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Omnireviewer (week of May 21)

This is mostly Twin Peaks, honestly. But I’m gradually starting to catch up with podcasts as well because my cold is nearing its end, as is the general malaise that comes with that illness. More chores are thus being completed and pretty soon, universe willing, I might even go for a run! Prepare for a cavalcade of podcast reviews next week, as I once again begin adulting. In the meantime, here are this week’s 19 reviews.

Television

American Gods: “Git Gone” — Either the best or second-best episode so far. Since episode one, my favourite things about the show have been the ways in which it diverges from the book. As satisfying as it is to see Ian McShane play Wednesday pretty much exactly as I’d envisioned him and Gillian Anderson play Media pretty much exactly as I’d envisioned her, it’s been particularly gratifying to see the updates made to the Technical Boy, Anansi (!), and to a certain extent Shadow, though the latter seems more a result of Ricky Whittle’s magnetic performance than of the writing. But this reimagining of Laura is probably the best adaptive decision the show has made so far (though Anansi could still emerge as the show’s ace in the hole when he finds his way into the main story). In the book, Laura doesn’t really come into her own as a character until near the end. And even then, her story is basically about atoning for her infidelity. I don’t think this reinvented Laura is going to feel the need to do that. At least, not out of any traditional sense of remorse or reciprocity. This Laura’s entire inner life is different from the one in the book, because her actions are underpinned by a current of depression. And her relationship to Shadow is different from in the book because she doesn’t really love him. Or, she didn’t when she was alive. I love this dynamic. It’s a relationship that’s going to end up making both characters more interesting. This is our proper introduction to Emily Browning’s performance, which is fantastic. She’s got all of the acerbic wit that Whittle’s Shadow doesn’t. And I really love that her decomposition is being played for laughs, because she’s very funny. The decision to let Audrey in on Laura’s plotline is worth it for the bathroom scene alone. Betty Gilpin’s performance is hilarious for the extent to which she manages to still be really wrathful in spite of the fact that there’s an animated corpse sitting on her toilet. The gallows humour in American Gods is more farcical than Hannibal’s was, but it’s good to see that same sensibility out in full force. It’s not really a tone that Neil Gaiman goes in for much in the book, and it’s yet another welcome addition. To be clear, I really like the book. But this show would have to screw up pretty badly at this point to dissuade me from the view that it’s a substantial improvement on its source material.

Twin Peaks: “Traces to Nowhere” & “Zen, or the Skill to Catch a Killer” — Twin Peaks starts to pick up steam in “Traces to Nowhere,” which doesn’t have the benefit of David Lynch behind the camera, but which is our first full episode featuring Agent Cooper. Suddenly, now that our high school-aged characters are peripheral figures in a murder mystery and not just characters in a dodgy teen drama, they’re watchable. Bobby Briggs still stretches credulity at times, but the more I get back into this, the more his truculence seems like an exaggerated expression of the town’s id. The same applies, albeit with conditions, to Leo. The conditions are mostly that Eric Da Re is absolutely awful. But I’m finding him less obtrusively bad this time through than I did the first time. Can’t say why. Also. There was a fish in Jack Nance’s percolator. Let’s move on to the main event. “Zen, or the Skill to Catch a Killer” is the essential Twin Peaks episode. I daresay it is the first, and highest, of the show’s two peaks. (I’ll decide what the other one is later.) Obviously this is remembered best for the Red Room scene, which is straightforwardly the best scene in the show, and one of the best things David Lynch has ever done, up there with several scenes from Eraserhead, the “In Dreams” segment of Blue Velvet and the Club Silencio scene in Mulholland Drive. (Okay, that last one’s pushing it. Nothing’s as good as the Club Silencio.) The Red Room is really the first incursion of a particular kind of paranoia into Twin Peaks: the kind where you’re not only suspicious of everybody in town for their possible involvement in Laura Palmer’s death, but you’re also suspicious of the show itself for containing hidden meanings that you can glean by reading into it. And more than that, it’s just deeply, deeply creepy. The backwards dialogue is the real masterstroke: you can understand what they’re saying, but it sounds wrong and uncanny. I love that. I love the whole Red Room sequence. But it’s easy to forget the rest of the episode leading up to it. The scene where Coop throws rocks at a milk bottle is maybe his quintessential scene. Sure, his character is established effectively in his very first scene, monologuing to Diane on the road. But this is our first real introduction to what makes him such an idiosyncratic FBI agent, and such a good fit for this particularly strange case. The episode’s opening, where the Horne family’s joyless dinner is disturbed by the arrival of Uncle Larry with his baguettes, is hysterical. And it comes to be deeply disturbing when we realize what these two bigwigs like to do with their time. One-Eyed Jack’s makes its first appearance. I recall this being a somewhat troubling element of the plotline. We’ll see how well it holds up. I could keep this going for virtually every scene in this episode. (And I will give a quick mention to Ray Wise dancing with Laura’s picture to the not at all delicate strains of “Pennsylvania 6-5000.”) Twin Peaks is flawed and frustrating, but “Zen” is not. If Twin Peaks could live up to the caliber of “Zen,” or even hover just below it, for the bulk of its duration, it would be one of television’s four or five greatest masterpieces. But I need not use this episode as a stick with which to beat the rest of the series. “Zen, or the Skill to Catch a Killer,” when taken on its own, is unique in television history, and one of that medium’s finest moments.

Better Call Saul: “Expenses” — One of the most wonderful, heartbreaking things about Better Call Saul is the way it shows people who are destined to be criminals whose lives end badly in situations where they could almost get out. It shows that these characters can function in non-crime settings. Jimmy is the most obvious example, with his elder law practice and his relationship with Kim conjuring a bucolic might-have-been scenario that we know won’t come to pass. But the tentative glimpses we get of Michael Ehrmantraut: quiet family man and community volunteer might be even more heartbreaking. I really want him to just keep building playgrounds and fixing things and handing out parking passes and maybe he could even ask that nice widow out for coffee, because then he wouldn’t end up getting murdered by Walter White. This is another way in which Better Call Saul differentiates itself from its esteemed predecessor: it is basically telling the opposite story. Walt could easily have kept out of the criminal underworld altogether. That would have been the path of least resistance for him. But Breaking Bad is essentially the story of how Walter White discovers and indulges his baser nature, his villainous side, in spite of already having the middle-class existence that many people aspire to. Better Call Saul flips this: it’s the story of two basically gentle and well-meaning characters who want to stay on the straight and narrow but keep getting jerked away — by their social conditioning, their sense of their roles in the world, and their circumstances. When Better Call Saul wraps, the two series together will account for an impressively broad swathe of human motivation, by way of only a few excellent characters. And that final scene is one of Bob Odenkirk’s best moments. I’m reminded of the way that Walt lied by telling the truth when his doctor recognised that his fugue state was fake. Normally I manage to review this show without too much reference to Breaking Bad. Or, if I do reference Breaking Bad, it’s only to mention how well I feel Better Call Saul is doing at distancing itself from that show. But these days I’m finding them to be interesting mirror images of each other. And that speaks well of both of them.

Doctor Who: “The Pyramid at the End of the World” — Firstly, it’s great to see the doctor emerge from the TARDIS into an unfamiliar space. That’s a fun reversal. Secondly, I think this is either my favourite or second favourite episode of this series so far, its only competition being “Thin Ice.” The Doctor’s blindness finally pays off, in a way that recalls Ten’s regeneration, and we see Bill finally have to make an important decision on a cosmic level. (I really hope she gets a second date with Penny when all of this is done. This has not been going well for Bill, or her simulation. Gotta feel for her.) I suppose Peter Harness has been slotted into the role of “geopolitical drama guy.” This really feels more like his episode than Steven Moffat’s, and he’s one of the few writers I can say that about where it isn’t a dig. I’m not entirely convinced by the way that three individuals are called in to speak for their respective militaries, with no involvement from their respective governments. But if you interpret those three characters as synecdoches, then it kind of works. Also, I’m not sure what they were getting at by making consent such a big thing in this episode. Clearly the situation with the Monks taking over the world doesn’t easily map onto the conversation about sexual consent. But given that the word “consent” is primarily heard in the context of that very prevalent conversation, it’s hard not to try and relate the two. Given that, the notion “love is consent” is dubious at best. But I’m pretty sure this is an analytical road that Harness and Moffat never actually meant for us to go down. So why tempt us? Hmm, I’m having more trouble coming up with good things to say about this than I thought I would, given that I started this review by saying this is either my favourite or second-favourite episode of the series. I must say I’m starting to lose enthusiasm. I gave high scores to early episodes like “The Pilot” and “Smile” with the understanding that the show would pick up once the proper season arc got underway in “Oxygen.” But I found both that episode and “Extremis” (the latter especially) a bit disappointing, so I’ve found myself starting to sour even on the episodes that I initially liked. This week marks a step in the right direction, but I’m not sure I relish the idea that Toby Whithouse has been entrusted with a big, seemingly arc-heavy episode with Missy next week. I’m still holding out hope for the last two episodes and the Christmas special, though. Because three straight episodes written by Moffat and directed by Rachel Talalay (easily my favourite Doctor Who director these days) is reason for excitement even in the midst of a slightly meh series.

Twin Peaks: Season 1, episodes 4-7 — Diane, this marks the point in my renewed investigation of Twin Peaks where I’ve decided to expand my original purview of watching only the Lynch-written/directed episodes to just watching the whole thing again until it goes off the rails and then skipping ahead to the finale. My reasons for making this change are twofold. One: I’ve heard that the premiere of the new series was very promising. I had my doubts, but if there is some truly excellent new television ahead of me, then I want to be as prepared as possible to follow its inevitable swerves and cycles. And two: since my tepid response to the pilot episode last week, I’ve started rather enjoying this show again and the thought of skipping episodes while it’s still in its prime now feels needlessly austere of me. So, onwards. My favourite part of “Rest in Pain” is the opening, in which Coop attempts to analyse his own dream in front of a bemused Truman and Lucy. It strikes me that this episode makes the Red Room sequence from the previous episode unique among Lynch’s surreal mystery sequences in that it becomes a mystery for the characters within the narrative to crack as well. The characters in Eraserhead don’t try to explain what’s going on in the movie to each other. And maybe this is what distinguishes Lynch as a member of a television production team from Lynch as a film auteur: on Twin Peaks, there are other people around to try and fit his more unhinged, free-associative moments into a straightforward narrative. This isn’t a value judgement. I’m not saying this makes Twin Peaks better than Eraserhead (I believe the opposite). But it’s a necessity for television, and it’s interesting to see the medium expanding and rationalizing like crazy to encompass Lynch’s weird vision. This is the first episode not to have a David Lynch writing or directing credit, and you can almost feel the rest of the crew, led by Mark Frost, saying “Okay, so David left us with a dancing dwarf and a non-sequitur about gum. How do we deal with that?” The rest of the season sort of feels like that, and it does a great job fleshing out the quirks and foibles of the supporting cast. I adore Jack Nance’s performance as Pete Martell. Nance is the sort of actor you suspect could have had a bigger (and longer) career under different circumstances, but it’s nice that his two most iconic roles, here and in Eraserhead, are so drastically different. The Bookhouse Boys represent another welcome character expansion. The reveal that Sheriff Truman heads up a generations-old secret society dedicated to keeping an ill-defined evil that lurks in the woods at bay is a welcome twist. Prior to that moment, it’s possible to look at the way that local law enforcement straightforwardly accepts Cooper’s unorthodoxy as them being credulous yokels. But here you get a sense for the first time that certain locals in Twin Peaks are aware of something uncanny in their midst, and so Cooper’s approach doesn’t seem so odd. Of course, Josie Packard’s plotline undermines that a bit. I had forgotten how many cliffhangers were packed into the last episode of this. Suppose it goes to show the extent to which Mark Frost is the “television” half of this creative partnership. Still, for all that some of it seems a bit forced, I’m genuinely back into this now. And I’m kind of happy that I don’t remember how the cliffhangers work out. Onwards to the good bit of season two. Nobody spoil me on the new episodes.

