Tag Archives: John Luther Adams

Omnibus (week of Jan. 28, 2018)

I’m not sure there has ever been a smaller omnibus than this. I have spent the bulk of the week with a pair of problematically anti-racist novels by American white men (Moby-Dick and It). I have nothing to say about either of these at the moment, being relatively near the start of one and enticingly close to the end of the other. So, content thyselves with these two reviews of a wonderful piece of music that everybody should hear and a brilliant season finale to a show that everybody should watch.

Music

John Luther Adams: Four Thousand Holes — I return to this fairly often when I need something cathartic, yet slow-paced. Adams’ music always moves at a rate that’s slower than your brain wants to move, which is how it pulls you in. But the title composition of this album is, I think, a particularly special piece because it slows your brain down, and then proceeds to build up to a satisfying climax while it has you in a trance. I daresay it does in a chamber music context what his epochal Become Ocean does with a full orchestra. The fact that it invokes the climax of “A Day in the Life” in the process is a nice touch, but unlike many “art music” works that reference iconic pop songs, it is not the entire point. I really adore this. Pick of the week.

Television

The Good Place: “Somewhere Else” — It’s a smaller finale than the season one finale, but that’s inevitable. Once again, this show has drastically altered its status quo: a thing it does several times per season. This is a particular barnburner for Kristen Bell and Ted Danson, whose barroom scene is one of the best in the show so far. How long do we have to wait for season three???

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Omnibus (week of July 9, 2017)

Oh, but it’s a good one this week. We’ve got theatre, a pair of superhero blockbusters, some great new music, the start of a chapter-by-chapter rundown of a truly excellent episodic adventure game, and the most unexpected literary classic of recent years from a sports website. Also a metric tonne of podcasts. I’ve been procrastinating again.

32 reviews. Eat up.

Live events

The Merchant of Venice (Bard on the Beach) — Like The Winter’s Tale, this is not a play that I know well. I know it as Shakespeare’s most fraught play, since it is widely considered anti-Semitic. Given my lack of knowledge of the text itself, I can’t easily judge whether that’s the case, because this production is intensely sympathetic to Shylock. It paints him as a man who insists upon his own dignity in spite of the world’s hatred and disregard for him. It paints his ruthlessness as a symptom of the constant abuse he suffers at the hands of Christians. Mind you, that’s present in the play itself to the extent that it allows Shylock the interiority to know his own intentions and the reasoning for them. The “hath not a Jew eyes” is evidence enough that Shakespeare has some sympathy for Shylock. But that only makes it more perplexing that he goes on to ruin Shylock’s life and write him out of the last act. After watching what happens to Shylock in this production, it is almost viscerally unpleasant to watch the play as it refocuses on the foibles of newlyweds. This is probably intentional: director Nigel Shawn Williams makes clear in his notes that he is more interested in the play’s struggles for dignity and power than with its romances. He associates this theme of struggling for dignity with Shylock, Jessica, Portia and Antonio: the latter two of which I have a bit of trouble accepting — Antonio in particular. But nonetheless, it is the struggle between Antonio and Shylock that really soars in this production, thanks in very large part to excellent performances by Edward Foy and (especially) Warren Kimmel. Kimmel will also be performing in Mark Leiren-Young’s Shylock in September, and I’m going to get my tickets real quick. The lovers are less inspired. This is partially due to the decision to turn the males in these plotlines into insufferable nightlife dudebros, but it’s mostly because some of them really shout a lot more than they need to. Still, on the whole, I enormously enjoyed this. It’s probably my favourite of the three Bard productions I’ve seen so far.

Literature, etc.

Amanda Petrusich: “MTV News, Chance the Rapper, and a Defense of Negative Criticism” — Whither music criticism? “Pivot to video.” Sigh. This is a lovely piece about the importance of the sort of music writing that doesn’t depend on access. I feel it ties in slightly with what I wrote about the first episode of The Turnaround last week, particularly Petrusich’s last graf: “A funny thing about journalism is that it’s contingent upon the willful participation of a subject; a reporter always needs a reliable, talkative source. People agree to coöperate with journalists for reasons of self-promotion or, on rare occasions, moral obligation. But criticism doesn’t require its subject to acquiesce. For anyone accustomed to high degrees of control, this can seem, at first, like an affront. But well-rendered criticism confirms that the work is high stakes. This criticism can be illuminating and thrilling, and might offer an important vantage on a very private experience. It is, at least, less strangulating than a feedback loop of endless, bootless flattery.” Read the rest.

Jon Bois: 17776 — If you’d told me in January that one of the highlights of my pop culture year would be a story about football that came from SB Nation, I… would probably have believed you but also been very surprised. This story of life in the inconceivably distant future is one of the most effortlessly, unassumingly funny, bittersweet and occasionally heartbreaking stories I’ve come across in a very long time. The fact that it’s so surprising and so totally different from anything else I’ve ever seen a major news/sports/culture publication do is only part of the appeal of this. Mostly, it just knows exactly what it is and follows through again and again. I’ll try not to spoil too much, because the novelty and element of surprise are nice. But a certain amount of spoilers are inevitable from here on out. Basically, 17776 is a story about a world where people stopped dying, stopped aging (or, stopped aging involuntarily at least), stopped getting sick, and invented a way to prevent all accidental death and injury. It envisions a world where the people who inhabit earth in the year 17776 are for the most part the same set of people who inhabit the earth now. Having arrived in a post-scarcity world, where even time is not scarce, humanity (particularly the American portion of it) now occupies itself with increasingly long, large-scale and absurd games of football. It is largely told from the point of view of three incredibly loveable protagonists, all of them space probes launched in the 20th and 21st centuries who have over time become sentient. It just took me 126 words to describe the premise of this thing. That should give you some sense of its amazing strangeness. Pioneer 9 is our real protagonist, and our audience surrogate. The story begins with Nine finally attaining sentience and having a whole lot of questions. Fortunately, their little sister (or big sister, depending how you think about it) Pioneer 10 is around to explain the new status quo. The third main character, the Jupiter Icy Moons Explorer (JUICE) is the story’s masterstroke. You know that slacker dude you used to hang out with who also might be the smartest person in the world? That’s JUICE. Reading this trio’s banter is an unbelievable pleasure. Each of them is a perfectly defined character who is more than what they seem: more compassionate, more astute, wiser. Jon Bois is a weird writer with his own voice and a sensibility unlike anybody else, but he’s also got the basics down pat, and he knows how to write characters that provide a human throughline in a story that involves really quite a lot of talking about football. Okay, let’s touch on that. I have seen a total of two, maybe three football games in my life and my grasp of the rules is laughably rudimentary. But I ate up the sections of 17776 that are about the gameplay and logistics of future football games. As a work of speculative fiction, 17776 is very whimsical. But as a set of works of speculative football, it is impressively rigorous. Bois uses the premise of the story to propose several wonderful games of borderline Dadaist football, mostly with fields that stretch across several states. In one, the end zones are in Washington and New Mexico, but the field is still just the width of a normal football field, so you have no choice but to climb mountains, jump off cliffs, etc. if you want to move the ball. In another, Bois asks how a contemporary NHL game might evolve if it were allowed to continue nearly indefinitely. He devises a parody of commercial football so absurd that it may well be my new favourite fictional anti-cap parable. Here’s the moment when I fell in love with JUICE, as he explains his love for this game to Ten, lack of apostrophes and all: “this IS capitalism you donk. this is what its supposed to be, this is how it ends. if it isn’t there its only because it isnt there yet. its like youre staring at a cake in the oven and wondering if its gonna be a cake. things went the other direction in america and thank god for that. but capitalism deserves a zoo like this one. it’s a beast of the wild, as wild as any grizzly bear with fawn’s blood in its mouth. i think you see deeds and contracts and bureaucratic bloat and see that something went wrong. something was ALWAYS wrong y’all. i love it. i love to watch it. in a zoo, where it can’t hurt me.” Unspeakably brilliant. This is the same character who waxes nostalgic for Lunchables and spells “Wolverine” as “wolferine.” He’s the best. Jon Bois’ brain works in crazy ways. There are tossed off observations here that for other people would become the premises of whole stories. I’m thinking particularly of a moment where Al Capone and his brother are likened to Greek gods, and then Bois points out that they lived in a town called “Homer.” It’s infuriatingly clever. But we’re yet to touch on the single greatest thing about 17776, which is that it fashions from its premise an idea about humanity’s place in the universe and why we are drawn to aimless, arbitrary pursuits like playing and watching football. The “intermission” section of the story features Bois’ most beautiful writing. Through the mouthpiece of Ten, Bois offers a picture of humanity’s purpose and destiny that outstrips Star Trek by basically inverting it. The humans of 17776 are bittersweet creatures who long ago stopped striving. This is not fine, but there’s nothing to be done. So, they play football. As JUICE says, “the point of play is to distract yourself from play being the point.” As an obsessive consumer of a frankly unwise amount of pop culture, I feel that I can sympathize with the sports fan impulse that produced a sentiment like this. If we really have so much left to accomplish, and such a great destiny, shouldn’t we feel inconceivably terrible about wasting so much time? And even in a world where time is not a factor, it’s hard to look at a passive humanity as anything other than a failure. This is what these characters are grappling with. This is something that the very obsessive among us understand best, provided that the obsession in question is essentially non-generative and consumerist. 17776 is the saddest and most inspiring thing I’ve read this year. It is extraordinary. Also, it is the only work of fiction that will ever make you mourn for a light bulb. I’m serious, Bois turns a light bulb into the most important thing in the universe. This is what the internet was always supposed to be. We need more Jon Bois. Pick of the week.

