Tag Archives: A Point of View

Omnireviewer (week of Oct. 16)

Dear me. Verbose, this week. Well, I’ve had some spare time, which will be mercifully less spare fairly soon. 32 reviews.

Games

Kentucky Route Zero: Act 3 — My favourite of the first three acts by miles. The sequence with the Xanadu computer is one of my all-time favourite scenes in a video game. The fact that Donald built this thing as a bitter memorial to his relationship with Lula and friendship with Joseph is even sadder when you know that the first adventure game ever was inspired by heartbreak as well. Xanadu is clearly based on Adventure, which was made by William Crowther (another Kentucky-based computer scientist and cave explorer) as an attempt to reconnect with his young daughter after he and his wife divorced. On this playthrough, I came across a section of the Xanadu scene that I hadn’t before, where Lula explains why cave paintings are so sad: somebody wanted to memorialize something — a person or relationship, maybe — and we can barely make out any detail. How like the ruined Xanadu computer, and the primitive parser interface of Adventure. There are other highlights, here. I’d love to see the full text of Donald’s Kentucky-set version of “Kubla Khan.” And, as the party of player characters grows, so does the range of responses to any given situation. Conway is reflective, Shannon practical, Ezra whimsical, and Junebug totally off-topic. Their responses represent different types of gaming. I’m the sort of player who likes to linger and mull things over, so I tend towards Conway’s dialogue options. But it’s nice to have Shannon around to progress the plot, and the other two to throw occasional monkey wrenches into conversations. Also, the moment in the final scene where the game momentarily takes over the mouse to express the inevitability of Conway’s return to drinking is absolutely chilling. I am actually a bit scared to see how that develops in the next episode. I’ve come to love all of these characters, but if things work out badly for Conway, it’s going to be crushing.

Kentucky Route Zero: “Here and There Along The Echo” — I take back what I said about “The Entertainment” being my favourite of the KRZ mini-episodes. It’s a dead heat between that and this one. The notion of formatting a game as a telephone hotline menu is not only novel: it opens up a world of possibilities for interactive audio. (The only other example I’ve seen is Papa Sangre, which is essentially hide and seek in the dark, and I really don’t have much time for it.) Like so many other moments in this second playthrough of the pre-2016 portions of Kentucky Route Zero, I had intended for this to be a quick perusal, and then straight on to Act 4, which is new to me and super exciting. But, I ended up spending two hours going through the options, and listening to this fascinating character talk. It was worthwhile for the devs to briefly abandon the text-based aesthetic of this world to introduce spoken audio, if only because it allows a voice actor to give a convincing performance of what people might sound like in this universe. As a side note, anybody else who enjoyed his list of the different types of water as much as I did would do well to check out James Joyce’s list of water’s admirable attributes from Ulysses.

Kentucky Route Zero: Act 4 — Well, it didn’t let me down. This is a quieter, slower, more deliberate Kentucky Route Zero than we’ve seen before. And it is the first one to be more concerned with the characters and their respective arcs than it is with exploring themes. Rather than presenting simulations within simulations, or posing high-minded questions about whether we’re inside or out, this act presents us with Shannon’s abiding anger over her parents’ death in the mine, Johnny’s yearning for a third person to ride with him and Junebug (he wants a child, essentially) and most devastatingly, the effects of Conway’s return to drinking. The subtlety with which Conway becomes a different character in this act is both masterful and sad. And the moment when he appears to literally become a different character is the most destabilizing thing in the game so far: the loss of that character and of his particular way of moving through the world seems likely to be more of a paradigm shift than the introduction of the Zero. In general, Act 4 encourages us to take a time-out from our obsessiveness about what everything means and how it connects, and just spend some time empathizing with these characters. But I’m still left with lots of thoughts about the various thematic moving parts and conspiracies at play, here. We know that the power company is evil. We know that they’re engaged in debt buying, because they acquired the pharmaceutical company that Conway owes. We also know that the distillery is evil. (How lovely to see a thriving business like the Rum Colony not pouring Hard Times, hey?) We know that the distillery is also involved in debt buying, since they bought the outstanding bar tabs from Harry at the Lower Depths pub. So, how are they connected? Are they connected? We know, at least, that Conway’s medical bills (owed, indirectly, to the power company) will be paid off by the distillery in exchange for work (though his labour was already an exchange for having drunk the top-shelf whiskey at the end of Act 3… I smell duplicity). And there’s definitely some significance to the fact that Conway’s descent into more and more abject debt is represented by his gradually turning into a creepy electricity skeleton. So, what are we going to find out about the connection between those two companies in the grand finale? It’s possible that the answer is nothing. I would be surprised if Conway doesn’t appear in some capacity in Act 5, but we probably won’t learn any specifics. Kentucky Route Zero has never been the type of game to do anything so vulgar as explain itself. It is working on the same level as the conceptual artworks it is so fond of displaying within itself. I’ve read some muted complaints about this act that criticize it for being less exploratory and interactive than its predecessors. And it’s true that you’re not allowed the agency to explore the Echo River at your leisure in the same way that you were with the Zero or overground Kentucky. But video game people sometimes need to be reminded of the fact that all art is interactive. The most important act of the movie is the one that happens in the car on the way home, when you talk about what it all meant. Paintings don’t live in galleries; they live in your brain. So, even if Act 4 of Kentucky Route Zero puts you on tracks in a way that previous acts didn’t, there still ought to be plenty for you to do as a player. End of review. But here are a few stray observations, A.V. Club-style. (And still, I refuse to employ a paragraph break. The nerve.) One. The airplane is back! When I first played Act 1, the thing that really stuck with me is a scene where you can’t do anything except for watch two men push a broken airplane down a road. I didn’t know what to make of it, and I still don’t quite, but that image of struggle left a big impact. And there’s a moment in this act, in the gas station scene, where the two men drift past on a barge with their airplane. You could almost miss it, and it’s never mentioned in the dialogue, nor is it witnessed by Conway, who was the only character to have seen it in the first place. It’s the little things. Two. This act really feels like it comes from 2016. The increasing preoccupation with oil in this reflects the same development in the real world during the two years since the last act of Kentucky Route Zero came out. Also, online dating is a thing in the KRZ world now, just as it’s been mainstreamed. Three. One of the small pleasures of this act is actually visiting the locales that were referred to in “Here and There Along the Echo.” I’m glad I spent as much time with that as I did, now, because I had a bit of advance knowledge of Sam and Ida’s, the Rum Colony, the Iron Pariah (what the hell is up with that!?) and the memorial to something that we can’t remember what it is, among other things. In spite of what I said above, if I could request a single expansion to this game, it would be a more open-world model of the Echo so I could actually be the drifter/pilgrim that the Bureau of Secret Tourism was courting. But then, I suppose that would more or less be Sunless Sea. Four. The flashiest, most formalist moment in this act is the one where the narrators are watching security footage of the events after the fact, but you’re controlling the characters on that security footage in real time. It’s pure Andrew Plotkin. It constitutes the most satisfying cognitive dissonance I’ve felt since I cheated my way through Spider and Web. Five. Again, it’s the little things: Sam and Ida remember their origin story a bit differently. She remembers that he was drinking malt liquor and doing a sudoku. He remembers coffee and a crossword. Six. I can only imagine that Shannon’s reunion with Weaver is going to be a bit awkward once she realizes that Weaver used her genius to (I think) invent a new kind of debt, as it was put in “The Entertainment.” Maybe she’s the missing link between the distillery and the power company. Who knows how long we’ll have to wait to find out? I’ve got to say, though, I honestly don’t mind because if it’s a long wait, it’ll give me an excuse to play through the whole game a third time. As it stands, I think I’ll do a second playthrough of Act 4 fairly soon, because it’s definitely more than two playthroughs worth of game. I shall report back. Pick of the week.

