Tag Archives: Love and Radio

Omnibus (week of Sept. 10, 2017)

Greetings! 19 reviews.

Television

BoJack Horseman: Season 4 — There are four ongoing Netflix original series that I watch. Of those, I am a season behind on two of them: Orange is the New Black and Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. When seasons five and three of those series respectively dropped earlier this year, I decided I didn’t have time for them right that moment. But I dropped everything for BoJack Horseman. The last two seasons of this show have both been flawless. Each of them contains one or more episodes that I consider among the best television ever made. New BoJack is a run-don’t-walk cultural event. This season is extraordinary, but it does strike me as the first one to be slightly less enthralling than the last. Seasons two and three were blazingly effective because they presented one new set of circumstances after another for BoJack, gradually making it clear that no set of circumstances is sufficient to repair him. Season four takes a break from throwing new shit at BoJack to instead examine the old shit that got him to this place. It’s a logical move for a show that’s always been fascinated with the convergence of unlikely causes to produce unlikely effects. (Recall that this is the show that ended its last season by throwing all of its B-stories together into a bizarre culmination in which Mr. Peanutbutter saves an aquatic city from a huge mound of spaghetti.) But this new focus on the past also leaves open the question of whether there’s actually anywhere left for BoJack Horseman to go. But let’s look beyond the big-picture narrative stuff. What about the jokes? In that respect this season is at least as strong as any of its predecessors, with its language-based humour at a particular apex. The show’s linguistic pot runneth over to such an extent that one of its best gags gets relegated to a news ticker: “Kathmandu Cat, Man, Doe Man Canoe to Timbuktu.” Anything to do with the assonance-prone Courtney Portnoy is equally marvellous. The outright funniest stuff in the season generally revolves around Mr. Peanutbutter’s extremely ill-advised gubernatorial run, which brings him back into contact with his ex-wives Katrina Peanutbutter and Jessica Biel. (Biel plays herself with hilarious disregard for her real-life personal brand.) BoJack’s best episodes are often its most conceptual, and this season carries that on, with one standout being an episode in which the Peanutbutter residence collapses into the ground, burying a bunch of wealthy showbiz and politics types. Things go Lord of the Flies as quickly as you might expect. The other best episode in the season is as heartbreaking as “Underground” is jokey. As much as BoJack’s character arc decelerates this season, the supporting cast gets some devastating stuff, especially Princess Carolyn. The frame narrative of “Ruthie,” in which PC’s distant descendent in a far-off future tells the story of her esteemed ancestor’s worst day ever, turns out to be one of the most adventurous and saddest things the show has ever done. I dare say it’s more effective than the main tragedy that the show wants us to get invested in this season, which is the life story of Beatrice Horseman, née Sugarman. Previously, we’ve seen Beatrice almost entirely as a monster — a destructive presence in her son’s life. This season doesn’t so much humanize her as show how she’s a product of her circumstances: specifically, the oppressive upper-crust society of post-war America. We see this story play out in two episodes, the more effective of which is the season’s second episode, “The Old Sugarman House,” in which past and present are shown to play out simultaneously through the wonders of animation. It’s an almost theatrical effect: we repeatedly see our present-day cast in the same frame as characters from two generations previously, with only the story to differentiate between the two layers of reality that we’re seeing simultaneously. It’s a canny technique for illustrating the chains of cause and effect that so obsess this show. The show’s penultimate episode, “Time’s Arrow,” doesn’t fare so well. This one seems to be a particular hit with the critics, but I’m not convinced. The decision to show the episode’s events through the lens of the deteriorating mind of the now-senile Beatrice is a good one, but unlike in “Ruthie,” the mode of storytelling entirely outpaces the content of the story, which is rote and predictable in a way that this show usually isn’t. It doesn’t help that the season’s denouement revolves around Hollyhock, the season’s newcomer. Hollyhock is brilliantly performed by Aparna Nancherla, but she is more clearly a plot device than any other character in this show so far. She is the motivating factor for the show’s journey into BoJack’s family past. Given the comparative thinness of her characterization (thinner than the comparatively brief role of Penny, I’d wager), I found the central plot reveal at the season’s end a bit underwhelming. Still, this is only lacking by comparison to the two perfect seasons that precede it. At its most brilliant (“The Old Sugarman House,” “Ruthie,” “Underground” and “Hooray! Todd Episode!” which I somehow didn’t even get to in this wall of text) it is still among the best television being made today. At its least brilliant it’s only excellent. I halfway hope that season five will be the end for BoJack. I want a proper ending for this show, but I never want to see it lose steam. This remains my favourite thing Netflix has ever brought into existence. We’ll see if it maintains the title once Stranger Things season two comes out.

Movies

The Kid — Every so often I get a hankering for silent comedy. I haven’t seen The Kid since my film studies class in the third year of my undergrad. So I figured, why not revisit the Charlie Chaplin movie that I recall being my favourite during that brief period where I watched a ton of Charlie Chaplin movies? The reason I love The Kid is that it demonstrates how even canonized masters like Chaplin can make a very “first movie” kind of first movie. Chaplin had directed some classic shorts prior to this, but The Kid is his first feature. (Though, at under an hour, it barely qualifies by today’s standards.) This is the movie where Chaplin’s aspirations to be not just the greatest comedic entertainer of his generation, but also the new Charles Dickens are most obvious. It tells the story of a single mother who is forced to abandon her child, which unexpectedly ends up in the care of a wily tramp — Chaplin’s famous hatted, moustached character. And while the non-comedic scenes with the mother land with a thud compared to Chaplin’s own plotline, the genuine bond between the tramp and the kid is an undercurrent of genuine drama that fits remarkably well into a film that is also full of Chaplin’s famous physical comedy. I’ve heard Buster Keaton referred to as silent comedy’s resident modernist. His detachment certainly feels less of-its-time than Chaplin’s pathos. Still, for all his Dickensian tendencies, the tramp prefigures modern comedy in a remarkable way. We live in an era of comedy when comedic characters are expected to have the depth and internal consistency to function in dramatic settings as well. (Think of BoJack Horseman for half a dozen examples.) For all of his broad clowning, the tramp is one of the most subtle creations in all of comedy. And I daresay The Kid provides his defining moment: when the child he’s come to love is taken from him, his impulse is to escape his aggressors by taking to the city’s rooftops — a typically counterintuitive, and openly comical, move. But as he traverses the skyline in pursuit of the truck that’s taking his son away, he exudes desperation. It’s one of the most beautiful scenes ever. Take an hour and watch this. It’s ageless.

Rosemary’s Baby — Well, I’m going to see mother! We’ll see how that goes. (Ed. see below for how that went.) In the meantime I figured I should prepare by watching the classic movie that it supposedly draws heavily from. Polanski’s a creep and that has deterred me from really diving into his filmography. But this is a damned good movie. Mia Farrow’s performance is a welcome departure from the screaming hysterics of many classic female horror leads, though that’s partially down to the kind of horror movie this is — a slow-burning psychological one. It’s certainly a step up from Repulsion, the other Polanski apartment building horror movie I’ve seen. That movie’s portrait of sexual repression seems banal by comparison to this movie’s assertion that all of the men in its protagonist’s life actually are conspiring against her. Oh, and also a couple of fabulously batty old women. Ruth Gordon’s performance as the forcefully friendly senior citizen Minnie Castevet is maybe the best part of Rosemary’s Baby. Also, the ending is incredible. For a second I was a bit let down that the ambiguity of the film was washed away by a surge of “Hail Satans,” but that final shot of Mia Farrow rocking the crib of her demon child introduces an entirely new kind of ambiguity that wasn’t there before. Marvellous stuff. I might even swallow my distaste and rewatch Chinatown, now.

mother! — I saw this with my friend Sachi. Her immediate response at the end of the movie is the most appropriate review I can imagine of this, and that was to laugh hysterically for several minutes. Mother! is an aggressively fucked up movie. It begins as an Edward Albee-reminiscent black comedy of manners, and then it descends precipitously into a nightmare scenario so over-the-top that it’s impossible to take seriously. This, I am certain, is by design. From the moment that the exclamation point appears in the title card, mother! is arch and theatrical. Jennifer Lawrence and Javier Bardem give completely committed and sincere performances, but nothing else in the movie is like that. Once Ed Harris and Michelle Pfeiffer show up as a pair of oddly childlike uninvited guests, the movie crosses a Rubicon, and there’s no hope of dealing with it as character drama anymore. Interestingly, director Darren Aronofsky has essentially taken to the internet to explain the movie. A couple key remarks on Reddit have basically confirmed that Bardem = God, Lawrence = Mother Earth, Harris and Pfeiffer = Adam and Eve and the brothers Gleeson = Cain and Abel. I say “interestingly” because this doesn’t seem to me like the sort of thing you’d want to directly point out to your audience. Allegories are bland. They reduce stories that offer a whole world of possibility into one tidy interpretation. Suddenly, the disquieting scene where Bardem comforts a vomiting Harris while ostentatiously hiding a wound in Harris’s side can only represent the creation of Eve, stolen rib and all. Why would Aronofsky want this for his movie? Surely he’d rather see us puzzle through it, arriving at many disparate interpretations, the way we do with Eraserhead — a movie that this one evokes from time to time. I think the answer lies in the movie’s archness — in that anomalous exclamation point in the title. One of our key characters is an artist (the God one, obviously) and every single time the movie addresses his creativity, or the reception of his work, it devolves into clichés. We see him sit bolt upright in bed with inspiration exclaiming “Pen! Pen!” We hear a fan proclaim “I feel like these words were written… for me!” The movie goes out of its way to make God’s work appear ridiculous, and by extension his followers. To me, it seems like the movie is primarily commenting on the slipperiness of interpretation, particularly the sort of interpretation that attempts to reconcile the vastly complex into one internally consistent narrative (If you’ve been following Twin Peaks fandom this year, you’ll be familiar with this.) Mother! comments on the most high-stakes version of that practice: theology, and particularly the dunderheaded literalist sort. Fittingly, it culminates in a huge, gaudy apocalypse, tempting us to read it in dunderheadedly literalist fashion. That’s my take. I mean, I could be wrong. It’s entirely possible that I’ve gone too far down the rabbit hole in my attempts to justify the ways of Aronofsky to man. The real truth is just that I enjoyed the hell out of this movie, and I want it to be more than a banal Biblical allegory. In any case, mother! is completely bonkers crazy and you’ll probably feel a little cracked at the end. Good enough for me. Pick of the week.

Games

Everything — I played this for a frustrating half hour a few weeks ago, but it was only this week when I decided to actually get the settings adjusted so it works on my janky laptop. Once I got that sorted, I found this completely immersive. If you don’t know what this is, it is a game in which there is no specific objective, but which allows you to explore a vast world (many worlds, in fact), while playing as every object in the game, from animals to bacteria to inanimate objects to stars to planetary systems. Its basic contention is a simplistic one, familiar to anybody who’s ever heard a psychedelic rock album: everything is connected, and the whole universe is contained within its each and every component. The game expresses this partway through narration by the philosopher Alan Watts, something of a proto-hippie figure, though he might chafe at that characterization. Still, the actual experience of playing the game mitigates its potential heavy-handedness with a pleasant absurdity. Most of its playable characters aren’t actually animated. Rather, they move around by doing somersaults like a misshapen bicycle wheel tossed down a hill. It’s hard to accuse a game of ponderousness when you’re playing as a wooly mammoth and it’s flipping head over heels through a grove of palm trees. And that’s a conservative example. I spent a fair bit of time playing this as a pair of rubber boots. Because of the game’s mechanics, it is possible and encouraged to make these rubber boots dance around like any living creature would. And as a result of this dancing, they reproduce and make little baby rubber boots. It’s a lovely construction, worth far more than the hour or so I’ve spent on it, and I do hope I make it back to really unravel its secrets. Because it’s also incredibly relaxing, and I need something like that in my life right now.

Music

Sigur Rós: Takk… — I have a theory that Sigur Rós are Coldplay for snobs. Take a good listen to “Hoppípolla.” I don’t necessarily mean that as a dig, though. This is the Sigur Rós album where the memories live, for me. It’s the only one I heard when it first came out, and I listened to “Mílanó” obsessively. It’s a lusher album than either of the ones that precedes it and a more generous one — fitting for an album titled “Thanks.” A beautiful record, and a lovely trip down memory lane.

Movies

Wes Anderson’s short films and commercials — After last week’s marathon of (most of) the features, I figured I may as well be a completist about it. It is not at all jarring to see Anderson’s distinctive style in advertisements. Lavish set decoration and obsessively disciplined framing are advertising standbys anyway. His best ad is the Christmas-themed Darjeeling Limited riff starring Adrien Brody that he made for H&M last year. But that only holds if you don’t count the Prada-financed short Castello Cavalcanti, which is my favourite of his short films. It stars Jason Schwartzman as a racecar driver who fails dismally at his sport (“the steering wheel was screwed on backwards,” he whines) and coincidentally crashes in his ancestral Italian village, among a bunch of distant relations he’s never heard of. There’s a hint of that old story about the Sicilian village that waited in vain for the homecoming of Joe DiMaggio in this. It’s nice. I prefer it to Hotel Chevalier, which is a direct prequel to The Darjeeling Limited, so it’s probably better in context. But that leaves Bottle Rocket, the black and white short that Anderson’s debut feature was based on. It’s a fun artifact, with a slightly different and equally funny take on the scene where Bob won’t stop fooling around with the gun. But most of its scenes also appear in the feature, in substantially refined form. Anyway, this is a fun deep dive, if you’re in the mood for the untapped depths of the Wes Anderson barrel. That sounds pejorative. And I guess it kind of is, because Moonrise Kingdom these are not. But they’re fun.  

Podcasts

Imaginary Worlds: “Technobabble” — Helen Zaltzman sounds slightly half-hearted about this collaboration. But she’s the right person to bring in for a discussion about made-up words.

Mogul: “Behind the Beats” Parts 1 & 2 — Jeez, Mogul’s really taking a victory lap. Still, these episodes are a fun look into the nuts and bolts of making a big, glossy Gimlet show.

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “Outlander,” “People We’re Pulling For” & “The Deuce and What’s Us Happy” — Outlander is clearly not for me, but this conversation about it is goooood fun. Also, I think I’m going to watch The Deuce, but man oh man I bet it’ll be a slog.

Showcase from Radiotopia: “Ways of Seeing #5 – POWER” — This has been a mixed bag of a series for me so far. The first episode, about how digital recording has shaped our perception of time, was ingenious. Much of what has come after is obvious to anybody who’s thought about digital media distribution for any amount of time at all. This episode in particular is about algorithms, and the way that powerful companies hook us into filter bubbles for their own financial gain. This is all correct, but it seems banal when it’s stated outright in a polemical fashion. Because it’s something we all know.

StartUp: “Sex Dot Con” & “Sell the Apartment, Keep the Startup” — The CEO whisperer makes me really uneasy. I feel like this guy is a snake oil salesman who found his mark with Gimlet. Also, the episode about sex.com is kind of unsatisfying.

The Kitchen Sisters Present: “The Galveston Hurricane of 1900: No Tongue Can Tell” — There’s nothing like archival tape. One of these days I’m going to listen to the whole Kitchen Sisters archive, but that is a daunting task. This timely rerun of an episode about the most deadly natural disaster in American history is really moving. It’s nice just to know that somebody captured the voices of people who lived through it.

Radiolab: “Radiolab Presents: Anna in Somalia” — This promo of Rough Translation is a lot more convincing than its marketing campaign, which makes it sound noble and dull. This is the story of men who stayed sane in prison by inventing an alphabet of taps — like Morse code, but not that — and tapping the whole of Anna Karenina on the walls. It’s a remarkable story. Pick of the week.

99% Invisible: “Coal Hogs Work Safe” — This is a story about coal miners who love stickers. Take it or leave it.

Code Switch: “It’s Getting (Dangerously) Hot in Herre”  — This podcast is doing the good work again, with stories that demonstrate why “Mother Nature doesn’t discriminate” isn’t actually true.

On the Media: “Look What You Made Me Do” — Just Brooke Gladstone this week, and it’s a fun one. Particular highlights include segments on the alt right’s appropriation of medieval imagery, and Taylor Swift’s uncertain political allegiances.

The Memory Palace: “Sometimes the Rain Just Doesn’t Stop” — A flood-themed episode for a stormy week. I like that Nate DiMeo does episodes like this, that tie into devastating events, from time to time. Generally, I appreciate The Memory Palace as an escape from the ruthless churn of current events, into the world of historical context. Still, most episodes of The Memory Palace resonate strongly with contemporary discourses, even if they aren’t hooked to contemporary stories. That’s what DiMeo does, even in the episodes that are obviously responses to a specific event. This is in a category with his episode after the Pulse Nightclub shootings. And although it isn’t as beautiful a piece of writing as that, it’s as beautiful a gesture.

