Tag Archives: You Must Remember This

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.

Omnireviewer (week of Mar. 12, 2017)

Cracked 30 for the first time in a while! Only by one, though. Here are this week’s 31 reviews.

Movies

Looper — I watched this during a rare case of “oh, I’ll just put on whatever’s on Netflix,” and it led me into a weekend-long Rian Johnson binge. Looper unexpectedly scratched the itch that Arrival left me with, for thinky science fiction with all of the filmmaking basics in high gear. This is a brilliantly written, brilliantly shot, brilliantly acted movie based on a brilliant premise that it knows not to take too seriously. It’s a time travel movie where the mechanics of the time travel are both important and deeply inconsistent, but which is constructed expertly enough that the story never stops making sense. Everything else about the movie is meticulous — from the comparative advantages of the characters’ various firearms to Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s prosthetic nose. Like Arrival, Looper uses its sci-fi premise to achieve its emotional payoff. But also like Arrival, it would all be for nought without performances that invest the characters with our sympathies. In this regard, Emily Blunt is particularly excellent, as is the extremely promising Pierce Gagnon, who plays her precocious 10-year-old son with magnificent superciliousness. Of the main duo, Gordon-Levitt and Bruce Willis as the former’s older self, Willis stands out for his ability to convey a similar ruthlessness to Gordon-Levitt, but with the world-weariness of 30 extra years. To be honest, I’ve never really been that excited for a new Star Wars movie. But after seeing this, I’m extremely psyched to see what Rian Johnson does in that universe. Because Looper is at least twice as good as The Empire Strikes Back. That’s a quantifiable thing. I measured it, and it’s definitely true. Pick of the week.

Brick — An astonishing debut from Rian Johnson, with some of the tendencies that make Looper great already in place. Like Looper, this is a movie built on deep awareness of genre tropes — from action/sci-fi movies in Looper’s case, and from hard-boiled crime and noir in Brick’s. But both of those movies cast the tropes of their respective genres in slightly new and different lights, without actually crossing the line into parody. Brick comes closer, given that it’s a proper crime movie about drug dealers with actual life-and-death stakes, and it also takes place in a high school. But Johnson almost elides that last part entirely, only pointing out the absurdity of his own premise in the few scenes that have adults in them. Aside from that, this is played almost entirely straight and the high school setting is basically aesthetic. It’s kind of great to see so many of these classically noirish scenes play out in broad daylight. And speaking of classical noirishness, this movie goes a step or five beyond it in its writing. The dialogue in Brick is entirely its own beast and it’s beautiful. A young Joseph Gordon-Levitt delivers the movie’s best lines with total commitment. I really enjoyed this, and it makes me hope that Johnson doesn’t rule out doing smaller budget movies in the post-Star Wars period of his career.

The Brothers Bloom — Without a doubt the weakest film in Rian Johnson’s oeuvre so far, but still worthwhile for the wonderful performances by Adrien Brody, Rachel Weisz, Mark Ruffalo and Rinko Kikuchi. All four bring a totally different energy to the movie: Brody is romantic and brooding, Weisz childlike, Ruffalo charming, and Kikuchi brings the snark while hardly saying a word. It’s the kind of comedy I’d like to see more of but there are times when it feels like a slightly less committed film by Wes Anderson. (Maybe it’s just the presence of Brody.) The movie is at its best when it’s at its least subtle: it’s a movie about storytelling, with its themes applied to con men. Ruffalo’s character writes elaborate cons for his younger brother (Brody) to play the lead role in. The key tension is that Brody’s character is afraid that he won’t be able to tell fact from fiction much longer. The ideas of lies that tell the truth, or cons where everybody gets what they want are everywhere in this movie, to an almost Steven Moffat level of obsessiveness. Particularly striking is a sequence in which Weisz’s character demonstrates her pinhole camera to Brody’s, explaining how it distorts images in interesting ways that show you things not as they are, but as they could be. More compelling is the extent to which she doesn’t know why this resonates with the person she’s talking to. As with Brick, the writing is where this movie shines. Everybody constantly means two things at once, both being equally true. But it all feels a bit less than the sum of its parts. Still worth a watch. But I can see this being considered the Hudsucker Proxy of Johnson’s catalogue a little bit farther down the line.

Television

Last Week Tonight: March 12, 2017 — Best episode in a very long time. Just watching Oliver get upset about Trump’s whole “who knew healthcare was this complicated?” thing is worth the time.

Ways of Seeing: Episodes 3 & 4 — What a marvellous series. These latter two episodes focus on the ways in which oil painting was primarily a tool for the self-aggrandizement of the wealthy and the ways in which modern (read as: 1970s) advertising uses the same techniques to reflect a fantasy of wealth at a population that does not, but might be persuaded that they can enjoy it. I understand now why a segment of my social media circle was so saddened by his death. His television programmes are the sorts of things that simply aren’t being made anymore: no frills, non-pandering, direct intellectual arguments accompanied by clever and knowledgeable juxtapositions of images. Well actually, I suppose there’s Adam Curtis. Still, this would be focus-grouped out of pre-production today.

Literature, etc.

Alex Ross: “The Fate of the Critic in the Clickbait Age” — Oh man, it’s nice to see that the writer who made me want to go to journalism school still thinks the same way as me about everything, except better. Ross argues cogently that slavish devotion to analytics is unconscionable: “The trouble is, once you accept the proposition that popularity corresponds to value, the game is over for the performing arts. There is no longer any justification for giving space to classical music, jazz, dance, or any other artistic activity that fails to ignite mass enthusiasm. In a cultural-Darwinist world where only the buzziest survive, the arts section would consist solely of superhero-movie reviews, TV-show recaps, and instant-reaction think pieces about pop superstars. Never mind that such entities hardly need the publicity, having achieved market saturation through social media. It’s the intellectual equivalent of a tax cut for the super-rich.” Brilliant. But if you’re really going to champion the little guy, Alex, is the New Yorker really the place to do it??? I mean, wouldn’t it be more consistent with your argument to, I dunno, express the same outlook in the form of obscure essays about Jethro Tull on Tumblr? Or something? It’s a minor quibble though. All I’m saying is I’m coming for your job. Don’t worry about it, just let it happen. You’ll land on your feet.

Louis Menand: “Karl Marx, Yesterday and Today” — Super interesting. Manand contends that while biographical efforts to put Marx back in his 19th-century context are noble enough, we ought to push back against the notion that a figure from the increasingly distant past can’t have any practical use in the modern world. It’s got some biographical info on Marx that’s new to me, but then most things to do with Marx are relatively new to me. One of these days I’ll get off my ass and read Capital. Just lemme get through this stack of comics first.

“25 Songs That Tell Us Where Music Is Going” (2017) — I do hope this becomes an annual thing for the NYT Mag, because both editions have featured some top-shelf music writing. The short-form podcast version of this feature is even better, but this is worth reading for a few of the longer segments. Amos Barshad’s feature on the ever-elusive Future and Jenny Zhang’s heartbreaking essay on “Your Best American Girl” by Mitski are particularly worth reading.

Ta-Nehisi Coates & Brian Stelfreeze: Black Panther vol. 1: “A Nation Under Our Feet” — I wanted to like this so much more. Obviously, Coates is a brilliant prose writer, but his first foray into comics relies much too heavily on the repeated juxtapositions of portentous inner monologues with straightforward fight scenes. There are only a handful of scenes in these first four issues where I really got a sense of character, and it suffers from the perpetual superhero comic problem that the worldbuilding is basically taken as read — when for most of the people who’ll probably pick this up, it’s definitely not read. Did anybody read this book before Coates took over??? Anyway, I’m happy that Marvel was interested in working with Coates. That bodes well for the future. But this book just isn’t that good.

J. Kenji Lopez-Alt: The Food Lab — I picked this up a month or so ago and I’ve been picking through it gradually, rather than reading it cover to cover. Mind you, it definitely is the kind of cookbook that you can read cover to cover, and ultimately I think I’ll do that. Because Lopez-Alt’s entire focus is to make you pay attention to the small details in technique and process that affect the end result of the food you prepare. Reading the lengthy preambles to each recipe and his accounts of his rigorous applications of the scientific method to cooking is ultimately what helps you avoid the mistakes that make your food sub-par. It also helps to clarify why Lopez-Alt is so specific in his directions in the recipes. An example: one of the first recipes that I tried from the book was Lopez-Alt’s buttermilk biscuits. Altogether, they turned out much better than any of my previous, tepid attempts at this seemingly simple American staple. Lopez-Alt’s method of folding and rolling the dough multiple times as you would in a French pastry helps form stacks of flaky layers, and his advice to pulse the butter and dry ingredients in a food processor before adding the buttermilk leaves just enough big chunks of butter in the dough that the layers are separated from each other during baking. But the one instruction that I failed to follow was to place the raw biscuits on parchment paper over the baking sheet. I didn’t have any, so I substituted aluminum foil and thought nothing of it. In retrospect, it should have been obvious that this would cause the bottoms to burn. But I thought of that too late. Later, upon reading a bit more of Lopez-Alt’s introduction, I learned the science words to frame what went wrong. The bottoms of my biscuits cooked by way of heat conduction: they were in direct contact with the hot aluminum foil, and that was the primary source of the energy transfer that caused them to cook. By contrast, the tops and edges of my biscuits cooked by way of heat radiation from the elements of the oven. This is a less efficient way of transferring energy to food, so those parts of my biscuits didn’t overcook. So, the purpose of the parchment paper in Lopez-Alt’s recipe was to reduce the efficiency of the heat conduction onto the bottoms of the biscuits, ensuring a more consistent outer texture. Now I know. I think it says something about the kind of book this is that the most impressed I’ve been with any recipe has been a recipe for scrambled eggs. Yes, The Food Lab contains an actual recipe for the most basic undergraduate food you can prepare from scratch. Actually, it contains two: one light and fluffy and one creamy and custard-like. I’m a light and fluffy eggs kind of guy, so that’s the one I’ve been using. The key revelation is an astonishingly simple thing: if you salt your whisked eggs and let them sit for 10 or 15 minutes before cooking, rather than whisking, salting and then cooking them immediately, the eggs retain their moisture and don’t weep onto the plate. The difference completely blew me away. I will never not do this when I make eggs, now. Those are just two examples of how my initial explorations of this book have improved my cooking already. Other recipes have introduced useful new techniques to me, even if Lopez-Alt is not especially innovative or bold with flavours. Yotam Ottolenghi he is not. But he clearly has no interest in being Yotam Ottolenghi, and it takes all types. The Food Lab and my two editions of The Flavour Bible (vegetarian and not) have made me a measurably better home cook over the last few months, and I’d encourage anybody with a passion for food and a bit of time on their hands to check them out.

Music

Sxip Shirey: A Bottle of Whiskey and a Handful of Bees — The title is a line seemingly taken straight from the Tom Waits playbook, and this whole album by electroacoustic new music dude Sxip Shirey is brimming with the sort of scuzzy Americana that is the near-exclusive province of Waits and his imitators. Much in the same way as it’s fun to hear roots music collide with glam on Kyle Craft’s debut, it’s fun to hear a New York composer’s take on folk in the O Brother, Where Art Thou? vein. (It’s even got a genderswapped adaptation of “I Am a Man of Constant Sorrow” with Rhiannon Giddens singing.) The other strand running through the album is a sort of avant-garde electronica, which is generally more successful when Shirey steers clear of dance music conventions. In general, I’ve found that people who get called “composers” aren’t great dance music producers. The album would have been better if it wasn’t so gigantically long. But then, there’s virtue in throwing everything at the wall. If you’re willing to skip (pun?) tracks that don’t take your fancy, this may yield more fascination. Many tracks are worth seeking out: the fantastically freaky harmonica jam “Grandpa Charlie” is great. Also, the electronic thing “The Land Whale Choir Sinks the Albert Hall” lives up to its title, if such a thing is possible. And the Neil Gaiman-inspired “Palms” is the closest Shirey gets to a really good pop song, with a touch of Belle and Sebastian to it. It’s better still when sung by Puddles Pity Party, as in the music video. These are not the only good tracks, to be clear. But I will definitely not listen to the album straight through again.

The Flaming Lips: Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots — After all of the Jethro Tull I listened to last week, I needed to find a new favourite. I’ve always meant to check out the Flaming Lips. I don’t know why it took me so long. Honestly I’m… not overwhelmed. I liked this enough to probably check out at least one more Flaming Lips album, but I generally find myself wishing that the fun spacey sounds and weird beats would occasionally also yield to a nice melody or a good lyric? But I do love that cut up acoustic guitar at the beginning of the title track. I’m not giving up. It’s just not quite as easy a sell as I thought it would be.

Beyoncé: Beyoncé — Man, I love this album, and I don’t think I’ve listened to it start to finish since it first came out. It’s far less cohesive than Lemonade, and maybe a bit less ambitious. But it’s every bit as perfectly crafted. It feels like Revolver to Lemonade’s Sgt. Pepper. So basically, I’m expecting a White Album from Beyoncé within the next couple of years: something sprawling and weird and awesome.

Podcasts

Love and Radio: “Understood as to Understand” — A classic sort of episode of Love and Radio where a person who is likely to be controversial to different people for different reasons is allowed to state their case. It’s not the best of the season, or anything, but this show hasn’t set a foot wrong in a long time.

The Memory Palace: “Amok” — Nate DiMeo tackles fake news. That’s almost a spoiler, except that if you believe the story in the opening of this episode, you are concerningly credulous — as was, apparently, most of New York City.

99% Invisible: “Sanctuary, Parts 1 & 2” — This isn’t a design story in any way that I can detect, but it’s a good one, about the movement among churches to harbour migrants who the government was turning away. If this is 99pi doing a legal story, maybe they should spin off like Radiolab did with More Perfect. I’d listen to that.

Code Switch: “Safety-Pin Solidarity: With Allies, Who Benefits?” — This is the most essential Code Switch episode for privileged people to listen to. That means everybody should hear it, because as argued in the episode, almost everybody has some form of privilege they ought to recognize. Consider me edified and a little chastened.

Reply All: “Matt Lieber Goes to Dinner” — I can’t wait to learn what P.J. finds out from hacking Alex’s phone. Also, I’m 100% on board with Cory Doctorow’s concern about this new black box DRM bullshit. That’s end of days nonsense, there.

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “Get Out and The Americans” — More than anything, I’m glad that nobody disapproved of the final act of Get Out. I don’t know why, but I had a strong suspicion that someone would do a “the movie could have just kept doing what it was doing!” thing. And I’m still in the frame of mind where I can’t acknowledge anything wrong with Get Out. I’m probably not going to catch up with The Americans. I’m intrigued, but not intrigued enough to watch four seasons.

Code Switch: “In Search of Puerto Rican Identity In Small-Town America” — Here we have an honest-to-god reporting trip, tape-driven story about the complicated attitudes of the Puerto Rican diaspora. I’ve always liked Shereen Marisol Meraji as a host, but I love hearing her work as a reporter. The school shutdown story was fantastic, and so is this. The tape is really compelling, and takes you right inside the conflicts occurring in each character’s head. It’s for sure one of the strongest episodes of this podcast in terms of narrative and emotional punch.

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “Big Little Lies and Feud” — Won’t be watching either of these, but I’ll certainly be trawling through Stephen Thompson’s Austin 100 again. That was awesome last year. And I appreciate his only mentioning it this once, as opposed to at every opportunity last time around.

The EP — 45 minutes of fantastic audio-rich music criticism from the New York Times. It’s drawn from conversations with the writers of their second gigantic music feature about 25 current songs. And while it clearly lacks the amount of detail and analysis of the written feature, these thirteen tiny snippets do what every music podcaster should be doing, which is to use the techniques of radio editing to unspool the various meanings of the songs in question, and to illustrate points made by the interviewees. It sounds absolutely great, and it’s definitely a sort of thing I want to hear more of. Pick of the week.

All Songs Considered: “SXSW Late-Night Dispatch: Tuesday” — Think I’ll sit the rest of these out. I’ve got a lot of podcasts to get through and while I’m always happy to let these folks be my proxies at a festival that sounds to me like a panic attack waiting to happen, I just can’t justify the time expenditure if they’re not going to play the music. Still, it’s really gratifying to hear that Let’s Eat Grandma were popular in Austin. I still think they’re the most promising new act in ages.

Love and Radio: “La Retirada, Parts 1-2” — A fascinating start to a three-part series about how a family got into and out of the drug trafficking business. I’ll reserve final judgements until the conclusion next week.

Crimetown: Episodes 11 & 12 — I’m ready for this season of Crimetown to be over now. It started off pretty focussed on a couple of key stories, but it’s been meandering for a while. Still, the episode about Raymond Patriarca’s doctor is the best standalone story that this show has done so far. I do think that in future seasons, though, these guys will need to figure out whether they want to be serialized or episodic. Because mixing and matching doesn’t work.

You Must Remember This: “Marilyn Monroe (Dead Blondes Parts 6 & 7)” — The highlight of this season so far, by far. The first episode of this is a repeat, and a good one, but the second part does something a little different from what Karina Longworth has done before on this show, which is: it focusses specifically on Monroe’s persona and public perception and the decisions that went into it. It’s less narrative than it is analytical. I like this. I’m very much looking forward to next week’s conclusion.

Imaginary Worlds: “The Spirit of Will Eisner” — A live show from Eric Molinsky, on the comic writer who represents the greatest gap in my comics reading career. This is a fascinating look at Eisner’s relationship with later generations of comics creators. Maybe it’ll inspire me to finally pick up A Contract With God.

Theory of Everything: “Nothing to Hide” — Benjamen Walker’s surveillance series gets a shaggy dog ending, but it does confirm that he and I share a favourite apocalyptic movie: Brazil. This series has been intermittently among the best of what Walker’s done on this show. But I’m still left uncertain about what to do about any of this.

Fresh Air: “‘Get Out’ Director Jordan Peele” — Peele is funny and thoughtful, but that’s no surprise. The best parts of this are hearing him talk about horror movies. Guess I should watch The Stepford Wives.

Arts and Ideas: “Thinking – Neil Jordan, Flat Time House, Teletubbies” — This begins with an insufferable debate over whether Teletubbies is any good as children’s programming, continues with a Neil Jordan interview that I had higher hopes for than I probably should have (The Company of Wolves is one of my favourite movies, but I don’t know his work outside of that) and finishes with an out piece on John Latham, a conceptual artist who I’d never heard of. I came for Neil Jordan, but this Latham thing is ultimately what saved an otherwise deeply underwhelming show. I do like the fact that this podcast pairs pop culture with art that isn’t “pop.”

Serial: “Preview of S-Town, Our New Show” — Oh, this is exciting. If Sarah Koenig says it’s weird, I’m in. I love this preview. I love how it starts with an account of clock repair that’s obviously a metaphor, but then the penny doesn’t drop. I won’t spoil it. Just listen to this. I’m much more psyched about S-Town than about season three of Serial.

Omnireviewer (week of Feb. 26, 2017)

18 reviews. I’ve been busy. Check out the One Week // One Band Tumblr tomorrow to find out why.

Music

Shugo Tokumaru: In Focus? — A discovery thanks to an All Songs Considered from a couple weeks ago. And while I’m enormously looking forward to the new album that features the track on that episode, it feels great to have his whole back catalogue to get through. Tokumaru is one of those artists who can provide the unpredictable sensory overload that I love best in music. And this album doesn’t seem to leave much out. The really miraculous thing about it is how it never stops feeling like a pop album, even when its arrangements reach their most ludicrously complex. It’s a beautiful expression of the joy of excess. This is one of those discoveries you long for. And good lord, that video. Pick of the week.

Movies

John Wick — Wow, is this movie ever macho. Just, unrelenting testosterone from beginning to end. Part of me admires its relentless commitment to its own nature, but I found myself thinking it would be a more interesting movie with a less rock ‘n’ roll soundtrack and, I dunno, Tilda Swinton? There are moments when this nears Boondock Saints territory, and that’s very bad territory. Still, this is ultimately a movie that’s about an ex-hitman who kills dozens of mobsters to avenge his dead dog. How self-serious can it be? The fact that John Wick is able to wring not just a sequence of outstanding fight and chase scenes out of its premise, but also a consistent and unique atmosphere and some actual character beats is a miracle. (Though the character of John Wick may only seem interesting because of Keanu Reeves’s uniquely inept acting choices.) The thing I loved most about the movie is the builds a criminal universe that seemingly exists right under the nose of polite society but completely invisibly. The Continental is a fascinating idea — a hotel specifically for the use of contract killers and other unsavoury sorts, governed by a set of rules and a code of etiquette that goes basically unstated throughout the movie. John Wick is good enough, and more to the point, weird enough that I’ll probably see the sequel while it’s in theatres. But… could we dial back on the guitars, please?

F for Fake — A documentary by Orson Welles that is as sure-handed (obviously) as it is inscrutable. It focusses on two fakers: Elmyr de Hory, the greatest art forger of the century, and Clifford Irving, the author of the fake Howard Hughes autobiography. Incredibly, the two of them ended up getting to know each other on the island of Ibiza and Irving wrote about Elmyr. But the real star of F for Fake is Welles himself, who takes the opportunity to muse on the entire notion of charlatanry. He repurposes a Kipling poem into a brilliant indictment of either Elmyr or the art dealers he fleeced, and he makes it abundantly clear that he regards the latter as just as fake as the former. Keep at this through the difficult first act. It does start to coalesce eventually, and the ending is a lovely bit of rhetorical magic.

Literature, etc.

Brian Merchant: “The Last Relevant Blogger” — This Motherboard feature about the music blog Hipster Runoff is essential reading for anybody who mourns the days before online attention was commodified. It is relevant to that concern because Hipster Runoff basically defines the historical moment as that shift was just about to happen. The fact that the piece is itself old enough for all of its Hipster Runoff links to be dead (the site went offline sometime since this piece’s 2015 publication) is itself an illustration of how completely we are now in a post-blogosphere world. I never read Hipster Runoff and I find all of the excerpts here insufferable. After all, it was as much the beginning of the shitty state of the web now as it was the end of the glorious pre-Facebook phase it started in. This is a fascinating read, and Merchant is right to say that this story is basically the story of the internet itself in the last decade.

Podcasts

The Gist: “Andy Zaltzman Is Back at Exactly the Right Time” — Oh, he is, isn’t he? This is a solid interview with funny moments from both Zaltzman and Mike Pesca, whose sense of humour is inconsistent to say the least, but he’s got in in him somewhere.

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “The Oscars Were Crazy” — Well, it was only the ending that was crazy, wasn’t it? Aside from that it was pretty much just the Oscars. I am with Linda Holmes on Jimmy Kimmel’s interminable Matt Damon bits, and I’m with Stephen Thompson on how goddamned long that tour bus thing went on. It’s almost good that they screwed up the envelopes, because the evening needed some enlivening, I thought. And I like Jimmy Kimmel, more or less.

Chapo Trap House: “Fash The Patriarchy” — A rather clarifying discussion of the schisms and substantial ideological differences between different factions of what we’re now calling the alt-right. Their guest, Angela Nagle’s article on the alt-right is worth reading, but shorter than I expected given the depth of her knowledge and research. (Seriously, somebody ought to give her a medal for trawling through the muck of that awful part of the internet.) Suppose I’ll have to read her upcoming book.

WTF with Marc Maron: “Raoul Peck” — This takes forever to get going. Maron has been hit hard by the death of Bill Paxton, and it has him thinking about how “life is so fucking fragile.” So, you’ll have to sit through an untenable amount of that material (or skip it, if you’re smart) before you get to Maron’s interview with Raoul Peck, the filmmaker behind the brilliant I Am Not Your Negro — which is actually a really excellent conversation. I think Maron requires the presence of another mind to be his best. Because nothing in the first ten minutes of this podcast would suggest that he’s the sort of person who could remotely keep up with Peck in a conversation about James Baldwin that also frequently touches on Marx. But he does, and it’s good enough that even Peck sounds delighted at the calibre of the conversation by the end of it. If you’re choosing between Maron and Terry Gross for a Raoul Peck interview (I frequently find myself deciding to go for one or the other but not both when they have the same guest), this is the rare occasion where you should take Maron.

Home of the Brave: “It’s All Over Now” — I can tell Scott Carrier is going to be a mixed bag for me. On one hand, he makes radio documentaries that aren’t like radio documentaries that anybody else makes. On the other hand, he can be awfully earnest when he just talks into a microphone. I imagine there will be an adjustment period. But I’m going to give this show a shot, because I’m looking for more podcasts that don’t sound like all the other podcasts.

On the Media: “Smoke and Handcuffs” — I’m looking forward to Brooke Gladstone being back, but Garfield’s analysis of the relationship between Trump and Fox News is really solid. It’s worth it just for that.

