Tag Archives: Mountain Goats

Omnibus (week of Sept. 24, 2017)

Only 12 reviews, because again I watched half a season of Battlestar Galactica. I am now finished Battlestar Galactica. I have thoughts. Read on.

Movies

Pearl Jam: Let’s Play Two — I have a friend who’s really into Pearl Jam. You can read about that here. I am not a Pearl Jam fan, but to a certain extent I have cultivated the ability to appreciate other people’s obsessions by osmosis. What I jerk I’d be if I hadn’t! Many of my favourite musicians, filmmakers and writers are the sorts of artists who alienate general audiences while playing to a fervent cult of devotees (see Terry Gilliam, China Miéville, Rush). Far be it from me to judge my fellow anoraks. Devotion to these kinds of artists runs deeper than devotion to universally acclaimed artists. Other people not liking the thing you love makes that thing seem more specifically aimed at you. Pearl Jam doesn’t fit this category as comfortably as, say, Rush, who have had scorn heaped on them by critics and casual listeners alike. But they do strike me as a band that breeds obsession in a large few more so than casual enthusiasm in a small many. Being on the outside of this fandom, I would never have enjoyed this on my own. But with Sachi, I could possibly watch it the way I sometimes watch sports: cluelessly, but with a vicarious sense of somebody else’s enthusiasm. Sometimes that’s enough. Also, Sachi is the person responsible for my only recently abating obsession with Doctor Who. You never know. Pearl Jam might be the next thing. Probably not, I figured. I was basically right. My sports analogy above is less figurative than it might seem, seeing as how watching this concert documentary entails watching quite a lot of baseball, and moreover quite a lot of watching Eddie Vedder watch baseball. The premise of the film is that Pearl Jam’s 2016 concert at Wrigley Field was a major event in Chicago’s cultural life, given that it happened during the course of the Cubs’ first triumphant World Series in over a century. It interleaves footage from the concert with documentary footage about the Cubs’ miraculous year, Vedder’s longstanding devotion to the team, and the overlap between Pearl Jam’s Chicago-based fandom (who regard Vedder as a hometown hero) and Cubs fans. It’s a bit contrived. There’s a thesis statement in there somewhere about unconditional devotion, but it gets buried beneath a pile of tenuous connections and thematic leaps. On the other hand, the concert footage is beautifully shot, and finds the band giving a super-energized performance. I have no idea if this is just normal for them or if they really pulled out the stops for a show that was meant to be special (and that they knew would become a permanent document). I knew none of these songs going in (I’d heard a couple but that’s not the same) and I left with a couple of distinct favourites and a vague memory of bunch of other stuff that all blended together into a passionate, energetic rock ‘n’ roll blur. The distinct favourites were “Go,” a near-metal track with an infectious heavy riff and some serious shredding from Mike McCready, and “Better Man,” a ballad that begins with uncharacteristic delicacy and has a bittersweet chorus where the major-key openness of the music clashes with the sad resignation of the lyrics. These are good songs. So is “Corduroy,” with its wordless singalong outro. Love me a good wordless singalong outro. I have not been converted to the church of Pearl Jam. But I suppose I get it a little more now. Baseball, on the other hand, continues to befuddle me.

Music

The Mountain Goats: All Hail West Texas — The second album in my Mountain Goats journey after The Sunset Tree. This has some outstanding songs on it, particularly “The Best Ever Death Metal Band in Denton,” which is one of those beautiful-fantasy-meets-unpleasant-reality stories that I seem to love so much. It’s the specificity that makes it: this song is about two very particular kids with a very particular dream for their future. This is what is good about these songs in general. The note on the front cover gives as accurate a sense of what the music is like as any prose description could: “fourteen songs about seven people, two houses, a motorcycle, and a locked treatment facility for adolescent boys.” The songs in general are character songs and story songs in the vein of the Decemberists, but without that band’s whimsy and artifice. Where Colin Meloy’s lyrics caper and prance, John Darnielle’s simply tread quickly and frequently turn corners. This difference resonates with Darnielle’s choice of an aggressively D.I.Y. aesthetic: where the Decemberists’ story songs are clothed in elaborate arrangements full of bouzouki and accordion, Darnielle simply recorded this whole album (minus the cheap keyboard construction “Blues in Dallas”) with an acoustic guitar and a Panasonic boom box. It is probably the most aggressively lo-fi thing I have ever actually enjoyed. And that’s all because the songs themselves are so fussily constructed. It is both easier and more essential to focus on the lyrics of this album than it is on The Sunset Tree, because there is nothing else of note going on. Frankly I find that a bit exhausting and I need to listen again to register the four or five songs that just slipped past me altogether. But I liked this. I don’t think there’s anything on it that I like as much as “Up the Wolves” or “Dilaudid,” but it won me over in spite of being a type of album that I pathologically do not like, namely an unprofessional-sounding one.

