2019: The year in review – Part 1: Culture

Here’s our look back on our most notable cultural experiences of the year; the full list is, as ever, on our Tumblr.

Film – I’ve started going to the cinema regularly again over the last few months, mainly matinee shows at the multiplex, but a few trips to the arthouse too. I liked Ad Astra, Knives Out, and Rolling Thunder Review, but my favourites were the monochrome Bait, an expressionist tale of class conflict in Cornwall, and Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, Tarantino’s flawed but ultimately beguiling portrait of late-60s California.

Books – I’ve read less than I would have liked this year, mainly because I spent a lot of time obsessing over the news, which, for much of 2019, was not unlike a melodramatic potboiler, though surely one that any editor would have rejected as implausibly plotted. Of the actual fiction that I did get through I thought the best was Taffy Brodesser-Akner’s Fleishman Is In Trouble, though I felt it was a bit more predictable than many of the reviews suggested. I enjoyed the poetic memoir of Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s Little Boy, and caught up with some historical reportage; Vasily Grossman’s notes from the eastern front in WW2, collected in A Writer at War, and Svetlana Alexievich’s anthology of first-hand female accounts of the same conflict, The Unwomanly Face of War, easily one of the most moving works I have ever read.

Music – no big changes in my musical taste this year; here are my top ten albums, in the order I bought them:

  • Get Tragic – Blood Red Shoes
  • Remind Me Tomorrow – Sharon Van Etten
  • Lung Bread For Daddy – Du Blonde
  • Titanic Rising – Weyes Blood
  • Stranger Things – Yuck
  • Joanthology – Joan As Police Woman
  • Any Human Friend – Marika Hackman
  • Dolphine – Mega Bog
  • Life’s An Illusion – The Sorry Kisses
  • No Home Record – Kim Gordon

I probably listened to Joanthology more than anything else, but it is a retrospective; my favourite of the original releases was Lung Bread For Daddy. I didn’t go to as many concerts as usual this year; but the two I did manage were great – Laura Gibson and Marika Hackman.

I’m planning to keep up my weekly cinema trips, at least until the winter is over, and I definitely want to start reading more fiction, though I guess I say that every year. It would do me good to step off the treadmill of trying to keep up with all the news, all the time, and just slow down a little – I did manage that for a while over the summer, but events drew me in again, as we’ll see in part 2 of our annual review, when we look back at the year in blogging.

Star Wars IX – instant review

I’m not long out of the cinema; here are my immediate thoughts on The Rise of Skywalker

[Some spoilers ahead, so don’t read this if you haven’t seen the film yet.]

It was efficiently entertaining, and I’m sure it will please both SW fans and casual moviegoers, but, in contrast to  The Last Jedi, which subverted expectations, this was a definite return to the established lore of the franchise. The bad guy turned out to be exactly who we suspected, Ray’s parentage wasn’t as random as we had been led to believe, and the characters’ development mostly followed predictable arcs. The space battles and light-sabre duels were pleasingly spectacular, but some things, like the Knights of Ren, were built up and then never came to much. Setting key scenes on yet another desert planet seemed a bit repetitive, but there were some interesting new backdrops, particularly the giant waves crashing into the ruined Death Star, and the barren Sith home world. There were a few plot holes – where exactly was the other transporter that Chewbacca was supposedly on? – and unlikely coincidences, and “The Force” does a lot of heavy lifting in moving the story along, but this could be said about any of the previous episodes, and one can’t really complain about such minor points if one is prepared to accept the central implausibility of the whole saga; that all the important events in a galaxy-spanning conflict seem to involve the same half-dozen people.

Overall though, a fun way to spend a couple of hours. I may even go and see it again over the holidays, once I’ve read all the other reviews, and have more of an idea of whether I should like it or not…

Far, far away

In an attempt to avoid having to process the events of last week I’ve been immersing myself in popular culture, specifically the latest instalments in the Star Wars saga.

I’d obtained a DVD copy of The Last Jedi about a year ago, but had never got around to watching it, until this week. [Spoilers for a two year old film ahead.] It was pleasingly diverting, though the plot wasn’t exactly cheery, concerning as it does the plucky resistance being almost wiped out by the fascistic imperials, mostly because of the rebels’ own bickering and incompetence, a rather dispiriting echo of our current political situation.

