Tag Archives: You Must Remember This

Omnibus (week of Nov. 12)

The long-awaited North by Northwest segment on ISCM World New Music Days is here, and can be found at 1:21:50 of this podcast. Back to business as usual in the December instalment. Meanwhile, here are this week’s 14 reviews.

Movies

Lantouri — I saw this with a friend at the Cinémathèque, which is doing a series on contemporary Iranian cinema. Since, like many people, I know only one Iranian filmmaker, I figured why not. Should be a lovely afternoon out. Holy shit was this ever something. It’s the third feature film of Reza Dormishian, who is apparently one of the bright lights of his generation in Iranian cinema. If Lantouri is any indication, he’s also one of the most skilled directors in the world, in the idiom of EXTREMELY INTENSE FILMS. It’s the story of a Tehran street gang (sort of), and their leader’s increasingly creepy infatuation with a steely journalist. It opens as a talking heads-heavy fake documentary, but becomes increasingly cinematic as the story ramps up. That’s a clever device, because Dormishian can get his themes and social critiques on the table at the start, and then proceed to just tell a story, having established a framework of ideas at the outset. And that latter part of the movie, when the documentary element begins to wane, tells a story that’s so unrelentingly tense that you may stop breathing. Dormishian charts the course of his protagonist Pasha’s non-relationship with the reporter Maryam in a sort of fractured, alinear way where you see key moments taking place from multiple perspectives. It’s a tricky dance, but as information gradually accretes, we start to understand Pasha as a monster. The film’s turning point comes in a scene where you know exactly what is going to happen, because you’ve already seen it from a distance. But you don’t know when. The suspense comes from certainty rather than uncertainty. And it is almost unbearable. The same can be said for nearly the whole final act of the movie. Definitely watch this, but only when you’re in the mood for something sort of grim, and totally unrelenting. Pick of the week.

Logan — Wow, this is a very sad X-Men movie. And maybe the best X-Men movie. I never expected to say that about a movie that doesn’t have Magneto in it, but here we are. Wolverine has never been the most interesting part of this universe to me. I’m far more interested in the conflict of values between Charles Xavier and Magneto. But the Wolverine we see in this film is different from the one we see in the other films. Not entirely different, mind: Hugh Jackman is clearly playing the same man as he is in every other sardonic appearance in the X-franchise. But this movie’s iteration of Logan/Wolverine sits on a far-out promontory of the island that is that character. There’s always been a hint of the Man With No Name about Wolverine, and more than a hint of Dirty Harry. But in this movie, Hugh Jackman melts the brooding asshole from the previous films down and pours him into a patently Clint Eastwood-shaped mould. The same goes for Xavier, who is finally a character worthy of Patrick Stewart’s talents. Logan’s degenerating Professor X is its most tragic element. All of this could only work in the film that’s designed to retire Wolverine forever. Or, at least the Hugh Jackman version of him. The reality of contemporary blockbuster cinema is that you cannot put characters in situations that risk breaking the universe, and therefore the prospects for further profit from endless sequels. Logan has no qualms about pushing continuity to its breaking point, and in doing so it gives us a glimpse of what genre cinema has sacrificed in the era of the cinematic universe. There’s a lot of power in seeing a familiar character in an unfamiliar setting. Writers of fanfic and tie-in novels have known that for decades. Logan is what that concept looks like when you pour a hundred million dollars into it. I’d be immensely more enthusiastic about superhero movies if more of them were like this.

Literature

Brooke Gladstone: The Trouble With Reality — This very brief book, which was written and published with furious speed after the election of Donald Trump, is an outstanding synthesis of thinkers from Hannah Arendt to Philip K. Dick about the way demagoguery distorts reality. But I wish I’d read it when it came out. Troublingly, I feel as though I’ve already apprehended much of what Gladstone writes here by osmosis as this weird bad year has rocketed along. I say troublingly because I also feel I’m becoming inured to the notion that the world is being controlled by people whose live in a different reality from me. The most useful thing in Gladstone’s book is a spirited ending in which she entreats us to actually fight against this: to arm yourself with information that will allow you to at least understand the reality of others. Still, it feels like a rallying cry from a previous version of the world — a version that didn’t know how baffling this new phase was going to be.

Jorge Luis Borges: “The Theme of the Traitor and the Hero” — I’m finding the stories in the Artifices more varied, but also a bit less ambitious than the ones in The Garden of Forking Paths. This one is a fun examination of how a particular story (of Borges’s invention) might have come to be. But it’s a slight thing. None of the tiny little stories in this collection have quite managed to pack the wallop of equally brief stories like “The Library of Babel” or even something like “The Circular Ruins.” I’m not complaining; this is still brilliant, and Borges still comes off like a fantastically interesting dinner companion who has some thoughts to share with you in a collegial and friendly manner. I love that.

Jorge Luis Borges: “The Secret Miracle” — Now we’re cooking. Aside from “Death and the Compass,” which was one of the first Borges stories I read, this is probably my favourite story in the Artifices so far. What I particularly love about it is that it’s a story about a man’s very personal inner experience: its resolution involves a thing happening that, by definition, only one person could possibly know about. But Borges still approaches the story like a literary critic writing a biographical sketch. There’s an element of satire here, I think: Borges’s narrator is a critic so penetrating that he is actually aware of his subject’s complete inner life. Surely there are critics out there who believe this of themselves sincerely. But it’s easy to miss the satire, if indeed it is satire, because Borges doesn’t focus on it. He just tells the story, largely from the third-person omniscient perspective of the protagonist. And that story is sufficiently affecting that the meta-narrative, for once in Borges’s career, seems beside the point. Marvellous.

Jorge Luis Borges: “Three Versions of Judas” — And here we have an account of a heretical theologian’s notion that God’s human incarnation wasn’t Jesus, but Judas. The thing I love most about Borges is that he comes up with incredible premises for sprawling books, but knows those premises are ultimately worthier than their execution would be. So he summarizes them in four or five pages. This is one of the most complex things he’s ever distilled, and it never seems undercooked.

Music

George Harrison: All Things Must Pass — I had to listen to this to make certain of my assertion last week that I prefer RAM. I do. But still. This is two-thirds a classic. The other third, the “Apple Jam” that makes up the final LP of this triple album (it’s almost like he had something to prove) is the sort of aimless blues jamming that’s probably the reason nobody listens to Eric Clapton anymore. But for the two LPs where Harrison focusses on songs, he barely puts a foot wrong. I’ve never been a huge fan of “My Sweet Lord,” but “What is Life” might well be the best single a Beatle ever put out as a solo artist. And of the eighteen tracks on those first two-thirds of the album, I daresay ten are classics. “Wah Wah” is impossible to only listen to once. “Isn’t It A Pity” is so good that it’s on the album twice. “The Ballad of Frankie Crisp (Let it Roll)” is a song awaiting its rightful place in a Wes Anderson movie. I could go on. The most notable thing about the overall feel of All Things Must Pass is how completely different it is in approach to the Beatles records. Where John assembled a small band to play his songs straightforwardly and Paul insisted on doing everything himself — both of which were approaches with precedent in the Beatles catalogue — George called up everybody he knew and jammed. And while this partially resulted in the album’s tedious third LP, it also made for a rollicking, spirited album that has more in common with Blonde on Blonde or (dare I say it) Exile on Main St. than with Sgt. Pepper. A classic.

Cat Stevens: Tea for the Tillerman — So I watched Rushmore again this week. You don’t need to hear any more of my opinions on Wes Anderson. Go back here. But there’s a Cat Stevens song in that movie that I love. I’ve had this experience before (i.e. in Extras), so I figured I’d finally decide once and for all if I’m a Cat Stevens person or not. I don’t think I am. This, which the internet tells me is his most acclaimed album, is nice. But there are only a few tracks that have melodies that can match the great ones that leapt out at me initially. The title track is beautiful enough that it’s short duration is almost painful. “Father and Son” is lovely. But I’m mostly left cold.

Cat Stevens: Matthew & Son — That song from Rushmore that I love so much is on here (“Here Comes My Baby”) so I figured I’d give it a shot to make absolutely sure I’m not a Cat Stevens fan. And I’m not. But I do also love “Matthew & Son.” The rest of this is reeeeeeeeeally dated. And I’m a person who actually likes 60s pop.

Podcasts

Fresh Air: “Lou Reed: A Life” — A great interview about one of the pop music legends who most belongs on NPR. That might seem odd given that Lou Reed is all sex and drugs all the time, but he also had more explicit ties to the fine art world than just about any other rock star. Both sides are discussed here. Really nice.

The Sporkful: “The Last Sporkful Thanksgiving Special Ever” — What I love about Dan Pashman is that he’s thought about food as a cultural phenomenon so much that he can see past the trend stories that foodies are all about. In short, he doesn’t want to put horseradish in the mashed potatoes. A lesser food podcast would fall right into the trap that Pashman explicitly avoids here, which is failing to acknowledge that Thanksgiving is meant to be a tradition — not a showcase for avant-garde culinary showmanship. It isn’t even Thanksgiving in my country and I still really enjoyed this.

Showcase from Radiotopia: “The Polybius Conspiracy” Episodes 4-7 — So, I’ll confess something up front. I didn’t know that this was partially fictional until I read that it was. Which was after I’d finished the whole thing. I’m not mad about this. I hardly could be, as the co-creator of Mark’s Great American Road Trip (though I will say that mistaking that show for nonfiction is a whole level dumber than what I’ve done here). I actually really love stories and shows that sit on the precipice between fact and fiction (see also: Theory of Everything, the dearly departed WireTap). And I’m saddened by the prospect that this is increasingly frowned-upon territory in a world where people are actively trying to fuck with your sense of reality for their own political or financial betterment. So, I really don’t mind that I was misled. It’s a harmless misunderstanding. But I can’t help but think that the fictional component of this story — the bit about the character Bobby, and the people he associates with — was only compelling to me with the understanding that it’s something that actually happened. As an invented narrative, it strikes me as unimaginative. I’m beginning to feel as though the semi-factual nature of this podcast was intentionally downplayed to compensate for a half-cooked story. Ah, well. On to the next thing.

You Must Remember This: “Boris & Bela” Parts 3-6 — This is turning out to be a really fun little season of this show. Telling the stories of Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff in tandem is a great idea, since their trajectories were so completely different and therefore illustrate different tendencies in the same industry at the same time. I’m looking forward to the thrilling conclusion.

Pop Culture Happy Hour catchup — Comfort food, in audio form. I was talking with a friend about this recently. I’m not sure what it is about this that makes it so soothing, but I feel lighter when I listen to this — moreso even than when I’m listening to comedy shows like Judge John Hodgman or Stop Podcasting Yourself. It’s a beautiful thing.

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Omnibus (week of Oct. 22, 2017)

Happy Halloween. I’ve got a couple of CBC things out this week, both focussed on spooky stuff. Firstly, my piece on a filmmaker who has made a horror experience for VR headsets was featured on the national program The Story From Here, which is certainly nice. You can hear that piece at 8:15 of this podcast. Do stick around for the story about learning the Mi’kmaq language; it is great and much more important than my Silly Documentary About Screaming. Also, if you really want to go deep, you can see some very embarrassing video of me during the VR experience here.

Also, yesterday’s instalment of my usual pop culture column was a Halloween spook fest that I facetiously titled “SERIOUS HALLOWEEN,” because this time of year is altogether too silly, and nobody can rectify this but me. That’s at 1:22:04 of this podcast.

Now, here’s a fairly slight instalment of Omnibus. I’ve been busy. 12 reviews.

Movies

Loving Vincent — This is the world’s first fully oil painted movie, done entirely by hand. The movie makes sure to tell you this in an intertitle right at the start, because the gimmick is the point. What else could the point be? Surely not the story, which is rendered in such awful dialogue that it actually obscures the fact that Vincent van Gogh’s life was profoundly interesting. But really, even the gimmick lets us down, because while the film’s environments are ripped straight from van Gogh’s magnificent canvasses, its characters are painted with a level of realism that feels completely out of place. It is horribly obvious in places that the painted frames of this film are meticulous recreations of filmed footage. I halfway think that a film like this is actually impossible to pull off, because the central question it poses to its filmmakers is: how would movement work inside of a van Gogh painting? I frankly don’t see how it could. Perhaps somebody with a heck of a lot more visual imagination than me could think of a way. But now we know for sure that it doesn’t work the same way as it does in traditional film footage. This is a worthy experiment, but it isn’t a remotely good movie.

Television

The Chris Gethard Show binge — I fell down a Chris Gethard hole. I’ve never seen this before, but this week I watched a semi-random handful of episodes. Specifically and in order of viewing: s02e09, s01e03, s01e06; public access episode 105, s02e01 and s02e08. Normally I have problems with this kind of wacky alt comedy, and I have some problems with this as well. If it’s only funny because it’s weird, it’s probably not going to be funny to me. But Gethard makes up for the occasional lapse into alienating anti-comedy by being deeply, actively compassionate towards everybody around him all the time. Even in this fairly short random survey of the show, issues of mental health come up semi-regularly, and it’s pretty clear that Gethard sees it as part of his job to help people who are feeling awful feel a little bit better by being an idiot on television. This is lovely. Of the episodes I’ve seen, I would most highly recommend s02e09 featuring Paul Scheer and Jason Mantzoukas and a dumpster containing an INCREDIBLE surprise, s01e03 featuring Seth Meyers and a full contingent of cast members having not slept for 36 hours, and s02e08 which has Maria Bamford so you can’t possibly need to know anything else. Pick of the week. 

Music

Roger Waters: Is This The Life We Really Want? — Oh dear. At the time of writing, I’m going to see Roger Waters tonight, which is very exciting. I’ve seen him twice before and both times have been highlights of my concert going life. But hearing this has left me slightly concerned. I generally don’t mind Waters’ political sermonizing, because he couches it in memorable turns of phrase and has a real knack for taking huge issues and making them personal — usually with elements from his own life. Far from being self-indulgent, this is in my view the specific reason why The Wall and The Final Cut work so well. And even when he steers clear of the specifically personal, he can oftentimes embed an obvious social critique within a narrative framework that makes you look at it in a new way. I’m thinking particularly of the wonderful conclusion of “Amused to Death,” in which a team of alien anthropologists happens upon the wreckage of human society and can only conclude that we consumed our way to extinction. There isn’t a whole lot of that on Is This The Life We Really Want? The entire album is approximately as straightforward as the title. He’s never beat around the bush, but this time around he’s as subtle as a bullet to the kneecap: “Picture a shithouse with no fucking drains/picture a leader with no fucking brains.” The album isn’t without musical merit, and there a few good lines here and there. Still, I can’t see myself revisiting this very much. And I say that as an avid fan of Waters as a solo artist, as well as in Pink Floyd. Still, I bet these lyrics will kill in concert. Will report back.

