I’ve decided to start adding links to things. I apologize for how stupid and distracting it looks. But some things deserve to be clicked. Most don’t. But many do. If I link to it, it means I think you should check it out.
Joyce DiDonato: In War And Peace, live at the Orpheum — I’d like to be charitable on account of being so fond of Joyce DiDonato in general, but this was an only okay performance from possibly my favourite singer. There were moments of brilliance scattered throughout, particularly in the more lyrical moments. I’ve never heard “Lascia ch’io pianga” from Handel’s Rinaldo sung better. And the finale, Strauss’s “Morgen,” was basically perfect. But the thing I’ve always loved most about listening to DiDonato’s recordings (including recordings of her singing live) is just marvelling at her technical wizardry. I like listening to her sing runs, basically. And all of that stuff went kind of badly last night, which is a shame given that this was the first time I’d heard her sing in person. Coloratura passages were messy. She missed a lot of the middle notes in arpeggios. Her voice didn’t fill the hall like I was expecting. On that note, I really think the Orpheum was the wrong venue for this show. Il Pomo d’Oro is an astonishing baroque chamber orchestra, but their sound doesn’t carry in a big room. I strained to hear the details all night. If these musical problems had been less present, I would likely have been more indulgent of the production as a whole, which was a little inscrutable. Rather than presenting a straightforward recital for this tour about war and peace, DiDonato elected to bring a dancer onboard, use some fancy lighting, and wear Ziggy Stardust makeup. Actually, I think the Ziggy makeup was a rather nice touch. But I found the lighting and the dancer distracting, and couldn’t quite figure out what the point was. Not spectacle, certainly. This is the sort of thing I’m loathe to criticize too harshly, because I’d rather musicians try it than just stick to the safe route and not take creative risks. But for me, it took away more than it added, and completely failed to make up for the musical shortcomings. I don’t want to make this sound like a complete waste of time — the best musical moments were truly stunning, and the impression overall was of a great singer and a great orchestra performing in a lukewarm production and having a bad night. Ah, well.
Fleabag: Episodes 4-6 — This latter half-season of Fleabag is extraordinary. Not because of the huge plot reveals or the inventive editing and unreliable narrator stuff. That’s fine, but it’s not completely unique. It is extraordinary because all of the revelations about its protagonist’s life seem to stem logically from the character we’ve gotten to know — and not the other way around. In life, your character exerts as much sway on your life story as your life story exerts on your character. This is rarely true in fiction. Fiction tends to frame stories primarily as sequences of events, and characters are just the people they happen to. Their specific traits are engineered to reflect the story that they’ve been planted in. Fleabag, on the other hand, starts by showing you a unique character that you can completely understand, just on the basis of her actions. Then then it builds a backstory that makes perfect sense for that character. It introduces the character first, and then it asks, “What would happen if this character existed in the world? What sorts of things would she cause to happen?” It isn’t characterization in the traditional sense, because the character arrives fully formed. It is story emerging from character as opposed to the other way around. And the fact that the characters are so clearly-drawn, and possess such agency over their stories (not their lives, mind you, but their stories) means that the show sparkles on a scene-by-scene basis, because all you have to do is put them in the right combinations and situations, and poetry happens. Phoebe Waller-Bridge is a genius. I’d love to see more of this, but I’d be just as happy to see her do something completely different. Brilliant. Pick of the week.
Last Chance to See: Episodes 1-4 — I’ve been meaning to watch this for ages. It’s Stephen Fry’s televised sequel to his late friend Douglas Adams’s radio/prose masterpiece of the same title. The book, co-authored with naturalist Mark Carwardine (who rejoins as Fry’s guide), is one of the most profound works of nonfiction ever — humourous or not. It contains some of the greatest prose ever written in the English language: more beautiful even than the most cathartic moments in the Hitchhiker series. So, it’s probably wise for Fry to attempt a follow-up only in an entirely different medium. I am enjoying it enormously. It has all of the requisite gorgeous nature footage that you’d expect from the BBC, but it’s also brilliantly conceived and presented. A huge part of the joy in this series is just watching Fry and Carwardine talk to each other. They take an instant liking to one another, in spite of their drastically different temperaments, and a double act is born. So far, there’s been one slightly jarring segment in the episode on Madagascar where Fry and Carwardine visit a local village of indigenous people. There’s a certain amount of hand wringing done over the fact that the superstitious locals kill lemurs because they think them to be bad omens. But by this point, they’ve already established that the real threat to the lemurs’ survival is rampant forestry. So why bother? Surely if not for forestry, the lemurs could withstand the beliefs of the island’s first people. Seems a bit unnecessary, and certainly condescending. But it’s a bum note in what is otherwise proving to be an immensely satisfying documentary series.