Love and Radio: “Seventy Weeks” — An old episode, but one I hadn’t heard before. This is about a pimp’s son who became a preacher who became a pimp who became a life coach. He’s a thorny figure, as are most people who appear on Love and Radio. You get the sense that he has equal potential to bust some harmful myths about prostitution, but also obscure some important and unpleasant truths.

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Omnibus (week of Aug. 27, 2017)

Okay, look. I know I said I was cutting back my media intake. And, I know, I know, this week’s instalment doesn’t seem to reflect that at first glance. But let’s break down what we have here: two TV episodes, two movies, and one album. That’s not much, really. Also 39 podcasts.

No, shush. Let me explain. It’s my turn to talk.

First, 39 is not a number you can compare to my previous review counts because every week, including this week, I condense binge-listens down to a single review. So if you’re looking at that figure and thinking it’s a new record, ergo a new low, you are not strictly speaking correct. To further clarify, I am not including the two trailers I reviewed in that calculation. Okay, that doesn’t help my case.

But honestly, it’s not as hard as you’d think to get through that many podcasts. I listened to most of those 39 episodes in one day. I just spent a whole day cleaning my apartment and running errands, and I listened to, like, 30 podcast episodes. They’re not that long, mostly. Put them on 1.5x speed and they fly by. So, like, cut me a break, okay? Not even that many podcasts. Don’t give me that crap.

Anyway, 21 reviews. Not so much, in the grand scheme.

Oh also here’s the latest CBC segment. I’m at 2:12:52.

Television

Twin Peaks: The Return: Part 16 — Good lord. I’ve been griping about Cooper’s lack of awakeness for weeks, but I didn’t realize how I’d react when it finally happened. There were tears. It was beautiful and ugly. Not only does Cooper wake up in this episode, but he wakes up and proves himself to be as decent and lovable as ever. It would have been easy to wake Cooper up and have him not recognise Janie E or Sonny Jim. But instead, he wakes up and in spite of the fact that he is not Dougie Jones, he still recognizes himself as part of this family. I love Dale Cooper. I love him. And I suspect that when I watch this season of Twin Peaks again (and I will), it will be substantially less frustrating with the knowledge that Cooper wakes up in time for the finale. There’s much else to love here, including the fact that Jerry Horne’s plotline is actually consequential. I have been a fan of Jerry Horne from the moment he first interrupted a joyless family dinner with his Norwegian sandwiches. And I’ve generally thought that the stoner comedy of his latter-day plotline is one of the more compelling updates of a classic character in the series. (“I am not your foot” is the most hysterical moment of the season.) I never suspected that he’d cross paths with Dark Cooper, but here we are. And then we have Laura Dern’s best performance all season, including her trip back to the Black Lodge, where she proves to be massively more self-aware than Douglas Jones was in this same situation. God, I’ve loved Laura Dern in this. I do hope we get to meet the real Diane. I’m sure she’s lovely. And then there’s that ending. Eddie Vedder’s performance of “Out of Sand” is a welcome diversion from the ultra-modern styles of recent Roadhouse performances, including Lissie and the Veils who were both brilliant. Vedder’s presence here is a welcome reminder that the horror of Twin Peaks is an analogue horror: it is straightforwardly magical, and not technological. He’s the perfect choice for an episode like this, short of Jack White or Tom Waits. I have no idea what to make of the final image of Audrey looking in a mirror. Perhaps the anoraks are right and she’s been in an institution all this time? We’ll see. Anyway, this wasn’t the best episode of the new Twin Peaks. That will remain Part 8. But it was the most satisfying one since the two-part premiere. Pick of the week.

Game of Thrones: “The Dragon and the Wolf” — Look, I understand folks’ reservations about this season. I see how it might disturb some that teleportation now appears possible, and ravens are basically email. I get that the show’s vaunted moral ambiguity has been to some degree flattened into a struggle against an unambiguous evil. And I actually agree that the Arya/Sansa plot doesn’t make any damn sense. (For me, the worst thing about this season is Arya getting sucked out of her own awesome storyline into her sister’s perpetually shit one.) But damn if I haven’t loved this a hell of a lot more than the previous two seasons. And that really is mostly because of the accelerated storytelling. The thing I never really appreciated about previous seasons of Game of Thrones was its penchant for delay, having cross-continent journeys take ages, simply out of fealty to continuity — or more charitably, to give characters like Tyrion and Varys an excuse to have high-minded discussions while doing nothing. (Compare/contrast with Twin Peaks: The Return, which is also all about delay and is similarly frustrating, but which also seems to leverage frustration for aesthetic purposes. This might be an easier comparison to make when Twin Peaks’ season is done.) And while I’ve always preferred the version of Game of Thrones that consists of people in rooms (or on boats) talking about power to the one where people get beheaded constantly and set aflame, I appreciate how comparatively decisive the characters in this show are this season. We get the political interest of Jon Snow’s unwillingness to bend the knee to Daenarys because of his duty to those who made him king in the North. But crucially, we also get a relatively speedy resolution of that plotline, once Jon realizes there’s a smart way and a dumb way to go about this. In this finale, we get Cersei refusing to aid the fight against the Night King for political reasons also related to Jon Snow. This was always a position she would have to at least budge on, if not relent entirely. So it’s nice to see that happen within the space of one episode. Seeing characters ponder their decisions for longer doesn’t make the problems seem more complex. It just makes the story slower. This season seems like the point where the writers realized that. And let’s talk about the army of the dead. True, they are the least subtle thing the show’s done aside from Joffrey, Ramsey and Euros. And I can see the argument that their prevalence to some degree negates several seasons’ worth of politicking south of the wall, because now there’s a common enemy that’s more evil than anybody. But firstly, this has always been where the show was heading. That’s been clear from the first time anybody said “winter is coming.” And secondly, if the writers know what they’re doing, and I think they do, they’ll use this existential threat as a means to pressurize the show’s various power struggles, rather than to negate them. I’d have less hope for this show if Cersei were sincere in her pledge to fight alongside Jon and Daenerys. But the fact that she isn’t bodes well for the final season. I haven’t been looking forward to the next season of Game of Thrones this much, maybe ever.

Movies

The Seventh Seal — Maybe it’s because of Twin Peaks, but I had a sudden urge to watch something by an arty, acclaimed film auteur that I hadn’t seen before. There are many such movies in the world, and unlike some of the great classics of English literature, I’m still actively compelled to watch them sometimes, in spite of being five years removed from my undergrad, when this sort of behaviour is to be expected. The Seventh Seal, then. My first Bergmann. I was expecting something theatrical and dour. Theatrical, I got. But not dour. This movie, which is about the inevitability of death and the cruel silence of God, is surprisingly swift on its feet. Sure, it has that chilling scene of a white-faced Death playing chess on the beach with the Three-Eyed Raven. But it also has eminently quotable bits of invective like “Listen, you big, misguided ham shank!” and “You stubble-headed bastard of seven mangy mongrels! If I were in your lice-infested rags, I’d feel such boundless shame about my own person that I would immediately rid nature of my own mortifying countenance!” Plus, it contains the first reference in any medium that I’ve heard of lingonberries, which are delicious and known to my Newfoundland extended family as partridgeberries. So, not all doom and gloom. The characters in The Seventh Seal, both comedic and dramatic, seem like characters in a fable. That’s what makes it so effective to me: it’s a story told with very simple techniques and without a lot of character interiority, which nonetheless deals with very complex themes. Death and God are unknowable mysteries to even the smartest of people. The characters like the ones in this film don’t stand a chance. Of course, it’s also one of those movies you can’t watch without also watching all of its future parodies and homages in your head. I do try to approach classics like this on their own terms, but I lost track of the number of times Monty Python and the Holy Grail superimposed itself on the picture I was actually seeing. It doesn’t detract from the experience, though. Also, being that this is a fable about people who are waiting to die, I couldn’t help but wonder if this had some influence on The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask. That game also features heroes, lovers, childlike grotesques, and simple folk just trying to make a living, all of whom are intensely aware of their imminent demise. Substitute the black plague for a huge, angry moon and you’re most of the way there. This lives up to its reputation completely. I’m looking forward to seeing it again, but there’s a lot of Ingmar Bergmann to get through, so I might leave it for awhile.

Fantastic Mr. Fox — I feel a serious Wes Anderson binge coming on. There are still a couple of his movies that I haven’t seen, and those I have are eminently re-watchable. (Except maybe The Darjeeling Limited. Maybe even that.) This closes my one gap between The Royal Tenenbaums and The Grand Budapest Hotel. Given the context I have, which is all but his first two movies, this seems clearly to be the first film in the career phase he’s in right now. The sensitive, depressive protagonists of Tenenbaums, Life Aquatic and Darjeeling are replaced by the ebullient Mr. Fox: a precursor to the precocious children of Moonrise Kingdom and the irrepressible Monsieur Gustave of Grand Budapest. None of these protagonists are especially similar, but all of them have a quiet despair or longing that lurks behind a shimmering exterior and motivates them. They are not characters defined by trauma or ennui, like in Anderson’s earlier films. (Just try to imagine George Clooney in any of Anderson’s earlier films.) A fair bit of the online chatter about Fantastic Mr. Fox interprets it as a response to criticism that his style had calcified. I can sort of see that but I probably wouldn’t have arrived there myself because I don’t agree with the premise of that argument. The Darjeeling Limited isn’t my favourite, but I think The Life Aquatic, Anderson’s most poorly-reviewed film, is a beautiful movie that excels The Royal Tenenbaums, at least for pathos. Still, Fantastic Mr. Fox inaugurated a period in Anderson’s filmography that I think will likely be seen as his imperial phase, decades from now. Oh, I suppose I should also talk about the actual movie. The best thing about this is the animation. One of my favourite things about Wes Anderson is always how hand-made everything looks, so it stands to reason that he’d do stop-motion animation exactly the way it should be. It’s got a great cast of characters, with Clooney’s Mr. Fox and Jason Schwartzman’s underachieving Ash Fox stealing most of the show. But Michael Gambon drops in as the main villain, which is always nice. Still: save for Clooney and Meryl Streep, the performances in this have more in common with the slightly listless character of your typical Wes Anderson supporting performance than they do with animated children’s entertainment. That makes me wonder how this would actually play for an audience of children. I don’t suppose it specifically has children in mind, but it does pointedly use the word “cuss” in place of every swear. It’s solid all-ages movie-making, but I’m not sure Wes Anderson could go toe-to-toe with Pixar for pleasing everybody, all the time. I loved it, though.

Music

Crosby, Stills & Nash: Crosby, Stills & Nash — As I write this I am stranded on a bus in traffic on a bridge. This vehicle is basically a house right now. And a poorly air conditioned one at that. The soothing sounds of CSN’s three-part harmony is all that’s keeping me from losing my shit. I haven’t heard this all the way through before and while it sure doesn’t hold up to comparisons with Deja Vu, which has the advantage of Neil Young, it’s a solid record. Say what you like about the songwriting, e.g. that it is only intermittently excellent, the real genius of this is that it foregrounds group singing while using solo vocals as an embellishment. That wasn’t unprecedented in pop music by any stretch. But I’m at pains to think of a precedent in rock. Anyway, this was basically a side trail I decided to take in my (slowly progressing) trip through the complete works of Neil Young. Glad I’ve heard it, but I’ll probably only revisit “Judy Blue Eyes.”

Podcasts

Radiolab: “Where the Sun Don’t Shine” — Neither here nor there. Radiolab has had a profound enough influence over my personal and professional life that I rue the day when I don’t feel compelled to listen to every episode, but I fear that day will soon be upon us.

Pop Culture Happy Hour: Three-week catch-up — I have no insights about this, aside from that it’s really satisfying to listen to a bunch of it at a time. Definitely check out the Game of Thrones episode if you’ve finished the season. It elevates Glen Weldon from panelist to host, in which capacity he is rollicking good fun, and it features a variety of perspectives and levels of obsessiveness.

The Memory Palace: Two bonus episodes — The episode called “Relics” is probably the best piece of sponsored content I’ve ever seen. It’s just straight up an episode of The Memory Palace, but it was commissioned by a hotel to be made about the fascinating history of the surrounding area. I hate sponsored content, but this is a surprisingly elegant example. And the following episode is real good fun. Nate DiMeo reruns an old episode, then plays a new version in Brazilian Portuguese, then plays an episode of The Allusionist with Helen Zaltzman that’s about the translation process. Fascinating stuff, especially given that the translator in question has also dealt with Joyce, Foster Wallace, and Pynchon. Add DiMeo to the canon, how about. Nice.

99% Invisible: Episodes 270-272 — The stethoscope episode is a good example of what attracted me to 99pi in the first place: the story of a well-known thing. Its rise and fall. Lovely. “The Great Dismal Swamp” is a more involved episode, and a less specifically design-focussed one, but it’s about escaped slaves who rejected white society completely by hiding in a hostile environment, so it’s compelling listening. “Person in Lotus Position” is about the process by which emojis get approved. It is therefore one of two stories I’ve heard about emojis in the past week. More shortly.

The Outline World Dispatch: “Inside jobs & song meanings” — This isn’t the first episode of this I’ve heard, but it is the first I’ve reviewed, because I once had dreams of producing a podcast for these guys: one which a colleague and I are now producing by our dams selves. Anyway. World Dispatch is fundamentally different from The Daily, though both are daily(ish) current affairs programs. The difference is that The Daily is about the most important news of the day, as interpreted from the newsroom of the New York Times. This show, on the other hand, is about what’s going through the minds of writers at The Outline: a pointedly non-news-hooked publication that I admire in general and often like. This episode is a slight one, focussing on the then and now opinions of a conspiracy theorist and the origins of SongMeanings.com, which is a site I used to really love. But its slightness would make it a good corollary for The Daily, which I haven’t been listening to this week. Still, bet they pair well. I’ll try that.

The Heart: “Bodies” episodes 1 & 2 — I don’t know how The Heart manages to put its seasons so close together. I know they make fewer episodes in a given year than lots of shows, but they seem so much more thoughtful and fussed over than just about anything else out there. This season is off to a particularly good start. The second episode of this, which will also serve as the premiere episode of Jonathan Zenti’s podcast Meat, is particularly outstanding. This remains the show you most need to listen to if you don’t.

Showcase from Radiotopia: “Ways of Hearing” episodes 2-4, plus Song Exploder special — Ways of Hearing is proving to be a mixed bag for me. It’s thoughtful and thought provoking, but I feel that it has a far clearer sense of what’s been lost over time than gained. (It focusses on the sea change in culture induced by the introduction of digital recording.) The “Space” episode is probably both the best episode of the show so far, and the most myopic. On one hand, it features a truly remarkable discussion of acoustics as an experienced phenomenon. It explains how Radio City Music Hall was a revolutionary innovation, because that hall is essentially non-reverberant: it is designed so that all of the sound you hear comes through the amplification. (Host Damon Krukowski demonstrates this by doing an interview in the space, which sounds like it was done in a tiny carpeted studio. It’s remarkable.) The new phenomenon of earbuds are treated as an extension of this: now the walls of the auditorium are our heads. Now, I’m normally deeply sympathetic to narratives that point out what’s been lost because of technological change. But this one doesn’t wash with me. To me, the ability to turn my own head into a private auditorium by inserting earbuds is quite simply a necessity for survival. I wrote about this by way of insinuation in my review of Baby Driver: I simply could not get through the social anxiety of any given week without the freedom to disengage from the world in this way. I would not feel fully myself without this capacity. Moreover, the ability to hear music as if it is taking place in your own head is the most intimate experience of music possible. What you lose in connection with your fellow human when you listen with earbuds, you gain in connection to the sound. As a classical music enthusiast, I occasionally butt heads with other classical fans who prefer a certain old-school style of recording where you get a lot of sound from the reverberation of the room. This, to me, is dishonest to the way that people experience music on record. If you are not literally in the same room as the musicians as they are playing, you don’t process music as documentary evidence of a sound that happened in a room somewhere; you process it as sound happening in your head, now. This is an immediacy to be taken advantage of, not fought against. Still, for all that I disagree with Krukowski’s position, I really admire his argumentation. The other episodes are less thoughtful than this, but the Song Exploder crossover is good fun for fans of that show.

