Midsommar

Midsommar (2019) was an unexpected delight. I’d heard that the director’s earlier Hereditary (2018) was also good, though I have not yet seen it, so I took a chance on his latest with a few friends. I do not typically read reviews beforehand, so I went in cold, and was not disappointed. There are no spoilers in this review, just a load of comparisons, as any summary would fail to capture most of what is good about this film.

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On listening to albums

For many years I’ve been working on watching all the films in the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die book. Not the one linked, with Lady Gaga on the front, but a 2003 version which quickly lost its sleeve, and over long years of consultation its cover, and now sits as a well-loved, half-bound pile of papers on my shelf. My pace in this endeavour has varied considerably, but I’ve seen 717 of the films, and you can see my progress here. At my current rate I won’t finish for decades, but hopefully I’ll be able to accelerate sometime soon. You know, during that vast expanse of free time always just visible on the horizon, across the eternal vale of the near future.

Sitting next to it in a similar state of disrepair is 1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die, another ambitious undertaking and quite a good list. Although I’ve loved this book too, and found many of my favourite albums in it, I’ve never worked out how to ensure progress through its pages.

The problem seems to be that seeing a film is more binary than listening to an album. Either you’ve seen it or you haven’t. Of course, it’s not quite so simple as that; attention and mood must affect absorption, and the age at one sees a film can profoundly change perception. In an extreme case, I remember watching, when I was 21, La dolce vita, with my 12-year-old sister. After the film finished there was a long pause: I was entering an existential morass, whereas my sister finally said, “That’s it?!”

Nonetheless it is fair to say that a single listen to an album does little justice to its merits, when compared to seeing a film. Why this is is an interesting question, which I’ll consider below.

But first, I’ve come up with a solution for how to track progress with albums. It’s an idea that’s been on my mind for some time, but I’ve only recently put it into practice. It involves spaced repetition. I figured this would be a pain, but it’s actually quite easy.

I’ve just created a “Albums” deck in the Anki flashcards app. The front side of each card has “Artist – Album (Year)” and the back side has nothing at all, at the moment. For a few albums I’ve added track listings on the back side, but I’ve found that the lower overhead of just entering the basic metadata on the front seems to work.

So then I open Anki, it shows me some flashcard with an album, and I’ll listen to that album, and score the card just as if it were a memorisation, based on how well I remember the album. (Really, I score it with something more like how ready I predict I will be to listen to the album in X time, which does seem to vary.) Anki then stays in charge of the order in which I listen to the albums. Eventually I’ll probably feel I’ve “mastered” the album, whatever that means, and I’ll tick the album off from the 1001 list.

Why is music harder to absorb than film?

In terms of length, density, and complexity, a film, ought, by rights, to be harder to absorb than an album. Consider:

  • A classic album can be as short as 30 minutes, with the longest double-albums stretching to about 90. Films are rarely shorter than 90 minutes, and can be substantially longer. To give just examples from the 1001 book, Lawrence of Arabia, Once Upon a Time in America, Gone with the Wind, and La belle noiseuse are each nearly four hours—but the book also sees fit to include Riget, a TV show that comes in at 4 hours 40, and Shoah, a documentary of 9 hours. 
  • More obviously, films require that you look at them. Though it’s possible that this makes it easier to absorb a film, since your full attention is engaged. Still, I think even sitting still with exclusive attention to an album would not result in the same level of familiarity as watching a film for the first time.
  • Digital data requirements confirm this: An album, even in its uncompressed form, is rarely more than a few hundred megabytes. MP3 compression yields <100 megabytes per CD. The blu-ray of Andrei Rublev (technically also compressed) is 41 gigabytes.
  • Given the above constraints, a film could easily contain a whole album in its soundtrack.

So what is it about music that makes it take more time and repetition? I have a few speculations.

