Creative Sensemaker: What to read, watch and listen to this weekend
A rundown of the books, films, music and more by Tortoise Media, the slow news agency
By Matt d’Ancona
Welcome to the latest Creative Sensemaker from Tortoise Media.
What a difference the definite article, or its absence, can make. Facebook, don’t forget, was originally called The Facebook, which has much less ‘let’s-take-over-the-world-and-manipulate-elections’ energy. If George Lucas had stuck with his working title, The Star Wars, would his space fantasy saga have expanded into the 11-film franchise it is today?
The traffic can flow in the opposite direction, of course. In 2016, Suicide Squad, based on a DC Comics supervillain team of the same name, was a commercial success, but a critical flop. Now DC has recruited James Gunn – who has masterminded Marvel’s triumphant Guardians Of The Galaxy series – to try again. Strictly speaking, The Suicide Squad (30 July, general release) is neither reboot nor sequel: the addition of the word ‘The’ is intended, one assumes, to suggest confidence. If so, it is justified. This is a first-rate popcorn movie, full of CGI thrills and spills, cynical ‘we’re all going to die’ antihero banter, and Sylvester Stallone as a shark. Really, what more could you want?
As an exercise in action-packed nihilism, The Suicide Squad works a treat. But it does not follow from this that DC’s next cinematic outing (or the one after that) will be equally good. To say that DC has a mixed record in its campaign to conquer the planet’s multiplexes is a serious understatement: there have been many disappointments.
The late Stan Lee’s greatest contribution to the Marvel Comics empire was to insist upon the interconnectedness of the titles. All the superheroes occupied the same universe and would routinely appear in one another’s storylines, team up, fight, or even marry one another, nurturing the sense of a seamless, integrated mythology.
Since 2007, Kevin Feige has applied precisely the same creative and commercial principle as president of Marvel Studios, weaving the storylines of a vast gallery of characters into 24 closely interrelated movies, meticulously divided into a series of phases.
DC has failed to construct an integrated cinematic universe to rival Marvel’s. But then – so what? For all its sleekness and perfectly executed interconnections, Marvel has never produced a movie to rival Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy, or Todd Phillips’s Scorsese-influenced Joker (2019). No Marvel movie actor has even been nominated for an Oscar, whereas the late Heath Ledger and Joaquin Phoenix both won golden statuettes for their respective portrayals of the Joker.
In effect, Marvel has become the Apple of the comic book universe: sealed, heavily policed and wholly integrated in order to keep its consumers captive and baying for more.
While not quite open source, DC is much more disaggregated, much messier – and, sometimes, much better. There have been disasters aplenty, but also a handful of genuine masterpieces. The Suicide Squad is a triumphant victory of untamed creativity over corporate control freakery: go see.
Here are this week’s recommendations:
The Sparks Brothers (selected cinemas, 30 July)
Best known for his collaborations with Simon Pegg and Nick Frost, and the excellent Baby Driver (2017), Edgar Wright now pays homage in this documentary to the veteran art-pop duo, Ron and Russell Mael. Since the early 1970s – and with 25 albums to their name – the two brothers have simply kept going, influencing much more famous bands, an under-acknowledged force in contemporary musical culture. They are also extremely funny, as Wright demonstrates. A thoroughly entertaining recognition of an important and endlessly imaginative musical force.
Blind Ambition (BBC Two, 1 August)
TV director Jamie O’Leary, whose sight is failing, teams up with blind comedian Jamie MacDonald to explore the world of sightless artists. The resulting documentary is the opposite of worthy, and the badinage between the two often owes more to Clarkson-era Top Gear than the Guardian comment pages. Especially funny is MacDonald’s mirth as O’Leary tries desperately to impress the blind rapper, Stoner, with his in-depth knowledge of hip-hop. The exhibition that the duo mount at the culmination of their travels is all the more inspiring, driven by heart and human connection rather than virtue-signalling.
Power Play: Elon Musk, Tesla And The Bet Of The Century by Tim Higgins
So much mythology has accrued to the story of Elon Musk, that it’s refreshing to read such a well-researched and detailed account of it. The key to the story was Musk’s readiness to put everything on the line in 2008 and borrow money himself to keep the company afloat. An extraordinary tale, grippingly chronicled.
Crying In H Mart by Michelle Zauner
Though best known for her shoe-gaze rock band, Japanese Breakfast, Michelle Zauner is fast emerging as a writer of distinction. In Crying In H Mart, she explores her experience growing up as the only Asian-American pupil at an Oregon school, time spent with her grandmother in Seoul, and the hammer blow of her mother’s diagnosis with terminal cancer. Intergenerational bonds and familial identity curl beautifully through this exquisite book.
We’re All Alone In This Together by Dave
Two years after his Mercury Prize-winning debut album, Psychodrama, Dave returns with a record that’s even better. Relentlessly introspective and pitiless in his self-analysis, Dave uses rap as a truly poetic form, investigating the dilemmas and contradictions of his life with a clarity that’s often dazzling.
Pressure Machine by The Killers (13 August)
Recorded at home during lockdown, the Killers’ seventh studio album was an unexpected project that effectively filled the space created by a cancelled tour. Its themes are mostly drawn from the Utah childhood of frontman, Brandon Flowers. The pandemic has spawned an extraordinary yield of unplanned creativity – to which this is set to be a fascinating addition.
That’s all for now. Creative Sensemaker is taking a summer break, but returns on Thursday 19 August.
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