15 reviews. One of them is a full season of television, so.
Brazil — Oddly, this is the movie I turn to when I need a bit of cheering up. It’s been my favourite movie ever since the very first time I saw it. That’s a funny thing, come to think of it: I must have been 12 when I first saw Terry Gilliam’s satirical dystopian masterpiece. I know this because I saw it the week I got braces. I was miserable. I wanted to lash out at the entire universe. But strangely, I recall that week was my introduction to two longstanding obsessions: this movie, and the band Rush. I got braces the week of the Toronto Rocks concert for SARS relief. I remember that on the night I got braces, I either watched the telecast of that concert and fell in love with Rush or I watched Brazil. Either way, they happened in close succession at a time when I was emotionally vulnerable — for a dumb reason, I grant you. But I was 12, and the reason kind of doesn’t matter. And I’ve been slavishly devoted to both of them ever since. Still, I’m a little ashamed of the fact that my favourite movie has been the same since the age of 12. That’s a year over half my life ago. I honestly can’t tell if my love for Brazil has more to do with the movie itself, or more to do with the fact that I still associate it with the relief it granted me from the circumstances of my life at the time when I first watched it. I remember that the cut of the movie that I saw that first time is not the version that I’ve come to love in the years since. It was a rental from a video store, and it was the American cut, which I’ve only seen one other time, on the one occasion when I saw Brazil in a cinema. The version I watched just now is the European cut, which is the version I watched obsessively in high school on the first of three discs in my Criterion Collection set. I don’t know what it says about me that the most comforting movie I know is as cynical and dark as this one is. Maybe I can take refuge in it just because I know its rhythms better than any other movie. Or maybe it soothes me because its particular dystopia is pettier, more personal and more relatable than any other cinematic dystopia. Maybe it’s the protagonist’s relentless romanticism in spite of his circumstances. At this point, it almost doesn’t matter. This movie is part of my DNA the same way that Thick as a Brick and Mahler’s fifth symphony are. Certain elements of it have entered my vernacular in spite of them not being in anybody else’s. Every time my strange employment situation at my current company becomes mired in bureaucracy I take it upon myself to incorporate the expression “27B-6” into casual conversation with a colleague. I’m yet to have any of them recognize the meaning. In any case, relatability accounts for only a fraction of the meaning that this movie has for me. What really enthralls me about it is that I’m still finding new facets of it after all these years. I have watched Brazil countless times in countless contexts, but this may have been the first time I’ve been wearing headphones for it. Tiny bits of dialogue that I missed before were suddenly clear. (I always wonder what specific lines can be attributed to Tom Stoppard. It speaks well of the other screenwriters that it isn’t entirely obvious.) The long and the short of it is, there are still moments in this movie that surprise me. It is so magnificently dense that I can’t imagine a time when it won’t yield new secrets. There is nothing that I appreciate more in this world than a work of art so fantastically oversignified that it makes me forget my own circumstances entirely. Nothing clears the mind like sensory overload. That is what Brazil has always done for me. It is my escape, in the same way that Sam Lowrey’s vibrant inner life is his escape from his own dire circumstances. It has served this purpose for me for more than half my life. I feel like I owe Terry Gilliam a few drinks. Pick of the week.
Downton Abbey: Season 4 — To some extent, I enjoy watching Downton Abbey the way that audiences are expected to watch Game of Thrones: by carefully tracking and forecasting changes in the balance of power. The fact that Downton’s shifts in power take place over the course of an actual period in history makes it less easily abstracted (i.e. it’s easier to draw generalized conclusions about how power works from a narrative in a completely hypothetical fantasy world than in one that’s bound by what we know of the historical context). But it also makes it more satisfying to see Lord Grantham, the spongy old aristocrat and increasingly the show’s outright villain, grasping at the straws of his former glory. The looming presence of actual history also factors into one of my least favourite plotlines of the season, which is the requisite “racism exists” plotline, wherein a rebellious young rich woman tries to get back at her mother by courting a black jazz singer called Jack. And while that works out about as well as you’d expect, what’s actually most upsetting about it is how far out of its way the show goes to make its conservative white aristocrats (and its socialist white ex-chauffeur) essentially okay with Jack. There’s a sense that even the most pearl-clutchingly racist among the cast of characters is only paying lip-service to racism as a widely-held ideology. If only the world were a slightly better place, to paraphrase the show, they’d all be relieved to not have to play at racism anymore. This is bullshit. There is exactly one reason why old Lady Grantham doesn’t protest to Jack’s presence at Downton and that’s because the audience needs to like her, and we can’t if she’s a blithering racist — which history and narrative context tells us she should be. This is just one reminder that Julian Fellowes is primarily interested in painting an ahistorically benign picture of the old aristocracy. This is the most substantial problem with this show, and it’s the thing that makes it consistently less than great. (Seek out the tragically underappreciated miniseries Parade’s