Weird, dark, and awkward: The best British comedy shows

Rich Fulcher and Matt Berry in Snuff Box
Rich Fulcher and Matt Berry in Snuff Box

The first time I saw an episode of Monty Python on television I was hooked on British comedy. As a teenager in the mid-80's I loved watching The Young Ones on MTV. And now, the last 10 years has been a golden age of British comedy. What follows is not a comprehensive list of every British comedy show -- just a selection of shows that I've watched or re-watched over the last decade. Feel free to add your favorites in the comments. I've loosely organized the list by genre, or by groups of actors who've worked together on multiple shows.

 

Matt Berry, Richard Ayoade, and The Mighty Boosh

Snuff Box

Snuff Box [Amazon | Netflix] - Matt Berry and Rich Fulcher play two hangmen who spend most of their time in a lounge drinking whiskey. The show is interspersed with Python-esque sketches. Snuff Box is only six episodes, and aired once on BBC 3 back in 2006. A DVD was released in 2011, and the show recently became available for streaming on Netflix.  You might recognize Matt Berry as the big boss Douglas Reynholm on the IT Crowd. Both Berry and Fulcher also appeared on The Mighty Boosh.

  • Garth Marenghi's Darkplace [Amazon | YouTube] - A hilarious faux 80's haunted hospital drama starring Matthew Holness and Richard Ayoade.
  • Man to Man with Dean Learner [YouTube] - A spin-off of Darkplace, Man to Man is a talk show that's a must see for Richard Ayoade fans.
  • AD/BC: A Rock Opera [Amazon] - A 30-minute 70's style rock opera show from 2004 starring Matt Berry, Julian Barratt, and Richard Ayoade. Noel Fielding and Rich Fulcher have bit parts, too.
  • Toast of London [YouTube] - Matt Berry plays Steven Toast, an eccentric failed actor.
The Mighty Boosh

The Mighty Boosh [Amazon | Netflix] - Noel Fielding and Julian Barratt are out there. The show also features Rich Fulcher, who Noel once described as "the weirdest person I've ever met."

  • Noel Fielding's Luxury Comedy [YouTube] - A British Pee Wee's Playhouse set in the 70's on a bunch of psychedelic drugs. Surreal and bizarre.
  • The 2011 offbeat comedy The Bunny and the Bull [Amazon | Netflix] was directed by Paul King, who also directed The Mighty Boosh.
  • Julian Barratt from The Mighty Boosh was in the 1996 show Asylum alongside Simon Pegg. This show is a bit difficult to track down.
The IT Crowd

The IT Crowd [Amazon | Netflix] - Yes, the infamous "have you tried turning it off and on again" show. Written by Graham Linehan (Father Ted, Black Books), and featuring Richard Ayoade, and Matt Berry.

 

The Legacy of Monty Python

Monty Python's Flying Circus

Monty Python's Flying Circus [Amazon | Netflix] - The movies are fantastic, but the Flying Circus is what originally got me going on British comedy. The box set is indispensable.

The Young Ones

The Young Ones [Amazon | Netflix] - As a teenager, The Young Ones left a lasting impression on me. 30 years later and it's still weird and funny.

  • Bottom [Amazon | Netflix] - Can't get enough? Rik Mayall and Adrian Edmonson of The Young Ones are bickering roommates in Bottom.
Little Britain

Little Britain [Amazon | Netflix] - Matt Lucas and David Walliams are two strange lads who play almost all of characters in this fun sketch comedy. Some bits are better than others, but when it's good it's fantastic.

  • Come Fly with Me [Amazon | Netflix] The lads play just about every character in this airport comedy. More hit and miss than Little Britain.
The League of Gentlemen

The League of Gentlemen [Amazon | Netflix] - What if you crossed Little Britain with Delicatessen [Amazon | Netflix]? This is a local show for local people. Definitely the darker side of British Comedy.

  • Psychoville [Amazon] - If you're a League of Gentlemen fan, you'll probably like Psychoville.
 

Simon Pegg, Dylan Moran & Friends

Black Books

Black Books [Amazon | Netflix] - Clerks [Amazon | Netflix] may be the ultimate movie about working retail in the U.S., but thankfully there's Black Books for the U.K. Dylan Moran is perfect as the grouchy, nihilistic book store owner, and Bill Bailey is his wacky foil. Simon Pegg's bit role as the chain bookstore manager is hilarious.