  • Rhythm itself. Film is not inherently repetitive. And I virtually never want to watch a film again immediately after seeing it. (The same goes for novels, incidentally.) But a day after hearing a great album for the first time, I can hear it rattling around in my mind in such a way that demands another listen.
  • Poetry. Perhaps film could be likened more broadly to prose, and music to poetry. I’ve noticed that it takes me several reads to really get poetry, which is rarely the case with prose. Music, of course, tends to contain language much closer to poetry than to prose as well. Modern songwriting is, at least in my life, the only form in which I still encounter metre and rhyme, unless I’m deliberately reading old poetry. For whatever reason, metric poetry is no longer practised in mainstream English culture, except in music.
  • Memorisation. Related to the above, I don’t feel I’ve “learned” an album until I can remember most of its lyrics. That is not the case with films. I’ve never been one to memorise dialogue.

I may revisit this list soon, since I’m only a week into this Anki scheme. But so far it’s already expanded my musical horizons, with highlights being Dwight Yoakum‘s Buenas Noches from a Lonely Room (1988), Bob Dylan’s John Wesley Harding (1967), and, perhaps unexpectedly, Billie Eilish’s When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go? (2019), all of which are excellent.

I’m probably also going to set up Anki for memorising poems, which I’ve not done enough of since I was a teen.

Sally Rooney’s Normal People

If this is the first review you’ve read, and you can stomach darkness, please stop now and just read Normal People. Most reviews, positive or negative, will probably not lead you to read the book, which I think is a serious and important work.

There is much to dislike about this novel—its bleakness, its tawdriness, its shallowness, its present tense and punctuation. It is painful emotionally, rather too intimate, and the characters can sometimes make themselves hard to like, to say nothing of their half-formed ideas. And yet it cannot be denied that Rooney can write, or that she has written a powerful piece of literature. She has made good use of her considerable talent, to set in aspic certain aspects of this desolate and disconsolate age. What she opts not to evoke from Irish scenery and history is in fact a strength; she describes the contrasts between County Sligo and Dublin, but she could just as easily be writing about the lines dividing Acadiana and New York, or Yorkshire and London.

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An experiment in phonelessness

The plot thus far

In 2017, I lost a new smartphone. In the aftermath of its disappearance I decided not to replace it, a feat which I managed for about a month, with an additional few weeks on an old Nokia phone. During this time I found life more serene, serendipitous, and I was happier. It did somewhat improve my relationship with technology, but when I got a new phone I still resumed most of my mindless habits.

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The Clock, Part 6: Dusk

Christian Marclay’s The Clock (2010) is an ambitious 24-hour montage stitched together from feature films and TV shows. Each clip, ranging from a split second to a few minutes, takes place during the time of the day at which it plays. Over the next few months, I will attempt to see all twenty-four hours at the Tate Modern in London, documenting the experience in a way as haphazard as the fractured experience of watching the work itself.

Voyage au bout de la nuit

Part 6 of 6 of this series. I wrote this article after viewing 18:39–21:55 (3 hours, 16 minutes) on 11 January 2019. Seen: 18 hours 29 minutes. I will be unable to see the remaining 5 hours and 31 minutes.

Read Part 1: Introduction, in which I discuss my initial excitement about the return of The Clock.

Read Part 2: Matineé, in which I reflect on familiarity, recognition, tension, time’s passage, simultaneity, and death.

Read Part 3: Graveyard Shift, in which I stay up all night and misidentify noir.

Read Part 4: Interstice, in which I ponder the expectations set by Hollywood continuity style.

Read Part 5: Sunrise, in which I link up The Clock‘s morning montages.


It has been nearly a month since I’ve written on The Clock, mostly because I’ve been drafting a novel. Since last I wrote, The Clock itself has left London and found a new home at a museum in Melbourne,

The experience of seeing The Clock, even after all these hours, remains surreal, as perhaps the best cinema always is. The final night that I went, there weren’t such recognisable features as there were in the morning hours, and I found its impressions less distinctive, the sequences more obscure. But maybe that was just my own fading vigour.