Television

Battlestar Galactica: The Face of the Enemy, Season 4.5 and The Plan(A reminder that I don’t do paragraph breaks on this site, even though I should. Here is an alternative for you.) Let me say two things. Firstly, I think that the fourth season of Battlestar Galactica is on balance the weakest one. Secondly, this has nothing to do with the way that the story ended. (Spoilers ahoy, and do bear this in mind because you need to watch Battlestar Galactica. It is one of the best shows ever. And it is definitely something I think is best viewed unspoilt.) I really liked the ending of Battlestar Galactica, probably for many of the same reasons why others hate it. I’ll cop to a certain perversity that leads me to feel this way about virtually every controversial TV finale, from Lost to How I Met Your Mother. But before we get to everything I love about BSG’s final salvo, let’s touch on what sucks about season four. (I’ll deal with the whole season, though this week’s viewing only accounts for the latter half.) The biggest problem with season four is that it follows up the biggest pair of twists the show has ever dealt (Starbuck’s resurrection and the reveal of four of the final five Cylons) with a series of time-biding miniature story arcs that hinder the show’s forward momentum. BSG saunters, rather than hurtles towards its ending. The first offender is the Demitrius plotline, in which an increasingly crazed Starbuck searches for Earth in a sewage tanker with an increasingly mutinous crew. Mad prophet isn’t a good look for Starbuck. I don’t see why she couldn’t have been made to face her destiny with a leveller head and a continuing penchant for self-destruction. And this went on for eight, long episodes. And if spiritual enlightenment looks weird on Starbuck, it looks perversely terrible on Gaius Baltar — terrible to the point that I actually think it was a really interesting end state for the character. But the road to that point leads through some very rocky scenes of Baltar with a harem of extremely dumb female acolytes. I suppose that a large crew of unquestioningly devoted young women would be the sort of thing that would facilitate enlightenment for Baltar, but this development strains credulity in a way that certain more controversial reveals do not. Baltar’s ascension from loathed, treasonous turncoat to revered holy man seems like it happens by showrunner fiat sometime during the writing of the season three finale. We didn’t get to see how his followers came to worship him and find each other: by the time we meet them, they’re already organized enough to rescue and shelter Baltar after the trial. Without more background on who they are and why they feel the way they do, none of this makes any sense to me at all. It doesn’t help that Head Six vanishes for a long stretch of this plotline. Baltar’s not interesting without Head Six, regardless of what she is. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. And then there’s Gaeta’s uprising. Completionist that I am, I watched the Gaeta-focussed web series The Face of the Enemy in its proper place in the narrative. My heart bleeds for those who did not, since Felix Gaeta’s character arc is hard enough to sympathize with even having seen this essential bit of context. It’s hard to credit the transformation of one of the show’s most mild-mannered — compromising, even — characters into an extremist. I get that losing his leg took a serious toll. But this, as much as Baltar’s deification, strikes me as an example of BSG not remaining true to its characters. More than that, however, I object to Tom Zarek’s role in the uprising. This character has always been a bit troublesome, as he falls straight into the trope of idealistic revolutionaries being completely self-serving under the mask. This plot arc provides him with his most direct route to power yet — leveraging the fleet’s hate and resentment for their new Cylon allies. Any shred of principles that might have previously existed and made the character interesting are gone once Zarek allies with Gaeta. Speaking of that scene, it features some of the series’ most ham-fisted writing: “People know something has to be done. The world is frakked. It’s upside down and somebody’s gotta turn it right side up.” Do furtive revolutionary conversations like this ever actually rely on such overdramatic generalities, I wonder? You get the idea. It’s an uneven season. But at its best, it draws on all of the elements that made the first three seasons of the show great. (Yes, all three. I’m not sure season three isn’t my favourite.) Something I’ve always appreciated about Battlestar Galactica is that, for a show about a war with robots who are indistinguishable from humans, it does not really dive into the well of “what it means to be human.” (This is good because Alan Moore’s Swamp Thing has already had the last word on that subject in genre fiction.) The Cylons have never taunted the humans with the prospect that they are in some way “the same.” In fact, possibly the greatest broad masterstroke of this series has been making the Cylons explicitly distinct from humans: a separate culture, defined by their differences from the humans whose form they take. I can understand why most viewers prefer the first two seasons of this show, because it is governed by the tension implicit in not knowing who’s a Cylon. (And I confess, I thoroughly enjoyed the trips back to that era of the show offered in Razor and especially The Plan.) But the main thrust of the last two seasons is equally interesting for close to the opposite reason. Where the first two seasons rely on the uncanny similarity between Cylons and humans as its narrative engine, the latter two relies on establishing the unique culture, mythology and spirituality of the Cylons as a species unto themselves. Season four doubles down on this distinction in Saul Tigh’s storyline. Tigh has always strained credulity ever so slightly, because it’s hard to believe that somebody as competent as Bill Adama would place so much trust in somebody as incompetent as Tigh. Nonetheless, he’s always been one of my favourites because of his loyalty — which is presumably the one thing he’s got going for him. Tigh’s decision to continue living as what he’s always considered himself to be, a colonial officer, after learning he’s a Cylon emphasizes the show’s general feeling that you are what you think you are — the culture in which you find yourself has more bearing on your identity than any nebulous fundamental category like human or Cylon. And cylon culture is a foreign concept to Tigh. The other four of the final five don’t walk such a straight path, but there’s an argument to be made that the reason for that is less that they don’t feel human than simply that they feel unsafe in a way that Tigh doesn’t. Considering that this is the season that features an uneasy alliance between humans and cylons, it does a lot of work to maintain this fundamental cultural distinction between the two societies. Much of this comes down to the Galactica itself, and its contrast with the Cylon basestar that now travels with the fleet. There was never a moment in this show where I ceased to marvel at the set design of the basestar interior. While the deliberately disorienting editing of the early scenes in this setting gradually faded as we became familiar with it, the captivating strangeness of the liquid-based interface and the cascading projections of red characters never failed to make me feel uneasy. Of course, the thing that makes the Cylons unsettling is their uncanny organicism in spite of being machines. This follows through into their technology: think of the raiders that splat into messes of blood and meat when they’re hit, or the humanoid figure in a tub that powers the basestar. The Cylons’ tech is more “human” than the humans’ is, and that makes it uncanny and inhuman. This is why the plotline about Galactica breaking down and being repaired with organic Cylon goo is my favourite thing in the leadup to the finale. As a story idea, the notion of the end of Galactica as we know it is the only thing in the final episodes that really feels like a story that belongs in a series’ final stretch. From the very beginning, it was the Galactica’s resolutely analogue setup that kept it safe. The fact that it is a blunt, dumb chunk of metal, subject entirely to the whims of the people who control it made it a symbol of humanity, because it is beholden to humanity. The Cylons, by contrast, cannot even trust their basestar not to jump light years away unexpectedly, due to the unpredictable nature of the hybrid. Watching Galactica gradually turn into a semi-organic ship with living tissues holding its frame together and a hybridized Sam Anders plugged into the CIC is the most perverse thing the show has ever done. It feels like the end of an era for the characters, and that gives the last few episodes the gravity they need. It’s worth noting that the basestar, with its touch interfaces and unpredictable AI core in the form of the hybrid, feels much more like modern computer technology than Galactica does. 21st-century humans arguably have as much in common with the Cylons as we do with the humans of the fleet. And that is what makes the finale’s epilogue so convincing. Far more than when it aired in 2008, we are living in a world where BSG’s technology doesn’t seem farfetched. But it’s not because of the robots we build, like the ones shown in the final montage set to Hendrix’s “All Along The Watchtower.” It’s because we are living in a state of increasing symbiosis with machines that are increasingly artificially intelligent. We’re not building Cylons. We’re becoming them. It may prove to be a distinction without a difference. Okay, so we’ve come to it. The ever-contentious finale of Battlestar Galactica. The episode where the show’s primary remaining mysteries — the resurrection of Starbuck and the nature of Head Six and Head Baltar — are resolved by revealing that they are all angels. Truthfully, I don’t even feel like this development actually requires any justification. It is so totally in keeping with the show’s general attitude towards spirituality and esoteric beliefs that I actually find it genuinely shocking how many people think it’s a cop out. BSG has always traded on visions and premonitions as a key part of its story. And it has never made any effort to rationalize these away — there’s no tenable way to believe that, for instance, Roslin’s visions are mere drug hallucinations, when they inevitably come true. The presence of angels in the universe of this show is entirely in keeping with the rest of it. God is canon in Battlestar Galactica, and always has been. I can understand how fans of big, militaristic sci-fi shows might wish for a more rational explanation. Like maybe Baltar is insane with remorse for his treachery and Head Six is the hallucination he’s conjured to punish himself. To me that’s the province of more pedestrian shows, like Dexter. (By the way, if there’s one controversial finale I will not defend, it is Dexter’s. That was bullshit.) Also Fight Club. But more to the point, the show has firmly established that there’s a real supernatural element that lives alongside all of the classic SF trappings. Why resort to banal rationality to clue up a mystery? Surely if there’s ever been a narrative that justifies a deus ex machina ending — the most literal one since Ancient Greece — it’s Battlestar Galactica. In my view, the controversy surrounding this ending is the result of a misreading of the entire series that preceded it. Battlestar Galactica season four is the show in microcosm: flawed, weird, enormously ambitious, and dazzling. When all’s said and done, BSG is one of the crowning glories of its medium. Finally: “And you think there’s some kind of meaning in these musical notes,” says Adama. “I dunno,” replies Starbuck, “I’m just groping, mostly. Looking for patterns, trying to see what comes to me.” Remind me to make this the epigraph of the book about Rush I’m eventually going to write. Pick of the week.