Spaced

Spaced [Amazon | Netflix] - Simon Pegg stars in this roommate comedy that's laced with cultural references, weirdness, and inside jokes.

  • Green Wing [Amazon] - More of a dramedy - I know British comedy fans on both sides of the fence about this show.
  • There are 2 or 3 wonderful, full length Dylan Moran standup shows on YouTube
  • A Film with Me In It [Amazon | Netflix] - Dylan Moran stars in this dark comedy where everyone keeps freakishly dying.
  • Burke and Hare [Amazon | Netflix] - I suppose selling cadavers for science counts as dark comedy. Starring Simon Pegg.
 

Awkwardness: The cringe humour of The Office UK, and Mitchell and Webb

The Office UK

The Office UK [Amazon | Netflix] - Ricky Gervais is an acquired taste for some, and funny beyond belief to others. This depends on how comfortable you are being uncomfortable.

Peep Show

Peep Show [Amazon | Netflix] - If you enjoyed cringing your way through the awkwardness of The Office, Mitchell and Webb will test your cringe reflexes to the limit.

  • That Mitchell and Webb Look [Amazon | Netflix] - Highly recommended sketch comedy from Mitchell and Webb with less cringing than Peep Show.
 

Further Explorations

Some additional shows that have been recommended to me that I haven't investigated yet.

  • Big Train
  • Nighty Night
  • Jam
  • Brass Eye
  • Monkey Dust
  • Human Remains
  • Rising Damp

So, Anglophiles, what other shows am I missing? I look forward to hearing about your favorite weird U.K. comedies in the comments.

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WRLD: Grandmaster, Magic, Big Star, Townes, Creation, Cutie, 1-800-MICE, H Day, Abandoned Futures, Coin Locker Babies, Satellites, Mogwai, Exploding Star Orchestra

Watching

The Grandmaster

Last month Martin Scorsese interviewed Wong Kar-Wai about his 2013 film, The Grandmaster. The cinematography is amazing, and overall the film is pretty good [Amazon]. ★★★

Deceptive Practice

The best documentary I've seen in ages is Deceptive Practice: The Mysteries and Mentors of Ricky Jay [Netflix, Amazon]. Ricky Jay's dedication and artistry are inspiring, and the film is riveting from start to finish. Highly recommended. ★★★★★

Big Star

This documentary profiles the Memphis rock band Big Star from their early years to post-breakup. Essential viewing if you're a fan [Netflix, Amazon]. ★★★

Be Here To Love Me

Be Here To Love Me is a portrait of singer songwriter Townes Van Zandt. A haunting look at a tortured artist [Netflix, Amazon]. ★★★★

Upside Down

Upside Down is an uneven documentary about the UK label Creation Records. Selling records and partying with Scottish accents, it's half entertaining and half annoying [Netflix, Amazon]. ★★

Cutie and the Boxer

Cutie and the Boxer profiles an 80 year old Japanese artist and his wife who are living in New York and barely making ends meet. I had high hopes for this one after the preview, but the film focuses too much on the antagonistic wife [Netflix, Amazon]. ★★

 

Reading

1-800-MICE

1-800-MICE is bonkers. Blurbed by Daniel Clowes and Matt Groening among others, but none of them get it quite right. Surreal, absurd, extraordinary, and utterly unique. Highly recommended.

H Day

I've been a fan of Renee French since 90's comic books Grit Bath and The Ninth Gland. H Day tells parallel stories on facing pages without words. One side is about migraines, and the other is about an ant invasion. Mysterious, weird, and quite enjoyable.

Abandoned Futures

With a cover photo from the Pearsonville Junkyard, night photography workshop alum Tong Lam presents well crafted photos of some world class ruins. Tong doesn't like the term ruin porn, and instead makes a case for the history of ruin lust. Abandoned Futures contains some of the best writing on the symbology of ruins in recent years, and is highly recommended.

