It’s been a year light on instant favourites. There are a couple in here, though.
Won’t You Be My Neighbor? — Morgan Neville’s Mister Rogers documentary has already acquired a reputation for being a tearjerker. It is that. On the way home, I tried to figure out why. Nothing sad happens in it. True to its subject, nothing much happens in it at all. For me, it isn’t particularly nostalgic, either. I watched Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood as a child, but I was so small that I barely remember it. My memory of television only extends back to Bill Nye the Science Guy, or thereabouts. So what is it about this nice movie about a nice man that hits me and everybody else so hard in the feels? For me, it might have something to do with my Pavlovian response to the music of Michael Nyman. But more broadly I think it’s basically this: Neville sets up the beatifically decent Fred Rogers as an alternative to the cynicism and mean-spiritedness that dominates public discourse today, and that periodically dominated it for the entire thirty-year run of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. There’s no mention of Donald Trump or contemporary politics in the movie, but there doesn’t have to be: celebrating Rogers’ big-heartedness is an implicit, gentle act of resistance to an administration that has of late been particularly cruel to children. The closest the movie comes to naming and shaming its target is in a sequence about the first episode of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, in which King Friday XIII tries to build a border wall. But even that is more amusing than preachy. The most moving moments of the film are the places where television intersects with history. Rogers dared to address the assassination of Bobby Kennedy in the forum of children’s television in his first season. And he stayed the course, casually delivering civil rights messages and folksy explications of intensely sad subjects. His rapport with children who have suffered trauma, be it the death of a pet or a serious medical condition, is a wonder to behold. As moving as any of this, though, is Rogers’ simple respect for children’s intelligence and curiosity. His show was famously slow, famously lo-fi, and famously concerned with, as Linda Holmes put it on Pop Culture Happy Hour, teaching kids how oboes are made. Obviously, all of this is catnip to me. Fred Rogers was a defining figure in the history of public broadcasting because he steadfastly refused to simply give the people what they want. He strove for the higher ideal of Making People Better, which is what public broadcasters are supposed to do. It’s just as instructive to look back on Mister Rogers in the era of Facebook as it is to look back on him in the era of Trump. That said, Rogers’ attitude (and by extension, the film’s) towards other approaches to television can be needlessly dismissive. There is an uncomfortably small distance between Fred Rogers’ distaste for conventionally entertaining television and Mary Whitehouse’s boneheaded attempts to censor the BBC. There’s an uncomfortable parallel between Rogers’ anxiety that children would watch superhero cartoons and think they could actually fly and Whitehouse’s media illiterate claim that children would see a cliffhanger where Doctor Who’s head was held underwater and think that he’d be held that way for the entire week until the next episode started. But ultimately, Rogers’ straightforward attempts to bring out the best in his young viewers overrides all of this. His is a philosophy that has vacated much of public discourse, including in the media, and we need it back. Fred Rogers believed in people, particularly children, and wanted to help them be better. That is why Won’t You Be My Neighbor is the year’s most beautiful film. See it while it’s in theatres if you can. It is best experienced collectively. Pick of the week.
Converge & Neurosis live at the Commodore — I don’t really do metal these days. But when invited, I don’t mind taking in a show. This triple bill (counting openers Amenra, who were not a major part of the advertising) featured exclusively bands that I had never heard. Amenra didn’t make much of an impression on me. I see what they’re doing, which is basically leaving as many elements out of their music as possible. That includes colour in their presentation, which consists of evocative, serene video projections in black and white. They build whole songs with almost no harmonic motion. They are admirably committed to their minimalism, but it’s not for me. In retrospect, Converge would appear to be the odd ones out on this bill — a hugely charismatic hardcore band sandwiched between two uncompromising metal behemoths. That charisma is largely the reason why Converge was the band that left the strongest impression on me. Where Amenra and Neurosis would never do anything so gauche as acknowledge the audience, Converge lives for the crowd. (The crowd lives for them, also: the mosh pit that formed during their set could almost be described as a ‘fight.’) Their frontman, Jacob Bannon, never stops moving. He greets the audience between songs, offering rousing encouragement to anybody in the crowd who may be a survivor of depression or family dysfunction, or who’s just learning how to be a parent. There is an odd warmth to Converge. I feel strangely compelled to draw a parallel to their polar opposite, Belle and Sebastian, who I saw last week. Like Bannon, B&S’s frontman Stuart