All Songs Considered: “Lana Del Rey, Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy, Colin Stetson, Penguin Cafe, More” — I should never have gone two months without listening to this. So much good music here, starting with the very opening cut, chosen by Robin Hilton: “Lita-Ruta” by Shugo Tokumaru, who I had never heard of. But it is completely crazy and wonderful and complex and I will absolutely be checking out the album when it’s out in April. Immediately after, Bob Boilen introduced me to an Eno-allied 80s instrumental band that I somehow hadn’t heard of, Penguin Cafe Orchestra, and their modern incarnation, which is excellent too. And we finish off with new Colin Stetson, in much finer form than he was on his limp Górecki adaptation last year. That’s both an indication that I should hear his next album and a reminded that I need to check out his older stuff. I’m less convinced by the new Lana Del Rey track. Still, this is an episode full of the sort of stuff I look to this show to find for me. Pick of the week.

The Heart: “Local Honey” — A sonically beautiful collaboration with a sound artist whose gender nonconformity forms a spine for her work. She’s the perfect personality for a story on The Heart, because to a certain extent, she comes pre-sound designed and already living in this show’s lush sound world. Really nice.

Home of the Brave: “The Test” — Scott Carrier’s most acclaimed story (though new to me) plus a new postlude about how America’s gone off its meds. Well worth hearing, though I’m beginning to suspect that everything Carrier says about contemporary America, however poetically and ironically phrased, will seem facile to me in light of my also listening to a bunch of cynical radicals over on Chapo Trap House.

You Must Remember This: “Veronica Lake (Dead Blondes Part 4)” — Outstanding stuff. Veronica Lake’s story is especially sad among the characters that Karina Longworth is exploring in this series, because she’s just so likeable that you can’t help but think she deserved more out of life. A bit like Carrie Fisher, I guess.

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “Justin Timberlake” — Ehh. I like JT, but this is an interview full of platitudes.

You Must Remember This: “Carole Landis (Dead Blondes Part 5)” —  “The greatest dramas in Hollywood are not filmed — they’re lived.” I think Karina Longworth has found her new tagline.

99% Invisible: “Atom in the Garden of Eden” — Here is a story about a moment in history when interested amateurs could obtain nuclear sources for independent research. 99pi is a show you can always count on to make you think “how do people not know about this?”

All Songs Considered: “Resistance Radio: Darkly Reimagining the ‘60s Sound” — Sharon Van Etten singing “The End of the World” is definitely something I needed in my life. But let’s not forget that Skeeter Davis’s original is timeless. Also, Danger Mouse has a really sonorous speaking voice. Who knew?

Omnireviewer (week of Feb. 19, 2017)

Oh, jeez, for the first time since I’ve been doing this I didn’t get it out on Sunday. Not that you care, of course, but I have standards. Usually. This week, I just completely forgot. Anyway, here it is. Also, I am happy that Moonlight won.

Movies

Manchester by the Sea — Yeah, I saw Manchester by the Sea again. It’s worth seeing a second time if you can handle it. On a repeat viewing, I found myself focussing much more on what a beautifully made clock it is. The pivotal scene that flashes back to Lee’s tragedy is particularly well directed and edited so that we simultaneously come to know what happened to him and understand why his present-day situation is so challenging. Also, I had forgotten about the actual best character in this movie: Otto the drummer. Keep at it, buddy. They’ll realize it’s the bassist’s fault soon enough.

Dream of a Rarebit Fiend — Funny how sometimes silent shorts from 1906 just come up in conversation, isn’t it? Anyway, I watched this again for the first time since undergrad film studies, and it totally holds up. Holds up since my undergrad, holds up since 1906. Watching super early film is like watching a magic show. It really reconnects you with the basic miracle of the medium as equal parts art form and technological marvel. It’s easy to take that for granted these days. Interestingly, another movie that came up randomly in conversation on the same night was Hugo, which I love primarily because it is the only modern movie (when seen in 3D, at least) that has ever been able to reconnect me with the basic wonder that movies exist like early film does. I wish it would return to theatres. I’d love to see it there again.

I Am Not Your Negro — As good as I expected, and another outstanding entry in the most interesting category at this year’s Oscars. Since Life, Animated and Fire at Sea look to have no chance, Best Documentary Feature is a win-win-win situation. I Am Not Your Negro takes an approach that I am increasingly drawn to in documentary, which is that it takes a spoken text (in this case, not an original one, but one drawn from the writing of James Baldwin) and lays it over archival footage. There is no reporting in this documentary, as there is in 13th and especially O.J.: Made in America. But its goals are different: namely to illustrate and gloss the argument and storytelling of James Baldwin: one of the most powerful of all American writers. The film’s greatest asset is Baldwin’s unparalleled command of language, both in his written work (read here by Samuel L. Jackson) and in his extemporaneous speech in interviews and assorted television appearances. It’s second-greatest asset is director Raoul Peck’s Adam Curtis-like facility for pairing Baldwin’s outpourings of language with striking and often counterintuitive images. When you think about what Baldwin’s much-planned, never written book Remember This House could have been like — a critical account of America told through the stories of Medgar Evers, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. — it’s gutting that the book doesn’t exist. But this film fills the gap as well as anybody could manage. Pick of the week.

La La Land — I’m writing this just after this movie lost Best Picture to the much nobler and more interesting Moonlight. And while I’m mostly feeling sorry for Warren Beatty for having to deal with that whole situation, I’m sort of sad for the people involved with this movie as well. Not super sad, though. La La Land is a virtuosic piece of filmmaking, with plenty of the sort of showy, ostentatious cinematography that made me fall in love with Emmanuel Lubezki, who apparently didn’t do anything this year, because it is now the law that he must always win the Oscar for cinematography. However, it is also incredibly boring for most of its duration, and it somehow made me hate both Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling who are both actors that I really like. It starts strong, with an incredible opening number that occurs before either of the leads make an onscreen appearance, and it ends strong with a virtuosic fantasy sequence. But the entire middle of the movie is pablum with weak songs, shitty dancing and poorly drawn characters. Basically, I didn’t like this. But don’t interpret that as a refutation of nostalgia or romance, because I’m in favour of both of those things. They just need to be more subtly employed than they are here.

Games

Half-Life  — I got this as part of a bundle of all of the Half-Life games and DLC during the Steam Winter sale. I bought it purely out of love for the Portal games, and general curiosity about the other franchise that Valve is known for. So far, the game possesses the same dour sense of humour, but without the same emphasis on writing. I am generally optimistic about liking this, in spite of it being basically just a standard first-person shooter, which isn’t the sort of thing I tend to enjoy. It is also insufferably buggy, though, so I may well switch to Half-Life: Source before I next check in. I was bound and determined to play through the most authentic Half-Life experience, but if I’m going to constantly get stuck at the tops of ladders, unable to move at all, I’d rather sacrifice period accuracy for a bit of convenience.

Music

Max Richter: Three Worlds: Music from Woolf Works — Max Richter’s strongest music is among my favourite of recent years. I’m particularly fond of his album The Blue Notebooks and his recomposition of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, which I still submit is superior in every way to the original. I know it isn’t a contest, but I’m just saying. It’s true. But Richter is by no means a sure bet. At his worst, he makes ersatz movie music passed off as self-sufficient art. This album of music from his ballet score Woolf Works contains more of that that I’d like. It’s broken into three sections, inspired by three separate Virginia Woolf novels: Mrs. Dalloway, Orlando, and The Waves. Of these, the Dalloway music is the worst by far, consisting almost entirely of grandiose crescendi. The Waves is more subdued, but still veers off into crass emotional manipulativeness toward the end. Fortunately, Richter’s modular synth-based music for Orlando is in itself worth the price of admission. Using the classic form of a theme and variations, Richter reflects the transformations of Woolf’s protean novel through the gradual development of a single theme — and by processing recordings of acoustic instruments into something else entirely. Woolf Works contains both poles of Richter’s work: the very worst and best that he’s capable of. It isn’t a modern masterpiece, but you should definitely check out the Orlando section because that, at least, is fantastic.

Jethro Tull: Stand Up — More research for a bunch of upcoming writing. This isn’t a Tull album I revisit frequently, and I can’t honestly say that I agree with the consensus that it’s one of their best. I see the appeal: it’s tremendously heterogeneous and experimental while still hewing largely towards the general shape and sound of heavy late-60s rock. But it feels immature to me in a way that the following record, Benefit, doesn’t — even though I have to say I like Benefit less. “A New Day Yesterday” defines the problem. The titular line, “it was a new day yesterday but it’s an old day now” is one of those pleasantly meaningless koan-like lyrics that the 60s are so good for. But for the rest of the song, it feels like Anderson is just using words to fill space, which is something that the Ian Anderson of Aqualung, let along the Ian Anderson of Thick as a Brick or Minstrel in the Gallery, would never do. And for what purpose is the space being filled? Essentially, a blues jam. Granted, it’s a blues jam with a magnificent riff and a flute solo, which distinguishes it from other blues jams. But it’s nothing special in a way that later Tull would never be nothing special. There are moments that strike me this way throughout the album. Essentially all of the heavy stuff is better on live albums. But there’s also plenty to love. “Fat Man” isn’t the most body-positive song in the Tull canon, but it is melodically irresistible, and I love that there are balalaikas in it. “Jeffrey Goes to Leicester Square” points the way towards similarly whimsical bits of nicely arranged fluff like “Mother Goose” and “Ladies.” And “Reasons for Waiting” proves that even with a deep familiarity of the Tull canon, your expectations of Ian Anderson can still be confounded. It’s just a simple, pretty love song, and it actually works. Imagine. Not a favourite, but I do understand why it is venerated by many.

Jethro Tull: Songs from the Wood — This is a classic. I’ll say no more because I have far too many words coming up shortly on One Week // One Band. But this is in my top five Tull albums, for sure, which means it’s probably also in my top 20 albums ever.

Literature, etc.

George Saunders: “Escape from Spiderhead” — Upon reading the raves about Saunders’ new novel, I figured I should check out a short story to see if it might be my sort of thing. It is. This is a pretty standard sci-fi set up: something a young Vonnegut might have come up with. But it is distinguished by the brutality of its conclusion and the florid brilliance of its language. I still like his Trump rally thing better, but this is great and he’s obviously a writer I’m going to be into.

Podcasts

Fresh Air: “James Baldwin/I Am Not Your Negro” — I would have been just as happy to hear a full rerun of Terry Gross’s interview with Baldwin, but Raoul Peck is really insightful about how Baldwin reframed a generation’s thinking. I can’t wait to see I Am Not Your Negro.

You Must Remember This: “Jean Harlow Flashback (Dead Blondes Part 3)” — This is You Must Remember This at its most You Must Remember This. Karina Longworth’s love for Hollywood doesn’t just stem from a love of movies: it’s also a love of the sort of lurid gossip that it inspires. She’s really good at capturing the tone of that gossip while also being careful to contextualize it as dubious or outright false. Jean Harlow’s life story is dramatic as all hell, and gives Longworth the opportunity to say something like “But if they could see beneath the glamorous exterior, they’d have known that Harlow was slowly going to seed.” (I’m paraphrasing out of laziness, but it’s something like that.) This is the kind of extremely dramatic writing that keeps me coming back. Pick of the week. 

The Memory Palace: “Met Residency #4 (A Portrait)” — Easily the best of Nate DiMeo’s pieces for the Met so far. At first, it feels like it might be too specific to his Met residency to really have resonance for the rest of us who just found it in our feeds this week. But there’s a flip part way through where the story turns into something else, and it suddenly becomes much more compelling.

Chapo Trap House: “President Wario” — This may be the first episode I’ve heard with only the original three Chapos. It feels a bit like nothing new, at this point. There is a certain amount of gasping, head-in-hands incredulity at the continuing awfulness of Donald Trump, but I can get that anywhere. But there’s at least a wonderful reading series at the end, about a conservative who stands up for everything that’s good in the world by telling two uncouth twenty-somethings not to say “fuck” on a plane.

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “Our Oscars Preview” — No “should wins” for Manchester by the Sea? Alriiiiight. Anyway, these Oscars are going to be a fiasco.

A Point of View: “The Spectre of Populism” — I agree with John Gray insofar as I believe that the ineffectiveness of political centrism is the cause for the current swing to the far right that is overtaking Europe and North America. I’m not sure I agree with him on much else.

Omnireviewer (week of Feb. 5, 2017)

24 reviews!

Live events

Run the Jewels: Live at the PNE Forum — In the middle of what was, by Vancouver standards, a snowstorm, Run the Jewels played a show in basically a huge barn. I honestly couldn’t be bothered to make the metaphor subtler. Near the end of the show, El-P assured us all that we weren’t crazy to believe that the world outside that room was batshit insane. But Killer Mike reminded us that there’s a community of people, some of whom were gathered in that huge barn, with whom we can at least commiserate. The latest Run the Jewels record is angry and resistant, which is the only thing that a Trump era Run the Jewels record could possibly be. But I can think of worse things for a Run the Jewels live show to be in 2017 than a locus of understanding and warmth.

Music

Danish String Quartet: Adès/Nørgard/Abrahamsen — A stunning disc, with music by one modern composer I knew I loved (Abrahamsen), one that I wasn’t sure I loved (Adès) and one that I’d never heard (Nørgard). Adès’s Arcadiana is my favourite work here, and in particular the sixth movement, inspired by Elgar. Abrahamsen’s preludes are trifles in themselves, but they add up to a lot when combined. The neoclassical finale is a hoot. The Danes play all of this with extreme subtlety and seeming ease. Between this and their folk album, they’ve basically confirmed themselves as my favourite string quartet of their generation.

William Basinski: The Disintegration Loops —This five-hour long set of pieces is maybe the most depressing music I’ve ever heard. Half ambient music, half concept art, The Disintegration Loops depends on you knowing at least something about the method by which the music was produced to get the full effect: this music is the sound of tape loops playing over and over until they’re so decrepit that they barely produce sound anymore. There’s no good way to put the effect of it into words. It’s like death, rot, wasting diseases and the collapse of civilization made into music. Particularly affecting is loop 2.2, on the second volume of the collection, which starts off as a moodily stagnant snippet of what can barely be called melody and disintegrates to an extent that every repetition contains near-silences. The continual rotation of the tape in spite of its degradation sounds like failure in spite of effort. The fact that the tapes were finished on September 11, 2001 has become a crucial part of this music’s paratext, but its effect goes well beyond the events of that day. The Disintegration Loops manages to evoke just about every negative, undesirable abstraction ever conceived by a human, and it does so by almost prosaically simple means. Its elegance is as undeniable as it is dreadful, and I will likely listen to it many more times in spite of it making me feel sick. Pick of the week.

Jethro Tull: Aqualung — I’m doing a bit of remedial listening for my upcoming week on Jethro Tull for One Week // One Band. I say “remedial” because this album is the one classic Tull album that I haven’t really given its due in terms of listening time over the years. Ironic, perhaps, since it’s their most popular by a mile. The thing that always kept me at arm’s length was the recording quality. If I remember the story correctly, this was recorded in the sanctuary of a big church that had been converted into a studio (and Led Zeppelin were in the nicer studio in the basement), so the whole record sounds sort of distant and hazy. Well, I just listened to Steven Wilson’s 40th anniversary remix, and it definitely goes some distance towards correcting this. It’ll never sound as perfect as Thick as a Brick, or even the three earlier albums, but it’s nice to have a version of the album that allows the material on it to be shown in the best light. And every time I listen to this, the material is a lot better than I remember.

Laurie Anderson: Big Science — One of my favourite discoveries of the year. Laurie Anderson has always been on my radar as “that performance artist who also made pop albums.” Given that resoundingly positive impression, what took me so long to actually listen to this? We’ll never know. Big Science is funny, scary, and addictive. Anderson is a captivating presence, chilly and affectless to the point of coming off like a deadpan comedian at times. Anderson’s spoken word pieces are just that: spoken word pieces. They’re performance-dependent, and the drama comes from the hearing of them. In “From the Air”: listen to how she times the lines “We are going down; we are all going down… together.” Instant pathos, only to be undercut by “And I said, uh oh. This is gonna be some day,” and the refrain: “Stand by.” The best tracks on this album make me remember how much I love language. Just, in general. “Your eyes. It’s a day’s work just looking into them.” I mean, it’s a miracle that we have an infrastructure like language to express meaning in that way. Obviously, “O Superman” is the highlight. The way that it manages to bring together its two main themes in the end is outstanding. To crib ever so slightly from Isaac Butler’s understanding of this song (see below), somebody is sitting alone, listening to the phone ring. It’s their mom. She leaves a concerned message. It rings again. And then things really get going. It’s unclear to both the listener and the protagonist of the song who is actually speaking. (“And I said okay: who is this really?”) But it’s clear that this is a person who knows something very frightening and is trying to deliver a warning. (The use of a vocoder even makes it sound like a deliberately disguised phone voice.) And at the end, the most chilling part of the song, the protagonist is alone once more, nostalgic for home and mother — except that the language and sentiment of the mysterious caller has infected the nostalgia so that the protagonist is wishing to be held in her mother’s “military arms.” There’s almost no better expression of anxiety in all of music: the kind of generalized, non-specific anxiety that something very bad is going to happen, and even a retreat into the past won’t save you. I can’t wait to dive deeper into this.

Literature, etc.

Isaac Butler: “Here Come the Planes” — This is an outstanding essay that uses a piece of pop culture to help understand the cultural magnitude of a major world event, namely the attacks on the World Trade Centres. The fact that the cultural artifact in question, Laurie Anderson’s “O Superman,” predates that event by twenty years only makes the argumentation more interesting. Thought processes like this are the reason I’m a pop culture obsessive. I just wish I could express mine so eloquently.

Television

Battlestar Galactica: Season 2, episodes 9-17 — Within this set of nine episodes, this show rises to one of its highest points and sinks into meandering nonsense remarkably quickly. “Pegasus” is one of the best single episodes of the series, managing to totally alter the status quo (albeit briefly), and the “Resurrection Ship” two-parter is completely thrilling. And then, in short order, we get “Black Market” and “Sacrifice,” which feature some of the most ludicrous and unmotivated character developments we’ve seen so far, and bespoke plotlines that feel like they belong in some other show (CSI and 24 respectively). I confess, I’m concerned. I was ready to be one of the weirdos who thought that the back half of BSG is actually good. But I don’t think this is even the point where most fans feel it drops off. Here’s hoping it picks up in the next few. Also, R.I.P. Richard Hatch.

Games

The Silent Age — First off, if the title is a Bowie reference, it isn’t noticeably borne out in the game itself. Which is fine. Secondly, it’s always fun to see that there are devs out there intent on continuing the legacy of Hugo’s House of Horrors. It’s incredible how similar an experience this is to that 1990 title, at least in the fundamentals. That isn’t a slight — I always loved that game as a kid. Long live point-and-clicks. (Or, well, I guess Hugo was parser-based, but it’s functionally the same.) The Silent Age is admirable as much for its straightforwardness as anything. Narratively, it’s an unabashed cookie-cutter time travel potboiler, and it doesn’t try to play with or deconstruct the tropes, aside from a quick throwaway line about a certain plot twist that “reads like bad science fiction.” It’s interesting to play a game that’s basically sincere after having been through so many super-meta adventure games. This is one of those games where the story is essentially a mode of conveyance for puzzles. And the puzzles themselves are reminiscent of ones from early adventure games as well, given that they’re largely sets of obstacles placed between you and a fairly obvious goal. Turn this valve, and that formerly flooded room drains, revealing a handgun that you can use to shoot out the power of a huge fan, allowing you to pass through and rummage around in the tool kit on the other side for a pair of wire cutters that will allow you to cut the power supply to some poor welder’s torch, thus distracting him so that you can grab his wrench, which will help you unbolt a trapdoor. That sort of thing. The one thing that sets it pleasantly apart is that its protagonist, Joe, is an unassuming janitor whose inner monologue puts him constantly two steps behind the player. Thus he always seems surprised when a puzzle solution that he ostensibly devised works out. This was routinely amusing to me. It’s a fun game, seemingly devised to cater more to those of us who crave the familiar rhythms of these sorts of games than to anybody looking for something especially preoccupying or innovative. Nothing wrong with that.

Podcasts

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “Super Bowl Thoughts, From ‘Overdog’ Tom Brady To Sparkly Lady Gaga” — For the third year running, I seem to have watched the Super Bowl. I still do not understand the rules of football or how you win or what they’re doing. But I enjoy cooking and eating decadent food and being in the presence of people in an enthusiastic frame of mind. However, I actually do understand enough to know what Stephen Thompson, Gene Demby and Linda Holmes are talking about in this episode, and I know enough to be distinctly unpleased with this Super Bowl’s outcome. But at least there was Lady Gaga. And nachos. Nachos make everything better.

The Gist: “The Business of Corporate Protest” — I was making an omelette while I listened to this, so I wasn’t giving it my full attention. But Pesca’s spiel about why niceties are a good thing to definitely not ignore in national politics caught my attention and is therefore probably worth your time. My omelette turned out great, by the way.

Crimetown: “A Deal With the Devil” — A great instalment, with a rather pleasing parallel narrative that contrasts three different ways to get out of the mob: to take witness protection, to gradually go straight, or to go to jail. Of course, the fourth one is to get killed, and there’s a bit of that in there too. This is probably my favourite episode of this show so far, which is interesting given that I’ve generally been more inclined towards the ones that deal with the office of the mayor. But this is just so beautifully self-contained. It almost works as a narrative on its own.

The Memory Palace: “The Rose of Long Island” — Nate DiMeo has a large back catalogue of episodes about women who lived their lives running counter to the expectations and strictures of their time. This is one of the most complex of those stories, because it ends with its protagonist doing something that is about as anti-anti-establishment as it gets. The complexity makes it more beautiful, and DiMeo’s writing is profoundly sensitive and lovely.

On the Media: “The Ties That Bind” — Brooke Gladstone is away, but this is quite good for an all-Bob Garfield episode. Highlights include Garfield’s boss (politely) chastising him on the show, and Garfield’s piece on the present state of media concentration (which is much, much worse in today’s supposedly post-fragmentation world than it ever was before the internet). It’s lovely to hear my favourite media criticism source tackle my favourite media-related issue. And I’m grateful to Garfield for pointing me towards Jonathan Taplin’s upcoming book Move Fast and Break Things, about how Facebook, Google and Amazon are ruining everything. Sounds like my kind of book.

Reply All: “Storming the Castle” — Alex Goldman’s interview with Longmont Potion Castle sheds a bit of light on him, the same way that “Shine On You Crazy Goldman” did on P.J. Vogt. But it’s not especially entertaining. Longmont is funny in the right context, but he clearly hasn’t thought through his reasons for doing what he does enough to actually talk meaningfully about it.

99% Invisible: “The Eponymist” — This is a set of two stories by The Allusionist’s Helen Zaltzman, with guest appearances by Roman Mars, both dealing with eponyms. I, like Roman, would also listen to a podcast that was just this every week. This reminded me that I like The Allusionist. I should listen to it more.

On the Media: “#PresidentBannon” — I do not understand Steve Bannon at all. I know I hate him, but I definitely do not understand him. “Facts get shares; opinions get shrugs?” Can a top aide in the Trump administration seriously believe this?

Chapo Trap House: “Our Values Are Under Attack” — Bit of a limp one. Tim Heidecker operates on a similar level of insincerity and insideriness as the Chapos, but he’s politically not super informed. The Chapos need to be able to talk politics without explaining things. That’s why Matt Taibbi and Adam Curtis were better guests than Heidecker.

Longform: “Ezra Edelman” — Edelman is admirably eloquent for a person who so obviously doesn’t want to talk about O.J. anymore, or himself, ever. But there’s nothing here that you don’t get from watching the film itself. O.J.: Made in America is one of those creations that just lays it all out on the table. After eight hours of that, what else is there to say?

The Heart: “The Beloved” — A lovely personal narrative produced by the person whose narrative it is. This is at once an exploration of a unique gender identity, a guided meditation, and a bit of total smut. It’s The Heart.

You Must Remember This: “Dead Blondes” Parts 1 & 2 — Mostly it’s just nice to be listening to this again. These two stories of, what else, dead blondes are relatively slight in themselves, but I have confidence that Karina Longworth will gradually build to something close to a grand theory of blondeness in old Hollywood. Even if she doesn’t though, it’s fun to hear her tell sleazy gossipy stories.

Theory of Everything: “Doomed to Repeat” — Once again, the preparation of eggs prevented me from paying full attention to a show. But this time, it was Chinese-style eggs and tomatoes with sesame oil and Shaoxing rice wine served on steamed rice. No mere omelette. But Benjamen Walker will always manage to cut through my attention to another task, and this exploration of how targeted advertizing changed drastically over the last few years (and yes, may have contributed to Trump winning the election) is fascinating stuff. But slightly less fascinating than the tangy sauce and scallions that I finished off the dish with.

In Our Time: “Hannah Arendt” — A really fantastic hour of radio, offering an introduction to a figure so complex that it’s not even clear exactly what discipline she belongs to. Melvyn Bragg and his panel spend their allotted time summarizing the salient points of Arendt’s most important books, particularly The Origins of Totalitarianism, and they push straight past the reductive mischaracterizations of Arendt that resulted from the misunderstanding of some of her pithier slogans. They also discuss the opposition that she faced for things like her ironic treatment of the Eichmann trial, and they’re willing to entertain the notion that she may in fact have been wrong to take that approach as a writer. It’s lovely stuff, and I’ll certainly be seeking out Arendt’s work myself, like every panicked liberal seems to be doing right now. Pick of the week.

