Tag Archives: Downton Abbey

Omnibus (week of Oct. 15, 2017)

It was more of an audiobook week than a podcast week, so once again we’ve got two non-podcast picks of the week.

15 reviews.

Literature, etc.

Jane Mayer: “The Danger of President Pence” — This satisfyingly lengthy feature details all the many wondrous failings and creepinesses of the Vice-President. You’ve probably seen bits of it excerpted on Twitter, but you owe it to yourself to read it in full. Pence would be a disastrous president, because he’s a more efficient political operative than the orangutan who employs him, but he also has no spine with which to stand up to the Kochs, and a truly terrifying case of Jesus freakiness. I’ll decline to quote anything because you should just go read it all.

Stephen King: It (audiobook) — I’m nine hours into this 45-hour behemoth, and I have no regrets. The primary advantage of hearing this as an audiobook rather than reading it is just that you can’t cheat and steal a glimpse at the next page. There’s no way out of the tension. Steven Weber is a marvellous narrator, with a wide range of character voices that don’t feel too over the top. His Pennyworth is more restrained than, for instance, Tim Curry’s (based on the clips I’ve seen). But it’s still creepy as hell. As a book, It is thrilling, and surprisingly ambitious. I shouldn’t make too many judgements yet, because I’ve got 80% of this left to go. But so far, it’s both a convincing picture of the unique horrors of childhood and an interesting exploration of the human tendency to repress trauma for the sake of our sanity. The way it tells two stories at a time — the story of a group of adults reuniting after years apart, and the much earlier story of the horror that haunts all of them subconsciously — works really well. The horror in this first part arises mostly from seeing our main characters through the eyes of others, who are forced to acknowledge that there’s something terrifying about their husband/wife/employee etc. that they’ve never seen before. The best and most frightening scene in the book so far is one in which the author William Denbrough (an obvious King self-insert) tries to communicate as much of his hidden past as he can to his wife without driving her completely insane. It’s the kind of scene in which the book validates its massive length. We’ll see if I still feel that way after 36 more hours of it.

Philip Pullman: The Golden Compass — I never thought we’d get another full novel that ties into His Dark Materials, let alone another whole trilogy. I am delighted on behalf of my inner child, and also young weirdos growing up today. I will be reading La Belle Sauvage with relish, but I need to brush up because I haven’t read the His Dark Materials trilogy since I was eleven. So far, The Golden Compass is as magical as I remember it being. Lyra is one of the great protagonists in children’s literature, and Pullman succeeds in making a university full of fusty old scholars seem like a wonderland in the early chapters. This is like encountering an old friend.

Movies

Blade Runner 2049 — Let’s take a few runs at this. Firstly, let’s look at it as a movie in itself. Blade Runner 2049 is the latest film from Denis Villeneuve, the director of at least two previous masterpieces. (This is the third film of his I’ve seen.) It is his first blockbuster franchise film (even if the box office figures suggest that the block has not been busted to the extent that the studio probably hoped), and the most lavish and ostentatious of his recent movies. It is shot by cinematographer Roger Deakins, whose lack of an Oscar has at this point exceeded pre-2007 Martin Scorsese levels of ludicrousness. As a sensory experience, it is one of the best movies in recent memory. The way the camera hangs and drifts across the film’s beautiful production design invokes a sense of elegance that gets periodically blown away by the film’s shockingly aggressive, kickass score by Hans Zimmer and Benjamin Wallfisch. (See this in cinemas for the sound alone. It’s Zimmer’s best work.) It contains some specific sequences that deserve to go down in history, such as the construction of a dream of a birthday party, and a fistfight backed by a hologram of Elvis. It tells the story of a person who has to reckon with the notion that he may not be what he thinks he is, and it tells this story without any ostentatious philosophizing. It is a massively good movie. Next, let’s look at it as an expansion of Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner. The original film is in my opinion a sublime masterpiece, and even a great film from one of the best directors of our time is going to have a hard time measuring up. That’s why this is step two in the process. Even though Blade Runner 2049 is not as good a film as Blade Runner, it is one of the best examples of respecting without replicating in this era of endless rehashes. It would have been simple to remake the original film beat for beat, like in Star Wars: The Force Awakens (which Iike). But Blade Runner is a different kind of film from Star Wars and calls for a different kind of engagement in a sequel. Blade Runner is slow, thinky, painterly, and not culturally ubiquitous. In keeping with that, Blade Runner 2049 is a slow, thinky, painterly film that relies as much on its director’s unique vision as on the canon it inherits from its generative nostalgia object. This film’s exterior scenes take place in locations with three hues: it starts in a grey place, moves to a black place, and eventually carries us to a red place. Of these, the grey and red places are new. Maybe it seems absurd to suggest that this movie distinguishes itself from its predecessor by adding Two New Colours! But I’ve always thought of Blade Runner as a moving painting as much as a work of storytelling. So, introducing these two new locations with their vastly new aesthetics is a very substantial choice indeed. And right from the start, no less. Only once the story’s new protagonist has been properly introduced in the grey place are we allowed back into the theatrical, horizonless blackness that is the original film’s defining visual feature. Even the elements of the story that involve Rick Deckard, the first film’s protagonist, show facets of him that haven’t seen before. (This is by some margin Harrison Ford’s best role reprisal of recent years.) The new film has nothing to offer in place of Blade Runner’s one truly excellent character, Roy Batty. But it was wise of them not to try. Any attempt at “Rutger-Hauer-but-not” would have been doomed to ridiculousness. Jared Leto’s character flirts with it as it is. Also: the fact that the film reintroduces Philip K. Dick’s idea of non-robotic animals being sought-after items (largely excised from Scott’s film) is a fun touch. I haven’t read Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, by the way. But I have heard Terry Gilliam describe the plot, which I imagine is just as good. Now let’s look at it as a piece of fanservice. The most gratifying thing about this movie is that it is not primarily fanservice. But when they go that route, by god, they do it well. Gaff’s origami sheep is the best specific example. But the most satisfying element of fanservice in the movie is simply how beautifully recreated all of the environments from Scott’s original are. When we’re in the black heart of future Los Angeles, this movie looks almost exactly like the original, down to the huge Atari logo (a company which we now know will not have survived to 2049). Villeneuve is canny enough to realize that Blade Runner’s visuals are among the least dated of its time, and that its bleak cityscapes don’t require visual modernization to the same extent as, say, the starship Enterprise. The same goes for the hazy, gold-lit halls of power. The light’s a bit more liquid and a bit less gaseous these days, but it’s familiar enough. We also get a curiously lengthy sequence in which an image is enhanced on a screen. And best of all, we get a beautiful ending in which Zimmer and Wallfisch’s brilliant score dissolves into the music that inspired it: Vangelis’s original score for Roy’s death scene in the first film. As a fan of the original, I feel respected without being pandered to. Finally, let’s acknowledge that this film is maddeningly sexist. The original was no great feminist touchstone, but this one is maybe worse. It’s a huge blight on an otherwise excellent film, and it colours my impressions of it accordingly. Devon Maloney’s take in Wired is excellent. Still, I loved Blade Runner 2049, for the same primary reasons as I loved Blade Runner: it is an almost unimaginably beautiful thing to look at and listen to. Pick of the week.

Television

Downton Abbey: Season 6, episodes 4-9 — “You couldn’t be harder on those potatoes if you wanted them to confess to spying!” Mrs. Patmore, always and forever. This final run of Downton Abbey was engineered to be satisfying, and with a few exceptions, it is. For me the biggest exception is the plotline involving Mr. Carson and Mrs. Hughes’ marriage. Carson’s tendency to prioritize his responsibility to the Crawley family and their way of life over his responsibility to his wife is played for laughs, and he’s never adequately put in his place for it. He suffers a bit, sure, but I don’t feel like we really got to see him come to understand that there are more important things than the rigorous performance of his duties. He is a terrible husband, and this season paints him as a more ruthless and doctrinaire man than previous ones. Mrs. Hughes can’t help but be steamrolled. But most of the rest of the season is fine. We don’t really ever get to know the fellow Mary ends up with, which is too bad considering that her romantic travails made up the bulk of the tension in early seasons. But I do love that he gets a job as a used car salesman and she’s okay with it. Progress is hard to come by in this show, so we’d best take what we can get. On to the finale. Old Lady Grantham gets the two most apropos benedictions, the most relevant of which being “There’s a lot at risk, but with any luck they’ll be happy enough. Which is the English version of a happy ending.” At first glance, it may not seem like the show itself shares her view — nobody comes off especially badly in the end, and even those characters whose futures we don’t know get sent off with the suggestion of better things to come. Let’s nobody pretend like Tom isn’t going to end up married to that editor. But Lady Grantham is correct when she says “there’s a lot at risk.” If there’s one thing we should have learned by now about the world of Downton Abbey, it’s that present-day happiness does not imply everlasting happiness. It’s all well and good for the show to leave all of its characters in a good place at its close. In fact, it barely even seems cheap, because there’s every chance that Downton won’t make it into the next decade. Lady Grantham’s other benediction is the series’ proper final line. “Makes me smile,” she says, “the way every year we drink to the future, whatever it may bring.” Cousin Isobel responds: “Well, what else could we drink to? We’re going forward into the future, not backward into the past.” To which old Lady Grantham replies: “If only we had the choice.” It’s a joke, but Isobel’s face tells the rest of the story. She is looking at a woman who would gladly reverse a century of progress to regain the prestige she once knew. That’s what Downton Abbey is about, maybe as much for its creator as for its characters: the desire to live in a rose-tinted, imaginary version of a barbaric past. I have enjoyed this show immensely, but I have no idea whether I’ve been reading it against the grain this whole time or not. I suppose that’s the greatest demonstration of its virtues.

Comedy

Patton Oswalt: Annihilation — This has been a good year for sad comedy. Chris Gethard’s Career Suicide is barely comedy for much of its duration. Maria Bamford’s Old Baby finds her in better shape than previous specials, but she’s still playing emotional sudoku. Annihilation is Patton Oswalt’s public reckoning with the death of his wife. That’s not all it is — there’s some Trump material that’s relatively similar to Marc Maron’s Trump material from his special this year. (If ever there were a topic about which two comics were going to arrive independently at the same jokes, it’s Donald Trump.) There’s some outstanding crowdwork. And there’s a hysterical story about the best fight Oswalt ever witnessed. But the meat and potatoes of the set is Oswalt’s material about trying to help his daughter through the loss of her mother, while he himself wasn’t even close to finished grieving. The rawest emotional territory is often the most fruitful for comedy, and that’s clearly the case here. Grief has made Oswalt notice the tiny absurdities that interrupt his numbness very acutely, and he spins it into some great jokes, including a particularly excellent bit about a well-meaning Polish airport security officer who ruins his daughter’s day. This is draining stuff at times, but it’s very good.

