Tag Archives: Philip Pullman

Omnibus (week of Nov. 5, 2017)

Here’s a bit of an unusual instalment of Omnibus, because I recently went to six concerts in as many days. This was all part of the blandly-named-but-actually very-exciting International Society for Contemporary Music World New Music Days 2017. Standard talking points include but are not limited to: major annual event featuring music by composers from all over the world, premiered the Berg violin concerto in 1936, only held in Canada once before, music from more than 50 countries, hosted this year by Vancouver’s own Music on Main, etc.

I’ll be doing a more focussed dive into some of my personal highlights on North by Northwest next weekend (that’s on CBC Radio 1, if you’re new here). But here, we like to go broad. I’m starting this week’s instalment off with six notes-to-self about the concerts I saw at ISCM 2017. (Here, for interested parties, is the deluxe Tumblr edition.) Business-as-usual resumes below. I do hope you’ll stick around for the review of Paul and Linda McCartney’s RAM because I’m rather proud of it, actually.

19 reviews.

ISCM World New Music Days 2017

National Arts Centre Orchestra: Life Reflected — I had heard some of the music performed on this opening concert before on a recording NACO released earlier this year. In that context, it mostly left me cold. Live, it worked. Funny how being there makes you focus. The premise is this: four pieces, by four Canadian composers, focussing on the stories of four Canadian women. I hear your scepticism. I too am slightly repulsed by the sickly-sweet maple fragrance of events like this. And in the year of Canada 150, I wasn’t sure how much more I could take. The answer turned out to be: this much. I was not surprised at all to find myself particularly enamoured of the pieces by Jocelyn Morlock and Nicole Lizée, who are (with apologies to everybody I’ve forgotten I like) my favourite composers in the country right now. Morlock’s My Name Is Amanda Todd is a musical character study of Todd that starts off with the darkness you’d expect from a piece on that subject, but which eventually shoves the clouds of fear and desperation aside to allow something more vibrant and positive to come into view. That approach may cause cognitive dissonance for some, given the circumstances in which Todd came to the national consciousness. But I expect that’s the point. There’s more to any one life etc. Jocelyn Morlock writes gorgeous music. There’s some brass writing near the end that just kills me. You should check out the recording. I’ve revisited it, and this is well worth hearing, in whatever form you can. Nicole Lizée’s Bondarsphere, about the marvellous Dr. Roberta Bondar, is altogether sillier and completely wonderful. True to form, Lizée smooshes the orchestra up against meticulously manipulated tape from Bondar’s career as an astronaut. Thus, we are treated to the spectacle of a choir of Peter Mansbridges and Knowlton Nashes singing backup. I should say, each piece on the program came paired with elaborate projections which were generally a mixed bag. Morlock’s piece would have fared as well or better without them. In Lizée’s, they are essential: she manipulates video and audio alike. The audio recording represents half the piece. I’m really happy I saw it live. I don’t have much to say about the other two works on the program. Zosha Di Castri’s Alice Munro tribute Dear Life has some marvellous orchestral effects (and a vocal solo by Erin Wall, which nobody will complain about) but outstays its welcome by a good seven or eight minutes. John Estacio’s I Lost My Talk sets the moving and insightful poem by Mi’kmaq poet Rita Joe, but the musical material strikes me as having little or nothing to do with the words themselves, and is in itself rather bland. Still, two out of four ain’t as bad as it sounds. And honestly I liked the Di Castri too. I just would have liked it more if there were less of it.

Lori Freedman & The Hard Rubber Riot Ensemble: RIOT — One of my favourite things about the festival was that it had late-night concerts beginning at 10:15 — just the time of night when I usually start to stare into the void. Bass clarinetist Lori Freedman is undoubtedly a fabulous musician, but the semi-improvised, vocalization-heavy piece she performed here was a bit much for me. RIOT, on the other hand, lived up to the name. The Hard Rubber Riot Ensemble is a permutation of the Hard Rubber Orchestra, a very loud jazz-inclined new music ensemble led by John Korsrud. RIOT is a piece for percussion, guitar, bass, strings and keyboard — but really mostly percussion. It is a bracing, draining, extremely loud piece about Vancouver’s super dumb 2011 Stanley Cup riot. Hard Rubber’s incessant crashing and banging was backed up by video from the riot, and interviews with social psychologists, rioters, etc. The combined effect of the music (which is great fun) with the video (which is infuriating) is that you can’t quite decide how much fun you should be having. I had a whole bunch, halfway in spite of myself.

