Hang on tight, it’s a wordy one.
The Iron Giant — Some combination of the hype surrounding The Incredibles 2 and being down and out with seasonal allergies on a Sunday morning inclined me to revisit a portion of my youth. I haven’t seen The Iron Giant since I was about 10, and I have never been a member of its sizable nostalgia cult. But Brad Bird is a darn good filmmaker, and all of his movies go the extra mile to deal with themes that young audiences won’t grasp the specifics of, but which will resonate more generally. In The Iron Giant’s case, that tendency manifests in the fact that it is a very good Cold War period piece. Its message isn’t a blandly pacifist one, but a specific one about the way we come to see the world when the powerful insist on stoking paranoia and framing everything in “us vs. them” terms. It even includes a parody of the ludicrous “duck and cover” PSAs played in classrooms in the 50s. It’s a story about Hogarth Hughes, a curiously wise child who delivers animist monologues about the integrity of the soul, and the huge metal E.T. he befriends and tries to protect. Pretty standard fare, but the beauty is in the specifics. The animation is beautiful, and has aged brilliantly — its use of primitive computer animation is restrained enough to simply appear as emphasis on the traditional animation. One of the film’s most ingenious moments involves the reveal of the giant’s origins: he has a nightmare about his home planet, which ends up appearing on a nearby television, intercut with scenes from an actual Jack Parr show. More animated movies should handle exposition wordlessly. They should also build up their principal characters’ relationships such that their climaxes can be as emotive as this one. They should also humanize their villains as well as this film does. The grinning FBI agent who antagonizes Hogarth even before he knows anything’s amiss is painted with a certain amount of sympathy. He’s an undistinguished buffoon who’s only trying to earn the respect of his peers. I hope parents still show this movie to their kids. It’s a genuine classic. Also, another ‘50s-style TV ad proclaims: “Tomorrowland! Promise of things to come!” Did Bird know even then that he’d made that (apparently disappointing) Disneyland movie with George Clooney?
Raising Arizona — I like to try and maintain a certain amount of unseen/unheard/unread works by my particular favourites. I’m extremely glad, for instance, never to have heard Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps), The Man Who Sold the World, Earthling, or Lodger in their entirety. The fact that they’re still there to experience for the first time is gratifying in itself, and I’ll savour that until I break down. The Coen Brothers are another artist with whom I’ve taken this approach. But they have the advantage over Bowie of still being alive. So even if I do complete their filmography, there’ll still be new ones every now and then. Their corpus is not yet finite. It was with that in mind that I finally allowed myself to watch Raising Arizona. Once you get over the shock of seeing a Coen brothers movie that doesn’t have the distinctive visual touch of Roger Deakins, it’s great fun. (I am convinced that the absence of Deakins from the much later Burn After Reading is the real reason why people don’t like it, whether they know it or not.) It spends the bulk of its duration content to be a very good caper comedy, with a very game Nicholas Cage giving a more openly ironic version of the career-best performance he’d offer in Wild at Heart three years later. Holly Hunter is given less to do, but she is admirably committed to the Coens’ total lack of subtext. The caper comedy reaches its zenith with one of the best chase scenes in all of cinema, scored by yodelling. Bless. But Raising Arizona turns into something altogether stranger and more grand in its final act, where Cage dispatches a surreal villain that seems to have invaded the film from a George Miller movie, and changes, possibly for the first time in his life. What’s really remarkable about Raising Arizona is that the protagonist doesn’t have a character arc so much as a character hockey stick. He has all the one-dimensionality of a genre character, until the very end of the movie, where he gains a modicum of self-awareness. It’s an unfamiliar structure, and it makes Raising Arizona into something more than a great comedy. I really loved this. It isn’t quite Fargo, but it’s up there with my idiosyncratic faves O Brother, Where Art Thou? and A Serious Man.