Literature, etc.

Carina Chocano: “From Wells Fargo to Fyre Festival, the Scam Economy Is Entering Its Baroque Phase” — When we look back on the years from 2015-20?? in several decades time, I think the phrase “everything is fake” will be seen as this period’s equivalent of “tune in, turn on, drop out.” Except I think the former is much more penetrating. This feature is a wonderful distillation of the thing that I find most hilarious and most horrifying about the world today. It’s a more pointed, much shorter rendition of the basic argument that Adam Curtis makes in HyperNormalisation. Here is the insight I particularly enjoyed: “Reality-TV and social-media figures train us to treat them like stars merely for acting like stars.” Funny and weird and sad. Would have been nice if Chocano had included something about Magic Leap, the obviously fake tech company that is somehow valued at $8 billion. But that’s a whole thing in itself.

Dave Eggers: “Sufjan Stevens talks to Dave Eggers: ‘I was recording songs as a means of grieving’” — This lends a bit of clarity to the story that led to the recording of Carrie & Lowell: namely Sufjan Stevens’ traumatizing childhood. But it also lends clarity to the difference between the studio recording and the live performances.

Sue Halpern: “How He Used Facebook To Win” — A beyond distressing feature on how Donald Trump — a seemingly untenable candidate to a majority of Americans, who won nonetheless — was hoisted to the top by a team that understood how to read and leverage social media in a way that nobody else did. Hold out for the bit about Facebook “dark posts.” Fairly chilling.

Music

Sufjan Stevens: Illinois — It’s a funny thing coming back to an artist’s defining work after having heard something more recent first. Illinois is clearly brilliant and I love it, and I’ve been listening to a few tracks from it semi-obsessively since I finished my first full spin of it. (It took a couple sittings. I love an artist who’s willing to really commit to a long running time.) But it seems obvious to me that Carrie & Lowell is a better album than this. I know I’m not alone in this assertion. Pitchfork agreed, for one. But this seems like a good example of how we tend to put musicians in temporal boxes. Sufjan Stevens is a defining musician of the early-mid ‘aughts. And he did some really great work at that time, so maybe some fans aren’t willing to entertain the notion of that not being his peak. But to me, Illinois feels like Beethoven’s Eroica, whereas Carrie & Lowell is one of the late string quartets. Maybe opus 132. To be clear, this comparison speaks well of both of these albums. The Eroica is one of the most influential pieces of music ever written. But to me, and I think to a lot of devoted Beethoven fans, it pales in comparison to the unwavering sincerity of his later music. Mind you, Stevens was a fair bit younger writing Carrie & Lowell than Beethoven was when he wrote the opus 132 quartet. But 21st-century pop geniuses are classical composers in fast-forward. So I think the metaphor stands. Illinois is an exciting and ambitious album full of great tunes. “Chicago” is irresistible. “Come On Feel the Illinoise” will swallow you whole. “They Are Night Zombies” will stick with you for the entire day. But there’s nothing here that’ll break your heart like “Death With Dignity,” “Fourth of July” or “Blue Bucket of Gold.” Not everything has to be like that, but I have my priorities. And I think in the long run that we’ll see both of these albums as equal peaks (he writes, in a forced attempt not to needlessly namecheck the show he’s currently obsessed with) and Carrie & Lowell will look like as much of a highlight of 2015 as Illinois did in 2005, regardless of when Sufjan Stevens’ historical moment is eventually considered to be.

Sufjan Stevens: Carrie & Lowell Live — This concert film doesn’t feel so much like an adaptation of Carrie & Lowell into a live medium as a second chapter of Carrie & Lowell. Where the studio album is a delicate, intimate reflection on a personal tragedy, the concert film is a huge catharsis: a healing ritual that finds Stevens trying to move on from the tragedy. It’s hard not to play the which one’s better game, but that’s not the way to think about this at all. If you loved Carrie & Lowell, you need to watch Carrie & Lowell Live. Parts of the film maintain the water-damaged photo album feel of the original album and its packaging: the screens behind Stevens play fragments of old home videos and the cameras pull in and out of focus, like they’re watching the show through tear-stained mechanical eyes. But Stevens knows that catharsis doesn’t live in quiet places. The incursion of Pink Floydian grandiosity into these intimate songs changes their meaning entirely. And like Roger Waters’ reimagined, 21st-century production of The Wall, you come away from Carrie & Lowell Live with the impression that you’ve seen something beautiful as opposed to just something terribly sad. Nowhere is that more obvious than in “The Only Thing,” the darkest track on the studio album, in which Stevens is barely able to convince himself to keep living. Here, the same lyrics, and the same basic musical material is interrupted by a huge synth rock climax. Suddenly, a manifestly bleak song toes the inexplicable fine line between abject depression and euphoria. This is straight from the Roger Waters playbook, but it’s a complicated maneuver that can’t really be described in words. Stevens makes it entirely his own. Even more astonishing is the 18-minute noise performance that follows “Blue Bucket of Gold.” This hits me in the lizard brain the same way that William Basinski does, which is to say that it’s indescribable and I’m wasting my time even trying. But, unlike The Disintegration Loops, it leaves me feeling better than I did at the start of it. After something as gorgeous and inexplicable as that, it really only makes sense to follow it with a cover of “Hotline Bling,” complete with the dance and big projections of Drake. From the sublime to the ridiculous, as the cliché goes. But considering that many members of Stevens’ audience may respond differently from me to the darkness of the show as a whole, this finale feels like a public service, sending the crowd off feeling like they’ve actually had fun. This is brilliant. I wish I’d come to the album sooner so I might have known to look out for the show if it came near me. This is effectively new music, and treated as such, it’s among the best new music of the year so far. Pick of the week.

Neil Young: Sugar Mountain – Live at Canterbury House 1968 — “I used to play lead guitar,” he says. Oh, would that he knew. This is an interesting album as much for the slightly awkward but often funny stage banter as for the actual musical performances. Neil’s solo show wouldn’t really take flight until a couple years later when he’d written all of the songs on After the Gold Rush and a few from Harvest. At this point, with only Buffalo Springfield-era stuff and tracks from the first solo album, he doesn’t really have the material for a solid acoustic set. And he also doesn’t have a piano. So, this is truly a release of primarily archival interest.

Podcasts

Chapo Trap House: “The Roctober Revolution feat. China Miéville” — A bit of an earnest instalment of Chapo, but it’s the only interview with Miéville that’s cropped up in my podcast feed since his 1917 book came out, which is ludicrous. Why is everybody not interviewing this guy? Actually, I don’t need an answer to that. It’s because Marxists make liberals uneasy. It’s interesting to hear Miéville talk about why he thinks this book was important to write. Aside from that, this served as a nice preview of what I’ve got ahead of me in the book. I’m about halfway through chapter three. It’s riveting. This is a good interview, but really you should just go out and get the book.

This American Life: “Fermi’s Paradox” — Ah, this is what I come to this show for. Big feelings. Feelings like an unfaithful husband realizing for the first time the pain that he put his wife through. Feelings like a lonely kid wanting to connect with her dad. Feelings like David Kestenbaum’s acute sadness at the prospect that there might be no aliens. The fact that the last one of those can co-exist with the first to is really what’s great about TAL. Pick of the week.

Home of the Brave: “Trump’s Wall, Part Two” — The best moment of this is when Scott Carrier finds himself A Racist and interviews him at the site of the proposed border wall. It’s actually the exact opposite of that thing that reporters sometimes do where they look for somebody with the most extreme views possible and then coax them into saying the shitty things they believe. This guy straight up just offers his unsolicited opinion that anybody caught crossing the border illegally should be shot on sight, and Carrier actually goes “no you don’t believe that actually” and this motherfucker’s like “yeah I do don’t put words in my mouth.” Also, “Thomas Jefferson said people should assimilate into our society.” Yeah, and everything that Thomas Jefferson believed definitely applies to modern life. I can think of no obvious exceptions to that rule.

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “Alien: Covenant & Veep” — I will definitely be seeing Alien: Covenant even though it is probably not good. And I’ve been trying to make time for Veep for years, but I don’t think I’m going to get to it for a while yet. So, I’m basically taking the opposite of the suggested takeaway from this episode.

Code Switch: “We’re Still Talking about ‘My Family’s Slave’” — “My Family’s Slave” is one of the most troubling things written in recent times, so I’m happy this podcast is around to wade into it. I kind of still don’t know what to think about it.

All Songs Considered: “Fleet Foxes, The National, Harry Styles Of One Direction, More” — I share Robin Hilton’s appreciation for Harry Styles’ bold approach to going solo in the abstract, but I definitely don’t think that song is good. I won’t be listening to his album, but I also won’t write him off out of hand. Nothing’s jumping out at me in this. The track by Dr. Danny is musically promising, but has some regrettable lyrics. I wish I liked the National better. I’ve never been able to connect with this band, in spite of everything about them being something I should seemingly love. But I do love the guitar riff in this. Maybe there’s hope.

Judge John Hodgman: “New Schemes to Violate the Social Contract” — Highlight: Jesse Thorn talking about clothes in a different context from usual.

The Gist: “Roger Ailes Created This Mess” — I’m late to the party on this, but yeah, Roger Ailes was a piece of work. And this episode’s spiel about three leaders, including most memorably the king of the Netherlands who is an airplane pilot, features some of Mike Pesca’s funniest writing in a while. (I’m assuming, perhaps stupidly, that Pesca mostly writes his spiels. Certainly, they are of a piece with each other.)

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Omnireviewer (week of Feb. 26, 2017)

18 reviews. I’ve been busy. Check out the One Week // One Band Tumblr tomorrow to find out why.

