wax banks

second-best since Cantor

Category: reviews

‘The Force Awakens’ in light of ‘Rogue One’ and vice versa.

(Spoilers ahead, rubes.)

I find myself thinking that The Force Awakens is an extraordinarily well executed piece of fanservice — and in boring conventional ‘is this good art’ terms, an embarrassment. Its dialogue is snappy, the performances range from good to great, the clumsy ‘power creep’ of Rey’s story is nearly erased by Daisy Ridley’s charisma (which outstrips her perfectly reasonable acting skills), and the creators’ commitment to expanding the Star Wars universe is admirable. Walter Chaw is right: The Force Awakens fulfills one promise of the original trilogy by offering a vision of the galaxy that seems, at moments, almost galaxy-sized.

Well, almost.

By the end, The Force Awakens has collapsed into a series of by-the-numbers repetitions and blood feuds and familial agony, and I’m left attending to the good bits: the lead performances (especially Adam Driver’s) and the maybe-brilliant subtext. To wit: A new generation of kids have inherited a Star Wars legacy that’s too big for them, they shrink from their duty, they fool around with the old toys, and in the end the people they love — the stars of the old movies — start dying. This is JJ Abrams’s schtick, I think; I don’t think he has any real value as an artist but he does seem productively and even admirably aware of his lateness, so to speak. To my eye he’s made derivativeness itself the center of his aesthetic, such as it is. The subtext of The Force Awakens (which I’m happy to credit to its creators and not my own overcompensatory urge) elevates the material.

It’d better! Because near as I can tell, nothing is at stake in Abrams’s film. Finn isn’t going to die, Rey isn’t going to kill Li’l Ben, and the Starkiller Base is gonna blow up good. The Plot Points are ticked off.

The Force Awakens is like a midseason episode of a long-running TV series. It can’t take risks. Kathleen Kennedy did the right thing, then, by hiring a writer/director who won’t take them either.

Which brings us to Rogue One, Gareth Edwards’s equally well executed bit of fanservice, which in boring conventional ‘is this good art’ terms is the best Star Wars film since Reagan was elected. It takes a question that millions of misprising adolescents have pointlessly asked — ‘Why does the Death Star have such a stupid fatal flaw?’ — and wraps a wonderful Dirty Dozen-ish war story around the appropriately ridiculous answer (‘Because the heroine’s terminally noble father put it there’).

Rogue One is the first movie in the saga since Return of the Jedi to offer meaningful stakes — its position as ‘infix prequel’ lets Edwards introduce an entirely new cast of characters whose fates the audience can’t easily guess, and he and his writers have the audacity to do the one thing no Star Wars fan would expect in that situation: they kill every single new character they introduce, heroes and villains and droids and aliens. In doing so they subtly alter the original film, recasting the Rebellion in more visceral and active terms than the first movie managed to suggest. (The sparseness of most pre-CGI science fiction film and early video games was an enormously consequential economic phenomenon about which, as they say, we will say more.) And unlike Abrams’s film (but much like the prequels), Rogue One makes the Star Wars galaxy feel bigger, more crowded. To my mind that’s the best thing about it.

OK, the nervewracking third act suicide mission/epic battle is the best thing about it. And Alan Tudyk’s droid is also the best thing about it.

The cast is pretty swell, Giacchino’s score is largely on point (though the (studio orchestra’s?) performance of the end credits is a little embarrassing), the funny bits are funny, and it’s the first film in the series that concedes nothing to its young viewers. In that respect it differs not only from the prequels, which foreshortened and dumbed down Lucas’s genuinely interesting political story, but from The Force Awakens, with its two cringeworthy uses of the word ‘boyfriend.’ (They’re both funny! And slightly discordant, in a Thoroughly Modern way.) Rogue One isn’t a tale of deeply complicated crosshatching moral codes and weary cynicisms, not quite, but it’s the first Star Wars film to successfully combine the operatic omnisignificance of the core generational narrative with something like ‘realistic’ grownup characterization — not to mention ‘worldbuilding’ of any seriousness.

The Force Awakens is, as usual for Abrams, absolutely risible in this area. The final act of the film kicks off with a bit of offhand planetary genocide — billions of people wiped out in the blink of an eye solely to advance the paper-thin plot. The only lives that matter in that film are the protagonists’, which is part of what I mean when I say ‘no stakes.’ (Did Han’s death actually surprise you? Have you seen a film before?) Nothing but Plot is ever in play for Abrams, except of course Nostalgia — but Rogue One gobbles up every character who appears onscreen and you feel every death; by the end you feel as if the heroes of the original trilogy were lucky to’ve made it that far.

Rewatching part of it today, I was surprised by my own feeling of…resentment? at the fact that the story didn’t end with that stunning image of the two heroes dying on the beach. ‘Oh, we need some Darth Vader of course,’ was my thought. But when the credits rolled I had to admit that handing the baton to Leia and Vader/Anakin was the perfect ending. The work never ends, is the point, or one point, or part of the point. Jyn and Cassian die in service of something that the writers and director and actors and — I suspect — the audience understand to be greater than the narrative: an idea too complex to fit neatly into the ‘Character Motivation’ slot in the script. Which is only to say that I believed in Rogue One in a way I’ve never, after four or five viewings, managed to believe in The Force Awakens.

Anyhow, this isn’t supposed to matter, because these aren’t movies, they’re Star Wars popstuff thingies. But pretending for a second that we’re allowed to judge nostalgia-objects as if they were actual existing artworks has been, I hope, a useful exercise, even as our culture-sized canoe heads for the waterfall.

John Le Carré, THE HONOURABLE SCHOOLBOY.

The third Le Carré I’ve read and the most impressive, the most ambitious. I look forward to finishing the ‘Karla trilogy’ soon — though not right away, and not only because I’m reading Blood Meridian and Graves’s Greek myths…

Schoolboy‘s not quite as warmhearted as Tinker, Tailor for several reasons, not least the change of primary venue from beloved England to Southeast Asia at the end of the Vietnam War, centering on Hong Kong. Le Carré deftly handles the intricate politics of his setting, letting the American humiliation in Saigon serve as backdrop to a more complex and far-reaching story of ’round-eyes’ integrating into a society which (for all its strangeness) is as wearily, complexly human as Le Carré’s Europe. But for all its effortless evocation of time and place, and Le Carré’s usual eerily precise characterization, Schoolboy‘s plot is a touch more diffuse than Tinker‘s. It breathes, its rhythms make sense in retrospect, but it’s a damned long and complicated book — and Le Carré’s deftly employed narratorial touches (proleptic insertions and retrospective commentary, unexpected almost gossipy asides) pull focus, somewhat, from the ‘Russian gold seam’ premise to enact a kind of ‘literary’ meta-level mystefaction: Schoolboy‘s narration suggests not only that it may end with a surprise but that the kind of ending it will deliver will come as a surprise.

