Tag Archives: Vancouver Art Gallery

Omnibus (weeks of Apr. 22 & 29)

I’ve been away for a week, and that always throws off my schedule here. So, we’ve got two weeks worth of reviews, and they are ALL OVER THE PLACE.

I think I’m actually proud of this particular Omnibus. There’s a lot going on here. There’s opera and paintings and other hoity-toity shit like that. There’s the new Avengers. There’s a pair of films about rock and roll, and a pair of albums by a band I’m currently obsessed with. There’s stuff that made me laugh. There’s a weird game. And there are not so many podcasts as to tip the balance away from the other stuff. I think this may be good. Anyway, it was fun.

I will also take this opportunity to direct you to the Tumblr associated with this blog, in case you would like a more media-rich experience that also includes paragraph breaks. Paragraph breaks are good, but we have a house style here and some rules are not made to be broken. Even when the paragraphs clearly are. I think the Tumblr may be particularly advisable in the case of the Vancouver Art Gallery entry, because pictures. Regardless of your choice, enjoy.

Does three picks of the week sound reasonable? I think that sounds reasonable.

20 reviews.

Events

Gaetano Donizetti: Anna Bolena (Canadian Opera Company) — I only had time to take in one show while I was in Toronto. It might have been a hard choice if Sondra Radvanovsky hadn’t been singing at the COC. That made it damn easy. I’ll be honest: I don’t like Donizetti. I don’t find his music memorable, and the librettos in these Tudor operas make me cringe. But in this case, that didn’t matter at all, because I was in this for Radvanovsky specifically, and she was magnificent. She’s a singing actor who puts intensity front and centre, in the tradition of Maria Callas — except, in my opinion, with a more innately attractive voice than Callas. And intensity is what you need for Bolena, a role that encompasses imperiousness, regret, madness, spite, and maybe love. Radvanovsky’s Bolena seems ready to spit in the king’s eye at any moment — a dramatic task made easier by baritone Christian Van Horn, who plays Enrico (Henry) VIII as a louche slimeball with no sense of his own hypocrisy. Van Horn and Radvanovsky have that delicious dynamic of intense loathing that’s hard to come by outside of the Lannisters on Game of Thrones. Remarkably, soprano Keri Alkema holds her own alongside Radvanovsky. The role of Giovanna Seymour is intrinsically less interesting than the role of Bolena, even if she does get some nice coloratura stuff to sing. Seymour is merely a lover — and a tediously sincere one at that, who knows Enrico is objectively horrible and loves him anyway. Bolena’s concerns are more complex: she wants power, and she’s concerned about her legacy. There’s a great love in her past, but when she looks back on it fondly, you get the sense that she’s really just regretting the pickle she’s gotten herself into by marrying such a terrible man. But it’s precisely this contrast between the two characters that makes Radvanovsky and Alkema so effective together. They understand that relationship completely. Of the smaller roles, Allyson McHardy stands out in the pants role of Smeton, a character whose only narrative purpose is to drive the tiresome intrigues that are a mandatory part of all bel canto opera. What the character lacks in narrative interest, McHardy compensates for with wonderful singing. If I haven’t made it clear already, this is a very well-directed production. Even though the libretto (or at least its translation) is made up exclusively of things that nobody would ever say, the actors commit. And their understanding of the relationships that underpin the drama goes some distance to papering over the weakness of the text. The set is spectacular without being overbearing. It is essentially a Jacob’s ladder of connected, tall wood panels that can slide back and forth across the stage to produce the impression of intimate spaces when they’re close to the audience and grand spaces when they’re far back. They can become corridors and gates. It’s nifty. It also aids the drama: Bolena’s chambers seem tiny and claustrophobic, while Enrico seems particularly frightening slouched on a throne in the middle of a huge, empty stage. Director Stephen Lawless and set designer Benoit Durgardyn have done well, here. I enormously enjoyed this. I still think it’s a dumb opera, but it hardly seems to matter. (Okay, fine, “Al dolce guidami” is gorgeous.)

