Three picks of the week, this week. It was that kind of week. Also, here’s the latest NXNW segment. It’s a really good one, this week. I talked about three things from very recent weeks that I’ve especially loved. I’m at 2:09:42.
Baby Driver — I have a friend who tells a story about how Brian Eno saved his life. “I suffer from tinnitus,” he wrote. “These days I’m mostly able to ignore it, but when I first noticed it, it was terrifying. I couldn’t sleep through the night without having this track (“Music for Airports 1/1”) on repeat in the background, just loud enough to distract me from the buzzing in my own head, just quiet enough to allow me to sleep.” He went on to coin a phrase I like: “societal tinnitus”: the terrifying sensation that the world is inescapably noisy. I know for a fact that he’s not the only person to have found Music for Airports necessary for drowning out one metaphorical tinnitus or another. But music’s function as a tonic runs deeper than a mere physiological response to calming ambient music. Music can offer a near-complete respite from the obligation to be present in the world. When you put in earbuds, you are doing two things in equal measure: connecting yourself to an imaginary reality that exists in a recording, and disconnecting yourself from the auditory portion of the empirical reality around you. It’s wrong to view the latter phenomenon as a byproduct of the former. Your inability to hear while in this state — and increasingly the willingness of others to simply accept that you cannot hear them while wearing earbuds and thus not try to engage you — is a feature, not a bug. “The world is so loud.” To escape, simply superimpose a louder one. Disengage. A pair of shades to avoid unsought after eye contact completes the coping mechanism. Making compulsive use of this function of music is surely unhealthy. But for all that it may cost you, it repays you with moments of unmatched vibrancy in your inner life. Everybody else is walking to work, lining up for a sandwich, waiting for the bus. And you may be doing one of those things too, but you are wholly within yourself: a bespoke intelligence expending the minimum amount of mental energy on the world that begins where you end. This is when you are most yourself. These moments are a joy and a necessity. And the music itself is almost incidental to the appeal. Baby Driver is the first movie I’ve seen that captures, or even attempts to capture, this feeling. When Baby dances down the sidewalk in the long take that makes up the movie’s title sequence, he is allowing “Harlem Shuffle” to subsume his reality. (Ansel Elgort’s essential charmlessness helps to sell Baby’s total disengagement.) When he makes his immaculately choreographed getaways to the strains of various energetic scores, he is imposing his own reality on the world around him. Baby Driver’s relationship with music is different from that of lesser films like Garden State or even High Fidelity, both of which are about how a person’s relationship with specific genres, songs and artists help to inform that person’s identity. Baby Driver isn’t really about any music in particular, but rather about the act of listening itself, and the functions of that act. Baby’s musical taste has little bearing on his character. For Baby, music is neither indulgence nor signifier, but a basic necessity. He requires it to drown out his tinnitus — which he possesses in both literal and metaphorical forms. In a bit of boilerplate but not entirely unrelatable backstory, we see that Baby’s tinnitus and his psychological trauma were caused by the same event. We see that even prior to this event, Baby was using the noise-cancelling properties of Apple earbuds to drown out a noisy household. (“So this is what the volume knob’s for…”) For Baby, music will always first and foremost serve a practical purpose. Baby’s not a music nerd. His taste in music doesn’t serve as personal branding or narrative shorthand. (And what would we be meant to learn about him from the fact that he blasts “Tequila,” anyway?) He simply does not have the freedom to exist without music. He cannot do his job in its absence, and he cannot avoid his literal and metaphorical tinnitusses without it. This is what Buddy misunderstands when he deafens Baby: he’s not taking away something Baby loves, he’s permanently curing the disease that the music was only ever a treatment for. Without tinnitus, Baby is free to continue living his rich inner life unencumbered by the noise of the world and the noise in his head. He is free to be the most himself, always. Deafness is a permanent and equal alternative to the superimposed reality of his iPod. He even already knows sign language. Baby Driver is not a music nerd movie. It is not a movie about listening to music. It’s a movie about not having to listen to the rest of the world, which is loud and confusing and stressful. That is an effect that listening to music has. It is a feature, not a bug. This may turn out to be one of those movies with which I develop an inappropriately intense relationship. Pick of the week.
