Tag Archives: Lewis Carroll

Omnireviewer (week of Apr. 3)

What a week. I’ve been off work, and getting a bunch of necessary things done: a bunch of cleaning, a bunch of writing — also a bunch of running and a certain amount of riding the bus to pubs, bonfires, etc. So, a lot of music and a lot of podcasts. But there have also been many hours of sitting around, regathering my sanity, and innumerable cups of tea. Thus the television, the game, and the reading.

The result of all that is, I think, my largest Omnireviewer post yet. (I’m not going to take the time to verify that.) There are 35 reviews here, and that’s with me having grouped a number of things together (and still excluding Radiotopia reviews for Podquest reasons). Counting every episode, album etc. as one would give me the shattering total score of 42. (Which is a lovely coincidence, considering that Douglas Adams makes two appearances here.)

In recognition of this large, large number, I have allowed myself to choose three picks of the week: one podcast and two others. But frankly, even if it had been a normal week, I would have been tempted to do the same. The first two picks of the week you’ll come to are things that I believe should be and will be talked about for years. This hasn’t just been a week of cultural gluttony: it’s been a week where I’ve come across a number of really astonishing things in a short period of time. And frankly, for all the time it’s taken, I think it’s also inspired me to get more done.

We’ll begin with something I watched a week ago, which seems like a strangely long time.

Television

Horace and Pete: episodes 9-10 — (I despise the concept of spoiler warnings, but I’m willing to concede that the finale of Horace and Pete is probably best unspoilt. After all, this show was released as a complete surprise for the explicit reason that C.K. didn’t want the hype machine to affect the way that people saw the show. I think that was wise. This is therefore the only spoiler warning you’ll ever see on my blog.) Louis C.K.’s critique of American values ends two ways. In the first way, Pete dies tragically and Horace decides to change his attitude after an encounter with a supernaturally nice woman played by Amy Sedaris. The story fades to black over the strains of Paul Simon’s “America.” We are reminded that regardless of the divisions in American society (divisions that have been shown to date back decades, to when Uncle Pete was vehemently anti-Gerald Ford), and regardless of the tragedies that befall individuals, America soldiers on. This ending has every property of a TV finale, except for the fact that it doesn’t actually end there. The other way that Horace and Pete ends finds Horace killed by Pete, and Pete completely mad. It fades to black over the strains of the now familiar (but suddenly more bitter than sweet) theme song, also by Paul Simon. In this version of the ending, America doesn’t survive — not in any form worth respecting, anyway. Sylvia abandons Horace and Pete’s to be forgotten, and rebuilds her life around something entirely different. She wipes it all out, just like Kurt the nihilist barfly always said should happen to the whole country. I’m not sure there’s any internally consistent metaphor in either of these endings — for all of its speechifying, Horace and Pete isn’t message fiction. It’s subtler than that. But I think that the fact that there are two endings present (and I do think that it’s meant to be read as a double-ending — consider that C.K. has never signposted where reality stops and fantasy begins in this show) basically sums up C.K.’s centrism and his belief that it’s never so simple as the ideologues say it is. Lots of political artists working in pop fields have tried to champion the centre. I’m never convinced. I’m still not. But Horace and Pete is the first interesting piece of explicitly centrist political art that I’ve seen. It succeeds where the Coen Brothers have often failed, and where South Park has actually made me angry. It’s the best TV of the year. I know it’s only April, but I don’t see anything unseating it. Its many imperfections only enrich it. Pick of the week.

Last Week Tonight: April 3, 2016 — Sometimes I play dumb iPhone games while I watch things, and then I don’t have much to say about them. Sorry.

Better Call Saul: “Fifi” — I love that there are no simple relationships in this show. Kim and Chuck, for instance. They’ve always been friendly, and we’ve even seen Chuck be totally supportive of Kim. But she’s not important enough to him that he won’t throw her under the bus to get at Jimmy. In other plotlines, it remains very interesting to see Jimmy’s story continue in low-rent Mad Men mode while Mike’s slowly turns into Breaking Bad. Saul Goodman, dodgy criminal defender, still seems a long way off. But Mike the Cleaner is fast approaching.

Archer: Season 7, episodes 1 & 2 — Archer remains Archer. I think unless this season really breaks new ground midway through, it’ll be my last. Archer is good comfort food: the rhythms of it are that predictable by this point. But it used to make me laugh like a maniac and it doesn’t anymore.

