Category Archives: Omnibus

Omnibus (week of Sept. 17, 2017)

Well hi. Here’s the link to the latest segment on CBC Radio, in which I discuss the slippery notion of “creative beginnings.” Also, if you listen really closely you can hear my quarter-life crisis humming in the background. Fun! I’m at 1:21:19.

23 reviews. The classic number of reviews. (I think there’s been 23 more than any other number of reviews.)

Games

Everything — Not long after I posted my last, very satisfied review of this, I finished the section of the game that apparently constitutes the tutorial. Well then. It’s a clever structural tactic, actually: once all of the game’s mechanics are introduced, Everything beckons you back to the place where you started: an oddly shaped golden gate that you can now actually enter into. It leads to an inescapable prison, where every object is miserable and solipsistic. But if you’ve been paying attention to Alan Watts’ proto-hippie voiceover lectures, you’ll know that they’ve all got the wrong idea. They don’t realize that everything is everything else. This is the one part of the game so far that presents a clear objective: escape. And of course, you can do so by using the mechanics you’ve learned already, in a neat bit of symmetry with the more abstract set of realizations the game takes for granted that you’ve internalized. Once you escape, you’re treated to a very late-90s cinematic that has the feel of an ending, but which culminates in the words “Welcome to Everything.” Because a game like Everything can’t have something so banal as an ending. The object of the game is to explore, and that’s not an objective that can be deemed complete by anybody save for the player. Another note: this game has a highly customizable autoplay mode that takes over when you stop playing, basically rendering it a deeply contemplative screensaver. This is far more satisfying than you might think. I let Everything play on its own while I made lunch today, and I saw more of it than I probably would had I been in control that whole time. So if you’re playing this, don’t discount that mode. Put it on while you’re reading, or something. If I had a television in addition to this damned laptop, Everything might make nice ambience for the apartment. I’ve never seen anything like Everything before. In a sense it’s staggeringly ambitious — a game that illustrates the whole of creation. But in another, it’s a pleasantly modest and quirky little confection that can take the edge off if you’re stressed out. I’ve come to like it a whole lot.

Television

Battlestar Galactica: Razor, Razor Flashbacks & Season 4.0 — BSG is not so much a show as a hole you fall down. This week I fell down the hole. For clarity: I watched the TV movie Razor, the series of short webisodes Razor Flashbacks and the first half of the fourth season, officially known as Season 4.0 (as opposed to 4.5, which is next week’s project). I understand I’m a season and a half into the part of the show that people think isn’t good. I only halfway understand that. Seasons two and three are in my view equally patchy, with the high points of season three being among the most staggering episodes in the series. So far, this is holding up that pattern. Razor and its largely redundant flashbacks are not among the show’s finest hours, but it’s fun to see the events of a fascinating moment in the show’s timeline through an unfamiliar perspective. I can imagine that it might have been frustrating on original transmission, seeing how it has very little to do with the enormous cliffhanger of the season three finale. But from a binge-watching perspective, it’s exactly what the show needs at this moment: a reprieve from the acceleration of the show towards its much-prophesied endpoint, and a trip back to the simpler times of mid-season two. As for the season itself, it feels creaky at times, but only to the same extent as the last two seasons. Occasionally there’ll be a joke that falls flat or a line that doesn’t make sense. “It’s time to take a stand. And that time is now,” Baltar says at one point. Half of that line shouldn’t have made it to the shooting script. But then, Baltar is getting to be the show’s biggest problem. He was fun at first, and I enormously enjoyed the arc that led him from the presidency to the trial of the century. But as a prophet, and an increasingly sincere one at that, he’s less fun. The spiritual element of Battlestar Galactica has always been my favourite thing about it. The collision of political power, military might and religious devotion that fuels this show’s large-scale conflicts are starting to feel increasingly like a far more interesting (and earlier) version of what Game of Thrones is at its best. But having Baltar at the centre of it strikes me as a bit arbitrary — just something new for him to do. (Also, where has Head Six been these last few episodes? She vanished like Lear’s fool as soon as Baltar took the lead of his cult. Will she be back? I sure hope so.) I don’t really have much more to say about this in general. Only specific gripes like the fact that I’m not especially happy to see Lampkin back. He was overbearing at best during the trial arc, and he’s even more tediously gothic in “Sine Qua Non,” a nonsense episode of television. I’ll resist the impulse to generalize until next week, by which time I’ll surely be done this.

Literature, etc.

Margaret Atwood: The Handmaid’s Tale (audiobook) — The genius of this, both in terms of the book itself and this audiobook adaptation, doesn’t become entirely clear until very near the end. Spoilers ahoy. In my view, the thing that makes the main body of The Handmaid’s Tale great is its worldbuilding and the beauty of its prose, more so than its story. The story is perfectly fine, and it’s cleverly parsed out in a smattering of recollections of times past among the present-day narrative. But in my head I can’t stop comparing it to later Atwood novels like Oryx and Crake and especially The Blind Assassin which just rocket along with one twist and turn after another, and this is a much less dense book than either of those. But the ending of The Handmaid’s Tale, which takes place at a conference years later, at which the text of the narrative you’ve just read is examined as a factual, in-universe document from a bygone time, kicks what was a good book up to near-masterpiece territory. Hearing a professor jocularly question the veracity of the whole narrative thus far — thereby failing to learn from the lessons of history in the way he explicitly deems necessary — is perverse in the extreme. As much of a narrative rug pull as this surely is in print (I’ve never read the book in its original form), it’s even cleverer in this audio adaptation, where the final chapter makes good on the ad copy’s promise of a “full cast.” These historians unearthed Offred’s narrative in the form of audio, which is precisely what we audiobook listeners have just experienced. The very limited sound design elements at the start of each part of the book are suddenly explained as the sound of Offred taping over what was once a mixtape. The producers of this audiobook managed to turn it into a (very minimalistic) radio play, without really needing to change anything. If you’ve been meaning to finally read this, or re-read it in light of recent events (Atwood’s afterword for this audiobook edition, written this year, details some of her thoughts on the book’s new relevance in the Trump era), you should consider the audiobook. Claire Danes’s reading of Offred’s story will ring in your head long after the credits roll. Pick of the week.

China Miéville: October — This was more of a slog than I’d expected. Miéville is one of the most virtuosic writers alive, but his mandate to tell the story of the Russian Revolution as straightforwardly as he can leaves him hog-tied, with none of his usual structural ingenuity to rely on. His clinical prose never quite gives the impression that we’re talking about a turning point in history, and his fascination with the minutia of party in-fighting causes whole chapters to pass by without much of interest. I understand why Miéville made some of the choices he did. If he’d written in more ornamented prose, he’d run the risk of producing something close to Soviet kitsch. And if he’d chosen to focus on the narratives of individuals, as many nonfiction writers do to lend a human dimension to cataclysmic events, he’d be implicitly denying the grassroots reality of the revolution. The only characters in this who really come alive on the page are Lenin and Kerensky, and I’d still like to have gotten into their heads a little more. It seems to me that Miéville set himself an impossible challenge with this book. I respect him for trying, but I don’t believe he produced the history that he intended to.

Podcasts

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “Emmy Awards 2017” & “Fall Movie Preview” — I missed this year’s Emmys. Doesn’t sound like much happened. The coverage of this makes me realize how much I need to watch Atlanta, which is seemingly the consensus pick for “thing that deserved better.” As for the fall movie preview, I can’t honestly say that any of this sounds especially interesting to me. The nearest movie that I’m super excited for is Isle of Dogs and that’s not out until March.

The Daily: Sept. 18 & 20, 2017 — The September 20th episode, breaking down Trump’s address to the U.N. is actually still worth a listen even this long after the fact. I actually feel regret that I can’t find time for this every day. It is an astonishing undertaking.

Fresh Air: “Hillary Rodham Clinton” — This is worth hearing even (especially?) if you are not fond of her. Terry Gross takes the opportunity to address her previous interview with Clinton, which was taken advantage of by right wing interests to undermine Clinton in the eyes of her base. This event, which predates the heat of the 2016 campaign, now seems like a prophecy.

All Songs Considered: “New Mix” Björk, Neil Young, Burial, Kelela, More” — I am so out of the loop about the year’s new music, and that is mostly because I haven’t been listening to this. Still, new music by Björk is reason to tune in. That’s a funny thing to say, isn’t it? Since I can hear that music in many other places that are also free. But I still like to hear new tracks on this show first, because I know it’ll also introduce me to stuff I wouldn’t have otherwise heard. Neil Young’s Hitchhiker was always something I was going to hear. (I am still technically planning to hear all of his albums in chronological order, but that project has been on a long hiatus because I’m not in the mood.) But having heard this gorgeous acoustic version of “Powderfinger,” which in defiance of Robin Hilton I will happily say is at least in my top three Neil Young songs, I clearly need to hear the album very soon.

The Gist: “The Frat Doesn’t Have Your Back” — As an alumnus of two Canadian universities, I have no idea why American students are so taken in by frats and sororities. This episode about racism in frats only surprised me during the bits where it outlined some of the reasons frats are not terrible.

The Heart: “Bodies: Goddess” — The “Bodies” mini-season concludes with an episode about the poet Maria R. Palacios, whose work deals with her body: she uses a wheelchair as a result of childhood polio. This mini-season has been a solid continuation of The Heart’s best year yet.

99% Invisible: “The Finnish Experiment” — Universal basic income from a design perspective. This is essential listening for anybody curious about how this whole thing might work. The short answer is that nobody knows. But this will tell you about the people who are trying to figure it out who you should be keeping tabs on.

Twenty Thousand Hertz: “Watergate” — It’s been ages since I listened to this show, but the idea of them doing a sound-focussed political story interested me. This is the story of how recording technology in the Nixon White House became so much a part of the scenery that it led to the president’s downfall. Fun stuff.

Longform: Reply All two-parter — These two interviews with the hosts of Reply All are among the most fascinating documents of the world of podcasting that I’ve heard. I’d argue that Reply All, more so than StartUp, is the show that made Gimlet Media an institution. It is an ongoing classic, and a thing that couldn’t really exist if not for podcasting. It is a seamless integration of This American Life-style reported storytelling with the sort of loose chatter that’s native to podcasting. These interviews highlight how both sides of that coin came together. They go into detail on the story development process of the show’s six-person team (I can hardly believe this show is made by only six people) and they also shed light on how Vogt and Goldman’s rapport developed. This is fascinating stuff. Reply All is eminently deserving of a two-hour peek behind the curtain.

Constellations: “adriene lilly – migraines & tsunamis” & “michelle macklem – ode to my last 10 years of dating” — Here is a new podcast dedicated to boundary pushing, sound art-adjacent radio. In other words, it may be the medium’s saviour. Time will tell. Of these first two I’ve heard, “migraines & tsunamis” is the standout. It is a marvellous collage that deals with two very distinct, but oddly analogous kinds of pain. I want more like this from the podcast space. I will be listening to this one closely.

Code Switch: “A Weed Boom, But For Whom?” — A fascinating look into how the oncoming post-legalization weed boom will likely mostly help white people. Also, a fascinating look at the pre-history of the drug war, which predates Nixon by decades.

Reply All: “At World’s End” — A two-story episode focussed on Newgrounds. Remember Newgrounds? What a cesspool. I recall it with fondness.

Theory of Everything: “Concrete and Respect (Wisconsin part I of II)” — This is so great. It’s co-produced by Mathilde, who is the episode announcer on the show, and Benjamen Walker’s wife. (I cannot find a reliable spelling of her last name on the internet, otherwise I’d give it.) The two of them and their young son Arthaud head off to Wisconsin for a family vacation to see some weird art and talk to people who aren’t politically aligned with them. They’re a family with an unorthodox idea of fun. But Mathilde brings a well-read thoughtfulness to this show that’s different from Walker’s trademark informed paranoia. She’s been reading Tocqueville lately, and it deeply influences her take on what she sees. I love this. It’s a great example of what makes this show totally different from anything else out there. Pick of the week.

Imaginary Worlds: “Worldbuilding With Music” — Weird episode. A guy from a band got in touch with Eric Molinsky to suggest an episode on concept albums, which is a great idea. But this focusses mostly on that band, which is yet to release their first EP. And by all indications here, it doesn’t sound that great. I would have loved to hear from Del the Funky Homosapien, Neil Peart, and maybe Tony Visconti, or somebody else who worked with Bowie on Ziggy Stardust. I guess they’re hard to get in touch with. But something like that would have been great.

StartUp: “An Announcement from StartUp and Introducing The Nod” — The announcement that StartUp will be devoted specifically to serialized seasons from here on out is EXTREMELY welcome. Guess I won’t drop this show after all. And the episode of The Nod that they play here is great: it’s a fashion-focussed episode and I still liked it, which means it must be very compelling storytelling. I should listen to this show more often.

Nocturne: “Shortboard” — I feel like I need some new podcasts in my life. This one has been coming up in the New York Times podcast club Facebook group, so I figured I’d give it a go. I’m a fan — though this particular episode could almost be Love and Radio. The premise of the show is just, stories that happen at night. That’s a promising premise, although I generally don’t listen to podcasts at night, so I might have trouble being in the mood for it. Still, always nice to find a new show that’s good.

Showcase from Radiotopia: “Ways of Hearing #6 – NOISE” — This final episode of Ways of Hearing is one of the strongest. It details how digital instruments are noiseless, and how layering them thus loses the noisy richness of analogue recording. It finishes with a slightly forced attempt to link the concepts of signal and noise to every other episode of the show, but prior to that, it’s good stuff. I had high hopes for this series, and it didn’t really even come close. But when it was at its most insightful, it was really good.

Radiolab: “Oliver Sipple” — This is an overall pretty good story about a guy who saved the president’s life and then had all of his privacy and his family taken away from him by the press, who seized on the fact that he was gay. The story has two weak points: one, nobody involved really tries that hard to litigate the central conflict in the story which is whether or not the public actually had a right to know about Sipple’s sexuality. This is the sort of conflict that Radiolab used to thrive on, and it comes and goes in about 30 seconds here. The other problem is that the story starts with original interview tape of the attempted assassin that Sipple stopped. She never reappears. I have no idea why this was necessary for the story, aside from to shock and titillate us with the notion that we’re hearing from that person. There’s some great archival tape in this, though.