Television, etc.

Pretty Good: “I Wish Everyone Else Was Dead” — Here is more Jon Bois. Pretty Good is a YouTube series he does “about stories that are pretty good.” This particular instalment is about 24, the single most fucked up show I have ever watched (and liked in spite of myself). 24 is a show that takes suspension of disbelief to an entirely new level. It makes you suspend your entire value system: your entire reality. Bois points to the ruthlessness with which the show kills its named characters and the ways that people die to make a very clever point about America’s Goliath complex and the tendency of the privileged to think themselves persecuted. It also really highlights how incredibly gruesome the show was by cutting together a bunch of its cruellest moments. Other highlights include insights about 24 as a form of post-9/11 wish-fulfilment (it in large part negates the war on terror) and its incredibly fraught relationship with the office of the president. It is frankly unfair that a sports writer should also be this insightful about television. Watch this.

Twin Peaks: The Return: Part 9 — Exactly the episode that we needed after last episode’s abstract freakout. This is the most classically Twin Peaks this series has felt since it returned, mostly because it actually features people figuring things out instead of people treading water as more and more inexplicable things transpire around them. Don’t misunderstand me: I really like the show in the latter mode as well. But now that we’re in the back half of this season, I am ready for things to start coming together. Is it foolish to expect that between Gordon and his FBI cohorts, Truman and his Twin Peaks deputies, and the trio of clownlike Buckhorn detectives, we may have enough investigative advances at hand here to bring the Dougie Jones plotline to an end next week? Because I am still very much in need of Dale Cooper in this show.

Movies

Spider-Man: Homecoming — Third time’s a charm. I grew up a Spider-Man fan, but my enthusiasm for the character flagged with each passing cinematic adaptation. I am far less fond of Sam Raimi’s trilogy (yes, even the second one) than most, and the Andrew Garfield franchise was DOA. But this! Oh, this! This movie is light on its feet! And it’s completely lacking in the ostentatious moralizing that defined previous incarnations! Tom Holland’s Peter Parker is every inch the clever misfit I want Spider-Man to be. The opening sequence of the movie, in which he excitedly vlogs his way through his initial encounter with the Avengers in Civil War, sets the tone of ecstatic joy that the bulk of the movie traffics in. This is what I’ve been missing in superhero movies. Even the last Guardians of the Galaxy sidelined its comic lead in a misbegotten daddy problems plot. (The closest we get to that here is in a plotline with Tony Stark, and frankly it’s him who’s got the daddy problems.) This movie just allows Peter Parker to be a goofy kid trying to get a date while also trying to save the day. Classic Spider-Man. Moreover, the stakes aren’t at the permanently escalating heights of the Avengers movies: this is primarily a movie about your friendly neighborhood Spider-Man. He negotiates curfews with his super cool Aunt May. (Casting Marissa Tomei was a masterstroke: she’s the last person you’d expect to play that role, which revitalizes it completely.) He helps an old woman and gets a churro for his troubles. He raises the ire of a housing block by setting off a car alarm. I love all of this. And I really love the film’s brief excursion into the suburbs, which are not Spider-Man’s natural habitat. The film’s weak moments are its huge action setpieces, which feel like they could come from any other Marvel movie with any other combination of heroes and villains. But these are refreshingly far apart, and they’re enlivened by a Michael Keaton performance by Michael Keaton who continues to play wingèd super persons, even after having parodied himself for doing just that. Having the villain of the first movie for this Spider-Man be small potatoes like Vulcan was a great call. It further localizes Spider-Man as a non-international superhero, and a street level personality, without the gigantic platforms of a Tony Stark or a Steve Rogers. But as fun as Keaton and Tomei are, Homecoming’s best supporting performances come from its ensemble of convincingly teenage teenagers, from Peter’s crush Liz, the classic overachieving senior, to his would-be tormentor Flash (played by Tony Revolori; I kept hoping he’d get captured so I could shout “GET YOUR HANDS OFF MY LOBBY BOY!”). The movie’s absolute MVP is Jacob Batalon as Peter’s best friend Ned. This guy is so exactly the guy who should be Peter Parker’s best friend that I can’t believe anybody ever thought James Franco fit-for-purpose. I really hope Ned doesn’t turn out to be the Hobgoblin. There are too many delightful moments in this to get to. I haven’t mentioned Donald Glover, who plays straightman to Holland in one of the film’s funniest scenes. I haven’t mentioned Peter’s rapport with the strangely empathetic yet bloodthirsty AI who talks to him in his suit. All of it is good. This is now tied with Civil War for the title of my favourite Marvel movie. I still resent universes and franchise juggernauts, but every so often Marvel makes a movie good enough to make me forget about that.

Wonder Woman — Now that awkward moment after giving a great review to the SIXTH Spider-Man movie where you admit to having mixed feelings about the ONLY major superhero movie with a female protagonist. My general thoughts are that Wonder Woman is fantastic, Gal Gadot is fantastic, and the movie’s take on the character is solid. It makes her comical without undermining her power, and powerful without being stolid and bland like the other DC heroes are these days. But I wasn’t a big fan of the straightforward punch-em-up war movie that she finds herself in here. The third act is particularly bland. But fuck my opinion. This is utterly necessary. The acclaimed no-man’s land sequence is pretty magnificent, and should become a cultural touchstone, at least until we get a better Wonder Woman movie, which I trust we will.

Music

John Luther Adams/The Crossing: Canticles of the Holy Wind — Another lovely offering from new music’s poet of the elements. Though this choral piece is not entirely original — some of the best moments are also present in his wonderful piece for strings, Canticles of the Sky — it feels like a new direction for Adams, whose music does not generally revolve around voices. However, with the new national prominence of The Crossing, the extraordinary Philadelphia chamber choir who astonished even more thoroughly on Ted Hearne’s record from earlier this year, he’s got access to an ensemble with the chops for his often sustained and minimal music. But the choral medium alone isn’t the only new innovation here. Adams also takes advantage of the extraordinary voices at his disposal to write music that relies on the play of birdsong against silence. I’m not sure there’s anything else in Adams’ recent oeuvre that is as staccato and abrupt as “Cadenza of the Mockingbird,” nor can I think of anything he’s written that requires the same level of ostentatious virtuosity from the musicians. That said, it isn’t a highlight of the work. High voices imitating birds wears out its welcome more quickly than Adams thinks. And there are other weak points: “The Singing Tree,” with its ceaseless triangle tinkling crosses the line from a genuine conjuration of the majesty of nature to nature boy drum circle nonsense. My impression of this might change with repeated listens, but I generally come to Adams for music of peace and majesty (The Light that Fills the World for the former, the world-destroying magnificence of Become Ocean for the latter). Canticles of the Holy Wind presents a picture of nature not only in all its majesty, but also all its banality. This is a worthwhile thing to do, especially with access to as versatile an ensemble as The Crossing. But it makes for a rougher listen than some of Adams’ other music. Still, there is much to marvel at here, and I far prefer it to 2015’s percussion music recording with Glenn Kotche.

Offa Rex: The Queen of Hearts — This is as great as I’d hoped, though to be fair, the feature episode of All Songs Considered on this from a while ago dropped enough hints at its greatness that it was a relatively sure bet. I likely wouldn’t have listened to this if not for the Decemberists’ involvement, but it is much more Olivia Chaney’s album than it is theirs. Mind you, they sound great, and the notion that they’d be involved in an English folk revival… revival album is entirely in character. But I challenge you to not get a bit miffed when Colin Meloy starts singing on the his two vocal features. Chaney’s voice is an incredible instrument, but better still she knows what to do with it. On the title track, listen to how she gradually sings more and more with the lead guitar throughout the song, eventually harmonizing with it. And the best track has no Decemberists on it at all, as far as I can tell: Chaney’s harmonium-adorned rendition of “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face.” Say what you like about the Roberta Flack version, and there is much good to be said. But Chaney’s version strips everything about the song, including the chord progression, down to the most basic possible version of itself. And the way she delivers the melismas at the ends of the lines is just chilling. At the opposite end of the spectrum, there’s “Sheepcrook and Black Dog,” which is the album’s best evocation of the more rock and roll side of the English folk revival. It even gestures towards Jethro Tull at times: shades of “No Lullaby” and “Velvet Green.” I’m still waiting for somebody to write something detailed about the provenance of each of these songs. I’d really like to do a deep dive into this, and listen to some of the 60s and 70s recordings of these, as well as earlier acoustic versions, if they exist. But some are obvious. For now I’m going to listen to “The Old Churchyard” again. One of my favourite albums of the year.

Steeleye Span: Hark! The Village Wait — Is it wrong to like this more than Liege and Lief? Because on first listen, I do. “The Dark-Eyed Sailor” and “Lowlands of Highland” are particularly attractive. It’s just old folk songs performed well, with electric instrumentation. It’s sort of undeniable. I can feel myself sinking into a British folk rock phase. Thanks, Offa Rex.