In other words, you always get the rug pulled out from under you with the master’s books — deception as such is a deep thematic interest of Le Carré’s — but Schoolboy goes further than the previous ‘Karla’ novel in unsettling the reader, upsetting not just the world-frame but the narrative frame. Of the three I’ve read so far, it’s the first Le Carré novel I’d identify as making a consciously ‘modernist’ commitment, engaging in the kind of epistemological games which litcrit types enjoy in lieu of actual fun.

Which isn’t to say Schoolboy isn’t conventionally satisfying! It’s a grandly cynical romance, an Englishmen-abroad potboiler, a great ‘jungle novel’ — the long setpiece in which Westerby and his charming young driver cross into Thailand is an extraordinarily vivid and exciting piece of adventure writing, reminding me so strongly of Norman Rush’s canonical Mortals that I wondered whether the latter novel was intended partly as an homage — and it ends not only with an extended bang-up climax but with a perfectly judged coda in which the ashes of concepts like ‘good’ and ‘bad’ and ‘win’ and ‘lose’ are scattered unceremoniously in the Thames.

It’s just that Le Carré seems to be trying here for a level beyond what his previous ‘spy novels’ had attained. Tinker, Tailor is about (among other things) the madly, ruinously circular clash of two declining empires, but plotwise focuses tightly on the Circus, its gorgeous boys’-school interludes working thematically off to the side a bit; Schoolboy attains both greater intimacy with its fully human protagonist Jerry Westerby and painfully harrowing distance, Greek-tragedy distance you might say, by carefully rendering what feels like a vast civilizational unraveling all around him. Awe-inspiring wide shots of a world at its end…and then inescapable, claustrophobic closeups. And again. And again.

I didn’t love Westerby’s story as I loved Tinker, Tailor — honestly I wanted to spend more time with Smiley, because I’m a sap, and Westerby’s great Error is the one element of the novel I had trouble subscribing to, and there are a lot of hateful bastards harrying the Better Guys in this story. But while the previous novel inspired admiration and love, Schoolboy inspires awe. Days after finishing, I can’t believe what I’ve just read.

Girl note

Well, there’s one other shortcoming to talk about. The three Le Carré novels I’ve read have spent little time on the inner lives of women, and not one that I can recall has passed the ‘Bechdel Test.’ Yes, he writes about a largely male world; yes, he peppers these stories with interesting female characters with serious expertise and complex private views facing grave moral choices. Yes, he was a ‘man of his time.’ And Lizzie Worthington, the great test of our schoolboy’s honour, is a self-created protagonist of her own story, wearily trading on sex and perceived shallowness to make her way. She’s an Interesting Female Character. But her viewpoint doesn’t enter into the book’s narrative calculus — the book’s ‘third act’ would be something very different if Worthington’s view of Westerby and the Circus were made explicit, but for Le Carré it’s enough for us to watch her watch the plot.

That didn’t strike me as any sort of great problem while reading — Westerby’s emotions are laid bare throughout the book, and any vividly rendered inner life is a gift; plus the book is brilliant (did I mention?) — but the pattern’s there, and it matters. Only in our idiot century could it be said to matter more than the stories themselves, and to me it doesn’t. But a true account of this extraordinary book, and its extraordinary author, demands honesty on this score.

Avatar: The Last Airbender.

The summary enthusiastic recommendation first: This is the best ‘children’s show’ I’ve ever seen, and will move adults (as it moved me) in surprising ways.

At first it looks like yet another cheaply produced genre pastiche on the order of Ninjago. (See below.) Certainly the premise is familiar enough: magical boy-of-destiny returns to the world to master the four elements and defeat evil, aided by a couple of plucky kids. And the pan-Asian kung fu pastiche is dangerous ground for a predominantly white cast of voice actors to tread, and…

…but then the show’s first scene sees the competent polar-tribal female lead (Katara) scold her competent brother (Sokka) for sexism in as many words, and while ‘progressive’ means something more than box-checking if it means anything at all, that’s a hell of a way to announce your intentions as storytellers. But that’s only politics. This is what matters: the jokes are funny, and the characters look and talk like people, and there’s a magical boy in an iceberg who talks like a boy, plus he’s got a flying six-legged platypus-bison of some kind (‘pretty cool’ as they say) to which he has a touchingly intense relationship, and when they travel to the siblings’ village the old woman looks and talks like an old woman rather than The Old Woman, and then the Fire Nation arrives looking like Nazi Samurai…

And there’s the magic, the ‘bending’: the ‘waterbenders’ practice a recognizable magical martial art, the ‘firebenders’ a distinctive art of their own, and the last ‘airbender’ a kinetic language unique to him — each tribe’s fighting/magic style a loving tribute to an existing martial arts tradition, each embodying in form and movement the character-as-destiny which is the standard premise of this sort of story. Because ‘bending’ is central to the story, it needs to be more than four-colour kickpunching, and it is — the most surprising and impressive thing about the show, from the beginning, is the subtle transformation of its bog-standard four-way elemental schema from storytelling convenience to philosophical argument.

In other words, notwithstanding the overacted teenage villain Prince Zuko (who (thank Christ) gets interesting pretty quickly), Avatar‘s two-part opener immediately dispels any worry that it’s just a checklist wuxia pastiche, and projects an unusually thoughtful and humane spirit, which marks it as both psychologically and politically sophisticated. I’d say ‘…for a kid’s show’ but I don’t think it’s necessary — Avatar refers time and again not only to Star Wars and The Matrix, as expected, but also (more tellingly) to Miyazaki’s elegiac fantasies; and the writing shows a subtle sensitivity to Avatar‘s pan-Asian source mythologies and folktales. At times it seems intentionally to court comparisons to Buffy the Vampire Slayer, which went off the air less than two years before Avatar‘s premiere — there’s a clear homage to the canonical Buffy episode ‘The Zeppo’ that warmed my heart. Its creators clearly didn’t think of their show as proscriptively ‘for children,’ nor did they make a corporate ‘all-ages’ entertainment in the disappointing Shrek/Lego Movie/Minions mould; instead of following the constrictive rules of corporate youth-marketed products, Avatar‘s creators obeyed principles which generated both kid-friendly scenarios and believable group dynamics without sacrificing narrative momentum.

Indeed, the 90+ minute final episode, ‘Sozin’s Comet,’ is that rarest of series finales, the ideal end to both deep story and plot-mechanics. My only major complaint about the final season is its focus on romantic pairings at the expense of the dynamic, persnickety relationships which formed throughout the first two years — and my wife, who loved the show and shares this complaint, was particularly irritated by the creators’ choice of final scene and image. (I also disliked the inexplicable repeated use of the word ‘confused’ to mean ‘ambivalent’ and ‘conflicted’ and ‘frustrated’ and ‘preoccupied’; that seemed like the writers’ only obvious lapse of faith in the audience’s intelligence, or else a failure of nerve.) But ‘Sozin’s Comet’ is still an absolute triumph, and it would be even if it only brought three long-simmering conflicts to genuinely suspenseful climaxes, paid off a bit of deep ‘mythology,’ and delivered an extended knock-down, drag-out magical kung fu fight between two of the storyworld’s most powerful beings. Its real achievement is greater than that: it pays off the show’s central storyline by introducing new ‘worldbuilding’ information in a way that seems perfectly natural, inevitable, instead of convenient — the final battle echoes every conflict of the preceding three seasons, and its resolution reveals something new about the world of Avatar without violating the art/artist/audience contract.