Doctor Who: “Planet of Giants” — A while back, before I was even writing these reviews, I decided to start watching classic Doctor Who from the beginning. Lest you think me completely insane, I’m not doing this because I enjoy badly-written, poorly-paced, obviously low-budget sci-fi television from the 60s. Clearly, it’s been a slow process, since I haven’t watched a single First Doctor serial since Omnireviewer began. The reason I’m doing this, really, is because I’m reading an excellent book by Phil Sandifer on early Doctor Who as a British cultural artifact, which demands a certain amount of familiarity with the show itself. (More on that below.) Yes, I’m watching television to prepare for the higher pleasure of reading scholarly essays about it. I am completely well-adjusted. Anyway, “Planet of Giants” is probably my favourite story up to this point in the series’ run. It’s still pretty bad in a lot of ways. The characters are all meant to be smart but they’re all constantly acting dumb for plot reasons. When the TARDIS lands, it’s immediately obvious to the audience that they’ve all shrunk, but the characters take half an episode to figure out what’s going on. There’s a lot of that. On the other hand, the sets are delightful. Seeing Susan and the Doctor stranded in a sink is hilarious. And the fact that the normal-sized people have their own plotline that has a direct impact on the TARDIS crew’s plotline without the two groups ever meeting is legitimately clever. Don’t misunderstand me: mid-60s Doctor Who is bad TV by modern standards. But it is profoundly interesting, and you can totally see how it would soon grow into a show with lasting value. (The Second Doctor is my personal favourite from the classic series.)

Literature, etc.

Philip Sandifer: TARDIS Eruditorum, Volume One — This is the first collected edition of essays from Sandifer’s incredible TARDIS Eruditorum blog. This volume covers the William Hartnell years of the show. It is idiosyncratic and literary enough to be far more engaging than your standard scholarly article, but it’s also far more thoughtful than what you’ll find on most TV recapping/review sites. I’ll be honest, it’s basically my benchmark for great cultural criticism (along with Chris O’Leary’s Pushing Ahead of the Dame). The book version is substantially expanded, and I’d recommend it specifically to anybody who’s trying to get through the full classic series. At the very least, it will ensure that after the show’s frequent shitty instalments, you will at least be prepared to read something interesting about it. This week, I read the essay on “Planet of Giants,” and the subsequent two essays on relevant book tie-ins that I will never read. Part of the appeal of TARDIS Eruditorum is that it can give you a sense of the vastness of Doctor Who’s extended universe without you actually having to put yourself through any of it. (Though I must say, Sandifer makes a compelling case for The Time Travellers as a solid science fiction novel…)

David Day: Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland Decoded — Day’s book is exactly what I wanted it to be: a volume of fascinating and not entirely convincing conspiracy theories about hidden meanings in classic children’s literature. First off, there are hidden meanings in Alice; that much is clear upon even the most cursory reading. But some of Day’s most compelling interpretational moments hinge on incredibly thin textual evidence — thus my remark about conspiracy theories. Here’s my personal favourite. Near the beginning of the book, Day gives an actually totally convincing analysis of the specific way in which Alice forgets her multiplication tables at the beginning of the book — she’s just ceased to express them in base 10. This checks out, and it’s amazing. She gradually establishes a pattern which continues as she expresses values in increasing bases, but when she reaches base 42 (in uncanny anticipation of Douglas Adams), the pattern collapses. Day then falls over himself to find examples of the number 42 throughout the text. (The playing-card gardeners Alice meets have a total value of 14, and there are three of them. 14 x 3 = 42. A stretch, certainly.) But, when the end of the book comes around and the Knave of Hearts is on trial for stealing the Queen’s tarts, the King invokes Rule Forty-Two: “the oldest rule in the book.” Day suggests that the book in question is not the King’s book of law — because surely the oldest rule in that book would be number one. Alice even says as much. The book in question is Alice itself, with this being a callback to the logical collapse that resulted from Alice’s attempt at multiplication tables in base 42 at the beginning of her adventure. And, upon invocation of this rule, Alice’s dream collapses upon itself — literally like a house of cards — and she wakes up. I love this. This makes Alice a better book, regardless of whether it’s intentional. And maybe it is. Not all of Day’s notes are this interesting; a lot of it relies on paralleling Wonderland characters with Oxford higher-ups of Carroll’s time. One even suspects that Day really wanted to write a book solely about Wonderland and Oxford, but was coerced into including other elements for the sake of general interest. Perhaps that isn’t fair. Also, Day is quite eager to dismiss the popular accusation that Carroll was a pedophile, though he does offer a compelling (or perhaps just comforting) argument that he would likely not have ever acted on this tendency. Still, I’d totally recommend Day’s book to anybody who wants to re-read Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland with some significant added value. And Alice is worth re-reading, regardless. This time through I noticed something that evaded me the two or three times I read it as a child: not a single one of Wonderland’s characters are “generic eccentric” in the way they tend to be portrayed in adaptations. Every one of them has their own peculiar way of thinking and speaking. The Hatter is not the Caterpillar is not the Mock Turtle. And Alice herself is a marvellous protagonist: we spend a great deal of time, particularly early in the book, inside her head as she attempts to find reason in Wonderland’s madness. And we become accustomed to her way of thinking, which is unique in itself. This was great.

