Tag Archives: Reply All

Omnibus (week of June 10, 2018)

And he slides in under his self-imposed, flexible deadline with seven minutes to spare.

14 reviews.

Movies

Drowning by Numbers — The first movie I watched this week was Green Lantern. (I’m not going to review it; it was part of a live show I’ve covered before.) This was the second. Consider my palate cleansed. Peter Greenaway is a filmmaker I connected to from the first frame of the first movie I saw of his (The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & her Lover). So it’s odd that it’s taken this long for me to watch a second. Drowning by Numbers has instantly become one of my favourite movies. It has everything I love in a movie: pitch dark comedy, scrupulous attention to detail, complete sensory overload, and hysterically British restraint in the performances. It’s a story about three women from three different generations of the same family, all named Cissie, all of whom drown their husbands, and all of whom manipulate the local coroner into covering for them. I haven’t processed what I’m meant to take away from this story yet, because I’m still marvelling at the crazy garb Greenaway clothed it in. The movie’s primary gimmick (in the most complimentary sense of the word) is the appearance of the numbers 1 through 100 in sequence throughout the movie. Some of these appearances are rational, like the numbers that appear on runners’ jerseys. Others are not, like the ones painted onto cows. But the gradual progression from 1 to 100 provides the movie with an unexpected secondary source of narrative thrust. The closest thing we get to an explanation of why this is happening comes right at the beginning of the movie, when a girl jumping rope explains that once you count to 100 once, all the other hundreds are the same. She’s not wrong. But how that connects with anything is the sort of question that’s bound to result in hacky, unsatisfying readings of a work of art that isn’t meant to be pinned down. Here’s one detail that I think demonstrates something about Greenaway’s approach: when a huge number 50 is seen in yellow cardboard numerals from one angle, and then from the opposite one, the ‘5’ is switched around so that it won’t appear backwards. From the other side it reads ‘05.’ This is, paradoxically, an intentional continuity error. Greenaway wants us to be aware that we’re seeing the number 50 from the other side, but doesn’t want a backwards 5 in his movie because, ugh. He switches the 5 around for the same reason that the disciples are all on the same side of the table in The Last Supper: because we’re looking at a flat image. That’s how Greenaway thinks about cinema. His camera doesn’t represent a single point of view in a three-dimensional space; it reduces everything in front of it to a single, two-dimensional plane. Greenaway is the opposite of Jean Renoir in The Rules of the Game, in which Renoir moves the camera around specifically to call your attention to the things that aren’t onscreen at the moment. But in a Greenaway film, does anything even exist behind the camera? Who knows? Greenaway’s ninja move is a thing he does where he moves the camera laterally through a long take, and every time it stops, the picture has the framing and composition of a Rubens painting. That’s as many as three Rubens paintings in one take. (Rubens is the reference point of choice, because his work appears in the movie. Greenaway loves painters.) All of the performances are fantastic, particularly Joan Plowright as the matriarch of the three drowneresses and Bernard Hill (a.k.a. Theoden from Lord of the Rings) as Madgett, the hapless coroner who turns scary when he doesn’t get what he wants. The restraint of the performances is one of the many, many elements of this film that seems to anticipate the entire aesthetic of Wes Anderson. Others include the immaculate, flat compositions shot with a laterally moving camera (much like the opening of Fantastic Mr. Fox), the voiceover by Madgett’s precocious son Smut (a tragic figure who presages the child protagonists of Moonrise Kingdom), explanations of incredibly convoluted processes (think of the heists in Bottle Rocket)  and a general sense of airlessness. Greenaway lacks the pathos and fundamental optimism of Wes Anderson, but so many of the ingredients are here that it almost makes Anderson seem like less of an original. A final remark: Greenaway’s musical collaborator (and perfect aesthetic analogue) Michael Nyman is at his absolute best here. The score is based entirely on the Mozart Sinfonia Concertante, from which Nyman wrestles an impressive diversity of themes (one of which will appear to even greater effect in The Cook, the Thief His Wife & Her Lover). I’m used to hearing this music on accordions, so it was nice to hear it in its original context. Anyway, I’ve gone on long enough. I’ve got nothing to say to sum up this review, because this is a baffling movie that I have only a cursory understanding of. But it is one of the best movies I’ve ever seen in my life. Pick of the week.

Ocean’s 8 — It’s better than Green Lantern, but not as good as Drowning by Numbers. (God help you if you’re reading this on Tumblr, devoid of any context.) My memories of having seen Ocean’s Eleven and Ocean’s Twelve (did I see Ocean’s Twelve???) are hazy, which probably works in this movie’s favour. I love a good caper movie. The thing that I love about them, whether they’re made by Steven Soderbergh or Wes Anderson, is their elegance: the sense that the often glamourous cast of characters is just waltzing merrily through a byzantine storyline full of snake traps. Ocean’s 8 ups the ante on that elegance by presenting a heist that depends not only on criminal knowhow, but impeccable taste. This is partially a function of its all-female headlining cast. The idea is that this heist relies partially on traditionally ‘feminine’ knowledge, like fashion, gossip and party planning. This is… bad? I’m not sure. The fact that there’s an Ocean’s movie with a bunch of the best actresses around in it is straightforwardly good. But whether or not the execution is a little problemsy is a thing I’ll have to think about more. Still, the extent to which this caper is ripped from the society pages makes it a very different feeling and fresh story. Everybody in it is great, but mostly Cate Blanchett is great. No wait — also Anne Hathaway. I was also very happy to see some brilliant actresses of an older generation make cameos. There’s a reading of Ocean’s 8 that sees it as first and foremost a celebration of women in movies. I’m there for that.

Literature, etc.

Pamela Colloff: “Blood Will Tell” — I started this month trying to read “The Tower” by Andrew O’Hagan. For those unfamiliar, that is a recent 60,000-word investigative piece about the Grenfell Tower fire in the London Review of Books. It is the first story in that weird-ass publication’s history to take up an entire issue. Truly, it is the Thick as a Brick of investigative journalism about horrible tragedies. I couldn’t get through it. It is too meandering even for me. I will stick to news coverage on that particular infuriating story, I think. I bring it up as a point of contrast with this incredible, immersive story about a possible miscarriage of justice in a small town — a man was convicted of murdering his own wife based largely on the questionable practice of blood spatter analysis. Colloff is intensely concerned with the social implications of her reporting — she emphasizes how widespread blood spatter analysis has become. And she’s also careful not to leap to the conclusion that her subject is innocent. But in addition to those concerns, she is also deeply concerned with telling a story by putting one sentence in front of another. It’s masterful and you should read it. Both parts. Also, as a side note, I heard a concert performance of Peter Grimes this week (one of those things I don’t review) and was struck by that opera’s continuing relevance in a world where we still read stories like this.

Television

Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, Season 4, episodes 1-6 — Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt is extremely silly and extremely good. The standout episode of this is a mockumentary in which a vacuous DJ is converted to the cause of “men’s rights activism” by learning a fun-house mirror version of this show’s whole backstory. That means Jon Hamm gets to play the buffoonish abuser Reverend Wayne Gary Wayne as a would-be martyr. And that is a delight to behold. That episode aside, Carol Kane runs away with this half-season, relishing the role of “that distasteful person who apparently used to sleep with my dad.” I wish it were a whole season, but that’s my only complaint.

Comedy

Tig Notaro: Boyish Girl Interrupted — The lede here is that Tig Notaro does the last third of this set shirtless, post-mastectomy. But that’s just one element of what is a very, very good special for many reasons. Notaro’s best bits are extended stories. Here, I’m particularly fond of her story about bombing 14 shows in Vegas. But I’m also a fan of the story of her accidentally meeting Santa. (It wasn’t Santa.) She’s also brilliant, as always, at responding to and manipulating the audience. I think she’s in my top three comics right now.

Podcasts

Pop Culture Happy Hour catch-up — HAVE WATCHED: Ocean’s 8. WILL WATCH: The Incredibles 2. DIDN’T WATCH: the Tonys. WON’T WATCH: Cobra Kai; Law & Order. UNDECIDED: Paddington…?

The Memory Palace: “No Summer” & “A White Horse” — I recall having heard podcasts about the year without a summer before, particularly as it relates to the origins of Frankenstein. But this is the best telling of that story I’ve encountered. And, I’ll listen to “A White Horse” every time Nate puts it in the feed. It is one of the most beautiful, most heartbreaking pieces of radio ever made.

Lend Me Your Ears: “Richard II” — I adore this podcast, and I adore Richard II. I’m toying with the idea that this is the most underrated Shakespeare play. This episode teases out a political theme that’s quite obvious in the text, but not something I’d especially thought about, which is the notion of legitimacy. In a sense, the story of Richard II is the story of two leaders whose legitimacy is called into question. Richard has the divine right of kings on his side, but that can only take him so far in a country with a government. Henry Bolingbroke is a boldfaced usurper, but he jumps through hoops to try and ensure the legitimacy of his own reign. Famously, he fails. In an age when a sitting president lost the popular vote and is thus despised by a substantial portion of the citizenry he governs, this is a deeply relevant play. I might not have noticed the extent to which it is relevant if not for this show. Highly recommended.

In The Dark: “The D.A.” — This is an episode that gradually builds up to a climactic interview with the D.A. who’s been the focus of so much of this season so far. It is an interview that is cut from 11 minutes of raw tape. 11 measly minutes. That’s all they could get out of him. That in itself speaks volumes. The rest of the episode comprises a capsule biography of this person, which also serves as a short-term social history of the region where the story takes place. This is a good illustration of why I’m enjoying this season of In the Dark more than the previous one: it is equally rigorous in its journalistic integrity and nearly as insistent on the broader implications of its story. But its storytelling is subtler and cleverer. Much is accomplished by implication. This is one of the best podcasts of the year so far.

Reply All: “The QAnon Code” — Here is a big long episode about an insane internet conspiracy and a sports thing involving Gene Demby. It is very good. I wonder what the story was with that incredibly long wait time for Demby to answer the phone.

Code Switch catch-up — A lot of Code Switch at once is a dangerous thing. Highlights: stories about the origins of a particular prison tattoo aesthetic, and a story about intergenerational trauma in an Alaskan community.

Theory of Everything: “Real Costs Extra” — Here we have a crossover episode between Theory of Everything, at its most tangential to reality, and 99% Invisible, which does not do fiction. It’s like Roman Mars’ presence in the episode is a marker of the line between reality and the murky zone that Benjamen Walker lives in. And, true to expectation, as soon as he departs from the episode, things take a turn for the fake. Also notable: this contains the closest thing we’ve gotten to Starlee Kine talking openly about what her experience at Gimlet was like. It was bad. She doesn’t name Gimlet. But that’s pretty clearly what this is about.

Song by Song catch-up — We continue through Frank’s Wild Years, which the hosts of this show continue to underrate, IMO. The highlight is an appearance by Ivor Cutler as a point of comparison. I love Ivor Cutler. I should listen to him more.

Caliphate: “Prisoners” — This two-part episode of Caliphate is one of the most devastating pieces of audio storytelling I’ve ever heard. It is hard to praise, and harder to recommend, simply because the events it depicts are so dreadful. The first part tells the story of Rukmini Callimachi’s excursion to an Iraqi prison, where she meets a condemned ISIS member who claims to have bought a sex slave for the purpose of saving her — and Callimachi’s discovery that this was far from the case. The second part builds on a story, and a memorable episode of The Daily, about young women being rescued from slavery and returning to their communities in catatonic states. There is light at the end of the story, but it is a draining and horrible listen. It is also incredibly important, compassionate, brave reporting. It cements Caliphate as one of the tentpole achievements of serialized podcasting. Pick of the week.

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Omnibus (week of May 20, 2018)

A number of people at my workplace and otherwise have occasionally identified a phenomenon they call “peak Parsons.” I have become adept at recognizing this phenomenon myself, and I daresay my review of Julie Taymor’s film of The Tempest is a prime example. So is my most recent NXNW column, in which I recommend geometry as a form of self-care. Enjoy.

19 reviews.

