Tag Archives: E.H. Gombrich

Omnibus (week of June 24, 2018)

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

25 reviews.

Music

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

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

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

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

Live events

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

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

Literature, etc.

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

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

Podcasts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Omnibus (weeks of Apr. 22 & 29)

I’ve been away for a week, and that always throws off my schedule here. So, we’ve got two weeks worth of reviews, and they are ALL OVER THE PLACE.

I think I’m actually proud of this particular Omnibus. There’s a lot going on here. There’s opera and paintings and other hoity-toity shit like that. There’s the new Avengers. There’s a pair of films about rock and roll, and a pair of albums by a band I’m currently obsessed with. There’s stuff that made me laugh. There’s a weird game. And there are not so many podcasts as to tip the balance away from the other stuff. I think this may be good. Anyway, it was fun.

I will also take this opportunity to direct you to the Tumblr associated with this blog, in case you would like a more media-rich experience that also includes paragraph breaks. Paragraph breaks are good, but we have a house style here and some rules are not made to be broken. Even when the paragraphs clearly are. I think the Tumblr may be particularly advisable in the case of the Vancouver Art Gallery entry, because pictures. Regardless of your choice, enjoy.

Does three picks of the week sound reasonable? I think that sounds reasonable.

20 reviews.

Events

Gaetano Donizetti: Anna Bolena (Canadian Opera Company) — I only had time to take in one show while I was in Toronto. It might have been a hard choice if Sondra Radvanovsky hadn’t been singing at the COC. That made it damn easy. I’ll be honest: I don’t like Donizetti. I don’t find his music memorable, and the librettos in these Tudor operas make me cringe. But in this case, that didn’t matter at all, because I was in this for Radvanovsky specifically, and she was magnificent. She’s a singing actor who puts intensity front and centre, in the tradition of Maria Callas — except, in my opinion, with a more innately attractive voice than Callas. And intensity is what you need for Bolena, a role that encompasses imperiousness, regret, madness, spite, and maybe love. Radvanovsky’s Bolena seems ready to spit in the king’s eye at any moment — a dramatic task made easier by baritone Christian Van Horn, who plays Enrico (Henry) VIII as a louche slimeball with no sense of his own hypocrisy. Van Horn and Radvanovsky have that delicious dynamic of intense loathing that’s hard to come by outside of the Lannisters on Game of Thrones. Remarkably, soprano Keri Alkema holds her own alongside Radvanovsky. The role of Giovanna Seymour is intrinsically less interesting than the role of Bolena, even if she does get some nice coloratura stuff to sing. Seymour is merely a lover — and a tediously sincere one at that, who knows Enrico is objectively horrible and loves him anyway. Bolena’s concerns are more complex: she wants power, and she’s concerned about her legacy. There’s a great love in her past, but when she looks back on it fondly, you get the sense that she’s really just regretting the pickle she’s gotten herself into by marrying such a terrible man. But it’s precisely this contrast between the two characters that makes Radvanovsky and Alkema so effective together. They understand that relationship completely. Of the smaller roles, Allyson McHardy stands out in the pants role of Smeton, a character whose only narrative purpose is to drive the tiresome intrigues that are a mandatory part of all bel canto opera. What the character lacks in narrative interest, McHardy compensates for with wonderful singing. If I haven’t made it clear already, this is a very well-directed production. Even though the libretto (or at least its translation) is made up exclusively of things that nobody would ever say, the actors commit. And their understanding of the relationships that underpin the drama goes some distance to papering over the weakness of the text. The set is spectacular without being overbearing. It is essentially a Jacob’s ladder of connected, tall wood panels that can slide back and forth across the stage to produce the impression of intimate spaces when they’re close to the audience and grand spaces when they’re far back. They can become corridors and gates. It’s nifty. It also aids the drama: Bolena’s chambers seem tiny and claustrophobic, while Enrico seems particularly frightening slouched on a throne in the middle of a huge, empty stage. Director Stephen Lawless and set designer Benoit Durgardyn have done well, here. I enormously enjoyed this. I still think it’s a dumb opera, but it hardly seems to matter. (Okay, fine, “Al dolce guidami” is gorgeous.)

