wax banks

second-best since Cantor

Category: reviews

On the DOCTOR STRANGE sequel.

The first 100(?) minutes of the Doctor Strange sequel, Multiverse of Madness, are a cartoonish mess, a Marvel panto featuring good actors chewing on bad dialogue. Cameos, callbacks, foreshadowing, brand-building. All of it stupid. Every quality-controlled moment of it is just…Disney Business, modulo the occasional moment when Raimi’s cockeyed indie humanism shows through the Product.

And then the bulk of act three, in which Strange does sorcerous battle with a hailstorm of musical notes, then performs a dread necromantic ritual and flies to a witch’s unholy temple on magical wings made from the souls of the damned, is like a teaser-trailer for an alternate universe in which Disney allowed its directors to make their own movies — not for adults, that’s too much to ask, but at least for people who’ve seen a non-Disney movie before.

The first Strange flick had some wide-eyed charm, a sense of good fun, a couple of groovy cosmic-psychedelic sequences, an unexpectedly excellent final act, Swinton, Mikkelsen. Here Raimi nails the dimension-hopping visuals; Wong, McAdams, and Ejiofor are welcome presences; Cumberbatch does his thing; none of it matters, none of it lands. It lacks magic. It doesn’t believe in magic — not until we briefly enter Raimi-ville at the end. By then it’s too late, and doesn’t last.

I’m glad Raimi made some money here, he deserves it, but this movie is a pointless waste of time, and I fucking well should’ve known better than to turn it on, much less stick it out. When the last Avengers movie came out, I predicted that Marvel’s run of luck was over. And you know what? I take pleasure in having been right.


Irreal Life Top Ten, allergy season 2022.

Title and form inspired by Greil Marcus, obviously, and little enough to do with ‘irreality’ but I like the name and what, I ask you, what is either of us really gonna do about it. I ask you.

  1. RIP Vangelis. Ευάγγελος Οδυσσέας Παπαθανασίου had a pop songwriter’s instinct for hooky satisfaction and an experimental sonic approach but worked on a ‘classical’ scale, i.e. he wrote Hollywood music and was perfectly suited to film scoring. His Blade Runner score is better than you remember, not just the future-chintz of the main titles and love theme but the ambientronic weirdness of the underscore for scenes like the replicants’ murderous visit to Mr Chew, the man who designed their eyes. Vangelis’s 1975 Heaven and Hell is pure excess and bombast — it even features Jon Anderson on vocals — but at the deepest point of its second half, ’12 O’Clock,’ he manages to wring an unexpected intensity out of the humming and wordless singing of Vana Verouti and choir, bringing a ridiculously pompous synth-prog megasuite to one of those unironically moving climaxes, a passage that works only because it’s both sentimental pop hogwash and the 30th minute of a ‘neoclassical’ work hyperextended to the point of madness. (Don Joyce took this section as the theme to Over the Edge, and one of the greatest OTE episodes is a three-hour improvisatory remix of the Blade Runner score. With a wink of course, it’s Negativland, but not at the expense of the work’s weird integrity.) The hardest and best and most important thing for an artist is to sound like himself. I mean ‘…for a person,’ and I hope Vangelis enjoyed his final years knowing he had only ever been Vangelis. All these moments will be lost in time, like tears in rain…
  2. Paxlovid. My wife and I both got this minor miracle-drug, and our worsening Covid-19 symptoms immediately turned for the better and stayed that way. As soon as I stopped the medication, I began to feel that familiar post-viral bronchial thickening — sign that I was over the initial assault and now thrown back into my own body’s well-worn patterns and limitations and miswirings. You start to recognize ‘the devil you know’ as a part of yourself, both horror and comfort. Covid-19 is survivable and manageable for most people, Paxlovid is widely available, and you should do what you can — including lie about comorbidities — to get a prescription a couple of days after symptom onset.
  3. Buffalo. My fury and despair at the mass murder in Buffalo was wrapped up, I’m embarrassed but not sorry to say, in long-simmering anger at the way mere mass death and suffering isn’t enough to engage Audience Attention in this year of our absent Lord 20-and-22. There needs to be something to sell, a Compelling Narrative Hook, which in this case — for this seemingly neverending moment — is White Supremacist ideology. A decade after the Columbine massacre, it began to be understood even by our determinedly witless national press that Harris and Klebold were (respectively) a psychopath and a depressive, and that their horrifying mass murder/suicide wasn’t fundamentally ‘about’ anything, and reflected only their alienation from normal support networks, i.e. loving parents and other adults able to understand their lives and willing to put in the time. Their grandiose rhetoric masked something stupid and banal: they didn’t like being alive and didn’t see any reason to keep at it, and the kids at Columbine High were luckless scapegoats for their rage. The ‘motivation’ for their act was, in other words, the sickened world around them, of material plenty and poverty of meaning. The vicious little son of a bitch who killed those people in Buffalo lived in their world, in ours, which has only gotten less hospitable to human souls over the last quarter-century. He’s unprepared for the world as it is and the world to come. He really is a racist fool, and the actual problem his actions remind us we must solve is the absolute emptiness that makes racism — about as stupid a set of ideas as you can now imagine — more attractive than whatever else you’re peddling. Which is to say, I’m not interested in his ‘manifesto’ and you shouldn’t be either, by all accounts it’s merely incorrect; what matters is that he managed to reach age 18 without having the faintest idea what the world is like or how to live in it. We must not forgive him, and we must understand him. There is always worse to come.
  4. Digitonal, SAVE YOUR LIGHT FOR DARKER DAYS (2008). Weary instrumental affirmations, that older person’s prerogative: arriving at a difficult middle place and seeing in it the possibility of rest, of being deeply in the time of passage rather than looking always forward or back. Digitonal started out as ‘chillout room’ music but this gorgeous album feels a bit like getting on with life, not just the moment or morning after the beat stops (contrast effect, descendent effect) but over the rest of the ordinary week, sharing private smiles and nods with faces you recognize from mad kinetic nightworld, nonetheless belonging to the waking world. Being here, just here, all the same.
  5. Reeves/Pattinson et al., THE BATMAN (2022). Normally I incline to sympathy when it comes to art that nobody wants, nobody needs, nobody asked for, nobody would miss if it didn’t exist. But there’s not a single joyful or lively frame in this movie, not a single performance (save maybe Colin Farrell’s) that overflows the bounds of what’s ultimately Yet Another Sad Batman Movie. It’s fascinating that Batman has come to signify not ‘moodiness,’ which at least implies tonal variation, but a kind of self-indulgent mopery; the character I grew up with was grim but blackly (or indeed campily) comic, with ‘knight’ right there in his nom de guerre and a giant penny in his Batcave. Hollywood appears to have misunderstood the success of both Christopher Nolan’s movies and Frank Miller’s astonishing DKR/Year One source material, which makes sense; Hollywood is made of money and money is a contagious kind of stupid. I’m with Alan Moore on this, among other things: the point of Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns wasn’t the bad mood. (Y’know who understands this? The Wachowskis. Imagine what they could’ve done with Batman.)
  6. Harald Grosskopf, SYNTHESIST (1980). The Berlin School gives the drummer some — makes sense, his name’s on the cover — and the result isn’t quite a party album but it likes a nice beat just fine. The title track is pure effervescent space-disco, the sound of a car commercial drifting through the rings of Saturn. For a week this didn’t leave my metaphorical tape deck. It’s been that kind of year, and the silly season hasn’t even started yet.
  7. Star Wars: The Roleplaying Game (1987-1998). West End Games did the all-time classic Ghostbusters game, an early push toward ‘storygame’ territory that’s still funnier and more clever than nearly everything that’s gone by that name since, but their hit Star Wars RPG fleshed out the earlier game’s minimal task-resolution mechanics to Fast! Furious! Fun! effect — and for years it was the only place to get the kind of paratextual nerdstuff that Star Wars fans wanted. Timothy Zahn famously used WEG’s RPG supplements when working on his trilogy of novels that singlehandedly revived the commercial fortunes of Star Wars — he even commissioned maps from their art department to help him plan out the trilogy’s climactic fight against the Dark Jedi clone ohgodwhydoIknowthis — and repaid the favour by writing several well-received supplements for the RPG line. And what do you know? The game really is fast, fun, and a friendly sort of furious: mechanics are minimal, fights resolve in a couple of (big) dice rolls, and a mildly optimized Jedi character is nigh untouchable, which is why the emphasis of the game was on the storyworld’s Other Guys… Classic supplements like Galaxy Guide 6: Tramp Freighters, i.e. ‘Firefly plus the Force,’ helped redefine the Star Wars universe in ways that continue to pay off today for (ugh) Disney, and the best WEG books still give that prickle of innocent excitement even now. There are other Star Wars RPGs, of course; money must be made. But the first is still the best — though picking one of the WEG game’s three editions is a tricky task, and good luck to you with that. (I’ll be running a 2e Revised/Expanded game next month for old friends, maybe with something closer to the 1st edition skill list. Can’t wait.)
  8. ‘Parasite in chief in her idiot hat.’ So wrote Christopher Eccleston, son of Salford, beneath a photo of the Queen in her crown. Salford City Council’s ‘About’ page begins: ‘Where is Salford? … about 200 miles north west of London.’ Which is like describing Boston as ‘about 200 miles north of New York City,’ and fuck you forever, you who teach that the limit of your vision is all that is or could be. She seems like a nice lady but I can’t blame him and he’s not wrong, though other parasites successfully compete.
  9. Trey Anastasio in Boston, 7 May 2022. He comes out for a solo acoustic encore, as is his wont, and in the middle of a beautiful improvisation out of ‘Chalkdust Torture’ he unexpectedly segues into one of the middle sections of ‘Harry Hood,’ such a smooth transition that half the crowd doesn’t realize what’s happened — plays for a minute and a half, then glides without effort back into ‘Chalkdust’ with his characteristic audible smile, Anastasio’s most winning musical attribute. That way he has, now, of being pleasantly surprised that he’s alive in his late 50s and sharing his genius with strangers and family, strangers who welcome one another into strange family. Anastasio’s ego was always matched with a self-abnegating generosity, and that difficult integration found ideal expression in the radical democracy of Phish’s improvisatory method. Anastasio has grown beyond Phish in many ways, but only because of his three bandmates, their own exploratory openness and iron dedication to transformative craftwork, was Anastasio able to discover and express his best self musically. Trey still plays music he wrote with classmates 45 years ago, and every time out he sounds like he just learned it and can’t wait to share it with everyone. His eagerness not just to impress but to bring light was always evident, generously onstage and pathologically in the business world backstage; since he got sober it’s tinged with an autumnal gratitude for the chance — and the second chance — to make a living and a life out of doing so. He’s lost more than a step on the guitar, but something inside him has grown beyond measure. Making and sharing art with his best friends, on their own terms, got him there.
  10. Catalytic converters. Our electric car doesn’t have them, which didn’t keep me from racing down the back stairs when I saw a shabbily dressed guy walk into our backyard early this morning. Turns out he was there to paint the fence, as he had been for several weekends running, which goes to show that I might be the main character but I’m not the hero. He’s done an excellent job painting the fence, by the way. It looks great.