(The finale also includes a magical island that deliberately conjures (and I think spoofs) the memory of Lost, an overpraised and derivative show whose fatal abstraction and ultimate failure of taste and sense stand as warnings to TV-serial creators. Kudos to my wife for pointing out the Lost resonance.)

Avatar‘s rare coherence and genre-defying sophistication — not to mention its bone-deep commitment to a (let’s say) progressive vision of family and community — are all the more impressive given the show’s occasional formal experiments. One episode makes the non-speaking flying bison its POV character; another is a series of impressionistic vignettes set on the eve of battle; a third uses multiple animation styles to tell a good ol’ Rashomon story. The penultimate episode has the kids watching a play about themselves, performed by a troupe of Fire Nation actors, which takes an eerie turn in its final scenes. But this isn’t cleverness or ostentation: every story about children adventuring in a grownup world draws on the same fundamental dynamic tension, whereby the kids’ clarifying (naive) vision carries a kind of moral force weighing against their discovery that the world is fiendishly complicated, and adulthood itself is no sin; indeed the idea of sin (of ultimate good and bad) seems less and less believable the more of the world you take into account (cf. recent YA examples: Harry Potter, His Dark Materials, the Star Wars prequels). As the world of Avatar deepens and variegates, the range of the heroes’ experiences is reflected stylistically, formally, on top of the actual ‘content’ of those adventures — assuming that distinction has meaning in the first place.

I really can’t say enough about Avatar. It came into our lives at just the right moment. Every day I wake up in a country whose hugely unpopular president is a bellicose semiliterate imbecile afraid of his own shadow; Avatar has allowed me to escape to a story that isn’t simple or safe or free from evil, but is filled with humanity and love, truthfully — that is to say, beautifully — told. Above all, I’m grateful to have been able to share it with my six-year-old son.

He loved it, by the way.


Ninjago note

Ninjago was the biggest casualty of our Avatar experience. I quite liked it at the time, as a light entertainment aimed at kids and their interested/hovering parents. But I’m now convinced it’s a somewhat cynical knockoff of Avatar, with none of the earlier show’s depth or grace. The upcoming Ninjago film looks miserable — more ‘meta’ comedy in the vein of The Lego Movie, ugh — and the central figure of Lloyd Garmadon the Green Ninja, once just an underwritten plot-necessity, now feels to me like the worst sort of storytelling laziness. (Aang the Avatar is Hamlet in comparison.) If they make another season of the show we’ll presumably watch it, and I’ll presumably enjoy the zany antics and genre spoofs, but now I’ve seen firsthand how much more could have been done with the same raw materials. It’s lost its lustre. Blessed are they who do not see, but still believe, etc., etc.; on the other hand, better late than never.

One-line reviews/summaries.

Literary Theory (Terry Eagleton)

The whole history of literary theory has led inexorably to the literary theory of Terry Eagleton. –Terry Eagleton, convincingly

Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (Hunter Thompson)

Mustn’t slow down or the Seventies will catch you.

Seinfeld (Larry David et al.)

Apparently in the 80s and 90s everyone was inexplicably wealthy and Jewish and everyone was terrible, and the reason your idiot friends hate the final episode isn’t so much that it isn’t funny as that it was the first moment when David et al. refused to cut away from the severed heads and gouts of blood.

Logan (James Mangold et al.)

A perfectly fine latter-day Western is accidentally marketed as a superhero film; hijinks ensue.

Deadpool

Only in our era of absolute myopic cowardice could this intermittently funny movie for scared 20something boys be called ‘risky’ or ‘adult.’

Sidenote re: Deadpool

The joke about International Women’s Day (pegging) was, in my mind, the moment it went from ‘forgettable’ to ‘contemptible’; YMMV.

Logan.

  1. I suspect Hugh Jackman is the last screen Wolverine; I hope so. You can only ring changes on that character so many times, within the confines of the ‘tentpole actioner’ as they say. Jackman grew into the role, doing solid work even in terrible films, and created — pardon me — an iconic screen character; he deserves the chance to bring the curtain down. The fact that whoever’s making those alternate-timeline X-Men movies won’t cast anyone else in the role is a real compliment to him. (That said, I wondered a couple of times what Mel Gibson could’ve done as old Logan — it was the beard that set me off, but Jackman’s fellow Aussie is still, I think, better at communicating Logan‘s mix of pain, confusion, resignation, misanthrophy, and (lest we forget) feral rage.)
  2. Patrick Stewart deserves an Oscar, not only because he’ll make an excellent speech. He takes a risk here and delivers a flawless performance that owes nothing to the standard language of ‘superhero films’; Jackman does a lot of fighting, as you’d expect of Wolverine, but Stewart is playing a low-key drama about aging ungracefully. I’m reminded of Gielgud’s frail Prospero, and wish I’d seen Stewart’s…
  3. Dafne Keen provides a feral take on Stranger Things‘s ‘Eleven.’ She’s every inch as good as her costars, especially in the film’s many intensely quiet moments. So’s Stephen Merchant as a run-down Caliban, who must’ve loved playing scenes with the naughty Mr Grant. And though Boyd Holbrook’s role is a bit of a clunker, he does his best to run off with the film. Everyone onscreen is in top form. As someone else points out: a lot of excellent screen actors pop up in cape’n’cowl films with nothing to do, and Logan shows how deep you can go once you’ve established the characters and ensemble and are no longer beholden to the almighty ‘mythology.’ (By all accounts Logan diverges completely from its ostensible source material, profitably cynical hack writer Mark Millar’s Old Man Logan.)
  4. Logan is a Western (no points for figuring that out), and makes heartbreaking use of footage and dialogue from Shane. Yes there’s much talk — predictable, since film critics are almost all hacks, even the ‘names’ — of Logan ‘transcending’ the comic-book film and ‘defying genre conventions,’ etc., but for God’s sake ignore all that chatter. It’s squarely within the conventions of a different sort of story that’s fallen out of favour with (young) film audiences, and it will be overrated by critics as a result. This is an important thing to understand about critics and tastemakers: when a media text that appears, or is expected, to belong to one genre is revealed to belong to another, they flip out, because in that case they have something to do. Sci-fi story that’s actually a domestic melodrama? Gush. Fight movie doubles as anticapitalist protest? Gush. Surprisingly gory superhero film is really about old people? Gush. (Star Wars meets The Dirty Dozen? Gush of relief.) It would be a very good (if somewhat old-fashioned) Western if it didn’t have superheroes in it, its iconography smartly utilized by James Mangold et al., but once those adamantium claws go snikt there’s no stopping the fanthusiasm, and critical perspective collapses.
  5. As ‘awesome’ violence is to comixxx fanboys, schematic genre-crossing is to film critics.
  6. I cried at the end, during the eulogy (it doesn’t spoil anything, really, to suggest that there’ll be a eulogy, though I won’t say whose). I had an intense feeling of having come through something, and I can’t tell whether I mourned the character or the franchise, which is a little disgusting. Jackman’s been Wolverine for, what, twenty years? That’s a long time to live with an idea. But during the other obvious tearjerker moment, not only didn’t I cry, I didn’t feel much of anything — it felt like a necessary step in the narrative progression of a dark Western film. ‘But this is a big deal in a superhero movie!’ went my inner nerd, and I began to wonder whether that voice, too, needed to die in order that everyone else might glimpse transcendence.
  7. The idea that every aesthetic judgment about a superhero film must be conducted in terms only of other superhero films is cowardice. If they’re good films, they’re good even with masked vigilantes in them, and we shouldn’t use the words ‘guilty pleasure’ to mask our interest. If they can’t hold up to that standard — if, for instance, your connection to Logan and Logan is nostalgia for a line of commercial products, and you’re just better off watching Mangold’s riveting 3:10 to Yuma — then why do we bother? Because they’re popular? Logan‘s quite a good film on its own terms, and that’s enough to justify the price of your matinee ticket, but the gushing has to do with its status as a ‘genre-defying’ popcorn flick, which shows how deep the rot has gone. One critic approvingly points out that the heroes fail, at one crucial juncture, to drive over a chicken-wire fence; they get snarled in it instead, and have to back out. Funny, no? Clever, no? Honest, no? And so we must deduce that no superhero film has ever been honest before, because we’re goldfish forgetting the other side of our tank.
  8. Lemme put it this way: I saw the movie yesterday and can vividly remember much or most of it now, nearly twenty-four hours later — but only because I’m trying. Honestly, until I sat down to write about it, it had slipped from my mind, like so many other good movies.