Code Switch: “Oscars So Black… At Least, In Documentaries” — Ava DuVernay is the best. This just reinforces the extent to which I need to watch 13th, and also I Am Not Your Negro. I’m still in the tank for O.J.: Made in America, but this seems like a pretty stacked category.

99% Invisible: “Usonia 1” — Ah, I love a good meaty architecture story on this show. This is about the moment in Frank Lloyd Wright’s career when he switched for a moment from making big, beautiful extravagant homes for rich people to designing a home that would cost the equivalent of $85,000 today. Could somebody please start thinking like this again?

30 things I loved in 2016

It has become customary for me to post my best-of list for any given year at the end of the following January. I do this partly to give myself a bit more time to digest everything, including albums or movies that might have come out in December, and books I haven’t finished. But mostly I do it as a perverse act of protest against modern “EVERYTHING NOW” culture. I won’t have that. I think we can afford to take a bit more time.

But this year, I’ve put myself at a disadvantage. Faced with the task of belatedly summing up the most recently completed planetary rotation period, I find myself with little to say — since there simply are no more clichés available to describe it. The media, social and otherwise, exhausted them all. With no clichés to rely on, how is one to describe 2016? We’re in uncharted territory.

So, I’ll simply introduce this list by telling one of my own personal 2016 stories. It is not an especially consequential story, nor does it necessarily define the year in any profound way. But it’s a story that I’m fairly confident didn’t happen to anybody else. At least, not in the details.

I was working late the night of the American election. I’d been tasked with writing a short piece on Leonard Cohen for a year-end feature. Cohen, as far as I knew, was still alive. So, I wrote a piece that tried to reconcile the morbidity and resignation of his recent album You Want It Darker with the inherent triumph of creating a great work of art in a state of unwellness.

I was just about through it when Trump won Florida. I watched the New York Times’ probability meter zoom up into the red. The ground slipped, etc. I finished off the last few sentences of my Cohen piece. They went like this: “2016 has saddled us with the deaths and diagnoses of many artists we hold dear. Leonard Cohen persists. That is a straw to clutch at.”

The next day, Hillary Clinton conceded the election to Donald Trump. Two days after that, news broke that Leonard Cohen had died. And moreover, that he had died on Monday. Little did I know while I was writing those final, celebratory lines that Leonard Cohen was already dead. Probably he died regretting that he wouldn’t get to see the seemingly inevitable victory of the first female president.

I edited the Cohen piece. I managed to keep the last sentence, but it wasn’t as good in the new context.

You Want It Darker isn’t on this list. Neither is Chance the Rapper’s Colouring Book, which was the album I reached for to ring in 2017 on New Year’s Eve (specifically “Finish Line”). Both of those albums seem to have a lot to say about this past year, but so does everything. That’s because we let 2016 get under our skin, even though it was just a year — a semi-arbitrary way of measuring reasonably-sized blocks of time.

All the same, I can’t help but think that this list reflects the extent to which I let 2016 get under my skin as well. Many of its entries are here because they seem to resonate intensely in the here and now. For the first time, this seems to be a more important criterion for me than whether or not I can see myself revisiting a particular entry in the future. The world has become dangerously interesting of late.

Oh, and another thing: the list is ranked. I find the exercise of comparing apples to oranges to beach balls to crows to Chevrolets to be inconceivably satisfying, so that is what I’ve done here. Take it for what it’s worth.

Honourable mention: 887

It seemed weird to include a piece of theatre in the proper list, given that there is currently no way for most people to see it, and that the cities that saw it this year may not ever see it again. But Robert Lepage’s one-man show about memory would be very close to the top of this list if it didn’t seem so perverse to do that. Any footage or promo text that you’re likely to find about this show online will likely make it seem like a spectacle: a technical marvel. And it is that, to be sure. But it’s spectacle on an incredibly intimate scale. Most of the show is composed of Robert Lepage simply talking to the audience, directly, casually and out of character. It’s a testament to the strength of the material that even with its rotating set, video screens, live cameras, and various tricks of light, 887 would still work as a radio drama, and it would be only marginally less awesome. It’s like a TED Talk inside of a magical realist diorama. The subject is memory, in nearly every sense of the word: the neurological phenomenon of memory, Lepage’s own childhood memories of his family and of major national events, the process of memorization. Along the way, he explores the origins of theatre, he remembers his father, and he reflects on Quebec nationalism and the FLQ. These are themes that may not seem on the surface like they should connect. But Lepage keeps the balls in the air seemingly effortlessly, and never makes a forced attempt to draw an unnatural thematic link. It’s a deft, haunting and cathartic experience, and if you find yourself able to see it, I could not urge you to see it in strong enough terms.

No. 30: The Nice Guys

This is the year’s most inevitably underrated movie. It’s a big, rompy action comedy that just allows itself to just be that thing. Like all halfway convincing modern comedy, it is trope aware. But unlike most modern comedy, the humour in this mostly doesn’t come from undercutting the tropes: it comes from great, great iterations of those tropes. There’s a bit near the end with a luxury car on one of those rotating drums you see at big fancy car shows, and it is such a perfectly intuitive physical comedy setpiece that you wonder why you’ve never seen it done before. Speaking of physical comedy, it says something about both director Shane Black and leading man Ryan Gosling that the movie can get laughs from pratfalls in 2016. The Nice Guys relies on that kind of humour more than any contemporary movie not made by Wes Anderson, and it gets away with it without being compulsively stylized. At various points during this list, it may seem like I don’t actually consume media for fun, but for some other misguided, principled reason. The Nice Guys is pure fun. No other movie entertained me so uncomplicatedly this year. But since everything is political, it’s worth noting that this movie corrected a problem that’s always bothered me in movies: mostly Coen Brothers movies. It’s got dumb comedy liberals in it, who stage vacuous protests about social ills they don’t adequately understand — but it also has comedy conservatives who monologue villainously about American exceptionalism. Politically, this movie traffics exclusively in caricature, and can thus be read as essentially disinterested in politics altogether. If this were a Coen Brothers movie, the monologuing villain would have been subbed out for some variant of the plainspoken cowboy, who espouses moderate views and good old-fashioned common sense — as if that’s what the liberals are fighting against. If it were South Park, the script would have attempted to make a sincere reading of its own caricatures, and come out with some sort of false equivalency that suggests there’s right and wrong on both sides of every issue. The Nice Guys does none of this: rather, it explicitly invites us to completely ignore the politics that may or may not underpin the film. I, for one, was happy to do so.

No. 29: The Lonely City

lonely-cityThe very act of writing a book about one’s own loneliness is an act of bravery. If this book were simply Olivia Laing’s account of the period in her own life when she felt the most alienated, it would still be worth reading, and not at all self-indulgent. Nothing could be less self-indulgent than proclaiming loneliness, because we all intuitively know that such a proclamation will have the counterintuitive effect of worsening one’s own isolation. But Laing only uses her own narrative as a spine: a framing device that she uses to string together her readings of the lives and works of several definitively lonely American artists. Though it is often conflated with depression, Laing considers loneliness as a unique affliction: an undesirable one by definition, but one without which the human experience is incomplete and possibly less inspired. The chapter that focuses on Andy Warhol’s outsiderness, his alienation through not having a firm grasp of language, is shattering and actually makes Warhol’s famous repeated images take on a bittersweet quality that I had never detected in them before. Laing is sensitive to the alienating tendencies of patriarchy and heteronormativity, and offers compelling portraits of people who lived lonely lives due to a society-wide lack of understanding. A substantial amount of the chapter that begins by focussing on Warhol veers off to consider Valerie Solanas, an early radical feminist of some genius who has since become known for only one thing: shooting Andy Warhol. The Lonely City is a beautiful book: equal parts sad and validating. It made me want to jump on a plane to New York to go look at art. By myself.

No. 28: We Are The Halluci Nation

This is the album that finds A Tribe Called Red well past the proof-of-concept phase: the brilliance of their fusion of powwow music and EDM has already been established and accepted. As of this year, ATCR is as much an albums band as a live act, and they have thus secured their legacy. We Are The Halluci Nation is a mind movie. It uses a rich sonic palette of synths, beats, hand drums and throat singing. It layers that palette with the words of some like-minded collaborators including Saul Williams, Yasiin Bey and Leonard Sumner. And from that alchemy emerges a story, impressionistically told, of oppression and resistance. It is the most forceful music on this list by miles. And when it isn’t, it’s tense, coiled up and ready to do battle. It naturally feels like music of the present moment, but of course it is more than that: it’s music of a brutal historical moment that is ongoing and five centuries old. (“500 years and still drumming,” says the album cover.) I saw ATCR live this year as well, and they’re magnificent in that setting. But given a full album’s length to work with plus your undivided, sober attention, they are both infectiously righteous and some of today’s finest musical architects.

No. 27: Love and Radio

After the election, Nick van der Kolk did what many people in the media did, i.e. he had a muted existential flail in public. He expressed his doubts that anything he could do on his show would have any impact on the world at all, and asked the audience for feedback as to what they’d like to hear on the show. I sent him an email to this approximate effect: listening to Love and Radio, it’s always struck me that the show feels like it belongs to somebody different every episode. I don’t know that there’s any other show that’s so willing to surrender the story to its guest. It requires an active investment of empathy from the listener. I believe that people can come away from art and media compelled to act differently in the world. And if that’s true, then this is among the most important work that anybody’s currently doing on a podcast — even and especially after this past election. It seems likely that we could be entering an era that’s even more defined by fear and hatred of the ‘other’ than the present one. This is a podcast that starts from the contention that it’s better to listen to people than not to. I can’t imagine anything more powerful.

No. 26: Love Streams

I’ve spent more time listening to ambient music this year than any other. It has come to serve a particular purpose in my life: to quiet and focus me, and occasionally to provide a sustained moment of catharsis. I don’t tend to think of Tim Hecker’s recent music as ambient, for the very specific and personal reason that it doesn’t serve that purpose for me. Since 2013, Hecker has been making bracing, heterogenous electronic music that is not content to simply drift: it very nearly seems to be trying to speak. On Love Streams, this becomes almost literal, as Hecker bases the entire project on recordings of choirs, processed and warped into unrecognizable shapes and semblances. The presence of voices and the absence of words combine to offer the impression of direct, emotional communion: bypassing logic and reasoning. It was another esteemed instrumental musician who bid Goodbye to Language this year, but it’s Love Streams that best demonstrates how music can be disquieting and moving for reasons that exist beyond the reach of words. There’s a sweetness in this album that is new to Hecker, and is basically the polar opposite of the music on his acclaimed previous record Virgins, which remains the darkest and strangest album of Hecker’s career — and thus also, the best received. But the fact that Love Streams hasn’t been a mainstay of the music press’s year-end lists is unfortunate evidence that he’s not the sort of musician who gets to become a “major artist.” He can have his one watershed album, but no more. And that is a shame, because Tim Hecker is only now demonstrating his tremendous capacity to surprise. This album is every bit Virgins’ equal, and thus among the very greatest abstract electronic musical works.

No. 25: Captain America: Civil War

It’s safe to say this is the first superhero movie that reminded me of The Rules of the Game. That movie details the foibles of pre-war French aristocrats rather than quippy costumed vigilantes, true. But Captain America: Civil War is one of very few movies that shares one crucial element with it: everybody does what they think is right. Consequences arise regardless. Unlike in The Rules of the Game, there is a bad guy in Civil War. This is a Marvel movie, after all: not a French drama from 1939. But, the villain here is essentially a MacGuffin. He even conceives of himself as a MacGuffin: he’s just trying to start a process that he himself will not have much to do with. That structural decision makes this the closest thing I’ve seen to a juggernaut franchise blockbuster that doesn’t rely on the idea of evil. It’s almost immaterial whether you align yourself with “Team Cap” or “Team Stark”: the important thing is that they both think they’re doing what’s right, and violence ensues regardless. Even after all that’s happened this year, I’m still fairly convinced that this isn’t misguided. Evil’s not the enemy. Ignorance is. In any case, a lack of evil is almost unprecedented in this kind of movie, and marks it as something really special in contemporary genre fiction. The fact that it won me over in spite of my prejudices marks it as a miracle.

No. 24: Dolls of Highland

I listened to “Lady of the Ark” more times than any other song this year. There’s something about it that is more purely cathartic than anything else I heard in 2016, and it’s all in the performance. Craft’s lyrics are a blend of non-specific mysticism and a sense of romance seemingly derived mostly from Blood on the Tracks. And for the most part, I’m not entirely certain what he means by any of it. But most of my favourite lyricists are similarly obtuse, and the secret to it all is this: some words and phrases just sound great coming out of certain throats. It’s really that simple. When Craft sings “Swing low, low sweet heathen / Swing for the wretch and the rock and roll kids / Who roam this earth repeating / All this sin until this wicked world makes sense in time,” it sounds like a sermon delivered by a fire alarm. Surely, he’s got one of the most bracing voices to emerge so far this decade. And musically, welcome to the concept of glam country. He’s halfway between the Band and the Spiders from Mars, and the fact that it was all recorded in a laundry room just makes it sound bigger. I have been obsessed with every song on this album at some point during the year. That’s an auspicious debut.

No. 23: More Perfect

moreperfect_1400x1400_nownycstudiosI wouldn’t have thought that a Radiolab spinoff about the Supreme Court was a good idea before I heard it. But in the second episode, “The Political Thicket,” I realized why it makes sense: Jad Abumrad is better than almost anybody at breaking down byzantine concepts and processes. “The Political Thicket” is about how a decision about something seemingly mundane — redistricting — led to a precedent that completely changed the way the Supreme Court works in the U.S., and subsequently to a raft of social changes. It was a decision that broke one of the justices at the time. It was a decision that allowed the Supreme Court to wade into what were previously thought of as “political” questions, or legislative affairs. It’s the decision that, decades later, allowed the Supreme Court to determine the outcome of the 2000 presidential election. And most crucially, it’s a decision that will likely have staggering effects in the near future, depending on how many justices Donald Trump gets to appoint during his administration. “The Political Thicket” is just my personal favourite episode of More Perfect. The entire series is among the best journalism of the year. It is the best argument for long-view journalism that I’ve heard in a long time. The world today will make more sense once you listen to this, even though many of its stories happened decades ago.

No. 22: I, Gemini

I have a soft spot for very deranged music. And since I didn’t listen to Danny Brown’s Atrocity Exhibition until late in the year and haven’t quite come around to it, my deranged record of choice for 2016 comes courtesy of a pair of teenagers. Perhaps that shouldn’t be surprising. There’s nobody more deranged than teenagers. Let’s Eat Grandma’s debut record is a worthy application to join the annals of England’s great musical eccentrics, from Brian Eno to Genesis P-Orridge. But it is also fabulously self-assured. There’s an almost shocking sense of self-knowledge in this record, as if Jenny Hollingworth and Rosa Walton are five times their age and have long since stopped giving a shit what anybody thinks. It’s sludgy psychedelia that doesn’t sound like anything else, and whose basic ethos seems to be, “why not?” Recorder solo? Why not? Rap verse? Why not? Glockenspiel recorded too hot on a super-close mic? Why not? There are a few tracks that stand out as comparatively immediate (“Deep Six Textbook,” “Eat Shiitake Mushrooms,” and especially “Rapunzel”), but it’s the kind of album whose deep cuts creep up on you until you’ve had a half-dozen or more favourite tracks at various times. I’m partial to “Chocolate Sludge Cake,” these days. This is one of a few debut albums included on this list, and it’s not the highest-placed one. But it’s probably the one that leaves me most curious about what the second record will sound like.

No. 21: Kentucky Route Zero: Act IV

When the fifth and final act of Kentucky Route Zero finally comes out and we have the whole thing in front of us for evaluation, it may well be the single most profound computer game ever made. The developers at Cardboard Computer are taking the simple story of an old man making his last delivery of antiques and crafting it into a complex exploration of post-recession anxieties. It ties together more thematic strands than any other currently ongoing serialized narrative in any medium. What other game/show/film series/comic can you think of that deals with the history of computers, the malignancy of debt, the process of creating art, the reasons behind the impulse to travel, and the pull of addiction, all while establishing three-dimensional characters and dreaming up beautiful, impossible spaces for them to inhabit? The series as a whole is a modern creative miracle. Judging this year’s fourth act as a thing in itself is a bit more challenging. Certainly, it’s a different beast than any of the three prior acts, being substantially more linear and less exploratory in terms of gameplay, and being substantially more bittersweet and elegiac in tone. Rather than presenting the player with a map to explore at their leisure and a variety of mysterious locales to uncover and explore, Cardboard Computer gave us a set of discrete vignettes this year: an excursion to a tacky bar on an underground beach; breakfast at a fish shop that serves catches from the deepest most mysterious depths of a secret river; a theremin recital on the bow of a tugboat. Most astonishingly, it allows the player to control a character in security footage, with events narrated in past tense. It almost reminds me of The Animatrix, in the sense that it consists of a bunch of small stories that take place in a world with bigger stories. But each of these vignettes is so resonant that it’s impossible to object to the relative lack of control. It’s an even more lovely choice, when you consider that our protagonist, Conway, is at the turning point of his story here. We know there’s something tragic happening to him, but our focus is turned elsewhere, on these little stories of unusual lives going on regardless, until it actually happens. And when it does, it’s shattering. It’ll likely be a long wait until we get to see how the story ends. But that’s fine, because the world of Kentucky Route Zero is rich enough that no amount of playthroughs can really serve to fully reveal it.

No. 20: Blackstar

We’ve finally reached the first item on the list that might be too ubiquitous to write meaningfully about anymore. Bowie has found himself at the centre of far too many Grand Unified Theories of 2016 Celebrity Deaths already, so I’ll just offer a couple of thoughts about this album, which still hits me just as hard as when it came out. David Bowie died less than a week apart from the great French avant-garde composer/conductor Pierre Boulez. To attempt to draw general connections between the two of them would be facile (though it didn’t stop many from trying), but there’s a line on Blackstar that haunted me from the beginning, especially given that when I first heard it, I’d been thinking about Boulez for a few days: “Something happened on the day he died / Spirit rose a meter, then stepped aside / Somebody else took his place and bravely cried / I’m a blackstar.” Since Bowie is first and foremost rock and roll’s greatest purveyor of riddles and enigmas, we can and should speculate wildly about what (or who) he meant by “blackstar.” But even without knowing, the sentiment here is clear. On a track that’s demonstrably about Bowie’s death, he’s not singing about his legacy: he’s singing about the artists who will replace him — the artists he’s stepping aside for. Those lines are positioned almost like a thesis statement. They recur throughout the opening song, with different musical settings. I think I know what this is: Bowie is using his last musical breath to admonish future generations who may revere him above the artists of their own time. This, by a wonderful coincidence, was the cornerstone of Boulez’s artistic philosophy. Boulez considered music history a “great burden,” and claimed that “we must get rid of it once and for all” in favour of the art of the present day. Whatever Boulez might have thought about Bowie, there’s no doubt that he helped to build popular music into an idiom that values innovation and novelty more than traditions and dubious notions of timelessness. So, if you occasionally hear somebody make that well-meaning claim that one day we’ll remember David Bowie (or, conceivably, Pierre Boulez) the way we now remember Mozart, take a moment to consider that he might not have wanted us to. Not that he can help it.

No. 19: Swiss Army Man

Known on the internet primarily as “The Daniel Radcliffe Farting Corpse Movie,” this is a movie that was exactly as bonkers as I thought it would be, but also much much better. In spite, or more likely because of its relentless devotion to its own ridiculous premise, Swiss Army Man is never less than riveting for a single second. It is essentially a feature-length two-hander, with Paul Dano and Radcliffe together in almost every frame of the movie. The fact that the whole thing doesn’t come crashing down under the weight of its own childishness is largely due to the fact that Dano and Radcliffe both offer grounded, emotionally realistic performances within an absurd context. Even Radcliffe, who plays a talking (farting) corpse, gives his character a believable emotional arc. To the credit of directors Dan Kwan and Daniel Scheinert, the movie never gets bogged down in the mechanics of what’s real and what isn’t. Instead, the Daniels just allow the story to be a visual fantasia that proceeds entirely according to the logic of pacing and character. They bring their expertise as music video directors to bear, allowing the score to interact freely with the story — at times reflecting what’s going on in the character’s heads, and at times actually being sung by the characters themselves. Swiss Army Man’s hallucinatory dream sequences also double as Rube Goldberg machines, with sets built largely of found objects. It’s dazzling, in a jerry-rigged sort of way. It’s hard to say what, if anything, the themes of this movie are. But that seems almost beside the point. It is realistic character drama that takes place within a high-concept, gross-out, borderline trolling indie comedy that gets laughs out of subjecting a corpse to untold indignities. It almost seems like a deliberate response to assholes like me who complain ad nauseum about how there are no new ideas in the movies. But honest to god, I would take an endless stream of movies like this to inevitable Christmas Star Wars forever.

No. 18: Jerusalem: The Burroughs

jerusalem-cover-600x899Yes, technically, this is only a ranking of book one of Alan Moore’s magnificent brick of a novel. Because that’s as far as I’ve gotten. Nonetheless, Jerusalem isn’t the kind of book that you need to be finished to know whether you like it. It was quite clear from the very beginning that I did. He’s every bit as engaging as a novelist as he is in his comics. I daresay that in some cases there’s not much difference between the two experiences, given how verbose he is as a comics writer as well. But on the other hand, there’s intrinsic merit to reading a novel by Alan Moore, because it allows him to really occupy the insides of his characters’ heads more than he often can in comics. This is very much a novel in the English modernist tradition of Mrs. Dalloway and Ulysses, where characters’ inner selves are revealed by way of their responses to the city streets that they walk through. If you’re a fan of books about people thinking as they walk — and how could you not be? — you will love this. Each chapter in “The Burroughs” focusses on a different character’s inner monologue — every one of them as fully realized and vibrant as Watchmen’s Rorschach or From Hell’s Sir William Gull, but without their seductive danger. This is, after all, a novel about Moore’s home: Northampton, the town where he’s lived for his whole life. And though there is a general, pervading sense of squalor, dilapidation and desperation throughout, Jerusalem is thus far proving to be a remarkably warm novel. Moore’s obsessively detailed descriptions of tiny local landmarks (often seen at different points in history) are obviously acts of love — and acts of preservation. Jerusalem opens with an artist proclaiming that she’ll save Northampton from complete gentrification with a magical ritual involving paintings. That’s transparently Moore’s goal as well. And in transcribing the sights and stories of his beloved surroundings, he’s done a service to his community, as well as to those of us who love his fiction. I’m convinced that the remaining two books will be better still.

No. 17: let me tell you

Let’s start broad and work towards the specifics. Classical recordings like let me tell you offer a fundamentally different value proposition to classical recordings of familiar repertoire: Beethoven; Liszt; whatever. let me tell you contains a single work: the title work, by the Danish composer Hans Abrahamsen. It is a new work, and it has never been recorded before. It was written specifically for the soprano Barbara Hannigan, who performs it here. So, this recording will be the first time that most people will have heard this music. And those for whom it isn’t would have heard it in concert, performed by this same singer — Hannigan is, to my knowledge, the only person who has performed it as of yet. So, this album is offering brand new music, performed by an artist with real ownership over it. It is the music itself that is being offered. This is the same value proposition offered by pop albums. By contrast, a recital disc from a singer doing Verdi and Puccini arias, or Schubert lieder, is specifically offering a performance. The music itself cannot be the primary driving factor of such a recording, since it’s been recorded hundreds of other times, and what would be the point. I’ll be more strident, because who’s going to stop me: what is the point? Unless your recording reaches Glenn Gould levels of idiosyncrasy, isn’t it redundant upon arrival? (I should mention that the one classical musician recording standard rep nowadays who I do feel reaches those heights is the violinist Patricia Kopatchinskaja, who made my second and third-favourite classical recordings of the year.) This is why I’m so glad to see this recording gracing so many of the 2016 classical lists (including one I helped compile). Abrahamsen’s piece is so beautiful and so directly expressive that I feel it can serve as proof-of-concept for modern classical music. My hope would be that listeners would hear this and realize that there isn’t such a fundamental divide between classical music and pop. Not in the sense that this sounds like pop music. It doesn’t, and that’s never the answer. Rather, it bridges the divide in the sense that it offers the same value proposition as pop music, and is also self-evidently brilliant. As for the specifics, which are what’s ultimately important, the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra is a truly great ensemble. Conductor Andris Nelsons leads them through this challenging new work like it’s Mozart 40. Barbara Hannigan is quite simply the best singer alive.

