Reviewing 2018

You want lists, motherfuckers…? I’ll give you lists.

But here’s the thing…

I’m not a critic anymore. Not a professional one, anyway. Not that I really ever was. I guess what I’m saying is, I’m not trying to be a professional critic, anymore. I’m not even interested in trying to be. So here’s what this list isn’t: A Best of 2018. Some of the stuff on my list isn’t even from 2018. I don’t think ANY of the books on this list were published in 2018 (though I will get to FEEL FREE and CERTAIN AMERICAN STATES, eventually…), and film…? I think I’ve seen a grand total of 7 or 8 films this year, and my favorite among them was shot decades ago, so I don’t feel especially qualified to sound off on what was “Best.”

No, this list is more, How I Spent My 2018: Aesthetic High Points Edition. Me babbling about any art and entertainment related encounters I had this year that made an impact or left a significant impression on me. Obviously, I see a lot of value in the below-mentioned efforts, but I wouldn’t necessarily take them as recommendations. You’re not me, after all. Nor is there any implicit suggestion herein that they belong in any sort of pantheon other than my own personal one. I guess what I’m saying is, I’m not so much writing about movies, or television, or music, as I am writing about myself. Maybe that’s what I’ve always done…

Here’s the other thing…

You asked for it.

We’ll start with TELEVISION…

And what is it about British TV writers named Steven…? Did the UK pass some obscure parliamentary motion several years ago demanding that, heretofore, a certain percentage of all high-quality television scribes are required to bear that name (in the same vein as the law passed by Congress in the mid-to-late 90’s declaring that the majority of postmodern American authors should be named Jonathan)…? Does the BBC have a “Steven” quota…?

In any case, though no new episodes were broadcast in 2018, this year will go down in my personal history as the year I discovered Steven Knight’s PEAKY fucking BLINDERS. Imagine THE GODFATHER meshed with MILLER’S CROSSING, set in 1920’s Birmingham, with a haunting, harrowing modern soundtrack (more on that later…) and you’ll come pretty close to the mark. Cillian Murphy’s mastermind middle child, Tommy Shelby, leads the titular gang, a sharply dressed family of Irish gypsy émigrés carving (sometimes literally) a place for themselves in the English criminal underworld. Epic and intimate, seedy and beautiful, sophisticated and savage, it gets better and better with each season (four, with another on the way…). Knight has a gift for balancing gritty, realistic drama with sometimes absurd humor and a bewitching undercurrent of something dark, ethereal, and fatalistic. New favorite show…

PEAKY BLINDERS, by the way, also features the reliably brilliant (except in FURY ROAD) Tom Hardy in the scene-stealing role of mad genius Jewish gangster Alfie Solomons. Despite his not-as-frequent-as-you-want-them-to-be appearances, he nearly succeeds in upstaging the rest of the cast (who are exceptional) every time he appears on screen. Hardy and Knight had worked together previously in 2013’s LOCKE (which made my Best of… List that year), so I was excited to discover that they co-created a TV series together last year: TABOO. The dark, ethereal undercurrents of PEAKY BLINDERS rise to the surface in this down and dirty tale of dark secrets, pagan religions, crime, incest, international intrigue, corporate corruption, and the slave trade, as Hardy’s long lost/presumed dead James Delaney returns home to early 1800’s England following the death of his father. Though slow-moving, Knight and the cast give the characters the charisma and vitality to win you over for the duration of the show’s slow burn, while its bleaker, blacker elements bring it, at times, to the edge of horror.

Which brings me to SHARP OBJECTS and THE HAUNTING OF HILL HOUSE. Both released this year, no two shows left me so shaken and unsettled (in a good way). HBO’s adaptation of Gillian Flynn’s debut novel, about small-town secrets, family dysfunction, and murder, slowly burrowed its way into my flesh and stayed there, thanks in large part to Jean-Marc Vallee’s sinister directing and editing, and Amy Adams’ layered, damaged performance. Though initially irked by the almost rimshot-style ending, I can’t deny that its final images have haunted me in the months since…

And speaking of haunted…

Mike Flanagan’s HAUNTING OF HILL HOUSE is not an adaptation of Shirley Jackson’s novel, but a Frankenstein-esque creature stitched seamlessly together from various elements and tropes found therein. I expected something like Flanagan’s OCULUS: some good, scary fun, but nothing especially profound. And yet as I watched episode after episode, I found myself in the clutch of a creeping, cathartic despair. It wouldn’t be accurate to say that HAUNTING OF HILL HOUSE is actually about child abuse, addiction, or mental illness, but in his tale of the damage wrought on the Crane family by their experiences in Hill House, Flanagan makes dramatic and affecting use of those recognizable patterns, channeling them into larger, existential musings about fear and loss.

Chan-wook Park’s adaptation of John Le Carre’s LITTLE DRUMMER GIRL is one of those 70’s nostalgia trips that leaves me wondering if it was “brilliantly directed” or just “directed in a particular style that I happen to like” (see also: SICARIO, DRIVE, TINKER TAILOR SOLDIER SPY), but regardless, it’s less a 70’s style politically-minded spy thriller than a 70’s style meditation on the psychological toll of intelligence stagecraft, featuring top-notch performances from Florence Pugh, Alexander Skarsgard, and Michael Shannon.

DAREDEVIL’s third season may have been its best, featuring the full-fledged return of Vincent D’Onofrio’s Kingpin, and the introduction of Wilson Bethel’s troubled, sympathetic Bullseye. So, of course, Netflix cancelled it.

THE AFFAIR got back on track, for the most part, with its fourth season, and, really, any initial unsteadiness or not-entirely-earned dramatic reversals one could complain about matter very little when there’s Maura Tierney.

And I finally got around to watching THE CROWN, which was really pretty good, and not the glamorous commercial for monarchy I expected it to be… I should have known better when I saw it was Peter Morgan… I still stand by THE QUEEN as a great film… Very much in that vein…

Lastly, one of the great things about having children is that you get hip to a lot of shows you otherwise wouldn’t (though, with me, it’s hard to say, but…). One of the best discoveries I’ve made through my children this year has been STAR VS. THE FORCES OF EVIL. What starts out as an aggressively quirky fish-out-of-water fantasy evolves over its three seasons (so far) into the story of a generations-old epic battle, investigating the nature of good and evil and all the grey areas in between, tribalism, love, loyalty, the lengths we’re willing to go to when we’re certain we’re right, and the deals we’re willing to make when we’re desperate, and all without ever losing its manic sense of humor. Hands down, the best children’s show I’ve seen since PHINEAS & FERB (which wasn’t all that long ago, but still…).

All of that was more than enough to counterbalance the mild letdowns of WESTWORLD’s anti-dramatic data dump of a second season and the flat, cloying, Spielberg-y saintliness of Chris Chibnall’s DOCTOR WHO, which was enough to sap my enjoyment of Jodie Whittaker’s delightful take on the character…

I was going to do BOOKS last, since it’s section least likely to be read, anyway. But then, I thought, why not do books second since it’s the section least likely to be read…?

Not that I’m impugning anyone’s level of literacy. Books are just more of a time commitment than movies, TV, or music, and most people already know what they like, or what they’re looking to like, so they’re not as much in the market for recommendations, especially from someone with tastes like mine. (As a result, this section will also probably be the most unapologetically self-indulgent…)

But speaking of knowing what you like and tastes like mine…

Like most people, I made most of my formative literary discoveries in my teens and early twenties. But in the last several years, probably as a result of shifting my personal artistic focus to literary prose, I’ve found myself experiencing – if it’s not too pretentious a thing to say – a literary renaissance, of sorts. And I’ve made a number of discoveries and rediscoveries that have proven no less influential to me in my middle age.

So, maybe, less a literary renaissance than a literary reformation… Haha…

Not that I’ve rejected or renounced any of those early inspirations. (Sorry, Kinder Gentler Reader: Nietzsche and Henry Miller are still cornerstones. But they’re also still keeping company with Dostoevksy, Ralph Ellison, and Douglas Adams…) My foundations are still my foundations. It’s just that, these days, much to my surprise, I seem to be adding a second story. (So to speak… Haha…)

Some have been first-time encounters with writers, like Thomas Bernhard or Roberto Bolano, whose work swept me off my feet and took up immediate residence in my soul. Others have been revisitations with authors, like Borges or Melville, whose work I first encountered years or decades ago, but whose work has now opened itself up to me in new, astonishing ways. (Or, I guess, more accurately, time has opened me up to it…)

For the longest time, HEART OF DARKNESS was all I knew of JOSEPH CONRAD. I had read it in high school, and being both a cinephile and a philistine, I didn’t look upon it as much more than the literary inspiration for APOCALYPSE NOW. But one of the advantages of having your entire library (which, if you’re a reader worth your salt, contains a number of books you’ve not yet cracked) boxed up in a storage locker thousands of miles away, is that you find yourself looking to see what books Amazon offers as free downloads for your newly acquired Kindle. (Hint: They’re usually agreed upon classics…) So, back in 2013, having fully shaken off the shackles of cinematic ambition, I decided, on a whim, to return to HEART OF DARKNESS and give Conrad’s slim volume a chance to sink or swim on its own merits.

And Holy Shit.

One of my favorite books as a kid was William Golding’s LORD OF THE FLIES (still is one of my favorites, actually), and how I had been so blind to it before I don’t know, but HEART OF DARKNESS is basically LORD OF THE FLIES for grown-ups, digging deeper into many of the same themes, but with more subtlety and complexity. Conrad renders Marlowe’s journey in lush, evocative prose, giving it the impact of both a nightmare and an epic journey in just a few, short chapters. As an artistic accomplishment, it not only equals but surpasses APOCALYPSE NOW (and also has the edge in coming first). The point is, I made up my mind, then and there, to dive headlong into Conrad’s oeuvre.

Which I did. Starting this year.

(Yes, I am an erratic, unfaithful, deeply promiscuous reader…)

Having now completed THE SECRET AGENT and UNDER WESTERN EYES, with NOSTROMO and THE SHADOW LINE on deck, Conrad strikes me as nothing less than the English language (despite being Polish) heir to Dostoevsky. Which is somewhat ironic because Conrad hated Dostoevsky. But, like Dostoevsky, Conrad weaves the political, the philosophical, and the primal into grand, character-driven narratives, addressing the issues of his day by delving deep into the psychological frictions at their core. Both men were skeptical, if not condemnatory, of the revolutionary impulses taking hold in their homelands, but also gifted with a sympathetic authorial insight that prevented them from flattening their conflicts or their characters into something soothing or easily digestible. The people who inhabit their novels are vital, passionate, complex, and often tortured, yet utterly recognizable and relatable, despite their extremity. Everyone we encounter is unique and uniquely human.  Where Conrad differs from Dostoevsky (and, perhaps, this was the root of his dislike) is his rejection of easy resolutions. An emigrant by circumstance, and a seafarer by trade, Conrad, perhaps, had seen too much of the world to see much hope in it. Dostoevsky’s spirituality is nowhere in Conrad, replaced by a bottomless skepticism and a near-tragic melancholy. Where Dostoevsky’s protagonists always seem to find some strained salvation in the end (though, whatever precedes it is always powerful and profound enough to offset any dissatisfaction I might feel with his forced finales), Conrad refuses all but the faintest glimmer of redemption for his own. You can just make it out in Kurtz’s horror, Verloc’s confession, Razumov’s penance. But it’s never enough to deliver them from their fate. As the man, himself, said, “We live in the flicker.”

And speaking of skepticism and hopelessness…

EMIL CIORAN might be ALBERT CAMUS’ evil twin, his shadowy reflection and philosophical foil, the nihilistic Joker to his idealistic Batman. (Yeah… I stand by that…) If you know me at all, you know I’ve lived with my distant cousin Albert and his work since my teen years. For a variety of curiously disconnected reasons, I’ve also been revisiting a lot of it recently, rereading THE STRANGER, THE FALL, EXILE AND THE KINGDOM, and THE MYTH OF SISYPHUS. And this year, finally, for the first time, I’ve been making my way through THE REBEL (almost done with it, in fact). Simultaneously, I have been reading Cioran’s ANATHEMAS AND ADMIRATIONS (just finished with it, in fact), a collection of essays on some of the significant thinkers and artists in Cioran’s life, interspersed with chapters of his own wry, incisive, often pessimistic and misanthropic aphorisms. Camus and Cioran both possessed a vast and penetrating insight into human nature, human history, and the human condition, which they expressed with remarkable clarity and potency. Camus was a lapsed communist who came to see how quickly rebellion corrupted into despotism (it is, in fact, one of THE REBEL’S central themes). Cioran was a former fascist who grew to reject fascism’s narrowness and repent his involvement with it. But coming from opposite sides of the spectrum, both arrived at a shared understanding of the absurdity inherent in trying to improve the world. (Both books are, in fact, extremely relevant in the current political climate. Cioran’s near-novella length essay on Joseph de Maistre is essential to anyone seeking to understand right-wing extremism, and THE REBEL ought to be required reading for the current crop of SJW’s, though, of course, it’s just another book by another old, white male…) The difference between them was that Camus, ever the Sisyphean, never ceased pushing his philosopher’s stone up a moral mountain, searching for some form of honorable, humanist existence, while Cioran embraced an antic – almost gleeful – nihilism and misanthropy, living in near isolation in Paris, lobbing literary grenades at humanity’s false hopes and futile ideals. They now reside as fenceless neighbors on my bookshelf, across the quad from Dostoevsky and Conrad.

Cioran, incidentally, was good friends with SAMUEL BECKETT in his later years. Like any apostate of the dramatic arts, I already knew Beckett from WAITING FOR GODOT, ENDGAME, etc., but Cioran’s essay on Beckett in ANATHEMAS AND ADMIRATIONS sent me scurrying for his prose. In my typically backwards fashion, I started with a collection of his last novellas: COMPANY, ILL SEEN ILL SAID, WORSTWARD HO, STIRRINGS STILL and a few shorter pieces. Written in a spare, angular, minimalist style I found revolutionary and revelatory, Beckett slowly grows his stories from one word or phrase to the next. Context develops at an almost agonizing pace, as possible interpretations narrow, details emerging organically, out of absolute necessity. Reading them was like watching the gradual formation of a crystalline structure. Or, to put it another way, if one posits James Joyce as a literary Charlie Parker, Beckett can be seen as Thelonious Monk. As a writer, I found it tremendously liberating, having attempted similarly minimalistic styles in my own writing projects in the past. Too often, though, I would lose confidence in my own method, and begin freighting my narratives with enough extraneous explanation to crush them utterly. In that regard, Beckett’s stories were a welcome reminder to trust my own voice. Their impact, however, was more than stylistic. Or, more accurately, Beckett’s narratives reflect his style, relating the internal monologues of impoverished characters groping for some knowledge or comprehension of their situations and surroundings, often using language as a cipher, in the hopes of arriving at some measure of resolution or peace. While their stylistic brilliance is immediate and astounding, the stories also conceal a poignancy that sneaks up on you, transforming admiration into awe. Having finished the later works, I’ve backed up to the early middle, and am now knee-deep in MOLLOY… And I’m sure I’ll continue from there, but Beckett has already taken his place in my personal pantheon…

And speaking of Irish writers…

I finally got around to Eimear McBride’s sophomore offering, THE LESSER BOHEMIANS, this year. Though not as challenging, stylistically or emotionally, as her debut, A GIRL IS A HALF-FORMED THING, it is nonetheless an impressive and affecting literary feat, proving she’s still one of the best writers currently out there. One could actually read LESSER BOHEMIANS as GIRL’S more approachable and optimistic sister novel, as both fearlessly depict a young girl’s sexual self-discovery opening a gateway to a deeper existential need. But where GIRL was grueling, grim, and grief-stricken, LESSER BOHEMIANS, for all its naked honesty and eccentricity, is, at heart, an old-fashioned love story. Though, let it be said, a thoughtful and thoroughly earned one…

An entirely different kind of love story – or perhaps, more accurately, detachment story – can be found in Catherine Lacey’s THE ANSWERS. An ill and isolated New Yorker auditions for a psychology experiment/celebrity reality show called “The Girlfriend Experiment,” and finds herself lost in a haze of uncertain feelings, attachments, and memories in this dreamy, diaphanous examination of the ways in which the personal is being increasingly stripped of its humanity in our increasingly impersonal world…

My recent, unofficial, and appropriately non-committal study of Taoism continued this year with THE BOOK OF CHUANG TZU (aka THE ZHUANGZI). Its thirty-three chapters provide a vivid cross-section of how inspired ideas corrupt into something prescribed and systemic. The first seven chapters, called the Inner Chapters, are believed to be genuinely authored by Chuang Tzu, and they overflow with unconventional wisdom, mischievous humor, and subversive insights. Intended as satires of Confucianism as much as meditations on the Tao, it’s amazing how modern and challenging to various norms they still seem. The Outer Chapters, 8 through 22, were probably written by Chuang Tzu’s followers, and, for the most part, do little more than flesh out or restate the ideas presented in the Inner Chapters, but with all the wit and flair you would expect from a committee of disciples. The Mixed Chapters, 23 to 33, are a mixed bag. Authored by who the fuck knows, some get close to the piercing parables of the first seven, but they still seem to be in service of an established set of ideas. Not that there’s anything especially doctrinaire about Taoism. It is, by definition, devoid of dogma. It’s just that parroted and paraphrased enlightenment can’t help but lose some of its lustre. Those first seven, though…

And speaking of challenging norms…

Sam Harris’ FREE WILL delivers a compact and concise demolition of its titular concept, while John Bargh’s BEFORE YOU KNOW IT entertainingly describes the scientific research and experimentation that support an embrace of neuropsychological determinism. Bargh’s not a determinist, himself, reserving a limited belief in human volition, but as he, himself, notes, if you refuse to acknowledge the ways in which your actions and decisions are influenced by external factors, you will forever be a slave to them. Or, to put it another way, maintaining a belief in free will might be the best way to ensure you don’t have any. In any case, if, after reading these, you don’t find yourself questioning your subjective experience of choice, you should probably, at the very least, question your intellectual integrity…

Lewis Hyde’s TRICKSTER MAKES THIS WORLD is a thorough and artful survey of the trickster archetype in all its various manifestations across human culture, past and present. Equal parts exploration and celebration, it’s essential for anyone who, like me, takes a particular interest in the topic. Hyde acts as anthropologist, historian, storyteller, critic, psychologist, and shaman, expounding eloquently on every facet of this complex and often troublesome trope. Some of his associations may occasionally seem to be stretches, but the patterns he observes and portraits he paints are, like the trickster archetype itself, indelible.