A visit to the Vancouver Art Gallery (April 24, 2018) — As I’m writing this, it has been nearly two weeks since the visit in question, and the network of connections and ideas that formed in my head as I traversed the five exhibitions present at the time has largely disintegrated. But I did see a bunch of art that’s stuck with me and will continue to. So I’m just going to rattle some of it off. The reason I was at the gallery was that it was my last chance to see Takashi Murakami’s retrospective exhibition “The Octopus Eats Its Own Leg.” Given what a hit it’s been, I figured I’d see it last, so as not to be completely underwhelmed by the rest of the art in the gallery. In practice, I think the opposite happened. I was at the VAG for more than four hours. By the end of that, I was completely overstimulated and my brain was having trouble processing images. That’s not the state you want to be in when you walk into a whole floor of brightly coloured, enormously detailed, narratively complicated art with influences ranging from ancient Japanese painting to Instagram. I’ve never seen Picasso’s Guernica or Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights in person, but I imagine that some of Murakami’s most gigantic paintings rival those works for sheer impact of spectacle. Seeing Tan Tan Bo Puking on a screen or an advertisement makes it look like a comics splash page or a Roger Dean album cover: you may be drawn in by its whimsy and impressed by its minute detail, but you’re unlikely to be overwhelmed. Seeing it in person is overwhelming because it is seven metres long. I have no idea what, if anything, it is meant to convey. But it doesn’t seem to matter because the spectacle is so effective. That’s a reasonable summary of my whole experience with the Murakami exhibit. I wish I could see pieces like 100 Arhats or Dragon in Clouds again while not being quite so spent, because they require a lot of energy. Knowing that I would need at least a fragment of my energy left for Murakami, I breezed through the small exhibition on the fourth floor somewhat inattentively. In addition to the traditional selection of Emily Carr paintings (which I never tire of), the VAG was showing some prints of photographs by Mattie Gunterman, a photographer born in 1872 who walked six hundred miles with her husband to get to B.C. to mine for silver. Seeing her photographs alongside Carr’s famous forest pictures made perfect sense, prompting me to go “ah” as I slingshotted around this floor and headed for Murakami. This brings us to “Bombhead,” maybe my favourite exhibition I saw on this visit. It’s a selection of art and artefacts focussed around the idea of nuclear disaster, curated by John O’Brian. It’s accompanied by a nifty little booklet designed in the style of Canadian nuclear survival guides that were published in the 50s and 60s. The exhibition takes its title from a Bruce Conner picture that sets the tone for the whole thing: the nuclear age is a void too dark to stare into, so we resort to whimsy. Accordingly, the exhibition is exhausting and marvellous. I spent more time than I needed to in an alcove, watching an old Cold War era documentary called The Atomic Cafe, while a Globe and Mail story about Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un loomed over me. I stared at a wall lined with photographs from Robert del Tredici’s epochal book At Work in the Fields of the Bomb. I surveyed unexpected images of nuclear detonations in popular culture. And I nearly barfed at the power of Nancy Spero’s bomb paintings. It’s a bonkers experience that feels terrifyingly relevant. The fallout from “Bombhead” seems to be drifting downwards to the lower floors of the VAG. Murakami’s exhibition is also concerned with the literal and figurative flattening of Japan by a nuclear bomb. And World War II looms large in the focus of “Living, Building, Thinking,” an exhibition of expressionist art building from the collection of McMaster University. I love expressionism. I do not know art, but this is where I live. This exhibition shuffles the entire history of expressionism and its influence around so that the expected wartime Germans rub shoulders with contemporary Canadians and others. Walking in, you’re greeted by Yggdrasil: an oppressive, overwhelming painting by the German painter Anselm Kiefer, who was born just as WWII ended. That sets the tone nicely. Shortly thereafter, we see Canadian painter Tony Sherman’s Poseidon, which stares bleakly at us from a sea of drab dribbles. At that point, we’re well prepared for an intensely German freakout by Jörg Immendorff and a moving work by the Montreal-based painter Leopold Plotek called Master of the Genre of Silence, depicting the Soviet journalist Isaac Babel being interrogated. But the real heart of the exhibition is a whole room full of wartime lithographs and etchings by Nazi-persecuted artists like Max Beckmann, Hermann Max Pechstein and Frans Masereel. Pechstein’s multi-part illustration of the Lord’s Prayer is the absolute highlight of the exhibit, and even more modest works like Beckmann’s The Draughtsman in Society and Masereel’s wordless graphic novel Passionate Journey have incredible power in their simplicity and expressiveness. I’ll explore all three of these artists in greater depth. We’ve been working backwards through my visit to the VAG, so we’ve now finally arrived at the beginning. The expressionism exhibition shares a floor with another one taken from the collection at McMaster, this one containing art that was donated by the private collector Herman Levy. With all due respect, I do not care about Mr. Levy, no matter how hard the annotations in this exhibition try to make me. However, he doubtless had excellent taste in art, and I totally enjoyed seeing some great works by Monet and Pissarro in the comfort of my own city. I enjoyed noticing for the first time that painters sometimes convey the motion of water by actually thickening the layers of paint on the ripples. And I definitely enjoyed being introduced to the work of George Braque and Roderic O’Conor, who I was previously unfamiliar with. You know what, I like art. Art is good. This was a fun afternoon. Also, during the course of my visit, two different people stopped to look at a fire extinguisher and jokingly said “so beautiful” to their friends. I wonder if that joke happens every day. Pick of the week.

