wax banks

second-best since Cantor

Category: reviews

Irreal Life Top 10, May Day 2023.

May 2, fine, you know what I mean.

  1. Crowded House, WOODFACE. Brothers Neil and Tim Finn collaborate naturally, effortlessly, on an album of warm welcoming quietly masterful pop tunes: Neil at the height of his considerable formalist powers here, the brothers’ sweet harmony vocals lightly seasoned, the band building up each song from formally sly miniature to unabashed mezzoforte singalong bliss. How many lads-with-guitars LPs contain this many perfectly realized songs — strewn across this wide a stylistic range — of grateful darkening and maturation? Take out the seven best songs and the remainder would be the best day of a better-than-average songwriter’s life.
  2. Jung on meaning. ‘The decisive question for man is: Is he related to something infinite or not? That is the telling question of his life.’ Jung’s reputation as one of the 20th century’s most influential psychologists may fall away; hopefully then we can acknowledge him as one of the 20th century’s most influential mystics.
  3. Frasier and Lilith. The French farce Frasier (1993-2004), a tonally distant three-camera sequel to Cheers, gave its hugely talented stars meaty scripts to work with and let them go in front of a live studio audience. The virtuosic Kelsey Grammer and David Hyde Pierce as the Crane brothers were the show’s most purely pleasurable double act, but the production hit a new expressive range whenever fellow master Bebe Neuwirth showed up as Frasier’s ex-wife Lilith; their duets and trios might represent the last gasp of an old-fashioned strain of theatrical performance on American TV. The writers — several of whom were old, old hands — clearly relished the task of scoring those ensemble pieces, in their fondly remembered highbrow-screwball register. (Lilith introduces her date: ‘Brian is a seismologist at MIT.’ Frasier, twinkling: ‘Oh, that’s perfect! Brian being a seismologist and you having so many faults.’) An evolutionary dead end, irresponsible to the Discourse, weekly delivering a measure of flawlessly executed classical comedy. Revisiting the Grammer-Neuwirth duets on Youtube has been a recent joy.
  4. Jim and Pam and Michael and Dwight. Because its influence is everywhere, easy to forget, now, that The Office dramatically altered TV comedy overnight — the Gervais/Merchant original and then Greg Daniels’s USA adaptation mixed single- and multi-camera style and the documentary get-the-shot-framing-be-damned ethos to initially startling effect. The pilot of the USA show adapted the first UK script, and it just doesn’t quite work; I remember hating it when it first aired, and on recent rewatch it stayed disappointing. By the second episode, the comparatively well regarded ‘Diversity Day,’ it had already started to find its own perspective on its setting, and the brief first season closes out strongly with uncomfortable episodes ‘Basketball’ and ‘Hot Girl’ (w/guest star Amy Adams). The unlikable Season One version of Michael Scott is much closer to Gervais’s David Brent, which might be why the show was bombing in the ratings. But in Season Two the show compromises on tone, becoming much more ‘viewer friendly’ by moving the romance plot quickly forward and making Carell’s character an idiot savant rather than a clueless self-dealer. It works, at cost. Seasons 2 and 3 are perfect on their own terms, and the show should’ve ended on Jenna Fischer’s impossibly radiant smile. Seasons 4, 5, and 6 are way above the network-TV average, particularly the strongly serial, Paul Lieberstein-run fifth, but with the end of the overripe Jim/Pam story the show’s basic formula has been fundamentally altered: Michael is now the sympathetic victim of Corporate, the office is a family united (except for increasingly tiresome chaos agent Dwight), and the postwar USA workplace-story message of grotesquely grateful recidivism has been (well) told for the thousandth time. Carell’s lead performance is one of the greatest comic turns in the history of television, and the decision to keep going for two seasons after his departure is an embarrassment.
  5. Cassandra Wilson, ‘Last Train to Clarksville.’ Maybe there’s another layer of meaning in the extra beat the band gives this lightweight Monkees hit between verses, transforming common time into a private nine that signifies not just ‘jazz’ (funny that odd meters have come to do so for what was once dance music) but the darkening distance between 21-year-old Mickey Dolenz — on sublimated ‘departing soldier seeks quickie’ vocal duty — and 41-year-old Wilson, a middle-aged black woman singing about ‘coffee-coloured kisses and a bit of conversation’ like she knows exactly how rare such nights are and how few might remain. Parts of New Moon Daughter are too carefully managed, neither a new nor a solved problem for Wilson; in that regard she prefigures the more talented but less hip Janelle Monáe, whose winning strangeness can’t hide her flop sweat or obvious desire to be doing musical theater. But Wilson sings ‘Clarksville’ like she’s been there, with a wry unforced smile, and her odd-meter scatting brings across the feeling of a good time that hasn’t been easy. Which maybe it actually has, for her — this isn’t biography — but you don’t sing the cynical McCartney-imitating ‘Oh no no no’ with all those slow evening colours unless you’ve felt them. A quietly beautiful song.
  6. Academia. Publication history of a recent humanities paper chosen at a random: submitted 26 May 2019, accepted 29 April 202, published (online) 22 March 2022.
  7. Doomers. Everyone who attended college knows That Asshole who read The Fountainhead at a tender age, didn’t have friends to treat the poison, and went on to disappoint several undeserving women while being a minor political menace. AI doomers are like that, but swap in ‘Ender’s Game’ and ‘sexbots.’
  8. Phish at the Greek, 17 April 2023. Tweezer (43:39) > flawless improvised segue > Simple (19:10), every minute of both jams genuinely compelling. For a band in its autumn, Phish sure do play like the best value-for-dollar in popular music — like the secret of the universe might actually be as simple as loving what you do and who you do it with. Woo.
  9. The indignity of the boiled frog. ‘Choose a delivery option: (1) 4/17-4/19, $10.50 (2) 4/16-4/19, $24.99.’ (Amazon)
  10. Raving. Mackenzie Wark in The Nation: ‘Raves aren’t all that hard to find, but there’s a bit of a learning curve, and an establishing of trust, to find the good ones. … You can read [Wark’s Raving] as a book about the art of constructing situations more generally where we can reduce surveillance, consumption, the hustle, find forms of collective joy, or if not joy, ways to endure the pain of this dying world.’