Games

Dr. Langeskov, The Tiger, and the Terribly Cursed Emerald: A Whirlwind Heist — This 20-minute free game from one of the folks behind The Stanley Parable is delightful. I played it twice, once in the suggested 20-minute fashion, and once in a more luxurious 50 minutes. It’s worth playing twice, since the second time bequeaths you with a tape deck that allows you to play cassettes littered about, which contain voice work by Rick and Morty’s Justin Roiland. But even without him, the voice work is great. The narrator is Simon Amstell, in full-on panic mode. As a meta-comment on walking simulators and choice in games, it’s nowhere near as insightful as The Stanley Parable, but it’s free! And it’s funny! And it’ll take almost none of your time. And it’s more detailed than you might initially detect. What excuse do you have?

Music

Kendrick Lamar: DAMN. — It took a while, but I’ve come around to thinking this is one of the best albums of the year. “DUCKWORTH.” in particular blows my mind, but “FEAR.” is one of Kendrick’s best tracks too. “HUMBLE.” is super catchy, definitely this album’s “King Kunta.” It’s a grower.

The Tragically Hip: Day For Night — Look: those of you who think this band is undistinguished generic rock, I hear you. I think lots of their albums fit that description. But Gord Downie’s lyrics are the exact opposite of generic. They approach Kate Bush levels of specificity. And that is always the case. But here is an album where the music actually rises to the challenge of illustrating Downie’s poetry. It’s an album of moody sonic landscapes as much as it is an album of guitar shredding. I was actually surprised to find that it wasn’t produced by Daniel Lanois. It doesn’t have the same density of recognizable classics as Fully Completely, but it is for my money a much more satisfying start-to-finish listening experience. Tracks like “Thugs” and “Titanic Terrarium” are as good a demonstration of why the Hip are a good band as “Courage” and “Wheat Kings.” If you pay close attention to Gord on this album, I’ll wager there’s a lyric in every song that’ll lodge in your head. “I want a book that’ll make me drunk/full of freaks and disenfranchised punks,” he sings on “An Inch An Hour,” which is a song you’ll only hear if you’re listening to the record. Ditto for “Yawning or Snarling,” the chorus of which goes “Take a look at this photograph/clearly his teeth were bared/he could have been yawning or snarling/the story was never clear.” By most estimations, the classics from this disc are “Grace, Too,” “Nautical Disaster” and “Scared,” all of which are brilliant, the last of which is probably my favourite song by this band. I have no idea what it means. I just know I have a visceral response to it. Maybe because I’m scared of everything? Who can say. In any case, I humbly suggest if you’ve never heard the Hip that this is the album you should hear. I knew very little about them until this whole country went into a completely understandable fit of acute sadness over his cancer diagnosis. This was the album that made me understand why. I miss him already. Pick of the week.

The Rolling Stones: Goats Head Soup — Why stop at Exile? We’re on a roll, SO TO SPEAK. And besides, it looks like three of the next six albums in their catalogue are reasonably well regarded, so I may as well get at least up to Tattoo You. This album is nearly as unfocused as Exile, but without the sprawling length that makes it feel like a purposeful lack of focus. Still, it sounds like a band fully in control of their dynamic, and its best songs are outright classics that would have fared well on any previous album. The lead single, “Angie” is not one of those songs. Not that it’s bad, but it’s hard not to compare it to previous ballads like “Wild Horses” and “Shine A Light,” in which context it falls hugely flat. The best stuff here is “Doo Doo Doo Doo Doo (Heartbreaker),” which is the most successfully funky the band has ever been (thank you, Billy Preston), and “Winter,” which is like “Moonlight Mile” having been brought back down to earth. I like this. I’ll listen to it again. I think I like it better than Beggars Banquet.

The Rolling Stones: It’s Only Rock ‘n Roll — The best thing on this album is the rim shot sound on “Time Waits For No One.” The way it’s recorded is so satisfying. It’s like snapping a particularly snug top back on a bottle. But there isn’t really much on this that I loved. “Till The Next Goodbye” is a pretty good ballad, but the rockers feel like pale imitations of earlier, better hits. So begins the fall, I suppose. Well, at least Some Girls is coming up soon.

Podcasts

The Daily: Oct. 18 & 19, 2017 — Two great instalments: especially the October 18 episode, which features a fantastic interview with Shannon Mulcahy, a steelworker who found great freedom in her job, until it was shipped to Mexico. President Trump hasn’t fixed the problem the way she hoped. This is an adaptation of a print story, but it’s told as a true radio story, with tape and everything. Thursday’s episode on the state of the Islamic State is a good summation of a topic I can’t keep track of.

Constellations: “miyuki jokiranta – no event” & “Is This an Exercise? By Julie Shapiro” — I’m noticing a pattern in the episodes of this sound art focussed podcast: the sort of experimental audio they favour is the lyrical, lugubrious sort. This is all well and good, but I’m looking forward to hearing something really propulsive at some point. Anyway, these are two great pieces, especially the one by Miyuki Jokiranta about a medical procedure and our perception of time. You should be listening to this.

Imaginary Worlds: “The Haunted Mansion” — Let’s just say it’s the second best horror-inclined, Disney-related podcast of the month. Not that I’m biased.

What Trump Can Teach Us About Con Law: “Impeachment” — I’ve decided I like this show. I particularly love how aware Roman Mars is that his audience wants to see the back of President Trump. I will keep listening.

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Omnibus (week of Oct. 9, 2017)

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

23 reviews.

Movies

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

Television

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

Games

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

Literature, etc.

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

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

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

Music

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

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

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

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

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

Podcasts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Omnibus (week of July 24, 2017)

This was one of those weeks where I watched a whole season of TV. It happens. But I still managed to get a bunch of podcasts in and some truly wonderful music. 25 reviews.

Movies

Blade Runner — The only other time I’ve watched Blade Runner was when I was probably 16. I’m not sure which cut I watched at the time, but it couldn’t have been the Final Cut, which I watched this time, because that didn’t come out until the next year. Regardless, I remembered liking it a lot, but that’s kind of all I remembered. This week, I watched the Final Cut with a friend, in a state of distraction and fatigue. Truthfully, a lot of the story and many of the themes slipped past me, given how little attention I was paying. But the result of this was a unique sort of viewing experience: I feel as though I watched Blade Runner as a painting. Without following the story or attempting to parse the characters’ motivations and identities, Blade Runner becomes a mystifying, entrancing procession of sensations and impressions. If it were possible to photoshop out all of the main characters from Blade Runner and mute all of the dialogue, I daresay it would still be a compelling art film. It would still be a fever dream of a future city: we would still see the magnificent towers occupied by the very privileged, the sweaty masses of pedestrians in the Tokyo-inspired lower quarters, the vast modernist step pyramids where authority lives, and the total dominance of advertising from the street level straight up to the rarified air of the police aircrafts. We would still have Vangelis’s abstract, improvisational score imparting a feel of creeping malaise. We would still see rooms filled with grotesque semi-sentient toys, and beams of golden light enrobing the figure of an owl with a curiously reflective iris. When my friend and I first tried to start the movie, we were disappointed to discover that her HDMI cable had reached the end of its lifespan. (“It’s too bad she won’t live. But then again, who does?”) We rushed to London Drugs for a replacement, and since the store was just about to close, one of the employees in the home electronics section was indulging himself by playing Philip Glass’s score to Koyaanisqatsi over the speakers. A small moment of serendipity, this was. Koyaanisqatsi is an experimental film by Godfrey Reggio that was released the same year Blade Runner was. Inevitably, the music conjured up the film’s narrative-free imagery of late 20th-century cities in my mind, and it remained lodged there throughout the duration of Blade Runner. Maybe that’s part of why I saw it the way I did. Contained within Blade Runner is both a science fiction thriller about human identity and a sort of speculative Koyaanisqatsi. Where Reggio’s film is a study of then-contemporary urban malaise, conveyed through images and evocative music, Ridley Scott’s is the same thing for an imagined near future. The two films never struck me as being of a piece with each other before, but I doubt the connection will ever leave me now. I might watch Blade Runner again next week. I love this movie and I still don’t really know what it’s about.

Television

Twin Peaks: The Return: Part 11 — Okay, so Shelly has abruptly become much less admirable in the show’s estimation. First, she jumps onto the windshield of a moving car, something no reasonably intelligent person would do, regardless of the circumstance. Then, she instantaneously forgets the moment of family crisis she’s trying to negotiate when her latest criminal boyfriend drops by. I mean, it’s not like she didn’t always have a thing for criminals, but that scene is super weird. One second she’s crying, embracing her off-the-rails daughter, and the next, she’s scampering away from that same daughter as fast as she can to go make out with Balthazar Getty. I am trying hard to maintain my view that Twin Peaks is intrinsically worthwhile by virtue of being unlike anything else on television, but it’s not making it easy. Mind you, if it were making it easy, it wouldn’t be unlike anything else on television.

Game of Thrones: “Stormborn” — Wow, this must be blazingly good for me to not hate it. I always hate the beginnings of GoT seasons. Now I’m actually looking forward to this show’s next episode. I don’t think that’s happened for about three seasons. That’s my highest possible praise for this show, so I’ll just leave it at that.

Downton Abbey: Season 5 — Once you start a season of Downton it is impossible not to finish it that week. I defy anybody to try. Here is the season where everybody’s moral clarity, however misbegotten, gets shot to hell. The situation with Edith’s illegitimate daughter is an absolute minefield. While the constant scenes of her getting turned away by the unknowing foster mother of her illegitimate child get trying, the denouement of that plotline makes everybody a victim. Edith herself is the victim of the social strictures of her time that would see her scandalized if her pregnancy had been revealed, and the foster mother is deprived of the child that she raised because of her inferior class. When Cora finds out, even she is unable to maintain her usual consistency of ethics: she’s deeply offended that Violet and Rosamund kept the secret from her, but once she knows she claims it’s “not their secret to tell,’ even to Robert who by rights has an equal claim to the knowledge as Cora. But of course she’s right to feel he can’t know. Because he’s an ass-backwards jerk. That ought to be the reasoning Cora offers. And he is awfully insufferable this season. One of Downton’s perverse delights is watching as Robert’s way of life is eroded gradually in ways he finds unacceptable and unjust. His misplaced anxiety about his wife’s fidelity is a clever way for the show to demonstrate the extent to which his grip is slipping. But it’s also a clear indication of how much he takes Cora for granted. Elizabeth McGovern walks a fine line in scenes with her would-be illicit lover Simon Bricker: never once implying that she actually wants to have an affair, but happy to be appreciated for once. Meanwhile, Mary maintains her steadfast code of self-interest and remains basically sympathetic due to the extent to which her being that way flies in the face of convention. I’m quite the fan of how this season makes it even clearer that she’s the second coming of her grandmother, with all of the wit and imperiousness that entails. As for her suitor Lord Gillingham, holy smokes what a dolt. I never tire of scenes in which he steadfastly refuses to acknowledge that he is no longer involved with Mary. I have no particular wishes for how the relationships on this show are to turn out, but I’m very happy to see that guy get thrown over. And on the note of Mary’s similarity to Violet: Maggie Smith continues to be the best part of this show, if only because her total insincerity offers a comment on the proceedings that’s in line with those of us who find ourselves watching Downton half in spite of ourselves. Her storyline with Cousin Isabel, and their mutually unexpected reinvigorated romantic prospects is probably the most consistently amusing thing in this season. As for historical context, the first Labour government gives rise to hopes and fears alike among the servants. For Carson, whose identity and what prestige he has is based entirely on the continuing prosperity of the aristocracy, it seems catastrophic. But for Daisy, who still has her life ahead of her, it seems like an opportunity to do something more with her life. It’s an interesting exploration of the double bind that the serving staff are in: reliant upon the class structure for their livelihoods, but held back by it in larger measure. Also, now that we’re well into the inter-war period, I suppose there need to be some anti-Semites in the show. Clever of Fellowes to have Rose fall for Atticus before she knows of his Jewish heritage. That prevents the unpleasant sense that she’s fetishizing his otherness the way she did with her previous suitor, who was black. Altogether, I think this is one of the stronger seasons of the show, if only because it focusses in on its characters and their lives more than contriving schemes and implausible happenstances to elicit drama. But I honestly would have been pretty much satisfied even if it were just nine hours of Lord Grantham getting called “Donk” by a small child.

