Black Mirror: season 1

I should really write something about Inside Number 9, given that we recently hurtled through its six series at perhaps a greater pace than we did Line of Duty. But I’m not, I’m writing about Black Mirror because I may as well write about something reasonably soon after watching it.

What does Inside Number 9 have to do with Black Mirror? On the face of it, nothing. But drag the waters and you see that both are pretty exquisitely constructed anthology series (each episode is completely unrelated to what came before. Or comes after). Both were created by middle aged dudes who were cult icons in about 2000, before gradually becoming part of the furniture. And both seem pretty great. So what more do you need?

Nothing. Good. I’ll go into detail on the Inside Number 9 post about that one, but in a nutshell: it’s Steve Pemberton and Reese Shearsmith (from League of Gentlemen and Psychoville; and seemingly always named in that order) making it clear that they are embarrassingly talented, as they shape six standalone episodes of TV that could each be pilots or kernels of movies, every year. And none is bad. Some are amazing.

Black Mirror is Charlie Brooker (and friends), who at the time of League of Gentlemen had his satirical fake TV listings website TV Go Home, and was soon to pour scorn over everythig on a weekly basis for The Guardian. He’s now pretty damn well known. He also apparently has very good ideas and turns them into standalone episodes of excellence. Being on Netflix, I think Black Mirror is probably already more familiar to you lot than it is to me. Hey ho.

There are three episodes in series one, all kind of Twilight Zone/Outer Limits, but very plausible, which is where the real scariness comes in. I won’t describe the plots (watch them), but you’ve got a pilot episode about the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom being black mailed into doing something… awful. Then there is an episode about fitness fads, fame, reality shows and virtual selves (my favourite). And then one in which all of our experiences are recorded by an implant (COVID vaccine!!) that we can then replay and broadcast; the episode concerns itself with how that can magnify already obsessive personalities.

They are all great. What’s really shocking is how relevant and scary they are as a sense of “today taken to its logical conclusion” but they were made a damn decade ago. That’s really bloody impressive. It’s like they’ve predicted, if not the terminus, at least the trajectory of where we are going technologically and socio-culturally. All those years of shouting and swearing about culture has obviously given Brooker a keen eye. And you also get to see a pretty stellar cast (Daniel Kaluuya, Jessica Brown Findlay, Jodie Whittaker) often before they were mega famous.

So yes, that’s it for now. Just some thoughts on the first series before I get too far past it. Toodles!

The Lighthouse

Robert Eggers (2019)

This has been on my to-watch list since it was first released. It did not disappoint. Eggers’ second film after The Witch (which I loved, but neglected to write about), the Lighthouse started off as an adaptation of an unfinished Poe story by Eggers’ brother, Max, before Robert helped him out with a bit of the old “hey, I can actually get this made”. This led to it becoming rather less of an adaptation than merely a similarly-named piece of work.

I don’t know the Poe story. I do know a lot of Edgar Allan Poe, after studying him in sixth form (The Gothic Tradition, for which module I got 100%. Suck it), but I don’t know this one. Maybe, being unfinished, the tale didn’t make it into whichever anthology I was using.

Anyway, this is about two blokes who arrive on a “God-forsaken” island, to tend to a lighthouse for four weeks. The blurb on the case said something about them trying to maintain their sanity, which I wouldn’t quite call a spoiler, as you would imagine something had to happen. And it’s just about the two blokes! So it’s cosy, bordering on the claustrophobic, as they get to know each other and their foibles.

I won’t go through the plot: you’ve got Wikipedia for that. Besides, you should just watch the damn film. So I’ll talk about other things, like character, atmosphere and things wot it reminds me of.

I’ve seen a few David Lynch comparisons, and I guess I see that. But not to a great extent. The 4:3 (technically 1.19:1) aspect ratio, monochrome presentation, small cast and recurrent induatrial noise do put me in mind of Eraserhead (that was 4:3, right? I can’t remember. And I last watched it on a 4:3 telly anyway). But it’s not like it’s bloody Mulholland Dr. or anything.

I got way more of an Antichrist vibe from this, though. I mentioned that thought to a pal, and she said she felt the same thing, but decided that may only have been because it was in black and white, and starred Willem Dafoe. I had to then go back and check, as I didn’t remember Antichrist being in black and white. (It’s not.)

