Hi, I'm Rob, and this is where I log the books, films, articles and other cultural flotsam that has caught my attention.

Week notes 2020-02

  • We got a dog this week! Actually we’ve been looking to adopt a rescue dog for over a year now, but it’s not the easiest of processes. But, after a few false starts, we finally found Buster, a six-year-old mixed breed dog from the streets of Romania. Buster was delivered to our door at 4:30 am this Saturday morning, very nervous and dirty (and smelly!). Since then it’s been a slow process of acclimatising and settling in, as well as getting him to trust us. Needless to say we are totally besotted already. (No photos yet, there will be plenty of time for that.)
  • Only one film watched this past week: Mystify: Michael Hutchence. I dont’ have any strong affinity with INXS or anything, but this is a pretty solidly made documentary, and there’s a lot I didn’t know about his story. Plus, 90s Kylie MInogue is The Best.
  • Got 2020 reading off to a flying start though. Finished The Topeka School by Ben Lerner and went right into A Cosmology of Monsters by Shaun Hammill. Difficult to descibe this one, but it’s horror-ish with a real family element thrown in that makes it feel more grounded… until the monsters show up. I read it in record time and was both entertained and genuinely disturbed by it.
  • I’m on to Little Faith by Nikolas Butler now. My wife rattled through this over the Christmas break so I’m hoping it will keep my reading momentum going at pace.
  • Read quite a few articles about death and dying this week it seems: Commentary: John Simon, Clive James and the future of criticism in our culture from the LA Times is about dead critics and the next wave of them; while The Art of Dying from The New Yorker is written by a critic who is quite literally dying (of lung cancer), and he writes about it here with amazing beauty and clarity. The Lingering of Loss (also from The New Yorker) is subtitled ‘My best friend left her laptop to me in her will. Twenty years later, I turned it on and began my inquest’. But it’s less about the laptop and more about the friendship.
  • An article I read this week that’s not about death or loss: Lived in Bars from Good Beer Hunting is about giving up alcohol but still frequenting and trying to enjoy your favourite bars.
  • Below is one of the tunes that’s caught my attenton in the first couple of weeks this year:

Week notes 2020-01

  • I’m changing the format of these posts for 2020. It’s not all about the media I’m ingesting anymore, a few more observations and random asides thrown in.
  • So first off: Happy new year! I spent the end of 2019 and the beginning of the 20s in Copenhagen. It’s a lovely (if damned expensive) city, which really comes into its own on new year’s eve. It turns out there’s no real law governing the use of fireworks in public spaces in Copenhagen so as it gets closer to midnight you see people carrying personal arsenals of flying explosives towards the city center and then… Boom, all hell breaks loose at the stroke of midnight. Despite the somewhat warzone atmosphere it was a lot of fun (see IG picture above).
  • We spent the hours leading up to midnight in a very nice restaurant enjoying their tasting menu (a lot of fish) and wine pairing. The most memorable part of the meal was when a woman at the next table casually leaned over and vomited on the floor. If that had been me I would have probably left at a sprint, apologising profusely and leaving a massive tip. But this woman and the people she was with (her parents!) styled it out and let the staff clean up around them. I was, and still am, gobsmacked.
  • We watched Dracula on the BBC, which was good… Right up until that third episode when it took a steep nosedive (not a controversial opinion, I understand). The Mark Gatiss Dracula documentary was more enjoyable I think.
  • I started reading The Topeka School by Ben Lerner. It’s very beautiful, and just off kilter enough to keep me intrigued. Should finish it this week.
  • I also read Grayson Perry’s The Descent of Man and the graphic novel Off Season by James Sturm (a Christmas present), both of which I really enjoyed.
  • Watched over the Christmas break: Uncut Gems (loved it, should really be on that top 10 I posted last week), Marianne & Leonard: Words of Love (not a huge Broomfield fan but this was ok) and Marriage Story (as good as everyone says it is, but not as good as Little Women).
  • Also this week: back to Park Run in Crystal Palace park. Got a personal best this week despite a wickedly cold wind. Something to build on through the year.
  • Read over the break: An essay on Class and coffee, a short article on Dancing with HAIM (loved this), Oliver Burkeman on Why time management is ruining our lives, and Vampire Weekend’s Ezra Koenig On longevity and community
  • Here’s some Irish hip hop to ease you in 2020:

My 10 Favourite Films of 2019

I just got back from seeing Greta Gerwig’s Little Women, and I’m putting it right at the top of my Favourite Films of 2019 list.

