A rambling bunch of thoughts on culture that made an impression, I’ll try to stick to categories. But I won’t be successful.
My year in culture was not really 2016. You see, I never really stopped being the child who refused to eat his vegetables and so, for this probably problematic and deep-rooted psychological issue, I tend to get around to ‘essential works’ rather late if at all. The more important and essential the work, the greater my antipathy toward it. This is why I haven’t watched ‘Breaking Bad’ yet. I recently dug out an old essay from varsity on ‘Thelma and Louise’ – I never watched the film. That’s me, contrary.
2016 was the year I got over myself (but not the year I watched ‘Thelma and Louise’ – 2017, fingers crossed). In part this was due to becoming a film lecturer at CityVarsity. As a student, I was comfortable being a fake – but the responsibility of teaching was a different matter. Ironically, I was a better student when I was a teacher and I began to plug the gaps in my curriculum.
The film that most stood out during this re-education was Spike Lee’s 1989 joint ‘Do the Right Thing’. It’s a stylish but visceral piece of work that remains chillingly relevant. Decolonisation, gentrification, racial justice, and police brutality. It could have been made in South Africa this year. It left me shaken and shattered. When you come across a piece of art from another time and place, you hope the recognition of the unchanging essence of human nature will stir an optimistic sense of connection. After ‘Do the Right Thing’ I was left wondering if we can ever break that thread.
A more recent film that I caught up with this year was ‘Whiplash’ (2014). I had heard a lot of praise for J.K. Simmons and Miles Teller’s performances, and they really were superb. The script was sparse and driven by image as much as by dialogue – a mark that Damien Chazelle is a master of the interplay between both arts. The movie became a favourite conversation for me – viewers had a wide range of interpretations of the ending, and the subject of the morality of art and the pursuit of excellence is a rich one.
Most regrettable confession is that I only saw ‘Mad Max: Fury Road’ (2015) this year – that would have been amazing on a cinema screen. I had low expectations for a fourth entry into the franchise, and when people were raving about it I became more wary. Trust issues. But ‘Mad Max’ taught me to have faith. The painstakingly composed cinematography, the deep worldbuilding we’re thrust into, story and character revealed through action and reaction. ‘Mad Max’ is an action movie but distilled down to its essence. It’s a relentless race.
The whole year wasn’t catch-up for me. ‘Arrival’ came with a lot of praise and this time I listened. It’s the kind of scifi that’s too rare in film: a thought provoking ‘what if’ with real characters at its core. Amy Adams gives great centre to the film. My feelings about the movie fluctuate though – is it a great story, or just an unusual one that makes clever use of the language of cinema to pull off a neat trick? Watching it a second time the manipulations are more obvious. I may be reacting as a contrarian but ‘Arrival’ is a fascinating and flawed film.
It’s truly a golden age of television, maybe even platinum. Or palladium. I don’t know, I’m no metallurgist. Tara finally convinced me to watch ‘Bojack Horseman’ – a mix of deadpan absurdity and brutal psychological realism. How can I say that about a show centred on a 90s sitcom star who is an anthropomorphised horse? How can I relate to him? The eponymous Bojack is a bad person, more so than most but it’s a difference of degree and not of kind. He’s perpetually just breaking the surface of self-awareness, taking a despairing gulp of air and then being swept under by his id. In this Bojack has a doppelganger in another favourite show of the year, ‘Fleabag’. Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s show is almost too self-aware but that’s a misdirect, the character is as trapped in her own patterns as Bojack. The knowing glances at the camera – at us – should give her an ironic distance from the disaster of her life, instead they become a cry for help. Waller-Bridge’s writing is funny, obscene, and deeply empathetic. One monologue from a side character captures a masculinity in crisis more beautifully than anything else I’ve seen this year.
Something that I didn’t expect to like so much was ‘Stranger Things’. It was a joy. Balancing charm and chills. I loved that it didn’t lean so heavily on JJ Abrams ‘mystery box’ formula that is so exhausting without being satisfying.
‘Game of Thrones’ had a return to form with season 6 and HBO decided to double down on the sex and violence with ‘Westworld’ – but it was HBO’s other pick of 2016 that grabbed me. ‘High Maintenance’ had a life as cult web series before HBO brought it into the fold. I wished I’d seen it sooner. A slice-of-life series about New York City, the chapters play more like vignettes than full stories, eschewing strict narrative structure to play out with the same relaxed serenity as ‘the Guy’ – the weed dealer who loosely links the tales together.
