Rams – documentary by Gary Hustwit

Braun T3

One of the treasures of my digital movie collection is Helvetica, Gary Hustwit’s documentary about the world’s most ubiquitous (and my second least favourite) typeface. So when, a few years ago now, I saw the publicity for a Kickstarter campaign to fund a documentary about Dieter Rams, the influential product designer, I signed up.

Last week, I finally got a secret code that enabled me to watch it.

Rams was born Weisbaden, Germany in 1932, and studied architecture in the period of post-war reconstruction. You can see in his work and the others he worked with the influence of Bauhaus: that no-frills, clean lines philosophy that still has such a hold over our modern world. In 1955, he was recruited by Braun, the German consumer electronics company, and he remained their chief design officer from 1961 to 1995, when the   company was sold (to his chagrin) to Gillette.

All I really knew about Rams when I signed up was that he was a key influence for Jonathan Ive; there’s a clear line between the Braun T3 radio and the original iPod. His designs for record players, music systems and radios still take your breath away. Braun were a but like Philips: not just music systems but mixers and shavers. And Rams wasn’t solely responsible for many of their iconic designs: he had a talented team around him, but he nevertheless became the public face of their design philosophy.

And of course, philosophy is why we came. At the beginning of the documentary, Rams is shown fielding questions from aspirational designers and others, one of whom seems asks him about automotive design. Rams shrugs off the question: no particular interest: all the car industry ever wanted was to make things go faster and we don’t need cars to go faster. “What about Tesla?” he’s asked. “Aren’t they trying interesting things?”

Tesla is something of a shibboleth for me. If you’re the kind of person who thinks Teslas are cool, you go down in my estimation. Their huge, shitty, expensive cars are just another way that the rich have of shitting on the poor, and they’re a perfect example of making something that can go unnecessarily fast, solving problems that aren’t the problems our society needs to solve. 

Once again, Rams shrugged off the question. Tesla isn’t doing interesting things, he said. We need to be thinking about what transportation needs to be. What will transport look like in 50 years?

As well as consumer electronics, Rams applied his architectural training to home furnishings, and you can find designs he created in 1960 still for sale by furniture company Vitsoe. Hand crafted, modular furniture that you can keep adding to. You can start with a single (astonishingly expensive) chair and then add another to make a sofa when you can afford it. Or a small shelf unit that can grow with your requirements. I like this kind of modern stuff, but it’s not going to be to everyone’s taste.

What I found interesting about the film was that, while Rams’ influence on Jony Ive was mentioned early on, Ive himself doesn’t appear, and Rams makes no comment on Apple’s work. But there is an implied criticism made of excessive consumerism, the inherent wastefulness of insisting on new designs every year, and the ways in which the digital is taking over. He speaks of how sad it is that people walk around with their faces pressed to their screens these days. In not so many words, then, Apple and Jony Ive get short shrift.

While I’d have liked the film to have dwelled more on some of the Braun designs (the lovely watches didn’t even get a mention), it is (probably rightly) more interested in the man himself and his principles, and his slightly grumpy take on the modern world he helped to create.

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The Best Music Downloads of 2018 – PART TWO: is anybody out there alive?

Part One is here.

7. Quittin’ Time – The Wild Feathers (Greetings from the Neon Frontier)

Let’s try not to think about the incongruity of singing a song featuring the line “A bottle of whiskey and it’s quittin’ time again” on breakfast television, and just enjoy this second terrific track from the Feathers’ 2018. This one showcases the three vocalists in the group – just like The Band and Eagles, as mentioned below.

6. Lean It On Back – Sugarland (Bigger)

A second track from Bigger in the top 14, and a great example of the Sugarland hit factory in action. Storing all the energy of the song in the verses (along with her breath), releasing it in the chorus.

5. Let Me Down Easy – Blackberry Smoke with Amanda Shires – (Find a Light)

Blackberry Smoke generally owe more to the Allman Brothers and Skynyrd than to their more harmonic brethren, but this number featuring the great Amanda Shires on harmony vocal caught me.

4. A Little Dive Bar in Dahlonega – Ashley McBride (Girl Going Nowhere)

McBride achieved a breakthrough with her album Girl Going Nowhere, which is packed with great songs, and I defy anyone who ever had a heart not to be moved by her Opry performance of its title track (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9s830jmiqnw). This one is classic Top 40 country, just another great song turned out by another great songwriter. Which is what I came for.

3. Hippie Radio – Eric Church (Desperate Man)

“He couldn’t carry a tune in a bucket but he’d sing at the top of his lungs.” The genre of country song in which you sing about your Daddy’s car is fairly ubiquitous, but this a is a fine example of it, and another stripped back arrangement that enhances Eric Church’s voice.

