Tag Archives: Decoder Ring

Omnibus (week of June 24, 2018)

This contains one of my longest reviews ever, though a bunch of it is just a list of paintings, sculptures, woodcuts, lithographs, cathedral facades and interiors, ornate candlesticks etc. It also contains some of my shortest reviews ever because reviewing podcasts can be tedious. It also contains a lot of Belle and Sebastian. Enjoy.

25 reviews.

Music

Belle and Sebastian: Dear Catastrophe Waitress — In the past few weeks I’ve stumbled upon a couple things with unexpected connections to Yes’s unexpected commercial breakthrough 90125. It is not a particularly good album, so I’ll likely not heed the signs that are telling me to revisit it. But the two Trevors who made that album into a Yes album like no other (Rabin, a.k.a. the composer of the Hot Rod score, and Horn, a.k.a. half of the Buggles and the producer of this Belle and Sebastian album) are admirable people in their own right. This is my first listen through the full album, but I’d heard “I’m a Cuckoo” before. Trevor Horn’s influence on it was less obvious to me when I’d only heard The Life Pursuit. But now that I know what this band sounded like before they committed to actually sounding good, I get it. This is far from the high-gloss production we identify with Horn, i.e. 90125 and the first Frankie Goes to Hollywood album. But by B&S standards, it’s basically Purple Rain. It’s a great record. My favourites are probably “Step Into My Office, Baby” and “Lord Anthony,” but this will doubtless be subject to much reassessment.

Belle and Sebastian: The Boy With the Arab Strap — I’ll continue my odd habit of referencing Yes in Belle and Sebastian reviews, because this reminds me of Fragile in a very specific way. For Yes, that album was undeniably a step forward — the first to feature their classic lineup, and the home of several of their most accomplished tracks. It also contained five tracks designed to feature the band’s individual members, which are slight by design and hold the album back from unqualified masterpiece status. The album that had preceded it, The Yes Album, was a huge step forward in itself: the first album to consist entirely of originals, and the one that cemented them as critical favourites. Looking back on the two albums, the earlier one is the more consistent of the two. But nothing on it quite has the sublime confidence of “Roundabout” or “Heart of the Sunrise” from Fragile. I think this comparison is roughly analogous to If You’re Feeling Sinister and The Boy With The Arab Strap. The latter demonstrates a real advancement over the former in terms of the band’s performance and willingness to try out new instrumentation. “Sleep the Clock Around” is an album highlight for that reason: its synths and horns lend it the euphoric feel of much later Belle and Sebastian songs, like “We Are the Sleepyheads.” Even the Rhodes piano of the title track (which I only now realize the Decemberists totally ripped off in “Days of Elaine”) is a nice touch. But is anybody really going to think back on an album with tracks like “Chickfactor” and “A Space Boy Dream” as an unmitigated classic? Basically, I like this album a lot and its best songs are classics. But its restless need to try things makes it patchy in a way that its esteemed predecessor is not.

Belle and Sebastian: Tigermilk — Last week I expressed that I was slightly underwhelmed by If You’re Feeling Sinister, but I did think it was more than just nostalgia that made that album so revered. Now I’m reconsidering the role nostalgia might play. Because Tigermilk — Belle and Sebastian’s debut, made the same year as Sinister, first pressed on only 1,000 vinyl records, containing the first few recordings of songs from Stuart Murdoch’s massive songwriting backlog from his years with chronic fatigue, and presumably the ones in which he was most confident — is outstanding. It’s confident, it has hooks all over, Murdoch’s voice is strong, and it’s even fairly well recorded, which is not something anybody’s likely to say about If You’re Feeling Sinister, whatever its virtues. But only one thousand people at maximum heard it when it was released. Most people didn’t hear it until it was reissued in 1999, post-Arab Strap, at which point If You’re Feeling Sinister had already been enshrined as, if not a classic, then at least the Moment Of Revelation for the first wave of Belle and Sebastian fans. It strikes me that this album is similar enough to Sinister, and good enough on its own merits, that had it received wider distribution on its first release it might have had the same impact its successor did. That calculus reduces Sinister slightly, suggesting that the biggest thing it has going for it is the fact that it was the indie community’s first contact with the band. Don’t get me wrong, I really like If You’re Feeling Sinister, and it’s grown on me the couple more times I’ve listened to it since last week. But I love Tigermilk. “We Rule the School” is the most beautiful and delicate thing I’ve heard of theirs from before “Dress Up In You.” There are hints of the sonic variety I had assumed were first introduced on The Boy With the Arab Strap. The synth lead on “I Could Be Dreaming” is irresistable. And “The State I’m In” is delightfully funny and vulnerable at once. The Life Pursuit is still my favourite. After all, that was my first point of contact. But this is a close second.

Belle and Sebastian: How to Solve Our Human Problems — The last phase in my cramming for the concert. This is a compiled version of their three EPs released a few months back. It’s fine. There are some standouts, like the single “We Were Beautiful,” the leadoff to the first record, “Sweet Dew Lee,” and the Sarah Martin feature “Poor Boy.” But there’s a fair bit of chaff alongside it. Worth a listen, but only a few moments are worth returning to.