Music

Killer Mike: R.A.P. Music — In retrospect, this is basically a Run the Jewels album where El-P doesn’t rap (much). The element that I missed most from the more familiar Run the Jewels records when I listened to Fantastic Damage last week was the preponderance of synth leads and basses, which are here in spades. The opening of “Don’t Die” is basically what I love most about El-P. And as much as I love him as a rapper, I found a full album of him a bit much to take. Mike, on the other hand, I could listen to for pretty much any amount of time. I love when he gets conspiratorial. “Reagan” is a hell of a thing. I think I like this as much as the first Run the Jewels album.

John Congleton and the Nighty Nite: Until the Horror Goes — This lived up to all my hopes and nightmares. The lead single, “Until It Goes,” was an immediate favourite a couple of weeks ago — one of those songs I can listen to a dozen times a day and still want more. But, having listened to the album a few times now, I think it’s possible that every other song on the album is as good or better than that one. Congleton writes huge, hooky anthems that wouldn’t be out of place on an Arcade Fire album. But instead of filling those anthems up with the usual lyrical platitudes, he gives us a guided tour of a mind that’s been considering some of modern life’s darker questions and not coming up with any reassuring answers. And he clothes his nihilistic mock anthems in nightmarish sonic garb — moaning, wheezing synths; heavy guitars; incessant drum beats and dissonant, automatic vocal harmonies. The final effect is more Brian Eno than Win Butler. High praise, I know. It’s Here Come the Warm Jets filtered through Videodrome. This anxiety-ridden, jumpy, loud, electronic-y rock and roll is exactly the catharsis I want in 2016. A masterpiece. My favourite album of the year so far, narrowly edging out Bowie. Pick of the week.

Darq E Freaker: ADHD — Purchased on the strength of “Venom,” which floored me in NPR’s Austin 100. I love “Venom” much more than the rest of this EP, for reasons I can’t entirely quantify. Alas, this is far too “dance music” for me. Ah, well. Gotta take risks.

Roxy Music: Roxy Music — Reading David Sheppard’s Eno biography really put a fine point on the extent to which Roxy Music shared a cultural moment with King Crimson. Listening to this now, it almost seems like an alternate version of In the Court of the Crimson King where Robert Fripp and Peter Sinfield were more conventionally “cool.” I suppose their analogues in terms of influence would be Bryan Ferry and Brian Eno. So, I guess that’s actually true. When I hear the dinner party nat sound that starts the album I always picture Ferry — working class, posing — dressed in a white suit just a tad too dazzling, and drinking champagne, trying to fit in. “Oh, by the way, I’ve brought my cross-dressing synthesizer friend.” In any case, it’s gradually dawned on me that this is a really good album — at least as good as For Your Pleasure. It’s really interesting to hear music made by two geniuses who don’t really know anything about music or their instruments, but anchored by a virtuoso guitarist of at least David Gilmour calibre. Phil Manzanera roars out of the gate on this. He must be one of the most underrated musicians in rock. One or the other of this and For Your Pleasure would likely make my top 10 of the 70s.

Henryk Górecki/David Zinman, Dawn Upshaw & the London Sinfonietta: Symphony No. 3 “Symphony of Sorrowful Songs” — I think I gave this one listen in my undergrad and decided it was overrated. But now, with the impending release of the adaptation listed below, I figured I’d give it another shot. I’m still lukewarm on much of it. I can understand why it’s so beloved, but the best bits are overexposed in movies, etc., and a lot of the less familiar moments are also less memorable. Not a favourite, but good music.

