathetic. Terry Gross questions him about the double standard he seems to have employed when deciding to reveal that Hillary Clinton was being investigated and not that the Trump campaign was being investigated for collusion with Russia. His answer is human and well-reasoned, but still intensely frustrating.

NPR Politics Podcast: “Comey Tells NPR The FBI ‘Would Be Worse Today’ If Not For His Actions” — This was plugged across the NPR podcasts as a companion piece to the Fresh Air interview but it’s actually a companion to the Morning Edition interview, which I haven’t heard. Still, it’s fine. Actually, even on its own it’s a good analysis of the Comey media tour.

Caliphate: “Prologue: The Mission” & “Chapter One: The Reporter” — I’m not completely on board with this yet. If you haven’t heard, it’s a serial podcast from the New York Times about ISIS, featuring their star reporter on that subject. There are a few journalism cliches present, including “Who are they? Who are they really?” But Rukmini Callimachi is a compelling presence, and the decision not to make her a traditional host, but rather to document her in the process of doing her job, is a good one that obviates the frequent problem of investigative journalists needing to put themselves at the centre of the stories they tell for the sake of drama. But mostly, Callimachi knows a ton about ISIS, and ISIS is really complicated and interesting. I think this will be very good, and very enlightening. Pick of the week.

Omnibus (week of March 25, 2018)

If you’re one of my six regular readers, you will likely already know that I got a job recently. This has resulted in a general sense of stability, clear headedness, and purposefulness that I haven’t had for a while. So, what does one do with one’s suddenly guilt-free spare time on an occasion such as this? One plays computer games.

I’ve been avoiding games for a while because they stretch out to fill the time. And when there’s too much time for them to stretch out into, they can take a toll on your self-worth. But I have plenty of that at the moment, so I played no fewer than three games this week. They’re all very short, to be fair. But it feels good to be back to this medium for at least a while, because all three of them were extremely interesting, and it was hard to pick just one to recommend. Read on to find out if I managed — and to find out which of the gaming podcasts I tried out was the best. When I get in a mood, I commit. 

Also, I had three pieces on the radio this weekend. Readers here will likely be most interested in this one

17 reviews.

Games

Kentucky Route Zero: “Un Pueblo De Nada” (and assorted miscellany) — Kentucky Route Zero’s final intermission minisode is an elegiac trip behind the scenes of a declining small-town public access station. I could have identified that as a KRZ premise even if you hadn’t told me it’s a video game. The minisode itself has less to offer than its two immediate predecessors: “The Entertainment,” which opens up the possibility that the entire game is a stage play being written by one of its supporting characters, and “Here and There Along the Echo,” which makes trawling through a touch-tone telephone menu fun. But when you take into account the fact that “Un Pueblo De Nada” has a slew of online videos associated with it, all of which are live-action renderings of broadcasts from the public access station we explore in the minisode, it rises to the level of prime KRZ. I watched the videos first (save for a couple of hour-long, out-of-universe media art pieces that may be edifying but don’t seem crucial), then played the actual game. I think I recommend doing the opposite. Or at least save the final, longest video until after you’ve played the game. I’ll say no more, except that if you intend to play KRZ at any point, you can’t skip the intermission features, because in spite of their brevity they are as enthralling as the actual chapters of the game. (A final note for obsessives: it looks like the airstrip from the first chapter, which initially seemed like little more than a haunting non-sequitur, is actually going to take on more significance. I’m not sure how I feel about that. I really liked it as an inexplicable, beautiful moment that’s basically unmoored from the rest of the story. But then, if there’s any developer we can trust not to make anything too tidy, it’s Cardboard Computer. So I still feel like the ambiguity won’t be explained away to the point where the airstrip vignette becomes banal.)