Live events

Belle and Sebastian live at the Vogue — What you don’t expect from a Belle and Sebastian concert, if you’ve never been to one and you’ve been marinating in their lo-fi early work for a week, is relentless energy. But you get it. This band, and particularly Stuart Murdoch, has mastered the fine balance of spreading catharsis without forcing it. There is no desperation in Belle and Sebastian — they aren’t Arcade Fire. Murdoch’s magnetism comes from the sense that he’s proven all he needs to prove to himself, and that it was a hard-won victory. It’s a confidence that radiates outwards to the rest of the band, with the effect that you can’t help but love them all. This was a great show. Musically, the band has the tightness of their post-Catastrophe Waitress records, and none of the sloppiness of their early ones. Excellent as those early records are, at least conceptually, nobody should mistake this for a loss. Many fans appreciate the sincerity of B&S’s lo-fi era — but they’re mistaking sincerity for an aesthetic. Nothing puts the lie to this notion like hearing the far more experienced modern iteration of the band play the snot out of “Judy and the Dream of Horses.” Songs from that era struck me as being better live — but only because they’re a better band now. Many of the highlights were early songs: a delicate reading of “We Rule the School,” a rollicking “Boy with the Arab Strap,” and “Me and the Major” transformed into a rousing encore. All of these hit harder in the room than on record. That’s less true of the later material, but a live performance only solidifies the brilliance of “I’m a Cuckoo,” “Sukie in the Graveyard” and especially “I Didn’t See It Coming.” Music aside, Murdoch also dispensed relationship advice and love hearts (one package of which he tossed cleanly into the balcony, which shouldn’t have been impressive but kind of was). Stevie Jackson wore a suit and was the spitting image of a British Invasion lead guitarist. Sarah Martin played a dozen instruments. A huge screen played wistful black and white video, which in the haze of the coloured lights became an animated rendition of the band’s album covers. The crowd was all about it. I am notoriously unmoved by most rock shows. But I left this show liking Belle and Sebastian a lot more than when I went in. Pick of the week.

KNOWER live at the Imperial — This concert preceded Belle and Sebastian in my week, but I’m reviewing it after. The contrast between these two concerts in a single week is not lost on me. The fellow nerd I saw both shows with summed it up rather well by pointing out that Louis Cole and Genevieve Artadi make music that is as counterintuitive as Stuart Murdoch’s is natural. Their melodies go off in every direction at once, they use complicated jazz school chords I don’t even understand, and they can change tempos on a dime. And yet it still all holds together. This was one of the few concerts I’ve been to by a group of professional musicians where it genuinely felt like anything could happen. This is the line that jazz fans use to explain the appeal of that music, and indeed this was a Vancouver Jazz Festival event. But this isn’t that. (Indeed, it’s not jazz — I’ll spare you my explication of the emerging genre of “meme funk” for now, but expect it in the medium-near future.) This is ludicrous dancing and drumstick throwing and lyrics about pizza. And I highly doubt that anybody else at Jazz Fest will be dressed as poorly. Cole was sporting a black t-shirt tucked into tiger-striped pajama pants and dark shades. It’s a look. Point is, KNOWER’s show is definitely not anybody else’s show. They are compulsively unpredictable. The most illustrative moment in the show came when Louis Cole called out to the audience to see if his cousin was still around (he’s got family here, shout out to the Coles). Turns out, Cole’s cousin is also an excellent drummer. When he joined the band onstage, the band started playing a song he hadn’t heard before. The premise of this song is that the band only plays for a few bars at a time before the drummer takes a solo. He goes wildly off in a direction that has nothing to do with the song itself, then counts the band back in and we’re back to where we started. So it would have presumably continued for several iterations, but in this case, the two Coles switched out on the drum stool every time the band started up again. And it worked. This kind of logistical fast-and-looseness only works for groups of supremely confident musicians. And they all are — the three touring band members included. Fun shit.

Literature, etc.