Quick hits, October 2016.

Phish, BIG BOAT (2016)

Better than I initially thought (my initial review in its entirety: ‘Go see a Phish show’), but still an unevenly written, overproduced affair. I say all this with love, which has only deepened as they’ve aged into their nigh-miraculous midlife renaissance: Phish’s studio albums are a dicey proposition. Big Boat has the highest ‘dad rock’ ratio of the bunch — after the opening comic-rock number ‘Friends,’ you get four straight tracks suitable for shaking your cellulite on the grass while drinking thin American beer, and there’s two or three more waiting on the backstretch — but as always there’s a handful of interesting tunes mixed in: Mike Gordon’s ‘Waking Up Dead’ is less conventionally satisfying than ‘555’ off Fuego, but the perversity of building a song around the triumphant four-syllable wail ‘Vac-u-um-ing!’ appeals to me; Page McConnell’s ‘I Always Wanted It This Way’ goes to an enveloping indie-electropop place; and Trey Anastasio’s 13-minute closer ‘Petrichor’ is more smoothly integrated and richly textured than ‘Time Turns Elastic,’ which fans deride as jamless but which seems to me one of the best things Trey’s ever written. And honestly, a couple of Trey’s dad-rock tunes are pretty good: though ‘No Men in No Man’s Land’ is as disappointing as its unfunny titular joke (it’s a little better live), ‘Tide Turns,’ ‘Blaze On,’ and ‘Breath and Burning’ capture the unaffected sweetness and generosity of spirit which have characterized post-reunion Phish. Still, while Big Boat may well be a personal achievement for the band (though recent interviews have suggested some tension with producer Bob Ezrin), it’s just not a terribly compelling album.

Still, you can’t be disappointed. This thing they do onstage, no one’s ever done it better; we shouldn’t hold it against them that their albums aren’t their best work.

Steve Kuhn, TRANCE (1974)

If you’re a jazz fan, you probably have feelings about the use of the Rhodes keyboard: either you dig its mellow electro vibe and potential for signal processing, or you think it’s too diffuse and sonically inflexible for the job. In my experience, few listeners are truly neutral about the device — not least because its arrival correlated with the onset of jazz/rock ‘fusion,’ still a source of controversy in this maddeningly conservative discursive community. I love the Rhodes sound, but there’s a limit to its expressive capacity, and I recognize that the emotions it triggers in me have a lot to do with its cultural moment. And lately I’m starting to notice its…thinness.

Steve Kuhn’s Trance is very, very, very much a mid-70s electric/acoustic piano trio+percussion record. Ambient texture and largely static groove are the key objectives; New Agey drones and extended modal vamps never quite build a real head of steam (or more positively: they never interfere with the slow-moving sonic cloudwork). That said, it’s dreamy — not sleepy. Kuhn’s keyboard solos are fleet, the acoustic piano gets some heavy reverb, Jack DeJohnette’s drumming is Jack DeJohnette’s drumming, and the proceedings never get too wild or indeed too ‘interesting.’ As a progenitor electronic work, it’s very much bound to the norms of jaaaazzzzzzz; as a post-fusion jazz album, it’s spaced out in an appealing but not quite distinctive way. Its value, then, is in the subtlety and continuity of the playing: the way its pensive-meditations-amongst-the-fjords coolness and hypnagogic mood find expression through both the drifts of Rhodes and the percussive workouts (not to mention the brief Free breakdown on ‘Squirt’).

I found out only when I sat down to write this that Trance is a beloved ‘lost classic,’ a ‘hidden gem’ which didn’t make waves upon initial release. I don’t quite share this feeling — it feels to me like one more enjoyable Rhodes-touched album of the (ugh) ‘kozmigroov’ era of spiritual/psych/soul/funk/jazz fusion, that golden age from roughly A Love Supreme through disco. But I don’t begrudge anyone thinking this is uniquely or unusually fine music. The mid-70s were a killer time for jazz. Everyone has to learn sometime.

Radiohead, HAIL TO THE THIEF (2003)

Because they’ve been around for 20 years, and their last few albums have been ‘retrenchments’ and reflected their ‘maturation’ and so forth, the scale of Radiohead’s achievement is now easy to overlook — you can forget, or petulantly ignore, the fact that for several years around the turn of the millennium, Radiohead were one of the most interesting bands in and around ‘rock & roll.’ From The Bends through Amnesiac they were both unimpeachable pop songwriters and sonic experimenters and creators of increasingly dense avant abstractions, and when Hail to the Thief arrived in 2003, everyone I knew wanted to know what they’d come up with. Had they rediscovered guitars? Would it be pure electronic noise? Was George Bush the thief? It mattered, somehow.

And when the album was neither as dark/creepy/maniacal/foreboding as Kid A nor as majestically guitar-drenched as OK Computer nor as hermetically intimate as Amnesiac — when Thief was ‘merely’ an hour of effortlessly integrated proggish guitar-rock and electronic immersions and almost-not-quite dance beats and emotionally concrete but emphatically un-literal lyrics, merely a Radiohead album instead of the Radiohead album, it was marked down by the tastemakers as a bit of a disappointment, and that was it for Radiohead’s cultural moment. Four years later In Rainbows was a thinkpiece-ready media sensation for its pay-what-you-want delivery, but no one talked much about its music; nothing since then has made much of a dent outside of the music blogs.