JURASSIC PARK and THE LOST WORLD, by Michael Crichton.

Spielberg’s Jurassic Park is one of my favourite movies, and I compulsively reread Crichton’s original novel instead of doing schoolwork when it first came out in paperback. I remember looking forward to the sequel — there was a long waiting list for a copy at the library in Jamestown — and I remember, upon reading, feeling nothing at all.

This month, like an idiot, I decided to revisit both novels.


Brutally effective, strangely shaped — the weirdly downbeat ending in the velociraptor nest is infamously structured not around thrills and chases but around Grant’s realization that the dinos are not only breeding but migratory, which feels like a metatextual revelation rather than anything to do with plot. Ultimately Jurassic Park, which was adapted into one of Hollywood’s greatest action/adventure movies, is an anti-scitech polemic in the form of a technothriller: a paranoid, pedantic, mean-spirited rocket ride by an author whose technophilic and technophobic impulses war throughout, with ‘plot’ tending to lose. Not to say it isn’t a great book, in its way — it’s just not great (it turns out) at being the thing it was sold as. Or maybe it is, and I couldn’t tell because my attention was totally focused on its explicit sermonizing.

The true focus of the book turns out to be right there in its ‘documentary’ introduction, a short lecture on the dangers of unregulated genetic research, a greater-than-atomic power in the hands of the worst species on earth; as the book steams toward climax and anticlimax, Crichton devotes many pages to Ian Malcolm’s rants about the dangers of untethered science, forgivably but testingly stopping the action. One of these is actually a wonderful argument: ‘standing on the shoulders of giants’ is a form of intellectual inherited wealth, each generation of scientist more cocky and less grounded in where the knowledge actually came from — and everyone knows that being born rich makes you stupid and venal. This is a fine bit of agitprop, actually.