Movies

Avengers: Infinity War — It is without a doubt the mostest movie I’ve seen this year. Avengers: Infinity War is a big fun spectacle that I had a great time watching. And it embodies all the best and worst tendencies of the Marvel Cinematic Universe in one movie. Weirdly, I think a useful way to look at this movie is in comparison with Game of Thrones. I’ll tell you why, and I’ll do so with no spoilers. Relax. The key question for me going into Infinity War is how the hell they’d be able to juggle all of these characters and still maintain a semblance of a cohesive story. The answer turns out to be that they structure it like an episode of GoT, which famously encompasses a vast range of characters and settings. Your standard episode of GoT pushes several independent stories forward at once, each of them linked to the others only in the sense that viewers are aware of the complex web of familial relationships and power dynamics that relates them. Tune into a random episode, and it might feel like you’re watching five different medieval soaps. Infinity War is structured much the same way, with characters from various bits of the MCU grouped off and pursuing stories independently of the others. But unlike GoT, this movie’s characters are pulled from separate franchises, some of which have drastically different tones than the rest. It’s great fun to see a Spider-Man school bus scene that could come straight out of Homecoming bump up against big silly Guardians of the Galaxy space opera scenes and climactic battles in Wakanda. If Infinity War operated along the same lines as the first two Avengers movies, with its cast largely concentrated on one threat in one area, it would be impossible. But the GoT approach makes it surprisingly fleet-footed. You can quibble with the underrepresentation of certain favourite characters (for many, Black Panther; for me, Hulk). But in a movie with a gazillion superheroes, this is inevitable. Infinity War strikes that balance more deftly than anybody could have hoped. (But seriously, though: when are we going to get a Mark Ruffalo-starring Hulk movie? That’s maybe my favourite performance in the whole MCU, and he’s only ever been a side-character.) The other way in which Game of Thrones can help inform a viewing of Infinity War is less flattering to the latter. GoT is famous for killing off major characters at the drop of a hat. So as not to spoil too much, I will only say that Infinity War also has a body count. But the funding models of these respective franchises prevent us from looking at them the same way. GoT can kill off characters and twist the plot around in crazy ways because its viewers are invested in a brand called “Game of Thrones” which will endure regardless until the story’s done. This is how television works. Infinity War, on the other hand, can’t easily kill anybody important off permanently because the MCU is a blockbuster movie generator buoyed by big, bankable characters. There is no end in sight to the overarching storyline of the MCU, and the brands that draw audiences in are “Spider-Man,” “Iron Man,” “Captain America,” and so forth. You can’t kill these characters because the characters themselves are brands. The brands need to stay alive if they can make money. In GoT, Tyrion Lannister is not a brand. He’s arguably a selling point for the show, but nobody’s tuning into a show called Tyrion. They’re watching Game of Thrones. These cold hard facts of capitalism are impossible to ignore while watching Infinity War, and they seriously undercut what would otherwise be some deeply affecting moments. Basically, I liked Infinity War. It’s a big, silly action movie. The villain is undercooked, and some of it is boring because of underdeveloped relationships. But it’s fun, and I don’t mind that it made a billion dollars.

Deconstructing the Beatles: The White Album — I went to this screening at the Rio expecting something else. This is a film of a multimedia lecture given by the Beatles scholar Scott Freimann. Freimann himself was in attendance, so I thought we’d actually be getting a live rendition of the multimedia lecture captured on the film. Still, the film was worth seeing, and it was fun to be able to ask Freimann questions after the fact. He’s been doing this whole series of lecture films on the Beatles, including ones on Sgt. Pepper, Rubber Soul, and Revolver. This particular film on the White Album covers the usual beats associated with that album — the move away from psychedelia, the trip to India, Yoko, George Martin getting fed up and leaving, Ringo getting fed up and leaving — but it also highlights the musical consequences of those events in a way that taught me a lot. I’m always worried going into a Beatles-related thing that I won’t learn anything. Martin Scorsese’s George Harrison documentary fell into that category. But this didn’t. It’s worth seeing for Freimann’s breakdowns of the multi-track recordings alone. Who knew the vibrato on Clapton’s “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” solo was done by manipulating the tape machine? Sounds like a whammy bar, but it isn’t. There are gems o’plenty along those lines in this. I’m curious to see the others, and may well do.

The Fearless Freaks — I’ve seen a ton of rock documentaries, and I’m not sure that any of them capture the spirit of the band they document quite as well as this one. Director Bradley Beesley had known and worked with the Flaming Lips for years by the time this was finished, and it allowed him to get footage of them that feels like genuine fly-on-the-wall material, rather than just relying on talking heads like most rock docs do. It also helps that Beesley directed a bunch of Flaming Lips music videos, so he’s a person who actually contributed to their iconic visual aesthetic, which is represented here in spades — it’s a hectic, fast-edited movie full of overwhelming colour. Except for when it’s in black and white. Honestly, the black and white footage is nutty because watching it is almost exactly the same as watching black and white footage of the early Pink Floyd. Without the beard, Wayne Coyne even looks a bit like Syd Barrett. A lot changed between the late 60s and the early 90s. But the appeal of getting high and making loud noises on guitars evidently did not. What I did not expect was that Coyne is not the highlight of the film. He’s a compelling live performer, no doubt. But this movie makes it entirely clear that his key virtue is being incredibly hardworking. That’s admirable, but not super interesting. The hero of this movie is Steven Drozd, the band’s once-heroin-addicted drummer/guitarist/keyboardist/pantomath. Drozd is a naturally lucid talker, to the point where Beesley can even have a frank conversation with him while he shoots up. This scene is the cornerstone of the film, but it doesn’t feel voyeuristic at all, given the obvious trust that exists between the two people. The key tension in the movie comes from the fact that Drozd is the most talented musician in the Flaming Lips, and Wayne Coyne is well aware that the band’s sound depends on a guy who could die at any moment. I don’t know the Flaming Lips’ music very well, but this is a great primer on their story.

Music

The Flaming Lips: Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots — The first time I listened to this I was really distracted. My review at the time said that “I generally find myself wishing that the fun spacey sounds and weird beats would occasionally also yield to a nice melody or a good lyric.” Did I just flat out fall asleep during “In the Morning of the Magicians?” That is a serious melody. Where was I right at the top of “Fight Test?” That’s a melody so good it’s actually by Cat Stevens. And as for lyrics, you can’t beat “you realize the sun don’t go down, it’s just an illusion caused by the world spinning round.” This is every bit the album I didn’t used to think it was.