Literature

Magnus Hildebrandt: Kentucky Fried Zero — This is an indispensable primer on the sources for Kentucky Route Zero, ranging from dustbowl photography to Buckminster Fuller and on to the more expected reference points like computer science and Samuel Beckett. The three parts of this are quite short, and you get the sense that Hildebrandt could easily track down and elucidate many more references and influences. (He even says as much in the second-last paragraph of part three.) I hope that he will go back and expand these once the final act of the game is out and we know what we’re working with.  

William Blake: Jerusalem the Emanation of the Giant Albion — Look, I didn’t enjoy this. I just didn’t. I have very limited patience for this kind of inscrutable literature. I mean this kind as distinct from, say, Ulysses. At least Joyce’s obscurity seems to be motivated at least partially by a sense of fun: he’s laying out a trail of breadcrumbs, and trusts that you’ll arrive at some kind of understanding eventually. Blake doesn’t seem to know he’s being obscurantist. It appears to me, a deeply undereducated reader in these sorts of texts, that Blake isn’t trying to be obscure; he’s failing to be direct. And so, the proliferation of characters without fixed identities and the religious commentaries so idiosyncratic that I can barely relate them to what I know of a given religion are not endearing at all — they are massively frustrating. Blake’s canon, unexplained as it is, is like jargon. It’s like hearing Scientologists talk about thetans and SPs. I did enjoy doing a bit of reading about Blake, and what he’s apparently on about in this. But my actual time spent reading the poem, with its brilliant illuminated plates, was not fun. I suppose I have to accept that now that I’m a couple years out of grad school, I am effectively “the everyday reader” and so these kinds of texts that are not meant to be understood without rigorous study are simply no longer the kinds of things I’ll take pleasure in. And I’m totally okay with that. Anyway, now I feel prepared to tackle Alan Moore’s Jerusalem. I’ll get to it soon.

Karen Page: The Vegetarian Flavor Bible — I am not a vegetarian, nor am I likely to become one in the near future. But, as part of my ongoing mission to be more creative in the kitchen while eating a bit less meat, I have gone ahead and purchased this tome. It is basically an encyclopedia of flavour combinations, specifically for plant-based diets. I am well aware of the existence of the original Flavor Bible, with its lamb and its bacon, and I will almost surely purchase that as well if this one proves to be useful. But my first priority is getting a handle on creative cooking without meat. I confess that the introduction to this volume is a little bit depressing compared to the one in its meaty predecessor (I read the Kindle free sample) because it focusses almost entirely on nutrition. Maybe that’s predictable. I’m interested in nutrition, insofar as I want to be healthy. But my god, is it ever a boring topic to read about. Still, that’s hardly the point. I have already prepared some middling-to-good, but at least interesting vegetarian meals using this as my guide. One, with wilted spinach and nutmeg served on a grilled portabello mushroom with crumbled ricotta was actually pretty excellent. I shall keep you apprised.