Am I doing that annoying ‘the last thing you experienced is your favourite’ thing? Maybe, but I don’t think so. This film is over two hours long and when it finished I just wanted to start watching it again (it’s also one of those films where I instinctively wanted to start applauding when it ended, I didn’t of course, I’m English.).

Why did I love it so much? It’s beautfully shot and it looks amazing. The cast is out of this world, and Saoirse Ronan is phemonenal, she need to win all the awards for this performance. The structure is clever but not too gimmicky or showy. Most of all though, it’s incredibly entertaining and effecting. It is 100% pure cinema: it will make you laugh, cry and everything inbetween, plus the dialogue is whip smart and it’s an adaptation of a book which is over a century old, yet if feels incredibly modern.

I love a film that does something new and different (it’s why Once Upon A Time… in Hollywood and Parasite are second and third on my list), but to take something that’s a recognised classic, and which has been adapted so many times already, and then produce something so fresh and so beautiful – that’s talent.

Honourable mention: The Standoff at Sparrow Creek

Consumed the week of 9 December, 2019

https://i0.wp.com/static01.nyt.com/images/2019/11/24/world/xxbrexit-photos3/merlin_164940639_01e4ca32-eec3-4ab7-8bd4-b8d16eab4bfd-superJumbo.jpg?w=700&ssl=1

What to say about this week? How about I let William Gibson say it instead. There was a brilliant profile of the author in the New Yorker this past week, some of it commenting on his amazing ability to create ficton that takes the present’s most ‘fucked up’ qualities into fascinating and sometimes terrifying areas:

‘In writing “The Peripheral,” he’d been able to bring himself to believe in the reality of an ongoing slow-motion apocalypse called “the jackpot.” A character describes the jackpot as “multicausal”—“more a climate than an event.” The world eases into it gradually, as all the bad things we worry about—rising oceans, crop failures, drug-resistant diseases, resource wars, and so on—happen, here and there, to varying degrees, over the better part of the twenty-first century, adding up to “androgenic, systemic, multiplex, seriously bad shit” that eventually kills eighty per cent of the human race. It’s a Gibsonian apocalypse: the end of the world is already here; it’s just not very evenly distributed. One character reacts to the jackpot equivocally: “Either depressing and scared the fuck out of me or sort of how I’d always figured things are?”’

So, yeah. That’s my current state of mind: androgenic, systemic, multiplex, seriously bad shit is happening and it’s simultaneously scaring the fuck out of me and feels horribly inevitable.

The image above is from Photos of the U.K. in the Shadow of Brexit, a photo essay from the New York Times. Browse it and weep.

Also read this week: The Schedule and the Stream, Matt Locke writes about the cultural and political impact of digital environments and the context-free algorithms that underpin them.

Very related to that is I became part of the alt-right at age 13, thanks to Reddit and Google from Fast Company. I am so glad I don’t have kids right now.

And, related to that (sorry, this doesn’t get much more cheery this week) is Checking in on the Masculinity Crisis from Long Reads. A look at a couple of new books that promise to examine the ‘phenomenon’ of white male disenfranchisement.

And you can’t talk about white males without talking about comic books and pop culture, so that takes us to The Decade Comic Book Nerds Became Our Cultural Overlords via Medium, and This Was the Decade That Spoiler Culture Changed Everything from Gizmodo.

We watched the documentary Tell Me Who I Am on Netflix last weekend. It is brilliant but very harrowing and pretty hard going in places. Proceed with caution, but proceed if you can. I also watched Michael Mann’s debut film, Thief, starring James Cann, which has been on my list for ages. Really enjoyed it.

Amongst all the depressing events I did manage to lose myself in James Lovegrove’s latest, Sherlock Holmes & the Christmas Demon. Thank god for escapism!