Literature, etc.

Stephen King: The Waste Lands — I’m exactly halfway through. So far, it’s easily my favourite of the first three Dark Tower novels. The Gunslinger existed primarily to introduce Roland and his quest. The Drawing of the Three existed primarily to do the same for a small cast of supporting characters. (Though it told a damn good yarn along the way.) But The Waste Lands is the first novel in the series to really feel like it’s focussed on pushing the series’ larger narrative substantially forward. Structurally, this first half of the book has been less contrived than the first two, which are both organized into distinct set pieces, and which both wear their structures on their sleeves. There are no three doors in The Waste Lands — just a natural succession of strange and unpredictable story events. I will say this: my favourite sequence in The Dark Tower so far is still the bit of The Drawing of the Three that focusses on Eddie. This one hasn’t quite hit that standard yet, but if it keeps pace it’ll be better than the second novel on average. Will report back.

Podcasts

The Daily: Monday, Sept. 25, 2017 — This is a great summary of the background behind the N.F.L. protests, which is something I needed because as a non-sports person, I am missing most of the context.

This American Life: “White Haze” — Zoe Chace is maybe the best producer on this show right now. She is so good at talking to people who are obviously horrible and trying to actually understand them. Her look at the Proud Boys (even the name makes me shudder) in this episode is fascinating. Pick of the week.

Criminal: “The Gatekeeper” — Criminal’s true story about fictional crime stories. It’s an interview with the New York Times Book Review’s crime columnist about what attracts her to this genre. She’s fun.

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “Movie Roundup: The LEGO Ninjago Movie, Kingsman: The Golden Circle, And Mother!” — I’m with Linda Holmes on mother! Glen Weldon is frustrated by how Darren Aronofsky is explaining away all of the ambivalence in his weird movie. I sympathize, because as I said in my review, allegories are banal. But I do think there’s one layer of this movie that Weldon hasn’t gotten to, which is the incredibly arch layer that casts doubt on the validity of the allegory at all. I made an addendum to my review of mother! while I listened to this. The original review ended: “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.” I added this, in response to Weldon’s remarks: “BTW when I used the phrase “justify the ways of Aronofsky to man” in the last paragraph of this I was paraphrasing Paradise Lost which draws a connection to Aronofsky’s own Biblical allusions and by explaining that here like this I am doing the same thing Aronofsky’s been doing when he for some reason explains all of the symbolism in his weird movie and I am doing it in the context of an ostensibly comedic rhetorical device which is what this movie is. God am I ever a genius.” I dunno what I was on about there. Maybe I’ve lost the plot.

On the Media: “OTM live at the Texas Tribune Festival” — Two interviews, one with a pair of journalists, one with a pair of politicians, both on the topic of how Trump’s lack of regard for the truth affects the way they do their job. Worth checking out.

Code Switch: “Befuddled by Babies, Love And Ice Pops? Ask Code Switch” — This show is doing an advice segment now, which is good because they are rather excellent at sorting through complex stuff. The segment about tensions between the families of a soon-to-be-married couple, over the cultural representation in the ceremony, has got some solid advice.

Mogul: “Mogul Live!” — Mogul’s victory lap has officially outstayed its welcome. It is one of the best shows of the year, but these bonus episodes are starting to feel thin. This live show is too long by half.