J.K. Rowling, John Tiffany & Jack Thorne: Harry Potter and the Cursed Child — I was never not going to read it, and I liked it a lot more than the fan consensus. It’s flawed, but it’s a decent afternoon’s-worth of nostalgia. And it is openly nostalgic for the first seven books, in the way that Jason Segal’s Muppet movies are for the original Muppet Show, or that certain modern Doctor Who stories are for the classic series. The story of Harry Potter’s time at Hogwarts is as important and formative a narrative for the characters in this story as it is for the people who grew up reading Harry Potter books, and thus the younger characters are effectively surrogates for us. Or at least, Scorpius Malfoy is. Albus Potter is a touch too resentful. It’s fitting, then, that the key plotline should involve time travel, and specifically time travel back to the days of the beloved Goblet of Fire. Because, The Cursed Child is more of a time capsule than it is a modern Harry Potter story. It’s a way to go back, and see familiar things from a slightly different vantage point. (This happens literally in the play’s final act, which takes place largely [spoiler] in Godric’s Hollow.) Its canonicity, as much as such things matter, will always be slightly compromised by the fact that it’s a play and not a novel, and that it mostly wasn’t written by J.K. Rowling. But that’s not the real issue: the real issue is that reading a script is a very incomplete experience. Without actors to bring the characters to life, their emotional arcs seem a bit rushed. Think of it as the opposite of the languidly-paced Order of the Phoenix. The biggest flaws really do come down to the difficulty of representing a stage play on the page — which isn’t even what this purports to do; it’s a script from which staged productions are meant to be extrapolated. I think most of the extremely negative critiques fail to take this into account. Jack Thorne comports himself fairly well, even if his dialogue never made me laugh. (Rowling doesn’t get enough credit for her wit.) Still, I’m left somewhat unsure of whether my beloved His Dark Materials is in good hands or not when Thorne adapts it for the BBC. Because that’s happening. There are really only two substantial problems with this in terms of story. One involves the play’s breakout character, Scorpius Malfoy, who is by a series of machinations briefly transformed from a school outcast to an immensely popular teenager. We’re meant to believe that, under a certain set of circumstances, there’s a part of Scorpius that could allow this to happen. And yet, he immediately casts off his good fortune for the greater good, with virtually no inner conflict at all. I found that a bit of a let down, and it certainly wouldn’t have played out that way in a novel, where the narrative need not be so collapsed. And the other issue is time travel. You have to completely ignore the time travel mechanics if you want to have a good time reading this. It’s not so much the divergence from the mechanic in The Prisoner of Azkaban that chafes: it’s a scene in which people in the present talk about a person who has gone to the past and tried to change it as if that hasn’t already happened — which, by definition, it has. And even this contradicts the way the time turner was seen to work earlier in the play. But the authors don’t let a thing like that get in the way of a good story. And the positives outweigh the negatives, even if the most satisfying moments are basically fan service. It’s immensely gratifying to see Hermione as the Minister for Magic (ergo, Harry’s boss). Too bad she got saddled with such a schlub of a husband. Ron seems to have shed what little charisma he had with age. But he wears his schlubbiness well. Possibly the deftest touch of all is the way that the acrimony between Harry and Malfoy is maintained into adulthood without Malfoy seeming like an overgrown schoolyard bully. They’re just two adults, living adult lives, who don’t get along. And, as star moments for fan favourites go, the sweepstakes are easily taken by Severus Snape, who gets to make his heroic sacrifice a second time. But there’s an impressive showing from Professor McGonagall as well, who offers a stirring rebuke to basically all of the other characters in the play for treating a peaceful world recklessly in spite of all that’s been sacrificed to bring it to bear. This is well worth reading. If you’re a fan and you’re on the fence, just do it now. You know you will eventually, anyhow.

Television

Last Week Tonight: October 16, 2016 — A strong episode containing very little of what I don’t like about this show. Oliver’s segment on Gary Johnson and Jill Stein will likely be the most widely seen piece on either of them during this election, and it wouldn’t surprise me if it actually affected their polling numbers.

Charlie Brooker’s 2015 Wipe — I’ve decided to go down a Charlie Brooker wormhole. It starts here, with him speaking direct to camera about what he thinks, and it will continue with Nathan Barley and the first two seasons of Black Mirror, in preparation for the new one. I’ve seen Brass Eye, but it was a long time ago, and that’s mostly Chris Morris anyway. This is worthwhile for Philomena Cunk alone, but Brooker himself gets some great lines as well. It’s also actually a good New Years’ program, which is as far as I know, unique on television.

How Videogames Changed the World — I like Charlie Brooker. I kind of want to be him. This special on video games (in my world, it’s two words) is limited, as an under two-hour documentary has to be. And, it focusses on the really gamey kinds of games that kind of don’t do much for me. (The history of the kind of games I like starts with Adventure, not Pong.) But it still has time to bring up stuff like Papers, Please, which remains one of the most powerful interactive experiences I’ve ever had. And this show’s real virtue is that it manages to cover the major moments and conflicts that video games stirred up in real life: moral panics, feminist critiques, the staggeringly gradual mainstreaming of the medium, etc. Brooker’s list of the most important games is self-evidently selected for ease of narrative rather than actual quality or influence, but that’s the only way to make a show like this, and it would have been profoundly boring if it were just a bunch of people talking about why a bunch of games that I probably mostly don’t care about are really good. (And that sight gag with the Braid mechanic is really clever.)

Black Mirror: “The National Anthem” — First, the shit. Naturally, the one female reporter in this episode with lines sends a nude pic to a government staffer for a scoop. This is a trope so depressingly common that it has the air of tragic inevitability whenever a female journalist is introduced into a show. The rest of the episode is astonishing. It doesn’t even matter if you already know the premise and the ending, which you inevitably do given this episode’s renewed relevance after David Cameron’s alleged porcine indiscretions. The remarkable thing is how straight it’s played. It’s wrenching human drama on a national scale. Everybody is cheapened by having watched what they watched. If it weren’t for that one lazy and harmful bit of misogyny, it would be a masterpiece.

Movies

Requiem for the American Dream — Chomsky is somebody who I’ve been aware of for years, but he falls just far enough outside the scope of my education that I never actually read him. This documentary, which is built entirely on original interviews with Chomsky, seems like a good primer for the most germane points of his philosophy. It focusses specifically on the process by which wealth and power are acquired by a smaller and smaller segment of the population: namely, the reduction of democracy. It’s brilliantly argued, and makes modern America make a sad sort of sense.