Leo Correia de Verdier & Gabriel Dharmoo: Question Notions — Another late night concert, and my personal highlight of the festival, narrowly edging out the closing concert. Leo Correia de Verdier is billed as “one of the world’s foremost sewing machine players.” (“One of.” I love it.) Naturally, I was more excited about her than just about any other performer in the festival. (Yes, there’s video.) She didn’t disappoint, though I will say that sewing machine music might actually be better suited for headphone listening than live performance. Live and learn. But here is where things get awesome. Gabriel Dharmoo’s Anthropologies Imaginaires is the cleverest bit of theatre I’ve seen since Robert Lepage was last in town. I halfway feel compelled to issue a spoiler warning here, even though it’s entirely possible that nobody who reads this will actually have the opportunity to see it for themselves. It’s a piece that is served well by going in completely cold. Those willing to put that aside, read on. In Anthropologies Imaginaires, Dharmoo gives a virtuoso vocal performance of strange, silly noises while a panel of fake professors talk shit on a screen above him. If that sounds a bit esoteric, well yes. But I’ve never heard a crowd laugh harder at weird art before. Everybody involved in this is totally committed to the bit, nobody more so than Dharmoo himself. But the actors who play our bogus academics channel the blithe condescension of so many of their real-life counterparts with nary a wink or a gurn in sight. Chris Morris would be proud. The issue at stake in Anthropologies Imaginaires is colonialism: Dharmoo presents one invented indigenous vocal tradition after another, ranging from mouth noises to faux-pop songs, and the profs make asses of themselves again and again, for different reasons each time. It’s near impossible to convey the effect of this without simply urging you to take any opportunity to see this thing. Sure, check out the promotional materials, but be aware that they don’t and can’t do justice to the show. Pick of the week.

Powell Street Festival at the Annex — This tried my patience a bit. More than most of the other concerts I saw, this one put the more esoteric and difficult side of new music front and centre. There are people who begrudge that music its very existence. I am not one of them. But now that my own musical studies are far behind me, I don’t feel especially inclined toward it. There were a couple of highlights, though. I very much enjoyed Murat Çolak’s NEFES.PAS.ÇIRA.IŞI, which dives deep into the combinations of a few key sounds, like crotales and piccolo. (I like Çolak even better because of this tweet.) And Yasunoshin Morita’s ReincarnatiOn Ring II for Sho, U and iPods is a bit gimmicky, but it introduced me to the existence of the sho, which is a beautiful thing.

Victoria Symphony at the Roundhouse — The only concert I wish I hadn’t bothered with. I was playing new music cliché bingo by the end of it. Mouthpiece pops, breath attacks, tinfoil, endless harmonics, repeated patterns on mallet percussion instruments, they were all here. I don’t mean to be catty, but unlike every other concert I attended at ISCM 2017, this one showed me nothing new. Jared Miller’s Concerto Corto was the most promising piece on the program, but even that was let down by scrappy playing. Alas.

Vicky Chow, Eve Egoyan, Rachel Kiyo Iwaasa & Megumi Masaki: A Kind of Magic — One thing I haven’t mentioned is that each of the concerts I’ve discussed so far was short. About an hour a piece, no intermissions. NOT SO FOR THIS ONE. This one was FOUR HOURS LONG. I’m not complaining; it was brilliant. Had it been shorter, it would have been less of an event. The “muchness” of it eventually became part of the appeal. Naturally, given what a massive spread of music this was, not all of it hit the target. And I suspect the performers knew this would be the case for a substantial chunk of the audience. The most obscure and difficult music was mostly saved for later in the program, by which time the packed house had understandably thinned out. Mind you, the early bedtime set did miss Rodney Sharman’s beautiful transcription of the Liebestod from Tristan und Isolde, which manages the neat trick of making it sound almost entirely different without actually changing any of the notes. It was surely the most nostalgic piece I heard at the festival, but we’ll allow them one. They deserve that much. I’ll touch on three other highlights, because more would be madness. My very favourite piece on the program was Hildegard Westerkamp’s Klavierklang for piano and stereo soundtrack. True to Westerkamp’s predispositions, the piece is nearly a radio documentary, with Rachel Kiyo Iwaasa doubling as musician and narrator. (And a quite good one, too.) The subject is Westerkamp’s musical upbringing: the sounds of her childhood, the teachers who led her to love and hate the piano, and the role of a hopelessly broken instrument she found in an abandoned house in helping her realize the kind of music she wanted to make. More than just being a good story set to good music, it is a straightforward explanation of why a person might like to make a particular sort of music. That’s a useful thing to have in the mix at a concert, and a festival, where the artists’ intentions might not always be immediately clear. The evening’s other two highlights were extended performances by Vicky Chow. David Brynjar Franzson’s The Cartography of Time is a beautiful, very spare piece of music with only three or four unique bits of musical material over its 26-minute duration. It never feels stagnant, but it also gives a rather pleasant sense of not really moving. It was apparently composed as a lullaby, which makes perfect sense. I wonder if I’d respond the same way to a recording. Maybe. In any case, it’s lovely stuff. And if it is indeed a lullaby, then it is the polar opposite of Chow’s other featured performance: Remy Siu’s Foxconn Frequency No. 2 for one visibly Chinese performer. I’ve had panic attacks that were less stressful than watching this piece. Basically, Chow sits at a keyboard, playing exceedingly difficult exercises that we don’t actually hear. Instead, her accuracy percentage is displayed on a huge screen behind her, alongside a constantly counting down timer. If she doesn’t play a given exercise with a certain degree of accuracy within a given time frame, a buzzer goes off and she has to try again. Failure is baked into the premise of the piece. So, naturally, is Foxconn: the terribly abusive company whose labour practices are satirically dramatized here as a sort of perverse, nightmarish musical video game. Foxconn Frequency No. 2 wasn’t the best thing I heard at ISCM 2017, but it was no doubt the most viscerally affecting. Also, I can’t not mention Eve Egoyan. I didn’t find her rep as memorable as Chow’s, or some of Iwassa’s. But she’s an extraordinary musician with a marvellous sense of musical colour. I’ve loved her recordings for years, especially Simple Lines of Enquiry by Canada’s best-ever composer (fight me) Ann Southam. I’m very happy to have finally heard her live. Much the same can be said of Megumi Mesaki, though I do find some of her rep a bit frustrating. This magnificent concert serves as an apt microcosm for my entire experience with ISCM 2017: I loved it, I feel my horizons were widened, and have an odd sense that its mixed effectiveness only adds to how memorable and compelling it was. A final point before I leave this be: I heard 34 pieces (I think) at the festival altogether. I am unsure of the specific number, but only a modest handful of them were by white men. This is enormously refreshing, given how notoriously backwards our major “classical” music institutions are in this way. As of 2017, people who call themselves composers — thereby, however unintentionally, placing themselves in the tradition of Beethoven, Mozart and Brahms — come from everywhere and are everyone. Now, if we could just staple that sentence to every music director’s forehead, we’d be in business. ISCM 2017 is one of precious few experiences I’ve had that left me feeling that this musical tradition, such as it is, might not only be relevant in a modern, progressive society, but could actually serve as a vital force in one.

