Tag Archives: Kentucky Route Zero

Omnibus (week of March 25, 2018)

If you’re one of my six regular readers, you will likely already know that I got a job recently. This has resulted in a general sense of stability, clear headedness, and purposefulness that I haven’t had for a while. So, what does one do with one’s suddenly guilt-free spare time on an occasion such as this? One plays computer games.

I’ve been avoiding games for a while because they stretch out to fill the time. And when there’s too much time for them to stretch out into, they can take a toll on your self-worth. But I have plenty of that at the moment, so I played no fewer than three games this week. They’re all very short, to be fair. But it feels good to be back to this medium for at least a while, because all three of them were extremely interesting, and it was hard to pick just one to recommend. Read on to find out if I managed — and to find out which of the gaming podcasts I tried out was the best. When I get in a mood, I commit. 

Also, I had three pieces on the radio this weekend. Readers here will likely be most interested in this one

17 reviews.

Games

Kentucky Route Zero: “Un Pueblo De Nada” (and assorted miscellany) — Kentucky Route Zero’s final intermission minisode is an elegiac trip behind the scenes of a declining small-town public access station. I could have identified that as a KRZ premise even if you hadn’t told me it’s a video game. The minisode itself has less to offer than its two immediate predecessors: “The Entertainment,” which opens up the possibility that the entire game is a stage play being written by one of its supporting characters, and “Here and There Along the Echo,” which makes trawling through a touch-tone telephone menu fun. But when you take into account the fact that “Un Pueblo De Nada” has a slew of online videos associated with it, all of which are live-action renderings of broadcasts from the public access station we explore in the minisode, it rises to the level of prime KRZ. I watched the videos first (save for a couple of hour-long, out-of-universe media art pieces that may be edifying but don’t seem crucial), then played the actual game. I think I recommend doing the opposite. Or at least save the final, longest video until after you’ve played the game. I’ll say no more, except that if you intend to play KRZ at any point, you can’t skip the intermission features, because in spite of their brevity they are as enthralling as the actual chapters of the game. (A final note for obsessives: it looks like the airstrip from the first chapter, which initially seemed like little more than a haunting non-sequitur, is actually going to take on more significance. I’m not sure how I feel about that. I really liked it as an inexplicable, beautiful moment that’s basically unmoored from the rest of the story. But then, if there’s any developer we can trust not to make anything too tidy, it’s Cardboard Computer. So I still feel like the ambiguity won’t be explained away to the point where the airstrip vignette becomes banal.)

Subsurface Circular — This is a miniature, dialogue-driven story game that takes place on a single, continuous train ride. It observes the Aristotelian unities more aggressively than maybe any other game I’ve played: it takes place in real time, as far as I can tell, and your character does not (and cannot) move from their seat in the subway carriage. It is written by Mike Bithell, of Thomas Was Alone fame, and like that game it is about artificial intelligences. However, in Thomas Was Alone, that fact was basically only relevant to the plot: the character drama proceeds as if the characters are odd humans. Subsurface Circular has a little bit more fun with the fact that its characters are robots, encumbering some of them with really strange traits, like having their mood entirely determined by the mood of a separate robot. The story is a straightforward mystery that you investigate the only way you can: by talking to people on the train. The dialogue is choice-based, in the vein of Telltale, except that your choices don’t seem to have a great deal of impact on the actual story — or even the relationships between the characters. That’s not a flaw. It still presents a compelling story and offers you the opportunity to role-play within it. Still, to progress through the story you must hit on certain crucial bits of dialogue. Getting to them is less a matter of cleverness and more a matter of simply exhausting all of your options. Given my own propensity to try and see as much of the text as I can in one sitting, this can get a bit tedious. And it’s partially my fault. But the writing and the story are really, really fun. I highly recommend this to people who loved the writing in Thomas Was Alone, and to people who like text-based games in general.  

Virginia — I love this game. I can imagine what the key critiques of it are, even without reading anything about it. I can hear people’s objections about the lack of even the illusion of player choice, and the way in which you are driven through its spaces on tracks without any real opportunity to explore. (In that way, it is fundamentally different to some of the games it will inevitably be compared to, i.e. Gone Home, Tacoma.) But the way that Virginia tells its story is completely ingenious and wouldn’t be possible in another medium. The story itself is fairly simple to describe, at least until near the end. You’re an FBI agent, assigned to investigate a missing person with another FBI agent — and while you’re at it, you’re expected to carry out an internal investigation of your partner. Virginia’s FBI is a paranoid body where duplicity is par-for-the-course. It even invokes J. Edgar Hoover: a figure whose time would have been up long before this game takes place, but who looms large in the FBI’s institutional memory. You experience the story from a first person perspective, in which you walk down corridors, search for things in rooms, and frequently find yourself jump cutting to another location altogether. Those cuts are the game’s masterstroke — they convey a sensation of the unreliability of memory, perception and reality. The cuts are simple at first: you’re walking down a corridor, only to find yourself walking down a different corridor. The message is simple: we’ve elided part of the story, because it’s not important. But soon, you find yourself cutting from the present-day to a memory, from a dream to reality, and maybe even into the perspective of another character altogether. All of these are bog-standard techniques in film editing, but they make you disoriented and paranoid in this context. Also notable: nobody speaks in Virginia. It proceeds with visual storytelling akin to a Méliès film or a Pingu short, minus the grunting. That only adds to the vagueness. In fact, Virginia avoids words almost entirely, only deigning to put them on screen when there are especially crucial plot details that you can’t afford to miss. (After an hour of wordless gameplay, a key revelation is delivered via microfiche.) The point is this: Virginia is deliberately obscure because of its central themes. Virginia is a game about transgressing the boundaries of what’s true. It is about the levels of artifice that exist in relationships between people, the disconnect between what we perceive as real and what is empirically real outside of us, and how truth can be deliberately distorted for one’s own means. It is strange, unique, powerful, probably unknowable, and it has an original score performed by an honest-to-god symphony orchestra. I love it. I can’t wait to play it again. Pick of the week.

Movies

Isle of Dogs — Hmm. Look, it would be an excellent movie if it weren’t so culturally insensitive. I want to like it, believe me. Wes Anderson is one of my favourite directors, with The Grand Budapest Hotel standing particularly tall among my all-time favourites. And there’s much to love in this film. It contains some of the most objectively gorgeous stop-motion animation I’ve ever seen. And all of the stuff involving the dogs themselves is gold. Bryan Cranston gives a fabulous performance as the hardened stray that the other dogs both look up to and resent. Jeff Goldblum is hilarious as the town gossip. And Harvey Keitel puts in a curiously heartbreaking turn as a dog for whom desperate times called for desperate measures. But much of the remainder of the movie takes place in a Western fantasy of Japan: a Japan with only its aesthetics intact. A key element of the film is that the audience is not supposed to understand the human dialogue throughout much of it. But… presumably those members of the audience who speak Japanese will not get the benefit of that choice. Like Pop Culture Happy Hour’s Linda Holmes pointed out, Japan isn’t Narnia. It’s a real place that exists in the world. Much of Isle of Dogs constitutes textbook cultural appropriation. Shame, too: if this had been made to take place in an actual fantasy world, I think it might be a near masterpiece. As it is, I spent much of the movie’s duration squirming uncomfortably.

Literature, etc.

Brian Vickers: “Too too solid: On the Norton Shakespeare and the New Oxford Shakespeare” — I have been meaning to buy a proper complete Shakespeare for a while now. Reading Moby-Dick in the Norton Critical Edition has opened my eyes to the advantages of a solid critical edition, even for recreational reading. This opinionated, not to say catty, review of the two most recent editions of Shakespeare from perpetual rivals Oxford and Norton highlights the latter as a pretty clear winner. Even if you’re not in the market for one of these, this is worth a read simply to watch Vickers excoriate the Oxford for its misbegotten attempts at trendiness: referencing Hamilton, referring to Shakespeare as “the ghost with the most,” and eschewing critical introductions to the plays (probably the whole point of a critical edition for most readers) in favour of something they call “Shakespeare tapas,” in which they sample one or two lines from essays and interviews with notable Shakespeareans out of context. Norton it is.  

Music

The New Pornographers: Mass Romantic — Somebody mentioned them in conversation recently and I was reminded that I’d never heard a full album. I’m not sure I’d even listened to a song with any real intention. I began where one begins: with “Letter From an Occupant.” That song is a miracle. Neko Case’s voice is a laser, and it contains the lines “I cried five rivers on the way here, which one will you skate away on?” That’s a Joni Mitchell riff that improves on the original. There’s something you don’t see every day. Nothing on the rest of the album quite compares, except maybe the title track. After one full listen, my sense is that I’ll be compelled to revisit the Neko Case songs (I’ve listened to “Letter” probably a couple dozen times this week) immediately, and the A.C. Newman songs may yet grow on me. Good album.

Jack White: Boarding House Reach — It’s not all excellent, but it is so crazily heterogenous and energetic that it doesn’t matter. This is the album where Jack White finally embraces the digital, and it turns out not to actually affect his aesthetic all that much. This is as messy, weird and disjointed as any White Stripes album and also toes the same line between knowing ludicrousness and total sincerity. It’s a succinct demonstration that an artist is not defined by their chosen tools, but by their approach to them. Highlights include “Corporation,” which injects an unexpected dose of P-Funk into the record, “Ice Station Zebra,” which contains the much-complained-about rapping (as if we’ve forgotten that he did it on “Lazaretto” too and nobody minded), “Over and Over and Over,” which is the closest we come to a classic garage rock track, and “Respect Commander,” which does some intensely fun stuff with tempo adjustment, and “Get In the Mind Shaft,” which is probably the closest Jack White will ever get to making a Daft Punk song. His best work since Icky Thump. Freaky good fun.

J.S. Bach/John Eliot Gardiner, English Baroque Soloists et al: St. John Passion — It’s Easter. On Easter we listen to Bach. I’ve always preferred the St. John Passion to the St. Matthew, which I can never get all the way through. Where Matthew is mutedly passionate, John is explosive. The opening chorus is a particular favourite — one of the most openly dramatic things in Bach’s entire oeuvre. There’s nothing quite like a big, awesome choir making their first entrance with “HERR!! HERR!! HERR!!” Speaking of, the Monteverdi Choir are the true stars of this fantastic recording with Gardiner. Neither he nor they are afraid of “letting it rip,” as the kids are saying. The English Baroque Soloists play with a sense of individuality that befits their name. And the vocal soloists put in lovely performances, particularly Anthony Rolfe-Johnson in the often thankless role of the Evangelist. Have a listen. At least check out the choruses.

Podcasts

Retronauts: “Zork,” “EarthBound” & “Broderbund” — In my recently rediscovered enthusiasm for video games, I felt compelled to check out a couple things from the doubtless well-populated gaming podcast space. True to its name, Retronauts is a roundtable chat podcast that focuses on retrogaming. In general, I am a modern gaming person, but I played just enough games in my childhood that I can occasionally conjure some nostalgia for eras of gaming gone by. How surprised was I, then, to find that the most recent episode of Retronauts focussed on Broderbund, a company whose edutainment titles made up a big chunk of my early exposure to computers. This episode reminded me of the existence of Living Books, which I’d forgotten entirely, as well as The Print Shop and the Carmen Sandiego games, of which Where in Time is permanently imprinted on my DNA. The Zork episode is a fun exploration of that game, which I’ve put many hours into and never even really come close to beating. I do feel that the panel may have a limited experience of post-Infocom parser-based interactive fiction, in light of which Zork’s puzzles look counterintuitive and inexpert. The EarthBound episode is the one with the most difficult task, namely to say interesting things about a game about which there is little left to say. It’s probably the Super Nintendo equivalent of Bowie’s Low. Alas, much of the discussion focuses on the game’s music, which is deeply beside the point. Still, I’ll listen to more of this. They’ve got a rich back-catalogue with at least one thing I care about for every dozen that I don’t.

No Cartridge: “Desert of the Real Fictions” — The second gaming podcast I checked out this week is this loose conversation show hosted by a professor. A conversation between that professor, Trevor Strunk, and the developer of Night in the Woods, Scott Benson, is bound to be fun. This particularly focuses on the question raised by gamers who demand better endings from game developers — as if a game is something other than a thing made by a person, but rather a thing that exists whole in some other universe and has been dragged imperfectly into this one by a flawed human vessel. It shines a light on the ways in which a large swathe of the gaming hordes are substantially lacking in critical facility. A fun listen if you’re into that sort of thing.

On the Media: “Big, if True” — One of the best things about OTM is that it’s always there on the stories you need it for. The Cambridge Analytica story was one of those. This is as good an exploration of that as you could hope for.

Song by Song: “Bride of Rain Dog” & “Anywhere I Lay My Head” — I’ve enormously enjoyed this podcast’s breakdown of Rain Dogs. These final two episodes are the general summation you’d hope for. It’s all well that they chose to do that, since I’m really not sure there’s much to say about “Anywhere I Lay My Head” that it doesn’t say for itself. It is one of Tom Waits’s most poignant creations. I’ll be returning to this show for Frank’s Wild Years — my idiosyncratic favourite Tom Waits album, an opinion I know the panel does not share.

Pop Culture Happy Hour catch-up — It came to pass that I agreed with Linda Holmes (and not Chris Klimek) on Isle of Dogs, a very problemsy movie. In other news, High Maintenance sounds not for me, Ready Player One sounds intensely not for me, and the SXSW wrap was sort of repetitive after hearing All Songs Considered’s coverage in its entirety.

Theory of Everything: “Utopia” parts iv and v — This hasn’t been my favourite mini-season in ToE’s history. But there’s much to enjoy here, in particular Andrew Calloway’s trip to a pagan utopia in part iv.

Imaginary Worlds: “Remembering Ursula K. Le Guin” & “Stuck in the Uncanny Valley” — The Le Guin episode is a good primer that I’ll look back to when I am in search of an SF novel to read. The uncanny valley is one of the better Imaginary Worlds episodes in a while, in no small part because it draws on Eric Molinsky’s expertise as a former animator.

The Memory Palace: “Outliers” & “A quick update and a bonus episode” — “Outliers” is a brief thing about the reasons why a person might decide to take part in a freak show in the 19th century. It is as compassionate and broad minded as you expect this show to be. Oddly, though, the bonus episode that follows it is almost better. It transitions seamlessly from being a bland housekeeping episode to being a really lovely tribute to Lavinia Dock, whose suffrage slogan, “the young are at the gates” is now being repurposed movingly as a slogan for the Never Again movement. This show is an ongoing miracle. Pick of the week.  

The Nod: “Peak Reality” & “Sister, Sister” — It’s been awhile since I listened to this. I heard a preview for “Sister, Sister” on another Gimlet show and figured I had to hear it. But first I listened to a completely different episode by mistake that turned out to be even better. “Peak Reality” finds Eric Eddings arguing to Brittany Luse that 2016 was the best year for reality television. There’s nothing like smart people talking about dumb things. As for “Sister, Sister,” it’s an interesting bit of family drama in which a producer finds out her sister doesn’t identify as black and is upset by this. Alas, the actual conversations with the sister in question make it plain immediately that this sister’s issue is simply that she is in college, with all of the attendant confusion. It’s less compelling than it might be.

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30 things I loved in 2016

It has become customary for me to post my best-of list for any given year at the end of the following January. I do this partly to give myself a bit more time to digest everything, including albums or movies that might have come out in December, and books I haven’t finished. But mostly I do it as a perverse act of protest against modern “EVERYTHING NOW” culture. I won’t have that. I think we can afford to take a bit more time.

But this year, I’ve put myself at a disadvantage. Faced with the task of belatedly summing up the most recently completed planetary rotation period, I find myself with little to say — since there simply are no more clichés available to describe it. The media, social and otherwise, exhausted them all. With no clichés to rely on, how is one to describe 2016? We’re in uncharted territory.

So, I’ll simply introduce this list by telling one of my own personal 2016 stories. It is not an especially consequential story, nor does it necessarily define the year in any profound way. But it’s a story that I’m fairly confident didn’t happen to anybody else. At least, not in the details.

I was working late the night of the American election. I’d been tasked with writing a short piece on Leonard Cohen for a year-end feature. Cohen, as far as I knew, was still alive. So, I wrote a piece that tried to reconcile the morbidity and resignation of his recent album You Want It Darker with the inherent triumph of creating a great work of art in a state of unwellness.

I was just about through it when Trump won Florida. I watched the New York Times’ probability meter zoom up into the red. The ground slipped, etc. I finished off the last few sentences of my Cohen piece. They went like this: “2016 has saddled us with the deaths and diagnoses of many artists we hold dear. Leonard Cohen persists. That is a straw to clutch at.”

The next day, Hillary Clinton conceded the election to Donald Trump. Two days after that, news broke that Leonard Cohen had died. And moreover, that he had died on Monday. Little did I know while I was writing those final, celebratory lines that Leonard Cohen was already dead. Probably he died regretting that he wouldn’t get to see the seemingly inevitable victory of the first female president.

I edited the Cohen piece. I managed to keep the last sentence, but it wasn’t as good in the new context.

You Want It Darker isn’t on this list. Neither is Chance the Rapper’s Colouring Book, which was the album I reached for to ring in 2017 on New Year’s Eve (specifically “Finish Line”). Both of those albums seem to have a lot to say about this past year, but so does everything. That’s because we let 2016 get under our skin, even though it was just a year — a semi-arbitrary way of measuring reasonably-sized blocks of time.

All the same, I can’t help but think that this list reflects the extent to which I let 2016 get under my skin as well. Many of its entries are here because they seem to resonate intensely in the here and now. For the first time, this seems to be a more important criterion for me than whether or not I can see myself revisiting a particular entry in the future. The world has become dangerously interesting of late.

Oh, and another thing: the list is ranked. I find the exercise of comparing apples to oranges to beach balls to crows to Chevrolets to be inconceivably satisfying, so that is what I’ve done here. Take it for what it’s worth.

Honourable mention: 887

It seemed weird to include a piece of theatre in the proper list, given that there is currently no way for most people to see it, and that the cities that saw it this year may not ever see it again. But Robert Lepage’s one-man show about memory would be very close to the top of this list if it didn’t seem so perverse to do that. Any footage or promo text that you’re likely to find about this show online will likely make it seem like a spectacle: a technical marvel. And it is that, to be sure. But it’s spectacle on an incredibly intimate scale. Most of the show is composed of Robert Lepage simply talking to the audience, directly, casually and out of character. It’s a testament to the strength of the material that even with its rotating set, video screens, live cameras, and various tricks of light, 887 would still work as a radio drama, and it would be only marginally less awesome. It’s like a TED Talk inside of a magical realist diorama. The subject is memory, in nearly every sense of the word: the neurological phenomenon of memory, Lepage’s own childhood memories of his family and of major national events, the process of memorization. Along the way, he explores the origins of theatre, he remembers his father, and he reflects on Quebec nationalism and the FLQ. These are themes that may not seem on the surface like they should connect. But Lepage keeps the balls in the air seemingly effortlessly, and never makes a forced attempt to draw an unnatural thematic link. It’s a deft, haunting and cathartic experience, and if you find yourself able to see it, I could not urge you to see it in strong enough terms.

No. 30: The Nice Guys

This is the year’s most inevitably underrated movie. It’s a big, rompy action comedy that just allows itself to just be that thing. Like all halfway convincing modern comedy, it is trope aware. But unlike most modern comedy, the humour in this mostly doesn’t come from undercutting the tropes: it comes from great, great iterations of those tropes. There’s a bit near the end with a luxury car on one of those rotating drums you see at big fancy car shows, and it is such a perfectly intuitive physical comedy setpiece that you wonder why you’ve never seen it done before. Speaking of physical comedy, it says something about both director Shane Black and leading man Ryan Gosling that the movie can get laughs from pratfalls in 2016. The Nice Guys relies on that kind of humour more than any contemporary movie not made by Wes Anderson, and it gets away with it without being compulsively stylized. At various points during this list, it may seem like I don’t actually consume media for fun, but for some other misguided, principled reason. The Nice Guys is pure fun. No other movie entertained me so uncomplicatedly this year. But since everything is political, it’s worth noting that this movie corrected a problem that’s always bothered me in movies: mostly Coen Brothers movies. It’s got dumb comedy liberals in it, who stage vacuous protests about social ills they don’t adequately understand — but it also has comedy conservatives who monologue villainously about American exceptionalism. Politically, this movie traffics exclusively in caricature, and can thus be read as essentially disinterested in politics altogether. If this were a Coen Brothers movie, the monologuing villain would have been subbed out for some variant of the plainspoken cowboy, who espouses moderate views and good old-fashioned common sense — as if that’s what the liberals are fighting against. If it were South Park, the script would have attempted to make a sincere reading of its own caricatures, and come out with some sort of false equivalency that suggests there’s right and wrong on both sides of every issue. The Nice Guys does none of this: rather, it explicitly invites us to completely ignore the politics that may or may not underpin the film. I, for one, was happy to do so.