99% Invisible: “Ponte City Tower” — This is about the changing perception of one particular high rise in Johannesburg after apartheid. It’s nice. Also, I have to say, I quite admire the elegant way this show has started incorporating midroll ads (the kind of ads that happen in the middle of an episode as opposed to at the start or end — they are more profitable for podcasters). They air the story in one piece like always, then throw an extra bit after the ads. Clever, and unobtrusive.

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Omnireviewer (week of April 30, 2017)

Hey, remember last week when my post only had seven reviews in it and was super short? Prepare yourself. This one’s 6000 words. Also, I decided to allocate my two picks of the week to non-podcasts, because podcasts aren’t making up such a staggering preponderance of these reviews, these days. Never fear, this will likely be a temporary state of affairs. Incidentally, this was another week when I would gladly have given out more than two picks of the week, but I failed to exercise restraint last week and I’m not making it a trend. No sir.

29 reviews.

Games

Sunless Sea — It is with intense satisfaction that I would like to report that after 130 hours of playing this over the course of two years (and seven dead captains, to boot) I have completed the main story of Sunless Sea! By “main story,” I mean the ambition called “Your Father’s Bones,” which you can choose at the start of a game. (This ambition has a narrative hook: you’re looking for the final resting place of your departed father. Whereas the other starting ambitions are essentially opportunities to explore freely while amassing fictional money or items that will eventually allow you to end your game with a win if you choose. So, the Father’s Bones option seems like a “main story” to me.) I confess that playing through this ambition was very much a “journey not the destination” sort of experience. The ending of the story is entirely fine, and beautifully written. But the true appeal of this storyline is in the subplots you have to follow while collecting a series of rare items. True, a fair chunk of the quest falls under the category of that hoary old video game trope “find X things.” But seldom does a quest to find things result in such rich storytelling. I got to know my ship’s gunnery officer a bit, and realized he’d built munitions for some truly shady people. I aided in my chef’s training and watched as he prepared a meal for a retinue of the living drowned. I hunted a ship crewed entirely by spiders. And it was all expressed through, bar none, the best written prose in the industry. I say this every time I write about this game, but Sunless Sea and its sister title Fallen London are the only games I’ve played with a distinctive and sure-handed approach to language that rivals literature. The humour, terror, characterization and poignancy of the various stories contained within this game all arise from the writers’ ingenious and idiosyncratic use of English. It’s a thing to behold. I will likely put aside Sunless Sea for a while now (and perhaps take up Fallen London in a more serious way), but I’m sure I’ll return to it at some point. I still feel as though I’ve only made a cursory survey of many of its moving parts. I don’t understand the full significance of the island of mute exiles in the north. I don’t understand why the locals at Mutton Island, just off the coast of London, suddenly started acting so weird. And I definitely don’t understand where the terrifying artificial sun in the corner of the map came from. Plus, I haven’t really dove into (excuse the pun) the excellent Zubmariner expansion, which has a starting ambition of its own. I think I’ll make it my goal to finish at least one more ambition in Sunless Sea before the sequel, Sunless Skies comes out. I never tire of this game, and I increasingly love the parts of it that annoyed me at first — namely the long, slow trips from port to port — best of all. While these moments can become extremely stressful under certain circumstances, they are usually fairly placid. This lends a contemplative element to a game that otherwise serves up plot pretty swiftly. Like baseball, I suppose. For a game that is so concerned with (and so effective at simulating the experience of) abject terror, it can feel curiously therapeutic to play. Sunless Sea is for me the most magnificent escape into an alternate universe that gaming has ever offered. I cannot recommend it highly enough. Pick of the week.

Television

Bill Nye Saves the World: Season 1, episodes 1-3 — It was Bill Nye who first made me want to be a scientist. It is crucial to note at this juncture that I am not a scientist, and in fact have a tenuous understanding at best of many very basic scientific concepts. However, when I was about eight or nine, when Bill Nye the Science Guy was nearing the end of its run, I wanted nothing more than to be a madly gesticulating, eccentric, bowtied fellow in a lab full of Tesla coils and beakers of colourful fluid. It was only partially the whimsical aesthetic of the show that pulled me in: it was just as much the spirit of joyful curiosity about the way the world works. The Nye Labs point-and-click adventure Stop the Rock! likely had an even more formative influence. That game let you actually explore Nye Labs. The wonder! The part of me that got sucked into early Radiolab is a part that was probably put there by Bill Nye. So I feel a tremendous amount of goodwill towards this guy. And basically, I think his new show is good. Certainly it’s noble. But by focussing specifically on the controversial global issues that require us all to have a better understanding of science that we do, he gives up something really crucial about the science communication work he’s done in the past: he loses sight of the sheer mad joy of understanding as an end in itself. Yes, it’s true that science is crucial to helping us navigate the biggest challenges we face. But that’s only one side of it, as far as I’m concerned. The other is that it’s just better by definition to know more about the world than you do. And that experience of joy in knowledge is essential to winning people over onto the side of science. I’d like to see Nye do a show that is similarly aimed at adults, but which balances topics of substantial-to-massive contemporary importance (alternative medicine, climate change) with scientific topics that are complex but maybe not quite so tied into the nightly news. When I was a kid, Bill Nye taught me about things I’d never heard of before, from underwater life to plate tectonics. I kind of still want him to do that. And also talk about climate change! We should never shut up about climate change. But… also fun new science facts. And the celebrity guest appearances can go. The not-famously-charismatic Steve Aoki’s guest spot is so arbitrary I kind of enjoyed it in spite of myself. But why Zach Braff is in the first episode, I’ll never understand.