Music

Björk: Biophilia — I listened to this in preparation for an installation at ISCM 2017 that I arrived at three days after it closed. So much for that. Anyway. This is certainly one of the lesser Björk albums, which is not to say it’s bad. But it doesn’t have much that reaches out and grabs you the way that her best stuff does. I do love “Crystalline,” which is certainly the most immediate track. I shouldn’t dismiss this out of hand: I could see it being a grower, and Björk is one of those artists who deserves the benefit of a doubt. I do see why Vespertine was regarded as a return to form, though. Frankly I still think that album is as good as anything she’s done.

Tom Waits: Swordfishtrombones — I’ve been listening to a podcast about Tom Waits — specifically about Rain Dogs, and I realized that I hadn’t actually heard the album that began the stylistic transition that brought him to that point. This is not as good as Rain Dogs. It has the requisite creepy freakouts, but it is lacking the tracks like “Time,” “Downtown Train” and “Hang Down Your Head” to counterbalance them. It is certainly not as good as Frank’s Wild Years, which seems likely to remain my favourite for all time. But it is an obvious watershed. It’s a strange thing: Rain Dogs seems totally plausible when you know that it was preceded by an album with similar stylistic tics. But this album was preceded by Heartattack and Vine, which I have heard many a time, and it has nothing to do with this. Nothing. There are several tracks that I love, particularly the title track and “In The Neighbourhood,” which is a less beautiful but more self-sufficient prototype for “Anywhere I Lay My Head”: one of the most gorgeous things ever.

Paul and Linda McCartney: RAM — I would like to present an extremely specious breakdown of Paul McCartney’s psychology. Lingering in the bit of Paul’s brain where most of us keep our secret hunger and despair, there is instead a delirious, unsettling happiness: a happiness that would, if left unchecked, force him to run constant laps around buildings with his tongue lolling out, climb trees and laugh maniacally from the highest branch he could reach, hug strange dogs, do jumping jacks always, build enormous sandcastles, throw confetti at strangers, complement snowmen on their hats, develop consuming enthusiasms for idiosyncratic hobbies such as bottlecap collecting or leathercraft, kick footballs off the roofs of tall buildings, convert his living room into a ball pit, and aggressively yell his appreciation for the good weather at all passing motorists, pedestrians, cyclists, and pets. This being an untenable way to live one’s life, Paul’s subconscious mania must be held in balance by an ego and superego with the soporific strength of several dozen tranq darts. This is how we get songs like “I’ve Just Seen A Face” and “Martha My Dear”: expressions of unalloyed joy that nonetheless fall within the acceptable confines of normal human behaviour. But on RAM, the one album Paul made with his wife Linda as a co-billed collaborator, the tranq darts have failed to gain purchase. This album is a deranged expression of Paul McCartney’s aggressively euphoric id. Even the dim shadows that occasionally appear — the open condescension of “Dear Boy,” for instance, or the “don’t know how to do that” backing vocals on “Smile Away” — are couched in a general mood of “MAN OH MAN CAN YOU EVEN BELIEVE THIS CRAZY LIFE.” From his first yelping vocal on “Too Many People,” to the final squalls of “The Back Seat of My Car,” Paul is out of control on this record. He cannot shut up. Even when there are no words for him to sing, he’s content to exclaim, squeal and coo abstractly. His vocal performances here make “Hey Bulldog” and “Oh! Darling” look like models of restraint. And in terms of songwriting, he seems to have entirely given up on the notion of cohesion within a song. Even the most “together” track on the album, “Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey,” is fractured by ludicrous play-acting and a two-part structure wherein the two parts have nothing to do with each other. And “The Back Seat of My Car” loses track of where it’s going about a minute in, at which point the thin veneer of narrative that drives the opening verses gives way to a succession of would-be climaxes that each seem to be trying to outdo the “better better better” bit from “Hey Jude.” It is completely exhausting, totally undisciplined and I absolutely love it. That’s basically the album summed up, right there. RAM is my favourite Beatles solo album by a mile, with even the sublime All Things Must Pass trailing substantially. No other Beatle ever made an album so gloriously inconsequential. While George was composing spiritual koans on All Things, John was publicly working through his deepest psychoses on Plastic Ono Band, and Ringo was doing his best, Paul was content to just run around in circles in a studio, occasionally colliding with instruments and trusting that glorious sounds will result because he’s Paul McCartney. The Beatles trained a generation of music listeners to think that pop music can and should be “important.” John and George worked to honour that legacy on their early solo albums. Paul just turned himself inside out, and made a dumber, weirder, better solo record than either of them ever did.