No. 29: The Lonely City

lonely-cityThe very act of writing a book about one’s own loneliness is an act of bravery. If this book were simply Olivia Laing’s account of the period in her own life when she felt the most alienated, it would still be worth reading, and not at all self-indulgent. Nothing could be less self-indulgent than proclaiming loneliness, because we all intuitively know that such a proclamation will have the counterintuitive effect of worsening one’s own isolation. But Laing only uses her own narrative as a spine: a framing device that she uses to string together her readings of the lives and works of several definitively lonely American artists. Though it is often conflated with depression, Laing considers loneliness as a unique affliction: an undesirable one by definition, but one without which the human experience is incomplete and possibly less inspired. The chapter that focuses on Andy Warhol’s outsiderness, his alienation through not having a firm grasp of language, is shattering and actually makes Warhol’s famous repeated images take on a bittersweet quality that I had never detected in them before. Laing is sensitive to the alienating tendencies of patriarchy and heteronormativity, and offers compelling portraits of people who lived lonely lives due to a society-wide lack of understanding. A substantial amount of the chapter that begins by focussing on Warhol veers off to consider Valerie Solanas, an early radical feminist of some genius who has since become known for only one thing: shooting Andy Warhol. The Lonely City is a beautiful book: equal parts sad and validating. It made me want to jump on a plane to New York to go look at art. By myself.

No. 28: We Are The Halluci Nation

This is the album that finds A Tribe Called Red well past the proof-of-concept phase: the brilliance of their fusion of powwow music and EDM has already been established and accepted. As of this year, ATCR is as much an albums band as a live act, and they have thus secured their legacy. We Are The Halluci Nation is a mind movie. It uses a rich sonic palette of synths, beats, hand drums and throat singing. It layers that palette with the words of some like-minded collaborators including Saul Williams, Yasiin Bey and Leonard Sumner. And from that alchemy emerges a story, impressionistically told, of oppression and resistance. It is the most forceful music on this list by miles. And when it isn’t, it’s tense, coiled up and ready to do battle. It naturally feels like music of the present moment, but of course it is more than that: it’s music of a brutal historical moment that is ongoing and five centuries old. (“500 years and still drumming,” says the album cover.) I saw ATCR live this year as well, and they’re magnificent in that setting. But given a full album’s length to work with plus your undivided, sober attention, they are both infectiously righteous and some of today’s finest musical architects.

No. 27: Love and Radio

After the election, Nick van der Kolk did what many people in the media did, i.e. he had a muted existential flail in public. He expressed his doubts that anything he could do on his show would have any impact on the world at all, and asked the audience for feedback as to what they’d like to hear on the show. I sent him an email to this approximate effect: listening to Love and Radio, it’s always struck me that the show feels like it belongs to somebody different every episode. I don’t know that there’s any other show that’s so willing to surrender the story to its guest. It requires an active investment of empathy from the listener. I believe that people can come away from art and media compelled to act differently in the world. And if that’s true, then this is among the most important work that anybody’s currently doing on a podcast — even and especially after this past election. 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. This is 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.

No. 26: Love Streams

I’ve spent more time listening to ambient music this year than any other. It has come to serve a particular purpose in my life: to quiet and focus me, and occasionally to provide a sustained moment of catharsis. I don’t tend to think of Tim Hecker’s recent music as ambient, for the very specific and personal reason that it doesn’t serve that purpose for me. Since 2013, Hecker has been making bracing, heterogenous electronic music that is not content to simply drift: it very nearly seems to be trying to speak. On Love Streams, this becomes almost literal, as Hecker bases the entire project on recordings of choirs, processed and warped into unrecognizable shapes and semblances. The presence of voices and the absence of words combine to offer the impression of direct, emotional communion: bypassing logic and reasoning. It was another esteemed instrumental musician who bid Goodbye to Language this year, but it’s Love Streams that best demonstrates how music can be disquieting and moving for reasons that exist beyond the reach of words. There’s a sweetness in this album that is new to Hecker, and is basically the polar opposite of the music on his acclaimed previous record Virgins, which remains the darkest and strangest album of Hecker’s career — and thus also, the best received. But the fact that Love Streams hasn’t been a mainstay of the music press’s year-end lists is unfortunate evidence that he’s not the sort of musician who gets to become a “major artist.” He can have his one watershed album, but no more. And that is a shame, because Tim Hecker is only now demonstrating his tremendous capacity to surprise. This album is every bit Virgins’ equal, and thus among the very greatest abstract electronic musical works.

No. 25: Captain America: Civil War

It’s safe to say this is the first superhero movie that reminded me of The Rules of the Game. That movie details the foibles of pre-war French aristocrats rather than quippy costumed vigilantes, true. But Captain America: Civil War is one of very few movies that shares one crucial element with it: everybody does what they think is right. Consequences arise regardless. Unlike in The Rules of the Game, there is a bad guy in Civil War. This is a Marvel movie, after all: not a French drama from 1939. But, the villain here is essentially a MacGuffin. He even conceives of himself as a MacGuffin: he’s just trying to start a process that he himself will not have much to do with. That structural decision makes this the closest thing I’ve seen to a juggernaut franchise blockbuster that doesn’t rely on the idea of evil. It’s almost immaterial whether you align yourself with “Team Cap” or “Team Stark”: the important thing is that they both think they’re doing what’s right, and violence ensues regardless. Even after all that’s happened this year, I’m still fairly convinced that this isn’t misguided. Evil’s not the enemy. Ignorance is. In any case, a lack of evil is almost unprecedented in this kind of movie, and marks it as something really special in contemporary genre fiction. The fact that it won me over in spite of my prejudices marks it as a miracle.

No. 24: Dolls of Highland

I listened to “Lady of the Ark” more times than any other song this year. There’s something about it that is more purely cathartic than anything else I heard in 2016, and it’s all in the performance. Craft’s lyrics are a blend of non-specific mysticism and a sense of romance seemingly derived mostly from Blood on the Tracks. And for the most part, I’m not entirely certain what he means by any of it. But most of my favourite lyricists are similarly obtuse, and the secret to it all is this: some words and phrases just sound great coming out of certain throats. It’s really that simple. When Craft sings “Swing low, low sweet heathen / Swing for the wretch and the rock and roll kids / Who roam this earth repeating / All this sin until this wicked world makes sense in time,” it sounds like a sermon delivered by a fire alarm. Surely, he’s got one of the most bracing voices to emerge so far this decade. And musically, welcome to the concept of glam country. He’s halfway between the Band and the Spiders from Mars, and the fact that it was all recorded in a laundry room just makes it sound bigger. I have been obsessed with every song on this album at some point during the year. That’s an auspicious debut.

No. 23: More Perfect

moreperfect_1400x1400_nownycstudiosI wouldn’t have thought that a Radiolab spinoff about the Supreme Court was a good idea before I heard it. But in the second episode, “The Political Thicket,” I realized why it makes sense: Jad Abumrad is better than almost anybody at breaking down byzantine concepts and processes. “The Political Thicket” is about how a decision about something seemingly mundane — redistricting — led to a precedent that completely changed the way the Supreme Court works in the U.S., and subsequently to a raft of social changes. It was a decision that broke one of the justices at the time. It was a decision that allowed the Supreme Court to wade into what were previously thought of as “political” questions, or legislative affairs. It’s the decision that, decades later, allowed the Supreme Court to determine the outcome of the 2000 presidential election. And most crucially, it’s a decision that will likely have staggering effects in the near future, depending on how many justices Donald Trump gets to appoint during his administration. “The Political Thicket” is just my personal favourite episode of More Perfect. The entire series is among the best journalism of the year. It is the best argument for long-view journalism that I’ve heard in a long time. The world today will make more sense once you listen to this, even though many of its stories happened decades ago.

No. 22: I, Gemini

I have a soft spot for very deranged music. And since I didn’t listen to Danny Brown’s Atrocity Exhibition until late in the year and haven’t quite come around to it, my deranged record of choice for 2016 comes courtesy of a pair of teenagers. Perhaps that shouldn’t be surprising. There’s nobody more deranged than teenagers. Let’s Eat Grandma’s debut record is a worthy application to join the annals of England’s great musical eccentrics, from Brian Eno to Genesis P-Orridge. But it is also fabulously self-assured. There’s an almost shocking sense of self-knowledge in this record, as if Jenny Hollingworth and Rosa Walton are five times their age and have long since stopped giving a shit what anybody thinks. It’s sludgy psychedelia that doesn’t sound like anything else, and whose basic ethos seems to be, “why not?” Recorder solo? Why not? Rap verse? Why not? Glockenspiel recorded too hot on a super-close mic? Why not? There are a few tracks that stand out as comparatively immediate (“Deep Six Textbook,” “Eat Shiitake Mushrooms,” and especially “Rapunzel”), but it’s the kind of album whose deep cuts creep up on you until you’ve had a half-dozen or more favourite tracks at various times. I’m partial to “Chocolate Sludge Cake,” these days. This is one of a few debut albums included on this list, and it’s not the highest-placed one. But it’s probably the one that leaves me most curious about what the second record will sound like.

No. 21: Kentucky Route Zero: Act IV

When the fifth and final act of Kentucky Route Zero finally comes out and we have the whole thing in front of us for evaluation, it may well be the single most profound computer game ever made. The developers at Cardboard Computer are taking the simple story of an old man making his last delivery of antiques and crafting it into a complex exploration of post-recession anxieties. It ties together more thematic strands than any other currently ongoing serialized narrative in any medium. What other game/show/film series/comic can you think of that deals with the history of computers, the malignancy of debt, the process of creating art, the reasons behind the impulse to travel, and the pull of addiction, all while establishing three-dimensional characters and dreaming up beautiful, impossible spaces for them to inhabit? The series as a whole is a modern creative miracle. Judging this year’s fourth act as a thing in itself is a bit more challenging. Certainly, it’s a different beast than any of the three prior acts, being substantially more linear and less exploratory in terms of gameplay, and being substantially more bittersweet and elegiac in tone. Rather than presenting the player with a map to explore at their leisure and a variety of mysterious locales to uncover and explore, Cardboard Computer gave us a set of discrete vignettes this year: an excursion to a tacky bar on an underground beach; breakfast at a fish shop that serves catches from the deepest most mysterious depths of a secret river; a theremin recital on the bow of a tugboat. Most astonishingly, it allows the player to control a character in security footage, with events narrated in past tense. It almost reminds me of The Animatrix, in the sense that it consists of a bunch of small stories that take place in a world with bigger stories. But each of these vignettes is so resonant that it’s impossible to object to the relative lack of control. It’s an even more lovely choice, when you consider that our protagonist, Conway, is at the turning point of his story here. We know there’s something tragic happening to him, but our focus is turned elsewhere, on these little stories of unusual lives going on regardless, until it actually happens. And when it does, it’s shattering. It’ll likely be a long wait until we get to see how the story ends. But that’s fine, because the world of Kentucky Route Zero is rich enough that no amount of playthroughs can really serve to fully reveal it.

No. 20: Blackstar

We’ve finally reached the first item on the list that might be too ubiquitous to write meaningfully about anymore. Bowie has found himself at the centre of far too many Grand Unified Theories of 2016 Celebrity Deaths already, so I’ll just offer a couple of thoughts about this album, which still hits me just as hard as when it came out. David Bowie died less than a week apart from the great French avant-garde composer/conductor Pierre Boulez. To attempt to draw general connections between the two of them would be facile (though it didn’t stop many from trying), but there’s a line on Blackstar that haunted me from the beginning, especially given that when I first heard it, I’d been thinking about Boulez for a few days: “Something happened on the day he died / Spirit rose a meter, then stepped aside / Somebody else took his place and bravely cried / I’m a blackstar.” Since Bowie is first and foremost rock and roll’s greatest purveyor of riddles and enigmas, we can and should speculate wildly about what (or who) he meant by “blackstar.” But even without knowing, the sentiment here is clear. On a track that’s demonstrably about Bowie’s death, he’s not singing about his legacy: he’s singing about the artists who will replace him — the artists he’s stepping aside for. Those lines are positioned almost like a thesis statement. They recur throughout the opening song, with different musical settings. I think I know what this is: Bowie is using his last musical breath to admonish future generations who may revere him above the artists of their own time. This, by a wonderful coincidence, was the cornerstone of Boulez’s artistic philosophy. Boulez considered music history a “great burden,” and claimed that “we must get rid of it once and for all” in favour of the art of the present day. Whatever Boulez might have thought about Bowie, there’s no doubt that he helped to build popular music into an idiom that values innovation and novelty more than traditions and dubious notions of timelessness. So, if you occasionally hear somebody make that well-meaning claim that one day we’ll remember David Bowie (or, conceivably, Pierre Boulez) the way we now remember Mozart, take a moment to consider that he might not have wanted us to. Not that he can help it.

No. 19: Swiss Army Man

Known on the internet primarily as “The Daniel Radcliffe Farting Corpse Movie,” this is a movie that was exactly as bonkers as I thought it would be, but also much much better. In spite, or more likely because of its relentless devotion to its own ridiculous premise, Swiss Army Man is never less than riveting for a single second. It is essentially a feature-length two-hander, with Paul Dano and Radcliffe together in almost every frame of the movie. The fact that the whole thing doesn’t come crashing down under the weight of its own childishness is largely due to the fact that Dano and Radcliffe both offer grounded, emotionally realistic performances within an absurd context. Even Radcliffe, who plays a talking (farting) corpse, gives his character a believable emotional arc. To the credit of directors Dan Kwan and Daniel Scheinert, the movie never gets bogged down in the mechanics of what’s real and what isn’t. Instead, the Daniels just allow the story to be a visual fantasia that proceeds entirely according to the logic of pacing and character. They bring their expertise as music video directors to bear, allowing the score to interact freely with the story — at times reflecting what’s going on in the character’s heads, and at times actually being sung by the characters themselves. Swiss Army Man’s hallucinatory dream sequences also double as Rube Goldberg machines, with sets built largely of found objects. It’s dazzling, in a jerry-rigged sort of way. It’s hard to say what, if anything, the themes of this movie are. But that seems almost beside the point. It is realistic character drama that takes place within a high-concept, gross-out, borderline trolling indie comedy that gets laughs out of subjecting a corpse to untold indignities. It almost seems like a deliberate response to assholes like me who complain ad nauseum about how there are no new ideas in the movies. But honest to god, I would take an endless stream of movies like this to inevitable Christmas Star Wars forever.

No. 18: Jerusalem: The Burroughs

jerusalem-cover-600x899Yes, technically, this is only a ranking of book one of Alan Moore’s magnificent brick of a novel. Because that’s as far as I’ve gotten. Nonetheless, Jerusalem isn’t the kind of book that you need to be finished to know whether you like it. It was quite clear from the very beginning that I did. He’s every bit as engaging as a novelist as he is in his comics. I daresay that in some cases there’s not much difference between the two experiences, given how verbose he is as a comics writer as well. But on the other hand, there’s intrinsic merit to reading a novel by Alan Moore, because it allows him to really occupy the insides of his characters’ heads more than he often can in comics. This is very much a novel in the English modernist tradition of Mrs. Dalloway and Ulysses, where characters’ inner selves are revealed by way of their responses to the city streets that they walk through. If you’re a fan of books about people thinking as they walk — and how could you not be? — you will love this. Each chapter in “The Burroughs” focusses on a different character’s inner monologue — every one of them as fully realized and vibrant as Watchmen’s Rorschach or From Hell’s Sir William Gull, but without their seductive danger. This is, after all, a novel about Moore’s home: Northampton, the town where he’s lived for his whole life. And though there is a general, pervading sense of squalor, dilapidation and desperation throughout, Jerusalem is thus far proving to be a remarkably warm novel. Moore’s obsessively detailed descriptions of tiny local landmarks (often seen at different points in history) are obviously acts of love — and acts of preservation. Jerusalem opens with an artist proclaiming that she’ll save Northampton from complete gentrification with a magical ritual involving paintings. That’s transparently Moore’s goal as well. And in transcribing the sights and stories of his beloved surroundings, he’s done a service to his community, as well as to those of us who love his fiction. I’m convinced that the remaining two books will be better still.

No. 17: let me tell you

Let’s start broad and work towards the specifics. Classical recordings like let me tell you offer a fundamentally different value proposition to classical recordings of familiar repertoire: Beethoven; Liszt; whatever. let me tell you contains a single work: the title work, by the Danish composer Hans Abrahamsen. It is a new work, and it has never been recorded before. It was written specifically for the soprano Barbara Hannigan, who performs it here. So, this recording will be the first time that most people will have heard this music. And those for whom it isn’t would have heard it in concert, performed by this same singer — Hannigan is, to my knowledge, the only person who has performed it as of yet. So, this album is offering brand new music, performed by an artist with real ownership over it. It is the music itself that is being offered. This is the same value proposition offered by pop albums. By contrast, a recital disc from a singer doing Verdi and Puccini arias, or Schubert lieder, is specifically offering a performance. The music itself cannot be the primary driving factor of such a recording, since it’s been recorded hundreds of other times, and what would be the point. I’ll be more strident, because who’s going to stop me: what is the point? Unless your recording reaches Glenn Gould levels of idiosyncrasy, isn’t it redundant upon arrival? (I should mention that the one classical musician recording standard rep nowadays who I do feel reaches those heights is the violinist Patricia Kopatchinskaja, who made my second and third-favourite classical recordings of the year.) This is why I’m so glad to see this recording gracing so many of the 2016 classical lists (including one I helped compile). Abrahamsen’s piece is so beautiful and so directly expressive that I feel it can serve as proof-of-concept for modern classical music. My hope would be that listeners would hear this and realize that there isn’t such a fundamental divide between classical music and pop. Not in the sense that this sounds like pop music. It doesn’t, and that’s never the answer. Rather, it bridges the divide in the sense that it offers the same value proposition as pop music, and is also self-evidently brilliant. As for the specifics, which are what’s ultimately important, the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra is a truly great ensemble. Conductor Andris Nelsons leads them through this challenging new work like it’s Mozart 40. Barbara Hannigan is quite simply the best singer alive.

No. 16: The Heart

This is the podcast that customarily makes me too bashful to say anything meaningful in my weekly reviews. However, I’m certain that the producers of this show would be extremely disappointed in me for that, so let’s give it a go. The Heart is a show that explores love and sexuality without self-censorship, and with an emphasis on the perspectives of women and queer people. Like Criminal, Reply All, or 99% Invisible, it has the capacity to tell an infinitude of stories through the lens it chooses to focus it. Also, like those shows, it has a house style that tames its variety into a semblance of order. That style is best described by the show’s former title: Audio Smut. 2016 saw the release of three uniquely focussed seasons of episodes. “Ghost,” the first of them, is a series of stories about being haunted by past relationships. It’s possibly their most poetic season so far, with the routinely brilliant mixing often simulating the sensation of having an intimate conversation with yourself in your head. This is likely one of the two or three outright best sounding podcasts being made today, and not in a flashy way. It’s subtle, but always perfect. The second season of the year is the real flagship: “Silent Evidence” tells the rather difficult-to-hear but important story of a woman who decides to confront her childhood sexual abuser years later. It’s brave, it’s beautifully written, and it is very much its protagonist’s own story. The next full season, “Diaries,” is simpler, less ambitious, and does essentially what it says on the tin. But somewhere in the midst of all this was a standalone episode that ranks as maybe the most gutwrenching, affecting single podcast episode of the year. “Mariya” is the first-person story of a woman dealing with the fallout from female genital mutilation. It is heavy listening, but I’m not sure I’ve heard a more nuanced exploration of trauma before. The Heart expanded what it’s capable of this year, and it was already one of the best shows being made.