The Flaming Lips: The Soft Bulletin — My second foray into the Lips discography, and the one that’s going to end up cementing me as a fan. This album is gorgeous. It has just enough of the archness I know from Yoshimi and the smattering of earlier Flaming Lips stuff I’ve heard to keep it from being tedious. But Wayne Coyne and co. seem much more concerned here with producing a thing of beauty rather than a thing that’s just fun. “A Spoonful Weighs a Ton” strikes the perfect balance between preening Broadway balladry and cheap, janky indie rock. The song itself is grandiose and cathartic, but it’s clothed in bad orchestral synths and Wayne Coyne’s detuned bleat. It’s perfect. I love every song on this. The ones I keep going back to are “Buggin’,” which is a very unexpected summer jam about mosquitoes, “The Spark That Bled,” which goes off madly in every direction, “The Gash,” which is psychedelic gospel music, and “Waiting for a Superman,” which is one of those songs that made me regret not being close to a piano right when I first heard it. I don’t know why it took me so long to get to this, but it’s one of my favourite musical discoveries I’ve had recently. Pick of the week.

Literature, etc.

E.H. Gombrich: The Story of Art — What book should I take on the plane, I asked myself. Maybe Moby-Dick, so it won’t take you a whole year to get through it? Or possibly something light, both physically and figuratively? You know, airplane reading? No, I said to myself. What you need to take on the plane is this hardback brick of a book about the history of visual art from prehistoric times through the 20th century. That is what you will enjoy. And you know what? I DID. I have only gotten up to the Renaissance so far, but this book is 100 percent living up to its reputation as a clear and lucid introduction to art with a layout that encourages you to look at the pictures discussed with a fresh eye. I’m learning so much — like, I didn’t realize that the reason Ancient Egyptian art looks like that is because they were trying, Picasso style, to show the whole of a thing from one angle. Nor did I realize how long it took for painters to devise a way to show an image from a perspective that makes it look lifelike. These are things I just took for granted. Thank you, Dr. Gombrich. I look forward to learning more.

Chris Onstad: Achewood — My plan for Achewood reading going forward is to read a year’s worth of the comics followed by a year’s worth of the affiliated blogs until I’m done. It’s too tedious to keep up with the blogs as I’m reading the comic, but I’ve realized that they are an essential part of the Achewood experience. If you’re unfamiliar, Chris Onstad wrote a series of in-character blogs for the various personages that populate his webcomic. Together, they expand the universe by a fair margin. And more than that, they provide Onstad with a more flexible platform to explore the language of his characters. Everybody in Achewood talks in their own particular way, and the blogs reflect that. Given that, some of them are virtually unreadable. Lyle’s blog is a tragically garbled account of life as an unrepentant blackout drunk. Little Nephew’s is an admirably committed performance of teenage affectation. Both are nearly as challenging as some chapters of Ulysses, or at least A Clockwork Orange. Molly’s is problematic for a different reason, namely that her entire identity revolves around her boyfriend. But aside from these, the blogs are a pleasure, and they add layers upon layers to the comic. If you noticed that Cornelius had been absent from the strip for a while, you might well take to his blog to see where he’s been. Sure enough, he’s in Russia, attempting to seduce an Olympian. (Cornelius’s blog contains my absolute favourite post I’ve read so far, which is this.) The other standout is Nice Pete’s blog, which contains a serialized novel of such derangement that your laughter is almost defensive. A sample: “Eustace ducked into the bathroom six seconds later. Six seconds is the amount of time it takes a man to really get into a good pee. He knew that Dimitri would be focused on the pleasure of his peeing sensation, and that he could have his way.”

Comedy

John Mulaney: Kid Gorgeous at Radio City — Mulaney remains the comic with the highest batting average. His two previous specials are both brilliant and this one keeps the pace. It’s a bigger venue (it’s Radio goddamn City Music Hall), and Mulaney is accordingly more physical. But his jokes are still things of immense precision. I’ve been off learning about how to write better for the radio for the last week. Radio producers would do well to listen to Mulaney’s writing. It is everything that is good in writing. If you are a radio producer and you are reading this, I specifically recommend the bit about Stranger Danger. It is a well-oiled machine of perfect construction. Also, this has a live appearance by Jon Brion playing Radio City’s weird old organ. He closes Mulaney’s set with Nirvana’s “Lithium,” which he’s talked about at length in interviews. That’s fun.

Games

OFF — I was listening to a recent episode of the podcast No Cartridge and this weird French indie game came up as a point of contrast with EarthBound, which I love. So, I downloaded it — for free; it is a non-commercial release. And I could not run it without it freezing constantly. But I was compelled enough by it to want to see it in some form anyway, so I watched a three-hour playthrough on YouTube. I wish I could have played it myself, because watching somebody else play a turn-based RPG isn’t the best experience. Still, I think I got a sense of the story and feel of OFF, and it is a hell of a thing. Firstly, it came out in 2008, before the recent pileup of recursive, meta indie games (The Stanley Parable, Device 6, Stories Untold, Pony Island, etc., etc., etc.). Nowadays, it’s par for the course for an indie game to put forth a Borgesian transgression of the boundary between fiction and reality, but it doesn’t seem to me that this was the case in 2008. Given all the praise that was quite deservedly heaped upon Undertale, which is also a deeply meta game with a fairly explicit debt to EarthBound, you could be forgiven for thinking that it was the first game to really question the mechanics of a video game in that particular way. But OFF did something remarkably similar, long before. That doesn’t lessen Undertale’s accomplishment — it is, execution-wise, by far the better game. But it does demonstrate how ahead of its time OFF was. In this game, you control a character known only as the Batter (seemingly a reference to Ness’s weapon of choice in EarthBound, though apparently the creator of the game denies this). The Batter is aware that he is being controlled by a puppeteer he cannot see — the player; you. At least one of the other characters in the game, a grotesque cat called the Judge, is aware of this as well and often addresses the player directly. This one idea — that the player character of OFF is aware of the player — completely changes the dynamic of the game, relative to your standard old-school game. Where a character like Ness or Link looks like a hero moving actively through the world and overcoming obstacles, the Batter comes off as a ruthless inquisitor. He kills because it is inevitable that he must kill, because that is why we are playing the game. Again, this is expressed more subtly in Undertale, but OFF has more going on that just that theme. Its final stage is a creepy masterpiece of bizarre reiterations and echoes. At one point, you have to navigate several different versions of a room by using a fake version of the menu screen. That’s very nearly an Undertale idea. I enjoyed this a lot. I only wish I could have actually played it.