No. 16: The Heart

This is the podcast that customarily makes me too bashful to say anything meaningful in my weekly reviews. However, I’m certain that the producers of this show would be extremely disappointed in me for that, so let’s give it a go. The Heart is a show that explores love and sexuality without self-censorship, and with an emphasis on the perspectives of women and queer people. Like Criminal, Reply All, or 99% Invisible, it has the capacity to tell an infinitude of stories through the lens it chooses to focus it. Also, like those shows, it has a house style that tames its variety into a semblance of order. That style is best described by the show’s former title: Audio Smut. 2016 saw the release of three uniquely focussed seasons of episodes. “Ghost,” the first of them, is a series of stories about being haunted by past relationships. It’s possibly their most poetic season so far, with the routinely brilliant mixing often simulating the sensation of having an intimate conversation with yourself in your head. This is likely one of the two or three outright best sounding podcasts being made today, and not in a flashy way. It’s subtle, but always perfect. The second season of the year is the real flagship: “Silent Evidence” tells the rather difficult-to-hear but important story of a woman who decides to confront her childhood sexual abuser years later. It’s brave, it’s beautifully written, and it is very much its protagonist’s own story. The next full season, “Diaries,” is simpler, less ambitious, and does essentially what it says on the tin. But somewhere in the midst of all this was a standalone episode that ranks as maybe the most gutwrenching, affecting single podcast episode of the year. “Mariya” is the first-person story of a woman dealing with the fallout from female genital mutilation. It is heavy listening, but I’m not sure I’ve heard a more nuanced exploration of trauma before. The Heart expanded what it’s capable of this year, and it was already one of the best shows being made.

No. 15: Firewatch

The thing that initially impressed me most about Firewatch is that it solves the problems with two kinds of games by just stacking them on top of each other. This game is a walking simulator of the Dear Esther or Gone Home persuasion, with a branching narrative à la the Telltale Walking Dead games worked into it. That offers all of the freedom to explore that the walking sims offer, but tempers the aimlessness of some of those games by forcing you to make choices consistently. And, it offers the narrative propulsion of Telltale’s method, but combats the sense that you’re being driven through the game on linear tracks. I could see this exact set of mechanics working brilliantly for just about any story, and I imagine we will see that happen in the coming years. But none of this would have impressed if the story hadn’t been up to snuff. I slightly resent that this game has occasionally been characterized as a perverse attempt to make being a fire lookout fun (a whiff of Papers, Please, perhaps). This isn’t that. Nobody would bat an eye about a movie being made about a fire lookout, so why not a game? Besides, the idea that a guy takes a job as a fire lookout after a damaging experience in his personal life is an obvious setup for a proper adventure story. And it’s also a perfect setup for a great character drama. The best part of playing Firewatch is in hearing the interactions of its two main characters: Harry, the player character (voiced brilliantly by Mad Men’s Rich Sommer), and Delilah, his boss in another lookout tower who is available only by radio (voiced equally brilliantly by Cissy Jones). You get to shape their relationship through the dialogue choices that you make, which would be a game enough in itself. And wandering around in a beautifully-rendered forest would be nearly enough in itself as well. But again, it’s the combination of the two that makes this game unique. Firewatch is a rare thing: a fun, straightforward, not especially arty video game that nonetheless feels like it’s for grown-ups. Hopefully it’s a harbinger of more.

No. 14: Planet Earth II

The best that can be said of Planet Earth II is that it lives up to Planet Earth I. These two series both feature the most beautiful and virtuosic cinematography that’s ever been done, and it is beautiful in spite of the fact that the events it documents are as unscripted as it’s possible to be. Komodo dragons don’t take direction well. Mind you, I’m sure that the editing proved equally virtuosic: you don’t get sequences this perfect without a bit of fakery. There’s a sequence in the grasslands episode that keeps coming back to mind: a mouse climbs to the top of a blade of tall grass, has to dodge an approaching barn owl, and falls off of the blade of grass, into the frame of another shot. The whole thing is seen from several different angles. Who’s to say if all of those shots are even of the same mouse? But even if there is a certain amount of fudging going on, it’s hard to think of this as cheating. The amount of (quality, beautiful) footage that they must have had to shoot to tell complete, engaging stories must be gigantic. The BBC Natural History Unit’s secret weapon is the “personal narrative”: rather than showing us the generalities of things that happen in nature, the filmmakers introduce us to one specific sloth, or a particular pair of snow leopards, and show us their story. David Attenborough’s voiceover is as beautifully written and delivered as ever (contrived segues aside), but it’s also an infinitesimally small part of the undertaking of Planet Earth II. Credit belongs to the camera operators and producers who went out into the field and managed the most impossible of logistics to obtain the most stupefying footage ever seen. As ever, the behind-the-scenes segments at the end of each episode are as compelling as the footage itself. The season finale, which focusses anomalously on cities and the animals who have adapted to thrive there, is different from anything that this show has done before. But it’s also the unquestionable highlight. A rooftop conflict between monkeys results in a fight scene straight from a Jackie Chan movie; leopards stalk the streets of Mumbai; Catfish hunt pigeons on the shores of Rome; and birds perform elaborate mating rituals using colourful man-made trinkets. It’s as entertaining and surprising as any episode before, and also serves as a reminder that the boundary between the natural world and the built world is permeable. One hopes that the world is still in a place where Attenborough’s warnings about our responsibility to the rest of the planet don’t fall entirely on deaf ears.

No. 13: Pretentiousness: Why It Matters

dan-foxIf I had the money for grandiose acts of largesse, I would buy a whole case of Dan Fox’s latest and send them out to all of my friends and relatives, my member of parliament, Canada’s minister of heritage, every arts administrator and broadcaster I’m acquainted with, and as many heads of state as I think would actually read it. This monograph is a stunning defense of thinking and behaving in ways that contravene convention — a deeply necessary defence to make in our time. Fox isn’t attempting a whole-hog refutation of populism. Rather, he has composed an eloquent love letter to broad-mindedness. Fox notes the obvious point that the word “pretentious” is generally used in a derogatory fashion: to put somebody back in their place when they’re perceived to have overstepped a social boundary. But he argues persuasively that the act of overstepping social boundaries — which necessitates a certain amount of pretense or pretending (to the throne, even) — is inherently praiseworthy. And he has some choice words for those who prefer the epithet “elitist,” too. He cites a Guardian columnist who literally professed hatred — hatred — for a pair of flashily-dressed young people he saw randomly at a contemporary art exhibit. He tears that columnist apart for what he rightly calls “cheap, them-versus-us populism.” He continues: “It speaks to an ugly intolerance for difference, to an expectation that people must share the same aesthetic tastes and appearances and that if they don’t they must be complicit members of an elitist racket hell-bent on excluding ‘ordinary’ people from its world. Those ‘ordinary’ people, it is assumed, could not possibly be interested in complex ideas and conversant in different forms of visual literacy.” Boom. That quote alone is reason enough for everybody involved in art in any capacity to read this book. There’s a quote near the end that I now consider words to live by: “To fear being accused of pretension is to police oneself out of curiosity about the world.” Open-mindedness is an ideal among ideals. If more people were devoted to the cultivation of a broad base of knowledge, as opposed to fearing or resenting those qualities in others, societies would be stronger, less divided, and make better decisions as an electorate. Pretentiousness is not the enemy. Quite the opposite. This is a short and powerful book that everybody who cares about the legacy of human thought should read immediately, lest that legacy come to an end in the miasma of anti-intellectualism that the Trump administration is already promising to perpetuate.

No. 12: BoJack Horseman

There’s a promo graphic for this year’s season of BoJack Horseman that says “Soprano, Draper, Underwood, Horseman.” It would be easy to construe the point of that graphic as being something to the effect of: “Don’t let the fact that it’s a funny cartoon fool you! BoJack Horseman is a Serious Anti-Hero Television Programme!” If that actually is what the graphic is trying to say, it is a facile misreading of the show that it’s promoting. The third, and so far, best season of the show finds BoJack (a role in which Will Arnett just gets better and better) realizing that success doesn’t fill the emptiness. On its surface, that’s the premise of a standard “difficult man” show of the sort that has defined the last decade or so of prestige television. But BoJack Horseman differs from those sorts of shows in the sense that it focuses relentlessly on the malignant impact that its difficult protagonist has on the characters around him — particularly the women. The twin emotional spines of this season are BoJack’s relationship with his longsuffering, hypercompetent agent Princess Carolyn (Amy Sedaris keeps getting better, too) and with his former co-star and surrogate daughter Sarah Lynn (likewise for Kristen Schaal). In Princess Carolyn’s case, we see how she has helped BoJack out of countless situations where he’s made terrible errors, but she is not permitted a single mistake. With Sarah Lynn, we see how BoJack’s self-destructive tendencies are not only self-destructive, but also harmful to the most vulnerable people around him. In this sense, BoJack Horseman is the most realistic anti-hero show that’s been made so far. Because in real life, these sorts of people aren’t redeemed by their wit or charisma: they’re just bad. They’re bad for the world. BoJack is a great character because he realizes this and wants to change. But the fact that he doesn’t change means that he continues to cause pain and misfortune to those around him, and the show has no compunction about emphasizing this. In general, I’m not sure there’s another comedy out there that quite so willing to assume that the viewer is passingly conversant in feminist discourse. It’s gratifying to see that in a show that’s also full of silly animal jokes and has a whole episode of sight gags with almost no dialogue.

No. 11: Theory of Everything

Benjamen Walker is more committed than any other public radio refugee in podcasting to making a show that could never work on public radio. Theory of Everything deals with big, difficult, abstract subjects like the mathematics of coincidence. It dives head-on into anxieties about the future of information and labour. It fearlessly dances over the line between fiction and nonfiction. And it does not hold your hand. It trusts you to be smart enough to parse it. This year saw the beginning of a lengthy project exploring surveillance, which has taken Walker in all sorts of directions, and which plays into his anxieties beautifully. (He’s at his best when he’s getting anxious about something.) It also addressed the moment when the CIA weaponized abstract expressionism during the Cold War, and the gentrification of Paris. But the defining moment of Theory of Everything this year came from the episode “Useful Idiots,” in which a guest connects Vladimir Putin to Jeremy Bentham by way of Vladislav Surkov and Grigory Potemkin. That is the kind of thing that regular listeners know to expect from Benjamen Walker. And as the Trump era gets underway, I’m certain that his series on surveillance will only become more relevant and essential.

No. 10: Phonogram vol. 3: The Immaterial Girl

phonogramKieron Gillen and Jamie McKelvie had a big year, amping up the action in their blockbuster comic The Wicked and the Divine, but it’s this beautiful conclusion to their longstanding passion project Phonogram that best demonstrates what I love about them. For one thing, it accidentally prefigured the year of celebrity deaths that we’ve had, which is just one example of the crazy synchronicity that surrounds Gillen and McKelvie’s work. The premise of Phonogram is that music is magic: it isn’t only the most useful index of human culture that we possess, but it also exerts force on the world and has the capacity to change it by changing people’s minds. “The Immaterial Girl” finds the characters that we’ve known since way back in the first issue of Phonogram struggling with the consequences of having too thoroughly mediated their interface with the world through music. This arc’s protagonist, Emily, has literally cut her personality in half by surrendering to the seductive pull of a musical icon. It’s a curiously relatable story. But the most affecting moment in this, or any Gillen/McKelvie comic so far, comes courtesy of David Kohl, a protagonist from a bygone story arc. When confronted head-on with the concerns of somebody else’s real life, he has a small epiphany: “I realized that the most important things in the story — the things which really matter — aren’t in this story.” For maybe the first time ever, Kohl finds himself face-to-face with somebody else’s reality: a reality that isn’t mediated entirely by pop records. Music is magic: we know it is because it has the capacity to frame the world and affect the way that we act upon it. But Kohl’s realization provides a profound addendum to that: the world still exists outside of that frame. To a certain extent, “The Immaterial Girl” is about breaking the spells that bind you to a certain way of thinking. For those of us who are single-mindedly pop culture-obsessed enough to be into Phonogram, it’s a hard pill to swallow. But that’s why I love it.

No. 9: HyperNormalisation

Adam Curtis’s latest completely uncompromising, non-hand holding, fearlessly complex, nuanced and lucid documentary came out exclusively on the BBC iPlayer. It’s refreshing to see a public broadcaster look at the internet and say “I suppose this is where we put the stuff that’s too ambitious for broadcast television” instead of “I guess this is where the memes go.” Curtis’s stated aim seems ludicrously grandiose at first: he’s going to demonstrate that we’ve come to live in a world that’s fake. But once you realize what he means by that, you come to realize that his thesis isn’t only demonstrable in theory, it’s almost inarguably true. HyperNormalization begins with stories in New York and Damascus, and continues symmetrically mapping the gradual dissolution of politics into a false narrative-making machine through America and the Middle East. There are quick asides to the U.K. and Russia, but this is mostly a story about the U.S., Syria, and most compellingly, Libya. The figure who is the lynchpin of Curtis’s entire sprawling argument is Muammar Gaddafi: a cartoonish lunatic who wasn’t responsible for much that the U.S. (knowingly wrongly) accused him of, but who was deranged enough to take responsibility anyway. Curtis traces Gaddafi’s transformation from America’s handmade bogeyman that let them conveniently remain allied with Syria through the Gulf War, into a political intellectual and friend of the West after 9/11, and subsequently into an enemy again when the U.S. allied itself with the Libyan rebels. This strand of Curtis’s narrative alone makes it clear that reality hasn’t been tremendously important in American politics for a long time. Throw the internet into the mix and things get really spooky. Curtis demonstrates how some of the most notable revolutionary movements of recent times, the Arab Spring and the Occupy movement, fomented on social media — a reductive, simplified simulacrum of reality. Social media is really good at letting people organize and do things, but it’s really bad at fostering the kinds of discourses that produce viable ideas for how to run a country. So, after Occupy and after Tahrir Square, nothing really changed. Because you can’t build a real revolution in a fake version of the world. The documentary was released before the election of Trump, let alone the mainstreaming of the term “alternative facts.” But HyperNormalisation makes our inconceivably confusing and appalling contemporary world look like the inevitable consequence of a gradual, global, decades-long withdrawal from reality.

No. 8: Lemonade

I default to resenting juggernauts. It’s not a matter of principle, and in fact I’d rather approach music, movies, etc. with a more open mind than I do. But there are cases where this natural bias that I have against the ludicrously successful cannot find the slightest toehold. Lemonade, the most talked-about and obsessed over artwork of the year, is also virtually perfect: in both of its forms. The HBO special was the source of the initial buzz more so than the record, but they are equal accomplishments, each complete artworks in themselves. The record is the version that ultimately insinuated its way into my life, soundtracking my year in a way that might have been surprising, given how personal and specific an album Lemonade is. But it is also a demonstration of how the personal is political, as the motto goes. And, it’s a demonstration of how to make an intensely personal work of art within the context of expensive, shiny, commercial, heavily-resourced music. This must be what it felt like when Sgt. Pepper came out. Like that record, Lemonade was made by a massively popular artist. Like Sgt. Pepper, this record is following on the heels of a previous one that had massively intensified its creator’s critical acclaim. And like Sgt. Pepper, Lemonade surpassed virtually all of its near contemporaries in terms of ambition, depth of human understanding, and sheer studio perfection. Lemonade contains the best R&B, rock, hip-hop and country music of the year. A sonically flawless, intensely poetic celebration of black womanhood from Beyoncé was something that needed to happen, and it needed to happen specifically when it did. Thank the goddamn lord.

No. 7: You Must Remember This

Karina Longworth’s podcast about Hollywood’s first century is the best cultural history lesson you can experience on a weekly basis. The world’s podcast obsessives really started to take notice of You Must Remember This during last year’s “Charles Manson’s Hollywood” series. But 2016 found Longworth doing her most ambitious — and timeliest — project so far: a 16-part (21-part, if you count the completely essential re-runs of prior episodes sprinkled throughout for context) series about the Hollywood blacklist. These stories of how some of an era’s most creative people were forced out of their industry and into hard times because of their politics (and just as often, their race) would be fascinating in itself. But during a period where the pendulum has swung decisively back towards the fearmongering and hatred of the other that defined the HUAC era, it takes on the tenor of a warning. A meticulously-researched, hyper-detailed warning. (Remember the scary moment when it looked like Newt Gingrich might get a cabinet post and he said he wanted to reinstate HUAC? The fact that it didn’t happen with Gingrich doesn’t mean it couldn’t ever happen.) And yes, this is a podcast about celebrities and movie moguls. That might make it seem a bit distant from the concerns of the majority of the American electorate. But in focussing on cultural icons, Longworth doesn’t only impart glamour to her history lessons (though she does do that). She also emphasizes how government has always courted celebrity — at the very least, as a source of scandal. These are stories of resistance, cowardice, fear and persecution. They are stories of how governments can influence the culture industry and vice versa. And they will also probably introduce you to some colourful characters from American movie history that you might not know about. (The episode about Dorothy Parker is my personal favourite.) Longworth has even begun incorporating more archival tape into her show, so that it feels less like an audiobook with musical accompaniment. But her writing is still the be-all-and-end-all of the show, demonstrating that research and synthesis are potentially the equals of reporting and interviewing as working methods for making good nonfiction podcasts.

No. 6: Manchester by the Sea

This movie made me have every feeling I’m capable of. I’m not sure that I’ve ever been so pulled in by a movie with so little artifice. This is very much one of those movies that feels like dropping in on a period in somebody’s actual life. There’s nothing stylized about it. I usually like movies that announce their movie-ness as loudly as they can. (Recall that Swiss Army Man is on this list.) So why did Manchester make me respond like this? I think it might be because of the complete absence of emotional manipulation. Short of a bit of maudlin Albinoni music during the climactic scene, this movie declines to be openly expressive, opting instead to just be sad. In that, it is taking a cue from its protagonist. Manchester is basically a character study of Casey Affleck’s Lee. Still, I wonder why a movie so focussed on its main character should be titled after its setting instead? You might think that a film called Manchester by the Sea would focus more on the community around him. But aside from Lee’s nephew and a short but shattering performance from Michelle Williams as his wife, it really doesn’t. Here are my thoughts: I believe that Manchester by the Sea receives its title because this is first and foremost the story of what happens to a man when he’s forced to revisit a place that’s haunted by a past trauma. Manchester-by-the-Sea is the place where an unthinkable thing happened to Lee. The name of the town is as much a metonym for Lee’s personal tragedy as Wall Street is for high finance. So, Manchester by the Sea isn’t titled for its setting, so much as for its central horror: less Philidelphia than Poltergeist. There’s an alternate universe where Manchester is a horror movie: a haunted house story about what happens when you force a person to live in a place that’s full of ghosts. This is a profound film: a paradigm-shifting dissertation on what hides behind the facades of difficult, impenetrable people.

No. 5: Until the Horror Goes

This is the item on this list that I debated and deliberated about the most. I swung from one extreme to the other on this album throughout the course of 2016. When I first heard the singles, and then the full album, I thought it was without a doubt the best music I’d heard in years. Congleton writes huge cathartic anthems in the vein of Arcade Fire, or even U2. Then he twists them into warped shapes, with abrasive dissonances making a near-mockery of the basic material’s natural beauty. And he pairs the music with some of the bleakest lyrics you’re likely to hear outside of metal. The profoundest appeal of Until the Horror Goes is the fact that the latent beauty of Congleton’s anthems still shines through the muck, which to me makes them more poignant than anything on Funeral or The Joshua Tree. That is, when it hits me. Because this album — the one I’m currently proclaiming is my favourite of the year — doesn’t always work for me. It can get particularly dodgy when I pay close attention to the lyrics. In the right mood, Congleton’s nihilism is actually kind of satisfying. But the same part of me that doesn’t understand True Detective season one occasionally recoils at this. At the worst of times, John Congleton comes off like a 14-year-old goth: “If a tree falls in the woods… it doesn’t matter.” These are things you begin to get concerned about when an album captures your attention as completely as this captured mine. I feel more than ever that nihilism (as opposed to existentialism, which isn’t what this is) is an irresponsible philosophy and that the connections that we see and make in the world are actually meaningful. But I’ll confess to finding Congleton’s assurances that everything is meaningless and we might as well make the best of it more comforting these days than I did before November. If there’s a sentiment in music that’s defined 2016 for me, it’s surely “stay with me, stay with me, stay with me, stay with me… until the horror goes.”

No. 4: On the Media

onthemedia-1If there’s one podcast episode from 2016 that I’m likely to remember for the rest of my life, it’s the short segment that On the Media put out in its feed the morning after the election. It starts off as the sound of the two most incisive media critics working in America realizing “oh my god, even we were wrong.” And it spirals from there. At the risk of infantilizing myself, the most contentious moments of this episode felt exactly like being a kid and overhearing my parents fighting. Two people I had come to trust almost implicitly were disagreeing about things I trusted them to inform me about. This, for me, was the moment when it really sunk in how destabilizing this election result actually was. Brooke Gladstone — by my usual estimation, “the smart one” — was most disturbed by the fact that the elements in the media and the political system that they’d been reluctant to engage with had effectively chosen the president. She argued that this might be the time to start broadening the types of people they’re willing to give a platform to, though certainly not to let them get away with saying what they want. Her co-host Bob Garfield, who had spent the year proving his usefulness with a series of beautifully written and argued segments on why the media should cover Trump as an existential threat to democracy rather that as a normal politician. He was more audibly shaken by the election, and wanted to talk about whether or not it’s time to start using Hitler comparisons. It’s almost physically painful to listen to. However, the worst that can be said about On the Media this year is that they missed what everybody missed. In a media criticism show, that may seem like a substantial problem. But the fact remains that every assertion that Gladstone and Garfield made about Trump’s false narratives, media hustling and ongoing normalisation was correct. They’re still correct. And it’s not like it was all Trump all the time: the season’s highlight was Gladstone’s series on America’s poverty myths, and how they affect policy. It’s possible that this show is in the midst of an existential flail at the moment. But I’m confident that it will only become more important as we move into an era with a media-hostile president.

No. 3: Horace and Pete

This was the year when Louis C.K. got to the point where he could do whatever he wanted. Before we even get into the actual content of Horace and Pete, my favourite scripted show of the year, let’s note that it’s a self-financed, independently distributed web series, written and filmed largely on a week-by-week basis — and it has Steve Buscemi, Alan Alda, Edie Falco and Jessica Lange in it, alongside some of the best comedians around… and a theme song by Paul Simon. Oh, to be a person who can make this happen. It’s possible that Louis C.K.’s imperial phase has only just started. But that leads us to what exactly Horace and Pete is, which is to say, political drama. It’s a critique of American values, with characters being split into camps that wish to either maintain traditional power structures or acknowledge that the world is changing. This manifests through the story of a generations-old bar that’s been run by the same family since its inception — always managed by two men named Horace and Pete. Obviously, given the presence of women in the family who are not entitled to the same role in the business as the generations of Horaces and Petes, this raises some questions that need addressing. And thus begins the drama. For the most part, Horace and Pete isn’t openly polemical. The first episode introduces a useful division of labour: supporting characters are allowed to sit at the bar and talk politics explicitly, but the main contest of old values vs. new values takes place symbolically in the A plot, with no explicit references to, for instance, the primaries, which were ongoing at the time. Nothing in this show is a straightforward allegory, thank god. But it captures American anxieties in the year before the election of Donald Trump better than any other work of fiction this year. It is also a simple testament to the power of good writing and good acting presented straightforwardly. The show’s standout episode is its third, which begins with a ten-minute monologue in a single close-up shot of a character who we’ve never seen before. She just tells a story. We don’t even know who she’s telling the story to, or why, because the first reaction shot is ten minutes into the episode. It is electrifying, and the kind of gutsy move that I want more of in television. I haven’t gone back and watched any of this since the election, but I’m curious how the ending would read now in light of Trump’s win. Without spoiling too much, C.K. opted to end his show twice. A happy ending is immediately undercut by staggering bleakness, with an undercurrent of muted hope for change. I’m curious now: clearly the ending we got was a horrifying one, but was the alternative really that happy? Horace and Pete is an audacious and flawed show, with some unnecessary fat in the middle episodes, but I can’t help feeling that its imperfections only enrich it. We’ve always known that Louis C.K. is one of the great contemporary comics, but this reveals him to be the reincarnation of Eugene O’Neill as well.

No. 2: Arrival

It’s possible that recency bias is a factor in this high placement, since I saw Arrival this past week. But I came out of it genuinely feeling that it’s the best movie of the year. One gradual process I’ve been through this year is that I’ve come to see how spoilers are an actual thing that’s worth avoiding. And it’s really hard to talk about Arrival without dealing with the twist. This is one of those movies that becomes an entirely different film from start to finish once you know the whole of the story. I suspect that’s probably why everything I’ve seen written about it seems more effusively positive than it can actually back up with analysis. To talk about what makes this movie extraordinary as opposed to great is to spoil it. This movie’s ending is a narrative rug pull of Steven Moffat proportions. Still, for the bulk of Arrival’s running time, we don’t know the big secret, and it’s still an excellent movie. Amy Adams gives one of the best performances of the year (again, a performance that is elevated by knowledge of the ending) as the person that the military brings in to help them communicate. Specifically, with aliens. Couching a first contact story in terms of understanding language is a winning premise, especially when the story introduces the idea (a real idea in linguistics) that language actually fundamentally affects the way that a person thinks. That makes it critical to any understanding of another culture, yet alone another species. As far as I can tell all of this comes straight from the Ted Chiang story that Arrival’s excellent screenplay is based on. But if the movie were only a brute force expression of some clever ideas, it wouldn’t be my favourite of the year. Director Denis Villeneuve imparts an element of profound lyricism to the story by allowing us to see small moments, and letting our eyes linger on images that one assumes the citizens of this movie’s world are being fed through a much more frenetic TV news approach. Villeneuve is a director that I’ve been aware of since he made Incendies in 2010, but this is the first of his movies that I’ve seen. It’s clear that he’s a major talent, and one hopes that he’ll continue making movies like this, even after he’s made his franchise juggernaut debut later this year with the new Blade Runner.