No. 15: Firewatch

The thing that initially impressed me most about Firewatch is that it solves the problems with two kinds of games by just stacking them on top of each other. This game is a walking simulator of the Dear Esther or Gone Home persuasion, with a branching narrative à la the Telltale Walking Dead games worked into it. That offers all of the freedom to explore that the walking sims offer, but tempers the aimlessness of some of those games by forcing you to make choices consistently. And, it offers the narrative propulsion of Telltale’s method, but combats the sense that you’re being driven through the game on linear tracks. I could see this exact set of mechanics working brilliantly for just about any story, and I imagine we will see that happen in the coming years. But none of this would have impressed if the story hadn’t been up to snuff. I slightly resent that this game has occasionally been characterized as a perverse attempt to make being a fire lookout fun (a whiff of Papers, Please, perhaps). This isn’t that. Nobody would bat an eye about a movie being made about a fire lookout, so why not a game? Besides, the idea that a guy takes a job as a fire lookout after a damaging experience in his personal life is an obvious setup for a proper adventure story. And it’s also a perfect setup for a great character drama. The best part of playing Firewatch is in hearing the interactions of its two main characters: Harry, the player character (voiced brilliantly by Mad Men’s Rich Sommer), and Delilah, his boss in another lookout tower who is available only by radio (voiced equally brilliantly by Cissy Jones). You get to shape their relationship through the dialogue choices that you make, which would be a game enough in itself. And wandering around in a beautifully-rendered forest would be nearly enough in itself as well. But again, it’s the combination of the two that makes this game unique. Firewatch is a rare thing: a fun, straightforward, not especially arty video game that nonetheless feels like it’s for grown-ups. Hopefully it’s a harbinger of more.

No. 14: Planet Earth II

The best that can be said of Planet Earth II is that it lives up to Planet Earth I. These two series both feature the most beautiful and virtuosic cinematography that’s ever been done, and it is beautiful in spite of the fact that the events it documents are as unscripted as it’s possible to be. Komodo dragons don’t take direction well. Mind you, I’m sure that the editing proved equally virtuosic: you don’t get sequences this perfect without a bit of fakery. There’s a sequence in the grasslands episode that keeps coming back to mind: a mouse climbs to the top of a blade of tall grass, has to dodge an approaching barn owl, and falls off of the blade of grass, into the frame of another shot. The whole thing is seen from several different angles. Who’s to say if all of those shots are even of the same mouse? But even if there is a certain amount of fudging going on, it’s hard to think of this as cheating. The amount of (quality, beautiful) footage that they must have had to shoot to tell complete, engaging stories must be gigantic. The BBC Natural History Unit’s secret weapon is the “personal narrative”: rather than showing us the generalities of things that happen in nature, the filmmakers introduce us to one specific sloth, or a particular pair of snow leopards, and show us their story. David Attenborough’s voiceover is as beautifully written and delivered as ever (contrived segues aside), but it’s also an infinitesimally small part of the undertaking of Planet Earth II. Credit belongs to the camera operators and producers who went out into the field and managed the most impossible of logistics to obtain the most stupefying footage ever seen. As ever, the behind-the-scenes segments at the end of each episode are as compelling as the footage itself. The season finale, which focusses anomalously on cities and the animals who have adapted to thrive there, is different from anything that this show has done before. But it’s also the unquestionable highlight. A rooftop conflict between monkeys results in a fight scene straight from a Jackie Chan movie; leopards stalk the streets of Mumbai; Catfish hunt pigeons on the shores of Rome; and birds perform elaborate mating rituals using colourful man-made trinkets. It’s as entertaining and surprising as any episode before, and also serves as a reminder that the boundary between the natural world and the built world is permeable. One hopes that the world is still in a place where Attenborough’s warnings about our responsibility to the rest of the planet don’t fall entirely on deaf ears.

No. 13: Pretentiousness: Why It Matters

dan-foxIf I had the money for grandiose acts of largesse, I would buy a whole case of Dan Fox’s latest and send them out to all of my friends and relatives, my member of parliament, Canada’s minister of heritage, every arts administrator and broadcaster I’m acquainted with, and as many heads of state as I think would actually read it. This monograph is a stunning defense of thinking and behaving in ways that contravene convention — a deeply necessary defence to make in our time. Fox isn’t attempting a whole-hog refutation of populism. Rather, he has composed an eloquent love letter to broad-mindedness. Fox notes the obvious point that the word “pretentious” is generally used in a derogatory fashion: to put somebody back in their place when they’re perceived to have overstepped a social boundary. But he argues persuasively that the act of overstepping social boundaries — which necessitates a certain amount of pretense or pretending (to the throne, even) — is inherently praiseworthy. And he has some choice words for those who prefer the epithet “elitist,” too. He cites a Guardian columnist who literally professed hatred — hatred — for a pair of flashily-dressed young people he saw randomly at a contemporary art exhibit. He tears that columnist apart for what he rightly calls “cheap, them-versus-us populism.” He continues: “It speaks to an ugly intolerance for difference, to an expectation that people must share the same aesthetic tastes and appearances and that if they don’t they must be complicit members of an elitist racket hell-bent on excluding ‘ordinary’ people from its world. Those ‘ordinary’ people, it is assumed, could not possibly be interested in complex ideas and conversant in different forms of visual literacy.” Boom. That quote alone is reason enough for everybody involved in art in any capacity to read this book. There’s a quote near the end that I now consider words to live by: “To fear being accused of pretension is to police oneself out of curiosity about the world.” Open-mindedness is an ideal among ideals. If more people were devoted to the cultivation of a broad base of knowledge, as opposed to fearing or resenting those qualities in others, societies would be stronger, less divided, and make better decisions as an electorate. Pretentiousness is not the enemy. Quite the opposite. This is a short and powerful book that everybody who cares about the legacy of human thought should read immediately, lest that legacy come to an end in the miasma of anti-intellectualism that the Trump administration is already promising to perpetuate.

No. 12: BoJack Horseman

There’s a promo graphic for this year’s season of BoJack Horseman that says “Soprano, Draper, Underwood, Horseman.” It would be easy to construe the point of that graphic as being something to the effect of: “Don’t let the fact that it’s a funny cartoon fool you! BoJack Horseman is a Serious Anti-Hero Television Programme!” If that actually is what the graphic is trying to say, it is a facile misreading of the show that it’s promoting. The third, and so far, best season of the show finds BoJack (a role in which Will Arnett just gets better and better) realizing that success doesn’t fill the emptiness. On its surface, that’s the premise of a standard “difficult man” show of the sort that has defined the last decade or so of prestige television. But BoJack Horseman differs from those sorts of shows in the sense that it focuses relentlessly on the malignant impact that its difficult protagonist has on the characters around him — particularly the women. The twin emotional spines of this season are BoJack’s relationship with his longsuffering, hypercompetent agent Princess Carolyn (Amy Sedaris keeps getting better, too) and with his former co-star and surrogate daughter Sarah Lynn (likewise for Kristen Schaal). In Princess Carolyn’s case, we see how she has helped BoJack out of countless situations where he’s made terrible errors, but she is not permitted a single mistake. With Sarah Lynn, we see how BoJack’s self-destructive tendencies are not only self-destructive, but also harmful to the most vulnerable people around him. In this sense, BoJack Horseman is the most realistic anti-hero show that’s been made so far. Because in real life, these sorts of people aren’t redeemed by their wit or charisma: they’re just bad. They’re bad for the world. BoJack is a great character because he realizes this and wants to change. But the fact that he doesn’t change means that he continues to cause pain and misfortune to those around him, and the show has no compunction about emphasizing this. In general, I’m not sure there’s another comedy out there that quite so willing to assume that the viewer is passingly conversant in feminist discourse. It’s gratifying to see that in a show that’s also full of silly animal jokes and has a whole episode of sight gags with almost no dialogue.

No. 11: Theory of Everything

Benjamen Walker is more committed than any other public radio refugee in podcasting to making a show that could never work on public radio. Theory of Everything deals with big, difficult, abstract subjects like the mathematics of coincidence. It dives head-on into anxieties about the future of information and labour. It fearlessly dances over the line between fiction and nonfiction. And it does not hold your hand. It trusts you to be smart enough to parse it. This year saw the beginning of a lengthy project exploring surveillance, which has taken Walker in all sorts of directions, and which plays into his anxieties beautifully. (He’s at his best when he’s getting anxious about something.) It also addressed the moment when the CIA weaponized abstract expressionism during the Cold War, and the gentrification of Paris. But the defining moment of Theory of Everything this year came from the episode “Useful Idiots,” in which a guest connects Vladimir Putin to Jeremy Bentham by way of Vladislav Surkov and Grigory Potemkin. That is the kind of thing that regular listeners know to expect from Benjamen Walker. And as the Trump era gets underway, I’m certain that his series on surveillance will only become more relevant and essential.

No. 10: Phonogram vol. 3: The Immaterial Girl

phonogramKieron Gillen and Jamie McKelvie had a big year, amping up the action in their blockbuster comic The Wicked and the Divine, but it’s this beautiful conclusion to their longstanding passion project Phonogram that best demonstrates what I love about them. For one thing, it accidentally prefigured the year of celebrity deaths that we’ve had, which is just one example of the crazy synchronicity that surrounds Gillen and McKelvie’s work. The premise of Phonogram is that music is magic: it isn’t only the most useful index of human culture that we possess, but it also exerts force on the world and has the capacity to change it by changing people’s minds. “The Immaterial Girl” finds the characters that we’ve known since way back in the first issue of Phonogram struggling with the consequences of having too thoroughly mediated their interface with the world through music. This arc’s protagonist, Emily, has literally cut her personality in half by surrendering to the seductive pull of a musical icon. It’s a curiously relatable story. But the most affecting moment in this, or any Gillen/McKelvie comic so far, comes courtesy of David Kohl, a protagonist from a bygone story arc. When confronted head-on with the concerns of somebody else’s real life, he has a small epiphany: “I realized that the most important things in the story — the things which really matter — aren’t in this story.” For maybe the first time ever, Kohl finds himself face-to-face with somebody else’s reality: a reality that isn’t mediated entirely by pop records. Music is magic: we know it is because it has the capacity to frame the world and affect the way that we act upon it. But Kohl’s realization provides a profound addendum to that: the world still exists outside of that frame. To a certain extent, “The Immaterial Girl” is about breaking the spells that bind you to a certain way of thinking. For those of us who are single-mindedly pop culture-obsessed enough to be into Phonogram, it’s a hard pill to swallow. But that’s why I love it.

No. 9: HyperNormalisation

Adam Curtis’s latest completely uncompromising, non-hand holding, fearlessly complex, nuanced and lucid documentary came out exclusively on the BBC iPlayer. It’s refreshing to see a public broadcaster look at the internet and say “I suppose this is where we put the stuff that’s too ambitious for broadcast television” instead of “I guess this is where the memes go.” Curtis’s stated aim seems ludicrously grandiose at first: he’s going to demonstrate that we’ve come to live in a world that’s fake. But once you realize what he means by that, you come to realize that his thesis isn’t only demonstrable in theory, it’s almost inarguably true. HyperNormalization begins with stories in New York and Damascus, and continues symmetrically mapping the gradual dissolution of politics into a false narrative-making machine through America and the Middle East. There are quick asides to the U.K. and Russia, but this is mostly a story about the U.S., Syria, and most compellingly, Libya. The figure who is the lynchpin of Curtis’s entire sprawling argument is Muammar Gaddafi: a cartoonish lunatic who wasn’t responsible for much that the U.S. (knowingly wrongly) accused him of, but who was deranged enough to take responsibility anyway. Curtis traces Gaddafi’s transformation from America’s handmade bogeyman that let them conveniently remain allied with Syria through the Gulf War, into a political intellectual and friend of the West after 9/11, and subsequently into an enemy again when the U.S. allied itself with the Libyan rebels. This strand of Curtis’s narrative alone makes it clear that reality hasn’t been tremendously important in American politics for a long time. Throw the internet into the mix and things get really spooky. Curtis demonstrates how some of the most notable revolutionary movements of recent times, the Arab Spring and the Occupy movement, fomented on social media — a reductive, simplified simulacrum of reality. Social media is really good at letting people organize and do things, but it’s really bad at fostering the kinds of discourses that produce viable ideas for how to run a country. So, after Occupy and after Tahrir Square, nothing really changed. Because you can’t build a real revolution in a fake version of the world. The documentary was released before the election of Trump, let alone the mainstreaming of the term “alternative facts.” But HyperNormalisation makes our inconceivably confusing and appalling contemporary world look like the inevitable consequence of a gradual, global, decades-long withdrawal from reality.

No. 8: Lemonade

I default to resenting juggernauts. It’s not a matter of principle, and in fact I’d rather approach music, movies, etc. with a more open mind than I do. But there are cases where this natural bias that I have against the ludicrously successful cannot find the slightest toehold. Lemonade, the most talked-about and obsessed over artwork of the year, is also virtually perfect: in both of its forms. The HBO special was the source of the initial buzz more so than the record, but they are equal accomplishments, each complete artworks in themselves. The record is the version that ultimately insinuated its way into my life, soundtracking my year in a way that might have been surprising, given how personal and specific an album Lemonade is. But it is also a demonstration of how the personal is political, as the motto goes. And, it’s a demonstration of how to make an intensely personal work of art within the context of expensive, shiny, commercial, heavily-resourced music. This must be what it felt like when Sgt. Pepper came out. Like that record, Lemonade was made by a massively popular artist. Like Sgt. Pepper, this record is following on the heels of a previous one that had massively intensified its creator’s critical acclaim. And like Sgt. Pepper, Lemonade surpassed virtually all of its near contemporaries in terms of ambition, depth of human understanding, and sheer studio perfection. Lemonade contains the best R&B, rock, hip-hop and country music of the year. A sonically flawless, intensely poetic celebration of black womanhood from Beyoncé was something that needed to happen, and it needed to happen specifically when it did. Thank the goddamn lord.

No. 7: You Must Remember This

Karina Longworth’s podcast about Hollywood’s first century is the best cultural history lesson you can experience on a weekly basis. The world’s podcast obsessives really started to take notice of You Must Remember This during last year’s “Charles Manson’s Hollywood” series. But 2016 found Longworth doing her most ambitious — and timeliest — project so far: a 16-part (21-part, if you count the completely essential re-runs of prior episodes sprinkled throughout for context) series about the Hollywood blacklist. These stories of how some of an era’s most creative people were forced out of their industry and into hard times because of their politics (and just as often, their race) would be fascinating in itself. But during a period where the pendulum has swung decisively back towards the fearmongering and hatred of the other that defined the HUAC era, it takes on the tenor of a warning. A meticulously-researched, hyper-detailed warning. (Remember the scary moment when it looked like Newt Gingrich might get a cabinet post and he said he wanted to reinstate HUAC? The fact that it didn’t happen with Gingrich doesn’t mean it couldn’t ever happen.) And yes, this is a podcast about celebrities and movie moguls. That might make it seem a bit distant from the concerns of the majority of the American electorate. But in focussing on cultural icons, Longworth doesn’t only impart glamour to her history lessons (though she does do that). She also emphasizes how government has always courted celebrity — at the very least, as a source of scandal. These are stories of resistance, cowardice, fear and persecution. They are stories of how governments can influence the culture industry and vice versa. And they will also probably introduce you to some colourful characters from American movie history that you might not know about. (The episode about Dorothy Parker is my personal favourite.) Longworth has even begun incorporating more archival tape into her show, so that it feels less like an audiobook with musical accompaniment. But her writing is still the be-all-and-end-all of the show, demonstrating that research and synthesis are potentially the equals of reporting and interviewing as working methods for making good nonfiction podcasts.

No. 6: Manchester by the Sea

This movie made me have every feeling I’m capable of. I’m not sure that I’ve ever been so pulled in by a movie with so little artifice. This is very much one of those movies that feels like dropping in on a period in somebody’s actual life. There’s nothing stylized about it. I usually like movies that announce their movie-ness as loudly as they can. (Recall that Swiss Army Man is on this list.) So why did Manchester make me respond like this? I think it might be because of the complete absence of emotional manipulation. Short of a bit of maudlin Albinoni music during the climactic scene, this movie declines to be openly expressive, opting instead to just be sad. In that, it is taking a cue from its protagonist. Manchester is basically a character study of Casey Affleck’s Lee. Still, I wonder why a movie so focussed on its main character should be titled after its setting instead? You might think that a film called Manchester by the Sea would focus more on the community around him. But aside from Lee’s nephew and a short but shattering performance from Michelle Williams as his wife, it really doesn’t. Here are my thoughts: I believe that Manchester by the Sea receives its title because this is first and foremost the story of what happens to a man when he’s forced to revisit a place that’s haunted by a past trauma. Manchester-by-the-Sea is the place where an unthinkable thing happened to Lee. The name of the town is as much a metonym for Lee’s personal tragedy as Wall Street is for high finance. So, Manchester by the Sea isn’t titled for its setting, so much as for its central horror: less Philidelphia than Poltergeist. There’s an alternate universe where Manchester is a horror movie: a haunted house story about what happens when you force a person to live in a place that’s full of ghosts. This is a profound film: a paradigm-shifting dissertation on what hides behind the facades of difficult, impenetrable people.

No. 5: Until the Horror Goes

This is the item on this list that I debated and deliberated about the most. I swung from one extreme to the other on this album throughout the course of 2016. When I first heard the singles, and then the full album, I thought it was without a doubt the best music I’d heard in years. Congleton writes huge cathartic anthems in the vein of Arcade Fire, or even U2. Then he twists them into warped shapes, with abrasive dissonances making a near-mockery of the basic material’s natural beauty. And he pairs the music with some of the bleakest lyrics you’re likely to hear outside of metal. The profoundest appeal of Until the Horror Goes is the fact that the latent beauty of Congleton’s anthems still shines through the muck, which to me makes them more poignant than anything on Funeral or The Joshua Tree. That is, when it hits me. Because this album — the one I’m currently proclaiming is my favourite of the year — doesn’t always work for me. It can get particularly dodgy when I pay close attention to the lyrics. In the right mood, Congleton’s nihilism is actually kind of satisfying. But the same part of me that doesn’t understand True Detective season one occasionally recoils at this. At the worst of times, John Congleton comes off like a 14-year-old goth: “If a tree falls in the woods… it doesn’t matter.” These are things you begin to get concerned about when an album captures your attention as completely as this captured mine. I feel more than ever that nihilism (as opposed to existentialism, which isn’t what this is) is an irresponsible philosophy and that the connections that we see and make in the world are actually meaningful. But I’ll confess to finding Congleton’s assurances that everything is meaningless and we might as well make the best of it more comforting these days than I did before November. If there’s a sentiment in music that’s defined 2016 for me, it’s surely “stay with me, stay with me, stay with me, stay with me… until the horror goes.”

No. 4: On the Media

onthemedia-1If there’s one podcast episode from 2016 that I’m likely to remember for the rest of my life, it’s the short segment that On the Media put out in its feed the morning after the election. It starts off as the sound of the two most incisive media critics working in America realizing “oh my god, even we were wrong.” And it spirals from there. At the risk of infantilizing myself, the most contentious moments of this episode felt exactly like being a kid and overhearing my parents fighting. Two people I had come to trust almost implicitly were disagreeing about things I trusted them to inform me about. This, for me, was the moment when it really sunk in how destabilizing this election result actually was. Brooke Gladstone — by my usual estimation, “the smart one” — was most disturbed by the fact that the elements in the media and the political system that they’d been reluctant to engage with had effectively chosen the president. She argued that this might be the time to start broadening the types of people they’re willing to give a platform to, though certainly not to let them get away with saying what they want. Her co-host Bob Garfield, who had spent the year proving his usefulness with a series of beautifully written and argued segments on why the media should cover Trump as an existential threat to democracy rather that as a normal politician. He was more audibly shaken by the election, and wanted to talk about whether or not it’s time to start using Hitler comparisons. It’s almost physically painful to listen to. However, the worst that can be said about On the Media this year is that they missed what everybody missed. In a media criticism show, that may seem like a substantial problem. But the fact remains that every assertion that Gladstone and Garfield made about Trump’s false narratives, media hustling and ongoing normalisation was correct. They’re still correct. And it’s not like it was all Trump all the time: the season’s highlight was Gladstone’s series on America’s poverty myths, and how they affect policy. It’s possible that this show is in the midst of an existential flail at the moment. But I’m confident that it will only become more important as we move into an era with a media-hostile president.