Subsurface Circular — This is a miniature, dialogue-driven story game that takes place on a single, continuous train ride. It observes the Aristotelian unities more aggressively than maybe any other game I’ve played: it takes place in real time, as far as I can tell, and your character does not (and cannot) move from their seat in the subway carriage. It is written by Mike Bithell, of Thomas Was Alone fame, and like that game it is about artificial intelligences. However, in Thomas Was Alone, that fact was basically only relevant to the plot: the character drama proceeds as if the characters are odd humans. Subsurface Circular has a little bit more fun with the fact that its characters are robots, encumbering some of them with really strange traits, like having their mood entirely determined by the mood of a separate robot. The story is a straightforward mystery that you investigate the only way you can: by talking to people on the train. The dialogue is choice-based, in the vein of Telltale, except that your choices don’t seem to have a great deal of impact on the actual story — or even the relationships between the characters. That’s not a flaw. It still presents a compelling story and offers you the opportunity to role-play within it. Still, to progress through the story you must hit on certain crucial bits of dialogue. Getting to them is less a matter of cleverness and more a matter of simply exhausting all of your options. Given my own propensity to try and see as much of the text as I can in one sitting, this can get a bit tedious. And it’s partially my fault. But the writing and the story are really, really fun. I highly recommend this to people who loved the writing in Thomas Was Alone, and to people who like text-based games in general.  

Virginia — I love this game. I can imagine what the key critiques of it are, even without reading anything about it. I can hear people’s objections about the lack of even the illusion of player choice, and the way in which you are driven through its spaces on tracks without any real opportunity to explore. (In that way, it is fundamentally different to some of the games it will inevitably be compared to, i.e. Gone Home, Tacoma.) But the way that Virginia tells its story is completely ingenious and wouldn’t be possible in another medium. The story itself is fairly simple to describe, at least until near the end. You’re an FBI agent, assigned to investigate a missing person with another FBI agent — and while you’re at it, you’re expected to carry out an internal investigation of your partner. Virginia’s FBI is a paranoid body where duplicity is par-for-the-course. It even invokes J. Edgar Hoover: a figure whose time would have been up long before this game takes place, but who looms large in the FBI’s institutional memory. You experience the story from a first person perspective, in which you walk down corridors, search for things in rooms, and frequently find yourself jump cutting to another location altogether. Those cuts are the game’s masterstroke — they convey a sensation of the unreliability of memory, perception and reality. The cuts are simple at first: you’re walking down a corridor, only to find yourself walking down a different corridor. The message is simple: we’ve elided part of the story, because it’s not important. But soon, you find yourself cutting from the present-day to a memory, from a dream to reality, and maybe even into the perspective of another character altogether. All of these are bog-standard techniques in film editing, but they make you disoriented and paranoid in this context. Also notable: nobody speaks in Virginia. It proceeds with visual storytelling akin to a Méliès film or a Pingu short, minus the grunting. That only adds to the vagueness. In fact, Virginia avoids words almost entirely, only deigning to put them on screen when there are especially crucial plot details that you can’t afford to miss. (After an hour of wordless gameplay, a key revelation is delivered via microfiche.) The point is this: Virginia is deliberately obscure because of its central themes. Virginia is a game about transgressing the boundaries of what’s true. It is about the levels of artifice that exist in relationships between people, the disconnect between what we perceive as real and what is empirically real outside of us, and how truth can be deliberately distorted for one’s own means. It is strange, unique, powerful, probably unknowable, and it has an original score performed by an honest-to-god symphony orchestra. I love it. I can’t wait to play it again. Pick of the week.

Movies

Isle of Dogs — Hmm. Look, it would be an excellent movie if it weren’t so culturally insensitive. I want to like it, believe me. Wes Anderson is one of my favourite directors, with The Grand Budapest Hotel standing particularly tall among my all-time favourites. And there’s much to love in this film. It contains some of the most objectively gorgeous stop-motion animation I’ve ever seen. And all of the stuff involving the dogs themselves is gold. Bryan Cranston gives a fabulous performance as the hardened stray that the other dogs both look up to and resent. Jeff Goldblum is hilarious as the town gossip. And Harvey Keitel puts in a curiously heartbreaking turn as a dog for whom desperate times called for desperate measures. But much of the remainder of the movie takes place in a Western fantasy of Japan: a Japan with only its aesthetics intact. A key element of the film is that the audience is not supposed to understand the human dialogue throughout much of it. But… presumably those members of the audience who speak Japanese will not get the benefit of that choice. Like Pop Culture Happy Hour’s Linda Holmes pointed out, Japan isn’t Narnia. It’s a real place that exists in the world. Much of Isle of Dogs constitutes textbook cultural appropriation. Shame, too: if this had been made to take place in an actual fantasy world, I think it might be a near masterpiece. As it is, I spent much of the movie’s duration squirming uncomfortably.