American Gods: “The Bone Orchard” — Hugely, enormously promising. Like, “maybe this will be better than the book” promising. There are so many blazingly good sequences in this first episode that it almost seems ostentatious. The casting is flawless, with Ian McShane being a particularly obvious but magnificent choice for Mr. Wednesday and Ricky Whittle offering a harder, colder Shadow than the one in the book. A good choice, since it gives him a direction to move in. The look of the show is much more similar to Hannibal than I’d expected. Clearly Bryan Fuller is in the habit of bringing his own aesthetic to stories originated by others. Shadow’s dreamworld is rich and hallucinatory. I’m particularly fond of the way the ceiling of his cell breaks open to reveal Laura. And the entire ending sequence with the Technical Boy is brilliantly creepy in a way that only tech-based horror can be. The way that the Technical Boy forms out of weird claymation is the sort of bizarre, entrancing choice that is making me feel like this might actually kick the book up a notch. It’s really trying to be its own thing. But there are standout segments straight from the book as well. Shadow’s first conversation with Wednesday on the plane is a delight, and gives McShane the opportunity to be as gruff as we Deadwood fans are used to seeing him, but with an unfamiliar note of whimsy. Likewise, the bar fight with Mad Sweeney plays out almost exactly as in the book, and the gradual escalation from coin tricks to full-on brawling is as satisfying in this medium as that one. But the appeal of this so far is definitely not the basic joy of seeing a familiar work of fiction play out onscreen. It’s the much more complicated thing of seeing a familiar work of fiction get filtered through another auteur’s sensibility. I didn’t expect so much stylized gore, nor so many scenes with the dialogue almost entirely re-written. These are indications that Bryan Fuller (and, I suppose Michael Green, who is ostensibly an equal partner in this) will be making this his own. This is going to be so great.

Doctor Who: “Knock Knock” — Again, the best thing about this episode is the riffing on Doctor Who as a cultural force. “Oh, you’re the Doctor?” “Yes.” “Cool!” So, that’s a theme that’s continuing. But man, this was pretty blah. I enjoyed it in the sense that it was good performers filmed well while saying witty lines. But as horror stories rooted in the confused dynamic between a parent and child go, it’s sure not “The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances.” I like seeing Bill just go about her life outside the TARDIS, but we don’t get much of that before the generic haunted house story starts up. Competent. Not great. The weakest of the season so far, by a substantial distance.

Better Call Saul: “Sabrosito” — I should have mentioned last week how satisfying it is to see Patrick Fabian’s Howard Hamlin gradually transition into a really wonderful comic performance. His fence-climbing antics last time around were a highlight, but this week all he has to do to get a laugh is say “well that is a shame” in the most transparently ingratiating tone of voice possible. I really like this character. Fring’s plotline in this is notable mostly for his final speech to his employees at Los Pollos, which is a terrible speech. Intentionally so, obviously. It really drives home the point that Fring is intensely cynical: he knows he can anticipate a certain amount of critical thinking on the part of the people he associates with in the drug business. And certainly on the part of the cops. But employees at a fast food restaurant? Nah, they’ll buy anything. I’m not sure we’ve seen this from him before. It’s the only time he’s been less than completely convincing in his cover, but he knows he only has to be convincing enough. And he is. Jimmy’s plotline only surfaces halfway through the episode, once we’re through with Fring and Hector Salamanca. (Mark Margolis is continuing to add depth to this character, which both makes him fun to watch in this show, and deepens the tragedy of his barnstorming mute, wheelchair-bound performance in Breaking Bad.) I do wish that this story would move a little faster. I’m enjoying the Mike/Gus side of this season, but I feel as though the emphasis on that is slowing down progress on the story that has always fascinated me the most, which is anything involving Jimmy and Kim. Still, this is great.

Comedy

Maria Bamford: Old Baby — This is the best comedy special I’ve seen since about three Louis C.K. specials ago. I will repeat none of the bits, because the trailer for this proves that they are not funny out of context. I will say that Bamford has the perfect mix of three characteristics I like in a comic: jokes that frame the familiar in a new way, a delivery that complicates and deepens the writing itself, and uncommon life experiences to draw on. Regarding the second-last one of those, Bamford’s characters are hilarious, particularly when they’re her parents. And regarding the last, Bamford’s experience with mental illness is (silver linings) a fruitful source of material for her. I’m underselling this by making it tediously abstract. But I’m not about to explain comedy, here. This is on Netflix. Go watch it now. Pick of the week.

Movies

The Road Forward — The opening film of this year’s DOXA festival, this is a musical semi-documentary by Marie Clements, one of our local visionaries. It uses a gigantic storytelling toolbox including songwriting, music video, interviewing, visual symbolism and archival footage to tell a vast, nuanced story. The story is about the untold history of First Nations activism on the West coast of Canada. And it would be a hell of a story, even told straightforwardly. There are stories here, like the origins of the Native Brotherhood and Sisterhood and the Indian Constitution Express movement, that are the sorts of incredible tales that inevitably prompt white people such as myself to say things like “how was I never taught this?” (Which is a sentiment that the film pokes fun at once or twice.) It’s moving, important and enormously ambitious. Its flaws are flaws it shares with virtually all movie musicals and some music videos: a certain ostentatious theatricality keeps it slightly at arm’s length (this started life as a theatre piece). But it’s still something I think every Canadian should see, not out of a sense of duty, but because it features contributions from a huge number of really great artists, with Clements at the top of the pile.

Literature, etc.

Jorge Luis Borges: “Ibn-Hakam al-Bokhari, Murdered in his Labyrinth” — I’ve decided not to read this Borges collection in order, but rather to skim through and read the ones whose titles or first sentences jump out at me. The first sentence of this story is as follows: “‘This,’ said Dunraven with a vast gesture that did not blench at the cloudy stars, and that took in the black moors, the sea, and a majestic, tumbledown edifice that looked much like a stable fallen upon hard times, ‘is my ancestral land.’” I’m in. This is a fairly restrained application of Borges’s genius, but it’s definitely Borges. (One thing I recall from my long-ago reading of “The Garden of Forking Paths” is that it’s about a labyrinth. Sounds like this will be a theme.) Again I’m curiously reminded of Neil Gaiman. A cursory Google (and the slightest bit of common sense) reveals that Gaiman is a fan of Borges. And this story about stories feels like the sort of thing that wouldn’t be out of place in Sandman. Basically, one man tells a friend a story about a man who hid away in a labyrinth. And another man ponders the story, finds it insufficient and tells another version that’s more convincing based on the same facts. Simple, direct, ingenious. And also fable-like. Borges’s recurring motifs of labyrinths and libraries appeal to me on an aesthetic level as well as a thematic one. This is going well.