And, finally, Kenneth Burke’s PHILOSOPHY OF LITERARY FORM is a collection of essays that, taken as a whole, presage his conception of dramatism, which he would lay out fully in his following work, A GRAMMAR OF MOTIVES, but that are each equally mind-blowing taken on their own. More than just a linguist and literary critic, Burke was a philosopher, and he expounds enlighteningly on everything from aesthetics to warfare to Freudian psychology, dissecting the role played by language, and the shaping of it, in every facet of our lives.

MOVIES…

I used to care about MOVIES…

I was never one of those irritating cinemaniacs who “tries to see everything.” That way, madness lies. (Besides, I maintain that, once you’re fluent enough in the medium and its many movers and shakers, there are films you don’t need to see to know what you think of them…) But there used to be a large number of filmmakers whose work I would eagerly watch and wait for (or, perhaps, vice-versa). I’d keep my eyes on press and previews for anything new that looked potentially interesting or exciting. And I’d lap up the Year End Lists of various critics, on the lookout for anything that might have escaped my attention…

To a degree, my methods haven’t changed.

But the number of filmmakers whose work I’m eager to see has dwindled to a happy few. The new films described by today’s press and previews as, “interesting and exciting,” tend not to look that way to me. (And on those occasions when I have taken their word for it and made the effort to check something out, I have most often been met with, if not disappointment, then, at least, something that lived down to my expectations.) And when I consume the critics’ Year End Lists, these days, I’m usually desperately seeking something… ANYTHING… that sounds like it might rehabilitate my burnout or break my boredom with an art form that used to be endlessly fascinating to me…

No, it’s not the superhero movies. I actually really enjoy the Marvel Universe…

Anyway, it’s true that my standards for film have always been… OK, maybe not especially high, but… singular. Rustling up ten to twenty films that I thought merited inclusion on a Year End List was always something of a challenge. But, today, I’m lucky if I can come up with five… I’m lucky if, in a given year, I actually SEE five…

Makes you wonder why I’m bothering to do this, at all, doesn’t it…?

At the very least, I can say that 2018 brought one of the most exciting film releases of my life, from an all-time favorite filmmaker, one that I have been eagerly anticipating for, literally, decades. I’m talking, of course, about Orson Welles’ THE OTHER SIDE OF THE WIND, which, thanks to the dedicated efforts of Welles’ family, friends, and fans, was finally completed and released this year. (Now if only someone could dig up that long, lost cut of AMBERSONS…) Even if the film were no fucking good, it would be a milestone cinematic event. But not only is it good, it is – as you might expect – genius. Glorying in cinematic craft, while choking on loathing for Hollywood, the film takes place over a single night, depicting the birthday party of renowned studio filmmaker Jake Hannaford (John Huston). Shot in mockumentary style on multiple cameras using different stocks, the approach allows Welles to incorporate (and even further innovate) the rough and gritty shooting/editing styles that had become the hallmark of the young 1970’s upstarts who were bursting onto the scene, while also maintaining many of his own signature flourishes (overlapping dialogue, whiplash pans, expertly choreographed staging, etc.). We’re also given glimpses of Hannaford’s latest film, in which Welles wickedly satirizes the pretentions of self-consciously arty filmmakers, deflating their hollow grandeur with typically Welles-ian grandiosity. It’s never short of dazzling to watch, and invigorating to keep up with. But its greatest impact is in its tonality, which appropriately mirrors the arc of a Hollywood party: Buzzing with energy and wit at the beginning, then slowing as Welles peels back the protective poses and postures of his characters, revealing the festering frustrations and resentments underneath, before finally leaving them, at the end of the night, alone and wasted in the sour puddles of their ruined egos. It’s an unforgiving indictment of a culture that makes monsters that, in turn, make monstrosities, and it left me feeling sick and sad for days. But, like any Welles film, it’s one of the finest you’ll ever see. The sort of film that’s simultaneously ahead of its time, but that no one makes anymore.

Almost…

Alfonso Cuaron has long been one of the aforementioned happy few, whose work I have followed avidly for some years, but the empty exercise of 2013’s GRAVITY, I confess, left my faith a little dented. Thankfully, he has more than redeemed himself with ROMA, which is not only one of the best films of the last year, but of the last decade (that I’ve seen, anyway… Haha…). The title refers to the Colonia Roma neighborhood of Mexico City where the film takes place, but given the film’s black and white photography, proletarian sympathies, and Cuaron’s masterful ability to capture the rough rhythms of daily life, it might be tempting to see it additionally as an homage to Italian neorealist classics like Rosselini’s ROMA CITTA APERTA or Pasolini’s MAMA ROMA. The read would be misguided, however (and the association may be a playful, misleading wink on Cuaron’s part), because ROMA is less concerned with realism than reminiscence. Taking as its focus Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio), the live-in maid and nanny to a wealthy local family, ROMA is a deeply personal act of reverence and remembrance, in which Cuaron’s camera, far from being an objective spectator, functions instead as his mind’s eye, moving intently through his characters’ lives, creating sensual, evocative, often breathtaking images that reveal his intimate, if temporally removed, involvement. But ROMA is also much more than mere nostalgia. Cuaron, in fact, sidesteps easy sentiment at every turn. Not content to create a simple character study or family drama, he has instead created a vital portrait of an entire neighborhood, a city – a world, in fact. One that continues to pulse and breathe, even when existing outside the frame. At times, small, personal events in Cleo’s life seem to ripple outward, echoing in the lives of others, or in the movements of the city, itself. Planes constantly fly overhead in the background of numerous scenes, reminding us that life is something larger than any single moment and that it is constantly in motion. And, conversely, that what seems small and simple from a distance can become weighty and significant when experienced up close. ROMA doesn’t make Cleo the most important person in the world. It just makes her a person in the world – an active participant, whose life affects and impacts other lives, and is affected and impacted by them – and that is enough to make her essential. Written, directed, shot, and edited by Cuaron, himself, and dedicated to “Libo,” (Cuaron’s own live-in maid and nanny from childhood), ROMA is a true labor of love. (It’s worth noting that the title is also “amor” backwards.) It’s the sort of film you can’t believe got made in today’s cinematic climate. And it may be Cuaron’s masterpiece.

Brad Bird always insisted he wouldn’t make sequel to THE INCREDIBLES unless he felt it was equal to, or better than, the original. And with INCREDIBLES 2, he made good on that promise. The film literally picks up where the first film left off, continuing to tweak superhero conventions, while further developing the Parr family dynamic in recognizable and relatable ways. As in the first film, the hero/villain conflict raises worthwhile questions (uncomfortable even for some adults), this time about our willingness to make ourselves reliant to the point of dependency on everything from technology, to corporations, to self-proclaimed heroes…

And speaking of superheroes…

I want to take a moment to commend the Russo Bros. and AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR for toying narratively and thematically with the notion of Thanos as the film’s protagonist, while also chastising them for lacking the courage of their conception and not following through on it. Also, for making an epic team-up that, thanks, in part, to their lack of resolve, was neither as epic, nor as entertaining as it should have been. (I’ll also just add, for those who are wondering, that, unlike everyone else, I found BLACK PANTHER to be a pretty average entry in the franchise, whose last real high-water mark remains last year’s THOR: RAGNAROK…)

But speaking of chastising…

Spike Lee and Paul Schrader are two more filmmakers I cherish among my happy few, so I was excited to see their two latest offerings – BLACKkKLANSMAN and FIRST REFORMED, respectively – roundly praised by critics and included on a significant number of year end lists. Imagine my disappointment…

(Because I know everyone’s favorite part of these Year End retrospectives is when I get all contrarian about widely celebrated films…)

It’s not that BLACKkKLANSMAN is a bad film. (Spike Lee has done far worse…) It’s just not especially good. (He’s also done far better…) My objections to it are not, like Boots Riley’s, political or historical, but aesthetic. (Though, in this case, the true story of Ron Stallworth may have had more dramatic potential than the – sorry about this – whitewash we’re presented with…) Its biggest problem is that it’s a flat, uninteresting film that can’t quite decide what it wants to be and, as a result, ends up being not much at all. Not funny enough to be a comedy, but not dramatic enough to be a drama, certainly not daring, provocative, or experimental enough to be a showcase for Lee’s singular talents, it’s almost impossible to engage with on any level. The performances are solid all around, but no one is really given much to work with. Possibilities for conflict or complexity are quickly glossed over, leaving a weak narrative about two earnest, capable cops infiltrating a racist secret society made up almost entirely of incompetent, monomaniacal buffoons. At one point, Adam Driver’s Flip questions whether the Klan poses enough of a threat to be worth their time. The way Lee presents them, it’s hard not to feel like he has a point…

FIRST REFORMED is basically a retread of TAXI DRIVER, in which, rather than a lonely, alienated war vet driven to the edge by the urban disease of vice and criminality he finds himself immersed in daily, we are given a lonely, alienated priest driven to the edge by an ecological anxiety that infects him in the aftermath of a parishioner’s suicide. (Oh… spoilers…) The film is not without its qualities. Ethan Hawke’s performance as the priest in question, Father Toller, is a career zenith, and there are aspects of emotional deterioration that no one captures quite as effectively as Schrader. The problem here is that Schrader is too close to the material and he lacks both the technique and the perspective that Scorsese brought to TAXI DRIVER, which kept it from descending into either self-parody or DEATH WISH-style hysteria (if, in fact, those are different things…). Scorsese allows us to identify with Travis Bickle, but also to laugh at him, and there are plenty of moments in the film when we find ourselves wanting to laugh and cry simultaneously. We feel his pain, while also recognizing the tragic absurdity of his situation. Schrader, by contrast, presents FIRST REFORMED with deadly seriousness, and the laughs – more than a few, I’m sorry to say – are entirely unintentional. The film’s final moments are enough to make you want to throw something at the screen…

So, why the widespread praise for these uneven mediocrities…? My theory is that Lee and Schrader, two filmmakers celebrated for their willingness to confront their audiences with uncomfortable and unpleasant truths, have finally delivered a pair of “feel good” movies.

“WHAT…!?!” I hear you saying, “Feel good movies…!?!”

OK. What they’ve really done is invented a new kind of “feel good” movie that is, perhaps, better described as a, “feel good about feeling bad,” movie. BLACKkKLANSMAN panders to the anti-Trump hysterics with its insinuation (if something so pedantic can be called an insinuation) that David Duke’s master plan was an unmitigated success, and he finally got one of his own into the White House. There are a ton of worthy (and even convincing) arguments asserting that, whatever formal history might say, the South was the true victor in the Civil War, and that the U.S. government is a white supremacist hothouse. But BLACKkKLANSMAN is not one of them. It’s just designed to reinforce the momentary self-righteous panic of its intended audience. Similarly, while climate change and environmentalism are not FIRST REFORMED’s focus, narratively or thematically, it does didactically rattle off a lot of relevant facts in an effort to sanctify its protagonist’s noble disintegration, sparing the audience any moral uncertainty. I’m not saying that the actual facts in the environmental case aren’t clear. I’m saying that moral Manichaeism makes for poor drama and shrill, self-serious melodrama. And that, rather than challenging or unsettling their audiences, as they so often have in the past, Lee and Schrader have contented themselves with comfortably affirming their trendy outrage and despair.

MUSIC is all we have left…

I love writing about music… Probably because I don’t know anything about it…

More than any other art form, music is my most consistent source of solace, catharsis, and inspiration, but, much to my dismay, I’ve never shown any aptitude for it. As a result, when I listen to something, I can give only superficial consideration to questions of craft or technique. Sometimes I kid myself that I can recognize talent or ability when I hear it, but years of trying (and failing) to play various instruments, write songs, etc. have proven to me beyond a shadow of a doubt that sometimes what sounds easy is actually extremely challenging and vice-versa. So, in the end, the only critical criteria I possess when it comes to evaluating music is what it sounds like and what it conjures up in me…

And some might say that’s the whole point. I don’t know…

But the whole point of this is just to say that this will probably the longest and least aesthetically literate section of this retrospective. (Did I say the BOOKS section would be the most self-indulgent…? Hmmm…)

Lucky you…

By far, the single record that has spent the most time on my turntable this year (or, it would be if I bought records and owned a turntable) – the album that I have gotten the most out of, let’s say – has been ZEAL & ARDOR’s “STRANGER FRUIT.” Manuel Gagneux conceived of ZEAL & ARDOR in 2014 in response to a flippant challenge he received on 4chan, and created the world’s first Black Metal/Negro Spiritual fusion outfit. ZEAL & ARDOR’s 2016 debut, “DEVIL IS FINE,” recorded entirely by Gagneux on his laptop, showed promise, but was really an EP in disguise: a handful of knockout songs counterweighted by unfocused instrumental filler. “STRANGER FRUIT” both makes good on the promise of its predecessor and corrects its errors, and the result is dynamite. Possessing all the infernal ferocity of any Black Metal band, but also driven by Gospel passions and Blues melodies, each song is, all at once, terrifying, infectious, cathartic, galvanizing, even – dare I say…? – soulful. (Added bonus: unlike MAYHEM, you can sing along!) Even the quieter instrumental tracks are imbued with purpose, adding to the, by turns, hellish and haunted ambiance. But it’s not just the music that’s irresistible. With “STRANGER FRUIT,” Gagneux has crafted an alt-universe narrative that asks a provocative question: What if African slaves had embraced Satanism rather than Christianity? The answer plays out in fire and blood over the course of the album’s 16 tracks (I can’t listen to “Ship on Fire” without thinking of the slave revolt spurred by Orlando Jones’ Anansi in the first season of AMERICAN GODS), but its implications – obvious to anyone familiar with the ways in which Christianity was used, for centuries, to justify slavery and repress revolt – are left hanging, unsettlingly, like strange fruit…

But speaking of liberation…

While the rest of world continues to have orgasms over Kamasi Washington (who is, let it be said, a damn fine sax player), I remain riveted to BINKER & MOSES and their unique brand of semi-free jazz. Where their 2015 debut “DEM ONES” was taut, tight, and spare, their 2017 follow-up, “JOURNEY TO THE MOUNTAIN OF FOREVER” saw them stretch out into near epic territory. And this year’s live recording, “ALIVE IN THE EAST?” captures the best of both worlds, keeping the expanded instrumentation (two saxes, two drum sets, trumpet, and harp(!)) and the elemental/mythic explorations of their sophomore effort, while delivering a focused, hypnotic set that, like their debut, pushes out to the free fringes while remaining rooted – thanks, in large part, to Boyd’s breathtaking rhythmic command – in searing, soulful grooves. If “DEM ONES,” in its sax-and-drums minimalism, recalled Coltrane’s “INTERSTELLAR SPACE,” here, the no-longer-really-a-duo’s ecstatic collaboration brings to mind nothing so much as a latter-day “ASCENSION.” The inventive interplay between the five musicians is never short of Promethean, which seems more than appropriate given that the track titles suggest “ALIVE IN THE EAST?” as a musical creation myth. If any jazz ensemble can conjure a universe from their sound, it’s these guys…

But speaking of Coltrane…

It’s been a good year for unearthing lost works of genius. (Two of my favorite geniuses, in fact…) In addition to getting Welles’ OTHER SIDE OF THE WIND, 2018 also saw the release of two “new” albums from JOHN COLTRANE, each capturing him at a different point of creative transformation…

BOTH DIRECTIONS AT ONCE is assembled from sessions recorded by the classic Quartet (Coltrane, pianist McCoy Tyner, drummer Elvin Jones, and bassist Jimmy Garrison) in March of 1963. The title – likely chosen by Impulse! this year – is an apt one, as it finds the Quartet trying to balance the unbounded explorations of their live shows (best captured, perhaps, on THE COMPLETE 1961 VILLAGE VANGUARD RECORDINGS) with the more approachable sound urged by Impulse! on their studio recordings from that period. The Quartet were a little over a year away from the creative burst that would result in CRESCENT, and then A LOVE SUPREME, and while the music here never reaches that pitch of brilliance, it’s fascinating and rewarding to listen to four such incredibly gifted musicians search and struggle (the often underappreciated Garrison, in particular, gets a fine showing). The two untitled tracks (Untitled Originals 11383 and 11386, respectively… Try referencing those in cocktail party conversation…) probably come closest to the synthesis the Quartet was seeking, while the four different versions of “Impressions,” are a vital cross-section of, not just a single composition, but an entire musical approach in a state of flux.