Literature, etc.

Brian Vickers: “Too too solid: On the Norton Shakespeare and the New Oxford Shakespeare” — I have been meaning to buy a proper complete Shakespeare for a while now. Reading Moby-Dick in the Norton Critical Edition has opened my eyes to the advantages of a solid critical edition, even for recreational reading. This opinionated, not to say catty, review of the two most recent editions of Shakespeare from perpetual rivals Oxford and Norton highlights the latter as a pretty clear winner. Even if you’re not in the market for one of these, this is worth a read simply to watch Vickers excoriate the Oxford for its misbegotten attempts at trendiness: referencing Hamilton, referring to Shakespeare as “the ghost with the most,” and eschewing critical introductions to the plays (probably the whole point of a critical edition for most readers) in favour of something they call “Shakespeare tapas,” in which they sample one or two lines from essays and interviews with notable Shakespeareans out of context. Norton it is.  

Music

The New Pornographers: Mass Romantic — Somebody mentioned them in conversation recently and I was reminded that I’d never heard a full album. I’m not sure I’d even listened to a song with any real intention. I began where one begins: with “Letter From an Occupant.” That song is a miracle. Neko Case’s voice is a laser, and it contains the lines “I cried five rivers on the way here, which one will you skate away on?” That’s a Joni Mitchell riff that improves on the original. There’s something you don’t see every day. Nothing on the rest of the album quite compares, except maybe the title track. After one full listen, my sense is that I’ll be compelled to revisit the Neko Case songs (I’ve listened to “Letter” probably a couple dozen times this week) immediately, and the A.C. Newman songs may yet grow on me. Good album.

Jack White: Boarding House Reach — It’s not all excellent, but it is so crazily heterogenous and energetic that it doesn’t matter. This is the album where Jack White finally embraces the digital, and it turns out not to actually affect his aesthetic all that much. This is as messy, weird and disjointed as any White Stripes album and also toes the same line between knowing ludicrousness and total sincerity. It’s a succinct demonstration that an artist is not defined by their chosen tools, but by their approach to them. Highlights include “Corporation,” which injects an unexpected dose of P-Funk into the record, “Ice Station Zebra,” which contains the much-complained-about rapping (as if we’ve forgotten that he did it on “Lazaretto” too and nobody minded), “Over and Over and Over,” which is the closest we come to a classic garage rock track, and “Respect Commander,” which does some intensely fun stuff with tempo adjustment, and “Get In the Mind Shaft,” which is probably the closest Jack White will ever get to making a Daft Punk song. His best work since Icky Thump. Freaky good fun.

J.S. Bach/John Eliot Gardiner, English Baroque Soloists et al: St. John Passion — It’s Easter. On Easter we listen to Bach. I’ve always preferred the St. John Passion to the St. Matthew, which I can never get all the way through. Where Matthew is mutedly passionate, John is explosive. The opening chorus is a particular favourite — one of the most openly dramatic things in Bach’s entire oeuvre. There’s nothing quite like a big, awesome choir making their first entrance with “HERR!! HERR!! HERR!!” Speaking of, the Monteverdi Choir are the true stars of this fantastic recording with Gardiner. Neither he nor they are afraid of “letting it rip,” as the kids are saying. The English Baroque Soloists play with a sense of individuality that befits their name. And the vocal soloists put in lovely performances, particularly Anthony Rolfe-Johnson in the often thankless role of the Evangelist. Have a listen. At least check out the choruses.