Code Switch: Three-week catch-up — I was media detoxing in Newfoundland when Charlottesville happened, so I’m still catching up on some of the (now outdated) takes on that event from my most trusted sources. This is as good as it gets. It’s still worth going back to the pertinent Code Switch episodes to make sense of the nonsense. The episode “The Unfinished Battle In the Capital Of The Confederacy” is especially worthwhile, as it puts this whole debate about statues into context.

Gimlet trailers: Uncivil & StartUp Season 6 — Exciting things coming up at Gimlet. Mostly Uncivil. That show looks like it’s going to be great. StartUp season six I’m less sure of.

Criminal: “Carry A. Nation” — Ah, Criminal. The most perennially underappreciated podcast. This is about a temperance advocate who went around smashing bars with her hatchet. It is wonderful.

Imaginary Worlds: “Future Screens Are Mostly Blue” — This is actually a back episode of 99% Invisible that I hadn’t heard before, featuring now former producer Sam Greenspan. It’s a fascinating look at the design flaws of future interfaces in science fiction movies. So, listen to this if you’re a huge (beautiful) nerd.

The Moth: “Nate Charles & Adam Gopnik” — Worth it for Gopnik’s story about trying to take his son to a steam bath.

A Piece of Work: Episodes 6-10 — An eminently bingeable (obviously) show about how fun it is to look at art. Abbi Jacobson’s MoMA-produced show has been one of the highlights of this podcast season. I have never wanted to look at pictures and sculptures more than do after having heard this. Funny, smart, brilliant stuff.  

Love and Radio: “Reunion” — A good but not extraordinary episode of Love and Radio. This is about a mother who was forced to give up her son for adoption, only to be reunited years later and feel unexpected sexual desire towards her biological son. If that sounds like something from the Maury Povich show, well it was. You’ll hear the clips to prove it. Some of Love and Radio’s journeys into the very taboo are extremely enlightening. Others are simply compelling. This is in the second category. Still good.

Homecoming: Season Two — In its second season, the podcast world’s first star-studded show earns its pedigree. Season one of Homecoming didn’t do much for me. That’s probably in part because I had recently finished Limetown, which is by any reasonable standard a better-written, more thoughtful and scarier fiction podcast than Homecoming. And, it has absolutely no movie stars in it. No Catherine Keener, no Oscar Isaac, not even any David Cross. I was never entirely sure what made Homecoming so special. Why did this show get the spangly cast? It’s not like Oscar Isaac’s never been offered a more compelling role than Walter Cruz. I stand by that assessment of season one. But season two is an entirely different beast, and it’s an entirely more accomplished show. Part of this is because they’ve amped up the comedy. Season two is as much a farce as a suspense story, where the fact that some characters know more than others is used not just for the purpose of intrigue, but for pathetic fallacy as well. David Schwimmer’s Colin Belfast gets a meatier role this season, which is great because his total unscrupulousness is a big part of what makes this season so much more exaggerated, more heightened and funnier than the last one. We also get more Amy Sedaris, which is always good. And we get Chris Gethard, playing hilariously against type as a would-be alpha male who runs a firing range. Last year, I would have placed this hysterically expensive-seeming show among the lower half of Gimlet’s offerings. No longer. This is now a very solid show. Pick of the week.

StartUp: “The Domain King” — It’s an alright story, sure. But I don’t know how much longer I can force myself to be interested in these kinds of business stories. It’s not for me. StartUp, like Radiolab, occupies a special place in my relationship with the podcast medium. But I don’t know if I can sustain this much longer.

Omnibus (week of Aug. 6, 2017)

Greetings from Clarenville, NFLD! I was on a red eye flight last night and I am delirious and I don’t know what time it is. Anyway, I anticipate next week’s instalment being substantially less well populated to this one.

23 reviews.

Movies

Big Trouble in Little China — Good lord, what a thing. I wrote last week in my Dunkirk review about my favourite experiences in a movie theatre, and how that list is distinct from my favourite movies. I think this now joins the ranks of Mad Max: Fury Road and Avatar in the former category. I saw it at the Rio with a friend who is, I would imagine, a bit more inclined toward schlocky action than I am — and definitely more inclined towards John Carpenter. And the crowd that gathered for this was thoroughly in the tank for this movie — I daresay it was impossible not to have fun in that theatre. I doubt it would have struck me as anywhere near as entertaining if I’d watched it at home, because its value is a sort of value that I don’t see by default — I need other people to help bolster my enthusiasm. I don’t mean to suggest here that the movie itself is anything other that brilliant. It’s just not brilliant in a way I would have noticed on my own. The basic premise of the movie is “cast one white dude as the supposed hero, then have him be a hilariously useless dolt throughout.” This is a wonderful thing to watch, because Kurt Russell’s performance is completely committed: he’s John Wayne, loudly blundering through somebody else’s movie. He trips over his own dick in deeply white American fashion at the very beginning of the climactic battle scene and never regains his poise, while the movie’s huge ensemble of Asian martial artists flies through the air all around him. That’s the juxtaposition that makes the movie so satisfying: the fights are genuinely fantastic and a ton of fun to watch, but the story, characters and dialogue feel no need to live up to the seriousness of the choreography. I loved the shit out of this, and will be liberally repurposing the line “Hey, I’m a reasonable guy, but I’ve just experienced some very unreasonable things” to my own ends.

Music

Pink Floyd: The Early Years 1965-1972 — I’ve really enjoyed hearing legendary BBC DJ John Peel as a beloved supporting character in this box set’s story. The fifth volume features his best moment yet, where his announcement to a live audience that “This is Radio One” is met with a huge cheer, his continuation “on medium wave” is met with an even bigger cheer, and his tossed off self-introduction, “And this is John Peel…” is met with a positive torrent of appreciation. “Ah, you blew it,” he tells them. “You did it all wrong.” This guy was everything good about public broadcasting. This single disc collection from around the time of Meddle, arguably the first great Pink Floyd album (though I’m not arguing that) is dominated by the 1971 Peel session in front of a live crowd. It contains a surpassingly good “Fat Old Sun,” which has been extended to include not just the classic guitar solo, but also an uncharacteristically blazing feature for Rick Wright on organ. “One of These Days” is preceded by Peel reporting to the audience that Roger Waters considers this instrumental to be a “poignant appraisal of the current social situation,” which is exactly the sort of thing his detractors would think he means sincerely. But Peel clearly recognizes the game Waters is playing which is “let’s see if I can make John Peel say something dumb and look like a knob on his own show.” Peel doesn’t fall for it. “Make what you will of that,” he says, with a nearly audible roll of his eyes. He also announces that Pink Floyd were evidently dissatisfied with their label’s release of “Embryo” on the Picnic sampler, because it was basically a demo. But he doesn’t explain why they continue to make it a major part of their live set. It’s not a good song, in any version. The session culminates in a complete live “Echoes,” which pales in comparison to the earthshaking Pompei recording (I understand that’s included on the following volume) but it’s still a lot of fun to hear the track through the ears of an audience who likely hasn’t heard it before. (Meddle wasn’t released until a month later.) That’s what I’ve enjoyed about listening to this set, and I imagine that’s part of what more casual fans might not understand about why a huge set of outtakes and curios like this appeals to me: listening to The Early Years isn’t like listening to an album, or even a live album. It’s like listening to an enormous, comprehensive, narration-free documentary about the creative development of Pink Floyd, and the relationship they had with their audience prior to their enormous celebrity. That’s a really compelling story to me, and it’s part of why the Peel sessions are such consistent highlights of the set. The only track on the disc not to come from the Peel session is a segment from the jams that led to the composition of “Echoes,” titled “Nothing, Pt. 14.” It’s an amusing listen primarily because it finds the band toying with the section of the song that would eventually be the leadup to its climax, but they clearly haven’t devised that climax yet. So, in retrospect it’s almost hilariously dissatisfying. But it really emphasizes what’s so impressive about “Echoes,” which is that it clearly is a collection of several initially unrelated ideas that have been massaged together in a way that works as a singular journey. It’s the moment when the fact that three quarters of the band are former architecture students is most clear. The sixth volume (the final one to be available on Apple Music) is both the most musically satisfying and least narratively interesting of the set. These effects both arise for the same reason, which is that all of the music included has been officially released in some fashion before. It’s unclear to me why the compilers of this set decided to include Obscured by Clouds in its entirety, since surely the vast majority of people interested in buying this would have it already. But it has been newly remixed, and has never sounded better. The thing that feels like it’s missing from this set more than anything is live performances of the Obscured by Clouds material. At this point, we’ve gotten to hear music from all of their other albums as performance pieces, but we don’t get a picture of what this stuff sounded like in concert. Presumably, including that would have taken the compilers over their cutoff line of January 1, 1973, and at that point the absence of Dark Side of the Moon material would seem unnatural. So, I get it, mostly. It’s just another one of those things that makes me hope we get another box set like this for the years from 1973-2014 — a far vaster span of time, but with only one more album than this box’s span. There’s no better way that this set could have ended than with the first digital audio release of Live at Pompeii. Aside from being a magnificent performance, and one of the best things in the Pink Floyd catalogue, the documentary film that the audio comes from is the defining document of the tail end of Pink Floyd’s relative obscurity. It finds them performing material from the whole of the transitional period this set documents: from “A Saucerful of Secrets” to “Echoes.” And it also finds them in the process of recording The Dark Side of the Moon, which would make them one of the biggest bands in rock history. This is narratively rich territory, and it’s a damn good live record, too. It’s beyond me why it was apparently included in the box set as an afterthought, because it might be the best thing in it. The Early Years 1967-1972 has been a joy to listen to. Even with all of the repeated performances of the same track, the ephemeral nature of many of the recordings, and early Pink Floyd’s tendency towards obscurantism, I never once found it tedious. (Okay, maybe once: on the Atom Heart Mother-focussed disc.) It is maybe the most vital collection of rock curios ever released.

Olivia Chaney: The Longest River — In preparation for the Decemberists concert (which as I’m writing this will be happening tonight) I thought I’d check out their opener’s solo material. To recap: Chaney is the lead singer of the Decemberists’ side project Offa Rex, whose first album was released earlier this year, is brilliant, and is an explicit tribute to the British folk revival. I love that album, but it does what it says on the tin. Going into this one, I didn’t quite know what to expect. And that worked out to my advantage, because The Longest River consistently surprised me in all the best ways. It’s a mix of original songs, traditional songs, covers, and an anomalous Purcell aria. Chaney performs all of them with real attention paid to the detail in the arrangements, which are mostly just guitar and piano (and the occasional Kronos Quartet cameo) but they are all thoughtful and complex. And the songs themselves are complex, too. I’ve listened to the gorgeous “Loose Change” more than a half-dozen times at this point and I still can’t anticipate where the phrases start and stop. But it’s a good kind of disorientation, and in the end you find yourself deposited back in the part of the song with the gorgeous riff. I’m reminded of Gabriel Kahane, though none of Chaney’s lyrics make me gag. The more obvious point of comparison would be Joni Mitchell, a singer with a similar range, precision, and virtuosity in her arrangements. But there’s something paradoxically more modern about Chaney’s inclusion of traditional songs and covers. The Longest River is a curio cabinet as much as a personal opus. And I mean that in a good way. I’ll be living with this for a while. It’s less immediate than The Queen of Hearts but I can see it having more legs.

Live events

The Decemberists, with Olivia Chaney: Live at the Orpheum — Occasionally, you travel in time. I went to this concert with the very friend who introduced me to the Decemberists in the first place. They were the most important band among my high school’s contingent of weird theatre kids, and therefore one of the first relatively current bands to join Pink Floyd, Jethro Tull and their ilk in my regular rotation. I remember the first time I heard “The Mariner’s Revenge Song.” It wasn’t the studio recording — it was at an impromptu sing-along in the swimming pool at a summer improv camp, with one of the instructors playing guitar on the poolside. There were probably fifty people in that swimming pool, and I was the only one who didn’t know the Decemberists. This was rectified by my present-day concertmate, posthaste. Listening to them now, I can’t help but see in them the same quality I see in most of my passionate obsessions from those days (and now, in a more muted way): a sort of effusive muchness that’s bound to alienate aesthetes with carefully cultivated tastes, while enthralling anoraks like me and my weird teenage friends. (“Drama kids in three-button vests,” Pitchfork called us. I rather like that.) Many of Colin Meloy’s song titles contain exclamation points (“July, July!” “O Valencia!” “Revenge!” “All Arise!”), and there’s a sense in which his entire career is an exclamation, namely: “let’s put on a show!” In the Decemberists, we saw our own self-indulgence reflected back at us, and they offered confirmation that unabashed pretension was a perfectly valid way to find joy in the world. So, this concert with this friend brought us full circle. Honestly I’d say it might have been my ideal Decemberists setlist if I’d already seen them before, which I hadn’t. This was a show that was really light on iconic classics. We got none of Picaresque, and only one track from the either of the first two albums. There was no “Mariner’s Revenge Song,” no “Sixteen Military Wives,” no “I Was Born for the Stage.” We did get “Crane Wife 3” and “O Valencia!” But for the most part, this was a set devoted to the stranger corners of the Decemberists’ catalogue — and the proggier corners. We got “The Island,” in all its Tull-aping glory. We got “The Queen’s Rebuke,” which was by no means the part of The Hazards of Love that I expected to hear. And most remarkably of all, we got The Tain in its entirety: all 18-and-a-half prog-fed minutes of it. That was the highlight of the show, and I’ve been struggling since the concert to think of an analogue for the weirdness and excitement of that moment in some other artist’s discography. Maybe if Paul McCartney announced he was going to do all of Ram. We also got a bunch of new stuff, which was nice. I could have done with fewer tracks from Beautiful/Terrible, which is the only Decemberists album I don’t especially care for. But their new “State of the Union” song, “Everything is Awful” is a scorcher, and a cathartic one at that. Its lyrical simplicity is new territory for Colin Meloy. If even he is lost for words, we must be in a rough spot, indeed. There was also a set from the Offa Rex album, which I adore, and more on which below. So basically it was a super weird set, and if this band weren’t tied up with so much nostalgia for me, it might have been my ideal Decemberists experience. But I really wanted to hear the stuff I loved when I was 16. Can you blame me? So, I feel as though I need to see them again, and next time I want the other two parts of “The Crane Wife,” “Leslie Anne Levine” and at least half of Picaresque. Finally, a word on Olivia Chaney. We wandered in about one minute into her opening set. I’ve been listening to The Longest River semi-obsessively over the past week, so I was basically just as excited for her as for the Decemberists. And she did not disappoint. She drifted between the harmonium, the keyboard and a hollow-body electric guitar, performing a set with the same far-flung variety as her album in the space of 30 minutes. Highlights included her gorgeous original “Loose Change,” which is a perfect song, and a cover of Joni Mitchell’s “A Case of You,” which she is one of only a handful of people I would trust to sing. I was delighted to find that she’s also performing alongside the Decemberists during their set, doing a few tracks from The Queen of Hearts, which is one of the best albums of the year so far. Evidently this was the first show not to be explicitly billed as Offa Rex to include a set like this. I feel very privileged. I feel like I need to see the Decemberists again because we have unfinished business. I feel like I need to see Olivia Chaney again because she is a staggering musician and I think she’s on the verge of something. Occasionally, you travel in time. But it isn’t always easy to tell which direction you went in.

Television

Game of Thrones: “The Spoils of War” — Sure helps to clarify your loyalties, doesn’t it? I would have been entirely content to see Jaime and Bronn both perish in the flames of Daenerys’s new world order. Wonder how that’ll shake up. Anyway, this is more consequential than last week’s talky episode, and it’s definitely great to see some dragons roast some Lannisters. I’ll always prefer the talky episodes, but it wouldn’t be GoT without scenes like that. It strikes me that Game of Thrones and Twin Peaks are the perfect series to be watching in tandem right now, since GoT is offering satisfaction in such heavy doses, where Twin Peaks maintains its steadfast perversity. One or the other of them might drive me over the edge if not for the other. Maisie Williams is this week’s performance highlight. Arya has this wonderful way of saying something incredibly grave and then conjuring her most childlike side whenever somebody finds that amusing. It’s incredibly unsettling. The look of absolute glee when she uses her dagger to best Brienne in combat training is basically what I like about this show. “Who taught you to do that?” “No one.” Marvellous. I’m liking the way that the Daenerys/Jon partnership is shaping up. This episode finds Jon Snow offering the sort of advice to Daenarys that indicates how he and she need each other. That’s the plotline I’m most excited about right now. Also, just want to point out that last week I branded Littlefinger a chaos theorist, only to have Bran reiterate his prior thesis that “chaos is a ladder” this week. It’s the little things that make us feel like geniuses, isn’t it?