Movies

The Tempest — When this came out in 2010, I was bonkers excited. I watched the trailer over and over. Opening weekend was a scheduling no-go, but one week later I was there. Alas, the movie no longer was. This actually happened. I went to the movie theatre to see Julie Taymor’s The Tempest — starring Helen Mirren as the now-genderswapped Prospera and a bizarre assemblage of personalities from Alan Cumming to Russell Brand in supporting roles — and the movie theatre was no longer showing it. None of them were. Not in Edmonton. Guess I’m waiting for the DVD I said to myself, in those shockingly recent, pre-Netflix times. Eight years later, I still hadn’t seen it. But now I have, and all is right in the world. Except for the fact that the movie itself is… uneven. Much of it is bad; still more is baffling. Elliot Goldenthal’s score is deeply ostentatious. Ferdinand sings a song from Twelfth Night for no reason. Russell Brand is kind of a lot. The CG, and overreliance thereupon, is very 2010. (Though, I do think this is a valid and intentional choice, though not necessarily a fruitful one. I’ll get to it.) And even the one universally acclaimed aspect of the film, Helen Mirren’s performance, is undercut by some deeply bizarre editing, including her introduction with a very Ken Russell quick push into her screaming face. What keeps The Tempest from being a complete trainwreck is the sense that Taymor’s decisions, however crazy, are all deliberate and pointing in the same direction. There are little choices here and there that make you go, ah yes, here we have a good filmmaker. Take Ben Whishaw’s air spirit Ariel. He spends most of the movie morphing proteanly through various computer-generated forms. (This is not the good choice; some of these bits are a little embarrassing.) But his most important scene with Prospera works differently. I’m talking about the scene where Prospera ponders what to do with her prisoners, and Ariel suggests mercy. In one of the play’s biggest gut punches, Ariel reminds Prospera that he is not human, and therefore implicitly that she is. And thus, she must act humanely. Done right, it’s one of the best parts of The Tempest. Ariel doesn’t earn his freedom by doing Prospera’s bidding, like she says he will. He earns his freedom here by giving unexpectedly good, unexpectedly human, counsel. This is the turning point in their relationship. If this scene works, the moment Prospera frees him from their contract later on will work too. In Taymor’s rendition, this scene is the only one where Ben Whishaw appears opaque. He’s right there, in frame with Helen Mirren, which has almost never happened before in the film. It’s marvellous. But even if every single decision Taymor made throughout the film was as pitch-perfect as this one, it still might not work. Making a film out of The Tempest is a bit of a mug’s game to begin with. (I am about to get perverse. Be warned.) The Tempest is ostentatiously theatrical. More than any other Shakespeare play save possibly Hamlet, it is explicitly about the act of performance. The fourth wall is paper-thin in this play, with Prospero/Prospera threatening to break it several times during the “such stuff as dreams are made on” speech, and ripping through it completely in the final monologue, when they explicitly solicit the audience’s applause. That last speech is impossible in film, and Taymor wisely cuts it. Penetrating though her gaze may be, Helen Mirren cannot literally see us through the screen. But the broader challenge is simply that film is a more naturalistic medium than theatre. Its grammar (editing, camera motion, etc.) is usually intended to be invisible. On the other hand, I dare say that the word “theatricality” can almost be defined as the opposite of that: benign yet obvious artificiality. And indeed, Taymor almost manages to conjure the spirit of a staged Tempest in her film by making much of it appear deliberately fake. But our relationship to theatrical fakeness is different from our relationship to CGI fakeness, in that we can intuitively understand how the fakery is done on stage. In some cases, we can literally see the strings. CGI, on the other hand is inexplicable to most of us. It might as well be actual magic — magic that is well beyond our grasp. And this is where any film adaptation of The Tempest is bound to relate to its audience differently than a stage production: when we watch The Tempest on stage, we all become sorcerers. We marvel at the magic we see, but we also understand how it has come into being. This makes us coextensive with Prospero/Prospera for the play’s duration. And once they’ve broken their staff and drowned their book, relinquishing their powers, they demand release from a spell of their own making from us. By applauding their final speech, we magically free them from our plane to go off and be the Duke/Duchess in another, fictional one. They are to us as Ariel is to them. This is what Taymor cannot accomplish. And her replacement of the final speech with a visual image — the shattering of Prospera’s staff — reads as a tacit acknowledgement of that. (But the fact that the speech remains in place as the end credits song feels like a half measure. Do it or don’t. By the final lines of the song, the demand for applause, most of the crowd will have filed out of the theatre. Why bother?) So basically, this movie is not successful, and this was inevitable from the start. But in spite of that, I enjoyed a lot of it for its sheer weirdness and willingness to take one big swing after another. Really, the best and worst qualities of this movie are both defined by the fact that it has Russell Brand in it. You don’t cast that guy in Shakespeare if you don’t have a really specific vision. I almost recommend this. As for me, I think I’ll watch Titus again.

Literature, etc.

Alison Bechdel: Are You My Mother? — Bechdel’s second family-related memoir is consciously designed as a companion piece to Fun Home. Where Fun Home was a book about Bechdel’s relationship with her father, Are You My Mother? is (ostensibly) a book about her relationship with her mother. Where Fun Home was drawn in black, white and teal, Are You My Mother? is drawn in black, white and… I want to say magenta? (I’m not great at colours.) Where Fun Home was a book about reading, Are You My Mother? is much more a book about writing. And where Fun Home is a book about the impact of literature on Bechdel’s thinking about her own life, Are You My Mother? is about the impact that therapy and psychology texts had on her. If that makes it sound a bit abstruse, well yes. Bechdel’s graphic novels are essentially essays told in prose accompanied by narratives told in pictures. The essayistic portion of Are You My Mother? requires the reader to keep track of an armful of psychoanalytic concepts that build on each other and intertwine with the story such that you’ll get lost if you lose focus. This is by no means a problem, lest anybody misunderstand. Artists of Alison Bechdel’s calibre have every right to demand our full attention. But with all the focus on these psychoanalytic concepts, the story gets short shrift. I’ve mentioned a lot of differences between Fun Home and Are You My Mother? But perhaps the main one is that Fun Home’s main subject was deceased, whereas this book’s was very much alive at the time of writing. It’s very clear that Bechdel felt a certain awkwardness about mining her mother’s life for literature that she did not feel about her father, who would never see the end result. As a result, we get a far less fulsome picture of Helen Fontana Bechdel than we did of Bruce Bechdel: less biographical detail, less insight into her relationships with those around her — in short, less story. What we get instead is a great deal of friction and outright conflict between Bechdel and her mother about the writing of the book itself. While writing the book, Bechdel meticulously transcribed her phone calls with her mother. Much of the characterization we get comes from those conversations, which are wonderful but limited to a certain time frame and set of circumstances. Still, this is worth a read for many of the same reasons that Fun Home is remarkable. It weaves together Bechdel’s thoughts on not just psychoanalysis (and particularly Donald Winnicott) but also Virginia Woolf, Winnie the Pooh and Dr. Seuss. Even in this somewhat lesser masterpiece, Bechdel is still very best artist out there at building a sophisticated understanding of human behaviour through living, reading, and linking those two practices together.

Matt Taibbi: “Can We Be Saved From Facebook?” — Seemingly, we cannot. Taibbi is a famously forceful writer, and this is a good summation of the case against Facebook. It doesn’t contain much that is new on the subject, nor is the solution Taibbi suggests (an antitrust action) a new one. But if you don’t read a lot on this subject, this is the second-best magazine feature on it, next to John Lanchester’s essay in the London Review of Books, which predates Zuck’s congressional hearings and the whole Cambridge Analytica thing and therefore doesn’t cover that.

Bryan Lee O’Malley: Scott Pilgrim — I just read all six volumes of Scott Pilgrim in less than 48 hours. That in itself ought to tell you something about it. This is a deeply immersive comic that is far more relatable than I’m comfortable with. The relatability is in the broad strokes, i.e. our hero’s propensity to withdraw from all social contact in the aftermath of heartbreak. But much of the delight is in the details, such as: (1) We see Scott wearing a shirt of a (real) album called Mass Teen Fainting shortly before a mass teen fainting transpires. (2) Fully half of the band at Scott’s high school consists of Girls Who Play The Flute. (3) Knives Chau discovers heartbreak and immediately starts quoting Blood on the Tracks, possibly never having heard it. (4) A sequence in the last volume, where Scott descends to a basement and hence to his final confrontation is a mashup of Brazil and Daft Punk’s pyramid shows. There’s a satisfying experience to be had just reading Scott Pilgrim looking out for these sorts of details. But the real triumph of this series is the fact that as you progress through it you always sympathize with every member of its cast, even though they are frequently terrible people and many of them are consistently at odds with each other. Knives Chau, for instance, is extremely stupid for the bulk of the series’ duration. But, as we are constantly reminded, she is also 17 years old. Bearing that in mind, her bad decisions are just how everybody is at that age. And the moment when she ceases to be that way comes shortly after the book informs us that she’s turned 18. There’s nothing magical about that number; it’s just the book’s first indication that she’s growing up — and she immediately begins acting the part. There are complaints to be had, and there are rejoinders to those complaints. Firstly, Scott Pilgrim is a loser. He spends most of his time playing video games and sleeping in until noon, he is enormously reluctant to get a job, and the band he’s in is crap. One of the book’s more amusing heightenings of reality is the fact that this feckless bastard is also a staggeringly good fighter. But the other side of that coin is — why valorize a dude who never worked at anything? (Related: does the art rock band have to be evil?) Do we really need more illustrations of the fact that men don’t have to work that hard to succeed in the world? On that note: given that I’ve also been reading Alison Bechdel this week, we may as well observe that nearly every scene involving two women involves them talking about or literally fighting over boys. The women in Scott Pilgrim are mostly defined in relation to Scott. We have an object of obsession, a traumatizing ex, an obsessive hanger-on, the one that got away, and the taken-for-granted friend. None of these characters are particularly well defined outside of these relationships. However, I’m tempted to read this redemptively by looking at the entire series as a parody of a (specifically male) limited perspective on the world. Throughout the final chapters, we’re treated to various men’s “memory cams” of their past relationships, which are always hilariously inaccurate. We also see a recap of a previous fight scene that implies that the first iteration of that scene may have been sensationalized — opening up the possibility that most of what we’ve read may be unreliable. Basically, we spend the entire series tethered to Scott Pilgrim’s way of thinking about the world, which is as limited as any single person’s will inevitably be — and is limited further still by the fact that he possesses very little empathy. Naturally the book will fail the Bechdel test, because as far as its narrator is concerned, if a woman isn’t thinking or talking about him, what they’re saying can’t possibly be important. This is illustrated by a bit where two women are having a conversation about something Scott doesn’t perceive to be important, so it’s rendered in “blah blah blahs.” I believe that we’re meant to take careful note of all of this. Scott Pilgrim is acutely aware of the tropes it employs — even the sexist ones. That’s part of why it’s so satisfying when Scott defeats the comic’s “final boss” Gideon. It feels like he’s defeating the worst part of himself: the part that sees women solely as potential partners, devoid of potential in themselves. What you should take from all this is that Scott Pilgrim is complicated. But the fact remains that I cared more about this comic for a whole weekend than I did about anything else. The periodic reversals of fortune that it puts its characters through twisted me around for two days. I loved it. I’ll probably read it again. Pick of the week.

Music

Talking Heads: Remain in Light — One of these days I’ll move on to another Talking Heads album. Seriously, I think I may have heard Fear of Music once. I’ve seen/heard Stop Making Sense a bunch of times. And I’ve heard a smattering of stuff from their first couple of albums. But for the most part my interface with Talking Heads has been entirely through Remain in Light, which has oddly been one of my favourite albums for years, in spite of having failed to inspire me to dig into this catalogue any further. “Once in a Lifetime” is a rare case of the hit being my favourite track, because it is flawless. It is the perfect evocation of a familiar feeling: that your life is happening to you in spite of your own actions rather than because of them. I could listen to “The Great Curve” over and over. It’s the purest distillation of this album’s guiding principle of building everything from one-chord vamps. There is a huge amount of unique musical material on parade in “The Great Curve,” and nary a chord change to be found. This is Brian Eno’s doing, I suspect. In much the same way as he did with his early solo albums (especially Another Green World), Eno encouraged the band to come to the studio with as little prepared as possible. And nothing encourages spontaneity like a song with no chords to keep track of. It’s one of those limitations that Eno loves so much, and that always turn out to be so freeing in practice. “Crosseyed and Painless” is painfully relevant in the Trump era. Setlist.fm tells me he hasn’t been playing it on his current tour. Too on the nose? Anyway, this is a classic. I love it and I really regret missing Byrne at the Queen E the other night.