off twitter, sorry i didn't write down the name of the artist.

ACAB: Title of your sex tape. (Or, on BROOKLYN NINE-NINE.)

My wife and son watched the whole run of Brooklyn Nine-Nine over the course of 2021, and I saw a bushel of episodes from the couch and many more out of the corner of my eye from the other room. It was a perfectly ordinary workplace sitcom, i.e. a low-calorie pleasure, and ended…poorly.

Cocreator Mike Schur’s earlier show Parks and Recreation began as an experimental ‘how the sausage is made’ serial reminiscent of a Christopher Guest flick (or the UK Office), but gave up on its ambitions after Season One — also wisely shedding its painfully unfunny Male Romantic Lead — and ended as an insufferably sweet waste of time, a hell of endless hugging and affirmation with each member of the ensemble taking turns doing his or her schtick. The show’s writers didn’t know anything about Parks Departments, but I’m sure one or two of them grew up in parochial towns, and the show did find its rhythm as its ‘Hillary Clinton stars in…Green Acres!‘ premise softened into an unusually saccharine iteration of the standard American workplace-sitcom ‘These people are our real family’ autocelebration. But it had a strong ensemble — Amy Poehler is an extraordinarily reliable ensemble performer and the rest of the cast brought vivid distinct personalities to their roles, especially Nick Offerman in the role of a lifetime as Ron Swanson and the unassimilable Aubrey Plaza as April — and enjoyed the usual two or three strong years before the novelty wore off and the show utterly deflated.

B99 maintained structural integrity a bit better, but it didn’t start with much. It had two big problems, and found ways to work around them to varying degrees but eventually succumbed to both.

Its first shortcoming is this: its ensemble was extremely inconsistent.

Andy Samberg’s ‘Hot Fuzz: the series’ setup cast him undemandingly as a cocky manchild, but he grew into his lead role; his performance anchored the show and he’s due all praise for learning as he went. Luckily, or perhaps craftily, Samberg’s three main scene partners — Melissa Fumero as Amy Santiago, Joe Lo Truglio as Boyle, and Andre Braugher as Capt. Holt — are all expert ensemble performers with plenty of miles on them (Lo Truglio was a writer/performer on The State; Braugher was the heart of NBC’s Homicide series; Fumero put in more than a half-decade on One Life to Live — soap-opera work might be an aesthetic crime but it’s a proper acting bootcamp). The core of the ensemble, then, was dead solid. Braugher in particular, like Alec Baldwin on 30 Rock, gave a career-altering comic performance, as (kudos to the writers for seeing this) his initial ‘humourless’ deadpan opened up into an increasingly weird and complicated character with Braugher obviously loving every second of it.

The trouble started once you got beyond those four.

Terry Crews has wonderful charisma and appears to be a truly excellent human being, but in the role of, uhh, Terry he needed more and couldn’t bring it. You can see him working hard and he attained a certain clumsy dignity at times, but — not coincidentally — only in his scenes with Braugher, his superior officer and the only other black guy around most of the time, did Crews settle into a real performance.

It’s said that Stephanie Beatriz is a strong actor, and her vocal performance in the overpraised Encanto is absolutely fucking incredible, but you just wouldn’t know it from watching B99. I’m sure that working in her second language, in a weird artificial vocal register, without her glasses, made the job extra difficult. But her Rosa Diaz was an underwritten character and then an overwritten one, and Beatriz never figured out how to make her funny. The contrast between the goth-butch Rosa and Fumero’s anxious-perky Amy was wonderful in theory, and it’s a tiny miracle to see two Latinas holding down those roles. But Beatriz, or perhaps Rosa, was a weak spot in this ensemble.

Chelsea Peretti presented a bigger problem: she definitely cannot act to save her life, and while she might be funny In Real Life, she was an utter null in the Weird Chick role of Gina Linetti, an expressionless void for the cast’s manic energy to fall helplessly into. Unlike, say, Aubrey Plaza, Peretti can’t communicate intelligence or imagination onscreen; her Gina was just a vector for canned putdowns and tired alt-cool schtick. It’s useful (if unfair) to compare clips of the two: Plaza’s bizarre energy prickles through her stage monotone, giving it a surprising variety of colour, while Peretti just hammers one note the whole time. Note that while Plaza and the intuitive dude’s dude Chris Pratt turned out to be a brilliant comic pairing, Peretti never found a successful match in the entire cast. I can’t think of another recent TV character (minus the entire cast of The Big Bang Theory) who could so completely suck the energy out of a scene.

As Hitchcock and Scully, Dick Blocker and Joel McKinnon Miller embodied a single joke each — the same joke, really — and while they might’ve been strong comic performers in other settings, they collectively functioned as a blinking light saying ‘This is a workplace sitcom and these guys are the obnoxious loser coworkers.’ They didn’t have enough (or varied enough) material to make an interesting Greek chorus like the drunks on Cheers; they just sat there.

The supporting players were stronger — Wunch, Pimento, and Professor Kevin Cozner are impressive roles that were fine on the page but blossomed onstage, and Craig Robinson was as funny as ever playing the silly ‘Pontiac Bandit’ — in that regard, B99 was similar to Seinfeld, able to rely on a deep bench of supporting actors to bring weird stories to life. But Seinfeld only had one dud in the cast, Jerry Seinfeld himself, and it only took him and Larry David a couple of years to figure out how to write for his limited toolset, by which point he’d toughened up enough to hang with his three world-class castmates. B99‘s ensemble felt, to me at least, like a bunch of lightweight players carried by a handful of seasoned pros (and the gifted but untempered Samberg).

And that might’ve been fine, had the show not aspired to seriousness and ‘relevance.’ The Rosa-comes-out plot was a duff note, an example of its simultaneous under- and overwriting: as Rosa, Beatriz projected no sexual energy or identity at all (an impressive feat by the producers and directors: how the hell do you so completely mute an Argentine fashion model?!). So making a big deal out of her bisexuality had more than the usual network TV tokenism to it. Her relationship with her parents were telescoped and TV-conventional; the writers gave them too little substance and too much airtime, so at least they had something in common with Rosa.

Jake’s (Samberg’s) parents were more richly imagined — but what do you expect? I bet you $10 everyone on the writing staff was raised by people like them (hence Jake’s constant ‘I’m fucked up because I’m a child of divorce’ asides, which had a writerly special-pleading quality), and bet you $20 none of them have ever set foot in a house full of working-class Latinos like the sketched-in Diaz family. Terry’s family life might’ve been interesting, but again, the writing smacks of projecting white-bourgeois values onto a black actor (a bit like the way Sonja Sohn’s lesbian cop character on The Wire was essentially written as a man and gender-swapped in performance; note that Deirdre Lovejoy’s Jewish woman lawyer character was much more richly imagined by the same writers; well, you push yourself a little more to differentiate characters closer to your own experience, because you can’t congratulate yourself just for having created them). And Crews played the character with everydad generality, letting the writers off the hook in writing a black cop.1

But then…the show wasn’t really about cops. This is the smaller issue on paper — workplace sitcoms are about dumb hijinks and chosen family, not the intricacies of any given field, right? — but in the eighth season of the series it suddenly became a serious problem, because the show’s writers made it one.

The annual Halloween Heist episodes perfectly illustrate B99‘s strengths and weaknesses. They’re basically tightly structured absurd summer-camp fantasies that the writers and actors clearly looked forward to — but the concept flatly does not work in an NYPD precinct…unless you completely abandon any pretense of realism. Doing so is a good choice! Brooklyn Nine-Nine was comfort food and it’s fine to make it silly. The heist episodes are excellent — even I looked forward to them, and as you can see, I hate everything.