Twin Peaks: The Return: Part 13 — Another frustrating instalment that I enjoyed in spite of myself. I love the music in the opening scene: it’s just alienating enough. The clear highlight here is Mr. C’s armwrestling match, but it is cold comfort given the fact that those detectives have completely failed to acknowledge the connection between Dougie Jones and Dale Cooper. He’s not waking up is he.

QI: “Next” — Well, Sandi Toksvig is delightful. I haven’t watched this since Stephen Fry left, only because I haven’t been in the mood, but it’s lovely to see it in good hands. And having both Ross Noble and Frankie Boyle is frankly a surfeit of wit.

Literature, etc.

Chris Ware: Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth — This is one of the most emotionally exhausting works of fiction I have ever experienced. It’s a cathartic kind of exhaustion, but Chris Ware drives his protagonist (and his protagonist’s forebears in the long flashback sequences) to psychological places where not every reader will want to follow. There’s something extra effective about personal, heartfelt stories like this when they’re told in an aggressively formalist way. Christopher Nolan, to pick the other example who’s come up recently, has always made movies I like because he shows you human experience through the prism of complex story structures. This isn’t just cleverness: it changes the way you watch his movies by adding a layer of distance between you and the content of the story. You’re expected to fill that distance with your own ability to identify with the characters, and that makes a movie like Dunkirk especially devastating. Chris Ware takes that distancing technique to a level unlike anything else I’ve ever seen. His art is detailed in the way that a blueprint is detailed: everything you’d see if you were looking at a building or person in real life is accounted for in his drawing, but left cartoonish in its realization. And he’s not one to amplify the emotional impact of key moments with dynamic page layouts. His visual language is solidly rectangular. That in itself contributes a sort of austerity to the storytelling. Even splash pages are a bit of a indulgence for Ware, and he uses them very sparingly — including once at the book’s most shattering moment, when something truly awful happens to Jimmy’s grandfather as a child. There’s also a moment where a major plot twist near the end is communicated wordlessly through, basically, a flow chart. You get the point. Ware is extremely restrained and fussy. At first, the book’s general aesthetic of “Sunday funnies meets 19th-century carnival advertisements” just seems like a symptom of this formalism. But when the shattering moment I mentioned above happened, you realize that in fact, the event that precipitated the Corrigan family’s trend of worthless fathers (and thus Jimmy’s bad state throughout the story) took place at the Chicago World’s Fair. So, the fact that the story plays out in the garb of that event’s promotional materials takes on a new resonance. This is simultaneously one of the most affecting and most ingenious comics I’ve ever read. It’s a masterpiece. Now I’m gonna go lie down for a while. Pick of the week.

Franklin Foer: “When Silicon Valley Took Over Journalism” — Possibly the single most concise and effective expression of the devil’s bargain that the journalism industry made when they went to Facebook for an audience. Evidently Foer has a book coming out on this. Can’t wait. Do you know an editor with a Chartbeat addiction? Make them read this, then lock them in the basement.

John Lanchester: “You Are The Product” — Foer’s piece may be the most concise one about the perils of Facebook for the media, but this review of three recent books on the subject in the London Review of Books is the most complete feature-length discussion of how Facebook’s lack of a moral compass is affecting its users. I plan to read all of these books.

Thomas Ligotti: “Notes on the Writing of Horror: A Story” — This magnificent essay-that-is-not-an-essay reveals Thomas Ligotti to be several things I knew he was, as well as a few things I didn’t know he was. It reveals him to be a very good horror writer, which I knew he was. It reveals him to be completely crazy, which I suspected he was. But it also reveals him to have a sense of humour, which I didn’t know he had, and to have a facility for metafiction, which hasn’t been part of the stories I’ve read by him. That last observation makes this story scarier than many of his others for me, simply because there is nothing scarier to me than a story that transgresses its own boundaries. As for the essayistic element of this, there is much to learn from Ligotti’s straightforward discussion of the types of horror stories. As a producer of an occasionally horror-adjacent podcast, I have found myself in positions where I’ve butted up against my own insistence on what Ligotti calls the “realistic” model of horror writing, where an uncanny thing is found to exist in contrast to a fundamentally “real” and “normal” world. Having read this, I now understand why this doesn’t always work for me — because in stories like Ligotti’s the world is fundamentally skewed and unreal. And those are the kinds of stories that I like. Also, it’s hilarious to me that Ligotti has to literally reimagine himself as a passionate Italian from a bygone century to contemplate writing Gothically. This is very, very good.

Stephen King: The Gunslinger — As I’m writing this, I just got off a plane. On that plane, I read nearly this whole book. That is not something I normally do — my general ponderousness and tendency to get distracted makes me an abnormally slow reader. But now I think I know why people like Stephen King, at least in part: the pages fly by. This is the first thing I’ve read by King. I feel like I’ve always been just about to get into him, but I’ve always backed off before pulling the trigger, so to speak. I decided to dive right into the Dark Tower series because I’ve been reading reviews of the movie, which almost uniformly make the movie sound like hackneyed drivel, while also emphasizing that the books are as wonderfully strange as the movie fails to be. Fine, I’m in. This first instalment manages to simultaneously be incredibly thrilling and also feel like it’s mere setup. The book’s story is basically summed up by its first sentence: “The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed.” And then when the gunslinger catches up with the man in black, they talk, and more questions are raised than answered. The basic idea of this is a lot of fun: put Clint Eastwood in a fantasy story. What I’m most looking forward to in this series is the opportunity for genre fusions. Already we’ve got Jake, who is a secondary character from an entirely different kind of story — and I suspect we haven’t seen the last of him. Good fun.

Podcasts

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “Atomic Blonde,” “Insecure,” “Detroit,” & “A Guide to Stephen King” — Two weeks worth of this! Honestly, the Stephen King episode is the only one that I’m finding of practical value, but it’s just nice to listen to them talk.

Love and Radio: “Suitcase of Love and Shame” — Another absurdly intimate episode of Love and Radio. We get to listen in on an affair in real time. It’s a beautiful thing in which nobody comes out looking very good.

The Turnaround: “Katie Couric,” “Ray Suarez,” “Werner Herzog” & “Terry Gross” — The last four episodes of this show have all been interesting, although the climactic (what a concept) Terry Gross interview has a lot of overlap with the more comprehensive Longform interview. This has been a thoroughly enjoyable series, though I’ve cooled on it over time. I wouldn’t stand by my initial impression that it’s among the best radio of the year.

Planet Money: “Google is Big. Is That Bad?” — Yes.

A Piece of Work: “Samantha Gets High on Light” — I’m really impressed by how well the host and guests on this show manage to describe the experience of visual art in an invisible medium. This is a great new show; I’ve been totally enjoying it. Makes me want more podcasts about visual art. Pick of the week.

The Daily: Wednesday, August 9 — Nice to hear Carl Zimmer on this! Love that guy. And also it’s always a good way to get the latest Trump horrors put into context.

On the Media: “Shmashmortion” — A history of the politics of abortion from Brooke Gladstone. How can you go wrong? This is great stuff, and really emphasizes how artificial a debate it is.

Imaginary Worlds: “Evil Plans” & “Scott Snyder” — Been awhile since I’ve heard this. The Scott Snyder interview is fun, even though I had no idea who he was. It’s about how his own anxieties factor into the Batman stories he’s written.

Code Switch: “The U.S. Census And Our Sense Of Us” & “Who’s Your Great-Great-Great-Great Granddaddy?” — Two episodes that explore notions of identity and the labels we put on them. The one about genealogy is especially interesting.

Theory of Everything: “Illicit Objects” — A marvellous compendium of bite-sized stories about objects that people aren’t supposed to have. For having been produced by people who aren’t Benjamen Walker, it feels very ToE.

Mogul: “Cameo: Russell Simmons and Sophia Chang” — It’s a bit awkward to hear Russell Simmons proclaiming that he doesn’t think Chris Lighty committed suicide after the final full episode of this basically concluded that he did, and that the only reason people don’t want to believe that is the stigma against mental illness in the hip hop community. But at least Simmons seems to think that taboo is harmful.

Omnibus (week of July 9, 2017)

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

32 reviews. Eat up.

Live events

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

Literature, etc.

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

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

Television, etc.

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

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

Movies

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

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

Music

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

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

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

Games

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

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

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

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

Podcasts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Omnibus (week of June 18, 2017)

Yeah, I changed the name. I never liked the old name. Onwards.

The second instalment of the NXNW segment aired yesterday on Radio 1, and it is a whole level weirder than the first. Basically, I tried to convince Sheryl MacKay that the central tenets of medieval alchemy are still alive and well and living in pop culture. Every so often I make something I’m really proud of. This second segment is for sure one of those. I’m at 1:22:34 in this podcast of the show.

Ran a 5K this morning. Boy oh boy were there a lot of people in that. You’ll see more podcasts here than there have been in weeks, because I figured even a 5K shouldn’t be approached with a totally cavalier attitude. Many kilometers were run, and many hours of audio accompanied them. If you’re new to this, this instalment is a bit closer to my usual approach than recent weeks have been: lots of podcasts, shorter reviews. 38 of them, to be precise.

Television

American Gods: “Come To Jesus” — After last time, I didn’t actually expect Jesus to be played for laughs. But there is honestly nothing funnier than seeing a whole herd of diverse Jesuses just milling about. Except for the bit where Wednesday refers to them collectively as “these assholes.” That’s funnier. This season finale is actually my least favourite episode of American Gods so far, but that’s a very relative thing to say. Mostly, I’m just mildly peeved that the story hasn’t gotten to a point where the supporting deities like Nancy and Czernobog are relevant to the story on a consistent basis. I’m as happy as I thought I’d be to see Nancy again, but it would have been nice to see him do more than offer exposition for another character. (I miss the story about tiger balls from the book.) Also, the somewhat overwrought segment where Wednesday reveals his real name to Shadow is the first sequence in the show that hasn’t worked for me. Partially it’s just the Michael-Bay-spinning-cameraness of it all, but mostly I just find it hard to accept that Shadow, or any portion of the audience, would be surprised to learn that a one-eyed god who goes by “Wednesday” would actually be Odin. (This is a problem the show inherits from the book.) On the other hand, this episode makes two substantial improvements on the book. One is in the relationship between Bilquis and the Technical Boy. I suppose it’s still possible that Technical will kill Bilquis at some point, but that moment was one of the most jarring parts of the book, and I’m very glad that she’s survived their first meeting. The other improvement is Kristin Chenoweth’s Easter, who is angrier, funnier and altogether more ruthless than her book analogue. I especially love the way she listens to her adorable messenger bunnies, only to invariably respond “oh, shit!” I realize that throughout these American Gods reviews, I’ve focussed an awful lot on the relationship between show and book. Probably that’ll subside next season, at which point I will have read the book substantially less recently. But I still think that American Gods is as compelling an act of adaptation as a show to be taken on its own merits. Between this and Hannibal, I think Bryan Fuller has confirmed himself as the master of the modern television adaptation. Benioff and Weiss wish they were this good. Season one of American Gods has been some of the best television of recent years. I can’t wait for the next season. Hope it’s longer.

Better Call Saul: “Lantern” — Sometimes I start to write these reviews before I’m finished watching the episode. Here is a brief passage from what I’d written before I watched through to the end. “Chuck. Is. Noxious. The writers of this show, and Michael McKean, should pat themselves on the back for creating such a convincing yet completely insufferable character. The thing that makes him so hard to take is a simple juxtaposition of two traits: he has no compassion at all, and he always perceives himself to have the moral high ground. This episode features one of the most painful scenes in the show so far, in which Chuck intentionally tries to hurt Jimmy, and feels entirely justified in doing so because Jimmy colours outside the lines. He feels no complicity in the rift between the two of them. This is the worst kind of person, and this is a kind of person who exists. I know these people and so do you. Chuck is scum. Chuck is irredeemable.” At the end of the episode, I softened my view rather dramatically. In his more loathsome moments, Chuck makes it easy to forget that he is not at the peak of mental wellness. In retrospect, he might be the highlight of this season, because of the way both McKean and the story emphasize his uncompromising cruelty and his struggle with mental illness at the same time. The show even gives us a handy yardstick by which to assess the reasonableness of our hatred for Chuck: Howard Hamlin. Since the season one reveal that he actually isn’t that bad, Howard has been one of the most sympathetic characters on Better Call Saul.  And even he would rather part with millions of his own hard-earned dollars than work with Chuck any longer. He has become genuinely impossible, and well and truly cruel. He was also in a lot of trouble. And he completely alienated his one-man support system, who to be fair, is a person with no small amount of flaws himself. I expected this episode to be all about Kim after last week’s cliffhanger. And while it is bittersweet to see her finally realizing that she needs to take time to breathe, her season arc basically ended with her car crash. This episode belongs to Chuck. But its subtext belongs to Jimmy. It’s easy to read Chuck’s suicide as a final “fuck you” to his brother. This is only a small part of an inevitably complex equation, but think about this: their last conversation consisted of Chuck telling Jimmy that he would always hurt people and he might as well embrace it. Then he kills himself. Meanwhile, Jimmy has alienated himself from the elder law practice that could have been his saving grace. (I’m delighted that Mrs. Landry is okay.) The path to Saul Goodman has never been clearer than it is now. Pick of the week.

Twin Peaks: The Return: Parts 3-7 — Okay, the internet was right. This Dougie Jones business needs to stop. At first, I was amused — not so much by Kyle McGlaughlin’s performance, which finds him working substantially below his pay grade, but by the constant way that everybody around him basically fails to acknowledge that there’s something really wrong. Particularly wonderful is Naomi Watts as his wife. The fact that she’s not more concerned really makes you wonder what kind of shit-for-brains asshole the real Dougie Jones was. I love the idea that this might not actually be that out of the ordinary. Suppose that’s what you get for marrying a homunculus. But after four episodes of this, I’m ready to have Coop back. I don’t even need to hear him talk about coffee and pie. I don’t even need a thumbs up. I just want him to be here so that the show has a central intelligence in it again who can start to put together the disparate threads that are remaining maddeningly allusive without him. In general though, I’ve really been enjoying this. I don’t have that much to say about it because it’s still got its cards super close to its chest. I’m definitely hoping that we’re not done with David Lynch’s modernized, expanded take on the Black Lodge. The sequences that take place there are truly terrifying, and among the most compelling television I’ve seen in recent times.

Doctor Who: “World Enough and Time” — Okay, now we’re cooking. This is classic Steven Moffat, operating in “hey here’s a fun idea” mode. In this case, the idea is that there’s a huge spaceship right by a black hole, so time works differently at one end of it and the other. The real storytelling masterstroke, though, is stranding the Doctor at the slow end of the ship, so that the situation seriously escalates before he’s able to formulate a plan. Aside from that, this is notable as a real return to Moffat’s signature horror. You could say that the monks constituted horror, as did the notion in “Extremis” that the entire universe is a projection and you cease to exist if you step outside of the beam. But nothing since “Listen” has really gone whole hog into horror territory the way that this does. The scene with the volume dials is one of the most disturbing things Moffat has ever written. And the patients in general, all on their way to becoming Cybermen, are terrifying in that existential way that the Cybermen manage to be when they’ve got a good writer behind them. (Unless that good writer is Neil Gaiman, in which case they still don’t work.) And all that good stuff happens even before we get the big reveal of John Simm. Which, I mean, we all knew he was going to be in this, but am I stupid for being INCREDIBLY FUCKING SURPRISED that character was him? Am I? Come on, be honest. This was an amazing episode: straightforwardly the best of the season. Can’t wait to see what comes next.

Games

King of Dragon Pass — So, the Steam summer sale is on, but I realized that I’m not actually even close to finishing the games I bought during the Steam winter sale. Because *some of us* like to go outside sometimes, amirite? At this point I think the Half-Life series is a lost cause for me. I was so terrible at the first one, and the story is so minimal, that I’m forced to conclude it is literally the opposite of what I appreciate in a video game. Moving on to King of Dragon Pass, then: another classic of an entirely different sort. This is dated, and its high fantasy aesthetic isn’t really my thing, but I’m compelled regardless. Basically, it’s a text-based resource management game with elements of choose-your-own-adventure. So, it’s kind of Sunless Sea before its time. Except that the writing isn’t anywhere close to that level. It has its moments, mind you. I quite like this: “Your men whooped with Orlanth and drank the Eight Known Drinks, so that your heads would hurt during the ceremony.” Also unlike Sunless Sea, its representation of women oscillates between fairly progressive and a bit, erm, medieval. But there’s enough in this to compel me. I’m particularly fond of the way that your progress is compiled into a document called “the Saga,” which actually reads a bit like an Icelandic saga, given that those stories basically are just lists of accomplishments. So far, this seems like the sort of thing I’ll probably play until I manage to beat it on the easiest setting and then I might put it aside. Still, it’ll probably grow on me.