Page One — I decided to finally watch this after reading New York Magazine’s recent piece on Shane Smith and Vice. Suddenly, watching David Carr chastise that vapid skin balloon sounded like a hell of a good time. Page One is a fascinating time capsule. Its talking heads’ pontifications about the future of media seem as quaint now as they were obviously myopic at the time. (“Albany corruption stories, they may be important,” says Nick Denton. “But nobody really wants to read them.” That’s right, Nick. Give the people what they want. It’ll be fine.) One of the key ways in which this documentary’s reality differs from the world in 2018 is that it portrays Jeff Jarvis as an actual human, whereas now we know him primarily as a parody Twitter account. But nobody’s coming to a documentary from 2011 for perspectives on the future of the media. On the other hand, the behind-the-scenes element of the doc is fascinating. Admittedly, I am a bit of a Times partisan these days, but I found the scenes involving editors making decisions completely thrilling. It’s a clever idea for the doc to focus specifically on the writers at the Times who are covering the media, and particularly the crisis in the newspaper industry. David Carr is far and away the most entertaining part of the film, but the most prescient point anybody makes in the whole movie is a collaborative effort between him and media editor Bruce Headlam. When everybody suddenly sees the iPad as the saving grace of the news business (hahahahahahahahahahahaha), they both have the presence of mind to consider the fact that you don’t want to depend on a private tech giant for the survival and health of your publishing endeavour. I feel as though that’s not something most people had begun processing until substantially later. I don’t think I got there myself until I started reading John Hermann. The best single scene, though, involves a nonplussed Bruce Headlam watching a completely made-up segment on NBC about the end of the war in Iraq. The Coen brothers couldn’t have written something this epistemologically crazy, and they made Burn After Reading. That scene indicates that reality was out of joint long before Trump started campaigning for office. This is great, out of date or not.
The Incredibles 2 — Outstanding. In the theatre, there was a pretty even split of families and nostalgic millennials. It was one of the rare occasions when I heard adults and kids laughing at the same things. The comedy of The Incredibles 2 is primarily visual — animation like this is one of the few corners of modern cinema that truly reflect the legacy of Chaplin and Keaton. And a well-constructed sight gag is universal. Brad Bird’s visual imagination has always been his primary asset, and this is the best that it has ever been. The action sequences are better than anything the Marvel Cinematic Universe has offered in recent memory. One particular motorcycle chase featuring Elastigirl is one of the most riveting things I’ve watched since Fury Road left cinemas. On a smaller scale, the Incredible family’s youngest member has powers now, and he is the best and most imaginative part of the movie by far. Watching Baby Jack-Jack sneeze and inadvertently send himself flying clear through the high ceilings of the family’s new mid-century modern house is one of the simplest, purest pleasures of 2018’s cinema. Watching him get in a tussle with a raccoon is one of the most enjoyable things in any Pixar movie, ever. The premise of the Jack-Jack bits is elegant: if a baby had superpowers, they would not be governed by reason, and they would therefore be maddeningly unpredictable to that baby’s caretakers. The movie’s other successes come down to sheer attention to detail. The mid-century modern design and World’s Fair retrofuturism are endlessly fun to look at. Michael Giacchino’s music doesn’t do anything it wasn’t doing in the first movie, but it’s a brilliant score with themes that feel like they’ve always existed. The story is driving at some things it doesn’t quite manage — a subplot involving body cams, for example, fails entirely to comment on police violence. The movie’s admiration for a man who stays home with the kids is a little over the top. And the franchise’s relationship to the question “superheroes: are they good?” remains fraught. But that’s well beside the point. This is so much fun. My face hurts from smiling. Pick of the week.
Belle and Sebastian: If You’re Feeling Sinister — I’m seeing Belle and Sebastian next week and I need to study up. My entry point was idiosyncratic, and I’m still basically ignorant of most of their classics. I’ll be honest: I don’t like this universally-acclaimed record as much as The Life Pursuit. But I do think it’s more than just nostalgia that inclines people towards it. The Life Pursuit is an album that boasts some good songwriting as well as really good playing. This one only has the former, and clothes it in simplistic, lo-fi arrangements. But that in itself is an aesthetic that appeals to the sort of people who love Belle and Sebastian. Myself, I struggle with it. But when you listen past the sonic quality to the songs themselves, they’re easily as strong as the ones I’ve come to love on The Life Pursuit and they don’t have as many slightly cringe-inducing lines. (“She made brass rubbings, she learned she never had to press hard.” ???) On a first listen, “Stars of Track and Field” is the obvious standout. It’s Rushmore as a pop song. But the title track and “Judy and the Dream of Horses” strike me as likely growers. Here beginneth the cramming.
Kanye West: ye — The ugliness of Kanye’s present worldview obviates the possibility of engaging with this album’s aesthetic merits. That’s all I have to say.