But Hail to the Thief is about as fine a mid-second-act rock album as you could hope for. The Lovely Guitar Tunes (‘Go to Sleep,’ ‘Scatterbrain,’ ‘I Will,’ ‘Sail to the Moon,’ ‘Wolf at the Door’) are among Yorke’s loveliest, the opening two uptempo headbangers(?!) are pure adrenaline, and the group’s experiments in computerized pop theatricality (‘The Gloaming,’ ‘Backdrifts,’ ‘Myxomatosis’) argue for the continuity of the band’s pre- and post-millennium styles. Ignore the morons who think of Radiohead as ‘pretentious’: they’re just serious, and you should be too. While you’re at it, ignore anyone who dismisses Thief as a disappointment simply because it’s a distillation and consolidation rather than a year-in-the-lab-at-night experiment like Kid A. The whiggish rock/pop historical outlook that hypocritically insists both on the guilt-free pleasure principle (good!) yet clings to the idea that a great should do something new — getting bizarrely angry at artists content to do something(s) well — is the most poisonous result of early rockcrits’ desperate status-seeking. If pleasure is enough, it’s enough.

Hail to the Thief turns a few new tricks, but in retrospect they don’t really matter, nor does the album’s ‘incoherence’ when compared to Radiohead’s brilliant run from The Bends through Amnesiac. What matters is: the work gets you someplace it alone knows about.

(Sidebar proposal: The last four tracks of The Bends would be the peak of any lesser band’s career, never mind the rest of the album, and the key change and final chorus of ‘Sulk’ are — for me, of course ‘for me’ — one of the most rapturously sad moments on record. Only the cheapness of the contrast effect in ‘My Iron Lung’ mars what is, to my mind, an otherwise perfect rock album. Still, not their ‘greatest’ work, right? It’s ‘only a near-perfect collection of songs,’ unlike OK Computer and Kid A, which ‘add up.’ Man, I used to spend hours talking this kind of shit.)

Revisits: The Slip, Dave Matthews, Grimes, Radiohead.

Listening again to some discs I’d put aside, trying to hear something new in somethings old.

Grimes, Visions (2012)

An immersive piece of intoxicated tinkerer’s psychedelia which I dismissed too quickly in favour of the immediately accessible Art Angels. It still feels a bit like student work, which is to say there are moments of obvious Technique and an abashed quality throughout — if you’re willing to write the words, why not take the next step and sing so’s we can actually make them out? — and this is very obviously a Somewhat Muddled but Affecting Drug Album where Art Angels (the (minor) breakout pop hit) is an enthusiastic celebration of clarity, and perhaps sobriety. Yet the best songs (visions?), like ‘Genesis’ (my favourite and my wife’s), bring gal-pop narrativity to spacey electronica in a lushly trippy style, engaging the senses instead of making sense or settling for sensation. A strong argument for making the dancefloor and the chillout room all one big space, or maybe one very small one. And though the bespoke knob-twiddling of EDM still strikes me as the midpoint of a slippery slope down to shared-isolation consumerist hell, there’d be a place for Grimes in a world that still valued accident and the unfamiliar. For her sake I’m glad she’s off speed, though it’s a very small but real letdown that her next album won’t be a trip like this one.

The Slip at High Sierra Music Festival, 9/6/98

In their early incaranation, one of the small handful of worthwhile ‘jam bands’ — they combined schmind-schmexpanding hippie wandering with proper jazz language, and in the late 90s their considered engagement with electronic tools opened up new vistas. (Afterward they took a turn to electronica-touched indie pop, which brought them more attention; by that point I’d fallen off the radar somewhat.) They were astonishing live, passionate and spiritually intense but with actual existing chops. All three members are superb players, and Boston was their adopted hometown, so catching them at an all-night MIT basement show or burning up the Paradise was always a special experience. In those days drummer Andrew Barr took off for a few months of apprentice drumming in Mali, and came back with new old knowledge, playing with devotional fervor. I don’t know whether that was before or after this feelgood festival set, which is bound to be more affecting if you’re already up on the band. Excellent ‘Yellow Medicine’ here after a bunch of festival jams, but the career highlight is ‘Honey Melon,’ a gorgeous tune off From the Gecko that’s lifted by fiddle and didgeridoo into unself-conscious exultation. The set overall is less essential than I used to think, but the final two tunes, more than a half-hour in total, are the truth. I miss this band so much.

Radiohead, A Moon Shaped Pool (2016)

  1. These are the best strings I’ve heard on a rock album. I don’t love all of Jonny Greenwood’s film work, which at times has seemed to me to be more ‘interesting’ than beautiful, but there’s no denying his ambition — or, at this point, his mastery. Remember how folks gave Beck props for hiring his dad to do (gorgeous) string arrangements on Sea Change? This isn’t an additive process like that: Greenwood’s textures, acoustic and electronic, are essential to the structure of each piece. The second verse of ‘Burn the Witch’ — a statement of intent and show of force — features string backing of extraordinary subtlety and beauty, even while the rest of the arrangement cruelly weaponizes the string section. Subtlety isn’t exactly a rock’n’roll virtue, but listen closely to the way heavily processed samples of Thom Yorke’s moaning/humming turn out to be models for — or fore-echoes of? — the avant string part that poisons the back half of the song.
  2. Yorke has always done a brisk side business in haunting solo acoustic ballads: ‘Desert Island Disk’ continues a line running back through ‘Give Up the Ghost,’ ‘Faust Arp,’ ‘Go to Sleep,’ ‘Exit Music (for a film),’ and ‘Fake Plastic Trees’ — songs which have sometimes grown in performance to include full-band accompaniment, but which at heart are guy-with-guitar songs. Indeed, Yorke & Greenwood’s two-guys-with-two-guitars shows are perfect showcases for the songs they’ve crafted together, just as Dave Matthews’s duo shows with Tim Reynolds are an ideal showcase for his own underpraised songwriting work. ‘Desert Island Disk’ features spare synth backing and hushed work from the whole band in its final minute, but it’s a reminder that Yorke, all by himself, is a major talent. So’s the next track, which sees Yorke singing in unplaceable character as supplement to an extended uptempo not-exactly-dance tune. You can’t say Yorke’s never been better — go listen again to ‘Sulk,’ a song he refused to sing after its release partly because of The Big Feelings, though I suspect the demands it placed on his tenor were too great anyway — but he’s never gone further in, lyrically or vocally.
  3. Some American rock critics hate it when a British band puts out a masterpiece. Not just Christgau; his resentments are just easy to see. (Go read the Dartmouth grad’s U2 and Radiohead reviews if you don’t believe me — the best of our record reviewers is more chip than shoulder, there.) Americans are often suspicious of subsequent British invasions. And Radiohead, especially on this album, are very British (English, duh) indeed, trafficking in a pastoral unease that a nation needs 2,000 years of continuous local anxiety to work up to. As I tried to get at in a review I wrote of Adam Roberts’s superb SF novel Bête, I think the essential thing about American imaginary landscape is that our monumental geography predates Euro colonization — America was ancient before whites arrived, and it stretches so far in both time and space that its chief function is to make people feel small and/or (falsely) humble. But Britain itself is ancient — older than Christianity — and British fantastika seems to me to treat the mysteries of the land as understandable in terms of permanent residence rather than latecomer settlement — America has mountains and rivers and resentful natives, Britain has stone circles and fairy rings and ley lines and resentful Britons. The video for ‘Burn the Witch’ drives home this difference: when Americans go on about witch trials, they do so in tiresome moralizing tones, to tell a just-so story about {$intolerance_du_jour}. But the Wicker Man? Guy Fawkes? Spring-Heeled Jack? Now we’re into something else, free now of childish didacticism. The nightmarish somber-cheeriness of the ‘Burn the Witch’ video has no precise analogue in American culture. Or so it seems to me.
  4. Moon Shaped Pool came out two weeks after Beyoncé’s Lemonade, but without Lemonade‘s built-in pressure to have the correct opinion about it (Beyoncé is now the Significant musician, about whom Opinions must be had and shared; Radiohead’s just a band). Of the two albums Lemonade certainly goes further beyond everyone’s previous sense of the artist’s capabilities, or at any rate her interests — we all knew Beyoncé was a tremendously talented singer, and it’s not as if she wrote the music or (underwhelming except to autobiographically interested fans) lyrics. Moon Shaped Pool sounds like Radiohead moving further down a path they’d opened several albums ago, making more-than-ever complex and subtle use of familiar elements like aforementioned strings, disquieting electronics, Yorke’s alien voice, etc.; it’s the most emotionally mature thing they’ve ever put out. ‘Band gets better at the things they’re uniquely good at’ is a nice story, but younger cultural critics don’t have time for it. There’s no hook, no novelty. Radiohead are old news. Well, if we’re only giving credit for achievement and not potential or indeed Significance, then the old news is still news: Radiohead are the more musically and indeed lyrically ambitious than Beyoncé (and just about everyone else in pop or rock), and while Yorke’s vocals occupy a much narrower emotional envelope, he relies less on cliché and formula.
  5. Not for the first time, I find myself privileged to grow old/young alongside artists who were once said (dismissively, sensationally) to speak for their time, but who were always and only (it turns out) speaking for themselves.
  6. It’s beautiful.