And Malcolm’s deathbed ‘beyond paradise’/’beyond paradigm’ is a good gag.

Well, I enjoyed it — as I did when compulsively rereading my mass-market paperback copy in middle/high school. And now I think I won’t have to read it again.


Not only crudely misanthropic and pedantic, not only a pale rewrite of the original, not only — it’s believably rumoured — partly written by a team of uncredited assistants, but a bad book: lazy, repetitive, boring hackwork. A combination lecture/movie treatment masquerading as a novel. This time the intermittent lecture-breaks, in which characters (particularly Ian Malcolm, Crichton’s wearying Marty Stu) deliver preposterous uninterrupted monologues while facing mortal peril, are focused on ‘extinction,’ with which term Crichton figures both species-death and the collapse of modern culture. There’s even a broadside about ‘cyberspace’ destroying human potential by cramming too many cooks into the cultural kitchen. Jurassic Park‘s sledgehammer polemic was palatable because the thriller plot otherwise worked smoothly throughout; The Lost World is too thinly imagined, its story too halfhearted, to bring across its angry-blogpost-level complaints.

I was bored before the end of the first chapter, annoyed before the end of the second, and by the final page I wanted to throw the fucking thing and the corpse of its author into a fire.

Irreal Life Top 10, February 2023.

Focusing on the mundane this month, with the sublime never all that far off, as you’d maybe expect from the title of this recurring ‘feature.’ –wa.

