The long-awaited North by Northwest segment on ISCM World New Music Days is here, and can be found at 1:21:50 of this podcast. Back to business as usual in the December instalment. Meanwhile, here are this week’s 14 reviews.
Lantouri — I saw this with a friend at the Cinémathèque, which is doing a series on contemporary Iranian cinema. Since, like many people, I know only one Iranian filmmaker, I figured why not. Should be a lovely afternoon out. Holy shit was this ever something. It’s the third feature film of Reza Dormishian, who is apparently one of the bright lights of his generation in Iranian cinema. If Lantouri is any indication, he’s also one of the most skilled directors in the world, in the idiom of EXTREMELY INTENSE FILMS. It’s the story of a Tehran street gang (sort of), and their leader’s increasingly creepy infatuation with a steely journalist. It opens as a talking heads-heavy fake documentary, but becomes increasingly cinematic as the story ramps up. That’s a clever device, because Dormishian can get his themes and social critiques on the table at the start, and then proceed to just tell a story, having established a framework of ideas at the outset. And that latter part of the movie, when the documentary element begins to wane, tells a story that’s so unrelentingly tense that you may stop breathing. Dormishian charts the course of his protagonist Pasha’s non-relationship with the reporter Maryam in a sort of fractured, alinear way where you see key moments taking place from multiple perspectives. It’s a tricky dance, but as information gradually accretes, we start to understand Pasha as a monster. The film’s turning point comes in a scene where you know exactly what is going to happen, because you’ve already seen it from a distance. But you don’t know when. The suspense comes from certainty rather than uncertainty. And it is almost unbearable. The same can be said for nearly the whole final act of the movie. Definitely watch this, but only when you’re in the mood for something sort of grim, and totally unrelenting. Pick of the week.
Logan — Wow, this is a very sad X-Men movie. And maybe the best X-Men movie. I never expected to say that about a movie that doesn’t have Magneto in it, but here we are. Wolverine has never been the most interesting part of this universe to me. I’m far more interested in the conflict of values between Charles Xavier and Magneto. But the Wolverine we see in this film is different from the one we see in the other films. Not entirely different, mind: Hugh Jackman is clearly playing the same man as he is in every other sardonic appearance in the X-franchise. But this movie’s iteration of Logan/Wolverine sits on a far-out promontory of the island that is that character. There’s always been a hint of the Man With No Name about Wolverine, and more than a hint of Dirty Harry. But in this movie, Hugh Jackman melts the brooding asshole from the previous films down and pours him into a patently Clint Eastwood-shaped mould. The same goes for Xavier, who is finally a character worthy of Patrick Stewart’s talents. Logan’s degenerating Professor X is its most tragic element. All of this could only work in the film that’s designed to retire Wolverine forever. Or, at least the Hugh Jackman version of him. The reality of contemporary blockbuster cinema is that you cannot put characters in situations that risk breaking the universe, and therefore the prospects for further profit from endless sequels. Logan has no qualms about pushing continuity to its breaking point, and in doing so it gives us a glimpse of what genre cinema has sacrificed in the era of the cinematic universe. There’s a lot of power in seeing a familiar character in an unfamiliar setting. Writers of fanfic and tie-in novels have known that for decades. Logan is what that concept looks like when you pour a hundred million dollars into it. I’d be immensely more enthusiastic about superhero movies if more of them were like this.
Brooke Gladstone: The Trouble With Reality — This very brief book, which was written and published with furious speed after the election of Donald Trump, is an outstanding synthesis of thinkers from Hannah Arendt to Philip K. Dick about the way demagoguery distorts reality. But I wish I’d read it when it came out. Troublingly, I feel as though I’ve already apprehended much of what Gladstone writes here by osmosis as this weird bad year has rocketed along. I say troublingly because I also feel I’m becoming inured to the notion that the world is being controlled by people whose live in a different reality from me. The most useful thing in Gladstone’s book is a spirited ending in which she entreats us to actually fight against this: to arm yourself with information that will allow you to at least understand the reality of others. Still, it feels like a rallying cry from a previous version of the world — a version that didn’t know how baffling this new phase was going to be.
Jorge Luis Borges: “The Theme of the Traitor and the Hero” — I’m finding the stories in the Artifices more varied, but also a bit less ambitious than the ones in The Garden of Forking Paths. This one is a fun examination of how a particular story (of Borges’s invention) might have come to be. But it’s a slight thing. None of the tiny little stories in this collection have quite managed to pack the wallop of equally brief stories like “The Library of Babel” or even something like “The Circular Ruins.” I’m not complaining; this is still brilliant, and Borges still comes off like a fantastically interesting dinner companion who has some thoughts to share with you in a collegial and friendly manner. I love that.
Jorge Luis Borges: “The Secret Miracle” — Now we’re cooking. Aside from “Death and the Compass,” which was one of the first Borges stories I read, this is probably my favourite story in the Artifices so far. What I particularly love about it is that it’s a story about a man’s very personal inner experience: its resolution involves a thing happening that, by definition, only one person could possibly know about. But Borges still approaches the story like a literary critic writing a biographical sketch. There’s an element of satire here, I think: Borges’s narrator is a critic so penetrating that he is actually aware of his subject’s complete inner life. Surely there are critics out there who believe this of themselves sincerely. But it’s easy to miss the satire, if indeed it is satire, because Borges doesn’t focus on it. He just tells the story, largely from the third-person omniscient perspective of the protagonist. And that story is sufficiently affecting that the meta-narrative, for once in Borges’s career, seems beside the point. Marvellous.