No. 3: Horace and Pete

This was the year when Louis C.K. got to the point where he could do whatever he wanted. Before we even get into the actual content of Horace and Pete, my favourite scripted show of the year, let’s note that it’s a self-financed, independently distributed web series, written and filmed largely on a week-by-week basis — and it has Steve Buscemi, Alan Alda, Edie Falco and Jessica Lange in it, alongside some of the best comedians around… and a theme song by Paul Simon. Oh, to be a person who can make this happen. It’s possible that Louis C.K.’s imperial phase has only just started. But that leads us to what exactly Horace and Pete is, which is to say, political drama. It’s a critique of American values, with characters being split into camps that wish to either maintain traditional power structures or acknowledge that the world is changing. This manifests through the story of a generations-old bar that’s been run by the same family since its inception — always managed by two men named Horace and Pete. Obviously, given the presence of women in the family who are not entitled to the same role in the business as the generations of Horaces and Petes, this raises some questions that need addressing. And thus begins the drama. For the most part, Horace and Pete isn’t openly polemical. The first episode introduces a useful division of labour: supporting characters are allowed to sit at the bar and talk politics explicitly, but the main contest of old values vs. new values takes place symbolically in the A plot, with no explicit references to, for instance, the primaries, which were ongoing at the time. Nothing in this show is a straightforward allegory, thank god. But it captures American anxieties in the year before the election of Donald Trump better than any other work of fiction this year. It is also a simple testament to the power of good writing and good acting presented straightforwardly. The show’s standout episode is its third, which begins with a ten-minute monologue in a single close-up shot of a character who we’ve never seen before. She just tells a story. We don’t even know who she’s telling the story to, or why, because the first reaction shot is ten minutes into the episode. It is electrifying, and the kind of gutsy move that I want more of in television. I haven’t gone back and watched any of this since the election, but I’m curious how the ending would read now in light of Trump’s win. Without spoiling too much, C.K. opted to end his show twice. A happy ending is immediately undercut by staggering bleakness, with an undercurrent of muted hope for change. I’m curious now: clearly the ending we got was a horrifying one, but was the alternative really that happy? Horace and Pete is an audacious and flawed show, with some unnecessary fat in the middle episodes, but I can’t help feeling that its imperfections only enrich it. We’ve always known that Louis C.K. is one of the great contemporary comics, but this reveals him to be the reincarnation of Eugene O’Neill as well.

No. 2: Arrival

It’s possible that recency bias is a factor in this high placement, since I saw Arrival this past week. But I came out of it genuinely feeling that it’s the best movie of the year. One gradual process I’ve been through this year is that I’ve come to see how spoilers are an actual thing that’s worth avoiding. And it’s really hard to talk about Arrival without dealing with the twist. This is one of those movies that becomes an entirely different film from start to finish once you know the whole of the story. I suspect that’s probably why everything I’ve seen written about it seems more effusively positive than it can actually back up with analysis. To talk about what makes this movie extraordinary as opposed to great is to spoil it. This movie’s ending is a narrative rug pull of Steven Moffat proportions. Still, for the bulk of Arrival’s running time, we don’t know the big secret, and it’s still an excellent movie. Amy Adams gives one of the best performances of the year (again, a performance that is elevated by knowledge of the ending) as the person that the military brings in to help them communicate. Specifically, with aliens. Couching a first contact story in terms of understanding language is a winning premise, especially when the story introduces the idea (a real idea in linguistics) that language actually fundamentally affects the way that a person thinks. That makes it critical to any understanding of another culture, yet alone another species. As far as I can tell all of this comes straight from the Ted Chiang story that Arrival’s excellent screenplay is based on. But if the movie were only a brute force expression of some clever ideas, it wouldn’t be my favourite of the year. Director Denis Villeneuve imparts an element of profound lyricism to the story by allowing us to see small moments, and letting our eyes linger on images that one assumes the citizens of this movie’s world are being fed through a much more frenetic TV news approach. Villeneuve is a director that I’ve been aware of since he made Incendies in 2010, but this is the first of his movies that I’ve seen. It’s clear that he’s a major talent, and one hopes that he’ll continue making movies like this, even after he’s made his franchise juggernaut debut later this year with the new Blade Runner.

No. 1: O.J.: Made in America

This is the best documentary I’ve ever seen. I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything that’s quite this good at telling the big story and the little story at the same time. This is not just the story of the O.J. Simpson trial. And thank god for that: I would have little to no interest in watching eight hours on a trial so well-known that I’ve become intimately familiar with its finer details simply through osmosis. (I was four when it actually happened.) But director Ezra Edelman takes advantage of the story’s basic familiarity to use it as an illustration of a much larger story. The story starts with a pre-infamy O.J. Simpson making the conscious attempt to distance himself from his race. (“I’m not black; I’m O.J.”) Edelman allows long stretches of the series to unfold with very little mention of Simpson at all, in order to establish the context of race relations in late 20th-century Los Angeles. The story continues through Simpson’s abusive relationship with his wife, Nicole Brown, who is finally afforded the space in this narrative that she always should have had. Only then, a few episodes in, does Edelman get to the trial of the century. This would be a key storytelling challenge in a lesser documentary, because how does one tell this story, again? But, having laid the groundwork, Edelman deconstructs the Simpson trial by mapping the convergence of two narratives: the increasing awareness and preponderance of police violence against black people, and O.J. Simpson’s attempt at a “post-racial” public persona. Edelman deftly demonstrates how Simpson’s defence team commandeered one of the most important cultural discourses of the late 20th (and early 21st) century in defence of a man who had openly worked against that discourse in his prior career. These are the broad strokes, but there are more individual moments in this that will chill your spine than I could possibly enumerate. O.J.: Made in America is nonfiction storytelling of the very highest order. It is the ultimate synthesis of complex ideas by way of narrative. It is modern America, photographed from a helicopter.

***

Well, that was an exertion, wasn’t it? In case you’re interested, here are the lists that I drew from, broken down by genre with several runners-up in each category. You’ll note the preponderance of auditory entertainments, because those are the things I can consume while running or doing the dishes. There were simply more of them in my life last year, and this reflects that. Entries that made the top 30 are in bold.

Television

  1. O.J.: Made in America
  2. Horace and Pete
  3. BoJack Horseman
  4. Planet Earth II
  5. Better Call Saul
  6. Stranger Things
  7. Fleabag
  8. Orange is the New Black

Movies

  1. Arrival
  2. Manchester By The Sea
  3. HyperNormalisation
  4. Swiss Army Man
  5. Captain America: Civil War
  6. The Nice Guys
  7. High Rise
  8. I Am The Pretty Thing That Lives In The House
  9. Moonlight
  10. Doctor Strange

Music

  1. John Congleton and the Nighty Nite: Until the Horror Goes
  2. Beyoncé: Lemonade
  3. Hans Abrahamsen/Barbara Hannigan et al.: let me tell you
  4. David Bowie: Blackstar
  5. Let’s Eat Grandma: I, Gemini
  6. Kyle Craft: Dolls of Highland
  7. Tim Hecker: Love Streams
  8. A Tribe Called Red: We Are The Halluci Nation
  9. Justice: Woman
  10. Chance the Rapper: Colouring Book
  11. Bon Iver: 22, A Million
  12. Patricia Kopatchinskaja, Teodor Currentzis, MusicAeterna, et al.: Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto & Stravinsky Les Noces
  13. Esperanza Spalding: Emily’s D+Evolution
  14. Car Seat Headrest: Teens of Denial
  15. Margo Price: Midwest Farmer’s Daughter
  16. Solange: A Seat at the Table
  17. Leonard Cohen: You Want it Darker
  18. Daniel Lanois: Goodbye to Language
  19. Danny Brown: Atrocity Exhibition
  20. Patricia Kopatchinskaja: Death and the Maiden

Books

  1. Kieron Gillen & Jamie McKelvie: Phonogram vol. 3: The Immaterial Girl
  2. Dan Fox: Pretentiousness: Why It Matters
  3. Alan Moore: Jerusalem: The Burroughs
  4. Olivia Laing: The Lonely City
  5. Kieron Gillen & Jamie McKelvie: The Wicked and the Divine vol. 4: Rising Action
  6. Jeremy McCarter & Lin Manuel Miranda: Hamilton: The Revolution

Games

  1. Firewatch
  2. Kentucky Route Zero: Act 4
  3. Sorcery!: Part 4
  4. Sunless Sea: Zubmariner
  5. Oxenfree

Podcasts

  1. On the Media
  2. You Must Remember This
  3. Theory of Everything
  4. The Heart
  5. More Perfect
  6. Love and Radio
  7. Imaginary Worlds
  8. Reply All
  9. Code Switch
  10. Pop Culture Happy Hour
  11. Crimetown
  12. The Gist
  13. The Sporkful
  14. In the Dark

Miscellaneous things it seemed weird to include

  1. Robert Lepage: 887
  2. Gideon Lewis-Kraus: “The Great AI Awakening”
  3. Don’t Hug Me I’m Scared: Part 6

And with that, we’re done. Have a great last eleven months of 2017.

Omnireviewer (week of Oct. 16)

Dear me. Verbose, this week. Well, I’ve had some spare time, which will be mercifully less spare fairly soon. 32 reviews.

Games

Kentucky Route Zero: Act 3 — My favourite of the first three acts by miles. The sequence with the Xanadu computer is one of my all-time favourite scenes in a video game. The fact that Donald built this thing as a bitter memorial to his relationship with Lula and friendship with Joseph is even sadder when you know that the first adventure game ever was inspired by heartbreak as well. Xanadu is clearly based on Adventure, which was made by William Crowther (another Kentucky-based computer scientist and cave explorer) as an attempt to reconnect with his young daughter after he and his wife divorced. On this playthrough, I came across a section of the Xanadu scene that I hadn’t before, where Lula explains why cave paintings are so sad: somebody wanted to memorialize something — a person or relationship, maybe — and we can barely make out any detail. How like the ruined Xanadu computer, and the primitive parser interface of Adventure. There are other highlights, here. I’d love to see the full text of Donald’s Kentucky-set version of “Kubla Khan.” And, as the party of player characters grows, so does the range of responses to any given situation. Conway is reflective, Shannon practical, Ezra whimsical, and Junebug totally off-topic. Their responses represent different types of gaming. I’m the sort of player who likes to linger and mull things over, so I tend towards Conway’s dialogue options. But it’s nice to have Shannon around to progress the plot, and the other two to throw occasional monkey wrenches into conversations. Also, the moment in the final scene where the game momentarily takes over the mouse to express the inevitability of Conway’s return to drinking is absolutely chilling. I am actually a bit scared to see how that develops in the next episode. I’ve come to love all of these characters, but if things work out badly for Conway, it’s going to be crushing.

Kentucky Route Zero: “Here and There Along The Echo” — I take back what I said about “The Entertainment” being my favourite of the KRZ mini-episodes. It’s a dead heat between that and this one. The notion of formatting a game as a telephone hotline menu is not only novel: it opens up a world of possibilities for interactive audio. (The only other example I’ve seen is Papa Sangre, which is essentially hide and seek in the dark, and I really don’t have much time for it.) Like so many other moments in this second playthrough of the pre-2016 portions of Kentucky Route Zero, I had intended for this to be a quick perusal, and then straight on to Act 4, which is new to me and super exciting. But, I ended up spending two hours going through the options, and listening to this fascinating character talk. It was worthwhile for the devs to briefly abandon the text-based aesthetic of this world to introduce spoken audio, if only because it allows a voice actor to give a convincing performance of what people might sound like in this universe. As a side note, anybody else who enjoyed his list of the different types of water as much as I did would do well to check out James Joyce’s list of water’s admirable attributes from Ulysses.

Kentucky Route Zero: Act 4 — Well, it didn’t let me down. This is a quieter, slower, more deliberate Kentucky Route Zero than we’ve seen before. And it is the first one to be more concerned with the characters and their respective arcs than it is with exploring themes. Rather than presenting simulations within simulations, or posing high-minded questions about whether we’re inside or out, this act presents us with Shannon’s abiding anger over her parents’ death in the mine, Johnny’s yearning for a third person to ride with him and Junebug (he wants a child, essentially) and most devastatingly, the effects of Conway’s return to drinking. The subtlety with which Conway becomes a different character in this act is both masterful and sad. And the moment when he appears to literally become a different character is the most destabilizing thing in the game so far: the loss of that character and of his particular way of moving through the world seems likely to be more of a paradigm shift than the introduction of the Zero. In general, Act 4 encourages us to take a time-out from our obsessiveness about what everything means and how it connects, and just spend some time empathizing with these characters. But I’m still left with lots of thoughts about the various thematic moving parts and conspiracies at play, here. We know that the power company is evil. We know that they’re engaged in debt buying, because they acquired the pharmaceutical company that Conway owes. We also know that the distillery is evil. (How lovely to see a thriving business like the Rum Colony not pouring Hard Times, hey?) We know that the distillery is also involved in debt buying, since they bought the outstanding bar tabs from Harry at the Lower Depths pub. So, how are they connected? Are they connected? We know, at least, that Conway’s medical bills (owed, indirectly, to the power company) will be paid off by the distillery in exchange for work (though his labour was already an exchange for having drunk the top-shelf whiskey at the end of Act 3… I smell duplicity). And there’s definitely some significance to the fact that Conway’s descent into more and more abject debt is represented by his gradually turning into a creepy electricity skeleton. So, what are we going to find out about the connection between those two companies in the grand finale? It’s possible that the answer is nothing. I would be surprised if Conway doesn’t appear in some capacity in Act 5, but we probably won’t learn any specifics. Kentucky Route Zero has never been the type of game to do anything so vulgar as explain itself. It is working on the same level as the conceptual artworks it is so fond of displaying within itself. I’ve read some muted complaints about this act that criticize it for being less exploratory and interactive than its predecessors. And it’s true that you’re not allowed the agency to explore the Echo River at your leisure in the same way that you were with the Zero or overground Kentucky. But video game people sometimes need to be reminded of the fact that all art is interactive. The most important act of the movie is the one that happens in the car on the way home, when you talk about what it all meant. Paintings don’t live in galleries; they live in your brain. So, even if Act 4 of Kentucky Route Zero puts you on tracks in a way that previous acts didn’t, there still ought to be plenty for you to do as a player. End of review. But here are a few stray observations, A.V. Club-style. (And still, I refuse to employ a paragraph break. The nerve.) One. The airplane is back! When I first played Act 1, the thing that really stuck with me is a scene where you can’t do anything except for watch two men push a broken airplane down a road. I didn’t know what to make of it, and I still don’t quite, but that image of struggle left a big impact. And there’s a moment in this act, in the gas station scene, where the two men drift past on a barge with their airplane. You could almost miss it, and it’s never mentioned in the dialogue, nor is it witnessed by Conway, who was the only character to have seen it in the first place. It’s the little things. Two. This act really feels like it comes from 2016. The increasing preoccupation with oil in this reflects the same development in the real world during the two years since the last act of Kentucky Route Zero came out. Also, online dating is a thing in the KRZ world now, just as it’s been mainstreamed. Three. One of the small pleasures of this act is actually visiting the locales that were referred to in “Here and There Along the Echo.” I’m glad I spent as much time with that as I did, now, because I had a bit of advance knowledge of Sam and Ida’s, the Rum Colony, the Iron Pariah (what the hell is up with that!?) and the memorial to something that we can’t remember what it is, among other things. In spite of what I said above, if I could request a single expansion to this game, it would be a more open-world model of the Echo so I could actually be the drifter/pilgrim that the Bureau of Secret Tourism was courting. But then, I suppose that would more or less be Sunless Sea. Four. The flashiest, most formalist moment in this act is the one where the narrators are watching security footage of the events after the fact, but you’re controlling the characters on that security footage in real time. It’s pure Andrew Plotkin. It constitutes the most satisfying cognitive dissonance I’ve felt since I cheated my way through Spider and Web. Five. Again, it’s the little things: Sam and Ida remember their origin story a bit differently. She remembers that he was drinking malt liquor and doing a sudoku. He remembers coffee and a crossword. Six. I can only imagine that Shannon’s reunion with Weaver is going to be a bit awkward once she realizes that Weaver used her genius to (I think) invent a new kind of debt, as it was put in “The Entertainment.” Maybe she’s the missing link between the distillery and the power company. Who knows how long we’ll have to wait to find out? I’ve got to say, though, I honestly don’t mind because if it’s a long wait, it’ll give me an excuse to play through the whole game a third time. As it stands, I think I’ll do a second playthrough of Act 4 fairly soon, because it’s definitely more than two playthroughs worth of game. I shall report back. Pick of the week.

Literature

Magnus Hildebrandt: Kentucky Fried Zero — This is an indispensable primer on the sources for Kentucky Route Zero, ranging from dustbowl photography to Buckminster Fuller and on to the more expected reference points like computer science and Samuel Beckett. The three parts of this are quite short, and you get the sense that Hildebrandt could easily track down and elucidate many more references and influences. (He even says as much in the second-last paragraph of part three.) I hope that he will go back and expand these once the final act of the game is out and we know what we’re working with.  

William Blake: Jerusalem the Emanation of the Giant Albion — Look, I didn’t enjoy this. I just didn’t. I have very limited patience for this kind of inscrutable literature. I mean this kind as distinct from, say, Ulysses. At least Joyce’s obscurity seems to be motivated at least partially by a sense of fun: he’s laying out a trail of breadcrumbs, and trusts that you’ll arrive at some kind of understanding eventually. Blake doesn’t seem to know he’s being obscurantist. It appears to me, a deeply undereducated reader in these sorts of texts, that Blake isn’t trying to be obscure; he’s failing to be direct. And so, the proliferation of characters without fixed identities and the religious commentaries so idiosyncratic that I can barely relate them to what I know of a given religion are not endearing at all — they are massively frustrating. Blake’s canon, unexplained as it is, is like jargon. It’s like hearing Scientologists talk about thetans and SPs. I did enjoy doing a bit of reading about Blake, and what he’s apparently on about in this. But my actual time spent reading the poem, with its brilliant illuminated plates, was not fun. I suppose I have to accept that now that I’m a couple years out of grad school, I am effectively “the everyday reader” and so these kinds of texts that are not meant to be understood without rigorous study are simply no longer the kinds of things I’ll take pleasure in. And I’m totally okay with that. Anyway, now I feel prepared to tackle Alan Moore’s Jerusalem. I’ll get to it soon.

Karen Page: The Vegetarian Flavor Bible — I am not a vegetarian, nor am I likely to become one in the near future. But, as part of my ongoing mission to be more creative in the kitchen while eating a bit less meat, I have gone ahead and purchased this tome. It is basically an encyclopedia of flavour combinations, specifically for plant-based diets. I am well aware of the existence of the original Flavor Bible, with its lamb and its bacon, and I will almost surely purchase that as well if this one proves to be useful. But my first priority is getting a handle on creative cooking without meat. I confess that the introduction to this volume is a little bit depressing compared to the one in its meaty predecessor (I read the Kindle free sample) because it focusses almost entirely on nutrition. Maybe that’s predictable. I’m interested in nutrition, insofar as I want to be healthy. But my god, is it ever a boring topic to read about. Still, that’s hardly the point. I have already prepared some middling-to-good, but at least interesting vegetarian meals using this as my guide. One, with wilted spinach and nutmeg served on a grilled portabello mushroom with crumbled ricotta was actually pretty excellent. I shall keep you apprised.

J.K. Rowling, John Tiffany & Jack Thorne: Harry Potter and the Cursed Child — I was never not going to read it, and I liked it a lot more than the fan consensus. It’s flawed, but it’s a decent afternoon’s-worth of nostalgia. And it is openly nostalgic for the first seven books, in the way that Jason Segal’s Muppet movies are for the original Muppet Show, or that certain modern Doctor Who stories are for the classic series. The story of Harry Potter’s time at Hogwarts is as important and formative a narrative for the characters in this story as it is for the people who grew up reading Harry Potter books, and thus the younger characters are effectively surrogates for us. Or at least, Scorpius Malfoy is. Albus Potter is a touch too resentful. It’s fitting, then, that the key plotline should involve time travel, and specifically time travel back to the days of the beloved Goblet of Fire. Because, The Cursed Child is more of a time capsule than it is a modern Harry Potter story. It’s a way to go back, and see familiar things from a slightly different vantage point. (This happens literally in the play’s final act, which takes place largely [spoiler] in Godric’s Hollow.) Its canonicity, as much as such things matter, will always be slightly compromised by the fact that it’s a play and not a novel, and that it mostly wasn’t written by J.K. Rowling. But that’s not the real issue: the real issue is that reading a script is a very incomplete experience. Without actors to bring the characters to life, their emotional arcs seem a bit rushed. Think of it as the opposite of the languidly-paced Order of the Phoenix. The biggest flaws really do come down to the difficulty of representing a stage play on the page — which isn’t even what this purports to do; it’s a script from which staged productions are meant to be extrapolated. I think most of the extremely negative critiques fail to take this into account. Jack Thorne comports himself fairly well, even if his dialogue never made me laugh. (Rowling doesn’t get enough credit for her wit.) Still, I’m left somewhat unsure of whether my beloved His Dark Materials is in good hands or not when Thorne adapts it for the BBC. Because that’s happening. There are really only two substantial problems with this in terms of story. One involves the play’s breakout character, Scorpius Malfoy, who is by a series of machinations briefly transformed from a school outcast to an immensely popular teenager. We’re meant to believe that, under a certain set of circumstances, there’s a part of Scorpius that could allow this to happen. And yet, he immediately casts off his good fortune for the greater good, with virtually no inner conflict at all. I found that a bit of a let down, and it certainly wouldn’t have played out that way in a novel, where the narrative need not be so collapsed. And the other issue is time travel. You have to completely ignore the time travel mechanics if you want to have a good time reading this. It’s not so much the divergence from the mechanic in The Prisoner of Azkaban that chafes: it’s a scene in which people in the present talk about a person who has gone to the past and tried to change it as if that hasn’t already happened — which, by definition, it has. And even this contradicts the way the time turner was seen to work earlier in the play. But the authors don’t let a thing like that get in the way of a good story. And the positives outweigh the negatives, even if the most satisfying moments are basically fan service. It’s immensely gratifying to see Hermione as the Minister for Magic (ergo, Harry’s boss). Too bad she got saddled with such a schlub of a husband. Ron seems to have shed what little charisma he had with age. But he wears his schlubbiness well. Possibly the deftest touch of all is the way that the acrimony between Harry and Malfoy is maintained into adulthood without Malfoy seeming like an overgrown schoolyard bully. They’re just two adults, living adult lives, who don’t get along. And, as star moments for fan favourites go, the sweepstakes are easily taken by Severus Snape, who gets to make his heroic sacrifice a second time. But there’s an impressive showing from Professor McGonagall as well, who offers a stirring rebuke to basically all of the other characters in the play for treating a peaceful world recklessly in spite of all that’s been sacrificed to bring it to bear. This is well worth reading. If you’re a fan and you’re on the fence, just do it now. You know you will eventually, anyhow.

Television

Last Week Tonight: October 16, 2016 — A strong episode containing very little of what I don’t like about this show. Oliver’s segment on Gary Johnson and Jill Stein will likely be the most widely seen piece on either of them during this election, and it wouldn’t surprise me if it actually affected their polling numbers.

Charlie Brooker’s 2015 Wipe — I’ve decided to go down a Charlie Brooker wormhole. It starts here, with him speaking direct to camera about what he thinks, and it will continue with Nathan Barley and the first two seasons of Black Mirror, in preparation for the new one. I’ve seen Brass Eye, but it was a long time ago, and that’s mostly Chris Morris anyway. This is worthwhile for Philomena Cunk alone, but Brooker himself gets some great lines as well. It’s also actually a good New Years’ program, which is as far as I know, unique on television.

How Videogames Changed the World — I like Charlie Brooker. I kind of want to be him. This special on video games (in my world, it’s two words) is limited, as an under two-hour documentary has to be. And, it focusses on the really gamey kinds of games that kind of don’t do much for me. (The history of the kind of games I like starts with Adventure, not Pong.) But it still has time to bring up stuff like Papers, Please, which remains one of the most powerful interactive experiences I’ve ever had. And this show’s real virtue is that it manages to cover the major moments and conflicts that video games stirred up in real life: moral panics, feminist critiques, the staggeringly gradual mainstreaming of the medium, etc. Brooker’s list of the most important games is self-evidently selected for ease of narrative rather than actual quality or influence, but that’s the only way to make a show like this, and it would have been profoundly boring if it were just a bunch of people talking about why a bunch of games that I probably mostly don’t care about are really good. (And that sight gag with the Braid mechanic is really clever.)

Black Mirror: “The National Anthem” — First, the shit. Naturally, the one female reporter in this episode with lines sends a nude pic to a government staffer for a scoop. This is a trope so depressingly common that it has the air of tragic inevitability whenever a female journalist is introduced into a show. The rest of the episode is astonishing. It doesn’t even matter if you already know the premise and the ending, which you inevitably do given this episode’s renewed relevance after David Cameron’s alleged porcine indiscretions. The remarkable thing is how straight it’s played. It’s wrenching human drama on a national scale. Everybody is cheapened by having watched what they watched. If it weren’t for that one lazy and harmful bit of misogyny, it would be a masterpiece.

Movies

Requiem for the American Dream — Chomsky is somebody who I’ve been aware of for years, but he falls just far enough outside the scope of my education that I never actually read him. This documentary, which is built entirely on original interviews with Chomsky, seems like a good primer for the most germane points of his philosophy. It focusses specifically on the process by which wealth and power are acquired by a smaller and smaller segment of the population: namely, the reduction of democracy. It’s brilliantly argued, and makes modern America make a sad sort of sense.

Music

Isabelle Faust, Claudio Abbado & Orchestra Mozart: Berg & Beethoven Violin Concertos — I realized after recommending this recording in last week’s VSO review that, firstly, I haven’t heard it in a really long time, and secondly, I have in fact never listened to the Beethoven that fills the disc. First the Berg, though. It’s flat-out one of my favourite recordings. I love this piece. I love its expressiveness and the way that it develops its melodic material. I love the way that it throws torrents at you, only to back away gradually and leave you breathless at the end. I love the Bach quotation in the winds in the second movement, and how the violin solo line plays against it. It’s a masterpiece. And of the handful of recordings I’ve heard, this is definitely my favourite. Faust plays with elegance, even when the melodies start to take on the rougher topography of Berg’s Second Viennese School compatriots. And Abbado will probably always be my favourite conductor of Berg, because he realizes that Berg is the true heir to Mahler. His approach to the orchestra in this concerto has the same lushness that he applies to Mahler 9 (a work that he absolutely owns, for me), and it is just as much of a study in contrasts. Everybody should hear this. Now, the Beethoven. The violin concerto is not one of my favourite pieces by Beethoven. The first movement has a nasty habit of going into a minor key right when I want to hear a triumphant reiteration of the theme in major. The third is one of those mid-tempo dance finales that usually doesn’t work for me. I do like the second movement, but compared to some of the slow movements from Beethoven’s middle period symphonies, even that falls a bit short. So, this recording has more labour to do with the Beethoven than with the Berg, because it has to sell a piece I like a lot less. And it doesn’t really. That’s about all there is to say.

Vulfpeck: The Beautiful Game — Difficult second album. On one hand, it’s got “Animal Spirits” (and heartfelt lyrics) which is one of their best and catchiest ever. Very much this album’s “Christmas in L.A.” Also, The Beautiful Game expands the palate to include house-reminiscent beats, which as far as I can remember, is new for Vulfpeck. But it certainly doesn’t have as many jump-out-of-the-headphones moments as Thrill of the Arts did. I might pick “Animal Spirits,” “1 for 1, Dimaggio” and “Dean Town” as highlights here. (And I do love that Klezmer clarinet intro, but it’s basically not a song.) And it’s notable that the former two are both transparent Jackson 5 pastiches (“Animal Spirits” is “I Want You Back” and “1 for 1” is clearly “ABC”) Think back to how many great tracks there were on Thrill, though: “Welcome to Vulf Records,” “Back Pocket,” “Funky Duck,” “Rango II,” “Christmas in L.A”… I will almost certainly warm to this, but there’s no way I will come to love that many of its tracks.

Tangerine Dream: Phaedra — I don’t know what possessed me to listen to this just now. I’d never heard it, and the only other Tangerine Dream I knew was Force Majeure. This is far more abstract than that, and it strikes me as an album that has more historical importance than modern-day interest. It’s like the electronic music equivalent of plainchant. Mostly it just made me wish I were listening to Tim Hecker, which I think I will now do. (And I did. My feelings about Love Streams are the same as when I reviewed it before. It’s some of the best music of the year.)

A Winged Victory for the Sullen: Atomos — That is a very overwrought band name, sure. But this is decent ambient music. I’ve been listening to stuff as I read, this week, and this is great for that. I’m not so sure it would stand on its own. That’s a key distinction in this milieu of modern classical music. John Luther Adams’ Become Ocean, for instance, is profound and beautiful, and in spite of some superficial similarities to Atomos, it can sustain attention. Same goes for Max Richter — and he wrote music for sleeping. Still, this did the trick. I dunno if I’ll listen again.

Brian Eno: Another Green World — This is in my all-time top five, and as with all things that I love passionately, I try not to overexpose myself to it. But I was on a long bus commute recently, and it just seemed like the right thing. Incredibly, I had been listening to this semi-regularly for years before it struck me that it’s more than merely excellent and is in fact perfect. I can’t think rationally about this album anymore. Listening to some of these songs I feel like I could walk into traffic and it would pass right through me. Eno is strangely averse to the idea of love songs, but there are several ravishing ones on here, most notably “St. Elmo’s Fire”: the finest song with lyrics that Eno ever made. Without ever using the word “love,” Eno perfectly conjures that feeling of ecstasy that so many songwriters fail to describe. He does it by allowing the music to do the bulk of the heavy lifting, and especially Robert Fripp’s guitar solo which is the most beautiful guitar solo ever recorded. In spite of being fast and technical, it also feels human and brittle — the way it cracks and stammers at the ends of phrases just kills me. And the other ninja move that this album employs is the most ingenious track sequencing maybe ever. Rather than trying to balance out the energy throughout the record, it allows itself to gradually sink into a reverie at the end. The way that “Zawinul/Lava” builds and falls, and ejects us into “Everything Merges With The Night” (more ravishing guitar from Fripp), and then finally into the comparative uncertainty of “Spirits Drifting” is one of the greatest closing sequences on any record ever. At this point, you’d expect me to make it my pick of the week, but I feel a strange pressure to play against type, this time. Everybody who’s ever read anything I’ve written or been in the same room with me knows how much I love Brian Eno. KRZ takes it.

Podcasts

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “Lupita Nyong’o, Cameron Esposito & Rhea Butcher, and the Best of TV” — Nice that PCHH  can manage so often to cobble together a show even when they have no panelists. These interviews are great, specifically the one with Cameron Esposito and Rhea Butcher, because they are very funny people. But it’s also nice to hear Linda Holmes’ much-discussed friend Alan Sepinwall make his PCHH debut. TV: The Book sounds like something that would frustrate me immensely in its format: ranking the top 100 shows? Really? But I expect that these two authors would have something interesting to say, at least. Given that they’re basically already advertizing the second edition, I may sit this one out and wait for it to be updated. (But I’ll probably flip through it in the bookstore next time I’m browsing.)

Fresh Air: “How Free Web Content Traps Us In An Abyss Of Ads & Clickbait” — Nothing like a good bit of #content-related #content. Tim Wu’s new book, The Attention Merchants, sounds incredible and depressing. He talks about how advertising on major web platforms has cheapened web publishing and made the internet worse. I think I’m going to have to read this.

Love and Radio: “The Enemy Within” — Part of the appeal of Love and Radio is just purely listening to someone tell you a story with no interruptions. So, when Glenn Loury tells his story of womanizing and drug abuse while teaching economics at Harvard, you want to listen. But, being Love and Radio, it’s also more complicated than that and addresses not only the discrepancy between his own conduct and his socially conservative politics, but it also problematizes the very notion that a person’s actions can invalidate their arguments.

In The Dark: “What’s Going On Down There?” — This has become a truly excellent podcast in the late phase of its run. And I’m only partially saying that because this features an actual police investigation where a man was told by (clearly awful) police officers that his missing son may have been eaten by turtles. I laughed out loud at that and subsequently felt a little bad. Anyway, last week’s survey of wide-ranging police incompetence in the town where Jacob Wetterling was abducted started the train towards this episode’s staggering finish, which posits that the way America handles policing is deeply and inherently flawed. Local police departments are not held to any kind of standard by the federal government, which just seems wrong. If I were the Stearns County sheriff, I’d be huddling in a corner right about now. This would have been a powerful finale, but I’m looking forward to the one episode that they’ve decided to add to this.

NPR Politics Podcast: “Previewing The Final Debate” — I’M NOT WATCHING THIS DEBATE! LA LA LA LA LA! Because they’re not going to talk about policy, they’re just going to talk about Clinton’s leaked emails (actually worth talking about, if only it wasn’t an orangutan doing the talking) and Trump’s temperamental unfitness to be president (EMINENTLY CLEAR). The fact that the panelists on this show are willing to entertain the fact that policy may enter into this is frankly adorable. I do love them.

99% Invisible: “Half a House” — A lovely complement to the previous episode about Chile. 99pi can lapse into design boosterism at times, but really it’s just boosterism for human ingenuity. Like, you have a problem: an earthquake levelled a city and there’s not enough public money for the necessary subsidized housing. And, you have a solution: build people half a house. It sounds ridiculous, but people can build the other half for themselves when they’re back on their feet. It seems to be working. There’s a moment in this where Roman Mars confirms that the reason this sort of thing doesn’t happen in the U.S. isn’t lack of money or lack of necessity, but simply a difference of values. Which is why I have very little respect for American values. This is 99pi doing what it does best. I haven’t enjoyed it this much in a long time.

All Songs Considered: “Pusha T and Rivers Cuomo Join Zeds Dead, Amber Coffman, TOY, More” — Whole lotta meh. I liked the Agnes Obel track well enough, but I haven’t heard much on this show that I want to check out for a while. Not their fault. I’m probably just not in music discovery mode.

Radiolab: “Seneca, Nebraska” — This story is just begging to be told in a not public radio way. The Radiolab crew obviously knows that in the story of a small town that voted to unincorporate because their 20 residents couldn’t get along, they have a parable. So, why not tell it that way? Where’s Nate DiMeo when you need him? Hell, even Scott Carrier would suffice.

On the Media: “Race to the Bottom” — Gladstone’s poverty myths series has moved from debunking myths about impoverished people to debunking the myths that America tells itself about how it approaches poverty. In this one, it’s the bootstrap myth. That is a sad narrative to turn out to be a myth, because it means that there isn’t actually much of a chance that a person can better their lot — not without an astronomical amount of luck. It’s also interesting to hear about the origins of the phrase “pulling oneself up by their bootstraps,” which actually started off as a metaphor for impossibility before it started representing the American Dream. And then, in a demonstration of the profound power of metaphors and ideas to shape society, the American Dream became impossible to attain.

The Gist: “Rapid Response: Cirque du Debate” — Okay, so I did end up watching the debate. And I’m happy I did, if only to have context for Mike Pesca’s latest round of spin room misadventures. It is so obvious listening to Trump’s surrogates talk that they just do not have anything under control. Ben Carson straight up brushing Pesca off is the highlight, but the whole thing is chaos. The best that a non-American such as myself can hope for in this election, given that I am not one of the millions of unauthorized voters that Trump predicts will swarm the polls in November, is to be nearly as entertained as you are bewildered, and I confess to having been that while listening to this.

NPR Politics Podcast: “The Third Presidential Debate” — The fact that this debate is being praised as the most substantive of the three is both accurate and still really depressing. The panel is right to assert that the most notable thing about this phase of Trump’s campaign is his insistence that whenever he doesn’t win something, it’s rigged. I’ve known people like this. People who believe that “unfairness” is coextensive with “bad things happening to them, specifically.” I think that it’s a kind of logic that underpins much of what’s wrong with the world. The notion of having a president of the U.S.A. that thinks like this without a shred of self-awareness is void-screamingly, cliff-jumpingly frightening. Fortunately, it won’t happen because he’s also too dumb to know when he’s shooting himself in the foot.

A Point of View: “In Praise of Difficulty” — Why must every critic who has the bravery to stick up for difficult art and educated audiences also have a stick up their ass about pop culture? This is a pretty good vindication from Howard Jacobson of the kind of art that gets the shaft from the shitty kind of populists — but then it nosedives into jabbing at the kind of art that appeals to the good kind of populists. There is an emerging kind of intellectual for whom the phenomena and iconography associated with boy bands and thrillers (Jacobson’s examples, not mine) are fodder for a rather exciting sort of criticism, in much the same way that Shakespeare was for many prior generations. Can’t we acknowledge that fact while also shitting on people who don’t understand Shakespeare? I really think it ought to be easy to have it both ways. Additional thoughts: I would generally stick up for the rights of the reader over the rights of the writer, in opposition to Jacobson, but I’ll provide here that the reader has to earn that right by being an interesting reader. (Read as: critic.) That is why, in my review for the staggeringly difficult work by William Blake that I’ve just slogged through, I blamed myself for having nothing to say.

Fresh Air: “‘Black Mirror’ Creator Dramatizes Our Nightmares About Technology” — Charlie Brooker is a less-than-scintillating interview, and I’m not totally convinced that Black Mirror is as smart as all these old people think it is. I’m one episode in, and I did like that episode, but it seems like the more explicitly it engages with modern media, the more vapid its critiques become. That’s sad to see, because I’m also watching Nathan Barley right now (review to come when it’s done; it’s useless to critique in part) and that is remarkably prescient for having been made in 2005.

StartUp: “Shadowed Qualities” — This is such enrapturing radio. The bulk of it is taken from a single conversation — virtually a therapy session — between Alex Blumberg (holy moly is he having a rough month) and an executive coach who we heard from in season two. And while I am usually quick to dismiss such people as snake oil salesmen, this fellow gets to the heart of Blumberg’s reluctance to step up and command his company as opposed to focussing on story edits really, really efficiently. And hearing Blumberg work through that in real time is fascinating. Traditional radio has moments that they call “driveway moments,” where you stay in your car to hear the end of the story even when you’ve already gotten home. Podcasts don’t have that, obviously. But at several moments during this episode, I forgot that I was eating breakfast. That seems like a logical equivalent. Pick of the week.

You Must Remember This: “The Blacklist,” parts 12-13 — Elia Kazan is one of my new favourite characters in this series. Looks like he’ll be back soon, too.

Omnireviewer (week of Oct. 9, 2016)

Whole bunch of fun stuff this week, including separate entries for each instalment of Kentucky Route Zero that I replayed. Also, an additional recommendation: don’t let a bit of rain stop you from running the seawall. Did that this afternoon, with a bunch of podcasts lined up, and it was a highlight of my week. 31 reviews.

Television

All Aboard the Starliner: The Making of Full Circle — I am not about to become the sort of person who watches the special features on old Doctor Who DVDs. But it seems I have indeed watched this one, so why deny it. It’s most fun to watch Christopher Bidmead and Lalla Ward, two people I quite admire, slag off Matthew Waterhouse mercilessly. But it’s also nice to hear the story of how Bidmead encouraged Andrew Smith, the very young writer of this story.

Last Week Tonight: October 9, 2016 — Firstly, this is fine. Secondly, the bit about the, ahem, “spray-tanned Furby eating KFC and screaming at a gold star family” is exactly the sort of non-joke that I wrote about last week that I wish this show would stop doing. Finally, the quality of the argumentation in the Guantanamo segment proves my earlier point about Oliver being most valuable as a pundit.

Doctor Who: “State of Decay” — It’s really wonderful the extent to which K-9 is seen as a joke even within the show at this point. In this story, he becomes weaponized, in the most ironic way possible. Love that. Altogether, this is a less worthwhile story than the previous one. It’s attempt to rationalize vampires is clumsy, and aside from the crackling scenes of the Doctor conversing with the rebels, this is a bit dull. No matter. I’m really only watching this to have the necessary context for the next story, which I suspect I will completely adore.

Full Frontal With Samantha Bee: October 5, 2016 — I think this just found its way onto my weekly viewing list, which currently only contains Last Week Tonight, a show that I’m becoming less enamoured of by the second. For better or worse, John Oliver tends to comment on current events from above the fray: the closest thing to righteous indignation that he can conjure is bemusement. Whereas Sam Bee is right in the shit, getting publicly angry on behalf of us less clever people, just like Jon Stewart used to do. I feel a bit dumb for not having watched this regularly. The episodes I’ve seen are the best satire of the year.

Doctor Who: “Warrior’s Gate” — Oh, I like this a lot. Mostly. Romana doesn’t quite work here, in spite of it being her swan song. Lalla Ward may be slightly to blame: you couldn’t blame her for having one foot out the door, considering everything. But there are story problems as well. She’s forced to be mysterious rather than whimsical and she’s also robbed of her competency once she’s captured. Annoyingly, this would have been easy enough to fix: just have her accompany the freighter crew out of curiosity rather than suspicion, and allow her to find her own way to escape rather than having Adric rescue her. She wouldn’t even necessarily appear credulous; she could just do what the Doctor always does and take a risk with relative confidence that she’ll find her way out of any tight spot that arises. This alternative also leaves Adric with nothing to do, which is a bonus. But aside from all of this, “Warrior’s Gate” is fabulous. I haven’t seen the show this abstract since the first episode of “The Mind Robber,” which this bears some obvious aesthetic similarities to. And, “episode one of ‘The Mind Robber’ stretched out to a full story” is a pretty decent brief. And the fact that time travel actually plays a role in the story makes it feel like my favourite bits of the new series. It’s weird and arty, and a bit austere. If this entire season could have kept up the pace and the tone of this and “Logopolis,” it would be one of the high points of the classic series.

Cabaret (televised broadcast of the Sam Mendes production) — I was recently defending my opinion that there are good musicals other than Hamilton (though only a handful that I really love) and I realized that my opinion of Cabaret, always a favourite, is entirely based on the film adaptation. That movie is brilliant, but it excises most of the songs. So, I figured I’d scour YouTube for a filmed theatrical production and I found this. Holy shit. Everything that was implied in Joel Grey’s performance as the Emcee is made as explicit as possible in Alan Cumming’s. Where Joel Grey says “Ladies and gentlemen,” Alan Cumming says “Ladies and gentlemen.” This is that rare thing where two performers make something so completely different out of a piece that they can’t meaningfully be judged against each other. Part of the beauty of Joel Grey’s leering creep is that you can never quite tell whose side he’s on. Alan Cumming’s emcee is so aggressively of the counterculture that he couldn’t possibly be aligned even slightly with fascism. He’s a one-man middle finger to Hitler. The other thing that this made clear is that Cabaret’s best songs are in fact in the movie. Kander and Ebb’s other masterpiece, Chicago, isn’t as dramatically satisfying or profound as this, but it’s got better tunes, on balance. Still, Cabaret is a classic. Pick of the week.

Games

Kentucky Route Zero: Act 1 — I’ve decided to replay the first three acts of Kentucky Route Zero before approaching act four, because this is so enormously dense that I couldn’t possibly remember everything that’s important. It turns out to be built for second playthroughs. As far as I know, it’s probably built for fourth playthroughs. Kentucky Route Zero is brilliant at offering up tantalizing little thematic threads that you can pull on but you can’t quite connect with each other. Right from the beginning of this, it’s clear that there’s metafiction at play: Joseph’s computer in the first scene is foreshadowing of how that character will recur in the third act, and of the idea that computer programs will form a central element of the story. I’m fairly convinced that the three people in the basement of Equus Oils, who appear again in “Limits and Demonstrations,” are also serving as an element in this set of themes. When they first appear, they are playing a game, the rules of which are unclear. So is the player when they first encounter these characters. Next time we see them, they are surveying weird art. So is the player, at every point during Kentucky Route Zero. Indeed, the entire notion of watching, listening to and examining things is central, here. There are tape recorders strewn around, and televisions that become games when moss grows on them (more foreshadowing). Soon enough, we’ll be watching theatre in “The Entertainment” and hearing music in the pub in Act Three. Also, the theme of hardship stemming from economic recession is immediately obvious, with the power to Equus Oils having been shut off, and the Márquezes having fallen on hard times. It’s tempting to try and tie these threads together in some cogent fashion. But there’s part of me that resists the idea of forming one unified theory of Kentucky Route Zero’s story. It seems like it ought to be bigger than that. Like a David Lynch movie or a Virginia Woolf novel, it need not be pinned down by the need to answer the question “what does it mean?” Still, as I play through the next three acts and the interstitial features between them once more, I’m going to see if any connections come to me unbidden.

Kentucky Route Zero: “Limits and Demonstrations” — It’s worth noting that this computer game is as good an art exhibit as I’ve ever seen in Vancouver. The first time I played through “Limits and Demonstrations,” I had already been through the first three acts of the main game. So, it didn’t strike me just how much explicit foreshadowing there is in this. It also didn’t strike me the extent to which the three characters you accompany through this exhibit are mirrors of Lula, Donald and Joseph. I still do not know entirely what to make of this, but it certainly adds a layer to Kentucky Route Zero’s pre-existing sense of performativity. And these characters only seem to appear when there is metafiction afoot. I’ll follow these thoughts up when I get through Act 2 for the second time.

Kentucky Route Zero: Act 2 — I had really meant to make this playthrough of the first three acts a quick one, just to refamiliarize myself before playing Act 4, but it’s impossible not to immerse yourself in this. Even the bits that I remember really clearly, I still feel compelled to go through in detail. (I did give the Secret Tourism locations along the Echo a miss, this time, though.) Just wandering through the Museum of Dwellings, observing the structures and listening to what people say is satisfying. And the format of having that entire segment take place in past tense, from the perspective of the people Conway and Shannon talk to rather than by Conway and Shannon themselves is a brilliant little method of distancing. It also gives us a broader picture of the world where this is taking place: each of the people living here is having similar problems to the characters we know better, like Joseph and Weaver. I’m also particularly intrigued by the scene that takes place in the storage locker. The idea that there was once a church here, but that everybody stopped coming, and now the janitor is keeping it alive by posting pictures of the congregation on the wall and playing tapes of the sermon is pretty rich. It’s a facsimile of a thing: a digital representation of reality, much like the cave systems in William Crowther’s Adventure — the first adventure game, and a key reference point in Kentucky Route Zero Act 3. I think this is overall my least favourite of the first three acts, but I still love the Bureau of Reclaimed Spaces, with its BBQing organist and its floor full of bears.

Kentucky Route Zero: “The Entertainment” — This is my favourite of the three interludes Cardboard Computer has released so far, though it lacks the high-concept gusto of “Here and There Along the Echo.” I’ll never forget the first time I played this and gradually realized what was going on: that the scene before me was in fact a play, that there was an audience present, and that I was an actor. This second time through, one of the first things I saw when I started looking around was the lighting rig above the stage. I can’t recall whether my first experience was similar, but of course I wouldn’t have known what to make of it anyway. It’s interesting to note that this sort of faux-Iceman Cometh old-time bar setting seems to be in the air again, these days. This captures the same sort of misguided nostalgia for a time and place that wasn’t actually any good that Horace and Pete does. And, to boot, they are both essentially theatrical productions taking place inside a different medium. I’m not sure where to follow that train of thought to next, so I’ll use it as a segue to discuss the most interesting thing about “The Entertainment,” which is its ostentatious, explicit theatricality. And the fact that it’s story is presented as a play is undercut by the fact that some of the characters are later seen in a non-theatrical context: this bartender will later show up in this bar again, but as a real character and not an actor. Similarly, Lula Chamberlain and Joseph Wheatree are credited as the play’s set designer and adapted playwright, respectively. I have written before about how it’s probably best to resist interpretations of Kentucky Route Zero that attempt to wrestle it into internal consistency. But “The Entertainment” makes it tempting to go against that. If anybody has a plausible explanation of how this bar can exist both as a play within a game and as a diegetic locale in that same game, I’m all ears. Bonus points for explaining how Lula and Joseph can exist both inside of this story and outside of it.

Music

John Coltrane: Meditations — My favourite Coltrane album by a mile. The strange noisiness of “The Father And The Son And The Holy Ghost,” with Pharaoh Sanders and Rashied Ali squeaking and banging as hard as they can, would be hard to appreciate in isolation. But, that track along with the other free sections of this recording only make up half of the yin yang. This record also features some of McCoy Tyner’s most beautiful playing on record, and Coltrane himself at his simplest and most direct. It demands to be listened to from beginning to end, because without each of its segments to prop each other up, it loses its integrity completely. But, when approached on its own terms, it is a timeless classic. Too bad it broke up Coltrane’s core quartet. But, he had other business to attend to anyway. (Also, I listened to this while reading Blake, and it paired rather nicely — two examples of unorthodox spirituality expressed in occasionally bewildering ways.)

Chance the Rapper: Acid RapColouring Book was definitely a step forward from this, but it’s a mostly great record with its own merits. It isn’t as straightforwardly joyful as its successor, but that’s not a bad thing necessarily. He is definitely much more stoned on this one, and a bit less grown up. But it’s a good record that I’ll return to — albeit probably a bit less frequently than Colouring Book.

Live events

Vancouver Symphony Orchestra/Karina Canellakis & Karen Gomyo: Live, Oct. 15 — Bless me father, for I have sinned. It’s been… two years since my last symphony concert. Quite frankly, the VSO is yet to convince me that paying for a ticket to hear them live will reliably be a more worthwhile experience than staying home and listening to a recording of the Concertgebouw in the same rep. But when a friend invites me to go I’ll happily attend, especially when the Berg Violin Concerto is on the program. It is one of the most beautiful pieces of the 20th century, and essentially the only work from the Second Viennese School that I would recommend unreservedly to anybody who’s interested in classical music. (Check out Isabelle Faust’s recording with Claudio Abbado. The ending is heartstopping.) Karen Gomyo played the solo part with all of the expressiveness that Berg wrote into it, and she tackled the technical bits with substantial derring-do. Karina Canellakis is a really solid conductor who possesses the clarity that all of the most acclaimed conductors in recent history seem to lack. But that didn’t stop the orchestra from struggling with parts of the Berg. Most of it came off okay, but the glorious ending of the piece was compromised by the band not playing together. There were even some issues in Mozart’s Magic Flute overture — including outright wrong notes in the violins during the slow opening. But Canellakis took it at the fast clip that it needs to stay aloft, and once it got going, I really enjoyed it. It never gets old, the Magic Flute overture. One of those rare pieces that survives overexposure. The second half of the program was Rachmaninov 2, so they were starting from a deficit. Rachmaninov all blends together for me. I like the third concerto, but for the most part he’s one of the surest composers to make my eyes glaze over. Which they did, about halfway through the first movement, and I didn’t check back in until the third, which I thought Canellakis conducted brilliantly. She restrained the orchestra enough for the bulk of the movement that the huge romantic climaxes felt properly cathartic. And the final movement is a jolly romp that it’s hard not to like. Interestingly, this was very much a “clap between the movements” kind of crowd, which I always find reassuring, because traditions are stupid and I prefer the company of people who are either ignorant or irreverent of them. I noticed more young people around than I usually see at classical shows. That’s nice. The friend I went with even ran into some folks she knows who are also our age. Guess they ought to program more Berg. This was fun. If I get a chance to hear Canellakis conduct live again, I’ll go for sure. My general standard of success for a night out at live entertainment is whether or not it was as good as seeing a decent movie. This was. Chalk it up as a win.

Podcasts

The Gist: “Rapid Response: The Town Hall Debate” — Pesca is a public discourse poet. I didn’t watch the second debate because there are limits to how successfully I can remain sane. But this essentially confirms my suspicions: that the format would make it a complete shambles and that nobody would say anything new. Okay, now onto a longer podcast recap of this same inane thing…

NPR Politics Podcast: “The Second Presidential Debate” — I have to say, the panel on this podcast is doing god’s work by making it so I don’t have to actually sit through these godawful debates. They tell me what happened, offer a bit of analysis, resist total partisanship, and also don’t act like Trump isn’t a buffoon whose campaign is well off the tracks. It’s what anybody needs to stay informed and also sane.

You Must Remember This: “The Blacklist” parts 9-11, plus Lena Horne rerun — The Lena Horne piece is an absolute highlight of this show, partially because it corrects the major issue with most episodes, which is the absence of tape. I love You Must Remember This, and I love Karina Longworth, but I’m sometimes frustrated by the fact that she thinks she can write a script and read it over music and that’s radio. It obviously doesn’t stop me from listening, but when I heard the Lena Horne episode, which has a great deal of archival tape of Horne telling her own story, it made me wish that the show would be like this more often. Podcasts aren’t audiobooks. Fortunately, You Must Remember This is an excellent enough audiobook that I don’t mind when it calls itself a podcast.

99% Invisible: “Project Cybersyn” — A lovely story that ties Chilean socialism in with nationalized design. In general, 99pi tends to position its stories as stories in themselves, as opposed to sub-narratives of larger stories. It’s nice to see a staunchly design-oriented story that ties into a political narrative that is larger than itself.

NPR Politics Podcast: “Trump v GOP” — I don’t foresee myself ever having anything much to say about this podcast, but I will continue forcing myself to go through the motions of reviewing it each time. I have principles. I will say this: I was really sceptical of this podcast’s claims in its early advertising to be a functional one-stop shop for political coverage. I still don’t believe there’s such a thing, and the very suggestion of it is a little bit dangerous. But having started to listen fairly regularly, it definitely comes closer than any other source of election news that I come across.

In The Dark: Episodes 5-7 — This really picked up for me in the sixth episode, where the story went broader and started getting into the national consequences of Jacob Wetterling’s disappearance, such as the very first sex offenders registry. It keeps the momentum through the seventh episode, which moves backwards to explain how the narrative of “small town cops who’ve never seen this sort of thing before are in over their heads” is bunk. Because, it turns out, the very police department that mishandled the Wetterling case so badly had mishandled a bunch of other cases in the past and failed to adequately debrief. This is nearly over, I assume, but it has become quite dazzling.

Imaginary Worlds: “Magical Thinking” — A wonderful consideration of the storytelling pitfalls and opportunities associated with magic. This episode splits fictional approaches to magic into two camps, which Patrick Rothfuss calls “poetic” and “scientific” magic, the idea being that in the latter category, the magic is defined by a Dungeons and Dragonsesque set of strictures, whereas in the former it is allowed to exist essentially unexplained. My favourite example of “poetic” magic is actually from an ostensibly SF narrative, not a fantasy one: the sonic screwdriver from Doctor Who. These days, the rule about whether or not the sonic can do something is basically, if it would cheapen the story for it to be able to do that, then it can’t. On the other hand, if it could potentially get the story past a boring obstacle set up by another element of the plot, then it definitely can. In other words, the story dictates the specifics of the magic, and not the other way around. The other way around, where the story sort of emerges from the magic system’s specific set of cans and can’ts (haha cants) is totally valid too — and it’s worth noting that it’s an approach that really jives with the creative approaches I admire most in music. Specifically, the rule-based approach of Brian Eno. But I’ve come to deeply admire writers like Steven Moffat, whose respect for consistency (and canonicity) is limited to whether or not it improves the story in his head. Well, look! This episode spun out a nice set of thoughts, didn’t it? Gold star.

All Songs Considered: “Solange, Gillian Welch, Cuddle Magic, More” — The talk outweighs the music on this episode, which Solange handily wins (though, as Robin Hilton will tell you, it’s not a competition). The most interesting thing to happen on this episode is Bob Boilen outright hating a song that Hilton chose, which I’m not sure I’ve ever heard happen before. The sticking point was Boilen’s contention that the guitar solo is dead. And, rocker though I am at heart, I can’t easily disagree. In the past… twenty years, I can only name a handful of really distinctive guitar soloists (not guitarists, mind you, but soloists specifically) with something to say through the medium of guitar solos. I’m thinking of Johnny Greenwood, Jack White and St. Vincent specifically. The era of proliferation of great guitar soloists has certainly ended. But, the existence of those three artists, and I’m sure many others I’m not thinking of right now, demonstrates to me that there’s still potential in the guitar solo. Basically, I come down more on Boilen’s side than Hilton’s, in the sense that I think we’re past the era where guitar solos should be the norm in any specific kind of music. We’re in an era where they must only be employed advisedly.

The Memory Palace: “The Met Residency Episode M2: One Bottle, Any Bottle” — These episodes for the Met do suffer a bit when you’re not actually at the Met, looking at the things that DiMeo is talking about. Not just because of the fact that you don’t know what they look like: in this episode, DiMeo actively conjures the mystique of the place, and the value judgements implicit in having an object occupy space there — space, where the listeners themselves are presumably standing also. It’s still a nice bit of radio, but inconsequential out of context.

StartUp: “Diversification of Worry” — Okay, so I definitely just typed out and backspaced a really angry, unfair screed about the cancellation of Mystery Show. Basically, I think we can trust Alex Blumberg’s judgement when he assures us that there’s only so much he can say about the situation without it being harmful. He could be protecting Starlee Kine as much or more than he’s hiding his own (mistaken?) decision making process. So, I don’t think we can expect to hear much more, and we probably shouldn’t get up in arms about it. That said, I don’t know why Blumberg didn’t make more of an effort to get out in front of the story and not seem like the guy who cancelled a beloved show without telling anybody until the show’s host told the world on Facebook (while Blumberg all the while vaunted an air of “transparency” around his company). But that’s not what concerns me most. What concerns me most is the notion that we may have witnessed the outer limit of the art that can feasibly be produced within the confines of a venture-backed company concerned with its revenue targets. I can only assume that Mystery Show was super expensive (Nick Quah breaks this down a bit in his most recent issue of the Hot Pod newsletter, which is well worth a subscription if you’re interested in the podcast biz). And given the company’s obvious need to not have gigantic expenditures with low returns, it makes sense that Mystery Show was untenable. But the thing is, it was so good. One of the best podcasts ever. Blumberg doesn’t deny that. So, perhaps this is a limitation of his business model — a limitation that might not have existed in the public radio world that he left to start Gimlet. And I wonder if Mystery Show could have survived had it been developed for a publicly-funded platform — any such platform that could offer a podcast with an idiosyncratic release schedule. Maybe that would have presented a whole different set of problems. But I do think this is evidence that companies like Gimlet are not the future of podcasting. They can only be a part of it. Public media is irreplaceable, because we can’t afford to have any more Mystery Shows get canned.

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “A Fall Movie and Television Preview” — This is always one of my favourite episodes of the year, because Glen Weldon is always so obviously wrong about what television will be a ratings success. Also, I am now massively looking forward to a season of great movies. Manchester by the Sea is at the top of my list, but there’s a bunch of stuff mentioned here that I hadn’t heard about, and will check out.

On The Media: “Personal Responsibility” — Gladstone’s series on poverty myths is off to a wonderful start, with an instalment on maybe the most pernicious — and certainly the most ruthless — myth of all: that poor people are lazy. It ties a profile of a present-day poor single mother to a larger narrative about the gradual erosion of welfare, culminating in Bill Clinton’s welfare reforms, the consequences of which are only beginning to show themselves now.

Science Vs: “Forensic Science” — The bad jokes are really starting to bother me. It’s a shame, too, because this is a really solid show in every other respect. I may have to demote it to an occasional listen. We’ll see how I feel after the second half of this two-parter.

This American Life: “My Undesirable Talent” — This features two incredible stories: one about a gentlemanly Mormon with a gambling addiction who became an accomplished thief, and one about a black Californian kid of Ugandan parents who convinced an entire liberal arts college that he was actually from Uganda. He did the accent and the whole bit. That second story is the real highlight. It’s hysterically funny, for one thing, and for another, it has a lot to say about African-American identity. I always say I should listen to this show more. I should listen to this show more.

The Sporkful: “Who is this Restaurant For?” Parts 1-4 — A nice compliment to Pashman’s earlier “Other People’s Food” series, this drills down on the specific issue of restaurants sending signals to people of various races, to either intentionally welcome them, or covertly ward them away. The first and last episodes are the highlights, the former because of Code Switch’s Kat Chow, whose expertise in talking about race and culture gets the series off to a reassuring start, and the latter because W. Kamau Bell is really funny. Recommended.

Theory of Everything: “Burning Down the Panopticon” — Firstly, I am fascinated to see the long game that Walker is playing with these non-existent ad spots. Secondly, one of my favourite modes for Theory of Everything is the mode where it engages directly with difficult thinkers like Jeremy Bentham and Michel Foucault. So, I quite enjoyed this. Another of my favourite modes for Theory of Everything is when Benjamen Walker expresses extreme wariness of a facet of modern life. Surveillance is certainly a facet worth being wary of. So, this mini-series is sure to be a winner.

StartUp: “You Can’t Wear a Suit Here” — It’s hard to stay angry at Alex Blumberg. It’s also hard to say just how willing his subordinates are to paint him in a negative, or even nuanced light when they’re tasked with telling a story in which he is a character. I have no doubt that he means well, but having myself worked in creative jobs where it felt like the person who was supposed to be giving me feedback had checked out in favour of stuff that doesn’t directly relate to the product we’re ostensibly making, I found myself siding with Eric Mennel on this one, even though the story takes pains to show him as a person who is juggling as much as anybody at Gimlet. And I promise that this isn’t about Mystery Show. BUT. Everybody at Gimlet seems to think of Blumberg as a person who has more optimism than practicality. Maybe that’s why he saw fit to greenlight a show that pretty obviously would be both incredible and extremely unprofitable. In any case, next episode, it looks like we’ll really get a look at what everybody thinks of him. Or, as much of a look as we can be afforded, given that anything can be edited out.

Reply All: “Boy in Photo” — Outstanding. This is Reply All in “Zardulu” mode — where they take a seemingly unimportant internet phenomenon and do investigative journalism until they find something resembling the real story. And this one has layer after layer after layer — in spite of the fact that there’s really nothing of consequence at its centre. It’s just a great story about a whole bunch of ordinary people, who were thrust into a really narrow, specific spotlight because of the internet’s inherent weirdness. Reply All is very seldom less than great, but some weeks I love it more than anything, and this is one of them. Pick of the week.

Omnireviewer (week of May 22)

19 reviews. One of my favourite picks of the week ever (the first one).

Music

The White Stripes: Under Great White Northern Lights — Based on the bits and bobs I’ve seen online, I’m not sure this is the best available document of the White Stripes’ live show. It’s a lot of fun, but it’s all one song into the next, into the next. And my understanding was that they could really play fast and loose (in both senses) with their material in a live setting, since it’s just the two of them and they’re basically telepathic. I will investigate further.

Pink Floyd: A Saucerful of Secrets — For my money, better than The Piper at the Gates of Dawn. I used to be astonished at how quickly the other members of the band, and especially Roger Waters, were able to fill the void left by Syd Barrett. But after reading some of Mark Blake’s book about the band, it’s clear that Waters always had rock star aspirations and wouldn’t soon settle for being just some bassist. It’s also clear that Richard Wright was the most musically knowledgeable member of the band from the start. If Barrett had been able to continue on in the band, I highly doubt that he would have continued to exert such creative dominance. But as it stands, he wasn’t able to continue on, and the people around him were more talented than anybody gave them credit for. I like Barrett’s music a lot, but this is my pick for the best early Pink Floyd album (certainly the best prior to Meddle), and it’s only partially because of “Jugband Blues.”  A final note: it is astonishing to hear the version of Pink Floyd that made “Interstellar Overdrive” and that will go on to make the bulk of More and Ummagumma gradually give way to the version of Pink Floyd that will make “Echoes” and “Shine On You Crazy Diamond” through the course of the title track’s 11 minutes.

Literature, etc.

Thomas Ligotti: “The Town Manager” — This is the second story of two in this collection that has reminded me of a favourite piece of internet media, which it predates. “The Town Manager” has all of the hallmarks of Welcome to Night Vale, including the dark humour. But, being Ligotti, the darkness ultimately wins out over the humour. It’s about a town that abides by the arbitrary dictates of a series of town managers and a barely-remembered town constitution that nobody has understood for decades. One suspects it is not Ligotti’s goal to write fiction that is #relatable, but “The Town Manager” fits the bill.

Thomas Ligotti: “Sideshow, and Other Stories” — A high-concept story, the premise of which is that Ligotti met another writer in a coffee shop and he gave him a sheaf of tiny stories. The framing device makes it — since we know who this guy is, his writing takes on deeper meaning. Nice.

Thomas Ligotti: “The Clown Puppet” — A bit dumb, honestly. I feel like creepy puppets have been played out since before this story was written. The prose is great, though, and it’s repetitiveness and sense of alienation remind me of “The Yellow Wallpaper,” which is a very good thing to be put in mind of.

Television

Last Week Tonight: May 22, 2016 — Brilliant from start to finish. In the segment on Trudeau’s apologies for elbowgate (oh my god am I actually going to use that word in a blog post yes I am), Oliver and his writers demonstrate something they’ve demonstrated before, which is that they understand Canada better than our own comedians and indeed better than much of our media. The main segment on primaries and caucuses demonstrates what we all pretty much knew, which is that this system is madness, and it contains one of my favourite comedic tropes, which is a person explaining a concept factually but the concept is so arcane that it becomes absurd after a few lines. And his final segment on the leader of Chechnya contains the best joke to have been hand-delivered to them by a horrible tyrant: “we have completely lost our cat.”

Game of Thrones: “The Door” — Things are picking up, now. Obviously, the headline is Hodor and generally everything in the Bran plotline, which I’ve been excited about from the start, but there’s much more to love in this. Tyrion and Varys are working as characters again, and Varys gets one of his best moments ever, when he spouts a rather eloquent screed against fanaticism, only to be seriously unsettled by the possibility that the Red Priestesses actually have a power he’d never considered real. The Wall continues to benefit from the presence of characters we’re not accustomed to seeing there: Littlefinger is at his most loathable here, and Sansa’s just-frank-enough account of her rape by Ramsay is a satisfying expression of power on her part — though it doesn’t come close to justifying that plotline in the last season. Jorah and Daenerys get their best scene together, and it’s only slightly undercut by Daario standing there awkwardly. Considering how angry I was at this show four episodes ago, the fact that it’s won me over is a minor miracle. I would like to stop seeing Arya get beaten up, though.

Movies

La Règle du Jeu (The Rules of the Game) — It is really great to have a public library in your city that lets you stream the bulk of the Criterion Collection. The Rules of the Game has been one of my favourite movies since I first saw it in a film studies class, at exactly the point in my life when seeing movies like The Rules of the Game in film studies classes would have the greatest impact. It contains what is still my favourite movie quote ever. Approximately translated: “The awful thing about life is this: everyone has their reasons.” That perfectly describes the way that everybody acts in this movie, and mostly in real life too, I think. Nobody in The Rules of the Game is evil. Self-interested, certainly. Inconsiderate, also. Myopic, certainly. But for the most part, the characters in this movie do what they feel is right. And when they don’t, they jump through hoops to justify their actions to themselves. And people still get hurt. The worst things that happen in the world don’t happen because humans are malicious; they happen in spite of the fact that they’re not. “The awful thing about life is this: everyone has their reasons.” There is only one other movie I can think of that recognizes this is true, and that is A Separation, which is the closest thing to a 21st-century Rules of the Game. If you’ve seen one and not the other, see the other. If you’ve seen neither, watch them both tonight.  

Games

EarthBound — Finally beat it. The fact that this game is a masterpiece really crept up on me. I was totally lukewarm on it at first. But in retrospect, its relatively innocuous opening chapters are a long con, designed to ease you into the game’s philosophy, which is basically that you cannot trust authority. The fact that this is such an obvious theme in a game intended for children, and that it is obvious without ever being stated outright, warms the cockles of my heart. In EarthBound, you play as a seemingly ordinary child called Ness. Pains are taken to establish the fact that Ness’s family is lower-middle class at best, and that their neighbours, the Minches, are wealthy. The Minches’ eldest son Pokey is an especially entitled little wanker who consistently anchors one of my favourite plot threads in the game, more on which in a moment. Ness’s family is loving, but his father is a lazy absentee who never appears in the game: he is only reachable by phone. (Possibly the saddest and most poignant moment in EarthBound is in the end credits: each of the characters’ names scroll across the screen, accompanied by an image of the character. But when “Dad” scrolls across the screen, the image is simply of a rotary telephone.) As the game pushes along, it isn’t only family and the trappings of wealth that get a raised eyebrow from EarthBound’s devs. It’s also the police, (Ness gets attacked by cops almost immediately when the game begins) organized religion (a cult paints an entire town blue as a matter of dogma), and consumer culture (you’re attacked by anthropomorphic records and coffee cups during a power outage in a department store). It’s power in all of its forms that EarthBound distrusts. In the final moments of the game’s last battle, Pokey appears again to gloat about how he’s able to ally himself with the powerful. One assumes that this is what he has learned from his privileged upbringing: associate with the powerful, regardless of morals and ethics. Throughout the game Pokey allies himself with a ridiculous but terrifyingly effective cult leader, a millionaire property developer under the influence of mind control, and Cthulhu. (Well, not technically Cthulhu, but more or less. The game goes full-bore Lovecraft at the end, more on which in a moment.) He’s an absolute weasel, he’s totally unrepentant, he’s allowed to get away with everything, and crucially, he is not redeemed. He’s just bad. A bad rich person, against whom an upright poor kid has to fight. In a summer where the biggest movie is about a clash between a soldier and a wealthy industrialist, it is incredibly refreshing to see something so openly sceptical of power. And the game’s best trick is that it reveals itself to be a dramatically different game than you thought you were playing right at the end, when your fight with an unknowable, incomprehensible consciousness takes on the tenor of Lovecraftian horror. But the game has prepared you for this by the end: no authority is worth taking at face value. Even the seemingly sedate narrative of a seemingly trustworthy little Nintendo game can turn on you. I think EarthBound is available on Wii U, or whatever that thing is called. So, parents: get this game for your kids. I honestly believe that it has the capacity to instil important values and make them better citizens. And beyond that, it’s just a grand old yarn. Pick of the week.

Kentucky Route Zero interludes: “Limits and Demonstrations,” “The Entertainment,” and “Here and There Along the Echo” — Like every fan of Kentucky Route Zero, I am anxiously awaiting the next, profoundly delayed, instalment. But unlike many Kentucky Route Zero fans, I had completely missed the fact that there are mini-games available for free that add depth to the main story. They’re not just trifles — It took me a couple of hours to get though all three. And they make substantial additions to the story’s canon. “Limits and Demonstrations” is in retrospect the first part of the game to make its metafiction explicit: this is a game about computer games, though the main story doesn’t quite make it there until Act 3. “The Entertainment” broadens Kentucky Route Zero’s engagement with the subprime mortgage crisis, which is somehow also a major recurring theme. It also contains a nice Waiting for Godot riff, as the bar patrons await the arrival of the entertainment. (When we meet the entertainment in Act 3, she explicitly quotes Beckett.) “Here and There Along the Echo” is certainly the most novel of the three — the entire game consists simply of a touchtone telephone that can only call one number. When you call that number, you’re faced with an inscrutable tree of menus read by an eccentric Southern gentleman who claims to represent “The Bureau of Secret Tourism.” The world of Kentucky Route Zero is so well defined that the devs can strip it down to a hotline and it’s still aesthetically recognizable. I can’t wait for Act 4.

Podcasts

The Heart: “Not the Right Time” — This is heavy stuff. It’s a first-person narrative about a woman having been sexually abused as a child. It’s beautifully produced, and exactly as hard to listen to as it’s meant to be. But it’s hard to judge this just yet, since it’s just the first episode of a mini-season that sounds like it will be very eventful, and very troubling to follow. I still will, though.

Reply All: “On the Inside, Part II” — So, at this point this actually is just Serial. And in spite of being less obsessive and rigorous than Koenig’s team’s production, it is entertaining me more than the second season of Serial did.

Fresh Air: “Marc Maron On Sobriety And His ‘Uncomfortable’ Comfort Zone” — I’ve heard Maron interviewing Terry Gross. Time for the opposite. What’s notable is how obviously Gross likes Maron: she wants the best for him and finds him excellent company, even though he can be overbearing. (I suppose interview subjects are allowed to be overbearing, but it still doesn’t speak well of them.) What’s also notable is how bad Maron’s TV show sounds like it is.

Fresh Air: “ Bryan Cranston” — I don’t know why Fresh Air is my favourite show to cook to, but that does seem to happen a lot. This is an old interview, but Cranston is such a charmer. A fun chat.

StartUp: “The Runway” — GOOGLE SPONSORS GIMLET NOW!?!?!? Ahem. This was lovely, and I liked that they broke it up into small vignettes. But in general, if you have to announce the structural gimmick at the start, you’re either not doing the gimmick right or you’re just generally not adventurous enough. I’ll go with the second one, with the provision that almost every podcast has the same problem. Somebody really needs to tear the walls of this medium down. And I say that as a devotee.

All Songs Considered: “A Conversation With Paul Simon” — On one hand, it’s cool to hear Bob Boilen basically do Song Exploder redux and just talk to an artist about one song. And the song is pretty good. On the other, it’s awkward to hear Paul Simon talk about studio practices that are a matter of course for any hip-hop producer as if they’re the most innovative thing in the world.

Criminal: “39 Shots” — This is the story of the time when leftist protesters got shot up by the Klan and the Klan was deemed not guilty on the grounds of self-defense. The most compelling and damning aspect of this is that the police were not there, in spite of them having issued the permit for the protest that was taking place, and saying they would be there to protect the protesters. As usual, Phoebe Judge does not try to influence your opinions directly. Nonetheless, it will disgust you.

Radiolab: “Coming Soon: More Perfect” — A show from Radiolab about the Supreme Court? Will Brooke Gladstone be involved? Because then I’m in.

99% Invisible: “Loud and Clear” — The story of why cassette tapes are still popular in prisons. There are so many interesting things in the world. At the best of times, 99pi reminds me of that. Plus, the Theory of Everything clip they play at the end is gold. I’m going to have to check that episode out. Pick of the week.

Omnireviewer (week of Jan. 3, 2016)

I suppose I should start putting the year in the titles of these things. I guess when I started this I didn’t think I’d still be doing it in 2016. But here we are. My weekly exorcisms continue. So, here’s the first fully 2016 edition of Omnireviewer, with 19 reviews.

Movies

The Hateful Eight — On first viewing, I think this is Tarantino’s second-best movie. I adored this. It’s slow and talky (until it’s not) and made up almost entirely of the sorts of scenes that are my favourites in other Tarantino movies. That scene in Inglorious Basterds in the bar, with the three fingers? That’s this whole movie. Sam Jackson and John Travolta in the diner at the end of Pulp Fiction? This whole movie. It’s worth seeing in 70mm, because it’s just the kind of movie that deserves a lavish presentation, with an intermission and an overture. Speaking of which: apparently Ennio Morricone is still alive and writing brilliant movie music. In terms of satisfying cinemagoing experiences of the last 12 months, this is second only to Fury Road for me.

Literature, etc.

China Miéville: “The Bastard Prompt” — This is certainly one of the more twisted stories in this broadly speaking fairly twisted collection. What’s best about it is that it’s the story of something that happened to someone close to the narrator, but not to the narrator himself. All the same, the narrator has his own interests that don’t directly involve the story at hand, but do influence his telling of it. This is the sort of thing that’s just par for the course for Miéville, I’m learning. Even if you don’t respond to his stories, you can’t help but be dazzled by his technical capacity.

China Miéville: “Rules” — Another tiny story, and a very enigmatic one. You can read it in two minutes, and you should, if you happen to see Three Moments of an Explosion on a shelf in a store. If you like it, you’ll like all of these stories and should definitely buy the book to read larger more wonderful stories like “The Bastard Prompt” and “The Dusty Hat.”

David Day: Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland Decoded — I always like to have something in the vein of cultural criticism on the go, and now that Good Night and Good Riddance is done, this seems like just the thing. It’s a large, handsome hardcover volume that I got for a good price at the Indigo hardcover sale (Jesus Christ, I’m out of control). Each page contains a segment from Lewis Carroll’s children’s classic (one of my favourites as a kid, and still), and the text is surrounded by David Day’s entertaining analysis. His argument is that Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland is essentially a full classical education delivered in code. Aside from being a marvellous read, so far, this is such a beautifully designed book. It’s filled with paintings and photographs referenced in the text. I feel like this is one of those rare books that I probably won’t be constantly putting down to Google stuff, because it’s basically the internet in paper form.

China Miéville: “Estate” — This is one of those stories I feel like there’s a definitive “point” to, but I missed it.

China Miéville: “Keep” — Another fabulously counterintuitive premise from Miéville. This is a story about people with a disease that causes trenches to form in the ground around them when they stand still for too long. This guy writes amazing stories out of the sorts of random thoughts that I discard three or four times a day. Would that we all followed through like he does.

Games

Kentucky Route Zero: Act 2 — Even better than the first act. I still don’t know what this game’s on about, but I’m becoming increasingly invested in the story, which is basically just some guy’s quest to get a shipment of antiques to an address that isn’t real. I feel like there was a lot more to see in this act than I actually saw, which is not something I can usually say. I’m one of those slow, deliberate gamers. It often takes me twice as long as average to make it through a game. But with this, I felt an urgency to the story that compelled me to keep going. I’ll probably play all three available acts again before Act 4 comes out, though, so I’m not worried about missing anything. As with the first act, this is full of wonderful strange details My special favourite is an office building that has an entire floor occupied by impassive bears.

Papa Sangre — I don’t think I’ll be finishing this. I bought it weeks ago, played it for about twenty minutes, and another twenty just now, and it really doesn’t seem like it’ll ever be anything other than a game of hide-and-go-seek-in-the-dark. Which is a shame, because the possibility for storytelling and world-building in a game that’s all sound, no visuals is immense. I got this for cheap with two other games from the same developer, so I suppose we’ll see if those are any good, then possibly wash our hands of the whole thing.

Kentucky Route Zero: Act 3 — This remains mysterious and obscure, but in this act it always feels like it’s about to tip its hand. An offhand reference to mold and transistors back in the first act now feels like it might be the key to the whole thing. Meta-references to digital narratives abound. (One scene may simply be an extended riff on Adventure and/or Zork or it may be something more. An elegy to the limitless vistas of parser-based interactive fiction? Hard to say. There might even be one character who’s meant to stand in for the guy who wrote Adventure. There’s a resemblance.) Samuel Taylor Coleridge is important, somehow. There are frequent allusions to the effects of the 2008 economic crisis: homes being reclaimed, people not buying consumer goods anymore, that sort of thing. As fantastical as this is, there remains some thread of connection to the real Kentucky. So, much like Lost or The Shining (or, I suppose, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland), this game actively encourages not just close readings but paranoid readings: where every detail, however minute, seems like it could be significant. This isn’t just rote surrealism. Whatever’s going on here, it’s not nothing, and better yet it’s not one specific thing. Apparently Act 4 is nearly done. It had damn well better be. Pick of the week.

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The wonderful bleakness of Kentucky Route Zero.