E.H. Gombrich: The Story of Art — Two flights and a quiet evening later, I know 99% more about art than before. As a person with very little visual imagination, who tends not to pay much attention to what’s happening in front of my eyes, this book made me see differently. Now I feel like I can go to a gallery and just enjoy the pictures, rather than spend 90% of my time reading the curatorial text. I’ve even started to look at photographs differently, making careful note of the compositions in news photos, and the expressions on people’s faces. (Check out the sneer on the woman near the centre of this story’s top photo. Or the play of light in this one.) This in turn has given me a greater appreciation of the work of painters who conceive of and craft scenes like this from scratch, or nearly. It seems to me that the biggest barrier to entry for appreciating works by painters like Vermeer and Rembrandt is how accustomed we are to seeing similar images in photographs. At the time, it must have seemed like magic for a painter to conceive of a scene like this one, with all of its personalities and reactions conveyed as if they’re of a piece with each other. Nowadays it takes a jolt of realization to fully recognize that a painting like this is the construction of a single mind. The Story of Art’s greatest asset is providing that jolt, without ever resorting to didacticism. This isn’t a book about arguments and value judgements. It is what it says it is: a story. Specifically, it’s the story of dozens of generations of artists trying to solve particular problems, like how best to represent nature in art, or how to convey depth in two dimensions. Gombrich’s central contention is that every artist, whether they know it or not, works inside a set of parameters that pose problems that need to be overcome. And if the artist is a great artist, we admire the resulting work of art for its beauty without even thinking about the reasons the artist had for making the choices they did. If Brian Eno could be bothered to write a survey of the history of art, it might not be so unlike this. Some of the problems solved are things you wouldn’t even think of as problems until you try to imagine a world where they hadn’t been solved. Here’s a crazy insight: think of an Egyptian relief carving. You know the ones I’m talking about — the ones where the head is in profile but the body is front on. You know why they look like that? It’s because the Egyptians hadn’t yet thought through the idea of conveying things as they saw them. Instead, they conveyed them as they thought about them. You can show more of a thing if you show it from different angles simultaneously. These images even have two left feet for this same reason. This is by no means a value judgement. In fact, the 20th century found Picasso doing much the same thing deliberately. One more example: think about what it would have been like to see a painting in perspective for the first time. You’ve never seen depth represented on a flat surface before, and suddenly there it is. Must have been like seeing Avatar. If you’re thinking about reading this book but wondering whether you might be better served by reading something more recent — I kind of can’t help you, because I don’t know any more recent books. But I can counsel you thus: Gombrich was clear-headed and sceptical enough to distrust certain fashions of his age that have come and gone, i.e. that creativity and madness are somehow intertwined. Even if this scepticism also made him discount Warhol, Rauschenberg and the other pop artists whose works still seem penetrating to us today, it seems to me a fair tradeoff. Gombrich’s outlook makes this book far less of its time than it might be. Of course, it is parochial in the way that all mainstream histories of creative endeavour have been until quite recently: people of colour are underrepresented save for the chapters on prehistoric art, which to Gombrich’s credit he clearly admires. And women are almost entirely absent — though even a critic writing in 1950 couldn’t ignore the stunning works of Käthe Kollwitz. The histories of these artists are something I’ll need to supplement my reading to learn. Gombrich saves his best writing for last. The final chapter of his original book (which, in my 16th edition is followed by an additional chapter on developments since then) sums up Gombrich’s idea that art tends to form around a central core of requirement, either from a patron or a flummoxing artistic problem: “We know that in the more distant past all works of art gained shape round such a vital core. It was the community which set the artists their tasks — be it the making of ritual masks or the building of cathedrals, the painting of portraits or the illustration of books. It matters comparatively little whether we happen to be in sympathy with all these tasks or not; one need not approve of bison hunting by magic, or the glorification of criminal wars or the ostentation of wealth and power to admire the works of art which were once created to serve such ends. The pearl completely covers the core.” Gombrich, circa 1950 is concerned about the fact that artists now exist for the sole purpose of creating “art with a capital A.” Maybe it’s our fault we don’t understand modern art: “If we do not ask them to do anything in particular, what right have we to blame them if their work appears to be obscure and aimless?” The point is: critics are important. Now that we no longer live in a world that accepts portraiture of the wealthy as great art for our times, there need to be people in the public who hold artists to specific standards. Today, this is a more resonant point than ever. Alex Ross wrote about it in the New Yorker only last year. So, read The Story of Art. You will enjoy yourself, and you will not necessarily even feel that you’re living in the past. A postscript: this is a dense book, and I feel the need to look through it again. So here, for your Googling pleasure, is a list of some of my favourite works featured in Gombrich’s book, upon a quick skim through. I can’t be bothered to link them. There’s only so much work I’m willing to do for y’all. Firstly, I love all of Gombrich’s tailpieces to his chapters, which are all images of artists at work that Gombrich does not comment on at all. It’s a nice touch. Here are more favourites, in order of appearance, with occasional notes: Caravaggio, Saint Matthew (both versions); Pablo Picasso, Cockerel; 19th century Haida chieftain’s house; Inuit dance mask from Alaska; Tutankhamun and his wife (c. 1330 BC); Hagesandros, Athenodoros and Polydoros of Rhodes, Laocoön and his sons (a favourite among favourites; enormously powerful; I desperately want to see it in person); Trojan’s Column (Google close-ups of this; crazily detailed); Court of Lions, Grenada; Mu Yüan, Landscape in moonlight; Liu Ts’ai, Three fishes; Saint Matthew (830 AD; artist unknown, but oh my god it’s practically Van Gogh 100 years early); the Gloucester Candlestick; Amiens Cathedral; Giotto, The Mourning of Christ; Virgin and Child (silver gilt statue, 1339); Paul and Jean de Limbourg, May; Masaccio, Holy Trinity with the Virgin, St. John and donors (the origin point of perspective); Donatello, The Feast of Herod; Jan van Eyck, The Ghent altarpiece; Jan van Eyck, The betrothal of the Arnolfini (there’s a mirror at the back of the painting, in which the painter paints himself painting; this is one of those decisions that seems almost unbearably clever when you think that he’d never seen a photograph); Benozzo Gozzoli, The Journey of the Magi to Bethlehem (one thing I didn’t expect is how colourful pre-Renaissance art can be); Leonardo da Vinci, anatomical studies (not so much for their aesthetic virtues as for their insight into one of the most obsessively probing minds of all time); Leonardo da Vinci, The Last Supper (it holds up); Leonardo da Vinci, Mona Lisa (so does this); Michelangelo, Sistine Chapel ceiling (quite possibly the greatest work of art ever made; there is much to be said for the intersection of skill and spectacle); Correggio, The Holy Night (the most convincing faces in the book); Correggio, The Assumption of the Virgin; Albrecht Dürer, St. Michael’s fight against the dragon (some of these figures could come straight from comics); Grünewald, The Resurrection (Blake before Blake); Albrecht Altdorfer, Landscape (better than landscapes from the heyday of landscapes); Hieronymus Bosch, Paradise and Hell; Federico Zuccaro, window of the Palazzo Zuccari (this one I will link because it’s bonkers for 1592); Giambologna, Mercury; El Greco, The opening of the Fifth Seal of the Apocalypse (the most shockingly modern thing from before the 19th century); Pieter Bruegel the Elder, Peasant Wedding; Anthony van Dyck, Charles I of England (so dashing); Diego Valázquez, Las Meninas (so meta; so Borges); Frans Hals, Pieter van den Broecke (maybe my favourite portrait in the book; very loveable); Rembrandt van Rijn, Self-portrait (c. 1655-8; probably objectively better than the previous portrait, but I still like it a little less); Jan Steen, The christening feast; Jan Vermeer, The kitchen maid; Gian Lorenzo Bernini, The Ecstasy of St. Teresa; Melk monastery; Francisco Goya, The giant; William Blake, The ancient of days; Joseph Mallord William Turner, Steamer in a snowstorm (basically impressionism); John Constable, The haywain; Claude Monet, Gare St-Lazare; Katsushika Hokusai, Mount Fuji seen behind a cistern; Victor Horta, Hotel Tassel; Vincent van Gogh, Cornfield with cypresses; Ferdinand Hodler, Lake Thun; Frank Lloyd Wright, 540 Fairoaks Avenue; Käthe Kollwitz, Need; Paul Klee, A tiny tale of a tiny dwarf; Piet Mondrian, Composition with red, black, blue, yellow and grey; Marc Chagall, The cellist; Grant Wood, Spring turning; René Magritte, Attempting the impossible; Salvador Dali, Apparition of face and fruit-bowl on a beach; Jackson Pollock, One (number 31, 1950); Zoltan Kemeny, Fluctuations; Giorgio Morandi, Still life (1960); Henri Cartier-Bresson, Aquila degli Abruzzi; David Hockney, My mother, Bradford, Yorkshire, 4th May, 1982, terracotta army.