Music

Isabelle Faust, Claudio Abbado & Orchestra Mozart: Berg & Beethoven Violin Concertos — I realized after recommending this recording in last week’s VSO review that, firstly, I haven’t heard it in a really long time, and secondly, I have in fact never listened to the Beethoven that fills the disc. First the Berg, though. It’s flat-out one of my favourite recordings. I love this piece. I love its expressiveness and the way that it develops its melodic material. I love the way that it throws torrents at you, only to back away gradually and leave you breathless at the end. I love the Bach quotation in the winds in the second movement, and how the violin solo line plays against it. It’s a masterpiece. And of the handful of recordings I’ve heard, this is definitely my favourite. Faust plays with elegance, even when the melodies start to take on the rougher topography of Berg’s Second Viennese School compatriots. And Abbado will probably always be my favourite conductor of Berg, because he realizes that Berg is the true heir to Mahler. His approach to the orchestra in this concerto has the same lushness that he applies to Mahler 9 (a work that he absolutely owns, for me), and it is just as much of a study in contrasts. Everybody should hear this. Now, the Beethoven. The violin concerto is not one of my favourite pieces by Beethoven. The first movement has a nasty habit of going into a minor key right when I want to hear a triumphant reiteration of the theme in major. The third is one of those mid-tempo dance finales that usually doesn’t work for me. I do like the second movement, but compared to some of the slow movements from Beethoven’s middle period symphonies, even that falls a bit short. So, this recording has more labour to do with the Beethoven than with the Berg, because it has to sell a piece I like a lot less. And it doesn’t really. That’s about all there is to say.

Vulfpeck: The Beautiful Game — Difficult second album. On one hand, it’s got “Animal Spirits” (and heartfelt lyrics) which is one of their best and catchiest ever. Very much this album’s “Christmas in L.A.” Also, The Beautiful Game expands the palate to include house-reminiscent beats, which as far as I can remember, is new for Vulfpeck. But it certainly doesn’t have as many jump-out-of-the-headphones moments as Thrill of the Arts did. I might pick “Animal Spirits,” “1 for 1, Dimaggio” and “Dean Town” as highlights here. (And I do love that Klezmer clarinet intro, but it’s basically not a song.) And it’s notable that the former two are both transparent Jackson 5 pastiches (“Animal Spirits” is “I Want You Back” and “1 for 1” is clearly “ABC”) Think back to how many great tracks there were on Thrill, though: “Welcome to Vulf Records,” “Back Pocket,” “Funky Duck,” “Rango II,” “Christmas in L.A”… I will almost certainly warm to this, but there’s no way I will come to love that many of its tracks.

Tangerine Dream: Phaedra — I don’t know what possessed me to listen to this just now. I’d never heard it, and the only other Tangerine Dream I knew was Force Majeure. This is far more abstract than that, and it strikes me as an album that has more historical importance than modern-day interest. It’s like the electronic music equivalent of plainchant. Mostly it just made me wish I were listening to Tim Hecker, which I think I will now do. (And I did. My feelings about Love Streams are the same as when I reviewed it before. It’s some of the best music of the year.)

A Winged Victory for the Sullen: Atomos — That is a very overwrought band name, sure. But this is decent ambient music. I’ve been listening to stuff as I read, this week, and this is great for that. I’m not so sure it would stand on its own. That’s a key distinction in this milieu of modern classical music. John Luther Adams’ Become Ocean, for instance, is profound and beautiful, and in spite of some superficial similarities to Atomos, it can sustain attention. Same goes for Max Richter — and he wrote music for sleeping. Still, this did the trick. I dunno if I’ll listen again.

Brian Eno: Another Green World — This is in my all-time top five, and as with all things that I love passionately, I try not to overexpose myself to it. But I was on a long bus commute recently, and it just seemed like the right thing. Incredibly, I had been listening to this semi-regularly for years before it struck me that it’s more than merely excellent and is in fact perfect. I can’t think rationally about this album anymore. Listening to some of these songs I feel like I could walk into traffic and it would pass right through me. Eno is strangely averse to the idea of love songs, but there are several ravishing ones on here, most notably “St. Elmo’s Fire”: the finest song with lyrics that Eno ever made. Without ever using the word “love,” Eno perfectly conjures that feeling of ecstasy that so many songwriters fail to describe. He does it by allowing the music to do the bulk of the heavy lifting, and especially Robert Fripp’s guitar solo which is the most beautiful guitar solo ever recorded. In spite of being fast and technical, it also feels human and brittle — the way it cracks and stammers at the ends of phrases just kills me. And the other ninja move that this album employs is the most ingenious track sequencing maybe ever. Rather than trying to balance out the energy throughout the record, it allows itself to gradually sink into a reverie at the end. The way that “Zawinul/Lava” builds and falls, and ejects us into “Everything Merges With The Night” (more ravishing guitar from Fripp), and then finally into the comparative uncertainty of “Spirits Drifting” is one of the greatest closing sequences on any record ever. At this point, you’d expect me to make it my pick of the week, but I feel a strange pressure to play against type, this time. Everybody who’s ever read anything I’ve written or been in the same room with me knows how much I love Brian Eno. KRZ takes it.

Podcasts

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “Lupita Nyong’o, Cameron Esposito & Rhea Butcher, and the Best of TV” — Nice that PCHH  can manage so often to cobble together a show even when they have no panelists. These interviews are great, specifically the one with Cameron Esposito and Rhea Butcher, because they are very funny people. But it’s also nice to hear Linda Holmes’ much-discussed friend Alan Sepinwall make his PCHH debut. TV: The Book sounds like something that would frustrate me immensely in its format: ranking the top 100 shows? Really? But I expect that these two authors would have something interesting to say, at least. Given that they’re basically already advertizing the second edition, I may sit this one out and wait for it to be updated. (But I’ll probably flip through it in the bookstore next time I’m browsing.)

Fresh Air: “How Free Web Content Traps Us In An Abyss Of Ads & Clickbait” — Nothing like a good bit of #content-related #content. Tim Wu’s new book, The Attention Merchants, sounds incredible and depressing. He talks about how advertising on major web platforms has cheapened web publishing and made the internet worse. I think I’m going to have to read this.