Literature

Jorge Luis Borges: “The Lottery in Babylon” — A substantially simpler and more direct story than some of the others I’ve read recently. Still brilliant, and the way that Borges casually drops details into the framework of ideas that makes up the narrative reminds me once again of how much Neil Gaiman owes to him. Look at this bit: “A slave stole a crimson ticket; the drawing determined that the ticket entitled the bearer to have his tongue burned out.” This comes at a point in the story where it’s been established that owning tickets can result in terrible things happening to you as well as good things, but the specifics have been vague. Borges just drops this punishment into a sentence that’s actually a rumination on what’s supposed to happen in the case of the theft of a ticket. His narrator doesn’t make a big deal of it. That, more than anything in this story, gives the sense of a fully-formed world with defined parameters that are simply taken for granted. I continue to be astonished by this writer.

Kieron Gillen & Jamie McKelvie: The Wicked and the Divine, Volume 4: “Imperial Phase, Part One” — I don’t know how anybody reads this issue-by-issue. When the trade collections come out, I wolf them down in one sitting and I still feel like I need more. This is probably the most exciting collection so far from this perpetually exciting comic. The real showstopper is the the first issue in the collection, formatted as a (beautifully designed) fan magazine in which members of the Pantheon are interviewed by actual journalists (with Gillen filling the role of each god at the other end of a chat window). The best of them is Laurie Penny’s piece on Woden, who is self-evidently the shittiest god. Having read Penny’s piece on Milo Yiannopoulos, it just felt right. My favourite part of the story in this issue is the way that the Pantheon is forced to reorganize and rally behind their logical leaders, Baal and Urdr, in the absence of Ananke. The dynamics between all of these characters just keep getting more interesting. Persephone in particular is the best thing going on in this book right now. Love it.

Kelefa Sanneh: “The Persistence of Prog Rock” — An excellent piece on the contemporary reception of 1970s prog, with reference to David Wiegel’s recent book on the subject. I’m reminded that I need to eventually finish the books cited by Edward Macan, Bill Martin and Will Romano, though I think all of them (especially Romano’s) are quite bad. The most interesting idea raised here is that progressive rock was parochial. This is something that I struggle with. It definitely was parochial — the most recognized bands in the genre were such idiomatically British eccentrics that albums like Selling England by the Pound almost seem a bit Brexity in retrospect. On the other hand, that means that prog largely avoided the garish spectacle of cultural appropriation that a lot of other British rock proffered. The Rolling Stones and John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers seem a hell of a lot more retrograde in retrospect than ELP does. And ELP, lest anybody forget, was the band whose use of classical music in their performances was meant to get the kids listening to “music that has more quality.” The mind reels. I sympathize with Lester Bangs’ distaste for this sentiment. But I’m not sure he ever really saw the other side of the coin. I’ll be reading Wiegel’s book very soon.

Music

Sufjan Stevens, Nico Muhly, Bryce Dessner & James McAlister: Planetarium — Well, it doesn’t make it easy for us. Planetarium is enormously ambitious and enormously long. Every song on this gave me the sense that I’d definitely like it a lot more next time I listen to it. Honestly, that’s one of my favourite reactions to have to a piece of music, but this does meander a bit. I’m curious to know more about the process of this: I’m familiar enough with Stevens, Muhly and Dessner’s work (the latter only as a composer, admittedly — I’ve never liked the National) that I feel like it should be easier than it is to isolate their particular contributions. They seem to have genuinely merged into a many-headed beast. My personal highlights here are “Jupiter” and especially “Mercury,” which has a melody worthy of Carrie & Lowell. But I’ve now heard “Saturn” a few times and it has grown on me from the point of initially leaving me cold to the point where now I actually bring up Apple Music to listen to it specifically. And the 15-minute “Earth” hits my prog rock structural pleasure centres, but there’s too much in it to take in for me to assess it yet. I think this is really good. I’ll probably check back in about it when I listen to it a bit more.

Neil Young: Live at the Riverboat 1969 — Like the Canterbury House instalment of Neil’s archives series, this is most notable for his amusingly awkward, stoned audience banter. I wish I’d been at one of these early acoustic shows, but I wasn’t born until 21 years later. Anyway, I’m actually pretty happy to be moving past the pre-Crazy Horse segment of my quest to hear the Complete Neil Young. Solo acoustic guitar music gets tiresome.

Neil Young: Live at Fillmore East 1970 — Ah, now we’re talking. What’s most notable about this is how much it sounds like Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere. Crazy Horse has always sounded really live in the studio. All the same, the presence of an audience makes “Cowgirl in the Sand” pop a bit more, with the band really trying to ratchet up the tension to keep them into it. I suspect 1970 is the year when things really get interesting. I’ve enjoyed my exploration of Buffalo Springfield and the late-60s limbo state from which the self-titled album emerged. But it’s with the foundation of Crazy Horse and Neil’s induction into CSNY that the phase of his career we know him for really began.

Podcasts

Ear Hustle: “Cellies” — This podcast is a beautiful idea. It’s also staggeringly ambitious. I can only imagine the logistical nightmare it must be to produce a podcast in prison. But these are stories that don’t get told. And when they do, they sure aren’t told by the inmates themselves. This premiere episode introduces some fun characters, including two brothers who ended up as cellmates and nearly drove each other out of their minds. I’m also rather endeared by Earlonne Woods’ resistance to his non-incarcerated co-host’s attempts to apply relationship metaphors to cellmates. He ought to know what metaphors are and aren’t apt. This is the most promising addition to Radiotopia since Song Exploder.

The Pitch: “Babyscripts” — Not for me. This has a solid premise that’s basically guaranteed to yield drama: it’s basically Dragons’ Den. But I’m just not interested enough in business to be interested in these kinds of conversations. Worth a shot if you are.

StartUp: “Life After Startup” — A catch-up session with some of the people in previous StartUp episodes. Most notably, we revisit Dating Ring, the company followed in the show’s underrated second season. I really found the ending of that season heartbreaking, so it’s good to know that even though the business didn’t pan out, the founders are living happy lives these days.

Imaginary Worlds: “Imagining the Internet” — It’s a common refrain among science fiction critics that the internet is the modern technology that the genre failed most egregiously to predict. But this provides a corollary to that view by, in part, bringing Mark Twain into the fold. One highlight of this is hearing the actor who does the readings adopt the personas of their respective authors. I’m especially struck by how similar his Twain is to the genius voice actor that I brought in to do Twain at the end of the last episode of the Syrup Trap Pod Cast. I guess he’s just a voice that people have a sense of.

In Our Time: “The American Populists” — A pleasingly contentious conversation about the short-lived party that briefly promised to offer a real alternative to the Democrats and the Republicans. So no, it’s not about Donald Trump. Trust In Our Time to remind you that history is worth knowing about, and it doesn’t always have to be covered with explicit reference to current events to be relevant.

Love and Radio: “Relevant Questions” — A middling episode of one of the best shows around, so quite good. It’s about the first polygraph operator to speak out against its use. But he’s not straightforwardly heroic, even if he sees himself that way. It’s got a twist that’s done cleverly, in a similar way to the twist in “A Girl of Ivory,” but that’s not a comparison that does this any favours because that episode was a classic. Still, pretty great.

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “Wonder Woman And The Tony Awards” — Okay, I’ll see Wonder Woman. I was kind of going to anyway, in spite of my serious superhero fatigue. This is different. Man, the Tonys seem to have nothing for me this time around.

Radiolab: “The Gondolier” — This is a good story by the standards of recent Radiolab episodes, but I can’t help but hear the Love and Radio episode that could have been. It’s a story about a person who was touted internationally as “Venice’s first female gondolier,” which turned out to be super wrong because he’s a trans man. That last sentence is almost a spoiler, because this episode actually treats Alex, the main character, as a woman for a portion of its duration, in accordance with the reporters’ misunderstanding of his gender identity. The media has traditionally been Alex’s enemy, and this is supposed to provide an antidote to that. I’m not at all the person to judge how it succeeds at that, but I do feel like this is a case where the Love and Radio approach of cutting out the reporter’s voice altogether would be useful. I’d love to hear the version of this story that’s just Alex telling his own story. But Radiolab’s gonna Radiolab, so we have to have a certain amount of ponderous processing and deconstruction. It’s fine.

Home of the Brave: “The Continental Divide” — One of the things I really like about Home of the Brave is that Scott Carrier will sometimes release one of these brief missives in between proper radio projects. I sympathize with his inability to talk to people who disagree with him right now, but I admire his decision to give it another go.

Fresh Air: “Jay Z” — An old interview, from just after the release of Decoded. Terry Gross sounds slightly uncomfortable interviewing Jay Z because she kind of thinks he’s sexist. But Jay is charming and indulgent, even if he does get super defensive when Gross actually brings up sexism. Mostly a very good interview.

This American Life: “Say Anything” — The bulk of this is taken up by a tape that a guy made for his suicidal friend, without ever intending for it to end up on radio. It’s very affecting. But the real highlight is a list of fears written by a developmentally disabled man. It is both funny and insightful. A cameo from Jonathan Goldstein is always appreciated as well.

Fresh Air: “Roxane Gay” — A marvellous interview about Gay’s new book, which sounds like a deeply insightful, really rough read. She’s one of those articulate people you’ve just got to be thankful for.

WTF with Marc Maron: “Alison Brie and Betty Gilpin” — To some extent, this is shameless self-promotion for GLOW, the new show he’s in. But it sounds like a really great show, and I’m always in for an Alison Brie interview. She is completely charming. I didn’t realize that I knew Betty Gilpin, but her American Gods performance is really hilarious and the way she describes it as a wilful misunderstanding of the tone of the whole show is amazing. A good listen.

It’s Been A Minute: “Hey Y’all” — I’m reservedly excited about this. I love Sam Sanders. He’s always been one of my favourite guests on Pop Culture Happy Hour and I miss him on the NPR Politics Podcast. I just hope it doesn’t keep explaining ordinary idioms like “it’s been a minute” to me.

Sampler: “Introducing The Nod!” — Thank god Gimlet found something for Brittany Luse to do. She’s brilliant, and she was always above Sampler. Looking forward.

WTF with Marc Maron: “Sofia Coppola” — This has its moments, and Maron clearly admires and understands Coppola’s filmmaking. But did he have to talk about her dad so much? Surely she’s sick of that. In any case, Sofia Coppola is a genius and I can’t wait to see The Beguiled.

99% Invisible: “You Should Do A Story” — A roundup of miscellaneous stories that didn’t become full episodes. It’s worth hearing for a few simple descriptions of household design solutions from specific places.

The Heart: “Doing Time” — I heard an interview with Kaitlin Prest on a great podcast I don’t review called The Imposter where she said that the launch of Ear Hustle and the themed episodes Radiotopia did for its launch resulted in a hurried finish to the “No” season, which doesn’t actually come off in the last episode, but it sucks. In any case, this brushed-up episode from the back catalogue is perfectly fine.

Code Switch: “What To Make Of Philando Castile’s Death, One Year Later” — This won’t help you process the acquittal of Philando Castile’s killer, but it does feature an interview with a friend of Castile’s that is heartbreaking.  

What Trump Can Teach Us About Con Law: “Pardon Power” — Is this presidency really so unprecedented that we’re entertaining the notion that a sitting president could pardon himself? Guys this is not normal.

The Gist: “Scaachi Koul on Surviving the Trolls” — Scaachi Koul is one of the funniest and best writers about sexism and racism. If you don’t read her on Buzzfeed, what are you even doing. I’m really looking forward to reading her book. This interview isn’t one of Mike Pesca’s best moments, but it is plenty good on Koul’s part. He gets all tone policey and she doesn’t let him get away with it. Satisfying in a way.

StartUp: “How To Invent A New Sport” — This is about a guy who made a new version of basketball. The best part is the story of a pitch meeting in China. Listen for that alone.

The Gist: “Do Radicals Change the World?” — Jeremy McCarter is familiar to me from the Hamiltome, but this new book doesn’t sound like something I’ll especially enjoy. I’ll take China Mieville’s 1917 book, thanks. He’s got no doubts that radicals change the world.

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “GLOW And Lena Waithe” — Hmm, here are two shows that make me wish there was more time in a day. I’m finding it hard to commit to the idea of watching GLOW and Master of None. The former has a bunch of people I love involved, but I’m not sold on the hype. And Master of None sounds like it’s got a slow first season and a killer second. That’s a stumbling block. You’d never think it from reading this blog sometimes, but I’ve got to be judicious in my choices. Even I only have so much time to allot to this stuff.

It’s Been A Minute: “Likes Don’t Matter” — I don’t know how to feel about this. Part of me wants to think that it’ll find its legs, but it’s also totally clear that this has been given dry run after dry run, so it’s already got a fair bit of mileage behind it. Sam Sanders is one of the cleverest, most magnetic people at NPR. But this feels kind of forcedly colloquial to me. I liked Sanders a lot on the NPR Politics Podcast, where they had a mandate to really get into the grains of it, because Sanders was the guy who could inject a bit of air into the proceedings. He was as good at talking politics as the rest of the panel, but also funnier. In a less explicitly focussed situation, I’m not sure what to make of him anymore. I’ll keep listening, because I really do think he’s great. But I have reservations.

Beef And Dairy Network: “Gareth Belge” — Ahh, I like this. I like this show a lot. This features a hilarious segment about how cows act as body doubles for actors more than you’d know. That’s this show in a nutshell. Beautiful.

Mogul: Episodes 1 & 2 — I resisted this at first because it came out initially on Spotify, and I’m dead set against windowing in the podcast world. But I had to hear this story. It is magical. It is the story of Chris Lighty, the powerful hip hop executive: how he rose to prominence and how he died. Combat Jack hosts (going by his birth name here, Reggie Ossé), and he brings a level of expertise on this topic that probably nobody else in the world could top. The joy of listening to this is not just in the character-driven story of Lighty, nor is it even in the brilliantly rendered history of hip hop’s evolution. It’s in Ossé’s intense engagement with the material. I’ve always known somebody would make a podcast like this sometime — a show that deals with the history of music in a story-driven, audio rich way. Song Exploder isn’t quite it. This is it. I’ve been waiting for this. If you have any interest at all in hip hop or in knowing something about the music of the last forty years, check this out. It’s a beautiful thing. Pick of the week.

Omnireviewer (week of May 28, 2017)

Ladies and gentlemen, we’re celebrating a milestone over here at the Parsonage. When I started doing Omnireviewer not quite two years ago, I wrote up the first instalment in a Google doc. The next week, I wrote up the second instalment in that same Google doc. Unexpectedly enough, I’ve just kept adding to that Google doc ever since, and I’ve come to regard it as a symbol of the gradual deterioration of my sanity. So, it is with great pleasure and a certain amount of nervous cackling and muttering to myself that I’d like to announce that as of this week, Omnireviewer has surpassed a quarter of a million words! My Google doc clocks in at 253,023 to be precise. I like to think of those 253,023 words as 253,023 marbles that I used to have. And frankly, good riddance to them.

Anyway, I watched all of Ridley Scott’s Alien movies this week, including the new one, and I’ve reviewed them as a sort of loose essay. So we’ll start with that. If you’d like to read it with paragraph breaks, here you go.

If you’re new here, you’ll quickly notice my aversion to paragraph breaks, which I don’t know if I’ve ever really explained. Basically, I feel like paragraph breaks are dishonest somehow. They imply that there’s some premeditated structure to these reviews, which it’ll be clear to regular readers that there isn’t. This blog is the only thing I’ve ever written where I’m basically content to start from the beginning, put one word in front of another, and just go with whatever results from that. It is something close to stream-of-consciousness. Nothing reflects that like just having every review be a huge, never-ending string of text. I’m gradually distancing myself from that rule over on Tumblr, where I cross-post these reviews for maximum exposure. A few more people see those posts, and given that, I’m willing to entertain the notion that it might not hurt to smooth over some of my more gratuitous tics. But for the time being, I’ll remain committed to them here. I didn’t get to 253,023 words by not sticking to my guns.

19 reviews.

