Tag Archives: All Songs Considered

Omnibus (week of Oct. 9, 2017)

First off, there’s a second episode of the fiction podcast I’m making with Nick Zarzycki: Mark’s Great American Road Trip. I like it a lot better than the first one. I daresay it’s quite good, actually. But what do I know. Subscribe, if you’re inclined. Rate, if you’re feeling really charitable.

23 reviews.

Movies

Arrival — The twist in this movie is so good that it’s almost hard to watch it a second time and keep track of what you are and aren’t supposed to know. Arrival sets up its own metaphor for its protagonist’s experience: if you watch the movie twice, you know how she feels. Arrival is a masterpiece.

Television

Downton Abbey: Season 6, episodes 1-3 — This show is feeling tired now. It’s still fun to see thee characters but they’re being placed in increasingly outlandish configurations and scenarios, including Mrs. Hughes sending Mrs. Patmore as an emissary to Mr. Carson because she’s uncomfortable talking about sex. But I am liking the general sense of foreboding that covers the early part of this season — a scene in a dilapidated old manor kept by a delusional old aristocrat waiting for “the good times” to return is a bit over the top, writing-wise, but it does its job with its visuals. Seeing a house like Downton in terms of size and style, but which hasn’t been maintained for decades, is enormously impactful. Even to those of us who recognize that these old houses were unequivocally a social blight.

Games

Detention — The highest compliment I can pay it is that it reminds me of Year Walk. Both games derive their undeniable horror from a very specific time and place: in Year Walk the Sweden of mythological memory, and in Detention the White Terror in Taiwan. And while Detention can’t match Year Walk’s innovative presentation or unforced storytelling, it is a similarly immersive experience. Visually, it’s a marvel: particularly in its early and late stages, in which the environments are constructed from a mix of illustrations and photographs, like a creepy moving collage. Narratively, it puts a bit too much weight on a few shabby little shocks and generic bits of character backstory. But the story’s specifics aren’t quite the point. From a distance, Detention is a compelling psychological portrait of a person dealing with intense guilt — the specific sort of guilt that results from collusion with an if-you-see-something-say-something regime. And it’s properly terrifying, too.

Literature, etc.

Jorge Luis Borges: “Funes, His Memory” — Been a while, but I feel I need to get back to Borges in a serious way. This is a very typical story from him, in that it is basically a series of musings on a single extraordinary supposition: in this case that there is a person who remembers everything perfectly and completely. Borges may well be the greatest author of speculative fiction who ever lived, and also maybe the purest example of that style, because in his least narratively driven stories (those that are not, for instance, “The Garden of Forking Paths” or “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius”) he does essentially nothing except speculating. In this story, for instance, he gives us the brilliant “the map is not (but nearly is) the territory” notion of a person reconstructing the complete memory of a full day, and having this take exactly the same amount of time as the original experience. I love Borges. I haven’t encountered a writer I connect with so much since I read At Swim-Two Birds, which Borges apparently also loved.

Kelly Sue DeConnick & Valentine De Landro: Bitch Planet, Volumes 1 & 2 — I read volume one when it came out in trade, but that was two years ago (jesus where is my life going). Two issues into the second volume, I realized I really needed a full recap. And even though I recall loving Bitch Planet from the start, I feel like I missed a ton of stuff the first time through. On second reading, it is incredibly kinetic, right off the top. The way it starts with a voiceover actor arriving for a gig and immediately transitions into the use of her tape en route to Bitch Planet is one of the cleverest bits of exposition I’ve ever seen in comics. I also don’t remember the characters coming into their own as fast as they actually do. The surprise reveal of Kam as the protagonist at the end of the issue, following the death of the Piper Chapman-esque white woman is a masterstroke — it’s a rug pull that the writers of Lost were planning to do in their pilot episode, but couldn’t get away with. Here, it’s staggering. I also missed that there’s a sports team called the Florida Men. DeConnick is a technically impeccable storyteller but she’s also super funny. The second volume is narratively much more exciting than the first, which has a lot of worldbuilding business to get through before the story starts in earnest. The addition of Kam’s sister and a new cast of inmates in an entirely different facility brings a new facet to the story, and the arrival of a revenge-seeking Makoto Maki adds forward momentum. It was a long wait, and I’ll probably have to read both of these again when the third volume comes out. But that’s not such a bad thing.

Matt Fraction & Chip Zdarsky: Sex Criminals, Vol. 4: “Fourgy” — This isn’t up to the ecstatically silly highs of the first two arcs, but it’s a huge improvement over the third. It doubles down on the two things I love most about this comic, which are the enormous density of dumb sex jokes in Chip Zdarsky’s art and the realism of Jon and Suzie’s relationship. I’m not sure there are any characters in comics that I care about more than these two, even in Bitch Planet or The Wicked and the Divine, which I am inclined to think are better comics in general. Also neither of those have a fake magazine article with a bogus oral (lol) history of Matt Fraction’s dumb jingle about “wide wieners.” And that’s their loss.

Music

The Rolling Stones: Beggars Banquet — It’s widely regarded as the beginning of their four-album imperial phase. And while I see a much clearer line between this and the albums that follow it than between this and the albums that immediately precede it, I still feel like this is more of a transitional album than a full-on masterpiece. It doesn’t have the density of huge riffs of later albums, and the arrangements are still pretty bare bones. The most familiar songs are also the best: “Sympathy for the Devil” is one of Mick Jagger’s best moments lyrically, and his “yow!” at the start is just irresistible. And “Street Fighting Man” is a classic of rock star self-awareness — “what else can a poor boy do,” indeed. Of the album tracks, I am fondest of “No Expectations,” on which Brian Jones gives one of his most memorable instrumental performances on slide guitar, and “Jigsaw Puzzle,” which shimmers in a way that anticipates the band’s most open and cathartic moments in songs like “Monkey Man” and “Moonlight Mile.” On the other hand, “Salt of the Earth” is patronizing nonsense that almost makes me dislike Keith Richards, and the acoustic blues numbers still feel like pale imitations of old American icons. By Sticky Fingers, they’ll have finally internalized the blues enough to do it their own way, but they haven’t here. This has never been one of my favourites, and I daresay there are a couple of albums from prior to this that I prefer. Also, listening in mono does not add or detract much from the experience. I understand that aside from “Sympathy,” the mono mix is actually just a fold-down of the stereo, and so we have finally reached the phase where mono is no longer the definitive format for this band.

The Rolling Stones: Let It Bleed — At this point, maybe it’s worth stopping for a moment to consider how strange it is that I have devoted so much time to the Rolling Stones over the past couple of weeks, and indeed in my life generally. They do not remotely fit the profile of music that I tend to like. They’re undisciplined, macho, not terribly skilled, not terribly imaginative, and there are large stretches of their discography that feel produced by formula. I am hard-pressed to articulate why I like them in terms of actual musical qualities. But in a more autobiographical sense, the reason why I like the Rolling Stones is this album. Let It Bleed was the first Stones album I bought — yes, bought, on CD, at the Wal-Mart in my hometown, where they still sold these little shiny discs that I liked to collect even as all of my friends began abandoning them in favour of piracy. I was 16, and my musical taste thus far had been almost entirely dictated by the family orthodoxy. Not only did I listen nearly exclusively to music from my parents’ generation, I also studiously avoided the music that my father had defined himself against in his younger days. And the Stones were a tentpole in that canon. We were a Beatles family, thank you very much. And more to the point, we were a family who liked the sort of music that took after the Beatles: Pink Floyd, Genesis, Yes — all of them still bands I like better than the Stones. But at some point I remember hearing “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” on satellite radio (remember satellite radio? we had it in our truck) and thinking for the first time that perhaps the family orthodoxy was wrong. I’d been led to believe that the Stones were incapable of producing beauty, or making anything with real ambition. “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” put the lie to that. Even if the choral arrangement is awful — and it is: it’s an attempt to get a choir to do what a singer with a guitar does — the multi-part structure of the song is incredibly elegant. One section melts into the next without any fuss. It’s all based on the same verses and choruses, but they take on drastically different aspects as the song transforms from heartfelt ballad to rave-up. The way the piano and organ play off of each other at the ends of the choruses is ingenious. So I bought the album, halfway hoping that the rest of it wouldn’t live up to this standard, because that would complicate my worldview in a most untidy way. But as soon as the guiro came in over Keith Richards’ classic riff in “Gimme Shelter,” I realized I was in for no such luck. This, far more than Beggars Banquet, is the moment where everything coalesces for the Stones. Keith’s listen-close-or-you’ll-miss-it lead playing in the intro to that track is the mark of a band with a newly discovered sense of self. By the time “Monkey Man” came around and I hadn’t disliked any songs yet, I realized that I had some serious re-evaluating to do — of the Rolling Stones, but also of the entire value system that had led me to dismiss them in the first place. I’m not exaggerating for effect when I say that this album was the catalyst for a complete change-up in my way of thinking. In an odd way, this band that has long been the definition of baby boomer cultural dominance became a totem of rebellion for me, in the year 2006. There’s more to the story than I’m prepared to write about on the internet. But suffice it to say that regardless of whether Let It Bleed is the best Stones album, and regardless of whether the Stones are even a good band, I owe them — and this album in particular — a very great deal. Pick of the week.