Literature, etc.

Philip Pullman: The Golden Compass — My favourite book from when I was ten definitely holds up. (To clarify, by the time I was eleven, it had been usurped by The Amber Spyglass.) What really satisfied me about this re-read, 17 years later, is that the bits that are meant to be disturbing still are. It’s remarkable how thoroughly Pullman normalizes daemons in this book. He does such a job of it that when Lyra first discovers Tony Makarios, the severed child, it is horrifying for the reader. Here we have a person who is by all appearances more realistic than any of the other characters in the book, because he does not possess an external manifestation of his soul, and yet we feel Lyra’s repulsion. The form he takes, which is our own form, is a grotesque deformation. That’s just one of many reactions I remember having as a child reading this for the first time that I had a second time when I read it as an adult. Another is incredible anger at Lord Asriel’s callous treatment of Lyra. This, I think I experienced even more acutely this time. I don’t quite remember how things turn out with Lord Asriel in the end, but the way he talks to Lyra at the end of this novel is unforgivable. It’s also a refreshing break from the trope of absentee fathers being humanized and forgiven by the text. (See: Blade Runner 2049.) Pullman wants us to hate Asriel, because he is a terrible man. Certainly, there’s a legitimate reason that he wasn’t able to raise Lyra himself. But he also didn’t want to and doesn’t like her. (Equally unforgivable. If he knew her like we do, he surely would.) We aren’t treated to the disgusting spectacle of a father justifying himself for abandoning his child. Instead, Pullman just writes Asriel as being flat-out horrible. And we don’t see Lyra pining for his affection, either. Instead, we become invested in her genuine, intense and earned love for Iorek Byrnison and the gyptians. Pullman’s first priority is clearly to tell a good story. His second is probably to set up an analogy about organized religion as it exists in our own world. But another clear intention of his that he doesn’t get enough credit for is demonstrating healthy, rational familial relationships. In practice, that means rebelling against a callous and ruthless pair of biological parents while embracing an adopted family of people who care for you the way a family should. That’s remarkable. Pullman is a remarkable writer. This is a remarkable book. I can’t wait to re-read The Subtle Knife.

Jorge Luis Borges: “The Shape of the Sword” — Probably the least remarkable story I’ve read by this author. At less than five pages, it is focussed on a single twist that is entirely predictable. Even the greatest ever have their off days, I suppose.

Games

Tacoma — Finally got around to this. I was super excited for it, because Gone Home was and is one of my favourite games ever. It almost single-handedly reinvigorated my interest in the medium after about a decade of not playing games at all. I was worried that Tacoma would fall flat purely because of its setting: one of the things about Gone Home that made me think there’s hope for this art form yet was the simple fact that it takes place in a realistic, domestic space. It’s a divergence from what I then perceived to be the entirety of the gaming world: fantasy and wish fulfilment. So, the news that Fullbright’s follow-up was to take place on a space station was concerning. But I should have had more faith: the Tacoma is as domestic a setting as Gone Home’s Pacific Northwest mansion. It’s just bigger and more… in space. Truthfully, I find the overall story a bit hackneyed: a big corporation is revealed to be increasingly evil, and the goals of a scrappy insurgency are elucidated piece by piece. I’ve seen this before. (I’ve written this before; fairly recently. But mine has a twist!) But focussing on the linear story of Tacoma is missing the point. The point of both of Fullbright’s games is learning about people by examining the places where they live. I often think about how a person who had never met me would perceive me if they wandered into my apartment randomly. I often wonder what it would be like to wander randomly into somebody else’s apartment. The places we spend our time are littered with the weird ephemera of a life in process, and each piece can serve as evidence of who we are. That’s the phenomenon Fulbright exploits. Even without the extremely clever interactive cutscene-type things, Tacoma would tell us a lot about its characters purely by way of the rooms they inhabit. And that’s why the “not a game” people are idiots. Both this and Gone Home set up experiences that are unique to this medium, and the fact that the endings of both are entirely prescribed and any player’s completion of the game is virtually a foregone conclusion is a feature, not a bug. I liked Tacoma a lot. Wonder what Fullbright will do next. They said they almost made this game on a ship in the middle of the ocean. God, what I wouldn’t do to play that.

