Monthly Archives: February 2011

Little Boxes #35

(from Superwest, by Massimo Mattioli, 1987)

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Tea With Chris: Crazy Love

Tea With Chris is a roundup of recommended links, posted every Friday. Here are a few of our favourite things from the Internet this week:

Margaux: Chris and Carl are at the Pop Conference in L.A. this week so I will attempt to cover tea alone.

Mainly – I highly recommend the latest New Yorker magazine. It is action packed.

So far I have just read two articles, the first: An incredibly cautious and thoughtful article on Scientology by Lawrence Wright. The article is framed through the story of a movie director’s eventual descent from Scientology after 35 years as an active member. The most hilarious thing about the article is the lack of nuanced lying, there is a lot of “I wasn’t even in that country!” or “I met no such person!” rather than the more expected, subtle massaging of the truth. This made the hunt for truth seem kind of hilarious. The saddest thing about the article is that, with the collected and convincing evidence mounting, it is appearing very likely that anyone supporting Scientology through services or donations is helping to support (however unwittingly) the continuation of human rights abuses.

The second article: Tiny Fey, who turns out to write a fine New Yorker article, ponders the dilema of either making things a tiny bit better for her family by having another child or making things a tiny bit better for the entertainment industry by staying around long enough so she can make sure older female comedians will continue to be hired rather than continue to be deemed “crazy” and unemployable. As she explains:

“I have a suspicion – and hear me out – that the definition of “crazy” in show business is a woman who keeps talking even after no one wants to fuck her anymore.”

I went, “hahahahahahahahahaha”. Tiny Fey continued:

“The only person I can think of who has escaped the “crazy” moniker is Betty White, which, obviously, is because people still wnat to have sex with her.”

I thought, “True enough”. And then I thought about Betty White. And then I thought about Tina Fey some more.

Chris: Carl and I are indeed in L.A., but here’s some very quick links before I race over to the Pop Conference:

New! Lynda Barry! Interview!

Flannery O’Connor, another secret cartoonist.

The funniest gimmick-Tumblr concerning the British class system you will see this week:

I haven’t actually finished watching this vintage documentary about rap in Toronto yet – Pop Conference papers tend to be written at the last minute – but it looks pretty great:

(Via Noz.)

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Friday Pictures – The angel of history


Paul Klee’s 1920 painting Angelus Novus,  which Walter Benjamin compared, in the text below, to “the angel of history”

A Klee painting named Angelus Novus shows an angel looking as though he is about to move away from something he is fixedly contemplating. His eyes are staring, his mouth is open, his wings are spread. This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them. The storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress.


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Nowhere Boy (2009) – directed by Sam Taylor-Wood, written by Matt Greenhalgh, based on biography by Julia Baird

by Margaux Williamson

(I wasn’t too interested in this movie, about the childhood of John Lennon,  till my friend Sheila mentioned that the director was Sam Taylor-Wood. Sam Taylor-Wood is a British artist. I was curious  to see what kind of movie she would have directed and happy that I would be able to see a complete work. She often works in multi-channel video installations and I have only ever seen stills.

Sheila and I discussed in great detail when and where we would watch Nowhere Boy. Finally, on a very specific and snowy night, I walked over to her house. Inside, it became clear that we had missed  the “how” part – neither of us had Nowhere Boy on our persons or in our electronic devices.

So we played Tetris instead, and drank some tall glasses of water. We wondered if this was what it was going to be like when we were old. )

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Little Boxes #34

(from Hi-Yo Silver #22, script by Gaylord DuBois and artist unknown art by Tom Gill [thanks to Stephen in comments], 1957)


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Tea With Chris: Making a Bad Ting Good

Tea With Chris is a roundup of recommended links, posted every Friday. Here are a few of our favourite things from the Internet this week:

Chris: Via Tom Ewing, I discovered Rastamouse, a new BBC kids’ show about patois-speaking rodents and the importance of communal rehabilitation. Each episode features Rastamouse’s crew “making a bad ting good” by persuading some wrongdoer that life is so much better irie. Now I can put my hypothetical children through musical and ideological indoctrination at the same time!

Friedrich Engels: secret cartoonist.

Also at Comics Comics this week, Joe McCulloch posted a terrific essay about Steve Ditko, grappling with that great artist’s series of avant-garde Randian tracts: “A View of Justice! is, by my estimate, the most ideologically extreme thing Ditko has ever made, depicting a heroic doctor brought off a tourist bus in a vaguely South American setting to tend to a Communist leader shot down while fighting fascist occupying forces. The doctor is not a resident of South Park and therefore the truth does not, in fact, lay in the middle; instead, he rejects both as forms of Force and idealistically refuses to operate on the wounded man. A horde of unsuspecting bystanders are gunned down as a result, which is terrible, but the Hero castigates his agitated fellow tourists for spouting meaningless irrational contradictions and delivers a rousing seven-panel speech on the practice of Justice.”