The Rolling Stones: Stray Cats — We’ve come to the end of the Rolling Stones mono box, with this collection of songs from the 60s that didn’t make it onto an album. Or, at least, none of the albums included in this box. (“Not Fade Away” was on the American version of their debut.) It contains much that is trivial, some that is regrettable (Mick Jagger’s voice is uniquely ill-suited for singing “I’ve Been Loving You Too Long,” yet he insists) and a smattering of spectacular classics. It’s frankly bizarre that “19th Nervous Breakdown” never appeared on one of the singles-laden American records. It is quite possibly the best song from the Aftermath period that isn’t “Paint It, Black.” Also, this album is the home of the mono versions of “We Love You” and “Child of the Moon,” psychedelic curios that are idiosyncratic favourites of mine. And it is the home of the two essential non-album singles from the band’s imperial phase: “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” and “Honky Tonk Women.” If you want to get to know the Rolling Stones in seven minutes, you could do worse than listening to those two tracks. Okay, so in general I’ve enjoyed hearing all of this stuff in mono. But unlike the Beatles, I am not convinced that the mono versions of this band’s songs are always definitive. The Beatles’ sound had more transparency than the Stones. More lines, fewer crunchy chords. The sheer opacity of the Stones sound is sometimes overwhelming in mono. To paraphrase a later rock and roller, everything seems louder than everything else. I never listen to the Beatles in stereo, where a mono version exists. I don’t think that will be the case with the Stones.

The Rolling Stones: Sticky Fingers — After I finished the mono box, I found that I couldn’t stop. Not just when things are getting good. Sticky Fingers is probably the best Rolling Stones album. I don’t think I’ll ever be able to quite proclaim it my favourite (see above, re: Let It Bleed), but it is the moment when this band self-actualized. Sticky Fingers maintains the groovy, dirty rock feel that has been their most successful style since “Satisfaction,” but it explodes that style in a way that no previous album has. Previously, whenever they’ve tried something really new, they’ve done it by distancing themselves from their default aesthetic. That led to some good art pop songs and some tepid psychedelia. But here they give us a mix of flat-out riff rock, blues, and country that nonetheless has a cinematic sweep to it that doesn’t exist anywhere else in their catalogue. It’s not just because of the strings. And I’m not just talking about “Moonlight Mile,” either, though that song is certainly their most grandiose, and also one of their best. This album seeks to transport you to places more than any other Stones album. It brings forth images like a movie screen: images of strung-out desperados in “Sister Morphine,” squalid bedsits in “Dead Flowers,” youthful courtships in “Can’t You Hear Me Knocking” — and, yes, slave ships in “Brown Sugar,” which persists in being staggering troublesome. It’s odd that the Stones are still associated with the early days of the British Invasion. Not odd, maybe, but incongruous. Because this is their apex, and it finds them having outlived the Beatles by a year, abandoned every convention of British psychedelia, and settled on a kind of music that has much more to do with guitar-driven music of the early 70s — on both sides of the Atlantic. If you cut the Stones’ discography off after the Beatles broke up, “Beatles vs. Stones” would not even be a question. It’s Sticky Fingers and Exile on Main St. that tip the balance and make it so.

The Rolling Stones: Exile On Main St. — There have been times when this has been my favourite Stones album, but not this week. This week it’s my third favourite. Exile is famously sprawling and unfocused, and that is the point of it. Without its shaggier moments it would be merely a less ambitious, poorly engineered Sticky Fingers. A hypothetical track list might look like: “Rocks Off,” “Sweet Virginia,” “Tumbling Dice,” “Loving Cup,” “Happy,” “Ventilator Blues,” “Let It Loose,” “Shine A Light,” “All Down the Line.” These are all classic songs. I dare say “Let It Loose” is the most underappreciated track in the band’s oeuvre. But without tracks like “Torn and Frayed” and “Soul Survivor,” the album would lose its long, gradual descent from partytime ecstasy to morose regretfulness. And I daresay that is what makes this the consensus pick for best Stones album. It’s certainly not the parts that make it a classic of the rock and roll canon. Their sum must therefore exceed them by some distance. Sometime in the not too distant future, I’ll listen to this again during a week when I haven’t been listening exclusively to the Stones. That’ll reignite my interest.

Podcasts

Arts and Ideas: “Thinking – Blade Runner. Ghost Stories” — Okay, so now I’ve got the negative perspective on Blade Runner 2049. At the time of writing, I have not seen it, so I can’t judge the value of these critiques yet. But I do think that both the guests and the host of this discussion have gotten misdirected by Blade Runner’s tenuous status as an adaptation of Philip K. Dick. We didn’t get a Blade Runner sequel because we wanted another Philip K. Dick movie. The original is barely that anyway, as the panelists are quick to point out. We got one because Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner is a fabulous classic in its own right, and one which has as much to do with the spectacle that Sarah Dillon so abhors as it does with storytelling — and that’s fine, because it helps to form a vision of a world. (Mind you, it sounds like what Dillon objects to most is the representation of female sexuality through the male gaze as a component of that spectacle. And without even having seen the movie, I know enough to expect that’s a valid critique. But there’s nothing wrong with spectacle in itself.) Also, it always throws me listening to British radio and hearing them say words like “empiricism” without explaining them. I guess they don’t have to because the populus has gotten smart by listening to the radio. What a concept!

Home of the Brave: “We Thought It Was a Movie” — A brief, powerful interview with somebody who was in the thick of the Las Vegas shooting. I have an acquaintance who was there and related a similarly harrowing story. What an awful thing to reckon with.

StartUp: “Make China Cool Again” & “Just Hit Record” — The China episode is baffling for its lack of having anything to do with the premise of this show. “Just Hit Record” has even less to do with that premise, but it does reckon with the show’s legacy as a document of the formation of a business. That makes it more interesting than many of the episodes that have come out lately.

In Our Time: “Constantine the Great” — This is GREAT fun. Sometimes Melvyn Bragg’s attempts to wrest a cursory survey of a subject from his panel takes on an athletic dimension. He careens unknowingly towards obstacles, only to pivot at the last minute so that valuable time won’t be lost. And in this case, he’s practically forced to sprint towards the finish line. If this show were conceived as a podcast rather than a live broadcast show, the time limit might be a gimmick rather than a necessity: “I’m Melvyn Bragg, and this is the show where I have one hour to make three professors explain something comprehensively!” Thank god it isn’t that. But the limitation is an asset, and adds a bit of excitement. If you want to hear a man become hysterically frustrated with how little is known about a topic, this episode is a must-listen. Pick of the week.

Love and Radio: “For Science!” — Here we have a story about a person who makes a living by participating in medical studies. It is funnier than it might have been. I wonder how many people will listen to this and think: “Ah! An option!”

Longform: “Michael Barbaro” — I tend to listen mostly to the episodes of this show that deal with podcasters, because I have a fixation. It is becoming a good source of behind-the-curtain perspectives on the stuff I listen to for hours a day. Barbaro is the voice of one of the most important podcasts in the history of the medium: The Daily, which is more than essential. It’s practically benevolent.

99% Invisible: “The Athletic Brassiere” & “The Containment Plan” — Two very 99pi episodes of 99pi, even though one of them is actually from Outside. You’ve got to respect a show that gives you what you think you’re going to get.

All Songs Considered: “Hallelujah! The Songs We Should Retire” — I love when Stephen Thompson is on this show, and I really love when Tom Huizenga makes an appearance. This is fun. It’s fun to hear people talk about overfamiliar music. It’s a conversation that I’ve had myself. Part of the point of podcasts is hearing people just talk. One of those simple things.