OK, so you’ve committed to a show that has nothing to do with actual police, that means you’re free to—

Aah, but no. The show’s perfectly conventional Hollywood writers wanted to tell Socially Relevant uplift-cliché stories in which our sympathetic lead characters, themselves banal NPR liberals (except the half-villainous Hitchcock and Scully of course), run up repeatedly against all that’s Incorrect about modern social mores. Again, this on its own would be perfectly fine; sitcoms have long aired Very Special Episodes to get people (and critics) talking, and it’s well within the expected meretriciousness envelope for network TV. But how do you tell a story about a committed black father (his twins weirdly named Cagney and Lacey!) working under a black mentor in the post-9/11 NYPD if you only occasionally remember to give him an inner life beyond ‘harried father-husband’? How do you make the story of a Latin Catholic bisexual coming out to her standard-traditional immigrant parents interesting if none of those character tags have ever mattered to the story? (Answer: you don’t, it’s not supposed to be interesting; instead you pull out a sitcom script from the 1970s, change ‘lesbian’ to ‘bi,’ add the line ‘Title of your sex tape!’ and hope no one notices that they’ve seen this exact episode a hundred times before.) How do you tell stories about Holt’s life as a gay black senior NYPD officer if you’ve never shown any interest in the topic beyond the purely personal dimension — i.e. if you don’t actually care about his place at the NYPD, only its function as notional backdrop for Andre Braugher’s unsung comic genius?

The writers demonstrated the ability to infodump Wikipedia quotes in the middle of Heartfelt Dialogue Scenes but they only ever approached dramatic weight or even believability when they found ways to analogize the show’s stage-scrim ‘NYPD’ to their own world, i.e. the B99 ‘serious’ stories that worked were the ones that would also’ve worked on a show about a TV writers’ room. And that’s why Season Eight was an off-putting mess. The writers notoriously scrapped half a season’s worth of finished scripts in the wake of George Floyd’s murder, and cast and writers made noises in the press about the importance of Rethinking How to Tell Funny Cop Stories in the BLM Era. Their solution to this nonproblem was to spend a large portion of Season Eight lecturing the audience in the form of implausible, half baked Biden-supporter wish-fullfillment: Rosa honourably bails on the NYPD — but she’s still around all the time to mope at the rest of the cast. Holt shifts his career toward reforming the police from within — but he’s still around all the time to participate in the foolishness. Jake wrestles with How to Be a Good Ally in the usual Hollywood-corporate way, and ends up quitting his dream job to be a stay-at-home dad, which nicely completes his relatable-to-the-writing-staff ‘daddy issues’ character arc at the expense of the show’s widely advertised social responsibility.

(The final seasons’ running plotline about Jake and Amy’s baby-scheduling troubles really did work, but only to the extent that it was a costumed version of ‘How can I afford a nanny on a Production Assistant’s salary?’)

In chasing virtuous relevance — and assuaging the Money’s justifiable white guilt — the writers couldn’t hide their inability to balance sentimental lectures with silly farce the way, say, Rick and Morty or Arrested Development manage to; the problem is that B99 took the deflated USA Office and Parks and Rec as its template and tonal model, and lacked the astringency and authentic lived-in self-criticism of Harmon/Hurwitz’s shows. (B99 didn’t break the fourth wall, if I remember rightly; its vanilla earnestness was part of its appeal, though in Season Eight it didn’t quite work.)

The upshot is that the show didn’t have anything interesting to say, wasn’t pathbreaking or fearless or hilarious — it was just a good workplace sitcom with an inconsistently strong cast — so its decision to ‘engage in serious conversation’ in its final season yielded the sanctimonious nonsense you’d expect from a Hollywood that’s terrified of ‘left’ cultural gatekeepers and prefers simplistic #ImWithHer fantasy to uncomfortable complexity.

(The Wire remains the high-water mark for mainstream TV depictions of crime and policing; nearly everything else seems faintly silly in comparison, and B99 functioned superbly when it didn’t really pretend to be about policing at all.)

Critics liked this shit, of course, and made predictable proclamations about the Importance of the show’s Efforts to share What We’ve Learned (or at any rate What We’ve Recently Read on ‘Progressive’ Twitter) About Policing — but the series’s self-congratulatory ending, like the contemptible final season of Lost, felt like a farewell to our new best friends in the Drama Club rather than an ending to a story about cops (or human beings stranded on an island). Nobody wants a ‘realistic’ Brooklyn Nine-Nine, are you kidding me? Just basic believability. Just the slightest effort at keeping the story’s head from flying up its ass.

Pretentious mediocrity bothers me. I’m good with art that reaches for something extraordinary and fails spectacularly, or tells an ordinary story in extraordinarily precise and personal fashion, or just nails its beats and doesn’t fuck around making excuses for that being its goal. But art that’s ashamed of its ordinariness, which trades on perfectly familiar spectacle and manipulation to deal with its status-anxiety about having nothing deep to say…this is worthy of contempt. Ordinary isn’t a sin. Be ordinary, but don’t insist despite evidence that you’re extraordinary. Be weird, but be all the way weird! Tell a cop story, but don’t fall back on telling a generic sitcom-office story when you turn out not to know anything at all about cops. Tell a wacky-coworkers’-holiday-hijinx story, but don’t stick a badge on it and claim you’re something you’re not…

Brooklyn Nine-Nine was really good at being itself — a lightweight show about a bunch of office drones entertaining themselves in a dumb job, with handcuffs and pistols for set dressing instead of spreadsheets and HR departments. (You know they even did a whole episode about how frustrating it is to deal with an IT department, right?) It was frankly terrible at being anything more, just like Parks and Rec proved terrible at telling stories about local government, and B99‘s eighth season brought out its weaknesses while needlessly sacrificing some of its biggest strengths. If not for the tight core cast working at a high level right up to the end — check out that beautiful final conversation between Jake and Holt, the show’s only believable love story — it would have been intolerable.

If I’d been in charge, I’d have doubled down on the fantasy, rather than trying (and failing) to make a Wacky Workplace Sitcom that Appeals to Limousine-Liberal TV Critics. You could still have ended everyone’s stories the same way — Rosa and Jake can leave, Terry and Holt and Amy can push for reform — their characters could handle those plots — but there was no need for pedantry and sanctimony on top of the self-congratulation and sentimentality that inevitably go with the end of a sitcom that’s reached syndication age.

Well, I shouldn’t be in charge.

The best of the Nine-Nine was blissful semiserial comedy, and the worst was tedious banal horseshit. And that’s what I have to say about Brooklyn Nine-Nine.

  1. The show got reliable but hollow laughs out of Crews’s extraordinary physical presence — his periodic dancing-pectorals trick felt obligatory and lame, the fit-dude equivalent of the writers finding a lame excuse to flash cleavage, ‘apologizing’ for it, but doing it all the same. Crews has remarkable charisma and presence, but it’s not exactly stage presence: he commands attention but doesn’t use it like a skilled stage-comedy performer. (But scenes where he, for instance, led the group in aerobics brought him instantly to life.) Like Beatriz, Crews often seemed half-paralyzed in performance, his vocal equipment limited and physicality punishingly restrained — the writers would use the two of them as furniture to play with rather than letting them play, and we can understand that decision while still regretting it. 

Adam Gorightly, SAUCERS, SPOOKS AND KOOKS (2021).

This is what I wrote last year in my ever-expanding textfile of quick reviews of every book I read, which’ll doubtless be a critical treasure beyond price someday:

A disarming history — partly extrapolated, partly hallucinated, fond, fanciful, and highly strange — of the various ufologists and presumed intelligence agents/assets connected to the Dulce Base mythos and the ‘Bennewitz affair,’ in which contactee Paul Bennewitz came forth in the 80s with claims that eventually drove him mad…supposedly with help from various ‘alphabet soup’ (FBI, CIA, NSA, etc.) gov’t orgs.

Gorightly’s account is, at times, a litany of indistinguishable kooks making claims and counterclaims about who’s a narc and who’s a spook and who’s been compromised, which makes for wearying reading. But it’s also a warmly empathetic — and critical — memoir of the 80s/90s fringe/conspiracist/ufologist community, which Gorightly was a part of. His evocation of his fellow believers and seekers reminds me of Slacker and Waking Life, and is tinged with the survivor’s melancholy that colours A Scanner Darkly (PKD and Linklater again) and the Montauk books. Gorightly’s a breezy writer, thank God, and the book is written for and about fellow believers but with a humane, light touch. He takes less for granted than most of his fellow travelers, to his credit.

Better (from a ‘critical’ i.e. bloodless perspective), Gorightly was part of the eruption of fringe culture into the mainstream in the 1990s (with The X-Files as the best-known example/vector), and takes time to lay out a bit of the media history of the ufology/conspiracist fringe, tracking the circulation of specific memes, first through correspondence and social networks, then into a network of underground publications, finally out to a wider audience via charmingly guileless low-rent broadcasts.

Wellllll, maybe not entirely guileless: Gorightly plays throughout with ‘psyop’ ufo conspiracism, entertaining (if not explicitly endorsing) rumours of government disinfo plots and shadowy characters. Men in Black turn up throughout the story, as do a series of MJ-12 forgeries and the suspected Real Thing. Unlike, say, Redfern and Keel and Pauwels/Bergier, Gorightly isn’t a self-promoter or tease: SS&K isn’t a pulp narrative about brave researchers against the Man, it’s a look at a strain of American folklore by first- and secondhand witnesses. There are no cliffhangers, maybe out of a certain kind of respect, but also because this is a story of deliquescence and dissolution. Bennewitz isn’t the story’s only mental-health casualty, and many characters seem to come to the banally sad ends that await most True Believers — leaving the ufology community, drifting in(to) obscurity, denied narrative closure and even the consolations of material success.