Stephen Rodrick: “The Trouble with Johnny Depp” — A showbiz tale for the ages. This story of how Hollywood’s most bankable star went broke is worth a read even if you’re not interested in him. Rodrick at one point compares Depp to Elvis, which is very apt. Johnny Depp, circa 2017, comes off here like a man child with access to vast riches and no sense of personal responsibility. This piece also casts Depp’s domestic abuse allegations in a larger context of increasingly troubling behaviour.

Podcasts

On the Media: “Chaos Agents,” “Polite Oppression” & “The Worst Thing We’ve Ever Done” — The first two are standard episodes, and good ones. But “The Worst Thing We’ve Ever Done” is a feature episode with no specific time hook, and those are often the best episodes of this show. This one is about America’s insistence on rewriting history and not confronting the reality and aftermath of slavery. The comparison between this problem and Germany’s total acknowledgement of the Holocaust has been made before, but maybe never as deeply as here. For one thing, this episode brings up the fact that the Allies dictated the narrative for Germany going forward — an example of history being written correctly by the winners. But the rest of the episode points out that this is a coincidence of history, and it isn’t always like that.

Reply All: “An Ad for the Worst Day of Your Life” — Alex Goldman helps a guy whose wife died tragically take down the clickbaity ads that take advantage of his story. In the process, he elucidates the shady (but very profitable) world of those ad boxes with terrible stories in them. It’s good.

Decoder Ring: “Clown Panic” — Willa Paskin is a welcome addition to the pop culture podcast world. This show is turning out to be as much about analysis as storytelling, and that is good. This is the story of how scary clowns became more ubiquitous than happy clowns and what that says about us.

Song by Song: “Wire Stripped Special” & “Straight to the Top” — Sometimes this show is a bit dumb and I wonder why I listen to it. The idea that anybody could ever listen to “Straight to the Top” and see it as anything other than a complete piss take is ludicrous to me. Oh well.

Theory of Everything: “It is happening again” — More stories of fictional artists from Benjamen Walker. No complaints.

99% Invisible: “Post-Narco Urbanism” & “Right to Roam” — Two stories from two continents that aren’t North America. Nice. The Latino USA collaboration “Post-Narco Urbanism” is especially good, outlining how urban planning played a role in rehabilitating a Colombian neighborhood after the fall of Pablo Escobar’s cartel.

In the Dark: “Discovery” — This season of In the Dark has something that the first season of Serial had that no true crime podcast I’ve heard since (including Serial season two and In the Dark season one) has had, which is the occasional incursion of innocuous but surreal investigative side streets. In this episode, the team speaks to more than six different men named Willie James Hemphill, searching for one person with that name who might be connected with the case. It’s like something Peter Greenaway would write. I’m not sure if this or Caliphate is my favourite podcast of the year so far, but it’s a two-show race.

Ear Hustle: “So Long” — Stories of people getting out of prison. It takes a lot of planning. Imagine dating. This is really good.

Slow Burn: “What If Nixon Had Been Good At Football?” & “Live in New York” — The first is a crossover with Mike Pesca’s new sports podcast Upon Further Review, which sounds good but not good enough to impel me to listen to multiple episodes of a sports podcast. The live episode doesn’t really add much to the series. I am looking forward to season two, though. My lack of enthusiasm for these specific episodes notwithstanding, Slate’s killing it these days. This has been followed by Decoder Ring and Lend Me Your Ears, both of which I love. Good work, Slate.

Code Switch: “Immigration Nation” — This is a long-term look back on the times when anti-immigration fervor reached similar heights as it has in America today. History. It’s useful.

The Truth: “The Jesse Eisenberg Effect” — Starring the real Jesse Eisenberg! As the fake Jesse Eisenberg. This is the best episode of The Truth I’ve ever heard, and it’s basically an episode of Upon Further Review. It’s the fully dramatized, and hugely exaggerated, story of how Jesse Eisenberg’s letter to his favourite basketball player ruined the world. I love it. Pick of the week.

We Came to Win: “How Soccer Made It in America” — Another underdog story, and a perfectly good one. But I think I’m done with this show now.

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “The Songs of Summer” — An NPR Music takeover featuring a great many songs that I cannot rightly say I care about. I dunno. Some years I’m in new music mode. Some years I’m not. 2018 isn’t a new music year.

Home of the Brave: “Lick the Crickets by Larry Massett,” “Rumble Strip: It’s a Podcast” & “End of Season One: A Walk On the Beach” — “Lick the Crickets” is bonkers and I don’t understand it, nor do I feel the need to. I need more of this Larry Massett fellow in my life. Rumble Strip isn’t for me. But the story Scott Carrier replays to finish off his “first season” of Home of the Brave is beautiful. Just a conversation with an old friend as they walk along the beach. Simple. It’s the sort of thing people should do more of.