Uncivil: “The Raid” & “The Deed” — A good start to Gimlet’s latest. Neither of these episodes shook me to my core, but I love that they’re doing a whole show, and not just a limited-run series, about the Civil War. There’s plenty of material for years of this, I’m sure.

The Memory Palace: “A Brief Eulogy for a Commercial Radio Station” — One of Nate DiMeo’s best in a while. His favourite alternative radio station is shutting down, so he muses on the entire history of commercial radio as an influencer on the formation of young identities. It’s really beautiful, and it would be my pick of the week if I were in a less capricious mood.

Imaginary Worlds: “Rappers with Arm Cannons” — A story about two rappers who styled themselves after video game characters: specifically Mega Man and Samus. Listen to satisfy your curiosity.

The Kitchen Sisters Present: “Thad Vogler: A Short History of Spirits” — A slight, nice story on a person who knows a lot about alcohol. Not much more to say.

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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.

Omnibus (week of Aug. 19, 2017)

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

Literature, etc.

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

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

Comedy

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

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

Movies

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

Television

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

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

Podcasts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Omnibus (week of 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 June 25, 2017)

Greetings! A normal week. 18 reviews.

Television

Twin Peaks: The Return: Part 8 — I’m willing to entertain the notion that this is the strangest, most obscure thing ever to be seen on television by an audience that exceeds the low dozens. This is the hour of television in which David Lynch reveals himself as the Black Lodge doppelganger of Terrence Malick. It is the second story I’ve seen this year that frames the origins of an iconic, totemic evil from a beloved old franchise as a consequence of human technological progress. But unlike Alien: Covenant, Lynch’s account of BOB’s birth in the crucible of the Manhattan Project is expressed through lyrical, abstract, largely wordless filmmaking. This helps to mitigate the potentially prosaic quality of the plot point that goes: “BOB is an evil spirit summoned by a nuclear bomb.” In practice, it doesn’t seem prosaic at all. Instead of focussing on the narrative, the cause and effect, Lynch tells us the story with reference to its abstract emotional quality. This type of filmmaking talks past our rational brains and communicates a sort of meaning to us that is ineffable. It works in a similar way to instrumental music in that way, and indeed, it gets a significant assist from Penderecki’s Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima. That piece of music is connected to nuclear weapons by its title, but the music itself wasn’t written with any such thing in mind. It was meant to be an abstract, academic piece of music. Regardless, it seemed from the first to elicit a muted version of our universal human response to inconceivable horror. So, title or none, it is music with the same goal as Lynch’s Stan Brakhage-like terror painting in this episode. So, instead of simply expressing a new piece of continuity in the usual way, Lynch’s approach offers a sense of the horror and disorientation of a world that’s recently been made aware of a new outer limit in human ruthlessness. Given that, it seems totally natural that BOB should arise from this. Pretty much any other approach would have seemed dumb and overwrought. Like Alien: Covenant. But in bypassing rationality entirely and speaking to something more primal in us, Lynch has deepened the world of Twin Peaks more here than in any other single episode of the show — possibly including the one that introduces the Red Room in the first place. Pick of the week.

Doctor Who: “The Doctor Falls” — A more than serviceable finale, though one that I feel works better on a scene-by-scene basis than it does all-in-all. I’ve said before that I like Moffat best in “big idea” mode, and he got most of that stuff out of the way last week with the time differential stuff. But what’s left to do is the emotional labour of a season ending, and this manages that just fine. Still, two characters overshadow the Doctor’s story here. The first, obviously, is Bill. Her arc from Cyberman conversion through her departure from the series (I think?) is the highlight here. I’m particularly fond of the mirror scene, which Pearl Mackie plays brilliantly. Also, this is the second companion departure in a row that feels like a spinoff waiting to happen — and a pretty killer crossover that would be! Bill and Heather the water creatures meet Clara and Ashildr the immortals in a diner-shaped TARDIS. Somebody write that. The other highlight is the two Masters, and who knows how that’s going to turn out. These are self-evidently the best (Michelle Gomez) and second-best (John Simm) renditions of this character the series has ever managed, and I’m delighted to have seen them together. I do hope Gomez isn’t finished with the role yet, but it would be a good way to go out. Also interesting how pigheaded misogyny is the Simm Master’s new calling card. Perhaps when he was last on this show, the possibility of such a blatant sexist being elected to public office seemed a bit of a hard sell. Oh, what a world. And as for the Doctor, this is to some extent a less impactful retread of Eleven’s last stand on Trenzalore, but we’ve still got a proper regeneration story to go. And what a corker it promises to be. I’ve been saying since the beginning of Peter Capaldi’s tenure that this is a Doctor who somebody needs to pair with the First Doctor. I always assumed that if it were to happen, it would be in a comic or a novel. But David Bradley has a history with playing William Hartnell, so why not playing his character as well? Part of me thinks it feels like a bit of a slight to Hartnell that he’s the only Doctor whose character has been played by not just one but two other actors. But the promise of what these two characters can do together is too much to pass up — especially since Moffat and his writers spent so much of the early part of this season focussing on the legacy of Doctor Who, right from 1963 on. This looks like it’ll be an opportunity for Moffat to say goodbye to the series with one more rumination on what it is at its core and why it’s great. This is now the primary reason I am looking forward to Christmas.

Movies

Lost in La Mancha — A bit of pop culture news you might have missed if you’re not me is that Terry Gilliam finally finished shooting The Man Who Killed Don Quixote, a movie he’s tried and failed to make eight times over the course of twenty years. I am super happy about this, especially since it will reunite Gilliam with his Brazil leading man Jonathan Pryce, who is only now the right age to play Quixote. I’m prepared to completely love this movie, but the truth is that I’m not sure it’ll surpass the story of Gilliam’s struggle to make it. (Many would say the same about Brazil, though I’m sure as hell not one of them.) Lost in La Mancha tells the story of Gilliam’s first attempt to film the movie in 2000, which was a complete disaster. The frequent reference points for what went wrong are big, obvious problems like unexpected noise from a nearby NATO base (F-16 target practise turns out to be very loud), a lead actor with a herniated disc, and a flash flood that nearly carried the crew’s equipment away. But the film documents a thousand tiny hurdles as well. The narrative doesn’t just play out in setpieces of acute misfortune — it plays out in the looks on the crew’s faces. If you like watching people’s expressions grow from contented to concerned to worried to frantic, then this is the film for you. There’s a costume designer who is particularly wonderful in this respect. You will know her when you see her. But in the middle of it all is Terry Gilliam. “How are we doing for time?” he asks his first assistant director. “Badly,” the first AD replies. “Good,” says Gilliam without missing a beat. It’s hard to judge the extent to which he’s deluding himself throughout this process. Certainly, he’s always aware that things aren’t working. But it’s Gilliam’s occasional sense of total imperiousness in the face of harsh realities that makes Lost in La Mancha so captivating to watch, if possibly through your fingers. And it’s that quality that may yet make this documentary an even better modern adaptation of Don Quixote than Gilliam’s own film will turn out to be.

Live events

Much Ado About Nothing (Bard on the Beach) — I always look forward to Bard on the Beach, because I am from a small town and I think it’s a damn miracle that it’s possible to see several productions of Shakespeare mounted by professionals every year. So, all snark must be weighed against a sense of perspective. However, I’ve seen theatre at Bard over the past four seasons that has run the gamut from extraordinary (Kim Collier’s multimedia saturated Hamlet, Anita Rochon’s refreshingly minimal Cymbeline) to garbage (an appalling massacre of Love’s Labour’s Lost with showtunes). More than that, though, they’ve been fine. They’ve been the sorts of productions that can run for a whole summer in a city of Vancouver’s size. This Much Ado is basically that. Set, completely arbitrarily, in an Italian movie studio in the 1950s, it evokes the glamour of black and white cinema in a way that mostly made me wish I were watching Joss Whedon’s wonderful film version from a few years back. The performances here are mostly good, but suffer from the expectation that the actors will deliver Shakespeare’s fiery repartée while also performing hackneyed physical comedy. The impulse to over-choreograph pays dividends in only one scene: the masked ball where Beatrice and Benedick pair their verbal fencing with dancing. That’s really the one scene where I got the sense that this production understood the point of this play, which is listening to two world-class wits spar with each other. There are other good scenes, but I mostly found this a pretty dull production of a comedy that I actually really like.