On the Media: “Trust Issues” — A really good one. The highlights are a particularly persuasive argument that government deregulation of tech giants has led to us being “governed” by private companies, and another conversation on how a code of ethics might come into effect in Silicon Valley. It also contains a not too confrontational (but confrontational enough) conversation with the guy who runs Gab, the free speech absolutist, conservative dominated social platform. In their now infamous post-election day episode, the hosts of OTM talked about how they’d need to find a new paradigm for the show, the same way they had to when Obama was elected. I think the close examination of social media might be a viable new paradigm for this show. Certainly it’s the only one that seems to understand it at all.

Advertisements

Omnibus (week of Sept. 10, 2017)

Greetings! 19 reviews.

Television

BoJack Horseman: Season 4 — There are four ongoing Netflix original series that I watch. Of those, I am a season behind on two of them: Orange is the New Black and Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. When seasons five and three of those series respectively dropped earlier this year, I decided I didn’t have time for them right that moment. But I dropped everything for BoJack Horseman. The last two seasons of this show have both been flawless. Each of them contains one or more episodes that I consider among the best television ever made. New BoJack is a run-don’t-walk cultural event. This season is extraordinary, but it does strike me as the first one to be slightly less enthralling than the last. Seasons two and three were blazingly effective because they presented one new set of circumstances after another for BoJack, gradually making it clear that no set of circumstances is sufficient to repair him. Season four takes a break from throwing new shit at BoJack to instead examine the old shit that got him to this place. It’s a logical move for a show that’s always been fascinated with the convergence of unlikely causes to produce unlikely effects. (Recall that this is the show that ended its last season by throwing all of its B-stories together into a bizarre culmination in which Mr. Peanutbutter saves an aquatic city from a huge mound of spaghetti.) But this new focus on the past also leaves open the question of whether there’s actually anywhere left for BoJack Horseman to go. But let’s look beyond the big-picture narrative stuff. What about the jokes? In that respect this season is at least as strong as any of its predecessors, with its language-based humour at a particular apex. The show’s linguistic pot runneth over to such an extent that one of its best gags gets relegated to a news ticker: “Kathmandu Cat, Man, Doe Man Canoe to Timbuktu.” Anything to do with the assonance-prone Courtney Portnoy is equally marvellous. The outright funniest stuff in the season generally revolves around Mr. Peanutbutter’s extremely ill-advised gubernatorial run, which brings him back into contact with his ex-wives Katrina Peanutbutter and Jessica Biel. (Biel plays herself with hilarious disregard for her real-life personal brand.) BoJack’s best episodes are often its most conceptual, and this season carries that on, with one standout being an episode in which the Peanutbutter residence collapses into the ground, burying a bunch of wealthy showbiz and politics types. Things go Lord of the Flies as quickly as you might expect. The other best episode in the season is as heartbreaking as “Underground” is jokey. As much as BoJack’s character arc decelerates this season, the supporting cast gets some devastating stuff, especially Princess Carolyn. The frame narrative of “Ruthie,” in which PC’s distant descendent in a far-off future tells the story of her esteemed ancestor’s worst day ever, turns out to be one of the most adventurous and saddest things the show has ever done. I dare say it’s more effective than the main tragedy that the show wants us to get invested in this season, which is the life story of Beatrice Horseman, née Sugarman. Previously, we’ve seen Beatrice almost entirely as a monster — a destructive presence in her son’s life. This season doesn’t so much humanize her as show how she’s a product of her circumstances: specifically, the oppressive upper-crust society of post-war America. We see this story play out in two episodes, the more effective of which is the season’s second episode, “The Old Sugarman House,” in which past and present are shown to play out simultaneously through the wonders of animation. It’s an almost theatrical effect: we repeatedly see our present-day cast in the same frame as characters from two generations previously, with only the story to differentiate between the two layers of reality that we’re seeing simultaneously. It’s a canny technique for illustrating the chains of cause and effect that so obsess this show. The show’s penultimate episode, “Time’s Arrow,” doesn’t fare so well. This one seems to be a particular hit with the critics, but I’m not convinced. The decision to show the episode’s events through the lens of the deteriorating mind of the now-senile Beatrice is a good one, but unlike in “Ruthie,” the mode of storytelling entirely outpaces the content of the story, which is rote and predictable in a way that this show usually isn’t. It doesn’t help that the season’s denouement revolves around Hollyhock, the season’s newcomer. Hollyhock is brilliantly performed by Aparna Nancherla, but she is more clearly a plot device than any other character in this show so far. She is the motivating factor for the show’s journey into BoJack’s family past. Given the comparative thinness of her characterization (thinner than the comparatively brief role of Penny, I’d wager), I found the central plot reveal at the season’s end a bit underwhelming. Still, this is only lacking by comparison to the two perfect seasons that precede it. At its most brilliant (“The Old Sugarman House,” “Ruthie,” “Underground” and “Hooray! Todd Episode!” which I somehow didn’t even get to in this wall of text) it is still among the best television being made today. At its least brilliant it’s only excellent. I halfway hope that season five will be the end for BoJack. I want a proper ending for this show, but I never want to see it lose steam. This remains my favourite thing Netflix has ever brought into existence. We’ll see if it maintains the title once Stranger Things season two comes out.

Movies

The Kid — Every so often I get a hankering for silent comedy. I haven’t seen The Kid since my film studies class in the third year of my undergrad. So I figured, why not revisit the Charlie Chaplin movie that I recall being my favourite during that brief period where I watched a ton of Charlie Chaplin movies? The reason I love The Kid is that it demonstrates how even canonized masters like Chaplin can make a very “first movie” kind of first movie. Chaplin had directed some classic shorts prior to this, but The Kid is his first feature. (Though, at under an hour, it barely qualifies by today’s standards.) This is the movie where Chaplin’s aspirations to be not just the greatest comedic entertainer of his generation, but also the new Charles Dickens are most obvious. It tells the story of a single mother who is forced to abandon her child, which unexpectedly ends up in the care of a wily tramp — Chaplin’s famous hatted, moustached character. And while the non-comedic scenes with the mother land with a thud compared to Chaplin’s own plotline, the genuine bond between the tramp and the kid is an undercurrent of genuine drama that fits remarkably well into a film that is also full of Chaplin’s famous physical comedy. I’ve heard Buster Keaton referred to as silent comedy’s resident modernist. His detachment certainly feels less of-its-time than Chaplin’s pathos. Still, for all his Dickensian tendencies, the tramp prefigures modern comedy in a remarkable way. We live in an era of comedy when comedic characters are expected to have the depth and internal consistency to function in dramatic settings as well. (Think of BoJack Horseman for half a dozen examples.) For all of his broad clowning, the tramp is one of the most subtle creations in all of comedy. And I daresay The Kid provides his defining moment: when the child he’s come to love is taken from him, his impulse is to escape his aggressors by taking to the city’s rooftops — a typically counterintuitive, and openly comical, move. But as he traverses the skyline in pursuit of the truck that’s taking his son away, he exudes desperation. It’s one of the most beautiful scenes ever. Take an hour and watch this. It’s ageless.

Rosemary’s Baby — Well, I’m going to see mother! We’ll see how that goes. (Ed. see below for how that went.) In the meantime I figured I should prepare by watching the classic movie that it supposedly draws heavily from. Polanski’s a creep and that has deterred me from really diving into his filmography. But this is a damned good movie. Mia Farrow’s performance is a welcome departure from the screaming hysterics of many classic female horror leads, though that’s partially down to the kind of horror movie this is — a slow-burning psychological one. It’s certainly a step up from Repulsion, the other Polanski apartment building horror movie I’ve seen. That movie’s portrait of sexual repression seems banal by comparison to this movie’s assertion that all of the men in its protagonist’s life actually are conspiring against her. Oh, and also a couple of fabulously batty old women. Ruth Gordon’s performance as the forcefully friendly senior citizen Minnie Castevet is maybe the best part of Rosemary’s Baby. Also, the ending is incredible. For a second I was a bit let down that the ambiguity of the film was washed away by a surge of “Hail Satans,” but that final shot of Mia Farrow rocking the crib of her demon child introduces an entirely new kind of ambiguity that wasn’t there before. Marvellous stuff. I might even swallow my distaste and rewatch Chinatown, now.

mother! — I saw this with my friend Sachi. Her immediate response at the end of the movie is the most appropriate review I can imagine of this, and that was to laugh hysterically for several minutes. Mother! is an aggressively fucked up movie. It begins as an Edward Albee-reminiscent black comedy of manners, and then it descends precipitously into a nightmare scenario so over-the-top that it’s impossible to take seriously. This, I am certain, is by design. From the moment that the exclamation point appears in the title card, mother! is arch and theatrical. Jennifer Lawrence and Javier Bardem give completely committed and sincere performances, but nothing else in the movie is like that. Once Ed Harris and Michelle Pfeiffer show up as a pair of oddly childlike uninvited guests, the movie crosses a Rubicon, and there’s no hope of dealing with it as character drama anymore. Interestingly, director Darren Aronofsky has essentially taken to the internet to explain the movie. A couple key remarks on Reddit have basically confirmed that Bardem = God, Lawrence = Mother Earth, Harris and Pfeiffer = Adam and Eve and the brothers Gleeson = Cain and Abel. I say “interestingly” because this doesn’t seem to me like the sort of thing you’d want to directly point out to your audience. Allegories are bland. They reduce stories that offer a whole world of possibility into one tidy interpretation. Suddenly, the disquieting scene where Bardem comforts a vomiting Harris while ostentatiously hiding a wound in Harris’s side can only represent the creation of Eve, stolen rib and all. Why would Aronofsky want this for his movie? Surely he’d rather see us puzzle through it, arriving at many disparate interpretations, the way we do with Eraserhead — a movie that this one evokes from time to time. I think the answer lies in the movie’s archness — in that anomalous exclamation point in the title. One of our key characters is an artist (the God one, obviously) and every single time the movie addresses his creativity, or the reception of his work, it devolves into clichés. We see him sit bolt upright in bed with inspiration exclaiming “Pen! Pen!” We hear a fan proclaim “I feel like these words were written… for me!” The movie goes out of its way to make God’s work appear ridiculous, and by extension his followers. To me, it seems like the movie is primarily commenting on the slipperiness of interpretation, particularly the sort of interpretation that attempts to reconcile the vastly complex into one internally consistent narrative (If you’ve been following Twin Peaks fandom this year, you’ll be familiar with this.) Mother! comments on the most high-stakes version of that practice: theology, and particularly the dunderheaded literalist sort. Fittingly, it culminates in a huge, gaudy apocalypse, tempting us to read it in dunderheadedly literalist fashion. That’s my take. I mean, I could be wrong. It’s entirely possible that I’ve gone too far down the rabbit hole in my attempts to justify the ways of Aronofsky to man. The real truth is just that I enjoyed the hell out of this movie, and I want it to be more than a banal Biblical allegory. In any case, mother! is completely bonkers crazy and you’ll probably feel a little cracked at the end. Good enough for me. Pick of the week.

Games

Everything — I played this for a frustrating half hour a few weeks ago, but it was only this week when I decided to actually get the settings adjusted so it works on my janky laptop. Once I got that sorted, I found this completely immersive. If you don’t know what this is, it is a game in which there is no specific objective, but which allows you to explore a vast world (many worlds, in fact), while playing as every object in the game, from animals to bacteria to inanimate objects to stars to planetary systems. Its basic contention is a simplistic one, familiar to anybody who’s ever heard a psychedelic rock album: everything is connected, and the whole universe is contained within its each and every component. The game expresses this partway through narration by the philosopher Alan Watts, something of a proto-hippie figure, though he might chafe at that characterization. Still, the actual experience of playing the game mitigates its potential heavy-handedness with a pleasant absurdity. Most of its playable characters aren’t actually animated. Rather, they move around by doing somersaults like a misshapen bicycle wheel tossed down a hill. It’s hard to accuse a game of ponderousness when you’re playing as a wooly mammoth and it’s flipping head over heels through a grove of palm trees. And that’s a conservative example. I spent a fair bit of time playing this as a pair of rubber boots. Because of the game’s mechanics, it is possible and encouraged to make these rubber boots dance around like any living creature would. And as a result of this dancing, they reproduce and make little baby rubber boots. It’s a lovely construction, worth far more than the hour or so I’ve spent on it, and I do hope I make it back to really unravel its secrets. Because it’s also incredibly relaxing, and I need something like that in my life right now.

Music

Sigur Rós: Takk… — I have a theory that Sigur Rós are Coldplay for snobs. Take a good listen to “Hoppípolla.” I don’t necessarily mean that as a dig, though. This is the Sigur Rós album where the memories live, for me. It’s the only one I heard when it first came out, and I listened to “Mílanó” obsessively. It’s a lusher album than either of the ones that precedes it and a more generous one — fitting for an album titled “Thanks.” A beautiful record, and a lovely trip down memory lane.

Movies

Wes Anderson’s short films and commercials — After last week’s marathon of (most of) the features, I figured I may as well be a completist about it. It is not at all jarring to see Anderson’s distinctive style in advertisements. Lavish set decoration and obsessively disciplined framing are advertising standbys anyway. His best ad is the Christmas-themed Darjeeling Limited riff starring Adrien Brody that he made for H&M last year. But that only holds if you don’t count the Prada-financed short Castello Cavalcanti, which is my favourite of his short films. It stars Jason Schwartzman as a racecar driver who fails dismally at his sport (“the steering wheel was screwed on backwards,” he whines) and coincidentally crashes in his ancestral Italian village, among a bunch of distant relations he’s never heard of. There’s a hint of that old story about the Sicilian village that waited in vain for the homecoming of Joe DiMaggio in this. It’s nice. I prefer it to Hotel Chevalier, which is a direct prequel to The Darjeeling Limited, so it’s probably better in context. But that leaves Bottle Rocket, the black and white short that Anderson’s debut feature was based on. It’s a fun artifact, with a slightly different and equally funny take on the scene where Bob won’t stop fooling around with the gun. But most of its scenes also appear in the feature, in substantially refined form. Anyway, this is a fun deep dive, if you’re in the mood for the untapped depths of the Wes Anderson barrel. That sounds pejorative. And I guess it kind of is, because Moonrise Kingdom these are not. But they’re fun.  

Podcasts

Imaginary Worlds: “Technobabble” — Helen Zaltzman sounds slightly half-hearted about this collaboration. But she’s the right person to bring in for a discussion about made-up words.

Mogul: “Behind the Beats” Parts 1 & 2 — Jeez, Mogul’s really taking a victory lap. Still, these episodes are a fun look into the nuts and bolts of making a big, glossy Gimlet show.