The disinfo ‘plot’ gives Gorightly’s book an ambivalent charge, but again, it’s no thriller. The possibility that the USA gov’t is fucking with the ufologists at every turn is part of the attraction for gawkers, but for more credulous sorts, it seems to settle — over years — into a dull fact of life. ‘You know about the suppressed transmission, of course’: it’s more statement than question, reflecting both the believer’s myopia and his faintly depressing settlement. The cynical ‘skeptic’ guessing game (‘Does the author really believe this stuff?’) doesn’t interest me; for whatever reason I’m sensitive to a kind of weary resignation in such utterances rather than the repetitive (passive-)aggression that less sympathetic listeners/readers perceive (infer, impute) even in what I take to be extra-cheerful kooks.1 As a result, Gorightly’s tale reads to me as an account of a community living so long with Weirdness that it sinks in and replaces ‘normality.’

Perhaps that’s where the weird flatness of the (much less well written) Nichols/Moon Montauk books comes from: as far as Nichols is concerned, he’s just relating the way the world works. There’s no mystery, it’s not pulp fiction, just an account of living day-to-day with what’s now stupidly known as ‘your truth’ — which in his case happens to involve absurd occult conspiracy, but to focus on content misses the point. (Gawking is also obviously the opposite of what the seemingly sad and lonely Nichols wanted out of those books — though Moon seems to’ve been more than OK with gawkers as long as they bought the books.)

Gorightly isn’t cynical, and his genuineness is key to the books appeal, both imbuing his story with a gently sardonic affection and robbing it of some narrative thrust. As such, I find myself grateful for having read the book, and slightly hesitant to recommend it on ‘literary’ grounds — even as I recognize that they don’t, needn’t, shouldn’t apply. Perhaps you ought to read it for yourself.

  1. Yes, that’s three sets of parentheses in one sentence. 

Notes on the MATRIX movies.

The following, written a month or two ago, is excerpted from a manuscript in progress. –w.

The Matrix / Reloaded / Revolutions / Resurrections

The release of Lana Wachowski’s Matrix Resurrections will muddy the critical legacy of the original trilogy++. Not to say it isn’t time for a reevaluation: it’s long been fashionable to backhandedly compliment The Matrix as a ‘perfect’ yet pretentious and intellectually slapdash film, complain about Reloaded as a bloated indulgence with impressive setpieces and a ludicrous ending, and dismiss Revolutions as an overlong and ultimately mundane messiah-tale. All three of these judgments are incorrect. But today’s American film audience — raised on secondhand Star Wars and Marvel’s sub-cinema of expensive reassurance, in a discursive context that prefers video ‘explainers’ and ship-fics to meaningful ambivalence — isn’t capable of meeting the original films on their own terms, and Lana Wachowski’s reinterpretation of the trilogy serves, I think, to narrow and reduce it, even while seeking new things to say about sentimental nostalgia. The Matrix trilogy is more ambitious, with more on its mind, than any ‘blockbuster’ entertainment since, and much morseo than the surprisingly modest Resurrections. It continues, even now, to transform.

The center of the Matrix story is the widely mocked and parodied conversation between Skywalker (Neo) and Emperor (The Architect), which serves as anti/climax to the astonishing second film, Reloaded. I suspect, as I did then, that the Architect scene caused titters partly because its dialogue is a little complicated, but mostly because it explicitly undermines the seemingly familiar narrative which the The Matrix had established.

The first film is the straightforward hero-story of a soul’s liberation: a young Hero fulfills his Destiny as The (Chosen) One, guided by allies from the Hidden World, only when he learns to Sacrifice his illusory Self for Love. The superbly expressive kung fu, snappy dialogue, and wondrous vfx make the Wachowskis’ tale of modern-day gnosis look like sf, but as with its key forerunner-texts Star Wars and The Invisibles, The Matrix is basically old school mythic fantasy (i.e. allegory of self-actualization and restoration to authentic existence) told using familiar, indeed universal, magical terms: Neo/Anderson (tr. ‘Son of Man’) comes to know himself and gains the powers of flight, martial mastery, truesight, transcendence of death, etc. It’s fast and funny, and has a killer ending. No wonder audiences loved it.

But Reloaded all but chucks the surface story of the first film out the window, and after a lot of baroque plotstuff it ends up with Neo confronting the Architect behind, as it were, the curtain. The villain tells the hero that the first film, ostensibly about seeing the hidden truth behind the world of illusion, is itself a long lie: the prophesied messiah, ‘The One,’ is an emergent phenomenon which the evil robots have accounted for in the design of the Matrix; the machines wrote the prophecy. The One exists to keep dissident humans in line, who otherwise might attain critical mass and actually endanger the entire system. The human city of Zion isn’t a paradise, it’s a safety valve (remember what William Empson said about those); the war between humans and machines is a line-item in the machines’ energy budget, and the ‘imaginative freedom’ peddled by The One — i.e. the regularly recurring ‘messiah’ function which our hero/avatar/figure of identification happens to be fulfilling this time around — is another system of control. It’s Plato’s caves all the way down.

On top of that explicitly political rug-pull, there’s the central philosophical proposition of the second film: ‘free will’ being an illusion, the real action is not in choice but in understanding (i.e. a combination of thinking and feeling our way into) the nature of our choosing. The mark of the awakened human isn’t ‘free’ choice, there’s no such thing; it’s insight, self-knowledge, which enables authentic living, and The Matrix‘s iconic ‘red pill’ scene will be recast in Resurrections as a fakeout, a trick — pseudo-agency, a choice undertaken in ignorance of the system which gives rise to it. The weakness of the perfectly logical computer-villain, the Architect, is that he/it can’t conceive of truly free choice. The eminent British sf novelist/critic Adam Roberts cites this as the series’s most interesting idea; I agree and am reminded of the fifth Star Wars film, Attack of the Clones. (Stay with me.) That otherwise risible film revolves on Anakin Skywalker’s private interpretation of compassion as ‘unconditional love,’ which he takes not only as ‘encouragement to love’ but as exhortation toward selfish, destructive passion — which the monkish code (to his mind hypocritically) rejects. The secret marriage that closes Clones is presented to the film’s audience as a consummation devoutly to be wished, but of course the Star Wars prequels are antiheroic tragedy, and Anakin’s willful blindness to the cost of his selfishness destroys the/his world, obligating his (and other people’s) kids to fix things, and sometimes die trying, a generation later. This is the attractive paradox at the heart of the messy but unbelievably ambitious Star Wars films, the motivating misreading which makes Empire possible. The Wachowskis make a similar move in the parodically wooden Neo/Architect scene, sabotaging the trilogy’s pleasure-system, tearing up the contract.

Not for nothing does most of the third film, Revolutions, take place in the real world — we even see the sun for the first time, my favourite moment in the trilogy. Having undercut their own apparent ‘truth will set you free’ message, the Wachowskis finished up with another conceptual backflip: Neo ends up fighting to preserve the Matrix against Agent Smith (The Zero), and ironically fulfills the messianic prophecy by ending the Machine War from the other side. There’s a soporofic mechs vs robots battle scene beneath the earth, and a glorious climactic fistfight in the (virtual) sky; the climax sees Neo deliberately lose his fight with Smith, allowing the code which created ‘The One’ to disseminate into all people plugged into the system (of control). Which is to say, Neo returns to the mundane world after his journey of self-questioning, bearing the magical gift of self-knowledge, and dies in order to share it; it’s one of the cleverest, most elegantly structured hero-journey payoffs in pop-art history. Audiences hated it. Here I’m reminded of the disturbing transhumanist finale of James Cameron’s Avatar, in which our human hero rejects his species (after mowing a bunch of American soldiers down) to become part of an alien world-tree — another weird, subversive image/message laughed out of the Overton window by the usual taste-enforcers. It’s telling that the Wachowskis took the risky path of shooting both sequels at once, embodying the gotcha at the heart of their story from the beginning: if The Matrix was about self-knowledge and the ironic irrelevance of prophecies, why were we so eager to misread it as Neuromancer-plus-Superman?

That’s the real affront of Matrix Reloaded — the Wachowski’s insistence that The One, the messiah-fairytale, wasn’t their ‘mislead’…it was our misread.

Lana Wachowski’s Resurrections doesn’t expand on the in-world mythology of the trilogy in any way, disappointing the nerds; it features hardly any fisticuffs, disappointing action fans, and (worse) what’s there is artless and weightless; it loses two of its best performers, Hugo Weaving (whose unhinged performance as Smith is one of Hollywood’s great villain turns) and Laurence Fishburne as Morpheus, letting down the pure nostalgists, then ironically recasts those parts with young actors whose characters are explicitly acknowledged in-world as doing a nostalgic bit — even watching clips of the first movie to ‘train up’ on their mythic destinies. Wachowski’s broadside against capitalist necrophilia (per Roberts, ‘The Reboot…our contemporary fascination with reshooting (as it might be) the same Star Wars film every few years’) feels too explicitly/narrowly contemporary to resonate in the mythic register as did the original film. The best thing about Resurrections is how weirdly personal it is: Lana Wachowski, Hollywood’s best known transsexual filmmaker, moves the action from ‘The City’ to San Francisco and shifts the allegorical focus of the original trilogy toward the comparatively mundane present-political, reducing ‘transhuman’ to ‘trans’ and losing most of what’s interesting about the trilogy but enabling a liberated explicitness of theme and message. Resurrections functions as a kind of fan-essay about the original films rather than a continuation of the original story. In the end, Trinity gains the powers of The One (the 1+1?), and she and Neo beat up the evil psychotherapist(!) who entrapped them before flying off into a rainbow sky (yes, really) with actual smiles on their faces. They’re still in the Matrix, mind you, but they’ve relieved the tension of their tantalizing artificial separation. They refuse to be rebooted as they were; one suspects they’ll now allow themselves to both live and die on their own terms, in a story no longer obligated to be heroic.