Movies

Alien — So, what do we actually know about the alien in Alien? For one thing, we don’t know to call it a xenomorph, since that word first appears in James Cameron’s Aliens, and probably wasn’t intended as an act of appellation. If we can trust Wikipedia on this, it seems like “xenomorph” wasn’t officially accepted by the franchise until Alien: Covenant, in which the word appears in the credits — though not in the dialogue. So, we didn’t definitively know what to call this thing until series originator Ridley Scott reclaimed Cameron’s accidental nomenclature decades later and made it official. But we’re already ahead of ourselves. The most important thing we learn about the alien in this movie is its life cycle. It starts life as an egg, which unleashes a larval “facehugger” parasite when a live host is nearby, and subsequently births itself from the chest of that host after its parasitic form has finished its work and died. Then, it grows ludicrously quickly into its adult form. The life cycle of the alien is, for all intents and purposes, the plot of Alien. The alien’s growth from egg to adult is the thing that happens to the characters in this movie. There’s a line of thought about Alien which holds that it is a good movie because of its simplicity: it’s basically just a story of a bunch of people trying to survive in a confined space with a monster. This is true, but the life cycle of the alien… isn’t that simple. Even by the standards of the grossest parasitic spores and blind lizards you’ve ever seen in BBC nature documentaries, the alien is weird. And it’s journey to adulthood is byzantine. It doesn’t seem like something that ought to occur in nature. It seems designed — by a screenwriter, perhaps. Or a Swiss surrealist painter, or a vengeful robot. Odd, then, that a film so concerned with the mechanics of its antagonist’s life cycle should leave out the factor that would actually complete that cycle: where do the eggs come from? Are we to assume that the alien we meet in the film can lay eggs? How does it become pregnant? Is that even a relevant question? Interestingly, this question was apparently answered in a scene that didn’t make it into the movie (again, to trust Wikipedia). Evidently, there’s a scene on the cutting room floor that shows the alien’s dead victims being converted into the leathery eggs seen at the start of the film. Were this scene to have been included, it would have answered another question that Alien does not bother with: what does the alien want? The answer would have been simply, to reproduce. It kills because of a rather gruesome biological imperative. But without that detail in the film, the alien doesn’t actually have a motive for hunting the crew of the Nostromo. It is clearly not acting out of self-defence. Otherwise, poor Harry Dean Stanton might’ve survived the movie. This lack of motive gives added effect to the android Ash’s line, spoken with a tone of faint admiration that now feels like foreshadowing, “Its structural perfection is matched only by its hostility.” In fact, we’ll get back to the alien, but let’s take stock of what we know about androids from Alien. Not much. We know that they exist, their differences from humans are virtually imperceptible, and that this particular model played by Ian Holm has both a mission to retrieve an alien and a distinct admiration for them. It seems like Ash almost sees himself in the alien: like him, the alien appears to have been designed. But this admiration is intensely disquieting, because it is predicated on a complete lack of concern for human life. Given the information we have, we can only assume that the alien in Alien is motivated by sheer hostility. It is a totemic evil in the same vein as Heath Ledger’s Joker. Later films may complicate this (it’s been too long since I’ve watched Aliens for me to say, but I seem to recall a protective mother alien), and they do certainly offer a new take on how the eggs come to be. But in the Ridley Scott-directed Alienverse, which for three decades encompassed only this one film, the alien is very simply the enemy of humanity, who kills for the sake of killing, and nothing more complicated than that. The alien is evil incarnate. The idea that you can give such a thing an origin story displays a profound, and kind of wonderful hubris. Which, of course, is lately Scott’s theme of choice.

TED 2023/PrometheusPrometheus is a profoundly ambitious film, so it probably seems like a dig to say that its themes are explored with nearly the same amount of nuance in TED 2023, a six-minute promotional short used in its viral marketing campaign. (This makes TED 2023 the first utterance of the Alien prequel series.) Taking the form of the most over-the-top TED talk ever delivered, it offers Scott and co. the opportunity to state some of their themes outright, through the mouth of Guy Pearce’s Elon Musk analogue, Peter Weyland (seen in terrible old-age makeup throughout Prometheus, but young here). It ties together two of Prometheus’s most ostentatious allusions: the titular titan of Greek myth, and the diplomat and fictionalized film hero T.E. Lawrence. This connection will resonate throughout Scott’s Alien prequels: the image of the great white European adventurer, mapped onto the image of mythology’s premier technology advocate: the man who was made to suffer for encouraging progress. This short is the first indication that Ridley Scott’s return to the Alien franchise would take a drastically different direction from the first film, focussing as much or more on his androids than his aliens. Though, in Prometheus, we don’t learn much more about either of them: the emergence of the aliens has something to do with a black pathogen, and androids are made by Weyland. That’s pretty much it, as far as I can tell. If Scott does in fact make two more Alien films, Prometheus will eventually seem like a prologue to the Alien prequel trilogy. (Which would make it analogous to Das Rheingold in Wagner’s Ring cycle, which makes it kind of maddening that Rheingold is so explicitly referenced in Covenant, but not here.) TED 2023 also plants the seed for what now appears to be the overarching story of the Alien prequels. That story in a nutshell is this: Humans arrogantly tried to create life, but being flawed, they created flawed life. And the flaws of the life they created led in turn to the creation of the alien nemesis that comes to plague humanity in Scott’s original film. At times, Scott’s story can seem familiar from Battlestar Galactica, but it’s far from the same thing. And besides, it’s a story as old as Prometheus.

Alien: Covenant, plus promotional shorts — The release of Covenant was preceded by several viral marketing shorts in the vein of TED 2023. The most substantial of these was the two-part Alien: Covenant – Prologue. The first of its two parts, “Last Supper,” establishes the fact that the coming movie will be at least in part an homage to Alien. It introduces a motley crew of rough-hewn space cadets aboard a vessel in deep space, with a loveable Ripley-esque lead character. And it includes a tongue-in-cheek allusion to the famous John Hurt chestburster scene at the dinner table. So, for the first time in the prequels, we find ourselves with feet planted firmly in nostalgia. And indeed, Covenant gives us callbacks o’plenty including, satisfyingly, “I got you, you sonofabitch!” On the other hand, “The Crossing” continues the story of Prometheus, detailing the arrival of the android David and Elizabeth Shaw on the homeworld of the Engineers (the blue dudes who fly the crescent-shaped spaceships we’ve been seeing crashed the exact same way since the start of the franchise). The coexistence of these two threads will turn out to be one of the weirdest things about Alien: Covenant, which is a deeply, deeply strange big-budget film. (The other promo shorts are insubstantial. Having watched them after seeing Covenant, I can say that they feature at least two characters who I honestly couldn’t tell you whether they were in the actual film or not. That can’t be a good sign, but I digress.) The connection between the two sides of the Covenant coin also constitutes the prequels’ first real piece of new information, as opposed to speculation fodder, about the alien, which I suppose we can now call a “xenomorph” and have it be textually accurate. The connection is that the xenomorphs were created by David, fulfilling the retrofitted prophesy of Ash’s kinship with the alien in the first film. Covenant confirms that David, the stealth protagonist of Prometheus, is the true focus of the Alien prequels. That’s deeply unfortunate, because he’s also their biggest problem. I’m really not sure what I’m meant to think of this character. I get the sense that Scott actually quite admires David. But then, what filmmaker wouldn’t admire a figure who literally creates life? Covenant tips its hand about what tradition of villainy David is meant to emerge from with one of a handful of conspicuous references to iconic European high art. As he’s fighting Walter, his duty-bound, non-generative doppelganger, David paraphrases the most famous line spoken by Satan in Milton’s Paradise Lost: “Better to reign in Hell than serve in Heaven.” (I’ve just discovered that the working title for the film was Alien: Paradise Lost. So, there’s a thing.) Milton’s Satan is a legendary character in part because the Romantics (e.g. Byron and Shelley, also invoked by David, though he confuses the two for thematic reasons I don’t understand) considered him a peer. Satan is a charismatic rebel: an underdog spoiling to reshape the world in his own image, at least in part as an act of vengeance. That maps pretty neatly onto David: the great creator with an instinct equal parts destructive and generative. But nothing in Alien: Covenant gives the sense that anybody involved in making it knows that David isn’t Satan’s equal — least of all Michael Fassbender, who plays the character with immense self-regard and not a hint of doubt. He’s as confident in his ability to channel Milton’s Satan as he was in his ability to channel T.E. Lawrence in Prometheus. This is what makes David insufferable. If we were given an android who creates hostile, perfect organisms out of a sense of inadequacy in the face of his literary models, that would have been an interesting characterization. But we instead get a precocious teenager who thinks he’s a romantic anti-hero. The fact that he quotes “Ozymandias,” by now the most mothballed literary reference in genre fiction, doesn’t help. It was already a little overwrought when Alan Moore did it back in 1987, but it was at least original. It was fun to hear Bryan Cranston do it in character as Walter White but that’s a different kind of story altogether, and besides, it was only in a promo clip. But it’s becoming the default recitation for ostentatious villainy — particularly the sort of creative villainy that the Romantics identified in Milton’s Satan. (“Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair” almost sounds like it could come from Paradise Lost.) I think it’s time to declare an Ozymoratorium. David makes another high-minded reference in Covenant that’s slightly — very slightly — less clichéd: his reference to Das Rheingold from Wagner’s Ring. The Ring is as a four-opera cycle about how the time of the gods comes to an end and the time of man, their creation, begins. (Pedant’s corner: David’s maker, Peter Weyland, requests that David play something by Wagner on the piano at the start of the movie and then complains when his choice selection sounds “anemic” without the orchestra. Well then, why the hell did you ask for Wagner?!?! The man did not do intimacy, and he wrote hardly anything for solo piano. Also, at the end of the movie, David says that the Valhalla music comes from act two of Das Rheingold, which only has one act. It comes from the fourth scene of Das Rheingold’s one act. But then, David also mixed up Byron and Shelley, so what does he know.) Wagner is an excellent choice in general for grandiose characters with god complexes (David and Weyland, both). But the extent to which the story of The Ring maps onto David’s vision for the future frankly just seems too on the nose. There was a certain point in this movie when I realized that it was just going to keep making references to big ambitious works of art, to suggest that it may itself have similar designs. Ridley Scott and his collaborators seem to be suffering from the same delusions of grandeur that David does. But unlike the xenomorph, Alien: Covenant is far from a perfect organism. And I cannot help but think, having watched all of Scott’s Alien movies in the course of a single week, that his entire project with these prequels is a bit superfluous. His purpose is established now: he’s telling the story of how humans, having been given life and free will by their own creators, did the same, and thus brought True Evil into the universe in the form of David’s xenomorphs. He’s telling the story of the origin of evil (Paradise Lost) by way of the story of human progress (the Prometheus myth). But this is all expressed, albeit implicitly, within the elementally simple storyline of Alien. Presuming you’ve seen the movie before and are aware in advance that Ash is an android, Alien is the story of a manmade man literally opening the door to True Evil, and allowing it to ride roughshod over his human companions due to his own innate lack of morals and ethics. Alien is already the story of how our attempts at playing god fuck us over. It is already the story of Prometheus, or the story of Paradise Lost, and there’s hardly a literary reference to be found. Given that interpretation, it’s hard to credit Ridley Scott’s burning need to make a series of Alien movies that explicitly detail these same themes. That’s not to say that they’re not interesting and occasionally good movies. But, like this meandering essay, they always seem to be grasping for something interesting, but they never quite manage to close their fist around it. Alien closes its fist around exactly what it wants to be, and it can also be an allegory for the fall of man if you really want it to be.

Literature, etc.

Rebecca Solnit: “The Loneliness of Donald Trump” — This is quite possibly the most beautiful thing written about Donald Trump since he was elected president. “Beauty” doesn’t tend to be in my roster of descriptors for good writing about Trump. “Angry,” sure. “Incredulous,” certainly. “Darkly funny,” even. But Solnit has empathy for Trump, and uses it to ascertain why he appears to have no empathy at all. The result is less an indictment of Trump himself than of an entire social structure that can create a man like him. Few writers can craft sentences as simultaneously beautiful and forceful as this: “The man in the white house sits, naked and obscene, a pustule of ego, in the harsh light, a man whose grasp exceeded his understanding, because his understanding was dulled by indulgence.”

The New York Times Magazine: New York Stories — This is fantastic. The New York Times Magazine’s latest issue is all comics, each one an adaptation of a story from the Times metro desk, which covers the ins and outs of New York City itself. It’s easy to forget, given that the Times is the de facto paper of record for the entire North American continent, that it is a New York paper that covers local news in New York City. But these stories are generally small, localized and poetic. They’re the perfect kinds of stories to adapt into comics. In this day of “graphic novel” being the preferred term to legitimize the medium, the suitedness of comics for short-form stories has become obscured. But newspaper comic strips and three-to-five page strips in anthology books like The Dandy and 2000 AD — not to mention the ostentatiously literary short-form work of Adrian Tomine — are a huge part of comics history. These quick impressions based on reported stories are something I’d like to see a lot more of. I daresay there’s space in the media ecosystem for a whole publication that just does this — the immediate issue with that idea being that to hold up the standard, you need several decades worth of work from one of the best metro desks in the world. It’s worth scanning through the stories that these comics are based on, because they’re really great in their own right, and they’re conveniently linked. One or two of these adaptations seem like they could have tried a bit harder, but the best ones actually add depth to their subject matter. I’m particularly fond of Tillie Walden’s comic about a man who spent $700,000 dollars on a fortune teller who told him she could make the woman of his dreams fall in love with him, Tim Gauld and Andy Newman’s story of a man who was ordered to brick up a window so he replaced it with a camera and a screen, and — especially — Andrew Rae’s take on the story of the Queens residents who smuggle finches into the country from South America for birdsong competitions. I love this.

Television

American Gods: “Lemon Scented You” — “Oh, you’re an asshole, dead wife. You’re a fucking asshole, dead wife.” What a wonderful idea to have Laura and Mad Sweeney in a scene together. It’s fun to see Mad Sweeney get the piss ripped out of him any time. But this gives us the added bonus of Laura being delighted about it. Also, it’s amazing how they keep teasing the return of Mr. Nancy without it actually happening. The makers of this show clearly know what an electrifying impact his brief first appearance would have. But I’m desperately hoping he turns up next time. Gillian Anderson has finally gotten the character reinvention she deserves, as Media shows up as Marilyn Monroe and a spot-on “Life On Mars” era David Bowie. I love a good scene constructed from song lyrics. (“There’s a terror to knowing what Mr. World is about.”) And I’m wondering if Crispin Glover’s Mr. World, conspicuously not the same person that Shadow shared a cell with in prison, might constitute the biggest plot change to the book so far. Will he turn out to be Loki? I’m not sure that’s a given at this point. What we know is that his face-changing effect is even more gloriously unsettling than the effects related to the Technical Boy. Now the important stuff. What I really love about this episode is it drives home a key point of how this show is changing the book on a thematic level. The book was a rejoinder to crass commercialism and the worst impulses of American society. The line about cheap, sleazy roadside attractions being infinitely preferable to shopping malls basically gets to the heart of American Gods, the novel. But American Gods the show is a product of 2017, so it has to be about something different. And with the increased prevalence of Media and the reimagining of the Technical Boy as a shitsack YouTuber, it’s starting to seem like a rejoinder to the way that people today attempt to disguise their emptiness with a sheen of vapid self-branding. This is without a doubt my least favourite thing about the world today. Or at least, my least favourite new thing about the world. Everything is fake. You don’t have to be good at something to be recognized. Being recognized is considered a talent in itself. So, when Wednesday turns down the Technical Boy’s offer to help him really hone his brand, I got even more on board with this show. At this point, I feel like it’s being made specifically for me. “That’s all you do,” says Wednesday to Technical and Media. “Occupy their time. We gave back. We gave them meaning.” Long live the fucking old gods.

Doctor Who: “The Lie of the Land” — Ah boy. This pretty much lost me the first time the phrase “memory crime” was invoked. It’s so close to “thoughtcrime” that it immediately made me suspicious that this episode would have no original ideas at all. And it kind of doesn’t. Worse than that, the dialogue isn’t up to the usual standard. The first scene in the vault is particularly cringeworthy, with Missy’s variants on “getting warmer” and “getting colder” as the Doctor tries to figure out what’s going on being especially hard to take. But what all of this emphasizes is the caliber of performances being given by Peter Capaldi, Michelle Gomez and, in particular this week, Pearl Mackie. Bill’s rebuke to the Doctor in the show’s central scene isn’t a particularly inspiring piece of writing, but Mackie manages to make it into one of her character’s best moments. This isn’t one of the good ones, unfortunately. But, one more week until we get two straight episodes of Moffat/Talalay, and I’m definitely excited about that.