Podcasts

On The Media: “Moving Beyond the Norm” & “Dog Whistle” — Two good episodes with some great segments between them. Highlights include a Ken Kesey retrospective, a piece on the history of self-immolation, and two bits of metacriticism on Roseanne and The Simpsons — the latter featuring Hari Kondabolu. So yeah, it’s On the Media.

The Daily: “Friday, Apr. 20, 2018,” “Tuesday April 24, 2018” & “Friday, April, 27, 2018” — Wow, I’ve been away from this blog a while. The first of these is Michael Barbaro’s excellent interview with James Comey, which is the best of the many Comey-related things I listened to during Comey Week. Remember Comey Week? The media declared Comey Week, a couple weeks ago. It was all really interesting. But Barbaro’s interview is the best one because he focussed specifically on the idea of ego, and whether that character trait might have a lot to do with the decisions Comey made during the 2016 presidential election campaign. He denies this, and argues persuasively against it, but it’s interesting to hear how hard he has to work at it. The second is a fascinating look at a story that had nothing to do with the news cycle we’re constantly bombarded by: a Hong Kong bookseller suddenly disappeared and all hell broke loose. It’s an incredible story. The third is the Cosby episode. It’s also good.

No Cartridge: “Videogames’ Citizen Kane w/David ‘TheBeerNerd’ Eisenberg” — This is a conversation about EarthBound, a game I love and am endlessly fascinated by, and OFF, a game I had never heard of but have now watched a full playthrough of in the absence of a download that will run properly on my computer. It’s a fun conversation, but both of those games are sort of self-explanatory, and I’m not sure this really enlivened my thinking about either. But it did bring OFF to my attention, and I’m grateful for that.

Code Switch: “Members of Whose Tribe?” & “It’s Bigger Than The Ban” — Here we have a pair of episodes taking the long view of anti-Semitism and Islamophobia in America. These are both things you should hear. Start with the anti-Semitism one because it is SUPER complicated, even by this show’s standards.

99% Invisible: “Gander International Airport” & “The Hair Chart” — The Gander airport episode is maybe one of my favourite things this show has ever done. I am intensely prejudiced about this, mind you, because one side of my family is from very near Gander and I grew up flying into the Gander airport to visit them. Nowadays the St. John’s airport has taken precedence, but I’m happy that the Gander airport’s foyer is still considered a modernist landmark. I’ll be honest though: the fact that it was considered that was a surprise to me. It’s one of those things you come to take for granted. Actually, there’s a lot of stuff in this episode that I was really surprised to learn for the first time in a podcast. I would have expected somebody in my family to have told me the story of Fidel Castro going sledding in Gander, but they did not. Thank god for Roman Mars. “The Hair Chart” is a really good episode too, about the endlessly complicated issue of how hair products are marketed to black people. Pick of the week.

Caliphate: “Recruitment” — Here we have the New York Times’ top ISIS reporter interviewing a guy who was recruited into ISIS. It is enlightening.

Theory of Everything: “Fake Nudes (False Alarm! Part ii)” — This series exploring fake news through the medium of fake news continues to be bewildering, clever, and one of my favourite things that any podcaster is doing right now.

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “Avengers: Infinity War and What’s Making Us Happy” & “Scandal” — Well Scandal sounds like a whole thing. If it was your thing, I’m sad for you that it ended badly. The Avengers episode is pretty much bang on. It’s one of those movies that it’s hard to have an original thought about because its virtues and problems are so self-evident.

All Songs Considered: “Swan Songs: Music For Your Final Exit” — As I finally come to the end of two weeks worth of review writing, I remember that the proximate cause of my Flaming Lips wormhole was a coincidence: I played one of their songs with a friend at a party one night, and woke up the next day to find “Do You Realize?” in this mix of funeral songs. It’s a maudlin premise, but there’s some good music here.

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Omnireviewer (week of May 15)

Ah man, I came so close to a clean sweep of my categories, this week. If I’d only listened to some classical music and played a video game. In any case, 26 reviews, many of which contain multiple items within them. Good week.

Events

Vancouver Art Gallery: MashUp — I went to this exhibition on the last day before it ends, and left completely fried. All four floors of the VAG were devoted to this century-spanning show, with a different period on each, in reverse order. For two floors, I read more or less all of the curators’ text and stopped to look at everything on display. But at some point on floor three, amidst the Warhols and the Rauschenbergs, I got overwhelmed and couldn’t take it in anymore. This is a show I wish I’d been to see at least twice. The three hours I spent were not nearly enough to process everything on display. But I’m really happy to have seen it at all. It leant context to some figures that I’m particularly fascinated by, like John Cage, Luigi Russolo, Marcel Duchamp, Guy Debord and Brian Eno. Predictably, I was especially fascinated by the room devoted to My Life in the Bush of Ghosts, in which the videos for “America is Waiting” and “Mea Culpa” were playing on repeat, alongside a display of works that were influential to Eno and Byrne as they were producing the album. The curators admirably didn’t shy away from pointing out the culturally imperialistic elements of the album, but also presented it as a key text in the history of mashup, which it definitely is.