It’s lovely at times, particularly its final shot, and parts of the movie are fun, but it’s hard to shake the feeling that Lana needs Lily — indeed, I left the theater wondering whether the whole thing wasn’t at some level a regretful love letter to their own perhaps broken collaborative relationship, as much as to their parents whose death drove Lana Wachowski’s to revisit the story after years of refusing.

What Resurrections isn’t, makes no attempt to be, is strange — which in retrospect seems inevitable and probably healthy, but dull. The original trilogy is enveloped in mystery from its classic opening sequence (Trinity’s narrow escape from the hotel) to the Superman finale that tees up the ‘real’ story, but insofar as Resurrections is about making peace with sundered selves and being earnestly explicit about love (which literally conquers all this time around), it makes sense that its dramatic arc is one of demystification and dissipating tension. Indeed, its dramatic inertness stems partly from the fact that it seems to want to put its own world behind it; since it’s a big-budget Hollywood film rather than an experimental French or Russian one, there’s just no way in the world it’s not going to function ultimately as an affirmation. Lana Wachowski’s desire to attain and celebrate integration is purely admirable, but there’s no tension in the film, no threat — its antagonisms come off as pedantic and deflationary. (Fun fact: Resurrections premiered not in Los Angeles but at the Castro Theater, the nation’s temple of gay bourgeoisie.) It doesn’t have to explain its ideas because it doesn’t have any, just feelings; that’s beautiful in its way, but in today’s idiotic political climate there’s something weird and worrisome about the association of ‘transcending (gender) binaries’ and ‘not wrestling with ideas.’ (This isn’t to say Lana Wachowski doesn’t have ideas aplenty — only that this movie doesn’t much.) Matrix Resurrections is less a Matrix movie than a movie about the creation- and reception-history of the original trilogy, set in a parallel world. It could as easily, and more succinctly, have been an interview with its stars and director.

Which is to say that the technobody horror and erotic-philosophical charge of the original films might’ve been a side effect of whatever demons of disintegration plagued the Wachowskis from within, or maybe just natural storytelling modes for two writers who got their start scripting Clive Barker comics for Marvel…but their aesthetic upside was to ground the trilogy’s tragic transhuman transcendence in a world both as heady as the Baudrillard it namechecked and as achingly bodily (though not fleshy) as the PVC domme-wear that inspired its look. It’s enough, maybe, to note that in Resurrections Neo never changes out of his work clothes — he spends the movie dressed up, let’s face it, as middle-aged Keanu Reeves. From one angle that’s just lovely, but even if (part of) Wachowski’s point is that maturation and integration involve letting go of a suffocating attachment to thwarted longing (they do! you should!), movies still need to work. The first three, the ones the Wachowskis made together — they worked.

Indeed, the closest the movie comes to having an idea is Lana’s sly decision to replace Reloaded‘s Architect, the archetypal inhuman(e) central planner, with Neil Patrick Harris’s Analyst, whose job is to keep Neo/Thomas taking pills and trading on his reputation and allowing his memory to be ‘weaponized’ instead of doing whatever it is that movie protagonists do. The Analyst is the only interesting figure in the film, embodying the old-fashioned idea that emotional control is the trustiest means of political subjugation. This is how Lana kicks back at ‘redpill’ fetishism: the villains of Resurrections generously offer their subjects plentiful false choice, including those stupid (symbolically overloaded, wonderful) pills, but the trilogy’s story of becoming-One was about insight, inner plenty — and the Analyst knows how to manage that shouldabeen-sacred innerworld directly, cutting out the materialist middleman and speaking directly to/of desire. Harris himself remains a sympathetic figure in his own middle age, and sympathy in place of action is one pseudopolitical trap that Neo ends up having to escape. ‘Am I crazy?’ ‘We don’t use that word in here.’ Of course not: pronouncing capitalist subjects crazy is the sole domain of the state, the machine. Integrated selves might make integrated communities, and unlicensed community runs the risk (from the machine-state’s perspective) of illegibility. Better to keep Mr Anderson fixated on the problems of middle age, to keep his eyes off the possibility of a new one.

What you changed that nobody believed could ever be changed: the meaning of ‘our side.’

In a movie not exactly overflowing with strong dialogue, this — one of the new kids reminding Neo what he was once capable of — is a good line. It’s a lovely expression of solidarity, but in the context of a movie where the villain works in the ‘helping professions’ in order to monitor the inner lives of his prisoner-subjects, the line is also awfully bleak: Neo/’Tom’ pays handsomely for the Analyst to redirect him inward, chasing an atomized and isolated and terminally static ‘wellness’ instead of the (re)union which might make him fully human…at the risk of making him unrecognizable. His sense of himself as self-contained and sick is capitulation to the machine.1

The first time Neo and Trinity get coffee, she’s impressed by his work on the in-world videogame, The Matrix, and pushes him to acknowledge his achievements. (This is the during the long, charming stretch of the movie that’s a kind of ‘real-person fic’ about the cast and crew of The Matrix — much the best thing in the film, but it desperately wants another dialogue pass.) Keanu/Neo/Tom misses the point, just like he’s been trained to: ‘We kept some kids entertained.’ Not just false humility, this is a failure to see art as a bridge between souls: Anderson (Wachowski, in one meaning-frame) dismisses the original story as something other than an exhortation to engage and transform, even while the cast of young would-be heroes whose lives he and Trinity made possible are begging him to support their own ongoing struggles. He mistakes ‘keeping it together’ for being whole, which requires points of interpersonal contact that a well-managed Citizen no longer possesses. The Analyst helps his patients maintain an acquiescent longing that mistakes busyness for action, spectatorship and nostalgia for meaningful engagement — helps them become Matrix fans, rather than protagonists.

Of course, the trilogy has already been here. Remember, this is how the first film ends, with Neo speaking to the machines:

I know you’re out there. I can feel you now. I know that you’re afraid. You’re afraid of us. You’re afraid of change. I don’t know the future. I didn’t come here to tell you how this is going to end. I came here to tell you how it’s going to begin. I’m going to hang up this phone and then I’m going to show these people what you don’t want them to see. I’m going to show them a world without you, a world without rules and controls, without borders or boundaries, a world where anything is possible. Where we go from there is a choice I leave to you. (my emph. –w.)

This is an odd moment: a movie ostensibly about choosing freedom over enslavement ends, triumphantly, with the hero explicitly announcing that the real story is what happens after the supposed hero-journey, and then offering the bad guys a role in deciding what happens next. But of course, the direct address in that scene is also aimed at the audience: I remember seeing the film in theaters nearly a quarter-century ago and understanding myself to be both one of ‘these people’ and the ‘you’ that Neo goads to action. The man even looks at the camera before flying off to begin his work, after all. He may as well say ‘Give me your hands if we be friends.’

And of course, the rest of the trilogy reveals much of Neo’s closing monologue to be merely incorrect: The One is himself an artifact of the system of control, the machines have nothing to fear from humans, and the two tribes’ fates are forever bound together. But beneath the plotstuff, the message (we might more gently say, the perspective) is consistent: emancipation, gnosis, transcendence, is ongoing work rather than a permanent achievement. Neo is just one guy, albeit a superpowered one; he is the hero but the story isn’t ‘about him,’ it’s about the magical boon he brings back to the mundane world, which is a work assignment. Even the choice to liberate oneself from the Matrix (or stay behind and pretend to eat steak) is, at a certain level, predetermined; what’s left is meaning, self-knowledge, resting transparently in that choice.

In English-language versions of Buddhist texts, the term nibbana (nirvana) often goes untranslated — it is understood, at times vaguely, as an exalted state of awakened consciousness, and the ‘exotic’ label subtly reinforces a sense of magical otherness, along with a certain unattainability. In a community which venerates the Buddha (the first truly awakened being) as a self-made semi-divine figure, this choice carries extra weight and some annoying metaphysical connotations. The American monk Thanissaro Bhikkhu, in his translations of the Pāli Canon2, chooses to translate nibbana as ‘Unbinding,’ close to the literal sense of the extinguishing of a fire. The American Buddhist scholar Glen Wallis, following TB’s lead, in his own translations knocks the capital letter off the front: it’s just unbinding, an ongoing process of relinquishing our death-grip on unease/stress (dukkha, conventionally translated as ‘suffering’) as a fundamental premise of our existence. Further along the path to awakening, but still on it: awakening as skill, not reward.

This right here is a good idea.

Neo/Lana spends all of Resurrections trying to awaken from a bad dream to a better one, and then to awaken Trinity/Lana — it works, they win, and the Wachowskis remain smarter than the movies’ fans. But if Resurrections is critical of those who see the trilogy’s call to self-knowledge and ongoing action as mere entertainment (while ruefully acknowleding how easy and tempting it is to see it that way), it doesn’t join in the original work. In the end Love Conquers All, which is a fine message for those living in this world but, as Paul McCartney might’ve told John Lennon, not much of a plan for changing it. Our young sequel-Morpheus tells Neo…

You gotta fight for your goddamn life if you want to see Trinity again.