Games

The Dream Machine: Chapter 1 — I realized recently that the sixth and final chapter of this magnificent game came out two months ago! How did I not hear? In any case, it’s been long enough since I’ve played this that I think it’s wise for me to play it from the beginning again, which will be a pleasure anyway. I’m going to take this one chapter at a time, like I did with Kentucky Route Zero when the most recent episode of that came out. The first chapter of The Dream Machine isn’t really demonstrative of what’s great about it: it doesn’t really come alive until you encounter the dream machine itself. But its visual aesthetic is instantly impressive — the headline for The Dream Machine is that it’s a handmade point-and-click adventure game, where every image is constructed from cardboard, clay and found objects. That is astonishing in itself, though the built environments are better in episodes that aren’t so tied to the apartment complex that is the game’s primary setting. But visuals aside, on a second playthrough, it’s really clever how this episode plants seeds of the themes to come throughout its relatively simple story. Starting the game in a dream is an obvious, but profitable choice. Firstly, it establishes what the game’s primary modus operandi: namely, cardboard and clay constructions of dreams. Secondly, it offers a crash course in the psychology of our protagonist, Victor. Should you allow the conversation to drift in a particular direction, Victor’s wife Alicia will be kind enough to do the armchair psychoanalysis for you. Victor’s dream of a desert island is an escapist fantasy that allows him to get away from his doubts about the new life he’s about to embark upon in a new apartment with his expectant wife and regress to a situation where his own self is the most important thing in his world. And indeed, there are plenty of indications throughout this chapter that Victor Neff is a bit of a man-child, from his self-assurances that he’ll start up his music career again once the apartment is set up to the ever-present conversation options that imply he can sometimes be a bit of a selfish jerk to Alicia. This is very clever exposition, since The Dream Machine is shaping up to be a sort of delayed coming-of-age story for Victor. (Bear in mind that I’m yet to play the final chapter.) He’ll be spending subsequent chapters tramping through other people’s subconsciouses (including Alicia’s, which is teased in this chapter), which is as direct a way to learn empathy as exists. That’s what I love most about The Dream Machine: it doesn’t just contrive a roughshod frame narrative as an excuse to make you solve puzzles inside of dream worlds, it actually works as an arc for its protagonist as well. Throughout The Dream Machine, Victor finds the tools to get out of his own head by literally getting inside the heads of others. Having not played the final chapter yet, I can only conjecture, but I assume this will assuage some of his fears and doubts about starting a family. The appeal of this is coming back quickly. A couple of additional observations: another theme that first emerges near the end of this chapter is voyeurism. (The game’s tagline positions this front-and-centre: “an award-winning game about dreams and voyeurism.”) Alicia thought the camera above the bed was creepy. Just wait. Also, the dream sequence at the start of this is my first bit of evidence for a personal crackpot theory: that The Dream Machine is a long and detailed enactment of the Brian Eno song “On Some Faraway Beach.” I’ll develop this theory in later reviews, as I gather more evidence. But to start, I’ll just point out that the song is a work of deliberate escapism to a place where there are no other human souls around to care for or to rely on. And I’ll also mention that the devs confirmed their Eno fandom to me on Twitter. So that’s a start.

The Dream Machine: Chapter 2 — This is where things really get going. Mr. Morton’s dream is the first proper one in the game, but nonetheless one of the most abstract. Where subsequent dream sequences will convey something close to a possible physical space (though Edie’s dream deconstructs this observation and Willard’s contradicts it entirely), Morton’s takes place in an abstract world seemingly constructed entirely of the anxieties and traumas brought upon him by a lineage of flawed and obsessive forebears. We meet the three previous male members of the Morton lineage as huge stone heads, and we learn about their relationships to each other. We learn that our Mr. Morton was coddled by a sympathetic father as an antidote to the abuse he received from his grandfather. Victor doesn’t even know what’s going on yet and already the dream machine is teaching him about parenting. This theme will become less explicit in future episodes, but it behooves the game to lay its cards out at this early stage. In terms of gameplay, this is also where we get our first substantial puzzles, with the dream journal sequence, getting each statue to talk, and finding Mr. Morton. From the start, I thought that this game had some of the best puzzles I’ve ever encountered, if only because they are fair. A moderately skilled puzzle solver won’t get stuck very much in The Dream Machine, which is good, but the puzzles still require you to observe closely and think through possibilities. (I recall chapter five’s puzzles being several levels harder, but we’ll get there.) The only problem I had with the puzzles in this chapter, this time, was that it took me a while to realize (indeed, remember) that there were hatches on the sides of the statues. They’re hard to see, and it always sucks when your failure results from a design element being virtually invisible. But it’s a vanishingly minor quibble, and honestly, the meat of the game doesn’t really start until the next chapter. The first two chapters are thematic and narrative exposition and throat clearing. They’re wonderful, but the best is yet to come. Now, what you all came for: more evidence for my theory that this entire game is actually about the Brian Eno song “On Some Faraway Beach.” Only one piece this time, but it’s the first substantial one: the title of the song — phrased exactly that way, with the word “some” rather that “a” or whatever other article — is one of the key repeating phrases in Morton’s dream journals. This isn’t the last time it’ll be namechecked in the game. But, as I implied in the chapter one review, the game and the song do have a compelling thematic link. “Given the chance,” sings Eno, “I’ll die like a baby on some faraway beach.” This is Victor’s attitude at the start of the game: jealous of his unborn child, and wishing to revert back to a pre-adult state. I also see a hint of Mr. Morton in some subsequent lyrics: “Unlikely I’ll be remembered/as the tide brushes sand in my eyes I’ll drift away.” Morton was thrust into his family’s legacy from early childhood, against his will. Even in old age, he still was unable to come to terms with that legacy, or the extent to which it had eaten up his life. Morton dies childless, breaking the cycle and providing a useful negative role model for Victor. And Morton’s final wish is for his life’s work, and his family’s, to be destroyed. Better to be forgotten than to be remembered for something hideous.

The Dream Machine: Chapter 3 — I am remembering now that this is my least-favourite episode of The Dream Machine, though it is still, on balance, excellent. This is the episode where the puzzle structure is most obvious: complete three tasks for three different people, then complete three more tasks for those same three people to get to the endgame… the wires are on display here a little more than in other episodes. Plus, it contains fewer areas to explore than other chapters. But the puzzles themselves are delightful and the premise of the episode is solid. Here, Victor finds himself inside his wife’s recurring dream — and face to face with a gaggle of clones of himself, each of them one of Alicia’s subconscious impressions of a facet of Victor’s personality. In spite of the fact that nearly all of the characters in this chapter are clones of the player character, they’ve all been given different postures to reflect their different personalities. The dreamer’s resting position is looking up at the sky. The pompous one has his arms behind his back at all times. The player character just keeps slouching his way through the game. It’s the small details that make this game great. I especially love it once it turns into a detective story. Investigating Victor Eleven’s disappearance is a great opportunity for the writers to show different elements of the same story through the voices of very different characters. The conspiratorial busboy is the highlight of the episode, for me. You can tell from the way that others talk about him that he’s the sort of guy who’s always got a conspiracy theory, but it just so happens that this time he’s right. Psychoanalytically, this is a harder one to parse than the first two episodes. But I think my central contention that this game is about a man learning empathy pulls through, here. This is literally a case of Victor seeing himself as somebody else sees him. Fortunately for his ego, the person whose eyes he’s seeing through is somebody who loves him, and who also knows him well enough to know that he contains multitudes: hundreds of Victors who vary from moment to moment in intelligence, self-sufficiency, leadership, and the propensity for ambition, pretension, paranoia and good humour. Another person’s dream of Victor might have been more disillusioning. Also, boy, does this ever get creepy at the end. This is The Dream Machine’s equivalent of the mid-album slump, but we’re right on the precipice of some of my favourite moments in any adventure game. If memory serves, Chapter Four made me all verklempt last time. Alas, no further evidence for my crackpot Brian Eno theory in this one. Will report back.