Music

Kanye West: The Life of Pablo — Okay, it’s growing on me. (It has also changed substantially since last I heard it, and the mix doesn’t sound like amateur hour anymore, so there’s that.) I am still bothered by the sheer extent of the asshat that Kanye’s willing to be here: that Taylor Swift line is unforgivable. Kanye’s verses on Pablo are even more mean-spirited than Yeezus, but they’re also more frequently stupid. However, a lot of the beats are nearly Dark Fantasy calibre. “Famous,” in spite of the aforementioned unforgivable line, is one of the best beats in Kanye’s catalogue, and “Ultralight Beam” is one of his best songs, full stop. Chance’s verse is the best on the album by a country mile. I’m reminded of Nicki Minaj on Dark Fantasy. “Waves” is a solid pop tune with something interesting to say about the permanence of great art. Now that Pablo is something resembling finished, it has the makings of a decent Kanye album. But there are still enough head-shaking moments (the outro of “30 Hours?”) that I think it’ll ultimately be regarded as one of his lesser works.

Jack White: Blunderbuss & Lazaretto — I loved Jack White’s bit on Lemonade so much that I needed more. These solo albums are maybe a bit less idiosyncratic than the best White Stripes albums, but they’re no less good. It’s interesting to hear what White does backed by a band of musicians as capable as he is. (That’s not a knock on Meg White — she shaped the White Stripes as much as Jack did, even if only by forcing Jack into a corner.) You might expect White to get lazy when provisioned with the relative freedom of working with ace session musicians and playing a bunch of instruments himself. (Giving an artist total freedom is castrating them, Peter Gabriel once said. Maybe he learned that from Eno.) But White maintains his discipline, writing great songs and only reaching for the studio magic juice when it will serve the track. Blunderbuss is the one that feels more familiar to me as a White Stripes fan, but it still goes madly off in many more directions than any other Jack White project I’ve heard. “Sixteen Saltines” is practically vintage, while the almost barrelhouse piano that starts “Hypocritical Kiss” sounds like nothing I’ve heard from White before. “Take Me With You When You Go” is as good as anything on a White Stripes album. Lazaretto is solid modern blues rock — from possibly the only living artist who can honestly claim that label. “Alone In My Home” is so unexpectedly joyous that I almost didn’t finish my first listen through, in favour of just hitting repeat on that one. And I don’t even think it’s the best track on the album. I love both of these, and I feel like they fill a hole — just as I suspect I’m nearing my lifetime saturation point for Led Zeppelin, I have another rootsy rock and roller to obsess over. And one with a more modern sensibility.

The White Stripes: full catalogue — Hey, I had some spare time and a trial period on Tidal. (I’m becoming less hostile to Tidal, but when I inevitably sign up for the cheap version and don’t get this glorious hi-def sound, I’ll be pissed.) There were a few first listens here. In fact, it’s possible that White Blood Cells and Elephant were the only ones I’d heard before. I thought I’d heard Icky Thump all the way through, but not much of it sounded familiar. In any case, this is a serious body of work. The debut is a tad too punky for my liking, but the basics are in place. If nothing else, it features a very interesting selection of covers, marking the Whites as people with good taste from the start. De Stijl is a huge leap forward, and an album I can see myself returning to frequently. “Truth Doesn’t Make A Noise” is maybe the first great White Stripes song. White Blood Cells is the album that converted me, and still my pick for their best. I’ve always thought of Elephant as more of the same but not as good. Which is to say, still pretty good. Get Behind Me Satan was one of the biggest surprises here. It is certainly a larger, more elaborate-sounding album than the ones before it, but it’s a needed change of pace, and I think I may prefer it to Elephant. And finally, Icky Thump. If I had heard this all the way through I would damn well have remembered. It’s the most elaborate White Stripes album by a fair margin, and a sort of stepping stone to the sort of music Jack White would do on his solo albums. But there’s not a hint of dilution, here. The raw energy in tracks like “Icky Thump” and “Conquest,” and the Jimmy Page by way of Adrian Belew guitar squalls on “300 MPH Torrential Outpour Blues” are not the sorts of things you hear on an album by a band that’s past their prime. It’s a hell of a swansong, and probably my second-favourite of their releases. This is a really fun discography to mainline. I highly recommend gulping it all down in a week. You’ll have so much energy. I can’t wait to check out the lives and B-sides.

Television

Last Week Tonight: May 15, 2016 — Not among his funniest, but the standing invitation to Donald Trump’s alter-ego is a lovely little throw of the gauntlet.

Game of Thrones: “Book of the Stranger” — Okay, I asked for Daenerys to be allowed to do something, and as “doing things” goes, that is a fairly substantial thing. Actually, all of my complaints about the season thus far were at least partially rectified this time around, with Tyrion getting some actual story and a bit of decent writing, and the Wall finally getting interesting thanks to Jon and Sansa being reunited. Brienne continues to be the best thing in any given scene — my two favourite parts of this big, eventful episode are her confrontation with Melisandre and her lustful (I think?) glance across the table at Tormund. I’ll say this though:, killing off Ramsey Bolton won’t be enough. I’ll only forgive Game of Thrones when he gets retconned out of the universe.