Murdoch also wears his triumph over circumstances proudly. After such an unlikely charm offensive, what a shock to encounter Neurosis. They are the bill’s resident metal royalty, and they present themselves accordingly. Their songs stretch to ten or twelve minutes apiece, and when one of them ends, the lights go out. Spacey noises fill the venue. And we only catch another glimpse of these Old Gods when their performance begins anew. We don’t see them tuning up. We don’t see them moving equipment around (well, we do a little, but we pretend we don’t). We only see them when they are playing their instruments. They don’t wave or bow at the end of the set. They don’t do encores. They establish a stark and total divide between us and them. And in doing so, they make themselves terrifying. Heavy metal is inscribed on their faces. You pay attention. Loudness isn’t the half of it. In spite of this, and probably a little bit because of it, I spent the first three quarters or so of Neurosis’s set feeling distinctly that Converge had won the night. I surprised myself with that feeling, since Neurosis’s music is much more my style. There’s more transparency in it — enough variety in the texture that you can hear detail. In case anybody had any doubt that they’re musical iconoclasts, the keyboardist has even mounted a set of bass pedals to the top rack of his rig. Still, it wasn’t until the final two songs of the set that they totally won me over. “Reach” is from their latest album, and reminds me of what I loved about Opeth when I first discovered them: every minute of this long song is packed with as many musical ideas as most bands would put on a whole album. And the set ender, the title track from their apparently legendary 1996 album Through Silver In Blood was so mercilessly heavy that it left at least a portion of the crowd completely helpless as to how to respond. The atmosphere after Neurosis disappeared from the stage was of dumbfounded shock. None of these bands make the sort of music that I have space for in my life these days. I doubt that I’ll spend a lot of time listening to their albums. But the show was a thing to behold.
Belle and Sebastian: Write About Love — Deeply underrated. A gem on par with Dear Catastrophe Waitress, featuring several of the band’s best tracks — especially “I Didn’t See It Coming,” which is a top five classic Belle and Sebastian song. Other standouts include “I Want the World to Stop,” “I Can See Your Future,” and the slightly Phil Spectory title track. Title aside, even “Calculating Bimbo” has a winning melody.
Belle and Sebastian: If You’re Feeling Sinister: Live at the Barbican — I feel weird saying this is better than the studio version. I came away from last week’s concert with a new appreciation for the early B&S material, and a general sense that it isn’t served well by the recordings it’s featured on. Ergo, this live album. It’s got a lot more energy than its studio counterpart, but Stuart still doesn’t quite sound like his energetic contemporary self. This is still 13 years ago, after all. People change. Anyway, I really like this. If You’re Feeling Sinister has been the hardest Belle and Sebastian album to get into for me, but this helps.
Hannah Gadsby: Nanette — The premise of this is that Gadsby is leaving comedy and wrote this show to explain why. In practice, she effectively quits comedy halfway through the show. It is a deeply intelligent deconstruction of comedy. Gadsby points out the ways in which it differs from conventional storytelling, the way it prizes the release of tension over all other concerns, and the way it has been used as a tool of oppression as much as a vehicle for protest. There’s also a very resonant thread about art history in this, which ought to force anybody who has recently read E.H. Gombrich’s The Story of Art, just for example, to reconsider some things.
West of Loathing — For a brief time in high school, I was an enthusiastic player of a browser game called Kingdom of Loathing. Its intensely lo-fi aesthetic of stick figures moving through a world that looks like a 10-year-old’s Hilroy scribbler drew me in immediately, and the mercilessly consistent comic writing kept me there until I moved on to the next thing. It’s a type of gaming experience I wouldn’t have again until Fallen London, years later. Now, just like Fallen London has its one-player downloadable offshoot Sunless Sea, KoL has West of Loathing: a point-and-click adventure that takes its parent game’s pencil-drawn aesthetic and builds a Western out of it. It’s a total delight, and it’s been filling my free evenings for a couple weeks now. Here is a single moment that I think encapsulates the delightfulness of this game: at one point you find a pile of boards and nails, and you’re informed that you could probably build a crate out of these things. If you do, the game’s like “hey, it’s a crate!” And when you open it there are items inside. Brilliant. Aside from its wonderful comic writing, West of Loathing also plays well as a tribute to adventure games past and present. There’s a subplot involving alien technology where the puzzles play like something from Riven (but easier), and there is a culture of creepy clowns that could come straight from Sunless Sea. Both of these plot threads are semi-Lovecraftian in the way that all indie games are now. But that’s one genre among many that this game is juggling. I loved this. If you want to play a game that will make you smile, I highly recommend it.