Podcasts

In Our Time: “The Almoravid Empire” & “The Mabinogion” — The second of these is the highlight, about a collection of 12th- and 13th-century British stories of women made of flowers and magicians with weird senses of humour. Some of the stories from The Mabinogion were familiar to me, but I did not know where they came from, so that was cool. The Almoravid Empire kind of evaporated upon contact, honestly. I was busy cooking.

Radiolab catch-up — This last batch of Radiolab episodes has some stuff I’d heard before and elected not to listen to again, some stuff I’d heard before and elected to hear it anyway, and some new stuff that left me a bit cold. I liked the conclusion to the border trilogy, but not as much as the first two parts. It’s just so brutal.

Sandra: “Hope is a Mistake” — Okay, time at last to check out the new offerings from Gimlet. First up, their latest fiction podcast, which is very dull and occasionally cringeworthy, i.e. the comedic in-universe ads. The first episode is almost pure setup, and while there’s a possibly interesting concept in here — an A.I. that’s actually driven by a bunch of humans in a building rather than machine learning or anything like that — this introduction fails to do the most crucial thing to do when you’re starting up a science fiction story, which is hint at the various directions that your cool premise might go. This only gets around to letting us in on the premise at the end. So, I’m out. Thanks for playing. I’ll always give a new Gimlet show one episode, but that’s all this one’s getting.

The Habitat: “This Is the Way Up” — Another of Gimlet’s new offerings, this is essentially Big Brother, but for actual science as well as for our entertainment. The characters in this show will be spending a year in isolation, with only each other for company. They’re doing this to emulate the psychological conditions of a hypothetical mission to Mars. But that doesn’t make the experience of listening in on it any more edifying or noble than standard issue reality television. Hard pass.

We Came To Win: “How the 1990 World Cup Saved English Soccer” — Shock; horror; the one podcast in the latest slate of Gimlet releases that I actually like is the sports one. The brilliance of this concept is in the limits it has set for itself: it’s just about the World Cup. By the standards of the sports podcasting world, that is by no means a narrow focus. But I feel like it would have been completely unsurprising if Gimlet’s first sports show had been about sports in the same way that 99% Invisible is about design. Instead, it is about the World Cup in the same way that 99% Invisible is about design, which is so much more promising. This particular episode is structured around the fall and rise of English soccer. We get a gut-churning retelling of the Hillsborough disaster, where 96 people died because too many people were packed into a section of a stadium. (The organizational stupidity it takes for this to happen boggles the mind. This episode tells the story in excruciating detail and I still don’t understand how a disaster like this could happen.) We hear about the culture of football fandom in the wake of that disaster. But that’s all context for the meat of the story, which is about the 1990 English World Cup team. The reason that story is fun is because the producers have really taken the time to establish the stakes with their retelling of the Hillsborough disaster and its aftermath. Also it involves New Order. This is really good. I’ll probably listen to more of this.

In the Dark: “Privilege” — A whole episode on the story of the prosecution’s key witness in the Curtis Flowers case: Odell Hallmon. The long and the short of it is, he kept testifying that Flowers confessed to him in trial after trial, and also seems to constantly be able to evade prison time for horrible crimes. Being good journalists, the In the Dark team does not come right out and say what it sounds like. But if there is some connection between Hallmon’s propensity to get out of jail free and his role in the Flowers case, that complicates matters for the prosecution, because Hallmon ended up confessing to a triple murder himself in the years following the trials. This is troubling, captivating radio. Every week I look forward to hearing new evidence.

Lend Me Your Ears: “Reading Julius Caesar in Modern Context” — A minor extra, intended to plug Slate Plus. But I’m enjoying this show enough that I’ll listen to whatever comes through the feed.

The World According to Sound: “Sound Audio: Father Cares” — Here we have something I need to remember to listen to in its entirety. The host throws a bit of shade on contemporary NPR for not being as adventurous as the producers of this documentary, which is semi-fictional, though the tape it uses is all real. And he’s right to throw that shade: Benjamen Walker is the only person I know of who’s still doing that, and it’s an enormously effective way to explore the space of possibility that exists just outside of actual reality — things that didn’t happen but could have.

The Daily: “Putting ‘Fake News’ on Trial” — This is about the Alex Jones lawsuit. It’s crazy making, but you should hear it if you are unaware of how batshit the world has become.

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “Solo: A Star Wars Story and What’s Making Us Happy” — I will likely see Solo in spite of it probably being kind of bad. At least there is Donald Glover.

Caliphate: “Paper Trail” — The best episode so far. Turns out their source was unreliable (not a surprise). So this episode traces the process of verifying what is and isn’t true in the story we’ve already heard. Caliphate is becoming not just a disturbing look inside ISIS recruitment, but also a revealing look inside the process of doing journalism for the world’s best newspaper. Pick of the week.

On the Media: “Glenn Beck Reverses His Reversal” — This is mostly a rebroadcast of Bob Garfield’s interview with Glenn Beck from 2016. It’s worth hearing again in the wake of Beck’s recent pledge of support for Donald Trump — a thing which, let’s remember, he did not do in 2016, in spite of being completely horrible in every way.

The Media Show: “The Evolution of Radio” — An extremely weird conversation about podcasts that is clearly meant for people who heard this on the radio rather than as a podcast. I say that because it assumes almost no knowledge about podcasts. This is the first time I’ve experienced a podcast that assumes that. It is disorienting and made me lose faith in this show, which I have often enjoyed.

Reply All: “Pain Funnel” — A Sruthi Pinnamaneni-produced episode about fraudulent rehab centres. It’s not a laugh riot, but it’s worth your time.  

Omnibus (week of May 6, 2018)

Hi!

17 reviews.

Live events

James Rolfe: The Overcoat (Vancouver Opera Festival) — It’s a new piece, and a thing of beauty. The piece itself is based on Gogol’s story of the same name, about a lowly clerk who is the butt of everybody’s jokes until he buys a stunning new coat that makes him the talk of the town. Subsequently, the coat is stolen, causing the clerk to spiral into madness. It’s all very Russian. Morris Panych’s libretto evokes Robert Wilson’s numerical preoccupations in Einstein on the Beach, except with a story. Rolfe’s music slingshots between quoting Beethoven and Bach and channeling Gershwin. And while the sophistication of the score — particularly some really great trio writing for a chorus of narrators — belongs in the opera tradition, the feel of the music belongs just as much to the tradition of Stephen Sondheim. But the music accounts for only a percentage of what makes The Overcoat so much fun. The production started life as movement theatre, with Rolfe’s score added later. And that lineage is entirely clear in the beautiful, imaginative, and never overbearing staging. It’s amazing how much life you can inject into a production simply by putting everything on wheels. Some of the standouts in the cast don’t sing at all, but simply marshall the set pieces and props across the stage in dancelike fashion. Dunno where it’ll end up next, but it’s worth seeing if you can.

Television

Atlanta: Season 1 — It’s about time I got around to this. Atlanta is one of those things that I absolutely love but cannot find anything to say about that hasn’t already been said. We are at the moment sitting in the wake of the “This is America” video and the season two finale, and Donald Glover is rightly the only thing anybody wants to talk about. So I’ll just do that thing where I list off bits that I love. I love the black Justin Bieber. I love the relationship between Earn and Van. I love every reaction shot involving Brian Tyree Henry. (Some actors have very specific skills. Brian Tyree Henry is particularly good at reacting to things.) I love every single second involving Darius, and particularly the bit where he takes a dog-shaped target to a gun range. I love the way the on-location approach of the show makes it look. I love the way the show zooms back and forth between realism and farce, e.g. the club with a false wall. I love the show’s understanding of social media as being fundamentally empty. I love the comedy of manners that ensues every time class becomes an issue on this show. And let me just go back and reiterate how much I love the relationship between Earn and Van. Much of what makes Earn tick isn’t quite clear, because this show eschews backstory to an almost unprecedented degree. (What the hell happened to Earn at Princeton???) But his relationship with Van makes perfect sense, right down to his refusal to stay the night with her at the end of the season, because he can’t bring himself to keep leeching off her. These two want to be together, but they both know Earn has to get his shit together before that can happen. Zazie Beetz is amazing, and her feature episode is one of the season’s highlights. The dinner scene at the top of that episode is maybe the best comedy of manners this show has conjured thus far. I love it. Pick of the week.

Literature, etc.

Rebecca Watts: “The Cult of the Noble Amateur” — First off, this polemic against the works of popular poets like Rupi Kaur and Hollie McNish is my first exposure to either of them. Part of me wonders if their work wouldn’t seem so stupid to me if I’d encountered it in a more positive context. But another part of me thinks, no, I’m an intelligent person who’s used to reading with a critical eye, so I should trust my instincts when they tell me that Watts is exactly right. There is nothing I hate more than mere simplicity masquerading as wisdom. And while these poets may not be up to any deliberate trickery — I’m entirely willing to give them the benefit of the doubt and believe that they are simply bad at writing poems — surely their publishers are aware that this is substandard work. Surely they’ve got dollar signs in their eyes. Watts compares Kaur, McNish and Kate Tempest (who I must admit I don’t mind, though I know her as a performing poet and not so much on the page) to Donald Trump, which will strike many as ludicrous. But the anti-intellectualism of their work is part of the same phenomenon that led to Trump’s rise: we live in a world that shuns complexity and nuance in favour of easily digestible narratives. Clearly these new poets’ narratives are not openly hateful and racist — seemingly the opposite. But the means of communication is troublingly similar. And neither phenomenon would exist if not for social media, with its constant appeals to our worst and dumbest instincts. I don’t agree with some of Watts’ premises. She quotes Ezra Pound’s aphorism that “literature is news which stays news,” an idea that eschews the value of timeliness in art — and I do think that is a value. I’ve never bought into the idea that a work of art is only good if it looks poised to stand the test of time. The only yardstick we have to measure that in the present is how much it resembles previous works of art that have managed to do that. And that’s useless, obviously, because things change. But this is a passing point in a larger argument about social media’s dumbing effect on culture, which I agree with. She moves from Pound’s quote directly onto one of the most powerful bits of her argument: “Of all the literary forms, we might have predicted that poetry had the best chance of escaping social media’s dumbing effect; its project, after all, has typically been to rid language of cliché. Yet in the redefinition of poetry as ‘short-form communication’ the floodgates have been opened. The reader is dead: long live consumer-driven content and the ‘instant gratification’ this affords.” Do read this. More than any calculated attempt to rid poetry of its supposed “elitism,” this essay has made me want to go read good poems.

Music

The Flaming Lips: Clouds Taste Metallic — Another week, another acclaimed pair of Flaming Lips albums. We’ll begin with the later of the two, and more one album back in the discography after. Clouds Taste Metallic is a brilliant record in the way that Radiohead’s The Bends is a brilliant record. It works within a particular musical idiom, stretches the boundaries of that idiom in keeping with the specific aesthetic of the artist, but doesn’t actually venture outside of that idiom. That would happen for Radiohead on OK Computer and for the Flaming Lips on The Soft Bulletin (and presumably even more so on the intervening Zaireeka, which I haven’t heard). But here on Clouds, the Lips are totally in control of their increasingly bonkers brand of alt rock. Highlights for me include the opening pair: “The Abandoned Hospital Ship,” with its gorgeous piano line that transforms into a kickass guitar lead, and “Psychiatric Explorations of the Fetus With Needles,” which sounds remarkably like a Syd Barrett-era Pink Floyd bootleg. This is at least in part thanks to Ronald Jones, whose guitar playing is as inventive as Barrett’s but with actual technique to fall back on. If there’s a better comparison to be made, it’s with Adrian Belew. The other musical standout is Steven Drozd, one of the most elegant drummers ever to play really fucking loud. The other songs I can’t get enough of are “They Punctured My Yolk,” “Lightning Strikes the Postman,” “Christmas at the Zoo” and especially the finale, “Bad Days,” which sounds like something from the Stones’ Between the Buttons. Specifically “Something Happened to Me Yesterday.” Except this arrangement is better — the novelty song it begins as eventually finds its way into rock territory by way of a two-stage descent into heaviness: first Drozd’s drums come in, then come the heavy guitars. I love this. There are melodies here that quicken my pulse just to think about. It isn’t Soft Bulletin, but it’s a step in the right direction.