Archer: Season 7, episodes 7 & 8 — “What are you all doing here?” “Lunch?” “It’s 5:30!” “Dunch?” I laughed very hard at most of these episodes. Archer in ordinary mode is still a very funny thing.

Comedy

Zach Galifianakis: Live at the Purple Onion — I think it’s good, but I didn’t actually laugh that much. Galifianakis is a really good joke writer who doesn’t seem interested in thinking in a straight line. The piano plunking, the characters and the crowd work are a deliberate structural choice that allows him to string together unrelated jokes. The jokes are good, but I can’t decide if the whole is greater or less than the sum of its parts.

Movies

Primer — Oh good god. If it weren’t for YouTuber LondonCityGirl’s illustrated explanation, I would be 70% clueless. This is an outstanding movie for those of us who like movies to be puzzles, and I do. That’s one of the reasons that time travel is my favourite SF trope. But I’m not sure I’ve ever seen anything quite as intentionally obscure as this movie. Having basically figured it out, with YouTube’s help, I now think this is one of the most ingenious hard(ish) science fictions I’ve ever seen. Without spoiling anything crucial, the key here is that the time travel mechanic enables an unprecedented amount of duplicity. The things that go wrong go wrong not because the machine doesn’t work as expected, but because people trick each other. Also, I love that this story clearly originated with the time travel mechanic. You don’t see that very much. Most people who write genre fiction use particular tropes because they already have a basic story and some themes in mind. This is obviously a story derived from the set of rules that its time machine imposes. If Brian Eno wrote a sci-fi movie, it might well be much like Primer.

Captain America: The Winter Soldier — Figured I’d catch up before Civil War. I hate cinematic universes because I want my stories to have endings. But as they go, Marvel’s universe is pretty good. This is far better than its pedestrian predecessor, and I’m actually hard-pressed to think of an MCU movie that I prefer to this. Maybe the first Avengers. The secret is the incursion of spy movie tropes into a blockbuster superhero movie, which is becoming a genre unto itself. The more that directors can play with genre to offset expectations, the better these movies will be. The Russos seem to be doing that best, at this point.

Literature, etc.

Kurt Vonnegut: Hocus Pocus — One of only two Vonnegut novels out of the ten I’ve read that I haven’t enjoyed. (The other is Player Piano, which is practically juvenalia.) There are occasional great lines, but so many of Vonnegut’s attempts at aphorism fall flat in this that I started to wonder if it might be intentional. One of the book’s key themes is that rhetoric (“verbal hocus pocus”) can be used to make people think illogically. So, when Vonnegut makes a statement that takes the basic form of a dark joke, but doesn’t seem to be based on anything true, it’s tempting to read redemptively and assume that he’s just offering concrete examples of the sort of fallacy he’s critiquing. But I’ve never seen Vonnegut go in for that particular kind of subtlety before, so I don’t honestly think that’s what’s happening here. Not good. But hey, they can’t all be masterpieces.

Elizabeth Alsop: “The Future Is Almost Now” — This Atlantic piece posits that science fiction is becoming more and more interested in the near future rather than the far future. It’s worth a look for anybody interested in the genre, or anybody just generally paranoid.

Kieron Gillen/Jamie McKelvie: Phonogram vol. 3 “The Immaterial Girl” — Absolutely marvellous. Gillen and McKelvie’s music fantasies are among the best contemporary literature, in or out of comics. Nobody has reckoned with the material effects of music and pop culture on people’s lives more incisively than they have in Phonogram and The Wicked and the Divine. And while the latter of those remains the easier one to recommend, this concluding arc of Phonogram is the best expression of their general thesis that music is never just music, but rather one of the forces that most powerfully animates human society. These are broad generalities, but to describe what they do here in any detail would likely make it seem trite. So instead, I’ll just urge you to read Gillen and McKelvie’s work. Start by catching up with WicDiv, then read the three collected editions of Phonogram in this order: 2, 1, 3. If you have ever been a superfan of anything, you will appreciate every panel in these volumes. If the thing you are a superfan of is music, you will have a new favourite comic. Possibly two. Pick of the week.

Thomas Ligotti: “Purity” — This is the first story in his collection Teatro Grottesco, which I managed to find at Pulpfiction, my absolute favourite bookstore in Vancouver, when I could not find it anywhere else, in physical or digital form. I needed to be shook up a bit, and I had heard that Ligotti was the man for the job. He has already begun. This story is properly creepy, with bits of mundane imagery taking on a grotesquerie that they simply ought not to have. Much is left unsaid, but it is all totally clear. And to boot, the story strongly reminded me of one of the creepiest things I’ve ever read, Michael Lutz’s Twine story “My Father’s Long, Long Legs.” A very promising start.

Podcasts

Now that my Podquest submission has had cold water poured on it gently, Radiotopia reviews will resume as usual.