A visit to the Vancouver Art Gallery (April 24, 2018) — As I’m writing this, it has been nearly two weeks since the visit in question, and the network of connections and ideas that formed in my head as I traversed the five exhibitions present at the time has largely disintegrated. But I did see a bunch of art that’s stuck with me and will continue to. So I’m just going to rattle some of it off. The reason I was at the gallery was that it was my last chance to see Takashi Murakami’s retrospective exhibition “The Octopus Eats Its Own Leg.” Given what a hit it’s been, I figured I’d see it last, so as not to be completely underwhelmed by the rest of the art in the gallery. In practice, I think the opposite happened. I was at the VAG for more than four hours. By the end of that, I was completely overstimulated and my brain was having trouble processing images. That’s not the state you want to be in when you walk into a whole floor of brightly coloured, enormously detailed, narratively complicated art with influences ranging from ancient Japanese painting to Instagram. I’ve never seen Picasso’s Guernica or Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights in person, but I imagine that some of Murakami’s most gigantic paintings rival those works for sheer impact of spectacle. Seeing Tan Tan Bo Puking on a screen or an advertisement makes it look like a comics splash page or a Roger Dean album cover: you may be drawn in by its whimsy and impressed by its minute detail, but you’re unlikely to be overwhelmed. Seeing it in person is overwhelming because it is seven metres long. I have no idea what, if anything, it is meant to convey. But it doesn’t seem to matter because the spectacle is so effective. That’s a reasonable summary of my whole experience with the Murakami exhibit. I wish I could see pieces like 100 Arhats or Dragon in Clouds again while not being quite so spent, because they require a lot of energy. Knowing that I would need at least a fragment of my energy left for Murakami, I breezed through the small exhibition on the fourth floor somewhat inattentively. In addition to the traditional selection of Emily Carr paintings (which I never tire of), the VAG was showing some prints of photographs by Mattie Gunterman, a photographer born in 1872 who walked six hundred miles with her husband to get to B.C. to mine for silver. Seeing her photographs alongside Carr’s famous forest pictures made perfect sense, prompting me to go “ah” as I slingshotted around this floor and headed for Murakami. This brings us to “Bombhead,” maybe my favourite exhibition I saw on this visit. It’s a selection of art and artefacts focussed around the idea of nuclear disaster, curated by John O’Brian. It’s accompanied by a nifty little booklet designed in the style of Canadian nuclear survival guides that were published in the 50s and 60s. The exhibition takes its title from a Bruce Conner picture that sets the tone for the whole thing: the nuclear age is a void too dark to stare into, so we resort to whimsy. Accordingly, the exhibition is exhausting and marvellous. I spent more time than I needed to in an alcove, watching an old Cold War era documentary called The Atomic Cafe, while a Globe and Mail story about Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un loomed over me. I stared at a wall lined with photographs from Robert del Tredici’s epochal book At Work in the Fields of the Bomb. I surveyed unexpected images of nuclear detonations in popular culture. And I nearly barfed at the power of Nancy Spero’s bomb paintings. It’s a bonkers experience that feels terrifyingly relevant. The fallout from “Bombhead” seems to be drifting downwards to the lower floors of the VAG. Murakami’s exhibition is also concerned with the literal and figurative flattening of Japan by a nuclear bomb. And World War II looms large in the focus of “Living, Building, Thinking,” an exhibition of expressionist art building from the collection of McMaster University. I love expressionism. I do not know art, but this is where I live. This exhibition shuffles the entire history of expressionism and its influence around so that the expected wartime Germans rub shoulders with contemporary Canadians and others. Walking in, you’re greeted by Yggdrasil: an oppressive, overwhelming painting by the German painter Anselm Kiefer, who was born just as WWII ended. That sets the tone nicely. Shortly thereafter, we see Canadian painter Tony Sherman’s Poseidon, which stares bleakly at us from a sea of drab dribbles. At that point, we’re well prepared for an intensely German freakout by Jörg Immendorff and a moving work by the Montreal-based painter Leopold Plotek called Master of the Genre of Silence, depicting the Soviet journalist Isaac Babel being interrogated. But the real heart of the exhibition is a whole room full of wartime lithographs and etchings by Nazi-persecuted artists like Max Beckmann, Hermann Max Pechstein and Frans Masereel. Pechstein’s multi-part illustration of the Lord’s Prayer is the absolute highlight of the exhibit, and even more modest works like Beckmann’s The Draughtsman in Society and Masereel’s wordless graphic novel Passionate Journey have incredible power in their simplicity and expressiveness. I’ll explore all three of these artists in greater depth. We’ve been working backwards through my visit to the VAG, so we’ve now finally arrived at the beginning. The expressionism exhibition shares a floor with another one taken from the collection at McMaster, this one containing art that was donated by the private collector Herman Levy. With all due respect, I do not care about Mr. Levy, no matter how hard the annotations in this exhibition try to make me. However, he doubtless had excellent taste in art, and I totally enjoyed seeing some great works by Monet and Pissarro in the comfort of my own city. I enjoyed noticing for the first time that painters sometimes convey the motion of water by actually thickening the layers of paint on the ripples. And I definitely enjoyed being introduced to the work of George Braque and Roderic O’Conor, who I was previously unfamiliar with. You know what, I like art. Art is good. This was a fun afternoon. Also, during the course of my visit, two different people stopped to look at a fire extinguisher and jokingly said “so beautiful” to their friends. I wonder if that joke happens every day. Pick of the week.