The tracks on MILES DAVIS & JOHN COLTRANE: THE FINAL TOUR, BOOTLEG SERIES VOL. 6 have been available for years in various combinations and permutations, but Columbia finally gave them an official release this year, and even though these live recordings date from 1960, they’re still as mind-blowing today as they must have been then. Documenting three live shows – in Paris, Copenhagen, and Stockholm – these dates, as their title indicates, would be the last time Miles and Trane would play together. Coltrane had already left the Miles Davis Quintet, having recorded the seminal GIANT STEPS the year before, and he had no desire to return. Davis pled and Coltrane reluctantly relented, but insisted he would not go backwards and would play as he was, not as he had been. The results, ranging from jarring to jaw-dropping, are a reminder that even the saintly Coltrane could be contentious when pushed, and that Davis, the uncompromising visionary, was always willing to allow his players their creative freedom. The Paris concert, in particular, shows Coltrane in shockingly aggressive form, challenging the audience and the Quintet, alike, with his wild excursions. The audience can even be heard arguing about him between numbers. By Copenhagen and Stockholm, the frictions seemed to have subsided somewhat. Coltrane is a little more relaxed, and the Quintet has found ways to accommodate him, but the entire box set makes for electrifying listening. There’s even a brief radio interview with Coltrane where he talks a little bit about where he’s at creatively and gives a shout out to fellow tenor genius Sonny Rollins…

But speaking of shockingly aggressive…

Every bit as brutal as “STRANGER FRUIT,” and no less accomplished, is DAUGHTERS’ triumphant don’t-call-it-a-comeback-because-we’re-all-going-to-die album, “YOU WON’T GET WHAT YOU WANT.” A harrowing, evocative record that sounds like nothing less than the soundtrack to the post-apocalypse, it’s not that it’s assaultively paced (though it has its moments) or features wall-to-wall shrieks and wails – DAUGHTERS long ago left any adherence to grindcore orthodoxy in the dust. But, while it could never be described as delicate, “YOU WON’T GET WHAT YOU WANT” is actually a remarkably textured and atmospheric record – almost ambient, at times – using its vivid builds and blasts to paint a desolate, damaged landscape. Percussive bursts echo like stray machine-gun fire, guitars cut through throbbing bass lines with siren-like urgency, and Alexis S.F. Marshall’s strained baritone suggests civilization’s final emergency radio broadcasts. There’s a prodigious amount of musicianship on display, but always in service of the album’s larger, bleaker vision, steering clear of self-indulgence, and becoming something much more – overwhelmingly, at times – than the sum of its parts.

Washington, D.C.’s RED HARE and Oakland’s SUPER UNISON keep the hardcore punk spirit alive without succumbing to the stagnancy that’s so often a by-product of the genres rigid strictures. The pugilistic power chords that punctuate RED HARE’s “LITTLE ACTS OF DESTRUCTION” are slashed through by guitarist Jason Farrell’s dissonant, angular riffs, mirroring the call-and-response vocal pattern of Shawn Brown’s grizzly wails and Farrell’s sardonic retorts. Brown and Farrell were founding members of the seminal (though underappreciated at the time) D.C. hardcore band SWIZ, but their efforts with RED HARE are no mere retread or nostalgia exercise. Their riffs and rhythms come colored by the musical careers they’ve enjoyed in the interim, injecting post-hardcore’s rhythmic and tonal innovations back into their roots. Similarly, on their second full-length, “STELLA,” SUPER UNISON’s Meghan O’Niel Pennie might shout and shriek with the best of her hardcore forbears, but churning and swirling beneath her howls are layered instrumental harmonies, shifting tempos, and melodic – sometimes, even delicate – guitar riffs reminiscent of nothing so much as 90’s alternative (in a good way). On “Comfort,” they even offer up what can only be described as a hardcore ballad, Pennie’s screams taking on the character of an impassioned plea. Both bands show that there’s still room to stretch within the confines of the genre, and rank alongside WESTERN ADDICTION and WHITE LUNG as the very best it has to offer.

And EMINEM dropped his surprise album “KAMIKAZE,” a dizzying dive-bomb aimed directly at the heart of our nation of scolds. It’s been interesting to note the fidgety response to the record, as critics and audiences have tied themselves in knots arguing that the album’s unapologetic offensiveness should be grounds for its dismissal, while barely touching on the fact that it’s Eminem’s fiercest and most focused effort since “THE MARSHALL MATHERS LP.” It’s not just his blistering feats of flow or whiplash wordplay, as he mercilessly lays waste, often at lightning speed, to anyone who’s recently had anything unkind to say about him. His production has also steadily improved over the years, and seems carefully calibrated here to provide sonic texture and stylistic variety to an album that is, on its surface, blindingly fast and furious. But, of course, there’s always more to Eminem than what’s apparent on the surface, and “KAMIKAZE” does possess moments of genuine introspection, however disguised. The misogynist finger-pointing in the blackly comic “Normal” is deliberately staged as a front for his own feelings of shame, confusion, and guilt about his relationship history. And “Stepping Stone,” far from being a mere nostalgia trip, contains a genuinely mournful apology at its core. Yes, the album’s overall attitude is puerile, arrogant, vulgar, and violent, but whether the politically correct gatekeepers of our society like it or not, that’s the mode in which Eminem’s remarkable talents have often found their most piercing expression. As any audit of art history will reveal, artists and their artistry have often been deemed socially unacceptable and even culturally corrosive, because truthful artistic expressions frequently demand that the artist embrace the value in what society considers offensive and objectionable. We often want to celebrate their talent, while simultaneously seeking to “tame” them, overlooking the fact that a wholesome, culturally conformed artist would be, like everyone else, too repressed to express anything genuinely truthful. To refuse to acknowledge that expressions of rage, ego, aggression and provocation can be powerful, inspiring, and even beautiful – to call a dramatic return to form like “KAMIKAZE” a “regression” – is not criticism, but a dishonest act of moral desperation.

And speaking of dark arts…

IHSAHN’S latest, “AMR,” might be described as the INLAND EMPIRE to the MULHOLLAND DRIVE of 2016’s exceptional “ARKTIS.” His focus on song craft is still in evidence, but as the album’s title indicates, the overall guiding vision is darker and less approachable. That’s not a bug (especially when discussing the work of a Black Metal icon), it’s a feature, as it’s never less than fascinating to hear mainstream musical elements deployed in service of something so uncompromisingly grim. On the Black Metal flipside, SIGH frontman, Mirai Kawashima, worried publicly that the band’s latest, “HEIR TO DESPAIR” would be too personal and idiosyncratic for fans to enjoy. Of course, anyone who knows the band knows that unpredictability is an essential part of their creative signature, and in that respect, “HEIR TO DESPAIR” fits perfectly within their catalogue. Though not as grandly theatrical as 2015’s “GRAVEWARD,” much of it sounds like the SIGH we know and love. The new twists and turns, such as the inclusion of traditional Japanese melodies and instrumentation, or the psychedelic synth-driven trilogy, “Heresies,” are not only welcome innovations, but serve to add a sense of intimacy (for SIGH) and make “HEIR TO DESPAIR” their most intriguing listen since “IMAGINARY SONICSCAPE.”

But speaking of unpredictable twists and turns…

Though the title of SONS OF KEMET’s Impulse! debut, “YOUR QUEEN IS A REPTILE,” makes it sound like a harsh indictment, the music contained within is nothing short of exultant. An irresistible synthesis of sounds, dual drummers Seb Rochford and Tom Skinner, along with Theon Cross on tuba, lay down a blend of Afro-Cuban and Brass Band grooves, while leader and reed player Shabaka Hutchings preaches and wails through his sax in a variety of styles, as the spirit moves him. There’s even some spoken word poems/raps on a handful of tracks, courtesy of Joshua Idehen and Congo Natty. What’s remarkable is how organic – and infectious – all these disparate elements become when brought together, unifying in what the track titles reveal are not a series of condemnations, but counter-celebrations, each an ode to an iconic black woman the ensemble has chosen to honor as their Queen.

A similar synthesis of disparate sounds, though more melancholic and avant-garde, can be found on AMBROSE AKINMUSIRE’s “ORIGAMI HARVEST.” Akinmusire teams with the classical Mivos String Quartet and rapper Kool AD to create a series of moody meditations on America and moving memorials to black lives unjustly lost. Throughout, Akinmusire is often content to step back and allow the Quartet to carry the major portion of the music, his trumpet less a lead instrument than a haunting presence, momentarily materializing, then fading away. Simultaneously caustic and delicate, those looking for anything resembling a traditional jazz album will be disconcerted initially, and “ORIGAMI HARVEST” can make for forbidding listening. But such daring explorations are not only the essence of jazz, as in this case, they often pack a powerful, poignant punch.

And speaking of poignancy…

EMMA RUTH RUNDLE made no secret of the fact that the writing and recording of 2016’s “MARKED FOR DEATH” was so physically and emotionally taxing, it nearly killed her. And as anyone who has heard that album knows, the anguish and the stakes were viscerally palpable. Few albums can boast its level of intensity or emotional impact. Her follow-up, “ON DARK HORSES,” finds her psyche and her songwriting on firmer ground, and as a result, has left me struggling with myself. Like all her work, “ON DARK HORSES” is a heavy, haunting, beautifully crafted album, more than worthy of praise. In many ways, it’s a more controlled and disciplined album than “MARKED FOR DEATH.” But, as such, would it be fair of me, as a fan or a critic, to suggest that there might be something missing…? It seems shortsighted and selfish to demand – or even request – that our beloved artists destroy themselves for their art. And when I read that Rundle had kindled a revitalizing romance with JAY JAYLE’s Evan Patterson (the pair duet on the tellingly titled “Light Song,” which is one of the album’s most beautiful tracks, reminiscent of Rundle’s best work with THE NOCTURNES), I was genuinely happy for her. (Or, you know, as genuinely happy as a person gets for someone they know only through their artistic output.) But as lush and brilliant as “ON DARK HORSES” is, it simply doesn’t punch me in the gut, crawl inside me, hollow me out, and leave me heaving the way “MARKED FOR DEATH” does. And, reading that back, I have to ask: Is that even a criticism…? And let’s say she HAD produced something as mercilessly cathartic as “MARKED FOR DEATH,” would doing so have somehow retroactively reduced its predecessor’s power and personal impact…? I don’t know. Perhaps we simply need to let an artist’s towering achievements stand, and not allow their long shadows to obscure that which might seem lesser only by comparison. To insist on anything more, even for an unforgiving critic like myself, would be… (sorry about this…) ruthless.

Finally, two different trios produced two very different, but equally exciting, instrumental albums this year. THE MESSTHETICS pairs Brendan Canty and Joe Lally, known primarily as Fugazi’s rocksteady backbone, with jazz/avant-garde guitarist Anthony Pirog, and the results, as documented on their self-titled debut, are as sensational as you’d expect. Canty and Lally haven’t lost a shred of their singular synergy in the years since Fugazi announced their hiatus, and given that their post-hardcore rhythmic stylings have always incorporated jazzy flights and flourishes, Pirog proves to be a perfect fit, seamlessly blending his own sound with theirs. Running the gamut from aggressive thrashers to angular, HOVERCRAFT-esque excursions, to quietly hypnotic meditations, some of the tracks might leave you pining for a Fugazi reunion (optimally with the new addition of Pirog on lead), but there’s no doubt that this trio is a force to be reckoned with on their own. And NIGHT VERSES, on their latest release, “FROM THE GALLERY OF SLEEP,” create such a thick, layered, spiraling sound, full of racing, snaky riffs and intricate percussion, it’s sometimes hard to believe there’s only three of them. Each distinctive track has its own ebb and flow, but there’s an oceanic fluidity to the album as a whole that carries you buoyantly over its tidal swells, as the trio gracefully flows in and out of numerous genres, from punk to prog to psychedelia, without ever sounding indulgent or unfocused. Though it’s tempting, at times, to try and untangle each track’s dense orchestrations, it’s best to just give yourself up to the journey.

Oh, did I say, “Finally…?”

Because, it’s true, that’s the music I found most interesting that was released THIS YEAR, but…

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the secret Facebook musical cosa nostra that I was inducted into last year… Or, I guess, year before last, now…

Normally, I don’t much like being a member of anything, but this is really sort of the musical equivalent of a book club (only with a lot of weird rites, rituals, and by-laws that it’s probably best I don’t get into), and while I don’t like book clubs, because I want to read what I want to read when I want to read it, and it usually takes me months, anyway, as I noted earlier, music is a little different because it’s not as much of a time commitment…

The point:

Thanks to this little group whose existence I’m not even supposed to speak of, I’ve made a couple of great discoveries this year…

The first is Australia’s KING GIZZARD AND THE LIZARD WIZARD. Now, I know what you’re thinking. But don’t let the name fool you: They’re EXACTLY what that name would lead you to believe. Namely, some unholy hybrid of FRANK ZAPPA, KING CRIMSON, and LED ZEPPELIN with a west coast punk rock fuel injector. If that doesn’t intrigue you, check out 2016’s “NONAGON INFINITY.” If that doesn’t do it for you, you’re probably hopeless, but you can also check out any of the five – that’s right, five – albums they released in 2017, including a sci-fi rock opera, a jazz collaboration, an album of microtonal explorations, and a more straightforward (for them) rock album released in the public domain. You might think five albums in a year would tax a band’s creativity. You’d be wrong. Every one of them is inventive, eccentric, and inspired. The only thing this band can’t do is stop…

But speaking of stopping…

This is the last bit. I swear.

But this one is also, far and away, the best and most important musical discovery I’ve made this year. And if you want to talk about coming late to the party…

I’ve always known ABOUT Nick Cave. I knew who he was. I had heard OF his band THE BAD SEEDS. Had I ever actually HEARD his band THE BAD SEEDS…? I don’t know. There’s a part of me that thinks, if I had, I would have climbed onboard a long time ago. But there’s also part of me that knows how erratically prejudicial I could be about music in my youth…

A few years ago, though, I read an article about a band called THE BIRTHDAY PARTY. This was apparently Nick Cave’s post-punk band before THE BAD SEEDS. And the terms the writer used to describe them were so incendiary – even apocalyptic – I figured I had to check them out. So, I picked up a couple of albums and they were… OK. I mean, I see what the guy was talking about, and they weren’t bad, but my overall feeling was, I’ll stick with THE GERMS…

Then I started watching PEAKY BLINDERS. (You might remember, I mentioned this a bit earlier…) The song used in the opening credits grabbed me immediately. A B-minor blues, with a vaguely Western edge that evoked – not the soundtrack, but the feel of – Eastwood’s darker cowboy movies, it was also spare and desolate, almost nihilistic, with threatening vocals, and a bell that rang like impending doom…

If you’ve seen the show, you’re more than familiar with “Red Right Hand”…

Over the course of the first season, it became clear that whoever did that song was all over the rest of the soundtrack like a bad rash, and I was really liking what I was hearing, so I looked it up. Lo, and behold…

By sheer coincidence, at this exact time, the top secret music group I’m a member of that I didn’t mention earlier was winding their way through Nick Cave’s entire discography. Now, according to the ancient bylaws, you’re supposed to go one album at a time, but who has time for that…? I put NICK CAVE & THE BAD SEEDS’ three-decades-long catalogue on shuffle.

I listen to a lot of music. My taste is, if not catholic, at least eclectic. But you know how, every once in a while, a band or particular musical artist comes along who really hits you where you live…? Something in their music makes them seem like kindred spirits, or expresses things that feel very personal to you. You become obsessed, living for a time almost exclusively in their albums, learning as much about yourself as about them. You start carrying the music within you to such a degree you almost don’t need to listen to it anymore, but at the same time, it seems inexhaustible. Every time you put it on, you find something new…

A handful of artists have occupied – still occupy – that space in my life. But it very quickly became apparent that NICK CAVE & THE BAD SEEDS would join their number.