Music

Buffy Sainte-Marie: Illuminations — One of the great underrecognized classics of the era. This is the album where Buffy Sainte-Marie leaves folkiedom behind in favour of a very idiosyncratic and not-to-be-pigeonholed rendition of psychedelia. She’s cited Morton Subotnick as an influence in the past, probably the only songwriter I’ve ever seen that remark from. And the electronic filigree that links this album’s songs together has Silver Apples of the Moon’s influence all over it. Except it never outstays its welcome. One of the best things about the rock music of the late 60s and early 70s is the fact that all of these musicians were listening to avant-garde classical music, but had the impulse to fold its aesthetic into their music rather than its spirit, which didn’t necessarily always prioritize sounding good. I have no problem with that, but it’s nice to hear the legacy of Subotnick colliding with something I actually love. And the songs themselves are outstanding. “God is Alive, Magic is Afoot” is fun because it’s not a Leonard Cohen cover, but rather a setting of a poem that he himself did not set to music. How lovely it is that we have in the world a song that can be credited to Cohen/Sainte-Marie. The music is pleasingly simplistic: Sainte-Marie has cottoned onto the chant-like character of the text and made that the central inspiration for her music. Among the originals, my favourites are “Better to Find Out for Yourself,” “The Dream Tree,” “Keeper of the Fire” and “Poppies.” The first and third of these feature some of Sainte-Marie’s most aggressive singing. One reason I love her early records so much is because she offers such a compelling alternative to more conventionally pretty folk voices of the time, like Joan Baez and Joni Mitchell. She has that sweet, lyrical character in her voice as well, and it comes out gorgeously on “The Dream Tree.” but that’s only one facet of the voice. “Better to Find Out for Yourself” finds her folding wolf calls into the ends of her phrases and “Keeper of the Fire” is a flat-out hard rock vocal performance with an imitation guitar solo in the voice as well. This is a classic, visionary, haunting album and I am constantly appalled by its overlookedness.

Pink Floyd: The Early Years 1965-72 — Oh man, the audio portion of this box set is on Apple Music now! (Except for the last volume, because they still have to entice me to buy the set somehow. As if the hours of video footage weren’t enough.) This is astonishingly entertaining for a vast set of outtakes and rarities. I’ve gotten through the first two volumes, and I am having a Grand Old Time. Let us go into detail, shall we? Volume one, focussing on the period from 1965 through 67, is the only one in the bunch to entirely predate Syd Barrett’s replacement with David Gilmour. It runs the gamut from bracing to boring, but there’s less of the latter than you might think. It’s in four sections. The first is a set of recordings from 1965, while the band was still calling itself the Tea Set, and had a second guitarist. The sound is excellent, but the same can’t be said of the songs, which find Syd Barrett in the throes of a rhythm and blues obsession that will have long abated by the time Pink Floyd actually releases a record. The performances are surprisingly good, though. Already, this is a band that’s more concerned with how they play than what they play. The second part is a collection of the band’s singles, B-sides, and a few unreleased tracks. Of these, the singles and B-sides are familiar but welcome here as part of the broader picture of this band at this time. The Piper at the Gates of Dawn proves to be a very narrow window through which to view these artists. The unreleased tracks include a few new mixes of familiar tracks, including a “Matilda Mother” with different, funnier lyrics. “There was a boy whose name was Jim / His friends they were very good to him / They gave him tea and cakes and jam / And slices of delicious ham.” God, I love that. But probably the highlight of the volume is the new stereo mixes of the famous unreleased tracks “In the Beechwoods” and especially “Vegetable Man” and “Scream Thy Last Scream.” These last two are in fact among Syd Barrett’s finest songs and in a just world would have become two sides of a single, or maybe showed up on A Saucerful of Secrets in place of, I dunno, “Corporal Clegg” and “See-Saw.” It seems they’ve been regarded as unfortunate symptoms of Barrett’s decline over the years. But with these new mixes, they stand revealed as two of the best early Pink Floyd songs. The second disc of volume one, consisting of the other two parts, is a less triumphant affair. It does feature the archeological diamond of a full live set with Syd Barrett, though the vocals are missing from the mix and only audible through distant mics. Still, it sounds like Syd was having a bad night vocally, so maybe that’s not such a bad thing. It’s weird to hear him sing “Set the Controls” to begin with — let alone so out of tune. And the instrumentals like “Interstellar Overdrive” and the unrecorded “Reaction in G” are as compelling as the band’s early fans would have you think. Volume one finishes with an unused free improvisational film score made for the experimental filmmaker John Latham. This is not great. It’s one of those things that it’s nice to have, just because we’ve all known that it exists for so long. I imagine it’s kind of like finally getting to see the pyramids in person. Except, if the pyramids were shitty. Because this is Pink Floyd doing a sort of free improvisation that they were a bit out of their depth to attempt. Their best semi-improvisational pieces, “Interstellar Overdrive” and especially the sublime “A Saucerful of Secrets” are based around concrete structures, as opposed to just noodling. AMM could make noodling sound good. So could King Crimson. Not Pink Floyd. Still, it’s a pleasure to experience. Volume two is simultaneously worse than volume one and more narratively compelling. It focusses on 1968, a rough year for the band in many ways, though it did see the release of one of my idiosyncratic faves in their catalogue, A Saucerful of Secrets. But for all of their success as an albums band that year, the first section of this disc proves they were creatively spent as a singles band. If Barrett’s “Apples and Oranges” had proven a disappointing follow-up to “See Emily Play,” then Wright’s “It Would Be So Nice” and especially Waters’ “Point Me At The Sky” prove completely unworthy. Their engine of ingenious psychedelic pop was irreparably broken. It now seems obvious that the only feasible direction was towards the very avant-garde. The BBC sessions that close out volume two (one of which delightfully comes with John Peel’s intros and extros intact) finds the band seemingly in denial of this, as they focus on performing their singles. We do, mercifully, get a rather good live “Saucerful of Secrets,” though it is inexplicably retitled “The Massed Gadgets of Hercules.” I say “inexplicably” because the album had already come out when the session was recorded — it can’t have been an early title. Am I wrong? In any case, volume two of this box is endlessly fascinating from an anthropological perspective, in large part because of how bad it is. Can’t wait to hear the rest.

Tom Waits: Frank’s Wild Years — My favourite Tom Waits album. To me, it strikes a perfect balance between the freaky cabaret music on Rain Dogs just before it and the crunchy aggro of Bone Machine shortly after. “Innocent When You Dream” is one of the most heartbreaking songs ever, made moreso by its comedic drunken ugliness. This is a man who hit bottom and smashed through into a dark, parody underworld where nothing seems real but everybody’s still behaving like nothing’s wrong. The same goes for the demented Kander and Ebb pastiche “I’ll Take New York,” which finds Waits at his most openly parodic and nightmarish. The best thing about it is that there’s nothing dark in the lyric. It’s a pitch perfect impression of Kander and Ebb’s civic boosterism. But it’s refracted through the lens of the demented calliope music that is one of Waits’ most profitable standbys. And even when Waits is working on a slightly less heightened level, like on “Temptation” or “Cold Cold Ground,” both among his best songs, he still sounds like he’s living in a pocket universe where the rules of reality are a bit different from our own. This is one of those rare albums that suspends reality. I love it.

Tom Waits: Small Change — I am generally more of a fan of Tom Waits’s post-Swordfishtrombones albums than his 70s material. I like the complex irony of those later albums. It’s like there’s a dark mirror planted somewhere near the year 1980, and Waits stepped through and became a gurning, grotesque reflection of what he was before. But there’s a time and a place for Waits’s more sincere early music. The time is 2:00am and the place is staggering home drunk. Or, in the absence of these conditions, you can simply imagine yourself in that state and it still kind of works. I had previously only known Waits’s earlier music through my longtime favourite Heartattack and Vine and a scattering of tracks from before it. This is my first listen to Small Change, and it is a heck of a lot better than Heartattack. There’s not a single song on this that I didn’t love immediately. While Waits is lacking his later derangement here, he still has the unique wit of a self-romanticizing drunk hobo. “Step Right Up” is a distillation of all of the most familiar slogans in cheap advertising and straightforward swindling into a song. It is substantially virtuosic, and it helps to clarify the difference between Waits’s early novelty songs and his later ones like “Cemetery Polka.” In “Step Right Up” (and also “The Piano Has Been Drinking”) Waits is letting the audience in on a joke he’s come up with. He’s performing a routine. In “Cemetery Polka,” there’s a joke somewhere, but it’s hard to parse and we feel alienated because of it. It’s entirely possible that we’re the brunt of the joke. But most of the album is made up of the sad, lovelorn ballads that Waits is so good at during this period. “Tom Traubert’s Blues” is the clear highlight, with its ripped-off chorus (from “Waltzing Matilda”) taking on more heft in this context than in its original one. It is one of Waits’ great pictures of modern despair and displacement, and one of his very best songs. The same goes for “Bad Liver and a Broken Heart” and “Invitation to the Blues.” This immediately struck me as a brilliant album. I expect to be back to it as frequently as its ultra-specific mood will permit. Pick of the week.

Literature, etc.

Chris Onstad: Achewood — I have read up to April of 2002 in this wonderful, absurd, very funny and often poignant web comic. Evidently I am still a long way off from the good stuff, but I am already very into this world. Ray and Roast Beef are yet to become the central characters (I know enough to know that they eventually will) and Philippe is the current highlight. He is so adorable that it can only be hilarious to see him subjected to the capricious whims of the Achewood universe. Great stuff.

John Errington: Centuries of Sound — I’m trying to catch up with this blog, which includes mixes for every year of recorded sound. It’s a great premise, and the very early years are super interesting, though the mixes are understandably short and abstract. The first of them features a few reconstructed recordings of Édouard-Léon Scott, who made a machine that could record indications of sound in soot. They were never meant to be played back, because Scott couldn’t conceive of such a thing, but of course we’ve found a way. Errington’s mix includes a documentary by Studio 360 about how that came to be. It’s actually crazy to hear, however scrappily, the sound of a voice from 1860 — the voice of a person who might not have thought that such a thing was possible.

Podcasts

The Nod: “Greetings, My Brothas” — Okay, now this is good. There’s something about hearing people laugh at a funny thing that makes it funnier, and these two laughing at a YouTube conspiracy theory about the Jay-Z/Solange elevator incident is start-to-finish hysterical.