Constellations catch-up — I’m all for sound art and experimental radio. I’m so for it that I’m frequently exhausted by mainstream podcasting. (Yes, there is such a thing as mainstream podcasting, for you terrestrial radio listeners out there.) But a lot of what I heard in the last spate of episodes from this podcast left me unmoved. They seemed to convey little except a cultivated aesthetic of artsiness. When the only thing to help you see the beauty in a piece is an interview with the artist after the fact, there’s a problem. But listening to this is worth it for exceptions like Meira Asher’s “refuse: military.01” which is a marvellous commentary on Israeli compulsory military service. It’s the perfect example of why it’s important to search outside the big podcast networks and public radio behemoths for good radio.
Bullseye: “George Clinton & Cristela Alonzo” — This is most worthwhile for the George Clinton interview, which is a real trip. He’s a genius that ought to be upheld more as one of the foundational figures in ‘70s popular music. He’s also very funny.
The Daily: “Assigning Blame in the Opioid Epidemic,” “How the Opioid Crisis Started” & “One Family’s Reunification Story” — The two opioid epidemic episodes are great and infuriating, particularly the first. The reunification story is very moving, and everybody involved is admirably committed to making it clear that this is the exception to the rule. It can be tempting to think of a story like this as the tail end of a narrative: children and parents were separated, and then because we heard the story of one reunification, it must be all over. You can’t listen to this story and feel that way, which makes it very responsible journalism, in my view.
In the Dark: “The End” — By necessity, this is an open ending. But it’s a good summation of a categorically effective investigation. I have nothing more to say about this season than I’ve already said. Suffice it to say it’s one of the best pieces of investigative journalism I’ve encountered all year.
The World According to Sound catch-up — The episode of this show that focuses on the first few minutes of the show that would become This American Life is fascinating. If there’s any takeaway from the “Sound Audio” season thus far, it’s that there are an infinite number of ways to make radio, and that shockingly few of them are represented in mainstream public radio and podcasting. TAL is where the aesthetic that has taken over those spheres came from, but it’s interesting to look back on how radical it was in its infancy.
You Must Remember This: “D.W. Griffith, the Gish Sisters and the origin of ‘Hollywood Babylon’” — I have been waiting for this for what feels like years, even though I didn’t know what I was waiting for. As it turns out, I think this season has the potential to be one of Karina Longworth’s best. The premise is outstanding: take one of the most influential books in the history of filmmaking, Kenneth Anger’s Hollywood Babylon, and fact check it. In the process, we’ll inevitably cross paths with some of the most notable characters in Hollywood history. This first episode about D.W. Griffith and the Gish sisters offers proof-of-concept for that. It’s well known that Griffith was blithely racist, but this episode makes it clear that he was also a creep. Nice.
Pop Culture Happy Hour: “The Mister Rogers Documentary ‘Won’t You Be My Neighbor’” & “Ant-Man And The Wasp, Plus What’s Making Us Happy” — An accurate appraisal of Won’t You Be My Neighbor, and further permission to sit out the new Ant-Man.
Code Switch: “Code Switch’s Summer Vacation” — A light episode, for once, but a good one.
Fresh Air: “The State Of The Supreme Court” — It is not a happy state.
Out of the Blocks: “A Conversation with Mayor Catherine Pugh” — This is weird. The mayor of Baltimore is a fan of this podcast, so she interviewed the host in public. The result is a conversation between a journalist and a politician where it feels like the politician is not taking a risk. I know that’s not the point of this interview, and Out of the Blocks isn’t that kind of show, but that power dynamic implicitly makes me uneasy. Anyway, the mayor is correct to observe that Out of the Blocks is excellent.
Trump Con Law: “Justice Kennedy” — A good breakdown of why Kennedy’s retirement has thrown everything into disarray — but it’s also a bit less useful than most other episodes of this show, because everybody else is covering this too.
The Memory Palace: “Patience” — Nate DiMeo is very good at finding stories from history that resonate with the news cycle. This one is about a slave who was separated from her child by ruthless slave traders. It is devastating, and it does not resolve neatly. Listen to it. Pick of the week.
99% Invisible: “Roman Mars on ZigZag” — This is the fourth episode of a serialized story, but it’s the first to appear on a show that I listen to regularly. It reminds me of StartUp season one, because it is straightforwardly similar to that — both are stories of people trying to start podcasting companies. I think I’ll listen from the beginning, though I’m not 100% sure I’m sold. It depends on how much talking about blockchain there is.