Podcasts

You Must Remember This: “Bela & Boris” parts 1 & 2 — Oh, this is fun. One of my favourite shows is back for a spooky season about the early sound era’s two most iconic Hollywood monsters. Love it. So far we’ve focussed primarily on Bela Lugosi, who is creepy in ways that nobody knew. The highlight of these two episodes is Lugosi’s terrible dating advice for Boris Karloff, advice almost certainly written for him to say on air by a publicist. Can’t wait for more.

What Trump Can Teach Us About Con Law: “War Powers” — This show always makes me feel like we’re all going to die.

Pop Culture Happy Hour: Six-episode catch-up — Marvellous stuff. I love this show even more now that they’ve brought in a wider variety of guest panelists. And the interviews included in this span of episodes are gold, particularly Linda Holmes’ conversation with Tom Hanks. What a likeable fellow he is, and Holmes has some fantastic questions for him. I halfway want to read his short story collection. Anyway, I don’t have any very specific thoughts on this, but it’s an absolute pleasure to listen to a whole bunch of episodes in a row. Do that when you get a chance.

The Sporkful: “As Hot Chicken Gets Hotter, Who Benefits?” — The Sporkful tackles race again, while Dan Pashman eats very spicy food. What more do you want? I’ll tell you what I want: I want some hot chicken. I want it worse than I ever knew I could want a food I’ve never had.

Showcase from Radiotopia: “The Polybius Conspiracy” episodes 1-3 — This is a fun serialized conspiracy show about a haunted video game. But it’s also a vaguely troubling exploration of somebody’s story who is either delusional or a fraud. I’m enjoying it but I feel compelled to withhold judgement until the end.

The Decision: Episodes 1 & 2 — I heard about this on Pop Culture Happy Hour, and it sounded so fun that even my aversion to sports couldn’t stop me from checking it out. Basically, the host Alex Kapelman is looking for a new NBA team to cheer for because the Knicks suck. So, he’s invited fans of every team in the league to pitch him on why he should switch allegiances. The first episode of this introduces the premise with help from the great Linda Holmes, and the second features the always clever Gene Demby on why the 76ers are the team to switch to. I don’t know if I can bring myself to listen to all of this, but I will say that as an avowed non-sports fan, I appreciate how these two episodes talk about sports as a cultural phenomenon rather than a mechanical obsession.

Beautiful Conversations With Anonymous People: “Hiding In A Storage Space” — This is what initiated my deep dive into The Chris Gethard Show. I was aware of this podcast from This American Life, which played an edited version of a really extraordinary episode where Gethard helps his anonymous caller get out of a terrible rut. I’ve meant to listen to this since then, but only just got to it. I picked an episode at random and wasn’t disappointed. I should say, the premise of this is that an anonymous caller phones in and Gethard is obligated to talk to them for one hour until the line closes. This episode’s caller is a dude who seems to be going through some pretty typical mid-life dude shit, which Gethard calls him on. But he doesn’t check his compassion at the door, and I think it’s safe to say he helps the guy realize some stuff. I’ll return to this for sure.

The Heart: “A Woman on the Road is Alone” & “Darqness” — The former episode is a quite lovely feature from a show called Bitchface which sounds like it’s worth another look. The latter is a profile of a dance music collective in Portland that aims to make a safe space for queer and trans people of colour. These are both great.

In Our Time: “Feathered Dinosaurs” — Way back in grade four, when I was eight years old, I was in a program at my school that required students to do independent study projects in addition to the usual curriculum. In retrospect, I think that might have been a pretty formative element of my childhood. More than anything else in school, it was the program that made me realize that life is more fun when you know things. My very first independent study project was on the feathered dinosaurs whose fossils were revolutionizing palaeontology in the 1990s. Folks knew about this stuff long before, but I think my childhood coincided approximately with the moment when the idea of birds evolving from dinosaurs entered the popular consciousness. I was captivated. Honestly, I haven’t thought about them much since then, but this episode of BBC’s always wonderful panel show served as both an excellent trip down memory lane and an update on how the field is doing these 20 years later. (Lots has changed.) The panel is great fun, and you can almost hear Melvyn Bragg beaming as he interviews them. I suppose even he has an inner child, buried somewhere beneath all that acuity. Fuck, I love dinosaurs. Pick of the week.

Omnireviewer (week of May 14, 2017)

25 reviews. Seems like these are getting longer. Got to do something about that. Maybe? Nah.

Television

American Gods: “Head Full of Snow” — Wonder if Scott Thompson begrudged Bryan Fuller for not giving him a gruesome death in Hannibal? Anyway, this episode finds the main plot in “taking care of business” mode, so we get a bit more than usual of the shorter vignettes about gods in the supporting cast. The sequence about the Djinn who drives a cab is a particular highlight, and I was struck by how closely they kept to the way it plays out in the book. Nice to know that this show, while always willing to riff on Gaiman’s central premise, is also willing to adapt him straightforwardly. The newly-invented sequence introducing Jacquel/Anubis highlights the other side of that coin. Also, wow, they left it later than I thought they would to introduce Dead Laura. I was really starting to wonder if they’d completely written her plotline out of the show and relegated her to dreams and flashbacks. Glad they didn’t. I also want to highlight one of my favourite lines in the show so far: “Delusions feel real, okay? That’s why it’s a delusion. None of this feels real. It feels like a dream.” What a magnificent observation, Shadow! If only Will Graham had been so insightful, he might have saved himself some serious psychosis. My favourite way to describe the tone of Hannibal is that it took place in a viscous jelly. At least, when it got really good it did. The police procedural elements of that show look like a police procedural, but as soon as Hannibal starts messing with Will’s head, the show goes gothic and the air gets thick. Fuller’s (and Green’s) approach here is becoming similar. Everything moves weirdly in American Gods and the light doesn’t work like it should. Shadow’s journey into the world of the gods is depicted in a similar way to Will’s dissociative states. It’s working. Also, the top-hatted shadow figure in the security footage is maybe the creepiest thing this show has done so far.

The Office (UK): “Interview” — I go back to this episode from time to time to remind myself why this is my favourite television comedy ever and that Ricky Gervais wasn’t always insufferable. I always come back to this primarily for the slow build to the “don’t make me redundant” scene, which is still Gervais’s best onscreen moment. I’m not sure any actor has even had a more intuitive understanding of a character than Ricky Gervais had of David Brent. Initially, anyway. When he revived the character on YouTube years later it really didn’t ring true. But that’s doesn’t reduce his achievement in the initial series. Throughout the whole series, David Brent is a man who is trying to hide his complete desperation and he’s only succeeding in hiding it from himself. The thing that makes his last few scenes in this episode so extraordinary (starting with the one where he doesn’t get the job as a motivational speaker, moving onto the silent one where he lashes out at his office furniture, and culminating in “don’t make me redundant”) is that we get to see the moment where he finally fails to fool himself. It is maybe the saddest thing ever shown on television. And it is so brilliant that it makes me forget about the other amazing element of this episode, which is Martin Freeman as Tim. Freeman’s performance as the only guy in the office who recognizes that he’s playing a role in a farce comes to a head here in a scene I had entirely forgotten about, where he tries to convince his boss’s boss to hire Gareth as acting manager instead of him — while Gareth’s Dirtie Bertie doll is making lewd noises in the background. It’s perfect. Tim’s arc in this episode is so flawless. We see him act like a normal human in an office full of insufferable people, reminding us why we root for him. We see him make the decision to stay where he is in life, and not “roll the dice” hoping to upgrade his three to a six at the risk of rolling a one. The complacency sets in mid-episode, and just as he’s explaining it direct to the camera with his dice metaphor, we see him change his mind. That whole sequence where Tim stands up from his mockumentary interview to finally tell Dawn how he feels, breaking the format of the show in the process, is such a thrill. And it makes the moment when he turns his lapel mike back on to say “she said no” into another of the saddest moments ever on television. This is a staggeringly sad, beautiful, wonderful masterpiece of television. I should really watch the whole series again. Pick of the week.

Better Call Saul: “Off Brand” — The most satisfying part of Better Call Saul is going to be when Jimmy quits his job at the Cinnabon and gets reunited with Kim, putting an end to two television series’ worth of misfortune. Too optimistic? Okay. Well, the most gutting part of Better Call Saul is going to be when Jimmy parts ways with Kim. It’s going to be even more gutting than when more conventional fictional couples are torn asunder, because their relationship is so complex and with so much unspoken. I mean what even are they???? Anyway, this is necessarily a come down after last week. But it has a bunch of smaller moments in it that make it still a lot of fun. Howard Hamlin continues to be my second favourite person in the Sauliverse, next to Kim Wexler. The moment where he sits down on Chuck’s doorstep and waits for him to open up is one of the most straightforwardly decent things anybody has ever done on this show. I love that he was originally made out to be the villain and now we’re seeing this side of him. And I love how Bob Odenkirk plays Jimmy’s refusal to help Rebecca rouse Chuck from his despondency. This is exactly how the last straw is supposed to look. And Rhea Seehorn plays Kim as admirably non-judgemental of Jimmy in that moment. It’s those moments that make this episode, though I’m sure many will remember it for the moments that carry the weight of continuity — most notably the first invocation of the name “Saul Goodman,” but also Gus’s investigation of the familiar laundromat that will come to be Walter White and Jesse Pinkman’s torture chamber. This is fun in the “ooh look!” way that continuity is always fun. But I continue to appreciate that this show isn’t primarily about that. I’m toying with the idea that Better Call Saul is the best prequel ever made. And if I decide that’s true, then it will largely be because it managed to avoid leaning too heavily on Breaking Bad’s canon of stories and imagery. Future prequel makers take note.

Twin Peaks: “Pilot — Northwest Passage”  — (This one’s so long I actually employed paragraph breaks over on Tumblr. But not here. Never here.) I’m both excited and apprehensive about the imminent return of Twin Peaks. Excited because the entire new series is being co-written and directed by David Lynch, who we haven’t seen any substantial screen-based output from since Inland Empire in 2006. Apprehensive because my recollection of Twin Peaks from when I watched it a few years ago is that it’s a massively innovative, intermittently brilliant, but deeply flawed and often infuriating piece of television that doesn’t quite live up to its reputation. And I don’t really understand how Twin Peaks in 2017 is going to work. Because Twin Peaks is very much a thing from 1990. But I’m definitely going to watch it. So I’d best refamiliarize myself with the gigantically convoluted and inconsistent canon of the original show. I’m not going to commit to rewatching the full series because frankly Twin Peaks tries my patience even before it gets to the inarguably terrible second half of season two. The AV Club was decent enough to provide a recommended five-episode crash course for those who need a refresher. I’ve decided to do as they recommend, but I’m going to add every other episode that has either a writing or directing credit for David Lynch. It was always the Lynchian element that I most appreciated in this show, so that’s what I’m going to return to. I recall that the year I watched Twin Peaks was also the year that I watched Lynch’s entire filmography. I like them all. Even Dune. The stuff that pisses me off about Twin Peaks isn’t the David Lynchiness of it — the creamed corn/garmonbozia free associative stuff that lots of people stumble on. Nor is it the staginess of some of the writing and the performances. (I recall actually quite liking Fire Walk With Me, if that tells you anything, though we’ll see whether I agree with my younger self on that soon enough.) What I can’t get into is the soap opera that those classic Lynchian elements are stuck in. I don’t care half as much about the inhabitants of Twin Peaks and the ins and outs of their daily lives as I do about Agent Dale Cooper (still one of television’s greatest protagonists) and his unorthodox investigation into the occult secrets that the townsfolk aren’t aware of. This pilot, for all its virtues and idiosyncrasies — and they are numerous on both counts — only begins to hint at the elements of this show that I love. At times it’s hard to decide whether the inauthenticity of some of the performances here is the result of bad acting or if it’s just David Lynch casting and directing this show for maximum alienation. On one hand, early 90s television wasn’t a utopia of acting competency. On the other, sometimes Lynch’s stories and themes require deliberately inauthentic performances (this is why Naomi Watts in Mulholland Drive is one of my very favourite screen performances). But here, it’s hard to say whether that’s what he’s going for or not. Bobby Briggs, for instance does not work at all for most of this episode’s duration. But when he starts barking maniacally like a dog in his prison cell, he’s suddenly compelling and the rest of that actor’s performance makes more sense. And in the cases where the actors clearly know what they’re doing (for instance, Ray Wise and Grace Zabriskie), they’re often undermined by Angelo Badalamenti’s score. Badalamenti’s music is still praised as one of the show’s major accomplishments, but it has aged very poorly, and not just because of the bad synth sounds. The music almost never stops, it’s made up of three or four recognizable cues used over and over, and it’s enormously overbearing. The theme music in particular tends to crop up in especially emotional scenes, and it doesn’t allow the performances to speak for themselves. Badalamenti is back for the new season, and I really don’t know whether to be happy about that or not. This is probably one of my more heretical opinions about Twin Peaks, but I really think Badalamenti’s score is horrible. On the other hand, like the acting, it’s sometimes hard to discern whether the score, too, is trying to keep us at arm’s length. So I’ll give Badalamenti the benefit of a doubt and see if I feel the same after hearing what he does with (I hope, oh god I hope) access to an orchestra, or at least a more modern set of electronic instruments. But for everything here that doesn’t work or hasn’t held up over time, there’s something staggeringly brilliant and unique, that couldn’t happen on any other show. Some of these are subtle things, like the way in the first episode that everybody close to Laura seems to intuit that she’s died before they’re even told. It happens first with her parents — note that Sheriff Truman never actually tells Leland what happened to Laura in that scene at the Great Northern. He just knows. Same with Sarah Palmer, and with James and Donna in the scene at the school. Bobby, not so much. That’s super Lynchy. Remember, this is a man who is known to intuit screenplays, rather than actually thinking them through. Stands to reason that his most sympathetic characters would demonstrate that same trait. Speaking of which, we should talk about Cooper. First off, we don’t actually meet him until 34 minutes in, which is an interesting choice. Agent Cooper is the outsider in this show: the first and always the most significant character we meet who doesn’t actually reside in Twin Peaks. Most storytellers’ instinct would be to introduce this character at the start and use him as an audience surrogate: he learns about the town along with the viewer. But Twin Peaks shows us the town’s response to Laura Palmer’s death without the benefit of a surrogate. We get to see the citizens of the town acting like they do when they’re among their own and nobody’s watching. And while my interest in this show is really tied up with the element of weirdness that Cooper introduces (and unearths) in the town, I appreciate the languid, contemplative pacing of this. Nobody’s willing to take their time like this today. Still, it’s hard to deny that things really take off when Coop arrives. Lynch and Frost immediately knew how to write for this character. “Gotta find out what kind of trees these are.” Also, this is maybe a personal connection that most people wouldn’t make, but I can’t help seeing in Coop a prototype for the way that modern showrunners have characterized Doctor Who — especially the Eleventh Doctor. The juxtaposition of his outsiderness and esotericism with his friendliness and enthusiasm for the mundane is something that I can’t think of a precedent for, but which Matt Smith seems to have channelled as surely as he did Patrick Troughton. We won’t really get to know Coop until the next couple of episodes. But Lynch has other ways of pointing out the strangeness of Twin Peaks without diving straight into the lore about Bob and the Black Lodge and the Man From Another Place. A kid in high school dances away from his locker, out of frame. He isn’t even with anybody. The hotel concierge will not stop shouting “the Norwegians are leaving! The Norwegians are leaving! The Norwegians are leaving!” The lights in the morgue flicker creepily: “I think it’s a bad transformer.” There’s a deer head sitting on the table: “Oh, it fell down.” There’s a lady who carries a log: “We call her the log lady.” These are the moments where Twin Peaks really anticipates modern television: small moments, derived as much from the framing of shots and direction of performances as from the script, that convey a distinct mood and sense of place. There are many things about Twin Peaks that are not good. But it’s worth a watch for that alone. Lovely to be back to a place both wonderful and strange.