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “Outlander,” “People We’re Pulling For” & “The Deuce and What’s Us Happy” — Outlander is clearly not for me, but this conversation about it is goooood fun. Also, I think I’m going to watch The Deuce, but man oh man I bet it’ll be a slog.

Showcase from Radiotopia: “Ways of Seeing #5 – POWER” — This has been a mixed bag of a series for me so far. The first episode, about how digital recording has shaped our perception of time, was ingenious. Much of what has come after is obvious to anybody who’s thought about digital media distribution for any amount of time at all. This episode in particular is about algorithms, and the way that powerful companies hook us into filter bubbles for their own financial gain. This is all correct, but it seems banal when it’s stated outright in a polemical fashion. Because it’s something we all know.

StartUp: “Sex Dot Con” & “Sell the Apartment, Keep the Startup” — The CEO whisperer makes me really uneasy. I feel like this guy is a snake oil salesman who found his mark with Gimlet. Also, the episode about sex.com is kind of unsatisfying.

The Kitchen Sisters Present: “The Galveston Hurricane of 1900: No Tongue Can Tell” — There’s nothing like archival tape. One of these days I’m going to listen to the whole Kitchen Sisters archive, but that is a daunting task. This timely rerun of an episode about the most deadly natural disaster in American history is really moving. It’s nice just to know that somebody captured the voices of people who lived through it.

Radiolab: “Radiolab Presents: Anna in Somalia” — This promo of Rough Translation is a lot more convincing than its marketing campaign, which makes it sound noble and dull. This is the story of men who stayed sane in prison by inventing an alphabet of taps — like Morse code, but not that — and tapping the whole of Anna Karenina on the walls. It’s a remarkable story. Pick of the week.

99% Invisible: “Coal Hogs Work Safe” — This is a story about coal miners who love stickers. Take it or leave it.

Code Switch: “It’s Getting (Dangerously) Hot in Herre”  — This podcast is doing the good work again, with stories that demonstrate why “Mother Nature doesn’t discriminate” isn’t actually true.

On the Media: “Look What You Made Me Do” — Just Brooke Gladstone this week, and it’s a fun one. Particular highlights include segments on the alt right’s appropriation of medieval imagery, and Taylor Swift’s uncertain political allegiances.

The Memory Palace: “Sometimes the Rain Just Doesn’t Stop” — A flood-themed episode for a stormy week. I like that Nate DiMeo does episodes like this, that tie into devastating events, from time to time. Generally, I appreciate The Memory Palace as an escape from the ruthless churn of current events, into the world of historical context. Still, most episodes of The Memory Palace resonate strongly with contemporary discourses, even if they aren’t hooked to contemporary stories. That’s what DiMeo does, even in the episodes that are obviously responses to a specific event. This is in a category with his episode after the Pulse Nightclub shootings. And although it isn’t as beautiful a piece of writing as that, it’s as beautiful a gesture.

Love and Radio: “Seventy Weeks” — An old episode, but one I hadn’t heard before. This is about a pimp’s son who became a preacher who became a pimp who became a life coach. He’s a thorny figure, as are most people who appear on Love and Radio. You get the sense that he has equal potential to bust some harmful myths about prostitution, but also obscure some important and unpleasant truths.

Omnibus (week of Sept. 3, 2017)

Okay, this media detox thing is for the birds. This week I watched six of Wes Anderson’s eight movies and some other stuff to boot. This also means that I’ve now seen every Wes Anderson movie and can therefore rank them, because this is the purpose for watching movies. Here is where I stand on it right now:

The Grand Budapest Hotel > The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou > Moonrise Kingdom > Rushmore > Bottle Rocket > The Royal Tenenbaums > The Fantastic Mr. Fox > The Darjeeling Limited

I reviewed The Fantastic Mr. Fox last week and The Darjeeling Limited earlier this year. Search them out if you want my opinions on them, which have not changed. Basically, I don’t think this guy has ever made an outright bad movie. And the ones I’ve ranked as the top four are all masterpieces, as far as I’m concerned. So let’s get into this. Anderson first, everything else after.

19 reviews.

Movies

Bottle Rocket — I’d never seen either of Anderson’s first two movies before this week, so these are first impressions. Bottle Rocket, his debut feature, is surprisingly fantastic, but definitely a first movie. There are elements that feel like they could have been pulled from any later Wes Anderson movie, especially near the beginning: a coil-bound notebook outlining a 75-year life plan, a hysterically precocious child, a slightly crooked toy soldier being minutely adjusted. But for the most part, Bottle Rocket is a visually straightforward and almost plain film by Anderson’s standards. (The fact that several scenes were shot in a house designed by Frank Lloyd Wright puts that in perspective.) But for all of the distance that Anderson still has to travel in his visual style, Bottle Rocket’s dialogue and performances are already pretty close to what they’d be in his best movies. In fact, I’m tempted to say this movie’s MVP is not Anderson but his star and co-writer Owen Wilson. Wilson’s performance as Dignan, the more delusional of two very flawed protagonists, is one of his best — impressive, given that this is his first feature as well. There’s a bit of early Coen brothers in the mix here, and it’s felt most when Wilson’s onscreen. He’s that fun kind of character whose behavior and way of talking is massively out of step with his circumstances: a Coen standby. It’s always fun to be reminded that you like an actor, in spite of not liking the bulk of their movies. I enjoyed this a lot more than I expected to. It’s one of those movies you watch more out of historical interest than actual enthusiasm, but that ends up delighting you regardless.

Rushmore — I was momentarily concerned that I’d end up liking the somewhat anomalous Bottle Rocket better than this, the film that made Wes Anderson’s reputation and established the aesthetic that I love him for. But as soon as Jason Schwartzman folded up his newspaper and said “I’m sorry, did someone say my name?” I banished all such thoughts. This is where Anderson’s ability to tell heartfelt stories in a deliberately arch style really flowers. Our 15-year-old protagonist Max Fischer is the first of a particular kind of Wes Anderson hero: the effusive can-do guy whose outward displays of spirit mask deep turmoil. This puts him in a category with the likes of Mr. Fox and Gustave H. And while I doubt any Anderson character will ever seriously rival Gustave H. for me, Max is a masterful creation. He acts according to his own idiosyncratic code, but as the movie progresses, we start to see glimmers of awareness that there are certain conventions he probably shouldn’t breach. This may be the Wes Anderson film with the most interesting character relationships. It’s built primarily around a deeply implausible love triangle, but all three relationships in that triangle are fascinating in their way. Max’s infatuation with the age-inappropriate teacher Rosemary Cross is a one-way street, but it’s clear that Ms. Cross sees elements of her late husband in this strange kid. His relationship with the wealthy industrialist Herman Blume isn’t quite a father/son dynamic. Clearly Blume sees it that way, and would that he could make it so simple, because he sees nothing of himself in his own children. But one of Max’s foibles is that he sees himself as a peer to the adults in his life, so Blume can’t quite make the father/son thing stick. And, of course there’s Blume and Ms. Cross’s relationship, which is the least plausible thing in the movie, but it reshapes the movie’s tensions into something strangely Oedipal, considering that there aren’t any actual family ties at play. How Anderson (and Owen Wilson, who co-wrote the screenplay) manage to resolve all of this into a “have it all” sort of ending and not make it seem cheap is a miracle. One of my first thoughts when I finished this was that I’d probably have been more impressed by it if I’d seen it before Brick, Rian Johnson’s later film about precocious high schoolers that adds a layer of film noir and has even more stylized dialogue. That’s as dazzling a film as this one, but the more I think about it the more I think it’s a ludicrous comparison. Taking Rushmore on its own terms, it’s a beautiful film, and the first real demonstration of Anderson’s brilliance.

The Royal Tenenbaums — You’ll note the rather low placement of Wes Anderson’s most acclaimed (probably) movie in the ranking above. I promise I am not being wilfully perverse. I really like this movie. But it clearly doesn’t hit me as hard as it does a lot of people. It certainly doesn’t hit me as hard as some of Anderson’s other movies. Like Rushmore, its drama is based around relationships, which distinguishes these movies from pretty much all six of the other Wes Anderson movies, which are at least partially adventure stories. Rushmore and The Royal Tenenbaums are Anderson’s only movies where the characters don’t really go anywhere or try to accomplish anything especially unusual. (Even Max Fischer’s prodigious accomplishments all happen within the walls of high school.) I imagine that’s what people like about these movies. But between the two, Rushmore is enormously more effective to me. Where Rushmore focusses on the relationships between three main characters, and delves pretty deeply into those relationships, Tenenbaums offers sketches of the relationships between a far vaster cast of weirdos. To Anderson’s credit (and Owen Wilson’s, who returns as co-writer and co-star), these sketches are marvellous in their efficiency. The pairings of Margo and Richie (Gwyneth Paltrow and Luke Wilson) and Royal and Chas (Gene Hackman and Ben Stiller) are especially effective. But other characters who start the movie looking promising end up in shaggy dog stories, especially Owen Wilson and Bill Murray’s characters. Eventually, Anderson will master the art of the huge ensemble cast by not pretending that every character is especially important. But here, he isn’t so graceful, and the depth of his characters’ relationships suffers. In a movie like this, that dulls the impact more than it would in a more knockabout film like Moonrise Kingdom or even Bottle Rocket. But there are still parts of this that kill me — the culmination of the Royal/Chas plotline in particular. And the opening is one of Anderson’s best. And this guy knows how to start a movie. So basically, it’s a movie I wish I connected with more than I do. But I do still like it.

The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou — I suppose for a time it would have been considered a minor heresy to prefer The Life Aquatic to The Royal Tenenbaums, but I get the sense that’s changing and I’m very glad. The Life Aquatic is the most diorama-like of Wes Anderson’s movies thus far and it has more cartoonish characterizations than any of his previous films. But that lightness only serves to cast the movie’s story of grief, loss and failure in even more shadow. Steve Zissou is a more dominant protagonist than appears in any other Wes Anderson film, including Rushmore. The story of this movie is very much the story of a trying time in one man’s life. As excellent as Owen Wilson, Anjelica Huston and especially Cate Blanchett are in this, they’re all basically just other people who are present at Steve’s turning point. This is Bill Murray’s second-best film performance after Lost in Translation. His hangdog expression cracks just frequently enough to imply that there’s more than just a general malaise plaguing this character. I really like that Anderson has made one movie like this, with a distinct protagonist whose struggle we sympathize with. It’s not his usual M.O., but it really works here. Also, I just love how much stuff there is in this movie: stuff like Seu Jorge’s unmotivated but delightful constant David Bowie covers, the fake animals, and the ludicrous diorama that is the set of the Belafonte. It’s more than just sugar that helps the medicine go down: it’s a deliberate distancing tactic that makes it necessary to extend yourself that bit further into the film to find the humanity. The Life Aquatic requires a significant investment of empathy throughout most of its running time if you’re going to be on Steve’s side. But if you succeed in this, it pays off with one of the most sublime and openly emotive endings in Wes Anderson’s catalogue. I should say: I’ve ranked this higher than Moonrise Kingdom basically only because of the submarine scene. They’re pretty much neck-and-neck in my view, but the ending of Life Aquatic hits me straight in the gut every time. I love this movie. I haven’t even been able to get to everything I love about it. I love that this is Anderson’s movie about moviemaking: he went for theatrical in Rushmore and literary in Tenenbaums, The Fantastic Mr. Fox, Moonrise Kingdom and Grand Budapest, but he’s got one movie that’s straightforwardly about doing what he does and I love that. In keeping with that, I love how fake everything looks, especially the obviously-filmed-in-a-tank deep sea dive scene. I love this movie.

Moonrise Kingdom — Ah, the first Wes Anderson movie I saw, and the one I hadn’t seen for longest. This is really glorious. It might be Anderson’s most whimsical movie, partially because its protagonists are children, but also because of how seamlessly the adults in the story fit into their bizarre little lives — especially the scout masters played by Edward Norton, Jason Schwartzman and Harvey Keitel. It might also be Anderson’s most beautifully shot movie, with the ropey diorama of Steve Zissou’s boat having been refined into a beautiful sort of doll’s house set for the opening titles. And it’s almost certainly Anderson’s most uplifting movie. Most other Wes Anderson movies, even those with basically happy endings (I’m thinking particularly of Rushmore) end with people learning sad lessons. The two children at the centre of this movie have had their fill of sad lessons already when the movie begins. They end the movie having realized that life can be good. Plus, it’s fun to see what happens when Anderson puts aside his British Invasion fetish in favour of Benjamin Britten. Stick around through the credits of this one. It features a Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra-inspired tour through Alexandre Desplat’s original score. (Or is it Tubular Bells-inspired?)

The Grand Budapest Hotel — Upon a third viewing of this, I think I need to make space for it in my all-time top ten. The Grand Budapest Hotel is more than Wes Anderson’s frothiest, rompiest contrivance, though it is that. It is also a story about the pain of being displaced by historical forces beyond your control. Consider why, for a moment, this movie takes place in a hotel rather than another sort of institution or locale. Hotels are places that aren’t home. They may be novel and extraordinarily pleasant, but they are elsewhere. They are temporary places for people who aren’t in their main place. And yet this movie doesn’t make a lot of time for the Grand Budapest’s guests. Normally, you’d think that a movie about a hotel would take advantage of the fact that so many colourful people may come and go from it. Yet, aside from the narrator, we only really meet one and she dies almost immediately. This is a movie about people who live and work at a hotel — people who are in a transitory place on a permanent basis. That is the heart of this movie’s sadness. Zero the lobby boy, we learn, is a refugee whose family was killed in the war. That’s why he’s at the Grand Budapest. And our hero, the concierge Gustave H., is as displaced in time as Zero is displaced in space. He’s a man of extreme elegance and refinement, in spite of his modest circumstances, and he’s found himself in an era defined by fascist brutality and simple mindedness. The Grand Budapest Hotel is the story of two people who, for different reasons, no longer recognize the world around them. And the only thing that softens the blow is the magnificence of the transitory place in which they’ve found themselves. The relationship between Zero and Monsieur Gustave is the most beautiful of many beautiful relationships in Wes Anderson’s catalogue, because each of them intuitively understands the other’s suffering. And through his mentor, Zero learns the value of pageantry as a coping mechanism. This is the purest expression of something Wes Anderson has been doing in his movies since Bottle Rocket: he makes his characters do ridiculous things and adhere to ridiculous codes, because if they aren’t occupied they’ll be consumed by their own sadness. The Grand Budapest Hotel is a sublime film. It is sublime not in spite of its ridiculousness, but because of it. Pick of the week.