Music

Shugo Tokumaru: In Focus? — A discovery thanks to an All Songs Considered from a couple weeks ago. And while I’m enormously looking forward to the new album that features the track on that episode, it feels great to have his whole back catalogue to get through. Tokumaru is one of those artists who can provide the unpredictable sensory overload that I love best in music. And this album doesn’t seem to leave much out. The really miraculous thing about it is how it never stops feeling like a pop album, even when its arrangements reach their most ludicrously complex. It’s a beautiful expression of the joy of excess. This is one of those discoveries you long for. And good lord, that video. Pick of the week.

Movies

John Wick — Wow, is this movie ever macho. Just, unrelenting testosterone from beginning to end. Part of me admires its relentless commitment to its own nature, but I found myself thinking it would be a more interesting movie with a less rock ‘n’ roll soundtrack and, I dunno, Tilda Swinton? There are moments when this nears Boondock Saints territory, and that’s very bad territory. Still, this is ultimately a movie that’s about an ex-hitman who kills dozens of mobsters to avenge his dead dog. How self-serious can it be? The fact that John Wick is able to wring not just a sequence of outstanding fight and chase scenes out of its premise, but also a consistent and unique atmosphere and some actual character beats is a miracle. (Though the character of John Wick may only seem interesting because of Keanu Reeves’s uniquely inept acting choices.) The thing I loved most about the movie is the builds a criminal universe that seemingly exists right under the nose of polite society but completely invisibly. The Continental is a fascinating idea — a hotel specifically for the use of contract killers and other unsavoury sorts, governed by a set of rules and a code of etiquette that goes basically unstated throughout the movie. John Wick is good enough, and more to the point, weird enough that I’ll probably see the sequel while it’s in theatres. But… could we dial back on the guitars, please?

F for Fake — A documentary by Orson Welles that is as sure-handed (obviously) as it is inscrutable. It focusses on two fakers: Elmyr de Hory, the greatest art forger of the century, and Clifford Irving, the author of the fake Howard Hughes autobiography. Incredibly, the two of them ended up getting to know each other on the island of Ibiza and Irving wrote about Elmyr. But the real star of F for Fake is Welles himself, who takes the opportunity to muse on the entire notion of charlatanry. He repurposes a Kipling poem into a brilliant indictment of either Elmyr or the art dealers he fleeced, and he makes it abundantly clear that he regards the latter as just as fake as the former. Keep at this through the difficult first act. It does start to coalesce eventually, and the ending is a lovely bit of rhetorical magic.

Literature, etc.

Brian Merchant: “The Last Relevant Blogger” — This Motherboard feature about the music blog Hipster Runoff is essential reading for anybody who mourns the days before online attention was commodified. It is relevant to that concern because Hipster Runoff basically defines the historical moment as that shift was just about to happen. The fact that the piece is itself old enough for all of its Hipster Runoff links to be dead (the site went offline sometime since this piece’s 2015 publication) is itself an illustration of how completely we are now in a post-blogosphere world. I never read Hipster Runoff and I find all of the excerpts here insufferable. After all, it was as much the beginning of the shitty state of the web now as it was the end of the glorious pre-Facebook phase it started in. This is a fascinating read, and Merchant is right to say that this story is basically the story of the internet itself in the last decade.

Podcasts

The Gist: “Andy Zaltzman Is Back at Exactly the Right Time” — Oh, he is, isn’t he? This is a solid interview with funny moments from both Zaltzman and Mike Pesca, whose sense of humour is inconsistent to say the least, but he’s got in in him somewhere.

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “The Oscars Were Crazy” — Well, it was only the ending that was crazy, wasn’t it? Aside from that it was pretty much just the Oscars. I am with Linda Holmes on Jimmy Kimmel’s interminable Matt Damon bits, and I’m with Stephen Thompson on how goddamned long that tour bus thing went on. It’s almost good that they screwed up the envelopes, because the evening needed some enlivening, I thought. And I like Jimmy Kimmel, more or less.

Chapo Trap House: “Fash The Patriarchy” — A rather clarifying discussion of the schisms and substantial ideological differences between different factions of what we’re now calling the alt-right. Their guest, Angela Nagle’s article on the alt-right is worth reading, but shorter than I expected given the depth of her knowledge and research. (Seriously, somebody ought to give her a medal for trawling through the muck of that awful part of the internet.) Suppose I’ll have to read her upcoming book.

WTF with Marc Maron: “Raoul Peck” — This takes forever to get going. Maron has been hit hard by the death of Bill Paxton, and it has him thinking about how “life is so fucking fragile.” So, you’ll have to sit through an untenable amount of that material (or skip it, if you’re smart) before you get to Maron’s interview with Raoul Peck, the filmmaker behind the brilliant I Am Not Your Negro — which is actually a really excellent conversation. I think Maron requires the presence of another mind to be his best. Because nothing in the first ten minutes of this podcast would suggest that he’s the sort of person who could remotely keep up with Peck in a conversation about James Baldwin that also frequently touches on Marx. But he does, and it’s good enough that even Peck sounds delighted at the calibre of the conversation by the end of it. If you’re choosing between Maron and Terry Gross for a Raoul Peck interview (I frequently find myself deciding to go for one or the other but not both when they have the same guest), this is the rare occasion where you should take Maron.

Home of the Brave: “It’s All Over Now” — I can tell Scott Carrier is going to be a mixed bag for me. On one hand, he makes radio documentaries that aren’t like radio documentaries that anybody else makes. On the other hand, he can be awfully earnest when he just talks into a microphone. I imagine there will be an adjustment period. But I’m going to give this show a shot, because I’m looking for more podcasts that don’t sound like all the other podcasts.

On the Media: “Smoke and Handcuffs” — I’m looking forward to Brooke Gladstone being back, but Garfield’s analysis of the relationship between Trump and Fox News is really solid. It’s worth it just for that.

All Songs Considered: “Lana Del Rey, Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy, Colin Stetson, Penguin Cafe, More” — I should never have gone two months without listening to this. So much good music here, starting with the very opening cut, chosen by Robin Hilton: “Lita-Ruta” by Shugo Tokumaru, who I had never heard of. But it is completely crazy and wonderful and complex and I will absolutely be checking out the album when it’s out in April. Immediately after, Bob Boilen introduced me to an Eno-allied 80s instrumental band that I somehow hadn’t heard of, Penguin Cafe Orchestra, and their modern incarnation, which is excellent too. And we finish off with new Colin Stetson, in much finer form than he was on his limp Górecki adaptation last year. That’s both an indication that I should hear his next album and a reminded that I need to check out his older stuff. I’m less convinced by the new Lana Del Rey track. Still, this is an episode full of the sort of stuff I look to this show to find for me. Pick of the week.

The Heart: “Local Honey” — A sonically beautiful collaboration with a sound artist whose gender nonconformity forms a spine for her work. She’s the perfect personality for a story on The Heart, because to a certain extent, she comes pre-sound designed and already living in this show’s lush sound world. Really nice.

Home of the Brave: “The Test” — Scott Carrier’s most acclaimed story (though new to me) plus a new postlude about how America’s gone off its meds. Well worth hearing, though I’m beginning to suspect that everything Carrier says about contemporary America, however poetically and ironically phrased, will seem facile to me in light of my also listening to a bunch of cynical radicals over on Chapo Trap House.

You Must Remember This: “Veronica Lake (Dead Blondes Part 4)” — Outstanding stuff. Veronica Lake’s story is especially sad among the characters that Karina Longworth is exploring in this series, because she’s just so likeable that you can’t help but think she deserved more out of life. A bit like Carrie Fisher, I guess.

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “Justin Timberlake” — Ehh. I like JT, but this is an interview full of platitudes.

You Must Remember This: “Carole Landis (Dead Blondes Part 5)” —  “The greatest dramas in Hollywood are not filmed — they’re lived.” I think Karina Longworth has found her new tagline.

99% Invisible: “Atom in the Garden of Eden” — Here is a story about a moment in history when interested amateurs could obtain nuclear sources for independent research. 99pi is a show you can always count on to make you think “how do people not know about this?”

All Songs Considered: “Resistance Radio: Darkly Reimagining the ‘60s Sound” — Sharon Van Etten singing “The End of the World” is definitely something I needed in my life. But let’s not forget that Skeeter Davis’s original is timeless. Also, Danger Mouse has a really sonorous speaking voice. Who knew?

Omnireviewer (week of Feb. 19, 2017)

Oh, jeez, for the first time since I’ve been doing this I didn’t get it out on Sunday. Not that you care, of course, but I have standards. Usually. This week, I just completely forgot. Anyway, here it is. Also, I am happy that Moonlight won.

Movies

Manchester by the Sea — Yeah, I saw Manchester by the Sea again. It’s worth seeing a second time if you can handle it. On a repeat viewing, I found myself focussing much more on what a beautifully made clock it is. The pivotal scene that flashes back to Lee’s tragedy is particularly well directed and edited so that we simultaneously come to know what happened to him and understand why his present-day situation is so challenging. Also, I had forgotten about the actual best character in this movie: Otto the drummer. Keep at it, buddy. They’ll realize it’s the bassist’s fault soon enough.

Dream of a Rarebit Fiend — Funny how sometimes silent shorts from 1906 just come up in conversation, isn’t it? Anyway, I watched this again for the first time since undergrad film studies, and it totally holds up. Holds up since my undergrad, holds up since 1906. Watching super early film is like watching a magic show. It really reconnects you with the basic miracle of the medium as equal parts art form and technological marvel. It’s easy to take that for granted these days. Interestingly, another movie that came up randomly in conversation on the same night was Hugo, which I love primarily because it is the only modern movie (when seen in 3D, at least) that has ever been able to reconnect me with the basic wonder that movies exist like early film does. I wish it would return to theatres. I’d love to see it there again.

I Am Not Your Negro — As good as I expected, and another outstanding entry in the most interesting category at this year’s Oscars. Since Life, Animated and Fire at Sea look to have no chance, Best Documentary Feature is a win-win-win situation. I Am Not Your Negro takes an approach that I am increasingly drawn to in documentary, which is that it takes a spoken text (in this case, not an original one, but one drawn from the writing of James Baldwin) and lays it over archival footage. There is no reporting in this documentary, as there is in 13th and especially O.J.: Made in America. But its goals are different: namely to illustrate and gloss the argument and storytelling of James Baldwin: one of the most powerful of all American writers. The film’s greatest asset is Baldwin’s unparalleled command of language, both in his written work (read here by Samuel L. Jackson) and in his extemporaneous speech in interviews and assorted television appearances. It’s second-greatest asset is director Raoul Peck’s Adam Curtis-like facility for pairing Baldwin’s outpourings of language with striking and often counterintuitive images. When you think about what Baldwin’s much-planned, never written book Remember This House could have been like — a critical account of America told through the stories of Medgar Evers, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. — it’s gutting that the book doesn’t exist. But this film fills the gap as well as anybody could manage. Pick of the week.

