Category Archives: Video games

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.

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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 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 July 30, 2017)

This week’s North by Northwest segment is a good one, I think. A few overlooked gems by eminent artists. And it’s always a pleasure to do a segment with Margaret Gallagher, who’s guest hosting this week. I’m at 10:25 in this podcast.

21 reviews.

Live events

Cinquecento: Live at Christ Church Cathedral — This was a lovely evening at Early Music Vancouver’s Bach festival, so named for having a lot of Bach, but not only Bach. Cinquecento is a five-piece male vocal ensemble that specializes in the music of the 16th century. This concert, in the resonant acoustic of Burrard Street’s Christ Church Cathedral, focussed on the music of Reformation England. The program was a mix of Thomas Tallis (a name to know, but not a composer I’d really ever looked into), Christopher Tye (who I’d honestly never heard of at all), William Byrd (a favourite of mine) and an encore by Robert Parsons (no relation). Cinquecento sings with otherworldly accuracy and feeling — only the occasional siren from outside the thin shell of the church walls reminded us that we were in fact still participating in material reality. Particularly ethereal were the moments of these pieces when the polyphony gave way to unison singing, in the style of plainchant. It’s almost spooky how together they are in those moments. Funny how when you’ve experienced complexity on basically every musical front, from harmonic to technological, a handful of people singing in unison makes the world stop. It has taken me a long time to develop a taste for renaissance polyphony in more than short bursts. It seems to me that for all of the variation in compositional style between different composers and genres in this period, there isn’t a whole lot of variation in texture — and that’s what you hear first. Increasingly, I think that the way to hear this music is simply to surrender yourself to it, and the best way to do that is to hear it live, in a resonant space. It’s a rare thing that I say any music is better live. But I love hearing early music in concert. I should do it more. In terms of rep: the standouts among the Tallis selections were his “Lamentations of Jeremiah I” and the hymn “Te lucis ante terminum,” which contained the aforementioned world-stopping unison sections. But the real highlight, totally unexpectedly, was the Agnus Dei from Tye’s Mean Mass. I know nothing about this guy, and I wasn’t particularly moved by any of the other sections from this mass. A cursory Google doesn’t unearth any recordings, so I do hope I manage to encounter this music again. In any case, a wonderful concert.

Television, etc.

Twin Peaks: The Return: Part 12 — “Crisco, you been selling your blood again?” As much as I complain about the lack of Dale Cooper in the new Twin Peaks, I tend to prefer episodes in which he has no part at all to the ones that focus on him as a monosyllabic husk of his former self. (Aside from that wonderful shot of Sonny Jim nailing him with a baseball.) This was a pretty fantastic episode, all things considered. I tend to enjoy the Gordon/Albert plotline, and here’s hoping that Tammy gets something to do now that she’s officially on the dangerous Blue Rose task force. But aside from those reliably enjoyable scenes (with one exception, in a moment), this also gives us generous doses of two characters who have been either largely or entirely absent for the bulk of the season. Audrey Horne’s return is as baffling as we had every reason to believe it would be, since Lynch and Frost seem hellbent on putting our favourite characters in situations so unfamiliar to us that they read as functionally different people. But at least we get Grace Zabriskie, stepping back into the role of Sarah Palmer for more screen time than in any prior episode. I love this performance, because unlike many of this show’s reintroduced characters, Sarah seems exactly like you’d expect her to, 25 years after the original series’ events. Which is to say, she seems similar to the way we’re used to her — but moreso. The intense trauma of what happened to her daughter has continued to eat away at her just like it was in the first place, and it’s been like that for decades, now. Zabriskie’s performance has always been one of the best in Twin Peaks. And here, she contorts herself into a person who seems like she hasn’t been calm since a third of a lifetime ago. But also there’s that scene where David Lynch ogles a comically sexed-up French woman. I mean, at least he’s being explicit about it. But I really wish this show was better about not being sexist. The last thing I wanted Lynch and Frost to do with a revived Twin Peaks was demonstrate what out-of-touch old men they are. For some, Twin Peaks’ attitude towards women is likely grounds for dismissal out of hand, and I understand that. Personally, I just wish that a show that’s so radical in so many ways could be a little less ass-backwards in that way.

Game of Thrones: “The Queen’s Justice” — Marvellous. This is Game of Thrones at its talkiest, most political, and best. The long-awaited meeting of Jon Snow and Daenerys Targaryen is enough to make it classic. It’s a beautifully wrought bit of political drama in which two sympathetic characters are both right in conflicting ways, as are their sympathetic aides. Tyrion and Ser Davos are equally compelling as the two marquee names. In fact I daresay Liam Cunningham wins the scene with his spirited defence of Jon’s worthiness of the title King in the North. It’s nice to see somebody respectable offer a bit of resistance to Daenerys, too. She is glorious, to be sure, but she’s getting ostentatious, and she doesn’t see the whole picture. Nobody south of Winterfell has, yet. That scene is so good that it risks sucking the air out of everything that comes after. But then we get a pair of the best Cersei scenes ever. First, we watch her carry out truly gruesome revenge against her daughter’s killer. Then, in a scene I didn’t know I wanted, we watch her spar with Mark Gatiss, who brought all his considerable smugness to bear. We get Littlefinger the chaos theorist, advocating a model of decision making based on envisioning every branch in a tree of outcomes. We get Sam continuing to be abused in the way of all unpaid interns. And we get the magnificent Olenna Tyrell dying as she lived: with an acid tongue and an impeccable knowledge of her sparring partner’s pressure points. So far, this is my favourite season of Game of Thrones. If it keeps this up to the end, it may yet become a show I mostly like.

Literature, etc.

Ryan Lizza: “Anthony Scaramucci Called Me To Unload About White House Leakers, Reince Priebus, and Steve Bannon” — Even after Priebus got pushed out and made this piece into a previous version of the news (it happens so fast now), I felt I had to read this and I am not sorry I did. Scaramucci is a cartoon character. He is a man with absolutely no self-awareness. He refers to himself in the third person and calls himself “the Mooch.” He is making a concerted effort to come off as some kind of goon/kingpin hybrid and he ends up sounding like a sad man who thinks he’s in Goodfellas. Wild shit. Also, like an hour after I wrote this review, he got the boot. Awesome.

Chris Ware: Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid On Earth — I am about three quarters of the way through this magnificent graphic novel. I daresay I’ve lingered longer on each page of this than I have with any other comic, thanks to Chris Ware’s complex and adventurous page layouts, resolutely quadrilateral-based, but with the panels of sequences arranged in pleasingly counterintuitive ways. And the art itself is basically the platonic ideal of comic art: cartoonish and expressive, with each panel limited in its colour palate, but with an almost schematic attention to the detail of structures and environments. Early in the book, Ware’s layouts are more ostentatious and formalist. Some take on the character of a flow chart, with narratives told through abstract series’ of cause and effect. But as the book proceeds, his approach becomes more direct, befitting the increasing drama of the story. Because for all of the novelty of Ware’s approach, for all of the virtuosity in his artwork, the story he is telling is a brutally sad and often cringeworthy tale of isolation and hardship. I’ll cover my thoughts on the story next week once I’m finished it. But it’s already pretty clear to me that this is soon to join the ranks of From Hell and Phonogram, my other favourite works in this medium.

James Parker: “The Whitest Music Ever” — LMAO where to even start. Firstly, I am grateful to Parker for reiterating the traditional critical line about prog rock in a mainstream publication. With a book like David Wiegel’s The Show That Never Ends on the market, which Parker is reviewing here, I was getting concerned that my love of prog no longer makes me a contrarian and THAT CANNOT STAND. Equally gratifying is the way in which Parker dismisses prog with the general sentiment “but just listen to it its so ugly!” This is by some margin the most defensible negative critique of the genre. It is super weird! Prog is often very unattractive music — fascinatingly so, to those of us who like it. Parker’s got a great line about “the tune” of a piece of music being “the infinitely precious sound of the universe rhyming with one’s own brain.” I find that unbelievably relatable. Except that I feel the universe rhyming with my brain when I listen to “Knots” by Gentle Giant, which Parker, reasonably enough, finds unlistenable. One man’s trash, etc. All the same, Parker’s surety that this music is intrinsically unlikeable carries an unpleasant implication: that those of us who claim to like it do so out of something other than the intuitive aesthetic attraction that draws everybody else to their favourite music. I.e. we are pretentious, and we would have fewer liabilities as cultural consumers if we were normal. That’s real shitty. Dan Fox puts it better than I could ever hope to: “The accuser of pretension always presumes bad intentions. Truth is, more often than not pretension is simply someone trying to make the world more interesting, responding to it the way they think is appropriate. It’s more likely that what you think is one person’s pretension is another’s good faith… To fear being accused of pretension is to police oneself out of curiosity about the world.” I can’t help but feel when I read a critique like Parker’s that I’m being beckoned back to my box. “Don’t enjoy weird shit; it’s unbecoming.” And while I absolutely agree with Parker that the elements of pop music that prog sometimes eschews, i.e. hooks and repetition (though his loathed Magma are plenty repetitious), are valuable and attractive, I don’t think that’s any reason to proclaim the genre “murder, artistically speaking.” It’s insufferably closed-minded to expect all music to conform to any one set of standards. And I don’t think that Parker’s self-acknowledged glibness is at all constructive. Rather, I think it only serves as virtue signalling for his own normalcy, which isn’t even a virtue. Am I being unfun? Probably. But this is bad criticism, and I don’t know how to say that without getting on my high horse. Finally, a word on prog’s whiteness. Prog is super white! This is by no means good, but I’m also not sure that its deliberate distance from the blues is a sin by default. I’ve thought about this a lot, and I’m still of two minds about it. On one hand, you could look at prog’s disavowal of blues as a creepily Brexity refusal to engage with anybody’s culture save for these musicians’ own white, European culture. On the other hand, you can also look at it as a respectful reluctance to engage in cultural appropriation. Of all of the rock music to emerge from the U.K. in the late 60s, prog is the only subgenre whose musicians have consistently acknowledged, in their musical practice and in interviews, that blues does not belong to them and they don’t really have any business playing it. Which of these two interpretations seems more convincing probably depends on how charitable you feel towards the music in general, but I expect the truth involves a bit of both. Personally, I find prog’s enormous whiteness a hell of a lot more palatable than this bullshit.

Movies

Snowpiercer — I don’t know why I didn’t see this sooner. This is a really good movie. The conceit of showing a revolution happening in a class-stratified train is one of those premises that is so elegant from the outset that you wonder why nobody did it long before. (I suppose the graphic novel came out in 1982, but that still seems curiously recent to me.) In execution, all it really has to do is make the journey from the back of the train to the front compelling and varied, which it is. Chris Evans is a bit of a cipher of a protagonist until near the end, when things get really complicated. But in the supporting cast we get John Hurt, Tilda Swinton (with some really great false teeth), Octavia Spencer and Ed Harris, so how can you go wrong. Good fun. The kind of movie I wish we saw more of.

Dunkirk — Seeing Christopher Nolan’s latest in an IMAX screening sits very near the top of my shortlist of great moviegoing experiences. Take note that this is a distinct list from my list of favourite movies, and even from my list of favourite movies I’ve seen in theatres. A movie need not be a masterpiece to be an incredible experience in a theatre. Some of the films I’d put on this list are masterpieces (Mad Max: Fury Road). Some are resolutely not (Avatar). Dunkirk is a truly great film, probably Nolan’s best. But my opinion of it is entirely contingent on the experience of seeing it in film projection, on an IMAX screen. The beauty of IMAX is that it nearly fills your field of vision, encouraging you to forget everything that lies beyond the edges of the screen. So, when Nolan puts his camera in an enclosed space, the hugeness of an IMAX screen makes the scene feel more claustrophobic, not less, because you feel that you’re in that space as well. And when that claustrophobic space, say, the galley of ship, gets hit by a torpedo and fills instantly with water, you feel like you’re going to die. That, in a nutshell, is why Dunkirk is a great film: Nolan understands that cinema is an experience as much as a narrative art form, and he uses his mastery of the craft to put the audience inside of one of the most traumatic and unprecedented chapters in the history of warfare. Nolan’s customary structural game, i.e. telling three intersecting stories in three different timespans, is the only thing serving as a reminder that what you’re seeing is a narrative construction. Nolan’s playing with timelines has been one of the most remarked-upon elements of the movie, which is understandable since it’s basically the only thing connecting this movie’s narrative approach to any previous Nolan film (namely Inception). But the real spark of ingenuity in Nolan’s three-story approach is that the stories in question encompass land, sea and air. Equally thrilling and stressful to the beach evacuation are the sequences of airborne battle, taking place over an impossibly long ocean horizon. This is filmmaking at its most spectacular and affecting. Dunkirk is too stressful to see in theatres twice. But you must see it. On the biggest screen possible. Pick of the week.