The Flaming Lips: Transmissions from the Satellite Heart — This seems like pretty standard alt rock compared with what came after — but only compared with what came after. Actually, Transmissions from the Satellite Heart is pretty consistently surprising in ways both subtle and blatant. On the subtler side, there are details like the quiet incursion of muted strings into the lo-fi country of “Plastic Jesus.” More obviously, there’s the consistent tendency for messy sludge rock to coagulate into euphoric Beatlesque melodies. “She Don’t Use Jelly” features the clearest Beatles influence — its vaguely suggestive nonsense lyrics, catchy chorus and offbeat riff would feel at home on Abbey Road. But my favourite is probably “Moth in the Incubator,” which doesn’t give away the plot right away, preferring to build up to a revelation. This will probably grow on me. My investigation into the Flaming Lips now constitutes two very different pairs of albums, separated by a weird anomaly. Next week: the weird anomaly.

Podcasts

On the Media: “Dark Twisted Fantasy” — Worth a listen specifically for the breakdown of the various ugly internet subcultures of the “manosphere.”

Caliphate: “The Arrival” & “Us vs. Them” — I like that they’re splitting up one interview over many episodes to give it the context it requires. I wonder if this will continue once the story from that interview ends, though? I’m learning a ton from this, but I wonder what its endgame is.

Lend Me Your Ears: “Julius Caesar” — There is a Shakespeare podcast called Lend Me Your Ears. That in itself is wonderful. But the approach is marvellous. Each episode of this mini-series will deal with a specific Shakespeare play and how it resonates with contemporary politics. Julius Caesar is maybe the most obvious one, simply because of the high-profile production that portrayed Caesar as an obvious Trump analogue. But more than that, the play has a lot to say about demagoguery. The one wrinkle I wish had been addressed is the fact that our modern demagogues tend not to succeed on the basis of eloquence the way that Shakespeare’s do. Shakespeare’s most eminent demagogue, Marc Antony, is intensely eloquent, and thus intensely seductive. Brutus is the plainspoken one — that’s where demagoguery registers, these days. We get the worst of both worlds: ineloquent and empty. So why does it work? I dunno, I’m busy reading Shakespeare and listening to podcasts. This is great. I can’t wait for the episode on Richard II. That’ll be an interesting contrast with Caesar, since it also features opposing figures with different approaches to language: Henry Bolingbroke, who is enormously effective in spite (or because) of his ploddingly prosaic speeches, and Richard II, who is too busy soliloquizing brilliantly to be a good king.

All Songs Considered: “New Mix: Beach House, Tank And The Bangas, Stevie Wolf, More” “At 70, Smithsonian Folkways Is An Antidote To Music Algorithms” & “New Mix: Childish Gambino, Mike Lindsay And Laura Marling As LUMP, More” — Couple good mixes, including a great track from the tiny desk contest winner, and a really fun retrospective on Smithsonian Folkways, which I need to explore further. Go back through the feed and check these all out.

Pop Culture Happy Hour catch-up — I cannot BELIEVE they liked A Quiet Place. They are WRONG. Ahem. I will watch Killing Eve and probably also Tully. Leslie Odom Jr. is a lovely man, but his book sounds corny.

The Daily: “The Breakdown of the Iran Nuclear Deal” — I am glad that The Daily is around to explain complicated things to me. It doesn’t take long for me to forget the whole context for things, so it’s good to have them conveniently reiterated.

Song by Song catch-up — I’m always a bit confused about why these guys choose not to like a song. “Blow Wind Blow” is clearly not a masterpiece on the level of “Innocent When You Dream,” but why complain? Just because it’s not a song you single out to listen to in isolation doesn’t mean it isn’t good in context. On the other hand, the episodes on “Innocent” and “Temptation” are reminding me exactly why I love Frank’s Wild Years so much, and particularly why I like it so much more than Rain Dogs: these songs have a sense of ostentatious theatricality that I love, and which I think is more prevalent in Waits’ post-Rain Dogs material.

The World According to Sound catch-up — This “Sound Audio” series is great. I’ve actually heard a couple of the pieces they’ve featured on here, including Tony Schwartz’s time-lapse recording of his niece growing up and the famous Hindenburg tape, which is actually impossible to listen to in public without having a small private breakdown. Still, I feel like this could serve as a crash course in the classic audio we’ve forgotten about in the podcast age. Also, there’s Sleep With Me, which is the weirdest shit ever.

In the Dark: Season 2, episodes 1-3 — I liked the first season of In the Dark once it got going with its larger implications, but I’m loving this one from the start. It’s the story of Curtis Flowers, who has been tried six times for the same crime in the town of Winona, Mississippi. There is so much going on here, and the writing is super sharp. The tape’s incredible too. Sometimes when investigative podcasts get into the weeds, I start to wonder whether they shouldn’t be shorter. But in this one, every blind alley they take leads them to another compelling individual with ties to the Flowers case: the witnesses who professed to have seen Flowers along the route the prosecution outlined at trial, the guy who owned the gun that’s ostensibly the murder weapon, the father of one of the victims, and even the expert ballistics sceptic who casts doubt on the study of the bullets. These are all really compelling people. And speaking of ballistics, the dude who did the initial ballistics report makes me so angry. He tries to shrug off scepticism about his work by saying crap like “it’s always been called an art.” No it hasn’t! It’s been called “forensic science!” And also, “a fact in somebody’s head might not be a fact in somebody else’s head.” Get outta here! That’s not how facts work! So many people in this story are so certain about things they clearly shouldn’t be certain about. That’s what’s making me mad about this: it’s not 100% clear that they got the wrong guy. By no means. But the cavalier attitude with which some people dismiss any doubt at all is completely enraging. Pick of the week.

Reply All: “No More Safe Harbour” & “INVCEL” — Two episodes of P.J. Vogt doing serious journalism. I like when that happens. He’s always a great sounding board for Alex Goldman, but it’s nice to hear him take the lead on stories like this. The episode about the surprisingly benign origins of the incel community is particularly worth hearing.

Fresh Air: “The Pope Who Would Be King” — When Terry Gross interviews a scholar who has written a book, it kind of listens like In Our Time, except that In Our Time doesn’t wait for somebody to have written a book. This is why I love In Our Time: it just does what’s interesting, contemporary hooks be damned. Anyway, that’s not relevant to what this episode actually is, which is a fascinating conversation about Pope Pius IX, a figure about whom I knew very little, but who factors into Italian reunification in some really interesting ways. I do wish Gross had touched more on the specific theological justifications for some of Pius’s more draconian proclamations, like the notion that free speech and Catholicism are mutually exclusive. But it’s a good listen.

Retronauts: “Tetris” — This is a weird show. They take so much of gaming history and experience as read, but they feel it necessary to explain things like the Beatles and the Cold War. Also, of course they’re Rush fans. Of COURSE. Anyway, Tetris has a fascinating history that is explored at length here, though I’m not convinced that roundtable discussion is the best way to approach historical storytelling. There you go.

Omnibus (week of April 1, 2018)

“Get it together, Parsons,” I said to myself. “Clean your damn apartment and get your 5K back under a non-embarrassing time.” That is why I listened to 34 podcast episodes this week. (That’s a conservative number — there are a few shows I don’t review, and I frankly can’t remember which of those I listened to this week.) Below, you’ll find them nicely compressed into a manageable 21 reviews, plus an additional three for the things I got through this week that aren’t podcasts.

Also, if you would like to hear me blindside Sheryl MacKay with a whack-a-doo theory that even I don’t completely subscribe to, you’ll find that at 1:21:58.

24 reviews.

Literature, etc.

Scott McCloud: Making Comics — I just turned in my final assignment in that comics class I’ve been taking, and I figured I may as well finish the course reading. Better late than never. We weren’t obliged to read Making Comics in its entirety, but I did because why the hell not. Scott McCloud is not only a good teacher and a perceptive analyst of the medium in which he works. He’s also one of the funnest media critics out there. In case you’re unfamiliar: this is a guy who makes works of serious, penetrating comics criticism — that are themselves comics. His ability to demonstrate concepts by example is unmatched, and his books of comics criticism are themselves among the most formally innovative comics I’ve encountered. Understanding Comics remains his masterpiece, because its focus is broad enough that it doesn’t really age. Making Comics contains some stuff about webcomics that feels ancient now. But when he sticks to the basics of the comics form, regardless of medium, McCloud is a fountain of practical advice here. If you’ve ever wondered what fundamentals you should keep in mind when working simultaneously with words and pictures, this is the book for you. Pick of the week.

Music

John Luther Adams/JACK Quartet: Everything That Rises — John Luther Adams either captivates me or leaves me cold. (No Alaska pun intended.) This did the latter. It is one of his more high-concept works, based on just intonation. It is also one of his more dissonant pieces, which isn’t something I look to him for. Don’t get me wrong, he can do what he wants: but I’ve always enjoyed the side of JLA that puts you in a trance, then takes you somewhere. This piece definitely takes you somewhere — up, in keeping with the title. But it foregoes the trance in favour of a calculating raised eyebrow. Not for me, I’m afraid.

Kyle Craft: Full Circle Nightmare — I loved Dolls of Highland. I had some concerns about its consistent portrayal of women as evil magic temptresses, but there was enough self-effacing humour throughout that I could give him the benefit of a doubt. It also helps that Kyle Craft’s music scratches a huge itch for me: huge sounding rock with bombastic vocals and a turn of phrase you can sink your teeth into. And that itch is almost equally scratched on this new record. But at this point I’m thinking he needs to find something new to sing about. This whole “women: can’t live with ‘em, can’t live without ‘em” thing is not sustainable. Still, when it’s good it’s good. I’m particularly fond of the new direction on the semi-psychedelic “Belmont (One Trick Pony).” This feels like one of those albums that may or may not be the second-last one by its artist that I ever hear. Stay tuned.

Podcasts

It’s Been A Minute: “Momofuku Chef David Chang’s ‘Ugly Delicious’ Food” & “Zach Braff and Alex Blumberg on ‘Alex, Inc.’” — I’m finding that I get a lot more out of this show’s Tuesday edition, where Sam Sanders talks with an interesting person, than I do out of its Friday wraps. Maybe it’s just that I don’t feel the need for any more “making sense of the news” in my life, because that is a thing that the entire media is trying to do now. But the Tuesday shows are really good, because Sanders is fun to listen to and seemingly fun to talk to as well. The David Chang interview is great fun, as they usually are. Sanders is good at talking about intersections of race and culture, and Chang is a thoughtful guy on that subject. The episode focussing on Alex, Inc. is really something — mostly because it’s great fun hearing Alex Blumberg pretend that he likes the milquetoast sitcom that ABC made out of his game-changing podcast. To Sanders’ credit, he manages to have an interesting conversation with Blumberg and Zach Braff that touches on both of their wheelhouses without the whole thing coming off the rails.  

Code Switch catch-up — Of the last four episodes, the two most recent are the most essential. “The Road to the Promised Land, 50 Years Later” is a bit jarring because it consists largely of news reports for actual NPR — like the radio. You don’t realize how different that tone is from NPR podcasts until you hear it on an NPR podcast. But the story of how Martin Luther King’s assassination reverberates half a century later is fascinating and well told here. For something a bit more podcast-native, the Amara La Negra interview is an energetic discussion of Afro-Latinx identity

Reply All: “A Pirate In Search of a Judge” — A lesser instalment of “Super Tech Support,” which nonetheless includes some amusing banter. Also: has anybody compiled the Breakmaster Cylinder bits into a supercut? Please somebody do that. I think there’s an argument to be made that whoever they are, they’re doing the most innovative audio storytelling in the podcast space — and they’re doing it in the last two minutes of somebody else’s show. (Unless, of course, P.J. Vogt is Breakmaster Cylinder, which I find quite plausible.)