La La Land — I’m writing this just after this movie lost Best Picture to the much nobler and more interesting Moonlight. And while I’m mostly feeling sorry for Warren Beatty for having to deal with that whole situation, I’m sort of sad for the people involved with this movie as well. Not super sad, though. La La Land is a virtuosic piece of filmmaking, with plenty of the sort of showy, ostentatious cinematography that made me fall in love with Emmanuel Lubezki, who apparently didn’t do anything this year, because it is now the law that he must always win the Oscar for cinematography. However, it is also incredibly boring for most of its duration, and it somehow made me hate both Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling who are both actors that I really like. It starts strong, with an incredible opening number that occurs before either of the leads make an onscreen appearance, and it ends strong with a virtuosic fantasy sequence. But the entire middle of the movie is pablum with weak songs, shitty dancing and poorly drawn characters. Basically, I didn’t like this. But don’t interpret that as a refutation of nostalgia or romance, because I’m in favour of both of those things. They just need to be more subtly employed than they are here.

Games

Half-Life  — I got this as part of a bundle of all of the Half-Life games and DLC during the Steam Winter sale. I bought it purely out of love for the Portal games, and general curiosity about the other franchise that Valve is known for. So far, the game possesses the same dour sense of humour, but without the same emphasis on writing. I am generally optimistic about liking this, in spite of it being basically just a standard first-person shooter, which isn’t the sort of thing I tend to enjoy. It is also insufferably buggy, though, so I may well switch to Half-Life: Source before I next check in. I was bound and determined to play through the most authentic Half-Life experience, but if I’m going to constantly get stuck at the tops of ladders, unable to move at all, I’d rather sacrifice period accuracy for a bit of convenience.

Music

Max Richter: Three Worlds: Music from Woolf Works — Max Richter’s strongest music is among my favourite of recent years. I’m particularly fond of his album The Blue Notebooks and his recomposition of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, which I still submit is superior in every way to the original. I know it isn’t a contest, but I’m just saying. It’s true. But Richter is by no means a sure bet. At his worst, he makes ersatz movie music passed off as self-sufficient art. This album of music from his ballet score Woolf Works contains more of that that I’d like. It’s broken into three sections, inspired by three separate Virginia Woolf novels: Mrs. Dalloway, Orlando, and The Waves. Of these, the Dalloway music is the worst by far, consisting almost entirely of grandiose crescendi. The Waves is more subdued, but still veers off into crass emotional manipulativeness toward the end. Fortunately, Richter’s modular synth-based music for Orlando is in itself worth the price of admission. Using the classic form of a theme and variations, Richter reflects the transformations of Woolf’s protean novel through the gradual development of a single theme — and by processing recordings of acoustic instruments into something else entirely. Woolf Works contains both poles of Richter’s work: the very worst and best that he’s capable of. It isn’t a modern masterpiece, but you should definitely check out the Orlando section because that, at least, is fantastic.

Jethro Tull: Stand Up — More research for a bunch of upcoming writing. This isn’t a Tull album I revisit frequently, and I can’t honestly say that I agree with the consensus that it’s one of their best. I see the appeal: it’s tremendously heterogeneous and experimental while still hewing largely towards the general shape and sound of heavy late-60s rock. But it feels immature to me in a way that the following record, Benefit, doesn’t — even though I have to say I like Benefit less. “A New Day Yesterday” defines the problem. The titular line, “it was a new day yesterday but it’s an old day now” is one of those pleasantly meaningless koan-like lyrics that the 60s are so good for. But for the rest of the song, it feels like Anderson is just using words to fill space, which is something that the Ian Anderson of Aqualung, let along the Ian Anderson of Thick as a Brick or Minstrel in the Gallery, would never do. And for what purpose is the space being filled? Essentially, a blues jam. Granted, it’s a blues jam with a magnificent riff and a flute solo, which distinguishes it from other blues jams. But it’s nothing special in a way that later Tull would never be nothing special. There are moments that strike me this way throughout the album. Essentially all of the heavy stuff is better on live albums. But there’s also plenty to love. “Fat Man” isn’t the most body-positive song in the Tull canon, but it is melodically irresistible, and I love that there are balalaikas in it. “Jeffrey Goes to Leicester Square” points the way towards similarly whimsical bits of nicely arranged fluff like “Mother Goose” and “Ladies.” And “Reasons for Waiting” proves that even with a deep familiarity of the Tull canon, your expectations of Ian Anderson can still be confounded. It’s just a simple, pretty love song, and it actually works. Imagine. Not a favourite, but I do understand why it is venerated by many.

Jethro Tull: Songs from the Wood — This is a classic. I’ll say no more because I have far too many words coming up shortly on One Week // One Band. But this is in my top five Tull albums, for sure, which means it’s probably also in my top 20 albums ever.

Literature, etc.

George Saunders: “Escape from Spiderhead” — Upon reading the raves about Saunders’ new novel, I figured I should check out a short story to see if it might be my sort of thing. It is. This is a pretty standard sci-fi set up: something a young Vonnegut might have come up with. But it is distinguished by the brutality of its conclusion and the florid brilliance of its language. I still like his Trump rally thing better, but this is great and he’s obviously a writer I’m going to be into.

Podcasts

Fresh Air: “James Baldwin/I Am Not Your Negro” — I would have been just as happy to hear a full rerun of Terry Gross’s interview with Baldwin, but Raoul Peck is really insightful about how Baldwin reframed a generation’s thinking. I can’t wait to see I Am Not Your Negro.

You Must Remember This: “Jean Harlow Flashback (Dead Blondes Part 3)” — This is You Must Remember This at its most You Must Remember This. Karina Longworth’s love for Hollywood doesn’t just stem from a love of movies: it’s also a love of the sort of lurid gossip that it inspires. She’s really good at capturing the tone of that gossip while also being careful to contextualize it as dubious or outright false. Jean Harlow’s life story is dramatic as all hell, and gives Longworth the opportunity to say something like “But if they could see beneath the glamorous exterior, they’d have known that Harlow was slowly going to seed.” (I’m paraphrasing out of laziness, but it’s something like that.) This is the kind of extremely dramatic writing that keeps me coming back. Pick of the week. 

The Memory Palace: “Met Residency #4 (A Portrait)” — Easily the best of Nate DiMeo’s pieces for the Met so far. At first, it feels like it might be too specific to his Met residency to really have resonance for the rest of us who just found it in our feeds this week. But there’s a flip part way through where the story turns into something else, and it suddenly becomes much more compelling.

Chapo Trap House: “President Wario” — This may be the first episode I’ve heard with only the original three Chapos. It feels a bit like nothing new, at this point. There is a certain amount of gasping, head-in-hands incredulity at the continuing awfulness of Donald Trump, but I can get that anywhere. But there’s at least a wonderful reading series at the end, about a conservative who stands up for everything that’s good in the world by telling two uncouth twenty-somethings not to say “fuck” on a plane.

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “Our Oscars Preview” — No “should wins” for Manchester by the Sea? Alriiiiight. Anyway, these Oscars are going to be a fiasco.

A Point of View: “The Spectre of Populism” — I agree with John Gray insofar as I believe that the ineffectiveness of political centrism is the cause for the current swing to the far right that is overtaking Europe and North America. I’m not sure I agree with him on much else.

Omnireviewer (week of Feb. 12, 2017)

19 reviews, mostly podcasts.

Literature, etc.

Amanda Hess: “How a Fractious Women’s Movement Came to Lead the Left” — This isn’t just an account of the women’s march on Washington and its various internal controversies; it is also a brief history of conflicts within feminism since the days of the women’s suffrage movement. Extremely edifying.

Movies

13th — This is an intensely powerful film with such a tremendous roster of eloquent interviewees that its lack of narration hardly seems like a stunt. Together, the guests gathered by Ava DuVernay (including Angela Davis and Cory Booker) tell a long, fucked up story about the political processes that led to the staggering rise in incarceration of black people at the end of the 20th century. It leads with the racist myth-making of D.W. Griffith, and traces those myths through the increasingly covert dog whistle rhetoric of “law and order” presidents: Nixon, Reagan, Bush Sr., and Clinton. It isn’t just powerful argumentation, it is deft and irresistible storytelling, even as it becomes increasingly horrifying as it nears the present day. Every talking head is beautifully framed (DuVernay isn’t just a documentarian, after all) and the soundtrack is a brilliant mix of the likes of Nina Simone, Killer Mike and Lawrence Brownlee. (Look him up. Do it.) If the Academy chafes at the nomination of what is definitely a TV show and not a movie for its Documentary Feature award, this would be a stellar alternative to my preferred nominee, O.J.: Made in AmericaPick of the week. 

Television

Battlestar Galactica: Season 2, episodes 18-20 — Oh, and they pulled the season together. “Downloaded” is a classic, and the premise of having Caprica Six have her own “Head Baltar” as a reversal of Baltar’s situation with his own hallucinated (?) Six is the best addition to the show since Pegasus. Watching Tricia Helfer and James Callis play the opposite of their usual roles is a delight and demonstrates just how much they’re the best pairing in the show, and two of the most skilled actors it possesses. Grace Park… less so. The finale is a stunner, far exceeding the season one finale with its clever time jump mechanism, but also with one of the most compelling political plotlines the show has done so far. BSG season two is intensely patchy, but when it’s good, it’s staggering.

Music

Philip Glass Ensemble: Einstein on the Beach (1993 recording) — I don’t know why it took me so long to listen to this in its entirety. I have known a few of its more substantial chunks like the back of my hand for a lot of years, but had never made my way through the entire opera. It took Laurie Anderson to make me finally do it. (And hoo boy, does “O Superman” ever borrow liberally from this. In the best way.) This week, Einstein on the Beach accompanied my bus commutes, my writing, my running and my IKEA furniture assembly. (Einstein on the Beach plus IKEA furniture might not be your idea of a Saturday afternoon well spent, but I was happy as a clam.) I think if you’re going to listen to all of Einstein on the Beach, the way to do it is to take it in bits and be otherwise occupied for at least some of it. I can imagine that it would be mentally exhausting to listen to the entire recording — even though it runs a solid hour shorter than actual productions do. But what may be tedious taken all at once is often euphoric when heard in pieces. Some sections are more enticing that others, and since the sections are so long and so repetitive, that means that the lesser ones tend to outstay their welcome. (The “Night Train” scene, with its dated electric piano sound is a particular offender. Why is it that sound gets on my nerves but I’m completely fine with the omnipresent Farfisa organ? We’ll never know.) But the best scenes in this are actually curiously moving, in spite of having virtually no content. The opening and closing “Knee Plays,” where poetry is recited repeatedly alongside a chorus that’s just counting out loud is, I dare say, beautiful. But I’ll be damned if I know why. I’ll be damned if I can figure out what any of this means at all. I’d love to see it, though I halfway think it might be insufferable. The best bits of this are possibly Philip Glass’s finest achievements. Certainly I prefer it to anything he’s written for conventional ensembles of acoustic instruments. I intend to check out the 1978 recording as well, though it is less complete than this second one. Actually, come to think of it, that might be more of a feature than a bug.