The Dream Machine: Chapter 4 — This isn’t the most formally inventive chapter of The Dream Machine; that’s chapter five (bearing in mind that I still haven’t played the final chapter). But it may be my favourite. This is the point where the segments between dream sequences start to really work. The sequence of puzzles that allows you into Edie’s dream is ingenious, and by far the hardest thing in the game so far. It took me ages to figure out the first time. But as with the previous two chapters, the main event is the dream sequence itself. Edie’s dream is my favourite in the game’s first five chapters. The kind old lady’s mind, as Mr. Morton tells us in chapter one, is not as sharp as it once was. And indeed, her memories are literally fraying around the edges. The people she once knew, and the person she once was, are aloof spectres in her subconscious. The fragility and mutability of the dream is moving in itself, but it’s made deeper by what we learn about Edie’s life from the tableaus that we see in each room of her dream apartment. And again, the focus is on family. Edie spent her younger years in a not entirely happy marriage with a very pious man. Her husband, whoever he was — his dream self is a fading cipher from Edie’s past — has parental issues to match Mr. Morton’s. The bulk of this dream deals with the end of life and the death of Edie’s mother-in-law, a stern and ruthless figure who haunts her so much that the dream machine takes on her form. The most telling moment occurs in the bathroom of the dream apartment, which Edie’s subconscious has repurposed as a memorial for two late family members: Edie’s mother-in-law, and her child, who presumably died in infancy. When you shoehorn Edie’s younger, spectral self into this room along with the ghost of the mother-in-law, they stand together by the child’s grave. And the latter says “Sin brings forth death.” Which is, just, an incredibly shitty and unkind thing to say. And it’s the kind of thing that sticks with you, because it prompts guilt. And, in one of the game’s very best images, we see that Edie’s elderly self is tethered to her memories by the image of her mother-in-law. So, if it’s guilt and regret that are keeping her in this decaying, dilapidated mental space, perhaps it is best to let go. The ending of chapter four is the most affecting moment in the first five chapters of The Dream Machine, because it finds Edie drifting away from her memory palace, presumably losing that part of herself forever — but also losing the trauma that comes with those memories. It is perhaps the most gentle and loving portrayal of a person with dementia I’ve seen in a work of fiction. And as with everything in The Dream Machine, it has profound emotional consequences for Victor. His final exchange with Edie is the closest thing he has to a specific moment of epiphany. He realizes, with Edie’s help, that he’s doing something extraordinary for the sake of his family. It isn’t just the implicit nature of dreams that’s helping Victor to accept the forthcoming new phase of his life as a father, it is also the explicit threat that the machine poses to his family. This is the moment when all of Victor’s character development in the first three episodes comes to a head. For the first time he realizes consciously that something has changed inside him. And the fact that this change is finally expressed among the detritus of Edie’s regrets — all of which are risks for Victor: the risk of a child’s death, of a failed marriage, and of not escaping your own lineage — just heightens the effect. And Edie caps it all off with yet another explicit Brian Eno reference: “We’re just sandcastles, Victor. I’m sure some part of me will reform on some faraway beach somewhere down the line. Perhaps we’ll meet again there.” Edie, in the end, is alone. Her bridge club can hardly substitute for the relationships that, for better or worse, defined her earlier life. Victor started this story dreaming of some faraway beach where he could be alone and life could be simple. Now, with Edie’s bittersweet farewell, he sees the lonely side of that fantasy and he’s ready to return to reality. If memory serves, chapter five is less explicitly concerned with Victor’s character arc, which is fine. Putting this crucial moment at the end of chapter four allows the devs one episode to just indulge in some intense formalism before getting back to the story’s main thrust. But unless chapter six unseats it, this right here is the defining chapter of The Dream Machine.

Podcasts

All Songs Considered: “New Mix: St. Vincent, Mogwai, Benjamin Clementine, My Bubba, More” — This finds Bob Boilen in a distractingly mellow mood, frankly. I’m all for chill, but Boilen’s side of this mix is very very chill. I came to hear the new St. Vincent song, which is very lovely but doesn’t really offer any insights about what a hypothetical forthcoming St. Vincent album might sound like. The standout here, if only for its total commitment to its own weirdness, is the Benjamin Clementine track. I didn’t know this guy, and I can’t say I’m entirely sold on the basis of the track they played here — it’s really overwrought, though possibly intentionally so. But it is definitely not like anything else, and considering that my favourite music from last year included John Congleton and Let’s Eat Grandma, I’m sort of starving for that right now.

The Daily: July 11-12 — I have been meaning to check out this new trend of daily news podcasts for a while, and this seemed to be the one. NPR’s entry into the budding canon sounds like a newscast, which is not a thing I like or see the point of. And I’m aware of The Outline World Dispatch. I may in fact have neglected to review an episode or two of it, but I am generally fond of it. However, the New York Times’ rendition of this evolving new form is the clear current gold standard. Michael Barbaro is a personable and smart host, and the one-two story format serves the listener well. The two episodes I heard this week dealt with the Donald Trump Jr. emails, and was a great way to get my head around that story. There is an element of “behind the story” to Barbaro’s approach here, which is welcome given the extent to which the Times is a major player in the way that events have transpired with this. Other stories about the devastation of Mosul and the reintegration of thousands of rebel fighters into Colombian society make it reassuringly clear to me that this is not going to be all Trump all the time, or even all American federal politics all the time. And thank god, because there’s a whole world out there. This is one of the great innovations in the recent history of podcasts, and shame on the world’s public broadcasters for letting a newspaper perfect it first.

Love and Radio: “The Boys Will Work It Out” — WOW this is something. Our main character is a prolific author of Lord of the Rings slashfic and an enthusiastic sexual roleplayer as Elijah Wood. Through the magic of radio, we’re even treated to an enactment of one of those fantasies with Elijah Wood and Dominic Monaghan soundalikes. Listen advisedly.  

StartUp: “Building the Perfect Cup of Coffee” — Worth listening to for the delight of hearing a cup of coffee described as “plump without being… portly.” But man, has this season of StartUp ever evaporated on impact. This is one of the shows that kicked my obsession with podcasts into high gear. First there was Radiolab and 99pi, then there was season one of StartUp. Amidst that company, Serial doesn’t even register. The thrill of listening to Gimlet coalesce in real time was and is one of the glories of the medium. And I enthusiastically stayed onboard for season two, the Dating Ring season, which I idiosyncratically consider season one’s equal. Season three’s non-serialized format didn’t do much for me, but Lisa Chow brought the show back in magnificent fashion for season four, the story of the fall and rise of Dov Charney. The lesson here ought to be that this show is best when it’s serialized, and particularly good when it’s serialized in real time. I’d gladly listen to another season in the vein of season two, about a company that is in the midst of its startup struggles. But failing that, I think I might have to reduce this show to sometimes food status.

Criminal: “The Procedure” — A marvellous entry in the “crimes of conscience” category of Criminal episodes. This is about a network of clergy who would help women safely get abortions in places where they were illegal. Wonderful stuff.

The Sporkful: “Why Lefties Buy Less Soup” — Aww, I thought it was going to be about why liberals buy less soup. That would have been interesting. Still, a fun episode, though I remember most of this from the introduction of The Flavor Bible, which posits that flavour is the result of a confluence of factors above and beyond mere taste. Visual stimuli and social context, just to give two examples, also affect your experience of food. Also I am SO HAPPY to hear that Dan Pashman favours the inside-out pizza folding technique. I do this as well, and it is so good that I feel like I am constantly surrounded by idiots: outside-in folding assholes who are just rubbing bread all over their tastebuds instead of the delicious cheese and sauce alternative that’s RIGHT THERE on the other side of the slice. THANK YOU, Dan.

Home of the Brave: “The Continental Divide, Part Two” — I am so conflicted about these “talking to Trump voters” stories. On the one hand, you can trust Scott Carrier not to be condescending or self-abnegating, both of which are death in these contexts. But even if the conversations are civil, which these are, how do you make headway with a person who constructs reality in a way that’s entirely different from you? On one hand, I can accept that a guy who’s been involved in fracking for decades knows more about it than I do. Much more. But I’m also inherently suspicious of that person’s perspective, because the practice is normalized for him. I know this territory very well, given that I am a current, self-identified coastal elite who nonetheless grew up in a blue-collar oil town where everybody is delusional about climate change. Where I grew up, the notion that the Alberta oil sands are somehow sinister is laughable. It’s not because anybody especially takes pride in the industry — though in these divided times, that pride appears to be taking root retroactively, as a defense mechanism. It’s because the oil sands are normal. When I talk about the negative impact of the oil industry with friends and family from Fort McMurray, I may as well be telling them that shoes are evil, because the collective impact of all our human stomping is making the earth uninhabitably small. Global shrinking. It’s a ridiculous notion because shoes are too normal to be harmful. I’m getting off topic. My point is that Carrier is right to think that the two sides of divided America need to be able to talk to each other, but I don’t actually know what he or I is supposed to learn from that exchange. Ultimately I still think that systematic learning and teaching that can be expressed in statistics, research and reasoned argument in both academic and media spheres is the way to draw conclusions about the world. And the fact that at least two of the people Carrier interviewed expressed doubts about the value of education relative to the value of their specific lived experiences makes me crazy. Anecdotal experiences are valuable, but if you shape your worldview around them in opposition to the best available information (which happens every time poverty comes up in this program), you’re just wrong. And I’m not sure what I’m supposed to do with that.

The Heart: “People Who Need People” — Lovely. This rerun is The Heart at its simplest: a relationship forms in the crucible of a difficult moment of somebody’s life. That’s the whole of it. But it’s worth revisiting in light of recent events in the characters’ lives.