Doctor Who: “Extremis” — These are the sorts of Doctor Who episodes I usually love: Steven Moffat complicated clockwork stories. In my view, the following stories belong to this subgenre: “The Girl in the Fireplace,” “Blink,” “Silence in the Library/Forest of the Dead,” “The Pandorica Opens/The Big Bang,” “A Christmas Carol,” “The Impossible Astronaut/Day of the Moon,” “Listen,” “Heaven Sent/Hell Bent,” and now “Extremis.” Of the previous, “Extremis” is the only one not to blow my mind. The other eight stories I listed are basically the reason I love Doctor Who. Episodes like “Blink “ and “The Big Bang” are why I’m willing to sit through episodes like “Fear Her” and “Knock Knock.” So it’s not a good sign that this episode by the Doctor Who writer I love most, in which he does the thing I love him best for, didn’t work for me. The premise of “Extremis,” that an alien civilization has created a perfect simulation of Earth to practice conquering it, and that the versions of our main characters we see after the title card are AIs in that simulation, is not anywhere close to as imaginative as the premise of “Heaven Sent” — to pick one of many possible excellent examples — when you consider that this episode’s plot is something that Elon Musk actually believes. I kept waiting for the other thing to happen. Waiting for another twist that never came. When “we’ve been in a simulation this whole episode” turned out to be the extent of it, I was more disappointed in Moffat than I’ve been since series seven. But this is a broad critique. There’s much to love in the details, here. Firstly, the Veritas and the way that the drunk CERN employee explains it to Bill and Nardole is brilliant and fairly chilling. The actual mechanics of the simulation, with projectors arranged in a circle, projecting a whole reality out onto a wall, is magnificent. The simulation-Doctor’s resolution of the problem — sending the real Doctor an email — is a properly great way to finish the story. And the bit with the Pope in Bill’s bedroom is one of the funniest scenes Moffat has ever written. So, this definitely did what Doctor Who almost never fails to do: entertain me. But given Moffat’s legacy, I don’t think I was wrong to expect more from this episode. And it didn’t deliver. Still, it’s a promising setup for next week, when Moffat teams up with Peter Harness who, along with Sarah Dollard, is maybe my second-favourite person writing for Doctor Who right now.

Literature, etc.

Alex Tizon: “My Family’s Slave” — This is the story of how the author’s family kept a woman as a slave in America for decades. It is the most appalling, viscerally upsetting thing I’ve read in some time. Tizon (who died recently, it seems) outlines how Lola came to be his mother’s slave, how he grew up not entirely understanding what that relationship was, and the rift that grew in the family when he finally realized it was an atrocity. It’s a quick read and an incredible story. Also worth taking note of: the backlash against Tizon’s actions in this story and the backlash against that backlash. This is not simple.

Games

This War of Mine — I had a sudden recollection that I’d never actually beaten this, and with it came the urge to play it again. It speaks volumes that such an urge can exist, given that this is a mighty dark game. It’s dark to the point of almost not being fun. But it is dramatic, and that offers its own kind of satisfaction. If I describe this as The Sims in wartime, it’ll probably sound like I’m being glib. But I actually think that’s a pretty damn promising premise, and This War of Mine delivers on it. It’s punishingly hard, as it should be, because it is a simulation of civilian life during civil war. Your characters can become hungry, tired, sick, wounded or, perhaps most dangerously, depressed depending on the choices that you make on their behalf and your efficiency and proactivity in managing their resources. I did in fact make it to the “good” ceasefire ending on this playthrough, and it felt like an accomplishment. I was busy being proud of myself for the way I’d managed the late phase of the game, with my two remaining characters cruising past the finish line with a surplus of scavenged food and valuable medicine, and a profitable cigarette manufacturing operation going on in the basement of the shelter. But in the epilogue, I was reminded of some of the things that had happened throughout the 40-odd days of the war: the neighbors in need that my characters decided not to help, the characters who died from wounds they had no bandages for, and the one character who committed suicide after a brief period of grief-stricken catatonia. It’s a rare thing for a successful game ending to be so sobering. This belongs alongside Papers, Please in the ranks of games that make you understand things better. Play this.

Music

Buffalo Springfield: Buffalo Springfield Again — I really wasn’t expecting to love any of these Buffalo Springfield albums, but this was a pleasant surprise. First off, and most relevant for our purposes, this album features the first great songs by Neil Young. None of them were new to me, since they’re all on the Decade comp. But they’re more fun in context, since Stephen Stills is also quickly maturing into the musician who’d bring us “Carry On.” His acoustic guitar performance on “Bluebird” is properly astonishing. Richie Furay’s contributions are less effective, but they do rise to the level of the lesser Stills tracks on the previous album. (Except “Good Time Boy,” which is unintentionally hilarious enough that I love it anyway.) I’m not sure if this has actually aged better than the first Buffalo Springfield album or if it’s just more straightforwardly in my musical wheelhouse, i.e. it’s waaaay more psychedelic. Fantastic record. “Mr. Soul” is an enduring Neil Young classic. “Expecting to Fly” and “Broken Arrow” point the way towards the sort of maximalism he would embrace on his debut solo album and immediately abandon. But they’re a bit weirder and thus better than most of that album. “Bluebird” and “Everydays” mark a material progression forward from “For What it’s Worth” for Stills. (Though I prefer the version of the latter on the second Yes album.)

Buffalo Springfield: Last Time Around — Ooh, just listen to that contractual obligation! The weakest Buffalo Springfield album by a country-rock mile, this contains the most tepid Neil Young contributions out of any of them — one’s a collaboration with Richie Furay, one’s credited solely to Neil but sung by Furay and the other is “I Am A Child,” which is the first in a long line of gentle, liltingly country-tinged Neil Young songs that most fans like but I don’t. And considering that Furay has never been a major songwriting asset to the band, we’re left relying on Stephen Stills. And he’s not sounding quite as inspired on balance as he was on the last record. “Uno Mundo,” in particular, might be the worst track on any of the three Buffalo Springfield studio albums. It’s interesting to hear the seeds of “Carry On” in “Questions,” though. The relationship between those two songs demonstrates the extent to which Stills matured in the time between Buffalo Springfield and Déjà Vu. This isn’t a great way to go out. I’ll save my final appraisal of this band for after I’ve heard all of the outtakes, which, yes I am going to do. We’re aiming for completion, remember. Total completion. Accept no compromises.

Buffalo Springfield: Odds and sods from various compilations — Specifically, everything previously unreleased on the four-disc Buffalo Springfield box set and the long version of “Bluebird” on the Buffalo Springfield two-record set from 1973. The latter really proves that Stephen Stills was the real deal on guitar. Hearing him play with such precision and Neil Young play with such abandon makes me wish we had more tape of them playing together in a more instrumental-focussed setting than CSNY. Here’s something interesting: this band’s demos and outtakes make for better listening than two of their actual albums. This highlights two things that are I think are crucial to note about Buffalo Springfield. One, that they never really give a solid impression of being a band so much as a petri dish for three nascent songwriting talents to mix stuff into. And two, that Buffalo Springfield is first and foremost of archival interest. Given that Neil Young is rock and roll’s most compulsive self-archivist, it makes sense that he compiled this set. I really enjoyed the Buffalo Springfield box set. It’s like a document of a scene as much as a document of a band. Having heard the entire Buffalo Springfield corpus now, I feel like the first Neil Young album (which I listened to for the first time a couple weeks ago) makes more sense. Neil started off as Buffalo Springfield’s resident maximalist. It’s fascinating to hear different versions of “Down, Down, Down,” which would eventually morph into the extremely complex, multi-part soundscape “Broken Arrow.” What’s really interesting is that the early, stripped-down versions are way more satisfying. The same applies to the early acoustic rendition of “The Old Laughing Lady” that’s featured here. I feel like I understand the moment of clarity that Neil must have had between his debut and Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere now. Maybe it wasn’t that he radically changed his musical goals, but that he just realized his songs were becoming less rather than more effective the more he fussed with them. The Buffalo Springfield demos are a document of that. Marvellous listening. This might be the first collection of demos that I actively return to.

Soundgarden: Superunknown — I hate being that guy who checks out an artist for the first time right when they die but I’ve got a couple of friends who are distressed enough about Chris Cornell’s death, which is objectively heartbreaking given the circumstances, that I figured I should try and learn something about why he was such a beloved figure. I went into this knowing next to nothing about Cornell’s music or Soundgarden. I think maybe “Black Hole Sun” was the only song of theirs that I knew. But it is a really fantastic song. I’m a sucker for the sound of a guitar run through a Leslie speaker. (Check out the Stones’ “Let It Loose” for maybe the archetypal example.) And the way the song transitions in and out of the solo is really smart. Given the ingenious construction of “Black Hole Sun,” I suppose I shouldn’t have been surprised by how elaborate Superunknown is. I was expecting something that sounds kind of like Nirvana, and what I got was halfway between that and Tool. Check out “My Wave,” which starts off in four, transitions ostentatiously to five when the band comes in, and somehow ends up in three. And Cornell’s voice has many more facets to it than “Black Hole Sun” can accommodate. “Like Suicide” is an unsettling track to listen to this week, clearly, but it’s the best demonstration of Cornell’s vocal virtuosity on this record. Hard to say whether I’ll check out more Soundgarden, or maybe look into Audioslave, but listening to this makes it clearer why Cornell’s death is such a devastating loss.

Sufjan Stevens: Carrie & Lowell — It strikes me that I’m only now discovering the artists I should have been listening to when I was in high school. In the last month or two alone, I’ve discovered the Mountain Goats, the huge bulk of the Decemberists catalogue that I hadn’t heard before, and now Sufjan Stevens. Illinois came out when I was 15, but I was too suspicious of anything new (let alone anything bearing the label “indie”) to actually listen to it. I have a physical copy here in my apartment. It’s one of the rare ones with Superman on it, because it was a promo copy sent to a radio network into whose employ I came some ten years later. When they were ditching their physical music library I made off with some choice selections. But I still haven’t listened to it. I’m glad I didn’t listen to it before I heard Carrie & Lowell. This album is two years old, as opposed to twelve. Its recent live release came up in my YouTube suggestions and reminded me I had meant to check this out ever since being gobsmacked by “Fourth of July” and “Blue Bucket of Gold” on All Songs Considered. “Blue Bucket of Gold” has actually become one of my go-to songs when I sit down at the piano in the evening, and still I hadn’t heard the whole album. If I’m regretting abstractly that my 15-year-old self didn’t hear Illinois, I am very glad that my 26-year-old self heard this. Carrie & Lowell finds Sufjan Stevens looking back, semi-woundedly, at a childhood that sounds far worse than mine ever was. It’s a delicate, raw album, but not a haphazard one. Parts of it were recorded on an iPhone, but those tracks are layered with gossamer ambience and close-miked multi-tracked vocals. It feels like flipping through a water-damaged old photo album. The album is at times desperately sad: Stevens’ mother was devastatingly afflicted with a number of mental illnesses. But there’s something about the conversion of past trauma into present beauty that makes art like this cathartic rather than oppressive. In any case, it must be good. I’m writing like I’m drunk and I haven’t been drinking at all. Next stop, Illinois.

Podcasts

99% Invisible: “The Modern Necropolis” — There is a city in the United States that is primarily full of cemeteries. More than one, I would imagine. This is the sort of thing you’d think you’d know. The town that this episode focusses on has the most darkly self-aware town motto ever: “It’s great to be alive in Colma!” I LOVE that.

The Heart: “The Real Tom Banks” — Listening to this ABC production from a few years back (which The Heart played as part of its off-season), it’s hard to believe this was made by somebody other than The Heart’s team. The resemblance to their aesthetic and subject matter is uncanny. It’s a lovely story about a guy with cerebral palsy trying to get a date on Grindr. It’s sad, hopeful, and beautifully produced, with several voice actors being used to make Tom’s speech more intelligible — and more crucially, to convey the multiple identities he can inhabit online that he’s cut off from in real life.

You Must Remember This: “Dorothy Stratten (Dead Blondes Part 13)” — I can’t shake the feeling that Karina Longworth never quite managed to connect her narratives to her themes in this season. “Dead Blondes” started off with a discussion of what blondeness represents in American culture. That discussion basically only paid off in that first episode, the one about Barbara Payton, and this final one. But Longworth does manage to do something subtler here, which is to demonstrate how the long shadow cast by Marilyn Monroe (and earlier movie blondes like Carole Landis, but Monroe is significant enough to justify three episodes) brought Hollywood to a point where it ate up and spat out women who looked something like her at an alarming rate. And Longworth does this just by telling their stories. This episode brings that narrative to its logical conclusion by introducing the infuriating, self-righteous, toxic masculinity of Hugh Hefner into the mix. Hefner is ostensibly the secondary villain in this story, given that it was Stratten’s shitsack ex-husband who actually murdered her. But Hefner’s the one who got to go on being a shitsack afterwards. This episode is fantastic; this series as a whole has been good.