Podcasts

Reply All: “Second Language” — Sruthi’s cyborg interview isn’t the real anchor of this episode, which is mostly notable for a Yes Yes No in which I was proud to be a yes while Alex Goldman was a no. But it was about Norm Kelly and I’m Canadian, so it almost doesn’t count.

On the Media: “See You In Court” — This features a useful primer on what exactly a constitutional crisis constitutes, another primer on the differences between conventional liberal values and anti-fascist tactics, and a news consumer’s handbook on coverage of protests. So, it’s meat-and-potatoes On the Media of the sort that I suspect Brooke Gladstone is most in favour of. And, as much as I enjoy Bob Garfield’s impassioned editorials, I confess I’m really still in it for the analysis. This is great. Pick of the week. 

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “The LEGO Batman Movie and MasterChef Junior” — I’m inclined to check out both of these things. Hearing Glen Weldon enthuse about The LEGO Batman Movie feels like the culmination of an entire thread of discourse that’s existed in this podcast for years. And MasterChef Junior sounds like just what I need to make myself feel inadequate just as I’m upping my own cooking game. You can’t be too humble.

Radiolab: “Radiolab Presents: Ponzi Supernova” — I’m not sold enough on this to listen to Ponzi Supernova itself, but I’m happy to have heard a bit of this story with interjections from Jad and Robert.

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “Small Batch: The Grammys” — The Grammys are a joke. That is all.

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “Philip Pullman To Follow-Up ‘His Dark Materials’ Trilogy” — I don’t know if I’m happier about the fact that Pullman is writing more His Dark Materials or the fact that Glen Weldon got to talk to the guy who is indirectly responsible for him meeting his husband. Regardless, they are both lovely things.

The Gist: “David Frum Beseeches You To Focus” — The interview with David Frum is well worth your while to hear somebody talk who is smart and involved with supposedly elitist coastal media, but is also Republican. I can’t ever quite like him, but I’m glad that he exists. If only all Republicans were like him.

Chapo Trap House: “The Devil in Mother Jones” — It would have been great to hear them talk to Bauer a bit about his piece on private prisons, but I’ll take right-wing militia infiltration too.

Love and Radio: “How to Argue” — A follow-up to “The Silver Dollar,” a back episode I’m fairly fond of. I’m honestly a bit conflicted on Daryl Davis’s advice about how to talk to horrible people. One of his premises is that everybody deserves to be heard, even if they’re wrong or hateful. Much of the time I’m not convinced of this. But honestly, the thing that I’ve been praising Love and Radio for over the past several months is its ability to present people with whom I disagree in all of their complexity. I’d never say that this show should stop featuring guests that I don’t agree with. So, why do I find Daryl Davis’s radical acceptance of hateful people so hard to accept? I can’t easily answer this. But how like Love and Radio to be troubling, even in a basic, utilitarian discussion of tactics.

On the Media: “Out Like Flynn” — I think the idea that General Flynn’s resignation might have actually thrown the Trump spin machine off kilter is ludicrously optimistic, but that’s just me.

99% Invisible: “Usonia the Beautiful” — I preferred the first part of this story, that detailed the actual development and history of the Usonian homes. But this is interesting for the details about how those homes succeeded and how they failed to live up to their promise, a generation later.

Arts and Ideas: “Rude Valentines. Neil Gaiman, Translating China’s Arts” — Yeah, I can get behind this. This is BBC’s major arts and culture podcast, and it’s as fun and smart as you’d expect. I understand there are Brits who think the BBC is severely wanting, and maybe if I lived there and was more inundated by it (and if I watched their news), maybe I’d see some of the problems. But I more or less think that it’s the platonic ideal of media and that we should all have a licence fee model to pay for a public broadcaster.

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “Legion and Planet Earth II” — I feel that Glen Weldon is overstating the extent to which Planet Earth II anthropomorphizes the animals it features by a smidgen. Linda Holmes is right to point out that it mostly portrays them as wanting to find food and reproduce. I’d add that the farthest David Attenborough goes in his anthropomorphic writing is to portray an animal as making a choice. Which, of course, they do. To what extent is the baby lizard in the now viral clip with the racer snakes anthropomorphized? The film is showing something that is true: the lizard’s life is at risk, and it has to either outrun some snakes or stay perfectly still. Tension can and should be allowed to rest on the decision that the lizard has to make, because it’s a real decision, even if not a conscious one, and it is legitimately high-stakes. I have little to no interest in Legion.

On The Media: “Leak State” — The highlights of this are the segments on why we should be careful with our use of the word “treason,” and why we should be careful when comparing Donald Trump to various other strongman leaders. Basically, the thing to take from this is that the stuff you say means things — specific things, if you’re using language right — so if you’re on TV or writing in a newspaper, you should be aware of the specific things that the stuff you say means. Has this become less than self-evident?

Beef and Dairy Network: “Dr David Pin” — Okay, we’ll see where this goes. I’m aware that this is semi-serialized, so I’m hoping that they can build on the continuity they establish without relying on it too heavily. Because this tiny episode would in itself be a fairly excellent longer segment in a sketch show. But I’m optimistic about this — it is actually produced like the thing it purports to be, thus eliminating the largest problem with the other serialized comedy podcast I listen to (Welcome to Night Vale).

Omnireviewer (week of Feb. 5, 2017)

24 reviews!

Live events

Run the Jewels: Live at the PNE Forum — In the middle of what was, by Vancouver standards, a snowstorm, Run the Jewels played a show in basically a huge barn. I honestly couldn’t be bothered to make the metaphor subtler. Near the end of the show, El-P assured us all that we weren’t crazy to believe that the world outside that room was batshit insane. But Killer Mike reminded us that there’s a community of people, some of whom were gathered in that huge barn, with whom we can at least commiserate. The latest Run the Jewels record is angry and resistant, which is the only thing that a Trump era Run the Jewels record could possibly be. But I can think of worse things for a Run the Jewels live show to be in 2017 than a locus of understanding and warmth.

Music

Danish String Quartet: Adès/Nørgard/Abrahamsen — A stunning disc, with music by one modern composer I knew I loved (Abrahamsen), one that I wasn’t sure I loved (Adès) and one that I’d never heard (Nørgard). Adès’s Arcadiana is my favourite work here, and in particular the sixth movement, inspired by Elgar. Abrahamsen’s preludes are trifles in themselves, but they add up to a lot when combined. The neoclassical finale is a hoot. The Danes play all of this with extreme subtlety and seeming ease. Between this and their folk album, they’ve basically confirmed themselves as my favourite string quartet of their generation.

William Basinski: The Disintegration Loops —This five-hour long set of pieces is maybe the most depressing music I’ve ever heard. Half ambient music, half concept art, The Disintegration Loops depends on you knowing at least something about the method by which the music was produced to get the full effect: this music is the sound of tape loops playing over and over until they’re so decrepit that they barely produce sound anymore. There’s no good way to put the effect of it into words. It’s like death, rot, wasting diseases and the collapse of civilization made into music. Particularly affecting is loop 2.2, on the second volume of the collection, which starts off as a moodily stagnant snippet of what can barely be called melody and disintegrates to an extent that every repetition contains near-silences. The continual rotation of the tape in spite of its degradation sounds like failure in spite of effort. The fact that the tapes were finished on September 11, 2001 has become a crucial part of this music’s paratext, but its effect goes well beyond the events of that day. The Disintegration Loops manages to evoke just about every negative, undesirable abstraction ever conceived by a human, and it does so by almost prosaically simple means. Its elegance is as undeniable as it is dreadful, and I will likely listen to it many more times in spite of it making me feel sick. Pick of the week.

Jethro Tull: Aqualung — I’m doing a bit of remedial listening for my upcoming week on Jethro Tull for One Week // One Band. I say “remedial” because this album is the one classic Tull album that I haven’t really given its due in terms of listening time over the years. Ironic, perhaps, since it’s their most popular by a mile. The thing that always kept me at arm’s length was the recording quality. If I remember the story correctly, this was recorded in the sanctuary of a big church that had been converted into a studio (and Led Zeppelin were in the nicer studio in the basement), so the whole record sounds sort of distant and hazy. Well, I just listened to Steven Wilson’s 40th anniversary remix, and it definitely goes some distance towards correcting this. It’ll never sound as perfect as Thick as a Brick, or even the three earlier albums, but it’s nice to have a version of the album that allows the material on it to be shown in the best light. And every time I listen to this, the material is a lot better than I remember.

Laurie Anderson: Big Science — One of my favourite discoveries of the year. Laurie Anderson has always been on my radar as “that performance artist who also made pop albums.” Given that resoundingly positive impression, what took me so long to actually listen to this? We’ll never know. Big Science is funny, scary, and addictive. Anderson is a captivating presence, chilly and affectless to the point of coming off like a deadpan comedian at times. Anderson’s spoken word pieces are just that: spoken word pieces. They’re performance-dependent, and the drama comes from the hearing of them. In “From the Air”: listen to how she times the lines “We are going down; we are all going down… together.” Instant pathos, only to be undercut by “And I said, uh oh. This is gonna be some day,” and the refrain: “Stand by.” The best tracks on this album make me remember how much I love language. Just, in general. “Your eyes. It’s a day’s work just looking into them.” I mean, it’s a miracle that we have an infrastructure like language to express meaning in that way. Obviously, “O Superman” is the highlight. The way that it manages to bring together its two main themes in the end is outstanding. To crib ever so slightly from Isaac Butler’s understanding of this song (see below), somebody is sitting alone, listening to the phone ring. It’s their mom. She leaves a concerned message. It rings again. And then things really get going. It’s unclear to both the listener and the protagonist of the song who is actually speaking. (“And I said okay: who is this really?”) But it’s clear that this is a person who knows something very frightening and is trying to deliver a warning. (The use of a vocoder even makes it sound like a deliberately disguised phone voice.) And at the end, the most chilling part of the song, the protagonist is alone once more, nostalgic for home and mother — except that the language and sentiment of the mysterious caller has infected the nostalgia so that the protagonist is wishing to be held in her mother’s “military arms.” There’s almost no better expression of anxiety in all of music: the kind of generalized, non-specific anxiety that something very bad is going to happen, and even a retreat into the past won’t save you. I can’t wait to dive deeper into this.

Literature, etc.

Isaac Butler: “Here Come the Planes” — This is an outstanding essay that uses a piece of pop culture to help understand the cultural magnitude of a major world event, namely the attacks on the World Trade Centres. The fact that the cultural artifact in question, Laurie Anderson’s “O Superman,” predates that event by twenty years only makes the argumentation more interesting. Thought processes like this are the reason I’m a pop culture obsessive. I just wish I could express mine so eloquently.