Literature, etc.

George Saunders: Lincoln in the Bardo (audiobook) — The last time I reviewed a full-cast audiobook, I basically reviewed it in two layers: the basic text of the book, and the performance layer on top of that. I don’t think I can do that with this one. The audiobook production of Lincoln in the Bardo feels like its own thing. The book isn’t written in the standard third-person or first-person voice, so its audiobook edition is going to work a bit differently. (The 166 narrators advertized on the cover art might have tipped you off.) This is a very stripped-down radio play, basically. And the performances feel like an integral part of the text — not an additional layer that you’ll endeavour to see past to the basic elements. The Nick Offerman/David Sedaris double act is reason enough to choose the audiobook over the paper book. The former gives as good a performance here as he does in film and television roles, and it’s fun to hear the latter reading somebody else’s work. I’ll leave discussion of the story for next week, by which time I’ll have heard all of it.

Geoff Edgers: “Why My Guitar Gently Weeps” — There are a few points of interest in this story, namely the numbers. It’s kind of amazing to read about the economic troubles of Guitar Centre, Gibson, and other businesses who rely on the fashionability of the guitar. But I actually think it’s mostly a pretty bad piece of journalism. Speaking as somebody who deals a lot with classical music, a musical tradition that is in a long-standing and seemingly permanent economic/identity tailspin, I have seen all of this before. The story that Edgers is telling is the story of the culture changing in a way that displeases the people who thrived in the previous version of the culture. And nothing that Edgers writes in this piece really indicates that he understands the extent to which the phenomenon whose demise he is mourning lines up with white supremacy and patriarchy. This is as true of the particular species of baby boomer/Gen X rock music that he’s discussing as it is of Western Art Music. (Say it like “WEST-un AHT mew-zik.”) That’s not to say that either kind of music is bad, or even badly intentioned! But things change, and they should. Insofar as the much vaunted “death of the guitar” is a real thing, it’s not by definition a bad thing. (And the best thing about this piece is the extent to which it uses sales figures to demonstrate that the guitar is materially less enticing to potential musicians today than it has been.) This is the same feeling I’ve had when I’ve read stories about how symphony orchestras are struggling to stay in business, opera companies are folding, and classical music audiences are aging. Of course they are. You can’t expect a generation’s music to outlive that generation and maintain the same popularity. Everything becomes a niche at some point. (Granted, the classical canon has managed to hang on an awfully long time. I’d say that has a lot to do with how it brands itself as “timeless.” Say what you will about the ineptitude of classical music’s modern-day branding professionals. Their late-19th century counterparts did their job so well that it stuck for a hundred years.) It’s almost surreal to read in Edgers’ piece about guitar classes where kids find a sense of community while learning about the great classics of the rock and roll repertory. (I find it intensely gratifying that “The Spirit of Radio” is among the lessons on offer.) This is the same sense of guardianship of a dying tradition that exists in the classical space. And frankly, more power to them for doing that. Classical and rock music are both traditions that deserve defending — but not with the end goal of retaining their cultural dominance. That ship has sailed, and good riddance to it. On the other hand, it’s worth checking out the Cut’s riposte to Edgers, which is simply a playlist of kickass recent guitar music being made by women. This is an altogether better argument than the one I’ve just made. Basically, “Brittany Howard, St. Vincent. Your argument is invalid.” Yes, fine. I’ll round out my metaphor by recommending you go listen to Caroline Shaw, Nicole Lizée and Jennifer Higdon.

Jorge Luis Borges: “The Approach to Al-Mu’tasim” — Solidly middle-of-the-pack by the standards of Borges’s Fictions collection, but that’s only to say it’s really great. This is the most straightforward iteration of Borges’ strategy of writing a critical essay about a fictional book that I’ve seen. It’s clever, but it doesn’t have the imperious ambition of “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius” or “Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote.”

Music

Felix Mendelssohn/Yannick Nézet-Séguin, Chamber Orchestra of Europe, RIAS Kammerchor: Symphonies 1-5 — I honestly rarely listen to new classical discs in their entirety, at least when they’re recordings of familiar rep like this. But it occurred to me that I might not actually have heard all of the Mendelssohn symphonies (the fact that I’m not sure ought to demonstrate what I think of a few of them), and I am in general favourably disposed towards YNS. So, why not binge them along with a few of my coworkers. The best thing that can be said about Nézet-Séguin is that he’s a clean windowpane: he gives you a clear picture of the music. And while I’ll always fall on the side of classical artists who offer personal, idiosyncratic interpretations, there’s value in the sort of artist who is a superb technician with a firm grasp of any given score, but who will defer to tradition when it comes to interpretation. (I’m not saying that’s what he’s doing here, because I don’t know most of this music well enough to judge. But I’ve heard a lot of his other recordings, and I think it’s a valid general characterization.) This is especially valuable when there’s a great orchestra involved, and up-to-the-minute recording techniques. Judging by YNS’s readings of the two symphonies I do know quite well (numbers three and four), this is a Mendelssohn set that could easily serve as a new standard for anybody wanting to familiarize themselves with these works. (I’d then send any such person straight to Leonard Bernstein’s “Scottish” with the Israel Philharmonic, to hear what it sounds like with a lot of energy.) All that said, the truth is that I’m unlikely to revisit any of these recordings aside from the two symphonies I know and love. Because my milage with Mendelssohn varies, and ultimately I only connect with him when he’s at his most joyful. Mendelssohn is that rare composer who can express actual joy, and not just contentedness, in a way that makes it contagious. And for that you should turn to the third and fourth symphonies, because the others are a bit serious and Beethovenesque. I’ll take actual Beethoven instead, thanks. In any case, this is a marvellous set that you should hear if you want to hear some good Mendelssohn. And you should check out the first movement of the “Italian” regardless of what you want.  

Podcasts

WTF with Marc Maron: “Jenji Kohan” — This is a lot more fun than the interview I heard with Kohan on Fresh Air a few years back. Maron gets her in anecdote mode, so we get to hear about her enthusiasm for dominoes and how her dad wrote David Bowie’s countermelody in the Bing Crosby Christmas special. It’s a fun chat, and she’s a genius.

Long Now: Seminars About Long-term Thinking: “James Gleick: Time Travel” — Thus returns one of the strangest things in my podcast subscriptions to make its 2017 debut on this blog. I have, in my limited experience, found the Long Now Foundation’s podcast seminars to be totally engrossing listening, bland title be damned. This talk by the author of the brilliantly titled book Time Travel: A History is no exception. Particularly wonderful is the idea that before the technological maelstrom of the early 20th century, the idea of time travel didn’t really exist. It’s fun hearing James Gleick explain the pains that H.G. Wells took to explain the basic idea of time travel, which was totally anathema to basically every writer who came before him (except Mark Twain, and even he didn’t quite commit). But as is to be expected from these, the question and answer segment with Stewart Brand after the actual talk is the highlight. Brand is a loveable eccentric whose questions never adhere to a standard interview formula. He’s just a smart person who really listens to the talks from beforehand. Pick of the week. 

Arts and Ideas: “Canada 150: Robert Lepage, Katherine Ryan” — I had to hear this because I haven’t actually heard an interview with Lepage about 887, the incredible performance of his that I saw early last year. It seriously is one of the best experiences I have ever had in a theatre. But I didn’t enjoy this program very much at all, because the host, Philip Dodd, is an idiot. He handles Lepage reasonably well, although he spends altogether too much time huffing disapprovingly about Lepage’s identity as a “multidisciplinary artist.” I don’t see the issue there. (The one amazing upside to that part of the conversation is a bit where Lepage turns the tables on Dodd by referring to Wagner as a multidisciplinary artist.) But Dodd really shits the bed in his interview with Katherine Ryan. He is five to ten years out of date in the discourse about comedy. Ryan outlines the pretty standard rule for modern comedy that you punch up and not down, and Dodd seems to take this (or something else Ryan said, who knows what) to mean that comedy isn’t supposed to offend anymore. Sure it is! It’s just supposed to offend the relatively privileged or powerful! “You’re starting to sound like a Guardian reader,” he tells her. Who exactly does he assume his audience is? I’ve enjoyed the programs that come through BBC’s Arts and Ideas feed before, but I think I’ll avoid Dodd like the plague from here on out.