It’s hard to sum up the musical style of such a feverishly creative band that has released 17 very different albums over more than thirty years. At root, NICK CAVE & THE BAD SEEDS play a mix of Blues, Gospel, and Folk, but channeled through a chaotic, passionate, and poetic post-punk sensibility. Over the years, their sound has also picked up, as the inspiration strikes them, elements of pop, alternative, electronica, classical, and even – lyrically, at least – hip-hop (I’m fairly certain the violence and vulgarity found on some of the tracks on “MURDER BALLADS” is not only an homage to those real down and dirty blues songs from the past, but a deliberate response to the cultural and critical condemnations of gangster rap that were happening around the same time)…

Which brings us to Nick.

A baritone in the Jim Morrison tradition, but grittier and less polished, he can growl menacingly, croon beautifully, or howl at the moon like a lycanthropic Jerry Lee Lewis. As a front man, he’s a cross between a dark preacher and a punk poet. His lyrics often tell stories, in the folk tradition, frequently narrated from the perspectives of different characters. They can be wickedly witty and satirical, bleak and desolate, confrontational and provocative, or even delicate and romantic, depending on his mood, but there’s also always a mythic, sometimes even spiritual, undercurrent to them. In other words, he’s, all at once, the heir apparent to Jim Morrison, Johnny Cash, Tom Waits, Leonard Cohen, and Darby Crash…

To which, you all reply: “We know.”

Because it’s been thirty fucking years, and pretty much everybody was a fan before me, and I’m like the guy who shows up to his first day of film school going, “Hey, have you heard of this Scorsese guy…? I saw a couple of his films last night and…”

I get it.

But fuck you. NICK CAVE & THE BAD SEEDS are mine now. In fact, I’m pretty sure they exist solely for me, at this point in my life, and the rest of you are just lucky hangers-on.

In any case, I’m done. Until next year, at least. Maybe forever. These things are always so exhausting… I’m gonna go listen to “DIG, LAZARUS, DIG!!!” again…

Here endeth…

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Through a Glass Darkly: 2015 – Year in Review

What is it about turbulent times…?

From earthquakes in Asia to epidemics in South America, from increasing economic inequality to encroaching environmental catastrophe, from Charlie Hebdo to Boko Haram, it’s been hard, over the last year, not to feel a sense of instability about our planet, uncertainty about our future. And while there’s nothing daring or visionary in suggesting that volatile circumstances often inspire some of the greatest art, it’s also been difficult not to feel a bit frivolous compiling a list of 2015’s best pop culture offerings…

And yet…

While writing the retrospective below, patterns began to emerge: Stories of people trapped in chaos and conflict, trying to find their way. Oppressive atmospheres, thick with dread. Binary oppositions dissolving into disorder around lone figures desperately seeking to blaze a path between. Artistic and scholarly attempts to find new perspectives on a world that, for all our intellectual progress, so often seems incomprehensible. And an almost desperate creativity as new modes of expression are sought to articulate our dismay, our determination, and our defiance. In various ways, every work below is a reflection of – and a response to – the moment in history in which we find ourselves.

And isn’t that what art is for…?

Maybe it’s not a “Best of…” As I always say, I’m just one guy. There’s a lot of great work from the past year that I haven’t seen. A lot that I’ll probably never see. Nor is everything on the list below flawless. Perfection, after all, is rarely inspiring. But each, in its way, offers a striking, inventive, resonant vision of life in these distinctly, if not uniquely, troubled times…

* * * * *

MOVIES

__________

THE ASSASSIN

From stunning star, Shu Qi, to the staggering cinematography by Lee Ping Bin, Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s The Assassin is almost intolerably beautiful to look at. But its breathtaking beauty is more than just skin deep. As engaging – and elusive – as it is entrancing, The Assassin borrows its often deliberately obscure narrative from “Nie Yinniang,” a 9th Century chuanqi by Pei Xing about a young girl who is taken from her home at ten years old, only to return five years later as a trained killer. The similarity pretty much ends there, but attempting to sum up the film’s enigmatic events would be futile. Plot is not the point. A diaphanous portrait of a girl trying to reconcile who she once was with who she has become – caught, like her uneasily insurrectionist home province, between fealty and freedom – The Assassin is a work of ethereal poetry. A meditation on the burdens of flight. If that sounds incomprehensibly abstract, it’s only fitting for a film this rich and this delicate. It’s the kind of cinema that demands the repeated viewings you’ll be more than happy to give it.

CHI-RAQ

Inventive, explosive, hilarious, heartrending, vulgar, visionary, incisive, and outrageous, Chi-Raq is Spike Lee’s most inspired and arresting film since… Well, at least, since The 25th Hour, but possibly ever… A fiery socio-political protest in madcap satirical drag, Chi-Raq transplants Lysistrata to the streets of Chicago’s South Side, using Aristophanes’ anti-war text to take on America’s epidemic of urban gun violence. If extreme situations call for extreme measures, Lee is more than up to the task, and his film pulls out all the stops: as in Aristophanes, the characters speak entirely in verse (a strategy that’s right at home in the world of rap battles and the Dozens), conversations spontaneously evolve into choreographed dance numbers, and the performances (led by an appealingly sensitive and sensual Teyonah Parris) are often hilariously over-the-top. There’s even a Chorus-cum-Rudy Ray Moore analog named Dolomites, played with note-perfect panache by Samuel L. Jackson. But what’s truly extraordinary is not that Lee can so confidently combat lunacy with lunacy, but that he succeeds in deftly balancing the outlandishly comedic with the affectingly dramatic, the drunkenly profane with the soberly sacred, never losing sight of the searing grief and anger that drive the film. He pulls no punches in his depictions of a mother’s loss or a minister’s outrage. For all that his characters can come off like cartoons, they bleed real blood and cry all-too-recognizable tears. An insane response to an insane world, Chi-Raq is a hysterical cry for help.

A PIGEON SAT ON A BRANCH REFLECTING ON EXISTENCE

A literal bird’s eye view of humanity, Roy Andersson’s A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence contemplates the absurdities of human frailty and fragility from a puzzled, yet pacific remove. Noncommittally following two traveling salesman through a series of bleakly comic vignettes, from the mundane to the momentous, from the mournful to the quietly beautiful, Andersson’s use of static wide shots, minimal cuts, and dramatic performances reminiscent of zombie mental patients allows us to view the action (and inertia) as an alien species might. Laughter and tears, love and carnage are all observed with the same bemused detachment. Wringing horror from hilarity, significance from simplicity, and in both cases, vice-versa, A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence is a funhouse mirror held up to human nature: a desolate and deadpan, strikingly minimalist and strangely moving vision of our species, our civilization, ourselves.

EX MACHINA

Alex Garland’s quiet and contained story of a programmer (Domhnall Gleeson) hired to perform the Turing test on an artificial intelligence (a mesmerizing Alicia Vikander) is less a cautionary sci-fi fable about the project’s inherent dangers than an intense psychological drama about the ways in which people attempt to manipulate and control each other. We have invented the enemy and she is us. Full review here.

INSIDE OUT

“Children’s psychological comedy” is not an especially competitive genre. But Inside Out, Pixar’s tale of the inner workings of a young girl’s brain as she confronts the challenges of adapting to life in a new city, is not only inspired and inventive, it is also every bit as magical, and as moving, as any of the studio’s best offerings. Following the personifications of Joy (an aggressively chipper Amy Poehler) and Sadness (a delightfully dismal Phyllis Smith) on an odyssey through 11-year-old Riley’s (Kaitlyn Dias) turbulent psychological landscape, Inside Out paints an imaginative, insightful portrait of the human mind and its workings, while – somewhat daringly, in our inane, negativity-shaming, feel good culture – satirizing our obsessive desperation to stay positive all the time, and acknowledging the value of negative responses to trauma. Featuring faultless vocal performances by Bill Hader, Mindy Kaling, and Lewis Black as Fear, Disgust, and Anger, respectively, and an especially notable turn by Pixar regular Richard Kind as Riley’s former imaginary friend Bing-Bong, the film is, simultaneously, so instantly appealing and so plainly purposeful, it would feel manipulative if it weren’t also so deeply sincere. By turns, hilarious and heartbreaking, Inside Out is one of the more poignant, powerful, and perceptive “Children’s” movies you’re likely to find.

THE TRIBE

A bleak and brutal film set within the squalid corridors of a boarding school for the deaf, Ukrainian filmmaker Myroslav Slaboshpytskyi’s debut feature has received a great deal of acclaim for its effective cinematic rendering of a world without dialogue (the film is purposefully presented without any subtitles, so unless you’re fluent in Ukrainian sign language…), but has left a few critics and moviegoers pondering what, exactly, Slaboshpytskyi was trying to say. Viscerally and formally arresting – both riveting and, at times, difficult to watch – The Tribe’s descent into teenage cruelty and criminality is a study of contained and systematized savagery: a microcosmic allegory exposing the violence inherent in any form of tribalism. The interactions and interrelationships between the students are clear enough, even if the specifics sometimes get a bit muddled, but more importantly, the lack of dialogue deprives them of the ability to rationalize or justify their actions (to us, anyway). We are silent observers, any sympathy or identification offered only fleetingly, if at all. Composed almost entirely of subtly, but impressively choreographed long takes, often featuring deliberately repeated compositions, the film literally traps us within its characters’ grim and grimy routines. When our unapproachable – and not especially likeable – protagonist disrupts the natural order, the escalating conflicts he sets in motion provide a desolate and disturbing commentary on escaping such oppressive systems. A comment that, perhaps, some critics and moviegoers have no desire to hear.

WILD TALES

An altogether different – and more easily enjoyable – take on human savagery can be found in Damian Szifron’s blackly comic anthology, Wild Tales. Over the course of six riotously funny vignettes, Szifron plunges with maniacal glee into the repressed animal passions that explode from within when people are pushed to their limits. Vengeance, guilt, greed, frustration, and jealousy are vividly caricatured in stories of road rage, marriage, and the particular rage evoked when navigating bureaucracy. But unlike Slaboshpytski, Szifron makes his characters both cartoonishly outrageous and uncomfortably sympathetic, over the top yet firmly rooted in our feral instincts, and at various times, we find ourselves almost cheering for them to indulge the worser beasts of their natures. Unbridled and unforgiving, but also cathartic and vital, Wild Tales reminds us that, while such base behavior might be distressingly common, it is common to us all, and suggests that there is something liberating, even empowering, about facing the beasts within and laughing.

’71

Such is the powerful authenticity of Yann Demange’s intense action-drama, ’71, you could almost believe it was actually shot in the decade in which it takes place. Driven by a genuine street-level urgency and arresting visual immediacy, the film energetically evokes some of that bygone era’s best cinematic offerings without ever falling prey to nostalgia, caricature, or mimicry. Dropping us in the rough and ravaged streets of 1970’s Belfast, the film follows Gary Hook (Jack O’Connell), an unassuming British soldier abandoned by his company in the aftermath of a riot, whose run for his life brings him face to face with the realization that his country’s war on IRA terror may be more complex than it appears. A captivating cat-and-mouse chase film, adept and assured enough to dwell in its more meditative moments, ’71’s grey and gritty historical odyssey also resonates as an understated and artful allegory reflecting our own present-day attempts to navigate the moral complexities of our war-torn world.

WTF…?

Not necessarily disappointments, but some surprisingly poor offerings that have received inexplicable praise…

MAD MAX: FURY ROAD

A prolonged demolition derby roaring its way through an apocalyptic (and aesthetic) wasteland, George Miller’s final (we hope) installment in the bafflingly overrated Mad Max franchise has been met with such widespread superlative acclaim, I’ve been forced to question, not only the judgment, but the sanity of many critics I respect and rely on. Utterly devoid of competent storytelling, compelling characters, or any kind of content at all, the film is so unceasingly kinetic and cacophonous it actually becomes monotonous. Yes, the effects are (for the most part) practical, and the choreography often impressive, but in service of what? Despite what any critic may claim regarding Fury Road’s deeper meanings or cultural significance, any anorexic attempts at feminist commentary or genre reinvention are brutally pulverized by the film’s barreling bombast, thudding script, bloodless characters, and wooden performances. At a time when so many critics claim to be weary of empty, overblown spectacle, the praise lavished on Miller and Mad Max seems almost hilariously ironic. It’s not that the emperor has no clothes; it’s that the clothes have no emperor.

SPOTLIGHT

Earnest, sincere, likable, and, unfortunately, not very good, Tom McCarthy’s Spotlight wants very badly to be All the President’s Men, but possesses none of that film’s immersive intrigue, precision craftsmanship, or wit. Focusing on the Boston journalists who exposed the child abuse cover-up in the Catholic church, Spotlight neither invests in their drive, their personal relationship to the story, or the larger significance of the story, itself, amounting to little more than a dull and superficial recounting of factual events. Minus a bizarrely mannered Mark Ruffalo, most of the cast gives committed, sincere performances, but they can’t save the film from its flat screenplay or shoddy technique (politely excused as “restrained” by those critics swayed by the film’s good intentions). It’s not offensively bad. It’s just offensively bland.

CLOUDS OF SILS-MARIA

Olivier Assayas’ Clouds of Sils-Maria is exactly the type of brittle and pretentious exercise that gives arthouse films a bad name. A drama about an aging actress (Juliet Binoche) and her young assistant (Kristen Stewart), the film doesn’t explore their relationship so much as absently bat it around like bored cat with a dying mouse, punctuating their labored interactions with pedantic babble about art, truth, maturity, etc. (“It’s theatre. It’s an interpretation of life. It can be truer than life itself.”) Stewart is as excellent and understated as the bewildering praise heaped on the film suggests, but Binoche is shockingly poor, as forced and awkward as the dialogue she’s made to recite. An empty and self-important film about empty and self-important people that veers perilously close to self-parody.

 

TELEVISION

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RIVER

By now, the trope of the gifted – and cursed – eccentric detective has become as worn and weary as River’s title character. But with her six part BBC series, writer Abi Morgan (Shame, The Hour) successfully breathes new life into the tired premise by giving investigative focus to the miseries that drive her protagonist, rather than the mystery that drives the show’s plot. As psychologically troubled Detective Inspector John River, Stellan Skarsgard delivers a stellar performance, equal parts weathered and vulnerable, compassionate and removed. Probing his peculiar and problematic relationships to his co-workers and his cases, River offers an unsettlingly unromanticized depiction of loneliness and loss, exposing the contradictions and hypocrisies lurking beneath our culture’s fascination with mavericks and outsiders. Dark, desolate, and supersaturated with a haunting melancholy, River is uncommonly powerful and affecting television.

THE AFFAIR

After spending the initial installments of its second season finding its feet, The Affair made a sudden standing long jump into a series of wrenching, challenging, and uncomfortable episodes that live up to – and even surpass – the artfully agonizing promise of its prior season. Expanding its he-said/she-said narrative structure to include the perspectives of Maura Tierney’s Helen Solloway and Joshua Jackson’s Cole Lockhart, The Affair continues its unflinching plunge into the muddy waters of its characters emotional lives, reaching darker depths than ever, as it tallies the costs of their failed relationships and individual desires. As Noah Solloway, Dominic West continues to peel back the layers of his charmingly roguish screen persona, fearlessly exposing the festering self-doubt and self-loathing underneath, while Ruth Wilson’s Alison Bailey remains intriguingly inscrutable, all at once, ice cold and disarmingly delicate. But it’s Tierney who really emerges as the season’s star player, executing a magnificently controlled breakdown, as Helen struggles – and fails – to pull herself together in the aftermath of her broken marriage and find a way move forward. Best of all, in a truly masterful stroke, the season finale successfully folded The Affair’s strained murder mystery scaffolding into its character-driven narrative with a jarring reveal that neither compromised the show’s realism nor simplified its emotional conflicts.

DAREDEVIL

Aside from being just tremendously entertaining, Netflix’s Daredevil performs a marvelous balancing act. It’s not just the series’ artful blend of gritty urban drama and comic book fantasy, or its thematic exploration of the space between heroism and villainy. On every level, one finds a study in sharp contrasts that are allowed to bleed into one another until it becomes impossible to tell where one ends and the other begins. Even its dramatic tone expertly synthesizes the appealingly old-fashioned with the strikingly fresh. The central duality, of course, is the conflict between lawyer/vigilante Matt Murdock (Charlie Cox) and entrepreneur/criminal kingpin Wilson Fisk (Vincent D’Onofrio). Anyone with the slightest familiarity with the comic book knows which one is the good guy and which is the bad, but over the course of its thirteen episodes, Daredevil blurs the distinctions between them, offering a surprisingly rich portrayal of two troubled men, both raised on violence, each trying to save their city in the only way they know how. And it’s that investment in character that gives the series its grace. Unlike a lot of other comic adaptations, Daredevil’s choreographed martial arts melees and quick-witted rhythmic banter are consistently supported by the recognizable reality in which it remains anchored, and the identifiable humanity that runs through its veins.