The Heart: “Advance” — The new season of The Heart is not what I expected it to be: it’s a mini-series that is specifically autobiographical. It’s Kaitlin Prest’s coming-of-age story. Like every story that promises to involve consent in some way, this has dark moments. But this episode basically tells the story of high school-aged Prest learning how to say no — as in, what’s actually involved in doing that. I wonder where this is going.

Crimetown: “The Prince of Providence” — This season of Crimetown has been frustrating and unfocused most of the time. But it when it has managed to stick with Buddy Cianci, it has been completely transfixing. This final episode brings that story together with a tidy little thematic bow that makes Cianci a synecdoche for Providence in general. I daresay it’s the best episode Crimetown has done, though its impact is dulled slightly by how far afield the show went between Cianci episodes. This is still amazing radio in itself.

Radiolab: “Henrietta Lacks” — This is classic Radiolab. It’s Jad Abumrad before he learned restraint. Sometimes I like him better that way. The story of Henrietta Lacks and the impact that her immortalized cell line had on her family is an incredible one, and I’d bank on this being a better way to experience it than the upcoming HBO movie.  

The Gist: “Chasing the Bauble With Brooke Gladstone” — I am dying to read Gladstone’s new book, and I will do that as soon as the ebook is available in Canada. Meanwhile, it provided an excuse for her to go on The Gist and talk to maybe the only radio presenter who thinks as fast as she does. I remember hearing her refer to Mike Pesca as the smartest person she ever worked with (or something close to that) on her Longform interview. Nice to hear this mentor/mentee pair reunited for some ruminative radio magin.

Radiolab: “Funky Hand Jive” — If the Henrietta Lacks rerun was classic Radiolab, this new episode is vintage Radiolab. It seems different from other recent episodes because it stems from Robert Krulwich’s childlike curiosity, which isn’t as much in evidence as it once was. The question he poses is whether it’s possible that he still has some bacteria on his hand from the time he shook hands with J.F.K. as a kid. And he takes part in an experiment to try and determine whether it’s possible. In the process, he wins the award for “most gratuitous use of Neil Degrasse Tyson’s time.” This is a lot of fun.

On the Media: “Shiny Objects” — This is particularly worthwhile for a fantastic interview with NYT White House reporter Glenn Thrush. It’s a follow-up to an interview with Jay Rosen, who cleverly and somewhat mischievously (one suspects) suggested that certain basic phrases used in federal politics reporting don’t apply in the Trump era. Like, for instance “the White House” as a synecdoche for the executive branch. Thrush agrees on that point, saying that in every story written about federal politics, “the subject is the proper noun Donald Trump.” But he diverges with Rosen on other points, and is open about his uncertainty about how to reach people who don’t consider factual reporting on Trump credible. It’s really compelling radio, and also helps make sense of the world. OTM at its best. Pick of the week.

Radiolab: “Null and Void” — Here we are in Jad Abumrad’s legal period. (I.e. like Picasso’s blue period.) While I’ve been generally dissatisfied with the direction Radiolab has taken in the last couple of years, because it now sounds basically the same as many other public radio shows and podcasts (some of which predate it), I actually think that legal stories are a good way for Abumrad to channel his ability to unpack very complicated concepts without resorting to the sorts of sound design gimmicks that he used to do, which I liked so much. This listens like More Perfect, except without explicit involvement of the SCOTUS. It’s great. These days, I like More Perfect better than Radiolab.

Theory of Everything: “Droning for Dollars” — I love these conspiracy theory episodes of TOE. This episode manages to, within fifteen minutes, shoehorn in two of Benjamen Walker’s greatest anxieties (the gig economy, Trumpism) and one of his favourite satire targets (“the deep state”). Very nice.

On the Media: “The Trouble With Reality” — Oh god I need to read this book. It’s short, so I might put aside October for it, once the ebook is out. I read physical books slower. That won’t do.

Reply All: “What Kind of Idiot Gets Phished?” — In which Phia Bennin decides to phish the entire staff of Reply All, plus Alex Blumberg. And in which, when Alex Blumberg subsequently gets very mad, she phishes Matt Lieber. This is glorious, though I wonder if Blumberg’s mounting discomfort with being portrayed as credulous and tech-unsavvy will lead to the end of Yes Yes No. But maybe he’s just had a bad week. Did you see that ABC trailer where he’s played by Zach Braff? Good LORD I’d die of shame.

Omnireviewer (week of April 30, 2017)

Hey, remember last week when my post only had seven reviews in it and was super short? Prepare yourself. This one’s 6000 words. Also, I decided to allocate my two picks of the week to non-podcasts, because podcasts aren’t making up such a staggering preponderance of these reviews, these days. Never fear, this will likely be a temporary state of affairs. Incidentally, this was another week when I would gladly have given out more than two picks of the week, but I failed to exercise restraint last week and I’m not making it a trend. No sir.

29 reviews.

Games

Sunless Sea — It is with intense satisfaction that I would like to report that after 130 hours of playing this over the course of two years (and seven dead captains, to boot) I have completed the main story of Sunless Sea! By “main story,” I mean the ambition called “Your Father’s Bones,” which you can choose at the start of a game. (This ambition has a narrative hook: you’re looking for the final resting place of your departed father. Whereas the other starting ambitions are essentially opportunities to explore freely while amassing fictional money or items that will eventually allow you to end your game with a win if you choose. So, the Father’s Bones option seems like a “main story” to me.) I confess that playing through this ambition was very much a “journey not the destination” sort of experience. The ending of the story is entirely fine, and beautifully written. But the true appeal of this storyline is in the subplots you have to follow while collecting a series of rare items. True, a fair chunk of the quest falls under the category of that hoary old video game trope “find X things.” But seldom does a quest to find things result in such rich storytelling. I got to know my ship’s gunnery officer a bit, and realized he’d built munitions for some truly shady people. I aided in my chef’s training and watched as he prepared a meal for a retinue of the living drowned. I hunted a ship crewed entirely by spiders. And it was all expressed through, bar none, the best written prose in the industry. I say this every time I write about this game, but Sunless Sea and its sister title Fallen London are the only games I’ve played with a distinctive and sure-handed approach to language that rivals literature. The humour, terror, characterization and poignancy of the various stories contained within this game all arise from the writers’ ingenious and idiosyncratic use of English. It’s a thing to behold. I will likely put aside Sunless Sea for a while now (and perhaps take up Fallen London in a more serious way), but I’m sure I’ll return to it at some point. I still feel as though I’ve only made a cursory survey of many of its moving parts. I don’t understand the full significance of the island of mute exiles in the north. I don’t understand why the locals at Mutton Island, just off the coast of London, suddenly started acting so weird. And I definitely don’t understand where the terrifying artificial sun in the corner of the map came from. Plus, I haven’t really dove into (excuse the pun) the excellent Zubmariner expansion, which has a starting ambition of its own. I think I’ll make it my goal to finish at least one more ambition in Sunless Sea before the sequel, Sunless Skies comes out. I never tire of this game, and I increasingly love the parts of it that annoyed me at first — namely the long, slow trips from port to port — best of all. While these moments can become extremely stressful under certain circumstances, they are usually fairly placid. This lends a contemplative element to a game that otherwise serves up plot pretty swiftly. Like baseball, I suppose. For a game that is so concerned with (and so effective at simulating the experience of) abject terror, it can feel curiously therapeutic to play. Sunless Sea is for me the most magnificent escape into an alternate universe that gaming has ever offered. I cannot recommend it highly enough. Pick of the week.

Television

Bill Nye Saves the World: Season 1, episodes 1-3 — It was Bill Nye who first made me want to be a scientist. It is crucial to note at this juncture that I am not a scientist, and in fact have a tenuous understanding at best of many very basic scientific concepts. However, when I was about eight or nine, when Bill Nye the Science Guy was nearing the end of its run, I wanted nothing more than to be a madly gesticulating, eccentric, bowtied fellow in a lab full of Tesla coils and beakers of colourful fluid. It was only partially the whimsical aesthetic of the show that pulled me in: it was just as much the spirit of joyful curiosity about the way the world works. The Nye Labs point-and-click adventure Stop the Rock! likely had an even more formative influence. That game let you actually explore Nye Labs. The wonder! The part of me that got sucked into early Radiolab is a part that was probably put there by Bill Nye. So I feel a tremendous amount of goodwill towards this guy. And basically, I think his new show is good. Certainly it’s noble. But by focussing specifically on the controversial global issues that require us all to have a better understanding of science that we do, he gives up something really crucial about the science communication work he’s done in the past: he loses sight of the sheer mad joy of understanding as an end in itself. Yes, it’s true that science is crucial to helping us navigate the biggest challenges we face. But that’s only one side of it, as far as I’m concerned. The other is that it’s just better by definition to know more about the world than you do. And that experience of joy in knowledge is essential to winning people over onto the side of science. I’d like to see Nye do a show that is similarly aimed at adults, but which balances topics of substantial-to-massive contemporary importance (alternative medicine, climate change) with scientific topics that are complex but maybe not quite so tied into the nightly news. When I was a kid, Bill Nye taught me about things I’d never heard of before, from underwater life to plate tectonics. I kind of still want him to do that. And also talk about climate change! We should never shut up about climate change. But… also fun new science facts. And the celebrity guest appearances can go. The not-famously-charismatic Steve Aoki’s guest spot is so arbitrary I kind of enjoyed it in spite of myself. But why Zach Braff is in the first episode, I’ll never understand.

American Gods: “The Bone Orchard” — Hugely, enormously promising. Like, “maybe this will be better than the book” promising. There are so many blazingly good sequences in this first episode that it almost seems ostentatious. The casting is flawless, with Ian McShane being a particularly obvious but magnificent choice for Mr. Wednesday and Ricky Whittle offering a harder, colder Shadow than the one in the book. A good choice, since it gives him a direction to move in. The look of the show is much more similar to Hannibal than I’d expected. Clearly Bryan Fuller is in the habit of bringing his own aesthetic to stories originated by others. Shadow’s dreamworld is rich and hallucinatory. I’m particularly fond of the way the ceiling of his cell breaks open to reveal Laura. And the entire ending sequence with the Technical Boy is brilliantly creepy in a way that only tech-based horror can be. The way that the Technical Boy forms out of weird claymation is the sort of bizarre, entrancing choice that is making me feel like this might actually kick the book up a notch. It’s really trying to be its own thing. But there are standout segments straight from the book as well. Shadow’s first conversation with Wednesday on the plane is a delight, and gives McShane the opportunity to be as gruff as we Deadwood fans are used to seeing him, but with an unfamiliar note of whimsy. Likewise, the bar fight with Mad Sweeney plays out almost exactly as in the book, and the gradual escalation from coin tricks to full-on brawling is as satisfying in this medium as that one. But the appeal of this so far is definitely not the basic joy of seeing a familiar work of fiction play out onscreen. It’s the much more complicated thing of seeing a familiar work of fiction get filtered through another auteur’s sensibility. I didn’t expect so much stylized gore, nor so many scenes with the dialogue almost entirely re-written. These are indications that Bryan Fuller (and, I suppose Michael Green, who is ostensibly an equal partner in this) will be making this his own. This is going to be so great.

Doctor Who: “Knock Knock” — Again, the best thing about this episode is the riffing on Doctor Who as a cultural force. “Oh, you’re the Doctor?” “Yes.” “Cool!” So, that’s a theme that’s continuing. But man, this was pretty blah. I enjoyed it in the sense that it was good performers filmed well while saying witty lines. But as horror stories rooted in the confused dynamic between a parent and child go, it’s sure not “The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances.” I like seeing Bill just go about her life outside the TARDIS, but we don’t get much of that before the generic haunted house story starts up. Competent. Not great. The weakest of the season so far, by a substantial distance.

Better Call Saul: “Sabrosito” — I should have mentioned last week how satisfying it is to see Patrick Fabian’s Howard Hamlin gradually transition into a really wonderful comic performance. His fence-climbing antics last time around were a highlight, but this week all he has to do to get a laugh is say “well that is a shame” in the most transparently ingratiating tone of voice possible. I really like this character. Fring’s plotline in this is notable mostly for his final speech to his employees at Los Pollos, which is a terrible speech. Intentionally so, obviously. It really drives home the point that Fring is intensely cynical: he knows he can anticipate a certain amount of critical thinking on the part of the people he associates with in the drug business. And certainly on the part of the cops. But employees at a fast food restaurant? Nah, they’ll buy anything. I’m not sure we’ve seen this from him before. It’s the only time he’s been less than completely convincing in his cover, but he knows he only has to be convincing enough. And he is. Jimmy’s plotline only surfaces halfway through the episode, once we’re through with Fring and Hector Salamanca. (Mark Margolis is continuing to add depth to this character, which both makes him fun to watch in this show, and deepens the tragedy of his barnstorming mute, wheelchair-bound performance in Breaking Bad.) I do wish that this story would move a little faster. I’m enjoying the Mike/Gus side of this season, but I feel as though the emphasis on that is slowing down progress on the story that has always fascinated me the most, which is anything involving Jimmy and Kim. Still, this is great.

Comedy

Maria Bamford: Old Baby — This is the best comedy special I’ve seen since about three Louis C.K. specials ago. I will repeat none of the bits, because the trailer for this proves that they are not funny out of context. I will say that Bamford has the perfect mix of three characteristics I like in a comic: jokes that frame the familiar in a new way, a delivery that complicates and deepens the writing itself, and uncommon life experiences to draw on. Regarding the second-last one of those, Bamford’s characters are hilarious, particularly when they’re her parents. And regarding the last, Bamford’s experience with mental illness is (silver linings) a fruitful source of material for her. I’m underselling this by making it tediously abstract. But I’m not about to explain comedy, here. This is on Netflix. Go watch it now. Pick of the week.