Dave Matthews Band, Before These Crowded Streets (1998)

DMB’s best album, so f’ing what, but also a good album on its own terms — so good that even the terrible early Matthews tune ‘Halloween’ can’t ruin the vibe. It helps that ‘Halloween’ is sandwiched between ‘Stay,’ a perfect gospel-tinged bit of danceable pillowtalk pop, and ‘The Stone,’ an extraordinarily tense rhythmic experiment which makes the case for Carter Beauford’s hi-hat as pop music’s 1998 MVP. The antic/rustic/pastoral interludes help the album cohere, as do the beyond-the-call Kronos Quartet and producer Steve Lillywhite. The inclusion of pianist Butch Taylor (who joined the band full-time around this time) seems inevitable — rounding off the percussive guitar/bass/drum texures and varying the sax/fiddle atmospherics. Matthews writes great little songs without strong melodic identities, which suits his improvisatory dude-with-guitar style but means his Band needs to deliver a lot more than background. Thankfully they do: Crowded Streets is both a topologically varied and a sonically unified album, democratic in spirit but with a coherent shared sensibility.

You’re under no obligation to take Matthews and his Band seriously; despite their early popularity and surprising staying power they’re not exactly essential artists, and Matthews’s songwriting tends toward diffuseness. In my 33-1/3 book on Phish I called him an ‘intuitive savant,’ and I stand by that — his stripped-down acoustic duo shows with soulmate Tim Reynolds showcase his oddball folk-pop experiments, and he’s written a handful of unassailable tunes in that mode (‘So Damn Lucky,’ ‘Bartender,’ ‘Jimi Thing,’ and ‘Warehouse’ come to mind, and I have a soft spot for ‘Christmas Song’). But his batting average isn’t high enough for the canon, c’mon. I take issue with Robert Christgau’s tired ‘bland as a tofu sandwich’ snobbery, not least because some well-made tofu sandwiches have kicked this carnivore’s ass all over the place (and I find DMB’s integrated-in-every-sense funk/folk/jazzgrassish pop sound pretty interesting), but there’s no denying that Matthews has never made ‘dangerous’ music, whatever you take that to mean.

And his lyrics are, worryingly often, just terrible.

Still, Crowded Streets shows how much room there is for experimentation within DMB’s radio-friendly mid-90s hedonism template. The songs move, the singer digs deep, the band passes the energy ball with casual expertise, and the sound belongs to them alone. Overlook them if you like, no one cares. Dismiss them if you like — but listen first. Listen, if you have a minute, for what so many of us heard back then.

Two Le Carré novels.

The Spy Who Came In from the Cold

Perhaps the bleakest book I’ve ever read — suave, cool, fiercely moral, furiously angry. Extraordinary. The present-time narration includes surprisingly few events; most of the plot unfolds as backstory, in shadow, or just offscreen. I’ve never had a reading experience quite like this: for the entire middle stretch of the book, every few pages, I had to reorient my reading, as Leamas’s goal (and Control’s scheme) seemed to shift completely. Le Carré’s command of his material is, to put it simply, complete. I feel as if I’ve hardly drawn a breath for the three or four hours I spent reading the book. Now it’s done and I need to read Tinker Tailor. Why did I wait so long to explore these books?

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy

Relates to The Spy Who Came In… the way, say, Jeeves and the Feudal Spirit relates to Code of the Woosters: warm and celebratory where the earlier, younger books are coolly calculated; driven by less obvious or less obviously aggressive purpose; at times sentimental; the voice thoroughly lived in, at times seemingly ‘accidental’ where the earlier novel had been a kind of showpiece. Less likely to be called a ‘masterpiece,’ but much more likely to give joy to actual human beings.

Like Feudal Spirit, this book glows where the reputation-making early work glitters.

George Smiley, who appears briefly in The Spy Who Came In from the Cold, is the hero and the heart of Tinker, Tailor — an older man, unjustly forced out of his job at the Circus, cuckolded, rumpled, humiliated, put upon…and piercingly intelligent and serious. A very good spy and, despite talk of his ‘vanities,’ a good man. Smiley is one of several portraits which Le Carré draws with an affection and warmth totally absent from The Spy Who Came In… And where the breakthrough early work is a perfectly formed standalone piece of something like political theater (its settings somewhat abstract, especially in its final act), Tinker, Tailor is very much a serial novel: one chapter of an ongoing story set in a living world. Moreover, Smiley is a sympathetic serial protagonist where Alec Leamas is a bit of an unlucky bastard.

Smiley is a great character. So are the members of the inner ring of the Circus. And Control — fully alive as a force within the novel though he’s dead from page one! — and of course Jim Prideaux, the wounded spy-turned-schoolteacher whose full story is one of the book’s deep secrets. All of them are invested with what we might call excess imaginative energy. They’re all living beings. Even the traitor.