Stephen Sondheim/Mandy Patinkin, Bernadette Peters, et al: Sunday in the Park With George — I’m still gradually making my way through E.H. Gombrich’s The Story of Art. Naturally, when I got to Georges Seurat, I remembered that this existed. I sheepishly confess that I had hitherto known it only by reputation. I had only heard “Finishing the Hat,” a song that has the single best explanation of why people create things ever written: “Look, I made a hat! Where there never was a hat!” I have known that feeling. It’s intoxicating. The full musical is one of Sondheim’s strangest and subtlest creations. Listening to the cast album without context is hopeless. The story apparently happens largely in the spoken dialogue. But I read a synopsis and looked at a few clips of a filmed performance (that I’ll be watching in full) to get a sense of the staging, and once I’d done that, everything started to fall into place. An uncharitable reading of Sunday in the Park With George would describe it as a musical about difficult men and the women who suffer for them. A more charitable way to look at it would be to view it as a musical about two people compelled to leave legacies, and the legacies they leave. Act one tells the story of the doomed relationship between the painter Georges Seurat and his lover Dot. It culminates with the two of them apart, but with George (as he’s known in the show) having completed his masterpiece, A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte, which truly is a marvellous picture. You should Google it. In completing that, George has left his own legacy, and Dot has left a legacy as well — in the way that she chose, which was to be an artist’s model. Act two jumps ahead to 1984, the year of the musical’s premiere, when George and Dot’s great-grandson is himself an artist, though one of a very different temperament. This George, like Dot, is fictional. The musical can’t be regarded as in any way true to life. Like Seurat’s art, it is a view of real things through the perspective of an artist with a singular vision. The second act is often considered vastly inferior to the first, but I love it, because it explores the way that the legacies George and Dot chose for themselves played out. They both attained a measure of immortality through art. And they both attained a measure of immortality through their offspring. The story of the second act is the story of one legacy reconciling himself to the other. Both acts end with a rendition of one of Sondheim’s most straightforwardly beautiful songs, “Sunday.” In the first, this song conveys the final completion of La Grande Jatte, with the noisy reality of the characters in the part made into harmonious beauty through George’s vision. (The way Sondheim expresses this musically is a thing only he could do.) In the second act, it conveys the second George’s realization that the painting belongs to him, and he belongs to it. It is emotionally and thematically complex stuff, far stranger and better than the vast majority of Broadway musicals. Plus, the recording features two of the most inimitable voices in musical theatre: Mandy Patinkin and Bernadette Peters. Both, especially the latter, are acquired tastes. But they are infinitely expressive. Can’t wait to watch the film.
Zach Ferriday: “Schism Symphony” — This is the only piece I’ve read that really confronts the uncomfortable relationship between the importance of tradition in classical music and social conservatism. It articulates a point of view I’ve been failing to articulate for years. Read it if you’re one of the classical music types who sometimes listen to things I say.
The Legend of Zelda: Oracle of Ages — I believe I started playing this in 2017. That should tell you how good I am at video games. The Zelda franchise is a thing I maintain a childish loyalty to. I have fond memories of the N64 instalments, of which I maintain that Majora’s Mask is an enduring masterpiece. The footage of Breath of the Wild that I’ve seen almost makes me want to break down and buy my first console since the fifth generation. But I was really more of a Game Boy kid, so my loyalties to some extent still lie with the 2D, top-down format of Link’s Awakening and the GBA port of A Link to the Past. For whatever reason, I never got around to the Oracle games as a kid. (Context: Oracle of Ages and Oracle of Seasons are partner games that can be played in either order, and can be customized to reflect which you played first.) As Zelda games do, Oracle of Ages provided me with wave upon wave of pleasing familiarity. (The differences between Zelda games are a bit like the differences between Yasujiro Ozu films: subtle.) And I was, after all, mostly in it for the nostalgia. But satisfyingly, Oracle of Ages is also a fabulous, eminently recommendable game that holds up marvellously. Plus, for those nerds among us who are interested in the series’ development over time, the Oracle games occupy an interesting place in the Zelda corpus. Nintendo farmed them out to Capcom rather than making them in-house — a surprising development. More notably, it’s the first 2D Zelda game to be made after the series had entered the third dimension. It’s quite clear throughout that Capcom was thinking hard about the value proposition of a 2D Zelda in the wake of the enormous success of the N64 Zeldas. There is some implicit novelty in playing a post-Ocarina of Time 