Games

Day of the Tentacle — It was on sale, and Rock Paper Shotgun called it the best adventure game of all time. It isn’t. It’s fine, but its dopey comedy tone is extremely trying. I played the remastered version of the game, which modernizes the interface and recreates the original’s pixel art as beautifully rendered cartoon animation, which still studiously maintains the detail of the original. The remaster offers the option to switch to the original version of the game, which I periodically did, just to see the difference. Seems to me that the remaster is faultless, but it can only do so much with the material at hand. Day of the Tentacle’s writing is full of silliness, but light on actual jokes. Its characters are not real characters but ‘types,’ which would be fine if the game did anything at all to undercut those types, but it doesn’t. It just rehearses them by rote. Day of the Tentacle is happy to risk being childish for the benefit of being funny, but it isn’t funny, so its childishness is insufferable. I suppose I shouldn’t gripe about that since it’s for children, after all. But one expects that children’s entertainment that attains this degree of acclaim would at least be admirable on a structural level to an adult. Nope. As for the puzzles, many are extremely clever and satisfying, especially when they involve the game’s time travel premise in their solutions. But just as often, the puzzles in Day of the Tentacle are maddeningly obtuse, in the manner of most point-and-clicks from this time period. In an effort to not spend hours and hours on this silly game that I wasn’t really enjoying, I made moderate use of a walkthrough for puzzle hints. I mention this because there are those who would say I haven’t really played the game if I haven’t arrived independently at all of the puzzle solutions. To those people I say: this review would be far less charitable if I had. This game is adequate. It’s no classic. The Myst games get a raw deal these days for the unfairness of their puzzles and their relative lack of story. But they at least provide an interesting space to explore and play amateur anthropologist. Give me Riven any day over this.

Music

Meredith Monk: Dolmen Music — A wonderful NPR feature on the best albums made by women reminded me that this is something I’ve always meant to check out. Monk is a fascinating composer whose work I’ve heard in bits and pieces in various contexts, but I’ve never sat down with a full album’s worth of her music. This is fabulous stuff, but for my money the first half, featuring music for solo voice and piano is more satisfying than the larger title track that makes up the second side. “Gotham Lullaby” is especially attractive. There’s something to be said for the sound of the human voice when it is divorced from the concrete meaning making of language. A wonderful discovery.

Pink Floyd: Zabriskie Point score — (How odd that the word “Zabriskie” comes up in two different contexts this week.) Noting that a substantial amount of The Early Years volume four contains outtakes from the sessions Pink Floyd did for Michelangelo Antonioni’s psychedelic odyssey (which I’ve never seen, but I’ve heard described by Karina Longworth), I figured I’d best hear the tracks that actually made it onto the soundtrack album. These are a rather astonishing and attractive sound collage called “Heart Beat, Pig Meat,” an unextraordinary acoustic number called “Crumbling Land” and an alternate version of “Careful With That Axe Eugene” retitled “Come in Number 5, Your Time Is Up” that is superior to the previous studio version but can’t touch the magnificent live recording on Ummagumma. But there’s more: four additional tracks made it onto the special edition from 1997. “Country Song” would sit nicely on Obscured by Clouds, the band’s most listenable soundtrack work. “Unknown Song” anticipates the midsection of the “Atom Heart Mother Suite,” i.e. the good part. “Love Scene (Version 6)” is a fairly bland blues jam of the sort that British rock bands were prone to do when nobody sternly told them not to. So far, all of these tracks have been full band credits, but the one remaining track, along with “Heart Beat” the crown jewel of the bunch, is a Richard Wright solo piano number. “Love Scene (Version 4)” finds Wright playing in his pleasingly unaffected fashion, exploring melodies over chords that sway gently to and fro. It’s a trifle, and I expect he thought nothing of it, but it feels like a candid photograph. I quite like it. It’s a mystery to me why all of this stuff wasn’t remastered for inclusion on The Early Years, considering that it’s probably the least familiar of all of Pink Floyd’s officially issued material. These tracks, plus the outtakes in the box set would make up a lost Pink Floyd album that’s superior to More. (Though none of the tracks with lyrics can compete with “Green is the Colour” or “Cymbeline,” both of which deserve to be on a better album.)

Pink Floyd: The Early Years 1965-1972 — Another week, another two volumes of this box set on Apple Music. Volume three focusses on 1969, the year of More and Ummagumma: albums that I mildly dislike, and half like, respectively. All the same, this volume demonstrates that for all the inconsistency in the band’s studio output at the time, they were nonetheless reaching a new peak of creative vibrancy. After a first disc that features some tepid outtakes from More and a couple of live performances that range from fine to good, the second disc gives us a complete recording of the band’s famous The Man and the Journey live show. It’s a conceptual piece, and so it risks coming off as a bit tedious or literal, but as a sound recording it seems mercifully abstract. This is a great performance — everything from the extended “Cymbaline” to the found-object piece “Work” is compelling. It’s tempting to listen in the manner of a trainspotter, locating bits of previous and upcoming pieces of music in this liminal, transitory performance. But you don’t have to listen like that. It sustains a simple listen for its own virtues. Volume four covers 1970, the year of Atom Heart Mother, and thus a problem year. So far, I have not been annoyed with the multiple instances of some key songs, like “Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun” or “Careful With That Axe, Eugene.” But the three complete versions of the “Atom Heart Mother Suite” on this volume are a bit much to bear. Two of the three feature no orchestra, which one might initially think would remove some of the problems with that misbegotten work. But the band declines to incorporate the melodic material that appears in the horns and strings in some other way, which makes the whole thing feel a bit insubstantial. You can’t win. The John Peel session that features a complete “Atom Heart Mother” is by and large a satisfying listen, but the brass band and choir assembled in lieu of the full orchestra/choir implement shit the bed as badly here as the ensembles on the record do. (Kind of puts a fine point on how bad the studio record is, doesn’t it?) Also, “Embryo” is a weirdly important song in Pink Floyd sets of this time period. It was not good enough to make it onto a proper album, but they play it at every show, seemingly. This volume also features the outtakes from the Zabriskie Point sessions, which are really fun. There’s definitely a full soundtrack album’s worth of music in there. Great stuff.

Podcasts

Radiolab: “Breaking News” — A terrifying tale from the precipice of a dystopia. The team tells the story of a new bit of technology that allows for convincing fake audio and video to be made of famous people. The video that they made with it isn’t actually all that convincing, but we’re fast approaching a point where it will be, I’m sure. Shudder.

A Piece of Work: Episodes 1-3 & 5 — A fun journey through the wonder and weirdness of modern art, with one of the stars of Broad City. What more could you want? The episode on Yves Klein’s monochromes, feat. Questlove, is the highlight. I’m really enjoying this, and it made me want to go look at pictures. I daresay that’s the goal.

The Turnaround: “Louis Theroux” — I kind of wish Jesse Thorn were as willing to challenge Jerry Springer and Louis Theroux as he was Audie Cornish. Because Springer, for all his self-awareness, hosts a trashy show, and Theroux sometimes stirs the pot for the sake of drama rather than understanding. Not one of my favourite episodes of this.

Showcase from Radiotopia: “Introducing… Showcase from Radiotopia” — This is such a good idea. The biggest problem with podcasting that isn’t a problem in broadcasting is that a show idea has to be infinitely self-sustaining, unless it’s something like S-Town or Mogul and has the support of a major player in the industry. So here’s a channel with the support of a major player in the industry, PRX, that focusses on smaller series with experimental approaches. I’m salivating.

99% Invisible: “Ways of Hearing” — John Berger would be proud. I’m counting this as an episode of 99pi, because that’s how I heard it. But it’s actually the first episode in Ways of Hearing, which is itself the first serial on Showcase from Radiotopia. Interestingly, this series on the social impact of digital recording is airing for the first time just as a CBC Radio series on the impact of electricity on music is airing again on Ideas. I’ve been avidly following that, but not reviewing it because it was co-produced by a friend of mine. (Regardless, it is a masterpiece. Listen to it.) This is more specific in its subject than that series and less sweeping in its scope, but it is so far very eloquent in its argumentation — even if that argumentation is basically that technology took something out of music, which is one of those arguments that’ll either be obvious or obviously wrong to you. Or perhaps not, because when I think about it, I’m not sure which side of that debate I land on. I’ll let this sit for a while before offering my final assessment. But I’ll definitely listen to the rest of the series. Oh, and the Jon Brion interview at the end of this is a very eloquent elaboration on a concept that is fairly central to my understanding of pop music: the notion that a song and a performance are two distinct things.

Reply All: “Long Distance, Part II” — An ending that befits the beginning. Wow, is this ever a thrill ride, considering that it started with Alex Goldman personally being the subject of a scam attempt. How wonderful that he works somewhere with the money to sent him across the world with a producer to find the guy who scammed him. Bracing, wonderful stuff.

The Gist: “A Video Came Thoreau Might Play” — Walden, a game sounds like an interesting concept, but I feel like regardless of its distinctive subject matter I wouldn’t be able to help comparing it with Firewatch, which is too awesome to compare to anything. We’ll see.

Ear Hustle: “The SHU” — This is a rough listen. Solitary confinement is a brutal practice, and one that it’s a miracle doesn’t leave a person irreparably broken. Stories worth knowing, though.

Longform: “Maggie Haberman” — This is one of the most astonishing interviews I have ever heard. During the course of this conversation, Maggie Haberman, NYT White House reporter, reports a story. Like, she talks about her job at the same time as she does it. And moreover, she acts as if this is simply not unusual. It’s disquieting, actually. I feel concerned for her. I think she’s forgotten how to be human. I am reminded of the words of the immortal Malcolm Tucker: “This is a fucking husk. I am a fucking host for this fucking job.” Come for the niche interest process story and stay for the bizarre fucking implicit psychodrama. Pick of the week.

Omnibus (week of July 16, 2017)

Three picks of the week, this week. It was that kind of week. Also, here’s the latest NXNW segment. It’s a really good one, this week. I talked about three things from very recent weeks that I’ve especially loved. I’m at 2:09:42.

19 reviews.

Movies

Baby Driver — I have a friend who tells a story about how Brian Eno saved his life. “I suffer from tinnitus,” he wrote. “These days I’m mostly able to ignore it, but when I first noticed it, it was terrifying. I couldn’t sleep through the night without having this track (“Music for Airports 1/1”) on repeat in the background, just loud enough to distract me from the buzzing in my own head, just quiet enough to allow me to sleep.” He went on to coin a phrase I like: “societal tinnitus”: the terrifying sensation that the world is inescapably noisy. I know for a fact that he’s not the only person to have found Music for Airports necessary for drowning out one metaphorical tinnitus or another. But music’s function as a tonic runs deeper than a mere physiological response to calming ambient music. Music can offer a near-complete respite from the obligation to be present in the world. When you put in earbuds, you are doing two things in equal measure: connecting yourself to an imaginary reality that exists in a recording, and disconnecting yourself from the auditory portion of the empirical reality around you. It’s wrong to view the latter phenomenon as a byproduct of the former. Your inability to hear while in this state — and increasingly the willingness of others to simply accept that you cannot hear them while wearing earbuds and thus not try to engage you — is a feature, not a bug. “The world is so loud.” To escape, simply superimpose a louder one. Disengage. A pair of shades to avoid unsought after eye contact completes the coping mechanism. Making compulsive use of this function of music is surely unhealthy. But for all that it may cost you, it repays you with moments of unmatched vibrancy in your inner life. Everybody else is walking to work, lining up for a sandwich, waiting for the bus. And you may be doing one of those things too, but you are wholly within yourself: a bespoke intelligence expending the minimum amount of mental energy on the world that begins where you end. This is when you are most yourself. These moments are a joy and a necessity. And the music itself is almost incidental to the appeal. Baby Driver is the first movie I’ve seen that captures, or even attempts to capture, this feeling. When Baby dances down the sidewalk in the long take that makes up the movie’s title sequence, he is allowing “Harlem Shuffle” to subsume his reality. (Ansel Elgort’s essential charmlessness helps to sell Baby’s total disengagement.) When he makes his immaculately choreographed getaways to the strains of various energetic scores, he is imposing his own reality on the world around him. Baby Driver’s relationship with music is different from that of lesser films like Garden State or even High Fidelity, both of which are about how a person’s relationship with specific genres, songs and artists help to inform that person’s identity. Baby Driver isn’t really about any music in particular, but rather about the act of listening itself, and the functions of that act. Baby’s musical taste has little bearing on his character. For Baby, music is neither indulgence nor signifier, but a basic necessity. He requires it to drown out his tinnitus — which he possesses in both literal and metaphorical forms. In a bit of boilerplate but not entirely unrelatable backstory, we see that Baby’s tinnitus and his psychological trauma were caused by the same event. We see that even prior to this event, Baby was using the noise-cancelling properties of Apple earbuds to drown out a noisy household. (“So this is what the volume knob’s for…”) For Baby, music will always first and foremost serve a practical purpose. Baby’s not a music nerd. His taste in music doesn’t serve as personal branding or narrative shorthand. (And what would we be meant to learn about him from the fact that he blasts “Tequila,” anyway?) He simply does not have the freedom to exist without music. He cannot do his job in its absence, and he cannot avoid his literal and metaphorical tinnitusses without it. This is what Buddy misunderstands when he deafens Baby: he’s not taking away something Baby loves, he’s permanently curing the disease that the music was only ever a treatment for. Without tinnitus, Baby is free to continue living his rich inner life unencumbered by the noise of the world and the noise in his head. He is free to be the most himself, always. Deafness is a permanent and equal alternative to the superimposed reality of his iPod. He even already knows sign language. Baby Driver is not a music nerd movie. It is not a movie about listening to music. It’s a movie about not having to listen to the rest of the world, which is loud and confusing and stressful. That is an effect that listening to music has. It is a feature, not a bug. This may turn out to be one of those movies with which I develop an inappropriately intense relationship. Pick of the week.

Television, etc.