All Songs Considered: “Listeners Picks For 2017’s Best New Artists (So Far)” — Most of this didn’t catch fire for me, but it picked up at the very end of the countdown. Gracie and Rachel, Charly Bliss, and especially Overcoats are all now on my must-check-out list. The listeners’ number one pick, Diet Cig, worked for me too, but not like those other three. I’ve got to say, last year’s equivalent episode of this was better. This one has a lot of generic guitar rock.

It’s Been A Minute: “Lena Waithe from ‘Master of None’” — The first episode of this left me cold, partially because of its ostentatious format. But if these Tuesday episodes are going to all be like this, I’m in. Presumably the whole reason Sam Sanders has his own show now is that he’s a preternaturally gifted conversationalist. So, giving him the chance to just talk to people in a not toooo structured way (i.e. this is an interview, but it doesn’t feel like one) is probably the best way to leverage his talent. But even if only one of every two episodes works for me, this is still a really good thing to have in the world. Also, Lena Waithe is amazing and I’m going to have to resign myself to putting some time into Master of None.

99% Invisible: “Mexico 68” — This starts off like it’s going to be a sports story without an obvious design angle, but then it turns into a pretty awesome exploration of why it matters who is involved in a project and what happens when design is repurposed for political means. Also, the Mexico 68 Olympics are just really interesting. I’ve really reconnected with this show in recent weeks. I love 99pi.

Radiolab: “Revising the Fault Line” — Another revisit of an older episode, and a really great one, too. This is a story I remember well, about a guy who does something terrible, possibly because of a neurological condition he can’t entirely control. But it goes beyond that story — it gets to a point where Jad and Robert are actually debating with a guest whether free will is a thing that exists. Ye olde Radiolab.

Code Switch: “It’s Our Anniversary” — This episode revisits a few of the most contentious and noteworthy episodes from this podcast’s first year. Mostly, it’s just a really good reminder that Code Switch hit the ground running and is now one of the most valuable podcasts in the public radio space. Many happy returns.

Ear Hustle: “Misguided Loyalty” — There’s a moment here that really drives home a potential issue with this show, which is just that it’s absolutely crucial for the inmates who are telling their own stories be allowed to do so in a way that works for them. It’s possible that this means the show sacrifices a certain amount of emotional honesty. This features a man reading a script about the murder of his family in an almost shockingly affectless way. Better this than the alternative, though. I don’t want anybody’s emotions to be harnessed for the sake of radio art.

On the Media: “Newton Minnow Still Cares About the Media” — Newton Minnow is an interesting fellow. A former advisor to President Kennedy, he made the improvement of television his professional cause. I’m with him on this, though I do think there’s a place in the world for Gilligan’s Island.

Omnireviewer (week of June 11, 2017)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Music

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

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

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

Live events

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

Literature, etc.

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

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

Television

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Podcasts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Omnireviewer (week of May 28, 2017)

Ladies and gentlemen, we’re celebrating a milestone over here at the Parsonage. When I started doing Omnireviewer not quite two years ago, I wrote up the first instalment in a Google doc. The next week, I wrote up the second instalment in that same Google doc. Unexpectedly enough, I’ve just kept adding to that Google doc ever since, and I’ve come to regard it as a symbol of the gradual deterioration of my sanity. So, it is with great pleasure and a certain amount of nervous cackling and muttering to myself that I’d like to announce that as of this week, Omnireviewer has surpassed a quarter of a million words! My Google doc clocks in at 253,023 to be precise. I like to think of those 253,023 words as 253,023 marbles that I used to have. And frankly, good riddance to them.

Anyway, I watched all of Ridley Scott’s Alien movies this week, including the new one, and I’ve reviewed them as a sort of loose essay. So we’ll start with that. If you’d like to read it with paragraph breaks, here you go.

If you’re new here, you’ll quickly notice my aversion to paragraph breaks, which I don’t know if I’ve ever really explained. Basically, I feel like paragraph breaks are dishonest somehow. They imply that there’s some premeditated structure to these reviews, which it’ll be clear to regular readers that there isn’t. This blog is the only thing I’ve ever written where I’m basically content to start from the beginning, put one word in front of another, and just go with whatever results from that. It is something close to stream-of-consciousness. Nothing reflects that like just having every review be a huge, never-ending string of text. I’m gradually distancing myself from that rule over on Tumblr, where I cross-post these reviews for maximum exposure. A few more people see those posts, and given that, I’m willing to entertain the notion that it might not hurt to smooth over some of my more gratuitous tics. But for the time being, I’ll remain committed to them here. I didn’t get to 253,023 words by not sticking to my guns.

19 reviews.

Movies

Alien — So, what do we actually know about the alien in Alien? For one thing, we don’t know to call it a xenomorph, since that word first appears in James Cameron’s Aliens, and probably wasn’t intended as an act of appellation. If we can trust Wikipedia on this, it seems like “xenomorph” wasn’t officially accepted by the franchise until Alien: Covenant, in which the word appears in the credits — though not in the dialogue. So, we didn’t definitively know what to call this thing until series originator Ridley Scott reclaimed Cameron’s accidental nomenclature decades later and made it official. But we’re already ahead of ourselves. The most important thing we learn about the alien in this movie is its life cycle. It starts life as an egg, which unleashes a larval “facehugger” parasite when a live host is nearby, and subsequently births itself from the chest of that host after its parasitic form has finished its work and died. Then, it grows ludicrously quickly into its adult form. The life cycle of the alien is, for all intents and purposes, the plot of Alien. The alien’s growth from egg to adult is the thing that happens to the characters in this movie. There’s a line of thought about Alien which holds that it is a good movie because of its simplicity: it’s basically just a story of a bunch of people trying to survive in a confined space with a monster. This is true, but the life cycle of the alien… isn’t that simple. Even by the standards of the grossest parasitic spores and blind lizards you’ve ever seen in BBC nature documentaries, the alien is weird. And it’s journey to adulthood is byzantine. It doesn’t seem like something that ought to occur in nature. It seems designed — by a screenwriter, perhaps. Or a Swiss surrealist painter, or a vengeful robot. Odd, then, that a film so concerned with the mechanics of its antagonist’s life cycle should leave out the factor that would actually complete that cycle: where do the eggs come from? Are we to assume that the alien we meet in the film can lay eggs? How does it become pregnant? Is that even a relevant question? Interestingly, this question was apparently answered in a scene that didn’t make it into the movie (again, to trust Wikipedia). Evidently, there’s a scene on the cutting room floor that shows the alien’s dead victims being converted into the leathery eggs seen at the start of the film. Were this scene to have been included, it would have answered another question that Alien does not bother with: what does the alien want? The answer would have been simply, to reproduce. It kills because of a rather gruesome biological imperative. But without that detail in the film, the alien doesn’t actually have a motive for hunting the crew of the Nostromo. It is clearly not acting out of self-defence. Otherwise, poor Harry Dean Stanton might’ve survived the movie. This lack of motive gives added effect to the android Ash’s line, spoken with a tone of faint admiration that now feels like foreshadowing, “Its structural perfection is matched only by its hostility.” In fact, we’ll get back to the alien, but let’s take stock of what we know about androids from Alien. Not much. We know that they exist, their differences from humans are virtually imperceptible, and that this particular model played by Ian Holm has both a mission to retrieve an alien and a distinct admiration for them. It seems like Ash almost sees himself in the alien: like him, the alien appears to have been designed. But this admiration is intensely disquieting, because it is predicated on a complete lack of concern for human life. Given the information we have, we can only assume that the alien in Alien is motivated by sheer hostility. It is a totemic evil in the same vein as Heath Ledger’s Joker. Later films may complicate this (it’s been too long since I’ve watched Aliens for me to say, but I seem to recall a protective mother alien), and they do certainly offer a new take on how the eggs come to be. But in the Ridley Scott-directed Alienverse, which for three decades encompassed only this one film, the alien is very simply the enemy of humanity, who kills for the sake of killing, and nothing more complicated than that. The alien is evil incarnate. The idea that you can give such a thing an origin story displays a profound, and kind of wonderful hubris. Which, of course, is lately Scott’s theme of choice.