Movies

The Road Forward — The opening film of this year’s DOXA festival, this is a musical semi-documentary by Marie Clements, one of our local visionaries. It uses a gigantic storytelling toolbox including songwriting, music video, interviewing, visual symbolism and archival footage to tell a vast, nuanced story. The story is about the untold history of First Nations activism on the West coast of Canada. And it would be a hell of a story, even told straightforwardly. There are stories here, like the origins of the Native Brotherhood and Sisterhood and the Indian Constitution Express movement, that are the sorts of incredible tales that inevitably prompt white people such as myself to say things like “how was I never taught this?” (Which is a sentiment that the film pokes fun at once or twice.) It’s moving, important and enormously ambitious. Its flaws are flaws it shares with virtually all movie musicals and some music videos: a certain ostentatious theatricality keeps it slightly at arm’s length (this started life as a theatre piece). But it’s still something I think every Canadian should see, not out of a sense of duty, but because it features contributions from a huge number of really great artists, with Clements at the top of the pile.

Literature, etc.

Jorge Luis Borges: “Ibn-Hakam al-Bokhari, Murdered in his Labyrinth” — I’ve decided not to read this Borges collection in order, but rather to skim through and read the ones whose titles or first sentences jump out at me. The first sentence of this story is as follows: “‘This,’ said Dunraven with a vast gesture that did not blench at the cloudy stars, and that took in the black moors, the sea, and a majestic, tumbledown edifice that looked much like a stable fallen upon hard times, ‘is my ancestral land.’” I’m in. This is a fairly restrained application of Borges’s genius, but it’s definitely Borges. (One thing I recall from my long-ago reading of “The Garden of Forking Paths” is that it’s about a labyrinth. Sounds like this will be a theme.) Again I’m curiously reminded of Neil Gaiman. A cursory Google (and the slightest bit of common sense) reveals that Gaiman is a fan of Borges. And this story about stories feels like the sort of thing that wouldn’t be out of place in Sandman. Basically, one man tells a friend a story about a man who hid away in a labyrinth. And another man ponders the story, finds it insufficient and tells another version that’s more convincing based on the same facts. Simple, direct, ingenious. And also fable-like. Borges’s recurring motifs of labyrinths and libraries appeal to me on an aesthetic level as well as a thematic one. This is going well.

Jorge Luis Borges: “Borges and I” — An extremely short, vaguely troubling autobiographical sketch that finds Borges negotiating the difference between his public and private personas. This is part of The Maker (AKA Dreamtigers), and I think I’ll probably hold off on reading any more of that until I get a copy of the complete text. (My complete fictions collection dogmatically refuses to include the poems in The Maker, which are apparently crucial to its flow.) But this is a lovely little observation. If it’s any indication of what The Maker is like in general, it seems like the sort of thing I’ll enjoy more once I’ve got a better sense of what made Borges into the public figure he describes here. Perhaps I’ll focus on the earlier stories.

Jorge Luis Borges: “The Garden of Forking Paths” — You know, it’s possible that I hadn’t actually read this like I’ve been saying I have this whole time. Having read it now, it’s clear to me that the reason I was familiar with it is primarily because of the extraordinary way that Borges poses a thought experiment that prefigures hypertext literature decades before its actual invention. This is definitely something I’d read about this story. But the story itself seems unfamiliar to me. Maybe I just read it in a different translation? I dunno. I can’t imagine it would have made such a weak impression. This is deservedly a classic. Not as mindbending as “The Library of Babel,” but it’s also spinning more plates. It’s got a narrator with a motivation, a framing device, and an espionage plot all surrounding the main event, which is clearly the conversation about the labyrinthine novel that is effectively hypertext. One of the things I love most about the Borges stories I’ve read so far is they’re very short, and thus make rereading a completely non-daunting proposition. Future rereads of this will likely find me trying to decide why Borges decided to place this idea in this particular story. What difference does it make that the narrator learned the secret of his ancestor’s novel during the course of an act of espionage? How does the detective story connect with the metafiction? I’m sure somebody could explain this to me, but I’m just as happy to figure it out at my own damn pace.

Jorge Luis Borges: “The Circular Ruins” — This is the one Neil Gaiman cited as a favourite. It’s a good one, with a fantastic premise and a twist ending that renders this much better upon re-reading, or at least re-considering. The premise is that there’s a place with gods who will allow you to imagine a person into existence. The detail with which Borges describes this process makes this a good read on the first time through. But really it’s about the ending.

Jorge Luis Borges: “Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote” — This is second only to “The Library of Babel” in my survey of Borges thus far. This is ingenious for so many reasons: 1) Its form, which is a sort of academic memorandum complete with all of the resentfulness and spite for one’s rivals that those can often contain. 2) Its premise, which is that a 20th-century author made it his life’s goal to write Don Quixote (i.e. writing the exact same novel as Cervantes, word for word, but arriving at it independently and centuries after Cervantes already wrote it). This is wonderfully absurd and highlights a side of Borges that I don’t hear talked about that much, namely that he’s really funny. 3) The way that Borges chases this premise down several compelling rabbit holes. (This is a similar approach to the one he takes in “The Library of Babel,” which is perhaps why I like it so much.) Borges’s narrator analyses the content of Menard’s Quixote alongside the content of Cervantes’ original (which, remember, is exactly the same) and finds them to be entirely different works by virtue of their authors’ differing contexts and intents. Borges manages to be both instructive on how context is crucial to criticism (and the nature of criticism is explicitly discussed in the text) and he also satirizes this very same approach by way of reductio ad absurdum. This is outstanding. So far, reading Borges has felt like coming home.

Jorge Luis Borges: “Deutsches Requiem” — A slightly less effective Borges story, though that might be an unfair judgement on my part, because it just doesn’t have the specific things I’ve loved about the few Borges stories I’ve read so far. It’s not a premise-driven story, it’s a character-driven story. And the character is, apparently, the ultimate Nazi. I’m not going to lie, I picked this one out because I love the Brahms piece it’s named after. Not a highlight of my Borges reading thus far. But here’s a miscellaneous note I haven’t been able to work into any of my previous Borges reviews: I’m really reminded of China Miéville in a few of these stories. Neil Gaiman has been the modern reference point I’ve gone back to again and again when discussing Borges, but Miéville shares Borges’s gift for the mindblowing premise. Some of the stories from Three Moments of an Explosion could practically be Borges stories. I’m thinking particularly of “A Second Slice Manifesto,” in which Miéville describes an art movement that exposes new sides to classic works of representational painting by imagining a “slice” down a certain point in the image, revealing cross-sections of people and buildings that were whole in the original picture. That’s damn close to Borges in “Pierre Menard” mode.

Farhad Manjoo: “Can Facebook Fix Its Own Worst Bug?” — This piece about how Facebook is handling its post-election flail is not encouraging. A couple of choice excerpts: “For the typical user, Cox explained when I met him on a morning in October at MPK20, News Feed is computing the relative merits of about 2,000 potential posts in your network every time you open the app. In sorting these posts, Facebook does not optimize for any single metric: not clicks or reading time or likes. Instead, he said, ‘what you really want to get to is whether somebody, at the end of the day, would say, ‘Hey, my experience today was meaningful.’’” This is notable because I have never once felt this way on Facebook. The lack of meaningful interactions with people or content is the basis of my entire objection to the news feed. It promotes (and thus encourages the production of) the content equivalent of marshmallows: you consume them because they’re there and they have a sort of outward appeal. But you never actually enjoy yourself and eventually you start feeling shitty and resenting all the marshmallows you ate and the source where you got them. (This is Facebook’s shit to take responsibility for, but it’s also on every news organization and producer of web content to not fall into the trap and reject what value they have.) The piece then goes on to detail Facebook’s moderately successful efforts to combat clickbait — efforts that were predicated on a logic that I cannot imagine applying universally: “Facebook’s entire project, when it comes to news, rests on the assumption that people’s individual preferences ultimately coincide with the public good, and that if it doesn’t appear that way at first, you’re not delving deeply enough into the data.” Evidently, Facebook’s internal method for fixing problems is as pig-headedly metrics-focussed as it has forced the entire rest of the world to be. This piece is fascinating, and leaves me with more of a sense of Mark Zuckerberg’s good intentions than I had before, but absolutely zero faith in his (and his company’s) ability to fix the problems they’ve caused, let alone the ones they set out to remedy from the beginning.

Music

Neil Young: Neil Young — So I thought to myself, how deep should this deep dive go? Shall I make a detailed survey of the early material from Neil’s time in Buffalo Springfield — or rarer still, the Squires? Shall I finally listen to those other two CSNY albums? No, I decided. This will be a survey of Neil’s solo career, with that defined as any album that has his first and last name on it as a principal artist. Crazy Horse albums count, as does anything he released with ad-hoc bands like the Stray Gators and the Shocking Pinks. And Pearl Jam. I won’t obligate myself to listen to every live and archival release, though I’ll likely check out some, because the ones I’ve heard are among Neil’s best work, and albums like Rust Never Sleeps and Time Fades Away make the secondary designation normally afforded to live albums sort of inapplicable in Neil’s case. By my count, these guidelines will still find me listening to at least forty albums. So, we begin a fair ways from the beginning, actually, with the self-titled album. At this point, he’s already written and recorded classics like “I Am A Child” and “Mr. Soul.” He was five years past his earliest recordings. But this marks the start of Neil Young as “Neil Young” as opposed to “guy in band.” And it’s… well, it’s an anomaly, but it’s a compelling one. This is one of those albums like Jethro Tull’s This Was that feels like the start of an alternate history that forked a different way in our reality. (Maybe I’ve been reading too much Borges.) It’s the album that finds the now-anointed godfather of grunge sounding like a well-heeled young folkie with aspirations towards glossy marketability. The arrangements on this have a similar feel to the ones on Nick Drake’s Bryter Layter in the way that they never just leave the singer alone. This isn’t bad by definition. Far be it from me to criticize polish while being a huge prog fan. But Neil is an artist who feels more radical by far when he’s being noisy and sloppy and spontaneous. With this much fuss applied, he sounds a bit MOR. (To use his own nomenclature, I prefer Neil in the ditch.) “The Old Laughing Lady” suffers particularly from its arrangement, which almost works — until the midsection with the wordless backing vocals comes around. I could live with the little electric piano riff in 5/4 that breaks up the verses, but I don’t understand what that wordless midsection has to do with the rest of the song. It’s empty bloat, and it would be profitably excised on the Unplugged album years later. “The Loner” fares better, if only because it’s familiar enough that it seems unfathomable without its arrangement. The less familiar tracks range from hidden gems (“Here We Are in the Years”) to unmemorable instrumentals (“The Emperor of Wyoming”) to “The Last Trip to Tulsa,” which is the one truly unvarnished performance on the album but isn’t necessarily one of Neil’s best lyrics. Neil Young has its undeniable pleasures, but it’s best heard as a piece of Neil’s history. This polished side of him wouldn’t vanish outright after this: it would continue to marvellous effect in his work with CSNY and to blockbuster effect on Harvest. But immediately afterwards, the radically unvarnished side of Neil would come to the fore and mark the point where it’s clear that he’s a real creative force.

Neil Young & Crazy Horse: Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere — If Neil’s self-titled debut represented his introduction to us as something other than “guy in band,” Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere is where Neil Young arrives as a legend. This is a hell of an album, and though I’d heard the majority of it before (because more than half of it is on the Decade compilation), this was my first time through the whole thing. Crazy Horse is the kind of band I ought to hate, being who I am. But their committed sloppiness feels less like the result of laziness than like a progressive musical experiment. This is the point where noise becomes a major part of Neil Young’s sound. This is the album that starts the thread of Neil’s career that will climax on Rust Never Sleeps and go gloriously over the top on Weld. “Down by the River” and “Cowgirl in the Sand,” both feature sprawling jams where Neil strains at the very edges of his extremely limited technique as a lead guitarist and they set the template for all great Crazy Horse jams to come. The shorter songs are all excellent, especially “Cinnamon Girl,” obviously. And the title track is maybe the most Canadian song ever recorded. This is also the album that makes it clear we can never know what to expect from Neil Young. Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere is as unlike the debut as it is possible to be. And within a year of this album, Neil would join CSNY and go back to making radically structured music, albeit of an entirely different persuasion from on his first solo record. This is already an exciting ride. But Neil’s next solo album is his first proper masterpiece.

The Mountain Goats: The Sunset Tree — We interrupt this Neil Young binge for yet more erudite early-2000s indie rock. (Because the full Decemberists catalogue wasn’t enough.) I’ve meant to properly get into the Mountain Goats since I heard “Heel Turn 2” on Welcome to Night Vale. (I understand they’re working on a podcast together now? I’m curious.) This was apparently something of a breakthrough for them, though they have more acclaimed albums that predate this than postdate it. Still, The Sunset Tree served its purpose. I’m hooked. “This Year,” which I’m told is a very famous song in certain circles, is exactly what I needed right now. “I am going to make it through this year if it kills me” is one of those lyrics that seems obvious in retrospect, except that nobody wrote it before. Other highlights include “Dance Music,” which belongs to a niche subgenre I’m particularly fond of, namely songs with really chipper music and really dark lyrics. I’m also a big fan of “Dilaudid,” with its string arrangement and escalating vocal performance from John Darnielle. I need a few more listens for this to sink in, but this is definitely a band I’m going to listen to now.

Shugo Tokumaru: Toss — I’ve gotta say, it doesn’t live up to the promise of “Lita Ruta,” which is still my favourite song of the year so far. (Provided we don’t count cantatas based on Supreme Court decisions as “songs.”) Unlike In Focus? which is the other full Tokumaru album I’ve heard, this is really uneven. It is also sparser and simpler on balance than In Focus? is, and I’m not sure simplicity suits Tokumaru. Naturally, the best parts of the album are almost dizzyingly complex, with “Lita Ruta” being the clear winner but the first track, “Lift,” is glorious as well, as is the magnificently-titled “Cheese Eye.” This album is apparently the first time Tokumaru has gone out of his way to work with a variety of other instrumentalists, which makes for an album which is at times extremely timbrally diverse, but I would have preferred if it stayed that way for its whole duration. If I’m going to listen to this guy, I want total sensory overload. Honestly, there’s still enough great stuff on it that I’m confident in calling it one of my favourite albums of the year so far, but I suspect that has more to do with how badly I’ve fallen off the music discovery wagon than anything.

Podcasts

Crimetown: Episodes 16 & 17 — Good episodes. The problem with this season has just been lack of focus. If they’d just found a way to really hone in on two narrative threads: Buddy Cianci and the Patriarca crime family, this would have been great. And I suppose everything does tie back to that to a certain extent, but this feels like it’s really gone everywhere. But this focusses on Cianci, which makes it feel of a piece with the season’s arc as I’d originally perceived it. Still, I have other problems. In their promo for the big party they’re holding to celebrate the end of the season, the hosts of this say something to the effect of “by the end you won’t be sure who are the good guys and who are the bad guys.” Except yes I will. The ones who committed or were implicated in murders for business reasons are the bad guys. That’s pretty clear to me. I wish it were clearer to the people who make this show. (To be fair, cops and government officials are often also the bad guys. But my point is that Crimetown sometimes can’t resist saying “look how great these criminals are!” And I wish they wouldn’t.)