Coin Locker Babies

I've read quite a bit of Haruki Murakami's work, but hadn't read Ryu Murakami until my book club selected Coin Locker Babies. This novel is the story of two orphans who are abandoned at birth in a coin-locker, and are raised in the shadows of a ruined factory town. While the violence was a bit graphic for my taste, there were some hypnotizing sections that gave me new insight into why I photograph abandoned places.

Satellites

Satellites is the result of an amazing 7 year journey exploring the forgotten outposts of the former Soviet Union. Unfortunately this book is out of print, but it's definitely worth seeking out at your local library.

 

Listening

Hardcore Will Never Die, But You Will

Mogwai's Hardcore Will Never Die, But You Will has been in heavy rotation during January. Maybe because it's good workout music? The Drowned in Sound review of the album is right on target.

Exploding Star Orchestra

The Exploding Star Orchestra takes a wild journey through large ensemble jazz improv with a wide array of field recordings. A wild but engaging sonic ride. Here's a nice review on Dusted.

 

Doing

  • A wonderful English artist is producing a marquetry version of one of my photos. I'm excited to see how this turns out, and will share photos when it's done.
  • I've switched from using a Really Right Stuff pano-head to a Nodal Ninja Ultimate M2. More on this decision later.
  • My office is loud. I tried a lot of noise-cancelling headphones. All marketing hype aside, the Bose QC 15 really do work the best. Audiophile magazine Sound & Vision nails it in this Bose review. If you need to shut out the world, this is 300 bucks well spent.
  • I'm shooting video at work. It's way harder than shooting stills. But fun. I'm learning Premiere, too.
  • A couple of my Holga images are in a recently released color grading book. More info when I get a copy.
  • I'm online less and less these days. I still like looking at pictures on Tumblr. That's about it. You wanna talk? Send me an email. And don't be surprised if my online presence becomes a bit more sporadic this year.
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Stalker, Zona, Roadside Picnic, and down the Tarkovsky wormhole

Tarkovsky on the set of Stalker
Tarkovsky on the set of Stalker

Since discovering Stalker in early 2012, I've taken a much deeper dive into the world of Andrei Tarkovsky, and have now seen 6 of his 7 films. If you enjoy exploring abandoned places, and are open to taking a meditative look into what it all means, then Stalker is essential viewing.

In the near future, an unseen alien force has taken possession of an area of Russian wilderness that authorities have dubbed The Zone. The only thing known for sure about the region is that few who enter it ever return. Led by a Stalker, one of a small group of outlaws able to safely navigate the Zone, a renegade scientist and a cynical, burnt-out writer penetrate the dangers outside in search of the power and transcendence rumored to exist inside. The Stalker longs to un-do a mysterious physical transformation the Zone has performed on his young daughter. The scientist will risk anything to see that reason triumphs over faith. The writer seeks a germ of inspiration that the crumbling and corrupt world beyond the Zone no longer provides.
Together, these three men become desperate pilgrims walking a desolate trail leading to one of the most enigmatic and tantalizing endings in the history of cinema. A haunting and honest meditation on the intersection of science, feeling, and faith, Stalker is both profoundly unsettling and deeply moving. - Kino Video

Stalker becomes more rewarding with multiple viewings. Tarkovsky is a master of the long take, and many of his films are light on traditional narrative. This isn't easy viewing. That's OK. Like a lot of great art, the viewer needs to do a little bit of work to get the most out of the experience. The four books and two documentaries below will help you explore the world of Tarkovsky:

Geoff Dyer's Zona is theoretically about Stalker, but it's also about how our relationship with art changes over time. Wonderful, light hearted ramblings on a difficult, heavy film.

Roadside Picnic - Stalker is based on the Russian science fiction novel Roadside Picnic. Beyond being a big fan of Philip K. Dick, I don't usually read a lot of sci-fi. Roadside Picnic was a fast, fun read. Reading the book before seeing Stalker won't ruin the movie for you. Tarkovsky's film jettisons the narrative in favor of spiritual and philosophical explorations.

 

The Films of Andrei Tarkovsky: A Visual Fugue - After watching Stalker, I watched Solaris again, and then saw Andrei Rublev, Mirror, Nostalghia, and The Sacrifice. Johnson and Petrie's book was a really helpful guide to understanding Tarkovsky's history, themes, influences, cultural context, working methods, and critical reception. I was initially concerned that this book might be too academic, but it's got an easy to read style, and is very insightful.