Love and Radio: “The Enemy Within” — Part of the appeal of Love and Radio is just purely listening to someone tell you a story with no interruptions. So, when Glenn Loury tells his story of womanizing and drug abuse while teaching economics at Harvard, you want to listen. But, being Love and Radio, it’s also more complicated than that and addresses not only the discrepancy between his own conduct and his socially conservative politics, but it also problematizes the very notion that a person’s actions can invalidate their arguments.

In The Dark: “What’s Going On Down There?” — This has become a truly excellent podcast in the late phase of its run. And I’m only partially saying that because this features an actual police investigation where a man was told by (clearly awful) police officers that his missing son may have been eaten by turtles. I laughed out loud at that and subsequently felt a little bad. Anyway, last week’s survey of wide-ranging police incompetence in the town where Jacob Wetterling was abducted started the train towards this episode’s staggering finish, which posits that the way America handles policing is deeply and inherently flawed. Local police departments are not held to any kind of standard by the federal government, which just seems wrong. If I were the Stearns County sheriff, I’d be huddling in a corner right about now. This would have been a powerful finale, but I’m looking forward to the one episode that they’ve decided to add to this.

NPR Politics Podcast: “Previewing The Final Debate” — I’M NOT WATCHING THIS DEBATE! LA LA LA LA LA! Because they’re not going to talk about policy, they’re just going to talk about Clinton’s leaked emails (actually worth talking about, if only it wasn’t an orangutan doing the talking) and Trump’s temperamental unfitness to be president (EMINENTLY CLEAR). The fact that the panelists on this show are willing to entertain the fact that policy may enter into this is frankly adorable. I do love them.

99% Invisible: “Half a House” — A lovely complement to the previous episode about Chile. 99pi can lapse into design boosterism at times, but really it’s just boosterism for human ingenuity. Like, you have a problem: an earthquake levelled a city and there’s not enough public money for the necessary subsidized housing. And, you have a solution: build people half a house. It sounds ridiculous, but people can build the other half for themselves when they’re back on their feet. It seems to be working. There’s a moment in this where Roman Mars confirms that the reason this sort of thing doesn’t happen in the U.S. isn’t lack of money or lack of necessity, but simply a difference of values. Which is why I have very little respect for American values. This is 99pi doing what it does best. I haven’t enjoyed it this much in a long time.

All Songs Considered: “Pusha T and Rivers Cuomo Join Zeds Dead, Amber Coffman, TOY, More” — Whole lotta meh. I liked the Agnes Obel track well enough, but I haven’t heard much on this show that I want to check out for a while. Not their fault. I’m probably just not in music discovery mode.

Radiolab: “Seneca, Nebraska” — This story is just begging to be told in a not public radio way. The Radiolab crew obviously knows that in the story of a small town that voted to unincorporate because their 20 residents couldn’t get along, they have a parable. So, why not tell it that way? Where’s Nate DiMeo when you need him? Hell, even Scott Carrier would suffice.

On the Media: “Race to the Bottom” — Gladstone’s poverty myths series has moved from debunking myths about impoverished people to debunking the myths that America tells itself about how it approaches poverty. In this one, it’s the bootstrap myth. That is a sad narrative to turn out to be a myth, because it means that there isn’t actually much of a chance that a person can better their lot — not without an astronomical amount of luck. It’s also interesting to hear about the origins of the phrase “pulling oneself up by their bootstraps,” which actually started off as a metaphor for impossibility before it started representing the American Dream. And then, in a demonstration of the profound power of metaphors and ideas to shape society, the American Dream became impossible to attain.

The Gist: “Rapid Response: Cirque du Debate” — Okay, so I did end up watching the debate. And I’m happy I did, if only to have context for Mike Pesca’s latest round of spin room misadventures. It is so obvious listening to Trump’s surrogates talk that they just do not have anything under control. Ben Carson straight up brushing Pesca off is the highlight, but the whole thing is chaos. The best that a non-American such as myself can hope for in this election, given that I am not one of the millions of unauthorized voters that Trump predicts will swarm the polls in November, is to be nearly as entertained as you are bewildered, and I confess to having been that while listening to this.

NPR Politics Podcast: “The Third Presidential Debate” — The fact that this debate is being praised as the most substantive of the three is both accurate and still really depressing. The panel is right to assert that the most notable thing about this phase of Trump’s campaign is his insistence that whenever he doesn’t win something, it’s rigged. I’ve known people like this. People who believe that “unfairness” is coextensive with “bad things happening to them, specifically.” I think that it’s a kind of logic that underpins much of what’s wrong with the world. The notion of having a president of the U.S.A. that thinks like this without a shred of self-awareness is void-screamingly, cliff-jumpingly frightening. Fortunately, it won’t happen because he’s also too dumb to know when he’s shooting himself in the foot.

A Point of View: “In Praise of Difficulty” — Why must every critic who has the bravery to stick up for difficult art and educated audiences also have a stick up their ass about pop culture? This is a pretty good vindication from Howard Jacobson of the kind of art that gets the shaft from the shitty kind of populists — but then it nosedives into jabbing at the kind of art that appeals to the good kind of populists. There is an emerging kind of intellectual for whom the phenomena and iconography associated with boy bands and thrillers (Jacobson’s examples, not mine) are fodder for a rather exciting sort of criticism, in much the same way that Shakespeare was for many prior generations. Can’t we acknowledge that fact while also shitting on people who don’t understand Shakespeare? I really think it ought to be easy to have it both ways. Additional thoughts: I would generally stick up for the rights of the reader over the rights of the writer, in opposition to Jacobson, but I’ll provide here that the reader has to earn that right by being an interesting reader. (Read as: critic.) That is why, in my review for the staggeringly difficult work by William Blake that I’ve just slogged through, I blamed myself for having nothing to say.