Mogul: “How Heavy It Was,” “August 30, 2012” & Uncle Murda cameo — Mogul is a beautiful thing. These last two episodes (I’m not going to deal too much with the cameo, fun though it is) just clinch the whole thing. What I love about this is that the show subtly frames its narrative as a low-key true crime story that culminates in a contested suicide ruling. But the narrative proceeds inexorably to the conclusion that Chris Lighty’s death probably was what it seemed like. The chief contribution of Mogul to the story of Chris Lighty is bringing the mental illness he suffered to light. That’s part of what makes it so vital: it addresses a death that’s regarded as a mystery by framing it in terms of the evidence that nobody wants to talk about. This is so good, and I have become very fond of Reggie Ossé. I don’t know how an Ivy League educated lawyer can be so warm and likeable. The Combat Jack Show has a new subscriber.

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “Dunkirk,” “Girls Trip” & “Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets” — I’m liking the new format. Of these episodes, the only one that convinced me to see something was the Dunkirk one, because I was genuinely on the fence prior to this. The other two amount to a “not for me” and a “this sounds awful.”

The Turnaround: “Anna Sale” & “Reggie Ossé (Combat Jack)” — I really admire Jesse Thorn for not cutting the moments in these interviews when his guests don’t know what his question means. Because I can absolutely relate to that. Anna Sale’s interview is a bit rough, since it was the first for this show, but it’s still edifying enough. The Combat Jack episode is a series highlight, though. I’m happy Thorn included him, since there aren’t likely to be any other specialists in a subject area on this show. (Unless you count Brooke Gladstone, but “media” isn’t really a niche.) Since Mogul’s been coming out, I’ve been amazed at how easy it seems for Combat to talk with huge hip hop stars. Turns out, there’s value in being a bit of an insider. He’s a known enough quantity that these artists are comfortable talking to him. But that’s not to say that craftsmanship and intent don’t enter into what Reggie Ossé does. He’s always thinking in broader terms to what just about any generalist interviewing a rapper would be thinking. He’s interested in hearing their take on life in general, rather than just about their art. That’s valuable. Have I done a complete about-face on my opinion of interviewing artists since I started listening to this show? Yes? I dunno. I’m very confused about my own value system. But I know I enjoyed these shows.

Code Switch: “What’s So Wrong With African Americans Wearing African Clothing?” & “What’s Good? Talking Hip-Hop and Race With Stretch and Bobbito” — A pair of preview for shows I’m not super interested in. The Stoop covers interesting territory, but I’m not sold on the hosts. And I’m suspicious of the extent to which NPR is getting in on the personality-driven podcast bandwagon with the Stretch and Bobbito show. Probably I’m wrong.

Theory of Everything: “Private Ear” — I can’t help but feel like the guy this story is about — an aural reconstructor of secret spaces who uses the memories of prisoners as his guide — is a bit dodgy. But it’s very much like this show to introduce me to an artist (because this is what he is, mostly) who works so far outside of the expected arenas.

99% Invisible: “The Trials of Dan and Dave” — ESPN is getting into podcasting, and they’ve already got the Roman Mars bump. Imagine. This is a fun story that’s not really all about the sports, which as far as I know is the 30 For 30 trademark. Nice stuff.

This American Life: “Break-Up” — It’s pretty rare for me to listen to anything from a show’s back catalogue these days. But this is the episode that made Starlee Kine’s career. As a steadfast mourner of Mystery Show, I felt it was necessary to finally hear the famous story where Kine works through her bad breakup with the assistance of one Phil Collins. As a Genesis fan, it’s doubly interesting to hear Collins tell the story of how his first divorce precipitated his transition from being a jazz fusion drummer in his non-Genesis career to an international pop star on the back of several heartrending ballads. This all strikes a personal chord for me, because I went through a shit breakup that was scored by the music of Phil Collins’s one-time bandmate, Peter Gabriel. There was a while there where I obsessed over Gabriel’s Us album for very similar reasons to the ones Kine cites for her love for “Against All Odds.” I am Starlee Kine in the Upside-Down. T’was ever thus.

99% Invisible: “El Gordo” — Ah yes, a story in which only one person in a town does not win the lottery. The world is quite marvellous, you know that?

The Memory Palace: “Elmer McCurdy Rides Again and Again” — It was only a matter time before our greatest author of historical prose poems attempted a rhyming couplet story. It is a mixed affair. Mostly I like it, but I halfway feel that the gimmick gets in the way of a genuinely marvellous story, in which an embalmed human body is mistaken for a wax sculpture and ends up on the set of The Six Million Dollar Man. Still good.

Criminal: “A Bump In The Night” — A terrifying story of a woman who hears sounds in the night that turn out to be something. It ends unsatisfyingly, but so do most things in life.

What Trump Can Teach Us About Con Law: “The Emoluments Clauses” — The most interesting thing about this is the fact that the emoluments clauses of the constitution have been considered so obscure that they’re not even in textbooks, and Trump is the first president so unconventional that he requires them to be taken into consideration. Everything is bad.

The Daily: July 24-28 — My first full week of listening to The Daily reveals it to be a genuinely excellent way to keep on top of the biggest stories, at least as they pertain to American federal politics. I have generally preferred this show when it contains at least one segment that takes place outside of the U.S.A. But there are some genuinely confusing and terrifying things happening in the White House on a week by week basis, so what are they to do? Regardless, this is one of the best shows to launch in recent years, and a genuine innovation.

Reply All: “Long Distance” — The best episode of Reply All for some time. And it’s not like it’s been in a slump. Some schlub who didn’t know what he was getting into tried to scam Alex Goldman and ended up the subject of a piece of playful yet ruthless investigative journalism. Goldman’s imperiousness is hysterical here, and the fact that he doesn’t reveal the consequence of the story at the start is much appreciated. I feel compelled to be coy about this and not spoil it. Listen to it. It is magnificent. Pick of the week.

Song by Song: “Tom Traubert’s Blues (Four Sheets to the Wind in Copenhagen), Small Change, Tom Waits” — I came across this Tom Waits song randomly at work, having never listened to Small Change. (You’ll note from above that I have since listened to the full album and had quite the response.) It is a beautiful thing, and I figured I’d take the opportunity to sample this podcast that’s going through his songs in order, one by one. It could do to be longer, honestly. It feels a bit slim. Fun that they’ve got Jeffrey Cranor, though. Not sure I’ll be back to this.

Omnireviewer (week of Mar. 19, 2017)

15 reviews. One of them is a full season of television, so.

Movies

Brazil — Oddly, this is the movie I turn to when I need a bit of cheering up. It’s been my favourite movie ever since the very first time I saw it. That’s a funny thing, come to think of it: I must have been 12 when I first saw Terry Gilliam’s satirical dystopian masterpiece. I know this because I saw it the week I got braces. I was miserable. I wanted to lash out at the entire universe. But strangely, I recall that week was my introduction to two longstanding obsessions: this movie, and the band Rush. I got braces the week of the Toronto Rocks concert for SARS relief. I remember that on the night I got braces, I either watched the telecast of that concert and fell in love with Rush or I watched Brazil. Either way, they happened in close succession at a time when I was emotionally vulnerable — for a dumb reason, I grant you. But I was 12, and the reason kind of doesn’t matter. And I’ve been slavishly devoted to both of them ever since. Still, I’m a little ashamed of the fact that my favourite movie has been the same since the age of 12. That’s a year over half my life ago. I honestly can’t tell if my love for Brazil has more to do with the movie itself, or more to do with the fact that I still associate it with the relief it granted me from the circumstances of my life at the time when I first watched it. I remember that the cut of the movie that I saw that first time is not the version that I’ve come to love in the years since. It was a rental from a video store, and it was the American cut, which I’ve only seen one other time, on the one occasion when I saw Brazil in a cinema. The version I watched just now is the European cut, which is the version I watched obsessively in high school on the first of three discs in my Criterion Collection set. I don’t know what it says about me that the most comforting movie I know is as cynical and dark as this one is. Maybe I can take refuge in it just because I know its rhythms better than any other movie. Or maybe it soothes me because its particular dystopia is pettier, more personal and more relatable than any other cinematic dystopia. Maybe it’s the protagonist’s relentless romanticism in spite of his circumstances. At this point, it almost doesn’t matter. This movie is part of my DNA the same way that Thick as a Brick and Mahler’s fifth symphony are. Certain elements of it have entered my vernacular in spite of them not being in anybody else’s. Every time my strange employment situation at my current company becomes mired in bureaucracy I take it upon myself to incorporate the expression “27B-6” into casual conversation with a colleague. I’m yet to have any of them recognize the meaning. In any case, relatability accounts for only a fraction of the meaning that this movie has for me. What really enthralls me about it is that I’m still finding new facets of it after all these years. I have watched Brazil countless times in countless contexts, but this may have been the first time I’ve been wearing headphones for it. Tiny bits of dialogue that I missed before were suddenly clear. (I always wonder what specific lines can be attributed to Tom Stoppard. It speaks well of the other screenwriters that it isn’t entirely obvious.) The long and the short of it is, there are still moments in this movie that surprise me. It is so magnificently dense that I can’t imagine a time when it won’t yield new secrets. There is nothing that I appreciate more in this world than a work of art so fantastically oversignified that it makes me forget my own circumstances entirely. Nothing clears the mind like sensory overload. That is what Brazil has always done for me. It is my escape, in the same way that Sam Lowrey’s vibrant inner life is his escape from his own dire circumstances. It has served this purpose for me for more than half my life. I feel like I owe Terry Gilliam a few drinks. Pick of the week.

Television

Downton Abbey: Season 4 — To some extent, I enjoy watching Downton Abbey the way that audiences are expected to watch Game of Thrones: by carefully tracking and forecasting changes in the balance of power. The fact that Downton’s shifts in power take place over the course of an actual period in history makes it less easily abstracted (i.e. it’s easier to draw generalized conclusions about how power works from a narrative in a completely hypothetical fantasy world than in one that’s bound by what we know of the historical context). But it also makes it more satisfying to see Lord Grantham, the spongy old aristocrat and increasingly the show’s outright villain, grasping at the straws of his former glory. The looming presence of actual history also factors into one of my least favourite plotlines of the season, which is the requisite “racism exists” plotline, wherein a rebellious young rich woman tries to get back at her mother by courting a black jazz singer called Jack. And while that works out about as well as you’d expect, what’s actually most upsetting about it is how far out of its way the show goes to make its conservative white aristocrats (and its socialist white ex-chauffeur) essentially okay with Jack. There’s a sense that even the most pearl-clutchingly racist among the cast of characters is only paying lip-service to racism as a widely-held ideology. If only the world were a slightly better place, to paraphrase the show, they’d all be relieved to not have to play at racism anymore. This is bullshit. There is exactly one reason why old Lady Grantham doesn’t protest to Jack’s presence at Downton and that’s because the audience needs to like her, and we can’t if she’s a blithering racist — which history and narrative context tells us she should be. This is just one reminder that Julian Fellowes is primarily interested in painting an ahistorically benign picture of the old aristocracy. This is the most substantial problem with this show, and it’s the thing that makes it consistently less than great. (Seek out the tragically underappreciated miniseries Parade’s End for an antidote.) This is the point in the review where I remember that I mostly actually liked this season and should point out something good about it before yammering on some more about the things that pissed me off. So: seeing Kiri Te Kanawa playing Nellie Melba was fun. Now, let’s talk about how a whole bunch of this season consists of “very special plotlines.” We’ve already discussed the racism plotline. But there’s also the abortion plotline and, god help us, the rape plotline. I won’t go into detail on either, save to say the extent to which the rape plotline is eventually made into a male character’s problem is distressing and unsurprising. But I hope this kind of storytelling doesn’t become the norm going forward, because it smacks of desperation. I’ve accepted that Downton Abbey is revisionist history. I don’t need it to get “gritty.” And I don’t trust it at all to get these stories right. But it says something about this show that in spite of all of this, I haven’t thrown up my hands and ragequit watching. Things like the relatively frothy Christmas special that finishes the whole thing off make it worthwhile. I suspect that may be one of my favourite episodes in the entire series — especially the hysterically convoluted caper plotline where Grantham enlists the aid of virtually the entire family to get a compromising note out of the hands of a blackmailer. The comedy of manners that ensues as the accomplices try and fail to hide that they’re up to something is what makes this show fun. This season succeeds over the previous one primarily because it makes Mary work again. She’s the show’s ace in the hole, and getting saddled with the increasingly uninteresting Matthew as a scene partner again and again was defeating the purpose of her. It’s good to see her doing something new. It’s great to see her in a position of relative power where she can stand up to Lord Grantham. See? It’s really just Game of Thrones, but polite.