Twin Peaks: The Return: Part 10 — Is it foolish to criticize the amount of violence towards women in a show that started off about the brutal murder of a homecoming queen? Because, 26 years later, Twin Peaks still submits its female characters to an awful lot. This, more than any other episode of the season, is where these dubious instincts come out a bit too much. There are three separate instances of physical violence towards women in this, two of which are in the first ten minutes. Also in the first ten minutes is a somewhat troubling sequence in which a woman is too stupid to realize that if she swats a fly that’s sitting on a person’s head, she swats the person as well. Subsequently, she cries for the whole day and asks the swatted man “how can you love me after what I did?” This in spite of the two other women this man keeps around the house wearing the same fetishistic outfit. I mean, she could be up to something, but this is one of very few shows where it’s possible she might just actually be that way. Hmm. Pity too, because it would be a good Lynchian joke if this show were a little bit less dudeish these days. (Where the hell is Audrey??? I’d understand if she’s reluctant to show her face because her son’s a shitsack, but I need her in this show for the same reason I need Cooper back, i.e. I need somebody to start figuring shit out.) I’m also starting to seriously question what the point was of casting Naomi Watts as such a dunce. This hasn’t really stuck out to me over the past nine episodes, but I’m now starting to wonder whether this show’s attitude towards women is actually worse than it was in the early 90s. On the other hand, I’d really like to see more of Harry Dean Stanton singing folk tunes. And I was OVERJOYED to see Rebekah Del Rio, whose performance in Mulholland Dr. is my favourite moment in all of cinema. So, with those notable exceptions, this was my least favourite episode of the season so far. I hope the next few episodes follow through on Part 9’s promise to start allowing plot threads to converge. That, or just do more awesome freakouts like Part 8. If you’re going to be obtuse, GO ALL THE DAMN WAY.

Game of Thrones: “Dragonstone” — Well, this is off to an abruptly better start than the last couple of seasons. I have a lot of trouble getting excited for GoT the way that the rest of the world seems to. But when I actually sit down and watch it, I inevitably remember that I like it. Highlights here include Arya brutally slaughtering dozens of people and shortly thereafter trying to fit in non-awkwardly with a bunch of normal-seeming soldier dudes. Maisie Williams’ forced laughter in this scene is a thing to behold. It’s entirely possible that her performance is my favourite in this show. Also, Sam is attending Gross University. The Hound is gonna find religion. And Jorah is dying slowly. Those are my key takeaways. Mostly I’m just happy that there are no plotlines in this show right now that I’m barely tolerating. Should be a good season.

Deep Cuts: “A Guide to BRIAN ENO” — Oh no, I have a British doppelganger and he’s better and more prolific than me. This is an impressively thorough trip through the Eno catalogue, dealing with his solo albums and collaborations. Oliver J (a cursory Google did not yield a full surname) has some nice bits of analysis in here, like when he points to Eno’s habit of giving descriptive names to his own instrumental credits (e.g. “Snake guitar”) as an indicator of how good he is at communicating about music — and therefore why he’s such a good collaborator. I hadn’t thought of that, and I think about Brian Eno more than just about any artistic figure. It’s a marathon, but it’s worth a watch if you’re trying to parse Eno’s catalogue for stuff you might want to check out.

Porkin’ Across America — This is a very dark story, courtesy of the Onion, about what happens when a man neglects his family in favour of travel, fame, and pork. It starts to get dark immediately, but you have no idea how dark it will get by the last episode. You have no idea.

Games

The Dream Machine: Chapter 5 — Chapter five is the strangest, most discursive and in some ways most ingenious chapter of The Dream Machine. As I said in my review of chapter four, Victor has essentially completed his character arc at this point, and all that remains for him is to save the day with his newfound maturity and empathy. (I’m assuming that’s what chapter six will entail, but I haven’t gotten there.) So, in this penultimate chapter, the devs just cut loose, envisioning two dreams that have little bearing on Victor’s psychology, but which are simply good fun to walk around in. Selma’s dream is probably the most significant accomplishment in the game in terms of its (literal) construction (from clay, cardboard and found objects). The look of the place is a wonder: a hazy fairytale forest in a state of perpetual gloaming. Its crowning glory is the inside of a squirrel’s hidey hole, bark and wood walls all covered in lichen and mushrooms. The detail in these interactive dioramas is like nothing we’ve seen so far. And though its characters are not dealing with struggles that resonate with Victor (the only familial relationship here is Selma and her grandfather, and that relationship is only sketched in broad strokes), they are probably the most memorable group of characters in The Dream Machine. (One of them is, alas, basically the Black Knight from Monty Python and the Holy Grail, but with the delightful twist of being actually dead, and still unwilling to acknowledge it.) If I follow my usual theme of this game being the story of a young man learning empathy, then I suppose this chapter’s role is to expose him to subconsciousnesses that are drastically different from his own. The people he meets here are new types of people for him: a persecuted vampire, for instance. Or the mysterious presence that calls itself (themselves?) “Legion”: a seeming manifestation of Mr. Willard’s doubts and anxieties, lurking at the bottom of an abyss. Is it too personal to reveal that Mr. Willard’s dream is the one in this game that most resembles my dreams? Mine tend not to try and kill me quite so often. But when I remember my dreams, which is infrequently these days, they tend to take place in indeterminate, abstract spaces like this. For all that Selma’s dream is the most impressive construction in this chapter, it’s the aggressive simplicity of Mr. Willard’s monochrome stress vision (with Victor appearing in black and white, to boot) that I really love. Both dreams have some of the game’s best (and hardest) puzzles. But this chapter’s real masterstroke is the reveal that its two dreams are connected by a dividing wall, just as Selma’s and Willard’s apartments are, and that it is possible and necessary to transgress this boundary. That central conceit, that you can leverage the logic of one dream world against another to solve its puzzles, is The Dream Machine’s most ingenious idea from a gameplay perspective. The narrative apex of chapter four is ultimately more satisfying than anything in this chapter’s story, but chapter five is more ostentatious, more dazzling, and therefore occasionally more fun. Chapter six will have to be extraordinary to measure up to the standards of its two predecessors. Thank god I don’t have to wait for it this time.

The Dream Machine: Chapter 6 — Wow, this did not end anything like I expected it to. That’s not to say that the ending wasn’t essentially in keeping with my concept of the game’s themes, because it was. But I didn’t expect the ending to be so perverse. The Dream Machine is a game about a man who learns the value of other selves, and by extension he learns how to put himself second. He started the game wishing he could retire to an island and fish for the rest of his life. In this episode, we learn the significance of this image: Victor regards the first time he killed a fish for no good reason as the end of his childhood. It’s also the point where he stopped fishing. So, his island fantasy is a straightforward reversion to childhood. We always knew this, but now we can fill in the blanks. I expected Victor to end the game in a dramatically different place from where he started it, and of course he does. But only emotionally. Physically, he’s trapped in the exact state he’d initially fantasized about, wishing he’d been careful what he wished for. It’s the dark culmination of an unexpectedly dark final chapter. The previous moments find Victor walking back inside his mother’s womb (it’s as literal as that) and performing a coat hanger abortion. That’s ground I never expected this game to tread. I confess to being of two minds about the ending. I see how it makes poetic sense, but I also can’t help but feel it’s a betrayal of Victor’s character arc. Because even if he does end the story with a selfless act that he wouldn’t have been capable of previously, he also does not get to be the father he’s learned to be from his travels through other people’s subconsciousnesses. But focussing on the ending alone isn’t fair, because there’s a whole chapter that leads up to it, and it’s a very good one. It benefits from having (slightly reduced) versions of all of the previous dreams available to explore and manipulate, but it also has its own entirely new area which is one of the game’s best. The centre of the dreamscape is a blacklight fantasy that is effectively one big puzzle. Like the cruise ship of Alicia’s dream in chapter three, it is populated by multiple Victors. But unlike chapter three’s Victors, these Victors are (or were) on the same mission that our Victor is. And so, the game eventually takes the form of Victor having an extended conversation with himself about how to solve the puzzle. The greatest pleasure of chapter six is tapping the other Victors, who are drastically different in their attitudes, for information — and cross referencing that information with what you managed to get out of all of the other Victors. They’ve all tried and failed to solve the same puzzle you’re trying to solve. They’re playing the same video game. So basically, I really liked this chapter, and I’d probably put it above the first three in my ranking. But the ending rankles. And it’s making me see my initial theory, the one I was so proud of, that the whole game is just an enactment of Brian Eno’s song “On Some Faraway Beach” in a very new light. Gradually, throughout this game, Victor came to see that faraway beach as a more lonely and sinister place, and no longer wanted to “die like a baby there,” as Eno sings. (I’ve explained this more thoroughly in previous reviews.) Now it appears he’ll live there forever. And of course, the theme has to be driven home even more perversely with a quote from an entirely different song: “Where I End And You Begin” by Radiohead: a song about a failure of empathy. The devs are to be congratulated for being so wonderfully unpredictable. I need another playthrough to sort out my feelings on this, but altogether, The Dream Machine is a masterful creation, and something that any fan of adventure games should hasten to play.

Music

GZA: Liquid Swords — This is an album I listened to once or twice a couple years back, liked a lot, and am only now revisiting. I find it hard to decide between this and 36 Chambers, honestly. The proper Wu-Tang debut benefits from the presence of nine unique MCs, but Liquid Swords benefits from GZA’s primacy for the exact opposite reasons. The parade of disparate personalities on 36 Chambers keeps it entertaining from front to back, but Liquid Swords is more consistent by virtue of putting Wu-Tang’s most skilled MC up front. (Anybody who doubts this assignation is advised to closely consider GZAs verse on “Duel of the Iron Mic.”) RZA is honestly not one of my favourite beatmakers — his key contribution to Wu-Tang in my view is as the “ideas guy,” curating the Clan’s constellation of recurring cultural touchstones and self-imposed mythologies. But there’s an atmospheric quality of the beats on this that matches GZA’s more contemplative moments pretty well. The only downside to this is that the preponderance of features from other Wu-Tang members come from MCs who aren’t really my favourites. Barring welcome appearances by Method Man on “Shadowboxin,” RZA on “4th Chamber” and a vanishingly small snippet of ODB on “Duel of the Iron Mic,” I don’t really care for any of the feature verses. Still, this is a genuine classic.

Literature, etc.

George Saunders: Lincoln in the Bardo (audiobook) — This is a beautiful, beautiful book. If you’ve read any of the hype about it, you could be forgiven for thinking that it is primarily a book concerned with history, or with America, or with a president. It is not. The Civil War, and the person of Abraham Lincoln are just a generous seasoning sprinkled overtop of a story that is first and foremost about the universal experiences of grief and regret. Naturally, given that this is a story that takes place in the immediate aftermath of the death of Willie Lincoln, a certain amount of the grief and regret in the story are the grief and regret of President Lincoln. And the brief passages in the book where we get to see inside of his head feature some of Saunders’ most powerful writing. One passage, where Lincoln imagines himself and his wife as two puffs of smoke who became mutually fond and mistook each other for permanences (I’m paraphrasing as nearly as I can since I don’t have the text in front of me; it’s an audiobook) has been particularly haunting me. But the most significant characters in the book are essentially unaware of the war, having died and become trapped in a middle-ground between the world we know (referred to by them as “that previous place”) and the next one, long before any such war ever began. The reason to read this book is not Lincoln; it’s the double act of Hans Vollman and Roger Bevins III, two deceased people who are deeply in denial of this fact and consumed by regret for what they did and did not do during their time in that previous place. They, and their fellow death deniers are so defined by their regret that they take on physical characteristics that reflect the specific nature of those regrets. (Vollman, who never consummated his marriage, is blighted by a comically large erection. Saunders has him describe it with skillful and hilarious euphemism, e.g. “my enormous disability.” And Bevins, who believes himself to have missed out on appreciating the world’s simple pleasures, is afflicted with an overabundance of sensory organs: far too many eyes and noses, for instance.) The purpose of Lincoln and his son in the narrative is not as a focal point, but rather as a catalyst for Vollman, Bevins and the other denizens of the bardo (that is what this middle-ground is called in Tibetan Buddhism) to understand their condition differently and to see their particular experiences of self-grief and regret in a new light. It could only be the Lincolns who catalyze such a thing, because they are people in a particularly extraordinary situation, dealing with an entirely specific experience of grief. But, their identity as historical figures in a familiar narrative is ultimately secondary to the coincidence of their intersection with the historical nonentities that populate Saunders’ bardo. So, don’t come to this expecting a work of historical fiction or a rumination on a divided America. Come to it expecting a beautiful fantasy, rendered in gorgeous prose, about the saddest moments in human experience. (And do listen to the audiobook. Nick Offerman and David Sedaris’s central performances will make you cry on the bus.) Pick of the week.

Jorge Luis Borges: “Death and the Compass” — Without meaning to, I seem to have read the entire Garden of Forking Paths collection, so I figure I may as well make a concerted effort (though an out-of-sequence one) to read Artifices as well, thus completing the two-part Fictions collection. This strikes me as a superior detective story to Borges’s better-known “The Garden of Forking Paths” and an obvious precursor to some of the most prevalent detective narratives of our era. It might be the times talking, but I see a particular resonance with Twin Peaks. Detective Lönrott’s willingness to explore mystical, kabbalistic elements of the murders taking place could be a direct inspiration for Agent Cooper’s fascination with Zen Buddhism. The twist, which I am about to spoil, is a lovely one in which it is revealed that the detective in this detective story is not simply a plot element trying to figure out what transpired, but also a motivating factor in the crimes themselves. I’d watch a television series about Lönrott. And considering the story’s willingness to entertain the notion of reincarnation, this story could be either the first or the last episode. Get on it, Bryan Fuller.