Twin Peaks: The Return: Part 10 — Is it foolish to criticize the amount of violence towards women in a show that started off about the brutal murder of a homecoming queen? Because, 26 years later, Twin Peaks still submits its female characters to an awful lot. This, more than any other episode of the season, is where these dubious instincts come out a bit too much. There are three separate instances of physical violence towards women in this, two of which are in the first ten minutes. Also in the first ten minutes is a somewhat troubling sequence in which a woman is too stupid to realize that if she swats a fly that’s sitting on a person’s head, she swats the person as well. Subsequently, she cries for the whole day and asks the swatted man “how can you love me after what I did?” This in spite of the two other women this man keeps around the house wearing the same fetishistic outfit. I mean, she could be up to something, but this is one of very few shows where it’s possible she might just actually be that way. Hmm. Pity too, because it would be a good Lynchian joke if this show were a little bit less dudeish these days. (Where the hell is Audrey??? I’d understand if she’s reluctant to show her face because her son’s a shitsack, but I need her in this show for the same reason I need Cooper back, i.e. I need somebody to start figuring shit out.) I’m also starting to seriously question what the point was of casting Naomi Watts as such a dunce. This hasn’t really stuck out to me over the past nine episodes, but I’m now starting to wonder whether this show’s attitude towards women is actually worse than it was in the early 90s. On the other hand, I’d really like to see more of Harry Dean Stanton singing folk tunes. And I was OVERJOYED to see Rebekah Del Rio, whose performance in Mulholland Dr. is my favourite moment in all of cinema. So, with those notable exceptions, this was my least favourite episode of the season so far. I hope the next few episodes follow through on Part 9’s promise to start allowing plot threads to converge. That, or just do more awesome freakouts like Part 8. If you’re going to be obtuse, GO ALL THE DAMN WAY.
Game of Thrones: “Dragonstone” — Well, this is off to an abruptly better start than the last couple of seasons. I have a lot of trouble getting excited for GoT the way that the rest of the world seems to. But when I actually sit down and watch it, I inevitably remember that I like it. Highlights here include Arya brutally slaughtering dozens of people and shortly thereafter trying to fit in non-awkwardly with a bunch of normal-seeming soldier dudes. Maisie Williams’ forced laughter in this scene is a thing to behold. It’s entirely possible that her performance is my favourite in this show. Also, Sam is attending Gross University. The Hound is gonna find religion. And Jorah is dying slowly. Those are my key takeaways. Mostly I’m just happy that there are no plotlines in this show right now that I’m barely tolerating. Should be a good season.
Deep Cuts: “A Guide to BRIAN ENO” — Oh no, I have a British doppelganger and he’s better and more prolific than me. This is an impressively thorough trip through the Eno catalogue, dealing with his solo albums and collaborations. Oliver J (a cursory Google did not yield a full surname) has some nice bits of analysis in here, like when he points to Eno’s habit of giving descriptive names to his own instrumental credits (e.g. “Snake guitar”) as an indicator of how good he is at communicating about music — and therefore why he’s such a good collaborator. I hadn’t thought of that, and I think about Brian Eno more than just about any artistic figure. It’s a marathon, but it’s worth a watch if you’re trying to parse Eno’s catalogue for stuff you might want to check out.
Porkin’ Across America — This is a very dark story, courtesy of the Onion, about what happens when a man neglects his family in favour of travel, fame, and pork. It starts to get dark immediately, but you have no idea how dark it will get by the last episode. You have no idea.
The Dream Machine: Chapter 5 — Chapter five is the strangest, most discursive and in some ways most ingenious chapter of The Dream Machine. As I said in my review of chapter four, Victor has essentially completed his character arc at this point, and all that remains for him is to save the day with his newfound maturity and empathy. (I’m assuming that’s what chapter six will entail, but I haven’t gotten there.) So, in this penultimate chapter, the devs just cut loose, envisioning two dreams that have little bearing on Victor’s psychology, but which are simply good fun to walk around in. Selma’s dream is probably the most significant accomplishment in the game in terms of its (literal) construction (from clay, cardboard and found objects). The look of the place is a wonder: a hazy fairytale forest in a state of perpetual gloaming. Its crowning glory is the inside of a squirrel’s hidey hole, bark and wood walls all covered in lichen and mushrooms. The detail in these interactive dioramas is like nothing we’ve seen so far. And though its characters are not dealing with struggles that resonate with Victor (the only familial relationship here is Selma and her grandfather, and that relationship is only sketched in broad strokes), they are probably the most memorable group of characters in The Dream Machine. (One of them is, alas, basically the Black Knight from Monty Python and the Holy Grail, but with the delightful twist of being actually dead, and still unwilling to acknowledge it.) If I follow my usual theme of this game being the story of a young man learning empathy, then I suppose this chapter’s role is to expose him to subconsciousnesses that are drastically different from his own. The people he meets here are new types of people for him: a persecuted vampire, for instance. Or the mysterious presence that calls itself (themselves?) “Legion”: a seeming manifestation of Mr. Willard’s doubts and anxieties, lurking at the bottom of an abyss. Is it too personal to reveal that Mr. Willard’s dream is the one in this game that most resembles my dreams? Mine tend not to try and kill me quite so often. But when I remember my dreams, which is infrequently these days, they tend to take place in indeterminate, abstract spaces like this. For all that Selma’s dream is the most impressive construction in this chapter, it’s the aggressive simplicity of Mr. Willard’s monochrome stress vision (with Victor appearing in black and white, to boot) that I really love. Both dreams have some of the game’s best (and hardest) puzzles. But this chapter’s real masterstroke is the reveal that its two dreams are connected by a dividing wall, just as Selma’s and Willard’s apartments are, and that it is possible and necessary to transgress this boundary. That central conceit, that you can leverage the logic of one dream world against another to solve its puzzles, is The Dream Machine’s most ingenious idea from a gameplay perspective. The narrative apex of chapter four is ultimately more satisfying than anything in this chapter’s story, but chapter five is more ostentatious, more dazzling, and therefore occasionally more fun. Chapter six will have to be extraordinary to measure up to the standards of its two predecessors. Thank god I don’t have to wait for it this time.