No. 1: O.J.: Made in America

This is the best documentary I’ve ever seen. I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything that’s quite this good at telling the big story and the little story at the same time. This is not just the story of the O.J. Simpson trial. And thank god for that: I would have little to no interest in watching eight hours on a trial so well-known that I’ve become intimately familiar with its finer details simply through osmosis. (I was four when it actually happened.) But director Ezra Edelman takes advantage of the story’s basic familiarity to use it as an illustration of a much larger story. The story starts with a pre-infamy O.J. Simpson making the conscious attempt to distance himself from his race. (“I’m not black; I’m O.J.”) Edelman allows long stretches of the series to unfold with very little mention of Simpson at all, in order to establish the context of race relations in late 20th-century Los Angeles. The story continues through Simpson’s abusive relationship with his wife, Nicole Brown, who is finally afforded the space in this narrative that she always should have had. Only then, a few episodes in, does Edelman get to the trial of the century. This would be a key storytelling challenge in a lesser documentary, because how does one tell this story, again? But, having laid the groundwork, Edelman deconstructs the Simpson trial by mapping the convergence of two narratives: the increasing awareness and preponderance of police violence against black people, and O.J. Simpson’s attempt at a “post-racial” public persona. Edelman deftly demonstrates how Simpson’s defence team commandeered one of the most important cultural discourses of the late 20th (and early 21st) century in defence of a man who had openly worked against that discourse in his prior career. These are the broad strokes, but there are more individual moments in this that will chill your spine than I could possibly enumerate. O.J.: Made in America is nonfiction storytelling of the very highest order. It is the ultimate synthesis of complex ideas by way of narrative. It is modern America, photographed from a helicopter.

***

Well, that was an exertion, wasn’t it? In case you’re interested, here are the lists that I drew from, broken down by genre with several runners-up in each category. You’ll note the preponderance of auditory entertainments, because those are the things I can consume while running or doing the dishes. There were simply more of them in my life last year, and this reflects that. Entries that made the top 30 are in bold.

Television

  1. O.J.: Made in America
  2. Horace and Pete
  3. BoJack Horseman
  4. Planet Earth II
  5. Better Call Saul
  6. Stranger Things
  7. Fleabag
  8. Orange is the New Black

Movies

  1. Arrival
  2. Manchester By The Sea
  3. HyperNormalisation
  4. Swiss Army Man
  5. Captain America: Civil War
  6. The Nice Guys
  7. High Rise
  8. I Am The Pretty Thing That Lives In The House
  9. Moonlight
  10. Doctor Strange

Music

  1. John Congleton and the Nighty Nite: Until the Horror Goes
  2. Beyoncé: Lemonade
  3. Hans Abrahamsen/Barbara Hannigan et al.: let me tell you
  4. David Bowie: Blackstar
  5. Let’s Eat Grandma: I, Gemini
  6. Kyle Craft: Dolls of Highland
  7. Tim Hecker: Love Streams
  8. A Tribe Called Red: We Are The Halluci Nation
  9. Justice: Woman
  10. Chance the Rapper: Colouring Book
  11. Bon Iver: 22, A Million
  12. Patricia Kopatchinskaja, Teodor Currentzis, MusicAeterna, et al.: Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto & Stravinsky Les Noces
  13. Esperanza Spalding: Emily’s D+Evolution
  14. Car Seat Headrest: Teens of Denial
  15. Margo Price: Midwest Farmer’s Daughter
  16. Solange: A Seat at the Table
  17. Leonard Cohen: You Want it Darker
  18. Daniel Lanois: Goodbye to Language
  19. Danny Brown: Atrocity Exhibition
  20. Patricia Kopatchinskaja: Death and the Maiden

Books

  1. Kieron Gillen & Jamie McKelvie: Phonogram vol. 3: The Immaterial Girl
  2. Dan Fox: Pretentiousness: Why It Matters
  3. Alan Moore: Jerusalem: The Burroughs
  4. Olivia Laing: The Lonely City
  5. Kieron Gillen & Jamie McKelvie: The Wicked and the Divine vol. 4: Rising Action
  6. Jeremy McCarter & Lin Manuel Miranda: Hamilton: The Revolution

Games

  1. Firewatch
  2. Kentucky Route Zero: Act 4
  3. Sorcery!: Part 4
  4. Sunless Sea: Zubmariner
  5. Oxenfree

Podcasts

  1. On the Media
  2. You Must Remember This
  3. Theory of Everything
  4. The Heart
  5. More Perfect
  6. Love and Radio
  7. Imaginary Worlds
  8. Reply All
  9. Code Switch
  10. Pop Culture Happy Hour
  11. Crimetown
  12. The Gist
  13. The Sporkful
  14. In the Dark

Miscellaneous things it seemed weird to include

  1. Robert Lepage: 887
  2. Gideon Lewis-Kraus: “The Great AI Awakening”
  3. Don’t Hug Me I’m Scared: Part 6

And with that, we’re done. Have a great last eleven months of 2017.

Omnireviewer (week of Oct. 23, 2016)

Ooh, some good stuff this week. Also a few pans. Pans! Imagine. 26 reviews.

Games

Thomas Was Alone — After watching Charlie Brooker’s video games special, I was reminded of the occasional joys of a game where you mostly just jump. But I need my jumping to be mediated through several layers of metacritique and accompanied by a cast of colourful characters with actual personalities, because I am me. I had deleted this from my iPad for space, but I downloaded it again, not intending to reply the full game, but then I remembered how the puzzle mechanics pull you in, and how the gradual, minimalistic storyline eventually ends in staggering, sad catharsis, and I just had to play to the end. It’s marvellous, obviously. It’s one of the most seamless integrations of mechanics and story that I’ve seen in a non-IF context. Braid comes to mind as another, but Thomas Was Alone didn’t inherit Braid’s smugness. This game’s masterstroke is how it uses basic platformer mechanics to enrich characterization. When you need to use two different characters’ unique abilities in tandem to help them both reach their destinations, it doesn’t just feel like solving a clever puzzle (though it is that), it feels like you’re watching relationships form. That’s remarkable. This second time through, I had some minor quibbles. Occasionally the narration can be a bit overbearing. The spoken text in this has a delicate balance to strike: it can’t be so twee that it’s annoying, yet it also needs to be whimsical enough to mark a contrast with the rather terse written text that appears at the beginnings of certain levels to tell the larger story of what’s going on outside the narrative we’re seeing. Usually, the narration strikes that balance pretty well. But occasionally it veers into too-twee territory. Most of the time, I felt like a slightly different read of the same script might have done the trick. It’s such a minor thing. The larger issue is that the emotional climax of the story happens quite some time before the end of the game. Without spoiling anything, there’s a story event about 80% of the way through that paves the way for a really cool new mechanic that defines the late stages of gameplay. But from that point on, the story can’t match up with what came before. It would have been an easy storytelling problem to overcome: just a couple of strategically-placed evocations of the characters from early in the game might well have done the trick. But I also think it would have been wise to minimize the narration in those late phases, so that the game can accelerate to a close rather than drift into one. Altogether, I still love this game, though. Any game that’s mostly jumping that can compel me to play through to the end, twice, is a very good game.

Sunless Sea: Zubmariner — This arrived at just the right time. Sunless Sea is the only vast sandbox game that I’ve ever gotten into. I do like a game that lets me explore, but preferably in the service of a linear story. (Firewatch has kind of become my ideal in this sense.) This game is pretty much as close as I get to Skyrim. And while I haven’t actually played Skyrim, I’ll wager that Sunless Sea is even vaster, on account of the fact that it is so dominated by text: the densest medium. So, this is probably the only game that I’ve poured more than a half-dozen-or-so hours into since childhood. Clearly, it’s much too big and deep for me to have turned over every rock and scrutinized every crevice for searing enigmas and extraordinary implications (gosh, this game’s jargon is so infectious). But, I had put enough time into it that I’d seen the entire map and I had a general sense of what each locale is like. There’s still plenty to uncover after you’ve reached that point, but without the thrill of exploration the game does lose something. Zubmariner is a godsend because it not only introduces several new ports with new premises, characters and stories; it introduces an entirely new and mysterious map to explore. Sure, it’s an addition grafted onto the old map, but it still feels new. And the new ports that I’ve discovered so far (less than half of them, I think) are all among the most interesting in the game. I should specifically mention the underwater settlement of Scrimshander, my current favourite. Scrimshander is a settlement made of bones, where they are so obsessed with the recording, archiving and interpretation of history that they demand that nobody may leave Scrimshander without leaving something behind for posterity: a memory, a bit of your personality, a body part… It seems that the larger story in Scrimshander, which I’ve barely scratched the surface of, will turn out to be a purposeful interrogation of the Great Man model of history, in which you can choose to search the archives for either great heroes or telling patterns. That’s a whole level wonkier and more specific (and also more directly satirical) than anything on the surface of the Unterzee. (Well, except for Pigmote Isle, perhaps. That one was always a tad unsubtle.) One thing that’s great about this game being text-based is that it can actually go to places like this: where archiving and scholarship are as much part of your adventure as fighting and smuggling. And since it all happens in an imaginary world made of well-placed words, one type of adventure is just as vibrant and exciting as the next. This expansion is just what I needed to get pulled back into Sunless Sea’s warped magnificence.

Movies

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Parts 1 & 2 — I honestly can’t even remember which Harry Potter movies I’ve seen and which I haven’t, but I was sure I hadn’t seen these two. And, thrown into a fit of nostalgia by The Cursed Child, I figured I’d check them out. After all, even if they sucked, at least there’s Alan Rickman. Part 1 is massively slow, and a bit superfluous. One of the most egregious downsides of massive franchises is that studios can make as many movies as they like and people will dutifully turn up. Still, Part 1 has some really excellent moments. The animated segment telling the parable of the three brothers is brilliant. Also, if there’s one good reason why the seventh book should have been split into two films, it’s to offer the three leads — all of whom, remember, were small children when the franchise began — a chance to do a proper three-hander, without being bolstered by the staggeringly prestigious supporting cast who has been there since the start. Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint, and especially Emma Watson all acquit themselves quite well, here. Plus, Rickman’s not the only late icon who makes an appearance: it’s nice to see Richard Griffiths as well, if only for a few frames. The second film is the better one by miles, obviously. There are still problems, like Professor McGonagall locking the entirety of Slytherin house in the dungeons. Seems like a civil liberties infraction. But then, Slytherin has always been one of the biggest problems with the Harry Potter canon. As has been frequently observed, it’s a house for evil children. That will tend to cause storytelling issues. There are moments of moviemaking nonsense, like Malfoy grabbing Harry’s hand as he flies above on a broomstick, to suddenly being on his back in the next shot. But all of this is more than compensated for by the magnificent handling of Snape’s memories in the pensieve, and Harry’s final encounter with Dumbledore, in the bright white King’s Cross Station in his head. I have only just realized that both here and in the book, Dumbledore is essentially Alan Moore in this scene. First off, there’s his famous quote (and also J.K. Rowling’s most powerful benediction at the end of the series) “Words are, in my not-so-humble opinion, our most inexhaustible source of magic. Capable of both inflicting injury and remedying it.” That’s pure Alan Moore. And then, when Harry asks him directly the question that the audience is already thinking (this sort of thing happens a lot in these movies), namely whether what’s happening is actually real or only in his head, Dumbledore rejects his premise: certainly, it’s in his head, but that doesn’t mean it’s not real. That’s also pure Alan Moore. I doubt somehow that Moore would have time for the Harry Potter books, but that’s his loss. The movies are certainly the lesser iteration of the story, but it’s nice they exist for a quick trip back into that world now and then. And they do boast the most staggering array of overqualified supporting actors this side of Game of Thrones.

Lo and Behold: Reveries of the Connected World — I expected more from this. First off, there are a couple of segments where I think Werner Herzog is labouring under a totally misguided premise. The whole bit about internet addiction has a slight tinge of daytime television about it. Herzog seems to be implying, by putting this chapter alongside other stories of how the internet has changed the world, that this is a new phenomenon, when it’s quite obvious from the interviews that it’s really no different from any other addiction. Gambling addiction in particular comes to mind. Addiction is age-old. Implying that this is a new human grievance brought on by the internet seems almost willfully ignorant. Plus, when Herzog talks about gamers wearing diapers so they can “avoid losing points by going to the bathroom,” it’s clear that he believes all video games are Pong. The other segment I thought was an odd choice is one about a family who were forced to confront disturbing images of their deceased daughter, who had been decapitated in a car accident, by emails from random malicious strangers. This is awful, certainly. But it’s a bizarre way to approach the cruelty of anonymous strangers on the internet. Saying “the internet can sometimes be bad, like in this one extreme example!” is not super effective when we’re constantly bombarded by horrifying stories of the online abuse suffered by women and people of colour as a matter of routine. What Herzog has put forth here isn’t the exception: it’s the sad, sad rule. But there’s much to love, here. The film opens with incredible panache. One plausible origin story of the internet is related to us by Computer-Science-Regis-Philbin (Leonard Kleinrock) accompanied by the Rheingold overture. Really, putting the Rheingold overture at the beginning of anything tends to make it feel momentous, but the combination of Kleinrock’s incredible charisma and Herzog’s sense of what details will pop out make it a really great opening scene. The segment featuring Ted Nelson is quite wonderful. He’s a computer scientist who conceived of a version of the internet before there was such a thing and is struggling even now to make it work, in spite of the World Wide Web’s indomitable presence. (Popular guy, lately. He cropped up in Kentucky Route Zero as well. Sort of.) But this scene is too short. Nelson gets to outline his vision in extremely broad strokes, and then we never hear from him again. I could have done with more of this kind of stuff — visions of internets past and future and possible and improbable — and less of the sort of stuff where Herzog asks people if the internet dreams of itself. That’s a question that sounds interesting until you think about it, and then it doesn’t sound that interesting. It definitely sounds very Herzog, which leads me to wonder if he’s just playing into the schtick at this point. Of the responses to that question that were included, exactly one of them is interesting, because it’s grounded in computer science, and offers a compelling argument that the World Wide Web is the internet dreaming of itself. But the fact that Herzog got that response seems like random good fortune considering that the rest of his interview subjects treat the question like the imprecise thought that it is. I think the biggest problem with this movie is that Herzog insists on looking at the internet as A Thing That’s Here Now, and it’s Doing Stuff To Us, as opposed to something that we made and continue to make. Herzog is good at thinking about the stuff that exists outside of us and in spite of us and that we can’t control. But the internet is not a grizzly bear. And as much as we probably can’t control it, we do shape it because we are it. “What is the internet doing to us” is a less interesting question than “what should the internet be?” And Herzog doesn’t seem plugged in enough to realize that this is a question that’s even possible to ask.

The Girl on the Train — I didn’t hate it. But it’s not very good. For a thriller, it’s pretty dull for the bulk of its running time. It really only picks up once the penny drops and the events that the movie has been obscuring become clear. That’s an odd thing: to be more engaged once you know everything. The acting’s hit and miss. Emily Blunt alone is hit and miss. She’s made to look extremely rough, like you’d expect such an extreme alcoholic to, but the performance feels mannered, and the moments where she really cuts loose don’t hit home like they should. They’re more pathetic than sad. Haley Bennett ranges from quite good to “Did Jennifer Lawrence forget how to act??” And Justin Theroux gives a reasonable performance, only to throw it away at the end with some deeply unconvincing, erm, twitching. I don’t think that’s a spoiler. Honestly, the best part of this movie is watching consummate professional Allison Janney do marvellous things with extremely limited material. She plays the detective. You know, the detective. That role. And she can make implications and cast aspersions without even saying anything. I’m always happy when she shows up in stuff. I wish somebody would give her a lead role in something I want to watch. (Though, after this I may go and watch Tallulah, just for the acting.)

Literature, etc.

Karen Page & Andrew Dornenburg: The Flavor Bible — Yeah, I bought the meaty one. And I immediately made a delicious meal of ginger-glazed salmon with fresh tarragon and broiled grapefruit. Both Flavor Bibles have proven themselves to be spectacular reference books that make cooking more fun, and in a few cases easier. I’ve never felt this confident in just selecting a couple of vegetables and a few spices and serving them together, uncomplicatedly. I haven’t looked at the intro yet. I’ll do that when I finish slogging through the one in the vegetarian edition, which is useful but quite dull — unlike the vegetarian meals I’ve made using that book, which were not dull at all. For vegetable-inclined omnivores such as myself, it really is worth having both.

Natalia Ginzburg: “He and I” — An essay anthologized in Phillip Lopate’s The Art of the Personal Essay, a book that I love very much and would recommend to literally everybody. Ginzburg’s essay is a fascinating glimpse into a marriage — her marriage, to a man who seems like a bit of a condescending shit, but who must have something going for him, because Ginzberg seems to mostly like him. Basically, it’s about how people in relationships can be different from each other, which is both extremely obvious and an extremely huge concept to take on in a short essay. But Ginzberg manages, because she’s able to describe the differences between her and her husband with great specificity. I really enjoyed this. Go buy The Art of the Personal Essay. It’s got everything.

Wole Soyinka: “Why Do I Fast?” — Soyinka is a fascinating figure: a literary pioneer whose experiments took place while he was in solitary confinement during the Nigerian Civil War. This essay about a practice he would occasionally undertake during that period — fasting in protest — is staggeringly visceral. This is not the last of his work I’ll read.

Television

Last Week Tonight: October 23, 2016 — Another good week, with only a couple of jokes that didn’t land. The segment on the third debate is particularly good, which is a remarkable thing to say given how completely worn out I am from hearing the same horrible sound bites from that debate again and again. Also, I think this might be the first time that Oliver doesn’t introduce an interstitial with “And now, this.” Don’t know why I felt compelled to make that observation. But here we are.

Full Frontal with Samantha Bee: “United Nations” — Incredible. Bee’s segment on Catholic-run hospitals is as revealing as John Oliver’s best semi-investigative segments, but with the added touch of actually featuring original interview footage with women who have been denied medically necessary late-term abortions by Catholic hospitals. It’s harrowing. And then there’s an interview with Madeleine Albright. This is great.

Nathan Barley — I really wanted to like this. I would really love for it to be an ahead-of-its-time critique of vapid internet personalities and proto-tech bros (this is the concept of the show that was pitched to me in an excellent episode of Benjamen Walker’s Theory of Everything called “The Future,” which you should check out because it’s better than the actual show), but it’s actually really obvious, and doesn’t have much to say except that sometimes people who are seen as fashionable are also stupid. Big news. I’m having second thoughts about watching more Black Mirror, if this is what Charlie Brooker thinks constitutes satire. I think this show would have been better if it made the sceptic Dan Ashcroft (a wonderful, pre-Boosh Julian Barratt) a stronger, more present protagonist, and made the show’s titular fashion-conscious scenester idiot more of a thing that happens to him. Like with Nick Carraway and Jay Gatsby. The story of a well-meaning sceptic who becomes embroiled in the very world he’s trying to stave off in spite of his best efforts is a better story than the one told here. On the other hand, you do get to see a bunch of future stars in small roles, which is cool. Noel Fielding shows up to do the Noel Fielding thing. Ben Whishaw is hilarious in a role with almost no lines. And Benedict Cumberbatch himself shows up as a fully-formed, wonderful actor with obvious leading man potential, and he’s in two scenes. So that’s fun.

Music

Ghost: Meliora — This was exactly what I hoped for it to be: totally over-the-top, gothic, theatrical metal with an underlying pop sensibility. It has essentially hit the perfect formula to lure me back to a genre that I thought I was done with. It’s fun, trope-aware, and definitely taking the piss. But it’s also a really solid metal album with great riffs and good playing from the band of masked persons who stand alongside the face paint-wearing, self-styled Satanic pope who sings lead vocals. “Cirice” is the obvious highlight on first listen, with its suspenseful acoustic opening, and its well-deployed vocal hooks (yes, hooks), but I’m also already quite taken with “Majesty” and the final track, “Deus in Absentia.” Admittedly, that last one works better as a finale to the album than it does on its own. This is one of those cases where the band knew it was okay to go (even more) over the top at the very end, because what came before seems to call for it. (See also: Supertramp’s Crime of the Century, the Chemical Brothers’ Further, Mahler’s third symphony.) Maybe it’s just because it seems seasonal, but I’ve been really getting a charge out of Meliora this week. At this rate, it’s likely to end up one of my favourite albums of the year. Didn’t see that coming. Pick of the week.

Podcasts

WTF with Marc Maron: “Margo Price” — This is instantly classic WTF. Right at the start of the conversation, Maron says it directly: “I like you.” And Margo Price says it back: “I like you too.” That’s the key, on this show. And here are two people with some common hardships to talk about and a similar sense of the world. Price is a lot of fun, and she’s got great stories. Plus, listening to this made it clear that there really isn’t anything on Midwest Farmer’s Daughter that’s not based on Price’s own life experiences. Which is distressing. But at least she could channel it all into great songs. This is an engrossing conversation that could also act as proof-of-concept for WTF if you haven’t gotten into it. Listen to this. It’s super. Pick of the week.

In the Dark: “The Truth” — As a conclusion to In the Dark, this doesn’t hit quite as hard as last week’s episode, but it does manage to sink a few more nails into the coffin of the Stearns County sheriff’s office’s reputation. Which is all you can ask. This has been a pretty good podcast, based on a truly extraordinary investigation. I’m pretty excited about the future of APM Reports.

You Must Remember This: “The Blacklist,” parts 15 & 16, plus Sinatra rerun — It’s a really good thing that Longworth employs somebody to mix the audio now. Because, even if it is still just music playing underneath talking, at least the music isn’t edited in such a distracting, ostentatious way, like it is in the older episodes that have been replayed in this series. There’s a moment in the Sinatra rerun where the same brief segment of a very recognizable Gershwin piano piece plays again and again, and it is infuriating. This series has been incredible on average. At its best, and the final two episodes are among its best (along with the episodes on Dorothy Parker and Lena Horne), it is staggering. I’m undecided whether I prefer it to the Charles Manson season or not, but I did really love it. 

Theory of Everything: “Honeypot” — This series on surveillance is already one of my favourite things that Benjamen Walker has done. It’ll be nice when he manages to get out in the world a bit more, for a bit of sonic variety. But I’m always on board for the episodes where Walker turns a critical eye towards the emerging future of the internet. His sharing economy series is the reigning champion, but considering how terrified I am about online surveillance, this could easily surpass it. And I’m really wondering what he’s working up to with that fake midroll ad spot. Funny that Andrew Calloway from the “Instaserfs” series showed up in this one: he’s got a new podcast out, and DMed me on Twitter to listen to it. I haven’t. I will. I wonder if it’s part of an elaborate fiction devised by Benjamen Walker…? Nah, that’s just paranoid.

In Our Time: “Plasma” — I think maybe I should steer clear of science on this show. Science researchers talking on the radio like they talk to each other has limited appeal compared to the same thing done by historians or English professors.

The Memory Palace: “In Line” — A short one, but affecting. It’s about the circumstances that led to the Voting Rights Act, and how familiar they still seem today. More interestingly, isn’t it notable how Radiotopia is putting its funding model front and centre in this pledge drive (nearly over, go support it) just when the wheels look like they’re coming off of Gimlet? (I don’t think they actually are, mind you, but they’ve had their trials front-and-centre, lately.) DiMeo even comments specifically on the lack of venture capital backing Radiotopia. Hmm.

The Bugle: “Buglemas Eve – a final preview” — The relaunch had already happened by the time I listened to this, but I’m glad I did, because these snippets make me more confident that it’ll go on being funny with these guest hosts. And Wyatt Cenac! Seriously, this is going to be an embarrassment of comedic riches.

This American Life: “Seriously?” — I had no idea that “patriotic correctness” was a thing. Also, this is most notable for its first act, produced by Ira himself, where he talks to his Republican uncle about the things he believes that are factually untrue. It is frustrating beyond compare, no doubt moreso for Ira himself, because it didn’t used to be like this. There was a time when the two sides of the political spectrum merely had a conflict of values. Now, there’s an entire side of the discourse (and it really is mostly just that one side) that contests even the demonstrable facts. This is one of those things that you can basically only listen to and despair.

The Heart: “Helen Breger’s Last Kiss” — A charming story about an elderly woman’s love and sex life. What better ode could there be to a recently-departed grandparent?