The Wes Anderson Collection — I complimented my survey of Anderson’s movies with these video essays by Matt Zoller Seitz, one of the great film and television critics. It’s a lovely series, with the instalment on The Grand Budapest Hotel being especially fantastic. Seitz dives into the influence of the writer Stefan Zweig on the movie, which only makes it more poignant, considering Zweig’s own wartime displacement. He shares a great deal with Monsieur Gustave.

Music

Sigur Rós: Ágætis byrjun — Yeah, The Life Aquatic made me want to revisit this. It’s rainy as I write this but when I listened to it, it felt like the peak of summer in Vancouver. So, an odd time to listen to a work that nobody seems able to listen to without envisioning glaciers. But whatever. It’s always Iceland in my heart. Ahem. This is exactly what I remember it being: occasionally very moving, with tracks in between that feel like biding time. “Starálfur” is justly overexposed: that chorus will just eat you alive. And I’m a big fan of “Olsen Olsen,” with its big, drunk sounding chorus. The one I loved that I didn’t remember loving is the title track, which indicates to me that after several years with this album, I may not yet be done with the growing process. That’s nice.

Sigur Rós: () — I know I heard Ágætis byrjun and Takk… in high school, because a) I have them on CD, and b) I remember them clearly. But I’m not sure I’d ever actually heard this, which is a shame, because I would have adored it then. To be clear, I adore it now as well. On first listen, I think it has the potential to become my favourite Sigur Rós album. It’s starker and more minimalistic than the albums on either side of it, but it also has more range in terms of how loud it’s willing to get. That makes it really effective. I’ve got to listen to Takk… again. I used to love that. Wonder how it holds up.

Television

Twin Peaks: The Return: Parts 17 & 18 — I have never needed to watch something a second time more than I need to watch Twin Peaks: The Return a second time. Watching this show on a week-by-week basis has provoked the illusion that it is a television show that you can watch like other television shows: expecting effects to result from things that look like causes, and expecting to discover the causes of certain unexplained effects. But Twin Peaks has never worked like that, this most recent season least of all. There’s a moment I love in the first season of Twin Peaks, in the episode that immediately follows the introduction of the Red Room and the Man From Another Place. It’s a scene where Cooper and his colleagues sit around a table and try to make sense of his weird dream. The reason I love this scene has nothing to do with its actual content, and everything to do with what it says about the production of Twin Peaks. The Red Room scene comes from the brilliant episode “Zen, or the Skill to Catch a Killer,” which shares its writer/director credits with all 18 episodes of Twin Peaks: The Return: written by David Lynch and Mark Frost, directed by David Lynch. Neither Lynch nor Frost receive either credit on the following episode. It seems to me that the fact that we got an attempt to make sense of the show’s freakiest sequence in the very next episode is the direct result of Twin Peaks having been made with a rotating crew of directors and writers who are, meaning no disrespect, mostly not surrealist auteurs. They are in the same position as the rest of us when presented with something like the Red Room: i.e. “what the hell do we make of this?!?” And then, like us, they devise possible solutions. It helps that they had access to a character like Cooper who, in his hyperverbalism and supernatural competence, can generally find a compelling explanation for anything. Twin Peaks: The Return has nobody writing or directing save Frost and Lynch, and it has virtually no Dale Cooper. The upshot of this is that as an audience trying to interpret Twin Peaks, we no longer have allies on the inside. Gordon Cole is the closest we get in this season, and it’s foolish to expect David Lynch to put all of the answers in his own character’s mouth. Let me try and express this another way: in the original run of Twin Peaks, there were inexplicable things that happened within the text, but the inexplicability of those things was the primary plot driver. The characters in the show were trying to explain the same stuff that the audience wanted to know. Twin Peaks: The Return is doing something fundamentally different and much more similar to other David Lynch projects like Eraserhead and Inland Empire: the text itself is the mystery. A central question the viewer is forced to pose while watching is simply “why am I being shown this?” Why do we hear lovelorn stories from roadhouse patrons who are irrelevant to the central plotline? Why are we seeing these scenes with Audrey, which don’t seem to connect with anything. What was the purpose of that one random scene with Ben Horne’s secretary’s sick husband? Between seasons two and three of Twin Peaks, the central mystery changed from “what happened” to “why is this show like this.” That’s why I need to watch this all again: because that’s a question that no character in this show — not even a 100 percent awake Agent Cooper — could possibly be equipped to answer. That’s on us.

Comedy

Marc Maron: Too Real — Watched this the day it came out. I really like Marc Maron, by which I mean, I enjoy him as a person. And that’s really what’ll make or break your response to this, because he doesn’t really do a lot of “jokes” in this. Well, he does, but there are long bits where he doesn’t. Maron seems happy, these days. True to form, he doesn’t really know what to do with that happiness, or how to respond to it. But there’s a contentedness about him this time around that’s sort of new. And it’s nice to see. It certainly doesn’t make him less funny. I’ve always appreciated Maron’s willingness to risk his audience not having the same cultural signifiers as him. A joke like “Ronnie’s a problem” won’t work for a crowd that isn’t moderately well versed in Rolling Stones lore, but that doesn’t stop him. The one thing in this that outright does not work is when he does a whole extended bit twice: once as a comedy bit and once as a narrated children’s book, the joke being that his earlier bit basically has the structure of a children’s book. But all he had to do was say that and we’d get it. He doesn’t have to demonstrate. Still, it’s hard to begrudge him because the fact he’s doing it at all is part of the joke. It’s a good special. I laughed a bunch.

Literature, etc.

Margaret Atwood: The Handmaid’s Tale (audiobook) — Well this is depressing. I let my Audible subscription go on for a while and accumulated credits I didn’t need, so I cancelled the subscription and nabbed this and Stephen King’s It to get my money’s worth. Claire Danes reads this, and rather well, too. The text itself is certainly not a fun time, but it is an ingenious and affecting story so far. I’ll get into it more next week, at which point I’ll probably be done it.

Podcasts

Radio Diaries: “The Working Tapes of Studs Terkel (Hour Special)” — This was a good Labour Day listen. It’s just the great Studs Terkel, interviewing people about their jobs, in the 70s. It’s fascinating. There’s nothing like archival tape. This really feels like time travel. It’s worth it for the story of the private detective who was hired to catch a butter thief. There’s plenty more than that, but that’s really something.

The Memory Palace: “Two Small Sculptures” — These Metropolitan Museum residency episodes have been a lot of fun, and they really make me want to go to that museum and listen to them all again.

99% Invisible: “The Age of the Algorithm” — Oh nice, 99pi tackled algorithms. This is a really good episode about where the line is between good and troubling algorithms. It’s one of the ones you should hear even if you’re not really a fan of this.

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “Mother-Daughter Directors Nancy Meyers and Hallie Meyers-Shyer” — A nice interview about a movie I probably won’t watch.

The Heart: “Bodies: Itch” — This is a story about an itchy butthole.

Code Switch: “An Advertising Revolution: “Black People Are Not Dark-Skinned White People” — A Planet Money crossover about the first powerful black ad man. It’s fascinating to hear about the specific ways that an all-white advertising industry was failing to appeal to people of colour. I mean, you obviously know that’s a thing. But this dives into it.

Reply All: “The Case of the Phantom Caller” — Ah, they’re back. This is a real winner. It’s the story of a mysterious series of phone calls that play music, or modem sounds, or the ambience from a basketball game, or a person reading a text or… It’s really unsettling, and the journey to hunt down the answers is fascinating. Pick of the week.

Omnibus (week of Aug. 27, 2017)

Okay, look. I know I said I was cutting back my media intake. And, I know, I know, this week’s instalment doesn’t seem to reflect that at first glance. But let’s break down what we have here: two TV episodes, two movies, and one album. That’s not much, really. Also 39 podcasts.

No, shush. Let me explain. It’s my turn to talk.

First, 39 is not a number you can compare to my previous review counts because every week, including this week, I condense binge-listens down to a single review. So if you’re looking at that figure and thinking it’s a new record, ergo a new low, you are not strictly speaking correct. To further clarify, I am not including the two trailers I reviewed in that calculation. Okay, that doesn’t help my case.

But honestly, it’s not as hard as you’d think to get through that many podcasts. I listened to most of those 39 episodes in one day. I just spent a whole day cleaning my apartment and running errands, and I listened to, like, 30 podcast episodes. They’re not that long, mostly. Put them on 1.5x speed and they fly by. So, like, cut me a break, okay? Not even that many podcasts. Don’t give me that crap.

Anyway, 21 reviews. Not so much, in the grand scheme.

Oh also here’s the latest CBC segment. I’m at 2:12:52.

Television

Twin Peaks: The Return: Part 16 — Good lord. I’ve been griping about Cooper’s lack of awakeness for weeks, but I didn’t realize how I’d react when it finally happened. There were tears. It was beautiful and ugly. Not only does Cooper wake up in this episode, but he wakes up and proves himself to be as decent and lovable as ever. It would have been easy to wake Cooper up and have him not recognise Janie E or Sonny Jim. But instead, he wakes up and in spite of the fact that he is not Dougie Jones, he still recognizes himself as part of this family. I love Dale Cooper. I love him. And I suspect that when I watch this season of Twin Peaks again (and I will), it will be substantially less frustrating with the knowledge that Cooper wakes up in time for the finale. There’s much else to love here, including the fact that Jerry Horne’s plotline is actually consequential. I have been a fan of Jerry Horne from the moment he first interrupted a joyless family dinner with his Norwegian sandwiches. And I’ve generally thought that the stoner comedy of his latter-day plotline is one of the more compelling updates of a classic character in the series. (“I am not your foot” is the most hysterical moment of the season.) I never suspected that he’d cross paths with Dark Cooper, but here we are. And then we have Laura Dern’s best performance all season, including her trip back to the Black Lodge, where she proves to be massively more self-aware than Douglas Jones was in this same situation. God, I’ve loved Laura Dern in this. I do hope we get to meet the real Diane. I’m sure she’s lovely. And then there’s that ending. Eddie Vedder’s performance of “Out of Sand” is a welcome diversion from the ultra-modern styles of recent Roadhouse performances, including Lissie and the Veils who were both brilliant. Vedder’s presence here is a welcome reminder that the horror of Twin Peaks is an analogue horror: it is straightforwardly magical, and not technological. He’s the perfect choice for an episode like this, short of Jack White or Tom Waits. I have no idea what to make of the final image of Audrey looking in a mirror. Perhaps the anoraks are right and she’s been in an institution all this time? We’ll see. Anyway, this wasn’t the best episode of the new Twin Peaks. That will remain Part 8. But it was the most satisfying one since the two-part premiere. Pick of the week.

Game of Thrones: “The Dragon and the Wolf” — Look, I understand folks’ reservations about this season. I see how it might disturb some that teleportation now appears possible, and ravens are basically email. I get that the show’s vaunted moral ambiguity has been to some degree flattened into a struggle against an unambiguous evil. And I actually agree that the Arya/Sansa plot doesn’t make any damn sense. (For me, the worst thing about this season is Arya getting sucked out of her own awesome storyline into her sister’s perpetually shit one.) But damn if I haven’t loved this a hell of a lot more than the previous two seasons. And that really is mostly because of the accelerated storytelling. The thing I never really appreciated about previous seasons of Game of Thrones was its penchant for delay, having cross-continent journeys take ages, simply out of fealty to continuity — or more charitably, to give characters like Tyrion and Varys an excuse to have high-minded discussions while doing nothing. (Compare/contrast with Twin Peaks: The Return, which is also all about delay and is similarly frustrating, but which also seems to leverage frustration for aesthetic purposes. This might be an easier comparison to make when Twin Peaks’ season is done.) And while I’ve always preferred the version of Game of Thrones that consists of people in rooms (or on boats) talking about power to the one where people get beheaded constantly and set aflame, I appreciate how comparatively decisive the characters in this show are this season. We get the political interest of Jon Snow’s unwillingness to bend the knee to Daenarys because of his duty to those who made him king in the North. But crucially, we also get a relatively speedy resolution of that plotline, once Jon realizes there’s a smart way and a dumb way to go about this. In this finale, we get Cersei refusing to aid the fight against the Night King for political reasons also related to Jon Snow. This was always a position she would have to at least budge on, if not relent entirely. So it’s nice to see that happen within the space of one episode. Seeing characters ponder their decisions for longer doesn’t make the problems seem more complex. It just makes the story slower. This season seems like the point where the writers realized that. And let’s talk about the army of the dead. True, they are the least subtle thing the show’s done aside from Joffrey, Ramsey and Euros. And I can see the argument that their prevalence to some degree negates several seasons’ worth of politicking south of the wall, because now there’s a common enemy that’s more evil than anybody. But firstly, this has always been where the show was heading. That’s been clear from the first time anybody said “winter is coming.” And secondly, if the writers know what they’re doing, and I think they do, they’ll use this existential threat as a means to pressurize the show’s various power struggles, rather than to negate them. I’d have less hope for this show if Cersei were sincere in her pledge to fight alongside Jon and Daenerys. But the fact that she isn’t bodes well for the final season. I haven’t been looking forward to the next season of Game of Thrones this much, maybe ever.

Movies

The Seventh Seal — Maybe it’s because of Twin Peaks, but I had a sudden urge to watch something by an arty, acclaimed film auteur that I hadn’t seen before. There are many such movies in the world, and unlike some of the great classics of English literature, I’m still actively compelled to watch them sometimes, in spite of being five years removed from my undergrad, when this sort of behaviour is to be expected. The Seventh Seal, then. My first Bergmann. I was expecting something theatrical and dour. Theatrical, I got. But not dour. This movie, which is about the inevitability of death and the cruel silence of God, is surprisingly swift on its feet. Sure, it has that chilling scene of a white-faced Death playing chess on the beach with the Three-Eyed Raven. But it also has eminently quotable bits of invective like “Listen, you big, misguided ham shank!” and “You stubble-headed bastard of seven mangy mongrels! If I were in your lice-infested rags, I’d feel such boundless shame about my own person that I would immediately rid nature of my own mortifying countenance!” Plus, it contains the first reference in any medium that I’ve heard of lingonberries, which are delicious and known to my Newfoundland extended family as partridgeberries. So, not all doom and gloom. The characters in The Seventh Seal, both comedic and dramatic, seem like characters in a fable. That’s what makes it so effective to me: it’s a story told with very simple techniques and without a lot of character interiority, which nonetheless deals with very complex themes. Death and God are unknowable mysteries to even the smartest of people. The characters like the ones in this film don’t stand a chance. Of course, it’s also one of those movies you can’t watch without also watching all of its future parodies and homages in your head. I do try to approach classics like this on their own terms, but I lost track of the number of times Monty Python and the Holy Grail superimposed itself on the picture I was actually seeing. It doesn’t detract from the experience, though. Also, being that this is a fable about people who are waiting to die, I couldn’t help but wonder if this had some influence on The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask. That game also features heroes, lovers, childlike grotesques, and simple folk just trying to make a living, all of whom are intensely aware of their imminent demise. Substitute the black plague for a huge, angry moon and you’re most of the way there. This lives up to its reputation completely. I’m looking forward to seeing it again, but there’s a lot of Ingmar Bergmann to get through, so I might leave it for awhile.