Podcasts

Mogul: “Gucci Boots” — Here’s where the story starts to get dark. Reggie Ossé and his team discovered a police report that reveals Chris Lighty’s domestic violence record. I think they went about covering this in a really responsible way. In spite of the high regard that Ossé holds Lighty in, he doesn’t make any attempt to mitigate the horror of this side of him. Moreover, he calls the chief communications officer for the National Domestic Violence Hotline for advice on how to proceed, and actually puts that conversation on the show. This is the point where Mogul becomes more than just a compelling story and starts to coalesce into a whole biographical portrait.

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “Twin Peaks: The Return” — I think I’m going to like this show’s new format, but I might start waiting until Friday to listen to both weekly episodes in succession, because I like gulping it down in big chunks. Still, the bit of news at the end of the Tuesday show could serve as a nice way to mark things as they happen rather than once everybody’s forgotten about them. As for the Twin Peaks discussion, it is as contentious a conversation as that show deserves. It speaks to the complexity of Twin Peaks that you can read and hear every opinion on the internet about this show and still not come across your own.

The Turnaround: “Errol Morris” & “Jerry Springer” — The Errol Morris interview is some kind of extended break with reality. Jesse Thorn tries as hard as he can to use Morris’s own tactic of just not saying anything to the interview subject against him, but Morris just meanders nonsensically. Which is not to say that it isn’t entertaining, it’s just… something. There’s a wonderful moment when Morris reaches his most discursive moment only to circle back immediately and unprompted to the question “what even is an interview??” The Jerry Springer interview is most revealing for the fact that Springer also thinks his show is garbage. But he’s also really good at rationalizing why it’s worthwhile regardless. Two episodes that seem out to prove that The Turnaround isn’t trying to be journalism school — it’s way weirder than that.

WTF with Marc Maron: “Keb’ Mo’ & Taj Mahal,” “David Remnick,” “Edie Falco” — After my big doubtful tirade against interviews with artists, all I want to do is listen to interviews with artists. Weird. Let nobody ever hold me to my convictions. The Keb’ Mo’/Taj Mahal double is great mostly because of how temperamentally different they are. Keb’ is thoughtful and considered in his speaking, and Taj is a raconteur par excellence. But they both seem to really enjoy talking to Maron, and that’s the deciding factor on this show. David Remnick is an interesting fellow who has as much range in his conversation as you’d expect from the editor of the New Yorker. But the Edie Falco interview is the best of them, mostly because it’s the sound of Maron’s preconceptions shattering. Like Jesse Thorn said on The Turnaround, Maron’s key move is bringing his preoccupations all with him to the interview and allowing the guest to confirm or deny. Great radio.

The Daily: July 20 & 21 — Two banner episodes of this podcast in as many days. The first features a debrief with the reporters who interviewed the president shortly before, along with (low-quality) audio from that interview. The striking moment is a bit where Trump’s granddaughter comes in the room and starts being adorable. This was one of those moments that happens ever more frequently where I don’t know what’s real and what’s fake. Obviously, it could have been a planned stunt. But there’s no actual reason for me to think that, except that this president constantly tries to reshape reality as he speaks. Regardless, it’s Friday’s episode that stands out. It’s a desperately sad story about women who were taken prisoner and raped repeatedly by ISIS militants. Don’t listen to it unless you want to feel terrible. But it’s important work, undertaken with the utmost discretion. This may well be the defining podcast of this era in the medium. Pick of the week.

Mogul: Cameos: Joan Morgan & N.O.R.E. — Two great bits of tape that were excised from the main story. The N.O.R.E. episode is particularly amusing because everybody involved, including the host, is drunk.

On the Media: “Not Repealed, Not Replaced” & “Doubt It” — Two essential episodes of a show whose essentiality continues unabated into the Trump campaign. First off, Brooke Gladstone calls up her key source for her incredibly effective poverty myths series from last year to give some long-view context to the recent failure of the GOP to repeal and replace the ACA. And in the main episode, she and Bob Garfield revisit their dust-up the morning after the election, which remains the most disquieting and memorable podcast episode of last year. Turns out, Bob Garfield has had a change of heart. I was never quite sure whose side I was on to begin with, so I’m not sure how to react. I will say this: Brooke Gladstone’s constant interrogation of the way we process information and the reasons why we process it that way is unique among current affairs journalists, and it’s been as useful as anybody’s work these past few months. So, Garfield is probably right to swallow his doubts and start taking the long-view.

Radiolab: “The Ceremony” — This is a fun story, but it has a seemingly big twist in it that they make a big deal of but that turns out to be nothing. I’d go into more detail if it had delivered on its promise, but it didn’t, so it’s just another episode, really.

The Nod: “Hunter Green Thong” — This is a great addition to the Gimlet stable. It’s a funny and thoughtful show about blackness. Not something I see myself listening to religiously, but definitely something I’ll check in on from time to time.

Omnibus (week of July 9, 2017)

Oh, but it’s a good one this week. We’ve got theatre, a pair of superhero blockbusters, some great new music, the start of a chapter-by-chapter rundown of a truly excellent episodic adventure game, and the most unexpected literary classic of recent years from a sports website. Also a metric tonne of podcasts. I’ve been procrastinating again.

32 reviews. Eat up.

Live events

The Merchant of Venice (Bard on the Beach) — Like The Winter’s Tale, this is not a play that I know well. I know it as Shakespeare’s most fraught play, since it is widely considered anti-Semitic. Given my lack of knowledge of the text itself, I can’t easily judge whether that’s the case, because this production is intensely sympathetic to Shylock. It paints him as a man who insists upon his own dignity in spite of the world’s hatred and disregard for him. It paints his ruthlessness as a symptom of the constant abuse he suffers at the hands of Christians. Mind you, that’s present in the play itself to the extent that it allows Shylock the interiority to know his own intentions and the reasoning for them. The “hath not a Jew eyes” is evidence enough that Shakespeare has some sympathy for Shylock. But that only makes it more perplexing that he goes on to ruin Shylock’s life and write him out of the last act. After watching what happens to Shylock in this production, it is almost viscerally unpleasant to watch the play as it refocuses on the foibles of newlyweds. This is probably intentional: director Nigel Shawn Williams makes clear in his notes that he is more interested in the play’s struggles for dignity and power than with its romances. He associates this theme of struggling for dignity with Shylock, Jessica, Portia and Antonio: the latter two of which I have a bit of trouble accepting — Antonio in particular. But nonetheless, it is the struggle between Antonio and Shylock that really soars in this production, thanks in very large part to excellent performances by Edward Foy and (especially) Warren Kimmel. Kimmel will also be performing in Mark Leiren-Young’s Shylock in September, and I’m going to get my tickets real quick. The lovers are less inspired. This is partially due to the decision to turn the males in these plotlines into insufferable nightlife dudebros, but it’s mostly because some of them really shout a lot more than they need to. Still, on the whole, I enormously enjoyed this. It’s probably my favourite of the three Bard productions I’ve seen so far.

Literature, etc.

Amanda Petrusich: “MTV News, Chance the Rapper, and a Defense of Negative Criticism” — Whither music criticism? “Pivot to video.” Sigh. This is a lovely piece about the importance of the sort of music writing that doesn’t depend on access. I feel it ties in slightly with what I wrote about the first episode of The Turnaround last week, particularly Petrusich’s last graf: “A funny thing about journalism is that it’s contingent upon the willful participation of a subject; a reporter always needs a reliable, talkative source. People agree to coöperate with journalists for reasons of self-promotion or, on rare occasions, moral obligation. But criticism doesn’t require its subject to acquiesce. For anyone accustomed to high degrees of control, this can seem, at first, like an affront. But well-rendered criticism confirms that the work is high stakes. This criticism can be illuminating and thrilling, and might offer an important vantage on a very private experience. It is, at least, less strangulating than a feedback loop of endless, bootless flattery.” Read the rest.

Jon Bois: 17776 — If you’d told me in January that one of the highlights of my pop culture year would be a story about football that came from SB Nation, I… would probably have believed you but also been very surprised. This story of life in the inconceivably distant future is one of the most effortlessly, unassumingly funny, bittersweet and occasionally heartbreaking stories I’ve come across in a very long time. The fact that it’s so surprising and so totally different from anything else I’ve ever seen a major news/sports/culture publication do is only part of the appeal of this. Mostly, it just knows exactly what it is and follows through again and again. I’ll try not to spoil too much, because the novelty and element of surprise are nice. But a certain amount of spoilers are inevitable from here on out. Basically, 17776 is a story about a world where people stopped dying, stopped aging (or, stopped aging involuntarily at least), stopped getting sick, and invented a way to prevent all accidental death and injury. It envisions a world where the people who inhabit earth in the year 17776 are for the most part the same set of people who inhabit the earth now. Having arrived in a post-scarcity world, where even time is not scarce, humanity (particularly the American portion of it) now occupies itself with increasingly long, large-scale and absurd games of football. It is largely told from the point of view of three incredibly loveable protagonists, all of them space probes launched in the 20th and 21st centuries who have over time become sentient. It just took me 126 words to describe the premise of this thing. That should give you some sense of its amazing strangeness. Pioneer 9 is our real protagonist, and our audience surrogate. The story begins with Nine finally attaining sentience and having a whole lot of questions. Fortunately, their little sister (or big sister, depending how you think about it) Pioneer 10 is around to explain the new status quo. The third main character, the Jupiter Icy Moons Explorer (JUICE) is the story’s masterstroke. You know that slacker dude you used to hang out with who also might be the smartest person in the world? That’s JUICE. Reading this trio’s banter is an unbelievable pleasure. Each of them is a perfectly defined character who is more than what they seem: more compassionate, more astute, wiser. Jon Bois is a weird writer with his own voice and a sensibility unlike anybody else, but he’s also got the basics down pat, and he knows how to write characters that provide a human throughline in a story that involves really quite a lot of talking about football. Okay, let’s touch on that. I have seen a total of two, maybe three football games in my life and my grasp of the rules is laughably rudimentary. But I ate up the sections of 17776 that are about the gameplay and logistics of future football games. As a work of speculative fiction, 17776 is very whimsical. But as a set of works of speculative football, it is impressively rigorous. Bois uses the premise of the story to propose several wonderful games of borderline Dadaist football, mostly with fields that stretch across several states. In one, the end zones are in Washington and New Mexico, but the field is still just the width of a normal football field, so you have no choice but to climb mountains, jump off cliffs, etc. if you want to move the ball. In another, Bois asks how a contemporary NHL game might evolve if it were allowed to continue nearly indefinitely. He devises a parody of commercial football so absurd that it may well be my new favourite fictional anti-cap parable. Here’s the moment when I fell in love with JUICE, as he explains his love for this game to Ten, lack of apostrophes and all: “this IS capitalism you donk. this is what its supposed to be, this is how it ends. if it isn’t there its only because it isnt there yet. its like youre staring at a cake in the oven and wondering if its gonna be a cake. things went the other direction in america and thank god for that. but capitalism deserves a zoo like this one. it’s a beast of the wild, as wild as any grizzly bear with fawn’s blood in its mouth. i think you see deeds and contracts and bureaucratic bloat and see that something went wrong. something was ALWAYS wrong y’all. i love it. i love to watch it. in a zoo, where it can’t hurt me.” Unspeakably brilliant. This is the same character who waxes nostalgic for Lunchables and spells “Wolverine” as “wolferine.” He’s the best. Jon Bois’ brain works in crazy ways. There are tossed off observations here that for other people would become the premises of whole stories. I’m thinking particularly of a moment where Al Capone and his brother are likened to Greek gods, and then Bois points out that they lived in a town called “Homer.” It’s infuriatingly clever. But we’re yet to touch on the single greatest thing about 17776, which is that it fashions from its premise an idea about humanity’s place in the universe and why we are drawn to aimless, arbitrary pursuits like playing and watching football. The “intermission” section of the story features Bois’ most beautiful writing. Through the mouthpiece of Ten, Bois offers a picture of humanity’s purpose and destiny that outstrips Star Trek by basically inverting it. The humans of 17776 are bittersweet creatures who long ago stopped striving. This is not fine, but there’s nothing to be done. So, they play football. As JUICE says, “the point of play is to distract yourself from play being the point.” As an obsessive consumer of a frankly unwise amount of pop culture, I feel that I can sympathize with the sports fan impulse that produced a sentiment like this. If we really have so much left to accomplish, and such a great destiny, shouldn’t we feel inconceivably terrible about wasting so much time? And even in a world where time is not a factor, it’s hard to look at a passive humanity as anything other than a failure. This is what these characters are grappling with. This is something that the very obsessive among us understand best, provided that the obsession in question is essentially non-generative and consumerist. 17776 is the saddest and most inspiring thing I’ve read this year. It is extraordinary. Also, it is the only work of fiction that will ever make you mourn for a light bulb. I’m serious, Bois turns a light bulb into the most important thing in the universe. This is what the internet was always supposed to be. We need more Jon Bois. Pick of the week.

Television, etc.