Podcasts

All Songs Considered: “Pearls Before Swine’s ‘Underground’ Classic Reissued 50 Years Later” — Quite content to pass this reissue by, I think. This is the kind of psychedelia that grinds my gears these days. But Bob Boilen still facilitates a good conversation here, even if the music isn’t to my taste.

Song by Song: First four episodes on Rain Dogs — I don’t get much out of this podcast’s regular episodes, but I had to drop in for the live ones on the first three songs on Rain Dogs, featuring John Hodgman and Helen Zaltzman. Those are fabulous episodes that are both funny and insightful into the music. I’m particularly gratified to hear the panel acknowledging Tom Waits’s awkward and offensive ableism and his tendency to exoticize whole countries. That hasn’t aged at all well. But the fourth episode, with the two main hosts back in the studio, isn’t nearly as fun. I think I’m opting out now.

Code Switch: “Raising Kings” (four parter) — This series of episodes is one of the crowning glories of Code Switch so far. It’s a deep dive into a unique new school where the vast majority of the students are young black men, and the teachers are also mostly black men. The school’s focus on restorative justice and its attention to the root causes of students’ misbehavior is apparently totally alien to the American public school system (I am Canadian and have limited knowledge about these things). And as admirable as the mission statement is, there are some bugs in the system that keep the school from getting the results its staff hope for. This is great journalism. Check this out. Pick of the week.

Reply All catchup — Sruthi Pinnamaneni’s two-parter on a Mexican-American skip chaser who’s hunting for a Mexican undocumented person is a crazy story with an actual satisfying ending. And the episode about whether or not Facebook is spying on us through the microphones of our smartphones features P.J. Vogt laughing uncontrollably at Alex Goldman’s inability to do something. So, altogether, a pretty strong run.

The Memory Palace: “Hoover” & “Elizabeth” — Two of the best episodes of this show in a long time. “Elizabeth” is particularly heartbreaking, moreso because Nate DiMeo is straightforward about how the story makes him feel, specifically. I am reminded of why this was my favourite podcast for so long. Sometimes it still is.

99% Invisible catchup — It’s fundraising time, and the Radiotopia flagship is pulling out all the stops. The most recent three episodes of this show have all been outstanding. The one on La Sagrada Familia is the best architecture episode they’ve done in ages. They followed it up with a story about how oysters could save New York from sea level rise. And then they did an episode about how houses in St. Louis are literally being stolen brick by brick. It’s three episodes of classic 99pi. And when this show is on, there’s nothing better.

Fresh Air: “Humorist John Hodgman” — I’ve heard a few interviews with Hodgman in the wake of his book release, but this is unsurprisingly the best by far. Terry Gross talks with him about his journey from ostentatiously weird only child in high school (I feel as though I have known a person like this) to professionally dissatisfied twentysomething (I feel as though I may currently know a person like this) to famous writer and weird dad (who can even say). It’s lovely stuff. He’s a treasure.

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Omnibus (week of Oct. 15, 2017)

It was more of an audiobook week than a podcast week, so once again we’ve got two non-podcast picks of the week.

15 reviews.

Literature, etc.

Jane Mayer: “The Danger of President Pence” — This satisfyingly lengthy feature details all the many wondrous failings and creepinesses of the Vice-President. You’ve probably seen bits of it excerpted on Twitter, but you owe it to yourself to read it in full. Pence would be a disastrous president, because he’s a more efficient political operative than the orangutan who employs him, but he also has no spine with which to stand up to the Kochs, and a truly terrifying case of Jesus freakiness. I’ll decline to quote anything because you should just go read it all.

Stephen King: It (audiobook) — I’m nine hours into this 45-hour behemoth, and I have no regrets. The primary advantage of hearing this as an audiobook rather than reading it is just that you can’t cheat and steal a glimpse at the next page. There’s no way out of the tension. Steven Weber is a marvellous narrator, with a wide range of character voices that don’t feel too over the top. His Pennyworth is more restrained than, for instance, Tim Curry’s (based on the clips I’ve seen). But it’s still creepy as hell. As a book, It is thrilling, and surprisingly ambitious. I shouldn’t make too many judgements yet, because I’ve got 80% of this left to go. But so far, it’s both a convincing picture of the unique horrors of childhood and an interesting exploration of the human tendency to repress trauma for the sake of our sanity. The way it tells two stories at a time — the story of a group of adults reuniting after years apart, and the much earlier story of the horror that haunts all of them subconsciously — works really well. The horror in this first part arises mostly from seeing our main characters through the eyes of others, who are forced to acknowledge that there’s something terrifying about their husband/wife/employee etc. that they’ve never seen before. The best and most frightening scene in the book so far is one in which the author William Denbrough (an obvious King self-insert) tries to communicate as much of his hidden past as he can to his wife without driving her completely insane. It’s the kind of scene in which the book validates its massive length. We’ll see if I still feel that way after 36 more hours of it.