DOCTOR WHO

One of its finest, to date, Doctor Who’s ninth season offers an intense and intensive investigation into its title character’s complex and combative relationship with death. Comprised primarily of two-parters – a structure that not only reflects the thematic death/life dualism, but also riffs on the season’s driving narrative mystery of the “hybrid” – each story examines the complicated comingling of mortality and morality, from The Magician’s Apprentice/The Witch’s Familiar (the series’ first truly worthy sequel to 1975’s superlative Genesis of the Daleks), which begins with a variation on the old ethical question of killing a baby Hitler, to The Zygon Invasion/The Zygon Inversion (a fierce political allegory that would make Malcolm Hulke proud), which critiques the notion of revolution and righteous slaughter, to Heaven Sent/Hell Bent (a haunting and heartrending finale), which considers the Doctor’s extraordinary determination – and extraordinary recklessness – when it comes to saving lives. The Doctor/Clara relationship (which has become one of the most engaging in the series’ history) provides the season’s beating heart, their dynamic anchoring – and reflecting – the show’s binary explorations. Now fully comfortable and confident in the title role, Peter Capaldi pushes at the boundaries of his Doctor’s charismatic cantankerousness, adding layers of humor and compassion, as well as shades of Doctors past. And Jenna Coleman continues to dig deeper into Clara, maintaining her captivating confidence and charm, even as she continues to evolve, making the most of her memorable last bow as the new series’ longest serving companion.

ASH VS. EVIL DEAD

After 2013’s unexceptional Sam Raimi and Bruce Campbell produced Evil Dead remake, those with a longstanding love for Raimi’s classic slapstick-horror trilogy could be forgiven for approaching this series with some trepidation. News of Campbell’s return as the hapless Ash was met with giddy anticipation, but the question lingered: After 30 years, could they recapture the black comic magic of the originals? And, considering how different the three films are from each other, which particular magic would that be? Ash vs. Evil Dead turns out to be the best case scenario in that it synthesizes elements of all three while creating a magic all its own. After an uncertain pilot, the show quickly finds itself, as an aging Ash, saddled with two young misfits, sets out on a road trip determined to close the book on the evil he let loose once and for all. That, from episode to episode, the acting, writing, and directing can be a little uneven is ultimately insignificant. With the perfect synergy of the franchise’s distinctive over-the-top B-movie self-awareness and Campbell’s perfectly overcooked lead performance – to say nothing of the fathoms of near ludicrous gore – the magic is invincible. But what makes it a more than worthy successor is that, in the midst of its outrageously bloody cartoonishness, it delivers moments that are both genuinely creepy and – especially in its later episodes – genuinely affecting, infusing the gruesome theatrics with the kind of surprising and unsettling impact the Evil Dead series hasn’t possessed since its superlative second installment. And if watching Dana DeLorenzo repeatedly run a zombie’s face through a meat slicer while Death’s “Freakin’ Out” plays on the soundtrack isn’t TV bliss, I don’t know what is…

MISSED OPPORTUNITIES

Promising programs that failed to deliver…

TRUE DETECTIVE

There’s no arguing that the second season of HBO’s True Detective was a profound disappointment. There is some argument to be had about the cause. Though many, for various (sometimes not especially objectively critical) reasons, were eager to take down Nic Pizzalotto, blaming the new season’s failures on his deliberately stylized writing is as wrongheaded as the directing and casting choices that actually sank the show. (A quick glance at David Milch’s Deadwood reveals how artful and effective such ornate and dramatically stylized approaches can be when handled properly.) The poetic discourses on fate, characters named Anitgone, etc. make it abundantly clear that Pizzolatto was looking to inject a classically tragic sensibility into the show. A risky strategy, considering contemporary audiences, but one that, even if it had alienated the average viewer, could have been successfully realized on an aesthetic level in the right hands. The problem is that tragedy – classical tragedy – demands an austere, unsentimental realization (something with which most modern actors and directors are unfamiliar, to say nothing of uncomfortable). When executed with the typical Hollywood focus on emotional approachability, dramatic emphasis, and audience appeal, the whole thing collapses in a heap of overcooked melodrama. Which is exactly what happened. Thus, a potentially unique and poetic drama about the destructive power of buried secrets was reduced to a pompous and overwrought policier.

JESSICA JONES

Despite a promising premise and a commendable attempt at allegory, Marvel’s Jessica Jones simply doesn’t hold together. With its tale of a failed superhero-turned-private detective haunted by a dark past, and its novel use of the hero-villain dynamic as an metaphor for abusive relationships, it could have been something really remarkable. The problem is that while showrunner Melissa Rosenberg clearly knows what story she wants to tell, she doesn’t seem to know how to tell it. Awkward and unfocused, the show hits its stride for an episode or two, only to lose it again, making its best moments some of its most frustrating, as well. Compounding the problem is the bratty lead performance by Krysten Ritter, who, despite delivering effective turns in Veronica Mars and Breaking Bad, simply lacks the gravitas to fully convey the weight of her character’s damaged soul. David Tennant is solid, but underused, as the sad and sociopathic Kilgrave. And Mike Colter’s layered and laid-back performance as Luke Cage inspires some optimism for his forthcoming Netflix series. Beyond that, Jessica Jones – in its first season, at least – never lives up to its potential.

MUSIC

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ALGIERS

Music for the end times. And maybe that’s why this punk/industrial/gospel trio’s searing debut has not been showered with the acclaim it rightfully deserves. Soulful wails build and break atop haunting and volatile sonic tides, lyrically demolishing our contemporary comforts and complacencies. It’s an intense, often challenging listen, both musically and intellectually. It’s also the most commanding, vital, and passionate album of the year. A revelation. Full review here.

SLEATER-KINNEY, “No Cities to Love”

Sleater-Kinney came roaring back from an eight year hiatus with an album that might be their very best yet, proving that they’re still one of the most accomplished, exciting, and important bands around. Full review here.

BEAUTY PILL, “Describes Things as They Are”

One of the most unique bands to emerge from Washington D.C.’s post-punk environs, Chad Clark’s Beauty Pill also came back from a long hiatus in 2015 with a compelling, affecting album unlike anything you’ve ever heard. All at once, dense and delicate, appealing and esoteric, lush and angular, “Describes Things as They Are” carries you away on its flowing soundscapes of guitars, drums, electronica, and reflective vocals, while quietly revealing its complex layers with every repeated listen. Clark possesses a lyrical gift for expanding the personal and idiosyncratic into the realm of cultural relevance and powerful catharsis. “Afrikaner Barista,” a sweet and funny song about a crushing on a coffee server, also examines the complications and frustrations of navigating identity politics. “Steven and Tiwonge” presents a moving vignette of star-crossed love that masks a subtle, but fiery, protest of institutionalized homophobia. And on “Dog With Rabbit in Mouth, Unharmed,” an ode to a departed pet evolves into a meditation on mortality and loss. Ultimately, though, no description of this album can do it justice. Like the best musical offerings, it just needs to be experienced.

TROYKA, “Ornithophobia”

I’ve never been a fan of demanding – or even suggesting – the retirement of specific words or phrases from the critical lexicon, but I might make an exception with the phrase “not for everyone.” Obviously, Troyka’s eccentric, knotty, unrepentantly unpredictable musical synthesis is not everyone’s taste, but you know what? Neither is Taylor fucking Swift. It’s a phrase that only further cements the erroneous notion that popular appeal somehow suggests artistic accomplishment. The fact is, whether or not it’s your thing, “Ornithophobia” is a dynamic, inventive, funny, disquieting, and dizzyingly sophisticated album offering a one-of-a-kind musical experience that needs to be heard to be believed. Deftly blending fusion jazz with math rock – at times, evoking nothing so much as Faraquet covering Bitches Brew – “Ornithophobia” can swing with an easy cool one moment, snap into strutting funk the next, erupt into a dissonant frenzy, and then downshift into haunting harmonies. Strange, surprising, and surprisingly beautiful, it will never be Top 40. But that’s not a bug, it’s a feature.

BINKER AND MOSES, “Dem Ones”

While the rest of the jazz world had orgasmic fits over Kamasi Washington’s “The Epic” – a masterpiece, admittedly, but an overproduced, bloated, and self-indulgent one, to these ears – I found myself much more enthralled by this short, spare sax-and-drums offering from longtime bandmates Moses Boyd and Binker Golding. Comparisons to “Interstellar Space” are inevitable, and Boyd and Golding wisely lean into the punch, paying tribute to Coltrane’s free-jazz classic in various ways. But “Dem Ones,” while certainly adventurous, is more unapologetically groovy than any of Coltrane’s searching latter day peregrinations, anchoring the better part of its six tracks in swaggering rhythms and soulful runs, even as they stretch into the atonal and avant-garde. A dazzling display of musical synergy from two players whose proven partnership has provided them with the confidence to cut loose and see where their particular chemistry takes them.

LE BUTCHERETTES, “A Raw Youth”

On her follow-up to 2014’s raging, ravaging “Cry is for the Flies,” Teri Gender Bender (nee Suarez) offers a bracing, ravishing flirtation with pop melodies, crafting a textured ode to youthful resistance and resilience in all its forms. “A Raw Youth” tears ravenously into 60’s rock ‘n’ roll, 70’s punk, 80’s synth-pop, and 90’s electronica, while sacrificing none of Le Butcherettes’ trademark passion or power, confidently synthesizing its diverse influences into a tenacious, undeniable, irresistible whole. Full review here.

SIGH, “Graveward”

If Emperor spent their legendary career elevating Black Metal to the majestically operatic, Japan’s Sigh have, on their latest album, decked its halls with all the flash, splash and dash of a Broadway spectacular. And, believe it or not, that’s praise. Flamboyantly, defiantly – almost recklessly – experimental, ever since their landmark 1997 album, “Hail, Horror, Hail” (which came with a warning label cautioning the listener that, “If you find that some parts of the album are strange, it isn’t because the music in itself strange, but because your conscious self is ill-equipped to comprehend the sounds produced…”), the band has relentlessly pushed into increasingly eccentric territory, developing a sound that can only be described as an unholy hybrid of Black Sabbath and Frank Zappa. “Graveward” features plenty of driving, pitch-black metal aggression and impressive riffage, but – as always – careening over dense layers of synths, organs, strings, horns, chants, and chimes, breaking into magnificent choral refrains, and veering unpredictably into strange interludes incorporating everything from acoustic strums, to jazz piano, to hip-hop beats, to theremin solos. While all of that may be business as usual for Sigh, “Graveward” also boasts a grandiose cast-of-thousands theatricality that lends it the air of a Tony Award winning production. Though perhaps not as insanely inventive as 2001’s “Imaginary Sonicscape,” or as focused and furious as 2007’s “Hangman’s Hymn,” it’s nonetheless one of the most wildly entertaining and evocative albums of the year.

CZARFACE, “Every Hero Needs a Villain”

While I’m not, for a moment, going to pretend that Czarface’s “Every Hero Needs a Villain” is the best rap album of the year (that honor, almost certainly, goes to Kendrick Lamar’s “To Pimp a Butterfly,” which, try as I might, I just can’t get into), it’s easily the most fun. Turning the tables on the hip-hop superhero concept they laid down on their self-titled debut, “Every Hero Needs a Villain” finds Inspectah Deck and Esoteric wickedly playing up the dark side of their collaboration’s comic book sensibilities. Backed by 7L’s rock beats and guitar flourishes, the result is even cooler, catchier, and more charismatic than its predecessor. Who can resist Deck referencing every geek-centered enterprise from Star Wars to Harry Potter to Doctor Who? Or such lyrics as, “You lack vision, like the first Avengers?” Sure, it may not be as ambitious or innovative as Lamar’s magnum opus, but “Every Hero Needs a Villain” is pure energy and enjoyment from start to finish. And I don’t care what anyone says: “Lumberjack Match” is the best hip-hop song of 2015.

SURVIVAL GUIDE, “Way to Go”

An uneasy dream of an album, Survival Guide’s debut finds former Tsunami Bomb vocalist Emily Whitehurst paying homage to all her 80’s synth-pop influences, while still wearing her punk heart on her sleeve. Deceptively dulcet, Whitehurst and guitarist Jaycen McKissick freight “Way to Go’s” swirling melodies with an undercurrent of dark, buzzing menace, and a quick glance at the lyrics reveals a series of gloomy musings and weary self-reckonings. The result is something haunting and beautiful and, for all its seeming familiarity, quite unique. Full review here.

SCARFACE, “Deeply Rooted”

Hip-hop’s elder statesman of the Dirty South, Brad Jordan aka Scarface, emerged from retirement (yet again) in 2015 with this grim, gritty, and intensely soulful album that only further cements his place as one of the genre’s most unflinching and affecting tragic philosophers. Having begun his career with the almost cartoonishly violent Geto Boys, Scarface’s solo albums, though often no less brutal, increasingly evinced the sort of weathered wisdom that can only be obtained through years of wrestling with darkness. On “Deeply Rooted” he strikes a perfect balance, exhaustively investigating the two deeply rooted ideologies – religion and gangsterism – that have both propped-up and let down his culture and community. Clear-eyed and courageous, he pulls no punches in condemning the failings of spirituality or acknowledging the empowering allure of criminality, but it is his personal portraiture and intimate experiences with both that give his anecdotes and analyses their cathartic force. For a gangsta rap album, it is almost entirely free of any posturing or platitudes, seeking instead to get to the more troubling truths that lurk beneath them.

SONGHOY BLUES, “Music in Exile”

When northern Mali fell to Ansar Dire in 2012, many of the Songhoy found themselves exiled from their homes and fleeing south. Among them, four young musicians who met in Bamako and formed Songhoy Blues. Offering an irresistible mix of early American rock ‘n’ roll, blues, and traditional Songhoy melodies, “Music in Exile” exemplifies the best aspects of all those traditions: music as an expression of cultural identity, resilience, and protest. That you won’t understand the lyrics (unless you speak the language) is unimportant. The music, in its sincerity and simplicity, is so catchy and compelling, it’s almost enough to restore your faith in humanity.

In a year full of so much exceptional music, why waste time on disappointments, missed opportunities, or misplaced praise, when I can, instead, mention a few…

RUNNERS-UP

For all its bloat and bombast, KAMASI WASHINGTON’S “The Epic” is still a pretty magnificent achievement. UnWED, a new post-hardcore/rock outfit featuring former members of Hot Water Music and Small Brown Bike, released their very solid debut, “Raise the Kids.” MARRIAGES’ first full-length, “Salome” is a dark, haunting post-rock nightmare that really gets under your skin. And PARTIKEL’S “String Theory,” though it really should be more exciting and surprising than it is, still makes for a very interesting, if dispiritingly easy, listen.

Finally, in terms of more short-form offerings, Devin Ocampo’s new band, EFFECTS, released a series of cassette singles (available through their bandcamp site) that will have fans of Faraquet and Medications salivating for more. And Oakland’s SUPER UNISON released a grippingly frenetic debut EP that picks up where latter-day Black Flag left off…

BOOKS

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forms

FORMS by Caroline Levine

Leave it to a critic to name a book of critical theory one of the best of the year, but Forms is a truly visionary work. Re-inventing (and resuscitating) formalism for a post-historicist, post-post-modernist, post-post-structuralist age, Caroline Levine surveys the strengths and failings of previous literary and political theories, while mapping a fresh, holistic approach to both aesthetic and political landscapes, and illustrating the ways in which they often shape each other. Using historical and literary examples, Levine examines the affordances of four formal arrangements – whole, rhythm, hierarchy, and network – revealing the complex ways in which seemingly unified structures, events, and texts actually contain competing, conflicting, overlapping, and potentially subversive elements. It’s a much needed approach that acknowledges the intellectual value of considering spatial, temporal, and textual definition, while pushing beyond those illusory borders to gain a more comprehensive understanding. Refreshingly brief and direct for a work of political/aesthetic theory, Forms is, nonetheless, thorough, penetrating, and exhaustive, offering something every critic – ideally, every reader – finds exciting and empowering: a new way of seeing.

spooky action

SPOOKY ACTION AT A DISTANCE by George Musser

Taking its title from Einstein’s troubled musing on the nature of quantum entanglement, George Musser’s Spooky Action at a Distance provides a thorough, and thoroughly enjoyable, explication of the concept of nonlocality. Guiding us through the concept’s long and troublesome history – which, in a sense, is the history of science, itself – Musser not only introduces and illuminates the various complex theories, hypotheses, and (sometimes contentious) debates in which nonlocality has played a role, but also the various complex personalities who devised, tested, and argued them, expertly balancing detailed scientific information with vivid characterizations and entertaining anecdotes. But nothing surpasses the mind-blowing implications of the concept itself, and what it reveals about our limited – and possibly illusory – understanding of the universe.

between

BETWEEN THE WORLD AND ME by Ta-Nehisi Coates

A passionate, pleading, fierce, and fatalistic boots-on-the-ground memoir of growing up black in America, Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me consciously borrows its structure from James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time, taking the form of a letter written by the author to his teenage son. Deftly balancing piercing analysis with searing emotion, Coates takes him – and by extension, us – on a lightning tour of his childhood, adolescence, college, and early adult years, while forcing us to confront and consider the harsh and unjust realities of life on the flipside of the American Dream. Keeping his reminiscences grounded, anchored – often palpably – in the physical, Coates’ eschews the spirituality, the progressive optimism, the political oratory, and the moral sermonizing that have become all too commonplace in contemporary discussions of race, allowing his personal vision of America’s entrenched and intractable racial divide to emerge more organically. He offers no solutions and, perhaps most strikingly, even goes so far as to suggest that none may realistically exist. Unlike so many other meditations on race and racism, Between the World and Me is not a prescription, but an honest reflection – an uncompromising and enlightening one from which everyone in America might have something to learn.