Twin Peaks: Season 2, episodes 1-9 — Ah, dear. This does go off the rails sooner than I remembered. This first batch of episodes in season two are worth a watch and contain explorations of some of the show’s most compelling lore. But it also introduces the plotlines that will end up tanking the show around the season’s halfway point. Piper Laurie in yellowface is a particular low. But we also get the agoraphobic botanist, Dick Tremayne, and teenage Nadine with super-strength. That last one is probably the weirdest of them, though it isn’t distractingly bad just yet. I’m actually really admiring the way that Wendy Robie commits to the gag. And Everett McGill’s stoic terror at the fucked up plotline he’s found himself in is even funnier. Dick Tremayne has all the hallmarks of a character who should appear once, maybe twice, and then never again. If he actually vanished from the show when Lucy told him to leave the sheriff’s department and never come back, the show would have been better for it. But there are other things that used to strike me as bad notes in the show that now seem more knowing: the James/Donna/Maddie love triangle sing-along made more sense to me this time around, once I realized that David Lynch directed that episode. And in general, the two episodes at the start of this season that are directed by Lynch are truly awesome television. There’s nothing better than that amazingly long sequence of a senile room service waiter not realizing that Coop is bleeding out on the floor. The other standout in this run of episodes is the one that Lynch returns to direct, “Lonely Souls,” in which Leland is revealed as Laura’s killer (in some abstract sense). One of the things Lynch brought to the television toolkit that is still rare even today is a willingness to take his time with important or interesting scenes. The scene with the room service waiter is one side of that, but another side is the truly distressing, and quite long scene in which BOB/Leland kills Maddy. The way Lynch chooses to direct this as a sort of grotesque dance that cuts between Leland acting oddly tender towards his victim and BOB being truly cruel is extremely perverse. It’s one of the most difficult sequences in the show to watch, in spite of how little is actually shown. It feels violent in a way that modern television violence doesn’t. And crucially, unlike a lot of today’s TV violence, it feels wrong. It feels like something that you’re supposed to recoil from. And the way that it’s bookended with scenes of the giant (and, wonderfully, that same room service waiter) warning Coop what’s happening in a way that he can’t understand makes it really heartbreaking. “Lonely Souls” is a really good episode, even if it’s central reveal did ruin the show. And the next two episodes, which tie up an almost uncomfortable number of loose ends — the way that Coop and co. just straight up explain what happened the night Laura was murdered really strikes me as pat, and a betrayal of the original spirit of the show — really rely almost entirely on the extraordinary performance of Ray Wise to paper over their comparative lack of inspiration. And Ray Wise really is incredible here. Kyle MacLaughlan might have given the most memorable performance in Twin Peaks, but Wise gives the best of the heightened, alienating, kabuki-esque performances that are so crucial to the feel of the show. In general, the notion that the first half of season two is on the same level as season one seems wrong. But it’s hard to tell if my mounting discomfort is actually because of what’s happening in the series right now, or because I’m starting to see the seeds of the truly awful half-season that’s quickly approaching. I’m following the New York Times’ advice and watching up to episode 11, then skipping to episode 21, but I’m not looking forward to these next couple of episodes. On the other hand, Leo being comatose makes for a fine application of Eric Da Re’s acting abilities.

Music

The Beatles: Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (Deluxe Edition) — It was 50 years ago today etc. It’s June 1 as I’m writing this, and I’ve listened to Sgt. Pepper three times today. First, I checked out Giles Martin’s new stereo remix of the album, then my old faithful 2009 mono remaster, and finally, the “alternate” Pepper of rough sessions on disc two of the deluxe edition. Mostly, it just reminded me how much I love Sgt. Pepper. But that won’t come as a surprise, so I’ll focus on my thoughts on the deluxe edition. I came to Giles Martin’s remix with the requisite puritanical scepticism. The original mono mix of Sgt. Pepper, particularly in its remastered edition, is a perfectly fine sounding album. But I do buy Giles Martin’s argument that the album needs a new stereo mix, because nobody listens to the mono except nerds like me, and the original stereo mix is terrible. It’s full of that horrible thing where all the instruments are on one side. Awful. So I figured the new mix would be worth hearing, if only to hear Sgt. Pepper in decent stereo for once. But this turned out to be a way different experience from that. Martin went right back to the original tapes, which for the original album’s mix had to be subjected to a certain amount of degradation because it was mixed on four-track. No such problem exists today, so the original tapes can be heard in all their glory, in a way that’s actually purer than what was on the first issue of the record. The result is a Sgt. Pepper that is clearer, cleaner, and more impactful than any previous version. Of course, it’s also subtly different than either of the versions I’m used to. (I grew up on the terrible 1987 stereo CD release, and have been devoted to the mono since 2009.) You might think that’s a stumbling block. Sure was when they remixed the Genesis albums. But honestly, the major impression I got throughout my listening was simply that this was Sgt. Pepper, except with better sound. That’s the highest possible praise Giles Martin could get for this. There are tiny exceptions, where a change to the mix gave me a different impression than the original. “Within You Without You” has always finished with a muted laugh from a crowd of imaginary onlookers. In the remix, they’re a lot more prevalent. Originally, George Harrison’s message of universal togetherness accompanied by ersatz Indian classical music was met with a knowing chuckle by a gaggle of hip sophisticates. Now it’s undermined by derisive laughter from a roomful of cynics. It’s a subtle sonic change with a substantial impact. But I can’t help but think Harrison, perverse weirdo that he was, would’ve appreciated the new version  — in which nobody recognizes how right he is. The other track in which the new mix makes a really ostentatious impression is Lennon’s “Good Morning, Good Morning.” As a song, it’s a relative weak point on the album, but as a sonic construction, it’s one of the weirdest, most fascinatingly cacophonous things in the Beatles catalogue. The new mix kicks that cacophony up a level — the bass drum sounds thunderous, and it all feels louder. Suddenly it makes sense in its context near the end of the album. It escalates the energy up to the level required for the borderline hard rock of “Sgt. Pepper (Reprise),” and makes the moment when the bottom falls out and the acoustic intro of “A Day in the Life” begins even more effective. The moral of the story in both of these cases is that sounds mean things. Infinitesimally small adjustments make big differences if you’re listening closely. But Giles Martin’s got the Beatles in his blood, so none of the changes jar. Not a single one. They don’t even feel like changes. I’ve heard a lot of reissues, and I think this might well be a new high standard. I’ll probably mostly listen to this instead of the mono now. A few words on the second disc: it’s a lot of fun. Basically, Martin and co. have assembled an alternative Pepper with the same running order out of rough takes without overdubs. And then some “Strawberry Fields Forever” and “Penny Lane” at the end for good measure. Hearing just one take of each song before moving onto the next one doesn’t quite give the sense of process that I crave from these types of releases — I want to hear how the songs evolve. But for that I’ll need to splurge on the six-disc set, which I might do. In the meantime, hearing Sgt. Pepper rough takes at all is fascinating. This is one of those albums that’s so meticulous in its construction that it sometimes feels like it isn’t actually being performed by humans. Listening to the sessions re-establishes Sgt. Pepper’s connection to Earth, and makes it identifiably something performed by the same people who recorded the rough-and-ready fare on Please Please Me. I’m especially fond of the “When I’m Sixty-Four” rough take with no clarinets and, more crucially, no Varispeed. On the album, the vocal track is sped up so Paul sounds like he’s singing higher than he actually did. It’s a solid musical decision, but there’s something wonderfully human in the discrepancy between the session and the final mix. One of my personal maxims is that great craftsmanship doesn’t age. That’s why Sgt. Pepper is still great music 50 years later. And this two-disc set is the best commemorative edition we could have asked for. Except, I’m assuming, for the six-disc set. But this is on streaming services. So for god’s sake, go listen. Pick of the week.

Tool: 10,000 Days — I’m going to see Tool! And I need to study up. This is actually the album that I’m probably least in need of a quick study on, since it is for me the ‘period’ Tool album: the one they made when I got into them. I’ve listened to it a fair bit over the years, and I do like it a lot, though it has peaks and troughs. It never quite reaches the heights of its opening one-two punch of “Vicarious” and “Jambi” afterwards, though I do love the relatively low-key “Wings for Marie” and the title track. This is the one I revisit for nostalgia. But I think Lateralus, I think maybe the only other Tool album I’ve heard, is a better album. We shall soon see.

Podcasts

Theory of Everything: “Protest” — I like that there’s just one guy who can produce segments for TOE. Walker has a stable of one freelancer. Andrew Calloway’s segment on the Pepes rallying in New York is solid stuff with some good characters who I didn’t viscerally hate.

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “Master of None and Snatched” — I hate that moment when you hear about a show that got really good after being sort of ‘meh’ for a while. Because now I feel like I have to watch Master of None. Snatched sounds like a fiasco.

All Songs Considered: “Why Remix ‘Sgt. Pepper’s’? Giles Martin, The Man Behind The Project, Explains” — This is well worth hearing for the A/B comparisons of the remastered original stereo mix of Pepper with the new one. It’s also nice to hear Giles Martin sing the praises of the original mono mix, which, in spite of my real love for the remix, is still something that deserves to be listened to. What’s even clearer from this, though, is how terrible the original stereo mix was. And to think, I grew up on that mix on a CD released in 1987. You know music’s good when it can rise above that.

Theory of Everything: “Emergency” — Not a hugely memorable episode, he writes, having listened to this like a lifetime ago. But I do think the image of Benjamen Walker getting paranoid in a spa is a good one worth returning to.

Love and Radio: “The Pandrogyne” — A classic. This is a beautifully mixed interview with one of England’s great musical eccentrics, Genesis P-Orridge. I’ve always meant to get into Throbbing Gristle, but that is not at all what this is about. This is about P-Orridge’s relationship with their late partner, with whom they consider themselves one being. It’s warm, funny and sad. And it features the story of the time they stayed in a house that used to belong to Houdini. It burned down while they were staying there, but they escaped. *grins* It’s nice to hear somebody straightforwardly sympathetic on Love and Radio from time to time. Pick of the week.

Strangers: “Lea in Trumpland: Alicia” — This is… ugh, I don’t know what to think of this. This is that thing where a liberal reporter goes and talks to a Trump supporter. To be fair, Lea Thau seems entirely aware of the pitfalls of that. But this still falls into that genre, and I can’t help but feel that Alicia, a perfectly sympathetic person in many respects, has a worldview that just doesn’t really deserve the airtime. Maybe that sounds ruthless, but she really lost me at the moment when Thau asks her about racism and she responds by saying that she doesn’t really care about people’s feelings getting hurt. Never mind that it’s as much or more about people’s safety than their feelings — I just can’t get behind a person who thinks like that. I know that’s kind of the point, and I’m totally aware of the fact that I’m holding this to a different standard than I’ve held comparable episodes of Love and Radio. But I just feel like I don’t have the mental energy to grapple with this right now. Get back to me in ten years, and maybe I’ll have enough distance to know what to think.

On The Media: “The United States of Anxiety: America’s Allergy to Intellectualism” — I appreciated this, but similarly to the episode of Strangers I just reviewed, I’m just really not as much in the mood for anxiety-making radio about contemporary politics as I thought I was when I put this on. I’m sure The United States of Anxiety is a great show, but I’m probably going to pass on it for now.

Fresh Air: “‘Sgt. Pepper’ At 50” — First off, the A/B comparisons here were less valuable to me than their All Songs Considered counterparts, because this podcast is in mono. When comparing stereo mixes, that’s kind of not acceptable. I guess the broadcast edit was stereo? Never mind. This is still worthwhile for the interview with Giles Martin, which is more in-depth than the one on All Songs. But if you’re only picking one, go with All Songs, for the stereo.

Fresh Air: “Paul McCartney/Ringo Starr” — It speaks to the quality of The Beatles Anthology that I’m never surprised by Beatles interviews anymore. Why do I even bother?

Omnireviewer (week of Apr. 16)

Lots of good stuff this week. Also one very bad thing that I enjoyed regardless. 22 reviews.

Movies

The Wicker Man (2006) — Oh, good lord. Firstly, be warned (BEE warned) that the infamous “NOT THE BEEEES” scene is actually not in the theatrical release of this movie. It’s in an alternate ending only on the DVD. I guess when they were editing the movie they found the line they couldn’t cross, and that was it. If you haven’t seen this, you should definitely watch it. Watch it with some people around. Nicholas Cage’s scenery chewing results in one of the most compellingly terrible performances I’ve ever witnessed. Everything about this movie is so crazily off the mark that I have trouble believing any actor attached to it (maybe Cage more than anybody) took it seriously as they were making it. It’s laden down with severely inept writing (“Of course. Another plant!”), weirdly benign jump scares (that bit where he wakes up twice) and badly-directed child extras (“Phall-ic sym-bol, phall-ic sym-bol”). I must confess, I never saw the appeal of the original, acclaimed version of The Wicker Man. But seeing some of the stuff that this version gets wrong makes me appreciate it a little more. For one thing, the remake de-emphasizes the protagonist’s religion. We do see a crucifix in Cage’s house early in the film, but that’s about the extent of it. In the original, the detective’s religiosity is what compels him to investigate the missing girl’s disappearance with such vigor: he inherently distrusts the Hebridean islanders because of their paganism. And that’s really what the original film is primarily about. Its horror derives from Christian anxiety over lingering paganism in rural places. This is substituted out in the remake for two ill-advised alterations: making the missing girl the detective’s daughter (“there has to be stakes” says American cinema) and making the island not merely pagan but also a matriarchy. Because to secular, urbane, 21st-century Americans, paganism isn’t scary. But women running society? Heaven fucking forfend. And then there’s the fucking bees, which are somehow both ham-fistedly symbolic and a seemingly arbitrary addition to the story. But all of this is just me wilfully missing the point of watching this movie. I said before that I didn’t really enjoy the original Wicker Man all that much. I think it has a good story with interesting implications about religious anxiety. But it also has tonally jarring musical numbers and Christopher Lee at, frankly, not his best. On the other hand, I completely enjoyed the Nic Cage remake. This is the rare case where I’ll happily recommend a ridicule-watch of a bad movie over a sincere screening of an objectively more accomplished one. Seriously. Watch this.

Television

Battlestar Galactica: Season 3, episodes 14-20 — Let’s make this a full-on appraisal of the complete season, shall we? Okay. Starting at the beginning. The New Caprica arc is outstanding, if far shorter-lived than I’d expected. It’s remarkable how close to the season two status quo (and in fact, the pre-”Pegasus” status quo) we end up in, a mere four episodes after everything changes. Still, the decision not to belabour the point of New Caprica is probably a good one, and it allows for a remarkably brisk start to the season. The “Exodus” two-parter is up there with the season two finale, the first episode of the miniseries and “33” among my favourites in this series. Once we’re past that arc, the show returns to something like business as usual, but with the extremely satisfying addition of a plotline that takes place on a Cylon baseship. I brought this up last week, but it bears repeating: the set alone is one of the best things this show has ever done. The way that the editing is deliberately disorienting in the baseship scenes is brilliant. And every new glimpse we get of Cylon society — of the ways that they interact with their surroundings and each other in ways that are both human and alien — adds depth to the show. It’s in the small choices: like the way that red characters are projected over the Cylons whenever they’re in their control room and the water-filled interfaces with the consoles. The Cylons aren’t creepy because they’re mechanical. They’re creepy because they’re weirdly organic, and yet they live like this. I’m particularly enamoured with the Hybrid: a Cronenbergian horror that puts the interior of the Cylon raiders to shame. Number Three getting her own honest-to-god(s?) plotline is a welcome development. At this point in the show, nearly half of the known Cylon models (Three, Six and Eight — the women, not coincidentally I imagine) have at least certain sympathetic aspects. I love that we’re seeing more from that side of the conflict. The Galactica-based plotlines of the mid-season are more hit and miss. Starbuck, my favourite character in the first two seasons save possibly for Roslin, gets particularly short shrift. She’s jammed into an inelegant love quadrangle in which neither of the inconvenient marriages involved makes a lick of sense. (There’s still satisfaction in seeing her at her triumphant moments, though. Every time she triumphs I get this warm fuzzy feeling like I’ve just punched Dirk Benedict in the face.) Still, one episode takes these flawed storylines and makes them sing, and that is “Unfinished Business.” Weaving together a recreational boxing tournament onboard the Galactica and flashbacks from the almost good times of early New Caprica, it establishes that the characters in this show don’t need to be dogfighting, fomenting revolution or barking commands to be compelling. It leaves out everything I love most about this season — the Cylon baseship, Baltar’s plotline aboard said baseship, weird spirituality — and still manages to be the best episode of the season. However, like season two, this has some serious clunkers in its second half. “The Woman King” is a shitty would-be conspiracy thriller with Helo in the lead. Even so, while the actual crimes that Helo’s investigating are deeply unconvincing plotting, it does develop his character in an interesting way that I wouldn’t have thought to observe: he’s the character on the ship who is constantly on the wrong side of everything. Among the crew, he’s possibly the most liberal. Speaking of politics, another disappointment in this season is the transformation of Tom Zarek from a revolutionary freedom fighter to an abuser of executive power. That’s dispiriting. But then, it has happened frequently enough throughout history. What’s really bizarre is how the show suddenly recast Baltar as a farmer’s son and he was briefly the fleet’s primary voice of radical politics. So, effectively, both of Battlestar Galactica’s far-left figures are compromised: Zarek because he eventually perpetrates the abuses he once professed to hate, and Baltar because he’s using leftist rhetoric for cynical, personal means. At least there’s kickass union boss Chief Tyrell. (I also love that this entire plotline is scored with a sort of quasi-bluegrass from space.) And I do like that the show is willing to have its two broadly sympathetic leadership figures, Adama and Roslin, be completely and committedly wrong and insensitive about labour organizing and issues of class in general. That rings true. But back to the negatives for a moment. “A Day in the Life” is an Adama feature episode that’s not worthy of the character. It finds him wilfully hallucinating his own dead wife, whose line readings are bizarrely terse and suck the energy out of every scene she’s in. That takes us to the season’s endgame, I suppose. In general, I approve of the plot developments in these episodes as broad strokes — Starbuck dies and returns enlightened, Baltar is found not guilty, everyone is a Cylon, etc. — but I don’t think they make especially good television on a micro level. It’s little choices that let them down, not big ones. I understand that there’s a twist in this show somewhere that people disapproved of. I can’t figure out what it is. But there are little things creeping in that make it seem a little bit less sure-handed than it once was. The whole contrived thing of Apollo being called as a witness at Baltar’s trial to deliver his speech, for instance. That speech needed to happen, but why go about it in such a weird way? And really, the whole decision to focus such a big chunk of the season finale on something as relatively low-stakes as Baltar’s trial. Or the “All Along the Watchtower” thing in the finale. That was a little overcooked. (Though I’m curious about how a song from contemporary Earth ended up in this show, given what we’ve been made to understand about when in human history it takes place. I have an obvious theory. Don’t tell me if I’m right.) The final shot of the season, with all of the cosmic zooms finishing on the reveal of Earth feels like it’s from a completely different show, aesthetically: a much more 2001 sort of science fiction show. Could it be that we’re hurdling headlong into crazy for season four? (That much I know.) And finally. Fat Apollo. Fat fucking Apollo. This is a good season of television. The highs are super high, and the lows aren’t much lower than previously.