…which is, lemme tell you, the actual best line in the movie by a long leap, stirring in context — but the movie can’t live up to it. It ends with Neo/Keanu and Trinity/Carrie-Ann thanking the villain for giving them ‘a second chance.’ Irony and self-reference, sure, but not only. The trilogy had the good guys fighting for peace; this adjunct-art sees them settling into love, if not for it. The Matrix movies have gotten old. That’s OK.

  1. It’s a brave story, isn’t it. Annoying as it is in purely cinematic terms, disappointing as it is when compared to the heights of the original movies, there’s something wise and admirable about Lana Wachowski’s insistence on the beautiful wrongness of freedom. 
  2. ‘Pāli’ is the name given to the language of the conservative Theravāda Buddhist scriptural canon, collected and written down a touch more than 2,000 years ago, and this footnote is probably the right place to apologize for not being too concerned about getting my diacritics consistent. You know what I mean. 

One small regret.

Once, at the really groovy ‘launch party’ (is that what they call it?) for the 33-1/3 Phish book, I was in mid-ummm-rant about Phish’s media reputation and I referred to ‘well compensated asshole {criticname}.’ I was drunk and I was improvising, and wish I hadn’t said it; moreso I wish I hadn’t been quoted in the paper the next day.

{criticname} hasn’t gotten rich off his writing and should have.

I wouldn’t know whether he’s always an asshole, I doubt it, but he’s definitely sometimes one, and — here’s the bad part — not always on purpose.

Irreal Life Top Ten, into 2022.

Most new things are terrible because they’re things, cf. all of ‘social’ media; I tend to stick to the older stuff.

Here are ten things I read or saw or heard or played this year.

  1. Robert Aickman, COMPULSORY GAMES. Aickman was the writer that Kelly Link is slightly too melodramatic to be, hard as she tries (a debt she’s been admirably candid about) — master of a slowly insinuating, deftly handled eerie domestic horror. These stories, ably selected and introduced by the independent scholar Victoria Nelson for NYRB, are even stranger now than when they were written; Aickman’s world is gone, heightening the sense of ghostly presence which his unsettling and subtly comic prose creates. His characters walk amidst invisible ruins and find themselves drawn into old invisible story, bound up in worlds at right angles to their own. Aickman’s singular stories might reasonably be called ‘urban fantasy’ but they parallel his other life as conservationist — a formless ambivalence creeps in its own time at the edges of his characters’ regimented modern lives, something stranger than civilization. The ‘supernatural’ seems to live in the earth itself, on old roads and new, in buildings and on trains. I was blessed this year to discover Aickman’s disturbing tales and must come back. Otherwise I suspect they’ll come for me.
  2. The Matrix: Resurrections. The first third of this deeply personal mess of a movie is a proud and mournful reflection on the legacy of The Matrix by one of its cocreators, which is necessarily a regretful look at points missed and possibilities foreclosed. Its final movement is an attempt by the resurrected Neo to rescue the resurrected Trinity from a perfectly mundane life in San Francisco — a successful bid to resist (momentarily) the reduction of the Wachowskis’ vision of imaginative freedom to mere nostalgic style or ‘cool’ — and this is the part that feels both most precisely autobiographical and, frankly, most sentimental and jokey. The middle is a lot of Matrix-y infodumping and rehashing (with Jonathan Groff and Neil Patrick Harris killing it) and I found it hammy and irritating. Distilling The Matrix to a romantic quest-story about twinned male/female avatars reunited through magical (self-)love is…well, it’s myopic, which is to say Lana Wachowski is welcome to bring forward that facet of the extraordinarily multifaceted original, but The Matrix and its two preposterously ambitious sequels are poorly served by this revisit. I was glad to watch it, and desperately wish cocreator Lily had gotten involved too — together the Wachowskis were one of the all-time great cinematic pairings, which is maybe the hidden inner-story beneath Neo and Trinity, come to think of it. (And by the way: seeing Carrie-Ann Moss and Keanu Reeves reunited for this film makes every low-hanging joke and moment of kitsch absolutely worth it. They are simply beautiful together.)
  3. Hex, DIGITAL LOVE. The most 1993 album imaginable, just lovely minimalist ambient textures played on synths that could not possibly sound more dated. The intense ‘X-Files love scene’ vibe of the album goes right to my pleasure centers, its proto-cyberculture cheese the ideal expression of a certain zonked-out placeless nighttime soundscape. Reading Viriconium in a Disney hotel while listening to the first Software album at dawn was one of the peak aesthetic experiences of my dumb life, and this album somehow evokes that combination: it sounds like a computer consoling itself after a breakup. There’s even a track of just chanting, and it’s fine. It’s all perfectly, digitally, lovely just fine.
  4. The Dirk Gently books. Douglas Adams wrote three of the best comic novels of the 20th century, but he was a clumsy and lead-footed novelist and his other novels are all tedious and bad — these two, for instance. No matter.
  5. D.W. Pasulka, AMERICAN COSMIC. This bad book contains one chapter of real substance and the rest is credulous, innumerate, monomaniacal horseshit. What made it interesting, for pages at a time, was my sense of the book as a field recording of Pasulka either getting ‘redpilled’ by ufologist wankers or losing her mind in the most ordinary way — which explanation you choose depends on your levels of charity and credulity. I suspect she went looking for religious conversion, fell into a cult of personality, had a breakdown (check her Twitter feed), and will end up writing overwrought crank books that trade on her scholarly credentials, like her mentor Jeffrey Kripal.
  6. Subnautica, or as I refer to it around the house, ‘Underwater Anxiety Videogame.’ This Minecraft-in-the-ocean game combines mundane fetch-quests with vertiginous terror; if you have even a sliver of thalassophobia you’ll find this deep-sea diving game (which I play on Switch) truly, lastingly unnerving. It sends my blood pressure through the roof. It is lovely to behold, maddening to play, and — when you find just the right bit of salvage or weird fauna on the sea floor and are able to craft just the right item to advance — as purely, simply satisfying as any game I’ve played in years.
  7. Zelda: Breath of the Wild. An excellent candidate for ‘best videogame ever made,’ and better than ever during this idiot pandemic. It’s said that when the design team presented an early version to the creator of Zelda, he spent two hours doing nothing but walking around and climbing trees, enjoying the view and the childlike feeling of freedom. That’s how I play it: walking the vast and varied (psycho)geography of Hyrule, climbing rocks, picking apples, paragliding off mountains, occasionally hearing brief snatches of music like recovered memories. This was my escape in early 2020, and coming back to it this autumn was like slipping back into a familiar dream. On its own terms, as good as Nethack or Go — sublime.
  8. Tom Moldvay’s D&D BASIC SET. This isn’t the version of Dungeons & Dragons that absolutely everyone had; that was Frank Mentzer’s ‘BECMI’ series (Basic/Expert/Companion/etc.), along with Gygax’s ridiculous Advanced hardcovers. And it isn’t the final form of the classic game; that’s Aaron Allston’s 1991 Rules Cyclopedia, which collects the entire BECMI line (with variant ‘Immortals’ rules) in a notoriously unreadable hardcover and was for many years the most sought-after single D&D item. It’s neither the newest nor the oldest D&D version, neither its most idiosyncratic nor its plainest presentation. No, this is just the best one-book introduction to D&D and its most elegant little ruleset: quick, easy, improv-friendly, with just enough rules-weight to handle archetypal ‘fantasy’ adventure play but no more. The trend in ‘old school’ gaming is toward ultralite rules systems, but Moldvay’s 64-page distillation of the original D&D set feels good in the hand; there’s a reason millions of people fell in love with it. The current batch of ‘RPGs for kids’ fail to improve meaningfully on D&D run by a cool, sane, caring Dungeon Master — for such a group, this is absolutely the system I’d recommend. An experienced DM should get the canonical Old-School Essentials ‘retro-clone,’ which perfects the organization of the system at the cost of some of its innocent flavour.
  9. Miles Davis live, 1973. Courtesy of the essential The Heat Warps blog, Miles Davis fans are getting to revisit, in order, every known live recording from his early electric period — 1969-1975, spanning the era between the Bitches Brew live airings and the pulverizing, polarizing Agharta/Pangaea band. 1973 was a period of deep exploration for Miles driven by his mad guitar genius Pete Cosey, who was taking Hendrix’s electric experimentation to the next plane; by the end of the year the band had gone well beyond Miles’s arrogant ‘best rock band ever’ boasting into a realm of nightly ritual insanity, hard-rock companions to the free-roaming psychedelic fusion of Herbie Hancock’s ‘Mwandishi’ band. I’m listening right now to the Tokyo show from 19 June 1973, and the screaming undanceable tempos and formless solo wailing mark this as antagonistic experimentation rather than what was already getting called ‘fusion’-genre stuff; the initial emphasis is on aggressive attack rather than funk interlock, somatic but — until the spacious ‘Ife’ gets nasty on the back half — not quite erotic. To what extent Miles’s alienatingly single-minded ‘jazz-rock’ quest should be understood as political is a question for someone who knows the period, and Miles’s biography, better than I do; all I know is, the man who played some of the most nakedly, uncynically romantic music of the 50s and 60s played some of the most angrily in-your-face ‘jazz’ of the 70s, for audiences that sometimes had no idea how to process what they were hearing. Listening to the live shows reveals Miles as committed to a degree beyond curiosity or perversity; something complex and uncomfortable happens on these tapes. It’s some of the best shit I’ve ever heard.
  10. EU Machine Directive. The other day I told my brother I was reading EU regulatory documents for electronic devices the other day, and complaining about their bureaucratic insanity. His response: ‘Of course, why do you think Brexit happened?’ He’s wrong, but he’s not wrong. Such is the world in 2021, I mean 2022.