Podcasts

Retronauts: “Zork,” “EarthBound” & “Broderbund” — In my recently rediscovered enthusiasm for video games, I felt compelled to check out a couple things from the doubtless well-populated gaming podcast space. True to its name, Retronauts is a roundtable chat podcast that focuses on retrogaming. In general, I am a modern gaming person, but I played just enough games in my childhood that I can occasionally conjure some nostalgia for eras of gaming gone by. How surprised was I, then, to find that the most recent episode of Retronauts focussed on Broderbund, a company whose edutainment titles made up a big chunk of my early exposure to computers. This episode reminded me of the existence of Living Books, which I’d forgotten entirely, as well as The Print Shop and the Carmen Sandiego games, of which Where in Time is permanently imprinted on my DNA. The Zork episode is a fun exploration of that game, which I’ve put many hours into and never even really come close to beating. I do feel that the panel may have a limited experience of post-Infocom parser-based interactive fiction, in light of which Zork’s puzzles look counterintuitive and inexpert. The EarthBound episode is the one with the most difficult task, namely to say interesting things about a game about which there is little left to say. It’s probably the Super Nintendo equivalent of Bowie’s Low. Alas, much of the discussion focuses on the game’s music, which is deeply beside the point. Still, I’ll listen to more of this. They’ve got a rich back-catalogue with at least one thing I care about for every dozen that I don’t.

No Cartridge: “Desert of the Real Fictions” — The second gaming podcast I checked out this week is this loose conversation show hosted by a professor. A conversation between that professor, Trevor Strunk, and the developer of Night in the Woods, Scott Benson, is bound to be fun. This particularly focuses on the question raised by gamers who demand better endings from game developers — as if a game is something other than a thing made by a person, but rather a thing that exists whole in some other universe and has been dragged imperfectly into this one by a flawed human vessel. It shines a light on the ways in which a large swathe of the gaming hordes are substantially lacking in critical facility. A fun listen if you’re into that sort of thing.

On the Media: “Big, if True” — One of the best things about OTM is that it’s always there on the stories you need it for. The Cambridge Analytica story was one of those. This is as good an exploration of that as you could hope for.

Song by Song: “Bride of Rain Dog” & “Anywhere I Lay My Head” — I’ve enormously enjoyed this podcast’s breakdown of Rain Dogs. These final two episodes are the general summation you’d hope for. It’s all well that they chose to do that, since I’m really not sure there’s much to say about “Anywhere I Lay My Head” that it doesn’t say for itself. It is one of Tom Waits’s most poignant creations. I’ll be returning to this show for Frank’s Wild Years — my idiosyncratic favourite Tom Waits album, an opinion I know the panel does not share.

Pop Culture Happy Hour catch-up — It came to pass that I agreed with Linda Holmes (and not Chris Klimek) on Isle of Dogs, a very problemsy movie. In other news, High Maintenance sounds not for me, Ready Player One sounds intensely not for me, and the SXSW wrap was sort of repetitive after hearing All Songs Considered’s coverage in its entirety.

Theory of Everything: “Utopia” parts iv and v — This hasn’t been my favourite mini-season in ToE’s history. But there’s much to enjoy here, in particular Andrew Calloway’s trip to a pagan utopia in part iv.

Imaginary Worlds: “Remembering Ursula K. Le Guin” & “Stuck in the Uncanny Valley” — The Le Guin episode is a good primer that I’ll look back to when I am in search of an SF novel to read. The uncanny valley is one of the better Imaginary Worlds episodes in a while, in no small part because it draws on Eric Molinsky’s expertise as a former animator.

The Memory Palace: “Outliers” & “A quick update and a bonus episode” — “Outliers” is a brief thing about the reasons why a person might decide to take part in a freak show in the 19th century. It is as compassionate and broad minded as you expect this show to be. Oddly, though, the bonus episode that follows it is almost better. It transitions seamlessly from being a bland housekeeping episode to being a really lovely tribute to Lavinia Dock, whose suffrage slogan, “the young are at the gates” is now being repurposed movingly as a slogan for the Never Again movement. This show is an ongoing miracle. Pick of the week.  

The Nod: “Peak Reality” & “Sister, Sister” — It’s been awhile since I listened to this. I heard a preview for “Sister, Sister” on another Gimlet show and figured I had to hear it. But first I listened to a completely different episode by mistake that turned out to be even better. “Peak Reality” finds Eric Eddings arguing to Brittany Luse that 2016 was the best year for reality television. There’s nothing like smart people talking about dumb things. As for “Sister, Sister,” it’s an interesting bit of family drama in which a producer finds out her sister doesn’t identify as black and is upset by this. Alas, the actual conversations with the sister in question make it plain immediately that this sister’s issue is simply that she is in college, with all of the attendant confusion. It’s less compelling than it might be.