The Dream Machine: Chapter 6 — Wow, this did not end anything like I expected it to. That’s not to say that the ending wasn’t essentially in keeping with my concept of the game’s themes, because it was. But I didn’t expect the ending to be so perverse. The Dream Machine is a game about a man who learns the value of other selves, and by extension he learns how to put himself second. He started the game wishing he could retire to an island and fish for the rest of his life. In this episode, we learn the significance of this image: Victor regards the first time he killed a fish for no good reason as the end of his childhood. It’s also the point where he stopped fishing. So, his island fantasy is a straightforward reversion to childhood. We always knew this, but now we can fill in the blanks. I expected Victor to end the game in a dramatically different place from where he started it, and of course he does. But only emotionally. Physically, he’s trapped in the exact state he’d initially fantasized about, wishing he’d been careful what he wished for. It’s the dark culmination of an unexpectedly dark final chapter. The previous moments find Victor walking back inside his mother’s womb (it’s as literal as that) and performing a coat hanger abortion. That’s ground I never expected this game to tread. I confess to being of two minds about the ending. I see how it makes poetic sense, but I also can’t help but feel it’s a betrayal of Victor’s character arc. Because even if he does end the story with a selfless act that he wouldn’t have been capable of previously, he also does not get to be the father he’s learned to be from his travels through other people’s subconsciousnesses. But focussing on the ending alone isn’t fair, because there’s a whole chapter that leads up to it, and it’s a very good one. It benefits from having (slightly reduced) versions of all of the previous dreams available to explore and manipulate, but it also has its own entirely new area which is one of the game’s best. The centre of the dreamscape is a blacklight fantasy that is effectively one big puzzle. Like the cruise ship of Alicia’s dream in chapter three, it is populated by multiple Victors. But unlike chapter three’s Victors, these Victors are (or were) on the same mission that our Victor is. And so, the game eventually takes the form of Victor having an extended conversation with himself about how to solve the puzzle. The greatest pleasure of chapter six is tapping the other Victors, who are drastically different in their attitudes, for information — and cross referencing that information with what you managed to get out of all of the other Victors. They’ve all tried and failed to solve the same puzzle you’re trying to solve. They’re playing the same video game. So basically, I really liked this chapter, and I’d probably put it above the first three in my ranking. But the ending rankles. And it’s making me see my initial theory, the one I was so proud of, that the whole game is just an enactment of Brian Eno’s song “On Some Faraway Beach” in a very new light. Gradually, throughout this game, Victor came to see that faraway beach as a more lonely and sinister place, and no longer wanted to “die like a baby there,” as Eno sings. (I’ve explained this more thoroughly in previous reviews.) Now it appears he’ll live there forever. And of course, the theme has to be driven home even more perversely with a quote from an entirely different song: “Where I End And You Begin” by Radiohead: a song about a failure of empathy. The devs are to be congratulated for being so wonderfully unpredictable. I need another playthrough to sort out my feelings on this, but altogether, The Dream Machine is a masterful creation, and something that any fan of adventure games should hasten to play.