No, I think the comparisons go a little deeper than that. As well as being Dafoe tours-de-force, they are both (pretty much) two handers, featuring a pair of characters who are willingly away from the rest of society, together in an alien/alienating setting in which their emotions and psychological health are stretched to the limit. And both include hallucinations and stark, sometimes grim, imagery with a level of anthropomorphism thrown in. You’ve got the “chaos reigns!” fox of Antichrist replaced by the malicious gulls of the Lighthouse. I may be ham-fisted, but I’m not sufficiently on the nose to compare it to Hitchcock, don’t worry.

Despite the comparisons to Lynch and Von Trier, though, this is very much an Eggers film. As valid as I think the above parallels are, you can also look at a number of themes this film has in common with Eggers’ debut, the Witch. Again, you’ve got the relatively small cast, set aside from the rest of society, albeit with different degrees of willingness. Both films have a heavy, foreboding atnosphere, drenched in a sense of dread. You’ve got the fittingly non-time period of both films, though it is clear that both are set in an oldendaze America. And this commonality of setting allows the films to be so cut off, so bleak and also nurture superstition in the characters: whether we are thinking about people being witches, gulls carrying the souls of departed sailors or otherwise being hexed, superstiton and the unarticulated fear that accompanies it pervade both films.

So we get that Eggers has really delivered on setting here. But the characterisation is also excellent. Initially, Thomas Wake (Dafoe) is the dominant character in the pair, using his veteran status and tricks like making notes in his book to get the psychological upper hand over novice Ephraim Winslow (Robert Pattinson). As time passes, circumstances conspire against our plucky duo and sanity frays, it’s Winslow’s physical strength that makes the difference in the relationship. But there is a cameraderie, even (especially) in the madness, as the two oscillate between extreme distrust and drunkenly singing, dancing and telling tales.

As with Pulp Fiction and any number of other films, there is a mysterious object of obsession for the characters. Throughout, Winslow sees Wake staring into the titular light; even apparently worshipping it. Is salvation to be found in that artificial sun, or oblivion?

I loved this one. Girlfriend less so.* So I can see myself watching this again. Partly so I can try to understand it a bit better (as you would expect from the director and the company this film keeps, unrealiable protagonists, delusion and illusion are the order of the day), but partly because the monochrome gloom makes for a film as stylish as it is substantial. Feeling almost like his equivalent of a Valhalla Rising or Pi, Eggers’ next one is going to be big, I imagine…

* Girlfriend said the review should just read: “weird, weird, weird”.

Grover Washington Jr. – Winelight (1980)

I don’t recall how Washington came to mind, but I looked him up, along with some top recommended albums. I ended up adding to my list everything he was band leader for, from his debut to 1980. This, from the final year in that range, was one of the two big recommendations. 

Listening to the “master quality” version on Tidal, the main sensation I am experiencing from this is blandness. Given how early in the decade this is, Winelight certainly does a good job of predicting the sound for the decade, at least in museum, art gallery and dinner party circles. 

“Let it Flow (for Dr. J)” starts off interestingly, with a sparse but not empty arrangement and some interesting rhythms. It’s after the intro, when Washington’s own lead sax takes over, that the interest levels wane. Based on the title, I assume it’s a tribute to the great basketballer, at that time, playing in Philadephia. And I can hear the pattern of the game in the backing, bassline skittering about like a crafty dribble. “In the Name of Love” starts less promisingly, but is still dragged down by Washington’s anodyne lead lines. Googling him now, I see he was one of the founders of the “smooth jazz” genre, so caveat emptor I guess.

It’s not all bad. “Take Me There” is a touch more energised. Obviously, the production and playing are top notch, if not very flashy. While listening, I did get the occasional twang of nostalgia, as feelings and images entered my head. Some were experienced, such as visiting department stores in the run up to Christmas, as a child in the 80s. Aramis meets Athena; illumination, hair and shoulderpads everywhere. Others were concocted by my subconscious, like a Sunday walk in Central Park: wrapped up, walking among the skeletal trees in the pale, fading light of a winter afternoon. Again in the 80s – there’s no escaping that element of the experience. 

I suppose in that sense, that’s the charm of this music? It’s like a cardigan or a mulled wine. It’s comforting: the sax melodies will only ever remind us of the 80s – experienced or not – and the electric piano (Rhodes?) played by Richard Tee, sparkles around the mix like fairy dust. Then you’ve got “Just the Two of Us”, featuring the excellent Bill Withers, complete with (synth?) steel drum accompaniment from Ralph MacDonald. Now that is a classic.