In Our Time: “Augustine’s Confessions,” “Hildegard of Bingen” & Roman Slavery” — Melvyn Bragg is in his glory when he gets to talk about Christianity. The Augustine episode is accordingly excellent. The episode on Roman slavery is a good summation of a thing that you probably don’t think about very much. But it’s the repeat episode about Hildegard that’s the real standout in this run. Being a music person, I have always mostly thought of her as the composer of the most beautiful music from the Middle Ages. And I’ve always been passingly aware of her status as a great polymath, contributing to theology, literature, medical research and brewing techniques. (She penned the earliest surviving writings on the use of hops in beer. She didn’t like them. Fair enough.) But this episode focuses on her role in the church of her time: a woman who was respected not so much because she was a genius, though she clearly was, as because she claimed to receive visions from God. It’s tempting for us now to look at Hildegard as a woman who overcame the social stigmas of her time by being exceptional and working hard, but really even that wasn’t enough. She was allowed to give sermons not because she was a good sermonizer, but because the church saw her as a direct channel to God, so they made an exception. A sad thing. That’s a great episode. You should listen to it.

Fresh Air: “The Evolution of Artificial Intelligence” & “Madeleine Albright” — Two interviews about big important things, one of which features a big important person. Listen to the Madeleine Albright one. When she talks about the problems with Trump’s foreign policy, it’s probably worth considering what she has to say.

Radiolab: “Rippin’ the Rainbow an Even Newer One,” “Border Trilogy” parts 1 & 2 — The update to the mantis shrimp story is good for my sense of nostalgia about the old Radiolab, but the first two instalments of their series on the border are both challenging my general sense that this show’s best days are behind it. Every so often they pull out a classic, and so far this is one. Basically, it poses the question of how well-meaning policies can result in migrants dying in the desert, possibly by the thousands. It is the new Radiolab — the au current, political Radiolab — at its best.

The Gist: “Clinging to Guns Is Our Religion” — This is a gun control debate between a moderate liberal and a moderate conservative. It is as scintillating as that sounds.

Bullseye: “Andrew W.K. & Bill Hader” — Here are two people I’m not super interested in, having conversations I enormously enjoyed. Andrew W.K. in particular is a person who you just know will have a good chat with Jesse Thorn. And he did. Note that this is also the episode with Thorn’s review of It’s Too Late to Stop Now by Van Morrison, which led me to make one of the weirdest pieces of radio that I personally have ever made. (See top of page.)

Desert Island Discs: “David Byrne” — Wow, he’s in a good mood. Like, a suspiciously good mood. But as we all know, he’s got great taste in music and he’s an interesting guy. I really need to read his book. Good listening.

The Daily: “Wednesday, Apr. 4, 2018” & “Friday, Apr. 6, 2018” — Oddly, I find myself more inclined to listen to news shows when they are meta-stories about the media. These are two episodes of The Daily that examine TV news in different ways. One demonstrates how Fox News played a role in the revitalization of Trump’s anti-immigration policies, and the other examines how the takeover of local media by larger corporations leads to a lack of editorial freedom. Both are great, the latter is likely the one that will remain relevant by the time you read this. Damn, the world is cray.

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “Love, Simon” & “Roseanne and What’s Making Us Happy” — I will watch neither of these things, but I did enjoy the chats. Linda Holmes and Stephen Thompson had an interesting exchange about Roseanne. That is my review of this week’s Pop Culture Happy Hour episodes; I hope you have enjoyed it.

The World According to Sound: “Idea of North” — I intend to go back and hear this show’s full archives at some point, which shouldn’t be hard since the episodes are a minute and a half long. But for now I will follow their series on great radio they think I should hear. I have never heard Glenn Gould’s “The Idea of North,” which is a travesty because I work at CBC Radio and I am literally looking at a three-CD set of Gould’s radio work right now. It’s right there on my shelf. Maybe this is the week.

Song by Song: “Hang On St. Christopher” — I’m looking forward to hearing these two give their take on Frank’s Wild Years, because I know from previously that it isn’t either of their favourite. On the other hand, it has always been my favourite. I think it is a masterpiece that stands head and shoulders above its two immediate predecessors. It is simultaneously weirder and more polished than Rain Dogs, and it contains Waits’ most theatrical music. That’s the mode I like him best in. This episode gives a good summation of why it’s so theatrical and why it’s necessary nonetheless to consider it as an album rather than the soundtrack to a misbegotten live show.

Imaginary Worlds: “Visions of Philip K. Dick” — I actually didn’t know that Philip K. Dick spent his final years having either religious experiences or a form of paranoid psychosis. That is interesting. This is interesting. The audio of Dick talking in Paris during that time is captivating. Listen at least for that. It’s right at the start.

Constellations: “anna friz – air can break your heart” — Okay, time to get frank about this show. The thing that’s good about it is that it highlights audio makers who are working largely outside the confines of what’s considered “radio.” Much of what’s featured here falls more easily under the category of “sound art.” This is good. I want this sort of thing to find its way into my podcast feed, between all the NPR and roundtable chat shows. But the fact is that a lot of this material is fairly obscure and alienating, and in presenting it without comment at the start of the episode, and only offering a bare minimum of context from the artist afterwards (the audio equivalent of a brief “artist’s statement” on a website or brochure) doesn’t necessarily present it in its best light. As a listener, I want to hear work like this week’s piece — an abstract mix of ambient sound and muted speech — addressed in a way that’s slightly more playful. Because however much I enjoy it on its aesthetic merits, it still leaves me with questions like “what?” and “why?” And I’d like to hear those questions answered conversationally, with frankness and humour. I want to hear the hosts engage these artists on the level that their listeners are coming into this at: with respect and curiosity, but also occasional good-natured bewilderment. I want a proxy — somebody to step in and have a human conversation in this art world’s rarified air. The fact that this show doesn’t do this strikes me as a missed opportunity. TL;DR: Constellations is doing good work, but I wish it were less precious about the good work it’s doing.

99% Invisible: “Airships and the Future that Never Was” & “Making it Rain” — 99pi is 300 episodes old. (Well, 301, actually. But I’m only just getting to both of those episodes.) It seems appropriate to me that in spite of the show’s substantial growth in terms of both audience and staff, the 300th episode should be a return to the early days, when it was just Roman Mars making elegant, miniature stories about design. Even the subject matter, airships, is nostalgic. It’s a good episode. “Making it Rain” is good too, but less singular. While I have come to really enjoy all of the producers on this show, their presence has the effect of making 99pi sound more like public radio and less like the trailblazing independent podcast that it started off as. That’s how I’d summarize the trajectory of this show: as it’s gotten bigger, it has become less distinctive — even as its stories have become more ambitious. I’m not likely to stop listening anytime soon, not when this show pulls off stuff like the recent two-parter about the Bijlmer. But ultimately, I think Roman Mars’s greatest accomplishment hasn’t been 99pi itself, but leveraging its success into the formation of Radiotopia, which remains the most consistent, satisfying and surprising podcast collective out there. Quite a throne to maintain in these times. On that note, here are the rest of the Radiotopia shows I listened to this week. This next one is something I never would have heard if not for 99pi, which would be unconscionable.  

Theory of Everything: “This Is Not A Drill (False Alarm! part i)” — This new mini-season from Benjamen Walker is justly receiving heavy promotion across the Radiotopia stable of podcasts, and if you haven’t checked it out yet, you must. It begins with a straightforward account of what it was like to be in Hawaii during the cruise missile false alarm, then continues into a scrambled retelling of both “The Boy Who Cried Wolf” and “The Emperor’s New Clothes.” Then it gets straight into the question at the heart of the series: how can Benjamen Walker continue making a show that’s neither fully fact nor fully fiction in the era of Fake News? I know people who have been vexed by this show’s blend of real and fake. I’ve never been one of them. I tend to think that the people who are the angriest about stuff like this, the Onion and so forth, are actually mostly angry at themselves for their own credulousness. For my part, I am delighted that podcasting’s most protean paranoiac is about to dive into the nature of reality itself in 2018. Hear this. Pick of the week.

The Kitchen Sisters Present: “Poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti — Celebrating 99 Years” — This story about the great counterculture icon and champion of the Beat poets, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, seems like it’ll be a good warmup for the Kitchen Sisters’ “The Keepers” series about archivists. I’m really looking forward to that. This is nice, though I confess that Ferlinghetti’s own poetry doesn’t do much for me.

This is Love: “A Private Life” & “What Are We Going To Do” — This is Love is proving to be a lovely show, though rather cute. These have thus far been rather positive stories. Even when they flirt with heartbreak, each episode manages to spin the story into something uplifting. That’s fine, but I hope (he says, realizing what a sadist he sounds like) that this show finds its way to the darker side of its subject matter at some point as well.

What Trump Can Teach Us About Con Law: “Deadly Force” — This is a slighter but more direct exploration of a topic that Radiolab went in depth about a few months back. I think I prefer this version.

The Memory Palace: “Junk Room” — This feels like a throwback to the episodes Nate DiMeo made for the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which I really enjoyed in spite of not having been to any of those exhibits. This episode is about one of the weirdest collections of art in Washington D.C.: a room where the states all sent statues of two of their greatest figures. That’s subject matter that allows DiMeo to do what he’s great at: writing beautifully about figures who have been left out of popular history, and asking why Confederate leaders keep getting included instead.

Omnibus (week of Mar. 4, 2018)

Sometimes on weeks when you feel like three different people are pulling your hair in six different directions, you’ve got to spend as much time as possible in a movie theatre for the sake of your own sanity. I’ve seen six movies in theatres in the past two weeks, plus the Rio’s live broadcast of the Oscars. It is the ultimate refuge. Netflix will never be able to compare, because Netflix does not force you to forego the rest of your life during the duration of the movie. That, more than the big screen or even the crowd of like-minded strangers, is the best thing about seeing movies in a theatre. You are at the mercy of the projectionist. Surrender or leave.

Here are this week’s 21 reviews, four of which are of things that took place in movie theatres.

Live events

Gentlemen Hecklers present: Twilight — The only way to watch Twilight is to watch it with three comics heckling it from the sidelines. I know two of the Gentlemen Hecklers from their role as ubiquitous Vancouver trivia hosts. They are funny people. But more than that, Twilight is really bad movie. The Hecklers’ best bit by far was also possibly their easiest: a drinking game where you drink whenever Edward Cullen does or says something that is a relationship red flag. It is perhaps apropos that Robert Pattinson has recently become such an interesting character actor, given that his breakout role was an abject failure to be anything resembling a leading man. Between him and Kristen Stewart, the human face is contorted into more inexplicable formations during the course of this movie than in Jack Nicholson’s entire career. This was a good time. Twilight is awful.

Movies

The Florida Project — I talk a big game about my propensity to cry during movies. I make myself out to be a right basket case: the champion of vulnerable masculinity. But the truth is that very few movies that are not directed by Wes Anderson have ever really opened the floodgates for me. But the final moments of The Florida Project put me in a right state. The tone of this movie is so nonchalant and whimsical in the face of truly bleak subject matter that its final dive into unalloyed tragedy is a knife to the heart. That’s as close to a spoiler as I’ll come. I love everything about The Florida Project. I love each and every glorious shot of a tacky Orlando novelty shop front. It is one of the five or six best new movies I’ve seen since I started writing this blog. A lot has been made of this movie’s nuanced portrayal of impoverished people, and with good reason. The film’s adult protagonist, Halley, faces impossible alternatives throughout. There’s no way to watch this movie without feeling the pressure she’s under — probably with a lot more sweat on your brow than she’s got. There’s a moment in a scene with Willem Dafoe and Caleb Landry Jones, the two recognizable actors in the film, that I suspect is meant to serve as a Rosetta Stone: Jones’ character Jack finds bedbugs in his father Bobby’s motel. Jack berates Bobby for blowing a bunch of money on purple paint to add an air of whimsy to the motel’s exterior when what he really needs is an exterminator. But think of this from Bobby’s perspective: if that coat of purple paint pulls in a few families of tourists per week, he’s that much closer to keeping the motel in business. It’s a counterintuitive decision that might make it seem like Bobby doesn’t have his priorities straight. But when you’re scraping by, priorities look different. It’s the same with Halley. Stealing a meal from a hotel buffet might not seem like a good idea from where you’re sitting. But when you’ve got no money and a daughter to feed, maybe it’s worth the risk. The Florida Project is perfect. It is toe-to-toe with Get Out in the 2017 sweepstakes that are now long over. Pick of the week.