Trump Con Law: “Taking the Fifth” — This ties the Hollywood blacklist to the Russia campaign — but only conceptually! Though, I really would like to hear that conspiracy theory. Anyway, it’s really good.

Bullseye: “Special: The Wire!” — I don’t know if I’ve ever heard an interview with Wendell Pierce before, but that man is interesting. This whole episode is great and made me want to watch The Wire again. Wherever will I find the time.

StartUp: “Arlan Hamilton” episodes 1 & 2 — I’ll always give a new season of StartUp a shot. But as interesting as Arlan Hamilton is, this show has become Gimlet’s “business podcast.” It’s no longer about the real-time tribulations of startup founders who may or may not succeed, like it was in its epochal first season and its hugely underrated second. For now, I’m out.

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Omnibus (week of June 17, 2018)

Hang on tight, it’s a wordy one.

18 reviews.

Movies

The Iron Giant — Some combination of the hype surrounding The Incredibles 2 and being down and out with seasonal allergies on a Sunday morning inclined me to revisit a portion of my youth. I haven’t seen The Iron Giant since I was about 10, and I have never been a member of its sizable nostalgia cult. But Brad Bird is a darn good filmmaker, and all of his movies go the extra mile to deal with themes that young audiences won’t grasp the specifics of, but which will resonate more generally. In The Iron Giant’s case, that tendency manifests in the fact that it is a very good Cold War period piece. Its message isn’t a blandly pacifist one, but a specific one about the way we come to see the world when the powerful insist on stoking paranoia and framing everything in “us vs. them” terms. It even includes a parody of the ludicrous “duck and cover” PSAs played in classrooms in the 50s. It’s a story about Hogarth Hughes, a curiously wise child who delivers animist monologues about the integrity of the soul, and the huge metal E.T. he befriends and tries to protect. Pretty standard fare, but the beauty is in the specifics. The animation is beautiful, and has aged brilliantly — its use of primitive computer animation is restrained enough to simply appear as emphasis on the traditional animation. One of the film’s most ingenious moments involves the reveal of the giant’s origins: he has a nightmare about his home planet, which ends up appearing on a nearby television, intercut with scenes from an actual Jack Parr show. More animated movies should handle exposition wordlessly. They should also build up their principal characters’ relationships such that their climaxes can be as emotive as this one. They should also humanize their villains as well as this film does. The grinning FBI agent who antagonizes Hogarth even before he knows anything’s amiss is painted with a certain amount of sympathy. He’s an undistinguished buffoon who’s only trying to earn the respect of his peers. I hope parents still show this movie to their kids. It’s a genuine classic. Also, another ‘50s-style TV ad proclaims: “Tomorrowland! Promise of things to come!” Did Bird know even then that he’d made that (apparently disappointing) Disneyland movie with George Clooney?

Raising Arizona — I like to try and maintain a certain amount of unseen/unheard/unread works by my particular favourites. I’m extremely glad, for instance, never to have heard Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps), The Man Who Sold the World, Earthling, or Lodger in their entirety. The fact that they’re still there to experience for the first time is gratifying in itself, and I’ll savour that until I break down. The Coen Brothers are another artist with whom I’ve taken this approach. But they have the advantage over Bowie of still being alive. So even if I do complete their filmography, there’ll still be new ones every now and then. Their corpus is not yet finite. It was with that in mind that I finally allowed myself to watch Raising Arizona. Once you get over the shock of seeing a Coen brothers movie that doesn’t have the distinctive visual touch of Roger Deakins, it’s great fun. (I am convinced that the absence of Deakins from the much later Burn After Reading is the real reason why people don’t like it, whether they know it or not.) It spends the bulk of its duration content to be a very good caper comedy, with a very game Nicholas Cage giving a more openly ironic version of the career-best performance he’d offer in Wild at Heart three years later. Holly Hunter is given less to do, but she is admirably committed to the Coens’ total lack of subtext. The caper comedy reaches its zenith with one of the best chase scenes in all of cinema, scored by yodelling. Bless. But Raising Arizona turns into something altogether stranger and more grand in its final act, where Cage dispatches a surreal villain that seems to have invaded the film from a George Miller movie, and changes, possibly for the first time in his life. What’s really remarkable about Raising Arizona is that the protagonist doesn’t have a character arc so much as a character hockey stick. He has all the one-dimensionality of a genre character, until the very end of the movie, where he gains a modicum of self-awareness. It’s an unfamiliar structure, and it makes Raising Arizona into something more than a great comedy. I really loved this. It isn’t quite Fargo, but it’s up there with my idiosyncratic faves O Brother, Where Art Thou? and A Serious Man.

Page One — I decided to finally watch this after reading New York Magazine’s recent piece on Shane Smith and Vice. Suddenly, watching David Carr chastise that vapid skin balloon sounded like a hell of a good time. Page One is a fascinating time capsule. Its talking heads’ pontifications about the future of media seem as quaint now as they were obviously myopic at the time. (“Albany corruption stories, they may be important,” says Nick Denton. “But nobody really wants to read them.” That’s right, Nick. Give the people what they want. It’ll be fine.) One of the key ways in which this documentary’s reality differs from the world in 2018 is that it portrays Jeff Jarvis as an actual human, whereas now we know him primarily as a parody Twitter account. But nobody’s coming to a documentary from 2011 for perspectives on the future of the media. On the other hand, the behind-the-scenes element of the doc is fascinating. Admittedly, I am a bit of a Times partisan these days, but I found the scenes involving editors making decisions completely thrilling. It’s a clever idea for the doc to focus specifically on the writers at the Times who are covering the media, and particularly the crisis in the newspaper industry. David Carr is far and away the most entertaining part of the film, but the most prescient point anybody makes in the whole movie is a collaborative effort between him and media editor Bruce Headlam. When everybody suddenly sees the iPad as the saving grace of the news business (hahahahahahahahahahahaha), they both have the presence of mind to consider the fact that you don’t want to depend on a private tech giant for the survival and health of your publishing endeavour. I feel as though that’s not something most people had begun processing until substantially later. I don’t think I got there myself until I started reading John Hermann. The best single scene, though, involves a nonplussed Bruce Headlam watching a completely made-up segment on NBC about the end of the war in Iraq. The Coen brothers couldn’t have written something this epistemologically crazy, and they made Burn After Reading. That scene indicates that reality was out of joint long before Trump started campaigning for office. This is great, out of date or not.