Sculpting in Time - I haven't finished Tarkovsky's essays on filmmaking yet. I'm taking this book a little bit at a time, but it's certainly essential reading for understanding Tarkovsky's universe.

 

One Day in the Life of Andrei Arsenevich - Chris Marker's (La Jetée) documentary has a mix of clips from all 7 films, Tarkovsky directing, and Tarkovsky re-united with his family during his final illness. Recommended.

Voyage in Time - If you're going down the rabbit hole (or perhaps wormhole), the documentary Voyage in Time follows an exiled Tarkovsky scouting locations in Italy with Antonioni's screenwriter Tonino Guerra. This one is slow going, and for the completist only. Probably works best if you've seen Nostalghia.

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WRLD: Stanhope, Motorcycles, Yakuza, Cults, Pynchon, Aerial Photos, Feral Teens, Origami, and Prog-Folk

Watching

Beer Hall Putsch

Stand-up comedy is like dance for me -- I can't watch 98% of what's out there, but the 2% that's good is really good. Doug Stanhope is in that 2%. His most recent 1-hour special is called Beer Hall Putsch [Netflix only], and it's over the top. The Occupy Wall Street and NFL fantasy bits are nuts.

Long Way Down

In 2004, Ewan McGregor and his friend Charley Boorman went on a 20,000 mile adventure on motorcycles in Long Way Round [Netflix | Amazon]. The series starts a bit slowly, but the hard travel segments in Russia and Mongolia are amazing. In 2007 they rode from Scotland to South Africa in Long Way Down [Netflix | Amazon].

Pale Flower

I recently watched the nihilistic 60's Japanese yakuza film Pale Flower again, and it's still astonishing. Now on Blu-Ray from Criterion [Netflix | Amazon].

The Source Family

The Source Family is a really great documentary about a 70's cult led by Father Yod, who had 14 wives, a health food restaurant, a Rolls Royce, and a psychedelic band [Netflix | Amazon].

 

Reading

Bleeding Edge

The new Thomas Pynchon novel Bleeding Edge will be released on Tuesday, 9/17. The extensive 7,000 word piece on Pynchon published last month on Vulture is a must-read for fans of his work. And Jonathan Lethem's review in today's New York Times really nails what's great about Pynchon.

Around the Bay

The new CLUI publication Around the Bay: Man-Made Sites of Interest in the San Francisco Bay Region is essential if you live in the Bay Area. The book pairs aerial photographs with a short history of the industrial sites around the Bay. The companion exhibit, Above and Below, runs at the Oakland Museum runs through February 23, 2014. The big, projected fly-over video of the Bay is fantastic.

Mira Corpora

Jeff Jackson's debut novel Mira Corpora is a dark, surreal coming-of-age story that I could not put down. Featuring a section with feral kids living in the woods on the edge of an abandoned amusement park which is down the way from a crumbling house inhabited by a teenage oracle.


Ametsuchi

I'm really surprised Rinko Kawauchi's new book Ametsuchi isn't getting more attention. I picked this up in a book store and was blown away. Images of controlled burns, constellations, Buddhist rituals, and a unique design with inverted versions of the images behind the pages. Here's a video interview with Kawauchi with a look at the book. Highly recommended.

 

Listening

The Master Musicians of Bukkake are back with a new album called Far West which delves into prog-folk and Morricone inspired soundtrack music.

 

Ghost Capital is still blowin' up the spot with a great selection of hard-to-find world, African, and electronic music.

 

Doing

Despite the crowds, riding a bike on the new Eastern span of the Bay Bridge is a lot of fun. Here's how to get to the path.

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WRLD: Oil fields, comics, curmudgeons, Kaurismaki, Pynchon, tanks, and ALTO!

San Ardo oil fields on Highway 101 -- by Joe Reifer
San Ardo oil fields on Highway 101 -- by Joe Reifer

Watching, Reading, Listening, Doing (WRLD) is an experiment in paring down artistic input/output into quick summaries to refer back to. Disparate inputs help create interesting output. Let's see what's been in the blender lately.

Reading

Charles Burns - The Hive

Charles Burns continues to amaze me with his unique vision in the 2nd installment of his darkly original, narrative-shifting trilogy - The Hive. Highly recommended.