Television

Battlestar Galactica: Season 2, episodes 9-17 — Within this set of nine episodes, this show rises to one of its highest points and sinks into meandering nonsense remarkably quickly. “Pegasus” is one of the best single episodes of the series, managing to totally alter the status quo (albeit briefly), and the “Resurrection Ship” two-parter is completely thrilling. And then, in short order, we get “Black Market” and “Sacrifice,” which feature some of the most ludicrous and unmotivated character developments we’ve seen so far, and bespoke plotlines that feel like they belong in some other show (CSI and 24 respectively). I confess, I’m concerned. I was ready to be one of the weirdos who thought that the back half of BSG is actually good. But I don’t think this is even the point where most fans feel it drops off. Here’s hoping it picks up in the next few. Also, R.I.P. Richard Hatch.

Games

The Silent Age — First off, if the title is a Bowie reference, it isn’t noticeably borne out in the game itself. Which is fine. Secondly, it’s always fun to see that there are devs out there intent on continuing the legacy of Hugo’s House of Horrors. It’s incredible how similar an experience this is to that 1990 title, at least in the fundamentals. That isn’t a slight — I always loved that game as a kid. Long live point-and-clicks. (Or, well, I guess Hugo was parser-based, but it’s functionally the same.) The Silent Age is admirable as much for its straightforwardness as anything. Narratively, it’s an unabashed cookie-cutter time travel potboiler, and it doesn’t try to play with or deconstruct the tropes, aside from a quick throwaway line about a certain plot twist that “reads like bad science fiction.” It’s interesting to play a game that’s basically sincere after having been through so many super-meta adventure games. This is one of those games where the story is essentially a mode of conveyance for puzzles. And the puzzles themselves are reminiscent of ones from early adventure games as well, given that they’re largely sets of obstacles placed between you and a fairly obvious goal. Turn this valve, and that formerly flooded room drains, revealing a handgun that you can use to shoot out the power of a huge fan, allowing you to pass through and rummage around in the tool kit on the other side for a pair of wire cutters that will allow you to cut the power supply to some poor welder’s torch, thus distracting him so that you can grab his wrench, which will help you unbolt a trapdoor. That sort of thing. The one thing that sets it pleasantly apart is that its protagonist, Joe, is an unassuming janitor whose inner monologue puts him constantly two steps behind the player. Thus he always seems surprised when a puzzle solution that he ostensibly devised works out. This was routinely amusing to me. It’s a fun game, seemingly devised to cater more to those of us who crave the familiar rhythms of these sorts of games than to anybody looking for something especially preoccupying or innovative. Nothing wrong with that.

Podcasts

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “Super Bowl Thoughts, From ‘Overdog’ Tom Brady To Sparkly Lady Gaga” — For the third year running, I seem to have watched the Super Bowl. I still do not understand the rules of football or how you win or what they’re doing. But I enjoy cooking and eating decadent food and being in the presence of people in an enthusiastic frame of mind. However, I actually do understand enough to know what Stephen Thompson, Gene Demby and Linda Holmes are talking about in this episode, and I know enough to be distinctly unpleased with this Super Bowl’s outcome. But at least there was Lady Gaga. And nachos. Nachos make everything better.

The Gist: “The Business of Corporate Protest” — I was making an omelette while I listened to this, so I wasn’t giving it my full attention. But Pesca’s spiel about why niceties are a good thing to definitely not ignore in national politics caught my attention and is therefore probably worth your time. My omelette turned out great, by the way.

Crimetown: “A Deal With the Devil” — A great instalment, with a rather pleasing parallel narrative that contrasts three different ways to get out of the mob: to take witness protection, to gradually go straight, or to go to jail. Of course, the fourth one is to get killed, and there’s a bit of that in there too. This is probably my favourite episode of this show so far, which is interesting given that I’ve generally been more inclined towards the ones that deal with the office of the mayor. But this is just so beautifully self-contained. It almost works as a narrative on its own.

The Memory Palace: “The Rose of Long Island” — Nate DiMeo has a large back catalogue of episodes about women who lived their lives running counter to the expectations and strictures of their time. This is one of the most complex of those stories, because it ends with its protagonist doing something that is about as anti-anti-establishment as it gets. The complexity makes it more beautiful, and DiMeo’s writing is profoundly sensitive and lovely.

On the Media: “The Ties That Bind” — Brooke Gladstone is away, but this is quite good for an all-Bob Garfield episode. Highlights include Garfield’s boss (politely) chastising him on the show, and Garfield’s piece on the present state of media concentration (which is much, much worse in today’s supposedly post-fragmentation world than it ever was before the internet). It’s lovely to hear my favourite media criticism source tackle my favourite media-related issue. And I’m grateful to Garfield for pointing me towards Jonathan Taplin’s upcoming book Move Fast and Break Things, about how Facebook, Google and Amazon are ruining everything. Sounds like my kind of book.

Reply All: “Storming the Castle” — Alex Goldman’s interview with Longmont Potion Castle sheds a bit of light on him, the same way that “Shine On You Crazy Goldman” did on P.J. Vogt. But it’s not especially entertaining. Longmont is funny in the right context, but he clearly hasn’t thought through his reasons for doing what he does enough to actually talk meaningfully about it.

99% Invisible: “The Eponymist” — This is a set of two stories by The Allusionist’s Helen Zaltzman, with guest appearances by Roman Mars, both dealing with eponyms. I, like Roman, would also listen to a podcast that was just this every week. This reminded me that I like The Allusionist. I should listen to it more.

On the Media: “#PresidentBannon” — I do not understand Steve Bannon at all. I know I hate him, but I definitely do not understand him. “Facts get shares; opinions get shrugs?” Can a top aide in the Trump administration seriously believe this?

Chapo Trap House: “Our Values Are Under Attack” — Bit of a limp one. Tim Heidecker operates on a similar level of insincerity and insideriness as the Chapos, but he’s politically not super informed. The Chapos need to be able to talk politics without explaining things. That’s why Matt Taibbi and Adam Curtis were better guests than Heidecker.

Longform: “Ezra Edelman” — Edelman is admirably eloquent for a person who so obviously doesn’t want to talk about O.J. anymore, or himself, ever. But there’s nothing here that you don’t get from watching the film itself. O.J.: Made in America is one of those creations that just lays it all out on the table. After eight hours of that, what else is there to say?

The Heart: “The Beloved” — A lovely personal narrative produced by the person whose narrative it is. This is at once an exploration of a unique gender identity, a guided meditation, and a bit of total smut. It’s The Heart.

You Must Remember This: “Dead Blondes” Parts 1 & 2 — Mostly it’s just nice to be listening to this again. These two stories of, what else, dead blondes are relatively slight in themselves, but I have confidence that Karina Longworth will gradually build to something close to a grand theory of blondeness in old Hollywood. Even if she doesn’t though, it’s fun to hear her tell sleazy gossipy stories.

Theory of Everything: “Doomed to Repeat” — Once again, the preparation of eggs prevented me from paying full attention to a show. But this time, it was Chinese-style eggs and tomatoes with sesame oil and Shaoxing rice wine served on steamed rice. No mere omelette. But Benjamen Walker will always manage to cut through my attention to another task, and this exploration of how targeted advertizing changed drastically over the last few years (and yes, may have contributed to Trump winning the election) is fascinating stuff. But slightly less fascinating than the tangy sauce and scallions that I finished off the dish with.

In Our Time: “Hannah Arendt” — A really fantastic hour of radio, offering an introduction to a figure so complex that it’s not even clear exactly what discipline she belongs to. Melvyn Bragg and his panel spend their allotted time summarizing the salient points of Arendt’s most important books, particularly The Origins of Totalitarianism, and they push straight past the reductive mischaracterizations of Arendt that resulted from the misunderstanding of some of her pithier slogans. They also discuss the opposition that she faced for things like her ironic treatment of the Eichmann trial, and they’re willing to entertain the notion that she may in fact have been wrong to take that approach as a writer. It’s lovely stuff, and I’ll certainly be seeking out Arendt’s work myself, like every panicked liberal seems to be doing right now. Pick of the week.

Code Switch: “Oscars So Black… At Least, In Documentaries” — Ava DuVernay is the best. This just reinforces the extent to which I need to watch 13th, and also I Am Not Your Negro. I’m still in the tank for O.J.: Made in America, but this seems like a pretty stacked category.

99% Invisible: “Usonia 1” — Ah, I love a good meaty architecture story on this show. This is about the moment in Frank Lloyd Wright’s career when he switched for a moment from making big, beautiful extravagant homes for rich people to designing a home that would cost the equivalent of $85,000 today. Could somebody please start thinking like this again?

Omnireviewer (week of Jan. 29, 2017)

At long last, I’ve decided to trade in my long serving podcatcher, Stitcher, for something a little shinier, namely Overcast. I just figured I’d try it out because I’m deeply sympathetic to the developer’s commitment to an open, RSS-based future for podcasting, which would ensure that my beloved medium doesn’t have to start competing in the attention economy and grubbing for clicks on Facebook and similar cesspools of deviance and decrepitude. But before I made this decision, I made sure to check my final listening stats on Stitcher. Since first downloading the app on September 19, 2014, my total listening time is the rather pleasing sum of 1,000 hours. Less roundly, 1,000 hours and 29 minutes. That’s an average of about 52 minutes a day. Not bad.

17 reviews.

Movies

Sicario — This confirms that Denis Villeneuve is a director that I definitely want to see more from. This is a crazily tense movie with great performances from Emily Blunt and Benicio del Toro in particular, but also Josh Brolin. It’s definitely most notable for being a) a great thriller, and b) a really interesting take on the “strong female lead” trope. This is a movie that doesn’t just mindlessly let its protagonist kick ass, but rather sees her face intense negation and danger at the hands of her male superiors — but without ever leaving Blunt’s character’s perspective or denying her interiority. This strikes me as rare and interesting. (See the AV Club review for more.) It’s no Arrival, but I’m happy to have seen it, and excited to be moving backwards through Villeneuve’s catalogue. Next stop: Prisoners.

Television

Battlestar Galactica: Season 2, episodes 1-8 —  Well, they’re expanding the uses of their made-up cursing. In the second episode, we get “mutherfracker” and “godsdamn” in the same conversation. So far, this season has more or less kept pace with the first. I’m beginning to feel that the show is copping out by having all of the military’s most dubious moves happen on Colonel Tighe’s watch. He’s an innately unlikable character, so this seems like a way for the show to motion towards a nuanced portrayal of its military-aligned protagonists without compromising the integrity of its central figure, Commander Adama. Part of me feels that this would be more interesting if it were Adama, with all of his moral posturing, who was making the shitty calls. Still, I’m very much enjoying this and as early 2000s political genre television goes, this is well ahead of 24 in terms of nuance. Not that that’s a high bar.

Music

Chvrches: Every Open Eye — I spent a bunch of this week listening to Bleachers’ “I Wanna Get Better” on repeat. But I can’t seem to get through that full album. Chvrches is the antidote to this. The first record had monstrously good singles and a couple of prime album cuts, but this second record is great from start to finish. It’s 45 minutes of pure pop catharsis. Only “Make Them Gold” lets down the side. Where most of the album is openly making the best of negative experiences, “Make Them Gold” is like a self-help book rendered in verse. That aside, though, I find new highlights on this every time I listen to it. This time around, it was the elegant chorus of “Keep You On My Side” that hit me hardest. Check out how it glides through the first two lines, before hitting hard only on the third. This has turned out to be the album from 2015 that I’ve continued to listen through. Pick of the week. 