Fresh Air: “‘Black Mirror’ Creator Dramatizes Our Nightmares About Technology” — Charlie Brooker is a less-than-scintillating interview, and I’m not totally convinced that Black Mirror is as smart as all these old people think it is. I’m one episode in, and I did like that episode, but it seems like the more explicitly it engages with modern media, the more vapid its critiques become. That’s sad to see, because I’m also watching Nathan Barley right now (review to come when it’s done; it’s useless to critique in part) and that is remarkably prescient for having been made in 2005.

StartUp: “Shadowed Qualities” — This is such enrapturing radio. The bulk of it is taken from a single conversation — virtually a therapy session — between Alex Blumberg (holy moly is he having a rough month) and an executive coach who we heard from in season two. And while I am usually quick to dismiss such people as snake oil salesmen, this fellow gets to the heart of Blumberg’s reluctance to step up and command his company as opposed to focussing on story edits really, really efficiently. And hearing Blumberg work through that in real time is fascinating. Traditional radio has moments that they call “driveway moments,” where you stay in your car to hear the end of the story even when you’ve already gotten home. Podcasts don’t have that, obviously. But at several moments during this episode, I forgot that I was eating breakfast. That seems like a logical equivalent. Pick of the week.

You Must Remember This: “The Blacklist,” parts 12-13 — Elia Kazan is one of my new favourite characters in this series. Looks like he’ll be back soon, too.

Omnireviewer (week of Sept. 11, 2016)

Every so often I write a review on here that I’m actually pretty proud of. The Captain America: Civil War review comes to mind. I’ll just flag right here that I’m very happy with my brief assessment of the final story in Thomas Ligotti’s Teatro Grottesco. It is a very good story and I nearly gave it pick of the week, but not quite, because apparently I like indie games better than anything else these days.

26 reviews.

Movies

Kiss Kiss Bang Bang — Really really fun. Just, concentrated fun in every scene. Naturally, since this is the classic, beloved Shane Black movie that The Nice Guys isn’t, I’m obligated to stack them up against each other. I’ll say this: it’s not as clear a victory as some would have it. Kiss Kiss Bang Bang has a better story and sharper dialogue, but I find Robert Downey Jr.’s overtly ironic narration a bit dated. Maybe it’s just that over the course of the decade since this movie, the tropes that he’s lampshading have begun to parody themselves. You know: a straightforward iteration of the “clearly-dead-man-survives-wait-WTF” trope might be funnier than having it highlighted in the voiceover. But it’s a quibble. The real area where The Nice Guys outshines this is the performances. Robert Downey Jr. is great here in the Robert Downey Jr. role. But if we’re comparing apples with apples, Ryan Gosling ekes out a narrow victory in the Hapless N’er Do Well category, Russell Crowe far outdoes Val Kilmer in the Goon In Over His Head category, and as wonderful as Michelle Monaghan is in this movie she is handily outclassed in the Smarter Than She’s Given Credit For Sidelined Female Role category by the 14-year-old Angourie Rice. Nice Guys has more ingenious action set pieces, too. What I’m saying is not that Kiss Kiss Bang Bang isn’t as good as its reputation. I think it’s almost exactly as good as its reputation. It’s just that The Nice Guys is fantastic and deserved way better than its lukewarm reception.

Television

Chef’s Table: Season 1, episodes 1 & 2 — First off, if you’re going to use the Richter Four Seasons in your show, why on earth would you pick that dumb 7/8 movement? It’s literally the only bad part of that piece, and they picked it as the theme song. As for the actual content of the show, it’s amazing to get a look inside the kitchens of these really interesting chefs, but I can’t help but feel like the director’s camera is a tool for worship. These portraits are hagiographies, which I don’t necessarily mind. But there are only so many slow-motion shots of a man talking with his hands that you can see before you start to wish they wouldn’t manipulate you quite so obviously. It gets to the point where these episodes start to feel like they were made by marketing professionals, helping these chefs leverage their personal brands. It’s chefs presented as Silicon Valley magnates. They seem really cognisant of the camera. (“Let’s go do some good,” one chef says to his crew after a pep talk. Fuck you, chef.) In the second episode, there are long stretches of people spouting platitudes. There’s a promising hint of tension at one point, when the chef in question cops to having a temper. You suspect that maybe it was prompted by something that a sous-chef said in an interview, or some tape they got of him blowing up in the kitchen that he felt he needed to address, but you never see it. So, instead of being a guy with a temper, he gets to be a guy who’s “working on his temper.” It only contributes to the sense that these documentaries are worshipful above all else. Also, it may just be because I’ve been editing audio for hours a day for weeks on end, but I’ve been hearing every single edit in the interview tape. I know it’s less important to be seamless in video than in radio, but come on. It’s distracting. I’ll probably watch more of this, because good god this is some interesting food, but as a show it has some serious problems.

Literature, etc.

Ta-Nehisi Coates: “How Breitbart Conquered the Media” — Hillary Clinton needed this. Ta-Nehisi Coates does a brilliant job defending Clinton for her recent statement (containing the only memorable turn of phrase in this brutal election cycle) that half of Trump’s supporters were in the “basket of deplorables.” If anything, he suggests, that figure is too low. No shit.

Ta-Nehisi Coates: “What O.J. Simpson Means to Me” — It’s basically a re-hash of the themes in O.J.: Made in America (still the best thing that’s been made this year, for those keeping score), but it’s in Coates’s prose and it contains a really wonderful extended metaphor involving Houdini, as characterized in E.L. Doctorow’s Ragtime.