Fantastic Mr. Fox — I feel a serious Wes Anderson binge coming on. There are still a couple of his movies that I haven’t seen, and those I have are eminently re-watchable. (Except maybe The Darjeeling Limited. Maybe even that.) This closes my one gap between The Royal Tenenbaums and The Grand Budapest Hotel. Given the context I have, which is all but his first two movies, this seems clearly to be the first film in the career phase he’s in right now. The sensitive, depressive protagonists of Tenenbaums, Life Aquatic and Darjeeling are replaced by the ebullient Mr. Fox: a precursor to the precocious children of Moonrise Kingdom and the irrepressible Monsieur Gustave of Grand Budapest. None of these protagonists are especially similar, but all of them have a quiet despair or longing that lurks behind a shimmering exterior and motivates them. They are not characters defined by trauma or ennui, like in Anderson’s earlier films. (Just try to imagine George Clooney in any of Anderson’s earlier films.) A fair bit of the online chatter about Fantastic Mr. Fox interprets it as a response to criticism that his style had calcified. I can sort of see that but I probably wouldn’t have arrived there myself because I don’t agree with the premise of that argument. The Darjeeling Limited isn’t my favourite, but I think The Life Aquatic, Anderson’s most poorly-reviewed film, is a beautiful movie that excels The Royal Tenenbaums, at least for pathos. Still, Fantastic Mr. Fox inaugurated a period in Anderson’s filmography that I think will likely be seen as his imperial phase, decades from now. Oh, I suppose I should also talk about the actual movie. The best thing about this is the animation. One of my favourite things about Wes Anderson is always how hand-made everything looks, so it stands to reason that he’d do stop-motion animation exactly the way it should be. It’s got a great cast of characters, with Clooney’s Mr. Fox and Jason Schwartzman’s underachieving Ash Fox stealing most of the show. But Michael Gambon drops in as the main villain, which is always nice. Still: save for Clooney and Meryl Streep, the performances in this have more in common with the slightly listless character of your typical Wes Anderson supporting performance than they do with animated children’s entertainment. That makes me wonder how this would actually play for an audience of children. I don’t suppose it specifically has children in mind, but it does pointedly use the word “cuss” in place of every swear. It’s solid all-ages movie-making, but I’m not sure Wes Anderson could go toe-to-toe with Pixar for pleasing everybody, all the time. I loved it, though.

Music

Crosby, Stills & Nash: Crosby, Stills & Nash — As I write this I am stranded on a bus in traffic on a bridge. This vehicle is basically a house right now. And a poorly air conditioned one at that. The soothing sounds of CSN’s three-part harmony is all that’s keeping me from losing my shit. I haven’t heard this all the way through before and while it sure doesn’t hold up to comparisons with Deja Vu, which has the advantage of Neil Young, it’s a solid record. Say what you like about the songwriting, e.g. that it is only intermittently excellent, the real genius of this is that it foregrounds group singing while using solo vocals as an embellishment. That wasn’t unprecedented in pop music by any stretch. But I’m at pains to think of a precedent in rock. Anyway, this was basically a side trail I decided to take in my (slowly progressing) trip through the complete works of Neil Young. Glad I’ve heard it, but I’ll probably only revisit “Judy Blue Eyes.”

Podcasts

Radiolab: “Where the Sun Don’t Shine” — Neither here nor there. Radiolab has had a profound enough influence over my personal and professional life that I rue the day when I don’t feel compelled to listen to every episode, but I fear that day will soon be upon us.

Pop Culture Happy Hour: Three-week catch-up — I have no insights about this, aside from that it’s really satisfying to listen to a bunch of it at a time. Definitely check out the Game of Thrones episode if you’ve finished the season. It elevates Glen Weldon from panelist to host, in which capacity he is rollicking good fun, and it features a variety of perspectives and levels of obsessiveness.

The Memory Palace: Two bonus episodes — The episode called “Relics” is probably the best piece of sponsored content I’ve ever seen. It’s just straight up an episode of The Memory Palace, but it was commissioned by a hotel to be made about the fascinating history of the surrounding area. I hate sponsored content, but this is a surprisingly elegant example. And the following episode is real good fun. Nate DiMeo reruns an old episode, then plays a new version in Brazilian Portuguese, then plays an episode of The Allusionist with Helen Zaltzman that’s about the translation process. Fascinating stuff, especially given that the translator in question has also dealt with Joyce, Foster Wallace, and Pynchon. Add DiMeo to the canon, how about. Nice.

99% Invisible: Episodes 270-272 — The stethoscope episode is a good example of what attracted me to 99pi in the first place: the story of a well-known thing. Its rise and fall. Lovely. “The Great Dismal Swamp” is a more involved episode, and a less specifically design-focussed one, but it’s about escaped slaves who rejected white society completely by hiding in a hostile environment, so it’s compelling listening. “Person in Lotus Position” is about the process by which emojis get approved. It is therefore one of two stories I’ve heard about emojis in the past week. More shortly.

The Outline World Dispatch: “Inside jobs & song meanings” — This isn’t the first episode of this I’ve heard, but it is the first I’ve reviewed, because I once had dreams of producing a podcast for these guys: one which a colleague and I are now producing by our dams selves. Anyway. World Dispatch is fundamentally different from The Daily, though both are daily(ish) current affairs programs. The difference is that The Daily is about the most important news of the day, as interpreted from the newsroom of the New York Times. This show, on the other hand, is about what’s going through the minds of writers at The Outline: a pointedly non-news-hooked publication that I admire in general and often like. This episode is a slight one, focussing on the then and now opinions of a conspiracy theorist and the origins of SongMeanings.com, which is a site I used to really love. But its slightness would make it a good corollary for The Daily, which I haven’t been listening to this week. Still, bet they pair well. I’ll try that.

The Heart: “Bodies” episodes 1 & 2 — I don’t know how The Heart manages to put its seasons so close together. I know they make fewer episodes in a given year than lots of shows, but they seem so much more thoughtful and fussed over than just about anything else out there. This season is off to a particularly good start. The second episode of this, which will also serve as the premiere episode of Jonathan Zenti’s podcast Meat, is particularly outstanding. This remains the show you most need to listen to if you don’t.

Showcase from Radiotopia: “Ways of Hearing” episodes 2-4, plus Song Exploder special — Ways of Hearing is proving to be a mixed bag for me. It’s thoughtful and thought provoking, but I feel that it has a far clearer sense of what’s been lost over time than gained. (It focusses on the sea change in culture induced by the introduction of digital recording.) The “Space” episode is probably both the best episode of the show so far, and the most myopic. On one hand, it features a truly remarkable discussion of acoustics as an experienced phenomenon. It explains how Radio City Music Hall was a revolutionary innovation, because that hall is essentially non-reverberant: it is designed so that all of the sound you hear comes through the amplification. (Host Damon Krukowski demonstrates this by doing an interview in the space, which sounds like it was done in a tiny carpeted studio. It’s remarkable.) The new phenomenon of earbuds are treated as an extension of this: now the walls of the auditorium are our heads. Now, I’m normally deeply sympathetic to narratives that point out what’s been lost because of technological change. But this one doesn’t wash with me. To me, the ability to turn my own head into a private auditorium by inserting earbuds is quite simply a necessity for survival. I wrote about this by way of insinuation in my review of Baby Driver: I simply could not get through the social anxiety of any given week without the freedom to disengage from the world in this way. I would not feel fully myself without this capacity. Moreover, the ability to hear music as if it is taking place in your own head is the most intimate experience of music possible. What you lose in connection with your fellow human when you listen with earbuds, you gain in connection to the sound. As a classical music enthusiast, I occasionally butt heads with other classical fans who prefer a certain old-school style of recording where you get a lot of sound from the reverberation of the room. This, to me, is dishonest to the way that people experience music on record. If you are not literally in the same room as the musicians as they are playing, you don’t process music as documentary evidence of a sound that happened in a room somewhere; you process it as sound happening in your head, now. This is an immediacy to be taken advantage of, not fought against. Still, for all that I disagree with Krukowski’s position, I really admire his argumentation. The other episodes are less thoughtful than this, but the Song Exploder crossover is good fun for fans of that show.

Code Switch: Three-week catch-up — I was media detoxing in Newfoundland when Charlottesville happened, so I’m still catching up on some of the (now outdated) takes on that event from my most trusted sources. This is as good as it gets. It’s still worth going back to the pertinent Code Switch episodes to make sense of the nonsense. The episode “The Unfinished Battle In the Capital Of The Confederacy” is especially worthwhile, as it puts this whole debate about statues into context.

Gimlet trailers: Uncivil & StartUp Season 6 — Exciting things coming up at Gimlet. Mostly Uncivil. That show looks like it’s going to be great. StartUp season six I’m less sure of.

Criminal: “Carry A. Nation” — Ah, Criminal. The most perennially underappreciated podcast. This is about a temperance advocate who went around smashing bars with her hatchet. It is wonderful.

Imaginary Worlds: “Future Screens Are Mostly Blue” — This is actually a back episode of 99% Invisible that I hadn’t heard before, featuring now former producer Sam Greenspan. It’s a fascinating look at the design flaws of future interfaces in science fiction movies. So, listen to this if you’re a huge (beautiful) nerd.

The Moth: “Nate Charles & Adam Gopnik” — Worth it for Gopnik’s story about trying to take his son to a steam bath.

A Piece of Work: Episodes 6-10 — An eminently bingeable (obviously) show about how fun it is to look at art. Abbi Jacobson’s MoMA-produced show has been one of the highlights of this podcast season. I have never wanted to look at pictures and sculptures more than do after having heard this. Funny, smart, brilliant stuff.  

Love and Radio: “Reunion” — A good but not extraordinary episode of Love and Radio. This is about a mother who was forced to give up her son for adoption, only to be reunited years later and feel unexpected sexual desire towards her biological son. If that sounds like something from the Maury Povich show, well it was. You’ll hear the clips to prove it. Some of Love and Radio’s journeys into the very taboo are extremely enlightening. Others are simply compelling. This is in the second category. Still good.

Homecoming: Season Two — In its second season, the podcast world’s first star-studded show earns its pedigree. Season one of Homecoming didn’t do much for me. That’s probably in part because I had recently finished Limetown, which is by any reasonable standard a better-written, more thoughtful and scarier fiction podcast than Homecoming. And, it has absolutely no movie stars in it. No Catherine Keener, no Oscar Isaac, not even any David Cross. I was never entirely sure what made Homecoming so special. Why did this show get the spangly cast? It’s not like Oscar Isaac’s never been offered a more compelling role than Walter Cruz. I stand by that assessment of season one. But season two is an entirely different beast, and it’s an entirely more accomplished show. Part of this is because they’ve amped up the comedy. Season two is as much a farce as a suspense story, where the fact that some characters know more than others is used not just for the purpose of intrigue, but for pathetic fallacy as well. David Schwimmer’s Colin Belfast gets a meatier role this season, which is great because his total unscrupulousness is a big part of what makes this season so much more exaggerated, more heightened and funnier than the last one. We also get more Amy Sedaris, which is always good. And we get Chris Gethard, playing hilariously against type as a would-be alpha male who runs a firing range. Last year, I would have placed this hysterically expensive-seeming show among the lower half of Gimlet’s offerings. No longer. This is now a very solid show. Pick of the week.

StartUp: “The Domain King” — It’s an alright story, sure. But I don’t know how much longer I can force myself to be interested in these kinds of business stories. It’s not for me. StartUp, like Radiolab, occupies a special place in my relationship with the podcast medium. But I don’t know if I can sustain this much longer.

Omnibus (week of Aug. 19, 2017)

A normal week once again. A bit smaller than usual, I guess. But I honestly quite enjoyed the media detox I went through in Newfoundland. Might try to cut back a bit. We’ll see if that sticks. 14 reviews.

Literature, etc.

Stephen King: The Drawing of the Three — You know, I didn’t realize how much I missed reading page-turners. I’ve been reading mostly nonfiction and “literature” (or at least ambitious genre fiction) for so long that I nearly forgot the pleasure of reading something where the prose and story structure is custom made so that the pages fly by. Two books in, it’s pretty clear to me why Stephen King is such a phenomenon, because I’ve read two books in two weeks, and I can’t remember the last time that happened. Which isn’t to say that there’s no ambition in King’s writing: The Dark Tower is, after all, an eight-volume epic genre mashup inspired by Robert Browning. But King manages this while also asking relatively little of the reader. Your mileage may vary, but you can get plenty out of this without really pondering things like structure or, heaven forfend, “themes.” This is refreshing. That said, let me tell you the weird thing I find most remarkable about The Dark Tower thus far. In both The Gunslinger and The Drawing of the Three, our protagonist Roland is moving through a series of unforeseen obstacles towards a goal, the Tower, that he doesn’t know why he’s seeking. Moreover, we as readers don’t even really know what prompted Roland to begin his quest in the first place. Contrast this with The Lord of the Rings, a confessed inspiration for The Dark Tower, in which copious exposition is employed to inform the reader of why Frodo and company are heading to Mordor. There’s no missing the whole Sauron/Mount Doom/one-ring-to-rule-them-all thing. This blank space where the exposition should be gives The Dark Tower a dreamlike quality: oftentimes Roland will find himself somewhere, and a thing will happen, and he’s faced with the consequences of that thing without really understanding any of the logic that underpins the story he’s in. I imagine this is partially the result of King’s somewhat improvisational approach to writing fiction — evidently, he didn’t know how it would all turn out either. (Fun fact: Damon Lindelof is a fan of The Dark Tower. Does Lost make more sense now?) But that’s turning out to be the real joy of this series. Much like the death of Laura Palmer was supposed to be in the original Twin Peaks, the Tower is just an excuse to take some characters and have weird shit happen to them while they’re searching for something. I expect the Tower itself will take on more of an active role in later books, but for now it’s a distant McGuffin exerting an uncertain influence over the more proximate narrative. In this book, the weird thing that happens to an unsuspecting Roland is that three doors open up into other people’s minds, all of whom are living at various points in time in New York City. (Why these people? Why New York City? By what mechanism do the doors appear? We don’t know, and our protagonist doesn’t care so we don’t either.) So basically, the story is split into three parts, involving Roland’s interactions with three different characters (well, four really, but I’d spoil it if I explained why). These three parts are not created equal, i.e. the first is far and away the most compelling. (Also, as a personal aside: I read the first few pages of the book in an airport. The plane started boarding just as I got to the moment where Roland steps through the first magic door, so I closed the book there. Moments later, I got on the plane and started reading again, only to realize that Roland, too had found himself on an airplane. I love these moments of synchronicity.) This part of the book works best because, added to the book’s usual aesthetics of fantasy and Western is a crime story, and a marvellously tense one at that. The second part is weighed down by a central character who is a deliberate, and perhaps not completely irredeemable racist caricature (or perhaps so), and that becomes tiring. Things pick up again towards the end, but in general the first half of thereabouts of The Drawing of the Three is much stronger than the second. This book also makes it clear why the relatively slight first volume, The Gunslinger, was necessary. That book has little in the way of plot, but it allows us to spend time with Roland and it establishes him as the centre of this narrative. The structure of The Drawing of the Three requires us to spend substantial amounts of time inside other characters’ heads (sometimes quite literally). Without The Gunslinger, Roland’s centrality wouldn’t be as clear. A final random note: it’s awfully amusing to see King referring to the camera work in Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining for a descriptive passage, given how much he famously hates that movie. Always one for the Easter eggs. I enjoyed this enormously. I figure I should finish one or two of the dozen or so other books I’m reading before I move on to volume three, but I may not be able to resist. Pick of the week.