Literature, etc.

Bryan Lee O’Malley: Lost At Sea — I read both of O’Malley’s standalone graphic novels this week. And I am shocked and maybe a bit embarrassed to have liked this one better. That’s because Lost at Sea is a road novel and a coming-of-age story, which is an extremely bog standard juxtaposition compared to the premise of Seconds. It’s the story of a young woman named Stephanie who believes she has no soul, this thought having arisen from the gradual pileup of relatively normal adolescent traumas: the loss of her best friend, the breakdown of her parents’ relationship, and a romance gone wrong. At first glance, it’s an unappealing proposition: a comic narrated by the inner monologue of a person who is reacting in a way that’s seemingly out of proportion to the severity of her problems. I believe this is what some call “whining.” But these moments hit Stephanie at a vulnerable time in her life, and she’s clearly dealing with some vaguely defined, deeper issues. With this in mind, Lost At Sea seems to me a very effective description of what it feels like to hit a patch where nothing makes any sense. O’Malley underlines this with the subtle suggestion of a supernatural element — maybe a deal with the devil or possibly just forking timelines; an implicit expression of the plot mechanic that’s made explicit in Seconds — which is by no means necessary to actually justify what happens in the story. It’s just a way of expressing Stephanie’s need to rationalize events that are simultaneously unthinkable and already rational. I love the moment in the book where this finally coalesces, while Stephanie looks up at the stars. When you look up at the stars, she says, your immediate surroundings fade away and it’s like you could be living at any point in your life — in any of your lives. Whatever happened to you, whatever catastrophic rupture occurred in your emotional life (spacetime bullshit or no), you always have access to every moment you’ve lived through, thanks to memory. And this is ultimately what helps Stephanie find the sense of perspective she’s been badly in need of throughout the story. Memory is both a torturer and a tool. When Stephanie realizes the latter of those purposes, she’s able to make enough sense of her life that she can cease to regard herself as soulless — because she no longer needs that as a justification for her emotions. It’s a staggering ending. I loved this. Pity I watched Brazil, or it would be pick of the week.

Bryan Lee O’Malley: Seconds — Let me be clear. This is by any reasonable measure a more accomplished graphic novel than Lost at Sea. The cartooning is more stylish, the page layouts more adventurous, and the story contains many more moving parts. However. It basically just boils down to a story about a person who tries to change history and learns that’s a bad idea. This is by no means a new take on the “let’s change history” story, whereas I’d argue (and I have, in my previous review) that Lost at Sea actually does something very specific within the broad framework of “coming-of-age road novel.” Both Seconds and Lost at Sea end with their protagonists having an epiphany of sorts. But where Lost at Sea’s epiphany constituted a young woman accepting reality by accepting the validity of her own memories, Seconds’ epiphany amounts to “you have to learn to accept your mistakes.” I know, I know, it’s the journey and not the destination. And Seconds is a twisty, turny yarn with outstanding characters. But after Lost at Sea, I was a bit disappointed that Seconds ends with a platitude. It is effectively a fairy story. And while I’d love to say there’s nothing wrong with fairy stories, actually there is. The thing that’s wrong with fairy stories is that they fail to acknowledge that the world is complicated and can’t be easily righted with a few one-sentence morals. I loved Seconds. I think it’s a really great comic book. If I hadn’t have read it the day after Lost at Sea, I’d probably be more prepared to take it on its own terms. In any case, I’m super excited to read the Scott Pilgrim series.

Music

Anna Meredith: Varmints — I often say that my favourite experience to have with a piece of art is sensory overload. I suspect Anna Meredith agrees. Save for Shugo Tokumaru, this is the most “everything at once” music I’ve encountered in recent times, and I love it. Can’t wait to hear more.

Podcasts

The Gist: “Todd Barry Would Rather Be Drumming” — I think maybe Mike Pesca is the best interviewer of comedians in the podcastverse. He doesn’t force himself to laugh at everything they say like Jesse Thorn sometimes does. He isn’t a comic himself, so he doesn’t have the low-lying resentment that sometimes creeps into Marc Maron’s interviews with other comedians. And in spite of not being a comic, he does have the fastest brain in the business, so he can feed his guests material to riff on in a way that Terry Gross never will be able to. This is a pretty standard episode of The Gist, all told. I listened to it because Todd Barry’s awesome. But this show’s good enough at its walking pace that it consistently makes me regret that I don’t have time to hear every episode.

The Bugle: Episodes 4020 & 4021 — Episode 4020 is the first I’ve heard with Helen Zaltzman, and she’s officially my favourite new Bugle co-host. She and Andy for some reason have a natural rapport. I love Hari Kondabolu as well, and I think the decision to limit Trump talk is a wise one. This show is fun to listen to in the grocery store because it’s a challenge not to laugh constantly and look like a crazy person.

Criminal: “Vanish” — God, I love Criminal. This is the show that I most wish I could find the time to listen through the full archive of. Maybe soon I will. This episode outlines the challenges with faking your own death. One challenge comes in the form of a dude whose job it is to find you if you do that. Absolutely fascinating. Also, challenge accepted. (Wait, no, I didn’t say that. No, it was nothing. Never you mind.)

Judge John Hodgman: “Oculus Miffed” — The thing that’s struck me about this show on the couple of occasions I’ve listened to it is the warmth of it. Hodgman likes to portray himself as a chilly weirdo, but that’s completely not what he is even on the surface, really. In this episode, a guy wants to convert the master bedroom in the house he lives in with his girlfriend into a virtual reality parlour. On the surface, this sounds insane. But Hodgman wisely doesn’t try to force the conversation into the frame of “crazy boyfriend has crazy idea and boring girlfriend doesn’t like it.” Instead, he asks straightforward questions and quickly realizes that’s not what’s going on here: this guy wants the VR room in the house primarily because he knows his girlfriend is interested in it. He’s just gotten a bit overzealous with his plans for where in the house it should go. Hodgman’s verdict is both funny and also a lovely comment on what it means to live in reality with another person. I think I may be sold on this show.

You Must Remember This: “Marilyn Monroe: The End (Dead Blondes Part 8)” — The Monroe three-parter is certainly the highlight of this “Dead Blondes” series, and one of the best things I’ve heard on this show. This episode puzzles through the various theories, conspiracy and otherwise, relating to Monroe’s infamous death. Longworth’s own conclusion about what makes the most sense is both rational and heartbreaking, and she’s able to explain the multiplicity of conspiracy theories with reference to Monroe’s persona, which she examined in the previous episode. Really fantastic stuff. Pick of the week.

Reply All: “The Russian Passenger” — An entire episode dedicated to Alex Goldman’s attempt to find out how Alex Blumberg’s Uber account got hacked. Fascinating, and definitely Uber’s fault. They’re dirty liars, all of ‘em.

The West Wing Weekly: “Two Cathedrals (Parts I and II) — Man, everybody involved with The West Wing in any capacity seems really good at talking. Who’d have thought. “Two Cathedrals” is the consensus best-loved episode of the show, though it’s been long enough since I watched it that I don’t remember whether or not I agree. In any case, hearing Aaron Sorkin talk about his original concept for President Bartlett’s season two story arc is worth the listen alone.

99% Invisible: “Negative Space: Logo Design with Michael Bierut” — A straightforward interview with some very funny moments, and some very enlightening ones. It’s fascinating to hear stories from before the time when everybody in the world cared about and critiqued logos within an inch of their designers’ lives.

All Songs Considered: “Why SXSW Matters: The Best Of What We Saw, 2017” — Ah, yes. The thrill of discovery. I’m happy to have sat the daily episodes out, because now we get to actually hear the music, and much of it is wonderful. I’ve already looked into Anna Meredith, and I’ve watched the video of Let’s Eat Grandma playing in a trailer. But there’s so much more great music on this. It almost makes me want to go to SXSW someday. But not quite. That’s a panic attack waiting to happen.

Code Switch: “Not-So-Simple Questions From Code Switch Listeners” — I’d like to see this become a regular feature. There’s nobody I’d rather tackle difficult questions like these than the Code Switch team.

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.

Omnireviewer (week of Jan. 15, 2017)

A modest 20 reviews, because I’m binge-watching again. By the way, there’s never been a better time to follow me on Tumblr, because tomorrow marks the start of my customary late-January week of reflection on the stuff I liked from the past year. I’ll be counting back from 30, finishing next Saturday. But if you abstain from Tumblr, never fear, because as usual I will post an omnibus of all 30 on this site.