Jorge Luis Borges: “Borges and I” — An extremely short, vaguely troubling autobiographical sketch that finds Borges negotiating the difference between his public and private personas. This is part of The Maker (AKA Dreamtigers), and I think I’ll probably hold off on reading any more of that until I get a copy of the complete text. (My complete fictions collection dogmatically refuses to include the poems in The Maker, which are apparently crucial to its flow.) But this is a lovely little observation. If it’s any indication of what The Maker is like in general, it seems like the sort of thing I’ll enjoy more once I’ve got a better sense of what made Borges into the public figure he describes here. Perhaps I’ll focus on the earlier stories.

Jorge Luis Borges: “The Garden of Forking Paths” — You know, it’s possible that I hadn’t actually read this like I’ve been saying I have this whole time. Having read it now, it’s clear to me that the reason I was familiar with it is primarily because of the extraordinary way that Borges poses a thought experiment that prefigures hypertext literature decades before its actual invention. This is definitely something I’d read about this story. But the story itself seems unfamiliar to me. Maybe I just read it in a different translation? I dunno. I can’t imagine it would have made such a weak impression. This is deservedly a classic. Not as mindbending as “The Library of Babel,” but it’s also spinning more plates. It’s got a narrator with a motivation, a framing device, and an espionage plot all surrounding the main event, which is clearly the conversation about the labyrinthine novel that is effectively hypertext. One of the things I love most about the Borges stories I’ve read so far is they’re very short, and thus make rereading a completely non-daunting proposition. Future rereads of this will likely find me trying to decide why Borges decided to place this idea in this particular story. What difference does it make that the narrator learned the secret of his ancestor’s novel during the course of an act of espionage? How does the detective story connect with the metafiction? I’m sure somebody could explain this to me, but I’m just as happy to figure it out at my own damn pace.

Jorge Luis Borges: “The Circular Ruins” — This is the one Neil Gaiman cited as a favourite. It’s a good one, with a fantastic premise and a twist ending that renders this much better upon re-reading, or at least re-considering. The premise is that there’s a place with gods who will allow you to imagine a person into existence. The detail with which Borges describes this process makes this a good read on the first time through. But really it’s about the ending.

Jorge Luis Borges: “Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote” — This is second only to “The Library of Babel” in my survey of Borges thus far. This is ingenious for so many reasons: 1) Its form, which is a sort of academic memorandum complete with all of the resentfulness and spite for one’s rivals that those can often contain. 2) Its premise, which is that a 20th-century author made it his life’s goal to write Don Quixote (i.e. writing the exact same novel as Cervantes, word for word, but arriving at it independently and centuries after Cervantes already wrote it). This is wonderfully absurd and highlights a side of Borges that I don’t hear talked about that much, namely that he’s really funny. 3) The way that Borges chases this premise down several compelling rabbit holes. (This is a similar approach to the one he takes in “The Library of Babel,” which is perhaps why I like it so much.) Borges’s narrator analyses the content of Menard’s Quixote alongside the content of Cervantes’ original (which, remember, is exactly the same) and finds them to be entirely different works by virtue of their authors’ differing contexts and intents. Borges manages to be both instructive on how context is crucial to criticism (and the nature of criticism is explicitly discussed in the text) and he also satirizes this very same approach by way of reductio ad absurdum. This is outstanding. So far, reading Borges has felt like coming home.

Jorge Luis Borges: “Deutsches Requiem” — A slightly less effective Borges story, though that might be an unfair judgement on my part, because it just doesn’t have the specific things I’ve loved about the few Borges stories I’ve read so far. It’s not a premise-driven story, it’s a character-driven story. And the character is, apparently, the ultimate Nazi. I’m not going to lie, I picked this one out because I love the Brahms piece it’s named after. Not a highlight of my Borges reading thus far. But here’s a miscellaneous note I haven’t been able to work into any of my previous Borges reviews: I’m really reminded of China Miéville in a few of these stories. Neil Gaiman has been the modern reference point I’ve gone back to again and again when discussing Borges, but Miéville shares Borges’s gift for the mindblowing premise. Some of the stories from Three Moments of an Explosion could practically be Borges stories. I’m thinking particularly of “A Second Slice Manifesto,” in which Miéville describes an art movement that exposes new sides to classic works of representational painting by imagining a “slice” down a certain point in the image, revealing cross-sections of people and buildings that were whole in the original picture. That’s damn close to Borges in “Pierre Menard” mode.

Farhad Manjoo: “Can Facebook Fix Its Own Worst Bug?” — This piece about how Facebook is handling its post-election flail is not encouraging. A couple of choice excerpts: “For the typical user, Cox explained when I met him on a morning in October at MPK20, News Feed is computing the relative merits of about 2,000 potential posts in your network every time you open the app. In sorting these posts, Facebook does not optimize for any single metric: not clicks or reading time or likes. Instead, he said, ‘what you really want to get to is whether somebody, at the end of the day, would say, ‘Hey, my experience today was meaningful.’’” This is notable because I have never once felt this way on Facebook. The lack of meaningful interactions with people or content is the basis of my entire objection to the news feed. It promotes (and thus encourages the production of) the content equivalent of marshmallows: you consume them because they’re there and they have a sort of outward appeal. But you never actually enjoy yourself and eventually you start feeling shitty and resenting all the marshmallows you ate and the source where you got them. (This is Facebook’s shit to take responsibility for, but it’s also on every news organization and producer of web content to not fall into the trap and reject what value they have.) The piece then goes on to detail Facebook’s moderately successful efforts to combat clickbait — efforts that were predicated on a logic that I cannot imagine applying universally: “Facebook’s entire project, when it comes to news, rests on the assumption that people’s individual preferences ultimately coincide with the public good, and that if it doesn’t appear that way at first, you’re not delving deeply enough into the data.” Evidently, Facebook’s internal method for fixing problems is as pig-headedly metrics-focussed as it has forced the entire rest of the world to be. This piece is fascinating, and leaves me with more of a sense of Mark Zuckerberg’s good intentions than I had before, but absolutely zero faith in his (and his company’s) ability to fix the problems they’ve caused, let alone the ones they set out to remedy from the beginning.