Moonlight — This movie might have been too subtle for me. After watching it Friday night, I racked my brains for a way to frame its observations on race, class and sexuality in a couple of tidy sentences, and it’s just not possible. This should make me like it more. And it definitely does make me admire it more. I like movies that refuse to just put their cards on the table. It puts the onus on the audience to make connections for themselves. But with this movie, I’m not sure I’m up to the task. I appreciate it as a beautifully shot character study with universally fantastic acting. I enjoyed it enormously on a scene-by-scene basis, particularly towards the end of the movie where the tension of things left unspoken between the two key characters grows more and more unbearable. And of course, it’s extremely gratifying to even see a movie like this get made: one about a poor, black, gay kid living in a part of Miami that never gets shown in the movies. But I still feel as though there’s something I’m not getting. Also, there are jarring bits of dialogue here and there, especially in the film’s second act, in which teenagers occasionally talk the way that adults think teenagers talk. But that’s not what’s bothering me. What’s bothering me is that, like many similarly austere movies (those of Yasujirō Ozu, for instance), it doesn’t offer up a loose corner for me to peel back and see what it’s actually saying. Presumably, other viewers will find that loose corner and be in awe. Power to them.
Doctor Strange — I saw this with a couple of friends immediately after watching Moonlight, which may seem a slightly perverse double feature, but it was actually kind of perfect. See the big serious, austere movie that will take up residency in your brain for a while, then wash it down with a helping of amazing froth. I have railed against the Marvel Cinematic Universe (and the very concept of cinematic universes) on a couple of occasions, but I have to admit that between this and Civil War, it has provided the four-and-a-half funnest hours I’ve spent in movie theatres this year. There are big problems with Doctor Strange, including whitewashing and cultural appropriation, and those problems do legitimately put it out of the running for the year’s best movies, and also for the MCU’s best movies. But there are moments here that remind me what I love about going to movies the same way that Mad Max: Fury Road did last year. In an odd sense, both this and Moonlight serve as reminders of why cinema is an art form that stands alone in its aptitudes. Cinema makes us look at things. Moonlight’s story plays out on its actors’ faces in close-up more so than in the words they speak. Doctor Strange shows us impossible, kaleidoscopic, psychedelic, Escher-esque deformations of modern cityscapes that would be impossible to convey by any means but modern filmmaking. The visual inventiveness of this movie owes something to Inception, whose story and structure it can’t hope to equal, but it is infinitely more thrilling in its aesthetic. The chase and fight sequences that take place in magically elongated hallways and city streets turned on their sides are so far removed from the usual dull boilerplate fare in these movies that it reminds you of the initial promise of CGI, rather than its increasingly lazy modern applications. When you throw in a snarky protagonist who can tell you specifically when Chuck Mangione’s anomalously flugelhorn-centric “Feels So Good” charted, a few measures of Pink Floyd’s very apropos “Interstellar Overdrive” during a car crash sequence, and an incomprehensible Lovecraftian god, you’ve made a movie that I was always going to love.
Emily Bazelon: “Billionaires Vs. the Press in the Era of Trump” — This deeply disquieting New York Times Magazine piece doesn’t just go through the recent, high-profile cases of wealth silencing speech in America, but also contextualizes it within legal precedent and makes note of how things could change (i.e. by what mechanisms) under a media-hostile Trump administration.
Scott Shane: “Combative, Populist Steve Bannon Found His Man in Donald Trump” — The biggest takeaway from this piece is that Steve Bannon is more an extremist than he is a conservative. There’s an alternate universe not far from this one where he’s attempting to foment an American communist revolution. Alas, we all live in the Trumpiverse.
The Pogues: Rum Sodomy & the Lash — Figured I’d best get to know the rest of their oeuvre before “Fairytale of New York” gets stuck in my head for a month. I really enjoyed this. Maybe it connects to something in my Newfoundland heritage. But there’s something in the combination of pipes, accordion and liquored-up story-songs that just hits me where I live. The bookends strike me as the strongest points. “The Sick Bed of Cúchulainn” is pure drunken euphoria, and the Pogues’ rendition of “And the Band Played Waltzing Matilda” gives it exactly what the song needs: a complete lack of sentimentality. In its brutal straightforwardness, it is profoundly moving. I’ll be obsessing over this for a while.
Pop Culture Happy Hour: “Arrival and Pop Culture Serotonin” — Arrival sounds very much like my kind of thing. And the second segment was wonderful, because it basically just allowed the panel to spend half the episode on “what’s making us happy this week.” Nice.