 

 
ASMP Guide to New Markets in Photography

The ASMP Guide to New Markets in Photography was worth reading for the 50 concise photographer biographies. Judy Herrmann's values analysis exercises are also quite good. The remaining material is a high level overview of changes in the photography industry, but the advice is rather general. Worth checking out from the library for photographers of all levels. May be of particular interest to photography students who don't already understand the industry.


Occam's Razor

If you enjoyed David Hurn and Bill Jay's On Being a Photographer, you might try tracking down Occam's Razor. What was true about the art world 20 years ago is even more true today. The photography world needs an articulate curmudgeon like Bill Jay to stay honest. I wish the photo blog world had half of his wit and insight.

 

Watching

Le Havre

Aki Kaurismaki's Le Havre blew me away. A bohemian shoe shine man protects an African refugee from being deported. Those of you familiar with Kaurismaki's long history of dour films will be surprised how uplifting Le Havre is. And the cinematography is fantastic. Highly recommended.

 
Thomas Pynchon documentary

I really enjoyed this Thomas Pynchon documentary with music by The Residents. The film is a goofy speculation about Pynchon's choice to remain out of the public eye. Word on the street is that a new Pynchon novel called Bleeding Edge may be released this year.

 
Cul De Sac

Another excellent holiday gift (thanks ss!) was Cul De Sac. In 1995, a 35 year-old plumber and ex-soldier from suburban San Diego dug an 18 foot hole in his back yard looking for gold. Apparently meth was involved. He ended up stealing a tank from the National Guard and went on a rampage crushing cars before the police opened the tank and shot him. A really interesting meditation on the decline of the post WWII 50's suburban dream.

 

Listening

Alto!
Alto!

ALTO! is a three piece band from Portland, Oregon with Derek Monypeny on guitar, and Steven T. Stone / Kyle Reid Emory on drums /electronics. Somewhere between krautrock, outrock, progrock, and experimental. Listen to side one of the album on ALTO!'s Bandcamp page, download a track for free, or name your price to buy the whole album.

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Dystopian Sci-Fi: World on a Wire

Rainer Werner Fassbinder's recently restored 1973 film World on a Wire is a paranoid dystopian epic. The only science fiction film Fassbinder ever made, World on a Wire was filmed in 16mm for German television, and largely forgotten. Thanks to the Fassbinder Foundation, we can finally view this lost classic that predates Blade Runner by 9 years.

And World on a Wire is recommended viewing for Philip K. Dick fans. A scientist named Stiller who runs a virtual world discovers a corporate conspiracy to use the simulation for financial gain. People disappear or are forgotten. Newspaper articles mysteriously change. And soon, much more troubling questions emerge about the nature of existence.

This lo-fi sci-fi film is refreshingly free of CGI and special effects. The use of mirrors and reflections in the cinematography is superb, and the electronic incidental music is wild. Ed Halter's article for Criterion provides an excellent overview of the film. The special features include an excellent interview with Fassbinder scholar Gerd Gemünden. Available on DVD or on Blu-ray.

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Learning from films: Stalker

The new Geoff Dyer book Zona: A Book About a Film About a Journey to a Room, is a light take on a heavy film -- Andrei Tarkovsky's Stalker. In a notable passage, Dyer talks about the time span in our life that we're receptive to forming our personal favorite works of art. The time in our late teens and twenties when certain films, books, and music become our lifelong favorites. For me, some of these films were Brazil, Blade Runner, and Blue Velvet. At a certain point, this openness may not come naturally anymore. Those of you who are over 40 know what I'm talking about. I want to stay open to that feeling.

I've been following author and free-jazz aficionado Jeff Jackson's Destination Out for a long time, and I'm also connected to him on Goodreads where he gave Zona a favorable review. I really enjoyed Dyer's photography book, The Ongoing Moment, so I picked up a copy of Zona, and rented Tarkovsky's Stalker.

If we're lucky, every once in a while we encounter a work of art that changes our perception of how deeply art can affect us. Something truly exceptional. Stalker is a mind-blowing film. If you're interested in the strange time warps and dream states that can be encountered in night photography, Stalker is an amazing journey. I've never seen a film that captures the state of hyper-awareness of exploring abandoned places so well. The intense attention to every little sound and texture. And the location in Stalker takes on a life of its own.

