As you’ve probably guessed from the lack of Patreon posts this last month – but glut of travel photos on social media – it’s been a little tough to sit in one place to write regular posts while I’ve been touring through Norway, the US, and New Zealand. Things have also been a little full-on emotionally, with a return to a few different former haunts over the last 6 months to close out some unfinished business.
Thanksfully both the soul-searching and the writer’s block seem to be coming to an end as we approach the end of this round-the-world trip. It’s been especially interesting to reflect on what’s been influencing my thoughts this last month on the road – it’s been the first time I’ve travelled overseas with someone for more than a decade, and while that’s been tough to adjust to it feels like what I’ve been reading, watching and listening to has been entirely my decision (rather than having to account for the needs of a travel buddy in almost every other decision).
So with that in mind, here’s what I’ve been reading, watching and listening to while I’ve been on the road these last few weeks – enjoy!
What I’m Reading
A few years back I was lucky enough to meet and work with Loretta Whitesides while we were both in Israel supporting the International Space University’s “Summer Space Program” (aka SSP16). Overall the program was such a brutally heartbreaking experience that I cut all ties with ISU at the end of it as a result (and have never looked back) but hanging out with Loretta was definitely one of biggest highlights from those ugly two months. We immediately connected over our shared desire to see humanity grow emotionally through the challenge of space exploration, and a certainty that we will only send people on other planets by being vulnerable with each others.
I knew in Israel she was working on a book about it all, which would also serve as a handbook for the workshops she runs internally at Virigin Galactic to develop a healthy vulnerability-focused work environment… but in truth I’d forgotten all about her book since I’d distanced myself from ISU. Which is why it was a wonderful surprise when she emailed to say that The New Right Stuff had finally been published!
Loretta is undeniably thorough in her approach to content with The New Right Stuff – it’s literally laid out as a series of chapters sequentially tackling different negative aspects of humanity, all of which end with some small homework assignments that push your comfort zone to be more vulnerable and self-aware.
It’s a first book, and just like my first book it probably needs a bit more polishing in the formatting department, but the content is absolutely exceptional. You can always fix formatting and add polish in a second edition, but I suspect Loretta reached the same point I did with Becoming Martian – just get it done and published so people can learn from it, while also freeing you up to move onto something bigger again.
What Loretta’s writing about is brilliant though, and it’s certain everyone reading it will gain at least some greater insight into themselves and into what it will take from us as a species to start living among the stars.
What I’m Watching
Westerns have never really been my thing, and pretty much every Cohen brother film I’ve ever seen has felt tedious or deliberately obtuse. So when Netflix started promoting The Ballad of Buster Scruggs – a Western by the Cohen brothers – my eyes immediately glazed over. When a few friends started saying it was incredibly dark comedy that I’d love, I still sneered. I’ve been burned by the Cohen brothers a few times now, and I’d been running so hard teaching scuba in the first week of the new year that I wasn’t keen to lose 2 hours watching something I’d hate when I could be sleeping instead.
It wasn’t until someone mentioned that it was a series of 6 short Western vignettes – rather than a single feature-length story – that I decided to give it a go. If each little story is about 20mins long, then I could always watch one or two and stop if I was getting sleepy or bored. I certainly wasn’t expecting to watch it in a single sitting like I did.
Looking back I think the biggest issue I’ve had with a lot of the Cohen brother’s films is that many of their stories are either one idea stretched out for 2 hours, or a scattering of ideas thrown together and called art. For everything I’ve seen before that’s frustrating as hekk, but in the case of The Ballad of Buster Scruggs it actually works perfectly – a central theme of dark and brutal tales from the old West, each of which individually explore a different idea quite seperately from the others.
Some of the stories work better than others, but at least the ones that fall flat are over soon enough. I’m still going to give plenty of side-eye to pretty much everything the Cohen brothers direct, but I think in this case they’ve used a format that perfectly combines their arthouse-leanings with an approach to presenting ideas that doesn’t feel tedious or scattered. It’s well worth a watch, and if you’re not onboard after the first two stories then stop and get some sleep instead!
Black Mirror always requires a reasonable level of emotional preparation and commitment from me before watching, so there was no way I was going to rush to watch Black Mirror: Bandersnatch as soon as it became available on Netflix. Without investigating it too deeply it was also clearly a stand-alone episode, and I was really hoping for a whole new season rather than a single episode. What I didn’t immediately realise was Bandersnatch is an interactive experience rather than just another episode, and that definitely needed further investigation.
The basic premise is a guy in the early 80’s has an opportunity to work with a video game company to turn his favourite book “Bandersnatch” into a choose-your-own-adventure style video game. Beyond that is really up to you – you choose the adventure by selecting one of two options at different decision points. Of course in true Black Mirror style almost all of the options are terrible (you’ve killed your Dad, so now do you bury or chop up the body?) and all of the different endings leave the main character in jail or dead while you’re left feeling a bit sick from the whole experience… and yet there’s an overwhelming compulsion to discover all the different endings anyway! It’s also stunning just how deep the folks from Netflix have made this rabbit-hole, and just how mets the entire experience can easily become.
I had to watch it on my laptop because our smart TV apparently isn’t smart enough for it, but if being emotionally challenged by Black Mirror is already your cup of tea then Bandersnatch will be a uniquely bizarre and confronting experience that fits perfectly within the larger Black Mirror universe.