Omnibus (week of March 18, 2018)

Can I just say for a second how good it is to be busy? Honest to god, it is so much easier to get up in the morning when you have a million things on the go. Consequently, I am happy to say this was yet another week during which I consumed not much more media than I produced. HOWEVER, I have also started running again, after a too-long hiatus. So that probably means the podcast count will go up again in coming weeks. We’ll see.

Seven reviews.

Television

Broadchurch: Season 1, episode 1 — Not for me, I’m afraid. Given all its ties to Doctor Who both previous and forthcoming, I was hoping to enjoy it. But nothing in this really lept out and convinced me it’s significantly different from any other cop show — save for its beautiful cinematography. But in the absence of an unconventional story or characters more defined than “brooding cop with a troubled, mysterious past,” I think I’ll leave it at this.

Movies

Best of Enemies — Anybody with any interest in the media at all should watch this deeply engaging documentary about ABC’s televised debates between Gore Vidal and William F. Buckley in 1968. But even if you don’t have any particular interest in that, you should watch it anyway because these two are among the most interesting characters of their milieu, and this is ultimately a character-driven film. The debates, it must be said, were character-driven debates. It probably speaks to the film’s quality that I changed my mind halfway through as to whether the debates were actually a good idea. At first, I marvelled at the notion that there was a time when a major network would devote a significant amount of time to lofty discussions of the issues by people with a decidedly academic grasp of language. How our discourse has been degraded since then, I thought! But then I realized that these debates weren’t about the issues at all — they were two-way character assassinations motivated more by mutual loathing than by any principles at all. By the time Buckley delivers his famous rejoinder in which he threatens to punch Vidal in the face, you realize that you’re watching the invention of modern political discourse on tape. Also, this film contains footage of Buckley playing Bach on the harpsichord, badly. As if we needed more reasons to find him noxious. (The filmmakers get bonus points for pairing that footage with Wendy Carlos’ Switched-On Bach, which came out in the year of the debates.)

What We Do In The Shadows — Taika Waititi is one of the funniest people alive. This isn’t entirely his movie, of course. He co-stars and co-directs with Jemaine Clement. But he steals every scene he’s in, right from the sublime opening, in which he floats out of a coffin and immediately grins goofily. You understand his character before he says a word. What We Do In The Shadows is consistently funny from start to finish. Every joke is contingent on the character speaking it, and the characters are all brilliant, so there are very few jokes that don’t land. (“Werewolves, not swearwolves” is a personal favourite that would not be funny in another context.) And there’s even a bit of heart. There are few things sadder than a vampire watching a video of a sunrise on YouTube.