Music

Neil Young: Neil Young — So I thought to myself, how deep should this deep dive go? Shall I make a detailed survey of the early material from Neil’s time in Buffalo Springfield — or rarer still, the Squires? Shall I finally listen to those other two CSNY albums? No, I decided. This will be a survey of Neil’s solo career, with that defined as any album that has his first and last name on it as a principal artist. Crazy Horse albums count, as does anything he released with ad-hoc bands like the Stray Gators and the Shocking Pinks. And Pearl Jam. I won’t obligate myself to listen to every live and archival release, though I’ll likely check out some, because the ones I’ve heard are among Neil’s best work, and albums like Rust Never Sleeps and Time Fades Away make the secondary designation normally afforded to live albums sort of inapplicable in Neil’s case. By my count, these guidelines will still find me listening to at least forty albums. So, we begin a fair ways from the beginning, actually, with the self-titled album. At this point, he’s already written and recorded classics like “I Am A Child” and “Mr. Soul.” He was five years past his earliest recordings. But this marks the start of Neil Young as “Neil Young” as opposed to “guy in band.” And it’s… well, it’s an anomaly, but it’s a compelling one. This is one of those albums like Jethro Tull’s This Was that feels like the start of an alternate history that forked a different way in our reality. (Maybe I’ve been reading too much Borges.) It’s the album that finds the now-anointed godfather of grunge sounding like a well-heeled young folkie with aspirations towards glossy marketability. The arrangements on this have a similar feel to the ones on Nick Drake’s Bryter Layter in the way that they never just leave the singer alone. This isn’t bad by definition. Far be it from me to criticize polish while being a huge prog fan. But Neil is an artist who feels more radical by far when he’s being noisy and sloppy and spontaneous. With this much fuss applied, he sounds a bit MOR. (To use his own nomenclature, I prefer Neil in the ditch.) “The Old Laughing Lady” suffers particularly from its arrangement, which almost works — until the midsection with the wordless backing vocals comes around. I could live with the little electric piano riff in 5/4 that breaks up the verses, but I don’t understand what that wordless midsection has to do with the rest of the song. It’s empty bloat, and it would be profitably excised on the Unplugged album years later. “The Loner” fares better, if only because it’s familiar enough that it seems unfathomable without its arrangement. The less familiar tracks range from hidden gems (“Here We Are in the Years”) to unmemorable instrumentals (“The Emperor of Wyoming”) to “The Last Trip to Tulsa,” which is the one truly unvarnished performance on the album but isn’t necessarily one of Neil’s best lyrics. Neil Young has its undeniable pleasures, but it’s best heard as a piece of Neil’s history. This polished side of him wouldn’t vanish outright after this: it would continue to marvellous effect in his work with CSNY and to blockbuster effect on Harvest. But immediately afterwards, the radically unvarnished side of Neil would come to the fore and mark the point where it’s clear that he’s a real creative force.

Neil Young & Crazy Horse: Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere — If Neil’s self-titled debut represented his introduction to us as something other than “guy in band,” Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere is where Neil Young arrives as a legend. This is a hell of an album, and though I’d heard the majority of it before (because more than half of it is on the Decade compilation), this was my first time through the whole thing. Crazy Horse is the kind of band I ought to hate, being who I am. But their committed sloppiness feels less like the result of laziness than like a progressive musical experiment. This is the point where noise becomes a major part of Neil Young’s sound. This is the album that starts the thread of Neil’s career that will climax on Rust Never Sleeps and go gloriously over the top on Weld. “Down by the River” and “Cowgirl in the Sand,” both feature sprawling jams where Neil strains at the very edges of his extremely limited technique as a lead guitarist and they set the template for all great Crazy Horse jams to come. The shorter songs are all excellent, especially “Cinnamon Girl,” obviously. And the title track is maybe the most Canadian song ever recorded. This is also the album that makes it clear we can never know what to expect from Neil Young. Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere is as unlike the debut as it is possible to be. And within a year of this album, Neil would join CSNY and go back to making radically structured music, albeit of an entirely different persuasion from on his first solo record. This is already an exciting ride. But Neil’s next solo album is his first proper masterpiece.

The Mountain Goats: The Sunset Tree — We interrupt this Neil Young binge for yet more erudite early-2000s indie rock. (Because the full Decemberists catalogue wasn’t enough.) I’ve meant to properly get into the Mountain Goats since I heard “Heel Turn 2” on Welcome to Night Vale. (I understand they’re working on a podcast together now? I’m curious.) This was apparently something of a breakthrough for them, though they have more acclaimed albums that predate this than postdate it. Still, The Sunset Tree served its purpose. I’m hooked. “This Year,” which I’m told is a very famous song in certain circles, is exactly what I needed right now. “I am going to make it through this year if it kills me” is one of those lyrics that seems obvious in retrospect, except that nobody wrote it before. Other highlights include “Dance Music,” which belongs to a niche subgenre I’m particularly fond of, namely songs with really chipper music and really dark lyrics. I’m also a big fan of “Dilaudid,” with its string arrangement and escalating vocal performance from John Darnielle. I need a few more listens for this to sink in, but this is definitely a band I’m going to listen to now.