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BOOK OF NUMBERS by Joshua Cohen

It’s been interesting to watch the arc of the acclaim that followed the publication of Joshua Cohen’s dense, dizzying, and dazzling Book of Numbers last June. Initially hailed as superlatively brilliant, it began to disappear from various “Best Of…” lists after a barrage of condemnations from hypersensitive cultural watchdogs whose obsession with parity blinded them to parody, as they attacked everything from the book’s “unrelatable” depictions of privilege to the casual sexism and prejudice occasionally evinced by its protagonist. To say such criticisms missed the point of the book would be an understatement. They also misrepresent it. A masterfully complex investigation into issues of identity and isolation in the internet age, The Book of Numbers follows a satirically distorted author surrogate named Joshua Cohen who is hired to ghostwrite the memoirs of an iconic Silicon Valley innovator, also named Joshua Cohen. The binary, like everything else in this richly and carefully detailed novel, is pointed and deliberate, as the book divides itself between Cohen the writer’s first-person narration of the events, and the incomplete drafts, fragments, transcripts, and emails relating to the memoir he attempts to write. Along the way, we travel from New York to Dubai to Europe, tour some of the wealthiest and most impoverished environments on the planet, and learn the history and evolution of the internet (at least, as experienced by Cohen the computer genius). What emerges is a fractal set of closed systems competing within vast networks, struggles between the private and the public, and contrasting accounts of the impact and importance of new technologies in our lives. Engrossing, entertaining, and enlightening, dismiss the denunciations. Book of Numbers deserves to be counted among the best of the year.

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OUTLINE by Rachel Cusk

These days, I find myself getting pretty exasperated with books about writers. In the last few decades, the dictum, “write what you know,” has been epidemically interpreted among novelists as “write only about yourself.” Ironic, then, that both fiction books on my list this year feature not only writers, but author surrogates, as their main characters. But what’s interesting about Rachel Cusk’s deceptively quiet and compact novel is that it’s really not about her at all. Or, rather, it is. Just not in any conventional way. Outline follows an English author on her journey to Athens to teach a writing workshop, but its first person narrative is not so much about her, as the people she encounters. Cusk describes them in vivid detail, allowing them to come to life on the page, as they discuss their lives, their histories, their perspectives. As the title suggests, despite her marginal – almost documentary – presence, our main character is developed and defined through her perceptions and her portraiture of others. It’s a technique that is simultaneously innovative and classical, in that, without directly addressing any of these issues, Cusk questions not only the nature of authorial presence in fiction, but the nature of authorship – and even identity – as a whole.

DISAPPOINTMENT

I was really looking forward to getting my hands on this one, and I stuck it out all the way through…

GUTSHOT by Amelia Gray

The dark and disturbing stories collected in Amelia Gray’s Gutshot are inventive, intriguing, unnerving, and often funny. Unfortunately, what they aren’t is focused, polished, or terribly expressive. Gray clearly has talent and a twisted imagination, and her stories are economical and entertaining. But, too often, they come off less like the output of a driven and inspired author than a series of assignments completed by a wickedly eccentric creative writing student. And the lack of a compelling vision too often translates to a not terribly compelling read.

Scorch Atlas by Blake Butler

scorch

Blake Butler began one of his more recent Vice columns, “Three Short, Savage Books You Have to Read,” by contrasting the tense and tenuous state of the world with the increasingly insular and self-involved state of literature, bemusedly musing on our curious ability to curl up with a good book (and, by implication, write one), losing ourselves in reassuringly clear and concrete narratives, as civilization crumbles outside our windows:

“It’s pretty clear by now that everything is fucked. So much so that even sitting at home and reading seems insane. As such, it’s become more and more difficult for me to believe a narrator who has any kind of clue what they are doing, where we’re headed, or whose world is anything but a constantly mutating maze, where memory and reality collapse into one another as casually as all the other horrors.”

The sentiment so effectively sums up his own authorial approach to his 2010 “novel-in-stories” Scorch Atlas, you could practically reprint it on the dust jacket, though even this expertly expressed post-facto mission statement can’t really prepare you for the marred and molten hell-scape he conjures in the book’s ravaged pages. Scorch Atlas is less a “novel-in-stories” than a found object from our blighted – and not too distant – future: an oral history of the apocalypse relayed by humanity’s remains.

In an unhinged prose that ranges from disoriented near-coherence to a surreal, almost poetic, stream-of-consciousness, Scorch Atlas presents a collection of short stories, descriptive passages, erratic questionnaire responses, and fitfully annotated photo albums documenting mankind’s final days: Outrageous storms relentlessly lay waste to imploded suburbs – blood, feces, concrete, and glass as likely to fall from the sky as rain. Sinkholes open without warning, sucking cars, homes, and humans into infernal oblivion. Bruises, boils, and alien growths erupt on the flesh, the result of unnamed, unknown infections. Gutters and sewers are overrun with the rotting corpses of animals and insects. In its final flickering hours, the television monotonously rattles off the names of the day’s dead. And the sun, even from behind thick layers of toxic clouds, sears the skin of the planet and its beaten survivors.

Hoping for logical explanations, or conventional narratives, in this festering landscape would be as futile as any other hope. Nature, itself, seems to have abandoned all reason, its chaotic revolt filtered through the groping agony of our narrators’ blistered, sun-burst brains. A mother literally destroys herself to care for her demonically feral sons. A man confronts the bloated, babbling undead corpse of his child sprawling in the attic, knowing it can’t be real, but unwilling to turn his back. A woman paddles an old wash basin through a corpse-littered lake towards a black, monolithic wall that appeared ominously overnight, believing it is speaking to her. Many of these individual accounts seem to melt before our eyes into hallucinogenic heatstroke delirium, either retreating from reality, or recoiling as it is rent apart. All of which might make it sound like Scorch Atlas is hard to follow, but there’s no need to follow a book that grips you so violently by the throat and drags you kicking and screaming into its nightmarish depths. Butler’s language of horror is so intense and exhaustive that, by the book’s end, he seems almost at a loss for words, leaving us, correspondingly, thoroughly psychologically drained.

But what ultimately enables Scorch Atlas to really pierce and scar the psyche is that, for all its bizarre and disturbing cataclysmic imagery, like our most uneasy dreams, it is somehow hauntingly familiar and troublingly believable. As our own world teeters on the edge of environmental and economic catastrophe, it’s not hard to imagine an Earth devastated by a blinding sun, unchecked disease, and scant resources. In that light, Butler’s focused descriptions of a deranged, broken planet can seem terrifyingly prophetic. While most of the survivors we encounter still remember a world before whatever unnamed crises reached such disastrous proportions, they exhibit no desire to rebuild. These are not the idealized, heroic post-apocalyptic archetypes we’re used to encountering, determined to forge a new civilization from the wreckage of the former. They are appallingly adaptable human animals struggling merely to maintain their ugly and desolate day-to-day existences, stripped of all hope, determination, or resolve – almost of all volition – by unendurable pain, fatigue, and trauma; reduced to simple, mechanical survival, whatever their current ghastly circumstances, even as the world around them sinks further into ruin. The planet’s environment may be grotesquely warped, even caricatured, but its inhabitants – in their resignations, their rationalizations, their inertia – remain unsettlingly, upsettingly recognizable.

With its vivid scenic renderings and rejection of narrative conventions, Scorch Atlas might be described more as portraiture than literature, its closest cousins being the phantasmagoric, yet gruesomely corporeal works of Hieronymus Bosch or Francis Bacon. It is a map of the end of the world for those of us who might conceivably find ourselves living through it. A short, savage book you have to read.

2014: Year in Review

by Matt J. Popham

Best-Of-the-Year lists have sort of become compulsory in the internet age, but I’ll be honest:

I hate them.

They are always limited and, often, largely arbitrary. No critic in the world – no matter how much time they have or how well-paid they are – can possibly have seen EVERY worthy film, heard EVERY worthy album, etc. And I have significantly less time and less of a salary than most. So, not only can I not even begin to claim that I have seen, heard, read, or even encountered EVERY artistic offering worthy of consideration, the truth is I have barely seen/heard/read ANY of them…

Which means this is not – and should, in no way, be confused with – a “Best-Of-the-Year List.” I can’t even begin to pretend that I’ve absorbed enough of last year’s offerings to be any kind of authority on the subject. No, think of the below as something like an aesthetic travelogue: As I zigged and zagged my way through 2014, these were the releases and publications that made an impression…

I. SPEECHLESS CINEMA

UNDER THE SKIN – Jonathan Glazer’s icy, alien meditation on identity and sensuality features a masterfully layered performance from Scarlett Johansson as an extra-terrestrial predator who becomes lost in her own borrowed skin. A corporeal cousin of Kubrick’s 2001, Under the Skin lingers over the surfaces of its story and central character, exploring the possibilities of both the human and the cinematic form. Full review here.

MR. TURNER – Less a biopic than an impressionistic character study of one of my all-time favorite artists, Mike Leigh’s magnificent Mr. Turner capably steers clear of the clichés that afflict so many films about painters, effectively becoming a dazzling, touching, and unique piece of visual art in its own right. Beautifully portrayed by Timothy Spall, Turner lurches brutishly through the film, grunting and growling inarticulately, and yet, in every scene, is revealed to be a man of tremendous perception, sensitivity, and feeling. The opposite of the stereotypical tortured artist, Leigh’s Turner is a man in love with the light, devotedly translating it into powerful realizations of his inner life. His vivid, passionate paintings are his only true mode of expression, but rather than fetishizing his work, Leigh keeps his focus studiously on the man, brilliantly illustrating the line between deceptive appearances and visions of truth.

LOCKE – An intense, confined portrait of a man in existential free-fall, showcasing the sublime talents of Tom Hardy, Locke was short-sightedly dismissed by a number of critics as a “gimmick” film, due to the fact the action takes place entirely within a moving car. But doing so overlooks both the thematic necessity of the location and the remarkable visual inventiveness of director Stephen Knight, who allows his protagonist to believe he’s in the driver’s seat, while highlighting the illusory nature of so many of his ideas about himself and his choices. Full review here.

CALVARY – All at once, deeply tragic and darkly comic, John Michael McDonagh’s portrait of a lone decent priest struggling to be a good shepherd to his hostile and disillusioned flock in the wake of the Catholic church’s abuse scandal sympathetically questions the value of forgiveness in the modern world. After a former abuse victim threatens to murder him as an act of symbolic vengeance, Brendan Gleeson’s Father James Lavelle visits each and every troubled member of his small-town Sligo congregation, attempting to offer them absolution before he meets his demise. Gleeson imbues Father James with a charismatic balance of warmth and wisdom, but in a way, it is precisely those characteristics that provoke the ire of those around him. It’s not just that they view him as a representative of a corrupt and crumbling institution; they resent being judged by someone whom, despite their cynicism, they cannot help but see as both a moral arbiter and exemplar. McDonagh has a native’s understanding of just how profoundly the abuse scandal shook Ireland’s cultural foundations, and to his credit, Calvary neither defends nor condemns Catholicism. If anything, the film is critical of any and all sweeping, simplistic judgments, championing a more complex, humanist understanding. And as the haunting finale suggests, if forgiveness is to have any worth at all, it has to go both ways.

GOODBYE TO LANGUAGE – Jean-Luc Godard is one of the most fluent and sophisticated cinematic linguists in the world. A filmmaker who has reinvented himself and his art several times over, the density and intricacy of his artistry has only increased over the decades. So when, at the age of 84, he makes his first foray into 3-D and titles it, “Goodbye to Language,” it’s a safe bet it will be puzzling, challenging, provocative, and significant. Abstract and experimental – even by Godard’s standards – Goodbye to Language tangles narrative film with essay, erratically cross-cutting and interweaving scenes of a couple at the decaying end of an adulterous affair, a wandering canine (played by Godard’s own dog, Roxy), contemporary life in the age of the smartphone, various scenic exteriors, and fragments of newsreels and classic films. There is an assortment of literary quotations, presented dramatically and in voice over, and even an enigmatic hint of unexplained political intrigue. If it all sounds like cinematic cryptography, well… It’s Godard, so… Yes, it is. But that’s part of the point. His trademark captions and title cards functioning as something of a cipher, what emerges seems to be a series of juxtapositions and paradoxes dissecting the breakdown of communication on both an intimate and a global scale. There is a recurring motif of contrasted extremes – Nature vs. Metaphor, Reality vs. Language, Infinity vs. Zero, Nudity vs. Attire, Sex vs. Death – which are then exposed as false dichotomies (it’s worth remembering – though never specifically mentioned – that in France, sex is often colloquially referred to as “le petit mort”). The film warns us that language can shape reality to its own ends, but then reminds us that the reverse is also true, ultimately suggesting that our greatest misunderstanding may be the way in which we define language in the first place. Summarizing Godard, especially in an encapsulated review, can never be anything other than hopelessly reductive, but if there’s a message to be distilled, I think it’s something like this: Those who do not understand the nature of language, or the language of nature (if, in fact, they are even distinct entities), are condemned to be enslaved by both.

BIGGEST DISAPPOINTMENT:

GONE GIRL – David Fincher’s GONE GIRL is a dull, dour, sluggish adaptation of a sharp, fast, and funny book. It’s not just that the characters, who should be grinning, self-satisfied narcissists, come off like they just swallowed handfuls of barbiturates, or that Flynn’s screenplay of her book feels rushed rather than distilled. It’s that Fincher has taken a book ABOUT emptiness and made it into an EMPTY movie. A glossy, blank bit of celluloid as hollow as the houses and humans that haunt Flynn’s novel. There’s nothing more disheartening than watching one of your favorite directors phone it in…

II. FEARLESS TELEVISION

TRUE DETECTIVE – Those who eagerly tuned-in to Nic Pizzolatto’s dark, spiraling noir series, obsessively following its trail of obscure, occult literary breadcrumbs, and expecting a mind-blowing payoff to the show’s murder mystery weren’t just missing the point. They missed the show. A riveting portrait of two men fighting monsters, internally and externally, and staring into abysses, within and without, True Detective never presented itself as a typical Whodunit or even a typical police procedural. And that was its strength. Boasting career-zenith performances from Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson, for all its familiar genre trappings, True Detective’s true narrative focus was the relationship between its dueling protagonists. Its true reveal was the smallness – and the importance – of their victory. And its true investigations were not forensic or judicial, but philosophical, existential, and deeply human.

THE AFFAIR – The entertainment industry usually takes a simple, reductive stance when it comes to infidelity. And sitting for five minutes in front of Hagai Levy’s and Sarah Treem’s The Affair will leave you with no doubt as to why. A complex and agonizing vivisection of two imploding families, and the infidelity that connects and divides them, The Affair refuses to sit in moral judgment of its characters, unflinchingly poring over the pain, the conflict, the confusion that motivates – and results from – one spouse cheating on another. Dominic West and Ruth Wilson are both astonishing, simultaneously evoking our sympathy and our outrage. And someone please give Maura Tierney her long overdue Emmy already! The season finale did little to nothing to resolve the, at times, awkward murder mystery framing device, but I’m hoping that – as with True Detective – its function is symbolic and narratively inconsequential. The series’ gloves-off confrontation with the complicated truths of ordinary domestic life are so powerfully affecting that veering into noir would be an infidelity in its own right. As it stands, The Affair is something unique and challenging. All at once poetic and raw, it is heartbreaking, hard to watch, and worth every torturous minute.