So do you remember the time period in your life when you were most receptive to artistic input? When a 2 1/2 hour subtitled movie was something to look forward to? If you're open to that feeling, watch Stalker and let me know what you think.

Stalker is on DVD at Netflix but not available streaming. The DVD is $16-24 at Amazon, or perhaps you're lucky enough to have a good local video rental store.

If you're not familiar with the film at all, I encourage you not to look up Stalker online. Don't look at YouTube or IMDB. Just track down the DVD and set aside the time to watch. If you enjoy the film, Dyer's book is a lot of fun. If enough people who live in the San Francisco Bay Area are interested in discussing the film and the book, I will schedule a meetup at a bar in April to compare notes. Until then, enjoy your trip to the Zone.

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Pier 24 Photography Exhibit Time-Lapse

This time-lapse documents a 2-hour visit to Pier 24 in San Francisco to see the Here exhibit that features over 700 photographs of the Bay Area. Visiting Pier 24 is free, but you need to make an appointment online a few weeks in advance.

Time-lapse technical details: Still photography is allowed inside Pier 24, you just can't use a flash. I asked permission before making this time-lapse. I used the string from a sweatshirt to hang a GoPro HD camera around my neck (Flavor Flav style). The camera took a photo every 5 seconds. The time-lapse was assembled at 6fps in Quicktime 7 Pro. Titles and music were added in iMovie. As the show is Bay Area focused and has suburban themes, I thought music by The Residents would be appropriate.

I hope you enjoy the time-lapse tour, and that you are inspired to book a 2 hour time slot to visit Pier 24!

Update: Thanks to Blake Andrews for spreading the word about my tour of Pier 24.

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23 epiphanies: Ramblings on artistic influences

Power plant accoutrements -- by Joe Reifer
Power plant accoutrements -- by Joe Reifer

My presentation at last week's Mono Lake Night Photography Festival was about the value of cultivating a diverse set of artistic influences. You are already doing this informally. The idea is to talk or write about your artistic input, as a playground for better understanding how these things are influencing your artistic output.

I had 45 minutes to talk, and spent just under 2 minutes talking about how each of these artists has influenced my night photography. As the presentation was both fast and media intensive, I've reproduced the list of artists below for those who attended the conference.

I encourage you to make your own list of influences. This could be a desert island list of your favorite films, photography books, novels, museum exhibits, dance performances -- whatever you're into. Making a list is the first step -- the epiphanies are born out of process of articulating why you love this work, and how the work has influenced you. The writing doesn't have to be lengthy -- start with one sentence for the why, and one for the how. Have fun, and feel free to share your list.

  1. Gordon Matta-Clark: Conical Intersect [video on UbuWeb] [photos & bio on artnet]
  2. John Divola: Vandalism Series [photos on divola.com]
  3. Roger Ballen: Outland | Shadow Chamber | Boarding House
  4. John Pfahl: Altered Landscapes
  5. Draw on your image: To be discussed in a future blog post
  6. Gaspar Noe: Enter the Void [Netflix]
  7. Matthew Barney: Cremaster Cycle
  8. Werner Herzog: Of Walking In Ice
  9. Mark Rothko: Rothko's Rooms[Netflix]
  10. William Vollmann: Imperial
  11. Michelangelo Antonioni: Red Desert [Netflix]
  12. David T. Hanson: Waste Land
  13. Flotation Tanks
  14. Haruki Murakami: A Wild Sheep Chase
  15. Ikeda Carlotta: Butoh Dance
  16. Yasujiro Ozu: Tokyo Story [Netflix]
  17. Master Musicians of Jajouka: Apocalypse Across the Sky | Pipes of Pan
  18. Lotte Reiniger: The Adventures of Prince Achmed [Netflix]
  19. Caspar David Friedrich [friendsofart.net]
  20. John Hind: Our True Intent Is All For Your Delight
  21. Chris Verene: Family | Chris Verene
  22. Jacques Tati: Playtime
  23. Erik Kessels: In Almost Every Picture #9 Black Dog

Note: Book and movie links go to Amazon, and help put a few extra pennies into the epiphany research jar.

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