Colin Stetson: Sorrow — I feel like I need to take this review in steps. (1) Adapting, arranging and remaking classical pieces is a good idea — and indeed, necessary for the tradition’s continued vitality. The thing that the classical music community has the most wrong is their reverence for the composer’s intentions above all else. There’s even a famous conducting textbook called The Composer’s Advocate, as if to suggest that a person who is actually present in the room when the music is made could somehow be less important than the person who wrote the road map. That is bullshit beyond measure. Literally every other “high art” form has moved past that. Shakespeare’s plays are most frequently performed in modern fashions, reflecting the director’s taste rather than the period of their composition. In literary criticism, Barthes proclaimed the death of the author 50 years ago. And yet, classical music circles are still crowded with ass-backward pedants who insist that the composers of the great symphonies must have the final say on their works. Even the notion of listening to a single, isolated movement rather than the whole work is considered sacrilege by some, because these pieces are regarded as holy texts rather than what they are: nothing more or less than indexes of their cultures. If this mothballed philosophy is allowed to continue for long, classical music will slink off to a corner and die, and nobody will miss it. I sure as hell won’t. So, when somebody like Max Richter or Colin Stetson comes along and offers an entirely new take on a work from this world, it is to be welcomed. (2) The works that most require this treatment are the ones held in the highest esteem. There’s plenty of music out there by living composers that hasn’t yet found the audience it deserves in its original form. And there’s plenty of overlooked music from past centuries. That stuff needs its first hearing before it’s given a reevaluation. So: rewrite The Four Seasons. Because I don’t give a fuck about it anymore, and neither should you. I don’t care if it’s a masterpiece; it’s broken. We broke it with overexposure. It’s not good anymore. Max Richter’s rewrite is better than Vivaldi’s original by default, because it’s new. (3) If there is a single work from the notoriously neglected late 20th-century repertoire that needs a similar treatment, it’s the Symphony of Sorrowful Songs. This piece became something close to a fad in the early 90s. Zinman’s recording sold a million copies. It’s in every movie. So, reworking Górecki is a solid idea. God’s work, really. (4) Colin Stetson’s adaptation is not very good. The parts that work best are the bits where it’s just him on multitracked saxes and other reeds. But, when the drums and guitars come in, things go off the rails. Stetson is clearly aiming for post-rock, but he hits much closer to “new age.” The third movement even borders on cheesy gothic metal territory, at times. The original symphony didn’t necessarily traffic in restraint, but this turns everything up to 11, and entirely lacks the self-awareness to critique its own kitschiness. The shimmery production doesn’t help matters. I do like bits of the second movement, but by and large this is a pretty damp effort. (5) I want there to be more like this. There are sure to be pedants who will dislike this on principle. I agree with them that it’s bad. But I also think they are idiots. They are boring zombies without insight of their own, mindlessly puking up rote recitations of concert hall orthodoxy. They are eating the necrotic bits off of a body that isn’t even quite dead yet. They are the enemy. It probably seems like I’m setting up a strawman to beat down. I am not. I have talked to these people. They are vile. (6) Colin Stetson, I applaud you. Do more of this. May it appeal to me more next time.

Tim Hecker binge: Virgins, Harmony in Ultraviolet, Mirages and Radio Amor — Tim Hecker’s got a new album out. I haven’t gotten around to it yet, but in anticipation, I figured I’d check out some of the catalogue. Virgins blew me away when it first came out, but it’s taken until now to listen through the other three albums I’ve had sitting on my shelf for some time. None are as good as Virgins, because they’re just not as confrontational. Virgins has some of the characteristics of Eno’s ambient music, but it definitely isn’t that: it’s a huge, commanding presence that dares you to ignore one second of it. That’s in spite of the fact that it has very little in the way of melody, and even less in the way of a beat. It’s also better than the other albums because it is a more seamless hybrid of live and electronic sounds. Virgins sounds present partially because it is largely composed of sounds that happened in a room at some point, rather than imaginary sounds that only ever existed on a computer. Nothing wrong with that, of course. But an album like Harmony in Ultraviolet, while good, pales in comparison to Virgins because the latter is so much more fascinatingly imperfect. Harmony, Radio Amor and Mirages are all generally more “ambient” than Virgins is, but all of them have an abrasiveness that prevents them from ever really fading into the background. Mirages is the best of the three, maintaining a bittersweet mood throughout, with implied harmonies and textures that seem to break apart as they form. Still: it’s homogenous compared to Virgins. I’m really looking forward to hearing Love Streams, because it sounds like Hecker is continuing to explore the electroacoustic direction he went in on Virgins. More on that next week, I’m sure.

Gonzales: Solo Piano — I have a gut response to Chilly Gonzales that I’m not proud of. It goes something like: “he’s not as clever as he thinks he is.” That’s never a good way to think about an artist. An artist is as clever as they are. How clever they think they are shouldn’t enter into the equation, even when they tout it constantly. Whether or not they live up to their own pronouncements is in the eye of the beholder. And, hearing this album for the first time, it’s hard to justify that kind of antipathy. These are intentionally simple, slight little pieces for the passive entertainment of whoever’s around. The recording itself is delightfully idiosyncratic: every imperfection in the specific piano that Gonzales is playing is amped up, from the heavy key click to the weird overtones in the high end. I like this. And I’d wager just about everybody would like it at least a little bit. Give it a shot.

NPR Music: The rest of the Austin 100 — If you didn’t download this when you had the chance, at least go and stream it. You’ll discover at least a few things you’ll like.