Robert Browning: “Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came” — This is of primarily academic interest to me at this time: mostly I wanted to read it for the sake of seeing how it inspired Stephen King. Still, it’s an awfully compelling yarn, especially when you hear it read aloud. Interestingly, the nature of the Tower and the route towards it is even more uncertain and dreamlike here than it is in King. I’ll read this again when I’m done King’s series, to appreciate it a bit more on its own merits.

Comedy

Hannibal Buress: Animal Furnace — This is by far my favourite Hannibal Buress special, and certainly one of the most densely-packed hours of standup I’ve seen. With the exception of a few bits that are a tad too “bitches be crazy” for my liking (including a bit about rape statistics that almost makes his later Bill Cosby bit seem like an apology), this is unimaginably original stuff. Buress’s ninja move is trying to rationalize inexplicable experiences with absurd hypotheticals: an airport security officer inexplicably swabs his hand with a cloth, and he speculates: “Good thing I didn’t have bomb juice on my hands. Was that the bomb juice test?” But what if he did have bomb juice on his hands? What if his friend offered him the rare opportunity to hold a bomb just before he went to the airport? (“I’m open to new experiences!”) Hannibal Buress’s mind is a place where extremely strange things happen on a very casual basis. And that is why he is one of the best comics working today. Plus, this has the classic Young Jeezy bit. Can’t go wrong.

Mitch Hedberg: Mitch All Together — Mitch Hedberg is comedy’s most brilliantly counterintuitive thinker. His jokes are like zen koans. I particularly love his bit about do not disturb signs. It should be “don’t disturb,” he argues. “‘Do not’ psyches you out. ‘Do!’ Alright, I get to disturb this guy. ‘Not!’ Shit! I need to read faster!” Marvellous.

Movies

Wind River — So I hated this when I walked out of the theatre, but the people I saw it with were smarter about it and talked me off the cliff. What I saw was a movie by a white, male writer/director, headlined by white actors, about the murder of a teenage girl on a Native American reservation. Moreover, it is a tense thriller in the vein of Sicario (written by the same guy), the thrills of which are motivated by the death of a native woman. This seemed exploitative to me, and the elongated depiction of the brutal crime itself did nothing to endear me to the film. But I am a white man, and my barometer isn’t always well calibrated in these situations. I’ve been partially brought around to the idea that this film is directed specifically at people like me, who have none of the life experience depicted in the film, and it is supposed to make me squirm. I’m one of the people who won’t be triggered by this, just disturbed. And I suspect that’s what Taylor Sheridan is up to: lure in the audiences who need to see this story the most with posters featuring two Avengers, and shake us out of our complacency with a ceaselessly fucking brutal depiction of a reality we don’t know. If we take this charitable view of the film, it still has a big problem in that the story is told through substantially through the perspective of Elizabeth Olsen’s outsider FBI agent. Realistically enough, one expects, this character shits the bed constantly, both in her social interactions with locals on the reservation and in her police work. This would be more effective, however, if the movie didn’t centralize the perspective of an outsider: if the movie were as concerned with the trauma of the community as it is with the personal growth of this interloper. Jeremy Renner’s character is more complex, given that he has family on the reservation and he works there. Still, it’s easy to regret the scenes in which he delivers hackneyed monologues about coping with grief while Gil Birmingham quietly gives a better performance, out of focus. I didn’t like this movie. I don’t know whether or not I admire it. I would be very careful about recommending it. I am open to being swayed further in either direction.

Television

Game of Thrones: Season 7, episodes 5 & 6 — Man was it ever nice to have two episodes stacked up to watch. I am still incredulous about how much I like this season. “Eastwatch” seems uneventful in retrospect, but only because of what comes after and I still enjoyed it a lot. As for “Beyond The Wall,” say what you like about the stupidity of the characters’ plan in this episode, which is profound, this is still an episode where a group of characters including Jorah Mormont, Tormund, and the Hound go questing through majestic Icelandic wastes. I love it, and if you don’t you’re missing the point. The speed with which GoT is currently introducing hitherto unintroduced characters to each other is extremely satisfying this season. Also ice zombie dragon. Oh shit. Also this making-of featurette is incredible.

Twin Peaks: The Return: Parts 14 & 15 — Okay, so Lynch and Frost do know that the Dougie Jones thing is frustrating. The “look how many Douglas Joneses there are in the phonebook” thing is definitely trolling. If this show moved as fast as Game of Thrones, for instance, we’d learn that Janie E is Diane’s half-sister in one scene, and Dougie and Gordon would be face-to-face in the next. But this is Twin Peaks, so no such luck. Still, these are two incredible episodes: the most consequential since the two-part premiere, though the eighth part is still the clear standout. The sequence with Dark Cooper and Phillip Jeffries (voiced by somebody doing a good impression of David Bowie’s bad southern accent) is a satisfying descent into this show’s weird supernatural depths. But the following episode one-ups it with the sequence of the sheriff and deputies in the woods. I love how every consequential step towards this point was the result of Hawk and Bobby’s efforts, and it’s still Deputy Andy who gets to receive the epiphany. If you’d asked me to list the characters least likely to visit one of the lodges in the new Twin Peaks, Andy would have been close to the top of that list. That character in that place is a marvellous juxtaposition in itself. I love how he instantly loses his bewildered aspect upon arrival, just like Cooper loses his effusiveness. There is only listlessness and manic terror in the lodges. And jazz dancing. Also, I guess maybe that’s a wrap on Big Ed and Norma? This story has been intensely simple in a way that the rest of the show is not. I sure didn’t expect the primary function of the Nadine/Dr. Jacoby plot to be bringing Big Ed and Norma back together, but I’ll take it. I’ll take what gratification I can get. Still, there are weeks when this show is easy to love. These have been two of them.

Podcasts

All Songs Considered: “The 150 Greatest Albums Made By Women” — A lovely and warm conversation about NPR’s super awesome list of great albums by women. I’d quibble with some of the album placements, and with some of the ones chosen for discussion here, but it’s not really my place. Point is, this is a ton of awesome music, much of which I haven’t heard, and I will make the effort to do so now.

What Trump Can Teach Us About Con Law: Episodes 7-9 — The tail end of this first batch of Trump Con Law episodes is as informative as everything else, though I can’t claim to be preoccupyingly taken with any of it. I know more about American con law now, though.

The Daily: “Special Edition: The Fall of Steve Bannon” — I listened to this super late, and after having read the Timeslengthy article on Bannon’s departure the next morning, but it still helps somehow to get a sense of things to hear a reporter talking about them conversationally. That’s the genius of The Daily, and why it’s one of the most essential developments in podcasting.

This American Life: “Our Friend David” — I’d heard most of these stories from the late lamented David Rakoff before, but they bear repeating. He was one of the funniest and most articulate presences on the radio, and one of those defining This American Life figures, like David Sedaris, Sarah Koenig, and Starlee Kine. The tape of Rakoff reading from Love, Dishonor, Marry, Die, Cherish, Perish while dying of cancer just kills me. The writing isn’t even his best: it’s clearly rushed because he was racing to the final deadline. But it’s shattering when he reads it, especially considering how sick he sounds. Pick of the week.

Radiolab: “Truth Warriors” & “Truth Trolls” — God is Radiolab out of touch. The second of this pair of episodes is one that they’ve now removed from their feed, but I could still listen to it after the fact because I downloaded it immediately. But let’s start with the first. The tape of Robert Krulwich’s conversation with Neil DeGrasse Tyson about how a conversation with his barista reflects the process of attaining scientific consensus is a good start. But the rest of the episode is a rerun of a story from 2012, which I would like to have been warned about. My time is too valuable to listen to Radiolab stories twice. (Though when I first heard this story, I wouldn’t have felt that way.) Interestingly, this rerun story, featuring documentary filmmaker Errol Morris, is from the same episode as the story that provoked Radiolab’s harshest backlash: the “yellow rain” story, in which the hosts insensitively accused a guest of trying to “monopolize” a story in which said guest’s family had suffered severe trauma. Appropriate, then, that the following episode, “Truth Trolls,” should find Radiolab once again lacking in judgement. Without any context, it might be easy to see how this story of a bunch of 4channers trolling Shia LaBeouf would read as a fun romp. But there is literally nobody in North America who does not have the context to realize that the people this episode treats basically as harmless scamps are hateful bigots. The context is everywhere. How did they miss this? Anyway, Radiolab’s not trying to answer the big questions anymore. They’re just throwing shit at the wall. It sticks just often enough to keep me listening. And that is the most enraging thing of all.  

The Memory Palace: “A Scavenger Hunt” — This is the least self-sufficient of Nate DiMeo’s episodes for the Metropolitan Museum, but in being that, it also made me really want to go to the Metropolitan Museum. That’s a pricey plane ticket, though.

Long Now: Seminars About Long-Term Thinking — “Nicky Case: Seeing Whole Systems” — I always love these talks. They’re satisfyingly complex, and Stewart Brand always asks great questions afterwards. But this one relies too much on visual aids to be a satisfying podcast. It sort of feels like an ad for the video cut that’s available to paying members of the Long Now Foundation, which is something I’ll certainly be when I’ve got the money for frivolous expenditures such as that. But there’s still a lot to be gained from just listening to Case, who is a clever game designer with a deep knowledge of game theory and feedback loops. I’m not sure about his sweeping applications of these concepts — sounds a bit like the sort of thinking that leads Mark Zuckerberg to try and treat hate as an engineering problem. Still, I’m compelled if not convinced.

Omnibus (week of Aug. 13, 2017)

Well this is going to be an odd instalment. I’ve spent the last week at my aunt and uncle’s place in Clarenville, Newfoundland, hearing old stories of Fair Island: the tiny island off the coast that my uncle grew up on, which was resettled to mainland Newfoundland in 1961. That’s my pick of the week. It would be my favourite podcast of the year if it were one. If it were one……

In the meantime, I have only one review for you and it defies categorization by medium. I don’t know what compelled me down this particular rabbit hole, but it’s been a satisfying half hour a night before bed. Given the anomalous nature of this week, I’ll permit myself a temporary format change. I.e. enjoy the paragraph breaks while you can. My one review is of the following set of media:

Various ephemera pertaining to the advanced traversal of Super Mario 64

I have never understood the kids today, all obsessed with watching other people play video games. Every so often I find myself watching part of a Let’s Play, either to get a general sense of whether I want to play a game or to learn how to get past a bit I’m stuck on. But I cannot for the life of me understand why anybody would want to watch them all the way through, even and especially when the person narrating their gameplay has a “personality.” Still, in what I can only assume was a fit of only semi-conscious nostalgia, I spent my late evenings this week marinating in other people’s experiences of Super Mario 64. Particularly, the experiences of people who have taken that game to its farthest extremes.

First, some context. To me, the appeal of a video game generally isn’t in the skill required to play it, but in the space of possibility it opens for decision making and exploration. I like to play games that allow me to explore a fictional space, without necessarily having to hone my hand eye coordination, timing, and skill with the game’s mechanics. I.e. I like weird indie games. I didn’t play a lot of games at all until people started making stuff like Gone Home and Firewatch, which are basically 100 percent story driven.

Super Mario 64 represents an anomaly in my gaming history. It’s the only game I played obsessively as a kid that’s more about skilful negotiation with the game’s mechanics than it is about exploration of the game’s world or narrative. More simply, it’s the only game I really loved where the point is to be “good at it.” I wasn’t, but Mario 64 remains the only platformer where I can actually pick up a controller and perform all of the manoeuvres that the player character is capable of with reasonable fluency. And the thing I specifically love about the game is how it feels to control Mario, and how satisfying it is to get through the (literal and figurative) hoops that the game sets up for you.

The fact that this is the exception rather than the rule for me is probably part of why I’ve never been interested in watching speedruns. Speedrunning is what it sounds like: people trying to beat games absurdly quickly. And it’s not much fun to watch unless you’ve played the game in question and can compare the speedrunner’s gameplay with your own. But I do know Mario 64, so when I started watching an old speedrun by Allan Alvarez (a.k.a. cheese05) something clicked. He practically starts the game by exploiting a glitch that lets him walk through walls. At that point, you realize you’re in the presence of a master. A master of a very specific, not particularly prestigious thing. But a master nonetheless.

Like I said, I’m not sure this will be at all meaningful to somebody who hasn’t played the game. But I’ll try to offer a bit of comprehensible colour commentary.

Alvarez is the current world record holder for speedrunning Mario 64, collecting all 120 power stars along the way. (That’s what you do in Mario 64: you overcome various challenges to earn stars.) The speedrun in the video above is not his current world record run, though it was a record in 2015 when it was recorded. It was the first speedrun to come up on YouTube without any annoying commentary, Thus My Click.