All Songs Considered: “Todd Rundgren On Technology, Creativity And His New Song With Trent Reznor” — Rundgren’s a good interview. You can tell somebody’s a good interview when they’re even interesting on All Songs Considered. Can’t say the song does anything for me. But I’ve always meant to check out Rundgren’s catalogue, especially A Wizard, A True Star. So maybe it’s time.

StartUp: Season 5, episodes 1-3 — I wish they’d stick to serialized seasons. The Dov Charney season was one of the undersung wonders of last year’s podcasts, and probably journalism in general. The first episode of this is a story of one businessman’s foray through “the surprisingly cutthroat world of toys.” I’m honestly kind of sick of journalism that starts from the premise of “look how interesting this seemingly mundane thing is!” So that didn’t work for me. But the two-parter on Friendster is really solid. What a catastrophe. It concludes with a comparison of the way Friendster was managed with the way Facebook was managed, and that really drives home the point that Friendster was the biggest idea of the early millennium, deployed by the wrong people.

You Must Remember This: “Barbara Loden (Dead Blondes Part 12)” — I’m starting to feel similarly about this as I am to Crimetown, though to a much lesser degree. The beginning of this season promised a point would be made about “blondeness” in Hollywood, and it hasn’t really come to that. This is still a good story about a compelling historical person, and how she was misrepresented by her powerful husband, Elia Kazan. But I’m hoping that Karina Longworth finds a way to tie everything together in the last episode of this series the way she almost did in the Barbara Payton episode several weeks ago.

Judge John Hodgman: “Live From the London Podcast Festival” — Nice stuff, but the highlight by far is a moment where the hosts of No Such Thing As A Fish argue over whether the existence of a conspiracy theory counts as a fact. The conspiracy theory in question? That the Titanic was sunk by time travellers who all wanted to see the last moments of the Titanic and thus all arrived at the same time, causing it to sink. This is bonkers in itself, but I won’t spoil the best moment of this exchange. I’ll just say that somebody definitely doesn’t understand the concept of a bootstrap paradox.

All Songs Considered: “The Decemberists’ Colin Meloy & Olivia Chaney Talk About New Collaboration, Reimagining British Folk” — ALERT ALERT NEW DECEMBERISTS sort of. Offa Rex is a side project where the Decemberists cover old British folk tunes (the sort of ones that inspired the band’s trilogy of bona fide classics: Picaresque, The Crane Wife and The Hazards of Love) with the brilliant Olivia Chaney on vocals. God, can she ever sing. And the arrangements are so ‘60s I can barely contain myself. I will be listening to this album in full as soon as I can, and I am overjoyed to see that Chaney will be joining the Decemberists at the August tour date I’m seeing here in Van. Also, I feel like I’ve been a right dickwad about Bob Boilen’s interviewing, lately. This is a really fun conversation and Bob really keeps it frothy, pointing out Meloy’s mispronunciations of things and everything. Nice stuff.

Reply All: “The Secret Life of Alex Goldman” — The payoff to the “P.J. hacks Alex’s phone” arc. This is actually really fantastic in spite of Alex Goldman having a really boring life, because 1) Goldman and Vogt have a compelling enough dynamic that they can talk about nothing and still be fun and 2) there turn out to be broader implications. Reply All can spin gold out of very thin material.

Imaginary Worlds: “Healing Through Horror” — I’d like to hear more episodes of this show that deal with horror, especially modern horror, but this isn’t really a highlight. This features two people who have both used horror as a means of escaping trauma, but their reasoning for why this is helpful to them is more obvious and less compelling than the episode that deals with this same thing with respect to Harry Potter. Seriously, that Harry Potter series was really great.

On The Media: “Rewriting the Right” — Nice to see OTM explaining the American right. Because god knows I would never understand it otherwise. I’m only half snarking. This trip through the horrible odyssey of right-wing think tanks and their campaigns to influence academia and policy is truly horrifying and I feel bad now.

Imaginary Worlds: “Designing BoJack’s World” — This features an interview with the cartoonist who was hand-picked (with no animation experience) by the creator of BoJack Horseman to design the show’s aesthetic. Given that this show’s host is a former animator himself, this is really interesting. BoJack is the adult cartoon that I feel gets the most out of its choice of idiom. All of the character drama would play out fine in a live-action dramedy, but the animation allows not only for great sight gags, but also for the sense that this is a bizarre and alienating world — a great mood to strike in a narrative about show business.

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “Summer Movie Preview 2017” — I, too, am looking forward to Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2.

Omnireviewer (week of Apr. 9, 2017)

Happy Easter! In honour of this holiday that I don’t really care for, I may have hidden a secret, EASTER EGG review in this blog post. See if you can find it!

14 reviews. OR ARE THERE?!?!?!?

Television

Last Week Tonight: April 9, 2017 — Analysis: 8, jokes: 4. Now would be the time for some outrage, Oliver. You can’t stay above the fray forever. Also, is there a single member of his audience that doesn’t already know about gerrymandering? Who watches this show? Who is this even for anymore?

Literature, etc.

F. Scott Fitzgerald: “The Crack-Up” — Written for Esquire in 1936, this three-part essay is a Scott Fitzgerald classic. The first paragraph alone makes it worth a read. But the entire essay is a marvellously self-aware account of having cracked under the pressures of what was, by any reasonable standard, a good life. I particularly love this: “Now the standard cure for one who is sunk is to consider those in actual destitution or physical suffering—this is an all-weather beatitude for gloom in general and fairly salutary daytime advice for everyone. But at three o’clock in the morning, a forgotten package has the same tragic importance as a death sentence, and the cure doesn’t work—and in a real dark night of the soul it is always three o’clock in the morning, day after day.” It’s got a bleak ending, and so did Fitzgerald’s life, but there are insights in here that I think could be used to repair one’s inner life in a way that the author never managed himself.

Podcasts

You Must Remember This: “Barbara Payton (Dead Blondes Part 10)” — This story is devastating, and marks the point where Karina Longworth’s broader argument in her “Dead Blondes” series begins to congeal. Payton went from movie stardom to prostitution within the space of a decade. Longworth uses the story to expose the exploitativeness of a particular Hollywood myth: if you look a certain way, everything will be great for you. This series really brings out Longworth’s ability to critique the Hollywood gossip industry while also adopting elements of its tone. Longworth revels in salaciousness, but she also knows that the way screen icons were presented says something about American culture. This series is a subtler deployment of that thesis than, say, the blacklist series. But it’s still there, and it’s still brilliant. Pick of the week.

Arts and Ideas: “Free Thinking Festival: New Generation Thinkers 2017” — I feel like I’m missing some context for this. It’s a fun conversation with a wide range of thinkers, but I don’t know why it’s happening. Anyway, nice!

99% Invisible: “Containers” — I love when Roman Mars features other shows on here. I’ve discovered some great stuff that way. Come to think of it, I discovered 99pi from hearing it on Radiolab. This episode of Containers, a series on how shipping changed the world, is interesting enough to make me possibly want to hear the whole series. That is, an entire 8-part series on shipping. Am I insane?

Judge John Hodgman: “Too Many Cooks Spoil the Borth” — I haven’t heard one of these clearing the docket episodes before, but it’s fun, especially given the presence of Kurt Braunohler. Jesse Thorn is a very funny non-comedian. That is all.

All Songs Considered: “Son Lux, Big Thief, Public Service Broadcasting, Walter Martin, More” — A few days have passed since I listened to this and I really don’t remember anything from it. I remember there was an interview with the songwriter from Big Thief, and I remember her being insightful. But in general I don’t like interviews on this show, just because Bob Boilen isn’t that good at interviewing. He and Robin Hilton are both primarily valuable for their exceptional taste and broad-mindedness. This show isn’t about insight, really. It’s about hearing music you otherwise wouldn’t. This is the rare episode that has nothing to offer me. Ah, well.

The Heart: “First Comes Marriage” — A nice little rerun about a relationship that didn’t start with love. More excitingly, a trailer for the new season, which I guess is about consent?

Judge John Hodgman: “Live From Washington, DC” — My god. It’s even better live. The highlight is an eight-year-old who asks Judge Hodgman what the right amount of Hamilton is. But there are many more.

Reply All: “Beware All” — The saga of Alex Blumberg’s hacked Uber account continues, and concludes. It features a bit of a non-ending, and Uber manages to come out of it not covered in shit (colour me disappointed). But there are many plausible theories that are plausible enough to make me afraid of the internet. You should probably listen to this.

Reply All: “Obfuscation” — A bit of public service journalism from Alex Goldman. Long and the short of it: that whole thing about what ISPs can do with your data is worrying but not super worrying.

Surprisingly Awesome: “A Message from Gimlet CEO Alex Blumberg” — Surprisingly Awesome is turning into a different show. That can only be a good thing. I look forward to Every Little Thing, though I worry that it may join Undone in the ranks of Gimlet podcasts that fail to differentiate themselves from any old public radio show.

Theory of Everything: “Art Districts” — Nice to see Benjamen Walker finally off of his surveillance hobby horse and back on his gentrification hobby horse. I love this show.

You Must Remember This: “Grace Kelly (Dead Blondes Part 11)” — A less exciting life makes for a less exciting episode. I’m surprised that Karina Longworth is still at this, after the Barbara Payton episode. If that wasn’t an appropriate finale, I don’t know what is. Looking forward to whatever she’s got up next.


Okay, that’s it! That horizontal line above this marks the end of all of the reviews! Nothing else to read! Have a good week!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

CONGRATULATIONS YOU FOUND THE HIDDEN REVIEW!!!

Unfortunately it’s formless and full of spoilers. So. Proceed as you see fit.

Battlestar Galactica: Season 3, episodes 1-13 (plus “The Resistance” webisodes) — Wow, this got really out of hand. I figured I’d be able to take this season slowly because it’s sort of beyond the point where it’s generally acclaimed. But to me, this third season is so far better than much of the second, and easily on par with the first. I’ll make a final judgement next week, by which time I’ll surely be finished it. But for now, a few unstructured thoughts. a) There is maybe no single moment in this show that’s hit me harder than Colonel Tigh breaking a tense moment with Anders to ask: “Any word on Kara?” There’s humanity beneath all of that crust, and he can even be made to care about Kara Thrace when circumstances get dire. Tigh is becoming one of my favourite characters, even though he’s terrible at his job. b) Dean. Motherfucking. Stockwell. This guy is so magnetic that he actually earns his Horatio Caine sunglasses moment in the first episode of this. c) I can’t look at Fat Apollo without laughing. Seriously, who thought that was a good idea? The fat suit undermines every scene. d) A number of relationships on this show don’t make any sense, but Apollo and Dualla are a particular head-scratcher. It seems like an arbitrary choice on the writers’ parts to put Apollo in a relationship with someone — anyone — other than Starbuck, to manufacture tension. On the other hand, the mostly platonic but deeply affectionate relationship between Adama and Roslin is pitch perfect. Especially when they get stoned on New Caprica. Edward James Olmos and Mary McDonnell are both consistently excellent, but they do their best work on this show in their scenes together. e) Speaking of which, “Unfinished Business” is a truly magnificent episode that basically makes the rest of Apollo and Starbuck’s plotlines this season worthwhile. Starbuck’s plot is especially disappointing, with the show never quite being able to decide whether to focus on her trauma from imprisonment and psychological abuse or on the romantic tension with Apollo that predates that. But in “Unfinished Business,” none of that matters. It’s a whole episode that just focuses on character relationships, by way of a truly ingenious framing device. It’s an indie drama in the BSG universe, and it’s certainly one of my three or four favourite episodes so far. f) I love that the dance music in this show is just flat out Celtic, with circle dancing. One way to ensure that your hypothetical future doesn’t age poorly is to make it deliberately archaic in certain ways. g) As much as certain elements of the Galactica-based story aren’t working (the romantic drama), this season adds something glorious to the mix that wasn’t there before: the interior of the Cylon baseship. The set alone is one of the best things this show has ever done. The way that the editing is deliberately disorienting in the baseship scenes is brilliant. And every new glimpse we get of Cylon society — of the ways that they interact with their surroundings and each other in ways that are both human and alien — adds depth to the show. It’s in the small choices: like the way that red characters are projected over the Cylons whenever they’re in their control room and the water-filled interfaces with the consoles. The Cylons aren’t creepy because they’re mechanical. They’re creepy because they’re weirdly organic. I’m particularly enamoured with the Hybrid: a Cronenbergian horror that puts the interior of the Cylon raiders to shame. h) “The Resistance” is pretty regrettable, altogether. Remember webisodes? Were they ever good? Pick of the week.

Omnireviewer (week of March 26, 2017)

I listened to 35 podcast episodes this week. For interested parties, you can generally be sure that I’m living well when my podcast intake is especially high. This week I did a lot of running, a lot of cooking and a lot of cleaning. Thus, a lot of podcasts. That said, this week also marked the first time in several years that I’ve felt compelled to just sit down and listen to a podcast while doing nothing else. That is because seven of the 35 podcast episodes I listened to this week are among the best podcast episodes ever made. If you travel in these circles, you already know what I mean. If not, read on.

This was going to be a full post of nothing but podcasts and one album. I decided to do yet another review of a game I occasionally dip into just so I’d have something worthy to offer my second pick of the week. But it’s been an auditory sort of week, broadly speaking.

30 reviews. (Because a bunch are lumped together.)

Music

William Basinski: A Shadow in Time — The second Basinski piece I’ve heard, after The Disintegration Loops. This is entirely different and on the whole, less conceptual than The Disintegration Loops. This doesn’t entirely work in its favour, since a big part of The Disintegration Loops’ appeal comes from its premise. The fact that you’re listening to audiotape fading away is part of what makes it so sad. The closest thing A Shadow in Time has to a conceptual hook like that is its first track’s dedication to David Bowie. But it’s hard to relate the dedication to the content of that track, which is basically a less effective version of the kind of music on The Disintegration Loops. And regardless, it is by far the lesser of the two tracks on this album. The title track is monumental, producing vast waves of electronic sound that build and collapse in on themselves in succession. It reminds me of nothing more than John Luther Adams’ vast orchestral masterpiece Become Ocean. High praise, from me.