Doctor Who: “The Pilot” — Ohhhh yes. Oh, I’m so glad it’s back. The title flags the most interesting thing about this episode, which is that it is functionally a new start. Doctor Who isn’t the first show to make a pun on the word “pilot” in an episode title. Lost comes to mind immediately, and there must be others. But I don’t know of another that does one 10 seasons into its run (or, indeed, 36 seasons in). This feels like Steven Moffat challenging himself to restate the premise of the show and express its fundamental romantic joy without too much reference to continuity. It is enormously successful in that, and I found myself as overwhelmed as ever by the reveal of the TARDIS interior. I’ve written before about a concept I call “wonder surrogacy,” where a show or movie establishes a character inside of its narrative whose specific role is to marvel at what’s going on around them in the hopes that their wonder will rub off on an audience who may be skeptical. I first noticed this in Jurassic World, and I’ve been extra cognizant of it ever since. It nearly never works. Certainly, Doctor Who is the sort of text you may expect wonder surrogacy to rear its head in. It’s been around for over 50 years, and the key elements (the TARDIS, Daleks, regeneration, etc.) are part of the public consciousness. And yet, every time a new companion is introduced, we’re treated to the phenomenon of a person being surprised and aghast and overjoyed to find the TARDIS “bigger on the inside,” as if this is not common knowledge. So, why does the elongated “bigger on the inside” sequence with Bill work so well? Why does this seeming example of wonder surrogacy (like all of the “bigger on the inside” scenes in the new series) give me chills while the rest leave me rolling my eyes? The best answer I can come up with is that the TARDIS is a genuine wonder. A CGI dinosaur is not a genuine wonder. It’s just an image, and an increasingly banal one. The TARDIS is the entry point to an entirely new understanding of the cosmos. Crossing the threshold from its outside to its inside requires an entirely new concept of how physical space works, and when you cross the threshold again to the outside, everything may well have changed completely. As an image, the TARDIS is purposely banal. As a concept, it is the perfect metaphor for imagination itself. There is no wonder surrogacy required for such a thing. Only wonder. Love him or hate him (and I believe there are reasons for both), Steven Moffat understands this better than anybody else who has ever written for this show. That’s why I’m excited for this season, and why I’ll be fairly disconsolate about his departure.

Doctor Who: “Smile” — Still the most interesting thing about this season so far (and I am quite favourably disposed to this season so far) is the way that it is reiterating certain basic elements of the appeal of Doctor Who. The moment that really stands out in this episode for me is a small one right after Bill asks the Doctor why it has to be him that saves the people of the planet they’re on. Naturally, being Twelve, he doesn’t give a satisfactory answer. But Bill, being cleverer even than the people who initially dreamed up this show, sees the notice on the outside of the TARDIS that proclaims, in the manner of even the most non-bigger-on-the-inside police boxes, “advice and assistance obtainable immediately.” Why does the Doctor keep the TARDIS in its police box form? Because he lives by that notice on the door like a code. This is fundamental to the show, and it squares with Steven Moffat’s view of the Doctor as a different, worthier kind of hero. So far, it looks like Moffat has decided to use his final season on the show to revisit the first principles of the show, and compose a love letter to the glorious legacy of Doctor Who, which he recognizes that he’s an infinitesimally small part of. A good part, though. A really good part. The rest of this, with a script written by Frank Cottrell-Boyce (whose “In the Forest of the Night” is an idiosyncratic favourite of mine), is a fun Doctor Who romp that allows Bill and the Doctor plenty of time alone to get to know each other. The Emojibots are deeply scary in a way that conventionally terrifying monsters are not. They throw our own vapidity back in our faces and then kill us. I love that. This series is two-for-two. If Sarah Dollard delivers next week like I think she will, it’ll be off to a massively better start than its predecessor.  

Literature, etc.

David A. Banks: “Podcast Out” — An interesting critical look at the limitations and potential consequences of NPR’s major podcasts. Broadly I agree with Banks’s assessment, though to me the biggest problem with Radiolab and its ilk is not their reliance on the sciences to explain the world, but on the stories of individuals to explain science. There’s no room in most public radio-derived podcasts for any huge, world-defining story that can’t be localised into a personal narrative told by, like, a single dad in Newark or whatever. It’s a weirdly closed-minded approach to curiosity. Note that I still listen to a boatload of these kinds of podcasts, but I increasingly appreciate the ones like Theory of Everything and Love and Radio that break from the structure and challenge rather than confirm the listener’s assumptions.

Neil Gaiman: American Gods (The Tenth Anniversary Edition audiobook) — Okay. Enough podcasters have told me to check out Audible that I’m doing it. This edition of the audiobook features a full cast, including a really brilliant fellow (Ron McLarty) doing the role of Mr. Wednesday, and it features Neil Gaiman himself reading certain interstitial chapters. As a listening experience I’m pretty sold on full-cast audiobooks. Gaiman’s presence is much appreciated as well, as he’s always an engaging reader of his own work and he’s got a wonderful and distinctive voice. I also appreciate that he’s deployed sparingly. Makes you really lean in when you hear him. The only issue with the audiobook so far is a sex scene that becomes distinctly unsexy when read aloud. These actors can only act so much. It’s not a play, after all, and we listeners have lives to get on with. But hearing a sex scene read aloud in a fashion somewhere between matter-of-fact and actually dramatic is, well, awkward. As for American Gods itself, I’ve been meaning to get around to this since I read and adored The Sandman a few years back. With the show coming up soon, with both Bryan Fuller and Ian McShane attached, I figure I’d best do it now. I’m three chapters in and I love it already. The idea of ancient gods finding their place in America is outstanding, and I’m already very curious about who this youngster is who wants them gone. I know enough of Norse mythology to know that Odin won’t live forever, so the stakes are already high. As for Shadow, he’s a compelling enough protagonist. His relationship with his dead wife is proving to be the most interesting thing about him. But so far, I’m really in it for the lore. I’m enjoying this enough that I’m actually rushing through writing this so I can get back to it. More next week, I’m sure.

Music

Ted Hearne/The Crossing: Sound from the Bench — This is my favourite music of the year so far. Admittedly, it hasn’t been a busy year for me in terms of discovering new music. But this is really, really good. I was familiar with Hearne from his oratorio The Source, which has moments of staggering brilliance (especially the chorus “We called for illumination at 1630”) but which I generally found a bit literal and earnest. The choral music on this collection has no such problem. The title work is the centrepiece and the highlight, featuring guitars and drums backing up the chorus. The text is drawn from both Supreme Court decisions and ventriloquism textbooks. This unorthodox and rich choice of texts helps to combat the earnestness that I found slightly offputting in The Source. Sound from the Bench is a genuinely funny piece of music. Its primary subject is the Citizens United decision that deemed corporate campaign spending to be a form of free speech protected under the first amendment. This is patently absurd and implicitly hilarious. Of course, it has some rather dire connotations, but unlike the war-adjacent texts of The Source, it isn’t directly a matter of life and death. But holy crap is it ever musically powerful. The other three works on the disc are nearly as good as the main event, but the short piece “Consent” stands out. It gets dark partway through, but the opening — is simply a mixed chorus singing the words “I want you, I want to” — is absolutely staggering. Hearne is one of the most explicitly socially-conscious composers working right now, and while I wasn’t certain whether it was working when I heard The Source, I have no doubt now that it absolutely can. And the recording itself is fantastic as well. None of the fuzziness that you sometimes hear around the edges of choral recordings. This isn’t pretending to be a live concert. It’s music that happens right in your head. The Crossing is a miraculous ensemble with a distinctive sound that ranges from symphonic choir to glee club. I can’t wait to hear more from them. This is beautiful. I desperately want an opera from Ted Hearne. Not the usual kind with arias and duets and things, but an Einstein on the Beach sort of opera that takes advantage of his facility with found texts and choral writing. If someone could please commission that from him (I’m looking at you, Opera Philadelphia) it would be epochal. Pick of the week.

Kendrick Lamar: Damn. — Ah man, this is going to make me work, isn’t it? Kendrick Lamar’s music always takes a gigantic amount of listening to sink in for me. It’s entirely possible that he’s my favourite rapper around right now, but I’ll never connect with him as directly as, say, Run the Jewels, because the beats are so raw and spare that my mind wanders. And you can’t let your mind wander with this guy. Here’s what I love: “DNA,” with its Fox News samples. “DUCKWORTH,” with its (maybe specious?) storytelling. “FEAR,” with its tripartite structure and uncharacteristic repetition. And “LOYALTY” with Rihanna rapping. This is approximately the same number of high points I detected on my first listen of To Pimp a Butterfly. If things proceed similarly, I will like and understand this better many many months from now.

Car Seat Headrest: Teens of Denial — Here’s an album that took a while to creep up on me. I’m still not convinced it’s the second coming that some claim it is, but I enjoy a larger percentage of the many many tracks on this than I did when I first heard it. “Vincent,” “Drunk Drivers/Killer Whales” and “The Ballad of the Costa Concordia” are still the highlights, but I’ve come to love “Fill in the Blank,” “Cosmic Hero” and “Drugs With Friends” as well. In general, this is music that occupies the same space as the Smiths and Belle and Sebastian: you listen to it for a catharsis. It’s at its best when your life isn’t. But for all its structural ingenuity, Will Toledo’s songwriting doesn’t have the wit of Stuart Murdoch, let alone Morrissey. So I’m not sure this can transcend those moments of needing catharsis the same way that other sad guy music can. This isn’t every day music the way that Strangeways, Here We Come is, for instance. No shame.

Podcasts

Containers: “Welcome to Global Capitalism” — The episode on 99pi convinced me to check this out, but I’m not going to make it through. There’s some good tape in this, but there’s also tape of the host literally flipping through archives. An eight-part series on how shipping containers changed the world was always going to be a maybe/maybe not proposition. At another time, in another state of mind, I would love this. But I think I’d prefer it if it didn’t take such a public radio approach of insisting that its subject matter is interesting every step of the way. Maybe I don’t need all these personal narratives to keep me involved. Maybe I can just hear you out and be interested in your thesis for its own merits. Anyway, I tried.

Love and Radio: “The Secrets Hotline” — This has been a truly great season of Love and Radio. As a final episode, this is a nice capper, though it’s insubstantial compared to, say, “A Girl of Ivory,” “Doing the No No” or “Blink Once For Yes,” which are three of my favourite episodes the show has ever done. The original scoring in this is a nice touch, and some of the secrets proffered here by anonymous callers are truly juicy. The feeling of sanctioned voyeurism is a good one. If you’re reading this, do listen to this episode, but seek out the three I’ve mentioned first if you’ve never heard this show. It is one of the miracles of podcasting.

Home of the Brave: “Trump’s Wall: Part 1” — My god, the tape in this is so beautiful. It’s just nature sounds from a riverside, recorded beautifully. More broadly, I’m very happy that Scott Carrier is doing a larger piece on Trump’s wall. That promises to be some of the best radio of recent years. And doing short updates like this is a good way to keep us sated.

Radiolab: “Nukes” — For everything I said about Radiolab earlier, they can make straightforwardly compelling radio. This episode poses the question, who gets to call the President’s decision to use nuclear weapons into question? The answer: it has differed from one administration to another. But the specifics are really fascinating.

Criminal: “420” — Ah, hilarious. This episode tells the story of how three teenagers’ tongue-in-cheek codeword for pot became universally acknowledged, with a substantial assist from the Grateful Dead. It also broaches the hilarious subject of Colorado’s 420 mile-marker signs getting stolen so consistently that they had to be replaced with 419.99 mile-marker signs. This is why Criminal is the best true crime podcast.  

Crimetown: “Family Ties” & “Bonus Episode: Gangster’s Daughter” — I have nothing more to say about this season of Crimetown. These are both adequate standalone episodes of this season. But I’m basically still in this solely because I’m susceptible to the sunk costs fallacy. Good thing it’ll soon be done.

The Kitchen Sisters Present: “Tony Schwartz: 30,000 Recordings Later” — This may be the third time I’ve heard this, but it’s good every time. The story of a guy who devoted his life to going out into the world and preserving sounds with a microphone, only to succumb to agoraphobia late in life. There’s a doc like this to made about R. Murray Schafer, but don’t tell anybody I said that or they’ll beat me to it.

99% Invisible: “The Architect of Hollywood” — A new classic from this old standby. It’s the story of Paul Revere Williams, the architect who single-handedly conceived the Hollywood style of architecture. This story reveals how that  intensely hybridized style grew out of this one architect who learned to do every style out of necessity, because he was a black man working almost exclusively for white people whose instincts were not to trust him. This is super. I’ve missed Avery Trufelman’s stories. Is it just me, or has it been a while?

Code Switch: “The Beef Over Native American Hunting Rights” — I dunno, there’s a major source in this who kind of sounds like a bigoted fool to me. Maybe I’m wrong, but this is the first time I’ve felt the bad kind of uncomfortable while listening to this show. Also, there’s some super ham-fisted writing at the end. An off week.

The Gist: “The Handmaid’s Fail” — Alexandra Petri is a fantastic guest host, though I do wonder if she’s just doing a Mike Pesca impression here. She really is a lot like Mike Pesca in her questions and her delivery. Also, this reminded me that I really need to read The Handmaid’s Tale. I don’t know how I’ve read four Margaret Atwood novels and that isn’t one of them.

This American Life: “The Other Mr. President” — The best part of this Sean Cole’s segment on Vladislav Surkov, and that’s not nearly as good as Benjamen Walker’s.

Slate’s Political Gabfest: “Bill Comes Due Edition” — I had forgotten how dull I find this. There’s been some stuff happening that compelled me to return to it — I mean, North Korea, Bill O’Reilly… this is fascinating, disgusting stuff — and I still couldn’t help myself from getting bored.

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “The Fate of the Furious Plus Clapbacks and Feuds” — I hadn’t realized how funny Sam Sanders is. Now I’m extra excited for whatever the hell he’s developing. This is really good episode of this show, by the way. If you want to know why it is my preferred example of this format, this is a good episode to go with. Pick of the week.