Pretty Good: “I Wish Everyone Else Was Dead” — Here is more Jon Bois. Pretty Good is a YouTube series he does “about stories that are pretty good.” This particular instalment is about 24, the single most fucked up show I have ever watched (and liked in spite of myself). 24 is a show that takes suspension of disbelief to an entirely new level. It makes you suspend your entire value system: your entire reality. Bois points to the ruthlessness with which the show kills its named characters and the ways that people die to make a very clever point about America’s Goliath complex and the tendency of the privileged to think themselves persecuted. It also really highlights how incredibly gruesome the show was by cutting together a bunch of its cruellest moments. Other highlights include insights about 24 as a form of post-9/11 wish-fulfilment (it in large part negates the war on terror) and its incredibly fraught relationship with the office of the president. It is frankly unfair that a sports writer should also be this insightful about television. Watch this.

Twin Peaks: The Return: Part 9 — Exactly the episode that we needed after last episode’s abstract freakout. This is the most classically Twin Peaks this series has felt since it returned, mostly because it actually features people figuring things out instead of people treading water as more and more inexplicable things transpire around them. Don’t misunderstand me: I really like the show in the latter mode as well. But now that we’re in the back half of this season, I am ready for things to start coming together. Is it foolish to expect that between Gordon and his FBI cohorts, Truman and his Twin Peaks deputies, and the trio of clownlike Buckhorn detectives, we may have enough investigative advances at hand here to bring the Dougie Jones plotline to an end next week? Because I am still very much in need of Dale Cooper in this show.

Movies

Spider-Man: Homecoming — Third time’s a charm. I grew up a Spider-Man fan, but my enthusiasm for the character flagged with each passing cinematic adaptation. I am far less fond of Sam Raimi’s trilogy (yes, even the second one) than most, and the Andrew Garfield franchise was DOA. But this! Oh, this! This movie is light on its feet! And it’s completely lacking in the ostentatious moralizing that defined previous incarnations! Tom Holland’s Peter Parker is every inch the clever misfit I want Spider-Man to be. The opening sequence of the movie, in which he excitedly vlogs his way through his initial encounter with the Avengers in Civil War, sets the tone of ecstatic joy that the bulk of the movie traffics in. This is what I’ve been missing in superhero movies. Even the last Guardians of the Galaxy sidelined its comic lead in a misbegotten daddy problems plot. (The closest we get to that here is in a plotline with Tony Stark, and frankly it’s him who’s got the daddy problems.) This movie just allows Peter Parker to be a goofy kid trying to get a date while also trying to save the day. Classic Spider-Man. Moreover, the stakes aren’t at the permanently escalating heights of the Avengers movies: this is primarily a movie about your friendly neighborhood Spider-Man. He negotiates curfews with his super cool Aunt May. (Casting Marissa Tomei was a masterstroke: she’s the last person you’d expect to play that role, which revitalizes it completely.) He helps an old woman and gets a churro for his troubles. He raises the ire of a housing block by setting off a car alarm. I love all of this. And I really love the film’s brief excursion into the suburbs, which are not Spider-Man’s natural habitat. The film’s weak moments are its huge action setpieces, which feel like they could come from any other Marvel movie with any other combination of heroes and villains. But these are refreshingly far apart, and they’re enlivened by a Michael Keaton performance by Michael Keaton who continues to play wingèd super persons, even after having parodied himself for doing just that. Having the villain of the first movie for this Spider-Man be small potatoes like Vulcan was a great call. It further localizes Spider-Man as a non-international superhero, and a street level personality, without the gigantic platforms of a Tony Stark or a Steve Rogers. But as fun as Keaton and Tomei are, Homecoming’s best supporting performances come from its ensemble of convincingly teenage teenagers, from Peter’s crush Liz, the classic overachieving senior, to his would-be tormentor Flash (played by Tony Revolori; I kept hoping he’d get captured so I could shout “GET YOUR HANDS OFF MY LOBBY BOY!”). The movie’s absolute MVP is Jacob Batalon as Peter’s best friend Ned. This guy is so exactly the guy who should be Peter Parker’s best friend that I can’t believe anybody ever thought James Franco fit-for-purpose. I really hope Ned doesn’t turn out to be the Hobgoblin. There are too many delightful moments in this to get to. I haven’t mentioned Donald Glover, who plays straightman to Holland in one of the film’s funniest scenes. I haven’t mentioned Peter’s rapport with the strangely empathetic yet bloodthirsty AI who talks to him in his suit. All of it is good. This is now tied with Civil War for the title of my favourite Marvel movie. I still resent universes and franchise juggernauts, but every so often Marvel makes a movie good enough to make me forget about that.

Wonder Woman — Now that awkward moment after giving a great review to the SIXTH Spider-Man movie where you admit to having mixed feelings about the ONLY major superhero movie with a female protagonist. My general thoughts are that Wonder Woman is fantastic, Gal Gadot is fantastic, and the movie’s take on the character is solid. It makes her comical without undermining her power, and powerful without being stolid and bland like the other DC heroes are these days. But I wasn’t a big fan of the straightforward punch-em-up war movie that she finds herself in here. The third act is particularly bland. But fuck my opinion. This is utterly necessary. The acclaimed no-man’s land sequence is pretty magnificent, and should become a cultural touchstone, at least until we get a better Wonder Woman movie, which I trust we will.

Music

John Luther Adams/The Crossing: Canticles of the Holy Wind — Another lovely offering from new music’s poet of the elements. Though this choral piece is not entirely original — some of the best moments are also present in his wonderful piece for strings, Canticles of the Sky — it feels like a new direction for Adams, whose music does not generally revolve around voices. However, with the new national prominence of The Crossing, the extraordinary Philadelphia chamber choir who astonished even more thoroughly on Ted Hearne’s record from earlier this year, he’s got access to an ensemble with the chops for his often sustained and minimal music. But the choral medium alone isn’t the only new innovation here. Adams also takes advantage of the extraordinary voices at his disposal to write music that relies on the play of birdsong against silence. I’m not sure there’s anything else in Adams’ recent oeuvre that is as staccato and abrupt as “Cadenza of the Mockingbird,” nor can I think of anything he’s written that requires the same level of ostentatious virtuosity from the musicians. That said, it isn’t a highlight of the work. High voices imitating birds wears out its welcome more quickly than Adams thinks. And there are other weak points: “The Singing Tree,” with its ceaseless triangle tinkling crosses the line from a genuine conjuration of the majesty of nature to nature boy drum circle nonsense. My impression of this might change with repeated listens, but I generally come to Adams for music of peace and majesty (The Light that Fills the World for the former, the world-destroying magnificence of Become Ocean for the latter). Canticles of the Holy Wind presents a picture of nature not only in all its majesty, but also all its banality. This is a worthwhile thing to do, especially with access to as versatile an ensemble as The Crossing. But it makes for a rougher listen than some of Adams’ other music. Still, there is much to marvel at here, and I far prefer it to 2015’s percussion music recording with Glenn Kotche.

Offa Rex: The Queen of Hearts — This is as great as I’d hoped, though to be fair, the feature episode of All Songs Considered on this from a while ago dropped enough hints at its greatness that it was a relatively sure bet. I likely wouldn’t have listened to this if not for the Decemberists’ involvement, but it is much more Olivia Chaney’s album than it is theirs. Mind you, they sound great, and the notion that they’d be involved in an English folk revival… revival album is entirely in character. But I challenge you to not get a bit miffed when Colin Meloy starts singing on the his two vocal features. Chaney’s voice is an incredible instrument, but better still she knows what to do with it. On the title track, listen to how she gradually sings more and more with the lead guitar throughout the song, eventually harmonizing with it. And the best track has no Decemberists on it at all, as far as I can tell: Chaney’s harmonium-adorned rendition of “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face.” Say what you like about the Roberta Flack version, and there is much good to be said. But Chaney’s version strips everything about the song, including the chord progression, down to the most basic possible version of itself. And the way she delivers the melismas at the ends of the lines is just chilling. At the opposite end of the spectrum, there’s “Sheepcrook and Black Dog,” which is the album’s best evocation of the more rock and roll side of the English folk revival. It even gestures towards Jethro Tull at times: shades of “No Lullaby” and “Velvet Green.” I’m still waiting for somebody to write something detailed about the provenance of each of these songs. I’d really like to do a deep dive into this, and listen to some of the 60s and 70s recordings of these, as well as earlier acoustic versions, if they exist. But some are obvious. For now I’m going to listen to “The Old Churchyard” again. One of my favourite albums of the year.

Steeleye Span: Hark! The Village Wait — Is it wrong to like this more than Liege and Lief? Because on first listen, I do. “The Dark-Eyed Sailor” and “Lowlands of Highland” are particularly attractive. It’s just old folk songs performed well, with electric instrumentation. It’s sort of undeniable. I can feel myself sinking into a British folk rock phase. Thanks, Offa Rex.

Games

The Dream Machine: Chapter 1 — I realized recently that the sixth and final chapter of this magnificent game came out two months ago! How did I not hear? In any case, it’s been long enough since I’ve played this that I think it’s wise for me to play it from the beginning again, which will be a pleasure anyway. I’m going to take this one chapter at a time, like I did with Kentucky Route Zero when the most recent episode of that came out. The first chapter of The Dream Machine isn’t really demonstrative of what’s great about it: it doesn’t really come alive until you encounter the dream machine itself. But its visual aesthetic is instantly impressive — the headline for The Dream Machine is that it’s a handmade point-and-click adventure game, where every image is constructed from cardboard, clay and found objects. That is astonishing in itself, though the built environments are better in episodes that aren’t so tied to the apartment complex that is the game’s primary setting. But visuals aside, on a second playthrough, it’s really clever how this episode plants seeds of the themes to come throughout its relatively simple story. Starting the game in a dream is an obvious, but profitable choice. Firstly, it establishes what the game’s primary modus operandi: namely, cardboard and clay constructions of dreams. Secondly, it offers a crash course in the psychology of our protagonist, Victor. Should you allow the conversation to drift in a particular direction, Victor’s wife Alicia will be kind enough to do the armchair psychoanalysis for you. Victor’s dream of a desert island is an escapist fantasy that allows him to get away from his doubts about the new life he’s about to embark upon in a new apartment with his expectant wife and regress to a situation where his own self is the most important thing in his world. And indeed, there are plenty of indications throughout this chapter that Victor Neff is a bit of a man-child, from his self-assurances that he’ll start up his music career again once the apartment is set up to the ever-present conversation options that imply he can sometimes be a bit of a selfish jerk to Alicia. This is very clever exposition, since The Dream Machine is shaping up to be a sort of delayed coming-of-age story for Victor. (Bear in mind that I’m yet to play the final chapter.) He’ll be spending subsequent chapters tramping through other people’s subconsciouses (including Alicia’s, which is teased in this chapter), which is as direct a way to learn empathy as exists. That’s what I love most about The Dream Machine: it doesn’t just contrive a roughshod frame narrative as an excuse to make you solve puzzles inside of dream worlds, it actually works as an arc for its protagonist as well. Throughout The Dream Machine, Victor finds the tools to get out of his own head by literally getting inside the heads of others. Having not played the final chapter yet, I can only conjecture, but I assume this will assuage some of his fears and doubts about starting a family. The appeal of this is coming back quickly. A couple of additional observations: another theme that first emerges near the end of this chapter is voyeurism. (The game’s tagline positions this front-and-centre: “an award-winning game about dreams and voyeurism.”) Alicia thought the camera above the bed was creepy. Just wait. Also, the dream sequence at the start of this is my first bit of evidence for a personal crackpot theory: that The Dream Machine is a long and detailed enactment of the Brian Eno song “On Some Faraway Beach.” I’ll develop this theory in later reviews, as I gather more evidence. But to start, I’ll just point out that the song is a work of deliberate escapism to a place where there are no other human souls around to care for or to rely on. And I’ll also mention that the devs confirmed their Eno fandom to me on Twitter. So that’s a start.

The Dream Machine: Chapter 2 — This is where things really get going. Mr. Morton’s dream is the first proper one in the game, but nonetheless one of the most abstract. Where subsequent dream sequences will convey something close to a possible physical space (though Edie’s dream deconstructs this observation and Willard’s contradicts it entirely), Morton’s takes place in an abstract world seemingly constructed entirely of the anxieties and traumas brought upon him by a lineage of flawed and obsessive forebears. We meet the three previous male members of the Morton lineage as huge stone heads, and we learn about their relationships to each other. We learn that our Mr. Morton was coddled by a sympathetic father as an antidote to the abuse he received from his grandfather. Victor doesn’t even know what’s going on yet and already the dream machine is teaching him about parenting. This theme will become less explicit in future episodes, but it behooves the game to lay its cards out at this early stage. In terms of gameplay, this is also where we get our first substantial puzzles, with the dream journal sequence, getting each statue to talk, and finding Mr. Morton. From the start, I thought that this game had some of the best puzzles I’ve ever encountered, if only because they are fair. A moderately skilled puzzle solver won’t get stuck very much in The Dream Machine, which is good, but the puzzles still require you to observe closely and think through possibilities. (I recall chapter five’s puzzles being several levels harder, but we’ll get there.) The only problem I had with the puzzles in this chapter, this time, was that it took me a while to realize (indeed, remember) that there were hatches on the sides of the statues. They’re hard to see, and it always sucks when your failure results from a design element being virtually invisible. But it’s a vanishingly minor quibble, and honestly, the meat of the game doesn’t really start until the next chapter. The first two chapters are thematic and narrative exposition and throat clearing. They’re wonderful, but the best is yet to come. Now, what you all came for: more evidence for my theory that this entire game is actually about the Brian Eno song “On Some Faraway Beach.” Only one piece this time, but it’s the first substantial one: the title of the song — phrased exactly that way, with the word “some” rather that “a” or whatever other article — is one of the key repeating phrases in Morton’s dream journals. This isn’t the last time it’ll be namechecked in the game. But, as I implied in the chapter one review, the game and the song do have a compelling thematic link. “Given the chance,” sings Eno, “I’ll die like a baby on some faraway beach.” This is Victor’s attitude at the start of the game: jealous of his unborn child, and wishing to revert back to a pre-adult state. I also see a hint of Mr. Morton in some subsequent lyrics: “Unlikely I’ll be remembered/as the tide brushes sand in my eyes I’ll drift away.” Morton was thrust into his family’s legacy from early childhood, against his will. Even in old age, he still was unable to come to terms with that legacy, or the extent to which it had eaten up his life. Morton dies childless, breaking the cycle and providing a useful negative role model for Victor. And Morton’s final wish is for his life’s work, and his family’s, to be destroyed. Better to be forgotten than to be remembered for something hideous.