Philip Pullman: The Golden Compass — I never thought we’d get another full novel that ties into His Dark Materials, let alone another whole trilogy. I am delighted on behalf of my inner child, and also young weirdos growing up today. I will be reading La Belle Sauvage with relish, but I need to brush up because I haven’t read the His Dark Materials trilogy since I was eleven. So far, The Golden Compass is as magical as I remember it being. Lyra is one of the great protagonists in children’s literature, and Pullman succeeds in making a university full of fusty old scholars seem like a wonderland in the early chapters. This is like encountering an old friend.

Movies

Blade Runner 2049 — Let’s take a few runs at this. Firstly, let’s look at it as a movie in itself. Blade Runner 2049 is the latest film from Denis Villeneuve, the director of at least two previous masterpieces. (This is the third film of his I’ve seen.) It is his first blockbuster franchise film (even if the box office figures suggest that the block has not been busted to the extent that the studio probably hoped), and the most lavish and ostentatious of his recent movies. It is shot by cinematographer Roger Deakins, whose lack of an Oscar has at this point exceeded pre-2007 Martin Scorsese levels of ludicrousness. As a sensory experience, it is one of the best movies in recent memory. The way the camera hangs and drifts across the film’s beautiful production design invokes a sense of elegance that gets periodically blown away by the film’s shockingly aggressive, kickass score by Hans Zimmer and Benjamin Wallfisch. (See this in cinemas for the sound alone. It’s Zimmer’s best work.) It contains some specific sequences that deserve to go down in history, such as the construction of a dream of a birthday party, and a fistfight backed by a hologram of Elvis. It tells the story of a person who has to reckon with the notion that he may not be what he thinks he is, and it tells this story without any ostentatious philosophizing. It is a massively good movie. Next, let’s look at it as an expansion of Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner. The original film is in my opinion a sublime masterpiece, and even a great film from one of the best directors of our time is going to have a hard time measuring up. That’s why this is step two in the process. Even though Blade Runner 2049 is not as good a film as Blade Runner, it is one of the best examples of respecting without replicating in this era of endless rehashes. It would have been simple to remake the original film beat for beat, like in Star Wars: The Force Awakens (which Iike). But Blade Runner is a different kind of film from Star Wars and calls for a different kind of engagement in a sequel. Blade Runner is slow, thinky, painterly, and not culturally ubiquitous. In keeping with that, Blade Runner 2049 is a slow, thinky, painterly film that relies as much on its director’s unique vision as on the canon it inherits from its generative nostalgia object. This film’s exterior scenes take place in locations with three hues: it starts in a grey place, moves to a black place, and eventually carries us to a red place. Of these, the grey and red places are new. Maybe it seems absurd to suggest that this movie distinguishes itself from its predecessor by adding Two New Colours! But I’ve always thought of Blade Runner as a moving painting as much as a work of storytelling. So, introducing these two new locations with their vastly new aesthetics is a very substantial choice indeed. And right from the start, no less. Only once the story’s new protagonist has been properly introduced in the grey place are we allowed back into the theatrical, horizonless blackness that is the original film’s defining visual feature. Even the elements of the story that involve Rick Deckard, the first film’s protagonist, show facets of him that haven’t seen before. (This is by some margin Harrison Ford’s best role reprisal of recent years.) The new film has nothing to offer in place of Blade Runner’s one truly excellent character, Roy Batty. But it was wise of them not to try. Any attempt at “Rutger-Hauer-but-not” would have been doomed to ridiculousness. Jared Leto’s character flirts with it as it is. Also: the fact that the film reintroduces Philip K. Dick’s idea of non-robotic animals being sought-after items (largely excised from Scott’s film) is a fun touch. I haven’t read Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, by the way. But I have heard Terry Gilliam describe the plot, which I imagine is just as good. Now let’s look at it as a piece of fanservice. The most gratifying thing about this movie is that it is not primarily fanservice. But when they go that route, by god, they do it well. Gaff’s origami sheep is the best specific example. But the most satisfying element of fanservice in the movie is simply how beautifully recreated all of the environments from Scott’s original are. When we’re in the black heart of future Los Angeles, this movie looks almost exactly like the original, down to the huge Atari logo (a company which we now know will not have survived to 2049). Villeneuve is canny enough to realize that Blade Runner’s visuals are among the least dated of its time, and that its bleak cityscapes don’t require visual modernization to the same extent as, say, the starship Enterprise. The same goes for the hazy, gold-lit halls of power. The light’s a bit more liquid and a bit less gaseous these days, but it’s familiar enough. We also get a curiously lengthy sequence in which an image is enhanced on a screen. And best of all, we get a beautiful ending in which Zimmer and Wallfisch’s brilliant score dissolves into the music that inspired it: Vangelis’s original score for Roy’s death scene in the first film. As a fan of the original, I feel respected without being pandered to. Finally, let’s acknowledge that this film is maddeningly sexist. The original was no great feminist touchstone, but this one is maybe worse. It’s a huge blight on an otherwise excellent film, and it colours my impressions of it accordingly. Devon Maloney’s take in Wired is excellent. Still, I loved Blade Runner 2049, for the same primary reasons as I loved Blade Runner: it is an almost unimaginably beautiful thing to look at and listen to. Pick of the week.