I got incredibly excited when I first saw the initial trailer for Venom in early 2018, but was quickly put off actually seeing it in cinemas by a growing level of negative press around it – that it had destroyed the rich comic-book heritage of the character, that Tom Hardy wasn’t suited to the role, and that it was just a generally bad movie… but with over 20 hours stuck on planes getting from Perth to Norway, and Venom on the in-flight entertainment system there was plenty of opportunity to find out for myself.
You know what? With only a limited understanding of the original comic-book story and plenty of space from the negative reviews… I thought it was great! Most of the supporting characters are pretty two-dimensional but at the same time this is an anti-hero origin story – the interesting element is the interaction between Tom Hardy and the symbiote, and both of them are pretty hilarious. The rawness of the symbiote’s character is brilliantly unforgiving but also a little vulnerable at times, which I guess is exactly what you’d expect from a highly intelligent alien parasite that still has to have a relationship with it’s human host top survive.
I think Venom copped more criticism than it deserved. It’s not high art – it’s a Marvel movie, and I’m looking forward to the next Venom film far more than yet another Spiderman reboot.
Bad Times at the El Royale popped up on my radar fairly early on, but my interest was never strong enough to actually seek it out when it was at cinemas… but like I said, 20 hours on planes getting to Norway is an easy way to catch-up on films you might have otherwise missed. An old friend (my Year 9 English teacher in fact) raved about it when it was released, but also said to avoid any trailers as they spoilt much of it – I did, and thankfully went in pretty much blind and without expectations.
It’s an unusual film, with a steady blend of both the expected and unexpected. It’s also the best use of the many-perspectives storytelling approach I’ve ever seen, with the perspective being framed around each character’s room number and slowly revealing more and more of what’s happened with each perspective shift. Ultimately it’s a relatively simple story with some incredibly dark elements in it, but in retrospect the way it’s presented makes the plot feel far more complex and mysterious than it is.
I’m sure I’d pick up a few more minor details if I were to watch it again, but there’s no real compulsion – it definitely felt like an experience in the moment, but not a film I’ll really learn anything from or gain any new insights from seeing again. It’s worth watching Bad Times at the El Royale for the amazing cast and the unusual storytelling approach, but one viewing is probably enough for me.
For years now I’ve had a smattering of American friends tell me I’d love It’s Always Sunny In Philidelphia if I watched it – that it’s exactly the kind of surreal and dark comedy I actively seek out. The snippets I’ve caught have always seemed like my jam, but for whatever reason it’s never been easily accessible to watch the show properly: it’s not on Australian Netflix, I’ve never thought to watch it when I’ve been in the US, and never cared enough to buy a season on Google Play to test it out. I’d also never seen it listed on any in-flight entertainment during my travels… until I was flying from Tromso to Orlando this month, and the Norwegian Air flight I was on had three episodes lsited!
If I’m honest first impressions weren’t good: the crew goes to a waterpark and most of the comedy centers around two folks being pissed on, one guy being scammed by 14 year old girl, and Danny Devito’s character “Frank” pretending to have AIDs to jump to the front of every line – dark, but hardly my taste in comedy.
I’m glad I pushed on to the other two episodes though, because while they were both pitch black they were also hilariously self-aware. The episode where the crew place hidden cameras around the hosue two of their mothers share is a hysterically vicious critic of every laugh-track-loving sitcom ever made. The next episode places Frank as the owner of a soft drink that becomes the symbol of terror group Boko Haram, and pokes endless fun at the 24-hour news cycle. Both episodes seem to revel in pointing out genuinely uncomfortable truths (like how a laugh track reframes physical abuse as hilairious, or how corporations never say sorry on TV) but there’s no attempt to change it – this is just 5 terrible people doing terrible things while also pointing out some of the terrible but generally unspoken aspects of Western society… and I love it.
I’m still not sure if I’ll try to buy a season just yet, but I’ve certainly enjoyed what I’ve seen of It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia so far… and with the exception of the water park episode it definitely feels like my kind of comedy.
What I’m Listening To
Like most of the new albums I find now, Manchester Orchestra popped up on my radar when “The Maze” was recommended on my Spotify account’s “Discover Weekly” playlist, I like the sound of it and went looking for more… only to discover I’ve heard and loved quite a few tracks from them over the years without knowing their name!
I gave their album A Black Mile to the Surface (which features “The Maze”) a go for awhile, before deciding to head into the back catalogue… which is when I realised their 2009 album Mean Everything To Nothing had a bundle of songs I’d heard before and loved! I clearly remember hearing both “Shake It Out” and “I’ve Got Friends” on Triple J back in 2009 but never quite placing the artist name, and here they were right next to next other on the same album!
Listening to the album through is an interesting experience though. The first half of the album is absolutely pounding indie-rock that I love, but from the 5th track “100 Dollars” on the tempo slows and the mood really darkens. There’s a few brighter spots like a parts of the title track “Everything To Nothing” and “The River”, but it really feels like the whole album comes in like a lion and goes out like a (still very loud) lamb. It’s not a bad thing though – the rise and fall of the whole album seems to work really well, as the quiet/moody parts help off-set the early noisy bits. The album seems to be pretty well timed too, as just as I start to notice how quiet the album is getting with “Jimmy, He Whispers”… the album ends and Spotify loops back to the opening track “The Only One” to blast my face off again!
All round Mean Everything To Nothing has been an interesting rediscovery, and a reminder that there are still plenty of things out there I’ve only caught snippets of before but still need to fully explor 🙂