Games

EarthBound — Having exhausted my Steam purchases from the Christmas sale, it’s nearly time for me to embark on my second (and inevitably, third) playthrough of Undertale. But first, I figured I’d check out the acclaimed, weird little game that so much of it apparently riffs on. So far it is charming, innocuous, unexpectedly self-aware, and has too much RPG combat in it. I will persist, because enough interesting people seem to love this game that I feel like there must be more to it.

Podcasts

Reply All: “A Simple Question” — P.J. Vogt’s description of the inescapability of Verizon’s Fios advertizing in New York City is one of the best writing moments on this show so far. This show also features some of the best tape from a city council meeting that I’ve ever heard. Basically, Verizon is awful and this story is fantastic.

On the Media: “We Gotta Try Harder” — Those watching American politics in a state of confusion and despair should listen to OTM. It will mitigate against the confusion. The despair, alas, is inevitable. Here, though, Gladstone takes on Ghanaian journalism as well. I wish she’d pushed a bit harder in her conversation with the undercover journalist who has influenced policy and exposed crime in that country. He’s pretty astonishing, but only one ethics question? Come on, Brooke. Give the people what they want.

All Songs Considered: “A Conversation with Explosions In The Sky” — Nah, I’m not going to listen to this album. They say they were trying to make a “love it or hate it” record that nobody will think is only okay, but everything I’ve heard from it so far has been completely middle of the road. Maybe if people are still into it at the end of the year.

Sampler: “Crimble Bramble” — I think I’ve found the appeal of Sampler: when there are guests on the show from my favourite podcasts, and they’re there to talk about their favourite podcasts, it’s going to be interesting. This helped everything fall into place about P.J. Vogt and Alex Goldman. The fact that they listen to so many comedy podcasts says a lot about why Reply All is the way it is.

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “Small Batch: The Real Housewives of Potomac” — I really like Brittany Luse. The fact that I listened to this right after an episode of Sampler is just a coincidence, but I think the podcast gods are telling me to listen to For Colored Nerds. I will not, however, be watching The Real Housewives of Potomac.

Serial: “Present for Duty” — This season of Serial has been neither the most valuable radio I’ve heard in the past months, nor among the most interesting. But this episode, which poses the question: “Did American soldiers die searching for Bowe Bergdahl?” is very good. Honestly, I think that the best presentation of this story would have been a two-part (maybe three-part) episode of This American Life. Broadly, it would have focussed on the details in the first and last episodes of the season, with a few of the asides in the intervening episodes incorporated in truncated form. Koenig and her team should have been allowed to do the same amount of investigation and reporting that went into these 11 episodes, but made to tell the story in a more focussed way. Because, the tiny details of this story just aren’t as compelling as the details of season one’s story. Military bureaucracy is not as interesting as investigating possible alibis. By and large, Serial season two is a miss. It told some interesting stories, but it weighed them down with a lot of stuff that I just don’t think is important to know about Bergdahl, and which certainly isn’t interesting. All the same, they’re apparently done a chunk of season three already. Maybe it’ll work better. I’m not not looking forward to it.

On the Media: “Is This Food Racist?” — Having also heard the first episode of The Sporkful’s “Other People’s Food” series at the time of writing this (see below), I’m glad that Brooke Gladstone invited Dan Pashman on, if only to explicitly call bullshit on chef Rick Bayless for his total ignorance of white privilege. Not just his own privilege, mind, but the very concept of it. Disquieting.

The Sporkful: “Other People’s Food” — This is a five-part series that I can’t recommend highly enough. Dan Pashman explores how what we think about people affects how we think about their food. There are things in here that you likely won’t have thought about if you’re white and dumb, like me. Like, Americans aren’t willing to pay more than 30 bucks for Chinese food, and when they do, it’s shitty American-style Chinese food. But, they’ll pay a hundred dollars for great Japanese food. That’s in episode two. In episode three, Pashman eats apple pie with Joe McNeil of the Greensboro Four, who helped spark the movement that desegregated restaurants in the south. You should check this out. This is a few commutes worth of fun, thoughtful radio. Pick of the week.

Desert Island Discs, Archive 1991-1996: “Brian Eno” — Bless the BBC for making this archive available. This is what it says it is: notable people come on and play the records they’d take to a desert island. The podcast edition keeps the talking and shortens the music for rights reasons, which might actually make it better. Eno says he’s avoided choosing any records that he had something to do with, which certainly limits things. But it’s a good insight into just how omnivorous he’s always been.

Welcome to Night Vale: “The List” and “The Monolith” — Generally, I don’t like when Night Vale does continuity, but “The List” is based around one specific continuity reference that is unpredictable enough to be really clever. Really, though, I’m not even close to caught up with this, and I’m already feeling like it’s been on autopilot for a while. I keep listening in the hopes that something new will happen, and sometimes it does — like in the two specials I listened to a few weeks back. But by and large, this is all starting to feel the same.