Jorge Luis Borges: “Three Versions of Judas” — And here we have an account of a heretical theologian’s notion that God’s human incarnation wasn’t Jesus, but Judas. The thing I love most about Borges is that he comes up with incredible premises for sprawling books, but knows those premises are ultimately worthier than their execution would be. So he summarizes them in four or five pages. This is one of the most complex things he’s ever distilled, and it never seems undercooked.
George Harrison: All Things Must Pass — I had to listen to this to make certain of my assertion last week that I prefer RAM. I do. But still. This is two-thirds a classic. The other third, the “Apple Jam” that makes up the final LP of this triple album (it’s almost like he had something to prove) is the sort of aimless blues jamming that’s probably the reason nobody listens to Eric Clapton anymore. But for the two LPs where Harrison focusses on songs, he barely puts a foot wrong. I’ve never been a huge fan of “My Sweet Lord,” but “What is Life” might well be the best single a Beatle ever put out as a solo artist. And of the eighteen tracks on those first two-thirds of the album, I daresay ten are classics. “Wah Wah” is impossible to only listen to once. “Isn’t It A Pity” is so good that it’s on the album twice. “The Ballad of Frankie Crisp (Let it Roll)” is a song awaiting its rightful place in a Wes Anderson movie. I could go on. The most notable thing about the overall feel of All Things Must Pass is how completely different it is in approach to the Beatles records. Where John assembled a small band to play his songs straightforwardly and Paul insisted on doing everything himself — both of which were approaches with precedent in the Beatles catalogue — George called up everybody he knew and jammed. And while this partially resulted in the album’s tedious third LP, it also made for a rollicking, spirited album that has more in common with Blonde on Blonde or (dare I say it) Exile on Main St. than with Sgt. Pepper. A classic.
Cat Stevens: Tea for the Tillerman — So I watched Rushmore again this week. You don’t need to hear any more of my opinions on Wes Anderson. Go back here. But there’s a Cat Stevens song in that movie that I love. I’ve had this experience before (i.e. in Extras), so I figured I’d finally decide once and for all if I’m a Cat Stevens person or not. I don’t think I am. This, which the internet tells me is his most acclaimed album, is nice. But there are only a few tracks that have melodies that can match the great ones that leapt out at me initially. The title track is beautiful enough that it’s short duration is almost painful. “Father and Son” is lovely. But I’m mostly left cold.
Cat Stevens: Matthew & Son — That song from Rushmore that I love so much is on here (“Here Comes My Baby”) so I figured I’d give it a shot to make absolutely sure I’m not a Cat Stevens fan. And I’m not. But I do also love “Matthew & Son.” The rest of this is reeeeeeeeeally dated. And I’m a person who actually likes 60s pop.
Fresh Air: “Lou Reed: A Life” — A great interview about one of the pop music legends who most belongs on NPR. That might seem odd given that Lou Reed is all sex and drugs all the time, but he also had more explicit ties to the fine art world than just about any other rock star. Both sides are discussed here. Really nice.
The Sporkful: “The Last Sporkful Thanksgiving Special Ever” — What I love about Dan Pashman is that he’s thought about food as a cultural phenomenon so much that he can see past the trend stories that foodies are all about. In short, he doesn’t want to put horseradish in the mashed potatoes. A lesser food podcast would fall right into the trap that Pashman explicitly avoids here, which is failing to acknowledge that Thanksgiving is meant to be a tradition — not a showcase for avant-garde culinary showmanship. It isn’t even Thanksgiving in my country and I still really enjoyed this.
Showcase from Radiotopia: “The Polybius Conspiracy” Episodes 4-7 — So, I’ll confess something up front. I didn’t know that this was partially fictional until I read that it was. Which was after I’d finished the whole thing. I’m not mad about this. I hardly could be, as the co-creator of Mark’s Great American Road Trip (though I will say that mistaking that show for nonfiction is a whole level dumber than what I’ve done here). I actually really love stories and shows that sit on the precipice between fact and fiction (see also: Theory of Everything, the dearly departed WireTap). And I’m saddened by the prospect that this is increasingly frowned-upon territory in a world where people are actively trying to fuck with your sense of reality for their own political or financial betterment. So, I really don’t mind that I was misled. It’s a harmless misunderstanding. But I can’t help but think that the fictional component of this story — the bit about the character Bobby, and the people he associates with — was only compelling to me with the understanding that it’s something that actually happened. As an invented narrative, it strikes me as unimaginative. I’m beginning to feel as though the semi-factual nature of this podcast was intentionally downplayed to compensate for a half-cooked story. Ah, well. On to the next thing.
You Must Remember This: “Boris & Bela” Parts 3-6 — This is turning out to be a really fun little season of this show. Telling the stories of Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff in tandem is a great idea, since their trajectories were so completely different and therefore illustrate different tendencies in the same industry at the same time. I’m looking forward to the thrilling conclusion.
Pop Culture Happy Hour catchup — Comfort food, in audio form. I was talking with a friend about this recently. I’m not sure what it is about this that makes it so soothing, but I feel lighter when I listen to this — moreso even than when I’m listening to comedy shows like Judge John Hodgman or Stop Podcasting Yourself. It’s a beautiful thing.