2. Don’t Step Away – Kelly Willis (Back Being Blue)

A slice of country soul from Kelly Willis, another artist who sometimes has a long gap between albums. What I love about her music is the home studio vibe, which is what they’re clearly going for in this video, featuring a cameo appearance from husband Bruce Robison.

Can You Hear Me – Ryan Culwell (The Last American)

So here it is: the best track from the best record of the year, and a song that has haunted my dreams since I first heard it. Bang real loud and get down low. Read my full review of the album here.

The Best Music Downloads of 2018 – PART ONE: let’s get on with the shitshow

I’ve picked 14 this year, a 53 minute playlist, selected from albums released in 2018, but ignoring the Tom Petty retrospective which didn’t have music from this year.

Overall: not a bad year, something reflected in this year’s CMA awards, which, judging from the hour selected by the BBC, was the best show for years, ruined only by some tosser who thinks it’s cool to do everything with a Dixie Cup in his hand (Billboard agrees with me this his was the weakest performance of the night: he was completely out of his league).

14. No Man’s Land – The Wild Feathers (Greetings from the Neon Frontier)

One of a couple of bands I discovered this year, both of whom owe a lot to The Band and/or Eagles in terms of their influences. The Wild Feathers offer tight harmonies and anthemic choruses. This one is fairly typical, though also one of the better ones.

13. Not the Only – Sugarland (Bigger)

A welcome return from Sugarland after a long hiatus following the deaths of several fans in a stage collapse in 2011. Both members released solo albums in the meantime, but, like the Beatles, the group is always greater than the sum of its parts. To hear Christian Bush’s gruff voice joined with Jennifer Nettles’ powerful contralto is to be transported. I particularly love this track because Christian takes over the lead vocal for the coda, and it’s just beautiful.

12. Space Cowboy – Kacey Musgraves (Golden Hour)

Ms Musgraves’ third outing was a success, winning Album of the Year at the CMAs, which is a real rarity in a genre which doesn’t provide a level playing field for women – especially on country radio, which stubbornly refuses to give women artists more than 5-10% of the airplay given to idiots with dixie cups.

11. The Last American – Ryan Culwell (The Last American)

The title track from what is probably the best album of 2018, “The Last American” is one of a series of dramatic monologues on an album that offers a perspective on flyover America in these deeply divisive days.

Guess I’ll vote the ticket

Like I always do

If I can figure out

Who to stick it to…

10. Heart Like a Wheel – Eric Church (Desperate Man)

This is not the 1974 Linda Rondstadt song, nor is it the 1983 film of that name. This is an entirely new heart like a wheel from Eric Church’s excellent Desperate Man. I love the stripped back arrangement and the almost 1950s early rock vibe to this one.

9. Burning Man – Dierks Bentley feat. Brothers Osborne (The Mountain)

Like Eric Church, Dierks Bentley somehow manages to stand out from the rest of the baseball-cap-wearing, cut-off-jeans-and-trucks crowd. I like this a lot, and also whoever edited the video did a good job.

8. Break Out The Champagne – Amanda Shires (To the Sunset)

Any songwriter that begins a lyric with the line “Talking through bathroom stalls…” is confident in their own being, and ready to shatter peoples’ expectations of what an album from a renowned Americana artist and fiddle player will sound like. It sounds like this.

Somewhere above the Newfoundland Sea

Pilot said we’d lost an engine

In a split-second I made an executive decision

I said “Break out the champagne

“Everybody look out below

“Let’s get on with the shitshow

“Here goes a toast:

“Adiós!”

Ging gang gilet gilet gilet watcha, ging gang goo, ging gang goo

I was watching that Lennon/Yoko film at the weekend, and there were some scenes in which he participated in a protest march and they played “Power to the People” on the soundtrack. More on that subject below. More immediately, this weekend, there were also many news reports about the so-called Gilets Jaunes protests in France against increases in fuel tax.

Now.

I ought to be cheered that it is still possible, in these times, to mobilise people to a cause. Reports from our relatives in France confirm that even in the backwaters of the rural East, people have been out on the streets, blocking roads and causing disruption. Even my mother-in-law, who has to use a petrol station that will allow her to pay by cheque, had to adjust her ingrained habits.

But, of course, it’s the wrong fucking cause. Regardless of the rights and wrongs of Macron’s fiscal policies, fuel taxes should be higher, and people should be confronted with the reality of the need to change our patterns of consumption and get out of their cars. Just today at work, we were discussing attitudes to environmental causes, and I pointed out that the young people we teach are all too willing to make short and pointless car journeys in preference to walking. Faced with that kind of recalcitrance, the fact that people are politically moved by increased fuel prices and almost nothing else is just depressing.

I want to take those people by the scruffs of their gilets and give them a good shake. Maybe stick to the fucking 80kph speed limit occasionally and you’ll save fuel. Maybe stop driving home for lunch and back to work again.  Maybe get a bank/credit card so you don’t have to drive 20km so you can pay by cheque, mentioning no names.