The Dream Machine: Chapter 3 — I am remembering now that this is my least-favourite episode of The Dream Machine, though it is still, on balance, excellent. This is the episode where the puzzle structure is most obvious: complete three tasks for three different people, then complete three more tasks for those same three people to get to the endgame… the wires are on display here a little more than in other episodes. Plus, it contains fewer areas to explore than other chapters. But the puzzles themselves are delightful and the premise of the episode is solid. Here, Victor finds himself inside his wife’s recurring dream — and face to face with a gaggle of clones of himself, each of them one of Alicia’s subconscious impressions of a facet of Victor’s personality. In spite of the fact that nearly all of the characters in this chapter are clones of the player character, they’ve all been given different postures to reflect their different personalities. The dreamer’s resting position is looking up at the sky. The pompous one has his arms behind his back at all times. The player character just keeps slouching his way through the game. It’s the small details that make this game great. I especially love it once it turns into a detective story. Investigating Victor Eleven’s disappearance is a great opportunity for the writers to show different elements of the same story through the voices of very different characters. The conspiratorial busboy is the highlight of the episode, for me. You can tell from the way that others talk about him that he’s the sort of guy who’s always got a conspiracy theory, but it just so happens that this time he’s right. Psychoanalytically, this is a harder one to parse than the first two episodes. But I think my central contention that this game is about a man learning empathy pulls through, here. This is literally a case of Victor seeing himself as somebody else sees him. Fortunately for his ego, the person whose eyes he’s seeing through is somebody who loves him, and who also knows him well enough to know that he contains multitudes: hundreds of Victors who vary from moment to moment in intelligence, self-sufficiency, leadership, and the propensity for ambition, pretension, paranoia and good humour. Another person’s dream of Victor might have been more disillusioning. Also, boy, does this ever get creepy at the end. This is The Dream Machine’s equivalent of the mid-album slump, but we’re right on the precipice of some of my favourite moments in any adventure game. If memory serves, Chapter Four made me all verklempt last time. Alas, no further evidence for my crackpot Brian Eno theory in this one. Will report back.

The Dream Machine: Chapter 4 — This isn’t the most formally inventive chapter of The Dream Machine; that’s chapter five (bearing in mind that I still haven’t played the final chapter). But it may be my favourite. This is the point where the segments between dream sequences start to really work. The sequence of puzzles that allows you into Edie’s dream is ingenious, and by far the hardest thing in the game so far. It took me ages to figure out the first time. But as with the previous two chapters, the main event is the dream sequence itself. Edie’s dream is my favourite in the game’s first five chapters. The kind old lady’s mind, as Mr. Morton tells us in chapter one, is not as sharp as it once was. And indeed, her memories are literally fraying around the edges. The people she once knew, and the person she once was, are aloof spectres in her subconscious. The fragility and mutability of the dream is moving in itself, but it’s made deeper by what we learn about Edie’s life from the tableaus that we see in each room of her dream apartment. And again, the focus is on family. Edie spent her younger years in a not entirely happy marriage with a very pious man. Her husband, whoever he was — his dream self is a fading cipher from Edie’s past — has parental issues to match Mr. Morton’s. The bulk of this dream deals with the end of life and the death of Edie’s mother-in-law, a stern and ruthless figure who haunts her so much that the dream machine takes on her form. The most telling moment occurs in the bathroom of the dream apartment, which Edie’s subconscious has repurposed as a memorial for two late family members: Edie’s mother-in-law, and her child, who presumably died in infancy. When you shoehorn Edie’s younger, spectral self into this room along with the ghost of the mother-in-law, they stand together by the child’s grave. And the latter says “Sin brings forth death.” Which is, just, an incredibly shitty and unkind thing to say. And it’s the kind of thing that sticks with you, because it prompts guilt. And, in one of the game’s very best images, we see that Edie’s elderly self is tethered to her memories by the image of her mother-in-law. So, if it’s guilt and regret that are keeping her in this decaying, dilapidated mental space, perhaps it is best to let go. The ending of chapter four is the most affecting moment in the first five chapters of The Dream Machine, because it finds Edie drifting away from her memory palace, presumably losing that part of herself forever — but also losing the trauma that comes with those memories. It is perhaps the most gentle and loving portrayal of a person with dementia I’ve seen in a work of fiction. And as with everything in The Dream Machine, it has profound emotional consequences for Victor. His final exchange with Edie is the closest thing he has to a specific moment of epiphany. He realizes, with Edie’s help, that he’s doing something extraordinary for the sake of his family. It isn’t just the implicit nature of dreams that’s helping Victor to accept the forthcoming new phase of his life as a father, it is also the explicit threat that the machine poses to his family. This is the moment when all of Victor’s character development in the first three episodes comes to a head. For the first time he realizes consciously that something has changed inside him. And the fact that this change is finally expressed among the detritus of Edie’s regrets — all of which are risks for Victor: the risk of a child’s death, of a failed marriage, and of not escaping your own lineage — just heightens the effect. And Edie caps it all off with yet another explicit Brian Eno reference: “We’re just sandcastles, Victor. I’m sure some part of me will reform on some faraway beach somewhere down the line. Perhaps we’ll meet again there.” Edie, in the end, is alone. Her bridge club can hardly substitute for the relationships that, for better or worse, defined her earlier life. Victor started this story dreaming of some faraway beach where he could be alone and life could be simple. Now, with Edie’s bittersweet farewell, he sees the lonely side of that fantasy and he’s ready to return to reality. If memory serves, chapter five is less explicitly concerned with Victor’s character arc, which is fine. Putting this crucial moment at the end of chapter four allows the devs one episode to just indulge in some intense formalism before getting back to the story’s main thrust. But unless chapter six unseats it, this right here is the defining chapter of The Dream Machine.

Podcasts

All Songs Considered: “New Mix: St. Vincent, Mogwai, Benjamin Clementine, My Bubba, More” — This finds Bob Boilen in a distractingly mellow mood, frankly. I’m all for chill, but Boilen’s side of this mix is very very chill. I came to hear the new St. Vincent song, which is very lovely but doesn’t really offer any insights about what a hypothetical forthcoming St. Vincent album might sound like. The standout here, if only for its total commitment to its own weirdness, is the Benjamin Clementine track. I didn’t know this guy, and I can’t say I’m entirely sold on the basis of the track they played here — it’s really overwrought, though possibly intentionally so. But it is definitely not like anything else, and considering that my favourite music from last year included John Congleton and Let’s Eat Grandma, I’m sort of starving for that right now.

The Daily: July 11-12 — I have been meaning to check out this new trend of daily news podcasts for a while, and this seemed to be the one. NPR’s entry into the budding canon sounds like a newscast, which is not a thing I like or see the point of. And I’m aware of The Outline World Dispatch. I may in fact have neglected to review an episode or two of it, but I am generally fond of it. However, the New York Times’ rendition of this evolving new form is the clear current gold standard. Michael Barbaro is a personable and smart host, and the one-two story format serves the listener well. The two episodes I heard this week dealt with the Donald Trump Jr. emails, and was a great way to get my head around that story. There is an element of “behind the story” to Barbaro’s approach here, which is welcome given the extent to which the Times is a major player in the way that events have transpired with this. Other stories about the devastation of Mosul and the reintegration of thousands of rebel fighters into Colombian society make it reassuringly clear to me that this is not going to be all Trump all the time, or even all American federal politics all the time. And thank god, because there’s a whole world out there. This is one of the great innovations in the recent history of podcasts, and shame on the world’s public broadcasters for letting a newspaper perfect it first.

Love and Radio: “The Boys Will Work It Out” — WOW this is something. Our main character is a prolific author of Lord of the Rings slashfic and an enthusiastic sexual roleplayer as Elijah Wood. Through the magic of radio, we’re even treated to an enactment of one of those fantasies with Elijah Wood and Dominic Monaghan soundalikes. Listen advisedly.  

StartUp: “Building the Perfect Cup of Coffee” — Worth listening to for the delight of hearing a cup of coffee described as “plump without being… portly.” But man, has this season of StartUp ever evaporated on impact. This is one of the shows that kicked my obsession with podcasts into high gear. First there was Radiolab and 99pi, then there was season one of StartUp. Amidst that company, Serial doesn’t even register. The thrill of listening to Gimlet coalesce in real time was and is one of the glories of the medium. And I enthusiastically stayed onboard for season two, the Dating Ring season, which I idiosyncratically consider season one’s equal. Season three’s non-serialized format didn’t do much for me, but Lisa Chow brought the show back in magnificent fashion for season four, the story of the fall and rise of Dov Charney. The lesson here ought to be that this show is best when it’s serialized, and particularly good when it’s serialized in real time. I’d gladly listen to another season in the vein of season two, about a company that is in the midst of its startup struggles. But failing that, I think I might have to reduce this show to sometimes food status.

Criminal: “The Procedure” — A marvellous entry in the “crimes of conscience” category of Criminal episodes. This is about a network of clergy who would help women safely get abortions in places where they were illegal. Wonderful stuff.

The Sporkful: “Why Lefties Buy Less Soup” — Aww, I thought it was going to be about why liberals buy less soup. That would have been interesting. Still, a fun episode, though I remember most of this from the introduction of The Flavor Bible, which posits that flavour is the result of a confluence of factors above and beyond mere taste. Visual stimuli and social context, just to give two examples, also affect your experience of food. Also I am SO HAPPY to hear that Dan Pashman favours the inside-out pizza folding technique. I do this as well, and it is so good that I feel like I am constantly surrounded by idiots: outside-in folding assholes who are just rubbing bread all over their tastebuds instead of the delicious cheese and sauce alternative that’s RIGHT THERE on the other side of the slice. THANK YOU, Dan.

Home of the Brave: “The Continental Divide, Part Two” — I am so conflicted about these “talking to Trump voters” stories. On the one hand, you can trust Scott Carrier not to be condescending or self-abnegating, both of which are death in these contexts. But even if the conversations are civil, which these are, how do you make headway with a person who constructs reality in a way that’s entirely different from you? On one hand, I can accept that a guy who’s been involved in fracking for decades knows more about it than I do. Much more. But I’m also inherently suspicious of that person’s perspective, because the practice is normalized for him. I know this territory very well, given that I am a current, self-identified coastal elite who nonetheless grew up in a blue-collar oil town where everybody is delusional about climate change. Where I grew up, the notion that the Alberta oil sands are somehow sinister is laughable. It’s not because anybody especially takes pride in the industry — though in these divided times, that pride appears to be taking root retroactively, as a defense mechanism. It’s because the oil sands are normal. When I talk about the negative impact of the oil industry with friends and family from Fort McMurray, I may as well be telling them that shoes are evil, because the collective impact of all our human stomping is making the earth uninhabitably small. Global shrinking. It’s a ridiculous notion because shoes are too normal to be harmful. I’m getting off topic. My point is that Carrier is right to think that the two sides of divided America need to be able to talk to each other, but I don’t actually know what he or I is supposed to learn from that exchange. Ultimately I still think that systematic learning and teaching that can be expressed in statistics, research and reasoned argument in both academic and media spheres is the way to draw conclusions about the world. And the fact that at least two of the people Carrier interviewed expressed doubts about the value of education relative to the value of their specific lived experiences makes me crazy. Anecdotal experiences are valuable, but if you shape your worldview around them in opposition to the best available information (which happens every time poverty comes up in this program), you’re just wrong. And I’m not sure what I’m supposed to do with that.

The Heart: “People Who Need People” — Lovely. This rerun is The Heart at its simplest: a relationship forms in the crucible of a difficult moment of somebody’s life. That’s the whole of it. But it’s worth revisiting in light of recent events in the characters’ lives.