What was more fun was catching up on the debate among the SW superfans as to whether TLJ was a disrespectful travesty, or a much-needed shake-up of a tired franchise. I lean towards the latter camp, since I liked all the new characters who seemed to rile up the traditionalists, particularly Vice-Admiral Holdo, the sort of sensible commander who weighs up the situation and makes considered strategic decisions, and thus actually gets things done. Of course being right all the time is a bit boring for an action movie, which is perhaps why Holdo inexplicably sacrifices herself to save what’s left of the rebel fleet, when the cause would have much better served had she sent a relatively disposable junior officer like Poe Dameron on the suicide mission instead. Killing off the obvious surrogate for the key frustrated-white-male demographic would have been a step too far though – TLJ may have set itself up as iconoclastic, with a female lead, racially-diverse cast and grumpy Luke Skywalker, but Disney were never going to make it completely uncommercial.

Anyway, the new Star Wars film is on release tomorrow, and I’ve got a ticket, albeit for the 10 am show, rather than the minute-past-midnight screening that the real fans are camping out for, but still, fairly keen. I’m hoping for at least one more weekend of escapism before I have to return to grim reality…

Questionable things

It’s November 2019, which, as all sci-fi fans and film buffs know, is the month when the events of Blade Runner take place.

We wrote about Ridley Scott’s dystopian masterpiece back in the early days of this blog, when 2019 still seemed like the semi-distant future, and, while I did have an inkling that the decade to come was going to be a bit grim, the way things have turned out in reality makes Rick Deckard’s neo-noir Los Angeles look quite attractive in comparison, despite the perpetual rain, and the homicidal robots.

Interestingly, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, Philip K. Dick’s 1968 novel which provides the source material for Blade Runner, is in many ways a more accurate portrait of 21st century life. It envisages San Francisco in 2021 (or 1992 in the earlier editions); the elite have long fled to off-world colonies, leaving ordinary citizens struggling to survive in a world overtaken by ecological catastrophe and drowning in the detritus of a collapsing civilisation, their lives ruled by unaccountable corporations in a brutal police state, finding solace only in technological simulation of lost nature, and bogus virtual-reality religion.

The book and the movie do share a common theme about the nature of humanity, but the former is significantly darker, and much more downbeat in its conclusion. Dick died shortly before the film came out, but he did see a pre-release version, and apparently liked it, though he felt it complemented his story rather than directly reproducing it.

While android technology may not have advanced as far as Dick imagined, the cleverness of today’s Artificial Intelligence does seem to exceed that displayed by the replicants in the story. Roy Batty may trick his way into Tyrell’s residence with an unexpected chess move (though he’s actually just reproducing a game played out by humans back in 1851), but chess is old hat for modern AI; just last month it was reported that Google’s Deep Mind program had mastered that most advanced of intellectual pursuits, the online real-time strategy game.

Some people warn that AI is approaching the Singularity; the point where it can improve itself faster than humans can keep up. This is generally followed, in classic science fiction at least, by the newly-conscious super-computer taking over the world, though this does depend on humans doing something stupid, like handing it control of all the nuclear weapons, and it usually all works out well in the end, once we manage to teach the machines the power of love or something.

I do sometimes worry that AI will kill us all eventually, though not with an army of cyborgs; it will just get us to do the job ourselves, by using social media algorithms to divide us into mutually destructive tribes, or, failing that, to convince enough of us to eschew vaccination that we all die of measles.

At heart though, I’m still enough of a techno-utopian to believe that humankind is sufficiently smart to stay in control of the technology we create, and that our social organisation will evolve to allow the whole population to benefit from the advances that, at the moment, are just enriching a few. All going well, the future will be less like Blade Runner, and more like … actually I can’t think of a sci-fi film where the utopia doesn’t turn out to be a dystopia before the second reel. Maybe Logan’s Run, for the under-30s?

Reach for the stars

Regular readers will recall that we’ve posted on the topic of space travel several times in the past, marking, among other things, Yuri Gagarin’s pioneering flight into orbit, and Neil Armstrong’s first steps on the moon.