The Turnaround: Episodes 2-6 — Okay, I’ve fallen into this in a big way. In spite of my previously-stated doubts about the necessity for so many interviews of artists in the world, I do think interviewing in general is an absolutely fascinating craft, and this is the deepest dive into it that I’ve heard, though Longform is often about interviewing also. Let’s take these one at a time. Susan Orlean’s interview is most notable because she’s so completely different from Jesse Thorn in the product she’s trying to make. She can go down rabbit holes with very little hope of getting anything useable because ultimately interviewing is an exploratory process for her. She’s learning what the story is as she goes. The Marc Maron episode is one of the highlights for basically the opposite reason: he’s probably the closest of all of the interview subjects so far to Thorn’s method. And this actually made me realize that Maron has a way of getting around the arts interview pitfall that I identified in my last post on this show (i.e. that there’s no way for the journalist’s insight to factor into an interview without making the guest superfluous). Maron goes into every interview with an idea of why people are the way they are and why they do what they do. And in the interview, he takes the opportunity to present an artist with his impression of them and have them either confirm or deny it. Or, more likely, just to complicate and deepen it. It’s a way he has to get past the branding. That’s valuable, and I guess it’s what makes Maron my favourite interviewer of artists. Audie Cornish is probably the guest on this program whose work I am least familiar with (Pop Culture Happy Hour notwithstanding), just because I’m Canadian and we have our own daily news programs up here. But her episode is the highlight of The Turnaround so far. It gets a bit contentious when Thorn presses her on the supposed dispassionate delivery of NPR hosts, and she kind of schools him. It obviously affected Thorn’s thinking profoundly, because he brings up that moment in nearly all of the other interviews. The Larry King episode is the least valuable, partially because he’s the worst interviewer on the show and partially because Thorn lets him get sidetracked from the topic of interviewing. But, I mean, he’s Larry King. What are you going to do? And then there’s Brooke Gladstone, who is simply the most valuable person in the entire American media. Hearing her talk extemporaneously is incredible because she is preternaturally gifted with the ability to put complicated ideas in a logical sequence. It’s really similar to listening to Reza Aslan talk. The only reason it’s not the best episode of the show is that she did a longer interview on Longform a while back that covers some of the same ground. The Turnaround is some of the most fascinating radio of the year. Can’t wait for the rest of it. Pick of the week.

WTF with Marc Maron: “GLOW Writers & Creators” — A nice nuts and bolts process sort of interview with some folks Maron worked with on GLOW. I haven’t really had room for TV binges in my media consumption schedule lately, but once I do this will be among the top priorities.

99% Invisible: “Repackaging the Pill” — A design story that is also about undermining the paternalism of the mid-20th-century medical profession. Nice stuff.

Reply All: “Minka” — Sruthi Pinnamaneni is so valuable on this show, which is very silly very often. It’s always refreshing to have her come in and do a real, reported story about something very consequential — in this case, nursing homes and how terrible they are.   

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “Spider-Man: Homecoming and Tour de Pharmacy” — I am so onboard with Audie Cornish when she says she’d trade this incarnation of Spider-Man for the Tobey Maguire movies. Also man oh man, you can pretty much be certain that when Andy Samberg does something, this show will make note of it. Maybe it just seems that way. But if they talk about a comedy, there’s a pretty solid chance it’ll either involve Samberg or Paul Feig. That probably says more about the world than about this show.

What Trump Can Teach Us About Con Law: “Presidential Immunity” — Oh man, I guess it might be impossible to sue the president. That sounds really bad and I hope it doesn’t stay that way.

Judge John Hodgman: “Live in Chicago at Very Very Fun Day 2017” — The couple at the centre of the main case here didn’t turn out to be the best: one has a tendency to show instead of tell, which works for the live audience, but not the podcast audience. And the other is a jerk. The swift justice segment is better.

Imaginary Worlds: “The Book of Dune” — I never really got Dune. I recall having read it the summer that I read 20 novels at my boring summer job. And I just found it a bit of a slog. (I also ready Paradise Lost twice that summer, so, one man’s trash etc.) But I never stopped to think about the influence of real-world religions, and especially Islam, on the text. I wouldn’t have known enough to notice it. So, this is a fun crash course in Frank Herbert’s relationship with Islam, including a discussion of its classic “white saviour” narrative. I wonder how (and if) Denis Villeneuve’s adaptation will reckon with that? Maybe by not casting a white person as Paul? I’m not even sure that would be enough, since it’s still a story about a high-born outsider saving a marginalized people. I guess we’ll see. Anyway, it’s bound to be an improvement on the available adaptations. I don’t think I ever actually finished the TV series, and the David Lynch movie is infamous. (Personally, I think it has its charms, but it’s been a while so maybe it’s worse than I remember.) In general, I’m inclined to believe that the best version of Dune is the one that exists inside of Alejandro Jodorowsky’s head. And even that is almost certainly much better than the movie he would actually have made.

Ear Hustle: “Looking Out” — The warden is already my least favourite character. But hey, good on him for approving a story even though he thought it was bad. This is the lighter side of Ear Hustle, so far. But I guess that’s part of the prison experience too?

On The Media: “Three-Dimensional Chess” — Good decision to focus a large part of this episode on Raqqa and Mosul, in the week of the Don. Jr. email scandal. America is only part of the world.

Omnireviewer (week of Nov. 8, 2015)

I’m adding a new feature, this time around. Each week, I will choose two things I particularly loved as my “picks of the week.” Due to the preponderance of podcasts in these reviews, one will always be a podcast, and the other will be something else. I won’t prioritize new things for my picks of the week, necessarily. It’s just a matter of what hit home the most on a particular day. So, it’s totally possible (and indeed, very likely) for a pick of the week to be a 40-year-old rock album. 29 reviews, this week:

Music

Van Der Graaf Generator: The Least We Can Do Is Wave to Each Other — You know how sometimes you’re listening to a song and you ask yourself, “Is this a good song?” and the answer is “no, it really isn’t.” But then you ask yourself “am I enjoying myself, though?” and the answer is “yeah I think I am!” That happens a lot on this album.

John Luther Adams/Glenn Kotche: Ilimaq — Adams is probably my favourite living composer. Become Ocean floored me; the subsequent recording of chamber strings music didn’t. This piece of percussion music, brilliantly performed by Wilco’s Glenn Kotche, falls somewhere in between. It’s not a masterpiece on the order of Become Ocean, Four Thousand Holes, or The Light that Fills the World, but it’s lovely, evocative, tense, etc.

Wilco: Yankee Hotel Foxtrot — Listening to Glenn Kotche play John Luther Adams made me want to listen back to Wilco’s masterpiece. This is still a basically perfect album. It sounds chaotic in places, but when you listen to the details you realize that it’s actually a meticulous approximation of chaos. In fact, I’m not sure I can name a rock album that’s more detail-obsessed in its production. The way that “I Am Trying to Break Your Heart” gradually coagulates from noise into a song is genius. And Kotche’s playing is outstanding. I was listening.

Max Richter/Antonio Vivaldi: The Four Seasons, Recomposed — At the risk of appearing heretical (oh, who am I kidding; I love appearing heretical) Richter’s remake of The Four Seasons is better than the original. These Vivaldi concertos are possibly the most moth-eaten body of work in the repertory, and for all of their objective virtues, I do not understand how anybody could legitimately prefer them to Richter’s clever, gorgeous, modern interpretations. I know it doesn’t have to be a competition. But I’m making it one. And Vivaldi’s lying knocked out at the edge of the ring.

Yes: Drama — This is comfort food to me. It’s one of those albums that I know every contour of so well that when I listen to it, it just snaps into the grooves in my head. It tends to get overlooked by Yes fans because Jon Anderson isn’t on it. And while that becomes a worthwhile critique when it happens again in 2011, in 1980 Anderson’s absence was exactly what Howe, Squire and White needed to go in the direction that felt natural. Also, I love that Yes and the Buggles basically made an album together. There aren’t many less likely collaborations out there, let alone ones that result in good music.

Hey Rosetta! Seeds — This comes recommended by the guy I went to the concert with last week. While I confess that I liked them better live (not a given for me; I tend to like most bands better on record), this has decent songs and great performances. And fantastic bass playing.

Movies

Crimson Peak — Sometimes I like my horror lavish, gothic and Victorian. This scratched that itch, but I’ve essentially forgotten it already.

Spectre — Fabulous. Christoph Waltz is no Javier Bardem and Ralph Fiennes is certainly no Judi Dench. And overall, this isn’t as good as Skyfall. But the Daniel Craig era of James Bond movies is still pretty much the bar for contemporary action franchises to clear. Marvel Studios can only aspire. A significant quibble: the entire London-based plotline with M and Moriarty is crap. This movie uses the threat of government surveillance (how am I already sick of this trope when it’s still a real-world problem?) to paper over the fact that the same ethical questions that have been posed about Jack Bauer apply equally to James Bond. But these days, I’m trying not to let things like this ruin my moviegoing experience. I believe I’m succeeding admirably.

Television

In the event of binge-watching, I won’t hold myself to writing reviews of every episode. Because, who wants that? We’ll just check in every week, like with books.

BoJack Horseman: Season 1 — As with Hannibal a while back, I endured the rough patches early in the first season because I’ve heard it gets way better. It already has, actually. At first, I laughed most at the dumb, cartoony sight gags. Which is fine, because why else would one watch cartoons? But as the characters got fleshed out (as much as they ever do — they’re resolutely stock characters, albeit well-played ones) I started to get invested in the ongoing story as well. Then, the last two episodes totally sold me. Also, Ira Glass jokes are never not funny.

Lost: Season 1, Episodes 1-4 — I’ve decided to start rewatching Lost alongside a fabulous new essay series called Lost Exegesis by Jane Campbell of Eruditorum Press (a group blog I read religiously but don’t review because that would be insane). I have several observations, re. the show. Firstly, I remember thinking that the pilot was overrated, and that is not in fact the case. I persist in the contrarian belief that the show got more interesting as it got more complicated, but this is so well made that I don’t care that none of my beloved mythology is in place yet. Secondly, the first episode (if not necessarily the show as a whole) would have been better if Jack had died at the end as originally planned. I mean, what a bait and switch. Third, at this stage, Sawyer is basically a very bad first draft of Rustin Cohle. Fourth, “Walkabout” is still one of the finest episodes of television ever made. And finally, Shannon and Boone are still stupid, stupid characters.