Shugo Tokumaru: Toss — I’ve gotta say, it doesn’t live up to the promise of “Lita Ruta,” which is still my favourite song of the year so far. (Provided we don’t count cantatas based on Supreme Court decisions as “songs.”) Unlike In Focus? which is the other full Tokumaru album I’ve heard, this is really uneven. It is also sparser and simpler on balance than In Focus? is, and I’m not sure simplicity suits Tokumaru. Naturally, the best parts of the album are almost dizzyingly complex, with “Lita Ruta” being the clear winner but the first track, “Lift,” is glorious as well, as is the magnificently-titled “Cheese Eye.” This album is apparently the first time Tokumaru has gone out of his way to work with a variety of other instrumentalists, which makes for an album which is at times extremely timbrally diverse, but I would have preferred if it stayed that way for its whole duration. If I’m going to listen to this guy, I want total sensory overload. Honestly, there’s still enough great stuff on it that I’m confident in calling it one of my favourite albums of the year so far, but I suspect that has more to do with how badly I’ve fallen off the music discovery wagon than anything.

Podcasts

Crimetown: Episodes 16 & 17 — Good episodes. The problem with this season has just been lack of focus. If they’d just found a way to really hone in on two narrative threads: Buddy Cianci and the Patriarca crime family, this would have been great. And I suppose everything does tie back to that to a certain extent, but this feels like it’s really gone everywhere. But this focusses on Cianci, which makes it feel of a piece with the season’s arc as I’d originally perceived it. Still, I have other problems. In their promo for the big party they’re holding to celebrate the end of the season, the hosts of this say something to the effect of “by the end you won’t be sure who are the good guys and who are the bad guys.” Except yes I will. The ones who committed or were implicated in murders for business reasons are the bad guys. That’s pretty clear to me. I wish it were clearer to the people who make this show. (To be fair, cops and government officials are often also the bad guys. But my point is that Crimetown sometimes can’t resist saying “look how great these criminals are!” And I wish they wouldn’t.)

All Songs Considered: “Todd Rundgren On Technology, Creativity And His New Song With Trent Reznor” — Rundgren’s a good interview. You can tell somebody’s a good interview when they’re even interesting on All Songs Considered. Can’t say the song does anything for me. But I’ve always meant to check out Rundgren’s catalogue, especially A Wizard, A True Star. So maybe it’s time.

StartUp: Season 5, episodes 1-3 — I wish they’d stick to serialized seasons. The Dov Charney season was one of the undersung wonders of last year’s podcasts, and probably journalism in general. The first episode of this is a story of one businessman’s foray through “the surprisingly cutthroat world of toys.” I’m honestly kind of sick of journalism that starts from the premise of “look how interesting this seemingly mundane thing is!” So that didn’t work for me. But the two-parter on Friendster is really solid. What a catastrophe. It concludes with a comparison of the way Friendster was managed with the way Facebook was managed, and that really drives home the point that Friendster was the biggest idea of the early millennium, deployed by the wrong people.

You Must Remember This: “Barbara Loden (Dead Blondes Part 12)” — I’m starting to feel similarly about this as I am to Crimetown, though to a much lesser degree. The beginning of this season promised a point would be made about “blondeness” in Hollywood, and it hasn’t really come to that. This is still a good story about a compelling historical person, and how she was misrepresented by her powerful husband, Elia Kazan. But I’m hoping that Karina Longworth finds a way to tie everything together in the last episode of this series the way she almost did in the Barbara Payton episode several weeks ago.

Judge John Hodgman: “Live From the London Podcast Festival” — Nice stuff, but the highlight by far is a moment where the hosts of No Such Thing As A Fish argue over whether the existence of a conspiracy theory counts as a fact. The conspiracy theory in question? That the Titanic was sunk by time travellers who all wanted to see the last moments of the Titanic and thus all arrived at the same time, causing it to sink. This is bonkers in itself, but I won’t spoil the best moment of this exchange. I’ll just say that somebody definitely doesn’t understand the concept of a bootstrap paradox.

All Songs Considered: “The Decemberists’ Colin Meloy & Olivia Chaney Talk About New Collaboration, Reimagining British Folk” — ALERT ALERT NEW DECEMBERISTS sort of. Offa Rex is a side project where the Decemberists cover old British folk tunes (the sort of ones that inspired the band’s trilogy of bona fide classics: Picaresque, The Crane Wife and The Hazards of Love) with the brilliant Olivia Chaney on vocals. God, can she ever sing. And the arrangements are so ‘60s I can barely contain myself. I will be listening to this album in full as soon as I can, and I am overjoyed to see that Chaney will be joining the Decemberists at the August tour date I’m seeing here in Van. Also, I feel like I’ve been a right dickwad about Bob Boilen’s interviewing, lately. This is a really fun conversation and Bob really keeps it frothy, pointing out Meloy’s mispronunciations of things and everything. Nice stuff.

Reply All: “The Secret Life of Alex Goldman” — The payoff to the “P.J. hacks Alex’s phone” arc. This is actually really fantastic in spite of Alex Goldman having a really boring life, because 1) Goldman and Vogt have a compelling enough dynamic that they can talk about nothing and still be fun and 2) there turn out to be broader implications. Reply All can spin gold out of very thin material.

Imaginary Worlds: “Healing Through Horror” — I’d like to hear more episodes of this show that deal with horror, especially modern horror, but this isn’t really a highlight. This features two people who have both used horror as a means of escaping trauma, but their reasoning for why this is helpful to them is more obvious and less compelling than the episode that deals with this same thing with respect to Harry Potter. Seriously, that Harry Potter series was really great.

On The Media: “Rewriting the Right” — Nice to see OTM explaining the American right. Because god knows I would never understand it otherwise. I’m only half snarking. This trip through the horrible odyssey of right-wing think tanks and their campaigns to influence academia and policy is truly horrifying and I feel bad now.

Imaginary Worlds: “Designing BoJack’s World” — This features an interview with the cartoonist who was hand-picked (with no animation experience) by the creator of BoJack Horseman to design the show’s aesthetic. Given that this show’s host is a former animator himself, this is really interesting. BoJack is the adult cartoon that I feel gets the most out of its choice of idiom. All of the character drama would play out fine in a live-action dramedy, but the animation allows not only for great sight gags, but also for the sense that this is a bizarre and alienating world — a great mood to strike in a narrative about show business.

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “Summer Movie Preview 2017” — I, too, am looking forward to Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2.