Games

Replica — During the Steam winter sale, I can never resist a two dollar 8-bit indie game. But good lord is this one ever ersatz. The idea is clever on its face: you’ve been imprisoned by the security arm of an authoritarian government, and all you have in your possession is somebody else’s cellphone. Periodically, you’re contacted by an agent of the state who nudges you to begin collecting data on the person who owns the cellphone. You have to crack codes, scan text messages and so forth to find evidence that this person is a terrorist — though, of course, they may not be. But once you’re past the premise, everything falls apart. The character who serves as the primary voice of the authoritarian regime is horrendously overcooked and says things along the lines of “Knowing who Che Guevara is DEFINITELY means you’re a communist.” It’s fictional totalitarianism in the highest possible register. And while modern authoritarianism does seem to be getting more and more overt, I’m still always going to be interested in fiction that depicts more realistic (i.e. surreptitious) systems of control. Like Papers, Please, for instance. This game is aping that one right down to its 8-bit aesthetic. But where Replica features a rabid ideologue talking shit at you throughout the whole game, Papers, Please tells a story of oppression by way of a border patrol and the people who pass through it — who generally decline to monologue at you. Much cleverer. Also, there are generally a few things in this that display an unsophisticated understanding of the politics the game is dealing with. The words “terrorism” and “revolution” are used effectively interchangeably, which could be clever — if the writer (or, to be fair, possibly the translator) didn’t have the perpetrator of these acts also use the words interchangeably. And most of the game’s multiple endings (yeah, this guy really just wanted to make Papers, Please) conclude with the famous Mussolini quote that starts “All within the state…” It’s a nice touch, but the developer also uses that quote at the end of the game’s credits, missing an opportunity to use an opposing quote. It really feels like the place where you’d put an anti-authoritarian quote from Orwell, or Thoreau, maybe. As if that’s not enough, the game contains at least two blatant references to superior indie games (The Stanley Parable and, yes, Papers, Please) that have no function within the story, but serve simply as a way for the developer to say “look at me, I’m making a game!” Replica is one of those games that still occasionally passes muster in the indie games community, in spite of being pretty far below the average level of sophistication of political art in more established media. I daresay even the film adaptation of V for Vendetta has a more nuanced outlook on authoritarianism, and that is not something one wants to say about anything, ever. Perhaps it seems bellicose to pick on a game by a solo, part-time developer whose passion project this is. But there’s very little to recommend it. Even in these unsubtle times, this game is not subtle enough.

Podcasts

The Bugle: “How bad can it get in a week?” — Fairly laugh-light, this, except for a couple of moments near the end, some of which come from listener mail, and one of which comes from Andy Zaltzman’s ten-year-old daughter. You know it’s bad out there when even Andy Zaltzman can’t convert his abyss gazing into jokes.

Chapo Trap House: “No Country For Gorilla Men” — Oh man, it’s great to hear Matt Taibbi on this show. He’s basically a Chapo who can write magazine features. I have already decided that Taibbi’s new book, Insane Clown President, which I have not read and only found out about through this podcast, is a modern classic and the sort of journalism that will save the world. But also, this is the funniest Chapo Trap House since I’ve started listening. This is one of relatively few shows that became essential listening for me almost immediately.  

All Songs Considered: “How Laurie Anderson And Philip Glass Were About To Change The World” — Somebody should give Tom Huizenga his own podcast. This interview with Laurie Anderson is certainly better than what Boilen and HIlton usually muster, and it’s fun to hear Anderson talk about the days when she and Glass traveled in the same bohemian circles. Also, hearing Anderson talk over Philip Glass music really made me want to listen to “O Superman.” Man, does that ever sound like Philip Glass.

In Our Time: “Parasitism” — Is it weird that I found this comforting? It’s an hour of scientists talking about parasites. But it turns out we need parasites! So, things are looking up.

The Heart: “Ultraslut” — This “Pansy” season is already super promising. The first episode was an exploration of what it’s like to be a feminine straight, cis man. And now this one chips away at the orthodoxy that gay men are universally accepting of femininity. Good work, right here. And beautifully mixed, as always.

Love and Radio: “Snakes!!!!!!!!” — Once again, Love and Radio makes it impossible to write off a difficult person. This guest is a challenging listen right from the start, because the producers decided to begin this episode with him refusing to answer a question. In some circumstances, I’d think that was mean. But in this case, I think it’s an entirely reasonable response to his manners. If somebody treats you unpleasantly, you need not treat them unpleasantly in return. But when put in a position where you have to accurately portray that person to somebody else, you’re within your rights at that point to make them seem like a bit of a jerk. This guy claims that immunization is the key to treating snake bites, rather than antivenom. He immunized himself against the bite of the Black Mamba by gradually introducing venom into his system. All well and good, but when confronted with the idea that this isn’t actual science, which it obviously isn’t, he goes on a rabid, resentful, anti-intellectual rant in which he claims to be better than any normal scientist because can they withstand the bit of the Black Mamba? No, they don’t have the balls! It’s a kind of bullshit that I find particularly hard to stomach in today’s, erm, climate. But we also learn that this guy is really, really good at the specific thing he’s devoted himself to. It isn’t science, but it is definitely impressive. He’s capable of both extreme meticulousness and crazy bravery. And it’s worth noting that he’s managed to immunize himself against the bites of several of the world’s most venomous snakes without a degree in immunology. Also he’s a Tool fan, which earns him, like, two points in my book. The point is, I wanted to say this guy is an asshole and wash my hands of him, but the show didn’t let me. Again, the value of this show is that it proves it’s better to listen to people than not to. People may be wrong, but they are seldom (never?) actually worthless. Pick of the week. 

Code Switch: “So, What Are You Afraid Of Now?” — Everything. I’m afraid of everything.

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “Rachel Bloom on Mary Tyler Moore” — I have never actually seen The Mary Tyler Moore Show, but hearing the creator of a contemporary show about a single woman (Crazy Ex-Girlfriend) talk about how Moore’s show paved the way makes me want to investigate.

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “Small Batch: The Oscar Nominations” — I share Stephen Thompson’s enthusiasm for Arrival’s nine nominations, and Glen Weldon’s for The Lobster’s screenplay. But the category I’m most excited for didn’t get a mention: the documentary feature category. Of the nominees, there’s only one I’ve seen (and at least two that I will be seeking out prior to the ceremony) but that one is O.J.: Made in America, which is the best documentary I’ve ever seen. I don’t care that it isn’t a movie. It deserves an Oscar. Frankly, the category looks like it’s got an embarrassment of riches, with Ava DuVernay nominated for 13th, along with the extremely buzzy I Am Not Your Negro. But Ezra Edelman’s O.J. Simpson documentary is a thing of history-making heft.

Radiolab: “Stranger in Paradise” — A somewhat ineffectual little story about how the raccoon became the national animal of Guadalupe, in spite of not actually being native to that island. On another show I might praise this, but it’s mostly just another episode that made me miss the old Radiolab.

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “Riverdale and Other Teen Soaps” — Wow, I haven’t heard them hate something this much for ages. Riverdale sounds tragically misbegotten, but it’s always nice to hear Linda Holmes and Sarah D. Bunting talk about television.

Desert Island Discs: “Desert Island Discs at 75” — This gigantic, three-hour celebration of 75 years of one of the most absurdly specific programmes in public radio is well worth a listen. I’m not sure if Desert Island Discs actually invented the concept of the “desert island disc,” but regardless, this is a pretty unbelievable archive of interviews with notable people the world over. Where else will you get to hear Jacqueline Du Pre request Daniel Barenboim as the one “luxury” she’d take with her to a desert island? Obviously, it’s spotty. Even within these three hours, it’s easy to see that they show’s original host Roy Plomley was a bit of a lightweight. An interview with Margaret Thatcher is almost entirely apolitical, and thus almost entirely uninteresting. But still: the fact that this show is still going, and with such a similar format as the one it started with, demonstrates its value.

The Gist: “The Case of the Frozen Trucker” — Emily Bazelon is the person you need to explain Trump’s Supreme Court pick to you. He’s bad. But he’s not stupid. So, there’s that.

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “Oscar Documentary Roundup and a Foreign Language Film We Love” — I wrote too soon. Lovely of them to do a whole segment on the documentaries. Mostly, this just confirmed that I don’t need to see Fire at Sea or Life, Animated, and that I should just stick to the three frontrunners. (Wow, it’s only a really stacked category that you say that about.) It also confirmed that I need to see The Salesman, and also that I need to see The Past, because I loved A Separation enough to warrant watching this guy’s life’s work, basically.

Omnireviewer (week of Jan. 22, 2017)

If things seem a bit scant this week, well, I’ve been busy with my annual wrap-up, which I posted yesterday, and from which some of this is repurposed. 21 reviews.

Movies

Arrival — I came out of this genuinely feeling that it’s the best movie of the year. One gradual process I’ve been through this year is that I’ve come to see how spoilers are an actual thing that’s worth avoiding. And it’s really hard to talk about Arrival without dealing with the twist. This is one of those movies that becomes an entirely different film from start to finish once you know the whole of the story. I suspect that’s probably why everything I’ve seen written about it seems more effusively positive than it can actually back up with analysis. To talk about what makes this movie extraordinary as opposed to great is to spoil it. This movie’s ending is a narrative rug pull of Steven Moffat proportions. Still, for the bulk of Arrival’s running time, we don’t know the big secret, and it’s still an excellent movie. Amy Adams gives one of the best performances of the year (again, a performance that is elevated by knowledge of the ending) as the person that the military brings in to help them communicate. Specifically, with aliens. Couching a first contact story in terms of understanding language is a winning premise, especially when the story introduces the idea (a real idea in linguistics) that language actually fundamentally affects the way that a person thinks. That makes it critical to any understanding of another culture, yet alone another species. As far as I can tell all of this comes straight from the Ted Chiang story that Arrival’s excellent screenplay is based on. But if the movie were only a brute force expression of some clever ideas, it wouldn’t be my favourite of the year. Director Denis Villeneuve imparts an element of profound lyricism to the story by allowing us to see small moments, and letting our eyes linger on images that one assumes the citizens of this movie’s world are being fed through a much more frenetic TV news approach. Villeneuve is a director that I’ve been aware of since he made Incendies in 2010, but this is the first of his movies that I’ve seen. It’s clear that he’s a major talent, and one hopes that he’ll continue making movies like this, even after he’s made his franchise juggernaut debut later this year with the new Blade Runner.  Pick of the week.