While perfectly competent, this isn’t the sound I seek at the moment. I’ll persist with Washington; maybe his 70s work will be more to my taste. I can’t see myself listening to this too much in the future, except perhaps as accompaniment to an American Psycho reading session. That said, if you introduce an element of irony to proceedings, it’s shocking how similar some of this is to the currently lauded (not least by me) Thundercat. I may have to investigate that link… Less exciting, he apparently brought Kenny G to public attention. I think that sums this up.

Listening report. Quarter 2. Or maybe quarter 1. Either way, it’s April-June 2020

Here is a quarterly listening report. If I was really on it, I’d have done one for the first quarter. I guess I can call it the financial year, not that this report has anything to do with finances. It’s just some dork listening to music, logging it and then writing nonsensically about it. 

What you might guess is that I didn’t particularly fixate on any one artist or album. But I did make a more concerted effort than I have in the last few years to actually listen to new or recent music. Especially hip hop, as that (along with R&B) seems to be pretty much the only genre with any weight nowadays. Outside the world of Nascar, at least.

One of the aspects I, rather ghoulishly, focused on was the recent spate of dead rappers. Some were killed the old fashioned gangsta rap way: getting shot. But a lot of them just overdosed on prescription painkillers, which is almost even sadder. It’s certainly a lonely way to go. I’ve seen recent rap (Soundcloud rap or whatever you want to call it) get compared to nu-metal, but this trend, combined with the introspective lyrics and lack of machismo, remind me more of grunge and its myriad heroin overdoses.

One of the most divisive figures was the late XXXtentacion, who first came to my attention when he was accused of brutally beating his lover. He next came to my attention when he was robbed and shot, shortly after. He was 20. He’s had two US number 1 albums. He’s platinum around the world. I’ve not looked this up recently, but as I recall, his top song on Spotify had over a billion plays. With a B. Fucking hell.

So why would I ignore him, or Juice Wrld? Or massive artists who are still alive, like Post Malone (who none other than Phil Anselmo has vouched for as a legit rocker)? Exactly. I’d have to either be ignorant as to what is going on, or else so churlish as to dismiss such success as… what… not earned? Wrong? Of course, anyone who has listened to the Spice Girls or U2 will know that being the biggest does not necessarily make you the best. But still, I’d say their success would warrant listening to them and making your mind up. I felt so old when I realised a Drake song had been UK number 1 for 15 weeks and I’d never heard it. So I listened to it. It was shit, but at least I know. 

So I’ve not been playing anything on repeat. But I’ve listened now to XXXtentacion. And Post Malone. I listened to Billie Eilish before, but I did again this quarter. Her album is pretty damn good. I don’t think I like it as much as the first Banks or FKA Twigs albums, but it’s good. 

I do really like Poppy. Now, I must admit that ordinarily I do write off YouTubers. I do think their success isn’t really earned, and from what I’ve seen, they don’t tend to have much talent. And it makes me feel a bit hypocritical that I said what I am doing with these people what I said I shouldn’t do with musical artists. But here we are: life is a complex beast. 

Anyway, from what I’ve heard, Poppy found fame as a YouTuber. Doing what I don’t know. I also hear that she did some vaporwave-style pop albums. But this year did a metal album! And I kind of really like it. It’s a bit Andrew WK in the sense that it’s a very self aware metal album. And very poppy. It feels almost like artificial heavy metal, but it’s so well made and so well thought out that I don’t care. There are so many twists and turns that it stays interesting. It’s well-performed. Yes, I like the Poppy album. 

And here are the most played songs. Marvel at how they have little-to-nothing to do with the albums. This is my concession to nostalgia. I just love listening to randomised playlists of favourite songs, especially in the shower or in the kitchen. I swear I didn’t listen to that Mad Season song so much though. That’s dodgy data quality.

I should mention the Boom Bip & Doseone album, too, Circle. It originally came out in 2000, but I got it in 2002, after falling in love with the group that Doseone was in then, cLOUDDEAD. That one had long, rambling, almost surreal rap songs. This one is the opposite – I’ve compared it to a hip-hop version of Fantomas – with many short tracks. Rather than the usual rap thing of a DJ doing the beats and an MC rapping over them, it seems Boom Bip constructed complex, evolving aural vignettes to accompany Dose’s rapping. That may not have happened, but that’s how it seems to me. And it’s absolutely brilliant: one of those classics that nobody has heard. Anyway, I’m chuffed because I tweeted about listening to the album, and they retweeted it.

And David Lee Roth is just great.