The Incredibles 2 — Outstanding. In the theatre, there was a pretty even split of families and nostalgic millennials. It was one of the rare occasions when I heard adults and kids laughing at the same things. The comedy of The Incredibles 2 is primarily visual — animation like this is one of the few corners of modern cinema that truly reflect the legacy of Chaplin and Keaton. And a well-constructed sight gag is universal. Brad Bird’s visual imagination has always been his primary asset, and this is the best that it has ever been. The action sequences are better than anything the Marvel Cinematic Universe has offered in recent memory. One particular motorcycle chase featuring Elastigirl is one of the most riveting things I’ve watched since Fury Road left cinemas. On a smaller scale, the Incredible family’s youngest member has powers now, and he is the best and most imaginative part of the movie by far. Watching Baby Jack-Jack sneeze and inadvertently send himself flying clear through the high ceilings of the family’s new mid-century modern house is one of the simplest, purest pleasures of 2018’s cinema. Watching him get in a tussle with a raccoon is one of the most enjoyable things in any Pixar movie, ever. The premise of the Jack-Jack bits is elegant: if a baby had superpowers, they would not be governed by reason, and they would therefore be maddeningly unpredictable to that baby’s caretakers. The movie’s other successes come down to sheer attention to detail. The mid-century modern design and World’s Fair retrofuturism are endlessly fun to look at. Michael Giacchino’s music doesn’t do anything it wasn’t doing in the first movie, but it’s a brilliant score with themes that feel like they’ve always existed. The story is driving at some things it doesn’t quite manage — a subplot involving body cams, for example, fails entirely to comment on police violence. The movie’s admiration for a man who stays home with the kids is a little over the top. And the franchise’s relationship to the question “superheroes: are they good?” remains fraught. But that’s well beside the point. This is so much fun. My face hurts from smiling. Pick of the week.

Music

Belle and Sebastian: If You’re Feeling Sinister — I’m seeing Belle and Sebastian next week and I need to study up. My entry point was idiosyncratic, and I’m still basically ignorant of most of their classics. I’ll be honest: I don’t like this universally-acclaimed record as much as The Life Pursuit. But I do think it’s more than just nostalgia that inclines people towards it. The Life Pursuit is an album that boasts some good songwriting as well as really good playing. This one only has the former, and clothes it in simplistic, lo-fi arrangements. But that in itself is an aesthetic that appeals to the sort of people who love Belle and Sebastian. Myself, I struggle with it. But when you listen past the sonic quality to the songs themselves, they’re easily as strong as the ones I’ve come to love on The Life Pursuit and they don’t have as many slightly cringe-inducing lines. (“She made brass rubbings, she learned she never had to press hard.” ???) On a first listen, “Stars of Track and Field” is the obvious standout. It’s Rushmore as a pop song. But the title track and “Judy and the Dream of Horses” strike me as likely growers. Here beginneth the cramming.

Kanye West: ye — The ugliness of Kanye’s present worldview obviates the possibility of engaging with this album’s aesthetic merits. That’s all I have to say.

Stephen Sondheim/Mandy Patinkin, Bernadette Peters, et al: Sunday in the Park With George — I’m still gradually making my way through E.H. Gombrich’s The Story of Art. Naturally, when I got to Georges Seurat, I remembered that this existed. I sheepishly confess that I had hitherto known it only by reputation. I had only heard “Finishing the Hat,” a song that has the single best explanation of why people create things ever written: “Look, I made a hat! Where there never was a hat!” I have known that feeling. It’s intoxicating. The full musical is one of Sondheim’s strangest and subtlest creations. Listening to the cast album without context is hopeless. The story apparently happens largely in the spoken dialogue. But I read a synopsis and looked at a few clips of a filmed performance (that I’ll be watching in full) to get a sense of the staging, and once I’d done that, everything started to fall into place. An uncharitable reading of Sunday in the Park With George would describe it as a musical about difficult men and the women who suffer for them. A more charitable way to look at it would be to view it as a musical about two people compelled to leave legacies, and the legacies they leave. Act one tells the story of the doomed relationship between the painter Georges Seurat and his lover Dot. It culminates with the two of them apart, but with George (as he’s known in the show) having completed his masterpiece, A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte, which truly is a marvellous picture. You should Google it. In completing that, George has left his own legacy, and Dot has left a legacy as well — in the way that she chose, which was to be an artist’s model. Act two jumps ahead to 1984, the year of the musical’s premiere, when George and Dot’s great-grandson is himself an artist, though one of a very different temperament. This George, like Dot, is fictional. The musical can’t be regarded as in any way true to life. Like Seurat’s art, it is a view of real things through the perspective of an artist with a singular vision. The second act is often considered vastly inferior to the first, but I love it, because it explores the way that the legacies George and Dot chose for themselves played out. They both attained a measure of immortality through art. And they both attained a measure of immortality through their offspring. The story of the second act is the story of one legacy reconciling himself to the other. Both acts end with a rendition of one of Sondheim’s most straightforwardly beautiful songs, “Sunday.” In the first, this song conveys the final completion of La Grande Jatte, with the noisy reality of the characters in the part made into harmonious beauty through George’s vision. (The way Sondheim expresses this musically is a thing only he could do.) In the second act, it conveys the second George’s realization that the painting belongs to him, and he belongs to it. It is emotionally and thematically complex stuff, far stranger and better than the vast majority of Broadway musicals. Plus, the recording features two of the most inimitable voices in musical theatre: Mandy Patinkin and Bernadette Peters. Both, especially the latter, are acquired tastes. But they are infinitely expressive. Can’t wait to watch the film.

