Eels

John Roderick, of several podcasts, has a term for subscriptions. These ongoing payments suck money out of your bank account on a regular basis in return for [services] and if you’re not careful, they’ll suck you dry. Roderick calls them eels. They’re attached to your major arteries and sucking blood. Picture yourself as an Ood from Doctor Who.

I currently subscribe to:

  • The BBC (£150 per year, £12.50 a month)
  • Amazon Prime (£7.99 a month)
  • Netflix* (£8.99 a month)
  • Apple Music† (£14.99 a month for a family plan)
  • NowTV‡ (£99 per year, £8.25 a month)

That’s a grand total of £52.72 a month, £633 a year, for entertainment and free one-day delivery. Which is before we get to the other eels: broadband, phone contract etc.

It’s a lot.

*I thought I’d be smart and do a 6-months-on, 6-months-off thing with Amazon and Netflix. The truth is, as I’ve said recently, that a lot of Netflix’s Original programming is utter shite (especially their films), and I don’t really want to be paying £8.99 a month all year round. So I recently cancelled the subscription and said to the family that we’d go back on when there was a list of 10 things worth watching.

Well, I lasted less than a month, because the Bob Dylan Rolling Thunder Revue documentary appeared, and there was no way I was going to wait 6 months to watch it. I considered it the equivalent of paying £8.99 for a one-off iTunes rental, or a cinema ticket, whatever. So I am currently back on Netflix, but not for long. I actually checked out the new Black Mirror and was confirmed in my view that most of what Netflix produces is mediocre at best, and, no, I don’t want to watch no Jennifer Aniston movies, thanks.

†Bob Dylan is also to blame for my temporary subscription to Apple Music. I have no intention of paying the £14.99, which is ridiculously steep for what is essentially an annoyance. I’ve written before about how I was immediately irritated and turned off by Apple Music. You spend ages telling it what you prefer, and then it does nothing but recommend shite. I mean, take a look at this screenshot:

It’s as if someone’s Uncle Jack died and you’re looking through all the CDs he bought from that advert at the back of his Saga magazine.

Now, I have a fair amount of modern country music in my Library, but Apple Music’s “For You” section is stuffed with this crap and I have no more interest in it than I have in, say, Cliff Richard, Max Bygraves, or Nana Miskouri. It’s all stuff you’d flick past while casually browsing at a car boot or a charity shop. Apart from it all being of no interest whatsoever, the list of recommendations is also overwhelmingly based around male vocalists, compounding the industry-wide marginalisation of women artists. Country radio already refuses to play contemporary country by women, but as far as Apple is concerned, it doesn’t even exist. The only thing that might tempt me to subscribe to Apple Music full time is if they had a recommendation engine that would throw up current artists, the likes of Amanda Shires, Brandi Carlile, Lori McKenna, talented women who are producing incredible songs. In the absence of a robust music press, the world is crying out for a good music recommendation engine. But no, Music scrapes the barrel of music that was already in the remainder bin 40 years ago.

So, in reality, no, I’m not paying £14.99. I’m on a free trial, and that only because I wanted to hear (just once) the Bob Dylan Rolling Thunder Revue boxed set. Except, thwarted: they only offer a 10-track sampler on the streaming side, so bollocks to that.

‡Compared to all the others, NowTV is the best value. Who’d have thought I’d say that? Better value than the BBC, for me, because I watch almost nothing on BBC TV, and listen solely to radio stuff on the iPlayer Radio (definitely not on Sounds). I get both Entertainment and Movies from NowTV for £99. I got it once, for a year. And then when I went to cancel, they offered it to me again. I’ve almost zero interest in watching any movies, but it’s part of the deal. The Entertainment pass gives me stuff like GoT (not full-time, but long enough to watch it) and Westworld, Bob’s Burgers, and various other Sky Atlantic stuff. But it’s touch and go. GoT is definitely worth the money, but Westworld’s second season was shonky, and while I enjoy The Rookie, it’s not worth £8.25 a month. So come renewal time, I’ll have to seriously consider whether this eel will stay attached to my neck.

Which leaves Amazon and the BBC. I can tell you that Amazon’s days are numbered. I spend too much when I’m on Prime. Also, Prime Video has very little stuff I want to watch. When it comes to it, I can’t even be arsed to look at Season 2 of American Gods. I watched Good Omens, but persevered only because it was just 6 episodes. I love Bosch, which is very underrated by critics. And Patriot is good. But once I’m done with those, I mainly use it to watch Seinfeld, which I’ve seen multiple times and even own on DVD. So 6 months-on/off it will be.