Wild Strawberries — The Cinémathèque is doing a whole series to celebrate the 100th anniversary of Ingmar Bergman’s birth. As a programmer explained before this screening, they couldn’t bring themselves to start the series with The Seventh Seal. It’s just too overexposed. Wild Strawberries, then: the best-known Bergman film that hasn’t been subjected to ruthless parody. I hadn’t seen it before. I hadn’t seen anything by Bergmann except The Seventh Seal, which pleasantly shocked me with its balance between thinky darkness and complete siliness. But Wild Strawberries is an altogether more successful integration of heavy, existential themes into a compelling narrative. I think it’s probably the better of the two movies. It’s a story about an old doctor named Isak Borg, and the impact he’s made on the world and the people around him. The key connection that we as an audience have to that impact is Marianne, Isak’s daughter-in-law. Marianne has had to spend her life in love with Isak’s son Evald: a man who, like his father, is constantly on the verge of giving up on life altogether. I daresay that for all of the film’s brilliant ideas — and for all the brilliance of Victor Sjöström’s performance as Isak — Marianne is the movie’s masterstroke. It is Marianne that prevents Wild Strawberries from being a movie primarily about depressive, brilliant men and their problems. Because in the one or two heartbreaking scenes where we really come to know something about her relationship with Evald, the film’s focus shifts definitively towards the way that those men affect the world around them, rather than the way the world around them affects those men. It’s a beautiful meditation on family. For all its darkness and occasional cynicism, Wild Strawberries is deeply cathartic. I liked it a whole lot.

A Wrinkle in Time — It’s a mixed bag. On one hand, it takes a powder on Madeleine L’Engle’s most ambitious ideas: the explanation of how a tesseract works; the segment on a two-dimensional planet. On the other, it’s a family-friendly blockbuster with a distinctive aesthetic and some compositions worthy of Oscar winner Roger Deakins. (I’m going to call him that from now on, every time I mention him. I’m just so happy for him.) For every stroke of brilliance (i.e. the casting of Reese Witherspoon, Mindy Kaling and GIGANTIC SPACE OPRAH as the Mrs. Ws), there is a disappointment that feels like a betrayal of the source material (i.e. the casting of Levi Miller, The Most Boring Teen In The World, as Calvin). The movie’s primary theme is “love yourself,” which is a deeply valuable theme — especially considering that it is a film for children, starring a young black woman who comes to terms with herself over the course of the film. But what it gains over the book in heart, it loses in brains. L’Engle’s novel contains a borderline nonsensical but deeply compelling metaphysical matrix that is almost entirely glossed over here. That disappoints me. What it all comes down to is this: Ava DuVernay is a master of her craft, but she’s working from a flawed script on a project for a massive corporate juggernaut. It’s worth seeing, and I hope it makes a pile of money, because it’s great when taken on its own merits. But as an adaptation, it’s a bit wanting.

Moon — I don’t know why I wanted to watch this. Certainly it has nothing to do with Sam Rockwell’s recent Oscar win, which I am actually a bit miffed about. But it’s the kind of movie I wish we saw more of: a small, interesting science fiction movie, in the vein of Ex Machina, but six years before. Its actual story is less interesting than it might be: in a sense it reduces Blade Runner to a high concept story about human replication. But Rockwell’s performance as two different facets of the same person, and the excellent, understated screenplay lift it above its premise. I enjoyed this a lot. It’s on Canadian Netflix. Check it out.

Television

Lady Dynamite: “Pilot” — Wow, this is weird. I love Maria Bamford, but this is so completely bonkers that I didn’t laugh much. I’m told I should stick it out. I may. We’ll see.

Literature, etc.

Kris Straub: Broodhollow, Book 2 — Immeasurably better than the first book. Where the first arc of Broodhollow deals with the question of whether or not everything crazy going in is happening in the protagonist’s head, this book dives into the much less travelled idea of a whole town forgetting its traumas. It’s something that Stephen King dealt with in It, but Broodhollow has another take. The masterstroke here is the introduction of a second town society. Where the first was an all-male Eyes Wide Shut riff with absolutely no idea what’s going on in Broodhollow, the second is a ladies auxiliary that, in spite of its innocuous trappings, knows more about Broodhollow’s threats than anybody else. I really enjoyed this, and I’m appalled at the cliffhanger it finished in. I hope Kris Straub is hard at work on book three.

Jorge Luis Borges: “German Literature in the Age of Bach” — I wandered into The Paper Hound this week, a Vancouver bookshop that I particularly like. Just go in and browse, I said to myself. Maybe pick up something light, I said to myself. Six pounds of books later, I have begun reading the collected nonfiction of Jorge Luis Borges in this completely arbitrary location. I’m not sure what exactly precipitated Borges’ lecture on this topic, but I like to think that somebody asked him to speak about this topic, and he discovered for himself as a result of this that there was virtually no interesting literature to speak of in Germany while Bach was composing his masterpieces. Still, being Borges, he does his due diligence and reflects on the reasons for this, and also muses on the virtues of some of the literature from this period that has perhaps not aged especially well. Also, he passingly mentions an idea of Paul Valéry’s that it might be interesting to write a literary history without proper names. I share a birthday with Valéry. Maybe one of these days I should do something like that. A music history podcast, perhaps.

Music

Yes: Tales from Topographic Oceans — This was my favourite album from the ages of about 12 to 20. It has always pained me slightly to demote something that was an all-time favourite to a lower rung on the ladder. But these days, the top of my list is populated by albums I discovered a little later (e.g. Kate Bush’s Hounds of Love), albums that grew on me over the course of many years (e.g. Brian Eno’s Another Green World) and one album that has lost none of its lustre since I first heard it as an impressionable teenager (Jethro Tull’s Thick as a Brick). Even among albums by Yes, my first favourite band, I’m not sure that Topographic would come out on top these days. For all its flaws, Fragile has the moments that most define what I continue to love about the band: the drama; the casual virtuosity; the personalities of five individuals all emerging from ensemble compositions. But listening through Topographic again for the first time in years did genuinely some strengths that are immutable. Its second side, “The Remembering” was always, and remains my favourite. With its delicate Mellotron and jangly acoustic moments, it is a cosmic folk song in memory of childhood. It isn’t even one of the most popular songs on this album, but I still think it’s one of the crowning glories of progressive rock. Likewise for “Ritual,” the one track from Topographic to become a regular live favourite. Having learned and grown since I last heard this, I now have a bit of trouble with the line “we love when we play.” Throughout this album, and to some extent his entire career, Jon Anderson comes off as a child prophet. If you can’t accept him on his own terms he’ll alienate you right out of the genre. But I also feel like anybody who can’t accept him must be harbouring a particularly toxic kind of cynicism, because the man just has so much love for the world. So much love. I’ve always had a soft spot for “The Ancient,” probably the most difficult of the album’s four tracks. The acoustic outro is a flat-out classic moment in the Yes corpus, but the Steve Howe freakout that leads up to it is no mere virtuoso display: it is a masterclass in how to generate tension with instruments. The one track that disappointed me upon returning to this album was the one that has perhaps become the fan favourite: “The Revealing Science of God.” It is structurally the closest thing on this album to the long tracks on the albums that bookend Topographic. Where “The Ancient” is a showcase for Howe, “Ritual” features lengthy solo spots for the rhythm section, and “The Remembering” (not quite the Rick Wakeman feature the liner notes make it out to be) channels an atmospheric side that the band does not generally foreground, “Revealing” is an attempt at an integrated full-band feature with internal symmetry and a dramatic arc unto itself. And in that respect, it doesn’t rise to the level of “Close to the Edge” or “The Gates of Delirium.” Still, this was like rediscovering an old friend. A final note: Apple Music does not have the Rhino remaster of the album that I grew up with, so I now understand why so many people complained about the sound quality. The unremastered digital files are abominable.

Tom Rogerson & Brian Eno: Finding Shore — Eno’s latest project is as a sideman to an improvisational pianist who is willing to allow Eno to twist his music about into an electrified finished product. That sounds like a role where Eno will thrive. And he does. This album begins with a collection of electronic plinks that do not identifiably come from a piano. But about a minute and a half into the album, the origins of the sound make themselves obvious as the piano crashes in. This entire album is an absolutely gorgeous collaboration, and one of Eno’s most worthwhile projects in some time. Much of the credit must clearly go to Rogerson, who is the actual composer of this music. Listen to this. Do.

Brian Eno, Daniel Lanois & Roger Eno: Apollo: Atmospheres & Soundtracks — I needed something more to listen to while I was writing up this week’s reviews, so I revisited another old favourite. This is one of Eno’s finest ambient albums, perhaps only behind Music for Airports and On Land. It’s certainly best known for “An Ending (Ascent),” which is lovely. But the best moments are the ones that most clearly feature Daniel Lanois’ appalachian-tinged pedal steel. Lanois’ “Silver Morning” may be my favourite on the album. Essential Eno.

Podcasts

Pop Culture Happy Hour catch-up —  Their Oscars coverage is always the most fun in the business. Audie Cornish doing the Regrettable Television Pop Quiz is a sure bet. Their Wrinkle in Time take turned out to be about right, when you take the average of the whole panel. Will watch: Annihilation. Won’t watch: Queer Eye.

On the Media: “Face the Racist Nation” & “Everything You Love Will Burn” — These two episodes on the alt-right in collaboration with The Guardian are worth hearing, though I feel like I’ve heard these arguments advanced in a less consolidated fashion on a combination of previous episodes of OTM.

The Kitchen Sisters Present: “Guillermo Cabrera Infante: Memories of an Invented City” — This old story about Cuba’s most influential author in a generation is a lovely thing. It has plenty of his personality, interspersed with vital readings from his work and enough context to make sense of it all.

The Hilarious World of Depression: “Highlights From A Hilarious Night of Depression” — This is great. Come for the comedy, stay for the genuine insights into mental illness that come from doing a whole season of interviews with people who suffer from it.

Reply All: “Trust the Process” & “The World’s Most Expensive Free Watch” — Two perfectly fine episodes of a great show. One has Alex Blumberg explaining sports to the hosts, which is a pleasant switcheroo. And we get Gene Demby as a bonus, so that’s fun. The other is about how even internet scamming is a scam. So that’s really distressing. Nice stuff.

This is Love: Episodes 1-4 — I love Criminal, but I might love that team’s new show even more. The first episode of this has everything you need to know about it. The guest is nobody of particular note, but he’s got a love story that’s worth hearing. Subsequent guests have more unusual tales to tell, i.e. reuniting a grey whale with its mother and founding one of the most acclaimed restaurants in America to pay tribute to one’s parents. But all of these episodes are completely compelling. A new favourite. Pick of the week.

Criminal: “The Manual” & “Willie Bosket” — “The Manual” is appalling in a good way: a story of how the first amendment is sometimes considered more important than human life. “Willie Bosket” is fine: a story of a particularly rough juvenile case. Both of these stories have far-reaching legal implications. Listen for that alone.

It’s Been a Minute: “‘Black Panther’ with Glen Weldon and Evan Narcisse” — I’ve heard and read enough about Black Panther now. But hearing noted comics expert Glen Weldon and actual comics writer Evan Narcisse bounce ideas off of each other is great fun.

WTF with Marc Maron: “Jennifer Lawrence” — This is an awkward interview. Lawrence has become self-conscious about her guilelessness with the media, and Maron’s show is the worst place to find yourself if that is what you’re currently self-conscious about. But they seem to like each other in spite of it. I dunno, it’s okay.