2D Zelda game. None of the other 2D Zelda games I’ve played have Goron or Zora civilizations — a continuity idea that originated in Ocarina. The Zora segment of the game is particularly reminiscent of its N64 predecessor. That section’s dungeon is the innards of the guardian fish spirit Jabu-Jabu, a dungeon also seen in Ocarina. But the mechanics of this game’s version of Jabu-Jabu are maybe its best argument for the value of 2D gaming. Its aesthetic cribs from Ocarina’s Jabu-Jabu, but its central puzzle is a seemingly conscious attempt to better the mechanics of Ocarina’s infamous Water Temple. The need to raise and lower the water level in the dungeon implicitly works better in two dimensions, with discrete divisions between floors. It’s a brilliant design. However, why Jabu-Jabu’s belly is so full of switches is anybody’s guess. In general, the water-based parts of the game are the most enthralling. Link’s diving ability arrives at a moment in the game where the map has totally opened up. The early parts of the game are based around Link having a limited ability to move backwards and forwards in time, with a similar effect as in the dark and light worlds of A Link to the Past. But things really get fun when you’re finally able to move between the two times at will. And almost immediately after, you’re given the ability to dive underwater, revealing another whole world on the ocean floor. That means that lots of the map squares in Oracle of Ages’ overworld have four distinct forms: above water and below water, in past and present respectively. This is magnificently dense, and the source of many excellent puzzle solutions. On that note: Ages’ puzzles and level design in general is among the strongest in the franchise up to this point. I’m not familiar with many of Capcom’s games, but it strikes me as predictable that non-Nintendo Zelda games would excel in gameplay more than mood or story. Usually I find boss fights tedious. Honestly I sometimes find dungeons tedious, which calls into question why I bother with Zelda games at all. But Oracle of Ages’ dungeons are a joy. The best of them (Jabu-Jabu, Mermaid’s Cave, Skull Dungeon) are one big puzzle with many moving parts that each relate to each other intuitively. Rooms are designed to teach you things. Some puzzle solutions are as simple and elegant as simply realizing that you won’t fall down holes when you’re swimming. The Indiana Jones-inspired Ancient Tomb even foregoes complex puzzle mechanics in its opening stages to conjure the feeling of descending into a haunted ruin. You don’t have to figure anything out, but you do have to throw bombs around to clear away the rubble. (The dungeon doesn’t concern itself especially with who is buried there, but whatever.) And each dungeon is capped off by a boss fight that’s actually fun and innovative. I’m particularly fond of Octogon in the Mermaid’s Cave, who you have to fight both above and below water, and Smog in the Crown Dungeon, who is not so much a boss as a malevolent puzzle. There are a few types of rooms that repeat themselves more than one would like across multiple dungeons — rooms that the devs may have thought to be cleverer than they are. But overall, the experience of playing this game is extremely satisfying. Its disappointing elements are only evident when you compare it with other Zelda games. Link’s Awakening is the most obvious point of comparison, since the interface of this game is basically identical to that one. It’s been a while since I played Link’s Awakening. Based on my hazy memory, it didn’t have puzzles anywhere close to this satisfying. But that’s a game that stays with me, because its premise and the way it has of presenting its world are unique. Link’s Awakening feels dreamlike and fairy-tale-esque, rather than the straightforward high fantasy of other Zelda instalments. Oracle of Ages has plenty of fun interactions with characters who are more than willing to spout this franchise’s signature one to two lines of flavour text. But the writing doesn’t contain any of the charming non-sequiturs that have given Zelda its slightly surreal feeling since the very beginning. (“It’s a secret to everyone!”) In general, this game’s world, Labrynna, feels more like a collection of the necessary Zelda locales (big town, smaller town, Goron town, Zora town, fairy forest, graveyard…) thrown together by fiat than it does an attempt to do anything new with those elements. And as similar as the early Zeldas sometimes are to each other, I think you can argue that every Zelda game prior to this attempted to display its constituent parts at a slightly different angle, with varying degrees of success. The world in Oracle of Ages is simply a mode of conveyance for its outstanding puzzles. And that’s fine. But in the long run, I feel like it’ll mean this is a game that I enjoyed more in the moment than I do in retrospect. Still, I confess to having been tickled by segments of the game’s story, particularly where the character Ralph is concerned. He’s desperately in love with the titular Oracle of Ages, and he tries his best to be the hero in the story, only to be constantly usurped by Link, whose only advantage is being the player character. I am team Ralph. Ralph is good people. I had a great time playing this. I’ll be taking a break from Zelda now, because a little goes a long way. But I’ll be back for Seasons eventually.