The Turnaround: Episodes 2-6 — Okay, I’ve fallen into this in a big way. In spite of my previously-stated doubts about the necessity for so many interviews of artists in the world, I do think interviewing in general is an absolutely fascinating craft, and this is the deepest dive into it that I’ve heard, though Longform is often about interviewing also. Let’s take these one at a time. Susan Orlean’s interview is most notable because she’s so completely different from Jesse Thorn in the product she’s trying to make. She can go down rabbit holes with very little hope of getting anything useable because ultimately interviewing is an exploratory process for her. She’s learning what the story is as she goes. The Marc Maron episode is one of the highlights for basically the opposite reason: he’s probably the closest of all of the interview subjects so far to Thorn’s method. And this actually made me realize that Maron has a way of getting around the arts interview pitfall that I identified in my last post on this show (i.e. that there’s no way for the journalist’s insight to factor into an interview without making the guest superfluous). Maron goes into every interview with an idea of why people are the way they are and why they do what they do. And in the interview, he takes the opportunity to present an artist with his impression of them and have them either confirm or deny it. Or, more likely, just to complicate and deepen it. It’s a way he has to get past the branding. That’s valuable, and I guess it’s what makes Maron my favourite interviewer of artists. Audie Cornish is probably the guest on this program whose work I am least familiar with (Pop Culture Happy Hour notwithstanding), just because I’m Canadian and we have our own daily news programs up here. But her episode is the highlight of The Turnaround so far. It gets a bit contentious when Thorn presses her on the supposed dispassionate delivery of NPR hosts, and she kind of schools him. It obviously affected Thorn’s thinking profoundly, because he brings up that moment in nearly all of the other interviews. The Larry King episode is the least valuable, partially because he’s the worst interviewer on the show and partially because Thorn lets him get sidetracked from the topic of interviewing. But, I mean, he’s Larry King. What are you going to do? And then there’s Brooke Gladstone, who is simply the most valuable person in the entire American media. Hearing her talk extemporaneously is incredible because she is preternaturally gifted with the ability to put complicated ideas in a logical sequence. It’s really similar to listening to Reza Aslan talk. The only reason it’s not the best episode of the show is that she did a longer interview on Longform a while back that covers some of the same ground. The Turnaround is some of the most fascinating radio of the year. Can’t wait for the rest of it. Pick of the week.

WTF with Marc Maron: “GLOW Writers & Creators” — A nice nuts and bolts process sort of interview with some folks Maron worked with on GLOW. I haven’t really had room for TV binges in my media consumption schedule lately, but once I do this will be among the top priorities.

99% Invisible: “Repackaging the Pill” — A design story that is also about undermining the paternalism of the mid-20th-century medical profession. Nice stuff.

Reply All: “Minka” — Sruthi Pinnamaneni is so valuable on this show, which is very silly very often. It’s always refreshing to have her come in and do a real, reported story about something very consequential — in this case, nursing homes and how terrible they are.   

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “Spider-Man: Homecoming and Tour de Pharmacy” — I am so onboard with Audie Cornish when she says she’d trade this incarnation of Spider-Man for the Tobey Maguire movies. Also man oh man, you can pretty much be certain that when Andy Samberg does something, this show will make note of it. Maybe it just seems that way. But if they talk about a comedy, there’s a pretty solid chance it’ll either involve Samberg or Paul Feig. That probably says more about the world than about this show.

What Trump Can Teach Us About Con Law: “Presidential Immunity” — Oh man, I guess it might be impossible to sue the president. That sounds really bad and I hope it doesn’t stay that way.

Judge John Hodgman: “Live in Chicago at Very Very Fun Day 2017” — The couple at the centre of the main case here didn’t turn out to be the best: one has a tendency to show instead of tell, which works for the live audience, but not the podcast audience. And the other is a jerk. The swift justice segment is better.

Imaginary Worlds: “The Book of Dune” — I never really got Dune. I recall having read it the summer that I read 20 novels at my boring summer job. And I just found it a bit of a slog. (I also ready Paradise Lost twice that summer, so, one man’s trash etc.) But I never stopped to think about the influence of real-world religions, and especially Islam, on the text. I wouldn’t have known enough to notice it. So, this is a fun crash course in Frank Herbert’s relationship with Islam, including a discussion of its classic “white saviour” narrative. I wonder how (and if) Denis Villeneuve’s adaptation will reckon with that? Maybe by not casting a white person as Paul? I’m not even sure that would be enough, since it’s still a story about a high-born outsider saving a marginalized people. I guess we’ll see. Anyway, it’s bound to be an improvement on the available adaptations. I don’t think I ever actually finished the TV series, and the David Lynch movie is infamous. (Personally, I think it has its charms, but it’s been a while so maybe it’s worse than I remember.) In general, I’m inclined to believe that the best version of Dune is the one that exists inside of Alejandro Jodorowsky’s head. And even that is almost certainly much better than the movie he would actually have made.

Ear Hustle: “Looking Out” — The warden is already my least favourite character. But hey, good on him for approving a story even though he thought it was bad. This is the lighter side of Ear Hustle, so far. But I guess that’s part of the prison experience too?

On The Media: “Three-Dimensional Chess” — Good decision to focus a large part of this episode on Raqqa and Mosul, in the week of the Don. Jr. email scandal. America is only part of the world.

Omnibus (week of July 2, 2017)

Greetings! Here’s the latest radio segment. I’m at 27:27. It didn’t occur to me until sometime after we’d taped it that a theme connecting the three things I talk about could be “uncharted territory” — both in the sense that all of these things come from media that I hadn’t covered on the show yet (movies, games and podcasts) and in the sense that each one of them deals with characters who are attempting the seemingly impossible. I dunno how I missed that. Anyway, it’s out there now.

29 reviews.

Live Events

The Winter’s Tale (Bard on the Beach) — Far and away the better of the two mainstage productions at Bard this year. This production has one big setpiece at the end of the first act, and aside from that they just do the play. Which is all I want out of life. The production itself doesn’t really have its own premise: it’s just sort of set in a pretty-looking, abstractly ahistorical Sicily and Bohemia. The story plays out of its own devices. The setpiece, by the way, is “exit, pursued by a bear.” Since this is the only Shakespeare play whose best-known quote is a stage direction, that moment has to pay off. We paid to see a bear, and a man exiting pursued by it. This production employs a wonderful and impressively large puppet for the bear. Aside from a couple of adorable, simpler, sheep puppets, that’s the only bit of complex stagecraft employed here. Lovely of director Dean Paul Gibson to just let the rest of the play exist. The Winter’s Tale is the first Shakespeare play I’ve seen on stage or film without having read the script first. Frankly, its unfamiliarity to all but the most enthusiastic Shakespeareans is probably part of what makes The Winter’s Tale easy to stage straightforwardly. Save for the bear, there are no memes in this play. No “to be or not to be,” or “double, double, toil and trouble,” or even “O, that way madness lies.” Nothing to emphasize or undercut, in anticipation of the audience’s familiarity. I feel like this was a good introduction to the play, and I enjoyed the story quite a lot in spite of certain structural oddities. Namely, the first half of this is straightforwardly a tragedy and the second half is straightforwardly a comedy. The comedic half took the edge in this production because Bard’s company has an excellent roster of clowns, with Ben Elliot especially standing out as Autolycus the pickpocket. But the first half packed enough clout that by the end of the play, I hadn’t forgotten the tragedies that befell the characters in the early story. So, when the story ends on the note of “a sad tale’s best for winter” — which a casual perusal of the script just now finds not to be the case in Shakespeare’s original — it feels like an earned moment. I totally enjoyed this. Now to read the play.

Movies

The Beguiled — So far, this is second only to Get Out in my personal 2017 movie sweepstakes. Sofia Coppola’s rethink of an evidently somewhat dated Clint Eastwood vehicle from the ‘70s is a brilliantly twisted exploration of what happens when toxic masculinity meets the more discreet consequences of patriarchy. But that makes it sound deathly boring, which it isn’t. Rather, it’s a tense and thrilling coiled snake of a movie with uniformly wonderful performances and some of the most beautifully composed shots outside of Wes Anderson’s filmography. The premise is simple: a seminary school full of women loyal to the south is shaken by the arrival of a rather dashing but grievously injured Union soldier at their doorstep. Nicole Kidman particularly stands out as the matriarch of the seminary: the decision maker who is wise enough to be slightly more resistant to the northerner’s charms than her younger charges, but who is nonetheless afflicted with the loneliness of war. But Colin Farrell is a match for her. He never allows his charming soldier character to seem like a deliberate temptor or sly devil. Rather, he behaves politely and graciously, and efficiently manipulates each of the women around him differently. Coppola’s best decision in the whole movie is to never have the camera cast suspicion on Farrell, nor to allow his performance to attract suspicion intentionally. Instead, a sceptical audience will come to distrust him simply because of the fraught nature of this setup. And then, about halfway through, when a cataclysmic event changes the movie drastically, we’re made to think differently of him once again. Never once does the movie lose sight of the fact that this man has just come from a brutal, traumatizing war. And never once does it lose sight of the fact that the women in it are deeply subject to social iniquity. The exploration of the resulting power dynamic in the film’s third act is totally riveting. And it contains maybe the single most jaw-dropping smash cut to black since The SopranosPick of the week.

Music

Fairport Convention: Liege & Lief — I’ve been really enjoying the tracks from the upcoming Olivia Chaney/Decemberists collaboration, which have been slowly coming out over the past months. (The record is due out this week.) So I figured I should finally get informed about the British folk revival that inspired it and the bulk of the Decemberists catalogue. I’ve been aware of Fairport Convention, Steeleye Span, the Pentangle and all the rest of them for ages, largely because Jethro Tull flitted on the edges of that scene. And I’ve heard assorted songs of all of these bands. But never a full album, that I can remember. So, Liege & Lief, the most acclaimed of the bunch. I have to say I’m underwhelmed. There’s a lot of great stuff on this, but there’s nothing that reaches out and grabs me the way that the tracks from the Offa Rex record have, or even the way that the select tracks from the Pentangle have. This is a clear case where I need to hear more of this sort of thing before I can really appreciate this album specifically. So, I’ll do that, and report back then.

Literature, etc.

John Hermann: “Why the Far Right Wants to be the New ‘Alternative’ Culture” — A persuasive though fairly basic account of the appeal of the specious “alternative” label to Trump supporters and assorted Nazis, from my favourite analyst of the internet. Hermann has toned his voice down since moving from the Awl to the Times, but he’s still always worth reading.

Jorge Luis Borges: “A Survey of the Works of Herbert Quain” — Much like “The Approach to Al Mu’tasim,” this is a quite simple iteration of Borges’s central notion that a story can entail an essay about fictional books. One of the things that I love most about him is that he knows his strengths and he knows his voice. Borges is a genius for premises, but he knows that if he were to actually try and write any of the books he describes here, they would be subject to the same muted and occasionally negative criticisms that he levels on them. Far better to simply state the premises outright. If the central idea is the whole point, why belabour it?

James Errington: Centuries of Sound — Errington’s blog was featured on the A.V. Club this week, and I’m delighted by this. It feels like old school, pre-social internet fare, except with impressive professionalism. Basically, Errington is making a mixtape for every year of recorded sound. He’s in the nearly prehistoric phase of the project at the moment, dealing with Edison phonographs and all that. But he started out with a two-hour mix of music and sound from 2016 as a proof-of-concept, and boy what a thing it is. If you care to relive the trauma of that year, with a newfound awareness of just how inseparable from that context all of the music is, I highly recommend it. I’ll be making an effort to catch up on this so that I can follow Errington’s progress as he goes along.

Harold Bloom: Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human — I revisit this every time I partake in a new Shakespeare play. Or so I thought, but as it turns out I never read the entry on Cymbeline, which I rectified this week before turning to his chapter on The Winter’s Tale, which is genuinely new to me. Bloom’s take on modern literary criticism and theatre has its obvious problems, but I am an absolute sucker for his readings of the texts themselves, and particularly of the way he never fails to see the whole future of culture in Shakespeare. He even manages to hear a magnificent insight in the mouth of one of Cymbeline’s least memorable characters: “Through Posthumus, I hear Shakespeare observing that the action of our lives is lived for us, and that the desperate best we can do is to accept (“keep”) what happens as if we performed it, if but for ironic sympathy with ourselves. It is another of those uncanny recognitions in which Shakespeare is already beyond Nietzsche.” I’m also quite amused by Bloom’s suggestion that the openly comical second half of The Winter’s Tale was designed specifically to infuriate the trite moralizer Ben Johnson. Indeed Bloom, usually a deeply melancholy critic, never seems happier than when he’s writing about the great knave of The Winter’s Tale, Autolycus. I’ve now read enough Bloom that I’ve started to regard him as a literary character, and though he is a problematical one (to borrow his preferred form of that word), I seem to wish him happiness nonetheless. I continue to stubbornly find him essential reading on Shakespeare.

Alex Ross: “The Occult Roots of Modernism” — “As an orchestra plays Wagner, the women fall to worshipping a giant phallus.” Man oh man, there was something in the water in the late 19th century. This is a wonderful feature about Joséphin Péladan, the occult lunatic/charlatan who took Paris by storm and inspired and collaborated with artists from Eric Satie to Ferdinand Hodler. He also wrote novels, one of which contains the scenario quoted above. Ross’s feature is a great reminder that beneath the supposed rationality and distance of the modernists there lay an irreducible weirdness of a spiritual sort. I’m particularly gratified to see Ross contextualize Schoenberg in this light. People often characterize him as a chilly mathematician, at least after he abandoned his passionate atonal idiom for the twelve-tone method. But numbers meant something different to Schoenberg than they do to the rest of us: he was a devotee of Kabbalistic number symbolism. It’s that sort of thing that fascinates me so much about the art of this period.