But the greatest thing about the book, I think, is the story of little Jim Roach, richest boy at Thursgood’s school. The first and last chapters belong to Roach and Prideaux, and the opening in particular is a perfectly observed short story about a kid catching glimpses of a dark grownup world. Le Carré’s telling of Roach’s story is heartbreaking; I knew from the earlier book that he was a gifted novelist, but I had no idea he was this good in this way. If he hadn’t written spy stories, would his talents have been recognized earlier? Or not at all?

The story of Alec Leamas is ‘greater,’ by what we call ‘literary’ standards. It’s pure and cruel and ends in darkness, characteristics literary critics appreciate because they make critics’ lives easy. But I think Tinker, Tailor is the better novel, the richer world. I think it’s sad and absolutely beautiful.

Summary note

I share both of these responses — written just after finishing each book — to make two points:

  1. I still think of The Spy Who Came In from the Cold as a perfect novel. But I find, as I get a bit older, that ‘perfect’ art affects me intensely in its moment but doesn’t tend to stay with me in the same way as art whose imperfections come from imaginative excess. Philip K Dick’s books, for instance — as ‘science fiction’ many of them are incoherent messes, yet when granted autonomy from SF’s dead boring genre norms they’re among the most potent imaginative works of the 20th century. The Crying of Lot 49 is a perfect little book, but Gravity’s Rainbow is a city, a universe. Litcrit types fetishize writerly ‘control’ (an MFA-program euphemism for tribal conformity to the prevailing style at MFA programs), but no one else cares about it; human beings want transport and transformation. We want rapture. Which is why stoners and musicologists get breathless about In C but everyone else who wants minimalism cranks up Remain in Light.
  2. My initial impressions quickly become unrecognizable to me, but they remain valuable, and it’s good to preserve them. It’s a small measure of accountability.

Lately: Maxayn, Grimes, Sinatra.

Maxayn, Maxayn (1972)

Hedonistic funk-soul jams receding, without making any profound impact, into the sonic murk of early 70s Rhodes/sex/cosmos mind-expansion. Because that’s lately been my favourite kind of music, I dig this — especially the two(!) Stones covers, extra-especially ‘What You Want,’ which points up how black the Stones were and definitely weren’t. Illustrative song title: ‘Doing Nothing, Nothing Doing.’ Groovy.

Grimes, Art Angels (2015)

An interesting dance-pop album. The genderiffic piss-take ‘Kill v Maim’ includes the line ‘Italiano mob-star looking so precious,’ which is funny — it was funny when The Sopranos made the same joke — but I’m not sure it’d be as funny, or funny the same way, or at any rate if the same people’d let themselves be seen laughing about it, if the lyric went ‘Africano gang-star…’ Which is one reason I’m more interested in the ‘pop’ than the ‘interesting,’ never mind the (at my age?!) ‘dance.’ Musically…well, it’s an ‘interesting’ ‘dance-pop’ album made by one Canadian weirdo, what do you expect? Jazz? There are kick-drums and handclaps; I prefer jazz. I dig it, though, particularly ‘California’ and ‘Flesh Without Blood’ and ‘Belly of the Beat’ and honestly half the songs on the album…but if the thinkpieces write themselves then you can delete yours and move on to the next thing, which (this being dance-pop) everyone will, sooner than weird smart uncertain little Claire Boucher deserves. Oh, but one more thing first: the Janelle Monae track’s a dud.

Grimes, Visions (2012)

More, um, ‘psych-tronica’-ish? Also more like Devo — and therefore more my style, but I don’t remember a note. Art Angels is, I think, correctly labeled her ‘breakthrough’ album.

Sinatra on Capitol Records (1954-62)

Read this. OK now:

As a kid I loved the movie High Society, which brought together three of the great 20th century singers, Satchmo and Bing and Frank, though I didn’t understand its significance when I first saw it. Here’s a Crosby/Sinatra duet from that film: float on those voices, savour Sinatra’s drunk bit and his obvious affection for his childhood idol, and experience the profound parallax that comes of hearing two ‘crooners’ (the guy who first popularized the style, and the guy who took it further than anyone else) singing so dramatically differently and yet meeting in the middle for the sake of the piece.

This scene’s still a wakeup call for me: to most people my age, Sinatra and Crosby may as well be the same guy. To me, growing up on Broadway soundtracks and wearing out the grooves on a double LP compilation called The Fabulous Fifties and having no adolescent connection to rock counterculture, Sinatra ‘must be one of the newer fellas.’

I’ve been reading Robert Graves’s Greek Mythology and a recent translation of the Poetic Edda, thinking about cultural legacies and what we’ll leave behind when we inevitably pass — thinking too about what to teach my son about ‘America’ in all its forms. And I’ve been listening to Sinatra’s Capitol albums. The ‘American Songbook,’ as it’s quite properly known.

The ‘Sinatra sound’ for modern ears is probably that of his comparatively ‘schmaltzy’ Reprise incarnation — ‘New York, New York,’ ‘My Kind of Town,’ ‘My Way.’ But I’ve come to prefer the comparatively understated swing of his Capitol recordings, working with older material which had and has, crucially, an independent life beyond Sinatra’s own interpretations. Sinatra’s relationship to the standards is that of poet to myth: the moment of the song is always about the moment, communion between singer and listener, but away from status questions the poet/singer’s real work is clearer: honouring the song itself, and the private stories which over time have interwoven with it. Young Sinatra’s famous textual study, his unusual attention not only to prosody but to the stories ‘his’ songs told, helped him avoid the self-aggrandizement which ‘solo’ pop performance often tends to — he knew instinctively what novelists and poets must learn, that specificity is key to universality. Of course he got famous: he looked good and did his homework, even the extra-credit questions.

The book of American standards is our body of myth, capturing a mix of voices (white, black, gay, straight, upper- and lower-class) at a moment of rapid tumultuous integration, reworked and reimagined so many times over the last century that — even fallen from favour as those songs now are — they’re still central to our many ideas of America. The figures evoked in midcentury popular song are as fantastically real to us as Zeus and Odin were to our forerunners in the Mediterranean and Scandinavia, incarnated in performance to confirm their secret presence in the everyday. And our great artists do seem to see themselves, with surprising consistency, in isomorphic terms — even if each artist’s language is very different. Service to something beyond the self, an idea which envelops creator and audience, forerunners and descendants, and which reminds us of both our smallness and our role in holding together the Weave: this idea can be metaphysical (the source, the cosmic vibration, God) or psychological (the Muse, the inner voice, ‘genius’) or historical (the tradition, the songbook, ‘ideas’ as such)…for artists at their peak, it’s always there in one form or another. The metaphor changes, its referent never does.

Beyond the music — he really was one of his century’s great artists — these albums preserve some of America’s ideas of itself. Beneath the voice, a chorus of voices. Here’s one thing I love: he sounds like a guy from a poor neighbourhood in the northeast who’s worked as hard as any well heeled opera singer to master his instrument. He spins a fantasy, knows it, and means it all the same, which is one of my ideas of America — one which I don’t mind teaching my son, which isn’t what I came to this music for but thanks, Mr Sinatra, all the same.