I’m not sure how many times through the course of this that my jaw literally dropped. But Alvarez’s timing, accuracy, faultless knowledge of the game’s exploitable glitches, and ability to move through the space in counterintuitive ways floored me again and again. It’s in the little things a lot of the time, like this thing right here, for instance. In Mario 64, when a power star appears on the screen, there’s a little animation that plays, during which Mario freezes in place — even if he’s mid-air. Again and again throughout the run, Alvarez gets Mario to where the star is going to be in advance, so that when he freezes during that little animation, he doesn’t have to jump again and lose precious milliseconds. That’s efficiency.

But my favourite bits are where Alvarez uses his total understanding of every surface in the game that Mario can bounce off of to traverse an area in a totally different, much faster way than is normal. Let’s take another example from the Snowman’s Land stage. Watch this. The level is designed in a way that directs you on a certain path towards this star — a path that most of us would tread fairly carefully to avoid its many risk factors, including a large, impassable penguin walking back and forth along a slippery surface. Alvarez ignores the well-trodden path completely thereby bypassing all of the obstacles. The genius in this is that the level designers who made Snowman’s Land almost certainly didn’t conceive of this path towards that star. I love that. Since I’m not a member of the speedrunning community, I have no idea how many, if any, of these strategies are Alvarez’s own innovations, or if he’s just learned from others and honed his technique and endurance more than anybody else. Regardless, it’s a hell of a thing to watch.

It’s in the super hard late stages that Alvarez really shines. Watching him clear the 100 coin star in Tick Tock Clock is honest to god one of the most incredible things I’ve seen in my damn life. See, in every stage of Mario 64, you can get a star by collecting 100 coins. Tick Tock Clock is one of the game’s most infamously precarious stages, where if you place a foot wrong, you could fall to your death. I stayed up all night once on Christmas break just working on the 100 coin star in Tick Tock Clock. I made Mario tiptoe over every surface, lest I fall and have to start all over. I don’t even want to know how many times that happened. Alvarez clears it in 60 goddamn seconds. He also clears a remarkable amount of Rainbow Ride without even using the magic carpets that are intended as your primary mode of conveyance through that level. That’s a similar achievement to the way he tackles Snowman’s Land: nobody who designed this level meant it to be that way, but it works.

After watching this whole run, I felt as if I understood what people see in speedrunning. It’s just that there’s only one game I know well enough to appreciate it. Alvarez’s approach to Mario requires encyclopedic knowledge of the most efficient way through its various stages and impossibly finely-honed timing and precision on the controller — not to mention incredible focus and mental endurance. It’s like doing synchronized swimming for nearly two hours. But, you know, on Nintendo.

This gives a brief history of the 120-star Super Mario 64 speedrun. It puts Alvarez in the context of an evolving quest by the speedrunning community to achieve ever shorter times. As an outsider, it can be difficult to see the appeal in a pursuit like this. But I find I’m always less quick to judge once I’ve heard the story of a community from a member of it. The YouTuber called Summoningsalt is basically a speedrunning historian. Useful fellow.


Sometime while I was descending down this speedrunning warp pipe, I recalled a feature on Rock Paper Shotgun I’d been meaning to read about something called TAS, which stands for either “Tool-Assisted Speedrunning” or “Tool-Assisted Superplay.” In my view the latter is a more apt name for what it is, since it’s much more about novel approaches to the game than it is about speed. As I understand it, TAS is when you replace a game’s human player with a computer that you’ve programmed in advance to control Mario (in this case) with a very specific, predetermined set of inputs. By inputs I mean “press and hold A for this long,” “move joystick this much in this direction,” and so forth. This allows you to see what happens when Mario is controlled in very specific ways, without the inevitability of human error.

The RPS feature, written by Steven Messner, focusses primarily on a fellow called Scott Buchanan, a.k.a. pannenkoek2012. What Buchanan does with Super Mario 64 looks like hacking, to somebody like me who doesn’t actually know what that means. But it isn’t — everything he and his fellow tool-assisted superplayers cause to happen in the game is something that the game allows to happen without being altered. They combine the effects of the game’s exploitable glitches to cause freakish effects and accomplish feats that, while technically possible for a human to accomplish with a controller, will never be accomplished by a human with a controller.

Before I explain what I like about TAS, let me first mention that it has spawned one of the most wonderfully bonkers discourses on the whole damn internet. It is a discourse in which it is not an unusual suggestion that one irreplicable glitch that occurred in a Twitch streamer’s Mario game could have been caused by a stray gamma ray entering that player’s computer. Buchanan offered $1000 to anybody who could replicate the glitch in question, and nobody could, so the gamma ray theory was floated. The idea that there’s a community of people who investigate glitches in Super Mario 64 so thoroughly that somebody is able to conjecture “maybe it was gamma rays” is self-evidently delightful.

This video is a good, relatively short example of what TAS actually looks like. The premise of the video is simple: it shows a way to collect a star without pressing any buttons, only using the joystick and adjusting the camera angle. But the content of the video itself is thoroughly mystifying. Mario does things over and over for no discernable reason. The video fast forwards without warning. Things duplicate that shouldn’t duplicate, and it’s unclear why. But there are also bits that, even if you don’t understand what’s going on, are thrillingly absurd. Like this bit, where Mario bounces from one enemy to another, and ends up showered in coins. But at the end of every video, the thing that the title promises does in fact happen, and it’s amazing.

At its most inscrutable, watching Mario 64 TAS is like watching opaque performance art. And while opaque performance art is one of my favourite things, it’s nice to know a bit about why things work the way they do. In my limited experience, your best bet is this video, where Buchanan explains the process by which he can collect a star in Hazy Maze Cave, only pressing the A button, ahem, 0.5 times:

I understand that this video was viral for a while, in large part because of the remark, “but first, we need to talk about parallel universes,” and because of the crazy-talk notion that there’s such a thing as 0.5 A presses. (This is in fact totally explainable and simple, but it doesn’t seem that way at first.) The whole video is casually byzantine in a way I find deeply satisfying. But if you pay attention and read between the lines a bit, you can start to understand what Buchanan is up to. And you start to realize that TAS is a way to provide a more complete picture of what the man-made organism called Super Mario 64 is like: it is deeply imperfect and freaks out in fascinating ways when you push its limits.

I’ve seen avant-garde game design before, but never avant-garde gameplay.  It occurs to me that the absurdity of play in the “0.5 A presses” video may well be a spiritual predecessor to the absurd models of far-future football Jon Bois puts forth in his seminal bit of internet weirdness, 17776. It is Mario that has been pushed to the brink of madness by people whose obsession with it is both idiosyncratic and total. It is beautiful in the way that “Innocent When You Dream” is beautiful. It is not entirely unlike a psychopathic child cutting open the family pet to see what’s inside.

But maybe it is also what Mario 64 would be if it were free to be its truest self: the self that exists unmitigated by the obligation to acknowledge other intelligences, in this case the player. It is Mario in totality: with its weird-ass seams fully exposed. Every one of these counterintuitive approaches to Mario is exactly what it needs to be to be what it is, and is thus a satisfying work of art.

Messner’s RPS story hints at some of the differences in spirit between the two kinds of “speedrunning,” embodied by Alvarez and Buchanan: “If speedrunning is a celebration of human endurance and skill, tool-assisted play is a celebration of human curiosity and understanding. And though they might feel distant, both share a common ancestor in the question ‘how can I do it better?’” The difference between Buchanan and Alvarez’s approaches to Super Mario 64 is the difference between producing a perfectly detailed piece of electronic music, and performing a seemingly impossible guitar solo. I never expected to find that Super Mario 64 was an arena in which humanity’s quest for greatness was playing out.

But then, I don’t understand video games.

Omnibus (week of Aug. 6, 2017)

Greetings from Clarenville, NFLD! I was on a red eye flight last night and I am delirious and I don’t know what time it is. Anyway, I anticipate next week’s instalment being substantially less well populated to this one.

23 reviews.

Movies

Big Trouble in Little China — Good lord, what a thing. I wrote last week in my Dunkirk review about my favourite experiences in a movie theatre, and how that list is distinct from my favourite movies. I think this now joins the ranks of Mad Max: Fury Road and Avatar in the former category. I saw it at the Rio with a friend who is, I would imagine, a bit more inclined toward schlocky action than I am — and definitely more inclined towards John Carpenter. And the crowd that gathered for this was thoroughly in the tank for this movie — I daresay it was impossible not to have fun in that theatre. I doubt it would have struck me as anywhere near as entertaining if I’d watched it at home, because its value is a sort of value that I don’t see by default — I need other people to help bolster my enthusiasm. I don’t mean to suggest here that the movie itself is anything other that brilliant. It’s just not brilliant in a way I would have noticed on my own. The basic premise of the movie is “cast one white dude as the supposed hero, then have him be a hilariously useless dolt throughout.” This is a wonderful thing to watch, because Kurt Russell’s performance is completely committed: he’s John Wayne, loudly blundering through somebody else’s movie. He trips over his own dick in deeply white American fashion at the very beginning of the climactic battle scene and never regains his poise, while the movie’s huge ensemble of Asian martial artists flies through the air all around him. That’s the juxtaposition that makes the movie so satisfying: the fights are genuinely fantastic and a ton of fun to watch, but the story, characters and dialogue feel no need to live up to the seriousness of the choreography. I loved the shit out of this, and will be liberally repurposing the line “Hey, I’m a reasonable guy, but I’ve just experienced some very unreasonable things” to my own ends.

Music

Pink Floyd: The Early Years 1965-1972 — I’ve really enjoyed hearing legendary BBC DJ John Peel as a beloved supporting character in this box set’s story. The fifth volume features his best moment yet, where his announcement to a live audience that “This is Radio One” is met with a huge cheer, his continuation “on medium wave” is met with an even bigger cheer, and his tossed off self-introduction, “And this is John Peel…” is met with a positive torrent of appreciation. “Ah, you blew it,” he tells them. “You did it all wrong.” This guy was everything good about public broadcasting. This single disc collection from around the time of Meddle, arguably the first great Pink Floyd album (though I’m not arguing that) is dominated by the 1971 Peel session in front of a live crowd. It contains a surpassingly good “Fat Old Sun,” which has been extended to include not just the classic guitar solo, but also an uncharacteristically blazing feature for Rick Wright on organ. “One of These Days” is preceded by Peel reporting to the audience that Roger Waters considers this instrumental to be a “poignant appraisal of the current social situation,” which is exactly the sort of thing his detractors would think he means sincerely. But Peel clearly recognizes the game Waters is playing which is “let’s see if I can make John Peel say something dumb and look like a knob on his own show.” Peel doesn’t fall for it. “Make what you will of that,” he says, with a nearly audible roll of his eyes. He also announces that Pink Floyd were evidently dissatisfied with their label’s release of “Embryo” on the Picnic sampler, because it was basically a demo. But he doesn’t explain why they continue to make it a major part of their live set. It’s not a good song, in any version. The session culminates in a complete live “Echoes,” which pales in comparison to the earthshaking Pompei recording (I understand that’s included on the following volume) but it’s still a lot of fun to hear the track through the ears of an audience who likely hasn’t heard it before. (Meddle wasn’t released until a month later.) That’s what I’ve enjoyed about listening to this set, and I imagine that’s part of what more casual fans might not understand about why a huge set of outtakes and curios like this appeals to me: listening to The Early Years isn’t like listening to an album, or even a live album. It’s like listening to an enormous, comprehensive, narration-free documentary about the creative development of Pink Floyd, and the relationship they had with their audience prior to their enormous celebrity. That’s a really compelling story to me, and it’s part of why the Peel sessions are such consistent highlights of the set. The only track on the disc not to come from the Peel session is a segment from the jams that led to the composition of “Echoes,” titled “Nothing, Pt. 14.” It’s an amusing listen primarily because it finds the band toying with the section of the song that would eventually be the leadup to its climax, but they clearly haven’t devised that climax yet. So, in retrospect it’s almost hilariously dissatisfying. But it really emphasizes what’s so impressive about “Echoes,” which is that it clearly is a collection of several initially unrelated ideas that have been massaged together in a way that works as a singular journey. It’s the moment when the fact that three quarters of the band are former architecture students is most clear. The sixth volume (the final one to be available on Apple Music) is both the most musically satisfying and least narratively interesting of the set. These effects both arise for the same reason, which is that all of the music included has been officially released in some fashion before. It’s unclear to me why the compilers of this set decided to include Obscured by Clouds in its entirety, since surely the vast majority of people interested in buying this would have it already. But it has been newly remixed, and has never sounded better. The thing that feels like it’s missing from this set more than anything is live performances of the Obscured by Clouds material. At this point, we’ve gotten to hear music from all of their other albums as performance pieces, but we don’t get a picture of what this stuff sounded like in concert. Presumably, including that would have taken the compilers over their cutoff line of January 1, 1973, and at that point the absence of Dark Side of the Moon material would seem unnatural. So, I get it, mostly. It’s just another one of those things that makes me hope we get another box set like this for the years from 1973-2014 — a far vaster span of time, but with only one more album than this box’s span. There’s no better way that this set could have ended than with the first digital audio release of Live at Pompeii. Aside from being a magnificent performance, and one of the best things in the Pink Floyd catalogue, the documentary film that the audio comes from is the defining document of the tail end of Pink Floyd’s relative obscurity. It finds them performing material from the whole of the transitional period this set documents: from “A Saucerful of Secrets” to “Echoes.” And it also finds them in the process of recording The Dark Side of the Moon, which would make them one of the biggest bands in rock history. This is narratively rich territory, and it’s a damn good live record, too. It’s beyond me why it was apparently included in the box set as an afterthought, because it might be the best thing in it. The Early Years 1967-1972 has been a joy to listen to. Even with all of the repeated performances of the same track, the ephemeral nature of many of the recordings, and early Pink Floyd’s tendency towards obscurantism, I never once found it tedious. (Okay, maybe once: on the Atom Heart Mother-focussed disc.) It is maybe the most vital collection of rock curios ever released.