Eileen Myles: “I wrote five pages of pussy wallpaper and gave it to the editors at VICE who did publish it but confided in me that the money people really had to be convinced that it was not entirely disgusting. With all the dirty and violent and racist things that VICE has done, this was um a little troubling. Do we really want to send that kind of message to our readers. What kind of message is that. I guess a wet hairy soft female one. I mean a big giant female hole you might fall into never to be heard from again.” <3, <3, <3.

Carl: A lot of my friends in New York can’t stop talking about – and skipping off work to go to – Christian Marclay’s show, “The Clock,” at the Paula Cooper Gallery. Marclay’s work for a long time dealt primarily with music – I first encountered him as the world’s most abstract DJ – but now his focus seems to be on film. Not long ago he made a film that compiled hundreds of clips from movies of people talking on telephones. Roberta Smith of the NYT explains pretty well the general concept of “The Clock,” which edits together thousands of movie images in a 24-hour sequence of clocks showing the time that it actually is in the gallery the day you see it, as well as its effect – even if she can’t quite capture what led one person to call it maybe the most powerful work of art she’d ever seen and another friend to compare it seriously to the Sistine Chapel. The exhibition closes this weekend after a couple of marathon showings, at least until, as my friend Jody Rosen demanded, some rich person buys it and install it permanently somewhere that we can all go see it. I post this here primarily in case any of our readers is that rich person.

Meanwhile, someone who was a little bored in the offices of OKCupid has realized that besides being a dating site, they are a research organization gathering data from millions of people about the sociology of courtship and mating. And since they are also a tech company, they know math. So they’ve combined all that in surprising posts like this one, which correlates stats, with graphs, to show what questions you should ask on a first date – to find out if your date is conservative or liberal or likely to sleep with you, without asking any of those questions directly. For instance, if you want to know if they’re religious, find out how annoyed they get by people’s spelling and grammatical errors – people of faith are more willing to give the less-literate a break, while we godless heathens apparently have nothing better to worry about.

Finally: Klout, or, Snobbery: The Next Frontier. (Thanks to Sherwin Sullivan Tija.)

Margaux: Bring your children to Darren O’Donnell! He is looking for families, or children aged 6-12 with an accompanying adult, to participate in a FREE one-hour workshop session at the Harbourfront Centre. Mammalian is looking for feedback and advice for their Monster Makers show.

There are some beautiful colour drawings in the window at Show Gallery on Queen West in Toronto. They are signed by “Katt” and are about $20.

I somehow just ate something called Teriyaki Vibe Help Noodle Salad. It was pretty good.

Art went back to the world and went here to the Philippines’ Malabon City for this nighttime outdoor stage show (thanks to Stefan St-Laurent).

This Laurie Anderson video of her masterpiece “O Superman” somehow floated into my television last night through various internet/ facebook concoctions. It is really something to make an 8 1/2 minute long music video that looks that simple and that captivating. She sure makes it look easy – and essential.

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Friday Pictures – Clare Grill



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The Bands that Don’t Reform, by Antony Harding and Darren Hayman

by Carl Wilson

Hefner, in their salad days, with singer Darren Hayman at left, drummer Ant Harding second from right.

I’m beavering away on my lecture for next week’s 2011 Pop Conference in Los Angeles, where both Chris and I will be presenting among tons of other prominent nerdz. I’ll be schematizing the various ways artists have violated or repositioned the “fourth wall” in their music and how that may or may not relate to reality TV, creative nonfiction and other recent phenomena. I’m not sure if this example is going to fit into the talk (it’s a bit slight) but it tickled me to stumble across it.

Darren Hayman (last seen on B2TW posting a song a day in January) has just put up a single that he recorded with his ex-Hefner bandmate Antony Harding a couple of years ago, “The Bands that Don’t Reform.” The meta-reflexive-whatchamacallit of the project is evident in the title, of course: Here are two members of a band that’s not reforming nevertheless semi-reuniting,  and flirting with the subject in an era when many groups of their ’90s vintage such as Pavement and the Pixies were getting back out on the road to finally get a payday proportionate to their reputations.

But the wink gets more strobe-like in velocity on the very pretty song itself, which turns out to be the story of a couple in the throes of disillusion: “Something here ain’t right/ I loved you at first sight, so why don’t I love you tonight?” They run down all the traits that are driving them apart and reach out in desperation (“tired of getting no sleep”) to “count the things we both believe,” of which there seems to be only one: “We love the bands that don’t reform.”