On rereading Harry Potter, volume 4 (the one with the tournament).

Think of the Harry Potter series as having two axes of growth: social/psychological and plotwise/’worldbuilding’ dimensions. The third book, Prisoner of Azkaban, is the inflection point for the series’s psychological and emotional growth. Its climactic scene in the Shrieking Shack, which draws Ron’s hapless comic-relief rat Scabbers into a tale of remembered trauma spanning decades and grounds Snape in the social world of the story’s erstwhile unblemished Good Guys, is the precise point at which the story stops being good times with the boy wizard and his friends and darkens into a generational story — a triumphant achievement for Rowling and her storyworld.

This fourth volume is the inflection point for Rowling’s overall ‘mytharc,’ the ‘metaplot,’ the multivolume series-story — here she transitions from tightly conceived books for kids to doorstopper volumes which have a harder time hitting their ostensible age targets, and her victory is more equivocal.

For one thing, it’s too fucking long.

There’s an enormous amount of faffing-about between events of the Triwizard Tournament, to the point where the quest for the Cup recedes uncomfortably into the background — but there isn’t really any other material to take its place. Harry hates his classes as usual, but it doesn’t matter because he’s inexplicably excused from final exams…and Ron and Hermione are somehow reduced in status by being mere students while Harry does hero-in-training stuff. Worse, the plot of the book is pure misdirection: Harry’s courage and moral uprightness are real, but he’s being helped through the tournament by the Bad Guys in order to bring Voldemort back, which is the book’s actual purpose. Here Rowling’s juggling act falters a bit — Voldemort is a threat but not a focus, the Tournament is central to the plot but irrelevant to the story, the petty jealousies (not solely romantic) and social tangles feel like distractions. And it’s too fucking long. I tore through the first three books and had the devil’s own time finishing this one, because it’s neither the high-spirited romp of the early books nor a 100% ‘mytharc’ serial like the latter books. Order of the Phoenix (volume 5) will be all about the looming threat of Voldemort, Half-Blood Prince will set up the climactic magical war, but the Triwizard Tourney isn’t as significant as all that; in the end it doesn’t matter at all, in fact.

Presumably there’s some symbol-play going on — after all, Goblet kicks off with the Quidditch World Cup, another bit of wiz-worldbuilding that was obviously a kick to write but raises more fridge-logic questions than it answers (where and how do all these goddamn wizards live, anyway?). The ultimate irrelevance of the Tournament is a neat countermelody to the ruin of the Quidditch tourney by Voldemort’s minions, another irruption of the Grownup World into the lives of the kids. Rowling can write! But it does (again) raise the question of how, exactly, wizard-children are supposed to exist — and reinforces the argument that while Rowling’s zest for worldbuilding and social portraiture is equaled by her love of single-volume mystery plotting, they’re somewhat let down by the seat-of-the-trousers looseness of her serial plotting. The Sorting Hat, the Ministry of Magic, the Death Eaters… It’s all lovely but it doesn’t really work, never quite coheres into a believable magical England. You can buy Hogwarts but not its relation to the Wizarding World; I’m there for the Quidditch World Cup but can’t imagine tens of thousands of superpowered spectators feeling threatened by the presence of a couple dozen rioters. And why is Voldemort’s return a merely local matter, for British magekind? Do the Beauxbatons gals even know who the hell he is? Why not?

Rowling faces the same problems of scale-mismatch that coloured the earlier books…but where the first three books were about a school, its students, and their alumni parents, so you could easily put plotstuff aside and just float blissfully through Hogwarts and the little lives of these adorable little kids, Goblet of Fire is suddenly about an existential threat to a magical community that somehow exists all over Our Actual Existing Planet. And in those terms, it just doesn’t work.

I can only assume that the Harry books rely, in a sense, on British cultural memory of The War for some of their meaning and borrowed/assumed coherence. The felt sense of keeping calm and carrying on as apocalypse draws near…that’s not a familiar American dynamic; our home front has never been threatened. I suspect, though I can’t be sure, that Rowling is evoking something dear to the British imagination but distant from mine. The specific kind of social pathogen that Voldemort and the Death Eaters represent remains, for me, perilously abstract. And as a consequence, Goblet of Fire is left standing on its own, psychologically, without certain points of reference that perhaps it tacitly relies on.

That isn’t to say I dislike the book — for long stretches I loved it, as I love the story overall. Rowling’s story is so dear to me. Perhaps half of Goblet‘s pagecount is top-shelf Hogwarts stuff. But that pagecount approaches 800 pages, for God’s sake. Too fucking long. It feels repetitive, stitched-together, drawn out. And Rowling’s growing ambition outstrips, I must sadly admit, her planning and (‘meta’)plotting. The emotional arc of the stories, for the three beloved protagonists, is perfectly clear and beautiful. The plot-machinery is rickety and in places ridiculous. I was 20ish when I first read this novel and adored every single word of it; I’m 42 now, I’ve written books of my own, and Goblet of Fire is a 400-page novel that hangs around for 300+ pages extra.

Weirdly, I’m quite looking forward to Order of the Phoenix — inspired by the film, which was surprisingly engaging, I want to see Rowling fully integrate the sometimes disjoint worlds of the wiz-kids and the grownups whose unfinished business they’ll risk (and give) their lives to wrap up.

On rereading Harry Potter, volumes 1-3.

The first one

Haven’t read this since, what, 2001? Scattered notes:

  • Almost no spellcasting (no wands) but plenty of magical-world sensawunda: if memory serves we don’t even see Harry cast a single spell (on purpose) yet there’s an important foreshadowing-interlude with the centaurs. Already building the entire series. Weird that she doesn’t make a bigger deal out of it. This time around, this felt like a miscue.
  • Harry’s dislike of Snape is instant and mutual. After it’s revealed that Snape was protecting him, they don’t get a chance to talk. An oversight.
  • Dumbledore presents himself as a kindly old codger…but at the end his role is revealed and it’s like he has a separate personality. Interesting.
  • She knew from the start what she was doing.
  • Hermione is intolerable — interesting that Rowling paints her as Harry/Ron would have. Then she hugs Harry in the dungeon at the end, and lets him know there’s something else to her.
  • I think perhaps she hadn’t yet conceived of the teleportation stuff that would later prove so convenient for the narrative.
  • A lot of Dahl-esque cruelty — the depiction of the Dursleys is cartoonishly sadistic, seemingly out of measure with the rest of the book. To me, at least, it’s the least believable part of what otherwise strives to be (if not ‘realistic’) a believable coming-of-age story. Yet perhaps that’s just the characteristic tonal mix of of the English-boys’-adventure tale?
  • The Sorting Hat remains a frankly ludicrous contrivance and stains the rest of the series with its cruel, frankly immoral, and (worse) illogical treatment of the children. As ‘worldbuilding’ it makes no sense at all. If the idiotic accusations of bigotry against Rowling have any merit, perhaps the only support is that feature of her work, where children are magically sorted according to some mysterious essential quality. (Unsurprisingly, Rowling has written that she added the Sorting Hat solely to solve the problem of getting kids into opposing houses, i.e. it’s workaday plotstuff disconnected from any world-mystery.)
  • ‘You-Know-Who’ feels, similarly, like a kid-book idea that Rowling was stuck with after the success of the first book. Of course, Voldemort barely registers here. That might be the biggest disconnect between the first book and later — like Emperor Palpatine in Star Wars, Voldemort is just a bit of background colour in this first episode.
  • This first volume is thin in terms of both pagecount and story material — half the book is gone before Harry even gets to Hogwarts, the school year is barely sketched in, and insofar as there’s an on-campus mystery to solve (what’s Snape up to?) it’s almost perfunctory. Rowling does successfully balance episodic schoolkid shenanigans (Quidditch etc.) and the unfolding mystery plot, but the latter is never terribly compelling, partly because the intra-Hogwarts mystery material can’t even kick off fully until more than half the book’s gone! Yet that ‘thinness’ doesn’t feel like a failing but rather a choice.
  • Rowling’s restraint in handling Snape is remarkable: he’s obviously dear to her, his story is the deepest mystery in the whole series, yet she sensibly keeps him offstage most of the time…
  • …which brings me to what might be the essential feature that fans (I suppose I’ve always been one) fall in love with: while the Earth (the broad magical/historical logic) of the HP novels isn’t so well developed, the inner world — the family histories, the social and historical networks at Hogwarts itself — hugely overflows the early books. Like GRR Martin’s slowly unfolding history of ‘Robert’s Rebellion,’ the story of Voldemort and his own magical revolution is doled out over the series with eerily assured pacing and attention to emotional detail. Conventional wisdom holds that Rowling suffered Stephen King disease in the middle and was allowed to write far too long in later books (I remember Order of the Phoenix being interminable and repetitive the first time around), but even in this first volume it’s clear that there’s far more story to tell than Rowling has pages for, and the density of the work is set not by some lack of skill or depth on her part but the chosen form/genre/style of the tale. I can’t believe I’m saying this, but the early books feel too short to me. Imagine what it must have been like for her to plan the long Voldemort story more than a decade in advance. There’s iron discipline at work here, admirable enviable and remarkable, and (with the exception of Deathly Hallows, which I always had complicatedly mixed feelings about) I’m looking forward to the long books most of all.