Olivia Chaney: The Longest River — In preparation for the Decemberists concert (which as I’m writing this will be happening tonight) I thought I’d check out their opener’s solo material. To recap: Chaney is the lead singer of the Decemberists’ side project Offa Rex, whose first album was released earlier this year, is brilliant, and is an explicit tribute to the British folk revival. I love that album, but it does what it says on the tin. Going into this one, I didn’t quite know what to expect. And that worked out to my advantage, because The Longest River consistently surprised me in all the best ways. It’s a mix of original songs, traditional songs, covers, and an anomalous Purcell aria. Chaney performs all of them with real attention paid to the detail in the arrangements, which are mostly just guitar and piano (and the occasional Kronos Quartet cameo) but they are all thoughtful and complex. And the songs themselves are complex, too. I’ve listened to the gorgeous “Loose Change” more than a half-dozen times at this point and I still can’t anticipate where the phrases start and stop. But it’s a good kind of disorientation, and in the end you find yourself deposited back in the part of the song with the gorgeous riff. I’m reminded of Gabriel Kahane, though none of Chaney’s lyrics make me gag. The more obvious point of comparison would be Joni Mitchell, a singer with a similar range, precision, and virtuosity in her arrangements. But there’s something paradoxically more modern about Chaney’s inclusion of traditional songs and covers. The Longest River is a curio cabinet as much as a personal opus. And I mean that in a good way. I’ll be living with this for a while. It’s less immediate than The Queen of Hearts but I can see it having more legs.

Live events

The Decemberists, with Olivia Chaney: Live at the Orpheum — Occasionally, you travel in time. I went to this concert with the very friend who introduced me to the Decemberists in the first place. They were the most important band among my high school’s contingent of weird theatre kids, and therefore one of the first relatively current bands to join Pink Floyd, Jethro Tull and their ilk in my regular rotation. I remember the first time I heard “The Mariner’s Revenge Song.” It wasn’t the studio recording — it was at an impromptu sing-along in the swimming pool at a summer improv camp, with one of the instructors playing guitar on the poolside. There were probably fifty people in that swimming pool, and I was the only one who didn’t know the Decemberists. This was rectified by my present-day concertmate, posthaste. Listening to them now, I can’t help but see in them the same quality I see in most of my passionate obsessions from those days (and now, in a more muted way): a sort of effusive muchness that’s bound to alienate aesthetes with carefully cultivated tastes, while enthralling anoraks like me and my weird teenage friends. (“Drama kids in three-button vests,” Pitchfork called us. I rather like that.) Many of Colin Meloy’s song titles contain exclamation points (“July, July!” “O Valencia!” “Revenge!” “All Arise!”), and there’s a sense in which his entire career is an exclamation, namely: “let’s put on a show!” In the Decemberists, we saw our own self-indulgence reflected back at us, and they offered confirmation that unabashed pretension was a perfectly valid way to find joy in the world. So, this concert with this friend brought us full circle. Honestly I’d say it might have been my ideal Decemberists setlist if I’d already seen them before, which I hadn’t. This was a show that was really light on iconic classics. We got none of Picaresque, and only one track from the either of the first two albums. There was no “Mariner’s Revenge Song,” no “Sixteen Military Wives,” no “I Was Born for the Stage.” We did get “Crane Wife 3” and “O Valencia!” But for the most part, this was a set devoted to the stranger corners of the Decemberists’ catalogue — and the proggier corners. We got “The Island,” in all its Tull-aping glory. We got “The Queen’s Rebuke,” which was by no means the part of The Hazards of Love that I expected to hear. And most remarkably of all, we got The Tain in its entirety: all 18-and-a-half prog-fed minutes of it. That was the highlight of the show, and I’ve been struggling since the concert to think of an analogue for the weirdness and excitement of that moment in some other artist’s discography. Maybe if Paul McCartney announced he was going to do all of Ram. We also got a bunch of new stuff, which was nice. I could have done with fewer tracks from Beautiful/Terrible, which is the only Decemberists album I don’t especially care for. But their new “State of the Union” song, “Everything is Awful” is a scorcher, and a cathartic one at that. Its lyrical simplicity is new territory for Colin Meloy. If even he is lost for words, we must be in a rough spot, indeed. There was also a set from the Offa Rex album, which I adore, and more on which below. So basically it was a super weird set, and if this band weren’t tied up with so much nostalgia for me, it might have been my ideal Decemberists experience. But I really wanted to hear the stuff I loved when I was 16. Can you blame me? So, I feel as though I need to see them again, and next time I want the other two parts of “The Crane Wife,” “Leslie Anne Levine” and at least half of Picaresque. Finally, a word on Olivia Chaney. We wandered in about one minute into her opening set. I’ve been listening to The Longest River semi-obsessively over the past week, so I was basically just as excited for her as for the Decemberists. And she did not disappoint. She drifted between the harmonium, the keyboard and a hollow-body electric guitar, performing a set with the same far-flung variety as her album in the space of 30 minutes. Highlights included her gorgeous original “Loose Change,” which is a perfect song, and a cover of Joni Mitchell’s “A Case of You,” which she is one of only a handful of people I would trust to sing. I was delighted to find that she’s also performing alongside the Decemberists during their set, doing a few tracks from The Queen of Hearts, which is one of the best albums of the year so far. Evidently this was the first show not to be explicitly billed as Offa Rex to include a set like this. I feel very privileged. I feel like I need to see the Decemberists again because we have unfinished business. I feel like I need to see Olivia Chaney again because she is a staggering musician and I think she’s on the verge of something. Occasionally, you travel in time. But it isn’t always easy to tell which direction you went in.

Television

Game of Thrones: “The Spoils of War” — Sure helps to clarify your loyalties, doesn’t it? I would have been entirely content to see Jaime and Bronn both perish in the flames of Daenerys’s new world order. Wonder how that’ll shake up. Anyway, this is more consequential than last week’s talky episode, and it’s definitely great to see some dragons roast some Lannisters. I’ll always prefer the talky episodes, but it wouldn’t be GoT without scenes like that. It strikes me that Game of Thrones and Twin Peaks are the perfect series to be watching in tandem right now, since GoT is offering satisfaction in such heavy doses, where Twin Peaks maintains its steadfast perversity. One or the other of them might drive me over the edge if not for the other. Maisie Williams is this week’s performance highlight. Arya has this wonderful way of saying something incredibly grave and then conjuring her most childlike side whenever somebody finds that amusing. It’s incredibly unsettling. The look of absolute glee when she uses her dagger to best Brienne in combat training is basically what I like about this show. “Who taught you to do that?” “No one.” Marvellous. I’m liking the way that the Daenerys/Jon partnership is shaping up. This episode finds Jon Snow offering the sort of advice to Daenarys that indicates how he and she need each other. That’s the plotline I’m most excited about right now. Also, just want to point out that last week I branded Littlefinger a chaos theorist, only to have Bran reiterate his prior thesis that “chaos is a ladder” this week. It’s the little things that make us feel like geniuses, isn’t it?

Twin Peaks: The Return: Part 13 — Another frustrating instalment that I enjoyed in spite of myself. I love the music in the opening scene: it’s just alienating enough. The clear highlight here is Mr. C’s armwrestling match, but it is cold comfort given the fact that those detectives have completely failed to acknowledge the connection between Dougie Jones and Dale Cooper. He’s not waking up is he.

QI: “Next” — Well, Sandi Toksvig is delightful. I haven’t watched this since Stephen Fry left, only because I haven’t been in the mood, but it’s lovely to see it in good hands. And having both Ross Noble and Frankie Boyle is frankly a surfeit of wit.

Literature, etc.

Chris Ware: Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth — This is one of the most emotionally exhausting works of fiction I have ever experienced. It’s a cathartic kind of exhaustion, but Chris Ware drives his protagonist (and his protagonist’s forebears in the long flashback sequences) to psychological places where not every reader will want to follow. There’s something extra effective about personal, heartfelt stories like this when they’re told in an aggressively formalist way. Christopher Nolan, to pick the other example who’s come up recently, has always made movies I like because he shows you human experience through the prism of complex story structures. This isn’t just cleverness: it changes the way you watch his movies by adding a layer of distance between you and the content of the story. You’re expected to fill that distance with your own ability to identify with the characters, and that makes a movie like Dunkirk especially devastating. Chris Ware takes that distancing technique to a level unlike anything else I’ve ever seen. His art is detailed in the way that a blueprint is detailed: everything you’d see if you were looking at a building or person in real life is accounted for in his drawing, but left cartoonish in its realization. And he’s not one to amplify the emotional impact of key moments with dynamic page layouts. His visual language is solidly rectangular. That in itself contributes a sort of austerity to the storytelling. Even splash pages are a bit of a indulgence for Ware, and he uses them very sparingly — including once at the book’s most shattering moment, when something truly awful happens to Jimmy’s grandfather as a child. There’s also a moment where a major plot twist near the end is communicated wordlessly through, basically, a flow chart. You get the point. Ware is extremely restrained and fussy. At first, the book’s general aesthetic of “Sunday funnies meets 19th-century carnival advertisements” just seems like a symptom of this formalism. But when the shattering moment I mentioned above happened, you realize that in fact, the event that precipitated the Corrigan family’s trend of worthless fathers (and thus Jimmy’s bad state throughout the story) took place at the Chicago World’s Fair. So, the fact that the story plays out in the garb of that event’s promotional materials takes on a new resonance. This is simultaneously one of the most affecting and most ingenious comics I’ve ever read. It’s a masterpiece. Now I’m gonna go lie down for a while. Pick of the week.

Franklin Foer: “When Silicon Valley Took Over Journalism” — Possibly the single most concise and effective expression of the devil’s bargain that the journalism industry made when they went to Facebook for an audience. Evidently Foer has a book coming out on this. Can’t wait. Do you know an editor with a Chartbeat addiction? Make them read this, then lock them in the basement.

John Lanchester: “You Are The Product” — Foer’s piece may be the most concise one about the perils of Facebook for the media, but this review of three recent books on the subject in the London Review of Books is the most complete feature-length discussion of how Facebook’s lack of a moral compass is affecting its users. I plan to read all of these books.

Thomas Ligotti: “Notes on the Writing of Horror: A Story” — This magnificent essay-that-is-not-an-essay reveals Thomas Ligotti to be several things I knew he was, as well as a few things I didn’t know he was. It reveals him to be a very good horror writer, which I knew he was. It reveals him to be completely crazy, which I suspected he was. But it also reveals him to have a sense of humour, which I didn’t know he had, and to have a facility for metafiction, which hasn’t been part of the stories I’ve read by him. That last observation makes this story scarier than many of his others for me, simply because there is nothing scarier to me than a story that transgresses its own boundaries. As for the essayistic element of this, there is much to learn from Ligotti’s straightforward discussion of the types of horror stories. As a producer of an occasionally horror-adjacent podcast, I have found myself in positions where I’ve butted up against my own insistence on what Ligotti calls the “realistic” model of horror writing, where an uncanny thing is found to exist in contrast to a fundamentally “real” and “normal” world. Having read this, I now understand why this doesn’t always work for me — because in stories like Ligotti’s the world is fundamentally skewed and unreal. And those are the kinds of stories that I like. Also, it’s hilarious to me that Ligotti has to literally reimagine himself as a passionate Italian from a bygone century to contemplate writing Gothically. This is very, very good.

Stephen King: The Gunslinger — As I’m writing this, I just got off a plane. On that plane, I read nearly this whole book. That is not something I normally do — my general ponderousness and tendency to get distracted makes me an abnormally slow reader. But now I think I know why people like Stephen King, at least in part: the pages fly by. This is the first thing I’ve read by King. I feel like I’ve always been just about to get into him, but I’ve always backed off before pulling the trigger, so to speak. I decided to dive right into the Dark Tower series because I’ve been reading reviews of the movie, which almost uniformly make the movie sound like hackneyed drivel, while also emphasizing that the books are as wonderfully strange as the movie fails to be. Fine, I’m in. This first instalment manages to simultaneously be incredibly thrilling and also feel like it’s mere setup. The book’s story is basically summed up by its first sentence: “The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed.” And then when the gunslinger catches up with the man in black, they talk, and more questions are raised than answered. The basic idea of this is a lot of fun: put Clint Eastwood in a fantasy story. What I’m most looking forward to in this series is the opportunity for genre fusions. Already we’ve got Jake, who is a secondary character from an entirely different kind of story — and I suspect we haven’t seen the last of him. Good fun.

Podcasts

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “Atomic Blonde,” “Insecure,” “Detroit,” & “A Guide to Stephen King” — Two weeks worth of this! Honestly, the Stephen King episode is the only one that I’m finding of practical value, but it’s just nice to listen to them talk.

Love and Radio: “Suitcase of Love and Shame” — Another absurdly intimate episode of Love and Radio. We get to listen in on an affair in real time. It’s a beautiful thing in which nobody comes out looking very good.

The Turnaround: “Katie Couric,” “Ray Suarez,” “Werner Herzog” & “Terry Gross” — The last four episodes of this show have all been interesting, although the climactic (what a concept) Terry Gross interview has a lot of overlap with the more comprehensive Longform interview. This has been a thoroughly enjoyable series, though I’ve cooled on it over time. I wouldn’t stand by my initial impression that it’s among the best radio of the year.

Planet Money: “Google is Big. Is That Bad?” — Yes.

A Piece of Work: “Samantha Gets High on Light” — I’m really impressed by how well the host and guests on this show manage to describe the experience of visual art in an invisible medium. This is a great new show; I’ve been totally enjoying it. Makes me want more podcasts about visual art. Pick of the week.

The Daily: Wednesday, August 9 — Nice to hear Carl Zimmer on this! Love that guy. And also it’s always a good way to get the latest Trump horrors put into context.

On the Media: “Shmashmortion” — A history of the politics of abortion from Brooke Gladstone. How can you go wrong? This is great stuff, and really emphasizes how artificial a debate it is.

Imaginary Worlds: “Evil Plans” & “Scott Snyder” — Been awhile since I’ve heard this. The Scott Snyder interview is fun, even though I had no idea who he was. It’s about how his own anxieties factor into the Batman stories he’s written.

Code Switch: “The U.S. Census And Our Sense Of Us” & “Who’s Your Great-Great-Great-Great Granddaddy?” — Two episodes that explore notions of identity and the labels we put on them. The one about genealogy is especially interesting.

Theory of Everything: “Illicit Objects” — A marvellous compendium of bite-sized stories about objects that people aren’t supposed to have. For having been produced by people who aren’t Benjamen Walker, it feels very ToE.

Mogul: “Cameo: Russell Simmons and Sophia Chang” — It’s a bit awkward to hear Russell Simmons proclaiming that he doesn’t think Chris Lighty committed suicide after the final full episode of this basically concluded that he did, and that the only reason people don’t want to believe that is the stigma against mental illness in the hip hop community. But at least Simmons seems to think that taboo is harmful.