Television

Downton Abbey: Season 6, episodes 4-9 — “You couldn’t be harder on those potatoes if you wanted them to confess to spying!” Mrs. Patmore, always and forever. This final run of Downton Abbey was engineered to be satisfying, and with a few exceptions, it is. For me the biggest exception is the plotline involving Mr. Carson and Mrs. Hughes’ marriage. Carson’s tendency to prioritize his responsibility to the Crawley family and their way of life over his responsibility to his wife is played for laughs, and he’s never adequately put in his place for it. He suffers a bit, sure, but I don’t feel like we really got to see him come to understand that there are more important things than the rigorous performance of his duties. He is a terrible husband, and this season paints him as a more ruthless and doctrinaire man than previous ones. Mrs. Hughes can’t help but be steamrolled. But most of the rest of the season is fine. We don’t really ever get to know the fellow Mary ends up with, which is too bad considering that her romantic travails made up the bulk of the tension in early seasons. But I do love that he gets a job as a used car salesman and she’s okay with it. Progress is hard to come by in this show, so we’d best take what we can get. On to the finale. Old Lady Grantham gets the two most apropos benedictions, the most relevant of which being “There’s a lot at risk, but with any luck they’ll be happy enough. Which is the English version of a happy ending.” At first glance, it may not seem like the show itself shares her view — nobody comes off especially badly in the end, and even those characters whose futures we don’t know get sent off with the suggestion of better things to come. Let’s nobody pretend like Tom isn’t going to end up married to that editor. But Lady Grantham is correct when she says “there’s a lot at risk.” If there’s one thing we should have learned by now about the world of Downton Abbey, it’s that present-day happiness does not imply everlasting happiness. It’s all well and good for the show to leave all of its characters in a good place at its close. In fact, it barely even seems cheap, because there’s every chance that Downton won’t make it into the next decade. Lady Grantham’s other benediction is the series’ proper final line. “Makes me smile,” she says, “the way every year we drink to the future, whatever it may bring.” Cousin Isobel responds: “Well, what else could we drink to? We’re going forward into the future, not backward into the past.” To which old Lady Grantham replies: “If only we had the choice.” It’s a joke, but Isobel’s face tells the rest of the story. She is looking at a woman who would gladly reverse a century of progress to regain the prestige she once knew. That’s what Downton Abbey is about, maybe as much for its creator as for its characters: the desire to live in a rose-tinted, imaginary version of a barbaric past. I have enjoyed this show immensely, but I have no idea whether I’ve been reading it against the grain this whole time or not. I suppose that’s the greatest demonstration of its virtues.

Comedy

Patton Oswalt: Annihilation — This has been a good year for sad comedy. Chris Gethard’s Career Suicide is barely comedy for much of its duration. Maria Bamford’s Old Baby finds her in better shape than previous specials, but she’s still playing emotional sudoku. Annihilation is Patton Oswalt’s public reckoning with the death of his wife. That’s not all it is — there’s some Trump material that’s relatively similar to Marc Maron’s Trump material from his special this year. (If ever there were a topic about which two comics were going to arrive independently at the same jokes, it’s Donald Trump.) There’s some outstanding crowdwork. And there’s a hysterical story about the best fight Oswalt ever witnessed. But the meat and potatoes of the set is Oswalt’s material about trying to help his daughter through the loss of her mother, while he himself wasn’t even close to finished grieving. The rawest emotional territory is often the most fruitful for comedy, and that’s clearly the case here. Grief has made Oswalt notice the tiny absurdities that interrupt his numbness very acutely, and he spins it into some great jokes, including a particularly excellent bit about a well-meaning Polish airport security officer who ruins his daughter’s day. This is draining stuff at times, but it’s very good.

Games

Dr. Langeskov, The Tiger, and the Terribly Cursed Emerald: A Whirlwind Heist — This 20-minute free game from one of the folks behind The Stanley Parable is delightful. I played it twice, once in the suggested 20-minute fashion, and once in a more luxurious 50 minutes. It’s worth playing twice, since the second time bequeaths you with a tape deck that allows you to play cassettes littered about, which contain voice work by Rick and Morty’s Justin Roiland. But even without him, the voice work is great. The narrator is Simon Amstell, in full-on panic mode. As a meta-comment on walking simulators and choice in games, it’s nowhere near as insightful as The Stanley Parable, but it’s free! And it’s funny! And it’ll take almost none of your time. And it’s more detailed than you might initially detect. What excuse do you have?