Doctor Who: “Sleep No More” — Mark Gatiss is not one of my favourite Doctor Who writers, but this is one of his better scripts. If I’m not mistaken, this is the first time that Doctor Who has done a found-footage horror story. And, to be clear, found-footage horror is a tired genre that should go slump off into a corner and never be heard from again. But Doctor Who has a unique ability to revitalize the genres it collides with — usually with metafiction, as it is here. As to the premise of the episode: the idea of a treatment that substitutes for sleep is something I’ve always dreamed of. Daydreamed of. Whatever. And the idea that this treatment would inevitably create monsters seems to follow. But the fact that those monsters are literally made of the stuff that collects in the corner of your eye when you sleep is super dumb. This is still probably my… fourth favourite episode of this season. Also, both this and Stasis (which I’m still playing, for some reason) take place in space stations orbiting Neptune. Funny how I’ve never seen “orbiting Neptune” as a story setting before and then it comes up twice in a few weeks.

Literature, etc.

Bit of a comics-heavy week, reading-wise. Still loving Good Night and Good Riddance, but I needed a diversion from that unwieldy tome.

Matt Fraction/Fábio Moon: Casanova, Volume 2 “Gula” — Along with Kieron Gillen, Fraction is my favourite writer in comics right now. I wasn’t 100% sold by the first trade collection of Casanova, but as ever, I was pulled in by the compulsive belief that it would get better. And it did. This second volume is a really solid bit of science fiction. It’s got a staggering twist ending that isn’t just played for the shock of it: it has serious consequences for the characters. I hope Fraction and DeConnick’s television production company at least considers adapting this.

Roger Stern/Tom Lyle: Starman #6 — My trivia team won at that nerd bar, again. We got a big ol’ stack of ‘80s comics, two apiece. The exciting one was a first printing of an issue of V for Vendetta. I didn’t take that. After all, I got the Klingon phrasebook last time. Fair is fair. Anyway, I picked this one because its Bowie-esque title made me favourably disposed to it. And, oh my god am I ever glad I did. It’s a DC comic about a hapless, reluctant superhero with fairly indistinct powers. (Wikipedia tells me he got them when he was hit by a bolt of energy from a satellite. OF COURSE.) The villains in this are a shadowy cabal that’s actually known as “the Power Elite.” It’s advertised as a crossover with several other heroes, including Green Lantern and several I’ve never heard of, but their appearances all basically boil down to Starman saying “Hey look! It’s that superhero! Okay, bye!” The story starts with the Sydney Opera House falling down, and Starman musing “How do you… hold up… a building?!” So, that gives you the jist of the actual comic, but what I really enjoyed were the ads. There’s an Atari ad in this, and one for Nintendo’s Bubble Bobble. Also, there’s an ad for something called a telephone role-playing game, which is a thing I didn’t know ever existed. And the classifieds page has an ad with the headline “BE TALLER,” another that promises to help you make your own stink bombs with household items if you send them two dollars, and ads for two separate companies that purport to sell real shark teeth. The letters page contains a fan letter entreating the writers to “keep thinking about those little things, like going to the bathroom.” This comic is terrible, obviously. But I thoroughly enjoyed it.

Charles Schulz: Peanuts (October/November 1964) — Throughout October of 1964, Charles Schulz wrote a series of Peanuts strips where Lucy convinces Linus to run for school president. In the end, he blows it because he uses his last speaking opportunity to raise awareness of the Great Pumpkin. What’s really amazing about this is how much better it works as a whole than as separate four-panel strips. Some Peanuts strips barely have jokes, let alone punchlines. But when you piece it together into a full narrative, the character beats make it start to feel like a sitcom. This is great. I love Peanuts. And it’s all online.

Jonathan Franklin: “Lost at sea: the man who vanished for 14 months” — I went into this Guardian feature half expecting an adventure story about a man showing nature who’s boss. Needless to say, that is not what it is. Being marooned for more than a year is not fun. The Martian is not a realistic movie. But this is still a hell of a story.

Javier Grillo-Marxauch: “The Lost Will and Testament of Javier Grillo-Marxauch” — This is a massive post on Grillo-Marxauch’s blog about the experience of working on the first two seasons of Lost. I remember meaning to read it when he first published it in March, but now that I’m re-watching the show, I have to. It’s a fascinating story, but here is what I really love: “While a lot of the accounts of Lost’s creation hinge on the question of whether we knew what the island was… few people ever ask if we knew the characters or had their stories worked out in advance. I find that curious.” Also, learning that David Fury was initially against the twist in “Walkabout” (which I resolutely refuse to spoil) is really something.

Kelly Sue DeConnick/Valentine De Landro: Bitch Planet, Volume 1 “Extraordinary Machine” — Kieron Gillen’s The Wicked and the Divine and Phonogram are among my favourite ongoing comics because they seem like they’re being made with me specifically in mind. I love Bitch Planet for the exact opposite reason: it doesn’t give a shit about pandering to me. Which, great. I’m over-served by the culture anyway. Pick of the week.

Mike Grell/Hannibal King/Elliot S. Maggin/John Koch: Secret Origins #38 — This is the other comic I won at the nerd bar. It’s from 1989 and it’s got two stories: one about Green Arrow, and the other about his sidekick, Speedy, who I’d never heard of. I have no opinions about either of them. Bog standard pulpy nonsense. Though there is a moment where Green Arrow takes down a couple of marijuana farming hippies. Took me a while to realize that they were actually supposed to be bad guys. The ads in this one are just as wonderful as in Starman #6. There’s one for Campbell’s soup with a variety of puzzles, like connecting the dots to find “the first thing you need for making a bowl of soup” — a can opener. There’s an ad for a Nintendo football game featuring an actual NFL quarterback playing the game on a couch with a gap-toothed child wearing Coke bottle glasses. These craven ad agencies and their shameless wish-fulfilment fantasies. Oh, and the back of the issue has an ad for this.

Podcasts

StartUp: “The Secret Formula” — Oh boy! Gimlet Media’s giving us a peek behind the curtain again. This is an inside look at the production of the new Gimlet show, Surprisingly Awesome. I was rough on Surprisingly Awesome last week, and I’ll probably keep being rough on it. But hoo boy, did it ever improve from the initial pass. This is a fascinating listen — possibly even for people who aren’t radio producers.

The Allusionist: “Spill Your Guts” — I wonder if Zaltzman is really going to co-host with all 12 of the other Radiotopians before getting back to regular, scheduled Allusionist episodes? (This was fine.)

Planet Money: “OMG TPP” — It says something about the team on Planet Money that they were able to put together a coherent episode about the TPP in a day. I now know something about it, whereas I didn’t before.

The Moth: “Jon Ronson & Mica Truran” — Jon Ronson is an autolisten. I’d actually heard the story he tells here before, on This American Life, but it was different hearing him tell it in a live audience situation. Plus, we learned that his wife says things to him at parties like “Make your smalltalk more… general.” Come for Ronson, stay for Mica Truran’s actually much more personal and meaningful story.

99% Invisible: “Fountain Drinks” — See? Even drinking fountains are interesting. And nobody had to claim they weren’t to help me through this. Also, Radiotopia being what it is right now, there was an episode of Song Exploder tacked onto the end of this (the one on tUnE-yArDs’ “Water Fountain”). And it was an excellent episode of Song Exploder about an excellent song that I am going to listen to again right now. (I’m back. Holy crap, that video.)

This American Life: “Transformers” — Sean Cole is one of my favourite TAL producers. His story about a young man coming out to his parents, and then that man’s mom coming out to him is worth listening in itself. The rest is fine.

In Our Time: “P vs. NP” — Look at me, listening to more of this. This episode is about an almost incomprehensibly complicated mathematical problem that nobody’s ever solved. It is a totally fascinating topic, and absolutely the kind of thing that almost every radio show in the world would toss aside immediately because confusing and because boring. I admire the sheer audacity with which In Our Time tackles this — not that it’s entirely successful. One sometimes wishes Robert Krulwich were around to lend clarity. Still, this may be the first show I’ve ever listened to where the host asks the guests for clarification not because he fears the listeners won’t understand, but because he himself is having trouble. I love that. I could get used to Melvyn Bragg, though I still think he could use a Red Bull or six before going to studio. All the same, there are moments of dour wit, here. When a guest explains to Bragg that “broadly speaking, exponential means hopelessly impractical,” Bragg replies: “Yes, broadly hopeless, right.” I’m beginning to delight in this, but it remains a somewhat knowingly perverse delight.

WTF with Marc Maron: “Lorne Michaels” — Michaels is astonishingly patient with Maron as he obsesses over a misbegotten SNL audition in 1995. That’s not an observation; that’s just a summary of this podcast. This is what we know to expect from Maron, but not necessarily what you’d expect from Michaels. If you’ve never heard WTF, this will show you what it’s all about, and why it’s so great on its best days. Pick of the week.