Musically this week here’s two American talk show appearances, one from 1983 and one from this week. First is Takling Heads doing I Zimbra on Letterman (chosen because Byrne annonced this week that the band were NOT reforming, I admit I had got my hopes up). And after that, Vampire Weekend on the Late Late Show doing Harmony Hall with a bit of Christmas Time is Here thrown in there for good measure.

Merry Christmas?

Consumed the week of 2 December, 2019

A few music-related things to kick off this week.

First, one of my all-time favourite artist, DJ Shadow has a new album out so he’s being doing the rounds, talking to Billboard about the Universal Music Fire Losses and Why It’s a ‘Pathetic Age’, and to The Ringer about why he’s still breaking new ground.

Then there’s this GQ oral history of Suede’s second album Dog Man Star. Oh, Bernard, why did you have to leave?

Gong to talk politics for two seconds. There is a general election this week after all.

First Pankaj Mishra writes brilliantly about nationalism and the election for the Guardian: England’s Last Roar.

Second, the ever-interesting Douglas Rushkoff examines why “the hippies’ effort to destabilize the American dream may have worked too well” in an article entitled Operation Mindfuck 2.0.

Elsewhere The Cut examines why Ketamine is the drug of choice for our dissociated moment: A Party Drug for the End of the World.

While Boing Boing gets Inside Alan Moore’s Head with the help of some YouTube videos (and, Watchmen just gets better with every episode)

Jason Kottke writes about The Secret to Enjoying a Long Winter (something that definitely seems to effect me more as I get older I think), inc.com explains why The Secret to More Refreshing Weekends Is the Exact Opposite of What You’d Expect (excuse the click-baity headline) and mathematician Dan Rockmore explores The Myth and Magic of Generating New Ideas in The New Yorker.

New film watched this week: Hustlers (nicely shot and some great performances, but not quite enough plot to sustain it).

Old film watched this week: Times Square. An interesting cultural curio but the soundtrack is better than the movie (couple of great dance sequences though, see above).

Classic film I read about his week: Why Clerks Still Works.

Finally, It’s that time of year again: 52 things I learned in 2019.

Consumed the week of 25 November, 2019

I missed an update last week, but I have a good excuse: we were in Berlin with a couple of friends of ours. We drank beer, ate bratwurst and beetroot and potatoes, went record shpping, tried out the electric scooters and generally had a great time.

This week, it was back to earth with a bit of a bump, especially as the great Clive James and the brilliant Jonathan Miller both died. I walked past Miller once years ago in Camden, and I got very excited about it. Too excited probably, but the guy was a bit of a legend to me. Just the way he used to pop up on BBC2 talking with effortless brlliance about opera or literature or film or…. anything really; his gangly limbs all wrapped up around himself. He was an incredible person and it wa a little bit of a shame his death was overshadowed by that of James (and Gary Rhodes!)…

…Having said that, Clive James was amazing too. He is the man who said “A sense of humor is just common sense, dancing,” after all. A rule to live by right there. He said and wrote a lot of incredible things, some of which are documented in this Washington Post obit.

Both Miller and James were exponents of the belief that creativity and genius could flourish in any arena, high or low. I love that idea, and it seems to me that Dipti S. Barot might too. She wrote this essay for Longreads talking about her lifelong love of the film critics Siskel and Ebert. I didn’t grow up watching these two (and their thumbs) but I did grow up with a genuine appetite for watching “intelligent people who actually respect each other disagree so passionately that it’s as if sparks are ricocheting off the screen…”. It’s why I love Clive James and Jonathan Miller, and why this is one of my favourite essays I’ve read all year.

The only other thing I want to point to this week is this incredible performance from David Byrne on Jimmy Fallon. I know someone who saw his American Utopia show on Broadway last month and they loved it. I was very very jealous. This life-affirming video will have to do for now.

Consumed the week of 4 November, 2019

My favourite long read of the week was probably After the Fall of the Glossy Magazine, What’s Left of Condé Nast?, just because it’s a proper nerdy deep dive into how journalism is working (or at least trying to work) in the Internet age.