Desert Island Discs: “Gloria Steinem” — Something a little more contemporary, now. This was weird. The interview was good, but not as good as Terry Gross’s from months ago, and it touches on several of the same topics. And given that this is not an interview with a musician, as the archival Eno episode was, the music really doesn’t seem to fit. I dunno about this. Let’s try one more, from the archive and see how that goes.

Desert Island Discs, Archive 1991-1996: “Douglas Adams” — There’s a moment in this where the interviewer, Sue Lawley, is asking Adams about his enthusiasm for computers. He goes on for a bit, and then she basically says “But do you really think they’ll replace the human brain?” And then you remember what 1994 was like. (I do, barely.) This is fun, but I do wish that rather than doing a straight-ahead biographical interview with interspersed records, they’d really dive into what the records mean to the person, in their life and in their creative work. This show seems like a (surprisingly long-lived) missed opportunity to really dig into music as an index for culture at large. It’s still kind of fun, and I’ll probably listen to more. But basically, meh. Also, Adams references that he was working on a Hitchhiker screenplay at the time. How amazing that it didn’t come out until eleven years later, only once Adams was quite substantially deceased.

All Songs Considered: “New Mix: Weezer, The Jayhawks, Colin Stetson, More” — I’ve heard almost no Weezer in my life, and when I heard this Weezer track, even I was like “wow, that’s Weezer.” Both of these hosts like that Colin Stetson thing more than me, but I really am glad they made space for it. It’s certainly interesting, if nothing else.

On the Media: “Behind the Panama Papers” — OTM is so good that first-rate material like this doesn’t even make it into their full shows. The most interesting thing about this is Gerard Ryle’s take on why the Panama Papers weren’t front-page news in America.

Radiolab: “Cellmates” — Ah! The Radiolab of old! For the first time in ages, Robert Krulwich is the key storyteller, with Jad Abumrad just sitting back and leaning into the role of comedically sceptical buzzkill. Plus, the mix is insane and has some great music in it. And crucially, the story is about a scientific insight (okay, theory) with implications so cosmic that no other show would touch it. I’m still going with The Sporkful for my podcast pick of the week, but I’d love to hear more like this.

Surprisingly Awesome: “Circle of Fifths” — Disappointment was inevitable. For all that I’ve railed against this show’s assumption that things are mostly boring, the circle of fifths actually is boring. At least to anybody who’s gone to music school, which, granted, is a small number of people. I really don’t know why I listened to this. But: they seem to have toned down the fake boredom significantly since last I listened. That’s promising, and indicates that I may eventually come to like this show in some form.

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “Batman V Superman and Pop Culture Objects” and “Best Bad Movies and a Quiz” — Thank you Chris Klimek, for helping me decide to be one of the twelve people who doesn’t see Batman v Superman. And, per the second episode: aww, they’re all so happy to have Trey Graham back. So am I, actually. But that quiz was not very entertaining. Ehh.

All Songs Considered: “What Song Changed Your Life?” — Bob Boilen isn’t the sort of person whose book I’d necessarily read. Basically, he’s a companionable guy with really good taste — the perfect tour guide through new releases. But not a writer. Still, I’m glad to have heard this extract from Your Song Changed My Life, even if it does tread willfully along the standard lines of a late 60s musical coming-of-age. (The song that changed Boilen’s life is “A Day in the Life,” because of course it is.) I fanboyed a little when he told the story of his first time in an NPR studio, at the invitation of a young up-and-coming producer named Ira Glass.  

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Omnireviewer (week of Feb. 7, 2016)

19 reviews, many good things:

Movies

Hail, Caesar! — I think this is the least good Coen brothers movie I’ve seen. I haven’t seen any outright bad ones, but Hail, Caesar! is hugely inconsistent. There are scenes that are totally brilliant — one near the beginning where Josh Brolin’s gregarious Hollywood producer talks theology with leaders from four religions is primo Coen. But for every scene like that, there’s an unfunny joke that goes on for ages. One of the problems here is that the Coens commit so wholeheartedly to every single one of the fragmented bits and plotlines they threw in. So, if one of them isn’t doing it for you, tough. You’re stuck in it for seven minutes, probably. I will say this: the Coens are the most politically inscrutable filmmakers working. This film’s attitude towards Communism is almost impossible to make out. To take that line of thought further would head into spoiler territory, so would somebody I know please go see this movie and have that conversation with me? Thanks.

The Big Short — This is possibly the saddest movie I’ve ever seen. Civilization is broken and we’re all hopelessly fucked. (To be less emotional about it, this is a big swing of a movie with an aesthetic all its own and lots of unlikely choices. Most of those choices are the right ones, but some of the jokes early on don’t land because of problems with the delivery or editing or something. I have problems with the infamous “Margot Robbie in a bubble bath” scene — how much irony does it take to offset decades of cinematic sexism? But on the other hand, I love that this movie begins as a big broad comedy that revels in its own excess like The Wolf Of Wall Street — to which Robbie is an obvious and intentional connection — only to do what The Wolf failed to do in the end: namely, to condemn the entire financial system in a miasma of sudden bleakness. The Big Short is messy and ambitious and mostly really good and everybody should go see it.)

Television

Doctor Who: “Paradise Towers,” episodes 2-4 — One of the biggest problems with the classic series is that every episode save for the last in a serial needs a cliffhanger. And, while the cliffhangers themselves are often delightful, their resolutions tend to be trite. The Doctor just kind of clevers his way out of a situation so that he can get on with the rest of the story. But when it’s Sylvester McCoy doing the clevering, it makes it easy to ignore the seams in the storytelling. Seriously, this guy is the most underrated of the Doctors by a mile. And everything else about this story is delightful as well. The cannibalistic grandmas are obviously the best part, but the main villain’s wonderful overacting comes in a close second. This is the period in the show’s history where they realized that the budgets aren’t going to increase, and neither is the audience, so they may as well do what they like. It’s all approached with a heavy dollop of irony, which manages not to overpower the actual brilliance of the story. There are actually worse places to start with classic Doctor Who than this, I’d expect.

Lost: “House of the Rising Sun” — There are problems with Sun and Jin’s storyline in early Lost, but they’re papered over by a pair of totally wonderful performances by Yunjin Kim and Daniel Dae Kim. Also, one of the real pleasures of these early episodes is seeing various cast members share scenes for the first time. This episode, it’s Charlie and Locke’s scenes that really pop.

Music

Kanye West: My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy — This is the album that got me into hip hop, and it’s still probably my favourite album of the past decade. (Run the Jewels 2 might be its only competition.) It’s basically psychedelic rap: a giant Dionysian pastiche of colours and lights and hazes and paranoia and regrets. (According to my taxonomy of psychedelia, Fantasy qualifies as a “Pepper.”) It’s a bit bloated, maybe. I’d lose “So Appalled,” cut a bit off “Devil in a New Dress,” and excise Chris Rock from “Blame Game.” But, better to have too much. And if Kanye’s ego makes him insufferable at times, it also gives him intense self-knowledge, which he calls up in every verse on this. It’s amazing to hear such a complex psychology reflecting on itself.

Literature, etc.

Alejandro Jodorowsky/Moebius: The Incal — I enjoyed this a lot, but I don’t know if I’d actually recommend it. I’m fascinated by Jodorowsky’s esotericism as it pertains to the Kabbalah and Tarot. But here, his belief system seems to mostly revolve around the idea that “there’s light and there’s darkness and you can’t have one without the other,” which is such a drug cliché of an observation that I can only roll my eyes. Much of the dialogue is terrible, and a lot of the sex in this seems to have been shoehorned in, just to ensure that we all know this is an “adult” comic, and only ends up making it seem adolescent. Also, in terms of sequential art technique, there are a lot of moments where it kind of seems like there are key story beats or transitions missing between panels — in a way that doesn’t seem intentional. Plus, there are instances on nearly every page where it’s unclear in what order to read the speech balloons. This all stems from bad decisions and inexperience on Jodorowsky’s part. Fortunately, he’s only half of the team. Moebius is a nearly peerless illustrator, and it’s almost worth picking up The Incal just to bask in the colours and details of the world he draws. Almost. If you have a relatively high threshold for sci-fi bullshit and new-agey nonsense, this is something you should probably check out.

Jorge Luis Borges: “Blindness” — I have a wonderful book called The Art of the Personal Essay that I’ve read just over half of. It is much better than its bland title would suggest: it is a selection of wonderful personal writing by some of the greatest authors in history — people like George Orwell and Virginia Woolf — edited by Phillip Lopate. I go back to it very occasionally and read a few of the essays I haven’t read before. This one is a wonderfully companionable account by Borges of being appointed director of a national library, ironically just as he’d gone blind. I had never read any Borges, having been slightly scared of him, but I think I may have been missing out and will add Ficciones to my already unmanageable reading list.

Hubert Butler: “Beside the Nore” — Another personal essay, this one by an Irish writer that more people should probably know. This is a short, simple account of several elements of old, rural life in a riverside town in Kilkenny. It is presented unpretentiously, without a framing device or thesis statement. It’s just some lovely writing about a charismatic place. At the very end, Butler appends a few extra sentences, to say that he believes local history to be far more important than national history, which has no impact on the vast majority of people — thereby justifying his entire enterprise. Really nice.

E.M. Cioran: “Some Blind Alleys: A Letter” — This is an essay about how insufferable writers are and how meaningless the international community of people of letters is. It’s about how only an incredibly egocentric person would dare take on a career as a writer, and about how narcissistic it is to assume that other people want to read about what you think. Hi there. You reading this? Good, then we’re fine.

Kieron Gillen/Jamie McKelvie: The Wicked and the Divine, vol. 3 — Now for some actual smart comics. I was wary of the idea that this entire trade volume would diverge from the main WicDiv story, but these issues featuring the supporting cast of the main story add such depth to the world of this comic. Each one is probably among the best stand-alone stories that Gillen and McKelvie have ever done. The issue featuring Woden (the jerk-ass Daft Punk god) is particularly impressive, being a sort of remix issue, made up of scenes from prior issues of WicDiv. Also, there is a cat goddess in this who looks like Rihanna but acts exactly like an actual housecat: getting distracted by laser pointers and such. A comic that does complex formal experiments and also has Rihanna getting distracted by laser pointers can only be a straightforwardly good thing. Pick of the week.

David Day: Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland Decoded — I read the introduction to this a while ago and got sidetracked. I’m still kind of sidetracked, honestly. But this is what I’m reading, now. The tiny bit of this I just read was fascinating — the politics of Christ Church College at Oxford is more compelling than you’d think.

Podcasts

Fresh Air: “‘Mad Max’ Director George Miller’” — Listening to this guy talk makes a bunch of connections become immediately clear. If it seemed incongruous that Mad Max and Babe were made by the same guy, consider the extent to which Babe is a conventionally Campbellian hero’s journey. If it seemed like The Road Warrior and Fury Road have no precedents in action movies, look beyond that to Buster Keaton’s The General. I’m disappointed that Terry Gross wasn’t around to do the actual interview. I’m sure she would have probed into his feminism more deeply. Still, Dave Davies acquits himself admirably. Anybody who likes Miller should check this out.

Serial: “Adnan Syed’s Hearing,” days 1-3 — I’m glad Sarah Koenig was there to report on Syed’s hearing, because she’s probably the most knowledgeable person about his case. But what this is actually going to do is remind everybody how much more invested they were in season one of Serial than season two. In any case, these three mini-episodes are great, and feature Koenig and Dana Chivvis speaking extemporaneously for longer than I think they ever have on the show — which is great, considering that they both know the case inside out. I’m still unconvinced of Syed’s innocence, but convincing people one way or the other has never been the goal of Serial, in spite of what certain critics might say.

All Songs Considered: “Andrew Bird Gets Personal” — This sounds like a great record, but wow, this is an awkward conversation. Bird does NOT want to talk about these songs. I’m excited to hear more of this considering Blake Mills is on guitar, and his guest spot with Vulfpeck last year was one of my favourite performances I’ve heard on a record in a while.

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “Small Batch Super Bowl 50” — All due respect to Beyoncé, but was I the only person who thought Bruno Mars stole the halftime show?

The Heart: “Ghost: Bobby” — A totally mundane breakup story that’s told well enough to be worthwhile. The sort of thing that only The Heart can do.

WTF With Marc Maron: “Danny Boyle” — Still catching up on episodes from December, apparently. But this is great. I like Maron with filmmakers. He’s such an insightful film geek that it’s easy for people like Boyle and Todd Haynes to talk to him.

Fresh Air: “Filmmakers Charlie Kaufman & Duke Johnson on ‘Anomalisa’” — “I have a tendency to read about syndromes,” says Charlie Kaufman near the beginning of this interview, to nobody’s surprise. I need to see Anomalisa.

WTF With Marc Maron: “Charlie Kaufman & Duke Johnson” — It’s interesting to hear Terry Gross and Marc Maron interview the same people about the same things. Since hearing that wonderful episode where Maron interviewed Gross, I’ve looked at them as two sides of the same coin. On one side, you get the bare-bones story of a thing from Gross, and on the other side you get self-psychoanalysis by proxy from Maron. It shouldn’t be about picking a winner, but in this case Maron wins. Apparently Kaufman was scared to go on this show because he was uncomfortable with how deep Maron probes. But Maron keeps this one relatively light, and just gives Kaufman the opportunity to be funny. It was also a really good decision to do a segment with Kaufman alone before bringing in Duke Johnson to talk about Anomalisa, which I really need to see. (Also, how weird to hear an ad for Blackstar that was clearly recorded before Bowie’s death but released after.) 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.