Movies

Avengers: Infinity War — It is without a doubt the mostest movie I’ve seen this year. Avengers: Infinity War is a big fun spectacle that I had a great time watching. And it embodies all the best and worst tendencies of the Marvel Cinematic Universe in one movie. Weirdly, I think a useful way to look at this movie is in comparison with Game of Thrones. I’ll tell you why, and I’ll do so with no spoilers. Relax. The key question for me going into Infinity War is how the hell they’d be able to juggle all of these characters and still maintain a semblance of a cohesive story. The answer turns out to be that they structure it like an episode of GoT, which famously encompasses a vast range of characters and settings. Your standard episode of GoT pushes several independent stories forward at once, each of them linked to the others only in the sense that viewers are aware of the complex web of familial relationships and power dynamics that relates them. Tune into a random episode, and it might feel like you’re watching five different medieval soaps. Infinity War is structured much the same way, with characters from various bits of the MCU grouped off and pursuing stories independently of the others. But unlike GoT, this movie’s characters are pulled from separate franchises, some of which have drastically different tones than the rest. It’s great fun to see a Spider-Man school bus scene that could come straight out of Homecoming bump up against big silly Guardians of the Galaxy space opera scenes and climactic battles in Wakanda. If Infinity War operated along the same lines as the first two Avengers movies, with its cast largely concentrated on one threat in one area, it would be impossible. But the GoT approach makes it surprisingly fleet-footed. You can quibble with the underrepresentation of certain favourite characters (for many, Black Panther; for me, Hulk). But in a movie with a gazillion superheroes, this is inevitable. Infinity War strikes that balance more deftly than anybody could have hoped. (But seriously, though: when are we going to get a Mark Ruffalo-starring Hulk movie? That’s maybe my favourite performance in the whole MCU, and he’s only ever been a side-character.) The other way in which Game of Thrones can help inform a viewing of Infinity War is less flattering to the latter. GoT is famous for killing off major characters at the drop of a hat. So as not to spoil too much, I will only say that Infinity War also has a body count. But the funding models of these respective franchises prevent us from looking at them the same way. GoT can kill off characters and twist the plot around in crazy ways because its viewers are invested in a brand called “Game of Thrones” which will endure regardless until the story’s done. This is how television works. Infinity War, on the other hand, can’t easily kill anybody important off permanently because the MCU is a blockbuster movie generator buoyed by big, bankable characters. There is no end in sight to the overarching storyline of the MCU, and the brands that draw audiences in are “Spider-Man,” “Iron Man,” “Captain America,” and so forth. You can’t kill these characters because the characters themselves are brands. The brands need to stay alive if they can make money. In GoT, Tyrion Lannister is not a brand. He’s arguably a selling point for the show, but nobody’s tuning into a show called Tyrion. They’re watching Game of Thrones. These cold hard facts of capitalism are impossible to ignore while watching Infinity War, and they seriously undercut what would otherwise be some deeply affecting moments. Basically, I liked Infinity War. It’s a big, silly action movie. The villain is undercooked, and some of it is boring because of underdeveloped relationships. But it’s fun, and I don’t mind that it made a billion dollars.