Don’t Play the Goose Game from The Atlantic is about the Untitled Goose Game (which I haven’t actually played) but it’s also about what constitutes game play and how that, more often than not, is about some kind of ‘work’ (or ‘playbor’) and how the new breed of ‘walking simulators’ try and avoid that playbor trap. And it’s also about memes and web culture more broadly:

But as images both real and fake have proliferated, their volume has become oppressive. The hundreds your Instagram or Facebook friends post daily. The thousands on Pinterest that show up, welcome or not, with every Google search. Specific images become replaced by caricatures of images: a sun-drenched vacation beach, or an artfully arranged omakase course, or a child now older come a new autumn. It’s no wonder that the droll, more biting memes rise above the fray. Perhaps the best definition of a meme is just an image that, against the odds, actually gets seen—before mercifully vanishing.

The other week I went along to the BFI on the Southbank to watch a preview of the new BBC adapatation of War of the Worlds, starring Eleanor Tomplinson and Rafe Spall (and Robert Carlyle). It’s proper Sunday evening entertainment and I’ll definitely watch the rest of it when it airs.

That’s it for this week, been a quiet one. I’ll leave you with my playlist of the music (both new and old) that’s caught my attention over the past few months:

Consumed the weeks of 21 and 28 October

I’m back from Orlando, just getting over the jet leg as well as a bit of a head cold.

I could write a lot about how strange Orlando is. Although I really enjoyed Universal Studios (especially the Halloween Horror night we went to there), it’s very peculiar to be in a different country for a whole week and not encounter anything ‘real’, by which I mean something that isn’t artificially constructed. A whole week and we didn’t encounter a real high street or anything you’d call a ‘community’ (and we tried!). But, wow, that King Kong ride is pretty fantastic!

On the plane I watched Rocketman which I enjoyed far more that I thought I would (it’s pretty much made to be an aeroplane film), and I thought Taron Egerton gave a fantastic performance. Also on the plane (but on my Pixelbook, these two weren’t on the in-flight entertainment menu) I watched Ken Russell’s 1908 psychedelic sci-fi/horror Altered States, which I really liked in all its trippy, slightly melodramatic insanity (it also makes you appreciate what an amazing job Kubrick did with his special effects over a decade earlier), and Richard Brooks’ 1977 true crime drama Looking for Mr Goodbar starring a great Diane Keaton and Richard Gere in his first screen role.

Since we got back Nina and I watched Steven Soderbergh’s new one for Netflix, The Laundromat (not that great) and Lulu Wang’s The Farewell which is just beautiful and touching and funny and everything you want from a film.

Television good news: Watchmen is very good so far (two episodes in), and AV Club agrees with me.

Television bad news: The fantastic Lodge 49 has been cancelled and is looking for a new home. Such a shame when shows like that can’t survive. Here’s Vox talking about why it’s so special.

Back to film for a second: Vice has a nice oral history of one of my favourite cult films: The Improbable True Story of How ‘Clerks’ Was Made, and the New Yorker has a long, fascinating interview with the great Errol Morris about his new documentary which is a typical Morris profile of the vile Steve Bannon (AV Club reviews the film positively here).

Back to Vice, and they have a really interesting article about a big AirBnB scam (I have become increasingly disillusioned with the service over the past year or so and think it will take quite a lot for me to use it again at this point). Meanwhile The Atlantic explain why WeWork’s Adam Neumann Is the Most Talented Grifter of Our Time (and by ‘talented’ they mean ‘disgustingly greedy’).

My favourite article this week though was This essay is just Harry Potter for people who think comparing things to Harry Potter is stupid (it’s not actually about Potter).

Finally this week: music. Yesterday I went to the Southbank Center to see part of their Deep Minimalism weekend. Essentially I sat in a darkened room for three hours (no break) and listened to Trilogie de la Mort by Eliane Radigue, “the long-form bass experience never to be forgotten by those willing to give up the surface of the world for three hours.” I’m not exaggerating when I say it was a beautiful, mind-altering experience, which you can recreate in the comfort of your own home by getting some good headphones, going into a darkened room and listening to this:

Consumed the weeks of 7 and 14 October.

Last weekend I was in Spain with work, this weekend I fly to Orlando with my wife’s family, so here’s a quick film and TV roundup before I go away and read all those articles I have saved up.