And as for Lennon: one gets the strong impression that, like everything else he ever did, his protest march served (at least) a dual purpose: he had a single to promote.

Here’s how you know Twitter is doomed

At the end of July this year, Twitter’s stock price crashed by around 20% when the company took steps to delete around 1,000,000 fake (or bot) accounts. Instead of seeing this as a good thing, investors decided to offload their holdings. I guess it makes sense: all those ads being served to robots were hardly doing any good. If I were an advertiser, I might be wanting  some of my money back, although anybody who didn’t know Twitter was full of fake accounts is an idiot.

A tumbleweed in search of its own emoji

I’ve been on the service since 2009 and I’m hardly your typical user. I’m lost somewhere in the backwaters. My following once struggled up as high as 310 and is currently down at 293. But I guess I lost fewer fake followers than some. When I first used Twitter Audit nearly 4 years ago, it reported that 93% of my followers were real people, with just 14 fakes. Now, I’m 99% real, with just 3 fake followers.

I gain followers at the rate of about one every couple of months. They often unfollow again when I don’t follow back, or even when I do. I only follow back if they look like a real person who isn’t trying to flog something. This is exceedingly rare.

My recent followers (soon to be unfollowers) are a food app (probably followed me because I follow Kitchen Stories, which is a food app I have – but I don’t need another one, thanks); a roots music TV network (unlikely to watch or follow, sorry); some kind of book marketing service (I should probably remove the word “author” from my bio, which is only there because I didn’t want to put “teacher”); and some kind of news website (there’s too much news as it is). The occasions when what might actually be a real human person much like myself turns up in my follower list are so rare that I seriously doubt it’ll ever happen again.

Which is why I think Twitter is doomed. Not because people don’t want to follow me (though God knows I can be fucking funny and I have impeccable taste) but because almost everybody on Twitter is there either to self-promote or start arguments. If you’re the type to try to avoid both of those things (which is to say: political twitter + tweeting compliments about yourself twitter), then Twitter is more or less a howling desert without even the relief of a tumbleweed emoji to break the monotony.

The real reason I know Twitter is doomed is because none of my students are asking me about it. Even a couple of years ago, whenever I mentioned that I was on Twitter, there would always be a couple of students who wanted to know my handle (which I never give, natch; anonymity is essential in my line of work), and even some who would make a point of arranging to follow me when they’d left school and a decent interval had passed.

That doesn’t happen now, and I think that’s because that young people aren’t even giving Twitter a go anymore. Like TV news viewers, Today listeners and newspaper readers, Twitter’s demographic is ageing and replenishers aren’t joining.

Of course, I’m hardly relevant, but unlike a celeb or politician I actually care about the people who follow me. I teach a rolling total of around 150 students a year, and even two years ago, maybe one percent of my students would show an interest. As of now, it has been a couple of years since anybody did. Furthermore, when you try to discuss modern social networking and media mores with students, Twitter has gone the way of Facebook as something the olds do, but not them. I mean, we’re constantly being told we have to talk about “online safety” etc. with our students, but their reference points are not ours. They’re all on Chatsnap or whatever. Amazingly, turns out, that toxic discourse, misogyny and Brexit are turn-offs for teens.

Anyway, Twitter is doomed. Sell your stock.

Podcasty Update

Image result for lyn dawson

Some of the key players in The Teacher’s Pet

Some I enjoy

Omnibus! With Ken Jennings and John Roderick

In the genre of two-blokes-talking-about-shit, the extempore king is John Roderick. In this twice-weekly podcast, he sits with his friend, Jeopardy record-breaker Ken Jennings, and talks about a random collection of subjects. Come for the discussion on Albanian Bunkers or The Fourth Crusade, and stay for the joyful digressions and lame jokes.

Fortunately… with Fi and Jane

There’s not much I miss about listening to BBC Radio, but I mourned the loss of Jane Garvey and Fi Glover from Five Live, back in the day. The station, frankly, was never the same again. You try to like Nicky Campbell and Victoria Derbyshire, but you just can’t. Even that reference dates me. Anyway, two of the finest radio voices have an excellent podcast, which is currently number one in the genre of two-women-talking-about-shit. My only criticism is that it’s too short. It’s a podcast, it can be longer.

Heavyweight (Gimlet)

I’ve still not quite forgiven Gimlet for cancelling the excellent Mystery Show podcast, but I grudgingly return to the network because I enjoy this. The title means nothing, the theme song is irritating, and the production style is PBS lite, but it is entertaining nonetheless. Jonathan Goldstein is very funny, and he joins a number of people who want to revisit moments from their past and put things right. Sometimes it labours the point, but it can also often be poignant as well as sweet, and the one-liners are often laugh-out-loud funny.