The tone of our previous pieces has been mostly elegiac, noting with regret that the promise of manned cosmic exploration, which seemed just around the corner in my youth, had largely stalled in the years that followed. There have of course been great strides in robotic exploration, from Mars all the way out to Pluto, and ever more sophisticated telescopes have peered into the furthest depths of the Universe, but I still find it deeply disappointing that Moon bases and space tourism aren’t a thing in the 21st century.

It’s interesting then to see that the latest anniversary of the Apollo 11 mission, which, 50 years ago today, put the Eagle lander on the lunar surface, has been greeted with quite a bit of enthusiasm. I haven’t heard anyone arguing that it wasn’t a good thing to do, and there seems to be a general feeling that it’s the kind of endeavour that humanity could do with undertaking again some time soon.

I’m sure that, at least in part, this wish to travel out into the final frontier is fuelled by a desire to forget about how dispiriting the immediate future is looking here on Earth, but, whatever the motivation, it’s good to see a resurgence of belief in the idea of progress. I may reluctantly admit that I’m probably too old now to make it to Mars in person, but I’m still hoping to see some other human get there before I die.

2018: The Year in Review – Part 1: Culture

Time for our annual run through my cultural highlights of the year – as usual everything is on our Tumblr.

Music – buying records has become my main cultural pursuit over the last few years; I’m fortunate enough to have the resources to purchase anything that catches my fancy, and, since nothing is more than a click away these days, I do get a lot. That said, the stuff I actually end up listening to regularly doesn’t tend to vary that much. Here, in no particular order, are my top ten albums of the year:

  • Floating Features – La Luz
  • Wide Awake! – Parquet Courts
  • Goners – Laura Gibson
  • Quit the Curse – Anna Burch
  • Future Me Hates Me – The Beths
  • Paycheck – Pip Blom
  • Fall into the Sun – Swearin’
  • Possible Dust Clouds – Kristin Hersh
  • Clean – Soccer Mommy
  • The Lookout – Laura Veirs

I kept up a fairly regular rhythm of gig-going; my favourite show was Parquet Courts, though La Luz and The Beths were a lot of fun too.

Film – I had a pile of DVDs I wanted to watch this year, but didn’t get around to; I don’t seem to have the time, or perhaps the attention span, to sit through a whole movie very often these days. Of the few I did see, The Love Witch was my favourite. My few cinema trips were mostly social affairs – I saw The Greatest Showman, and Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again, neither of which I would have chosen to go to alone, but both of which I enjoyed unironically. Far and away the best film I saw all year though was one I did go to see of my own volition – Wes Anderson’s Isle of Dogs.

Books – I’ve been reading a lot about existential philosophy in the last half of the year, no doubt because I’m getting older, and struggling more with the absurdity of life. Mostly it’s been articles in places like the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, but also The Myth of Sisyphus by Camus, and de Beauvoir’s The Ethics of Ambiguity. It’s not an area that I was unfamiliar with, though I hadn’t read much of the original material before, but it does seem a lot more relevant now than it did when I was in my 20s. My fiction highlights were completing my annual volume of Proust, The Sweet Cheat Gone (only one more to go for the set), belatedly catching up with Shark and Phone, the sequels to my favourite book of 2013, Will Self’s Umbrella, and taking a rare dive into poetry with one of the Booker Prize nominees, The Long Take, by Robin Robertson. My favourite read of the year though was more existentialism; Simone de Beauvoir’s 1954 novel The Mandarins. Although the questions debated by the characters in the book may seem to be dated – there’s a lot about the Soviet Union – the underlying message, of the responsibility we have to engage in political activity to at least try to change the world, couldn’t be more relevant in today’s troubled times.

Next up: The Year in Blogging.

2017: The Year in Review – Part 2: Culture

While posts on this blog have been a little sparse this year, I have managed to keep our Tumblr up to date, providing a handy list of all my cultural experiences over the last 12 months; here are my personal highlights:

Music – I’ve been steadily buying more records every year since I gave up my fixation with physical objects and started downloading albums back in 2014, so picking out my favourites has been getting harder; this is a fairly arbitrary top ten for 2017, in no particular order:

  • Antisocialites – Alvvays
  • Semper Femina – Laura Marling
  • Life Without Sound – Cloud Nothings
  • The Gold String – Devon Sproule
  • American Dream – LCD Soundsystem
  • Modern Kosmology – Jane Weaver
  • Pleasure – Feist
  • Masseduction – St. Vincent
  • MILANO – Daniele Luppi & Parquet Courts
  • Visions Of A Life – Wolf Alice

I managed to go to more concerts than usual this year too; my favourite was probably Cloud Nothings, though the Pixies gig was a fun blast of nostalgia.