Mad Max — I saw Fury Road when it was in theatres, because it was essential viewing. And oh my god am I ever glad I did. But I hadn’t seen any of the previous Mad Max movies. Now I’m rectifying that. This is astonishing for having been made for $2.3 million, adjusted for inflation. So much is communicated by implication here, with cuts made in opportune places so that major events are left to the imagination. It’s both dramatically effective, and a great way to cut expenses. Considering how far off from Fury Road this movie is — in terms of time, budget and the series not having yet built its cultural legacy — it’s incredible how many of the ingredients are already in place. The deranged gang of predatory biker dudes in this are so over the top that they don’t even need makeup. But, when you throw a bit of magic character design juice over that same basic formula, you get Fury Road’s war boys. And of course, their leader is the same guy, just younger and with more of his face visible. Neither of the Mad Max movies I’ve seen have especially involved stories, but of course this isn’t a problem. It’s more of a problem in Mad Max, though. Because, in Fury Road, the chase scenes are so detailed that plot can occur at a micro level: every chase and fight scene has dozens of tiny plot events. A character gets plucked from a friendly vehicle into an unfriendly one; a man being pursued spies the promise of sunlight through a grate; the unconscious guy chained to Max as he’s fighting wakes up. That’s what $150 million well-spent buys you. In the 1979 rendition, you have to be content with a slightly blunter instrument. Still, well worth the hour and a half.

Television

Downton Abbey: Season 3, episodes 6-9 — At its best, this season is like a less thoughtful, more conservative, British Horace and Pete. More than either of the previous seasons of Downton Abbey, it foregrounds the series’ central tension, which is that things can’t remain as they are. Lord Grantham is the most interesting character, at least symbolically, because he is the primary representative of the old guard, and we see him undermined again and again: regarding how his estate is to be run, the church in which his granddaughter will be Christened, whether his middle daughter should be allowed to write a newspaper column, and most compellingly which doctor to listen to when there’s a life at risk. The fact that he makes his every decision based on a crumbling value system that will only lead to his own ruin is a tremendously interesting throughline that also serves to explain at a granular level why the big houses like Downton fell, historically. It really comes down to people like Grantham being entirely out of touch with any traditions and ways of life save their own. (A personal favourite moment: Grantham’s valet is released from prison and his chummy advice for how to spend his first day of freedom is: “Stay in bed! Read books!” Honest to god.) However, that’s where the positives stop. This is the first season where the upstairs plotline has struck me as substantially more interesting than the downstairs plot, which in this season is completely insufferable. It revolves around O’Brien trying to take brutal revenge on Thomas for something I don’t remember, and a messy, dull love pentagon between Thomas, two new footmen, Daisy and the kitchenmaid. Good lord, kill me now. And then, off in their own tangentially connected world, are Matthew and Mary, who have been highlights of previous seasons, but who are actually worse in this season than the love pentagon. Even if the huge twist at the end of the season is incredibly contrived (and Jesus Christ, the writing around it could not be more hamfisted), I’m quite happy that it’s removed a relationship from this show that has become a source of aggravation. Actually, the entire final episode of this, a Christmas special, is awful. The worst episode of the show so far. At some point during its running time, Lord Grantham bids his fellow toffs “good hunting,” which only reminded me of that other show I’m much more enthusiastic about getting back to.

Literature, etc.

Emily Nussbaum: “How Jokes Won the Election” — This feature is a good corollary to HyperNormalisation. It argues that the rapidly thinning line between “joke” and “not a joke” is a clear contributor to Trump’s victory. It also contains an excellent assessment of Trump, Obama and Clinton as varying comedic personalities.

Michiko Kakutani: “Why ‘1984’ Is a 2017 Must-Read” — Here is a confession. I have never read 1984. Here is another confession. I have been lying about having read 1984 for years. In fact, I think I’ve been lying about having read 1984 for so long that this isn’t the first time I’ve gone public about not having read 1984. It may actually be the third. But nonetheless I feel another confession is necessary, because it’s a lie I’ve repeated as recently as a couple of weeks ago. And it’s such an easy one to keep up, given how familiar the central tenets of 1984 are in our culture. But perhaps I should take this opportunity, while this whole American fascism thing is going on, to see for myself why it is so enduring. I’ll add it to the list.

Olivia Laing: “The Lonely City” — The very act of writing a book about one’s own loneliness is an act of bravery. If this book were simply Olivia Laing’s account of the period in her own life when she felt the most alienated, it would still be worth reading, and not at all self-indulgent. Nothing could be less self-indulgent than proclaiming loneliness, because we all intuitively know that such a proclamation will have the counterintuitive effect of worsening one’s own isolation. But Laing only uses her own narrative as a spine: a framing device that she uses to string together her readings of the lives and works of several definitively lonely American artists. Though it is often conflated with depression, Laing considers loneliness as a unique affliction: an undesirable one by definition, but one without which the human experience is incomplete and possibly less inspired. The chapter that focuses on Andy Warhol’s outsiderness, his alienation through not having a firm grasp of language, is shattering and actually makes Warhol’s famous repeated images take on a bittersweet quality that I had never detected in them before. Laing is sensitive to the alienating tendencies of patriarchy and heteronormativity, and offers compelling portraits of people who lived lonely lives due to a society-wide lack of understanding. A substantial amount of the chapter that begins by focussing on Warhol veers off to consider Valerie Solanas, an early radical feminist of some genius who has since become known for only one thing: shooting Andy Warhol. The Lonely City is a beautiful book: equal parts sad and validating. It made me want to jump on a plane to New York to go look at art. By myself.

Music

The Tragically Hip: Live Between Us — I’ve been into live albums lately, and it occurred to me that maybe I could start to understand the Hip a little better if I heard a full live show from them in their prime. I think it worked. Gord Downie has always been the part of the band that I liked: his lyrics, his whimsical character as a frontman, his conscience. It’s the rest of them, with their almost aggressively generic sound that always posed a problem. But live, that sound is almost a virtue, because there’s no more semiotically rich sound than two guitars, a bass, drums and a screaming crowd. This is straightforward rock and roll, with a very non-straightforward frontman. I’m sold.

Podcasts

Reply All: “Man of the People” — This is another story from the annals of American demagoguery — and one that played out on a similarly massive scale to the current one, relative to its time. It’s about John Brinkley: a fake doctor who patented a raft of fake medicines and marketed them to a nation of credulous customers on a radio station that he owned. (This was the earliest days of commercial radio, and it already sucked.) It’s gratifying to hear that flimflam was always a thing. It’s depressing that it’s still just as much of a thing in an era where we’re each equipped with far more of the facts than we were in the 20s.

99% Invisible: “Tom Swift and His Electric Rifle” — The story of the taser is as fraught as you’d think it would be. Framing this as a design story is a great idea, because then it becomes the story of whether the design of the taser is a fitting design or a catastrophic one — and that depends, of course, on whether you’re talking to a police officer.

Crimetown: “Power Street” — Ohhhh, it’s back. This show is catnip to me. It’s basically everything that Criminal isn’t, which isn’t a slight to either of them. Criminal is a show that demonstrates the multifacetedness of criminality, and thrives on telling stories of all sorts of different characters. Crimetown is True Crime, note the capitals. It’s got charismatic gangsters, fisticuffs, mob hits, and corruption that goes right up to the top. It’s a yarn that you can just get lost in the grisly details of. It’s the best. I’m just as much looking forward to hearing what city their next season will focus on as I am to how they deal with the rest of this one.

Welcome to Night Vale: “[Best Of?]” — This basically proves that it’s the structure of Night Vale that annoys me most. Every time they break from the structure, I love it. This episode responds to Cecil taking a bit of time off by installing a mysterious new host in his seat. It features a clip from Cecil’s early career (but not as early as you’d think, considering) where he reports on the invention of radio, which of course begs the question… how was he reporting it? This is clearly one of the classics, and has an absolutely haunting twist at the end. If I can expect periodic episodes like this one, I’ll happily groan my way through a few potboilers. Pick of the week. 

Chapo Trap House: “Mr. Chapo Goes To Washington” — An incredibly edifying hour of the Chapos and their guests bitching about the inauguration, which is clearly the worst thing that ever happened. Just as good: general bitching about Washington, D.C., which is clearly the worst place that ever happened.

On the Media: “Future Tense” — This is an hour on the future of the White House press corps in the Donald Trump administration. The usefulness of that institution isn’t universally agreed upon, even in the media. So this is a contentious hour with no easy answers. But easy answers are not what you come to On the Media for in the age of Donald Trump. You come to it for the BIG WIDE 70MM SUPER CINEMASCOPE view of how fucked we are.

The Gist: “Don’t Mind Us, We’re Just Collapsing” — Ahhh, lovely. This features an interview with an archeologist who’s actually calling from the jungle to talk about the warning signs before the fall of a civilization. I love that they thought to talk to somebody like this. Pesca’s spiel about reconsidering #oscarssowhite is less convincing to me — last year’s Oscars were so white.

Twenty Thousand Hertz: “What Makes up a Movie Soundtrack?” — This isn’t that interesting, story-wise. A big segment of it is given to the great sound designer Ann Kroeber. She’s a good talker, but the stories she tells about getting animal sounds for movies don’t really go anywhere. (This is something that 99% Invisible does too — where it just throws stuff at you rather than telling a linear story. But I think you’ve really got to be a radio grandmaster to pull that off.) The most interesting bit is where they take apart the layers of sound in a movie explosion. I could have listened to more like that: an entire episode of deconstructing sound effects would have been great. (Explosion Exploder?) Anyway, this show has mostly been really good in its short life so far. It’s allowed an off week here and there.

The Gist: “Deregulation Nation” — I think I need to read this guy’s book. Jacob Hacker argues that it was the effective use of government that made America prosper in the first place, and that Republicans have fundamentally misunderstood the history of policy-making. Really interesting.

The Gist: “Yeah, We’re Scared Too” — Oh, good. Here’s an interview with a Bush appointee about how establishment Republicans are still as terrified of Trump as during the primaries. Excellent. Flippancy aside, Eliot Cohen is a reasonable person, and it’s good to know they exist in Trump’s party, even if they have no hope in hell of actually swaying him to the centre.

On the Media: “New Reality” — Bob Garfield visits the flailing White House press corps, and commiserates and berates in equal measure. That’s something we needed. Also, there’s an interview with Jay Rosen, who’s always great to hear on this show, on the question of why the hell anybody would even bother interviewing Kellyanne Conway.

99% Invisible: “The Revolutionary Post” — The post office invented America. That’s a hell of a premise, and with evidence found at the bottom of the Grand Canyon and in the life story of Benjamin Franklin, it doesn’t seem absurd.

On the Media: “Week One” — Sean Spicer is a piece of shit. Honest to god, there are no decent people among Trump’s staff at all. The most powerful country in the world is being run by goblins. The only thing that makes him seem a little less noxious is that Steve fucking Bannon is even worse.

Imaginary Worlds: “Winning the Larp” — I love the idea of LARPing. I just love it. The part of me that used to do improv and also the part of me that admires Wagner for fusing a bunch of art forms together are both complicit in this. But I don’t think I’ll ever do it, because there are lines that even I won’t cross.