  1. Kailh Copper vs Silver. In mechanical keyboard land it’s important to carefully choose your keyswitches, which determine much of the ‘hand feel’ of the board. After trying Cherry MX Browns — a little stiff for me — I picked up two sets of Kailh switches: tactile Copper (a noticeable tactile ‘bump’ between touching/actuating and bottoming out) and linear Silver (no bump, ideal for gaming etc). The nominal actuation force and key travel are the same for both, but they feel completely different: though the Coppers are noticeably lighter to the touch than the Cherry Browns, they’ve still got that chunky I’m Really Typing feeling that’s part of the core appeal of the mechanical kb; meanwhile the Silvers are so light they go off when you breathe on them. I use the Silvers at home and have the Coppers in the keyboard I bought for work (reimbursement pending). The differences are instructive and, for the kind of fetishist I’ve evidently become, weirdly exciting.
  2. Wallis Buddhist translations. Glenn Wallis’s translation of the short collection of sutras/suttas called the Dhammapada — subtitle: ‘Verses on the Way’ — is one among increasingly many and the best I’ve read, graceful and clear. His collection of Basic Teachings of the Buddha in translation is even better, and certain thoughtful interpretive choices (e.g. his shift in translation of dukkha from ‘pain’ to ‘unease’) open up the latter text in subtly profound ways. But better than his translations are his notes and reading guides, which together constitute a parallel Buddhism 101 that illuminates existing scholarship without ditching the practical for the esoteric. That Wallis has since left ‘straight’ Buddhism behind doesn’t in any way devalue this rigorously welcoming work; as with Robert Graves’s Greek Myths, the ‘primary’ text is the whole slightly mad thing, and I’m grateful for its weird truth-telling.
  3. Sigil and mandala. From my notes, which may or may not reside in a zettelkasten: “Sigil work [making a diagram from e.g. the nonrepeating lettershapes of a written statement of desire, then ‘energizing’ it by thinking hard about it while e.g. jacking off] is about intensely focused engagement with an iconic representation, not so as to ‘do magic,’ but to radically transform your attention in accordance with your intention. The outcome is the same as for any magic: an alternate [not solely post-orgasmic] form of seeing-as. … The difference between sigil magic and mandala practice is one of degree(s). Different timescale, different mode of focusing, different relationship to desire (none of the explosive expression of sigilization), but closely related, and potentially mutually reinforcing. … Crucially, both sigil and mandala work are in a certain sense ‘aesthetic’ experiences — though you might say the latter is a deliberate cultivation and the former a purgation. Earth/water and fire/air. … TODO: Think about the metaphoric role of entropy in magical purgation. Its link to emptiness/spaciousness. Well, if we weren’t hippie dipshits before…”
  4. 76 Patrons. One of the best-loved supplements for the early (indeed primitive) Traveller science-fiction roleplaying game is this short 1980 compendium of ready-to-run ‘patron encounters’ following a simple template: a contact, a job offer, a paycheck, some complications, and a d6 table of twists and answers to the question of What’s Really Going On. Pound for pound, one of the most useful gamebooks ever published, its plots varied and the simple prose keeping the imaginative space wide open for the Referee. The ‘lack of style’ comes to feel like a show of respect, like the book and writer Loren Wiseman know how hard it is to run an improvisatory campaign, have been there before, and know just how to help.
  5. The Fire Next Time. Lives up to its title and reputation right away, but in the climactic sequence — as Baldwin grows uncomfortable with his long conversation with the evil piece of shit Elijah Muhammad, acknowledging the Nation of Islam’s appeal and pull while rejecting its implied criticisms of his own urbane way of life — it surpasses the reductive identitarian reading that’s rapidly become bourgeois orthodoxy. An astonishing work.
  6. The Banshees of Inisherin. I’ve seen Irish viewers criticize its Oirishness, which is fair, as well Irish-British writer-director McDonagh’s weird treatment of the Irish civil war as something inexplicably distant from the seemingly bucolic life of the island. Very well — but this stagey film may as well have been set in the same nonplace as Waiting for Godot, its allegory is so broad and its story so tightly focused on darkly absurd central conflict. Banshees isn’t as good a time as cult-favourite In Bruges, too cruel, but it’s the better film and the more emotionally mature, even if its pseudoprofundity confirms McDonagh as a minor writer with a knack for dialogue. Bit of a dilettante too, maybe. Farrell and Gleeson do their beautiful double act — is Colin Farrell, seemingly a sweetly decent guy with a sound head on his shoulders, our most underappreciated great actor? — but the finest moment of Banshees is Barry Keoghan and Kerry Condon’s scene by the lake, with that one heartbreaking line. A very fine film, but not, I think, destined to become a ‘classic.’
  7. Brooklyn 99. OK, you win. The middle seasons of this middlebrow middleweight are so consistently enjoyable, in their way, that the collapse of the final season into pseudopolitics feels less like a shame and more like a sin. (Bonus: in the moments when they let Stephanie Beatriz do something closer to her real voice, you see how good she actually is; in the moments when they let Andy Samberg try to ‘act,’ you see how far he had to go (with the writers’ help) to be more than the Jerry Seinfeld of the cast.)
  8. Phil and Friends, April 1999. Phil Lesh’s first shows after a life-threatening illness and transplant were an extraordinary moment for the ‘jam band’ community: half of Phish (Trey and Page) joined stepped in to join Lesh, guitarist-ally Steve Kimock, and drummer John Molo in a supergroup for three nights at the Warfield, uniting Deadheads with younger heads and starting to build a bridge between first- and subsequent-generation improvisatory rock musics. They opened the 15 April show with a 34-minute ‘Viola Lee Blues’ that was worth the night’s ticket cost all on its own, then went deep and stayed there (with help from welcome guest and den mother Donna Jean). The final night’s setlist really does open Dark Star > It’s Up to You, Days Between > Dark Star > My Favorite Things, with a 20+ minute Terrapin > Down with Disease at the show’s center and an all-time great Morning Dew at the climax. Lesh is in fine form, Anastasio might be at his career peak, but the whole thing is Zero cofounder Steve Kimock’s coming-out party — this triumphant run introduced what Phil called Kimock’s ‘antigravity guitar’ to the national audience, his passionate melodies weaving through Anastasio’s virtuosic second-lead matrices like air and earth. It’s a shame they haven’t paired again, though Kimock’s subsequent career has been hit-and-miss. (Fans of his performances with Phil will enjoy KVHW and the perfectly named Marijuana Jazz Band.)
  9. Silverview. John Le Carré’s posthumous novel, largely finished at his death a couple of years ago, is a sweet slim valedictory in the mode of A Legacy of Spies, his 2017 farewell to Smiley. Silverview feels like a farewell to everything, though that’s a common theme with Le Carré. Again it’s aging cold warriors looking back on the damage they’ve caused — this time the traumatic wound is inflicted in Bosnia, evoked as distant background rather than fully imagined setting — but this minor book contents itself with personal rather than political accounting. There’s a surprise ending too, quiet and sweet and slightly clunky, as if the master didn’t quite want (or know how) to end on such a hopeful note. I loved that and the rest of this muted autumn novel, which I read in a sitting. (Somewhat against my will and expectations, I recommend reading his son’s afterword before proceeding to the story itself.)
  10. Condensed Chaos. Phil Hine is one of our most humane occult writers, a real model for me, which might be why I’d avoided going cover-to-cover through any of his books before last month. This work, along with recent essay collection Hine’s Varieties, marks him as a lucid, sane, and empathetic practitioner and theorist of magic — two rare things — plus funny, which might be rarest of all in the po-faced world of occult bullshit. The remarkable thing about Condensed Chaos isn’t its accessibility or breezy tone, though, but rather Hine’s excellent pedagogical approach. Beginning with DRAT (discipline, relaxation, attention, transformation) and working his way slowly toward step-by-step instructions for invoking particular ‘chaos servitors,’ he lays out a program of magical self-inquiry and -transformation which foregrounds the practical (Sorcery) but acknowledges, as responsible adults must, that it’s all fundamentally an oblique approach to self-refashioning and imaginative exploration. His candor, pragmatism, and good humour serve a method that takes the Path (but not itself) seriously. And his worked examples of ‘pathworking’ are clear as day. Well, here’s how good this book is: it made me want to do magic in a group of committed practitioners. This is of course madness, but there’s a method to that too.