Serial (season 3)

This was a return to relevance and form, after the lacklustre season 2. This year, they spent a lot of time examining the justice system in Cleveland, Ohio. If you didn’t already know America was broken, this ought to convince you. Just nuke the whole site from orbit. It’s the only way to be sure.

The Teacher’s Pet

Now. There are way too many podcasts about women being abducted and murdered. Way too many. That said, the dogged reporting here about Lyn Dawson’s disappearance from the northern suburbs of Sydney, Australia, over 35 years ago, is fascinating and horrifying. It’s not just about the possibly murdered wife of a popular rugby player and high school teacher, but about the culture of casual exploitation of teenagers by their teachers in the Sydney school system. Your jaw will drop in astonishment (and I do not use that word lightly). The show is produced quite well. It labours the point a bit, and gets repetitive (a lot), but I get it: the police and public prosecutors needed the pressure. Oh, and Australia? Broken.

And some I’ve given up on

Up and Vanished

I gave up on this because I needed to listen to fewer podcasts about missing, possibly murdered women. Season 2 of Up and Vanished was about the case of Kristal Reisinger, who went missing from Crestone, Colorado in 2016. Partly, this is a brilliant advertisement for not legalising weed: almost every person who gets interviewed seems to be a totally fucked up stoner waste of space. Partly, this is another reminder that America is broken. When you hear about the local police and who they are and what they have to deal with over how many square miles, you realise that if you wanted to murder someone, you’d do it here. And partly, turns out, this is an example of how sometimes podcasters need to edit more. I gave up because the show seemed to lose sight of Kristal’s case and had decided instead to dump unedited and hard-to-hear phone calls with fuckups who keep repeating themselves endlessly, on a loop, like all stoners do.

The Black Tapes

I’ve previously written here that I don’t generally enjoy “comedy” podcasts, and it appears I have a similar issue with fiction in this format. I listened to Homecoming (now a TV series on Amazon), and thought it was all right (though I’m not rushing to renew the Amazon subscription). Similarly, I thought season 1 of The Black Tapes was all right. It’s a kind of radio version of those paranormal “found footage” movies, but it has a number of issues. The cast are unconvincing, often delivering lines woodenly. And the case itself ends up running around in circles, covering the same ground again and again. You end up thinking that there was a much better, and shorter, drama serial buried inside the three seasons of this. I gave up at the point in Season 3 when the presenter went to Istanbul, then took one phone call and went back home. It all starts to feel like padding, like content shat out in order to be a vehicle for ads. Honestly, I feel like a mug for continuing beyond season 1.

And another thing

Image result for this is fine memeFeeling a bit grumpy about various things at the moment, so I want to set things down just to be clear, when this whole shithouse burns down, that I was not on board.

Our culture has been dumbed down over the past 25 years due to a number of factors.

Because the internet was, inevitably, first adopted by tech nerds, the culture of the internet exists within the narrow comfort zones of said nerds*. So the humble comic book, which was in the past the acquired taste of a narrow coterie of reluctant readers, has come to have an outsized influence on modern life – in the film industry, especially, and increasingly on television.

These narratives are repetitive, derivative and witless. The debates around representation in these narratives, increasingly a part of every day discourse, are still debates about texts which are repetitive, derivative and witless. Black Panther may be lauded for its representation of people of colour, but it’s still a stupid movie based on a stupid comic book. Wonder Woman may have a woman in a lead role, but it’s still a stupid (overlong) movie based on a comic book. All of these movies, every single one of them, are bloated, loud and dull, wallpaper for the mind. So stuff gets smashed up, so what?

And these debates about representation? They were a creation of the narrow white bread world of these shitty properties in the first place.

And because these early adopters of the internet, 25 and more years ago, were of a certain age, and because their cultural and personal development was arrested when they got interested in “computer stuff”, they were obsessed with Star Wars. If you were ten years old in 1977, the year of that film’s release, you were at college when the first personal computer revolution started, and primed to get onto the pre-WWW internet by the time you graduated. And you have continued to bore the rest of us with your Star Wars obsession ever since. Let’s be clear: every single second of the interminable Star Wars franchise is as dumb as and has all the charm of a septic tank full of turds.

Watch another film, for fucksake.

Harry Potter? Read a different fucking book.

Lego? You’re too old for toys: grow up. And only idiots call it legos.

Everything wrought by this generation is loud and stupid and colourful. Video games. A whole industry devoted to creating landfill in the form of obsolete consoles and plastic packaging. A whole generation lost to stupid, simplistic narratives. And what do we get at the end of it? Trump. Brexit. Simplistic narratives.

++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

*I almost wrote geeks, because the implication of nerd is that there is some intelligence behind the obsessiveness, whereas a geek doesn’t even have that going for them; but I must be feeling charitable.