Literature, etc.

Zach Ferriday: “Schism Symphony” — This is the only piece I’ve read that really confronts the uncomfortable relationship between the importance of tradition in classical music and social conservatism. It articulates a point of view I’ve been failing to articulate for years. Read it if you’re one of the classical music types who sometimes listen to things I say.

Games

The Legend of Zelda: Oracle of Ages — I believe I started playing this in 2017. That should tell you how good I am at video games. The Zelda franchise is a thing I maintain a childish loyalty to. I have fond memories of the N64 instalments, of which I maintain that Majora’s Mask is an enduring masterpiece. The footage of Breath of the Wild that I’ve seen almost makes me want to break down and buy my first console since the fifth generation. But I was really more of a Game Boy kid, so my loyalties to some extent still lie with the 2D, top-down format of Link’s Awakening and the GBA port of A Link to the Past. For whatever reason, I never got around to the Oracle games as a kid. (Context: Oracle of Ages and Oracle of Seasons are partner games that can be played in either order, and can be customized to reflect which you played first.) As Zelda games do, Oracle of Ages provided me with wave upon wave of pleasing familiarity. (The differences between Zelda games are a bit like the differences between Yasujiro Ozu films: subtle.) And I was, after all, mostly in it for the nostalgia. But satisfyingly, Oracle of Ages is also a fabulous, eminently recommendable game that holds up marvellously. Plus, for those nerds among us who are interested in the series’ development over time, the Oracle games occupy an interesting place in the Zelda corpus. Nintendo farmed them out to Capcom rather than making them in-house — a surprising development. More notably, it’s the first 2D Zelda game to be made after the series had entered the third dimension. It’s quite clear throughout that Capcom was thinking hard about the value proposition of a 2D Zelda in the wake of the enormous success of the N64 Zeldas. There is some implicit novelty in playing a post-Ocarina of Time 2D Zelda game. None of the other 2D Zelda games I’ve played have Goron or Zora civilizations — a continuity idea that originated in Ocarina. The Zora segment of the game is particularly reminiscent of its N64 predecessor. That section’s dungeon is the innards of the guardian fish spirit Jabu-Jabu, a dungeon also seen in Ocarina. But the mechanics of this game’s version of Jabu-Jabu are maybe its best argument for the value of 2D gaming. Its aesthetic cribs from Ocarina’s Jabu-Jabu, but its central puzzle is a seemingly conscious attempt to better the mechanics of Ocarina’s infamous Water Temple. The need to raise and lower the water level in the dungeon implicitly works better in two dimensions, with discrete divisions between floors. It’s a brilliant design. However, why Jabu-Jabu’s belly is so full of switches is anybody’s guess. In general, the water-based parts of the game are the most enthralling. Link’s diving ability arrives at a moment in the game where the map has totally opened up. The early parts of the game are based around Link having a limited ability to move backwards and forwards in time, with a similar effect as in the dark and light worlds of A Link to the Past. But things really get fun when you’re finally able to move between the two times at will. And almost immediately after, you’re given the ability to dive underwater, revealing another whole world on the ocean floor. That means that lots of the map squares in Oracle of Ages’ overworld have four distinct forms: above water and below water, in past and present respectively. This is magnificently dense, and the source of many excellent puzzle solutions. On that note: Ages’ puzzles and level design in general is among the strongest in the franchise up to this point. I’m not familiar with many of Capcom’s games, but it strikes me as predictable that non-Nintendo Zelda games would excel in gameplay more than mood or story. Usually I find boss fights tedious. Honestly I sometimes find dungeons tedious, which calls into question why I bother with Zelda games at all. But Oracle of Ages’ dungeons are a joy. The best of them (Jabu-Jabu, Mermaid’s Cave, Skull Dungeon) are one big puzzle with many moving parts that each relate to each other intuitively. Rooms are designed to teach you things. Some puzzle solutions are as simple and elegant as simply realizing that you won’t fall down holes when you’re swimming. The Indiana Jones-inspired Ancient Tomb even foregoes complex puzzle mechanics in its opening stages to conjure the feeling of descending into a haunted ruin. You don’t have to figure anything out, but you do have to throw bombs around to clear away the rubble. (The dungeon doesn’t concern itself especially with who is buried there, but whatever.) And each dungeon is capped off by a boss fight that’s actually fun and innovative. I’m particularly fond of Octogon in the Mermaid’s Cave, who you have to fight both above and below water, and Smog in the Crown Dungeon, who is not so much a boss as a malevolent puzzle. There are a few types of rooms that repeat themselves more than one would like across multiple dungeons — rooms that the devs may have thought to be cleverer than they are. But overall, the experience of playing this game is extremely satisfying. Its disappointing elements are only evident when you compare it with other Zelda games. Link’s Awakening is the most obvious point of comparison, since the interface of this game is basically identical to that one. It’s been a while since I played Link’s Awakening. Based on my hazy memory, it didn’t have puzzles anywhere close to this satisfying. But that’s a game that stays with me, because its premise and the way it has of presenting its world are unique. Link’s Awakening feels dreamlike and fairy-tale-esque, rather than the straightforward high fantasy of other Zelda instalments. Oracle of Ages has plenty of fun interactions with characters who are more than willing to spout this franchise’s signature one to two lines of flavour text. But the writing doesn’t contain any of the charming non-sequiturs that have given Zelda its slightly surreal feeling since the very beginning. (“It’s a secret to everyone!”) In general, this game’s world, Labrynna, feels more like a collection of the necessary Zelda locales (big town, smaller town, Goron town, Zora town, fairy forest, graveyard…) thrown together by fiat than it does an attempt to do anything new with those elements. And as similar as the early Zeldas sometimes are to each other, I think you can argue that every Zelda game prior to this attempted to display its constituent parts at a slightly different angle, with varying degrees of success. The world in Oracle of Ages is simply a mode of conveyance for its outstanding puzzles. And that’s fine. But in the long run, I feel like it’ll mean this is a game that I enjoyed more in the moment than I do in retrospect. Still, I confess to having been tickled by segments of the game’s story, particularly where the character Ralph is concerned. He’s desperately in love with the titular Oracle of Ages, and he tries his best to be the hero in the story, only to be constantly usurped by Link, whose only advantage is being the player character. I am team Ralph. Ralph is good people. I had a great time playing this. I’ll be taking a break from Zelda now, because a little goes a long way. But I’ll be back for Seasons eventually.