SOMA — My computer can pretty much run this, when I turn the graphics options down to the lowest settings the game has. So, yay! Anyhow, I’ve written before about my ambiguous thoughts on horror. I think that, in the same way that comedy succeeds if it makes you laugh, horror succeeds if it actually scares you. I think both of those standards are perfectly acceptable for those genres. There’s plenty of comedy and horror that has other goals as well (more “literary” goals, we might say), and that’s great and I personally tend to like that stuff best, but it’s not fair or right to critique horror or comedy on the grounds that it’s merely funny or merely scary. If it’s that, then it’s fine. But the trouble with horror movies that aim primarily to frighten you in the moment is that they don’t work on me. I just don’t get scared watching movies. But I do love being scared. And that is why I like horror games. Because, for whatever reason, horror games scare the living crap out of me. I guess it’s just that in games, you have to actually respond to a threat. So, you can’t just passively accept an outcome and move on like you have to do in a movie. Horror games leave you scrambling to come up with a solution to a problem under pressure. They engage you in a way that almost no other medium does. But then, the issue with horror games is that they have all of the problems associated with games more broadly: most notably, the caliber of writing and voice acting in games is just lower than it is in movies. That’s not to say that there isn’t any top-shelf writing in games, just look at Kentucky Route Zero, for Chrissakes. Also Sunless Sea, 80 Days, The Stanley Parable, anything made by Simogo, tons of Twine stories and parser games and probably a bunch of more conventional stuff that I’m overlooking. Likewise for acting: The Walking Dead game has better acting than the show. But you can’t play an acclaimed game and have the same level of assurance that the writing and acting will be good as you can when you see an acclaimed film. The art form hasn’t gotten there yet, and don’t let any videogame boosterists try to convince you otherwise. It’s a bit too early to judge SOMA on these criteria, but the few bits of sustained story I’ve seen so far have been pretty solid. The voice acting for the player character is excellent, which is a great mercy. Nothing worse than being trapped inside a crap actor’s head. A promising start, and already pretty spooky.

Television

QI: “Messing with your Mind” — This Tommy Tiernan fellow, I dunno.

The Daily Show With Trevor Noah: “Wednesday, January 6, 2016” — I meant to check out Noah’s Daily Show long before this, but this episode seemed essential. And it was good. Not outstanding, but good. There are moments in this where you kind of go “that’s a joke.” And Noah’s monologue about Obama’s gun control executive order finishes with an inadequate kicker. But it’s definitely, on balance, good. Which is nice, because towards the end of Jon Stewart’s tenure, that’s pretty much what you could say about his Daily Show as well. (On the other hand, the correspondent piece about the Nike resale market is insane.)

Mildred Pierce: “Part One” — So far, Kate Winslet makes this. It’s a gorgeous-looking series, as you’d expect from Todd Haynes, but the drama isn’t taking off yet. Every scene with Melissa Leo is gold, though. Almost makes up for the children in this, who are difficult to take. Actually, if the whole series were just Kate Winslet and Melissa Leo talking to each other, that’d be fine.

Podcasts

All Songs Considered: “Viking’s Choice 2015: The Year In The Loud And The Weird” — This is what I’m talking about. I’d heard none of this music beforehand, and I think the only artist featured that I’d heard of was Iron Maiden. I suspect it would be the same for most people. Which is a shame, because people need more weirdness and extremity in their lives. I sure do.

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “Melancholidays, Sisters and 2015 Highlights” — Not much to say except that it’s always nice to see an indication that there are others equally obsessed with Hamilton as I am.

Radiolab: “Year-End Special #1” — The opening of this show reminded me that there really were some spectacular episodes of Radiolab this year. I’m thinking specifically of “The Rhino Hunter.” But the rest of it — which consists of Radiolab’s top three most downloaded segments ever, all from the last two years —  reminded me how much I miss the version of Radiolab that did shows like this.

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “Ciao 2015, Hello 2016!” — Everybody who loves pop culture should listen to this if only to hear a recap of Linda Holmes’ predictions for 2015, which are a fabulous indictment of the entire culture industry. She literally just wrote a huge rant and read it into a microphone and it’s entrancing and forceful and fantastic. I should really read her blog more.

Fresh Air: “In ‘Carol,’ 2 Women Leap Into An Unlikely Love Affair” — Terry Gross’s interview with Todd Haynes and Phyllis Nagy is a quiet thing of spectacular virtuosity. I came for Haynes, but it’s Nagy that Gross gets the most interesting stories out of. Nagy wrote the screenplay for Carol, which I loved, based on Patricia Highsmith’s novel The Price of Salt. Nagy and Highsmith knew each other well, and Nagy is keen to portray her late friend as the real-life Therese Belivet, Rooney Mara’s character in the movie. But, without ever becoming indelicate, Gross prompts responses from Nagy that imply there may have been a certain amount of Carol Aird (Cate Blanchett) in her as well — though Nagy is careful to clarify that she herself was never Therese to Highsmith’s Carol. I have never heard Terry Gross more artful than this. Also, there was unexpectedly a snippet of Gross’s 2005 interview with the recently deceased composer/conductor Pierre Boulez, who’s always been an interesting figure to me, and made some of my very favourite recordings. I never anticipated he’d be so charming. So that’s a bonus. Imagine: Todd Haynes being the least interesting part of a podcast. Pick of the week.

WTF With Marc Maron: “Todd Haynes/Sarah Silverman” — Thank God this exists, then. Maron is nearly as much of a cinephile as Haynes is, so this pretty much turns into two film geeks babbling. In the process, they appear to confirm everything I assumed about Haynes in my review of Carol a couple weeks back. Haynes explicitly talks about how this movie is concerned with which character is looking through the camera at any given point (especially pointed since Therese is a photographer), which I’m taking as total validation of my interpretation of Carol as a vast, all-encompassing metafiction. Say what you like about Maron, but he’s not afraid to go deep with his interview subjects. 

Omnireviewer (week of Dec. 27)

My best of 2015 list will be ready by, oh let’s say the end of January. That’ll give me time to finish Three Moments of an Explosion and see Star Wars. In the meantime, I took advantage of the holidays to take in all sorts of fun stuff. And since podcasts make up a comparatively small amount of it, I’ve taken the liberty of awarding my picks of the week to two non-podcasts. Here are this week’s 27 reviews.

Television

Doctor Who: “The Husbands of River Song” — Well. In two consecutive episodes, my two favourite supporting characters in Doctor Who get marvellous sendoffs. The comedy in this plays wonderfully, but it’s the character drama between the Doctor and River that really sells this. That scene at the dinner table midway through really got me, though I’m not sure if it was the script and performances or just Wagner’s Siegfried Idyll playing in the background. Even if the resolution is a bit of a deus ex meteors and everybody ends up a bit in meteors res, it’s still a delightful romp. My only regret is that this is the first and last time we’ll see Peter Capaldi and Alex Kingston in these roles together. Because they are every bit the pair that Kingston and Matt Smith were. Lovely.

Deadwood: Season 1, episodes 11-12 — Firstly, I’ve really been enjoying Todd VanDerWerff’s essays on Deadwood from his days at the AV Club. In spite of being bundled up into sets of three episodes, they’re among his best writing: up there with his Sopranos reviews and the few seasons of Mad Men that he covered. Anyway, these last two episodes of Deadwood’s first season are outstanding. If the second season keeps the pace of these last three episodes, I’ll be a happy viewer. But I’m going to take a break from this before diving into that season, to watch Mildred Pierce as part of an ongoing Todd Haynes pilgrimage. But I’m really looking forward to seeing how the second season manages to be more acclaimed than the first.

QI: “Merriment” — Bill Bailey is dressed like Paul McCartney on the Sgt. Pepper’s cover!

The Graham Norton Show: “David Beckham, Carrie Fisher, Daisy Ridley, John Boyega & Kylie Minogue” — I could not love Carrie Fisher more. Also, why don’t more late night talk shows have multiple guests at once? Not many shows could give us David Beckham and John Boyega fighting with toy lightsabers and narrowly missing Kylie Minogue’s head.

Comedians In Cars Getting Coffee: “President Barack Obama” — Certain parts of this are a bit stagey, as you’d expect. But I’m always quite impressed by Obama’s ability to play himself in stuff. Really, though, you should watch this to see a president in a frame of mind where he doesn’t feel the need to pitch messages all the time. It’s not the Marc Maron interview, but it’s in the same vein and it’s got some funny moments.

Doctor Who: “The Eleventh Hour” — This was the first piece of media I consumed in 2016. It’s a great start, really. To my year, and to the Steven Moffat era of Doctor Who. By the end of this episode, any attentive viewer has Moffat’s game pegged, at least on a metafictional level: Amy is introduced as a diegetic insert of a Doctor Who fan, so we can assume even at this point that her story will be about what it means to love Doctor Who. As fresh starts go, this is one of the greats.

Sherlock: “The Abominable Bride” — And so would this be, if it hadn’t turned out to be something else entirely. I shall say no more, because spoilers. I will say this: I love that Benedict Cumberbatch plays a substantially different Sherlock in Victorian garb than he does in the modern stories. The other characters in Sherlock have always been fairly consistent with their portrayals in Conan Doyle. But the moody sociopathy of Cumberbatch’s modern Holmes is straight out of contemporary anti-hero television. It was a canny choice by Cumberbatch (and by Moffat and Gatiss) to strip back that element of his character and allow this Holmes to be the dour Victorian eccentric that he started off as. I had as much fun watching this as I’ve ever had watching Sherlock, no doubt partially because Moffat and Gatiss write Victorian witticisms with spectacular aplomb. But somehow, I’m left wondering if the fun that I had actually reflects the quality of the episode. There’s a sort of messy gratuitousness to this that almost matches that insane wedding episode from the last season. Still, there are enough bon mots and meta-critiques in this that I remain quite positively disposed to it.

Music

Frank Sinatra: Nothing But The Best — This is a compilation of Sinatra’s best singles for Reprise, which is not where he did his best work. His earlier Capitol recordings are the real reason he’s a legend. But still, there something about this more relaxed version of Sinatra that’s just better for putting on and pottering about doing other things. You can’t do that with In The Wee Small Hours, because it’ll make you cry all over your laundry.

Hawkwind: Hall of the Mountain Grill — I’ve never actually gotten around to listening to a full Hawkwind album, but the recent death of Lemmy seemed like it necessitated a spin of this. It took me back to a time when I was discovering music like this regularly. In spite of never having heard it, this fits right into the established grooves in my brain. “You’d Better Believe It” is a serious jam. More Hawkwind to follow, probably.

Caroline Shaw/Roomful of Teeth: Partita for 8 Voices — There’s something about vocal music that has the capacity to inspire sheer, giddy joy more easily than other idioms. I’d heard the Passacaglia from this spectacular piece many times, but I figured it was time I checked out the other three movements. They’re playful and emotive and hold the hell out of your attention. Roomful of Teeth is a vocal ensemble unlike any other and Shaw, being a member, knows what they’re capable of. She takes full advantage of the group’s technical capacities to the point where listening to the music becomes both an emotional experience and something like watching a really impressive high-wire act. A Pulitzer is not praise enough. Pick of the week.

Lou Harrison/Dennis Russell Davies et al: Symphony No. 3 & Grand Duo for Violin and Piano — Why Lou Harrison’s music isn’t at the centre of the repertory by this point is a mystery to me. His third symphony is one of the loveliest and most accessible pieces from late 20th-century America. If the classical music world made sense, conductors would be scrambling to put out full Harrison cycles rather than more goddamned Mozart.

Rush: Grace Under Pressure — I tend to make a lot of the first music I listen to in a given year. This time, I finished 2015 off with what was once the first side of this (with “Headlong Flight” thrown in for good measure — the perfect song to end a great year). On the walk home after midnight, side two rang in 2016. Given that this is one of the darkest Rush albums, I’m choosing to interpret my choice as a cautionary tale: I’d best not initiate any nuclear wars this year.

Rush: Permanent Waves — A perennial favourite. I love Permanent Waves so much that I have trouble listening to any other Rush album without immediately following it up with this.

The Chemical Brothers: Surrender — This really feels like Daft Punk in places. Which certainly isn’t a bad thing, but given the choice between psychedelia throwbacks (more prominent on both Dig Your Own Hole and Further) and French house, I’ll go with the former every time. “The Sunshine Underground” is a jam, though.

Literature, etc.

David Cavanagh: Good Night and Good Riddance — Finished! God, I loved this. Maybe it ended a little abruptly, but it’s such a minor problem in the face of everything that comes before that I don’t actually care at all. More shall be said about this in my year-end list, I’m sure. (Fated to be more of a “year-beginning list,” it would seem.)

China Miéville: “The Dusty Hat” — Do you ever read something, or see something that you don’t understand and that makes you like it more? It sort of pulls you in by its sheer incomprehensibility? That doesn’t happen to me all that much, but when it does, the thing in question often becomes an all-time favourite. It happened with Mulholland Drive, At Swim-Two-Birds, Trout Mask Replica, and a bunch more I’m forgetting. On first read, “The Dusty Hat” is very much like those things were. It has far and away the most adventurous and best prose of the stories in Three Moments of an Explosion so far and is immensely imaginative in its details. (A particular favourite: “I was glad I didn’t have a cat or a dog because I thought they’d die from being in the room with him.”) Overall, I kind of don’t know what even happened in this story. But I definitely enjoyed it more than any of the others in this collection, with the possible exception of “The Buzzard’s Egg” — which was immediately comprehensible and thus in a strange way less promising. If I remember, I plan to read this again right when I finish the book. Pick of the week.

China Miéville: “Escapee” — One of the pleasures of Three Moments of an Explosion is these little tiny stories of fewer than five pages, which often follow the larger stories like “The Dusty Hat.” This one’s an outline for a movie trailer — the second one of those in the book — for a movie about a man with a large hook embedded in his back. I actually wouldn’t mind seeing that movie, provided it were written by Miéville and directed by Robert Rodriguez.

Movies

Captain Phillips — My impression from the reviews was that this was only okay and mostly notable for being super Oscary and having a great performance by Barkhad Abdi. Both of those things are true, but I thought this was terrific overall. Paul Greengrass is a meat and potatoes director, who just gets out of the way of the story. That approach makes this totally gripping. The screenplay flags in scenes that aren’t ruthlessly procedural and full of people making decisions, i.e. the very beginning of the movie, where we meet Phillips’s family, and the quick pep talk he gives to his crew about a half-hour in. It would have been a better film with those two scenes removed altogether. But once the action starts, there are no weak points. Near the end of the movie, Tom Hanks’s performance is so good that I almost understand why he’s so esteemed.

The Hunting Ground — I watched this at a New Year’s Eve gathering. Yeah, I say “gathering” advisedly, because this is not a documentary you watch at a “party.” It is appalling, and not especially surprising to anybody who pays attention to these things. It is worth seeing. There are moments in this where a simple fact will appear onscreen as an intertitle, with seven or eight studies cited as sources for that fact. Those moments are surprisingly powerful, and bolster the personal narratives related by survivors of campus sexual assault, which are really difficult to take.

Vertigo — Yeah, I’d never seen Vertigo. It’s great, obviously. Maybe a little dated. It has a particular sort of expository writing that you don’t see much of anymore. Plus, Jimmy Stewart is definitely an actor from the 50s. And his character is probably the most conspicuous private eye in cinema history. Seriously dude, there’s no way she doesn’t see you there behind that pillar. It’s stuff like that that kept me at arm’s length, a bit. I suppose you’ve got to approach these old masterpieces on their own terms, but there are plenty of movies older than this that I find completely fresh and immediate even today: The General, Citizen Kane, The Rules of the Game, Sunset, tons more. On first viewing, the fact that this has now surpassed Kane in the estimation of the world’s critics (as per the last Sight and Sound poll) seems totally ridiculous to me. But I certainly wouldn’t argue with anybody who claims that Bernard Hermann’s score is the best in film history. Favourite line: “I’ve been right here all the time putting olive oil on my rubber plant leaves.”

Games

Undertale — Okay. So, if my last note on this made it seem like I’d finished the game… I hadn’t. I assumed I was close enough that I could basically offer a final assessment, but at the very last minute, Undertale turns into something dramatically different from and stranger that what it sets you up to think it is. I won’t spoil it, but I will say that the ending of Undertale is a complex metafiction of the sort that never fails to pull me in. I’ve seen these themes explored more effectively in other games (to say which ones would almost be a spoiler), but this is going to stick with me for a bit. Last week, I had this pegged as “worthwhile.” Now, I daresay it’s closer to essential. I had it pegged for a pick of the week until I got blown away by “The Dusty Hat.” Interestingly, they’re both things I don’t entirely understand.

Kairo — There are basically two things I’m looking for in a video game: a great story, and/or an interesting world that I can explore freely. If a game doesn’t have at least one of those things, I’m unlikely to be that interested. Steam has been recommending Kairo to me for ages, but I’ve been hesitant because it seemed like a game with no discernable story and a very minimal sort of environment with lots of puzzles. (I’m queasy about puzzles.) But it was on sale for a dollar this week, so why not. Turns out, it’s kind of the platonic ideal of a game. By that, I don’t mean that I’m blown away. More “pleasantly satisfied,” really. But you could easily point to Kairo to demonstrate what’s valuable about video games, and why they’re unique from every other medium. Kairo has nothing in it that could be done in a movie or a novel or a radio play. It’s purely the experience of “play” that makes up the content of Kairo. You explore and interact with your surroundings, and if you see something that suggests a story might have taken place here at some point (and you do) you can certainly surmise about it, but you’re not actually part of it. Kairo doesn’t require narrative conventions to make you feel stuff. Instead, it keeps a firm hold on its pacing and mood to make you feel by turns placid, proud and creeped out. Considering that it’s the most abstract game I’ve ever played aside from possibly Tetris (or SPL-T, I guess), it’s enormously effective. If you like this sort of thing, grab it while it’s still a dollar and spend a pleasant afternoon.

Kentucky Route Zero: Act 1 — Yeah, there’ll be more games than usual in the near future, since I can’t control myself during the Steam holiday sale. I’ve been meaning to play this for ages, but I’ve been waiting for the much-delayed Acts 4 and 5 to come out so I can down it in one big gulp. But then, you know, Steam sale. Kentucky Route Zero is the kind of game that I’m obviously going to like, in exactly the way that Kairo wasn’t that. It’s text-based to the point that it’s basically a Twine story with graphics — gorgeous, moody graphics. It’s mysterious and uncanny without being outright scary (which will almost certainly make it more preoccupyingly frightening to me in the end). And it wears its structural gimmicks on its sleeve. This was made for me. My favourite moment so far was something I stumbled upon by accident: an area where you can’t actually do anything except watch two men push a broken airplane down a road. It’s like something out of Beckett. Seems to bear no relation to anything, but it’s been sticking with me. I can tell already that this is going to be one of those games where the actual gameplay is only half of the interactive experience and the other half is trying to work out what the hell it all means. To be fair, we shouldn’t hold a game in higher esteem for being this way: this is a kind of interaction that comes attached to every medium. There’s a quote I heard once but can’t quite place — I think it might be Hitchcock — something like “the most important act in a movie is the fourth one, where you’re talking about it on the drive home from the cinema.” In that sense, all fiction is interactive fiction, Kentucky Route Zero is not significantly more interactive than Vertigo, and is thus fundamentally different from Kairo. I don’t know where this game is going. But I’m super excited about it.

Podcasts

Mortified: “Boys DO Cry (w/ special guest CHVRCHES)” — It was the “special guest CHVRCHES” bit that sold me, but the two stories of sensitive teenage boyhood are worth the price of admission. (What a strange expression to use about a free podcast. Never mind, I’m done with this.)

99% Invisible: “Bone Music” — In the Soviet Union, western pop records were bootlegged on exposed x-rays. They sound ghostly and ethereal. This podcast tells the story (which includes an interview with Nikita Khrushchev’s son) and also plays sound from some of the records. It’s produced in collaboration with the Kitchen Sisters. So basically, everything about this makes it worth a listen.

Serial: “Escaping” — The first really interesting episode of this season. And, it’s interesting because of the tape of Beau telling his own story. Looks like we’ll have less of Koenig explaining stuff from here on out, which in general is a good thing.

Radiolab: “The Fix” — Stories about addiction can get a bit heavy, and Radiolab can sometimes take heavy stories and make them oppressively bleak. But this isn’t like that. It’s interested in the personal stories of addicts, but it’s more interested in the story of how our perception of addiction has prevented us from taking known medical steps that can help some addicts recover.