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “Live at the Howard Theatre” — Audie Cornish’s thoughts on horror movies are identical to my own. Glen Weldon’s thoughts on sports are similar to, though more dramatic than, my own. Linda Holmes’s delight in people getting trivia questions wrong resembles my own. Stephen Thompson’s rage at never getting trivia questions right himself is exactly my own. Also, Fred Armisen’s there.

The Memory Palace: “Artist in Landscape” — Gorgeous. Gorgeous and longer than usual. And sad. So sad. Listen to The Memory Palace. Just, listen to all of it.

Reply All: “The Rainbow Pug” — There was a time when StartUp and 99pi were undoubtedly my favourite podcasts. I think that recently, it’s shifted to The Memory Palace and Reply All. On the latter of which, this week, P.J. Vogt gets angry about a woman not being able to get her dog back from a shelter, and Alex Goldman tries to solve the problem. Reply All is possibly the most playful journalism outlet, full stop.

Things I loved in 2014

So, 2014 had its ups and downs, hey? All the same, the year’s movies, music, TV, games, comics and podcasts helped keep me happy, provided necessary diversion, and helped put my puny problems in perspective.

Here then, in as random an order as I could meticulously devise, are twenty things that I loved in 2014. I should note that, for other-people’s-interest reasons, this list is limited to stuff that actually came out in 2014. However, if I’m being honest, the thing that made me happiest this year was probably the Zombies, the thing that diverted me most ably was probably Bioshock, and the thing that best helped me put my problems in perspective was, as ever, Mahler 9.

Still, it’s a pretty killer list.

Birdman

To me, this is what filmmaking looks like when everybody does everything right. By maintaining the illusion — and it is an illusion — that the bulk of the film is one continuous take, Alejandro Iñárritu and his cinematographer, the always astonishing Emmanuel Lubezki, have devised a premise by which the wonder of live theatre is translated to film. Because, in the theatre world, it’s always one take. And then, by taking that wonder and incorporating illusions only possible in contemporary film, he reprocesses it through the entirely different wonder of movie making. All kinds of wonder, all at once.

And, on a smaller level, every aesthetic choice that was made here, from the jazz drum score, to the set dressing worked for me. Plus, it’s super funny. Plus, it’s got at least three of the best performances of the year (Michael Keaton, Emma Stone, Edward Norton). Plus, everything.

Wood Works — Danish String Quartet

Back in 2011, I fell utterly in love with the movie Hugo. To me, it seemed to reaffirm in the clearest terms possible why movies are something we need. It’s an odd comparison, I know, but this album by the fantastic Danish String Quartet came closer than anything since Hugo to giving me that same feeling of renewed appreciation for a particular medium.

Wood Works features heart-melting arrangements of Scandinavian folk music. The miracle of the album is that these arrangements are always idiomatic to the string quartet, without ever feeling “classical.” Because these are fiddle tunes and that would just be wrong.

The quartet is confident that these folk tunes are not mere kitsch, and that confidence allows them to veer perilously close to that, but they know where the line is and they stop short of crossing it. Instead, they land right in the elusive sweet spot where music can be sentimental but not mawkish. The ensemble’s rich tone and togetherness shine through especially well in these clear and simple tunes.

This album is a reaffirmation of the fact that string quartets are a good idea. It’s my favourite chamber music release of the year.

Also, you’ve got to check out their NPR tiny desk concert.

Louie, season four

Season four of Louie was barely even a comedy. Louis C.K. has reached a level of confidence as a writer/director/actor where he doesn’t have to do jokes all the time. And, this was still the funniest season of TV I watched this year.

The scene above is maybe not the most talked-about scene of the season, but it typifies what I love most about it. Louie and Janet’s argument about whether or not to send their daughter to private school is as much of a slice-of-life as you get on TV, but without any of the self-conscious mundanity that cliché usually implies. The turn that the scene takes around the two-minute mark is just flat out one of the best things that C.K. has ever written.

StartUp

So, podcasts had a Matthew McConaughey-like 2014. It probably seems perverse not to include Serial on this list, so let me assure everybody that I did in fact enjoy Serial, and will surely gulp down the second season with unbridled delight.

That said, I don’t feel it was a standout among the many podcasts I followed this year. In fact, it wasn’t even my favourite serialized podcast, created by a This American Life producer, that starts with the letter “S.”

StartUp, Alex Blumberg’s podcast about starting a podcasting company, is just so much fun. This is a high-stakes personal story about a guy who dropped everything to pursue a dream, and wants to tell you about it in real-time. From the cringe-inducing botched pitch to a major potential investor in the first episode, to the moment when Serial rudely intrudes on StartUp‘s narrative in the tenth, this is essential. And, the recent announcement that the show will continue to use the serialized format — focussing on a different startup each season — bodes incredibly well for the future.

Catch up now, so you can follow the story as it unfolds.

Under the Skin

(Okay, it got a wide release in 2014, so it counts.)

You know who I really miss? David Lynch. I know he’s been making music, or whatever, but the fact that there hasn’t been a David Lynch movie since 2006 is just absurd. So, it stands to reason that two of the things that made me happiest this past year were the announcement that Twin Peaks would be returning with Lynch in the director’s chair for every episode, and Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin.

The standard comparison to draw when discussing Under the Skin seems to be Kubrick rather than Lynch. But, while it’s certainly true that it’s more linear and far less symbolic than Lynch’s finest moviesUnder the Skin is the first movie since Inland Empire that conjures the otherworldly dread that I so crave in films.

Plus, Mica Levi’s electro-Penderecki-with-drum-machines score is my pick for best of the year. Reznor and Ross are mere pretenders.

Mahler Lieder — Christian Gerhaher & Kent Nagano

Of all of the “classical” albums on this list, this is the only one that features conventional, straight-ahead readings of fairly standard repertoire. (Although, you’ll find a very honourable mention of Joyce DiDonato’s Stella di Napoli, below.) Honestly, not many recordings like this hold my interest, these days. The way I see it, if you’re going to record music that’s already been recorded more times than anyone can keep track of, you damn well better give an 11 out of 10 performance.

And Christian Gerhaher absolutely does, here. Until this year, I was fervently devoted to Thomas Hampson, where Mahler’s concerned. Now, I can’t imagine anybody singing the Wayfarer songs as well as Gerhaher. It feels effortless. That’s a hell of a trick.

Note: The video above isn’t from this specific recording and features the Berlin Philharmonic with Simon Rattle, rather than the Orchestre symphonique de Montréal with Nagano, but it’s enough to illustrate the point, which is that holy crap can this guy sing.

Sex Criminals, volume one — Matt Fraction & Chip Zdarsky

sex-criminals-vol-01-releases

This, if you haven’t heard of it, is a comic about a young couple that literally freezes time when they have sex. And, as the back-cover copy of this first trade collection puts it: “they do what any new young couple having sex and freezing time might do: they rob banks.”

Frankly, that premise ought to be enough to sell this. If it isn’t, how’s this: it’s explicitly about the sex lives of young people without being a lurid, misogynistic mess.

Read this.

Interstellar

I am willing to forgive a lot if a movie shows me something I’ve never seen before. Sure, Interstellar‘s pacing is a bit dodgy and the female characters aren’t especially fleshed out. (Okay, yeah, that bothers me. Still, hear me out.) But, ultimately, this is a movie that adopts the logic of contemporary astrophysics as the basis for its storytelling. It demonstrates how time travel might be possible and the toll it could take. It conceives a visual representation of a tesseract. It’s got the most gloriously naff robot since the creation of the Daleks.

To me, those sorts of stunts make a movie automatically worthwhile. As such, Interstellar narrowly edges out Boyhood from my top five movies of 2014. That film’s got a different kind of ambition, admittedly. But I’ll take “a realistic depiction of the cosmos” over “twelve years of suburban white people” any day. (I still love Boyhood.)

Polonium — Motion Trio

This was the year’s most unexpected pleasure. I was aware of Poland’s Motion accordion trio because of their fantastic 2009 album with Michael Nyman. But, if you’d asked me what kind of Polish music they were most likely to tackle, I probably wouldn’t have said Penderecki.

Nonetheless, here we are with Polonium, an album of 20th-century Polish classical music by some of the most revered and challenging composers in recent memory. Their rendition of Gorecki’s Concerto for Harpsichord and String Orchestra, adapted for piano and three accordions, practically renders the original superfluous. They make similarly convincing essays of Penderecki’s Chaconne In Memorium John Paul II and Lutosławski’s Bucolics.

But the real stunner is an original work co-composed by Motion Trio founder Janusz Wojtarowicz and fellow accordionist Jacek Hołubowski: Sounds of War. You won’t believe those are accordions.

The Walking Dead, the game, season two

2014 marked my rediscovery of video games. I hadn’t played much of anything since the days of Majora’s Mask, but after several friends eloquently enthused at me about the amazing things that were happening in the video game world nowadays, I had to check it out.

It’s incredible how far that rabbit hole went.

There aren’t going to be many games on this list, because most of the games I played this year were the highlights of the past two or three years: Bioshock: Infinite, The Stanley Parable, Gone Home, FEZ, and of course the first season of the video game iteration of The Walking Dead. I was bowled over by how involved I became with this game’s characters, and the original story far outpaces the one season of the television show that I’ve watched.