As I wrote above, my final tally, for now at least, will remain at the 18.5 hour mark. I think this is a respectable amount of conceptual art to have seen over a few months, though I’m still in awe of Ari Haque who did all 24 hours in one go.

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On writing at speed

Exactly three weeks ago, on 14th January 2019, I began a draft of my first novel. I won’t discuss its contents here, but I thought I’d write about the experience of writing at speed.

Driving that train

First of all, how quickly have I written? As of today, my word count is 42,903 words, written in 21 days. That means I’ve averaged 2,043 words per day. That is above the pace required for National Novel Writing Month (abbreviated NaNoWriMo) which takes place every year in November. To “win” that contest, one must write 50,000 words in 30 days, which works out to 1,667 words per day. I was forgetful (and perhaps fearful) last year so I didn’t participate (I did, however, write a blog post for every day of November on my other blog.). Instead, I set myself a goal to finish 80,000 words in 6 weeks.

My speed is around Stephen King’s, as he describes in his excellent On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, which I just finished reading. In it, he reports writing 2,000 words per day. It is a reasonably high rate among writers. Graham Greene and Hemingway, for example, aimed for 500 per day. Michael Crichton, on the other hand, apparently managed 10,000.

I, however, did not set a single daily word count for the period. Instead I’ve used the excellent Pacemaker Planner, which allows varying the pace, and even reducing it at the weekends. Here’s my graph-to-date:

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The Clock, Part 5: Sunrise

Christian Marclay’s The Clock (2010) is an ambitious 24-hour montage stitched together from feature films and TV shows. Each clip, ranging from a split second to a few minutes, takes place during the time of the day at which it plays. Over the next few months, I will attempt to see all twenty-four hours at the Tate Modern in London, documenting the experience in a way as haphazard as the fractured experience of watching the work itself.

Rosy-fingered Dawn

Part 5 of this series. I wrote this article after viewing 6:02–10:18 (4 hours, 16 minutes) on 2 December 2018. Seen: 15 hours 13 minutes. Remaining: 8 hours 47 minutes.

Read Part 1: Introduction, in which I discuss my initial excitement about the return of The Clock.

Read Part 2: Matineé in which I reflect on familiarity, recognition, tension, time’s passage, simultaneity, and death.

Read Part 3: Graveyard Shift in which I stay up all night and misidentify noir.

Read Part 4: Interstice in which I ponder the expectations set by Hollywood continuity style.


The 2nd of December 2018 marked what I thought was my final opportunity to see the nocturnal hours of The Clock, at least in its current run in London—now, due to popular demand, you can also see it this weekend.

At the start of November I had stayed overnight until 5:35am, so I needed to arrive before that time. So on a cold Sunday morning, at the beginning of December, I dutifully awoke at 3:52, just as one of my flatmates was returning from a night out. I filled a flask with coffee and walked down to the Tate, since my normal transport to the Tate Modern (the 4 bus) doesn’t run at night. The walk was beautiful and surreal. I arrived at 5:03am.

St Paul's Cathedral at night
St Paul’s Cathedral on my walk down, at around 5 am.
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Top 10 Books I read in 2018

I’ve just begun my fiftieth book of the year, The War of Art, by Steven Pressfield. Like the last book I read, I discovered it via Derek Sivers, who reviewed it on his site. It’s been an interesting read so far, on overcoming one’s own resistance to ambitious endeavours. It’s inspirational, but so far does not promise to be the most inspirational book I read this year (see Sivers’ own, for example, below). I tracked my progress on Goodreads. Here are the ten books I rated five stars from 2018, in reverse order of when I read them.

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Committing to Meditation

I’ve been meditating daily since November 2016. A practice as short as ten or fifteen minutes per day has drastically improved the quality of my daily experience. Nothing else (exercise, antidepressants, moving countries, changing jobs, successes, failures, etc.) has had anywhere near the effect that a short, daily meditation practice has had on my happiness.

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