GZA: Liquid Swords — This is an album I listened to once or twice a couple years back, liked a lot, and am only now revisiting. I find it hard to decide between this and 36 Chambers, honestly. The proper Wu-Tang debut benefits from the presence of nine unique MCs, but Liquid Swords benefits from GZA’s primacy for the exact opposite reasons. The parade of disparate personalities on 36 Chambers keeps it entertaining from front to back, but Liquid Swords is more consistent by virtue of putting Wu-Tang’s most skilled MC up front. (Anybody who doubts this assignation is advised to closely consider GZAs verse on “Duel of the Iron Mic.”) RZA is honestly not one of my favourite beatmakers — his key contribution to Wu-Tang in my view is as the “ideas guy,” curating the Clan’s constellation of recurring cultural touchstones and self-imposed mythologies. But there’s an atmospheric quality of the beats on this that matches GZA’s more contemplative moments pretty well. The only downside to this is that the preponderance of features from other Wu-Tang members come from MCs who aren’t really my favourites. Barring welcome appearances by Method Man on “Shadowboxin,” RZA on “4th Chamber” and a vanishingly small snippet of ODB on “Duel of the Iron Mic,” I don’t really care for any of the feature verses. Still, this is a genuine classic.
George Saunders: Lincoln in the Bardo (audiobook) — This is a beautiful, beautiful book. If you’ve read any of the hype about it, you could be forgiven for thinking that it is primarily a book concerned with history, or with America, or with a president. It is not. The Civil War, and the person of Abraham Lincoln are just a generous seasoning sprinkled overtop of a story that is first and foremost about the universal experiences of grief and regret. Naturally, given that this is a story that takes place in the immediate aftermath of the death of Willie Lincoln, a certain amount of the grief and regret in the story are the grief and regret of President Lincoln. And the brief passages in the book where we get to see inside of his head feature some of Saunders’ most powerful writing. One passage, where Lincoln imagines himself and his wife as two puffs of smoke who became mutually fond and mistook each other for permanences (I’m paraphrasing as nearly as I can since I don’t have the text in front of me; it’s an audiobook) has been particularly haunting me. But the most significant characters in the book are essentially unaware of the war, having died and become trapped in a middle-ground between the world we know (referred to by them as “that previous place”) and the next one, long before any such war ever began. The reason to read this book is not Lincoln; it’s the double act of Hans Vollman and Roger Bevins III, two deceased people who are deeply in denial of this fact and consumed by regret for what they did and did not do during their time in that previous place. They, and their fellow death deniers are so defined by their regret that they take on physical characteristics that reflect the specific nature of those regrets. (Vollman, who never consummated his marriage, is blighted by a comically large erection. Saunders has him describe it with skillful and hilarious euphemism, e.g. “my enormous disability.” And Bevins, who believes himself to have missed out on appreciating the world’s simple pleasures, is afflicted with an overabundance of sensory organs: far too many eyes and noses, for instance.) The purpose of Lincoln and his son in the narrative is not as a focal point, but rather as a catalyst for Vollman, Bevins and the other denizens of the bardo (that is what this middle-ground is called in Tibetan Buddhism) to understand their condition differently and to see their particular experiences of self-grief and regret in a new light. It could only be the Lincolns who catalyze such a thing, because they are people in a particularly extraordinary situation, dealing with an entirely specific experience of grief. But, their identity as historical figures in a familiar narrative is ultimately secondary to the coincidence of their intersection with the historical nonentities that populate Saunders’ bardo. So, don’t come to this expecting a work of historical fiction or a rumination on a divided America. Come to it expecting a beautiful fantasy, rendered in gorgeous prose, about the saddest moments in human experience. (And do listen to the audiobook. Nick Offerman and David Sedaris’s central performances will make you cry on the bus.) Pick of the week.
Jorge Luis Borges: “Death and the Compass” — Without meaning to, I seem to have read the entire Garden of Forking Paths collection, so I figure I may as well make a concerted effort (though an out-of-sequence one) to read Artifices as well, thus completing the two-part Fictions collection. This strikes me as a superior detective story to Borges’s better-known “The Garden of Forking Paths” and an obvious precursor to some of the most prevalent detective narratives of our era. It might be the times talking, but I see a particular resonance with Twin Peaks. Detective Lönrott’s willingness to explore mystical, kabbalistic elements of the murders taking place could be a direct inspiration for Agent Cooper’s fascination with Zen Buddhism. The twist, which I am about to spoil, is a lovely one in which it is revealed that the detective in this detective story is not simply a plot element trying to figure out what transpired, but also a motivating factor in the crimes themselves. I’d watch a television series about Lönrott. And considering the story’s willingness to entertain the notion of reincarnation, this story could be either the first or the last episode. Get on it, Bryan Fuller.
Mogul: “Gucci Boots” — Here’s where the story starts to get dark. Reggie Ossé and his team discovered a police report that reveals Chris Lighty’s domestic violence record. I think they went about covering this in a really responsible way. In spite of the high regard that Ossé holds Lighty in, he doesn’t make any attempt to mitigate the horror of this side of him. Moreover, he calls the chief communications officer for the National Domestic Violence Hotline for advice on how to proceed, and actually puts that conversation on the show. This is the point where Mogul becomes more than just a compelling story and starts to coalesce into a whole biographical portrait.