Film – most of my cinematic experience this year was watching DVDs of stuff that came out last year; High Rise and The Neon Demon stand out. Of films I saw in an actual cinema easily the best was T2 Trainspotting, perhaps unsurprisingly, since I am exactly the demographic to appreciate it, having aged along with the protagonists, and shared their experience of change and maturity, though rather less dramatically.

Books – I completed another volume of Proust, The Captive, and filled a slightly embarrassing gap by finally reading some Murakami, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle. My intake of more recent literature wasn’t great, but I did manage last year’s Booker winner The Sellout, by Paul Beatty, which seemed worthy of the prize, though it did run out of steam towards the end. My favourite fiction of year was another old one that I’ve been meaning to read for ages, The Dispossessed by Ursula K. Le Guin, a hard-headed yet inspiring treatment of the challenges facing individuals in a communal society. I read rather less history, science and biography than in years past, Patti Smith’s M Train my pick of the latter category.

So that was 2017, insofar as it is possible to sum any year up in a few hundred words. I do regret not posting more this year, especially about politics; right now I feel resolved to do better in the months ahead, but I guess we’ll have to wait and see.

Anyway, I’ll round off by wishing a Happy New Year to anyone who may be reading this, and hoping it finds you healthy and prosperous.

King of the Living Dead

Regular readers will know that we have a bit of a zombie obsession here at SLS, so I was sad to hear of the passing of George Romero, who, more than anyone, defined the undead aesthetic that underlies just about every modern zombie-themed film and video game.

Night of the Living Dead is a groundbreaking classic of course, but, for me, Romero’s masterpiece is Dawn of the Dead, which inserts its shambling horror into the all-too-recognisable mundanity of everyday life to truly terrifying effect. If it has a fault it is that it’s too terrifying; despite it being one of my favourite films I haven’t watched Dawn of the Dead for years, because I know that a viewing will give me vivid nightmares for days afterwards.

Anyway, here’s a link to our very first zombie post from 10 years ago, which I think is still relevant today, and some valuable tips for when the worst happens…

They shoot Youtubers, don’t they?

I may affect indifference towards the fact that, according to the merciless WordPress statistics page, virtually nobody ever comes to visit our little blog any more, but the truth is that I miss the days when we had lots of traffic, and I’d do anything to attract a few more views again.

Well, perhaps not anything; I’d probably draw the line at having my partner shoot live ammunition at my chest in a misguided attempt to capture the attention of the notoriously fickle YouTube demographic. Depressingly this story isn’t an aberration; there are plenty of examples of would-be social media stars abusing their children, leaping from high places, lighting themselves on fire, or doing other stupid stunts in the hope that it will be their ticket to internet fame, and the fabled wealth that comes with it.

The spectacle of the desperate poor demeaning themselves for our entertainment is nothing new; there were dance marathons and other indignities during the Depression, truck-touching contests have a proud history, and as recently as 10 years ago people were dying to win a video game console. Now, in our wonderful modern world of 24/7 digital connection, it’s not even necessary to leave the house to join in; that’s progress I guess.

Ten Years After

Rather remarkably, today is the 10th anniversary of the very first post on this blog, and, while I started out full of enthusiasm, I don’t think I would have predicted that I’d still be churning them out a decade later.

It’s not been a steady stream of course – when I did a retrospective on the occasion of our 5th birthday back in 2012 I had a lot of material to work with; the pickings this time around are somewhat slimmer. There have been a few highlights though; here are my favourites:

2012

2013

2014

2015

2016

2017

So there you have it, 16 worthwhile pieces in 5 years. Is that a good enough return to justify keeping this blog going? On balance, I think so, though I guess we can revisit the question in 2022. In the meantime I’ll revive one of our traditions, which had sadly fallen into abeyance, the contrived musical link.