V FOR VENDETTA (Alan Moore / David Lloyd et al., 1982-89).

After watching some clips of the film I went back to this classic graphic novel, which I read in college (along with the other 80s/90s classics my comix-loving housemates suggested) and one time since. It’s in three parts: the young lads’ tale of V’s vendetta, the horrifying but evocative ‘training’ of Evey, and finally — when the book was picked up by Moore/Lloyd again after a publishing delay of several years — ‘The Land of Do-As-You-Please,’ a quite different piece of work whose best-known sequence is Detective Finch’s visionary LSD trip. That third movement is both the book’s creative peak and its least exciting/kinetic plot-piece, with Moore understandably self-indulging as he explores his full vocal range; Lloyd’s art also deepens noticeably in the later chapters.

The book’s component parts haven’t aged equally well. The political setup is, as Moore points out in his introduction, naïve — not that Britain might tip into fascism (though Thatcher didn’t do it) but that it would be accomplished by grand measures not a steady ratcheting of authoritarian pressure, then rolled back by terrorist strikes against gov’t apparatus. (My bleak suspicion is that London’s citizens would be content to keep calm and carry on in subjugation in such an event, cf. Americans’ post-9/11 jingoism and quiescence.) The torture of Evey in the ‘cabaret’ is obviously presented as a kind of initiatory experience, prefiguring Moore’s later magical allegories, but that doesn’t make it less reprehensible — and her quick forgiveness of V isn’t any more believable than her easy acceptance of imprisonment in the early chapters. (I’d forgotten that she’s 16 at the outset, and after V rescues her from the rapist cops she simply moves into the Cabaret.)

Which is to say certain of Moore’s personal unpleasantnesses are on display as usual.

Moore’s government figures are caricatures in the early chapters, but in ‘Do-As-You-Please’ he fleshes them out; it’s interesting that Moore has the government collapse due to internal pressures, something only sketched in by the Wachowskis in the film, whose script makes V himself central to the third act at some cost to the thematic integrity of the story. The film is both shockingly good and brave and hopelessly compromised; the comic is less expertly executed, less indulgent of sensationalist violence, much more idiosyncratic and strange.