TED 2023/PrometheusPrometheus is a profoundly ambitious film, so it probably seems like a dig to say that its themes are explored with nearly the same amount of nuance in TED 2023, a six-minute promotional short used in its viral marketing campaign. (This makes TED 2023 the first utterance of the Alien prequel series.) Taking the form of the most over-the-top TED talk ever delivered, it offers Scott and co. the opportunity to state some of their themes outright, through the mouth of Guy Pearce’s Elon Musk analogue, Peter Weyland (seen in terrible old-age makeup throughout Prometheus, but young here). It ties together two of Prometheus’s most ostentatious allusions: the titular titan of Greek myth, and the diplomat and fictionalized film hero T.E. Lawrence. This connection will resonate throughout Scott’s Alien prequels: the image of the great white European adventurer, mapped onto the image of mythology’s premier technology advocate: the man who was made to suffer for encouraging progress. This short is the first indication that Ridley Scott’s return to the Alien franchise would take a drastically different direction from the first film, focussing as much or more on his androids than his aliens. Though, in Prometheus, we don’t learn much more about either of them: the emergence of the aliens has something to do with a black pathogen, and androids are made by Weyland. That’s pretty much it, as far as I can tell. If Scott does in fact make two more Alien films, Prometheus will eventually seem like a prologue to the Alien prequel trilogy. (Which would make it analogous to Das Rheingold in Wagner’s Ring cycle, which makes it kind of maddening that Rheingold is so explicitly referenced in Covenant, but not here.) TED 2023 also plants the seed for what now appears to be the overarching story of the Alien prequels. That story in a nutshell is this: Humans arrogantly tried to create life, but being flawed, they created flawed life. And the flaws of the life they created led in turn to the creation of the alien nemesis that comes to plague humanity in Scott’s original film. At times, Scott’s story can seem familiar from Battlestar Galactica, but it’s far from the same thing. And besides, it’s a story as old as Prometheus.

Alien: Covenant, plus promotional shorts — The release of Covenant was preceded by several viral marketing shorts in the vein of TED 2023. The most substantial of these was the two-part Alien: Covenant – Prologue. The first of its two parts, “Last Supper,” establishes the fact that the coming movie will be at least in part an homage to Alien. It introduces a motley crew of rough-hewn space cadets aboard a vessel in deep space, with a loveable Ripley-esque lead character. And it includes a tongue-in-cheek allusion to the famous John Hurt chestburster scene at the dinner table. So, for the first time in the prequels, we find ourselves with feet planted firmly in nostalgia. And indeed, Covenant gives us callbacks o’plenty including, satisfyingly, “I got you, you sonofabitch!” On the other hand, “The Crossing” continues the story of Prometheus, detailing the arrival of the android David and Elizabeth Shaw on the homeworld of the Engineers (the blue dudes who fly the crescent-shaped spaceships we’ve been seeing crashed the exact same way since the start of the franchise). The coexistence of these two threads will turn out to be one of the weirdest things about Alien: Covenant, which is a deeply, deeply strange big-budget film. (The other promo shorts are insubstantial. Having watched them after seeing Covenant, I can say that they feature at least two characters who I honestly couldn’t tell you whether they were in the actual film or not. That can’t be a good sign, but I digress.) The connection between the two sides of the Covenant coin also constitutes the prequels’ first real piece of new information, as opposed to speculation fodder, about the alien, which I suppose we can now call a “xenomorph” and have it be textually accurate. The connection is that the xenomorphs were created by David, fulfilling the retrofitted prophesy of Ash’s kinship with the alien in the first film. Covenant confirms that David, the stealth protagonist of Prometheus, is the true focus of the Alien prequels. That’s deeply unfortunate, because he’s also their biggest problem. I’m really not sure what I’m meant to think of this character. I get the sense that Scott actually quite admires David. But then, what filmmaker wouldn’t admire a figure who literally creates life? Covenant tips its hand about what tradition of villainy David is meant to emerge from with one of a handful of conspicuous references to iconic European high art. As he’s fighting Walter, his duty-bound, non-generative doppelganger, David paraphrases the most famous line spoken by Satan in Milton’s Paradise Lost: “Better to reign in Hell than serve in Heaven.” (I’ve just discovered that the working title for the film was Alien: Paradise Lost. So, there’s a thing.) Milton’s Satan is a legendary character in part because the Romantics (e.g. Byron and Shelley, also invoked by David, though he confuses the two for thematic reasons I don’t understand) considered him a peer. Satan is a charismatic rebel: an underdog spoiling to reshape the world in his own image, at least in part as an act of vengeance. That maps pretty neatly onto David: the great creator with an instinct equal parts destructive and generative. But nothing in Alien: Covenant gives the sense that anybody involved in making it knows that David isn’t Satan’s equal — least of all Michael Fassbender, who plays the character with immense self-regard and not a hint of doubt. He’s as confident in his ability to channel Milton’s Satan as he was in his ability to channel T.E. Lawrence in Prometheus. This is what makes David insufferable. If we were given an android who creates hostile, perfect organisms out of a sense of inadequacy in the face of his literary models, that would have been an interesting characterization. But we instead get a precocious teenager who thinks he’s a romantic anti-hero. The fact that he quotes “Ozymandias,” by now the most mothballed literary reference in genre fiction, doesn’t help. It was already a little overwrought when Alan Moore did it back in 1987, but it was at least original. It was fun to hear Bryan Cranston do it in character as Walter White but that’s a different kind of story altogether, and besides, it was only in a promo clip. But it’s becoming the default recitation for ostentatious villainy — particularly the sort of creative villainy that the Romantics identified in Milton’s Satan. (“Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair” almost sounds like it could come from Paradise Lost.) I think it’s time to declare an Ozymoratorium. David makes another high-minded reference in Covenant that’s slightly — very slightly — less clichéd: his reference to Das Rheingold from Wagner’s Ring. The Ring is as a four-opera cycle about how the time of the gods comes to an end and the time of man, their creation, begins. (Pedant’s corner: David’s maker, Peter Weyland, requests that David play something by Wagner on the piano at the start of the movie and then complains when his choice selection sounds “anemic” without the orchestra. Well then, why the hell did you ask for Wagner?!?! The man did not do intimacy, and he wrote hardly anything for solo piano. Also, at the end of the movie, David says that the Valhalla music comes from act two of Das Rheingold, which only has one act. It comes from the fourth scene of Das Rheingold’s one act. But then, David also mixed up Byron and Shelley, so what does he know.) Wagner is an excellent choice in general for grandiose characters with god complexes (David and Weyland, both). But the extent to which the story of The Ring maps onto David’s vision for the future frankly just seems too on the nose. There was a certain point in this movie when I realized that it was just going to keep making references to big ambitious works of art, to suggest that it may itself have similar designs. Ridley Scott and his collaborators seem to be suffering from the same delusions of grandeur that David does. But unlike the xenomorph, Alien: Covenant is far from a perfect organism. And I cannot help but think, having watched all of Scott’s Alien movies in the course of a single week, that his entire project with these prequels is a bit superfluous. His purpose is established now: he’s telling the story of how humans, having been given life and free will by their own creators, did the same, and thus brought True Evil into the universe in the form of David’s xenomorphs. He’s telling the story of the origin of evil (Paradise Lost) by way of the story of human progress (the Prometheus myth). But this is all expressed, albeit implicitly, within the elementally simple storyline of Alien. Presuming you’ve seen the movie before and are aware in advance that Ash is an android, Alien is the story of a manmade man literally opening the door to True Evil, and allowing it to ride roughshod over his human companions due to his own innate lack of morals and ethics. Alien is already the story of how our attempts at playing god fuck us over. It is already the story of Prometheus, or the story of Paradise Lost, and there’s hardly a literary reference to be found. Given that interpretation, it’s hard to credit Ridley Scott’s burning need to make a series of Alien movies that explicitly detail these same themes. That’s not to say that they’re not interesting and occasionally good movies. But, like this meandering essay, they always seem to be grasping for something interesting, but they never quite manage to close their fist around it. Alien closes its fist around exactly what it wants to be, and it can also be an allegory for the fall of man if you really want it to be.

Literature, etc.

Rebecca Solnit: “The Loneliness of Donald Trump” — This is quite possibly the most beautiful thing written about Donald Trump since he was elected president. “Beauty” doesn’t tend to be in my roster of descriptors for good writing about Trump. “Angry,” sure. “Incredulous,” certainly. “Darkly funny,” even. But Solnit has empathy for Trump, and uses it to ascertain why he appears to have no empathy at all. The result is less an indictment of Trump himself than of an entire social structure that can create a man like him. Few writers can craft sentences as simultaneously beautiful and forceful as this: “The man in the white house sits, naked and obscene, a pustule of ego, in the harsh light, a man whose grasp exceeded his understanding, because his understanding was dulled by indulgence.”