COSMOS: A SPACE-TIME ODYSSEY – I chuckled every time I heard someone dismiss last year’s sequel to/update of Carl Sagan’s milestone miniseries as “over-produced.” Visually resplendent, strikingly detailed, and stunningly beautiful, Cosmos’ effects-heavy aesthetic captured the breathtaking, awe-inspiring, infinite complexity and elegance of the universe better than any onscreen rendering since 2001: A Space Odyssey (the show’s updated subtitle even offers a knowing, confident nod to Kubrick’s masterpiece). You might as well call the universe, itself, over-produced. I was less good-humored about the controversies surrounding the program’s alleged anti-religious agenda. On the one hand, it’s nothing short of appalling that anyone, in this day and age, lives in such willful, fearful ignorance that they could feel so threatened by a simple science program. On the other hand, they’re right to be afraid. Because, for all the even-handed denials on the part of Cosmos’ creators, there IS a not-so-subtle agenda evident in the show’s narrative framework: Each episode pointedly chronicles the struggles of science and scientists against the forces of fear, ignorance, and repression. Those forces aren’t always religious, but they often are. Other times, they are political. Sometimes both or neither. But they exist in every age, up to and including our own. And Cosmos, by design, fearlessly takes them on, making it more than just a dazzling, inspiring, and informative look at the universe (which would have been enough), but also an ideological call-to-arms, championing such virtues as curiosity, exploration, and discovery. Which really shouldn’t be such a controversial stance to take…

LAST WEEK TONIGHT – I have not kept up with Last Week Tonight as avidly as I would like. But I saw enough of it last year to know that the bar for political commentary/satirical news shows has been raised, and raised incredibly high. Former Daily Show correspondent (and once-upon-a-time expected heir apparent to Jon Stewart) John Oliver hasn’t revolutionized the format so much as the tone. Taking full advantage of the freedom offered by HBO, Oliver unforgivingly skewers media, government, and even his audience, mocking the inconsistencies, hypocrisies, deceits, and, above all, the passivity and intellectual laziness exhibited by anyone claiming to take an interest in the world or its welfare, with his singularly British mix of bite, absurdity, and charm. Oliver doesn’t just want us laughing, he wants us angry – at ourselves, above all – about the state of things, and gleefully provokes us into participating in his inspired, activist jape. I don’t know that satire can save the world, but once a week – for half an hour, at least – I believe it’s possible.

GAME OF THRONES (Season 4) – Game of Thrones is so consistent in quality and cohesive in its storytelling, it’s difficult to praise one season over another, especially for those of us who haven’t read the books. That said, while most will probably have the shock and awe of Season 3’s “Red Wedding” forever seared into their consciousness, I found Season 4 to be far more wrenching, affecting, and memorable. No matter how many corruptions, cruelties, inequities, and injustices we witness, the series’ somehow never loses its ability to shock and upset us with reminders that Westeros is just as cruel, corrupt, and unjust as the world we live in. And episode 8, “The Mountain and the Viper,” might be the best and most disturbing episode of the series so far, with its stark (haha) rendering of the vagaries of human brutality, and its “pride-goeth-before the fall” reminder of just how easy it is to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory…

DOCTOR WHO (Season 8) – And, of course, I have to mention Doctor Who. What began as a shaky, uncertain regeneration – for both the Doctor and the series, itself – eventually solidified into one of Doctor Who’s strongest and most unique to date. I will forever miss Matt Smith (in the same way that I will always miss Tom Baker and Christopher Eccleston), but Peter Capaldi has done a superlative job, creating a Doctor that is uncommon, complicated, and compelling. While most have focused on his rough, gruff, Glasgow exterior, what has struck me most is the uncertain, childlike vulnerability that lurks behind it. He is unsure of himself, in a way that only a newly regenerated Time Lord can be, not only questioning who he is, but what it means, on a larger level, to be the Doctor. And the writing has kept pace with him, each episode offering obstacles and opponents that challenge his – and our – conceptions of how the Doctor should react and respond. But if Capaldi’s Doctor has emerged as the show’s unlikely heart, Jenna Coleman’s Clara has stepped up to the plate as its soul. Finally allowed to be a fully-formed, three dimensional character, Coleman’s Clara matches Capaldi’s Doctor in fire, cleverness, and heroism, often saving him from himself, as he saves the universe from various threats. She has become as much a partner as a companion, and their dysfunctional father-daughter chemistry has the potential to evolve into one of the most interesting and irresistible pairings in the series’ history…

BIGGEST DISAPPOINTMENT:

ORANGE IS THE NEW BLACK (Season 2) – Season 1 pulled off an amazing feat of subverted expectation by putting us in the shoes of our protagonist – an unlikely, white, middle-class prison inmate – and making us gradually grow to despise her, and love the initially intimidating inmates around her, by the season finale. Season 2 continues the story but, seemingly, without direction or purpose. With no prejudices or preconceptions left to tackle, the series is just spinning its narrative wheels.

III. LOSSLESS MUSIC

LE BUTCHERETTES, “Cry is for the Flies” – Not a surprise to anyone, as I have been overselling this band and this album to anyone who will listen (and many who would probably prefer not to) all year long. Teri Suarez’s uncompromising descent into the maelstrom of guilt, grief, rage, and self-doubt she has carried since the death of her father is not only one of the best albums of the year. It is a relentless, challenging sonic statement heralding her artistic maturation and cementing her status as a musical force to be reckoned with. Forget Best of the Year. It’s one of the Best of the Decade. Full review here.

BENJAMIN BOOKER, “Benjamin Booker” – A 25-year old, Florida-born, New Orleans transplant, Benjamin Booker burst out of the bayou in 2014 to become the most badass bluesman this side of the century. Starting with the stripped-down style and structure of Delta blues, attacking it with a punk ferocity, adding hearty helpings of grunge’s sludge and gravel, and occasionally slowing it down to engage in shoegazing introspection, Booker’s phenomenal rough-and-tumble debut simultaneously evokes Gun Club, the White Stripes, and Junior Kimbrough while also sounding entirely new. “Always Waiting” sounds like juke joint blues jumped up on Dexedrine, while the driving “Have You Seen My Son” slides into a thumping, acid rock jam, and the aching (and fantastically titled) “Spoon Out My Eyeballs” breaks your heart before erupting into a light-speed blues-punk coda. Balancing raspy howls with thick, soulful whispers, his guitar buzzing and crunching as effectively as it wails, it might be hyperbole to say that Booker’s reinventing the blues, but he’s certainly reinvigorating it.

TV ON THE RADIO, “Seeds” – Last year, TV on the Radio bounced back from the death of their bassist, Gerard Smith, with what might be their best album yet. Focused, intense, mournful, and soulful, “Seeds” boasts some of their most tightly structured, purposeful songs, while sacrificing none of their trademark ambience or evocative atmosphere. From the dejected groove of “Happy Idiot” to the heartrending acknowledgements of “Love Stained,” to the expansive, philosophical reassurances of “Ride,” to the weathered attempts at hope in the haunting “Trouble,” every song features a range of beautifully layered sonic stylings drawn from the band’s diverse musical influences, folding them into a poignant, textured chronicle of crisis, coping, and catharsis. Simultaneously a dirge and a new beginning, “Seeds” is a powerful document of a band struggling with their future…

WHITE LUNG, “Deep Fantasy” – Not since Western Addiction has a band so successfully resurrected the blunt-force attack of 1980’s hardcore, channeling it through today’s more melodic punk aesthetic. After two solid, eardrum battering efforts (2010’s “It’s the Evil” and 2012’s “Sorry”), “Deep Fantasy” finds magnetic frontwoman Mish Way and frenetic guitarist Kenneth William striking a sublime balance, trading command of each song, weaving new textures, structures, and counterpoints into their churning, sonic onslaught. William’s nimble, upper-register frenzy slices and dices its way through the Gatling gun assault of Hether Fortune’s and Anne-Marie Vassilou’s rhythm section, while Way’s voice hardly ever breaks, eschewing the raw-throated histrionics of hardcore in favor of a flat, disaffected snarl. Her biting restraint anchors the band’s theatrical chaos, playing as a novel stand of punk defiance in a world gone mad: “You will not make me lose control.”

THE NEW PORNOGRAPHERS, “Brill Bruisers” – The New Pornographers’ A.C. Newman has described the supergroup’s latest effort as “a celebration album… After periods of difficulty, I am at a place where nothing in my life is dragging me down…” The result is a cascade of glorious, galvanizing music, and the New Pornographers’ most consistent – and consistently enjoyable – album since 2003’s “Electric Version.” Which is not to say the album is uniformly or gratingly cheerful. “Champions of Red Wine” is achingly wistful and melancholic, as is the brief, but affecting, “Another Drug Deal of the Heart.” But if tracks like “Dancehall Domine” and “You Tell Me Where” don’t bring you exultantly to your feet, you might be missing a music appreciation gene or two. Even the frequently meditative Dan Bejar gets into the groove with the eccentrically catchy “War on the East Coast.” In fact, the only truly sad note on “Brill Bruisers” is the fact that it marks the swansong of Pornographers’ percussionist and secret weapon, Kurt Dahle, who announced his departure after the album’s release. Dahle has been the high-energy, propulsive heartbeat of the band since “Mass Romantic,” and it’s hard to imagine their signature sound without him.

STIFF LITTLE FINGERS, “No Going Back” – After seven years of struggle, the departure of longtime bassist Bruce Foxton, and the return of founding bass player Ali McMordie, Belfast’s punk veterans Stiff Little Fingers finally managed to release “No Going Back” last year. Their first album in over a decade, it was well worth the wait: a full-blooded, energetic record, brimming with punk passion, but produced with professional rock ‘n’ roll polish. Often dismissively described as “the Irish Clash,” SLF was always both more musically accomplished and more sincere than their British cousins, and “No Going Back” is a testament to their ability and integrity. Bursting with stylish riffs, singalong choruses, and stinging lyrics straight from Jake Burns’ scrappy social conscience, the album shows off everything that made the band great, without ever becoming mired in the past. The band has grown and evolved musically, but (minus “Throwing It All Away” which is appallingly reminiscent of Starship) sacrificed none of their edge. “Looks to me like nothing’s changed,” Burns sneers on the caustic “Since Yesterday Was Here.” But it’s not entirely true. As their latest effort proves, some things have gotten better…

BUDOS BAND, “Burnt Offering” – Losing not an ounce of the funk/soul strut that has been their claim to fame, “Burnt Offering” finds The Budos Band incorporating the ominous tones of early-70’s Sabbath-esque doom-and-gloom rock into their sound. The blend is so seamless – to say nothing of superlative – it’s kind of a wonder no one attempted such a hybrid before. All at once hip-shaking and earthquaking, “Burnt Offerings” is deep, dark, heavy, and irresistibly infectious. Given the choice, this album would provide the soundtrack to my every move…

BIGGEST DISAPPOINTMENT:

WU-TANG CLAN, “A Better Tomorrow” – In light of the creative conflicts that surrounded its recording and release, I suppose it shouldn’t be a surprise that “A Better Tomorrow” sounds so muddled and awkward. Despite the RZA’s increasingly lush, layered, and soulful production (we’re two decades and a long way from the sharp, punchy punctuations of “Enter the Wu-Tang”), the Clan never really seems to come together in any unified, cohesive way. Rather than dramatically diverse, the lyrical offerings seem disjointed, and even a bit half-hearted – perhaps the result of some members’ ambivalence towards the project and the artistic differences that have only grown during the Clan’s downtime. There are some great tracks – “Ruckus in B-Minor” and “Ron O’Neal” among them – but, for most of the album, they just can’t seem to get it together. Though it seems unlikely, “A Better Tomorrow” leaves one hoping that there might, in fact, be one. Because it would be a shame if the best hip-hop act of the past twenty years were to simply crumble away…

IV. BROKEN BOOKS

I’m a hard-sell on contemporary fiction, but thanks to various recommendations, I made quite a few forays into more recent, and even current, literary offerings in the last year. Most notably, I finally got around to reading Zadie Smith, who has ceased to be my favorite author that I’ve never read, and become, instead, one of my favorite authors of all time. But, though I read a lot of her in the last year, she didn’t publish anything, so I’ll have to discuss her brilliance elsewhere… Nonetheless, I did come across a few books from 2014 that really struck me…

girl

A GIRL IS A HALF-FORMED THING by Eimear McBride – Despite making a number of “Best of the Year” lists, Eimear McBride’s debut novel has developed a reputation as a “difficult” book. And it is. But not because of the alleged “stream of consciousness” style that seems so off-putting to so many readers. What makes McBride’s novel difficult is that it is a harrowing, heartbreaking, 205-page emotional assault. Chronicling the coming of age of a young Irish girl and her relationship to her brain damaged older brother, A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing brutally pummels you from page 1 and never lets up, immersing you in its vivid, relentless renderings of trial and trauma, conflict and confusion. Though certainly influenced by Joyce, McBride’s prose is not so much stream of consciousness as the broken, inchoate syntax of a wounded mind struggling to find coherence in a chaotic world, veering between sense and sensuality, comprehension and contempt. Masterfully crafted, her writing flows with a liquid logic, plunging into smeared emotions, erupting sporadically into poetry, and receding into tragic fragments. It’s a book you need to give yourself over to entirely, letting it carry you into its evocative, cathartic depths.

dept-of-speculation

DEPT. OF SPECULATION by Jennifer Offill – Far less divisive than McBride’s book, though no less interesting stylistically, is Jennifer Offill’s staccato self-portrait in the throes of domestic crisis, Dept. of Speculation. Much has been made recently of our contemporary culture’s inability to engage in deep, immersive reading, and intentionally or not, Offill has offered an answer. Dept. of Speculation is a novel written in fragments… Or maybe aphorisms… (Status updates…? Tweets…?) It seems almost designed to be digested in bits and bites, over quick cups of coffee, in the all-too-brief moments between the all-consuming obligations of our modern lives. Whether, and in what ways, her approach is inherently a good or bad thing is debatable; the real question is whether it’s effective. And while Offill’s book exhibits so many of the aspects I despise so much in post-modern literature – self-conscious, self-centered, self-satisfied – there’s no denying that it makes for an engaging, curiously affecting read. Somehow, her roughly sketched anecdotes, blunt self-examinations, and prayers to Rilke cohere into a cross-section of an intellect desperately groping to find method and meaning in its suffering.

Me

ME, MYSELF, AND WHY by Jennifer Ouellette – Bringing self-interest down to earth, Jennifer Ouellette’s Me, Myself, and Why circumnavigates the latest advances in the science of identity, examining the ways in which we formulate our ideas of ourselves. From the information coded in our genomes, to the questionable merit of personality metrics, to the virtual selves we create in cyberspace, and even the ways in which hallucinogens affect our perceptions of individuality, Ouellette thoroughly and entertainingly investigates and questions some of our most instinctive notions of who we are and what makes us that way. And if you really want to have your hair blown back, I recommend reading Ouellette’s book back-to-back with Bruce Hood’s 2012 offering, The Self Illusion, which covers some of the same ground, but delves more deeply into the science of its subject, revealing our unified concept of selfhood to be little more than a cognitive construct assembled from discrete internal processes. You’ll never see yourself the same way again.

BIGGEST DISAPPOINTMENT:

ETHICS WITHOUT MORALS by Joel Marcks – It’s not really fair to call Marcks’ book a disappointment. It’s a scholarly, insightful, well-written, expertly argued, and best of all, deeply personal deconstruction of morality that offers a rational and realistic conception of ethics as an alternative. A reformed Kantian who had a philosophical epiphany late in life, Marcks attacks his subject energetically and exhaustively. Even, dare I say, exhaustingly. And that’s the thing… If you’re a disillusioned Kantian – or, really, a disillusioned moralist of any kind – looking for a new ethical framework, I imagine Marcks’ book is pretty revelatory and inspiring. But for those of us with our philosophical roots firmly planted in Nietzsche, existentialism, and naturalism, reading Marcks’ book can be a frustrating, wearying effort. Glad as we may be that he’s come around, we watch him take the long way to get there, building arguments of great length and breadth to arrive at common sense, rational positions where we’ve been impatiently waiting. It’s not that it isn’t a worthwhile book, or that it’s lacking in compelling ideas. It’s just that those ideas aren’t always quite as groundbreaking as he seems to think they are.

CROSSED, VOL. 1 by Garth Ennis and Jacen Burrows

by Matt J. Popham

crossed

Garth Ennis has never gone easy on his readers.

From the moment he caught the comic book world’s attention, ratcheting up the visceral and emotional intensity of Vertigo’s already dark and disturbing Hellblazer, his relentless, full-throttle approach has earned him a double-edged reputation as one of mainstream comics’ master purveyors of shock and awe. Not for the faint of heart, or weak of stomach, Ennis puts the “graphic” in graphic novels. Yet even by his standards, Crossed, a stark and savage tale of a post-apocalyptic world ravaged by an unknown virus that transforms humanity into hyper-aggressive, sadistic berserkers, pushes the envelope. Written by Ennis and illustrated by Jacen Burrows, its unflinching and, sometimes, blackly comic depictions of previously unimaginable acts of brutality and perversity have sparked outrage and condemnation, even among many of Ennis’ and Burrows’ longtime fans. When the series debuted in 2008, one could almost hear the sound of hundreds of copies of Issue #1 – which infamously features a full-page, detailed rendering of a couple being viciously gang-raped while their five-year old daughter is torn limb from limb – being thrown against the wall with great force. To call it “divisive” would be granting it a better reputation than it actually has. But Crossed and its grim and grisly execution (to say nothing of its executions) may, if one can stand it, be deserving of a closer look…

Vol. 1 collects the first ten issues into a complete narrative arc, following a ragtag group of uninfected survivors as they trek northwards on foot towards the less populous (and, therefore, they reason, somewhat safer) Alaska, vigilantly determined to sidestep any confrontations with the Crossed (as the infected are called, due to the cross-shaped rash that spreads across their faces) along the way. While the basic plot is readily reminiscent of numerous zombie films, from Dawn of the Dead to 28 Days Later, as in most of Ennis’ work, Crossed’s narrative functions primarily as a framework for exploring character. For all the buckets of blood and blasphemy that marked his celebrated Hellblazer run, Ennis effectively opened up (sometimes literally)the hardened and unflappable John Constantine – first with lung cancer, and then with Kit Ryan – providing the most recognizably human portrayal of the character in the series’ history. When DC Comics’ “No Man’s Land” crossover hit the streets of Ennis’ ultraviolent Hitman, he was content to keep his rogue’s gallery of crooks and killers holed-up in a bar relating personal stories. Similarly, Crossed’s familiar plot tropes and ad nauseum barbarity are designed to test our characters’ limits, and our own, in the hopes of revealing something about them and us. Encountering horror after horror as they journey across the devastated American landscape, each member of Crossed’s motley crew grapples with their respective ideas of what, if anything, makes them – and, by extension, humanity – worth saving. Forging reluctant and uneasy bonds, they gradually become a dysfunctional and dwindling family, fighting desperately for a future that is, at best, as bleak and unforgiving as their frigid destination.