Thomas Ligotti: “The Shadow, The Darkness” — The last short story in a collection doesn’t really need to be a summation of everything that came before it, but this is a really fantastic way to finish Teatro Grotesco. (I am aware of an alternate edition that contains three more stories past this, and I regret not having access to them, but none could be a more fitting conclusion.) Like the other stories in the book’s third chunk, subtitled “The Damaged and the Diseased,” this final story deals with the creation of art: specifically its futility. It’s a story that will resonate with any creative person who has ever found themselves in a situation where success seems contingent on the extent to which you can sacrifice your sense of self. Any number of characters, from the narrator to the failed artist Grossvogel (Big Bird?) to the man penning a pamphlet on “the conspiracy against the human race” (the title to a book that Ligotti himself would later publish) could serve as plausible authorial inserts. Given that I don’t know anything about the man — nor does anybody, seemingly — I’m at pains to decide what that could mean. But maybe it’s totally irrelevant. Without spoiling anything, because this is a story that definitely starts in one place and ends in another, “The Shadow, The Darkness” calls into question the very notion that meaning can be communicated through words. For Ligotti, the ultimate horror is that everything we can understand is fake (“nonsense and dreams,” he phrases it in this story, “nothing but show business,” he suggests in another) and everything that’s actually real is incomprehensible. The idea that the entire communicative infrastructure that he’s been using throughout all of these stories that seek to pull back the veil on the world’s horrors is itself false and fruitless is the biggest, most all-encompassing horror of all.

Games

Oxenfree — Looks like creepy 80s throwbacks are just on the air these days. But in spite of being a mysterious, Stephen King-esque horror story with teen movie tropes and a synth score, Oxenfree feels like much more than Stranger Things: the game. While Stranger Things wore its tropes on its sleeve, it does not necessarily allow those tropes to control the narrative in the way that, say, Doctor Who or Mulholland Drive do. Oxenfree, on the other hand, is a game whose horrors live in media-within-media, like Doctor Who’s Weeping Angels, or Mulholland Drive’s entire first two acts (ask me to explain this at your peril). And delightfully, the media in which they live is radio broadcasts. I did not mean to play two brief indie games involving radios in as many weekends, but somehow I have. Thank you 2016, for this at least. I feel like I will definitely have more to say about this after I’ve played it once or twice more, which I hopefully will by the end of the year. I’m sure there are some staggering alternate endings. I have ideas on the tip of my brain about how this game distinguishes between the possibilities for horror in live radio broadcasts versus the possibility for horror in reel-to-reel tape. But I’m not going to be able to articulate them until things have percolated a bit. I’ve only played two new games this year, but both have been corkers. Pick of the week.

Podcasts

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “HGTV and Cooking Shows” — Pop Culture Happy Hour is to me what HGTV is to the panel on Pop Culture Happy Hour. It just makes me feel comfortable. This was all the way at the bottom of my feed and I listened to it anyway this past Sunday, because I just wanted my comfort food podcast. This is great.

A Point of View: “The Ring of the Nibelung” — Note: this positive review is about to be almost totally negated by the one below it. But let’s start where we must start. This essay, which comes from a BBC essay program I only just discovered, is the sort of thing I’d like to hear on the radio about the arts all of the time. Roger Scruton, the writer and reader of this treatise on Wagner’s Ring, is an influential philosopher of music whose work I’ve read in small bits. Like Harold Bloom, he is absolutely fascinating when he is talking about art he loves. And he clearly loves the Ring. His reading of it as a story of gods for a modern people with no gods left to believe in is absolutely compelling and made me want to go listen to the Ring again. It also made me slightly regret what I wrote in last week’s Sweeney Todd review about no operas being great works of literature. Beautiful, smart radio from a beautiful, smart public broadcaster.

A Point of View: “Roger Scruton: The Tyranny of Pop” — So, I went on to check out Scruton’s most seemingly notorious contribution to this program, which is an act of witless intellectual cowardice the like of which any broadcaster should be embarrassed to host on their airwaves. Scruton argues against a few key phenomena associated with pop music. Firstly, that it is foisted upon us in public places. He believes that music should be exclusively for the purpose of active listening and that humans have lost something through the proliferation of recorded music. (RECORDED MUSIC. He’s questioning the value of recorded music in 2015. This man is a walking sweater vest.) Needless to say, this argument would have drastically displeased Erik Satie. And it would have robbed the greatest composers of the Baroque of their livelihoods, given that many of them wrote ceremonial music that was explicitly intended as ornamentation. He suggests at one point that pop music may have something to do with modern young people’s inability to speak properly, by which he clearly means our inability to speak like him. I know this is what he means, because he goes on a lengthy tear about how to solve this grievous problem in which wise, classical music-loving teachers must play their students the music they love, and then tell them all that other music is bad. That’ll show ‘em. Nothing changes a teenager’s mind like the opinion of an authority figure. But beyond the impracticality of his strategy, what kind of person even thinks like this? That the solution to the world’s problems is to indoctrinate the young with the most reactionary value system possible, while stomping out all traces of the modern? I’ll tell you what kind of person thinks like that: the sort of person whose views fit so squarely into the intellectual hegemony of the Eurocentric consensus that they’ve never ONCE in their life had to interrogate their own prejudices. That is where my charge of intellectual cowardice comes from. When I first heard this, I was most bothered by what I saw as Scruton’s cardinal sin of refusing to engage with art on its own terms. But that’s not even quite it. Anybody can feel free to engage with art on whatever terms they like, as far as I’m concerned. But, Scruton only possesses one set of terms with which to deal with art, and they are the terms that have been set by the generations of straight, white, male academics who have determined what constitutes great art. He has not even established his own set of terms, and that is why his brain falls out when he hears Lady Gaga. He is obviously a fine thinker when he is dealing with art in his ultra-limited wheelhouse, but this essay is far more intellectually lazy than the pop gobbling youths he so disrespects. Ah, well. ‘Twas ever thus.

Fresh Air: “Actress Pamela Adlon On ‘Better Things’” — My my, Terry Gross is in a good mood! Obviously, Adlon is great conversation, and that must help. This was a fun discussion that really helps to shed some light on how Adlon’s sensibility has helped inform Louis C.K.’s various TV projects. Now that they’re collaborating in the other direction, I’m really excited to see where it goes. I’ll be checking out the first episode of Better Things sometime in the coming weeks. We’ll see if it grabs me.