Deconstructing the Beatles: The White Album — I went to this screening at the Rio expecting something else. This is a film of a multimedia lecture given by the Beatles scholar Scott Freimann. Freimann himself was in attendance, so I thought we’d actually be getting a live rendition of the multimedia lecture captured on the film. Still, the film was worth seeing, and it was fun to be able to ask Freimann questions after the fact. He’s been doing this whole series of lecture films on the Beatles, including ones on Sgt. Pepper, Rubber Soul, and Revolver. This particular film on the White Album covers the usual beats associated with that album — the move away from psychedelia, the trip to India, Yoko, George Martin getting fed up and leaving, Ringo getting fed up and leaving — but it also highlights the musical consequences of those events in a way that taught me a lot. I’m always worried going into a Beatles-related thing that I won’t learn anything. Martin Scorsese’s George Harrison documentary fell into that category. But this didn’t. It’s worth seeing for Freimann’s breakdowns of the multi-track recordings alone. Who knew the vibrato on Clapton’s “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” solo was done by manipulating the tape machine? Sounds like a whammy bar, but it isn’t. There are gems o’plenty along those lines in this. I’m curious to see the others, and may well do.

The Fearless Freaks — I’ve seen a ton of rock documentaries, and I’m not sure that any of them capture the spirit of the band they document quite as well as this one. Director Bradley Beesley had known and worked with the Flaming Lips for years by the time this was finished, and it allowed him to get footage of them that feels like genuine fly-on-the-wall material, rather than just relying on talking heads like most rock docs do. It also helps that Beesley directed a bunch of Flaming Lips music videos, so he’s a person who actually contributed to their iconic visual aesthetic, which is represented here in spades — it’s a hectic, fast-edited movie full of overwhelming colour. Except for when it’s in black and white. Honestly, the black and white footage is nutty because watching it is almost exactly the same as watching black and white footage of the early Pink Floyd. Without the beard, Wayne Coyne even looks a bit like Syd Barrett. A lot changed between the late 60s and the early 90s. But the appeal of getting high and making loud noises on guitars evidently did not. What I did not expect was that Coyne is not the highlight of the film. He’s a compelling live performer, no doubt. But this movie makes it entirely clear that his key virtue is being incredibly hardworking. That’s admirable, but not super interesting. The hero of this movie is Steven Drozd, the band’s once-heroin-addicted drummer/guitarist/keyboardist/pantomath. Drozd is a naturally lucid talker, to the point where Beesley can even have a frank conversation with him while he shoots up. This scene is the cornerstone of the film, but it doesn’t feel voyeuristic at all, given the obvious trust that exists between the two people. The key tension in the movie comes from the fact that Drozd is the most talented musician in the Flaming Lips, and Wayne Coyne is well aware that the band’s sound depends on a guy who could die at any moment. I don’t know the Flaming Lips’ music very well, but this is a great primer on their story.

Music

The Flaming Lips: Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots — The first time I listened to this I was really distracted. My review at the time said that “I generally find myself wishing that the fun spacey sounds and weird beats would occasionally also yield to a nice melody or a good lyric.” Did I just flat out fall asleep during “In the Morning of the Magicians?” That is a serious melody. Where was I right at the top of “Fight Test?” That’s a melody so good it’s actually by Cat Stevens. And as for lyrics, you can’t beat “you realize the sun don’t go down, it’s just an illusion caused by the world spinning round.” This is every bit the album I didn’t used to think it was.

The Flaming Lips: The Soft Bulletin — My second foray into the Lips discography, and the one that’s going to end up cementing me as a fan. This album is gorgeous. It has just enough of the archness I know from Yoshimi and the smattering of earlier Flaming Lips stuff I’ve heard to keep it from being tedious. But Wayne Coyne and co. seem much more concerned here with producing a thing of beauty rather than a thing that’s just fun. “A Spoonful Weighs a Ton” strikes the perfect balance between preening Broadway balladry and cheap, janky indie rock. The song itself is grandiose and cathartic, but it’s clothed in bad orchestral synths and Wayne Coyne’s detuned bleat. It’s perfect. I love every song on this. The ones I keep going back to are “Buggin’,” which is a very unexpected summer jam about mosquitoes, “The Spark That Bled,” which goes off madly in every direction, “The Gash,” which is psychedelic gospel music, and “Waiting for a Superman,” which is one of those songs that made me regret not being close to a piano right when I first heard it. I don’t know why it took me so long to get to this, but it’s one of my favourite musical discoveries I’ve had recently. Pick of the week.

Literature, etc.

E.H. Gombrich: The Story of Art — What book should I take on the plane, I asked myself. Maybe Moby-Dick, so it won’t take you a whole year to get through it? Or possibly something light, both physically and figuratively? You know, airplane reading? No, I said to myself. What you need to take on the plane is this hardback brick of a book about the history of visual art from prehistoric times through the 20th century. That is what you will enjoy. And you know what? I DID. I have only gotten up to the Renaissance so far, but this book is 100 percent living up to its reputation as a clear and lucid introduction to art with a layout that encourages you to look at the pictures discussed with a fresh eye. I’m learning so much — like, I didn’t realize that the reason Ancient Egyptian art looks like that is because they were trying, Picasso style, to show the whole of a thing from one angle. Nor did I realize how long it took for painters to devise a way to show an image from a perspective that makes it look lifelike. These are things I just took for granted. Thank you, Dr. Gombrich. I look forward to learning more.

Chris Onstad: Achewood — My plan for Achewood reading going forward is to read a year’s worth of the comics followed by a year’s worth of the affiliated blogs until I’m done. It’s too tedious to keep up with the blogs as I’m reading the comic, but I’ve realized that they are an essential part of the Achewood experience. If you’re unfamiliar, Chris Onstad wrote a series of in-character blogs for the various personages that populate his webcomic. Together, they expand the universe by a fair margin. And more than that, they provide Onstad with a more flexible platform to explore the language of his characters. Everybody in Achewood talks in their own particular way, and the blogs reflect that. Given that, some of them are virtually unreadable. Lyle’s blog is a tragically garbled account of life as an unrepentant blackout drunk. Little Nephew’s is an admirably committed performance of teenage affectation. Both are nearly as challenging as some chapters of Ulysses, or at least A Clockwork Orange. Molly’s is problematic for a different reason, namely that her entire identity revolves around her boyfriend. But aside from these, the blogs are a pleasure, and they add layers upon layers to the comic. If you noticed that Cornelius had been absent from the strip for a while, you might well take to his blog to see where he’s been. Sure enough, he’s in Russia, attempting to seduce an Olympian. (Cornelius’s blog contains my absolute favourite post I’ve read so far, which is this.) The other standout is Nice Pete’s blog, which contains a serialized novel of such derangement that your laughter is almost defensive. A sample: “Eustace ducked into the bathroom six seconds later. Six seconds is the amount of time it takes a man to really get into a good pee. He knew that Dimitri would be focused on the pleasure of his peeing sensation, and that he could have his way.”

Comedy

John Mulaney: Kid Gorgeous at Radio City — Mulaney remains the comic with the highest batting average. His two previous specials are both brilliant and this one keeps the pace. It’s a bigger venue (it’s Radio goddamn City Music Hall), and Mulaney is accordingly more physical. But his jokes are still things of immense precision. I’ve been off learning about how to write better for the radio for the last week. Radio producers would do well to listen to Mulaney’s writing. It is everything that is good in writing. If you are a radio producer and you are reading this, I specifically recommend the bit about Stranger Danger. It is a well-oiled machine of perfect construction. Also, this has a live appearance by Jon Brion playing Radio City’s weird old organ. He closes Mulaney’s set with Nirvana’s “Lithium,” which he’s talked about at length in interviews. That’s fun.

Games

OFF — I was listening to a recent episode of the podcast No Cartridge and this weird French indie game came up as a point of contrast with EarthBound, which I love. So, I downloaded it — for free; it is a non-commercial release. And I could not run it without it freezing constantly. But I was compelled enough by it to want to see it in some form anyway, so I watched a three-hour playthrough on YouTube. I wish I could have played it myself, because watching somebody else play a turn-based RPG isn’t the best experience. Still, I think I got a sense of the story and feel of OFF, and it is a hell of a thing. Firstly, it came out in 2008, before the recent pileup of recursive, meta indie games (The Stanley Parable, Device 6, Stories Untold, Pony Island, etc., etc., etc.). Nowadays, it’s par for the course for an indie game to put forth a Borgesian transgression of the boundary between fiction and reality, but it doesn’t seem to me that this was the case in 2008. Given all the praise that was quite deservedly heaped upon Undertale, which is also a deeply meta game with a fairly explicit debt to EarthBound, you could be forgiven for thinking that it was the first game to really question the mechanics of a video game in that particular way. But OFF did something remarkably similar, long before. That doesn’t lessen Undertale’s accomplishment — it is, execution-wise, by far the better game. But it does demonstrate how ahead of its time OFF was. In this game, you control a character known only as the Batter (seemingly a reference to Ness’s weapon of choice in EarthBound, though apparently the creator of the game denies this). The Batter is aware that he is being controlled by a puppeteer he cannot see — the player; you. At least one of the other characters in the game, a grotesque cat called the Judge, is aware of this as well and often addresses the player directly. This one idea — that the player character of OFF is aware of the player — completely changes the dynamic of the game, relative to your standard old-school game. Where a character like Ness or Link looks like a hero moving actively through the world and overcoming obstacles, the Batter comes off as a ruthless inquisitor. He kills because it is inevitable that he must kill, because that is why we are playing the game. Again, this is expressed more subtly in Undertale, but OFF has more going on that just that theme. Its final stage is a creepy masterpiece of bizarre reiterations and echoes. At one point, you have to navigate several different versions of a room by using a fake version of the menu screen. That’s very nearly an Undertale idea. I enjoyed this a lot. I only wish I could have actually played it.

Podcasts

On The Media: “Moving Beyond the Norm” & “Dog Whistle” — Two good episodes with some great segments between them. Highlights include a Ken Kesey retrospective, a piece on the history of self-immolation, and two bits of metacriticism on Roseanne and The Simpsons — the latter featuring Hari Kondabolu. So yeah, it’s On the Media.

The Daily: “Friday, Apr. 20, 2018,” “Tuesday April 24, 2018” & “Friday, April, 27, 2018” — Wow, I’ve been away from this blog a while. The first of these is Michael Barbaro’s excellent interview with James Comey, which is the best of the many Comey-related things I listened to during Comey Week. Remember Comey Week? The media declared Comey Week, a couple weeks ago. It was all really interesting. But Barbaro’s interview is the best one because he focussed specifically on the idea of ego, and whether that character trait might have a lot to do with the decisions Comey made during the 2016 presidential election campaign. He denies this, and argues persuasively against it, but it’s interesting to hear how hard he has to work at it. The second is a fascinating look at a story that had nothing to do with the news cycle we’re constantly bombarded by: a Hong Kong bookseller suddenly disappeared and all hell broke loose. It’s an incredible story. The third is the Cosby episode. It’s also good.

No Cartridge: “Videogames’ Citizen Kane w/David ‘TheBeerNerd’ Eisenberg” — This is a conversation about EarthBound, a game I love and am endlessly fascinated by, and OFF, a game I had never heard of but have now watched a full playthrough of in the absence of a download that will run properly on my computer. It’s a fun conversation, but both of those games are sort of self-explanatory, and I’m not sure this really enlivened my thinking about either. But it did bring OFF to my attention, and I’m grateful for that.

Code Switch: “Members of Whose Tribe?” & “It’s Bigger Than The Ban” — Here we have a pair of episodes taking the long view of anti-Semitism and Islamophobia in America. These are both things you should hear. Start with the anti-Semitism one because it is SUPER complicated, even by this show’s standards.

99% Invisible: “Gander International Airport” & “The Hair Chart” — The Gander airport episode is maybe one of my favourite things this show has ever done. I am intensely prejudiced about this, mind you, because one side of my family is from very near Gander and I grew up flying into the Gander airport to visit them. Nowadays the St. John’s airport has taken precedence, but I’m happy that the Gander airport’s foyer is still considered a modernist landmark. I’ll be honest though: the fact that it was considered that was a surprise to me. It’s one of those things you come to take for granted. Actually, there’s a lot of stuff in this episode that I was really surprised to learn for the first time in a podcast. I would have expected somebody in my family to have told me the story of Fidel Castro going sledding in Gander, but they did not. Thank god for Roman Mars. “The Hair Chart” is a really good episode too, about the endlessly complicated issue of how hair products are marketed to black people. Pick of the week.

Caliphate: “Recruitment” — Here we have the New York Times’ top ISIS reporter interviewing a guy who was recruited into ISIS. It is enlightening.

Theory of Everything: “Fake Nudes (False Alarm! Part ii)” — This series exploring fake news through the medium of fake news continues to be bewildering, clever, and one of my favourite things that any podcaster is doing right now.

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “Avengers: Infinity War and What’s Making Us Happy” & “Scandal” — Well Scandal sounds like a whole thing. If it was your thing, I’m sad for you that it ended badly. The Avengers episode is pretty much bang on. It’s one of those movies that it’s hard to have an original thought about because its virtues and problems are so self-evident.

All Songs Considered: “Swan Songs: Music For Your Final Exit” — As I finally come to the end of two weeks worth of review writing, I remember that the proximate cause of my Flaming Lips wormhole was a coincidence: I played one of their songs with a friend at a party one night, and woke up the next day to find “Do You Realize?” in this mix of funeral songs. It’s a maudlin premise, but there’s some good music here.