Games

Sunless Sea — For those who are following my gaming exploits, I have decided that Half-Life is not for me. That doesn’t necessarily mean I won’t finish it, but I’m putting it aside for now. Somebody once told me that my problem is I want games to be books. I can’t really contradict that. And Half-Life is nothing like a book. It has many positive attributes that I can objectively recognize, but it ultimately comes down to how good you are at firing pretend guns at pretend monsters whose presence is the result of the one genuine story event in the early game, which happens essentially at the very beginning. This is neither the kind of thing I tend to appreciate, nor the type of thing I am remotely good at. So, even on easy mode, Half-Life has been mostly a mixture of boredom and frustration. That was a realization from about two weeks ago. This week, I cleansed my palate with Sunless Sea, which is as much like a book as any game I’ve ever played. A very fancy book. Every time I revisit this, I’m astonished at how much I haven’t discovered. I know there are whole branches of lore, and whole organizing principles of the gameworld that I’m not familiar with because I’ve spent relatively little time playing the sister title Fallen London. I will eventually rectify this, because the world that these games take place in is one of my very favourite imaginary worlds. As far as I can tell, it is unique in its mode of expression, which I might characterize as unyielding, glib understatement in the face of abject terror. I’m constantly curious about the larger forces at play in this game’s byzantine geopolitics and theology, and I’ll probably take up Fallen London again in an effort to find some of that out. But for now, I’m going to focus on actually finishing Sunless Sea’s main quest. Because at my glacial rate of progress, the sequel will be out by the time I manage that. (Seriously, Sunless Skies is going to be awesome.) Pick of the week.

Podcasts

Shittown (S-Town) — If you have not heard S-Town, do not read this. It’s best to go in knowing nothing. My purpose here is not to convince you to listen to it, it’s just to process it for myself and others who already have. But you should definitely listen to it right now. S-Town is among the very, very best work ever done in the podcast medium. (I will henceforth call it Shittown, because I see no need to demure.) Shittown is the story of a man who lived his life as a character in a story, and who actually found somebody to tell the story. It is other things aside from that, but it is that more than it is anything else. A weird tic of mine is that I usually find myself more fascinated with the telling of a story and the person doing the telling than I am with the people the story is about. Not so with the story of John B. McLemore. Like Hamlet (yeah, I’m pulling out the big guns), McLemore exerts such a magnetic pull over his own narrative that he overtakes the role normally occupied by the storyteller. And even though McLemore answers Hamlet’s existential question with a definitive “not to be,” thus removing himself as an agent in Brian Reed’s radio story two-sevenths of the way through, he continues to exert the same pull in death as he had in life. It’s as if he constructed his own life like an elaborate clock, inserted Reed as the final cog, wound it and, by drinking cyanide, finally set it off. He was the author of his own demise, but also the author of his own characteristically secular afterlife. If my clock metaphor seems laboured or obvious, I can’t wholly take the blame. Shittown itself is full of obvious, overtly literary metaphors, a fact that Reed lampshades in the first episode, noting that McLemore knows he couldn’t resist the symbolic valences of his potentially unsolvable hedge maze. Shittown is full of obvious metaphors because McLemore filled his life with obvious metaphors. Reed’s job is basically to transcribe the ongoing novel that this extraordinary, complicated person fashioned out of his own life. In Shittown, Reed plays Nick Carraway to John’s Jay Gatsby. John even cultivates a Gatsbian isolation from the members of his community, and is rumoured to be fairly well off. And by leaving his affairs in disarray upon his death, by spreading rumours of buried treasure, and by leaving countless relationships in states of tension and irresolution, he ensured that the story of his death’s aftermath would be as complicated and compelling as everything that had come before. In emphasizing McLemore as the author of his own story, I don’t mean to take anything away from Brian Reed’s accomplishment, which is substantial. It may be a new high bar for audio nonfiction. I can’t think of another show that’s so willing to completely divorce itself from traditional journalistic methods of story organization. (What even is the story of Shittown? Nothing happens throughout its entire duration that is unusual enough to warrant reporting in itself.) Love and Radio is the closest thing I can think of, but even that show is frequently confined to the studio. It couldn’t hope to introduce us to somebody like Uncle Jimmy, the sunny-dispositioned relation whose communication is hampered by a bullet that’s been lodged in his brain for 20 years. But even this emphasizes the extent to which Shittown succeeds on the basis of its astonishingly good tape and the people on the other end of Reed’s microphone. Woodstock, Alabama is a stranger-than-fiction town with implicit metaphors baked in. John B. McLemore was a stranger-than-fiction man who saw the metaphors and cast himself as the tragic outcast protagonist of the story that he was clearly living in. Brian Reed knew to hit record. Pick of the week.

WTF with Marc Maron: “Reza Aslan” — This is aggravating. I love Aslan, but Maron’s habit of just saying things without questioning whether they’re right makes a fool of him multiple times here, and not in an endearing way. It has its moments, as even the weakest of Maron’s episodes do. But fundamentally, a Marc Maron interview with Reza Aslan isn’t a good idea. I should have known better.

Judge John Hodgman: “In-lawful Gathering” — My newfound love for this show continues. The highlight of this episode is a introverted husband who is clearly being tortured by his family’s tradition of eating with 20 extended family members five nights a week. This poor fellow’s basic nature is at odds with his goal, here. On one hand, he’d love to simply enumerate the evidence that this is a terrible and very strange practice that’s killing him slowly. On the other, he definitely does not want to say anything bad about anybody. That would be unthinkable. This is worth it just to hear this guy attempt to walk that impossibly fine line.

The Heart: “Bathroom Bill” — A heartbreaking, mutedly hopeful story about the effect of Washington state’s proposed bathroom bill on one young trans girl and her mother. The bill didn’t pass, but it came stupidly close and shocked this story’s pseudonymous narrator out of her blue state complacency. It’s a story from the podcast How To Be A Girl, which has also been featured on Love and Radio. It’s staggering stuff, and definitely unlike anything else being made adjacent to public radio. Listen to this, it’s really beautiful.

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “Memes, Fads, Advice, and Neil Gaiman” — I want more Guy Branam on this show. I don’t like Pop Rocket all that much, but he’s very funny and brings out the best in the three main panelists, who I don’t think are always necessarily operating at full funny capacity. Also, do they have an intern doing their packaging right now? There’s a retake left in an ad, and there’s no extro with credits and theme music. Not that I care, but what an odd thing. I only bring it up because it really points out how familiar the rhythms of these shows become. When it changes, it’s kind of like listening to a familiar album and for some reason the tracklist is backwards.

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “Beauty and the Beast & SXSW” — I’m sad that Katie Presley’s only ever on this show around SXSW. She should have her own show. Between her appreciation of “the erotic potential of the Beast,” the angry experimental music of Moor Mother, and her fellow panelists’ bemusement about Moor Mother, she is a welcome monkey wrench in this episode.

Love and Radio: “La Retirada, Part Three” — This is easily the best instalment of this fascinating series about a family that found themselves embroiled in a drug cartel. This part deals with the particulars of being in the witness protection program. That’s a story I’m not sure I’d heard before. This would have been a great episode of Love and Radio, even if this was all there was to it.

The Memory Palace: “A Washington Monument” — One of the best episodes in a while. Nate DiMeo asks you to imagine an alternative to the Washington Monument that actually exists, and it is a truly outstanding alternative. Much better than the current one. Also, I love hearing DiMeo stumble and “um” his way through his promo copy. It makes this show feel more intimate than others.

Radiolab: “Shots Fired: Parts 1 & 2” — Best thing Radiolab’s done since “The Rhino Hunter.” This two-parter about police shootings in Florida contains some extremely disturbing tape of violence. But the most distressing moments all come in interviews with the surviving family members of the victims. Both episodes are essential, and they each demonstrate a different facet of the topic at hand. The first examines implicit bias as a motivator for police violence, and the second examines how good information can turn bad in a matter of minutes and lead to tragic results. Horrifying.

Crimetown: “The Network” — Thank god Buddy Cianci is back soon. This show has gone too far adrift. In the next season, they need to either aggressively tell one story, or just abandon their format altogether.

The Kitchen Sisters Present: “Sam Phillips, Sun Records, and the Acoustics of Life” — This is one of the podcasts on the Radiotopia network that I’ve unfairly neglected. The Kitchen Sisters Present (a more unwieldy but also more descriptive title than the original Fugitive Waves) feels on the one hand radical and singular and on the other like good-old fashioned public radio. The reason for this, as far as I can tell, is that it never allows itself to stay bolted to the studio. I really don’t mind podcasts that are largely studio based, with phoner interviews etc. But they’re definitely becoming the norm, even among podcasters with public radio backgrounds and approaches. The Kitchen Sisters’ work is a large monument to the dying art of going places while holding microphones. I owe it to myself and them to hear more of their catalogue. This episode about Sam Phillips resonates with their methods because Phillips was a guy who started off doing the very same thing: going out into the world with a tape recorder and capturing sound. The fact that he later became famous for his work in a studio is almost a moot point because the studio he opened operated on a philosophy of allowing the whole world to come inside. It’s a compelling and unusual look at a life’s work that’s normally thought about exclusively in terms of legacy: “the man who invented rock and roll,” etc. This isn’t that. It’s a lot more interesting than that.

Code Switch: “The 80-Year Mystery Around ‘Fred Douglas’ Park” — A tiny little thing about how an iconic abolitionist’s name has been misspelled in his namesake park for ages. I like these little podcast extras showing up in my feed. More shows should do six-minute or less mini episodes.

Homecoming: “Final Season One After Show: Season Two?” — Catherine Keener is charming and I am definitely looking forward to the return of this show.

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “Dave Chappelle and CHiPs” — Wow, these Chappelle specials sound like a disaster. But maybe I’ll go back and watch the old ones now. Stephen Thompson is a bit overzealous as a substitute host, I think. But I still like him.

99% Invisible: “The Falling of the Lenins” — I’m not sure what’s up with 99pi right now. I’ve enjoyed a number of their recent shows, but I miss the days when they had focussed design angles to every episode. This is a political story, and not only that, it’s one that doesn’t add much to what I learned about Ukraine’s history from the newspaper coverage after Putin annexed Crimea. I hesitate to suggest that 99pi should stay in its wheelhouse, because the sanctuary churches episodes were pretty good, I thought. But these sorts of stories just aren’t the sort of thing they can reliably do.

Code Switch: “A Bittersweet Persian New Year” — More than anything, this made me hungry. Also, Persian New Year is a thing I knew nothing about, so, two counts of time well spent.

On the Media: “It’s Just Business” — Come for the segment on coal miner photo-ops, stick around for the bit on ISPs selling your browsing data, and then maybe sit out the true crime thing. That’s less pressing.

Imaginary Worlds: “Beyond the Iron Curtain” — Russian science fiction sounds crazy. I will likely not read any of what’s mentioned here. But I love the story explaining socialist realism. That’s fun.

Reply All: “Favour Atender: The Return” — A repeat episode with a small extra segment. But it’s mostly worth it for the amazing extro by Breakmaster Cylinder, who I am at this point 90% sure is PJ Vogt.

All Songs Considered: “Sufjan Stevens, Gorillaz, Perfume Genius, More” — That Gorillaz song with Noel Gallagher is terrible. It’s one platitude after another. Dire. Don’t understand how anybody could like it. On the other hand, the tracks by Perfume Genius, the Family Crest and especially Hippo Campus are all fantastic. I’m on the fence about the Sufjan Stevens/Nico Muhly/Bryce Dessner/James McAlister collaboration. I’ll definitely listen to the album when it comes out, but I’m not sure I’ll like it. Much as I want to.

You Must Remember This: “Jayne Mansfield (Dead Blondes Part 9)” — What a weird liminal figure Jayne Mansfield was. This is basically the story of how an actress of the immediately post-Marilyn Monroe era found herself obsolete in the hippie era. Stories from this transitional period in time are always fascinating to me because it’s a reminder of how quickly the culture can do an about-face. That’s why I love Mad Men. It’s why I loved the Charles Manson season of You Must Remember This. And it’s why I’m looking forward to this horrible period in history that we’re living in being over so that we can at least begin to process it by way of similar narrative constructions.

Crimetown: “Bonus Episode: Cat and Mouse Part II” — I’m not sure I’m entirely comfortable with this show’s attitude towards murderers. It’s essentially the same as Martin Scorsese’s attitude in Goodfellas, which is basically that they’re terrible but also unspeakably glamorous. But Scorsese is dealing with actors who are only pretending to be murderers. This show features tape of interviews with actual murderers. It’s a genre-wide problem, mind you. But the glib, tough-guy approach to talking to mobsters sometimes strikes me as a bit tasteless.

The Gist: “Step Away From the Screen” — Leggings, Mike? You’re basking in the opportunity of a slow news day and you decide to talk about leggings? Even the interview isn’t especially compelling. Anyway.

99% Invisible: “Manzanar” — Well, there’s mention of a plaque, at least. The stories 99pi has been doing lately are important stories, but they’re important stories that should fall to news reporters to tell. Not 99% Invisible. The legacy of the Japanese internment camps is extremely important to remember in America’s current political climate. So, newspapers should definitely send reporters out there. But when this show is at its best, I find a different sort of value in it. It tells important stories that don’t necessarily have any resonance with the current news cycle at all. It tells important stories that are not matters of life and death, but just about how people can make life a little better by thinking a little harder. That’s a worthy task, and it gained this show a big following. I miss that.

Code Switch: “Sanctuary Churches: Who Controls the Story?” — A complex account of the balancing act that the new sanctuary movement faces: be public about your actions as an open protest of the government, or be quiet out of respect for the privacy of those who seek sanctuary?

The Memory Palace: “Roots and Branches and Wind-Borne Seeds” — This is proof that any story can be told well. Nate DiMeo foregrounds the fact that there is no drama in the story he has to tell, and by foregrounding it, he introduces a new thematic layer to the narrative. Nice.

Crimetown: “Renaissance Man” — This is what I’m talking about. If this season had laser focussed on Buddy Cianci and Raymond Patriarca, it could have been glorious. I cannot believe that Buddy Cianci was the mayor of a major city. I cannot believe he got reelected. There is much in the world to shake one’s faith in democracy. Add this to the list.