On The Media: “Brooke Gladstone is a Trekker” — Obviously, she is. This is a decent whistle-stop tour of Star Trek’s cultural impact, and it’s got clips of some great lines from the various iterations of the franchise. Hearing stuff like this always makes me think I should redouble my efforts to get into Star Trek, but I just find it so bland. Maybe someday.

Imaginary Worlds: “The Hobbits and the Hippies” — Now this is some serious SF/F history. The story of J.R.R. Tolkien writing The Lord of the Rings is familiar, but the story of its widespread adoption in America by the hippie counterculture is not. And the discussion of how, oh how, it could be possible for so retrograde a text to have countercultural importance is truly fascinating. I’m enormously looking forward to this new season of Imaginary Worlds. Pick of the week.

The Heart: “No Way Out” — This isn’t one of The Heart’s more unconventional stories. It’s basically just a window into an unpleasant adolescence. Certainly, it’s a more unpleasant adolescence than most, given that it involves physical violence by an alcoholic stepfather, but altogether this is a fairly conventional story that’s made interesting by sheer emotional honesty. I’m liking this season a lot.

Code Switch: “The Dangers Of Life As An American ‘Nobody’” — Marc Lamont Hill is an extremely persuasive speaker, to the point where his view that we should abolish prisons doesn’t seem completely outrageous by the end of this episode. The guy’s thought this through.

The Allusionist: “The Key part I: Rosetta” — I should have seen the Long Now Foundation’s fingerprints on this from just reading the episode description. This is a wonderful, and typically funny, discussion of how a language might be transmitted to humans thousands of years into our future. Fascinating.

All Songs Considered: “Peter Gabriel, Nick Cave, King Creosote, L.A. Salami, More” — I was always going to hear the new Peter Gabriel track. May as well hear it on this show. Wow, he’s really abandoned subtlety, hasn’t he. I’m willing to be surprised, but I really feel like when he eventually releases his first proper album in 15 years, it’s going to be pretty damp. “The Veil” doesn’t so much have lyrics as a straightforward recitation of the Edward Snowden story. Compare with “Down to Earth,” another song he did for a movie, which succeeds in capturing the mood and sentiment of WALL-E without reference to the story at all. “The Veil” doesn’t stand alone. On the other hand, the new Nick Cave song they play on here is amazing, and L.A. Salami is one of the best discoveries this show has led me to.

The Gist: “Hillary’s Campaign Manager on Pneumonia, Swing Voters, and Strategy” — He goes a bit easy on the Clinton campaign manager. But to be fair, all of the major criticisms being levelled against that campaign, strategy-wise, have been bullshit. “Basket of deplorables” is the best thing anybody’s said in this election so far, and honest to god why does anybody care about the pneumonia.

Reply All: “Lost in a Cab” — First off, it’s interesting to hear Reply All finally bouncing up against the possibility of a conflict of interest with their advertiser, Google. I remember back in an old episode of StartUp, when Alex Goldman (maybe it was P.J. Vogt? but I don’t think so) expressed extreme anxiety over the prospect of tech companies advertising on their show, given that they cover tech. It’s taken a long time to rear its head, but here it is. They’re handling it well, though. Still, I feel like they’d really love to tear into Google Adwords, because who doesn’t. And they can’t, because not only is Google a Gimlet sponsor, Adwords is the specific product they were advertising on Reply All. Juicy. Also, this story is a good listen, even if it does have a shaggy dog ending. Plus… there’s some increasingly elaborate mixing on this show, including new renditions of the theme song. It’s almost like Breakmaster Cylinder is on their staff, or something. OR SOMETHING…

The Sporkful: “The Woman With A Keg In Her Coat Closet” — A fun, but not super immersive romp through the world of women drinking beer. Women drink beer. Also they make it! If there’s one really interesting thing in here, it’s the various women interviewed telling tales of horrible bros assuming they don’t know anything about beer. This is, of course, something that we already knew was happening, even if we’d never specifically thought about it.

The Gist: “‘Mrs. Robinson,’ ‘Hey Jude,’ and Some Utter Schlock” — I love when Chris Molanphy is on this show. I had never thought of 1968 the way that it’s portrayed here, because not all music that proves popular in the short term goes down in history. “Mrs. Robinson,” “Hey Jude” and “I Heard It Through The Grapevine” do. But it’s the very strange other stuff that’s played here that’s most interesting. Nice.

99% Invisible: “Making Up Ground” — Something you don’t think about: much of the earth we stand on is manmade. Virtually all of the Netherlands. Imagine.

Radiolab: “Update: Eye in the Sky” — The episode itself is not one of my favourites, and the update is consequential, but fairly short. I dunno. Fine.

Code Switch: “Why Do We Still Care About Tupac?” — One of the best episodes of this show yet. I know nothing about Tupac, and this was a great introduction. The presence of one skeptic, Gene Demby, only enhanced it.  

On the Media: “After 9/11, Nothing Was Funny” — It’s most interesting to hear an interview with Marc Maron from five years ago, complete with a clip from Maron’s act fifteen years ago. When you’re used to only hearing him on his own turf, where little is left off the table, it’s easy to forget that he is the kind of thoughtful guy who sounds really authoritative in interviews. A little editing goes a long way.

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “Documentary Now! & A Documentary Roundup” — I really hope Sam Sanders is back on this show sometime. I can listen to him talk about anything. I’ll probably check out Documentary Now!, or at least a few of the episodes that this panel recommended. And, I will swallow my distaste for Chef’s Table for long enough to watch Jiro Dreams of Sushi.

On the Media: “Damned If You Do…” — More Ta-Nahisi Coates in here, which is just fine. But the best thing on here is the segment on why Facebook’s inability to find a middle ground between too much human editorial intervention and a dumb, dumb algorithm will not ultimately keep it from rolling on regardless. *Shudder.*