The New York Times Magazine: New York Stories — This is fantastic. The New York Times Magazine’s latest issue is all comics, each one an adaptation of a story from the Times metro desk, which covers the ins and outs of New York City itself. It’s easy to forget, given that the Times is the de facto paper of record for the entire North American continent, that it is a New York paper that covers local news in New York City. But these stories are generally small, localized and poetic. They’re the perfect kinds of stories to adapt into comics. In this day of “graphic novel” being the preferred term to legitimize the medium, the suitedness of comics for short-form stories has become obscured. But newspaper comic strips and three-to-five page strips in anthology books like The Dandy and 2000 AD — not to mention the ostentatiously literary short-form work of Adrian Tomine — are a huge part of comics history. These quick impressions based on reported stories are something I’d like to see a lot more of. I daresay there’s space in the media ecosystem for a whole publication that just does this — the immediate issue with that idea being that to hold up the standard, you need several decades worth of work from one of the best metro desks in the world. It’s worth scanning through the stories that these comics are based on, because they’re really great in their own right, and they’re conveniently linked. One or two of these adaptations seem like they could have tried a bit harder, but the best ones actually add depth to their subject matter. I’m particularly fond of Tillie Walden’s comic about a man who spent $700,000 dollars on a fortune teller who told him she could make the woman of his dreams fall in love with him, Tim Gauld and Andy Newman’s story of a man who was ordered to brick up a window so he replaced it with a camera and a screen, and — especially — Andrew Rae’s take on the story of the Queens residents who smuggle finches into the country from South America for birdsong competitions. I love this.

Television

American Gods: “Lemon Scented You” — “Oh, you’re an asshole, dead wife. You’re a fucking asshole, dead wife.” What a wonderful idea to have Laura and Mad Sweeney in a scene together. It’s fun to see Mad Sweeney get the piss ripped out of him any time. But this gives us the added bonus of Laura being delighted about it. Also, it’s amazing how they keep teasing the return of Mr. Nancy without it actually happening. The makers of this show clearly know what an electrifying impact his brief first appearance would have. But I’m desperately hoping he turns up next time. Gillian Anderson has finally gotten the character reinvention she deserves, as Media shows up as Marilyn Monroe and a spot-on “Life On Mars” era David Bowie. I love a good scene constructed from song lyrics. (“There’s a terror to knowing what Mr. World is about.”) And I’m wondering if Crispin Glover’s Mr. World, conspicuously not the same person that Shadow shared a cell with in prison, might constitute the biggest plot change to the book so far. Will he turn out to be Loki? I’m not sure that’s a given at this point. What we know is that his face-changing effect is even more gloriously unsettling than the effects related to the Technical Boy. Now the important stuff. What I really love about this episode is it drives home a key point of how this show is changing the book on a thematic level. The book was a rejoinder to crass commercialism and the worst impulses of American society. The line about cheap, sleazy roadside attractions being infinitely preferable to shopping malls basically gets to the heart of American Gods, the novel. But American Gods the show is a product of 2017, so it has to be about something different. And with the increased prevalence of Media and the reimagining of the Technical Boy as a shitsack YouTuber, it’s starting to seem like a rejoinder to the way that people today attempt to disguise their emptiness with a sheen of vapid self-branding. This is without a doubt my least favourite thing about the world today. Or at least, my least favourite new thing about the world. Everything is fake. You don’t have to be good at something to be recognized. Being recognized is considered a talent in itself. So, when Wednesday turns down the Technical Boy’s offer to help him really hone his brand, I got even more on board with this show. At this point, I feel like it’s being made specifically for me. “That’s all you do,” says Wednesday to Technical and Media. “Occupy their time. We gave back. We gave them meaning.” Long live the fucking old gods.

Doctor Who: “The Lie of the Land” — Ah boy. This pretty much lost me the first time the phrase “memory crime” was invoked. It’s so close to “thoughtcrime” that it immediately made me suspicious that this episode would have no original ideas at all. And it kind of doesn’t. Worse than that, the dialogue isn’t up to the usual standard. The first scene in the vault is particularly cringeworthy, with Missy’s variants on “getting warmer” and “getting colder” as the Doctor tries to figure out what’s going on being especially hard to take. But what all of this emphasizes is the caliber of performances being given by Peter Capaldi, Michelle Gomez and, in particular this week, Pearl Mackie. Bill’s rebuke to the Doctor in the show’s central scene isn’t a particularly inspiring piece of writing, but Mackie manages to make it into one of her character’s best moments. This isn’t one of the good ones, unfortunately. But, one more week until we get two straight episodes of Moffat/Talalay, and I’m definitely excited about that.

Twin Peaks: Season 2, episodes 1-9 — Ah, dear. This does go off the rails sooner than I remembered. This first batch of episodes in season two are worth a watch and contain explorations of some of the show’s most compelling lore. But it also introduces the plotlines that will end up tanking the show around the season’s halfway point. Piper Laurie in yellowface is a particular low. But we also get the agoraphobic botanist, Dick Tremayne, and teenage Nadine with super-strength. That last one is probably the weirdest of them, though it isn’t distractingly bad just yet. I’m actually really admiring the way that Wendy Robie commits to the gag. And Everett McGill’s stoic terror at the fucked up plotline he’s found himself in is even funnier. Dick Tremayne has all the hallmarks of a character who should appear once, maybe twice, and then never again. If he actually vanished from the show when Lucy told him to leave the sheriff’s department and never come back, the show would have been better for it. But there are other things that used to strike me as bad notes in the show that now seem more knowing: the James/Donna/Maddie love triangle sing-along made more sense to me this time around, once I realized that David Lynch directed that episode. And in general, the two episodes at the start of this season that are directed by Lynch are truly awesome television. There’s nothing better than that amazingly long sequence of a senile room service waiter not realizing that Coop is bleeding out on the floor. The other standout in this run of episodes is the one that Lynch returns to direct, “Lonely Souls,” in which Leland is revealed as Laura’s killer (in some abstract sense). One of the things Lynch brought to the television toolkit that is still rare even today is a willingness to take his time with important or interesting scenes. The scene with the room service waiter is one side of that, but another side is the truly distressing, and quite long scene in which BOB/Leland kills Maddy. The way Lynch chooses to direct this as a sort of grotesque dance that cuts between Leland acting oddly tender towards his victim and BOB being truly cruel is extremely perverse. It’s one of the most difficult sequences in the show to watch, in spite of how little is actually shown. It feels violent in a way that modern television violence doesn’t. And crucially, unlike a lot of today’s TV violence, it feels wrong. It feels like something that you’re supposed to recoil from. And the way that it’s bookended with scenes of the giant (and, wonderfully, that same room service waiter) warning Coop what’s happening in a way that he can’t understand makes it really heartbreaking. “Lonely Souls” is a really good episode, even if it’s central reveal did ruin the show. And the next two episodes, which tie up an almost uncomfortable number of loose ends — the way that Coop and co. just straight up explain what happened the night Laura was murdered really strikes me as pat, and a betrayal of the original spirit of the show — really rely almost entirely on the extraordinary performance of Ray Wise to paper over their comparative lack of inspiration. And Ray Wise really is incredible here. Kyle MacLaughlan might have given the most memorable performance in Twin Peaks, but Wise gives the best of the heightened, alienating, kabuki-esque performances that are so crucial to the feel of the show. In general, the notion that the first half of season two is on the same level as season one seems wrong. But it’s hard to tell if my mounting discomfort is actually because of what’s happening in the series right now, or because I’m starting to see the seeds of the truly awful half-season that’s quickly approaching. I’m following the New York Times’ advice and watching up to episode 11, then skipping to episode 21, but I’m not looking forward to these next couple of episodes. On the other hand, Leo being comatose makes for a fine application of Eric Da Re’s acting abilities.