I have no choice about the BBC. I’d gladly pay a bit for the (mostly archive!) radio I listen to, but I no longer value it as I once did. The Tories and the right wing press have done for it, and while I’m sad that happened, it happened. I obviously blame the voting public, who, like the proverbial turkeys, have allowed this government of corrupt incompetents to destroy our most valued cultural institution. BBC News is unwatchable, the Today programme is unlistenable, they allowed Simon Mayo and Eddie Mair to walk away, and the only current output I value consists of In Our Time and Fortunately with Garvey and Glover. You can point to odd gems like Killing Eve and Ghosts, and even bought-in stuff like What We Do in the Shadows, but in reality they’re doing no better than Netflix and Amazon when it comes to quality control.

I was about to joke that I’d happily pay £2.50 a month for an iPlayer Radio licence, but having done the actual maths, it turns out that the BBC does spend about 20% of its budget on all its radio services, including local radio etc., so £2.50 as a proportion of that £12.50 is exactly right.

Anyway, my plan is to cut down the eels to a mere £356 per year, and we’ll see how much Apple wants to charge for its forthcoming TV streaming service. As they’re currently gouging people for £14.99 just for music, I don’t hold out much hope in terms of value for money.

Peak TV is hard work.

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Netshits

When I stand back and take a good look at it, I cannot honestly say that Netflix is worth the money to pay for it full-time. Obviously, there’s enough on the service to keep you busy for a few months, binge-watching the good stuff. But then, what are you missing out on if you unsubscribe after that process?

Netflix’s strategy is to invest heavily in original content so that, even if the back catalogue stuff goes away, there’s still a core of the good stuff. With Warner and Disney about to launch their own streaming services, Netflix had better have its own original content. But is any of it much cop?

At the moment, I mainly watch Star Trek: Discovery on Netflix. In the US, this is on CBS All Access, so it’s not even part of their main market. Now, Disco is excellent, and even the not-great episodes are better than the not-great episodes of, say, Star Trek The Next Generation. But, without this, there really hasn’t been anything new from Netflix that I rate. And since Disco isn’t actually from Netflix, I wonder, really, about their taste, and their commissioning process.

Here’s a list of things I recently rated as thumbs-down, because I was sick of them appearing in my feed (I hoped it would make a difference):

  • After Life (can’t stand Ricky Gervais, never have, never will)
  • The Umbrella Academy (yawn to this whole genre)
  • Turn Up Charlie (nope)
  • The Disappearance of Madeleine McCann (nope)
  • IO (awful, boring, grim)
  • Sex Education (nope)
  • Black Mirror: Bandersnatch (yawn etc.)
  • Pine Gap (terrible tripe from Australia)
  • Nightflyers (horrible tripe)
  • Always a Witch (risible tripe from Columbia)
  • Northern Rescue (boff)
  • Dirty John (even though I listened to the podcast, it’s a hard pass)
  • The Order (sub-Magicians tripe)
  • Love, Death, and Robots (yawn)

Secret City (Another Australian series – watched Season 1, fell into a coma part-way through Season 2 and abandoned)

I could go on. You get the picture. The problem here is not that, now and again, Netflix misses the mark. All of these programmes and films have appeared over the last couple of months. And there has been nothing inbetween to get on the “thumbs up” list. They’re all different varieties of terrible. Some of them are terrible because they’re not to my taste; others are just objectively bad.

Pine Gap loses you halfway through the first episode, when it becomes clear that this show consists of people talking to each other, very seriously, in rooms. It’s also Exposition Central, “As you know.” And (as a final nail in its coffin) any show that involves “computers” is dull from the off. 

Nightflyers, based on a George R R Martin property, is a grim, violent science fictioner that starts with death and viscera and goes on from there. If not exactly Game of Thrones in space, it wishes it was, and so it has all of the gore but none of the lore, as it were. Game of Thrones actually spends time, at the beginning, to introduce you to a cast of characters and make you care about them before it starts killing them off. But Nightflyers was just undiluted nastiness.

I have to conclude that those in charge of commissioning have poor taste. Turn Up Charlie was reviewed badly. Hollywood Reporter said it might almost have had potential, but creative decisions were made to focus on the absolute worst characters. Similarly, the documentary about Madeleine McCann was slated by reviewers for its fundamental tastelessness. And as a Netflix subscriber, you have to watch yourself: because they know who watches, for how long, and how often in a way that no television network before them ever did. So I’m cautious, even, about hate-watching, because what does their algorithm care what emotional state I’m in, as long as I’m watching.