End for an antidote.) This is the point in the review where I remember that I mostly actually liked this season and should point out something good about it before yammering on some more about the things that pissed me off. So: seeing Kiri Te Kanawa playing Nellie Melba was fun. Now, let’s talk about how a whole bunch of this season consists of “very special plotlines.” We’ve already discussed the racism plotline. But there’s also the abortion plotline and, god help us, the rape plotline. I won’t go into detail on either, save to say the extent to which the rape plotline is eventually made into a male character’s problem is distressing and unsurprising. But I hope this kind of storytelling doesn’t become the norm going forward, because it smacks of desperation. I’ve accepted that Downton Abbey is revisionist history. I don’t need it to get “gritty.” And I don’t trust it at all to get these stories right. But it says something about this show that in spite of all of this, I haven’t thrown up my hands and ragequit watching. Things like the relatively frothy Christmas special that finishes the whole thing off make it worthwhile. I suspect that may be one of my favourite episodes in the entire series — especially the hysterically convoluted caper plotline where Grantham enlists the aid of virtually the entire family to get a compromising note out of the hands of a blackmailer. The comedy of manners that ensues as the accomplices try and fail to hide that they’re up to something is what makes this show fun. This season succeeds over the previous one primarily because it makes Mary work again. She’s the show’s ace in the hole, and getting saddled with the increasingly uninteresting Matthew as a scene partner again and again was defeating the purpose of her. It’s good to see her doing something new. It’s great to see her in a position of relative power where she can stand up to Lord Grantham. See? It’s really just Game of Thrones, but polite.
Bryan Lee O’Malley: Lost At Sea — I read both of O’Malley’s standalone graphic novels this week. And I am shocked and maybe a bit embarrassed to have liked this one better. That’s because Lost at Sea is a road novel and a coming-of-age story, which is an extremely bog standard juxtaposition compared to the premise of Seconds. It’s the story of a young woman named Stephanie who believes she has no soul, this thought having arisen from the gradual pileup of relatively normal adolescent traumas: the loss of her best friend, the breakdown of her parents’ relationship, and a romance gone wrong. At first glance, it’s an unappealing proposition: a comic narrated by the inner monologue of a person who is reacting in a way that’s seemingly out of proportion to the severity of her problems. I believe this is what some call “whining.” But these moments hit Stephanie at a vulnerable time in her life, and she’s clearly dealing with some vaguely defined, deeper issues. With this in mind, Lost At Sea seems to me a very effective description of what it feels like to hit a patch where nothing makes any sense. O’Malley underlines this with the subtle suggestion of a supernatural element — maybe a deal with the devil or possibly just forking timelines; an implicit expression of the plot mechanic that’s made explicit in Seconds — which is by no means necessary to actually justify what happens in the story. It’s just a way of expressing Stephanie’s need to rationalize events that are simultaneously unthinkable and already rational. I love the moment in the book where this finally coalesces, while Stephanie looks up at the stars. When you look up at the stars, she says, your immediate surroundings fade away and it’s like you could be living at any point in your life — in any of your lives. Whatever happened to you, whatever catastrophic rupture occurred in your emotional life (spacetime bullshit or no), you always have access to every moment you’ve lived through, thanks to memory. And this is ultimately what helps Stephanie find the sense of perspective she’s been badly in need of throughout the story. Memory is both a torturer and a tool. When Stephanie realizes the latter of those purposes, she’s able to make enough sense of her life that she can cease to regard herself as soulless — because she no longer needs that as a justification for her emotions. It’s a staggering ending. I loved this. Pity I watched Brazil, or it would be pick of the week.
Bryan Lee O’Malley: Seconds — Let me be clear. This is by any reasonable measure a more accomplished graphic novel than Lost at Sea. The cartooning is more stylish, the page layouts more adventurous, and the story contains many more moving parts. However. It basically just boils down to a story about a person who tries to change history and learns that’s a bad idea. This is by no means a new take on the “let’s change history” story, whereas I’d argue (and I have, in my previous review) that Lost at Sea actually does something very specific within the broad framework of “coming-of-age road novel.” Both Seconds and Lost at Sea end with their protagonists having an epiphany of sorts. But where Lost at Sea’s epiphany constituted a young woman accepting reality by accepting the validity of her own memories, Seconds’ epiphany amounts to “you have to learn to accept your mistakes.” I know, I know, it’s the journey and not the destination. And Seconds is a twisty, turny yarn with outstanding characters. But after Lost at Sea, I was a bit disappointed that Seconds ends with a platitude. It is effectively a fairy story. And while I’d love to say there’s nothing wrong with fairy stories, actually there is. The thing that’s wrong with fairy stories is that they fail to acknowledge that the world is complicated and can’t be easily righted with a few one-sentence morals. I loved Seconds. I think it’s a really great comic book. If I hadn’t have read it the day after Lost at Sea, I’d probably be more prepared to take it on its own terms. In any case, I’m super excited to read the Scott Pilgrim series.