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “The Great Halloween Candy Debate with Mallory Ortberg” — PCHH live episodes are always great. They’re funnier in front of an audience. I have to say, I laughed harder at the segment on Halloween candy than I have at some actual comedy podcasts in recent weeks. The three core members are especially on their respective A-games here, with Glen Weldon providing some classic Weldonisms, including a description of Tootsie Rolls as Madame Tussauds’ elegant turds. I generally agree with their assessments, though I think I’m less enthusiastic about candy in general. There’s just something about listening to people talk about food, though. This honestly rivals The Sporkful at it’s most gleefully frivolous. Really fun.

Imaginary Worlds: “The Sorting Hat” — It’s possible that this hit me at exactly the right time, considering my current wave of Cursed Child-induced Potter nostalgia. But I think this is one of the best episodes of Imaginary Worlds. Hogwarts’ four houses are one of the most compelling elements of J.K. Rowling’s wizarding world, partially for the problems they pose. I’ve always felt that Ravenclaw and Hufflepuff were the only houses with properly specific, house-like identities, because Gryffindor and Slytherin are essentially narrative constructs: one is for protagonists, one is for antagonists. And that opens up the oft-stated issue of Slytherin being a house for evil people. However, listening to this, it was interesting to hear other fans’ take on this: people who self-identify as Slytherins, for instance. That demonstrates to me that I must be at least slightly wrong. Besides, Snape’s a Slytherin. (Sidenote: Slytherin and Gryffindor make up the same approximate yin-yang as Snape and Dumbledore, don’t they? The good within the bad; the bad within the good.) Plus, there’s a fan’s in-universe theory about why the Sorting Hat chooses to put Harry, Hermione and Ron in Gryffindor as opposed to Slytherin, Ravenclaw and Hufflepuff respectively. And that theory gets at a much deeper notion of the value of education than I expected to come into this at the beginning. Really nice.

New Yorker: Out Loud: “Beyond Citizen Kane” — Somehow, I came to the New Yorker’s defunct short-form podcast before I ever listened to their much-beloved New Yorker Radio Hour. I’ll get there. But this is about Orson Welles and it has Alex Ross on it, so how was I not going to listen? I’ve made a note to watch F for Fake. My Welles experience is too limited, it seems.

This American Life: “Will I Know Anyone at This Party?” — One of the most rage-inducing things I’ve heard during this rage-inducing election. The main attraction is a great story by Zoe Chace about St. Cloud, Minnesota, where conservative America’s racist panic over immigration (which, as Ira points out, doesn’t even make sense given the falling immigration rate) has been bubbling over for a few extra years. There’s tape in this of people saying things that are… hard to forgive. It’s not even the racism itself that’s so galling; it’s the fact that many of the people saying these things believe wholeheartedly that they aren’t racist. Even an elected representative who outspokenly opposed his own constituents’ call for a moratorium on Somali immigrants (honest to god) says things like “I know these people! They’re good people! They’re not racist, they’re just…” and then he tries to defend them. But they’re obviously, totally racist. They may be good people in many other respects, but they do not understand what constitutes racism, and why it’s wrong. That’s what’s really great about this story: it demonstrates specifically how these kinds of views made it into the mainstream of the Republican party from out of the fringes. I know plenty of people like this myself, coming from a conservative part of Canada (relatively speaking). Some of the most thoughtful, generous and kind-hearted people that I know are also pretty racist. And it doesn’t come out in their interactions with specific individuals of other races; but it does come out in the policies they support because they’ve been made to perceive a larger problem. One that doesn’t exist. This episode gets into all of this, and also has Neil Patrick Harris singing in character as Paul Ryan. It is great, important radio, but it is not my pick of the week because right now I feel like I don’t need this as much as I need Marc Maron shooting the shit with Margo Price. It’s November in the year of an American election. We’ve got to stay sane somehow.

99% Invisible: “McMansion Hell” — Primo 99pi. If you didn’t support the Radiotopia fundraiser, feel bad. Then listen to this hilarious episode about tacky, tasteless gigantic homes and feel worse. Then go to the blog that it was inspired by and laugh more.

Omnireviewer (week of Oct. 16)

Dear me. Verbose, this week. Well, I’ve had some spare time, which will be mercifully less spare fairly soon. 32 reviews.

Games

Kentucky Route Zero: Act 3 — My favourite of the first three acts by miles. The sequence with the Xanadu computer is one of my all-time favourite scenes in a video game. The fact that Donald built this thing as a bitter memorial to his relationship with Lula and friendship with Joseph is even sadder when you know that the first adventure game ever was inspired by heartbreak as well. Xanadu is clearly based on Adventure, which was made by William Crowther (another Kentucky-based computer scientist and cave explorer) as an attempt to reconnect with his young daughter after he and his wife divorced. On this playthrough, I came across a section of the Xanadu scene that I hadn’t before, where Lula explains why cave paintings are so sad: somebody wanted to memorialize something — a person or relationship, maybe — and we can barely make out any detail. How like the ruined Xanadu computer, and the primitive parser interface of Adventure. There are other highlights, here. I’d love to see the full text of Donald’s Kentucky-set version of “Kubla Khan.” And, as the party of player characters grows, so does the range of responses to any given situation. Conway is reflective, Shannon practical, Ezra whimsical, and Junebug totally off-topic. Their responses represent different types of gaming. I’m the sort of player who likes to linger and mull things over, so I tend towards Conway’s dialogue options. But it’s nice to have Shannon around to progress the plot, and the other two to throw occasional monkey wrenches into conversations. Also, the moment in the final scene where the game momentarily takes over the mouse to express the inevitability of Conway’s return to drinking is absolutely chilling. I am actually a bit scared to see how that develops in the next episode. I’ve come to love all of these characters, but if things work out badly for Conway, it’s going to be crushing.

Kentucky Route Zero: “Here and There Along The Echo” — I take back what I said about “The Entertainment” being my favourite of the KRZ mini-episodes. It’s a dead heat between that and this one. The notion of formatting a game as a telephone hotline menu is not only novel: it opens up a world of possibilities for interactive audio. (The only other example I’ve seen is Papa Sangre, which is essentially hide and seek in the dark, and I really don’t have much time for it.) Like so many other moments in this second playthrough of the pre-2016 portions of Kentucky Route Zero, I had intended for this to be a quick perusal, and then straight on to Act 4, which is new to me and super exciting. But, I ended up spending two hours going through the options, and listening to this fascinating character talk. It was worthwhile for the devs to briefly abandon the text-based aesthetic of this world to introduce spoken audio, if only because it allows a voice actor to give a convincing performance of what people might sound like in this universe. As a side note, anybody else who enjoyed his list of the different types of water as much as I did would do well to check out James Joyce’s list of water’s admirable attributes from Ulysses.

Kentucky Route Zero: Act 4 — Well, it didn’t let me down. This is a quieter, slower, more deliberate Kentucky Route Zero than we’ve seen before. And it is the first one to be more concerned with the characters and their respective arcs than it is with exploring themes. Rather than presenting simulations within simulations, or posing high-minded questions about whether we’re inside or out, this act presents us with Shannon’s abiding anger over her parents’ death in the mine, Johnny’s yearning for a third person to ride with him and Junebug (he wants a child, essentially) and most devastatingly, the effects of Conway’s return to drinking. The subtlety with which Conway becomes a different character in this act is both masterful and sad. And the moment when he appears to literally become a different character is the most destabilizing thing in the game so far: the loss of that character and of his particular way of moving through the world seems likely to be more of a paradigm shift than the introduction of the Zero. In general, Act 4 encourages us to take a time-out from our obsessiveness about what everything means and how it connects, and just spend some time empathizing with these characters. But I’m still left with lots of thoughts about the various thematic moving parts and conspiracies at play, here. We know that the power company is evil. We know that they’re engaged in debt buying, because they acquired the pharmaceutical company that Conway owes. We also know that the distillery is evil. (How lovely to see a thriving business like the Rum Colony not pouring Hard Times, hey?) We know that the distillery is also involved in debt buying, since they bought the outstanding bar tabs from Harry at the Lower Depths pub. So, how are they connected? Are they connected? We know, at least, that Conway’s medical bills (owed, indirectly, to the power company) will be paid off by the distillery in exchange for work (though his labour was already an exchange for having drunk the top-shelf whiskey at the end of Act 3… I smell duplicity). And there’s definitely some significance to the fact that Conway’s descent into more and more abject debt is represented by his gradually turning into a creepy electricity skeleton. So, what are we going to find out about the connection between those two companies in the grand finale? It’s possible that the answer is nothing. I would be surprised if Conway doesn’t appear in some capacity in Act 5, but we probably won’t learn any specifics. Kentucky Route Zero has never been the type of game to do anything so vulgar as explain itself. It is working on the same level as the conceptual artworks it is so fond of displaying within itself. I’ve read some muted complaints about this act that criticize it for being less exploratory and interactive than its predecessors. And it’s true that you’re not allowed the agency to explore the Echo River at your leisure in the same way that you were with the Zero or overground Kentucky. But video game people sometimes need to be reminded of the fact that all art is interactive. The most important act of the movie is the one that happens in the car on the way home, when you talk about what it all meant. Paintings don’t live in galleries; they live in your brain. So, even if Act 4 of Kentucky Route Zero puts you on tracks in a way that previous acts didn’t, there still ought to be plenty for you to do as a player. End of review. But here are a few stray observations, A.V. Club-style. (And still, I refuse to employ a paragraph break. The nerve.) One. The airplane is back! When I first played Act 1, the thing that really stuck with me is a scene where you can’t do anything except for watch two men push a broken airplane down a road. I didn’t know what to make of it, and I still don’t quite, but that image of struggle left a big impact. And there’s a moment in this act, in the gas station scene, where the two men drift past on a barge with their airplane. You could almost miss it, and it’s never mentioned in the dialogue, nor is it witnessed by Conway, who was the only character to have seen it in the first place. It’s the little things. Two. This act really feels like it comes from 2016. The increasing preoccupation with oil in this reflects the same development in the real world during the two years since the last act of Kentucky Route Zero came out. Also, online dating is a thing in the KRZ world now, just as it’s been mainstreamed. Three. One of the small pleasures of this act is actually visiting the locales that were referred to in “Here and There Along the Echo.” I’m glad I spent as much time with that as I did, now, because I had a bit of advance knowledge of Sam and Ida’s, the Rum Colony, the Iron Pariah (what the hell is up with that!?) and the memorial to something that we can’t remember what it is, among other things. In spite of what I said above, if I could request a single expansion to this game, it would be a more open-world model of the Echo so I could actually be the drifter/pilgrim that the Bureau of Secret Tourism was courting. But then, I suppose that would more or less be Sunless Sea. Four. The flashiest, most formalist moment in this act is the one where the narrators are watching security footage of the events after the fact, but you’re controlling the characters on that security footage in real time. It’s pure Andrew Plotkin. It constitutes the most satisfying cognitive dissonance I’ve felt since I cheated my way through Spider and Web. Five. Again, it’s the little things: Sam and Ida remember their origin story a bit differently. She remembers that he was drinking malt liquor and doing a sudoku. He remembers coffee and a crossword. Six. I can only imagine that Shannon’s reunion with Weaver is going to be a bit awkward once she realizes that Weaver used her genius to (I think) invent a new kind of debt, as it was put in “The Entertainment.” Maybe she’s the missing link between the distillery and the power company. Who knows how long we’ll have to wait to find out? I’ve got to say, though, I honestly don’t mind because if it’s a long wait, it’ll give me an excuse to play through the whole game a third time. As it stands, I think I’ll do a second playthrough of Act 4 fairly soon, because it’s definitely more than two playthroughs worth of game. I shall report back. Pick of the week.

Literature

Magnus Hildebrandt: Kentucky Fried Zero — This is an indispensable primer on the sources for Kentucky Route Zero, ranging from dustbowl photography to Buckminster Fuller and on to the more expected reference points like computer science and Samuel Beckett. The three parts of this are quite short, and you get the sense that Hildebrandt could easily track down and elucidate many more references and influences. (He even says as much in the second-last paragraph of part three.) I hope that he will go back and expand these once the final act of the game is out and we know what we’re working with.  

William Blake: Jerusalem the Emanation of the Giant Albion — Look, I didn’t enjoy this. I just didn’t. I have very limited patience for this kind of inscrutable literature. I mean this kind as distinct from, say, Ulysses. At least Joyce’s obscurity seems to be motivated at least partially by a sense of fun: he’s laying out a trail of breadcrumbs, and trusts that you’ll arrive at some kind of understanding eventually. Blake doesn’t seem to know he’s being obscurantist. It appears to me, a deeply undereducated reader in these sorts of texts, that Blake isn’t trying to be obscure; he’s failing to be direct. And so, the proliferation of characters without fixed identities and the religious commentaries so idiosyncratic that I can barely relate them to what I know of a given religion are not endearing at all — they are massively frustrating. Blake’s canon, unexplained as it is, is like jargon. It’s like hearing Scientologists talk about thetans and SPs. I did enjoy doing a bit of reading about Blake, and what he’s apparently on about in this. But my actual time spent reading the poem, with its brilliant illuminated plates, was not fun. I suppose I have to accept that now that I’m a couple years out of grad school, I am effectively “the everyday reader” and so these kinds of texts that are not meant to be understood without rigorous study are simply no longer the kinds of things I’ll take pleasure in. And I’m totally okay with that. Anyway, now I feel prepared to tackle Alan Moore’s Jerusalem. I’ll get to it soon.

Karen Page: The Vegetarian Flavor Bible — I am not a vegetarian, nor am I likely to become one in the near future. But, as part of my ongoing mission to be more creative in the kitchen while eating a bit less meat, I have gone ahead and purchased this tome. It is basically an encyclopedia of flavour combinations, specifically for plant-based diets. I am well aware of the existence of the original Flavor Bible, with its lamb and its bacon, and I will almost surely purchase that as well if this one proves to be useful. But my first priority is getting a handle on creative cooking without meat. I confess that the introduction to this volume is a little bit depressing compared to the one in its meaty predecessor (I read the Kindle free sample) because it focusses almost entirely on nutrition. Maybe that’s predictable. I’m interested in nutrition, insofar as I want to be healthy. But my god, is it ever a boring topic to read about. Still, that’s hardly the point. I have already prepared some middling-to-good, but at least interesting vegetarian meals using this as my guide. One, with wilted spinach and nutmeg served on a grilled portabello mushroom with crumbled ricotta was actually pretty excellent. I shall keep you apprised.

J.K. Rowling, John Tiffany & Jack Thorne: Harry Potter and the Cursed Child — I was never not going to read it, and I liked it a lot more than the fan consensus. It’s flawed, but it’s a decent afternoon’s-worth of nostalgia. And it is openly nostalgic for the first seven books, in the way that Jason Segal’s Muppet movies are for the original Muppet Show, or that certain modern Doctor Who stories are for the classic series. The story of Harry Potter’s time at Hogwarts is as important and formative a narrative for the characters in this story as it is for the people who grew up reading Harry Potter books, and thus the younger characters are effectively surrogates for us. Or at least, Scorpius Malfoy is. Albus Potter is a touch too resentful. It’s fitting, then, that the key plotline should involve time travel, and specifically time travel back to the days of the beloved Goblet of Fire. Because, The Cursed Child is more of a time capsule than it is a modern Harry Potter story. It’s a way to go back, and see familiar things from a slightly different vantage point. (This happens literally in the play’s final act, which takes place largely [spoiler] in Godric’s Hollow.) Its canonicity, as much as such things matter, will always be slightly compromised by the fact that it’s a play and not a novel, and that it mostly wasn’t written by J.K. Rowling. But that’s not the real issue: the real issue is that reading a script is a very incomplete experience. Without actors to bring the characters to life, their emotional arcs seem a bit rushed. Think of it as the opposite of the languidly-paced Order of the Phoenix. The biggest flaws really do come down to the difficulty of representing a stage play on the page — which isn’t even what this purports to do; it’s a script from which staged productions are meant to be extrapolated. I think most of the extremely negative critiques fail to take this into account. Jack Thorne comports himself fairly well, even if his dialogue never made me laugh. (Rowling doesn’t get enough credit for her wit.) Still, I’m left somewhat unsure of whether my beloved His Dark Materials is in good hands or not when Thorne adapts it for the BBC. Because that’s happening. There are really only two substantial problems with this in terms of story. One involves the play’s breakout character, Scorpius Malfoy, who is by a series of machinations briefly transformed from a school outcast to an immensely popular teenager. We’re meant to believe that, under a certain set of circumstances, there’s a part of Scorpius that could allow this to happen. And yet, he immediately casts off his good fortune for the greater good, with virtually no inner conflict at all. I found that a bit of a let down, and it certainly wouldn’t have played out that way in a novel, where the narrative need not be so collapsed. And the other issue is time travel. You have to completely ignore the time travel mechanics if you want to have a good time reading this. It’s not so much the divergence from the mechanic in The Prisoner of Azkaban that chafes: it’s a scene in which people in the present talk about a person who has gone to the past and tried to change it as if that hasn’t already happened — which, by definition, it has. And even this contradicts the way the time turner was seen to work earlier in the play. But the authors don’t let a thing like that get in the way of a good story. And the positives outweigh the negatives, even if the most satisfying moments are basically fan service. It’s immensely gratifying to see Hermione as the Minister for Magic (ergo, Harry’s boss). Too bad she got saddled with such a schlub of a husband. Ron seems to have shed what little charisma he had with age. But he wears his schlubbiness well. Possibly the deftest touch of all is the way that the acrimony between Harry and Malfoy is maintained into adulthood without Malfoy seeming like an overgrown schoolyard bully. They’re just two adults, living adult lives, who don’t get along. And, as star moments for fan favourites go, the sweepstakes are easily taken by Severus Snape, who gets to make his heroic sacrifice a second time. But there’s an impressive showing from Professor McGonagall as well, who offers a stirring rebuke to basically all of the other characters in the play for treating a peaceful world recklessly in spite of all that’s been sacrificed to bring it to bear. This is well worth reading. If you’re a fan and you’re on the fence, just do it now. You know you will eventually, anyhow.

Television

Last Week Tonight: October 16, 2016 — A strong episode containing very little of what I don’t like about this show. Oliver’s segment on Gary Johnson and Jill Stein will likely be the most widely seen piece on either of them during this election, and it wouldn’t surprise me if it actually affected their polling numbers.

Charlie Brooker’s 2015 Wipe — I’ve decided to go down a Charlie Brooker wormhole. It starts here, with him speaking direct to camera about what he thinks, and it will continue with Nathan Barley and the first two seasons of Black Mirror, in preparation for the new one. I’ve seen Brass Eye, but it was a long time ago, and that’s mostly Chris Morris anyway. This is worthwhile for Philomena Cunk alone, but Brooker himself gets some great lines as well. It’s also actually a good New Years’ program, which is as far as I know, unique on television.

How Videogames Changed the World — I like Charlie Brooker. I kind of want to be him. This special on video games (in my world, it’s two words) is limited, as an under two-hour documentary has to be. And, it focusses on the really gamey kinds of games that kind of don’t do much for me. (The history of the kind of games I like starts with Adventure, not Pong.) But it still has time to bring up stuff like Papers, Please, which remains one of the most powerful interactive experiences I’ve ever had. And this show’s real virtue is that it manages to cover the major moments and conflicts that video games stirred up in real life: moral panics, feminist critiques, the staggeringly gradual mainstreaming of the medium, etc. Brooker’s list of the most important games is self-evidently selected for ease of narrative rather than actual quality or influence, but that’s the only way to make a show like this, and it would have been profoundly boring if it were just a bunch of people talking about why a bunch of games that I probably mostly don’t care about are really good. (And that sight gag with the Braid mechanic is really clever.)

Black Mirror: “The National Anthem” — First, the shit. Naturally, the one female reporter in this episode with lines sends a nude pic to a government staffer for a scoop. This is a trope so depressingly common that it has the air of tragic inevitability whenever a female journalist is introduced into a show. The rest of the episode is astonishing. It doesn’t even matter if you already know the premise and the ending, which you inevitably do given this episode’s renewed relevance after David Cameron’s alleged porcine indiscretions. The remarkable thing is how straight it’s played. It’s wrenching human drama on a national scale. Everybody is cheapened by having watched what they watched. If it weren’t for that one lazy and harmful bit of misogyny, it would be a masterpiece.

Movies

Requiem for the American Dream — Chomsky is somebody who I’ve been aware of for years, but he falls just far enough outside the scope of my education that I never actually read him. This documentary, which is built entirely on original interviews with Chomsky, seems like a good primer for the most germane points of his philosophy. It focusses specifically on the process by which wealth and power are acquired by a smaller and smaller segment of the population: namely, the reduction of democracy. It’s brilliantly argued, and makes modern America make a sad sort of sense.

Music

Isabelle Faust, Claudio Abbado & Orchestra Mozart: Berg & Beethoven Violin Concertos — I realized after recommending this recording in last week’s VSO review that, firstly, I haven’t heard it in a really long time, and secondly, I have in fact never listened to the Beethoven that fills the disc. First the Berg, though. It’s flat-out one of my favourite recordings. I love this piece. I love its expressiveness and the way that it develops its melodic material. I love the way that it throws torrents at you, only to back away gradually and leave you breathless at the end. I love the Bach quotation in the winds in the second movement, and how the violin solo line plays against it. It’s a masterpiece. And of the handful of recordings I’ve heard, this is definitely my favourite. Faust plays with elegance, even when the melodies start to take on the rougher topography of Berg’s Second Viennese School compatriots. And Abbado will probably always be my favourite conductor of Berg, because he realizes that Berg is the true heir to Mahler. His approach to the orchestra in this concerto has the same lushness that he applies to Mahler 9 (a work that he absolutely owns, for me), and it is just as much of a study in contrasts. Everybody should hear this. Now, the Beethoven. The violin concerto is not one of my favourite pieces by Beethoven. The first movement has a nasty habit of going into a minor key right when I want to hear a triumphant reiteration of the theme in major. The third is one of those mid-tempo dance finales that usually doesn’t work for me. I do like the second movement, but compared to some of the slow movements from Beethoven’s middle period symphonies, even that falls a bit short. So, this recording has more labour to do with the Beethoven than with the Berg, because it has to sell a piece I like a lot less. And it doesn’t really. That’s about all there is to say.

Vulfpeck: The Beautiful Game — Difficult second album. On one hand, it’s got “Animal Spirits” (and heartfelt lyrics) which is one of their best and catchiest ever. Very much this album’s “Christmas in L.A.” Also, The Beautiful Game expands the palate to include house-reminiscent beats, which as far as I can remember, is new for Vulfpeck. But it certainly doesn’t have as many jump-out-of-the-headphones moments as Thrill of the Arts did. I might pick “Animal Spirits,” “1 for 1, Dimaggio” and “Dean Town” as highlights here. (And I do love that Klezmer clarinet intro, but it’s basically not a song.) And it’s notable that the former two are both transparent Jackson 5 pastiches (“Animal Spirits” is “I Want You Back” and “1 for 1” is clearly “ABC”) Think back to how many great tracks there were on Thrill, though: “Welcome to Vulf Records,” “Back Pocket,” “Funky Duck,” “Rango II,” “Christmas in L.A”… I will almost certainly warm to this, but there’s no way I will come to love that many of its tracks.

Tangerine Dream: Phaedra — I don’t know what possessed me to listen to this just now. I’d never heard it, and the only other Tangerine Dream I knew was Force Majeure. This is far more abstract than that, and it strikes me as an album that has more historical importance than modern-day interest. It’s like the electronic music equivalent of plainchant. Mostly it just made me wish I were listening to Tim Hecker, which I think I will now do. (And I did. My feelings about Love Streams are the same as when I reviewed it before. It’s some of the best music of the year.)

A Winged Victory for the Sullen: Atomos — That is a very overwrought band name, sure. But this is decent ambient music. I’ve been listening to stuff as I read, this week, and this is great for that. I’m not so sure it would stand on its own. That’s a key distinction in this milieu of modern classical music. John Luther Adams’ Become Ocean, for instance, is profound and beautiful, and in spite of some superficial similarities to Atomos, it can sustain attention. Same goes for Max Richter — and he wrote music for sleeping. Still, this did the trick. I dunno if I’ll listen again.