I gulped down the game’s second season as soon as all five episodes were available, and contrary to popular opinion, I think that the strongest moments of season two are even more harrowing and involving than the first season. Perhaps it’s a tad less consistent, but come on: this is a game that forces you to make choices on behalf of an eleven-year-old girl that inform not only whether she survives the zombie apocalypse, but also what form her evolving moral code takes. Considering the ambition of that, all stumbles are forgiven.

The Wicked and the Divine, volume one — Kieron Gillen & Jamie McKelvie

The_Wicked_and_The_Divine_Promotional_Picture_from_January_2014

It seems like having a great premise is everything when it comes to new comics, nowadays. In the case of this one — possibly the most acclaimed comic of the year — it’s “gods getting reincarnated as young pop stars.”

Again, that premise ought to sell this outright. If not, I’ll elaborate: one of the pop stars is Kate Bush (well, basically). Go forth and buy this trade collection.

For the time being, Sex Criminals is my favourite ongoing comic. But, I feel like this has the potential to become a major work on the level of The Sandman or Alan Moore’s Swamp Thing.

Run the Jewels 2 — Run the Jewels

I have very little to say about this album that everybody else hasn’t already observed. Suffice it to say that I love it as much as everybody else seems to.

Animism — Tanya Tagaq

My favourite non-classical album of the year. The lion’s share of the attention that’s been devoted to Animism since its well-deserved Polaris win has focussed on Tagaq herself. Which, fair enough. She’s probably the most extraordinary musician in Canada, right now. The breadth of unexpected sounds she can conjure from her throat is shocking. Plus, she’s got a lot of important things to say.

But, to me, this album succeeds the same way that great jazz albums succeed: as a collaboration between musicians who know how to make fascinating sounds at the spur of the moment. The album’s core trio consists of Tagaq, violinist/producer Jesse Zubot, and drummer Jean Martin — who gives one of the great instrumental performances of the year. Listening to the telepathy happening between those three provides moments of joy on an album that deliberately resists being loved.

Well, I love it anyway. Animism is difficult, alienating, troubling and spiky. I wish more music were like it.

Note: The Pixies cover above is emphatically not the best track on the album (that would be “Damp Animal Spirits”), but it deserves to go down in history as one of the most revelatory covers ever.

Gone Girl

At the Parsons Oscars, David Fincher would have been nominated for best director, Gillian Flynn would have been nominated for best adapted screenplay, Ben Affleck would have been nominated for best actor, Jeff Cronenweth would have been nominated for best cinematography, and Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross would have been nominated for best score. (Sure, they’re not as good as Mica Levi, but they’re still great.)

Oh, and Rosamund Pike would still be nominated for best actress.

99% Invisible

Before Serial, the biggest podcasting success story of 2014 was 99% Invisible. This was their first full year of weekly episodes — a feat made possible by a pretty impressive Kickstarter campaign. We got a new, surprising, audio-rich story every week; we were introduced to a new regular producer in Katie Mingle; and host Roman Mars’s warm bonhomie got even warmer for the gratitude he evidently feels for his generous listeners.

And then, as a result of an even more impressive Kickstarter campaign, we got Radiotopia: a constellation of other intricately-produced podcasts that share funding and cross-promote. Before podcasts were suddenly a thing, these people were working really hard at making podcasts a thing.

99pi is still the highlight of the bunch, though. It’s a show about design, in the broadest sense possible. The entire human-constructed world is grist for the mill. This year, they tackled everything from Ouija boards to Penn Station to tunnels for cows. They made me laugh; they made me cry. They reinvigorated my love for audio storytelling once a week. This, for me, was the podcast of the year.

Orange is the New Black, season two

So, remember what I said about Interstellar and how I love stories that I’ve never seen before? Orange is the New Black does that exact thing, one episode after another — probably in a more profound way than Interstellar.

I’ve never seen a show with so many fully-realized characters. From Vee (*grr) to Red (*punches the air) to Miss Rosa (*sobs), I became massively invested in all of their stories, this season. Taylor Schilling’s performance continued to be wonderful — and continued to be not even the highlight of the show.

Side note: that Zombies song I linked to at the beginning (this one) is totally going to close out this show’s series finale. I’m absurdly confident in this.

Become Ocean — John Luther Adams

John Luther Adams’s Pulitzer win for Become Ocean seemed a long time coming. I fell in love with Adams’s mesmerizing, textural compositions after reading Alex Ross’s profile of him in his book Listen to This. But, Become Ocean really does feel like a new peak for this composer. A 42-minute sound tapestry of gradually rising and falling tension, this piece uses the massive sonic palate of a symphony orchestra more completely than anything I’ve heard in a long time.

Adams sums up the piece’s thematic premise in a short, beautifully crafted statement in the CDs liner notes: “Life on this earth first emerged from the sea. Today, as the polar ice melts and sea level rises, we humans face the prospect that we may once again, quite literally, become ocean.”

The statement reminds me of another strangely moving pronouncement of doom, accompanied by arhythmic droning: the tape that precedes the rendition of Peter Gabriel’s “Here Comes the Flood” on Robert Fripp’s Exposure album. Both pieces of music deal — however obliquely — with ecological disaster, and both of them remind us that we will never have enough power over the natural world to keep it from killing us all when things get bad enough.

Become Ocean, to me, is the album of the year. No matter what you normally listen to, you should hear this.

The Grand Budapest Hotel

It’s like Buster Keaton, Alfred Hitchcock, Stanley Kubrick and Terry Gilliam made a movie together. And that movie is my favourite of 2014. It’s a tough pick between this and Birdman, but ultimately, I’ll go for the one that I could not keep myself from seeing in theatres a second time.

This is the movie that once-and-for-all puts the lie to the notion that Wes Anderson’s artificiality gets in the way of the feels. It’s true: everything in this movie is ostentatiously crafted and adjusted by Anderson, from the highly choreographed jaunts through the titular hotel to the aesthetically pleasing single tear that was carefully applied to F. Murray Abraham’s face in the dining room scene. But none of this prevents the movie from having the intended effect, be it laughter or a bit of a twinge, at every turn. Because it’s not a filmmaker’s job to feel things. It’s the audience’s. And I don’t see why a movie presided over by an aloof, aesthete’s eye should affect me less directly than one produced with a more improvisatory approach. As I said on Twitter at the time, sincerity be damned. Give me craftsmanship any day.

Also, nothing in movies or on TV made me laugh harder this year than “She’s been murdered. And you think I did it.” *runs*

Doctor Who, series eight

This second year of my Doctor Who obsession was slightly more sedate than the first. The frenzy of discovery that led me to gulp down the first seven series of the rebooted show and a pretty significant chunk of the classic one in a matter of months seems to have abated, now. So, it is with a rational and balanced mind that I can proclaim OMG TWELVE IS TOTALLY MY DOCTOR.

This series has certainly been the most consistent one since Doctor Who rebooted. Its highlights (“Listen,” “Dark Water/Death in Heaven,” “Kill the Moon”) don’t quite reach the heights of previous series (there’s no “Human Nature/The Family of Blood” or “The Pandorica Opens/The Big Bang”), but “Listen” comes awfully close.

And, more crucially, there are no clunkers here. Every episode feels like it’s building to the themes that showrunner Steven Moffat would pay off in his spectacular two-part finale. But every episode is still allowed to be its own self-contained story — which is really important, because what’s the point of a show about a magical box that can take you anywhere if all of the stories are the same?

We saw a different, more ruthless and conflicted Doctor in Peter Capaldi. We saw new dimensions in Jenna-Louise Coleman’s performance as Clara (although, as blogger Caitlin Smith convincingly argues, they were probably there before and we just didn’t notice). We saw Nick Frost as Santa Claus.

We are waiting in agony for more.

Blood and Laurels — Emily Short

Since the storied elder times of Zork, text-based gaming has been on something of a low simmer. Plenty of fantastic hobbyists have been making absolutely stellar works of interactive fiction in that tradition — the one where you type commands and the computer responds, when it understands — for more than twenty years, now. But, it was a niche community, to say the least.

Now, with games like Device 6 and A Dark Room making a stir in mobile gaming, it seems like the world may be ready for more word games. After all, what do we spend all of our time doing, nowadays? We spend it reading text on screens.

2014 saw the release of one of the most promising platforms for interactive fiction, going forward. Versu is a massively more flexible new version of the Choose Your Own Adventure. Basically, you read text and make choices at critical points (or, for that matter, whenever you’d rather intervene than stand idly by). Choices can be as simple as making one gesture instead of another, or as sweeping as siding with one character in an argument over another. Versu’s artificially intelligent non-player characters react in kind.

The platform’s launch title, Blood and Laurels is by one of the most acclaimed authors of interactive fiction in recent years: Emily Short. It’s a story of intrigue in Ancient Rome. I don’t even want to think about how many endings it probably has. It’s a fantastic story, but what’s most exciting is the potential of this format. My prediction for 2015: this will be big, soon.

Honourable mentions: Salad Days — Mac DeMarco; The Ambassador — Gabriel Kahane; Stella di Napoli — Joyce DiDonato; Lamento — Romina Basso; Mad Men, season seven, part one; Last Week Tonight, season one; Game of Thrones, season four; Serial; Radiolab; Philip Sandifer’s blog; Boyhood.