Criminal: “Rochester, 1991” — This is an absolutely horrifying story of a person who ended up, first, in an abusive relationship and second, on the wrong side of the law. What this woman has been through is unthinkable. It’s not easy to listen to, but it does have something of a happy ending, so that’s not nothing.

Omnireviewer (week of Mar. 19, 2017)

15 reviews. One of them is a full season of television, so.

Movies

Brazil — Oddly, this is the movie I turn to when I need a bit of cheering up. It’s been my favourite movie ever since the very first time I saw it. That’s a funny thing, come to think of it: I must have been 12 when I first saw Terry Gilliam’s satirical dystopian masterpiece. I know this because I saw it the week I got braces. I was miserable. I wanted to lash out at the entire universe. But strangely, I recall that week was my introduction to two longstanding obsessions: this movie, and the band Rush. I got braces the week of the Toronto Rocks concert for SARS relief. I remember that on the night I got braces, I either watched the telecast of that concert and fell in love with Rush or I watched Brazil. Either way, they happened in close succession at a time when I was emotionally vulnerable — for a dumb reason, I grant you. But I was 12, and the reason kind of doesn’t matter. And I’ve been slavishly devoted to both of them ever since. Still, I’m a little ashamed of the fact that my favourite movie has been the same since the age of 12. That’s a year over half my life ago. I honestly can’t tell if my love for Brazil has more to do with the movie itself, or more to do with the fact that I still associate it with the relief it granted me from the circumstances of my life at the time when I first watched it. I remember that the cut of the movie that I saw that first time is not the version that I’ve come to love in the years since. It was a rental from a video store, and it was the American cut, which I’ve only seen one other time, on the one occasion when I saw Brazil in a cinema. The version I watched just now is the European cut, which is the version I watched obsessively in high school on the first of three discs in my Criterion Collection set. I don’t know what it says about me that the most comforting movie I know is as cynical and dark as this one is. Maybe I can take refuge in it just because I know its rhythms better than any other movie. Or maybe it soothes me because its particular dystopia is pettier, more personal and more relatable than any other cinematic dystopia. Maybe it’s the protagonist’s relentless romanticism in spite of his circumstances. At this point, it almost doesn’t matter. This movie is part of my DNA the same way that Thick as a Brick and Mahler’s fifth symphony are. Certain elements of it have entered my vernacular in spite of them not being in anybody else’s. Every time my strange employment situation at my current company becomes mired in bureaucracy I take it upon myself to incorporate the expression “27B-6” into casual conversation with a colleague. I’m yet to have any of them recognize the meaning. In any case, relatability accounts for only a fraction of the meaning that this movie has for me. What really enthralls me about it is that I’m still finding new facets of it after all these years. I have watched Brazil countless times in countless contexts, but this may have been the first time I’ve been wearing headphones for it. Tiny bits of dialogue that I missed before were suddenly clear. (I always wonder what specific lines can be attributed to Tom Stoppard. It speaks well of the other screenwriters that it isn’t entirely obvious.) The long and the short of it is, there are still moments in this movie that surprise me. It is so magnificently dense that I can’t imagine a time when it won’t yield new secrets. There is nothing that I appreciate more in this world than a work of art so fantastically oversignified that it makes me forget my own circumstances entirely. Nothing clears the mind like sensory overload. That is what Brazil has always done for me. It is my escape, in the same way that Sam Lowrey’s vibrant inner life is his escape from his own dire circumstances. It has served this purpose for me for more than half my life. I feel like I owe Terry Gilliam a few drinks. Pick of the week.

Television

Downton Abbey: Season 4 — To some extent, I enjoy watching Downton Abbey the way that audiences are expected to watch Game of Thrones: by carefully tracking and forecasting changes in the balance of power. The fact that Downton’s shifts in power take place over the course of an actual period in history makes it less easily abstracted (i.e. it’s easier to draw generalized conclusions about how power works from a narrative in a completely hypothetical fantasy world than in one that’s bound by what we know of the historical context). But it also makes it more satisfying to see Lord Grantham, the spongy old aristocrat and increasingly the show’s outright villain, grasping at the straws of his former glory. The looming presence of actual history also factors into one of my least favourite plotlines of the season, which is the requisite “racism exists” plotline, wherein a rebellious young rich woman tries to get back at her mother by courting a black jazz singer called Jack. And while that works out about as well as you’d expect, what’s actually most upsetting about it is how far out of its way the show goes to make its conservative white aristocrats (and its socialist white ex-chauffeur) essentially okay with Jack. There’s a sense that even the most pearl-clutchingly racist among the cast of characters is only paying lip-service to racism as a widely-held ideology. If only the world were a slightly better place, to paraphrase the show, they’d all be relieved to not have to play at racism anymore. This is bullshit. There is exactly one reason why old Lady Grantham doesn’t protest to Jack’s presence at Downton and that’s because the audience needs to like her, and we can’t if she’s a blithering racist — which history and narrative context tells us she should be. This is just one reminder that Julian Fellowes is primarily interested in painting an ahistorically benign picture of the old aristocracy. This is the most substantial problem with this show, and it’s the thing that makes it consistently less than great. (Seek out the tragically underappreciated miniseries Parade’s End for an antidote.) This is the point in the review where I remember that I mostly actually liked this season and should point out something good about it before yammering on some more about the things that pissed me off. So: seeing Kiri Te Kanawa playing Nellie Melba was fun. Now, let’s talk about how a whole bunch of this season consists of “very special plotlines.” We’ve already discussed the racism plotline. But there’s also the abortion plotline and, god help us, the rape plotline. I won’t go into detail on either, save to say the extent to which the rape plotline is eventually made into a male character’s problem is distressing and unsurprising. But I hope this kind of storytelling doesn’t become the norm going forward, because it smacks of desperation. I’ve accepted that Downton Abbey is revisionist history. I don’t need it to get “gritty.” And I don’t trust it at all to get these stories right. But it says something about this show that in spite of all of this, I haven’t thrown up my hands and ragequit watching. Things like the relatively frothy Christmas special that finishes the whole thing off make it worthwhile. I suspect that may be one of my favourite episodes in the entire series — especially the hysterically convoluted caper plotline where Grantham enlists the aid of virtually the entire family to get a compromising note out of the hands of a blackmailer. The comedy of manners that ensues as the accomplices try and fail to hide that they’re up to something is what makes this show fun. This season succeeds over the previous one primarily because it makes Mary work again. She’s the show’s ace in the hole, and getting saddled with the increasingly uninteresting Matthew as a scene partner again and again was defeating the purpose of her. It’s good to see her doing something new. It’s great to see her in a position of relative power where she can stand up to Lord Grantham. See? It’s really just Game of Thrones, but polite.

Literature, etc.

Bryan Lee O’Malley: Lost At Sea — I read both of O’Malley’s standalone graphic novels this week. And I am shocked and maybe a bit embarrassed to have liked this one better. That’s because Lost at Sea is a road novel and a coming-of-age story, which is an extremely bog standard juxtaposition compared to the premise of Seconds. It’s the story of a young woman named Stephanie who believes she has no soul, this thought having arisen from the gradual pileup of relatively normal adolescent traumas: the loss of her best friend, the breakdown of her parents’ relationship, and a romance gone wrong. At first glance, it’s an unappealing proposition: a comic narrated by the inner monologue of a person who is reacting in a way that’s seemingly out of proportion to the severity of her problems. I believe this is what some call “whining.” But these moments hit Stephanie at a vulnerable time in her life, and she’s clearly dealing with some vaguely defined, deeper issues. With this in mind, Lost At Sea seems to me a very effective description of what it feels like to hit a patch where nothing makes any sense. O’Malley underlines this with the subtle suggestion of a supernatural element — maybe a deal with the devil or possibly just forking timelines; an implicit expression of the plot mechanic that’s made explicit in Seconds — which is by no means necessary to actually justify what happens in the story. It’s just a way of expressing Stephanie’s need to rationalize events that are simultaneously unthinkable and already rational. I love the moment in the book where this finally coalesces, while Stephanie looks up at the stars. When you look up at the stars, she says, your immediate surroundings fade away and it’s like you could be living at any point in your life — in any of your lives. Whatever happened to you, whatever catastrophic rupture occurred in your emotional life (spacetime bullshit or no), you always have access to every moment you’ve lived through, thanks to memory. And this is ultimately what helps Stephanie find the sense of perspective she’s been badly in need of throughout the story. Memory is both a torturer and a tool. When Stephanie realizes the latter of those purposes, she’s able to make enough sense of her life that she can cease to regard herself as soulless — because she no longer needs that as a justification for her emotions. It’s a staggering ending. I loved this. Pity I watched Brazil, or it would be pick of the week.

Bryan Lee O’Malley: Seconds — Let me be clear. This is by any reasonable measure a more accomplished graphic novel than Lost at Sea. The cartooning is more stylish, the page layouts more adventurous, and the story contains many more moving parts. However. It basically just boils down to a story about a person who tries to change history and learns that’s a bad idea. This is by no means a new take on the “let’s change history” story, whereas I’d argue (and I have, in my previous review) that Lost at Sea actually does something very specific within the broad framework of “coming-of-age road novel.” Both Seconds and Lost at Sea end with their protagonists having an epiphany of sorts. But where Lost at Sea’s epiphany constituted a young woman accepting reality by accepting the validity of her own memories, Seconds’ epiphany amounts to “you have to learn to accept your mistakes.” I know, I know, it’s the journey and not the destination. And Seconds is a twisty, turny yarn with outstanding characters. But after Lost at Sea, I was a bit disappointed that Seconds ends with a platitude. It is effectively a fairy story. And while I’d love to say there’s nothing wrong with fairy stories, actually there is. The thing that’s wrong with fairy stories is that they fail to acknowledge that the world is complicated and can’t be easily righted with a few one-sentence morals. I loved Seconds. I think it’s a really great comic book. If I hadn’t have read it the day after Lost at Sea, I’d probably be more prepared to take it on its own terms. In any case, I’m super excited to read the Scott Pilgrim series.

Music

Anna Meredith: Varmints — I often say that my favourite experience to have with a piece of art is sensory overload. I suspect Anna Meredith agrees. Save for Shugo Tokumaru, this is the most “everything at once” music I’ve encountered in recent times, and I love it. Can’t wait to hear more.

Podcasts

The Gist: “Todd Barry Would Rather Be Drumming” — I think maybe Mike Pesca is the best interviewer of comedians in the podcastverse. He doesn’t force himself to laugh at everything they say like Jesse Thorn sometimes does. He isn’t a comic himself, so he doesn’t have the low-lying resentment that sometimes creeps into Marc Maron’s interviews with other comedians. And in spite of not being a comic, he does have the fastest brain in the business, so he can feed his guests material to riff on in a way that Terry Gross never will be able to. This is a pretty standard episode of The Gist, all told. I listened to it because Todd Barry’s awesome. But this show’s good enough at its walking pace that it consistently makes me regret that I don’t have time to hear every episode.

The Bugle: Episodes 4020 & 4021 — Episode 4020 is the first I’ve heard with Helen Zaltzman, and she’s officially my favourite new Bugle co-host. She and Andy for some reason have a natural rapport. I love Hari Kondabolu as well, and I think the decision to limit Trump talk is a wise one. This show is fun to listen to in the grocery store because it’s a challenge not to laugh constantly and look like a crazy person.

Criminal: “Vanish” — God, I love Criminal. This is the show that I most wish I could find the time to listen through the full archive of. Maybe soon I will. This episode outlines the challenges with faking your own death. One challenge comes in the form of a dude whose job it is to find you if you do that. Absolutely fascinating. Also, challenge accepted. (Wait, no, I didn’t say that. No, it was nothing. Never you mind.)

Judge John Hodgman: “Oculus Miffed” — The thing that’s struck me about this show on the couple of occasions I’ve listened to it is the warmth of it. Hodgman likes to portray himself as a chilly weirdo, but that’s completely not what he is even on the surface, really. In this episode, a guy wants to convert the master bedroom in the house he lives in with his girlfriend into a virtual reality parlour. On the surface, this sounds insane. But Hodgman wisely doesn’t try to force the conversation into the frame of “crazy boyfriend has crazy idea and boring girlfriend doesn’t like it.” Instead, he asks straightforward questions and quickly realizes that’s not what’s going on here: this guy wants the VR room in the house primarily because he knows his girlfriend is interested in it. He’s just gotten a bit overzealous with his plans for where in the house it should go. Hodgman’s verdict is both funny and also a lovely comment on what it means to live in reality with another person. I think I may be sold on this show.

You Must Remember This: “Marilyn Monroe: The End (Dead Blondes Part 8)” — The Monroe three-parter is certainly the highlight of this “Dead Blondes” series, and one of the best things I’ve heard on this show. This episode puzzles through the various theories, conspiracy and otherwise, relating to Monroe’s infamous death. Longworth’s own conclusion about what makes the most sense is both rational and heartbreaking, and she’s able to explain the multiplicity of conspiracy theories with reference to Monroe’s persona, which she examined in the previous episode. Really fantastic stuff. Pick of the week.

Reply All: “The Russian Passenger” — An entire episode dedicated to Alex Goldman’s attempt to find out how Alex Blumberg’s Uber account got hacked. Fascinating, and definitely Uber’s fault. They’re dirty liars, all of ‘em.

The West Wing Weekly: “Two Cathedrals (Parts I and II) — Man, everybody involved with The West Wing in any capacity seems really good at talking. Who’d have thought. “Two Cathedrals” is the consensus best-loved episode of the show, though it’s been long enough since I watched it that I don’t remember whether or not I agree. In any case, hearing Aaron Sorkin talk about his original concept for President Bartlett’s season two story arc is worth the listen alone.

99% Invisible: “Negative Space: Logo Design with Michael Bierut” — A straightforward interview with some very funny moments, and some very enlightening ones. It’s fascinating to hear stories from before the time when everybody in the world cared about and critiqued logos within an inch of their designers’ lives.

All Songs Considered: “Why SXSW Matters: The Best Of What We Saw, 2017” — Ah, yes. The thrill of discovery. I’m happy to have sat the daily episodes out, because now we get to actually hear the music, and much of it is wonderful. I’ve already looked into Anna Meredith, and I’ve watched the video of Let’s Eat Grandma playing in a trailer. But there’s so much more great music on this. It almost makes me want to go to SXSW someday. But not quite. That’s a panic attack waiting to happen.

Code Switch: “Not-So-Simple Questions From Code Switch Listeners” — I’d like to see this become a regular feature. There’s nobody I’d rather tackle difficult questions like these than the Code Switch team.