Brian Eno: Another Green World — This is in my all-time top five, and as with all things that I love passionately, I try not to overexpose myself to it. But I was on a long bus commute recently, and it just seemed like the right thing. Incredibly, I had been listening to this semi-regularly for years before it struck me that it’s more than merely excellent and is in fact perfect. I can’t think rationally about this album anymore. Listening to some of these songs I feel like I could walk into traffic and it would pass right through me. Eno is strangely averse to the idea of love songs, but there are several ravishing ones on here, most notably “St. Elmo’s Fire”: the finest song with lyrics that Eno ever made. Without ever using the word “love,” Eno perfectly conjures that feeling of ecstasy that so many songwriters fail to describe. He does it by allowing the music to do the bulk of the heavy lifting, and especially Robert Fripp’s guitar solo which is the most beautiful guitar solo ever recorded. In spite of being fast and technical, it also feels human and brittle — the way it cracks and stammers at the ends of phrases just kills me. And the other ninja move that this album employs is the most ingenious track sequencing maybe ever. Rather than trying to balance out the energy throughout the record, it allows itself to gradually sink into a reverie at the end. The way that “Zawinul/Lava” builds and falls, and ejects us into “Everything Merges With The Night” (more ravishing guitar from Fripp), and then finally into the comparative uncertainty of “Spirits Drifting” is one of the greatest closing sequences on any record ever. At this point, you’d expect me to make it my pick of the week, but I feel a strange pressure to play against type, this time. Everybody who’s ever read anything I’ve written or been in the same room with me knows how much I love Brian Eno. KRZ takes it.

Podcasts

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “Lupita Nyong’o, Cameron Esposito & Rhea Butcher, and the Best of TV” — Nice that PCHH  can manage so often to cobble together a show even when they have no panelists. These interviews are great, specifically the one with Cameron Esposito and Rhea Butcher, because they are very funny people. But it’s also nice to hear Linda Holmes’ much-discussed friend Alan Sepinwall make his PCHH debut. TV: The Book sounds like something that would frustrate me immensely in its format: ranking the top 100 shows? Really? But I expect that these two authors would have something interesting to say, at least. Given that they’re basically already advertizing the second edition, I may sit this one out and wait for it to be updated. (But I’ll probably flip through it in the bookstore next time I’m browsing.)

Fresh Air: “How Free Web Content Traps Us In An Abyss Of Ads & Clickbait” — Nothing like a good bit of #content-related #content. Tim Wu’s new book, The Attention Merchants, sounds incredible and depressing. He talks about how advertising on major web platforms has cheapened web publishing and made the internet worse. I think I’m going to have to read this.

Love and Radio: “The Enemy Within” — Part of the appeal of Love and Radio is just purely listening to someone tell you a story with no interruptions. So, when Glenn Loury tells his story of womanizing and drug abuse while teaching economics at Harvard, you want to listen. But, being Love and Radio, it’s also more complicated than that and addresses not only the discrepancy between his own conduct and his socially conservative politics, but it also problematizes the very notion that a person’s actions can invalidate their arguments.

In The Dark: “What’s Going On Down There?” — This has become a truly excellent podcast in the late phase of its run. And I’m only partially saying that because this features an actual police investigation where a man was told by (clearly awful) police officers that his missing son may have been eaten by turtles. I laughed out loud at that and subsequently felt a little bad. Anyway, last week’s survey of wide-ranging police incompetence in the town where Jacob Wetterling was abducted started the train towards this episode’s staggering finish, which posits that the way America handles policing is deeply and inherently flawed. Local police departments are not held to any kind of standard by the federal government, which just seems wrong. If I were the Stearns County sheriff, I’d be huddling in a corner right about now. This would have been a powerful finale, but I’m looking forward to the one episode that they’ve decided to add to this.

NPR Politics Podcast: “Previewing The Final Debate” — I’M NOT WATCHING THIS DEBATE! LA LA LA LA LA! Because they’re not going to talk about policy, they’re just going to talk about Clinton’s leaked emails (actually worth talking about, if only it wasn’t an orangutan doing the talking) and Trump’s temperamental unfitness to be president (EMINENTLY CLEAR). The fact that the panelists on this show are willing to entertain the fact that policy may enter into this is frankly adorable. I do love them.

99% Invisible: “Half a House” — A lovely complement to the previous episode about Chile. 99pi can lapse into design boosterism at times, but really it’s just boosterism for human ingenuity. Like, you have a problem: an earthquake levelled a city and there’s not enough public money for the necessary subsidized housing. And, you have a solution: build people half a house. It sounds ridiculous, but people can build the other half for themselves when they’re back on their feet. It seems to be working. There’s a moment in this where Roman Mars confirms that the reason this sort of thing doesn’t happen in the U.S. isn’t lack of money or lack of necessity, but simply a difference of values. Which is why I have very little respect for American values. This is 99pi doing what it does best. I haven’t enjoyed it this much in a long time.

All Songs Considered: “Pusha T and Rivers Cuomo Join Zeds Dead, Amber Coffman, TOY, More” — Whole lotta meh. I liked the Agnes Obel track well enough, but I haven’t heard much on this show that I want to check out for a while. Not their fault. I’m probably just not in music discovery mode.

Radiolab: “Seneca, Nebraska” — This story is just begging to be told in a not public radio way. The Radiolab crew obviously knows that in the story of a small town that voted to unincorporate because their 20 residents couldn’t get along, they have a parable. So, why not tell it that way? Where’s Nate DiMeo when you need him? Hell, even Scott Carrier would suffice.

On the Media: “Race to the Bottom” — Gladstone’s poverty myths series has moved from debunking myths about impoverished people to debunking the myths that America tells itself about how it approaches poverty. In this one, it’s the bootstrap myth. That is a sad narrative to turn out to be a myth, because it means that there isn’t actually much of a chance that a person can better their lot — not without an astronomical amount of luck. It’s also interesting to hear about the origins of the phrase “pulling oneself up by their bootstraps,” which actually started off as a metaphor for impossibility before it started representing the American Dream. And then, in a demonstration of the profound power of metaphors and ideas to shape society, the American Dream became impossible to attain.

The Gist: “Rapid Response: Cirque du Debate” — Okay, so I did end up watching the debate. And I’m happy I did, if only to have context for Mike Pesca’s latest round of spin room misadventures. It is so obvious listening to Trump’s surrogates talk that they just do not have anything under control. Ben Carson straight up brushing Pesca off is the highlight, but the whole thing is chaos. The best that a non-American such as myself can hope for in this election, given that I am not one of the millions of unauthorized voters that Trump predicts will swarm the polls in November, is to be nearly as entertained as you are bewildered, and I confess to having been that while listening to this.

NPR Politics Podcast: “The Third Presidential Debate” — The fact that this debate is being praised as the most substantive of the three is both accurate and still really depressing. The panel is right to assert that the most notable thing about this phase of Trump’s campaign is his insistence that whenever he doesn’t win something, it’s rigged. I’ve known people like this. People who believe that “unfairness” is coextensive with “bad things happening to them, specifically.” I think that it’s a kind of logic that underpins much of what’s wrong with the world. The notion of having a president of the U.S.A. that thinks like this without a shred of self-awareness is void-screamingly, cliff-jumpingly frightening. Fortunately, it won’t happen because he’s also too dumb to know when he’s shooting himself in the foot.

A Point of View: “In Praise of Difficulty” — Why must every critic who has the bravery to stick up for difficult art and educated audiences also have a stick up their ass about pop culture? This is a pretty good vindication from Howard Jacobson of the kind of art that gets the shaft from the shitty kind of populists — but then it nosedives into jabbing at the kind of art that appeals to the good kind of populists. There is an emerging kind of intellectual for whom the phenomena and iconography associated with boy bands and thrillers (Jacobson’s examples, not mine) are fodder for a rather exciting sort of criticism, in much the same way that Shakespeare was for many prior generations. Can’t we acknowledge that fact while also shitting on people who don’t understand Shakespeare? I really think it ought to be easy to have it both ways. Additional thoughts: I would generally stick up for the rights of the reader over the rights of the writer, in opposition to Jacobson, but I’ll provide here that the reader has to earn that right by being an interesting reader. (Read as: critic.) That is why, in my review for the staggeringly difficult work by William Blake that I’ve just slogged through, I blamed myself for having nothing to say.

Fresh Air: “‘Black Mirror’ Creator Dramatizes Our Nightmares About Technology” — Charlie Brooker is a less-than-scintillating interview, and I’m not totally convinced that Black Mirror is as smart as all these old people think it is. I’m one episode in, and I did like that episode, but it seems like the more explicitly it engages with modern media, the more vapid its critiques become. That’s sad to see, because I’m also watching Nathan Barley right now (review to come when it’s done; it’s useless to critique in part) and that is remarkably prescient for having been made in 2005.

StartUp: “Shadowed Qualities” — This is such enrapturing radio. The bulk of it is taken from a single conversation — virtually a therapy session — between Alex Blumberg (holy moly is he having a rough month) and an executive coach who we heard from in season two. And while I am usually quick to dismiss such people as snake oil salesmen, this fellow gets to the heart of Blumberg’s reluctance to step up and command his company as opposed to focussing on story edits really, really efficiently. And hearing Blumberg work through that in real time is fascinating. Traditional radio has moments that they call “driveway moments,” where you stay in your car to hear the end of the story even when you’ve already gotten home. Podcasts don’t have that, obviously. But at several moments during this episode, I forgot that I was eating breakfast. That seems like a logical equivalent. Pick of the week.

You Must Remember This: “The Blacklist,” parts 12-13 — Elia Kazan is one of my new favourite characters in this series. Looks like he’ll be back soon, too.

Omnireviewer (week of Oct. 9, 2016)

Whole bunch of fun stuff this week, including separate entries for each instalment of Kentucky Route Zero that I replayed. Also, an additional recommendation: don’t let a bit of rain stop you from running the seawall. Did that this afternoon, with a bunch of podcasts lined up, and it was a highlight of my week. 31 reviews.

Television

All Aboard the Starliner: The Making of Full Circle — I am not about to become the sort of person who watches the special features on old Doctor Who DVDs. But it seems I have indeed watched this one, so why deny it. It’s most fun to watch Christopher Bidmead and Lalla Ward, two people I quite admire, slag off Matthew Waterhouse mercilessly. But it’s also nice to hear the story of how Bidmead encouraged Andrew Smith, the very young writer of this story.

Last Week Tonight: October 9, 2016 — Firstly, this is fine. Secondly, the bit about the, ahem, “spray-tanned Furby eating KFC and screaming at a gold star family” is exactly the sort of non-joke that I wrote about last week that I wish this show would stop doing. Finally, the quality of the argumentation in the Guantanamo segment proves my earlier point about Oliver being most valuable as a pundit.

Doctor Who: “State of Decay” — It’s really wonderful the extent to which K-9 is seen as a joke even within the show at this point. In this story, he becomes weaponized, in the most ironic way possible. Love that. Altogether, this is a less worthwhile story than the previous one. It’s attempt to rationalize vampires is clumsy, and aside from the crackling scenes of the Doctor conversing with the rebels, this is a bit dull. No matter. I’m really only watching this to have the necessary context for the next story, which I suspect I will completely adore.

Full Frontal With Samantha Bee: October 5, 2016 — I think this just found its way onto my weekly viewing list, which currently only contains Last Week Tonight, a show that I’m becoming less enamoured of by the second. For better or worse, John Oliver tends to comment on current events from above the fray: the closest thing to righteous indignation that he can conjure is bemusement. Whereas Sam Bee is right in the shit, getting publicly angry on behalf of us less clever people, just like Jon Stewart used to do. I feel a bit dumb for not having watched this regularly. The episodes I’ve seen are the best satire of the year.

Doctor Who: “Warrior’s Gate” — Oh, I like this a lot. Mostly. Romana doesn’t quite work here, in spite of it being her swan song. Lalla Ward may be slightly to blame: you couldn’t blame her for having one foot out the door, considering everything. But there are story problems as well. She’s forced to be mysterious rather than whimsical and she’s also robbed of her competency once she’s captured. Annoyingly, this would have been easy enough to fix: just have her accompany the freighter crew out of curiosity rather than suspicion, and allow her to find her own way to escape rather than having Adric rescue her. She wouldn’t even necessarily appear credulous; she could just do what the Doctor always does and take a risk with relative confidence that she’ll find her way out of any tight spot that arises. This alternative also leaves Adric with nothing to do, which is a bonus. But aside from all of this, “Warrior’s Gate” is fabulous. I haven’t seen the show this abstract since the first episode of “The Mind Robber,” which this bears some obvious aesthetic similarities to. And, “episode one of ‘The Mind Robber’ stretched out to a full story” is a pretty decent brief. And the fact that time travel actually plays a role in the story makes it feel like my favourite bits of the new series. It’s weird and arty, and a bit austere. If this entire season could have kept up the pace and the tone of this and “Logopolis,” it would be one of the high points of the classic series.

Cabaret (televised broadcast of the Sam Mendes production) — I was recently defending my opinion that there are good musicals other than Hamilton (though only a handful that I really love) and I realized that my opinion of Cabaret, always a favourite, is entirely based on the film adaptation. That movie is brilliant, but it excises most of the songs. So, I figured I’d scour YouTube for a filmed theatrical production and I found this. Holy shit. Everything that was implied in Joel Grey’s performance as the Emcee is made as explicit as possible in Alan Cumming’s. Where Joel Grey says “Ladies and gentlemen,” Alan Cumming says “Ladies and gentlemen.” This is that rare thing where two performers make something so completely different out of a piece that they can’t meaningfully be judged against each other. Part of the beauty of Joel Grey’s leering creep is that you can never quite tell whose side he’s on. Alan Cumming’s emcee is so aggressively of the counterculture that he couldn’t possibly be aligned even slightly with fascism. He’s a one-man middle finger to Hitler. The other thing that this made clear is that Cabaret’s best songs are in fact in the movie. Kander and Ebb’s other masterpiece, Chicago, isn’t as dramatically satisfying or profound as this, but it’s got better tunes, on balance. Still, Cabaret is a classic. Pick of the week.

Games

Kentucky Route Zero: Act 1 — I’ve decided to replay the first three acts of Kentucky Route Zero before approaching act four, because this is so enormously dense that I couldn’t possibly remember everything that’s important. It turns out to be built for second playthroughs. As far as I know, it’s probably built for fourth playthroughs. Kentucky Route Zero is brilliant at offering up tantalizing little thematic threads that you can pull on but you can’t quite connect with each other. Right from the beginning of this, it’s clear that there’s metafiction at play: Joseph’s computer in the first scene is foreshadowing of how that character will recur in the third act, and of the idea that computer programs will form a central element of the story. I’m fairly convinced that the three people in the basement of Equus Oils, who appear again in “Limits and Demonstrations,” are also serving as an element in this set of themes. When they first appear, they are playing a game, the rules of which are unclear. So is the player when they first encounter these characters. Next time we see them, they are surveying weird art. So is the player, at every point during Kentucky Route Zero. Indeed, the entire notion of watching, listening to and examining things is central, here. There are tape recorders strewn around, and televisions that become games when moss grows on them (more foreshadowing). Soon enough, we’ll be watching theatre in “The Entertainment” and hearing music in the pub in Act Three. Also, the theme of hardship stemming from economic recession is immediately obvious, with the power to Equus Oils having been shut off, and the Márquezes having fallen on hard times. It’s tempting to try and tie these threads together in some cogent fashion. But there’s part of me that resists the idea of forming one unified theory of Kentucky Route Zero’s story. It seems like it ought to be bigger than that. Like a David Lynch movie or a Virginia Woolf novel, it need not be pinned down by the need to answer the question “what does it mean?” Still, as I play through the next three acts and the interstitial features between them once more, I’m going to see if any connections come to me unbidden.

Kentucky Route Zero: “Limits and Demonstrations” — It’s worth noting that this computer game is as good an art exhibit as I’ve ever seen in Vancouver. The first time I played through “Limits and Demonstrations,” I had already been through the first three acts of the main game. So, it didn’t strike me just how much explicit foreshadowing there is in this. It also didn’t strike me the extent to which the three characters you accompany through this exhibit are mirrors of Lula, Donald and Joseph. I still do not know entirely what to make of this, but it certainly adds a layer to Kentucky Route Zero’s pre-existing sense of performativity. And these characters only seem to appear when there is metafiction afoot. I’ll follow these thoughts up when I get through Act 2 for the second time.

Kentucky Route Zero: Act 2 — I had really meant to make this playthrough of the first three acts a quick one, just to refamiliarize myself before playing Act 4, but it’s impossible not to immerse yourself in this. Even the bits that I remember really clearly, I still feel compelled to go through in detail. (I did give the Secret Tourism locations along the Echo a miss, this time, though.) Just wandering through the Museum of Dwellings, observing the structures and listening to what people say is satisfying. And the format of having that entire segment take place in past tense, from the perspective of the people Conway and Shannon talk to rather than by Conway and Shannon themselves is a brilliant little method of distancing. It also gives us a broader picture of the world where this is taking place: each of the people living here is having similar problems to the characters we know better, like Joseph and Weaver. I’m also particularly intrigued by the scene that takes place in the storage locker. The idea that there was once a church here, but that everybody stopped coming, and now the janitor is keeping it alive by posting pictures of the congregation on the wall and playing tapes of the sermon is pretty rich. It’s a facsimile of a thing: a digital representation of reality, much like the cave systems in William Crowther’s Adventure — the first adventure game, and a key reference point in Kentucky Route Zero Act 3. I think this is overall my least favourite of the first three acts, but I still love the Bureau of Reclaimed Spaces, with its BBQing organist and its floor full of bears.

Kentucky Route Zero: “The Entertainment” — This is my favourite of the three interludes Cardboard Computer has released so far, though it lacks the high-concept gusto of “Here and There Along the Echo.” I’ll never forget the first time I played this and gradually realized what was going on: that the scene before me was in fact a play, that there was an audience present, and that I was an actor. This second time through, one of the first things I saw when I started looking around was the lighting rig above the stage. I can’t recall whether my first experience was similar, but of course I wouldn’t have known what to make of it anyway. It’s interesting to note that this sort of faux-Iceman Cometh old-time bar setting seems to be in the air again, these days. This captures the same sort of misguided nostalgia for a time and place that wasn’t actually any good that Horace and Pete does. And, to boot, they are both essentially theatrical productions taking place inside a different medium. I’m not sure where to follow that train of thought to next, so I’ll use it as a segue to discuss the most interesting thing about “The Entertainment,” which is its ostentatious, explicit theatricality. And the fact that it’s story is presented as a play is undercut by the fact that some of the characters are later seen in a non-theatrical context: this bartender will later show up in this bar again, but as a real character and not an actor. Similarly, Lula Chamberlain and Joseph Wheatree are credited as the play’s set designer and adapted playwright, respectively. I have written before about how it’s probably best to resist interpretations of Kentucky Route Zero that attempt to wrestle it into internal consistency. But “The Entertainment” makes it tempting to go against that. If anybody has a plausible explanation of how this bar can exist both as a play within a game and as a diegetic locale in that same game, I’m all ears. Bonus points for explaining how Lula and Joseph can exist both inside of this story and outside of it.

Music

John Coltrane: Meditations — My favourite Coltrane album by a mile. The strange noisiness of “The Father And The Son And The Holy Ghost,” with Pharaoh Sanders and Rashied Ali squeaking and banging as hard as they can, would be hard to appreciate in isolation. But, that track along with the other free sections of this recording only make up half of the yin yang. This record also features some of McCoy Tyner’s most beautiful playing on record, and Coltrane himself at his simplest and most direct. It demands to be listened to from beginning to end, because without each of its segments to prop each other up, it loses its integrity completely. But, when approached on its own terms, it is a timeless classic. Too bad it broke up Coltrane’s core quartet. But, he had other business to attend to anyway. (Also, I listened to this while reading Blake, and it paired rather nicely — two examples of unorthodox spirituality expressed in occasionally bewildering ways.)

Chance the Rapper: Acid RapColouring Book was definitely a step forward from this, but it’s a mostly great record with its own merits. It isn’t as straightforwardly joyful as its successor, but that’s not a bad thing necessarily. He is definitely much more stoned on this one, and a bit less grown up. But it’s a good record that I’ll return to — albeit probably a bit less frequently than Colouring Book.

Live events

Vancouver Symphony Orchestra/Karina Canellakis & Karen Gomyo: Live, Oct. 15 — Bless me father, for I have sinned. It’s been… two years since my last symphony concert. Quite frankly, the VSO is yet to convince me that paying for a ticket to hear them live will reliably be a more worthwhile experience than staying home and listening to a recording of the Concertgebouw in the same rep. But when a friend invites me to go I’ll happily attend, especially when the Berg Violin Concerto is on the program. It is one of the most beautiful pieces of the 20th century, and essentially the only work from the Second Viennese School that I would recommend unreservedly to anybody who’s interested in classical music. (Check out Isabelle Faust’s recording with Claudio Abbado. The ending is heartstopping.) Karen Gomyo played the solo part with all of the expressiveness that Berg wrote into it, and she tackled the technical bits with substantial derring-do. Karina Canellakis is a really solid conductor who possesses the clarity that all of the most acclaimed conductors in recent history seem to lack. But that didn’t stop the orchestra from struggling with parts of the Berg. Most of it came off okay, but the glorious ending of the piece was compromised by the band not playing together. There were even some issues in Mozart’s Magic Flute overture — including outright wrong notes in the violins during the slow opening. But Canellakis took it at the fast clip that it needs to stay aloft, and once it got going, I really enjoyed it. It never gets old, the Magic Flute overture. One of those rare pieces that survives overexposure. The second half of the program was Rachmaninov 2, so they were starting from a deficit. Rachmaninov all blends together for me. I like the third concerto, but for the most part he’s one of the surest composers to make my eyes glaze over. Which they did, about halfway through the first movement, and I didn’t check back in until the third, which I thought Canellakis conducted brilliantly. She restrained the orchestra enough for the bulk of the movement that the huge romantic climaxes felt properly cathartic. And the final movement is a jolly romp that it’s hard not to like. Interestingly, this was very much a “clap between the movements” kind of crowd, which I always find reassuring, because traditions are stupid and I prefer the company of people who are either ignorant or irreverent of them. I noticed more young people around than I usually see at classical shows. That’s nice. The friend I went with even ran into some folks she knows who are also our age. Guess they ought to program more Berg. This was fun. If I get a chance to hear Canellakis conduct live again, I’ll go for sure. My general standard of success for a night out at live entertainment is whether or not it was as good as seeing a decent movie. This was. Chalk it up as a win.

Podcasts

The Gist: “Rapid Response: The Town Hall Debate” — Pesca is a public discourse poet. I didn’t watch the second debate because there are limits to how successfully I can remain sane. But this essentially confirms my suspicions: that the format would make it a complete shambles and that nobody would say anything new. Okay, now onto a longer podcast recap of this same inane thing…

NPR Politics Podcast: “The Second Presidential Debate” — I have to say, the panel on this podcast is doing god’s work by making it so I don’t have to actually sit through these godawful debates. They tell me what happened, offer a bit of analysis, resist total partisanship, and also don’t act like Trump isn’t a buffoon whose campaign is well off the tracks. It’s what anybody needs to stay informed and also sane.

You Must Remember This: “The Blacklist” parts 9-11, plus Lena Horne rerun — The Lena Horne piece is an absolute highlight of this show, partially because it corrects the major issue with most episodes, which is the absence of tape. I love You Must Remember This, and I love Karina Longworth, but I’m sometimes frustrated by the fact that she thinks she can write a script and read it over music and that’s radio. It obviously doesn’t stop me from listening, but when I heard the Lena Horne episode, which has a great deal of archival tape of Horne telling her own story, it made me wish that the show would be like this more often. Podcasts aren’t audiobooks. Fortunately, You Must Remember This is an excellent enough audiobook that I don’t mind when it calls itself a podcast.

99% Invisible: “Project Cybersyn” — A lovely story that ties Chilean socialism in with nationalized design. In general, 99pi tends to position its stories as stories in themselves, as opposed to sub-narratives of larger stories. It’s nice to see a staunchly design-oriented story that ties into a political narrative that is larger than itself.

NPR Politics Podcast: “Trump v GOP” — I don’t foresee myself ever having anything much to say about this podcast, but I will continue forcing myself to go through the motions of reviewing it each time. I have principles. I will say this: I was really sceptical of this podcast’s claims in its early advertising to be a functional one-stop shop for political coverage. I still don’t believe there’s such a thing, and the very suggestion of it is a little bit dangerous. But having started to listen fairly regularly, it definitely comes closer than any other source of election news that I come across.

In The Dark: Episodes 5-7 — This really picked up for me in the sixth episode, where the story went broader and started getting into the national consequences of Jacob Wetterling’s disappearance, such as the very first sex offenders registry. It keeps the momentum through the seventh episode, which moves backwards to explain how the narrative of “small town cops who’ve never seen this sort of thing before are in over their heads” is bunk. Because, it turns out, the very police department that mishandled the Wetterling case so badly had mishandled a bunch of other cases in the past and failed to adequately debrief. This is nearly over, I assume, but it has become quite dazzling.