Television

Sherlock: “The Final Problem” — You know, it wouldn’t be so disappointing if it weren’t probably the last episode. There are good things here, not least of which is an opportunity for Mark Gatiss to play Mycroft at the moment when the condescension finally wears too thin to bother. I never thought I’d say this, but between his performance in this episode and his script for the first one, Gatiss is the best thing about Sherlock season four. But there are other clear weak points here. After two weeks of brilliant directing from a couple of the best in the Mofftiss-adjecent stable, first-timer Benjamin Caron turns in a mixed effort, including a really dumb-looking take on the classic “guys jump out of windows to escape an exploding building” shot, a bit where Sherlock swoops down into the camera like Batman, and a shot of Watson passing out while the camera spirals about. This all feels like it belongs in some other show. It’s worth noting that I’m not one of the people who has been disappointed by the James Bond-esque action in this season. Honestly, I didn’t remember it not being there before. The way the action has been handled is still very much in the visual universe of this show. But there are amateurish moments in this episode, to an extent that we haven’t seen since the first season. Okay, now a plus: Moriarty’s back for a final bow, and he’s dancing to Queen. “Do you like my boys? This one’s got more stamina, but he’s less caring in the afterglow.” That entire scene is sublime. Andrew Scott is brilliantly over the top. Alright, now back to the negatives. This episode worked really hard to show Sherlock having become “a good man.” But in having him act in a conventionally human fashion in pretty much every situation, rather than ever being ethically compromising or cold, the writers seem to have lost track of the fact that we know he’s a good man, and the beauty of this version of the character is that we continue to feel that way even when he makes decisions that we wouldn’t make. If they wanted me to sympathize with Sherlock to the degree that I normally do during the course of an episode, they should have made his evil sister put him in situations that would emphasize the areas where his character is weak, as opposed to ones where he’ll be forced to act honourably. In fact, this was the wrong approach entirely to the villain of this episode. Eurus shouldn’t have been a calculating arch-manipulator who uses humans as lab rats; she should have been somebody who knows Sherlock’s worst attributes and wishes to put them on display. She should have tried to demonstrate to him the extent to which he is fundamentally lacking in empathy, only to have John Watson reaffirm his value. That would have been a character beat to end the show on. I could say more, like how I wish there’d been more jokes, or how bits of this were legitimately scary in a way that Moffat scripts haven’t been for a while, but the details will largely fade into the background with this one, in the face of how bizarrely these two writers misinterpreted the appeal of their protagonist in the final episode of their show. Mary’s closing monologue is an obvious attempt to paper over that (final) problem, but the thing is that in this particular reinterpretation of the Sherlock Holmes corpus, it does matter what kind of people Holmes and Watson are. The adventures themselves account for a certain amount of what’s great about this show, but if the true motivations of the characters really mattered as little as Mofftiss are explicitly trying to tell us in that speech, then I wouldn’t have spent the previous hour and a half being so pissed off about why Sherlock’s being portrayed in this light. I think I’ll leave it there. Sherlock, at its best, was a huge achievement in television storytelling. However, it was infrequently at its best and it unfortunately didn’t end there. I mean, I guess it still could. But after this season, I can’t say I’m that interested in more.

Downton Abbey: Season 3, episodes 1-5 — I’ve been trying to decide what it is about this series that keeps me coming back in spite of literally everything about it. I think part of it is that it’s the only thing with a sense of humour as dry as I require. More shade is thrown and with greater subtlety in this show than basically any other. Only in this show could the line “a great many noses will be out of joint” serve as very nearly a cliffhanger.  This season is more like a straightforward soap opera than the show has ever been. But the presence of Cora’s mother, a truculent American bulldozer with about as little respect for the Edwardian aristocracy as I have, is extremely refreshing. Whether or not it comes off in the end, the idea to have a character in the show to whom it is necessary to justify the function of Downton is a very clever idea. Surely Julian Fellowes is entirely aware that he’s got people in the audience like me. Also, I quite like the organ arrangement of the meditation from Thaïs that’s played right before Edith’s almost-wedding. Wonder where I can find sheet music for that?

Games

Steve Jackson’s Sorcery!: Part 4 — Last we checked in, I was hopelessly stuck and wandering around a part of the map that there was literally no way out of with the items that I had. I was worried that this would be the bit where I stopped enjoying myself, but I’m actually glad that I got to spend a bit of time in that area because it’s one of the best parts of the game so far. Basically, just outside the huge castle that you’re trying to get into is a complex of stone towers that were once a great college of magic. They’ve been left in a state of dilapidation in recent years, but they’ve still got dangerous magic around them. That’s the best concept in this game so far: an abandoned magical college full of traps and impossible rooms. That would be a good game in itself. Anyway, I never did find a proper way out of there. But I did find an elegant way to die, which is the only way that you can really go back and make your choices again. So that turned out not to be an annoyance at all, but rather a lovely excursion away from the main plot. Having gotten back to the main plot, I swiftly realized how much I’m not used to having to think through simple puzzles in order to finish games. I died nine times within the game’s very last section, in the big castle I spent hours trying to get into last week — all because I failed to see one extremely obvious way to solve the problem that kept happening. Anyway, this is just another example of me wanting games not to be games, because I’m bad at them. If you’re not, I think you probably ought to play this. The fourth instalment is good enough to justify the sometimes tedious schlep through the first three.

NORTH — Nothing special. For two bucks and an hour of your time, it’s good value. But while this game is to be commended for its attempt to win the player’s empathy for a refugee, it doesn’t have a lot to say about the specifics of that experience. It sets its narrative in a hazy, purposely abstract city populated by anguished deformed ghouls. And while its visual style is completely wonderful and gets across a sense of loneliness and alienation that befits its theme, NORTH falls flat in that it doesn’t take the extra step and establish more acute consequences for its central character’s decision to flee to this place. NORTH deals in generalities. You learn that your character has moved to a place that distrusts his religion, will only allow him to do the most menial and dangerous work, and doubts that he was even persecuted at all in his home country. This all rings true, but the structure of the game is such that all of these hurdles are jumpable, and there’s no sense here that the character suffers the sort of sustained discrimination and hate from his fellow citizens that are presumably the attitudes this game is trying to combat. Rather, he is simply made to live in a rather stylish dystopian surveillance state. (Perhaps one that surveils him more closely than others, but even that is not entirely clear.) So basically, this game is really good at inspiring empathy for an isolated person who has been forced to move far from home, but its attempts to generalize the refugee experience to the point of abstraction make it substantially less powerful than it wants to be.

Movies

HyperNormalisation — Before we discuss the content of this troubling, mesmerizing masterpiece, let’s take a moment to acknowledge that the BBC has (at least in this instance) figured out what a public broadcaster should do on the internet. For context, this is a three-hour web-exclusive documentary by the BBC’s weirdest longstanding contributor, Adam Curtis. It covers the 40-year story of how the world got to a point where obviously horrible things can happen routinely (suicide bombings, Trump, Putin) while most people continue to think the world is still normal. So basically, it is extremely ambitious and engages in exactly no handholding. Oh, you don’t know who Andrei Tarkovsky is? Fucking Google it. We have the world at our fingertips. We shouldn’t insist that documentarians, broadcasters and journalists fill us in on shit like that. If Curtis took the traditional broadcasting approach, HyperNormalisation would be nineteen tedious hours long. By circumventing basic explanatory parentheticals and trusting his audience’s intelligence and curiosity, Curtis is able to present three hours of pure analysis and evaluation. Less time spent explaining equals more time spent synthesizing. This is easier to do when the documentary is open in one of many browser tabs and easily rewindable than if it’s on BBC Two. Many legacy media outlets, public and not, have looked at the internet primarily as a threat, and of course they’re not wrong. But they are damn well wrong to react to that threat by making themselves more similar to the vapid sorts of web-native operations that command competitively-sized audiences to their broadcast platforms. The internet was once the proud home of the stuff that’s too weird and difficult for what used to be called mainstream media. The BBC’s release of HyperNormalisation exclusively on their iPlayer feels like a beautiful glimpse into an alternate universe where legacy media joined the party where the cool, smart kids were. It’s an acknowledgement that the internet offers the opportunity to do exactly what they’ve always done, except smarter and more niche. Meanwhile, two browser tabs over, there are National Post headlines shouting at me to click on them so that Facebook will see them as profitable and display them more prominently so that more people will click on them and see ads on the National Post website and not learn a damn thing from the article and then do it all again and again until they’ve spent half the running time of HyperNormalisation consuming the media equivalent of marshmallows and feeling a bit sick. So, it’s appropriate that towards the end of its staggering exploration of how everything became fake, HyperNormalisation asserts that we know the world less well than ever because we view it through the simplified, personalized lens of algorithmically-curated social feeds. The Wikipedia synopsis actually sums up the effect of this better than I probably could: “The American Left’s attempt to resist Trump on the internet had no effect. In fact, they were just feeding the social media corporations who valued their many additional clicks.” There’s more on social media in this, particularly as it applies to the fruitless revolutions in Egypt during the Arab Spring and on Wall Street during the Occupy movement. But it’s actually expressed with even more clarity in Curtis’s interview on Chapo Trap House, which I recommend. Putting my usual hobby horse aside for a moment, this documentary is tremendously clever in its structure. It begins with stories in New York and Damascus, and continues symmetrically mapping the gradual dissolution of politics into a false narrative-making machine through America and the Middle East. There are quick asides to the U.K. and Russia, but this is mostly a story about the U.S., Syria, and most compellingly, Libya. The figure who is the lynchpin of Curtis’s entire sprawling argument is Muammar Gaddafi: a cartoonish lunatic who wasn’t responsible for much that the U.S. (knowingly wrongly) accused him of, but who was deranged enough to take responsibility anyway. Curtis traces Gaddafi’s transformation from America’s handmade bogeyman that let them conveniently remain allied with Syria through the Gulf War, into a political intellectual and friend of the West after 9/11, and subsequently into an enemy again when the U.S. allied itself with the Libyan rebels. This strand of Curtis’s narrative alone makes it clear that reality hasn’t been tremendously important in American politics for a long time. The documentary was released before the election of Trump, but this makes that completely unthinkable event look inevitable in retrospect. Pick of the week.

Music

Jethro Tull: Bursting Out — Now, naturally, I would say this. But this is one of the best live albums ever. If you’re trying to convince somebody why live albums are worthwhile, and why they were such a big deal in the ‘70s, this is possibly the very best one. I’d put it at number two on my personal live list, edging out Yessongs and Magma’s Live/Hhaï by a fraction and losing out only to Gentle Giant’s Playing the Fool. By the height of prog rock in the ‘70s, the studio recording had long supplanted the live performance as the platonic ideal of a piece of music. (Think of a Beatles song. You’re thinking of the record, not a live track.) Since then, as music has become increasingly producer driven and recordings have become fussier and fussier and piled with more layers of artifice (by no means a value judgement; it’s just true), live records have become increasingly superlative as live performances inevitably come to resemble the records more and more. But the ‘70s represents an interesting transitional phase, where albums were becoming increasingly elaborate, but they were still basically made by people who played instruments. So, live performances from this period are a hybrid between the profoundly expressive act that music making always is, and the thrill of watching a series of stunts. Jethro Tull is one of the bands that succeeded most consistently in existing at that intersection. The performances on this live record are unique to the studio versions because the studio versions are irreproducibly complex. Instead, they are compelling reinterpretations of the material for a different setting. This is a kind of record that I don’t think we’ll ever see again. And that’s fine. But thank god we have this one.  