I regret sitting through Bandersnatch, which I hated every moment of, because I’m just one more viewer, albeit one who didn’t explore all the possible permutations.

But the dilemma I face is this. Sure, I could cancel as soon as the latest series of Disco finishes, but then I’d be depriving my kids of the trashy shit they watch on their devices. So I’d feel bad about it: but the question is, how bad?

Woodstock taking

I watched the director’s cut of the Woodstock movie this weekend. It was, I would say, moderately entertaining, although there was not really enough of what you’d call the best music, and way too much of stuff that wasn’t very good to start with, and which has dated badly.

Jefferson Airplane, I ask you.

Not a lot of it, actually, is really my kind of thing, but a glance at the list of artists omitted from the film (including not only The Band, but Creedence, Blood, Sweat & Tears, and The Grateful Dead) and then what was included (Sha Na Na, Arlo Guthrie, Country Joe & the Fish), and there’s a disconnect. I’m sure a lot of it came down to licensing issues and record company dicking, but you do wonder, sitting through the screeching of Joan Baez, the irrelevant ramblings of John Sebastian and the interminable noodling of Jimi Hendrix, what the editors were thinking. And Jefferson Airplane’s melody-free caterwauling is just the capper really: unbearable, unlistenable, tosh. A load of old wank, as a fine woman once said.

Which is before you get to the lengthy interview with the toilet cleaner, the extended sequence of the awful peace hippy clown Wavy Gravy acting as MC, and the ten minute interlude of chanting through the rain. Then there’s the gratuitous hippy nudity and so on.

Of course, the director was trying to capture the whole weekend in all its facets, and you certainly get a real feeling for how devastating the rain was and how utterly unprepared the organisers were for both the size of the crowd and the weather. The lateness of many of the performances was testament to the amateurish, spoiled rich kid organisation. I think everyone after The (not included) Band was technically performing on Monday, the fourth day of the three days of peace, love and, largely indifferent, music.

The performances that have gone down in legend are the ones who turned it up loud. The Who and Hendrix, Ten Years After, Santana. But apart from Hendrix, there’s not enough of these people in the film.

I went on YouTube and discovered a (mostly audio) clip of what purports to be The Band’s performance, and it seemed to be fine. Nothing wrong with it at all. And since they were objectively at the peak of their game, their exclusion from the film is strange. Were people disappointed that Dylan didn’t join them?

Anyway, it ends up being a document of the times, I guess, in much the same as the last 20 minutes of Let it Be capture London in January of the same year, and Gimme Shelter captures the death of the dream on the other coast in November. Never forget, also, that the Tate-LaBianca murders were just the weekend before Woodstock. 1969 was the full spectrum hippy fuckup.

I have thoughts: 1, 2, 3

A snippet of John Roderick playing Neil Diamond

1. For example, I have thoughts about Travelers, season 3 of which just landed on Netflix. This mid-budget Canadian science fiction show delivered on the promise of its first two seasons and is definitely worth your time. I reviewed Season 2 this time last year, and my dearest hope is that I’ll be reviewing Season 4 this time in 2020. That said, this third season might perhaps have rounded off its story and given it a decent ending, about which I cannot complain. It was a proper ending with proper emotional hits, and if it were to return for a fourth season, the show has the option to completely reinvent itself with an entirely new set of host bodies. Highly recommended.

2. I also have thoughts about Joe Abercrombie’s first trilogy in his First Law series (The Blade Itself; Before They Are Hanged; and The Last Argument of Kings). One of Abercrombie’s short stories pulled me back into reading fantasy which I’d kind of sworn off of after being a bit bored by A Song of Ice and Fire. But here we are: I ploughed through the 1800 pages (!) of this trilogy fairly quickly, and only started to lose interest about 1500 pages in. Which says something. In the end though, I’m not sure whether to recommend these. Not as boring as Tolkien, nor even as dry as GRRM, these are written in an easy, engaging style that keeps you turning the pages. But the vivid descriptions of bloody and brutal fighting do start to get repetitive and the few women characters are weak. And overall, and obviously on purpose, very few of the characters have any redeeming characteristics. 

The premise is fairly familiar. There is a mediaeval type world with kingdoms and wars and a little bit of magic, the last of which is draining out of the world. And there are consequences of using magic and supposedly rules about it, which some people are cavalier about breaking.