Music

The Decemberists: I’ll Be Your Girl — Let’s start with the single. “Severed” was the first track I heard from I’ll Be Your Girl. That was before I knew it was produced by John Congleton, so it didn’t make a lick of sense. Once you know that, everything slides into place. Suddenly it’s hard not to hear it as a John Congleton song feat. Colin Meloy. You can even imagine Congleton singing it: lyrics like “I alone am the answer/I alone will make wrongs right/But in order to root out the cancer/It’s got to be kept from the sunlight” wouldn’t be out of place on Until the Horror Goes. Realizing this made something click into place for me that might otherwise have caused me to hate this album: for three albums now, the Decemberists’ goal has been to push the limits of what it means to be the Decemberists. (The Hazards of Love was pushing something, but it’s still resolutely in their Anglophilic comfort zone. So is The Queen of Hearts, for that matter.) I have had mixed opinions of how well this has worked. I adore The King is Dead and listen to it as often as the period classics from my high school days. What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World didn’t do much for me because I couldn’t put my finger on what exactly it was trying to be. So far, I’ll Be Your Girl sits somewhere between those two poles, but an awful lot closer to the good end. Like The King is Dead, it has a clear premise. The King is Dead was a migration of the band’s folk influences from England back home to America. It was a revitalizing switch-up. I’ll Be Your Girl is an earnest attempt to merge Colin Meloy’s archaisms and affectations with John Congleton’s deranged postmodernism. Part of that attempt involves paring back Meloy’s trademark long-windedness to an uncompromising opposite extreme: several of these songs revolve around one or two key lines repeated at length. This too is revitalizing. Like The King is Dead, this album is a reminder not to only expect one thing from a band. I’ll remark on a few key tracks. “Severed” isn’t the only song that could belong on a Congleton solo record: “We All Die Young” is even more deranged, with Congleton’s signature rough drum sound and a children’s chorus shout-singing the title line as a call-and-response in the chorus. That’s a Congletonian touch if ever I’ve heard one — and a particularly disturbing one in light of the recent school shootings and protests against gun violence. It steps right up to the line of being tasteless, but manages to land on haunting instead. Also: when I said that “Severed” was the first track from the album I heard, that’s not strictly true. It was the first recording from the album I heard. But I heard the Decemberists do “Everything is Awful” and “Sucker’s Prayer” in concert last year. Coming off the disappointment of Terrible/Beautiful, they were a ray of hope for the future. The former is an instant classic. Calling it plainspoken would be an understatement: it consists almost entirely of its title and a wordless singalong outro. Set to a chipper acoustic accompaniment that morphs into stadium rock over the course of three minutes, it is a perfect evocation of what it’s like to hate everything while trying to maintain your sense of humour. On that note: I’ll Be Your Girl is Colin Meloy’s most openly depressive album to date, and also the one where his debt to Morrissey is most pronounced. “For Once In My Life” is nearly a rewrite of “Please, Please, Please, Let Me Get What I Want.” And like Morrissey, when Meloy writes about depression, he does so with the self-awareness of an elderly man and the overwrought drama of a teenager. “I wanna love somebody, but I don’t know how,” he sings on “Sucker’s Prayer,” before throwing all that self-knowledge away with the line “I wanna throw my body in the river and drown.” None of this is what you’d expect from the Colin Meloy of “The Infanta” or “The Mariner’s Revenge Song.” And that’s fine. But there is one thing here for the Picaresque and Crane Wife crowd. “Rusalka, Rusalka/Wild Rushes” is a prog folk epic in the vein of “The Bagman’s Gambit” or “The Island.” It’s nice that it’s there, but it’s frankly not one of the best tracks on the album. And that’s maybe the most encouraging thing: where Terrible/Beautiful made me long for the Decemberists of old (ye olde Decemberists), I’ll Be Your Girl makes me confident that while they can still do what they used to do, they’re now actually better at doing something else entirely. Pick of the week.

Literature, etc.

Jorge Luis Borges: “Notes on Germany and the War” — Not everything in this collection of Borges’ writings against the Nazis has aged perfectly, but it’s worth reading for the general thrust of his arguments about the people who support fascism implicitly without realizing it. It also contains this peal of slightly petulant but sympathetic wisdom: “the true intellectual refuses to take part in contemporary debates: reality is always anachronous.”

Podcasts

All Songs Considered: SXSW Late Night Dispatches, recap, and New Music Friday: March 16 — I’m always a fan of All Songs’ SXSW coverage. Points out a bunch of stuff I need to check out. But frankly, there are too many recent and upcoming releases from artists I’m already invested in that I doubt I’ll get to any of it soon. The recap episode is the most useful for actually finding new music. But even without actual music, the late night dispatches are great radio featuring a group of people who are as overstimulated as it is possible to get while also being sober. Plus, this was the first New Music Friday episode I’ve heard, which is a fun feature. I’m glad I put this show back in my regular rotation. It is as useful as it is fun. Pick of the week.

99% Invisible catch-up — The most recent five episodes of 99pi is a pretty strong run — as is appropriate, given that they’re coming up to their 300th episode. Imagine. Specifically, the two-parter on the Bijlmer is outstanding. The Bijlmer was a neighborhood built by modernists that fell into disrepair almost immediately. It’s a great story. It was also nice to revisit episode 200, “Miss Manhattan.” I don’t remember it being a favourite the first time around, but maybe I was distracted. It’s lovely. Next week, the big three-oh-oh, and an appraisal of how the show’s been since the epoch-defining Kickstarter that allowed it to expand its team to the extent that it now has.

Omnibus (week of March 11, 2018)

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

Eight reviews.

Movies

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

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

Literature, etc.

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

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

Music

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

Podcasts

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

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

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