Games

King of Dragon Pass — Okay, I’m done my first playthrough. It ended badly. And, more out of frustration than disappointment, I think I may not return to this. Given that the game is almost entirely text-based, I thought I could expect something substantially more story driven than this actually is. The truth is that it’s much more a simulation/resource management game than an interactive story. There is a story, of course, and there are even characters who behave consistently. But in general, the choices you make are not a matter of where you want the narrative to go, but rather what’s best to stay afloat. Contrast this with Sunless Sea, for which this is a clear forerunner. In Sunless Sea, there are storylines to pursue, and these are fully integrated with the resource management and stat boosting tasks that are that game’s form of “progress.” And it goes without saying that Sunless Sea has better writing and worldbuilding, but credit where it’s due: King of Dragon Pass does a more than passable pulp fantasy novel impression. I realize that I frequently make this same perverse complaint, where I play a game and get frustrated by the “game” elements. This is why I suspect I’ll always feel like a tourist in this medium. It is not where I live. But that’s fine. Also, I think I got this for a dollar. So, no harm done. I hear The Dream Machine’s finally finished. That sounds like it’ll suit my mood a bit better.

Podcasts

The Truth/Theory of Everything: “Influencers” — The issue I often have with The Truth’s stories is that they’re just so on the nose. But Benjamen Walker’s particular kind of on the nose is a kind that I like a lot. This is a really fun story that touches not just on the president’s acrimony towards the media, but also on the ludicrousness of the idea that social follower counts connote influence. It’s also about the fact that the most well-intentioned in our society are often the least able to ascertain what’s really going on. A worthy crossover.

It’s Been A Minute: “They’re Still Here” — Two things can be true: Sam Sanders and his panelists are wonderful, and this show is overproduced. I don’t tune into podcasts for a parade of segments. I’m entirely comfortable with conversations dragging on a bit, but I’m not fond of the whiplash that the format introduces into this show. This is the point where I’ll duck out of this for a while and wait for it to find its footing. Still, it’s promising.

Arts and Ideas: “Canada 150: Sydney Newman and British TV; Vahni Capildeo; Shubbak Festival 2017” — This is well worthwhile for the Sydney Newman segment alone. What I love about this is that without necessarily meaning to, the BBC has broadcast the perfect Canadian arts story here. They’re probably just trying to localize Canada’s 150th as something with relevance to British audiences, so they chose a Canadian figure with a huge influence on British television. But what they’ve actually done is tell an iconically British story about the BBC itself that’s all about how an exodus of Canadian talent to the U.K. helped define British television, while completely impoverishing Canada itself of similar talent. The story of Sydney Newman is the story of the rise of British television and the perpetual shittiness of Canadian television. Happy Canada Day.

Reply All: “Friends and Blasphemers” — P.J. Vogt tells the story of how Russia killed LiveJournal, and Alex Goldman is mortified to reveal the writings of his 21-year-old self on that platform. Good thing I don’t ever write anything on the internet to be embarrassed of later.

Imaginary Worlds: “World War EVE” — This is a fun story about a world I knew nothing about. It also manages to say what’s specifically extraordinary about EVE as a virtual world, distinct from others like World of Warcraft. (I love the idea that EVE has a whole in-universe news reporting infrastructure.) Which is all to say that there’s just enough explanation in this for a neophyte. I’m consistently impressed by Eric Molinsky’s ability to walk this fine line. One of the key things that makes this show work is the extent to which he’s a curious semi-outsider to the cultures he explores. He assumes a position that isn’t so far outside of the culture that he’s required to offer condescending explanations, but he also manages not to alienate me by assuming a higher calibre of specialized geek knowledge than I have.  

Homecoming: “Season Two: Coming Soon” — “Hum three ascending notes into your phone” is what the first season of this was missing. Just, some weirdness to detract from the portentousness of it all. Also, Chris Gethard’s in it now. Looking forward.

What Trump Can Teach Us About Con Law: “The Spending Clause” — One of the most consistently fascinating things about the history of law is how tiny, seemingly inane things have huge consequences later on. Like weak beer, for instance. This is good stuff.

On The Media: “The American people elected a fighter” — Sometimes the only thing that keeps me going through the news cycle of the Trump era is Bob Garfield’s essays about what a catastrophe it all is. This is a good one.

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “Pop Culture Summer Stories And ‘Playing House’” — The Playing House segment contains a frank discussion of these writers’ decision to deal with an illness that affected their lives in their show. That’s great, but the real reason to hear this is more live stuff. The summer stories segment features Glen Weldon at his most curmudgeonly and Stephen Thompson as his most adorable.

On The Media: “What Ails America” — This starts with a segment where Stephen Marche explains how Canada is better than the U.S. because we’re less patriotic up here. It’s a nice idea, and I’d certainly love to live in that version of Canada, but he’s wrong and we don’t. Canadian patriotism is a bit of a joke, sure. But it does exist. We don’t know what we’re celebrating, but we sure love to go through the motions. And since we’re so uncertain about what patriotism is supposed to look like, we look abroad (mostly south) for cues. And today, Canadian conservatives are gradually cottoning on to the Trump/UKIP/National Front model of patriotism, i.e. nativism. And yet we’re still getting this barrage of American stories about how this is not happening in Canada, when it is. Marche cites the gigantic defeat of Kellie Leitch in the Conservative leadership race as supporting evidence for his insufferable neoliberal smugness. But it’s not just Kellie Leitch up here. It’s Stephen Harper’s divisive campaign in the last election, it’s the clowns in Alberta’s Wildrose Party (and whatever they’re about to morph into), and it’s the Rebel: a Canadian version of Breitbart that has a small readership but that we should ignore at our peril. Canada is not a liberal paradise. It is slow-motion America. But it’s not Bob Garfield’s fault that he doesn’t know that; he doesn’t live here. I dunno what Marche’s excuse is.

StartUp: “Ask Alex” — This is most notable for featuring Alex Blumberg’s take on the upcoming ABC sitcom where he’ll be played by Zach Braff. Evidently, he and Gimlet have no input into this and will not see much money from it because they made a mistake that they’ll not be making again. Still, I can’t help but think he must be happy he can say he had no input. The trailer for Alex, Inc. looks absolutely dire. It looks like a gag gift somebody really rich made for Blumberg’s birthday.

Mogul: “Rice Pilaf” — The story of the signing of Warren G and the resulting confrontation between Chris Lighty and Suge Knight. Mogul is completely thrilling. I won’t describe this, I’ll just say go listen from the beginning. This is second only to S-Town in my 2017 podcast sweepstakes thus far. Pick of the week.

The Memory Palace: “The Taking of Tom Sawyer’s Island” — Nate DiMeo tells the story of a left-wing youth protest at Disneyland, and manages not to undermine their correctness when he points out that they were also ridiculous and willfully misunderstanding the point of Disneyland. He’s especially good at evoking both the wonder and the extreme creepiness of Disneyland itself. Lovely stuff.

The Turnaround: “Ira Glass” — This is Jesse Thorn interviewing Ira Glass about interviewing. That’s obviously going to be worthwhile for those of us interested in that craft. But there’s one especially great moment in it that got me thinking. Thorn and Glass are talking about Terry Gross, when Thorn accidentally draws the interview to a momentary halt by starting to exposit about something Glass said about Gross and how it reflects on his own practice on This American Life. Glass’s whole project, Thorn says, is trying to get his guests to offer examples. They’ll want to answer in an intellectual, theoretical way, and Glass tries to pull examples out of them so that what they say can fit as part of a story. Thorn finishes his analysis, and Glass is simply left with nothing to say. He comments, jokingly, that he has no illustrative example to give, because Thorn has just analyzed the situation with total accuracy and tied it up with a nice little bow. Thorn’s solo trip is possibly the closest that this episode gets to defining what’s great about This American Life. The rest of it is brilliant at exposing elements of how it is made, but that is a completely different question. And that leads me to a conclusion that I’ve been threatening to reach for some time: interviewing creative people is not actually a very good way to try and understand creative products. (I will henceforth use the term “art,” though I suspect Ira Glass would be uncomfortable hearing This American Life referred to as such. However, his role in this interview, as an “artist” who is creating something is exactly analogous to any interview with a songwriter, filmmaker, etc.) I am an arts journalist myself. I don’t do a lot of interviewing these days, but when I did I always found myself wanting to do the thing that Thorn does in this interview that leaves Glass with nothing more to say. If you’ve heard or seen a lot of a given artist’s work and you’re a reasonably clever interpreter of art, as anybody who gets a job as a radio host should be (and Thorn is), then you already know what the artist wants to communicate. The most valuable thing you can do, in my view, is to unspool the meaning that you derive from the art itself. Art is condensed meaning. A journalist’s job should be to un-condense it. As an interviewer you can ask an artist what they mean by their art, but they’re not obligated to tell you, nor are they guaranteed to even know. You can also just offer up your analysis freely during the course of the interviewer, but the only question that could really be leading towards is “do you agree with that?” which is not really a question at all. You’re plunging headlong towards that exact same moment Thorn had with Glass. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been faced with putting together an interview piece where the format precluded me from offering any insight of my own, even though the artist I interviewed had nothing to say. Granted, this is at least partially a result of me not being a very good interviewer. But in my defence, what interests me above all else is what art means. And I don’t think that the fact I can’t get at that in an interview is entirely my fault, because I’ve never heard anybody else do it either. I’ve heard plenty of great interviews that get into the process by which art is produced or the human stories that lead artists to make it. These are both much more suitable ground to cover in interviews. Song Exploder is the gold standard for process stories about art. And a number of interviewers including Marc Maron, Terry Gross and, yes, Jesse Thorn are very skilled at getting artists to talk about the lives that led them to make what they make. But those stories don’t get me any closer to understanding art: they make me understand people. They’re not arts stories, really; they’re just normal human interest stories. And honestly, I’m not convinced that famous artists are actually more interesting or better storytellers than any other random people. I’m not sure that WTF would be any worse a show if Maron just interviewed whoever happened to be walking past his garage instead of comics and musicians and the president. It would definitely be less popular. And that, ultimately, is what I suspect the real motive is for most arts journalists to want to do interviews rather than focussing on analysis: this is an industry that places the ultimate premium on the “get.” If you can have a big name on your show, or get a big profile in your magazine — maybe shoot a bit of video that’ll autoplay as people scroll down their feeds and pull in those coveted attention economy eyeballs — people will take notice. This is fine, but it doesn’t really contribute to the discourse in my view. And those interviews are boring as often as they’re exciting. This is why I sometimes skip ahead to the ending of episodes of Bullseye, the “Outshot” segment where Thorn just takes a moment to exposit on something he likes. These are always great because Thorn is clever and funny and has great taste, and I’d rather hear him be that way without anybody else in the room to distract from it. So yeah, this is probably a really idiosyncratic take, but I genuinely think we should have fewer arts interviews in the world. I don’t mean to denigrate the entire practice, because as I’ve said I find some value in much of it. (And yes, I’m acutely aware that I’m currently a regular contributor to a regional radio show that mostly consists of interviews with artists. But I’m safe in that case, because I genuinely believe that show is brilliant — in large part because it isn’t about the “get,” it’s about the stories.) I think people who interview artists as their main bread and butter shouldn’t necessarily stop in their tracks, but they should have a long, hard think about why it’s a worthy use of their time. I realize this has not been a review of this episode. If anything, it’s a review of Jesse Thorn’s other show, Bullseye. So I’ll quickly say that I think The Turnaround is a fantastic idea, because it does focus on craft and process so much. And this was a great first episode that obviously got me thinking about some stuff.

Mogul: Cameos and exclusives — This week we got three tiny episodes of Mogul, which are all a lot of fun. One featuring Maseo is pretty straightforward, but it’s fun to hear him and Reggie Ossé talk about clothes. The Fat Joe exclusive has him telling a great story about getting shot. But the extra bit of Warren G’s interview is the highlight of the three, because it involves Chris Lighty locating Warren’s missing sister.

Arts and Ideas: “Thinking: Food” — This is virtuoso radio. By that, I mean Matthew Sweet makes a prawn cocktail while interviewing three writers. This is really what I love about the BBC. Sweet is a bubbly and approachable host who is nonetheless not afraid to assume a certain amount of familiarity on the listener’s part with the works of David Hume. This is the only interview about food that you’re likely to hear this week that contains the sentiment “we can talk about the moral element in a bit, but I do want to stick with aesthetics for now…”

99% Invisible: “The Pool and the Stream” — A globetrotting design story about the kidney-shaped swimming pool from Avery Trufelman. Very nice stuff. The script is really good in this one. I love the way it ties the opening back in at the end.

On the Media: “It’s the End of the World and We Know It” & “Apocalypse, Now” — Bob Garfield is away this week so we get to step away from the tornado for a while and let Brooke Gladstone do some big thinking for us. The main episode is about science fiction’s recent turn towards intense pessimism in the age of climate change. It’s depressing, but compelling. And there’s a great extra in the feed right before it featuring Gladstone’s interview with Ben Winters, whose books deal with a more sudden but less deniable threat to humanity. Both are worth your time.

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “Baby Driver and When Auteurs Meet Film Franchises” — This is as essential as this show gets. The live segment about auteurs and franchises features Glen Weldon at his very very best, and Stephen Thompson trying in a wonderful way to follow him. I’ve got to see Baby Driver stat.

Code Switch: “The Supreme Court Decides In Favor Of A Racial Slur… Now What?” — This is crazy. It’s the story of a guy who tried to register his band’s name as a trademark, but it was denied because it’s a racial slur. (It was a reclamation effort, but good god, why trademark it?) So he appealed all the way to the Supreme Court. And he won, so now people can trademark racial slurs. Because there is never any middle ground. Ugh.