‘High Maintenance’ seems like a good place to bridge from TV to new media platforms. There’s some kind of miraculous blooming that happens in your head when you read insightful essays and articles; this year Youtube became more than a time-sink for me, it became a place of fascinating insight. The video essay has matured thanks to time and support – revenue from Youtube and Patreon allowing people to make a career out of it. Embracing many subjects and styles, my favourite channels are Cracked, Nerdwriter, Every Frame a Painting, Extra Credits, Cinefix, Now You See It, Mark Brown, and Channel Criswell. Nerdwriter particularly has infected me with a distinctive voice after the manner of Attenborough or Louis Theroux, so that at times when I’m trying to sound insightful I’ll take a millisecond pause midsentence to gather the breath to emphasise the point. To be honest I’m not sure if this is imitation or mockery, and if so whether the Nerdwriter is the target, or I am.
Sticking to ‘media consumed via my laptop’, this year games became more than a pastime. I began writing material for Free Lives’ new game ‘Genital Jousting’ and being immersed in discussions about games and their design led to a deeper appreciation of them. I was introduced to new games, and new ideas of what games could be. One that stood out was a five minute experience: ‘the end of us’. Try this playful and heart breaking game for yourself right now. No really. 5 minutes.
‘Oxenfree’ is a ghost story about teens trapped on an island. The art style is beautiful, simple but haunting. It’s the storytelling that’s really interesting – with a dynamic conversation system that makes the dialogue flow really wonderfully allowing you to be immersed in the moment.
‘Dishonored’ was more my usual kind of game. A first person stealth challenge set in a richly textured and surprisingly responsive world. Like many other stealth games you can take a non-lethal approach, unlike many other stealth games this radically affects the outcome. I’ve noticed pacifism disappear from popular culture over the last half decade – no, actually it’s deeper than that… I’ve seen the moral dilemma of killing erased. Nolan’s Batman replaced by Snyder’s. Killing is assumed to be the only path forward. This not just bad for society’s soul, it’s also bad for our stories. Multiple, contrasting viewpoints fuel conflict and are essential if art is to have something to say. Blockbusters have consistently failed on this front, with possibly the exception of Marvel’s ‘Civil War’.
While in Washington DC I saw ‘The Nether’ by Jennifer Haley at Woolly Mammoth. Few plays handle the moral questions of modern technology so well. The concept is simple – a virtual world where players can enact paedophilia and murder. It’s not real of course, but does that matter when it feels real? Something between a techno thriller and the classic story of the detective deep undercover, ‘The Nether’ was deeply unsettling.
On the same trip I made it to New York and saw ‘Sleep No More’ – the famous, immersive theatre production riffing off ‘MacBeth’. Its grand design and intense choreography were overwhelming. I enjoyed looking for secret moments away from the rest of the silent, masked audience, and found a tiny room of towels down a tunnel we had to crawl through to access. The whole experience cross-pollinated with my evolving thinking about games and their volitional exploration.
In December I saw the Fugard’s production of ‘The Father’ by Florian Zeller directed by Greg Karvellas. I was impressed during the play, I enjoyed the clever writing and staging and the great performances. I walked out feeling satisfied. In the foyer someone asked me what I thought and as I opened my mouth to reply I started to cry, to sob. The titular father is struggling with dementia, the story bypassed my brain and clenched a fist around my subconscious. I walked straight out of the Fugard and into the night to wander aimlessly, ending up in some bar to have a whiskey to settle myself before returning to the opening night festivities. Such a visceral reaction.
And finally: Books. I used to think of myself as a reader. It was central to how I saw myself in the world. That’s not true anymore though, and the moments that I recognise it are moments of mourning. The books of last year were too few. They were continuations of series from Peter F. Hamilton, Brandon Sanderson, and Joe Abercrombie, or the page turning pulp ‘Breakers’ series by Edward W. Robertson. Largely I blame my own stalled novel, as though every completed book were a rebuke of my failure to write for over 200 days. Of course that’s not entirely fair. I did write. I wrote plays and I wrote a computer game. I had a full, productive, and creatively challenging year. I just didn’t write it.