So there are invading armies and people going off on long quest-like road trips, but in the end you can’t pick a side because everybody is horrible.

3. Finally, I have thoughts, which may become longer thoughts on something I had only the vaguest awareness of, but which came into sharp focus this morning when I was listening to the most recent episode of Roderick on the Line. John Roderick mentioned as part of an anecdote that he regularly takes part in an annual re-enactment of The Last Waltz in San Francisco, playing the part of Neil Diamond singing “Dry Your Eyes.’

And, as I said, I kind of knew this went on, but it was only at this point that I realised that it’s a regular, recurring thing that happens all over the place (Indiana, Glasgow, San Francisco), with various collectives of musicians putting it together. It’s like The Rocky Horror Show, but for Dad Rock. Part of me loves this more than I can say. I genuinely think The Last Waltz is both a brilliant documentary of one of the greatest bands of all time and also manages to be greater than the sum of its parts, so that the presence of the likes of Neil Diamond and the various cocaine buddies and the fairly shoddy afterthought of the Staples Singers somehow still manage to be brilliant. And it’s this, isn’t it, that makes people want to re-enact it? Because it’s both perfect and not perfect: it works because it does not work, as my pal Michel Serres said.

On the other hand: zombie culture and sigh sigh sigh. So, more thoughts to come, when I’ve had them, as we enter my 17th year of blogging solitude.

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.

Childhood Canon

CometmoominlandSometimes you hear a podcast episode and think wistfully how you’d like to have been on it. Recent Incomparable episodes about childhood canon and recent conversations with colleagues about learning to read had me thinking about the media that shaped my tastes. I’m less interested in film and television than I am in books.

I learned to read with Dr Seuss – Green Eggs and Ham, Hop on Pop, and The Cat in the Hat – but at a very early age started the exploration of science fiction that continues to this day. I’m going to credit Tove Jansson with this: Comet in Moominland (1951) was the first Moomin book I read (when I was off school with whooping cough, I think), and although it isn’t scientifically accurate, it would be churlish to hold that against it, given that most science fiction of the time was similarly inaccurate. The description of the approaching comet’s effects on the earth and the crossing of the dried up sea on stilts gave me an early taste of the apocalyptic strand of SF that remains popular to this day.

I moved from the Moomins onto Enid Blyton’s Adventure series and Arthur Ransome, but started to spend more than 50% of my time reading about space and time.

220px-Blast_Off_at_Woomera_front_coverThe first science fiction proper I read would have been Hugh Walters’ series of books that included Destination Mars, Nearly Neptune, and Blast Off at Woomera (1957), which features another implausible plot as a 17-year-old kid is sent off to photograph the moon because of a feared communist plot. Having devoured those books, I moved on to Arthur C. Clarke, and his Islands in the Sky (1952), which also featured a teenage boy going up into space.

I then switched to Clarke’s more adult-oriented books, the most memorable being Childhood’s End and Clarke_Rendezvous_With_RamaRendezvous with Rama (1973), which at the time was Clarke’s most recently published novel. It lacks a proper plot, as much of his stuff does, but does manage to convey a sense of wonder at the (alien) technological sublime, which is another ongoing theme. Most recently, I’ve enjoyed Robert Charles Wilson’s take on it, with books like The Chronoliths, Spin, and Blind Lake.

My Clarke obsession was long enough ago that his novel Imperial Earth (1975) was published while I was in the midst of it. I turned 13 that year. But that novel was disappointing, as was his novelisation of 2001: A Space Odyssey, which might have been better left as the short story “The Sentinel”, which I had in one of the many short story collections I had accrued by then. These included his classic Tales From the White Hart, a fun collection of tall tales which gave me a taste for the playful side of science fiction.

I tried, around this time, to read some Isaac Asimov, but it never took. I never could read Asimov and only managed Heinlein in small doses.

A side trip to Durham to visit relatives led to me scoring a pile of interesting, more grown up, SF books from a distant cousin. I’ll forever be grateful to him, whoever he was, because he let me choose a bunch of stuff from his shelves, which I never was to return.

1255867Two of the most important of these were Larry Niven collections: A Hole in Space and Inconstant Moon (1973). The title story of the latter collection was an echo of Comet in Moominland, as a too-bright moon signalled a catastrophic problem with the sun to people on the dark side of the Earth, who realise they have just one night to live. These harder SF collections exposed me to ideas such as ramjets, time dilation, teleportation booths, and flash mobs. Another book in that particular grab bag was the very first World’s Best Science Fiction collection edited by Terry Carr. This included the canonical Harlan Ellison story “I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream” but more importantly gave me a taste for these annual collections. I raided the library for every one I could find, and in later years, when Gardner Dozois picked up the torch, I have made a point of buying his annual collection every summer.