Pop Culture Happy Hour: “Twin Peaks: The Return” — I think I’m going to like this show’s new format, but I might start waiting until Friday to listen to both weekly episodes in succession, because I like gulping it down in big chunks. Still, the bit of news at the end of the Tuesday show could serve as a nice way to mark things as they happen rather than once everybody’s forgotten about them. As for the Twin Peaks discussion, it is as contentious a conversation as that show deserves. It speaks to the complexity of Twin Peaks that you can read and hear every opinion on the internet about this show and still not come across your own.
The Turnaround: “Errol Morris” & “Jerry Springer” — The Errol Morris interview is some kind of extended break with reality. Jesse Thorn tries as hard as he can to use Morris’s own tactic of just not saying anything to the interview subject against him, but Morris just meanders nonsensically. Which is not to say that it isn’t entertaining, it’s just… something. There’s a wonderful moment when Morris reaches his most discursive moment only to circle back immediately and unprompted to the question “what even is an interview??” The Jerry Springer interview is most revealing for the fact that Springer also thinks his show is garbage. But he’s also really good at rationalizing why it’s worthwhile regardless. Two episodes that seem out to prove that The Turnaround isn’t trying to be journalism school — it’s way weirder than that.
WTF with Marc Maron: “Keb’ Mo’ & Taj Mahal,” “David Remnick,” “Edie Falco” — After my big doubtful tirade against interviews with artists, all I want to do is listen to interviews with artists. Weird. Let nobody ever hold me to my convictions. The Keb’ Mo’/Taj Mahal double is great mostly because of how temperamentally different they are. Keb’ is thoughtful and considered in his speaking, and Taj is a raconteur par excellence. But they both seem to really enjoy talking to Maron, and that’s the deciding factor on this show. David Remnick is an interesting fellow who has as much range in his conversation as you’d expect from the editor of the New Yorker. But the Edie Falco interview is the best of them, mostly because it’s the sound of Maron’s preconceptions shattering. Like Jesse Thorn said on The Turnaround, Maron’s key move is bringing his preoccupations all with him to the interview and allowing the guest to confirm or deny. Great radio.
The Daily: July 20 & 21 — Two banner episodes of this podcast in as many days. The first features a debrief with the reporters who interviewed the president shortly before, along with (low-quality) audio from that interview. The striking moment is a bit where Trump’s granddaughter comes in the room and starts being adorable. This was one of those moments that happens ever more frequently where I don’t know what’s real and what’s fake. Obviously, it could have been a planned stunt. But there’s no actual reason for me to think that, except that this president constantly tries to reshape reality as he speaks. Regardless, it’s Friday’s episode that stands out. It’s a desperately sad story about women who were taken prisoner and raped repeatedly by ISIS militants. Don’t listen to it unless you want to feel terrible. But it’s important work, undertaken with the utmost discretion. This may well be the defining podcast of this era in the medium. Pick of the week.
Mogul: Cameos: Joan Morgan & N.O.R.E. — Two great bits of tape that were excised from the main story. The N.O.R.E. episode is particularly amusing because everybody involved, including the host, is drunk.
On the Media: “Not Repealed, Not Replaced” & “Doubt It” — Two essential episodes of a show whose essentiality continues unabated into the Trump campaign. First off, Brooke Gladstone calls up her key source for her incredibly effective poverty myths series from last year to give some long-view context to the recent failure of the GOP to repeal and replace the ACA. And in the main episode, she and Bob Garfield revisit their dust-up the morning after the election, which remains the most disquieting and memorable podcast episode of last year. Turns out, Bob Garfield has had a change of heart. I was never quite sure whose side I was on to begin with, so I’m not sure how to react. I will say this: Brooke Gladstone’s constant interrogation of the way we process information and the reasons why we process it that way is unique among current affairs journalists, and it’s been as useful as anybody’s work these past few months. So, Garfield is probably right to swallow his doubts and start taking the long-view.
Radiolab: “The Ceremony” — This is a fun story, but it has a seemingly big twist in it that they make a big deal of but that turns out to be nothing. I’d go into more detail if it had delivered on its promise, but it didn’t, so it’s just another episode, really.
The Nod: “Hunter Green Thong” — This is a great addition to the Gimlet stable. It’s a funny and thoughtful show about blackness. Not something I see myself listening to religiously, but definitely something I’ll check in on from time to time.