This week another adaptation of Alan Moore’s The Watchmen hits our (ok, America’s screens) in the form of Damon Lindelof’s HBO series (not a retelling though, this is a ‘remix’ apparently).

I’m excited for this, mainly because I adored The Leftovers. But I have been burned by Moore adaptations before (and I have been burned by Lindelof before -cough-Lost-cough), so we’ll see. It’s been fun reading the coverage though, especially as Lindelof thinks Alan Moore has cursed him (literally). Meanwhile The NY Times dug right into the history of The Watchmen universe, and my most trusted review source (The AV Club) gave the preview a B score.

Certain to be my most disappointing thing (not just ‘film’ but ‘thing) of the year, is Joker. God, I hated this film. So much so that it made me angry. I’m not going to waste space or time writing about it (I’m already bored of the endless conversations), but if you want to read a review which is very close to my feelings this from Mubi‘s blog is very good.

Or, if you want to watch a deadpan YouTuber talk about the problems with the film for 30 minutes, I can recommend this:

Certain to be amongst (if not at the the top of) my top films of the year is Parasite by Bong Joon ho. It’s everything Joker isn’t: smart, funny, well-directed, engaging, interesting fun… But don’t just take my word for it. As it’s about to come out in the States there’s a ton of good press about it, including this overcooked headline from AV Club: Parasite may be Bong Joon Ho’s most thrilling ride on the genre-hopping Snowpiercer express, and Director Bong Joon ho on his favourite filmmakers and the rich kid who inspired Parasite (also from AV Club, sorry, I really need to widen my reading habits), Bong Joon-ho’s Dystopia Is Already Here from Vulture which contains a cracking Harvey Weinstein anecdote, and Why everyone is talking about Bong Joon Ho’s ‘Parasite’: A thriller rooted in class conflict from the LA Times.

(There’s a lot of different ways to write Joon Ho in those headlines, I just realised)

Other things watched in the last few weeks: Welles’s The Magnificent Ambersons (great but understandably flawed – not Orson’s fault), Netflix Stephen King (and son) adaptation, In The Tall Grass (not good), and documentary Worlds of Ursula K. Le Guin (great stuff).

See you in a week or so! In the meantime, here’s a short film about Robyn’s gig at Alexandra Palace earlier this year, which i was at and which was amazing:

Consumed the Weeks of 16th, 23rd and 30th of September

Last week I went back to Liverpool with a few friends to mark the 25th (!) anniversary of us all going to university there. Yes, I am officially old now. Which is why this GQ article on ‘being washed’ really struck a chord with me.

Wouldn’t the world be a better place if more of us admitted…not defeat, necessarily, but the possibility of defeat? If more of us were washed? And in doing so allowed ourselves to find what pleasure, or peace, might await on the other side?

(I don’t play golf though. I’m not at that point… yet.)

The musician Daniel Johnston died earlier this month. I wasn’t an obsessive fan of his or anything, but I liked his music and really enjoyed the documentary The Devil and Daniel Johnston. This article from Longreads is one of the best I read after he passed away.

I hate giving up on books, but this week I decided to give up on Spoonbenders by Daryl Gregory. The set up was really intriguing, but it just didn’t grab me and I had to make myself put it back on the shelf even though I was half way through it. I picked up Lovecraft Country instead, and already I’m a lot happier.

In between the two I demolished the new Stephen King novel, The Institute, in two days flat. I hope he keeps writing books forever.

What I’ve done most of the past few weeks is watch films. I’ve been working my way through quite a few cult classics as well as some new movies. Here’s the list:

Targets (1968)

The Long Goodbye (1973)

F for Fake (1973)

Shirkers (2018)

Hard Eight (1996)

Lowlife (2017)

Hal (2018)

Night of the Demon (1957)

Harold and Maude (1971)

Billy Jack (1971)

Parasite (2019)

Of the classics, I loved Harold and Maude and Night of the Demon. From the new stuff, Parasite was my favourite I think. Shirkers was the pick of the documentaries. I also read a really good article about the Billy Jack phenomenon.

I’ll leave you this week with some Four Tet: