Wednesday, January 31, 2018

Top Tens of 2017: #1s

Here are the best podcast, film, album, TV show, and videogame of 2017:

#1 Podcast: Beyond the Filter

Liz Ryerson's interview podcast only had a handful of episodes this year, but each one dove deep on a topic with someone from the internet art scene. The range of fields that covers, and the depths that the interviews go into make that relative lack feel less of an issue.

Exemplary episodes from 2017 include the interview with Lana Polansky on labor issues in videogames, the discussion with Joel Bocko on Twin Peaks season 3, and a discussion of local art scenes with Bandcamp Daily editor Jes Skolnik. The first two are unequivocally some of the best discussions on their topics from that year, said as someone who has pursued both of those conversations somewhat extensively. I'm much less tapped into music writing/podcasting, so I can't speak to that with the same approximation of authority, but the flip side is that the conversation with Skolnik is one of the only experiences of music conversation I could bring myself to care about.

I appreciate that breadth of topics a lot, not only because I am completely unable to focus on a single medium but because doing this kind of work is a way of creating connections and the conditions for solidarity across genre, style, and scene where labor conditions are already near-identical.

#1 Film: Get Out

I stand by the fact that the end sequence of Get Out is what cements it as a truly incredible movie. Not the bit in the road with his friend, but before that, when his escape both entails and justifies homicidal violence. Because up until that point, there's a perfectly liberal reading of the film; and obviously there is after it as well, because plenty of liberal critics were all up on Get Out. But there's a moment after the protagonist breaks free that feels like a genuine break; he's long past the point of just getting by in a situation, and past the point of trying to come to terms or reason with his captors. He's fully prepared to enact violence to ensure his survival, and he does. If A Taxi Driver is a representation of the political in a way I had appreciated, this is a prediction of it in a way that has come before, but is still no less energizing.

#1 Album: Rainbow by Kesha

I have been struggling for a while now to think of an album that has affected me more on a personal level than Rainbow. Historically, maybe, a Modest Mouse album that made me find a place in indie music and the social consequences of it, or Tupac's All Eyez On Me that kept rap in my life through that period; possibly Xiu Xiu's Remixed & Covered, which solidified my love for that band while also leading me on threads that took me to intense dead ends, like Sunset Rubdown, or years-long journeys, like Why? through anticon. through all kinds of weird rap to today. More recently, I was intensely into To Pimp A Butterfly and Carrie Rodriguez' Lola. But nearly all of those are influential more than they are emotional. And can I just say, for the hundred thousandth time: Rainbow fucks me up.

Like a lot of other things that ended up in the number one spot on these lists, Rainbow is fundamentally about trauma. It's an album released in the shadow of Kesha's struggle with the repugnant things subjected to her by Dr. Luke over the years, the least of which is her lack of recent work. Rainbow, maybe more than anything else I've ever experienced, takes this basis and uses it to explore not just pain and healing, but bitterness, joyous escape, dismay, play, sex, self worth, and love. The bitterness is what dragged me in; lines like
I hope you're somewhere praying
I hope your soul is changing
I hope you find your peace
Falling on your knees, praying
contain an absolutely earnest desire for a person who has done truly awful things to become better, and an absolutely scathing fuck you at the same time. Even more clearly: "some say, in life, you're gonna get what you give / But some things only God can forgive." Or how, just before the second instance of the prechorus which starts "You brought the flames and you put me through hell," she says "And I don't need you, I found a strength I've never known / I'll bring thunder, I'll bring rain, / When I'm finished, they won't even know your name." It's a very basic use of elements juxtaposed unassumingly, but goddamn if it still doesn't get me every time.

The fucked thing, of course, is that "Praying" is what made me fall in love with the album, and after a few dozen listens I barely consider it one of my favorite songs on there. The opening "Bastards" isn't a masterpiece in pop song terms, but it does so much to set the stage for the album. It's a simple refrain - "don't let the bastards get you down" - that speaks to the need to push through some hard shit. "Let 'Em Talk" and "Woman" show the side of this album that keeps working through trauma without letting it force you to become maudlin or disempowered, instead clawing some joy and terror out of a fucked world. "Hymn," probably the most powerful song on the record to me at this point, is a little gesture of solidarity in a terrifying place, a simple way to help empower each other when the only thing that seems possible is to slink away.

I don't want to go track by track, but the heart of this album is everything from "Hymn" through "Rainbow." It's such a beautiful suite of emotional hardship and resistance and coping and, above everything else, hope in oneself and in others. I adore it beyond measure and I'm so incredibly happy that it exists in the world.

#1 TV Show: Twin Peaks (season 3)

From one perspective - the one that I think I prefer, at this point - the third season of David Lynch & Mark Frost's Twin Peaks is a failure. I say that with the caveat that there is maybe no other piece of television I have enjoyed as much as this season, ever; that I think this season might not be as important to the future of dramatic TV as the first two, but that it might be one of the most important pieces of major art of the 2010s; and that it is a beautiful, serious, and involved rumination on trauma in a year that not only needed just that, but absolutely delivered on it in ways that might well be unparalleled in any prior.

That perspective is this: the third season of Twin Peaks is, as far as I'm concerned, an attempt to take the traumatic core of the first two seasons - the way that the show, and Fire Walk With Me in particular, centralize the very specific trauma of Laura Palmer and use it as a jumping off point and anchor to explore both a town and its denizens and broader mythological implications - and expand it out to postindustrial America. That, I think, is where it fails: the human story at the center of the show is not incapable of being at the center of settler colonial superpower, but it simply doesn't fit together as well as it needs to.

One way to point to this is the difference in the opening credits sequence. This time around, it opens with a shot of the fog with the famous picture of Laura Palmer superimposed, which both fade to reveal a helicopter/drone shot of trees. It then tracks over the falls, looking down, before dissolving into the curtains of the Red Room. In the previous two seasons we were treated to shots of industrial logging machinery, birds, and a long shot of those falls, facing directly on. That earlier sequence points to labor and nature, to human enterprise in the world and its perspective. The new one suggests something more akin to omniscience and interiority, of seeing beyond what humans can and diving deep within them. It's a sequence that looks good and gives the mood for what is to follow, but the absences are jarring.

Another way is to point to The Moment in part 8. I am among the crowd who thinks that that episode is one of the most beautiful and ambitious things put to film, especially given its being for a television show. I also think that when Judy vomits up the Bob orb, and the Fireman responds with Laura, the show is failing its central premise. Not because I don't think it can't be worked into a broader theory - the trauma of the atomic bomb, the moment when humanity can truly begin to imagine the world as a destructible target, is potentially just another cycle of the destructive potential of the Black Lodge rather than its birth, for instance - or because I'm an enemy of ambiguity (the thing I am about to say is something I have never argued for, really, and likely won't ever again), but because it simply pushes the viewer away from being able to understand the crucial importance of human suffering and response to the world. That sequence instead becomes something that must be compartmentalized.

My original Fan Theory at the conclusion of the show, which I am somewhat surprised not to have seen arise elsewhere (I probably didn't look very hard), is that this season constituted a hard temporal loop, ending a generation or two before the first season of the show. The fact that the residents of the Palmer household are the Trefonts/Chalmonds, coupled with Cooper/Richard's final words ("what year is this?") and Carrie Paige seeming to come into consciousness as Laura Palmer made me imagine that we were in Twin Peaks before the events of the first season, which themselves would somehow play out to manifest them, creating a time loop. The theory I've heard most is either that they are in a bubble universe meant to trap Judy, or that they somehow transcended into the real world. All of these - including mine - seem to me to be completely bogus. Which is, of course, to the show's credit; there's nothing that can ruin a work of Lynch's like a tidy explanation (see: Mulholland Drive's dream half). But the way the show spent this season diving into the mythological aspects, and its repetition of the key phrase "is it future or is it past?", seem to me at this point to do it no favors as long as you think of the core of it in the same way that I do.

If I seem to be focusing on this failure, let me assure you that it is only because it is the only way I can think of to talk about this show in any way other than a basically random assortment of glowing praise. The performances by Naomi Watts and Laura Dern and Kyle MacLachlan are unbelievable; the dynamic between Lynch's Gordon Cole and Miguel Ferrer's Albert Rosenfield is touching and funny; the duration of the Dougie storyline is basically perfect in how it gives us the real facets of MacLachlan's capabilities as a performer, Cooper as a real character who isn't boring as fuck, and a massive group of the most important characters of the show; Candie is maybe my favorite character on television ever, and her storyline boils down the show's central preoccupation with trauma and the human reaction to it in a beautiful, heartbreaking way; Hawk doesn't just remain the only fully-drawn, compelling character on the show not named Audrey or Benjamin Horne, he gets even better; Lynch's capacity to create an incredible visual landscape that linger is undiminished; Bobby Briggs is the biggest piece of shit and his arc so perfectly encapsulates that; nearly everything about it is so much better as a follow up to the show and as the first major piece of filmmaking from one of my favorite directors of all time in a decade. My focus on where it fails is only to say that I think it is a show not just worth praising, or recommending, but one worth taking seriously and lovingly and critically.

A PS, since I came to it after writing the bulk of this and don't know how to interweave it, or don't want to: the podcast A Twin Peaks Podcast: A Podcast About Twin Peaks from Entertainment Weekly touches on the theory I had, making it clear that it was discussed. In their wrap-up episode ("One Last Cup of Coffee") the two hosts discuss the possibility that not only is the Red Room not the Black Lodge, but that the only time we see it is at the very end, in the form of the Palmer house when Richard and Carrie Paige return. The other host then suggests the possibility that the only other location we see in Twin Peaks in those final moments, the RR Diner, might be the White Lodge. For now, at least, I like this a lot, and think it ties in nicely with both everything that I adore about this season and everything that I think doesn't work about it. Because if that's right (at least as "right" as these sorts of things can be), then the mythological aspects of the show are functionally extensions of community. The metaphysical source of evil is the family, the household, the site of pain and trauma and the evil that men do; the communal space of food and drink and socializing (and commodity exchange) is it's inverse, the source of good in the world. Which is to say: these are real spaces in this world, and their magical capacities aren't supernatural but simple extrapolations on the lives of these people as we are invited into them through the show. Which works beautifully for the first two seasons, up to and including the way that Windom Earle fantasizes about "unspeakable power" (or whatever) to be drawn from the Black Lodge as an understanding of manipulation and abuse becoming mythologized as it's own source of power. But this third season's attempt to tackle not just this symbol of Americana but the whole - from the genocide of Native people to extreme wealth inequality with the Jones' and Vegas to the entertainment complex in New York to the drug crises/war in Twin Peaks' youth to the consolidation of empire with the atomic bomb - simply aren't supported by a show that does a phenomenal job of extracting symbolic and aesthetic meaning out of the particular space of Twin Peaks. Because as much as the franchising of the RR into Norma's RR 2 GO or the loss of the lumber mill can speak to neoliberalism, it doesn't really get there even with Dr. Jacoby's transformation into Dr. Amp. Bobby Briggs' journey from manipulated murderer & drug trafficker to clean cop when juxtaposed with Deputy Chad touches on the dream of policing versus its reality, but falls short. The things those symbols elide, from the centrality of race in the history of the US to the last half-century of neocolonialism to the persistence of Confederate ideology, the real history of working class revolt and its papering over with brutal repression and mythology, all make the season's boldest and most brilliant moments simultaneously an overextension. But then, that beauty and the power of those images doesn't exclusively rely on this reading, and goddamn this show is so important.

#1 Videogame: Everything is Going to be OK

I don't know that I have a ton to say about Everything is Going to be OK that wasn't said better by the developer in one of her statements or blog posts. I had the honor of showing this game at 2017's Playdate, and it has stuck with me through the whole year in a way that I thought might be the case but didn't honestly expect. It's a digital zine in which you explore a bunch of short vignettes about trauma. Nathalie Lawhead's statement points to the fact that it is a subversion of the idea of a power fantasy; instead of playing like an accumulation of physical strength, it imagines a world in which humor and cuteness are tools of survival, which is itself a mode of power.

Every bit of it I've played is so absolutely spot on in tone and execution. The writing is tight and funny, the images convey exactly the kind of cuteness that is tinged with violence and empathy that I adore, the structure itself feels like a beautiful way to make connections and find the particulars through aleatoric happenstance and personal preference. In a year filled with examinations of trauma, many of which have taken their respective top spots for their mediums, this is nothing short of a bafflingly beautiful and serious meditation on the same that moved me beyond words.

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