Igor Stravinsky/John Eliot Gardiner, Ian Bostridge, Bryn Terfel, etc: The Rake’s Progress — I used to listen to this a bunch back in music school but man, it’s been a while. It came up at work recently, and I figured it was about time to revisit this. This is one of those recordings that seems like the platonic ideal of the opera in question. (Mind you, it’s also the only Rake I’ve listened to more than once. There’s a reason for that, though.) Gardiner treats the material with the unsentimentality that it begs, and that matter-of-factness allows the score itself to express its own natural beauty. And the singing is absolutely peerless. Bostridge and Terfel are two of the best singers of their generation, both at their very best here. Terfel’s Nick Shadow is very much a classic Bryn Terfel characterization: a touch of the clown, but threatening nonetheless. Along with Anne Sofie von Otter’s bearded lady, he breathes life into a story that isn’t always naturally invigorated by Stravinsky’s compulsively austere music. That’s especially relevant in the first act, because this opera famously takes a while to get going. Act two has a lot of great stuff in it, but it’s the third and final act that’s the real masterpiece. Honestly, I’d recommend that any classical music fan take the 55 minutes to listen to act three and the short, brilliant epilogue to hear Stravinsky at the absolute height of his abilities in neoclassical mode. It’s Stravinskian music clothed in Mozartean garb, and the three scenes of act three show three distinctly different takes on that concept. The auction scene is total chaos that must take untold hours of rehearsal. The graveyard scene is creepy and muted, and a magnificent two-hander for the singers in the leading roles (Terfel and Bostridge are unspeakably entertaining together). And the final scene in the madhouse is the best of all. Stravinsky does something really clever here. The Rake has gone insane and believes himself to be Adonis. Stravinsky’s music seems to support that delusion, as it’s suddenly filled with ambrosia, and the distance between the beauty of the music and the reality of the Rake’s madness makes the scene gloriously sad. The epilogue is two and a half minutes of Stravinsky’s most addictive music. I love this. Listen to this.

Podcasts

Welcome to Night Vale: “worms…” — The episodic plot of this episode gradually melted away into the larger story arc, but it’s fine. I do think Hiram McDaniels is played out as a character, but I know he sticks around for at least twenty more episodes, and probably more. One of the most pronounced weak points of Welcome to Night Vale is that they don’t know when things are played out. Their continuity is a crutch that they use in place of new jokes, because they think they can (and perhaps they actually can?) rely on their fan base to be delighted at the mere mention of the Faceless Old Woman Who Secretly Lives In Your Home, or the Desert Flower Bowling Alley and Arcade Fun Complex. Which, granted, are both fun combinations of words. But the novelty wears off when the thing they’re attached to doesn’t actually have anything new to contribute to the story. For a show about the mysterious and unknowable, Night Vale sure does rely an awful lot on familiarity as a positive trait in itself. If I space out my listening enough (and my increasing behindness should indicate that I do), I can tolerate it. But after listening to three episodes last week (even though one of which was “Voicemail,” which is one of the few to break the structural mould) I’m already starting to get sick of this again.

Chapo Trap House: “Better Call Saul Alinsky” — The Chapos are joined by MST3K’s Bill Corbett to talk about the single most hilariously misguided and offensive documentary of recent times: Dinesh D’Souza’s Hillary’s America. I am so happy they watched it so I don’t have to.

Love and Radio: “No Bad News” — This is about a hypnotist who stopped watching the news and ended up treating Uday Hussein because he had no idea what was going on in the world. It is less frustrating (in the good way) than many episodes of Love and Radio but that may just be because of the hypnotist’s soothing voice, which probably made me more amenable to his self-enforced ignorance.

Theory of Everything: “Entrapment” — Excellent, but particularly excellent for the segment from ten years ago, in which a younger, more naïve Benjamen Walker tells a story about his cell phone ruining his relationship. Oh, for the days when the most insidious invasion of privacy that your cell phone could manage was a butt dial.

Theory of Everything: “The Twentieth of January” — Firstly, the novel they’re talking about in this is real. There actually is a spy novel from 1980 about a Republican president who gets elected in spite of having no political experience and an amount of wealth that’s inconsistent with his image as a populist. And then a British intelligence agent reveals a plot by the Russians to influence the election. That much of this episode — the part that describes the plot of the novel — is entirely true. But just finding this book and noting its similarity to our contemporary shit cyclone wouldn’t be enough. So Benjamen Walker and his guest Josh Glenn spin a bizarre conspiracy theory that the book is one of the few that Donald Trump has actually read, and that it was given to him by the KGB. That’s the beauty of this show. It would never squander the knowledge of a weirdly prescient espionage thriller on mere reportage. It takes it several steps further.

Code Switch: “Obama’s Legacy: Did He Remix Race?” — A fine conclusion to the trilogy, with some really excellent tape from the poet Richard Blanco, who read at Obama’s inauguration. The best part is hearing the panel take apart the optimism of Obama’s farewell address, look at it from a few different angles, and not quite be able to come to a decision on it.  

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “Small Batch: DJ Khaled” — So, I listened to this at 1.5X, and I’m not sure I’ve ever been more entertained. But even at regular speed, I’m sure Khaled’s explanation of why it’s important to have a lot of pillows will delight you.

The Sporkful: “The Great Office Coffee Election” — This is fun. WNYC voted on what the new free office coffee was going to be, so Dan Pashman obviously had to make a Sporkful out of it.

Song Exploder: “Solange – Cranes in the Sky” — First off, I’m confused about how Hrishikesh Hirway was able to isolate the drums and bass from this track if the stems went missing. Did they find them after the fact? But in any case, this is really illuminating. Basically, Solange took an instrumental that she couldn’t do much with except loop and built a song on top of it that actually has direction and manages to go somewhere because of her skill with harmony. I love this show because it focusses in on the craftsmanship of music. That’s especially useful with music like this, where it intersects so perfectly with a big social conversation. The vast preponderance of criticism about A Seat at the Table has focussed on Solange’s social message, as well it should. But there’s space to recognise that Solange is both very thoughtful about feminism and race and she is very good at making music. Pick of the week.

The West Wing Weekly: “What’s Next? featuring Lin-Manuel Miranda” — Worth it for the lines about Yo-Yo Ma alone.

The Gist: “The 12-Step Program of Highly Effective People” — Nick Thune is a funny fellow. I saw him live last year, and was pretty impressed. This is a good conversation that gets into the craft of his comedy a bit, and gets to why he resists tightening up his set to just the lines that get the biggest laughs. I respect him for that. I found him entertaining to listen to, even when the punchlines were spread a fair way apart. Mike Birbiglia can get away with this too.

Criminal: “In Plain Sight” — It’s been so long since I listened to Criminal. I really should go back and listen to the whole archive. This is an incredible show. It reminds me as much of Reply All as anything, because it takes a really broad view of its premise. Anything that could ever have been interpreted as criminal is fair game. So, this story of two slaves escaping so that they could have a proper marriage in a church — an escape that involves a pretty insane disguise — is the sort of thing you can rely on this show for. Lovely.

The Memory Palace: “The Presidency of William Henry Harrison, or Back in the Saddle” — One of the really slight ones. It’s nice, and a good tie-in for inauguration day, but not one of the episodes that’ll sell you on this show.

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “The Young Pope & Hell or High Water” — Here’s one of the episodes that makes me want to watch both of the things they’re talking about. The Young Pope in particular sounds exactly weird enough to be just what I want out of life.

Omnireviewer (week of Dec. 25, 2016)

And so, Omnireviewer limps improbably into its third calendar year. Speaking of traditions, for a couple of years now I’ve been compiling a list of my favourite things of the year at the end of January. Not December. I stubbornly insist on not dealing with such things until the year is actually over, and I’ve had a solid month to take stock, and also to fit in a couple more books or shows. (Though, I imagine a certain exceedingly long and strange novel will make the list regardless of the fact that I will be AT MOST halfway through it by the end of the month.) But for now, I have this week’s 15 reviews for you.

Movies

Star Wars: Rogue One — I feel like I was Jedi mind tricked into seeing this. I talked a big talk about how I wasn’t going to go to this, as a tiny protest against the notion of never-ending Star Wars movies. Like I’ve said before, when the Star Wars cinematic canon constituted two trilogies and that’s all, the batting average may have been low — but at least there wasn’t a saturation problem. That’s inevitable now. Perhaps I’m just nostalgic, but I like the idea of movies telling stories that end. It’s what makes them distinct from TV shows. I mean, really, you can even take a few movies to tell your story! That’s fine! But the notion of a cinematic “universe,” as opposed to just a “series” seems like it stems more from the studios’ impulse to make as much money as they can off of recognizable brands than from its value for storytelling. So, I had planned a tiny, personal boycott of the non-numbered Star Wars movies. Especially ones that were getting reviews as mixed as this. Still, I got pulled in by the inexorable force (hahahahahahahahaha) of this unavoidable franchise. I got pulled in by my general amenability towards seeing a movie, any movie, on a night when I wouldn’t be doing anything else. I got pulled in by my uncharacteristically non-antisocial wish to see a couple of friends after having spent a week away. I got pulled in by the fact that I’ve got Cineplex gift cards now, so at least it’s somebody else’s money that’s doing the talking. (Yeah, I know that’s really feeble. And yes, I do hate myself. Go away.) So basically, this movie had a nearly insurmountable task ahead of it if it was going to persuade me not to resent its very existence, and not to resent myself for caving in, and not to resent my friends for convincing me to abandon my principles. This movie did not rise to that challenge. My favourite thing about this movie is that it answered my burning question: “How does Darth Vader take a bath?” Aside from that, I did not enjoy myself. And at this point, we’ve reached the crucial question of the extent to which the movie is actually to blame for that, versus the extent to which my distaste is mine to own. And, without attempting to take the easy way out of that question, I can’t honestly answer it, because I don’t have access to a parallel universe in which I was more favourably predisposed towards Rogue One to use as a point of comparison. What I can say is that there’s nothing I can immediately point to in this movie that makes it the equal of other popcorn blockbusters from the last year, like Marvel’s Captain America: Civil War or Doctor Strange. Those movies have characters with immediately discernible personalities. Rogue One’s characters are blank slates, possessing only the most generically heroic of character traits: tenacity, bravery, etc. Captain America, on the other hand, is not generically heroic but rather follows a moral code that’s well-established enough for his behaviour to be internally consistent — and different from the other heroes in his movie. (Thus the Civil War, you see.) And even Doctor Strange is quippy and fun, which isn’t unique in itself. But his quips are good. The only character in Rogue One that rises above this standard is Donnie Yen’s eccentric blind martial artist, who is unfortunately also a bit of a racist caricature. And aside from that, the actors in this that you’d most expect extraordinary performances from are deeply underwhelming. Forest Whitaker gives his character a completely ridiculous hybrid accent that might work for one of the CGI aliens, but is extremely distracting in a live-action human character. And the brilliant Mads Mikkelsen is completely miscast as a man whose defining quality is supposed to be his inability to lie. We’re told in dialogue a number of times that Galen Erso is a terrible liar, but the fact of the matter is that Mikkelsen delivers his lines with such affectlessness that you can’t imagine how he could possibly fail to fool anybody, at any time. I’m all for seeing him in more heroic roles, but a role that comes down to this specific characteristic isn’t right for him, and moreover, he was pretty much the exact wrong choice for the role. For comparison’s sake, just think back to how much fun Rey, Finn and Poe were in The Force Awakens. That’s the bar. That’s how well you have to do in a new Star Wars movie. It’s a shame that the story features such bland characters and prosaic dialogue (even the funny robot is one of the franchise’s lesser funny robots), because Rogue One does present some unique ideas about what can happen in a Star Wars movie. It is the bleakest film in the franchise, save possibly for Revenge of the Sith, and I daresay it’s a touch more competently made than that. And it offers an intriguing focus on the notion that there are good people working for the Empire because they see it as their only option. That’s uncharacteristically nuanced for Star Wars. But those ideas are wasted in a movie that’s so aggressively unfun to watch. I’m getting tired of writing this review. Rogue One is pedestrian pap that exists only to leverage a recognizable brand so that dummies like me will buy a ticket. I imagine that the actual content of the movie was an afterthought.