Imaginary Worlds: “Magical Thinking” — A wonderful consideration of the storytelling pitfalls and opportunities associated with magic. This episode splits fictional approaches to magic into two camps, which Patrick Rothfuss calls “poetic” and “scientific” magic, the idea being that in the latter category, the magic is defined by a Dungeons and Dragonsesque set of strictures, whereas in the former it is allowed to exist essentially unexplained. My favourite example of “poetic” magic is actually from an ostensibly SF narrative, not a fantasy one: the sonic screwdriver from Doctor Who. These days, the rule about whether or not the sonic can do something is basically, if it would cheapen the story for it to be able to do that, then it can’t. On the other hand, if it could potentially get the story past a boring obstacle set up by another element of the plot, then it definitely can. In other words, the story dictates the specifics of the magic, and not the other way around. The other way around, where the story sort of emerges from the magic system’s specific set of cans and can’ts (haha cants) is totally valid too — and it’s worth noting that it’s an approach that really jives with the creative approaches I admire most in music. Specifically, the rule-based approach of Brian Eno. But I’ve come to deeply admire writers like Steven Moffat, whose respect for consistency (and canonicity) is limited to whether or not it improves the story in his head. Well, look! This episode spun out a nice set of thoughts, didn’t it? Gold star.

All Songs Considered: “Solange, Gillian Welch, Cuddle Magic, More” — The talk outweighs the music on this episode, which Solange handily wins (though, as Robin Hilton will tell you, it’s not a competition). The most interesting thing to happen on this episode is Bob Boilen outright hating a song that Hilton chose, which I’m not sure I’ve ever heard happen before. The sticking point was Boilen’s contention that the guitar solo is dead. And, rocker though I am at heart, I can’t easily disagree. In the past… twenty years, I can only name a handful of really distinctive guitar soloists (not guitarists, mind you, but soloists specifically) with something to say through the medium of guitar solos. I’m thinking of Johnny Greenwood, Jack White and St. Vincent specifically. The era of proliferation of great guitar soloists has certainly ended. But, the existence of those three artists, and I’m sure many others I’m not thinking of right now, demonstrates to me that there’s still potential in the guitar solo. Basically, I come down more on Boilen’s side than Hilton’s, in the sense that I think we’re past the era where guitar solos should be the norm in any specific kind of music. We’re in an era where they must only be employed advisedly.

The Memory Palace: “The Met Residency Episode M2: One Bottle, Any Bottle” — These episodes for the Met do suffer a bit when you’re not actually at the Met, looking at the things that DiMeo is talking about. Not just because of the fact that you don’t know what they look like: in this episode, DiMeo actively conjures the mystique of the place, and the value judgements implicit in having an object occupy space there — space, where the listeners themselves are presumably standing also. It’s still a nice bit of radio, but inconsequential out of context.

StartUp: “Diversification of Worry” — Okay, so I definitely just typed out and backspaced a really angry, unfair screed about the cancellation of Mystery Show. Basically, I think we can trust Alex Blumberg’s judgement when he assures us that there’s only so much he can say about the situation without it being harmful. He could be protecting Starlee Kine as much or more than he’s hiding his own (mistaken?) decision making process. So, I don’t think we can expect to hear much more, and we probably shouldn’t get up in arms about it. That said, I don’t know why Blumberg didn’t make more of an effort to get out in front of the story and not seem like the guy who cancelled a beloved show without telling anybody until the show’s host told the world on Facebook (while Blumberg all the while vaunted an air of “transparency” around his company). But that’s not what concerns me most. What concerns me most is the notion that we may have witnessed the outer limit of the art that can feasibly be produced within the confines of a venture-backed company concerned with its revenue targets. I can only assume that Mystery Show was super expensive (Nick Quah breaks this down a bit in his most recent issue of the Hot Pod newsletter, which is well worth a subscription if you’re interested in the podcast biz). And given the company’s obvious need to not have gigantic expenditures with low returns, it makes sense that Mystery Show was untenable. But the thing is, it was so good. One of the best podcasts ever. Blumberg doesn’t deny that. So, perhaps this is a limitation of his business model — a limitation that might not have existed in the public radio world that he left to start Gimlet. And I wonder if Mystery Show could have survived had it been developed for a publicly-funded platform — any such platform that could offer a podcast with an idiosyncratic release schedule. Maybe that would have presented a whole different set of problems. But I do think this is evidence that companies like Gimlet are not the future of podcasting. They can only be a part of it. Public media is irreplaceable, because we can’t afford to have any more Mystery Shows get canned.

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “A Fall Movie and Television Preview” — This is always one of my favourite episodes of the year, because Glen Weldon is always so obviously wrong about what television will be a ratings success. Also, I am now massively looking forward to a season of great movies. Manchester by the Sea is at the top of my list, but there’s a bunch of stuff mentioned here that I hadn’t heard about, and will check out.

On The Media: “Personal Responsibility” — Gladstone’s series on poverty myths is off to a wonderful start, with an instalment on maybe the most pernicious — and certainly the most ruthless — myth of all: that poor people are lazy. It ties a profile of a present-day poor single mother to a larger narrative about the gradual erosion of welfare, culminating in Bill Clinton’s welfare reforms, the consequences of which are only beginning to show themselves now.

Science Vs: “Forensic Science” — The bad jokes are really starting to bother me. It’s a shame, too, because this is a really solid show in every other respect. I may have to demote it to an occasional listen. We’ll see how I feel after the second half of this two-parter.

This American Life: “My Undesirable Talent” — This features two incredible stories: one about a gentlemanly Mormon with a gambling addiction who became an accomplished thief, and one about a black Californian kid of Ugandan parents who convinced an entire liberal arts college that he was actually from Uganda. He did the accent and the whole bit. That second story is the real highlight. It’s hysterically funny, for one thing, and for another, it has a lot to say about African-American identity. I always say I should listen to this show more. I should listen to this show more.

The Sporkful: “Who is this Restaurant For?” Parts 1-4 — A nice compliment to Pashman’s earlier “Other People’s Food” series, this drills down on the specific issue of restaurants sending signals to people of various races, to either intentionally welcome them, or covertly ward them away. The first and last episodes are the highlights, the former because of Code Switch’s Kat Chow, whose expertise in talking about race and culture gets the series off to a reassuring start, and the latter because W. Kamau Bell is really funny. Recommended.

Theory of Everything: “Burning Down the Panopticon” — Firstly, I am fascinated to see the long game that Walker is playing with these non-existent ad spots. Secondly, one of my favourite modes for Theory of Everything is the mode where it engages directly with difficult thinkers like Jeremy Bentham and Michel Foucault. So, I quite enjoyed this. Another of my favourite modes for Theory of Everything is when Benjamen Walker expresses extreme wariness of a facet of modern life. Surveillance is certainly a facet worth being wary of. So, this mini-series is sure to be a winner.

StartUp: “You Can’t Wear a Suit Here” — It’s hard to stay angry at Alex Blumberg. It’s also hard to say just how willing his subordinates are to paint him in a negative, or even nuanced light when they’re tasked with telling a story in which he is a character. I have no doubt that he means well, but having myself worked in creative jobs where it felt like the person who was supposed to be giving me feedback had checked out in favour of stuff that doesn’t directly relate to the product we’re ostensibly making, I found myself siding with Eric Mennel on this one, even though the story takes pains to show him as a person who is juggling as much as anybody at Gimlet. And I promise that this isn’t about Mystery Show. BUT. Everybody at Gimlet seems to think of Blumberg as a person who has more optimism than practicality. Maybe that’s why he saw fit to greenlight a show that pretty obviously would be both incredible and extremely unprofitable. In any case, next episode, it looks like we’ll really get a look at what everybody thinks of him. Or, as much of a look as we can be afforded, given that anything can be edited out.

Reply All: “Boy in Photo” — Outstanding. This is Reply All in “Zardulu” mode — where they take a seemingly unimportant internet phenomenon and do investigative journalism until they find something resembling the real story. And this one has layer after layer after layer — in spite of the fact that there’s really nothing of consequence at its centre. It’s just a great story about a whole bunch of ordinary people, who were thrust into a really narrow, specific spotlight because of the internet’s inherent weirdness. Reply All is very seldom less than great, but some weeks I love it more than anything, and this is one of them. Pick of the week.

Omnireviewer (week of Oct. 2, 2016)

Just a reminder that my Tumblr exists. Okay, that’s that.

23 reviews.

Television

Last Week Tonight: October 2, 2016 — This has the unfortunate distinction of being the first episode of Last Week Tonight that I’ve watched after reading this extremely on-point parody of this show’s writing and John Oliver’s delivery. Obviously, the fact that it’s possible to make a parody of something does not itself make that thing bad; it only means that it’s possible to identify the tropes at play. That could mean that the thing being parodied is hackneyed or cliché (there is a reason there are a lot of buddy cop parodies), but it could equally mean that the subject of the parody simply has a distinctive voice (the reason that Weird Al’s “Dare to be Stupid” is such a good parody is that Devo is a good band, and Al wrote a song that’s worthy of them). But sometimes a parody can make the scales fall from your eyes so you can see a thing as it is. I have always been effusively positive about this show, but the John Oliver parody I linked above points out the fact that many of the jokes on Last Week Tonight aren’t actually jokes: they’re just lists of funny-sounding words, strung together into long sentences, which are then made the object of a comparison with a serious real-world person or thing. For instance, in this episode, Oliver ends a list of places Donald Trump gets his news with “the racist minotaur that talks to him in the one hour that he sleeps every night.” Every part of that phrase except for “racist” is entirely unmotivated by the context. The only reason for the big laugh that follows is that the phrase “racist minotaur” is funny at first… but should it be? Also, the latest in Oliver’s running gag of “alternate names for the 2016 election” is as follows: “what did I do to deserve this I always tried to be a good person is this because I stole candy once in 4th grade PLEASE STOP PUNISHING US 2016,” which, elaborate though it is, is still just finding a new sequence of words to say “the election is bad.” Also, at one point Oliver compares Hillary Clinton to “an over-confident sloth who has just learned that their credit card information has been stolen by a Ukrainian schoolboy,” except actually no, he doesn’t, because that line was from the parody BUT THE VERY FACT THAT FOR A SECOND YOU KIND OF BELIEVED IT SAYS SOMETHING about how formulaic the jokes on this show can get. (See what I did there? Mmmhmm.) Let me be clear: I still like this show. But when Oliver emphasizes (like Jon Stewart before him) that he’s a comedian and not an opinion journalist, it seems a bit pathetic to me, because he’s clearly more valuable for his skills in the latter domain than the former. The most genuinely hilarious moments on this show are in the clips that he chooses. The simple act of recontextualizing patently ridiculous moments on TV news in a comedy show, implicitly giving us permission to laugh at them, is valuable comedy — though Oliver is clearly not the only game in town in that respect. But the next time I hear somebody extol the calibre of the joke writing on Last Week Tonight, I am 85% less likely to nod in agreement.

Doctor Who: “Full Circle” — According to a recent Doctor Who poll, the best story that I haven’t seen is “Warrior’s Gate.” So, I figured I should just check out the whole trilogy that it’s the concluding entry in. Wow, it has been a while since I watched classic Doctor Who, and I had forgotten how much it demands of a modern audience. This is very difficult to take on a number of levels, just in terms of televisual grammar. You don’t get reaction shots where it seems clear that there should be a reaction shot, characters routinely make exclamations that reiterate something that’s just been shown onscreen, and the less said about the rubber monster suits, the better. But it has its appeal. Obviously it does, or else I wouldn’t have spent so many hours of my life watching old Doctor Who serials, most of which suffer these exact same problems. Ultimately, I never get tired of stories that paint a picture of a unique alien civilization at a turning point. And they are always at a turning point, because the Doctor is an agent of change, and his unexpected arrival (along with the TARDIS, his companions, and most importantly a film crew and a TV audience) must by necessity result in the forward motion of the plot. This is no “Ribos Operation,” but it is a perfectly competent iteration of that story. Also, Adric. Ugh.

Movies

Going Clear — This is fascinating, surprising and appalling. Each of the ex-Scientologists interviewed here has a compelling story about how they finally left the church. One can critique the extent to which the former high-ranking Scientologists are allowed to get away with the fairly terrible things they took part in. But the villain of this piece is Scientology itself, and to a lesser extent, its current leader, David Miscavige. L. Ron Hubbard is rightly portrayed as unsympathetic, but he is at least portrayed as sincere, and not merely power hungry like Miscavige. Best of all is the way that the documentary subtly equates the act of leaving the church with the moment of “going clear,” which is Scientology bullshit for having worked through your psychological issues by way of religious practices. A really wonderful documentary that, like Lawrence Wright’s book upon which it is based, seeks first to understand Scientology and its practitioners and only begins its critique once it is clear that something is very wrong.

Games

The Last Door: Season Two (Collector’s Edition) — There are fewer truly horrifying moments in this than there were in the first season (mind you, even the latter three episodes of that struggled to match the roomful of crows moment in the game’s pilot episode), but all in all this is a stronger game than its predecessor. The biggest and most profitable change is the introduction of an overworld map to each episode, which makes the whole thing feel bigger, more open and more exploratory. The pleasure of traipsing about a larger area is a benefit in itself, but the real payoff of this approach is that the game’s horror mythos can expand outwards beyond our central cast of characters. Superstitious seamen are aware of strange things lurking out in the fog. Secluded islanders know how the human mind can bring forth very real monsters. On that note, the story’s influences expand from Poe and Lovecraft to also include The Wicker Man, which the third episode is an extremely straightforward homage to (but without the awkward musical numbers and tonal inconsistencies). And the final episode features a satisfying set of near-callbacks to the first season, which must have been especially thrilling to people who played it more than… three days prior. In a sense, The Last Door works as a dark mirror image of one of my all-time favourite games: Meg Jayanth’s 80 Days. Both are tributes to fantastical 19th-century literature (I still stand by my assertion that there’s more Poe in this than Lovecraft, though this season certainly amps up the Cthulhu factor), both examine the world at a time when scientific and medical advances were butting heads with superstition and religiosity, and of course both of them tell their stories through a simple graphical interface with good writing (though it must be said that The Last Door could have used another round of copy editing). I dunno what it is about 19th century pastiches that makes for good games, but keep them coming.

The Lost Mind of Dr. Brain — Every so often, I revisit a game from my youth for sheer nostalgia purposes — and not because I think it may have stood the test of time. My childhood was full of edutainment titles, and hoo boy is this ever a game that an overly conscientious parent gets for their kid. It has effectively no story, just a premise: Dr. Brain accidently transferred his brain into a rat and you have to get it back by solving logic puzzles. The rat does silly voices while you solve the logic puzzles. What’s astonishing is that there’s also a character who talks to you directly about the various intelligences you’re developing in solving the puzzles. There’s no attempt to mask the game’s educational objectives. Frankly, this seems like exactly the sort of thing that I would have loved at age six. What that says about the adult I grew into, I’m not sure.

Music

Rush: Hemispheres — Don’t you love that album in a great band’s discography that’s clearly awesome but you haven’t fully gotten to know it yet? This is certainly in my top three Rush albums, but I came to it late, so I haven’t played it nearly as many times as Permanent Waves or Moving Pictures. It is very much a sunset album: it’s the logical conclusion of what they started with 2112 and A Farewell to Kings, and they would soon head in a different direction. The switch they made on Permanent Waves, seemingly made as much out of exhaustion as artistic conviction, led to the best music of their career. But that fact does not negate the excellence of their final masterpiece in their previous idiom. Hemispheres is a prog album in the 1972 mould, and deserves a place just a few rungs below Close to the Edge in that genre’s pantheon. Specifics: “La Villa Strangiato” is particularly strong, of course, and contains career-best playing from Alex Lifeson, the group’s most undersung member. The mythos that underpins the title track is both fascinating and a little bit bogus, but it wouldn’t be Rush without that quality. And let’s not talk about the politics of “The Trees.” Mostly, let’s not talk about it because I’m still having trouble figuring out if there’s irony involved. Irony has never been Neil Peart’s first priority, and I’m not sure I trust him to deploy it expertly. There’s lots to chew over in this, but it is all accompanied by brilliantly thought-out music and incredible playing. It’s definitely worth a listen for anybody who knows Rush mostly through the singles.

Literature, etc.

Annie Correal: “Want to Work in 18 Miles of Books? First, the Quiz” — I love the idea of a book quiz being part of a hiring process at a bookstore. I love the idea of a bookstore with snooty curmudgeons stalking the aisles. I love the idea of short-term employment at a bookstore bequeathing “instant New Yorker” status on a newcomer. I suppose if I’m ever in NYC again, I should stop by the Strand.

Robert Sullivan: “The Hamilton Cult” — A truly wonderful and provocative essay in Harper’s that stops far short of “debunking” Hamilton, but uses historiography to contextualize it as an example of “Great Man” history. Sullivan argues that the historical Alexander Hamilton was a drastically different beast from the theatrical creation first portrayed by Lin-Manuel Miranda. That isn’t surprising in itself, of course. What is notable is the extent to which certain (non-Chernow) Hamilton biographers feel that what’s celebrated about Hamilton in Hamilton is a long way from what Hamilton himself would have considered his legacy. I think that this historically-minded bit of history (which, once again, does not suggest that Hamilton isn’t a great piece of theatre) combined with Aja Romano’s Vox feature that casts Hamilton as fanfic (thus putting a finer point on why the issues Sullivan raises are not actually problems) would make for the most compelling mini-bibliography of Hamilton criticism you could want.

Kieron Gillen & Jamie McKelvie: The Wicked and the Divine, vol. 4 “Rising Action” — The best volume of this extraordinary comic so far. Not sure it tops Phonogram volume 3 for the Gillen/McKelvie 2016 sweepstakes, but it brilliantly lives up to its title. It’s true that this has a proliferation of fight scenes that isn’t generally this comic’s speed, or mine, but it manages to pack in a tremendous density of plot, regardless. One particular staggering turning point near the end of this arc leaves me with absolutely no clue what’s going to happen next. But in spite of that development, I’m still wondering if WicDiv is gearing up to be a modern day Ring cycle, in which the era of gods comes to an end. If that is the case, we are clearly approaching Götterdämmerung with great speed. What that means for pop music and modern culture is anybody’s guess. Pick of the week. 

William Blake: Jerusalem The Emanation of the Giant Albion — Oh good god what is even happening who are these people is this guy just that guy by another name what is an emanation and why are all the people also places… Basically, I started reading a prophesy by a madman this week, and it is proving to be hard going. Will report back.

Podcasts

On the Media: “The Poverty Tour” — It takes more than facts and figures to properly debunk a myth that has become a mainstream narrative. It takes a rigorous interrogation of the means by which the myth was propagated in the first place. Enter Brooke Gladstone. This first instalment of a series on poverty myths focusses on a welfare advocate who has been fighting a losing battle with the media for decades. It feels like a framing device, which leads me to wonder how Gladstone will integrate and undermine media representation in the stories she tells about the impoverished in the coming weeks. I am very much looking forward to this. If it sticks the landing to the extent that I’m hoping it will, it will pair up with Bob Garfield’s various features on Trump to make On the Media the most clarifying current affairs program of this confounding year.

The Gist: “Who Called Off the Pretension Police?” — Funny, as always, but the main conversation is a bit disappointing. You may listen to this thinking that you’ll hear a thoughtful discussion of how pretension came to be socially accepted and, well, not pretentious. And it is a thoughtful discussion, but they never quite make it there, and I was left wondering how and why Pesca perceived a change at all. Skippable.

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “The Magnificent Seven and Fleabag” — Oh man, I guess I need to watch Fleabag. When Glen Weldon recommends something this heartily, I know it will be worth a look. Aside from that, I’m already starting to miss Linda Holmes. I feel like maybe she wouldn’t have presided over a segment on The Magnificent Seven, about which there is comically little to say.

You Must Remember This: “The Blacklist” Parts 6-8, plus Chaplin rerun — This continues to be outstanding, and Longworth did in fact outdo the excellent Dorothy Parker episode with her (functional) two-parter on Charlie Chaplin during wartime, and subsequently the blacklist era. I’d urge anybody who is on the fence about committing to this extremely long series to listen to the Chaplin episodes first. They don’t require a huge amount of background knowledge, and they’re a more fascinating way in than the first two episodes of this, which are a bit slow by comparison to what comes next. But, you’ve got to take time setting up the pieces in a game this complex. The Reagan episode is fascinating too, and portrays him as essentially two-faced during this period, maintaining a public face of political balance while naming names to the FBI behind closed doors. Marvellous.

The West Wing Weekly: “In Excelsis Deo (with Richard Schiff)” & “Memorial Day Special (with Melissa Fitzgerald)” — Okay, I see the point of this now. It is still definitely for fans of The West Wing, but it’s also about acting in general, and about public service. Richard Schiff’s episode is one of the best conversations I’ve heard on a podcast in a long time. He gets choked up a couple of times when the emotions from the run of the show come flooding back. You realize that he’s immensely committed as an actor — not in the bullshit methody way, but in the sense that he really takes the job seriously, so much that he always wants to be actively involved in finessing the scripts and the finished product. It made me want to go back and watch “In Excelsis Deo” again. I might just. And the episode with Melissa Fitzgerald is a nice tag. The fact that she went from being on The West Wing to being in public service herself gives her a unique perspective on this episode. This is really great stuff and I will certainly listen to more.

Reply All: “Very Quickly to the Drill” — One of the best episodes of this show, maybe ever. The depth of Google AdWords scamming is both unsurprising and totally fascinating. The highlights of this episode are the two more detailed stories near the end, which mirror each other in terms of intentions. On the dark, awful side of the mirror, there are locksmiths. Shady, horrible scamming locksmiths whose scheme has become so prevalent that it has essentially split into cartels. On the other side, there is an international organization that claims it can find your lost wedding ring, and while it has every red flag associated with a horrible scam, it isn’t one. This is great.

StartUp: “Introducing Season 4” — I am very excited for the next Gimlet-focussed episode of this show. I’m surprised to hear that tape off the top of this trailer that says that listeners have plateaued in recent months. I think Gimlet’s shows have been great lately. Science Vs and Heavyweight are both great additions. And StartUp itself looks like it might be back to the standards of its first two seasons (yeah, I liked the Dating Ring season a lot) pretty soon. Relax, Gimlet! You are fine.

In the Dark: Episodes 1-4 — I am a sucker for that moment in serialized documentary storytelling where a huge development in a seemingly cold story changes everything, right in the middle of the reporting process. (Think of the final episode of The Jinx.) In this show, it happens between the trailer and episode one. Providence got us off to a good start. Knowing from the outset who the guilty party is allows host Madeleine Baran to focus specifically on how law enforcement got the case of Jacob Wetterling’s abduction so completely wrong. On the other hand, I kind of wish we got to hear the show that she’d been intending to make before the big revelation happened. I wonder how much would have changed. Still, it’s probably only me who obsesses that much over how the telling of a story affects the story itself (I’ve been listening to Hamilton too much, and also watching Doctor Who). This is compelling true crime, very much in the vein of Serial season one, but without its obsessive attention to tiny details (again, mitigated by the fact that the case is closed) and presumably with a proper ending. I’ve got to say, serialized true crime isn’t really where my head’s at right now, so this hasn’t been the thing I look forward to most in my feed. But it’s quality reporting on a story that seems to have had a huge impact on how abductions are handled. When Baran gets to the part about the national consequences, I expect my attention to be more thoroughly peaked.

Science Vs: “Zika” — This taught me some stuff I didn’t know, but I definitely like this show better when it chooses topics where the science is relatively definitive. A substantial part of the value of this show is its ability to take a simple statement and say TRUE or FALSE. Since the science is still very much in progress regarding the spread of Zika, this is less compelling than the episodes about guns or organic food.

Love and Radio: “A Girl of Ivory” — One of the things I like best about this extraordinary show is the extent to which it is more interested in understanding people than critiquing them. I have written before about how the structure of Love and Radio implicitly empowers its subjects by letting virtually the whole story be governed by their perspective. This episode employs a truly clever little bait and switch that benefits greatly from familiarity with that structure. You hear three people talking, and you know that the story is building up to something because for the first several minutes of the podcast, there’s no conflict. But, you can’t know what the twist is going to be, because there’s no narrator to ramp up the tension, as would be normal in most similar narratives. The moment when the penny drops is quite staggering and left me wearing a wide-eyed expression of shock for about half of my morning run. Also, regarding the title: it appears to be a reference to the old myth of Pygmalion and Galatea, in which a sculptor creates a woman out of stone and falls in love with her. Bearing that myth in mind while listening to this will lift several of its subtler themes into starter relief. Brilliant. A corker of a start to the season. Pick of the week. 

The Memory Palace “Canali” — Nate DiMeo returns to space! This is a nice one, not a great one. But the story that DiMeo tells here is compelling in itself. For a substantial chunk of time, the world thought there were canals on Mars. DiMeo puts a face on that conviction by focussing his story on the man who was most responsible for researching those canals, which don’t exist.

Code Switch: “Who is a Good Immigrant, Anyway?” — A nuanced trio of pieces on the movement to change the face of the pro-immigration movement. It makes a compelling case that even America’s centre-left politicians have got this one wrong: not all felons deserve to be barred from the country for good.

The Heart: “My Everything, My Bear” — The Diaries season has been less hard-hitting than much of what The Heart has done, but this is one to go out on. It’s a story of two genderqueer people and how the dramatically different way that the world looks at them affects their relationship. It’s the kind of story that The Heart does really well, and that no other show in mainstream podcasting would ever do. It’s why The Heart is essential.