Music

The Beatles: Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (Deluxe Edition) — It was 50 years ago today etc. It’s June 1 as I’m writing this, and I’ve listened to Sgt. Pepper three times today. First, I checked out Giles Martin’s new stereo remix of the album, then my old faithful 2009 mono remaster, and finally, the “alternate” Pepper of rough sessions on disc two of the deluxe edition. Mostly, it just reminded me how much I love Sgt. Pepper. But that won’t come as a surprise, so I’ll focus on my thoughts on the deluxe edition. I came to Giles Martin’s remix with the requisite puritanical scepticism. The original mono mix of Sgt. Pepper, particularly in its remastered edition, is a perfectly fine sounding album. But I do buy Giles Martin’s argument that the album needs a new stereo mix, because nobody listens to the mono except nerds like me, and the original stereo mix is terrible. It’s full of that horrible thing where all the instruments are on one side. Awful. So I figured the new mix would be worth hearing, if only to hear Sgt. Pepper in decent stereo for once. But this turned out to be a way different experience from that. Martin went right back to the original tapes, which for the original album’s mix had to be subjected to a certain amount of degradation because it was mixed on four-track. No such problem exists today, so the original tapes can be heard in all their glory, in a way that’s actually purer than what was on the first issue of the record. The result is a Sgt. Pepper that is clearer, cleaner, and more impactful than any previous version. Of course, it’s also subtly different than either of the versions I’m used to. (I grew up on the terrible 1987 stereo CD release, and have been devoted to the mono since 2009.) You might think that’s a stumbling block. Sure was when they remixed the Genesis albums. But honestly, the major impression I got throughout my listening was simply that this was Sgt. Pepper, except with better sound. That’s the highest possible praise Giles Martin could get for this. There are tiny exceptions, where a change to the mix gave me a different impression than the original. “Within You Without You” has always finished with a muted laugh from a crowd of imaginary onlookers. In the remix, they’re a lot more prevalent. Originally, George Harrison’s message of universal togetherness accompanied by ersatz Indian classical music was met with a knowing chuckle by a gaggle of hip sophisticates. Now it’s undermined by derisive laughter from a roomful of cynics. It’s a subtle sonic change with a substantial impact. But I can’t help but think Harrison, perverse weirdo that he was, would’ve appreciated the new version  — in which nobody recognizes how right he is. The other track in which the new mix makes a really ostentatious impression is Lennon’s “Good Morning, Good Morning.” As a song, it’s a relative weak point on the album, but as a sonic construction, it’s one of the weirdest, most fascinatingly cacophonous things in the Beatles catalogue. The new mix kicks that cacophony up a level — the bass drum sounds thunderous, and it all feels louder. Suddenly it makes sense in its context near the end of the album. It escalates the energy up to the level required for the borderline hard rock of “Sgt. Pepper (Reprise),” and makes the moment when the bottom falls out and the acoustic intro of “A Day in the Life” begins even more effective. The moral of the story in both of these cases is that sounds mean things. Infinitesimally small adjustments make big differences if you’re listening closely. But Giles Martin’s got the Beatles in his blood, so none of the changes jar. Not a single one. They don’t even feel like changes. I’ve heard a lot of reissues, and I think this might well be a new high standard. I’ll probably mostly listen to this instead of the mono now. A few words on the second disc: it’s a lot of fun. Basically, Martin and co. have assembled an alternative Pepper with the same running order out of rough takes without overdubs. And then some “Strawberry Fields Forever” and “Penny Lane” at the end for good measure. Hearing just one take of each song before moving onto the next one doesn’t quite give the sense of process that I crave from these types of releases — I want to hear how the songs evolve. But for that I’ll need to splurge on the six-disc set, which I might do. In the meantime, hearing Sgt. Pepper rough takes at all is fascinating. This is one of those albums that’s so meticulous in its construction that it sometimes feels like it isn’t actually being performed by humans. Listening to the sessions re-establishes Sgt. Pepper’s connection to Earth, and makes it identifiably something performed by the same people who recorded the rough-and-ready fare on Please Please Me. I’m especially fond of the “When I’m Sixty-Four” rough take with no clarinets and, more crucially, no Varispeed. On the album, the vocal track is sped up so Paul sounds like he’s singing higher than he actually did. It’s a solid musical decision, but there’s something wonderfully human in the discrepancy between the session and the final mix. One of my personal maxims is that great craftsmanship doesn’t age. That’s why Sgt. Pepper is still great music 50 years later. And this two-disc set is the best commemorative edition we could have asked for. Except, I’m assuming, for the six-disc set. But this is on streaming services. So for god’s sake, go listen. Pick of the week.

Tool: 10,000 Days — I’m going to see Tool! And I need to study up. This is actually the album that I’m probably least in need of a quick study on, since it is for me the ‘period’ Tool album: the one they made when I got into them. I’ve listened to it a fair bit over the years, and I do like it a lot, though it has peaks and troughs. It never quite reaches the heights of its opening one-two punch of “Vicarious” and “Jambi” afterwards, though I do love the relatively low-key “Wings for Marie” and the title track. This is the one I revisit for nostalgia. But I think Lateralus, I think maybe the only other Tool album I’ve heard, is a better album. We shall soon see.

Podcasts

Theory of Everything: “Protest” — I like that there’s just one guy who can produce segments for TOE. Walker has a stable of one freelancer. Andrew Calloway’s segment on the Pepes rallying in New York is solid stuff with some good characters who I didn’t viscerally hate.

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “Master of None and Snatched” — I hate that moment when you hear about a show that got really good after being sort of ‘meh’ for a while. Because now I feel like I have to watch Master of None. Snatched sounds like a fiasco.

All Songs Considered: “Why Remix ‘Sgt. Pepper’s’? Giles Martin, The Man Behind The Project, Explains” — This is well worth hearing for the A/B comparisons of the remastered original stereo mix of Pepper with the new one. It’s also nice to hear Giles Martin sing the praises of the original mono mix, which, in spite of my real love for the remix, is still something that deserves to be listened to. What’s even clearer from this, though, is how terrible the original stereo mix was. And to think, I grew up on that mix on a CD released in 1987. You know music’s good when it can rise above that.

Theory of Everything: “Emergency” — Not a hugely memorable episode, he writes, having listened to this like a lifetime ago. But I do think the image of Benjamen Walker getting paranoid in a spa is a good one worth returning to.

Love and Radio: “The Pandrogyne” — A classic. This is a beautifully mixed interview with one of England’s great musical eccentrics, Genesis P-Orridge. I’ve always meant to get into Throbbing Gristle, but that is not at all what this is about. This is about P-Orridge’s relationship with their late partner, with whom they consider themselves one being. It’s warm, funny and sad. And it features the story of the time they stayed in a house that used to belong to Houdini. It burned down while they were staying there, but they escaped. *grins* It’s nice to hear somebody straightforwardly sympathetic on Love and Radio from time to time. Pick of the week.

Strangers: “Lea in Trumpland: Alicia” — This is… ugh, I don’t know what to think of this. This is that thing where a liberal reporter goes and talks to a Trump supporter. To be fair, Lea Thau seems entirely aware of the pitfalls of that. But this still falls into that genre, and I can’t help but feel that Alicia, a perfectly sympathetic person in many respects, has a worldview that just doesn’t really deserve the airtime. Maybe that sounds ruthless, but she really lost me at the moment when Thau asks her about racism and she responds by saying that she doesn’t really care about people’s feelings getting hurt. Never mind that it’s as much or more about people’s safety than their feelings — I just can’t get behind a person who thinks like that. I know that’s kind of the point, and I’m totally aware of the fact that I’m holding this to a different standard than I’ve held comparable episodes of Love and Radio. But I just feel like I don’t have the mental energy to grapple with this right now. Get back to me in ten years, and maybe I’ll have enough distance to know what to think.

On The Media: “The United States of Anxiety: America’s Allergy to Intellectualism” — I appreciated this, but similarly to the episode of Strangers I just reviewed, I’m just really not as much in the mood for anxiety-making radio about contemporary politics as I thought I was when I put this on. I’m sure The United States of Anxiety is a great show, but I’m probably going to pass on it for now.

Fresh Air: “‘Sgt. Pepper’ At 50” — First off, the A/B comparisons here were less valuable to me than their All Songs Considered counterparts, because this podcast is in mono. When comparing stereo mixes, that’s kind of not acceptable. I guess the broadcast edit was stereo? Never mind. This is still worthwhile for the interview with Giles Martin, which is more in-depth than the one on All Songs. But if you’re only picking one, go with All Songs, for the stereo.

Fresh Air: “Paul McCartney/Ringo Starr” — It speaks to the quality of The Beatles Anthology that I’m never surprised by Beatles interviews anymore. Why do I even bother?