Code Switch catch-up — Definitely check out the immigration status episode. Three members of the same family, with three different immigration statuses. Complications ensue.

Omnibus (week of Jan. 21, 2018)

A big week for podcasts, a small week for everything else. Also, if you’d like to hear me try and make a connection between a prototypical sound recording from 1860 and a Bruce Springsteen song, you are cordially invited to scrub to 2:00:57 in this podcast.

24 reviews.

Literature, etc.

Herman Melville: Moby-Dick — This is happening. I’m putting my whole reading list on hold for this, and I have no regrets so far. For now, I will only signpost that I’ve started it. I guarantee I will have lots to say about it at some point, but who knows when and in what form that will come. In any case: I have started reading Moby-Dick. Pick of the week.

Adam Gopnik: “The Corrections” — This is a long essay I found thanks to a link in a shorter essay I found thanks to the fact that I’m reading Moby-Dick. (By the way, I’m reading Moby-Dick.) Gopnik wrote it in 2007, which was actually a fairly long time ago, and it contains some blasé sexism that I suspect Gopnik would regret nowadays. Or, maybe I should say — it contains some blasé acceptance of the sexism in James Bond movies, but it adds up to the same. Also, it hails from a time when DVDs were dominant and people watched movies with director’s commentaries. (I do miss director’s commentaries.) Still, it’s a good piece of criticism. The subject is essentially alterations being made to established texts — like the abridged version of Moby-Dick, or Apocalypse Now: Redux. The Moby-Dick bit is the best. I’ll quote his conclusion here and leave you to read the rest should you see fit: “…when you come to the end of the compact ‘Moby-Dick’ you don’t think, What a betrayal; you think, Nice job — what were the missing bits again? And when you go back to find them you remember why the book isn’t just a thrilling adventure with unforgettable characters but a great book. The subtraction does not turn good work into hackwork; it turns a hysterical, half-mad masterpiece into a sound, sane book. It still has its phallic reach and point, but lacks its flaccid, anxious self-consciousness: it is all Dick and no Moby.”

Music

Barbara Hannigan: Tiny Desk Concert — What a perfect choice for the tiny desk. Hannigan is maybe the most exciting artist in classical music, full stop. And in this miniature set, she sings four weird German art songs by Alexander Zemlinsky, Alma Mahler, Hugo Wolf, and Arnold Schoenberg, which are all captivating. I would say I’d like to hear more art songs at the tiny desk, but frankly most art songs bore me to tears. It takes an expert curator with sublime musicianship to bring this off. It’s great.

Movies

Don’t Think Twice — I’ve been meaning to watch this since it came out, and was reminded of it on Chris Gethard’s last podcast. I confess, I have a personal stake in this because I feel as though it outlines an alternate timeline version of my life. It’s about a troupe of 20/30-something improv comedians on the precipice of either breakout fame or the need to give up entirely. I was an improv kid in high school, and I can attest to the accuracy of this movie’s portrayal of adult improvisers. When you spend so much of your time on an art form that demands constantly saying yes to everything and essentially ignoring your god-given impulse control, it can cause you to act really strangely in social situations. I gave improv up after high school, studied classical trumpet, and was never spontaneous again, thank Jesus. But I know people who kept going with it, and they were increasingly difficult to associate with because improv makes your brain work in a weird way, like you’re constantly on a mild stimulant. Mike Birbiglia (who directed this and wrote the bits that aren’t actually improvised) understands this, and in that sense, Don’t Think Twice is a fascinating movie to watch. The casting is flawless, with Keegan-Michael Key and Gillian Jacobs standing out in particular as two very different kinds of people that improv attracts. Key is the hyper-performative show-off whose sense of self depends on the attention of others. (I was this.) Jacobs is the team player who believes in the art, and the slightly mystical notion of “group mind” that it’s based on. Birbiglia’s best decision as a writer was to take these two archetypes and put them in a relationship. The personal drama in the film springs from the same personality differences that make its two central characters such different presences onstage. Birbiglia and Gethard flesh out other important elements in the troupe’s collective psyche. Birbiglia plays the flipside of Key’s character: the one whose hunger for attention goes unsatisfied and makes him an insecure man-child. And Gethard plays, seemingly, his younger self: a person who can’t find purchase in the world around him, and takes solace in an increasingly untenable dream. (If you don’t like movies about sad creatives, give this one a miss.) The problems I have with the movie are the same problems I have with Birbiglia’s stand-up. He’s a fantastic storyteller, but he always has a theme in mind and he’s completely unwilling to let it arise naturally. His impulse is always to use the most obvious metaphor. For example: he establishes at the beginning of the movie that the first rule of improv is to say yes. When you negate something a teammate says onstage, it’s called “blocking” and it’s the most basic error in the improv book. Near the end of the movie, Birbiglia has a relationship come to an end during an improv scene — in which the breaker-up blocks the break-upee. It’s too much, and in a movie about spontaneity, it really exposes the strings in a way that takes you out of the experience. This sort of thing happens a lot: an audience member will shout something to the troupe for the purpose of showing the movie audience how the characters are feeling, or an improv scene will ham-fistedly reflect on the goings-on offstage. But the contrivances in the story can be mostly forgiven because of how real the characters feel. I suspect this is a movie that plays a lot better for people who have some experience with improv. Watch it if that describes you, or if you like any of the actors in it, because it’s worthwhile for the performances alone.

Television

Doctor Who: “The Romans” — I enjoyed this more than I expected to, given my lack of enthusiasm for a) historically-focussed episodes of Doctor Who, and b) the William Hartnell era in general. But for all its manifold flaws, there are some charming things in this. First off, Hartnell himself is finally playing the Doctor as a character that’s identifiably the same as his future, more famous incarnations. You need only look at his gleeful expression when he realizes his role in the burning of Rome to recognize that Hartnell, for all his manifold flaws, invented this character in a way he’s not always given credit for. He’s flubbing his lines as much as ever, but he’s so charming in this. This version of the Doctor, the gleefully Rome-burning one, comes back in many a future “geronimo,” “would you like a jelly baby,” and “oh, brilliant!” It’s also marvellous to have Vicky around instead of Susan, because she was always a problematic character to say the least. Maureen O’Brien plays Vicky as intelligent, curious and brave — three things that Susan was manifestly not, in spite of the characters’ assertions that she was. I’m quite a fan of Nero being portrayed as a bumbling idiot whose key purpose is to get fucked with by the Doctor, who is in a particularly playful mood this time around. I am less fond of Nero’s tendency to chase Barbara — the show’s longest-standing female character — around his palace in a clear attempt to commit some form of sexual violence. That last bit aside, I have basically just enumerated all of the redeeming qualities in this story, which very much remains television from the 60s that is mostly of historical interest.

The Good Place: “The Burrito” — I’m still waiting for this show to repeat itself. This takes place almost entirely in settings we haven’t seen before, and introduces another whole mechanic into the show’s cosmology: an ageless judge played by Maya Rudolph — my second-favourite guest appearance in this show so far, after Maribeth Monroe as Mindy St. Clair. She can spin a line like nobody else. Still, I find myself much more interested in the twists and turns of the story itself than I do in the show’s larger thematic concerns or, crucially, the jokes. To a certain extent I think The Good Place is the first sitcom I’ve watched where the jokes aren’t always funny but it doesn’t matter. There’s a perfect example in this episode. Near the beginning, Jason comes up with the loony idea that perhaps the burrito sitting before the group is in fact the judge they’ve been looking for. Tahani replies: “Don’t be so bloody ridiculous. Judges aren’t food, judges are serious people who wear long silk nightgowns and big white powdered wigs.” In a Tina Fey show, that would not pass muster. It’s a moment where, according to the rhythms of a single camera, non-laugh track sitcom, there should be a joke, and that line fills the space — not especially well. But you don’t really need to laugh during this scene, because, crazy as it sounds, you’re actually caught up in the question of what is actually going on with that burrito. And Eleanor refocusses the conversation on that pretty much immediately afterwards. It’s a very distinctive comedy that can make you care about the identity of a burrito more than you care about the jokes.

Podcasts

All Songs Considered: “Viking’s Choice: The Year In Cathartic Screams And Meditative Drones,” “New Year, New Mix: Typhoon, Lucy Dacus, Anna Burch, More” & “New Mix: David Byrne, Sylvan Esso, Nils Frahm, More” — I always love the year-end Viking’s Choice episode with Lars Gotrich, but the MVP of these three episodes of All Songs is definitely the most recent of them. It features a David Byrne track, co-written with Brian Eno (I’m already salivating), an appearance from Tom Huizenga to talk about Nils Frahm (whose new album sounds more promising than his last, which I did like), and a beautiful track by Darlingside, who I hadn’t heard of but whose album I will 100% check out. Likewise for Typhoon. Mostly I’m writing this to remind myself what to listen to later.

Imaginary Worlds: “Brain Chemistry” & “Doctor Who?” — “Brain Chemistry” is a collaboration with The Truth that I liked well enough, though I never especially like The Truth. This is about a guy who gets cryogenically frozen and wakes up as nothing but a brain. Listen if that sounds like a fun premise. The real attraction, though, is the first episode of Eric Molinsky’s Doctor Who mini-series. It’s very 101, but for most people that’ll be necessary. Also Molinsky does something here that he’s done before, which I always love: he focuses in on the reception of a piece of fiction rather than its making, and he finds people whose reception of that fiction is unique in some way. The best part of this episode features an interview with a trans man and his wife about how the Doctor’s constant state of change gave them a language to use in reference to his transition. It’s lovely stuff, and I’m looking forward to seeing what more specific topics Molinsky dives into.

Constellations: “joan schuman – walking in bad circles” — Of all the podcasts I listened to while I was cooking this week, this is the one that probably got the rawest deal. Always listen to Constellations through headphones, folks. It’s the only way it works. All the same, I really like the phrase “walking in bad circles,” which makes up a significant part of this short piece.

Criminal: “The Choir” — A deeply affecting story about Lawrence Lessig, of internet law fame, and the way he dealt with a horrifying instance of childhood abuse by a predator. This is one of the heavy episodes of Criminal, which I can sometimes find hard to take. I like when this show does light subject matter, because it shows the flexibility of their premise, which is basically “crime!” But this one’s good.

The Memory Palace: “The Prairie Chicken in Wisconsin: Highlights of a Study of Counts, Behaviour, Turnover, Movement and Habitat” & “The Nickel Candy Bar” — The Memory Palace has a few kinds of stories that it does often. One of them is “driven, iconoclastic woman from a bygone time defies the norms of her era.” This is a good kind of story, and the first of these two episodes is a particularly good iteration of it. It also incorporates elements of another Memory Palace standby: the environmental parable. So, it is altogether one of the most Memory Palace episodes of The Memory Palace, and that is a good thing. “The Nickel Candy Bar” is a lovely thing with a bit more structural adventurousness than usual. It starts with one story, abruptly transitions to another, brings them together, then undercuts the whole thing. Marvellous.

Bullseye: “Rian Johnson & The Go! Team” — The Rian Johnson interview is what makes this worthwhile. He’s a charming and funny guy, and this conversation really drives home the thing I’ve been saying about The Last Jedi all this time: it’s just a Star Wars movie. A very good but totally ordinary and in no way groundbreaking or unusual Star Wars movie. The only exception to this that Johnson and Jesse Thorn get to is that the reveal about Rey’s parentage reverses the franchise’s reliance on bloodlines for narrative importance. Granted, that’s not a small thing. But it’s only one thing in a whole movie full of things that strongly resemble everything else about Star Wars.

Pop Culture Happy Hour: Four-episode catch-up — I’ll be seeing The Florida Project ASAP, but I believe I’ll give Mrs. Maisel a miss. This panel wasn’t hot on Phantom Thread, which doesn’t surprise me, but I’m quite certain I’ll like it more than them. I’m prepared for it not to be There Will Be Blood or The Master. But I’ll like it. I’m 90% sure. Will I watch The Good Doctor? No I will not.

Reply All: “Apocalypse Soon” & “The Bitcoin Hunter” — Okay, now I’m starting to want more bespoke stories and fewer segments on this show. “Apocalypse Soon” is a fine and deeply entertaining episode. Anything that finds Alex Blumberg giggling about a meme is okay by me. And “The Bitcoin Hunter” is a captivating Super Tech Support that does everything you want a Reply All story to do. But I want more Sruthi Pinnamaneni.