Trump Con Law catch-up — The latest spate of episodes is much the same in quality as the rest. I like the spirit of this show, which takes an increasingly crazy political situation and tries to use it for all of our educational advantage. Small compensation, but here we are. Also: the Twitter episode, which explores the nature of a presidential Twitter feed and whether it constitutes a “public space,” made me realize a crazy thing: in the social media age, we have started to think about things as places. *shudder*
99% Invisible catch-up — This run of episodes introduced me to Decoder Ring, contained an interview with John Cleese, explained the catch-22 of living in mobile housing, alerted me to the concept of “curb cut design,” informed me of a vault full of seeds in case we wipe out all the nature, and briefly made me care about basketball jerseys. Not bad.
Decoder Ring: “The Johnlock Conspiracy” — This looks set to become my favourite pop culture podcast. This is a story about a community of Sherlock fans who took fandom too far. It starts off with an exploration of shipping, a perfectly fine thing. But gradually, the story descends into the depths of a conspiratorial community who are, as far as I’m concerned, media illiterate. The idea is: eventually, Benedict Cumberbatch’s Sherlock Holmes and Martin Freeman’s John Watson will be written into a relationship, and the showrunners of Sherlock have been lying constantly when they say this won’t happen. This is more than just a careful examination of the show’s homoerotic subject: it’s an insistence that the show is one thing, and only one thing, and everything that it is aside from that one thing is a red herring. It reminds me of the particular kind of media illiteracy that runs rampant in the gaming community, where every ounce of ambiguity in the storylines of games like Night in the Woods or Virginia has to be resolvable in a single, internally consistent interpretation if the games are to be taken seriously. Games that actively invite this type of meticulous internal reconciling, like Undertale and the Bioshock franchise, seem to invite less controversy from this crowd. One comes away from these critiques feeling that the people who make them need more Virginia Woolf in their diet. Also, aesthetic concerns aside, the adherents to the Johnlock conspiracy can be very mean. Mean to the point that I’m not posting this review on Tumblr. Yes, I’m a coward. Sue me, it’s my own damn blog.
Imaginary Worlds catch-up — Of the past five episodes the most recent one is the best, in spite of somewhat inauspicious subject matter: Magic: The Gathering. I have fond memories of this card game, but I remember its “storyline,” such as it is, as being best ignored in favour of the game’s wonderful mechanics. I wasn’t persuaded otherwise by this episode, but I do see a little more of what they’re trying to do.
In the Dark: “Why Curtis?” — The latest episode in APM Reports’ evisceration of the prosecution’s case against Curtis Flowers paints a picture of an investigation that just went with the first suspect they found.
Caliphate: “One Year Later” — I read a piece in the London Review of Books that expressed doubts about the New York Times’ practice of taking documents from Iraq to report on ISIS from the U.S. I sympathize with these doubts, so I was happy to find that this final episode of Caliphate ends with Rukmini Callimachi escorting the boxes of documents that have been so vital to her reporting to the Iraqi consulate. In my view, the quality of Callimachi’s reporting justifies her having the first look at these documents. Her stories, and this podcast, have been outstanding journalism. This episode circles back to the Canadian former ISIS recruit who was the subject of the first several episodes, before Callimachi went to Mosul. It finds him expressing a conflicted worldview that his counsellor finds worrying. At the end of Caliphate, you’re left with the impression that perhaps the most important way to fight ISIS is to fight against the xenophobia that leads to the radicalization of people like this. All the same, Callimachi and her producers never goad you into feeling this way by explicitly sympathizing with him. To do that would be slightly monstrous, considering his story. It’s a fine balance, struck with the poise of a considered ethicist. Caliphate is hard listening. It is not “enjoyable,” in the conventional sense of the word. But it is probably the best podcast of the year. Pick of the week.
Pop Culture Happy Hour: “The Great Big Stand-Up Roundup” & “Jurassic World, Jurassic Park and What’s Making Us Happy” — Sad no Tig Notaro in stand-up roundup. Happy no love for Jurassic World in Jurassic World episode.
The Daily: “How Separating Migrant Families Became U.S. Policy,” “Father and Son, Forced Apart at the Border” & “Trump Ends His Child Separation Policy” — The news this week has been the saddest it has been in ages. These episodes helped make sense of it in a factual way, if not an emotional way.
Code Switch: “Looking for Marriage in All The Wrong Places” — Here’s something: dating apps based in India can’t accommodate LGBTQ people, because gay sex is illegal there. I hadn’t thought about that. This is a story about it.