Music

Kendrick Lamar: DAMN. — It took a while, but I’ve come around to thinking this is one of the best albums of the year. “DUCKWORTH.” in particular blows my mind, but “FEAR.” is one of Kendrick’s best tracks too. “HUMBLE.” is super catchy, definitely this album’s “King Kunta.” It’s a grower.

The Tragically Hip: Day For Night — Look: those of you who think this band is undistinguished generic rock, I hear you. I think lots of their albums fit that description. But Gord Downie’s lyrics are the exact opposite of generic. They approach Kate Bush levels of specificity. And that is always the case. But here is an album where the music actually rises to the challenge of illustrating Downie’s poetry. It’s an album of moody sonic landscapes as much as it is an album of guitar shredding. I was actually surprised to find that it wasn’t produced by Daniel Lanois. It doesn’t have the same density of recognizable classics as Fully Completely, but it is for my money a much more satisfying start-to-finish listening experience. Tracks like “Thugs” and “Titanic Terrarium” are as good a demonstration of why the Hip are a good band as “Courage” and “Wheat Kings.” If you pay close attention to Gord on this album, I’ll wager there’s a lyric in every song that’ll lodge in your head. “I want a book that’ll make me drunk/full of freaks and disenfranchised punks,” he sings on “An Inch An Hour,” which is a song you’ll only hear if you’re listening to the record. Ditto for “Yawning or Snarling,” the chorus of which goes “Take a look at this photograph/clearly his teeth were bared/he could have been yawning or snarling/the story was never clear.” By most estimations, the classics from this disc are “Grace, Too,” “Nautical Disaster” and “Scared,” all of which are brilliant, the last of which is probably my favourite song by this band. I have no idea what it means. I just know I have a visceral response to it. Maybe because I’m scared of everything? Who can say. In any case, I humbly suggest if you’ve never heard the Hip that this is the album you should hear. I knew very little about them until this whole country went into a completely understandable fit of acute sadness over his cancer diagnosis. This was the album that made me understand why. I miss him already. Pick of the week.

The Rolling Stones: Goats Head Soup — Why stop at Exile? We’re on a roll, SO TO SPEAK. And besides, it looks like three of the next six albums in their catalogue are reasonably well regarded, so I may as well get at least up to Tattoo You. This album is nearly as unfocused as Exile, but without the sprawling length that makes it feel like a purposeful lack of focus. Still, it sounds like a band fully in control of their dynamic, and its best songs are outright classics that would have fared well on any previous album. The lead single, “Angie” is not one of those songs. Not that it’s bad, but it’s hard not to compare it to previous ballads like “Wild Horses” and “Shine A Light,” in which context it falls hugely flat. The best stuff here is “Doo Doo Doo Doo Doo (Heartbreaker),” which is the most successfully funky the band has ever been (thank you, Billy Preston), and “Winter,” which is like “Moonlight Mile” having been brought back down to earth. I like this. I’ll listen to it again. I think I like it better than Beggars Banquet.

The Rolling Stones: It’s Only Rock ‘n Roll — The best thing on this album is the rim shot sound on “Time Waits For No One.” The way it’s recorded is so satisfying. It’s like snapping a particularly snug top back on a bottle. But there isn’t really much on this that I loved. “Till The Next Goodbye” is a pretty good ballad, but the rockers feel like pale imitations of earlier, better hits. So begins the fall, I suppose. Well, at least Some Girls is coming up soon.

Podcasts

The Daily: Oct. 18 & 19, 2017 — Two great instalments: especially the October 18 episode, which features a fantastic interview with Shannon Mulcahy, a steelworker who found great freedom in her job, until it was shipped to Mexico. President Trump hasn’t fixed the problem the way she hoped. This is an adaptation of a print story, but it’s told as a true radio story, with tape and everything. Thursday’s episode on the state of the Islamic State is a good summation of a topic I can’t keep track of.

Constellations: “miyuki jokiranta – no event” & “Is This an Exercise? By Julie Shapiro” — I’m noticing a pattern in the episodes of this sound art focussed podcast: the sort of experimental audio they favour is the lyrical, lugubrious sort. This is all well and good, but I’m looking forward to hearing something really propulsive at some point. Anyway, these are two great pieces, especially the one by Miyuki Jokiranta about a medical procedure and our perception of time. You should be listening to this.

Imaginary Worlds: “The Haunted Mansion” — Let’s just say it’s the second best horror-inclined, Disney-related podcast of the month. Not that I’m biased.

What Trump Can Teach Us About Con Law: “Impeachment” — I’ve decided I like this show. I particularly love how aware Roman Mars is that his audience wants to see the back of President Trump. I will keep listening.