Ennis’ interest in character even extends – significantly – to the Crossed, who are studied closely by both our authors and characters, emerging as something more than the simple zombies one might expect from the genre. Though overcome by a merciless, unquenchable bloodlust, they are far from being mindless avatars of appetite or rage. They retain the encyclopedic memory and learned skills they possessed before they “crossed over” and, though it’s often subsumed in the overwhelming rush of their monstrous cravings, they evince some capacity for thought, strategy, and decision-making. The survivors frequently speak of them as pure evil, even speculating that the plague could be some form of divine retribution heralding the end times. Given their grotesque and sadistic nature, it’s hard not to view them as demonic and their affliction as something preternatural. But while Ennis and Burrows never explain the origins of the epidemic, it’s revealing – though, no doubt, off-putting and offensive to some – that they inject a pitch-black absurdity into their depictions of the diseased, keeping them decidedly down-to-earth. Though their ferocious assaults and the human suffering they inflict are never played for laughs, there’s something clownish about the Crossed when we see them in their element. Their violent excesses are hideous and terrifying, but also – like most things when taken to an extreme – faintly ridiculous.

Even more revealing is the fact that perhaps the most horrific act we witness in Vol. 1 is not perpetrated by the Crossed, at all, but by our two lead characters. Our narrator, Stan, spends the first few issues closely observing Cindy, the de facto leader of Crossed’s small band of “clean” humans, and she quickly wins his – and our – respect. A smart, decisive, and supremely capable survivor, she protects her young son as fiercely as she fires the rifle she keeps slung over her shoulder. But Ennis, aware of both human complexity and the hollowness of hero-worship, refuses to let us settle comfortably into our admiration. Cindy’s toughness also translates into a kind of callousness, the cost of having weathered her share of harsh experiences, even before the world went to hell. Walking a fragile line between cool-headed and cold-hearted, she is a leader only because those around her are drawn to her competence. Her son is her only real priority and, except on rare occasions, she shows little interest in anyone else beyond offering brusque “my-way-or-the-highway” ultimatums. At the end of Issue #3, the steel of her resolve is cruelly tested and she makes a decision that most readers would find impossible to support. Stan’s complicity in the act only makes it that much more difficult to stomach. And while there’s little room for regret or repentance in Crossed’s austere universe, the burden of their choice eventually leads them to an act of recognition that is essential to their evolution as characters and cuts right to the heart of Crossed’s thematic intent.

On the rash-riven face of it, it’s easy – too easy – to look upon the Crossed, in their extreme aggression and savagery, as Satanic harbingers of Revelation, when the real revelation is the horrors that normal humans prove capable of carrying out in the name of their survival, self-interest, and salvation throughout the series. The deliberate juxtaposition of the Crossed’s hot-blooded frenzy with the cold, rationalized violence of the survivors only underscores their shared characteristics while exposing the slipperiness of the survivors’ perceived moral high ground. Crossed is not a typical zombie apocalypse parable about a group of survivors struggling, in the midst of chaotic and desperate circumstances, to hold onto their humanity. Crossed is about a small group of allegedly “clean” humans slowly coming to the realization that the Crossed are humanity. Each of us carries some measure of their perversity, their depravity, their brutality deep within. There is something inherently dark and savage in our nature, and refusing to recognize that fact only makes us more vulnerable to perpetuating the very horrors we condemn.

In much the same way, it’s easy – too easy – to dismiss Ennis’ and Burrows’ gruesome strategies as purposeless provocations, pushing the envelope merely to push their readers’ buttons, putting us through hell for the hell of it. At the beginning of Crossed’s brief prologue issue, Stan laments that “nothing shocks us anymore,” but to interpret that as some sort of authorial declaration endorsing shock for shock’s sake is to give the book a shallow read. Yes, many of the images and acts we are confronted with in Crossed’s pages are jarring, sickening, and terrifying. There would be something wrong with us if we reacted to them in any other way. One of the things that makes Crossed such an intense and compelling read, in fact, is our trepidation in turning every page, fearful of what we might see next. But the grim proceedings and graphic illustrations are only agencies of a more penetrating vision. Crossed is not a book about shock value. It’s a book about people struggling to relate in a world overrun with human horrors. Its real horrific impact is rooted, not in its explicit images of cannibalism, rape, and murder, but in the realization that our humanity is not what elevates us above our most abhorrent specimens, but what inextricably links us with them. Apt as it may be to sum up with overworked aphorisms about fighting monsters and gazing into the abyss, even more fitting, perhaps, (and certainly less wearisome) is this bit of wisdom from one of comics’ finest: “We have met the enemy and he is us.”

Death in the Afternoon by Ernest Hemingway

by Matt J. Popham

DeathAfternoonCover

“Why the fuck would anyone want to read a book about bullfighting?”

It’s a fair question. One that, by all appearances, was not lost on Ernest Hemingway when he sat down to write Death in the Afternoon over four decades ago, but probably seems even more pertinent to contemporary readers. In these kinder, gentler times, the overwhelming majority of people probably view bullfights in much the same way they view dog fights or electoral primaries: as cruel atrocities whose spectators are little more than savages, and whose practitioners are nothing less than criminals. The prospect of reading about them seems only slightly less repugnant – and a good deal less captivating – than actually watching them. Those happy, amoral few unoffended by the practice would still likely wonder why an in-depth analysis – even one composed by one of the Western world’s foremost literary icons – would be of interest to anyone other than an avid enthusiast. If, in fact, any such enthusiasts still exist. It’s the 21st Century, after all… Even the Spanish are starting to have doubts! It’s one thing to discuss bullfighting as a literary device in The Sun Also Rises, but a non-fiction book that explores the traditions and techniques of the toreos…? Sounds about as culturally relevant as a Gutenberg press operations manual… All of which may account for Death in the Afternoon’s relative obscurity, today. (Of course, there is also the decline of the average reader’s level of intellectual inquiry to consider, but that’s another matter for another time…) Regardless, it would be both a literary injustice, and a disservice to the self, to dismiss Death in the Afternoon out-of-hand simply because of a few knee-jerk prejudices.

It is much more than a book about bullfighting.

Don’t get me wrong. It IS that. First and foremost. And it is beautifully that. But for Hemingway, bullfighting was not a sport. It was an art. His approach, therefore, is not that of a mere fan, but that of an aesthetic critic, theorist, and historian, whose knowledge of, and love for, his subject is palpable on every page. He was, of course, aware of the ethical debate, which was already in full swing when the book was published in 1931, but while he confronts the issue head-on, he wisely avoids any attempt at mounting a moral defense:

I suppose from a modern, moral point of view, that is, a Christian point of view, the whole bullfight is indefensible; there is certainly much cruelty, there is always danger, either sought or unlooked for, and there is always death, and I should not try to defend it now, only to tell honestly the things I have found true about it. To do this, I must be altogether frank, or try to be, and if those who read this decide with disgust that it is written by someone who lacks their, the readers’, fineness of feeling, I can only plead that this may be true.

But he also goes on to say that, “a serious book about such an unmoral subject may have some value,” and, from the first few pages, that value is self-evident. Leaving loftier judgments to his alleged betters, Hemingway concerns himself with bullfighting’s artistic qualities: its primal power, its show of athletic grace, and its expression of something profound and universal about bravery and death. Propelled by a professorial passion that enlivens even his most obsessive examinations of its mechanics and minutiae, he deciphers bullfighting’s language and symbolism, displaying a comprehensive understanding of its workings, and offering penetrating insights into its deeper meanings and larger significance, in the hopes of imparting to his readers an understanding of the confrontation’s cathartic impact and tragic weight. (It’s an uncomfortable concept for many in our modern culture, the fact that brutality does not negate artistry, and an unintentional, peripheral effect of the book is to leave the reader pondering our frequent struggles to reconcile the artistically admirable with the morally reprehensible…) While it’s unlikely that those already opposed and appalled will be converted to even a reserved appreciation, it’s impossible to come away without at least acknowledging that there is a great deal more style, skill, and substance involved than most people probably imagine. Regardless, Hemingway’s analysis has applications well beyond the bullring. Any intensive critical study of any art will unavoidably tap into fundamental concepts and core principles universal to all the arts, and probing and perceptive readers will find, in Hemingway’s deconstructions, an invaluable investigation, not just into bullfighting, but into the nature of artistry as a whole.

Not that Death in the Afternoon is, in any way, a dry, scholarly tome. A storyteller by nature, Hemingway frames and illustrates his conceptual explications, critical appraisals, and aesthetic appreciations with relevant and engaging narratives throughout. Many of these are anecdotal – recollections of personal experiences at bullfights – while others are stories of historic fights that have taken on a near-mythic quality over the years, evolving into something resembling folktales. Some of the best and most fascinating sections of the book are those in which Hemingway profiles bullfighting’s greatest legends – Belmonte, Maera, Joselito, El Gallo – any of whom were colorful and charismatic enough to have been characters in one of his stories or novels. His vivid portraiture reveals the ways in which their unique personalities and personal histories informed their individual techniques as matadors, and explores how their contributions shaped, for better or worse, the art and practice of bullfighting as a whole. Their tales of courage and cowardice, triumph and tragedy are presented with Hemingway’s signature literary flare and, regardless of one’s personal feelings about bullfighting, they are undeniably compelling.

Yet, as captivating as his stories are, as romantic and picturesque as his descriptions of Spain and each region’s cultural traditions, as impressive and enlightening as his bullfighting acumen may be, an uncharacteristic insecurity runs like a current through Death in the Afternoon’s twenty chapters. When it comes to bullfights, Hemingway knows his stuff, and he knows that he knows. In that, he is never less than confident and self-assured. But perhaps because Death in the Afternoon was his first foray into non-fiction, or perhaps because its controversial subject was so near and dear to his heart, there is a marked uncertainty in his approach, suggesting an (all things considered, not altogether baseless) worry that his readers will find the book dull. At every turn, the question, “Why the fuck would anyone want to read a book about bullfighting?” seems to plague him. But, far from being a weakness, this novel anxiety (pun intended) actually serves as a font of inspiration, resulting in a number of inventive structural and stylistic choices, as Hemingway spontaneously alters his approach to his topic, or swerves away from it altogether, that only make Death in the Afternoon that much more enjoyable, entertaining, and rewarding to read. At one point, he conjures up an amusingly unimpressed elderly woman to serve as a chorus/reader surrogate, only to become increasingly annoyed with her underwhelmed needling; at another point, believing that fiction is all his readers will accept from him, he halts the book to offer a short story about the aftermath of a battle, which – because Hemingway was a real writer with an understanding of his craft – nonetheless maintains a strong thematic connection to his larger subject. Perhaps most invaluably, he frequently makes use of these tangents and digressions to discuss the art of writing and his own creative approach, generously doling out keen insights, considered advice, and withering critiques. Almost as many pages, in fact, are devoted to the craft of writing as bullfighting, making Death in the Afternoon the closest thing to a literary treatise Hemingway ever composed. Most pleasantly surprising, this curiously nervous approach imbues Hemingway’s authorial voice with an atypical, but affecting, warmth. The stark, hardened prose for which he is known softens here into an unadorned, forthright sincerity, and it’s hard to shake the feeling that this is as close as one can possibly get to the experience of actually conversing with him. There are moments of affability, playfulness, humility and even vulnerability, as his emotional investment in his subject, and his eagerness to share it, are presented largely without artifice, giving us startlingly clear glimpses of Hemingway the man, rather than Hemingway the author, and resulting in some of his most personal and revealing writing.

When the day comes that the practice of bullfighting finally disappears altogether from the cultural landscape, it seems unfortunately likely that Death in the Afternoon will disappear with it. As books on bullfighting go, it is certainly one of the best ever written, but its value far exceeds its relationship to its subject. A book of charmingly unpredictable formal eccentricity, it succeeds, by turns, as an aesthetic study, a chronicle of legends, a travelogue of Spain, a philosophical meditation, a creative writing workshop, and a psychological window into its author and his distinctive worldview. Yes, it is a book about bullfighting. But it is also a book about art, passion, creativity, courage, and death. In short, Death in the Afternoon is a book about life, and one of the most uniquely personal literary offerings from one of the world’s most renowned artists. Why the fuck would anyone NOT want to read that…?

Lenin by Lars Lih

by Matt J. Popham

lenin

Hannah Arendt wrote in 1963 that Lenin had not yet found his definitive biographer. More than fifty years later, that still seems to be the case. Certainly the glut of reactionary tomes that emerged in the decades following the fall of the Soviet Union – despite their often impressive length, breadth, and detail – provide no decisive portrait, even if their authors seem eager to sit in final judgment. The historical revelations of some of Lenin’s more severe aspects that have come to light since the communist collapse complicate any attempts at hagiography. And even those biographers attempting “balance” often seem more ambivalent than truly objective. Perhaps overshadowed by his legacy, Lenin has remained, for almost a century, an inscrutable, irreconcilable figure.

Lars Lih’s LENIN – part of Reaktion Books’ Critical Lives series – is both too broad and too brief to really be considered a biography, but it does provide an invaluable scholarly service and, in the process, accomplishes what so many historical accounts have failed to do: it successfully formulates an essential Lenin (in both senses), refreshingly free of the incongruities and assumptions so often imposed on him by contemporary historians. Through a penetrating and detailed analysis of Lenin’s political life, Lih maps a connective ideological vision that simultaneously distills Lenin’s character while reconciling many of his perceived inconsistencies. The book divides Lenin’s revolutionary career into three decades, charting the evolution – or, more often and more to the point, lack thereof – of his political thought. Citing numerous examples from Lenin’s personal and political writings and associations, including lesser known essays and polemics often overlooked by Lenin biographers, Lih makes a convincing case for a Lenin who was more complex, consistent, committed, and more hopeful – sometimes even to a fault – than previously portrayed.

Ably demolishing the dominant, “textbook” image of the dour, calculating autocrat who cynically exploited Marxist ideology to further his own ends, Lih instead reveals a dedicated, almost naïve, optimist determined to realize his vision of a heroic revolutionary scenario in which the agrarian peasant would be led by the proletarian worker. A man whose piercing intelligence and profound understanding of Marxist theory often made him impatient, arrogant, and inflexible when that vision was opposed or questioned. A man whose unwavering commitment corrupted into desperation in the wake of the Revolution, as the harsh realities of Russia, politics, and power exposed his vision’s inherent flaws – a desperation which, at times, led to drastic actions and loathsome compromises that Lenin, at his best, disliked, and at his worst, rationalized as necessary evils in pursuit of the greater good. In short, a man whose occasionally imperious nature sometimes got the better of his genuine political idealism.

Despite its brevity, it would be inaccurate and unjust to describe Lih’s book as a summary or overview. A political science professor with a specialization in Soviet history and Marxist thought, his comprehensive knowledge and meticulous research are evident on every page. Lih, however, assumes a familiarity with Lenin and the Russian Revolution on the part of his readers, and in his efforts to focus on Lenin’s relationships to certain people and events, often glosses over the people and events, themselves, in a way that might leave those unfamiliar with the subject hungry for more detail. (In this circumstance, it would be advisable to begin with a more in-depth biography or history, then chase it with Lih’s study as a tonic.) Similarly, it would be unfair to say Lih re-contextualizes Lenin, when in fact, that’s what most of Lenin’s previous biographers have done: retroactively viewed him through the emotionally warped glass of a post-Cold War historical perspective. What Lih has done is actually contextualize Lenin – put him back in his own time, allowing him a late 19th/early 20th century revolutionary’s view of Marx and communism, typical of the days before the spectre of totalitarianism cast its shadow over the Western world. By performing a full and thorough inventory of Lenin’s life and work, placing his thoughts and actions in their proper place and perspective, Lih may not be Lenin’s definitive biographer, but he has furnished us with a definitive Lenin. And that is no small feat.