I don’t think I’ll ever need to read it again, unless my son reads it (as I hope he will) and wants to talk about it. I might watch the movie once more, with Agi who quite liked it, but at this point I’d insist on pairing it with…hmm, with Southland Tales or similar. To capture the strange political tenor of that era.

RPG review: VOR RUKOTH (2010).

Note: I wrote this review of a D&D 4e product in, what, 2015? 2016? Earlier? Anyway, sometime after 4e had died. In general I stand by it and I’m publishing the old draft unchanged here. In retrospect I’d only add that WotC’s 4e-era ‘Points of Light’ (‘PoLand’) setting — a placeless setting-framework — was an interesting idea, not necessarily to say a good one, but predictably executed without wit, style, or imaginative freedom. Hasbro D&D is boring. That’s their house ‘style.’

In terms of D&D history, the most telling feature of 2010’s Vor Rukoth: An Ancient Ruins Adventure Site is its second sentence:

[Vor Rukoth] is not intended to present a cohesive adventure path, but rather, dozens of locations and hooks that you can weave into an existing adventure or campaign setting.

The idea that players/DMs expect their supplements to be ‘adventure paths’ isn’t surprising — D&D’s chief competitor isn’t Pathfinder, it’s the largely linear world of video games, and has been since the days of 1st edition — but it’s bracing to be reminded that the imagined audience for 4e products sees/saw the illusionist hybrid creature known as the ‘adventure path’ as the baseline D&D experience.

Certain tensions inherent in the product seem to arise from this conception.

Vor Rukoth details an adventure site, which — as the name ‘Vor Rukoth’ clearly signals — is eeeeevil: a former human settlement whose rulers made a diabolic pact to repel a dragonborn army and were thereby transformed into tieflings (devil-people, a core species in 4e and 5e along with dragon-people). The city’s ruler opened a gate to hell, devils overran both invaders and citizens, and Bob’s your uncle, now the gate is the lich-ladylord’s phylactery and everything in Vor Rukoth is bad.

Vor Rukoth was ‘lost to civilization’ for centuries, but now a hobbit-but-wait-there’s-a-secret-here named The Coyote has established a tent city on the outskirts to provision would-be explorers. It’s a Deadwood-ish, Mos Eisley-ish place; the bartender at the saloon(!) is a devil-woman named Inferna. There’s none of the imaginative brio of Mos Eisley nor the poetry of Deadwood, but how could there be? Anyhow that’s just the first few pages. Things are bound to pick up.

So what’s inside?

There’s a generic, uninspiring city map. There’s some breathless workmanlike prose. There’re factions, each with a clear agenda and a subversive working against it, usefully cross-referenced to adventure hooks in the gazetteer (thanks, WotC, for nailing this simple bit of textual apparatus). There’s a list of Events which contains this suggestion…

As a locale where opposing forces are constantly at work, Vor Rukoth is active even when the characters are not there. One way to make the city seem more alive is to introduce events that disrupt the balance of power or change the geography of the area.

…which sounds sensible enough, but then the listed events include ‘earthquake floods the streets with lava’ and ‘prophesied alignment of the heavens brings catastrophe’ and ‘new emperor arises with a hell-army.’ The framing text emphasises verisimilitude (not ‘realism’ duh) yet the actual Events list is basically ‘minor apocalypses that change the tactical situation,’ none of them fleshed out — par for the schizo-course in a supplement that advertises itself as a ‘living city’ and spends a sixth of its page count on factions.

Locationwise, Vor Rukoth is sketchy but not evocative, as by now you’ve perhaps come to expect, and is neither detailed enough to run as-is nor compelling enough to improvise with. Each district of the city gets a bunch of backstory which the players will probably never learn, and a handful of standard D&D hooks (mostly of the ‘a patron with a Hidden Agenda wants to send you off treasure hunting’ variety). There’s magical treasure everywhere. The ‘skill challenge’ mechanic is suggested several times; it remains an awkward, blunt instrument. Flavourwise, stylewise, it’s…well: ghostly prostitutes wander the former red light district, half-orc slavers have supernatural help, there’s a cavern full of blood worms. Everything is Dark and Serious and dull.