As for the music: you should hear every one of these songs. The worst of them are maybe our greatest singer at his peak. The best of them are national Scripture.

Favourite (not best?) movies.

Spirited Away. The most complexly melancholy ‘children’s movie’ I know, and one of the most visually imaginative. Perfect, if a movie can be perfect.

Southland Tales. A ecstatic psychedelic-apocalyptic mess, eagerly courting ridicule, with the curious haunted quality of Kelly’s precocious Donnie Darko but none of that movie’s emotional maturity or restraint. In some sense, surely the most Phildickian film ever.

She Hate Me. A symphony like the more coherent Bamboozled, where Do the Right Thing was a taut chamber piece. I jokingly call Southland Tales ‘the white She Hate Me,’ which is to say they’re both ‘fantasias on national themes’ (cf. Angels in America) which seem to resemble, too closely for viewer comfort, the interiors of their respective creators’ heads.

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. This one holds an odd place in the pantheon: in some respects it’s a Western arthouse film, with the familiar emotional palette and granularity of an episode of Mad Men, but which happens to be about wuxia movies. Luckily it’s also a superb wuxia specimen. I fell for this one in the theater, where the crowd burst into applause after the first fight between Michelle Yeoh and Zhang Ziyi. Few ‘action films’ have so expertly communicated the emotional states and stakes of their martial sequences. Yuen Wo Ping’s fight choreography inspires awe, but you’ve seen The Matrix so you knew that. What matters is that the fight scenes are also the most emotionally compelling dramatic exchanges in this (moving) film, even for a Western viewer — they’re shot, cut, and acted to tell perfectly formed stories. There are more visually arresting movies in its artsy-wuxia niche, but none that so effortlessly incorporate Western dramatic arts.

O Brother, Where Art Thou? My lit-theory professor told me each Coen Bros film was a play on a time and a place — they’re moving portraits of cultural moments, real and imagined. O Brother portrays the mythology of the Depression-era South. You can turn off the gorgeous visuals, ignore the snappy dialogue and egoless acting, and marvel at the sound: it’s a musical, the best of modern times, with the most thematically coherent (also beautiful) soundtrack of all. Better and deeper than its reputation.

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Two unique creators at the height of their powers, served by a master actress and an extraordinary (and widely misused and misunderstood) comic actor, tell a simple story about falling in love and falling out of love. The final movement is shattering. On a date early in our relationship, my not-yet-wife scolded me for being ‘demonstrative’ by sighing constantly during this film. She was right and can piss off.

Gremlins. The great Christmas movie of the 80s.

E.T. The scientists. And then the bicycle.

Ghostbusters. OK yes: funny, groovy, mean spirited, with heaping doses of perfect eliptonic twaddle and two genuinely creepy scenes. And OK yes, Bill Murray. But not Bill Murray, master comic improviser, which everybody already knows about. This is glory: Bill Murray, dramatic improviser, suddenly turning in celebratory circles in the park as the music swells and Sigourney Weaver walks away smiling. What are the chances that a high-concept comic romp with half a script could offer a throwaway moment of romantic perfection?

Hedwig & the Angry Inch. Blah blah ‘not real rock & roll’ and the final song suffers somewhat for being sung by Trask instead of Mitchell. But what other film works at this particular pitch?

Magnolia. Go ahead and make fun, and I’ll just sit here and enjoy watching a perfectly realized work of musical and dramatic and cinematic art, deliriously in love with its own voice, which climaxes in the middle with the wordless administration of a dropper full of morphine by a hospice nurse.

Some imaginary combination of the Matrix films. If I could cut the second and third films together in a way that would make you understand that the entire trilogy (and not just the first film) is a classic work of sci-fi, I would do so.

Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. Not perfect like Raiders, not wonderfully grotesque like Temple of Doom. But: ‘You left just when you were becoming interesting.’ And: ‘I thought I lost you, boy.’ (And come to think of it: ‘If you are Scottish, lord, then I am Mickey Mouse.’) The tank battle is one of the great action setpieces, the score is sweetly sad, and it should have ended here.

Stop Making Sense. The rapturous final batch of songs make the case for the boundary-shattering power of groove as eloquently as any weird little hyper-controlled art flick ever has.

La Jetee. Inseparable, in my mind, from the Left Bank film festival where I first saw it — well after being knocked over by Twelve Monkeys, which I like more but value less. And that one shot (if you know, you know) is, for me, a small sacred thing: the incarnation and withdrawal of a goddess.

High School. What does evil look like? Maybe it looks like the final frames of this extraordinary, essential, still-relevant documentary.

Fight Club. Weighed down by cultural baggage, none of it interesting, this film is no longer held in the esteem it deserves. Never mind that it’s a virtuosic catalogue of cinematic technique; never mind that it’s really funny; never mind that This Really Is How It Feels Sometimes. How many films ever move this swiftly and smartly for two hours?

Blade Runner. Here’s how much this movie does right: the three-hour audio remix from Don Joyce’s Over the Edge radio show is one of the classic works of sci-fi all by itself, even without the epochal visual design.

Punch-Drunk Love. That score. Those moving colour splashes. Several moments of such light and sweetness they’re nearly unbearable. Several sequences of profound, courageous discomfort. Two daft dialogue scenes between Adam Sandler and Philip Seymour Hoffman, who couldn’t possibly be less well matched and yet and yet and yet and oh my God two of the most beautiful kisses ever put to film.

Princess Bride. You’d think it’d be enough, filming the best of all American movie swordfights. You’d think they’d’ve been satisfied, giving the world Vizzini’s mad hubristic Battle of Wits and the rise and fall and transformation and apotheosis of Inigo Montoya. But no. They insisted on wrapping those moments up in a flawless old-fashioned comedy. Bit of cheek, isn’t it.

The Adventures of Baron Munchausen. Terry Gilliam’s film has a classic orchestral score (conducted with rare wit), a lovely little moebius-strip of a story, and a light-operatic whimsy which leavens and complements Gilliam’s characteristic visual grotesquerie.

The Empire Strikes Back. Meticulously staged expressionist art film, all vivid colours and expert genre pastiche and lightly handled iconic tableaux, referring to dimly remembered but irrelevant backstory. Or, in Andrew Rilstone’s (possibly misremembered-by-me) words: ‘…as if Leigh Brackett picked up George Lucas’s Star Wars action figures and started acting out Hamlet with them.’

Chungking Express. Shot for peanuts, half improvised, in a few weeks between takes of a bigger-budget film. Wong Kar-Wai has made better films (In the Mood for Love, for instance) but this is a tiny magic spell with as strong a sense of place as any other movie.

The Singing Detective. If I could preserve a single screen performance (that I’m aware of) of the 20th century, it’d be Michael Gambon’s.

Ricky Jay and His 52 Assistants. This is mastery. This is the old way. Jay is a singular human being, and this film of his stage show is the essential document of his unique art.