The second one

Noticeably stronger than the first volume: deeper, darker, funnier, with the ‘mythology’ closer to the forefront. Tom Riddle is a compelling baddie and I wish he’d turned up earlier in the story — the diary’s a brilliant little artifact that appears out of nowhere when needed, feeling like a contrivance. Rowling’s inventions continue to charm me after all these years, I can’t believe it. The weak spot: soft-pedaling the horror elements. She would overcome that later, with her series of torturers (including the astonishingly cruel Umbridge).

Small ‘worldbuilding’ touches, like giving Voldemort a definite age, ground the work; the fairytale vibe dissipates and something deeper and sadder sets in.

Overall, a fine setup for Prisoner of Azkaban, her best book and vanishingly close to perfect — after which the series turns into a sometimes-frustrating stop/start affair.

The third one, with Sirius Black

Because the film is so far superior to the others in the series — it’s the only entry in the entire series with a unique visual style or directorial vision — I’m tempted to assume the book is correspondingly better than volume 4, Goblet of Fire. It may not be so, but I’ll find out when I reread that book later this month or next.

But this is beyond doubt: Azkaban is a giant leap beyond the first two volumes, and if it weren’t marred by Rowling’s customary ‘But why have you gathered us in the drawing room, Inspector?’ mystery-resolution sequence, it would be the first (perhaps only) perfect book in the series. Here Rowling exposes the still-bloody generational wound at the center of the story, the failure of the previous generation to deal with Voldemort and the very personal stories which underlie that schematic good/evil myth-history plot. In the end, the Marauder’s Map — one of Rowling’s very best bits of invention — becomes an artifact of extraordinary symbolic richness, neatly uniting the attractive magical-schoolboy fantasy of Hogwarts, the mystery plot, and Rowling’s potent theme of unrecoverable (but never fully lost) ancestral past.

The deep structure of the book mirrors that of the series. Harry never knew his parents, and he’s slowly brought into a world where everyone knew them — which is of course both crushing and comforting; his maturation depends on making peace with what he can never fully understand: the complicated young people his parents were and the compromised older people they never had the misfortune to become.

It’s particularly interesting that Rowling, a single mother who famously wrote the first volume with a literal baby literally bouncing on her knee, focuses early on Harry’s obsession with the absent father he closely resembles, only to reveal James Potter as a kind of prolonged-adolescent, dead before he could become the villain. Only in the final volumes does Rowling broach the subject of Harry’s mother’s (sexual) agency, her rejection of the monstrous hero Snape for the handsome cad Potter. No surprise that Rowling’s generational revelations are linked symbolically to sexual awakening: in Chamber of Secrets Ginny Weasley falls for the attractive bad boy Tom Riddle — the sensitive ‘half-blood’ orphan — and thereby nearly brings Voldemort back to life; crucially, Ginny realizes what Riddle really was, the power that their fannish epistolary affair has over her, and disposes of the diary itself, unknowingly providing Harry with the tool to defeat Riddle. In other words, she narrowly avoids the fate that landed Jo Rowling on the dole with a baby of her own. Harry’s own role in the story, as an attractive mischief-maker prone to impulsive anger and even vindictiveness but kept grounded by everlasting friendship, is more complicated than Rowling’s critics allow, and in Azkaban that depiction noticeably deepens, as Harry’s privileged relationship to the wizarding world (‘first-name basis with the Minister of Magic’ indeed!) and his barely repressed violent urges come fully into play.

(My 11yr-old son keeps pointing out, as we watch the movies, that ‘Harry has anger issues.’)

I’ll note, though, that the film is even better than the book — incredibly, it might be the only volume for which that’s true — in particular its slight recasting of the climactic time-travel material, which Rowling portrays well but the film handles perfectly, heightening the tension and cutting most of the Cymbeline-length infodump in the Shrieking Shack. The problem with the film is that it achieves its terminal velocity by cutting out all the interesting psychodynamics of the Marauders and Snape; Rowling’s so-called ‘worldbuilding’ (really social portraiture) is one of her great strengths as a storyteller, and even during this patience-testing stretch of the book she dextrously renders the Marauders’ laddish relationships (including their petty treatment Pettigrew). The filmmakers did include one perfect piece of staging, through: when Lupin transforms, Snape is awake, and he instantly leaps to protect the children. This moment of instinctive humanity, entirely uncommented upon in the text, does more for Snape’s character than a whole movie’s worth of arched eyebrows and pregnant pauses, and Alan Rickman does wonders with an often schematic/melodramatic role.

I adored Prisoner of Azkaban — again. It’s fleet, funny, empathetic, emotionally realistic (even in its sometimes quite nasty caricatures, e.g. the Dursleys), and ultimately totally satisfying despite the serial-narrative heavy lifting it has to do. Here the Potter books go from discrete episodes linked by background serial elements to a through-composed multipart story, and Rowling nails the transition.

(Plus there’s something sweet about the way Lupin delivers his revelations in the Shrieking Shack scene, isn’t there? We’ve found the baddie, we’re laying bare everyone’s motivations…let’s tell a story, shall we, children? Of course a children’s book would go that way.)


Douglas Adams is my hero, and I loved this book (without quite getting it) when I first read it nearly 30 years ago.

I’ve just reread it for a workplace bookclub.

There are things to say.

Adams’s reputation rests on the first three Hitchhiker’s Guide books and particularly the first two, which are works of comedic genius on par with Wodehouse and Wilde. They’re dark books, but only in Life, the Universe, and Everything is darkness the primary colour. Not the least bit coincidentally, that was the first true novel Adams had written: the first two H2G2 books adapt (‘novelize’) his own landmark radio serials, and move between comic setpieces at sometimes frightening speed. Nothing in the first two books outstays its welcome — you want more of everything. They’re magical novels, both intellectually serious satire and perfectly pitched farce. But Life (not Liff), his best Proper Novel, needs not only to be hysterically funny but to work at a structural level the earlier books don’t even try for. And this wasn’t Adams’s strong suit. He only pulled it off the once.

Life is a sublime book. So Long, and Thanks for All the Fish is a good book that I’ve never, ever wanted to reread. Mostly Harmless is a lugubrious book, and reads like a suicide note; Adams all but disavowed it, and you can’t blame him.

Dirk Gently combines elements of Adams’s late-70s Doctor Who serial ‘Shada’ with a modern-London setting, and lands somewhere between the sometimes-laboured So Long and the leaden Mostly Harmless. Dirk himself isn’t yet fully formed — no wonder, as he only turns up halfway through the book — Richard is a crashing bore, the sf and ‘literary’ elements seem respectively halfhearted and half-finished (Adams himself acknowledged that the Coleridge ending makes little sense), and the whole thing feels like a short story’s worth of plot stretched to novel length.

Worst of all: it’s not particularly funny.

Dirk, like portions of Life and all of the suggestively titled So Long, feels like an attempt to off the mantle of ‘funny sf writer.’ The trouble is that the heady intellectualism and philosophical savagery of his early/best work would’ve been unbearable without his ensemble-comic release valve — I’ve written about the series’s carnival of horrors before. Adams’s early books are welcoming, they’re high spirited, but they’re not gentle or light; there’s just no time to weep because there’s a great joke every other sentence. Dirk Gently, on the other hand, spends pages at a time on dreary evocations of dreary landscapes populated by dreary characters; partly that feels like perversity, partly like Adams growing enamored of a story set in his own daily life-world rather than Wacky Sci-Fi, even of a satirical sort. Richard’s life isn’t remotely interesting, Gordon Way is barely a character at all, Susan feels like a portrait of someone in Adams’s life whom he can’t/won’t exaggerate into a figure with any comic juice…Adams binds himself to our world, and as So Long already demonstrated, he never quite thrived there. Unlike his parallel-writer Terry Pratchett, he couldn’t write warmly without getting bogged down — he was most at home in the vast cold emptiness of The Galaxy. And he obviously didn’t have Pratchett’s affection or knack for carefully plotted novels; his heart wasn’t in them.

So Dirk Gently isn’t a successful novel; it’s a middling novel written by a genius who’s stepping out of his comfort zone and isn’t quite sure what to do next. Halfway through the six-year span between So Long and his angry sad beautiful travelogue Last Chance to See — which he’d follow with Mostly Harmless, his last real book — Adams wrote about a milquetoast Englishman yoinked around by a charismatic asshole whose head contains stuff he’d rather not deal with, the old spaceship-flying eccentric who shows them what the universe is really like,1 the sensible woman who’s mostly in the background, and a robot with a serious emotional disorder. Perhaps the problem is that the book lacks its Ford Prefect: the character with a dramatic arc to follow…

I enjoyed reading Dirk — like I said, Adams is my hero, one of my favourite writers, and I intuitively understand his books’ emotional and intellectual spectra — but I fear I’d only recommend it to DNA completists.

Sidenote: Now I want to read one of Aleister Crowley’s ‘Simon Iff’ stories — or one of Michael Moorcock’s ‘Jerry Cornelius’ stories. I do wonder whether they were direct influences on/inspirations for Dirk himself…

  1. Yes, I’ve just noticed Slartibartfast’s own resemblance to the Doctor. In my defense, I’m no Whovian.