Podcasts

Trump Con Law catch-up — The latest spate of episodes is much the same in quality as the rest. I like the spirit of this show, which takes an increasingly crazy political situation and tries to use it for all of our educational advantage. Small compensation, but here we are. Also: the Twitter episode, which explores the nature of a presidential Twitter feed and whether it constitutes a “public space,” made me realize a crazy thing: in the social media age, we have started to think about things as places. *shudder*

99% Invisible catch-up — This run of episodes introduced me to Decoder Ring, contained an interview with John Cleese, explained the catch-22 of living in mobile housing, alerted me to the concept of “curb cut design,” informed me of a vault full of seeds in case we wipe out all the nature, and briefly made me care about basketball jerseys. Not bad.

Decoder Ring: “The Johnlock Conspiracy” — This looks set to become my favourite pop culture podcast. This is a story about a community of Sherlock fans who took fandom too far. It starts off with an exploration of shipping, a perfectly fine thing. But gradually, the story descends into the depths of a conspiratorial community who are, as far as I’m concerned, media illiterate. The idea is: eventually, Benedict Cumberbatch’s Sherlock Holmes and Martin Freeman’s John Watson will be written into a relationship, and the showrunners of Sherlock have been lying constantly when they say this won’t happen. This is more than just a careful examination of the show’s homoerotic subject: it’s an insistence that the show is one thing, and only one thing, and everything that it is aside from that one thing is a red herring. It reminds me of the particular kind of media illiteracy that runs rampant in the gaming community, where every ounce of ambiguity in the storylines of games like Night in the Woods or Virginia has to be resolvable in a single, internally consistent interpretation if the games are to be taken seriously. Games that actively invite this type of meticulous internal reconciling, like Undertale and the Bioshock franchise, seem to invite less controversy from this crowd. One comes away from these critiques feeling that the people who make them need more Virginia Woolf in their diet. Also, aesthetic concerns aside, the adherents to the Johnlock conspiracy can be very mean. Mean to the point that I’m not posting this review on Tumblr. Yes, I’m a coward. Sue me, it’s my own damn blog.

Imaginary Worlds catch-up — Of the past five episodes the most recent one is the best, in spite of somewhat inauspicious subject matter: Magic: The Gathering. I have fond memories of this card game, but I remember its “storyline,” such as it is, as being best ignored in favour of the game’s wonderful mechanics. I wasn’t persuaded otherwise by this episode, but I do see a little more of what they’re trying to do.

In the Dark: “Why Curtis?” — The latest episode in APM Reports’ evisceration of the prosecution’s case against Curtis Flowers paints a picture of an investigation that just went with the first suspect they found.

Caliphate: “One Year Later” — I read a piece in the London Review of Books that expressed doubts about the New York Times’ practice of taking documents from Iraq to report on ISIS from the U.S. I sympathize with these doubts, so I was happy to find that this final episode of Caliphate ends with Rukmini Callimachi escorting the boxes of documents that have been so vital to her reporting to the Iraqi consulate. In my view, the quality of Callimachi’s reporting justifies her having the first look at these documents. Her stories, and this podcast, have been outstanding journalism. This episode circles back to the Canadian former ISIS recruit who was the subject of the first several episodes, before Callimachi went to Mosul. It finds him expressing a conflicted worldview that his counsellor finds worrying. At the end of Caliphate, you’re left with the impression that perhaps the most important way to fight ISIS is to fight against the xenophobia that leads to the radicalization of people like this. All the same, Callimachi and her producers never goad you into feeling this way by explicitly sympathizing with him. To do that would be slightly monstrous, considering his story. It’s a fine balance, struck with the poise of a considered ethicist. Caliphate is hard listening. It is not “enjoyable,” in the conventional sense of the word. But it is probably the best podcast of the year. Pick of the week.

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “The Great Big Stand-Up Roundup” & “Jurassic World, Jurassic Park and What’s Making Us Happy” — Sad no Tig Notaro in stand-up roundup. Happy no love for Jurassic World in Jurassic World episode.

The Daily: “How Separating Migrant Families Became U.S. Policy,” “Father and Son, Forced Apart at the Border” & “Trump Ends His Child Separation Policy” — The news this week has been the saddest it has been in ages. These episodes helped make sense of it in a factual way, if not an emotional way.

Code Switch: “Looking for Marriage in All The Wrong Places” — Here’s something: dating apps based in India can’t accommodate LGBTQ people, because gay sex is illegal there. I hadn’t thought about that. This is a story about it.