Anna Meredith: Varmints — I often say that my favourite experience to have with a piece of art is sensory overload. I suspect Anna Meredith agrees. Save for Shugo Tokumaru, this is the most “everything at once” music I’ve encountered in recent times, and I love it. Can’t wait to hear more.
The Gist: “Todd Barry Would Rather Be Drumming” — I think maybe Mike Pesca is the best interviewer of comedians in the podcastverse. He doesn’t force himself to laugh at everything they say like Jesse Thorn sometimes does. He isn’t a comic himself, so he doesn’t have the low-lying resentment that sometimes creeps into Marc Maron’s interviews with other comedians. And in spite of not being a comic, he does have the fastest brain in the business, so he can feed his guests material to riff on in a way that Terry Gross never will be able to. This is a pretty standard episode of The Gist, all told. I listened to it because Todd Barry’s awesome. But this show’s good enough at its walking pace that it consistently makes me regret that I don’t have time to hear every episode.
The Bugle: Episodes 4020 & 4021 — Episode 4020 is the first I’ve heard with Helen Zaltzman, and she’s officially my favourite new Bugle co-host. She and Andy for some reason have a natural rapport. I love Hari Kondabolu as well, and I think the decision to limit Trump talk is a wise one. This show is fun to listen to in the grocery store because it’s a challenge not to laugh constantly and look like a crazy person.
Criminal: “Vanish” — God, I love Criminal. This is the show that I most wish I could find the time to listen through the full archive of. Maybe soon I will. This episode outlines the challenges with faking your own death. One challenge comes in the form of a dude whose job it is to find you if you do that. Absolutely fascinating. Also, challenge accepted. (Wait, no, I didn’t say that. No, it was nothing. Never you mind.)
Judge John Hodgman: “Oculus Miffed” — The thing that’s struck me about this show on the couple of occasions I’ve listened to it is the warmth of it. Hodgman likes to portray himself as a chilly weirdo, but that’s completely not what he is even on the surface, really. In this episode, a guy wants to convert the master bedroom in the house he lives in with his girlfriend into a virtual reality parlour. On the surface, this sounds insane. But Hodgman wisely doesn’t try to force the conversation into the frame of “crazy boyfriend has crazy idea and boring girlfriend doesn’t like it.” Instead, he asks straightforward questions and quickly realizes that’s not what’s going on here: this guy wants the VR room in the house primarily because he knows his girlfriend is interested in it. He’s just gotten a bit overzealous with his plans for where in the house it should go. Hodgman’s verdict is both funny and also a lovely comment on what it means to live in reality with another person. I think I may be sold on this show.
You Must Remember This: “Marilyn Monroe: The End (Dead Blondes Part 8)” — The Monroe three-parter is certainly the highlight of this “Dead Blondes” series, and one of the best things I’ve heard on this show. This episode puzzles through the various theories, conspiracy and otherwise, relating to Monroe’s infamous death. Longworth’s own conclusion about what makes the most sense is both rational and heartbreaking, and she’s able to explain the multiplicity of conspiracy theories with reference to Monroe’s persona, which she examined in the previous episode. Really fantastic stuff. Pick of the week.
Reply All: “The Russian Passenger” — An entire episode dedicated to Alex Goldman’s attempt to find out how Alex Blumberg’s Uber account got hacked. Fascinating, and definitely Uber’s fault. They’re dirty liars, all of ‘em.
The West Wing Weekly: “Two Cathedrals (Parts I and II) — Man, everybody involved with The West Wing in any capacity seems really good at talking. Who’d have thought. “Two Cathedrals” is the consensus best-loved episode of the show, though it’s been long enough since I watched it that I don’t remember whether or not I agree. In any case, hearing Aaron Sorkin talk about his original concept for President Bartlett’s season two story arc is worth the listen alone.
99% Invisible: “Negative Space: Logo Design with Michael Bierut” — A straightforward interview with some very funny moments, and some very enlightening ones. It’s fascinating to hear stories from before the time when everybody in the world cared about and critiqued logos within an inch of their designers’ lives.
All Songs Considered: “Why SXSW Matters: The Best Of What We Saw, 2017” — Ah, yes. The thrill of discovery. I’m happy to have sat the daily episodes out, because now we get to actually hear the music, and much of it is wonderful. I’ve already looked into Anna Meredith, and I’ve watched the video of Let’s Eat Grandma playing in a trailer. But there’s so much more great music on this. It almost makes me want to go to SXSW someday. But not quite. That’s a panic attack waiting to happen.
Code Switch: “Not-So-Simple Questions From Code Switch Listeners” — I’d like to see this become a regular feature. There’s nobody I’d rather tackle difficult questions like these than the Code Switch team.