The Kitchen Sisters Present: “House of Night – The Lost Creation Songs of the Mojave People” — This is the story of two men who recorded and archived hundreds of Mojave songs. Being a Kitchen Sisters piece, it’s full of amazing archival tape and sounds great. But the story is compelling in itself. I always love how the Kitchen Sisters foreground the way that recordings and archives don’t just document, but can actually affect the course of history. In this case, a recording of a mostly forgotten song helped to save the Ward Valley and Colorado River from development by proving the longstanding Mohave connection to that land.

Theory of Everything: “Utopia (part iii)” — Instead of reviewing this I will tell a story about something that happened to me as I was listening to it. I started it on my lunch break, at which point I went out for a salad. As I sat and ate, I had a realization of a kind that I frequently have: that somebody I know has been trying to get my attention. In this case, it was a co-worker, and she was about to give up completely and leave me to my lunch when I looked up and saw her. Little did I know, this was not the whole story. The next day, a different co-worker came up to me and told me that he’d been waving at me and calling my name in that same restaurant at that same time, to no avail. He was just about to walk up to me and tap me on the shoulder when I noticed my other co-worker standing in the line. Two separate people tried and failed, or nearly failed, to get my attention while I listened to this. I guess it must be good.

Radiolab: “The Voice in Your Head – A Tribute to Joe Frank” — Oh god, how I wish I could dive into this guy’s archive for free. Joe Frank is a radio innovator I had never heard of until a few weeks ago, and I can already see how his work informs so much of what I love in radio. This features Jad Abumrad, Brooke Gladstone and Ira Glass talking about him, but aside from those three I see a huge debt to Frank in Nate DiMeo’s work, and even more so in Jonathan Goldstein’s. I could even see Kaitlin Prest being an acolyte of his. The stories they play here are outstanding and I will definitely be buying some of his pieces from his website (this is how he operated, even in a post-podcast world). This made me want to go make radio immediately. Pick of the week.

Beautiful Conversations with Anonymous People: “Boy Crazy” — This is a lighter episode of Beautiful/Anonymous, and also a lesser one. The caller is a 21-year-old artsy college student with some insecurities. The thing that makes the conversation work when it works is that Chris Gethard really relates to her, having been in much the same situation himself. But it’s awkward and meandering in a way that these conversations usually avoid being. I mostly enjoyed this. But the appeal of this format is that it isn’t always going to work. Really, the appeal of anything Chris Gethard does is that it isn’t always going to work.

Fresh Air: “Paul Thomas Anderson On ‘Phantom Thread’” — P.T.A. seems like a decent fellow. I’m prepared to basically enjoy Phantom Thread without being over the moon about it. But hearing the director talk about working once again with Daniel Day-Lewis and Jonny Greenwood makes me remember how much I love this guy’s work and everybody in his orbit.

99% Invisible: “Speech Bubbles: Understanding Comics with Scott McCloud” — Coincidentally, I just started a class on writing for comics. I read Understanding Comics a few years ago, and it blew my mind. McCloud is a very clever guy, and hearing him talk with Roman Mars is fun because they both get angry about bad design.

Song by Song: “Gun Street Girl, Rain Dogs, Tom Waits” — Phoebe Judge and Lauren Spohrer are the only two guests so far in the Rain Dogs episodes who haven’t really worked. You need pop culture geeks for a show like this, and as much as I love Criminal, Phoebe Judge manifestly isn’t that. Lauren Spohrer may be slightly more so, but this isn’t a very enlightening conversation.

Code Switch: “The ‘R-Word’ In The Age Of Trump” — In which Kat Chow gets called out by a listener for not calling Trump racist. But… institutions like NPR are huge beasts that can sometimes force you to work against your better judgement. Fortunately, there’s such a thing as Code Switch, where conversations like this can happen publicly.

What Trump Can Teach Us About Con Law: “The 4th Amendment and the Border” — “The border” is not a line, legally speaking. It is a space of up to 100 miles wide. Who knew?

Showcase from Radiotopia: “Secrets #3 – Broken Dreams” — A man hides his unemployment from his father for months. A good story, but the weakest of this series so far. I am not very invested in this, I’ll confess. But I’m too far in now to quit.

Omnibus (week of Dec. 31, 2017)

Still not done La Belle Sauvage. I read like half of it in a day and haven’t picked it up since, because computer games. But not just any computer games. One of the best computer games I’ve played in a while. Also, I’ve barely listened to podcasts since November, so I had some catching up to do. This week’s podcast reviews are in clumps, since there were six or seven episodes of some shows that I had to get to. Read on.

Seven reviews.

Games

Night in the Woods — I was so hungover on New Year’s Day. It’s not something that happens to me much these days, but I woke up around noon and immediately decided (realized, really; I’m not sure it was a decision) that I would be spending the day drinking tea and playing computer games. Night in the Woods was the perfect thing to have on hand for an occasion like this. It is a largely mundane (not a pejorative) story of a 20-year-old woman named Mae who returns to her increasingly impoverished hometown after dropping out of college. (She is also an adorable cartoon cat. All of the characters in the game are cartoon animals, but this goes entirely unremarked upon throughout.) Something happened to Mae in college that she’s unwilling to talk about, even to herself. And she did something in high school that makes some of the people in this town inclined to keep her at arm’s length. Both of these things are sources of suspense in the game, and you’ll get no satisfaction on those counts until the bitter end. But — and here’s the bit where I part company with most of the reviews of this game, even the positive ones — the actual story of this game is a fairly minor part of why I love it. The slow start of Night in the Woods has been much remarked upon. The story doesn’t really get going in earnest until about halfway through. The first half of the game is basically a succession of days where you can guide Mae in her aimless explorations of the tiny industry town that isn’t quite like she remembers it. Fully half of the game is devoted to giving you time to discover the little details hidden away throughout the town and to develop relationships with major and minor characters alike. It’s like if half of Ocarina of Time took place in a bigger, constantly changing version of Kakariko Village. (In fact, it’s almost like Majora’s Mask, a big chunk of which takes place in a big, constantly changing town.) To me, this is ideal. At the best of times I play games at a languid pace. With a New Year’s Day hangover, doubly so. Here is a game that is specifically designed for that sort of gameplay. To illustrate specifically how much I loved exploring the nooks and crannies of this game: HowLongToBeat suggests that a “leisurely” playthrough of the main story of Night in the Woods should take about 10 hours. It took me 23. I played for about 10 hours on New Year’s Day, and I was just getting to the bit with a story. Honestly, I like that early part of the game better. Possum Springs, the game’s setting, is a beautifully realized little place, full of characters and details that feel intensely true to life. You could do a full playthrough of this game just focussing on finding all of the town’s history with industry and unions and that would be fascinating in itself. As I played Night in the Woods, I had a list of people that I made sure to check in with at every opportunity: Mr. Chazokov, your old high school teacher, now an amateur astronomer; Pastor Kate, a big-hearted social activist going to war with the town council; Lori, an alienated teenager you can take under your wing; and even vanishingly minor personalities like the dude who writes bad poems while fishing in the underground tunnel. With a setting as well-drawn as this one, the game almost doesn’t need a story at all. And the fact that the whole place feels like it’s crumbling under the weight of globalization, automation, and the waning power of unions makes these characters’ situations feel all the more resonant. Once the story proper begins, I’m inclined to think the game loses a bit of steam, but not much. For a game that draws the mundane details of life with such engaging clarity, it’s almost a disappointment to learn that there actually is something happening here. But, without spoiling anything, I’ll say that what’s happening does tie in satisfyingly to one of the game’s two thematic throughlines, which swirl around each other like a double helix. That’s the labour and poverty throughline. The other is depression throughline, which is handled with real finesse as well, though I’m tempted to feel it’s been overemphasized in the coverage of Night in the Woods. That could just be because it’s very much a theme that comes through in the game’s character elements, whereas I was much more engaged with it as an exploration of place. In any case, there’s a hell of a lot going on in this game, it has all the heart in the world, and I haven’t even talked about its incredible cast of supporting characters and writing that rivals the best in the industry. If I’d played it two days earlier, it would have booted Tacoma off my year-end list. Pick of the week.  

Television, etc.

Pretty Good — After putting together my year-end list, which involved at least an hour of getting sucked back into Jon Bois’s awesome mixed-media thing 17776, I went down a Jon Bois rabbit hole. Pretty Good is his series of 13 short documentaries (functionally 12, though, since one has been removed) about “stories that are pretty good.” Being a sports writer, most of them revolve around sports in some way, which is a thing I don’t know anything about or connect with. But like 17776, Bois’s sports-related short films are things you come to for the calibre of the storytelling rather than because you had a vested interest in the subject at hand. He’s one of the internet’s great storytellers, and he makes things that could only exist in an internet world because they are so much more detailed and niche than you could possibly get away with in broadcast media. This is a guy who is totally willing to spend several minutes on a parenthetical about the price of lawn chairs, which is not relevant to the story at hand. If it’s interesting, it finds its way in. Bois also has that rarest of things on YouTube: a distinctive personal aesthetic. Pretty Good makes use of footage from Google Earth, not just for functional story purposes, but also as a way to fill space. It doesn’t feel weird any more than it feels weird to hear glockenspiel in Bruce Springsteen songs. It’s just there because that’s what that guy does. The entire series is worth watching, but I specifically recommend three episodes: the one about Larry Walters’ flight over Los Angeles in a lawn chair suspended by helium weather balloons, the one about 24 as a sad American nightmare, and the one about the time Georgia Tech beat Cumberland in a football game with a score of 222 to nothing. This last one contains more stop-motion than I’ve ever seen in a video produced by only one person. It is also a very convincing psychological horror story that happens to be about a sporting event. Jon Bois’s projects are what I want the internet to be like. Bless SB Nation for letting him do whatever he wants.

Podcasts

Radiolab catch-up — Ah well, I guess I’ll keep listening to Radiolab. I caught up completely this week, and I was totally into the episodes they did where they answered listener questions. It almost seemed like a return to an earlier version of Radiolab where they managed to fit more than one story into an episode. I always liked that format for this show. Anyway. They’ve saved themselves from unsubscription.

Song by Song catch-up — This has really grown on me over the course of its journey through Tom Waits’ Rain Dogs. The secret is that they really need compelling guests to bring something new to the conversation. The episodes I listened to featured Eric Molinsky from the excellent Imaginary Worlds podcast and Jon Ronson, who wrote Lost at Sea, which is one of my favourite nonfiction collections. Hearing Molinsky talk about the notion of continuity in Waits’s catalogue and Ronson talk about what he (and Bruce Springsteen) meant to a kid who really wanted to get the hell out of Cardiff, really made me want to revisit some of these songs. And I did. And they’re great.

99% Invisible catch-up — I have at times become fatigued with the juggernauts of the podcast world (see esp. Radiolab), and this show is no exception. But it never takes long to convince me once again of why it’s awesome. The six episodes I listened to this week are all gems, especially the two about design in the movie industry. Roman Mars’s interview with Annie Atkins about her work designing things that may never be seen by the audience of a movie (and also the Mendl’s box from The Grand Budapest Hotel, which had a spelling error on it that needed to be corrected in post) is riveting stuff. But the best episode is actually a feature from The Organist, a podcast by McSweeney’s and KCRW that I am now subscribed to. It’s a story about the history of radio advertising, told by a veteran radio advertiser. It’s really something. You’ll never hear Jefferson Airplane the same way again once you hear Grace Slick hawking Levi jeans. Pick of the week.

Reply All catch-up — The last few episodes of this of the year are good fun. I always love their year-end wrap-ups, where they revisit stories and people from episodes gone by. And the Yes Yes No episode about Antifa, in which Alex Goldman tries to explain “Buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo” on the radio is really something.

Code Switch catch-up — I’m not quite caught up yet, but the live episode with Hari Kondabolu was awesome, and the one about Mary Hamilton, a civil rights activist who fought for the right to be addressed as “Miss” is a classic.