In keeping with 4e norms, no effort at naturalism has been made. The city’s built for setpieces, not the slow burn of an urban campaign — it’s a treasure-filled dungeon. Instead of ‘mere (un)life,’ the city’s full of extras, the equivalent of stage actors whispering ‘peas and carrots’ to look like they’re conversing.

The biggest surprise in Vor Rukoth is how little 4e this 4e product contains: just twelve statblocks, only five of them for threats (the others are items), and no bestiary as such. It’s practically an edition-neutral product, which is a good thing — beyond a few holdouts, there’s no 4e market left anyway. So how does it stack up against, say, other recent D&D adventure material, official and fanmade? Not too well, I’m afraid: it’s a standard WotC product, all workmanlike writing and generic fighty-fantasy art and Abandoned Streets echoing with the Cries of the Angry Dead. It certainly brings the sketchy 4e setting to life; the trouble is, that setting is utterly undistinguished. Beefy fighers with lots of buckles on their armour fight weedy little spellcasters in colour-coded robes, and the sound of your name advertises your alignment: if you’ve ever looked at a d20 product before, you’ve seen this one. On the open market for imaginative RPG projects without edition buy-in (lock-in), Vor Rukoth is a weak entry.

Summary judgment: I didn’t feel compelled to steal any ideas from this book, and I bet you won’t either.

A note about evocative writing

WotC’s D&D is like a network TV drama: no swearing, no nudity, no eroticism (but the occasional brief scene of soft-focus missionary sex), no consequential violence, no idiosyncrasy, no poetry — and no useless beauty, i.e. no time given over to the ‘vivid continuous dream’ of fiction. Whether for lack of talent, lack of editorial freedom, lack of taste, or lack of will, WotC’s work is never really terrifying or beautiful; it never quite evokes madness or the Weird; its content (for what it’s worth) is adolescent despite the creative team’s pretensions to seriousness. Mostly, it’s boring: WotC’s writers and artists never ever surprise you with ideas or presentation. (Anyone who’s ever been brought up short by a WotC product’s ingenuity just isn’t reading widely enough, sorry.)

It’s not impossible to write beautiful, compelling RPG books that double as highly functional technical writing. Plenty of folks have managed it: S. John Ross writes evocative prose (extraordinary, actually). Ken Hite too. Zak Smith and Patrick Stuart do it. Gareth Hanrahan and Robin Laws at Pelgrane, Stolze and Tynes and Detwiller at Arc Dream: check. Jonathan Tweet gave us Over the Edge and Everway, c’mon. Jenna Moran can’t not write interesting prose. Vincent Baker, Luke Crane, even the ludicrous Ron Edwards: boom. Greg Stafford, Greg Costikyan, Aaron Allston, John Varley. James Wallis — you realize his Munchausen game is an honest-to-God literary classic, right? Benjamin Baugh. Malcolm Craig. The odd damaged people responsible for GURPS Goblins and The Whole Hole. The late John M Ford and Tom Moldvay. Zeb Cook. Bruce Cordell. Bambra, Morris, Davis, and Gallagher (the Night’s Dark Terror and Death on the Reik teams.) Ansell, Brunton, and Forrest (Realms of Chaos.) Schwalb. Wick. Some White Wolf dweebs whom I don’t know because I can’t stand White Wolf’s house style. And a host of amateurs and obsessives who’ll go unnamed today.

Notice anything about that list? (Other than the fact that RPG publishers need more women writers, I mean.) Several of those folks have written for WotC — but with the exception of Planescape’s Zeb Cook, they’ve all found the creative freedom and institutional support to do their best work elsewhere. (Monte Cook made his name at TSR/WotC, but he’s best known for his 3e design work; like Stolze, he can sound a bit tiresome and familiar when he’s off in Imaginationland.)

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.