The final taste-forming book of my teens was a gift received during a hospital stay when I was 16 or 17. This was the all-time classic Penguin Science Fiction Omnibus, edited by Brian Aldiss. There were more good stories in that one book than in any number of annual Best ofs, and it remains the best introduction to Golden Age science fiction.

Besides all this, the importance of Doctor Who and Star Trek were comparatively minor. When it comes to film and TV science fiction, my support is grudging at best. Only Alien really cuts the mustard from that era, and I mainly watched Doctor Who for the companions.

Annihilation / Jessica Jones season 2

annihilation-ed

Either I’m getting jaded from Too Much TV, or both of these recently released Netflix properties were somewhat disappointing.

I’m not sure if I’ve ever read any of Jeff VanderMeer’s fiction. One of the oddest things about the science fiction field is that, even after 45 years or so of reading it, there are still a tremendous number of writers I’ve never read. It’s comforting, in a way.

Anyway, I read nothing about Annihilation before settling down to watch it, on the recommendation of two different people. It’s based on a novel by VanderMeer.

I have until now totally ignored Netflix’s one-off/movie offerings. Not a single one of them has appealed to me. I know a lot about movies and I know what I like, and I generally don’t like things made in the last 15-20 years. If I invest two hours in something, I generally want more of it (TV style), because I’d have made a choice, usually, to watch a second episode. But a two-hour film can steal two hours of your time and then leave you with a shitty/lame ending, either because they didn’t know how to end it, or because they intended to make a sequel. A case in point: the movie Life, starring Jake Gyllenhaal, has a trick ending that’s a total swizz, based on cheeky editing.

Annihilation started slowly, with a framing device that already put me on guard, because it revealed that the protagonist was the sole survivor of something. This meant that I didn’t emotionally invest or care about any of the other characters because I knew they were going to die. Neither did I invest in the flashbacks, which struck me as lacking in affect and underplayed, and not really illuminating the main plot. A lot of the reviews of this film make the case that it’s somehow doing something different, but if you’ve been reading science fiction for 45 years, it’s really not.

Once the premise was revealed, I was reminded of something I had read, which is Ian McDonald’s Chaga series of stories and novels, about a slowly unfolding singularity event borne to Earth on a meteor, and spreading across Africa like a slow motion version of the “Genesis Effect” in that Star Trek movie.

Like much science fiction, you’d consider these kinds of books unfilmable. You could do it with CGI, of course, but it would be mostly animation, which I tend to find uninvolving. Actors staring at tennis balls on poles in front of green screens are rarely convincing. Anyway, VanderMeer’s books are slightly different, it turns out, but there was still a lot of CGI animation in this film, and my reaction wasn’t wow, as some critics’ seems to have been.

Five women, supposedly scientists, head into a mysterious area that has been colonised by some kind of  possibly alien organism. I say “supposedly” scientists, because they’re dressed in military fatigues and carrying automatic weapons, and they don’t really do much science. In fact, most of the time they act exactly like the space marine grunts in Aliens.

They make a series of illogical and dumb decisions, upon which the whole flimsy plot rests. Science fiction is good at creating Big Ideas and Wonder, but it often doesn’t translate to film very well. I’m kind of dreading Amazon’s attempt at Ringworld, if it ever appears. Once you’ve done the worldbuilding, you’ve basically got a giant ring around a star and it takes forever to get anywhere. (One SF writer who does do interesting things with human stories is Robert Charles Wilson. TV execs take note: you could film The Chronoliths, Spin, or Last Year and you could do better than this.)

Jennifer Jason Leigh is present in Annihilation, in a distant and affectless way. Natalie Portman has a bit more to do, but not much, and you always know how it will end.

There are some interesting ideas: lost time, for example, but not much is done with these ideas. There’s a bunch of CGI and some nice photography. Dialogue is strained and peremptory.

A trick ending. I might have a go with the books, to see if they’re better.

Jessica Jones is back for Season 2, and I found myself similarly uninvolved. The problem, I think, is the same one that afflicts a lot of these Netflix/Marvel shows. They make 13 episodes, but they only have 8–10 episodes of story. So it drifts a bit, and you stop paying attention, and then you wonder what’s happening, and then you don’t care.