On The Media: “Trending Topics” — It’s nice to hear a treatment of the Facebook trending topics scandal that actually gets to the root of the problem, which is that today’s tech giants have far too much control over the dissemination of information. Whether stories get traction by way of algorithms or human intervention, the kind of thing that’s likely to get huge on Facebook is not necessarily the kind of thing that people most need in their media diets. It’s also incredible to hear about the conservative economist who advocated for government intervention in monopolies (which may be a term that meaningfully applies to Facebook) in order to repair the free market. This episode also features a discussion with the New York Times public editor Margaret Sullivan that is interesting for its frankness about the Times’s shortcomings, but also interesting for the extent to which Bob Garfield allows it to be a straightforward valediction. I suppose not everyone needs to be afraid of him. But if he’s in softball mode during that segment, he roars back into righteous indignation mode in his final essay about the media’s sudden elevation of Donald Trump to legitimacy. To Garfield, talking to Trump about tax policy is “like asking Charles Manson about his driving record.” It is one of the best things that has been written about Trump since this whole boondoggle began, and I can’t recommend it enough. Even if you skip the rest of the episode to get to those last three or four minutes it’s worth your time. Pick of the week.

All Songs Considered: “The 1975, SOAK Covers Led Zeppelin, A Home Demo From My Morning Jacket” — A consistently interesting episode, but not one with a lot of songs I feel likely to return to — with the notable exception of Gaelynn Lea’s studio recording of the song she won the Tiny Desk Concert with. That is a remarkable piece of music.

On The Media: “How the ‘Fake News’ Gets Made” — Oh good, journalists can make funny things. This is Brooke Gladstone interviewing a bunch of satire writers and producers, all of whom came from journalism. So basically, you get Bob Garfield at his best in the main episode and Gladstone close to her best in this podcast extra.

This American Life: “Promised Land” — This episode of This American Life begins with Ira Glass singing an “I wish” song, and continues with pieces by Starlee Kine and the late David Rakoff. It is what public radio is for. Kine’s story about how her overprotective mother wouldn’t let her kids go to Disneyland (in spite of them living in L.A.) but would take them to the Disneyland Hotel twice a year is exactly the kind of story you want to hear from Starlee Kine, and Rakoff’s piece about fasting and not finding enlightenment is exactly the kind of story you want to hear from David Rakoff. Then it ends with a story from Hillary Frank from The Longest Shortest Time, a parenting podcast that I do not intend to listen to. But this story is absolutely riveting. You know when your friend says, “I heard the craziest conversation on the bus,” and then tells the best story you’ve heard all day? This is that story, except the best one ever. This is light on reporting for TAL, but it’s mercilessly consistent.

Sampler: “Mother Podcast” — This is Sarah Koenig on Sampler, which is a reason to listen to Sampler. It’s awkward at the start, because Brittany Luse insists on saying a bunch of the gushy stuff that should have been consigned to the intro while Koenig is actually in the room, which puts Koenig in the uncomfortable position of having to react to fervent praise in public. It gets better from there, but not by much. The concept for the episode must have seemed solid: here are a bunch of podcasts that have been born in the post-Serial world — “Look what thou hast wrought, Koenig!” But Koenig doesn’t seem much more than bemused at the clips Luse subjects her to. For all her staggering success, Koenig doesn’t belong to the crazy world of podcasting that virtually all of the Gimlet staff does — even those who had prominent public radio careers previously. She’s a reporter. Playing her clips from Hello From the Magic Tavern is pretty counterintuitive, improv background or no. Not good.

Bullseye: “Maria Bamford & Wanda Sykes” — That’s a hell of a double bill. These are the kinds of interviews with comics that you want to hear. Bamford is charming and has an uncanny ability to find the humour in terrible, uncommon things that have happened to her. Sykes is super sharp and a great storyteller. The best talk radio I’ve heard in awhile.

99% Invisible: “Separation Anxiety” — And, we’re back! During my Radiotopia reviewing hiatus, 99pi continued to interest me casually but not blow me away. This episode is about trash disposal in Taipei, and also San Francisco. I recently listened to a bonus interview with Roman Mars for Radiotopia supporters, and one thing he mentioned that I was happy to hear him mention is the fact that many episodes of 99pi don’t really have stories — they just explore an idea for a while in a logical fashion. That’s kind of what this episode does, and I so appreciate that there’s a show that has the guts to do that. I’m all for storytelling, but it’s also a dogma among media producers. There are other ways to impart information in an entertaining fashion.

Imaginary Worlds: “The Robot Uprising” — There are apparently people, or at least one person, who advocates for robot’s rights on the basis that the same justifications are used to deny the humanity of black people are being used to deny the humanity of robots. Eric Molinsky is rightly confused by this idea — surely, robots actually aren’t human? But he doesn’t push quite hard enough. There are times on this show where I feel like Molinsky is offering a sort of menagerie of strange worldviews without taking any of them to task. Still fun, though.

Invisibilia: Season 2 trailer — I think it’ll be good, but this show can be awfully cloying at times. They don’t even totally avoid it in this three-minute trailer.

The Memory Palace: “Open Road” — I’m so glad to get to review The Memory Palace again. I love this show so goddamn much. Anyway, this is about the Green Book, the guide for black motorists in pre-Civil Rights America. It is the second Radiotopia treatment of this topic in just a few months, after 99pi’s, but I think I prefer this approach. Just a gorgeous, semi-imaginary story with beautifully-drawn imagery. Really nice.

On The Media: “Ghosts” — Collectively, the episodes of On The Media I listened to this week did me more good than anything else this week. This special episode on the uses and misuses of collective memory demonstrates just how thoughtful this show can be. It isn’t hemmed in by the news cycle; there’s so much more it can do.

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “Money Monster and Eurovision” — I’m really shocked at how little they trashed Money Monster. I mean, I know it’s called Pop Culture HAPPY Hour, but that movie does not look okay. Also, Glen Weldon’s enthusiasm for Eurovision is one of the few moments where he can honestly be described as “adorable.”