StartUp: “Introducing Gimlet’s Fall Slate” — I am enormously excited for all of these shows. Initially, Homecoming was the one that seemed most exciting, but after hearing this preview of all three, I’m now most looking forward to Crimetown. Undone is still the clear runt of the litter.
A Point of View: “A Liberal Credo” — Adam Gopnik makes a convincing argument for centrist liberalism as something more than just a compromising middle ground. This is the sort of thing it does me good to hear occasionally, so I don’t go full communist and cease to be welcome at Thanksgiving dinner.
The Memory Palace: “under our feet” — God, I feel like it’s been ages since I listened to The Memory Palace. This is a completely wonderful story of the guy who was responsible for capturing the public imagination with dinosaurs for the first time. One of Nate DiMeo’s strengths as a writer is capturing the sensation of wonder, even when it is directed at something that’s less wondrous to us now than it was to the characters in his stories.
The Memory Palace: “Met Residency #3 (Full Circle)” — This is the most self-supporting of DiMeo’s Met residency stories. The tale of a painter who never quite made it, it works as a standalone radio piece, even if it does make you really want to see the panorama in question.
All Songs Considered: “How David Bowie’s Songs Became The Musical ‘Lazarus’” — I’d be interested in seeing Lazarus, if only to see what sort of musical David Bowie would attach his name to in his last years. But this interview and these music clips really make it seem like a garden variety jukebox musical. And that version of “Life On Mars?” is borderline sacrilege. And not the kind I like.
Love and Radio: “Wood Fighting with Steel” — Nick Van Der Kolk’s brief existential crisis at the start of this episode is fascinating, if only because he seems not to realize that the show he’s making is literally the most relevant podcast it’s possible for anybody to make in a world where Donald Trump was elected president of the United States. It seems likely that we could be entering an era that’s even more defined by fear and hatred of the ‘other’ than the present one. Here’s a podcast that starts from the contention that it’s better to listen to people than not to. I can’t imagine anything more powerful. This particular story sits somewhere in the middle of the pack, honestly. But like every episode of this show, it’s an opportunity to get to know somebody on their own terms. That’s quietly amazing. Love and Radio is more essential than ever.
This American Life: “Duty Calls” — A punishingly sad story about a man who can’t quite help his mother get over her addiction. A cameo by Starlee Kine helps leaven the heft.
Imaginary Worlds: “The Man In the High Castle” — The latest I’ve heard in the emerging subgenre of “things that are obviously about Trump but don’t actually mention his name.” The Man in the High Castle sounds like the show for our times. And learning about the ways that it expands on the Philip K. Dick story helps to sell me on it. I still don’t know if I’ll commit to watching it, though. Could be a bit heavy-handed. I may yet be convinced.
Fresh Air: “‘Manchester By The Sea’ Director Kenneth Lonergan” — This mostly just reassured me that a movie I am already excited about will be worth my time. And also that there are moments of humour in it instead of it just being punishing from start to finish.
A Point of View: “Bob Dylan and the Bobolators” — Nice to hear Adam Gopnik talk about something relatively light and unimportant. I’m not totally convinced that he understands the extent to which Bob Dylan is a troll. One of the best things about Dylan is how utterly scornful he is of the very people who seek to raise him up. Every modern critique of the baby boomer cultural hegemony that made Dylan a legend was basically anticipated by Dylan himself, in his pathological antipathy for his audience. I love that. But I also love Gopnik’s defence of people like Paul McCartney, who are scorned because the want to be loved. This is a great essay. I intend to make a point of tuning into this whenever Gopnik’s on. He’s a worthwhile tonic for the ailments caused by listening to Roger Scruton.
Pop Culture Happy Hour: “Gilmore Girls and Moana” — The discussion of Gilmore Girls went way the hell over my head. Moana sounds fine. Basically, this is most worthwhile for the “what’s making us happy” segment, which features five panelists instead of the usual four. Glen Weldon is funny. My dishes got done.
StartUp: “Boundaries” — Okay, Dov Charney is a sleazebag. Any tolerance I’d built up for him in the first three episodes of this series is now gone. But the series itself is quickly winning me over.
On The Media: “Normalize This!” — It’s nice to see that, in the short period that I haven’t been listening, OTM has gotten past it’s post-election primal screaming phase and gotten on with the important work of thinking about how to cover a president who is indifferent to truth. This is an episode that is concerned with concrete strategies, right down to the most granular level of what specific words to use and to avoid using. I’ll say it again: thank god for this show. Pick of the week.