Television

Downton Abbey: Season 2, episodes 7 & 8 (plus Christmas Special) — I didn’t actually know that this was going to finish with a Christmas special, but it turned out to be a nice thing to watch at Christmas. This season has been really hit and miss. Julian Fellowes’ preference to cut away from any given scene when somebody’s about to say something we already know has the double consequence of ruthless efficiency in his storytelling and also that we never see people’s reactions to receiving news. This, and probably a few other things, results in certain characters’ plotlines taking what feel like extremely abrupt turns within the course of single episodes. Lord Grantham is served the worst by this, but it also finds its way into Mary and Matthew’s plotline. It’s hard to be too disappointed by this, however, since Downton Abbey never really rises above the level of “very, very fun but also extremely silly.” The occasional melodramatic turn is to be expected. I still love this. But I’m going to return to Battlestar Galactica for a while before I move on to season three.

All Watched Over By Machines Of Loving Grace: “Love and Power” — I was entreated to watch this by a friend with whom I’m working on a podcast about what happens when we let the machines make the important decisions. Clearly, Adam Curtis got there first. This BBC documentary series focuses on how computers have failed to free humanity in the way that Californian techno-libertarians assured us they would. The opening episode traces that worldview from Ayn Rand through early Silicon Valley to its mainstreaming with Alan Greenspan — who, as chairman of the Fed under an embattled Bill Clinton, was possibly the most powerful person in the world. It is fascinating to watch, and I’ll for sure have more to say next week when I finish the other two episodes. But for now, I’ll just say it’s great. Pick of the week.

Games

Steve Jackson’s Sorcery!: Parts 1 & 2 — Here beginneth the playing of the sixteen games I bought for thirty bucks during the Steam winter sale. Even as an avid fan of Inkle’s 80 Days (I would count it among my top five favourite games), I had planned to give their Sorcery! series a miss. There are a few reasons for that. Firstly, it’s not written by Meg Jayanth, whose incredible script is responsible for almost all of 80 Days’ appeal. Secondly, it’s an apparently straightforward adaptation of a gamebook, which is a lot less ambitious than, say, an interactive adaptation of a Jules Verne novel that expands the text by hundreds of thousands of words and also goes out of its way to correct that text’s misogyny and pro-colonialist stance. And finally, I have a limited tolerance for high fantasy bullshit. It’s just not an aesthetic that works for me. But after the fourth instalment of Sorcery! started to get raves, I figured that maybe this is the sort of series I might do well to pick up cheap. The beautifully designed opening sequence of Sorcery! part one can’t quite match 80 Days’s “It would seem… he is a gambling man.” (That moment gives me chills just to think about.) This continues to be the case: this Sorcery! two-parter can’t measure up to its esteemed successor. But it does what it does extremely well. Once you get past the relatively slight first episode, this expands into a pleasing (if not especially literary) adventure game. Inkle’s games have that quality about them that the best of the old parser-based interactive fiction titles did: they give the sense that there is a truly massive world set out before you, and that any course charted through it will be unique and will leave the vast bulk of the territory undiscovered. Also, it’s hard. There’s a mechanic baked into the second part that allows you to go back in time to a certain point on your journey and pick up crucial story elements that you missed. (This is in fact a necessity for finishing the game — unless, by some miracle, you get everything you need on your first pass through.) I had to use it twice to get ahold of some crucial clues, and I died a lot on all three of my journeys through the game. This in itself is not frustrating: the game’s difficulty never feels unfair, and the constant deaths made me feel more satisfied when I did eventually find my way out of a tight spot that had killed me numerous times already. What is frustrating, though, is the game’s almost-but-not-quite open world approach. (This is a problem I understand is solved in the third instalment, and I’m very much looking forward to seeing how it works.) If the player were simply allowed to roam freely and backtrack at will, the time travel mechanic wouldn’t be necessary at all. And that would be preferable, because that mechanic causes some untoward bugs when coupled with the game’s other rewind mechanic, which allows you to actually rewind the gameplay itself, extra-diegetically. (Wow, that is a confusing sentence, even for me. But what are you gonna do? Writing about time travel is hard. Play the game and it’ll make sense.) Aside from those little nitpicky details, this is pretty extraordinary. By the end of it, I even managed to overcome my high fantasy allergy and look at the story on its own terms. Much of this takes place in Kharé, a city populated by thieves and tricksters, where traps lie everywhere and the city itself forms a massive trap for all those who live there. That is an absolutely delightful sort of environment to spend a bunch of time wandering around. I expect to enjoy the coming instalments more than this, but I’ll miss Kharé. Lovely stuff.

Podcasts

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “Favourite Podcasts of 2016” — I’m taking this as an opportunity to start listening to Judge John Hodgman. Most of the other podcasts mentioned here are either ones I don’t like very much, or ones I’m interested in checking out, but not interested enough to overcome the inertia.

StartUp: “MAGIC” — This isn’t one of the this season’s best episodes, and it isn’t a perfect ending, but this has been a pretty good season of StartUp overall. There’s nothing really wrong with not having a great ending to your nonfiction story. That’s part of what was weird about the way Serial season one was received: people didn’t accept that in journalism, you can just say “We’ve been at this for long enough. Now we stop.” Same goes for this.

Reply All: “Past, Present, Future 2” — The unquestionable highlight of this is Breakmaster Cylinder’s update on how his beat harvesting is going. But this series of updates on the year’s stories is a lovely thing to have become an annual tradition. It’s like Reply All’s own miniature Undone. Could’ve done without Alex Goldman’s Gollum impression, though.

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “2016 Favourites and Unfinished Business” — These wrap-up episodes are always good fun. There’s probably a lot of stuff that was mentioned here that I should check out, but who has the time. (hehehe) Glad that Stephen Thompson favourited O.J.: Made in America, even if he did frame it as “the welcome return of Marcia Clark!” which is a weird way to frame anything. Also, it’s nice to have Sam Sanders on here, partially because it’s always nice to hear him on this show, but also because he’s been around less often, so his favourites come as a bit more of a surprise than some of the more frequent fourth chairs.

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “Small Batch: Westworld” — Absolutely lost. This is one of those things that I listen to for the sake of completion alone. Can’t let this be the only PCHH of the year that I didn’t hear. But I haven’t seen Westworld, I’m not likely to ever watch Westworld, and I haven’t the slightest clue what Glen Weldon and Audie Cornish are on about here. Ah, well.

Homecoming: Episodes 3-6 — This is really good for the most part. I can’t say I’m completely overwhelmed by it the way I had hoped to be overwhelmed by a podcast with the budget to hire several movie stars. The biggest issue here is the plot twist about the true intentions of the shady corporation at the centre of the story. It’s not that I predicted the exact nature of the reveal, so much as I knew it would be something sort of like what it actually turned out to be. I could discern the general shape of it. And in a way, that’s worse than being outright predictable, because it betrays a certain lack of specificity in your premise. “Shady government contractor… is, in fact, bad!” There’s something about that that just sort of makes me go, “right, okay,” and then file this away under the heading of “things I liked, but won’t be thinking very hard about.” It’s great that Gimlet is big enough to do something like this, now. But it would have been nice for the first podcast featuring performances by movie stars to actually be obviously much better than other scripted podcasts, and I don’t think this is. I’m looking forward to season two of Limetown far more than I’m looking forward to season two of this. Still, I’m content to merely damn it with faint praise. And with the knowledge that this is what I’m doing here, I’ll happily backpedal and say it’s well worth a listen. It is, after all, a podcast. And therefore free.

Judge John Hodgman: “In Moto Parentis” — I dunno. For one of the supposed crown jewels of comedy podcasts, this episode (a recommended starting point from no less an authority than Linda Holmes) left me cold. Hodgman is a great presence because he comes off as crusty and cold, but when pressed reveals warmth and humanity. The human drama of whether or not a teenage boy should be allowed to have a motorcycle was actually pretty fascinating. But the laugh count was low. So, I think I’ll leave this for a while and maybe come back when somebody else recommends me another possible way in.

Twice Removed: “Dan Savage” — This is such manipulative treacle. Good god, I haven’t heard a host try to make somebody cry this hard outside of the reality television shows that are occasionally on as ambient noise in my mom’s house. The stories that are presented, all based around members of Dan Savage’s extremely extended family, are fine in themselves. But the structure is so contrived, and so specifically manufactured to wrest emotion out of the guest that I almost didn’t make it through this episode. The strings were obscuring my view of the puppets. I’m unlikely to listen again, and if I do, it will only be to cement my opinion that this is the worst show Gimlet has produced thus far.

Theory of Everything: “The Fairest of Them All?” — Benjamen Walker goes to a surveillance museum! Well, not quite. It’s an art exhibit about modern surveillance. It sounds like a great exhibit, which is a good thing, because this episode lives and dies based on the descriptions of the premises and objects that come into play as you walk through it. And it’s great. I’ve loved every instalment in this surveillance mini-season, and while this may not be quite as earth-shaking as the last one, it’s keeping pace nicely, and I’m continuing to get more and more scared of the future. 😀 😀 😀 😀

Love and Radio: “Blink Once for Yes” — There’s a review to be written about this episode where I use it as a stick with which to beat the episode of Twice Removed I just reviewed. The argument of that review would be that this is how to actually elicit emotion: by simply asking people about things that make them unavoidably emotional, and playing the resulting tape. No fancy footwork required. But I’m not going to write any more of that review, because Love and Radio always deserves to be taken on its own terms. One of the things that I love about this show is its willingness to just be incredibly sad. Three of the four saddest podcast episodes I’ve ever heard have been on this show, “The Living Room” being the obvious number one, but also “Welcome to Coney Island,” and now this one. (The non-Love and Radio one is Radiolab’s “Gray’s Donation,” if you were wondering.) In this documentary, producer John Facile interviews his whole family about the debilitating brain injury and subsequent death of his brother. I won’t say any more about the story, because you really should just listen to it and hear how it unfolds for yourself. But the thing I love most about it is how it demonstrates how a large number of people (there were five kids in the family, plus the parents and a couple of devoted caretakers) react in their own specific, different, yet inevitably human ways when presented with an absolute horror. Facile is confrontational in his interviews at times, but never for the sake of narrative conflict: he is always actively trying to come to terms with difficult emotions and differences of opinion with his family. I listened to this while doing laundry, and there was a stretch of four or five minutes where I was just standing by the dryer, about to put the load in the basket, but I was too involved in this podcast to do anything but stand there blankly. My building has a public laundromat, so I imagine it looked seriously weird. That’s how good this is. Pick of the week.

Code Switch: “A Chitlins Christmas: Bah Humbug!” — This is worth the time just to hear Kevin Young’s reading of his “Ode to Chitlins.” This is a worthwhile Christmas postscript to a year of great podcasts about food and race — mostly from The Sporkful, honestly. But it’s good that Code Switch has waded in. I hope they do more on food, because I don’t think there’s a single social concern that can’t be addressed through that lens.