It could read as a pretty thin joke about a couple of those aforementioned nerdz realizing that they only have their petty music-fanatic dogma left in common, but there’s a second, more bittersweet layer: If they don’t think even the relatively minor business of a rock band trying to reunite has any hope of a good result, then why are they trying to glue together a couple of split-up hearts?

These scenarios seem to melt into each other as the song goes on; many details involve driving from place to place and having mishaps (though also seeing beautiful scenery) like a band on tour. As they explain elsewhere, the love story is a camouflage: The song is about how “they were both crazy when they were in Hefner,” and aren’t crazy anymore, and so won’t ever take the chance of starting that project up again.

Which is another mirror-within-a-mirror: In the song, they’re the audience not wanting their favourite bands’ selfish profit- or glory-seeking to spoil memories of things past; but behind the half-opened fourth wall, they’re musicians with private reasons not to reunite though their fans persist in wanting them to.

Although they don’t say reunite; they say reform, with its other meaning of  shedding bad old habits, becoming a healthier, more law-abiding citizen, not crazy anymore. So the song whispers under its breath, “You don’t want us back like that, anyway, reconstituted as some bland grownup working unit. You want us crazy.”

As Bill Hicks once put it, “When did mediocrity and banality become a good image for your children? I want my children listening to people who fucking rocked! I don’t care if they died in pools of their own vomit! I want someone who plays from his fucking heart! ‘Mommy, the man Bill told me to listen to has a blood bubble on his nose.’ Shut up and listen to him play!”

On the other hand,  Bill Hicks is dead, and while it was cancer not the drugs and alcohol and cigarettes, it may be his own reform came too late. Besides, Hefner were never exactly the trashing-hotel-room types; they were the critics’-darlings-who-look-and-sound-like-critics kinda band.

So this song sees both sides, tells its ambiguous story with a loping, lullaby-like lilt rather than a Hicks-like roar. They still play from their hearts; those hearts are just calmer, and heavier, now, and they play them as they lay, and let sleeping bands lie, in both senses of the word, as we ought to expect by this point.

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Destroyer Does Dad-Rock? Discuss! (Kaputt, Again)

by Chris Randle

Carl wrote a long post about Destroyer’s Kaputt last week, and on Tumblr there was much rejoicing: “Finally, commentary worthy of the album.” I wasn’t going to top that, so I decided to focus on the previous critical discussion around this obsession-forming record. Carl alluded to it: various writers bringing up “dad rock” like Roxy Music and Steely Dan, or fixating on Dan Bejar’s use of “cheesy” musical signifiers. (Rifle through the 800-posts-and-counting ILX thread to find arguments for and against those interpretations.) Why not test their theories on an actual dad? Mine was born in the early 1950s. Like Bryan Ferry, half of the Eurythmics and Kenickie, he is from Sunderland. The only Kaputt reference point I gave to him before putting it on was “Vancouver.”

Dad: It’s playing “Chinatown.”

Chris: It’s supposed to be!

Dad: It doesn’t sound very modern. It sounds like something you’d hear 20-30 years ago. The first two, especially the second one, were kind of Bowie-like. When I was growing up, you would call this “soft rock.”

Chris: His earlier records never really sounded like this – they didn’t have the sax solos or the trumpets. The closest one is an album called Your Blues, but its similarities also seem radically different because all the music was made with MIDI simulations. Even his voice is a little restrained here, when it’s normally very, uh, idiosyncratic. A lot of critics have cited later Roxy Music as a possible inspiration. Bejar himself, too.

Dad: Roxy Music had a bigger edge. This is more conventional, I would say, the music anyway. If you listen to the Roxy Music stuff, the guitar often sounds…jagged in some sense.

[Chris is relieved that his dad didn’t go for “angular”]

Dad: These lyrics are…interesting. “Wise, old, black and dead in the snow…Don’t talk about the South…”

Chris: They’re made up of text that the artist Kara Walker gave to him. Bejar returns to America over and over again in his lyrics, as a subject or a symbol, but I don’t think he’s ever mentioned race before.

Dad: It’s okay, but it doesn’t have that distinctiveness of a Bowie or a Steely Dan. Mainly I think because of the music, it’s too monotonous. They need a bit of quirkiness in it.

Chris: You mean, aside from the lyrics?

Dad: Some of the lyrics are quirky! Why is he singing about Melody Maker and NME?

[Chris tries to think of an answer that doesn’t involve the word “metacommentary,” gives up]

Dad: This sounds a bit different, it doesn’t fit with the rest of the album at all. It’s psychedelic and it’s like…LSD music.

Chris: It’s his disco single. Sort of.

Dad: I think this track was added to fill the record up.

Chris: The vinyl version has a 20-minute-long instrumental sequenced before this one, though! Maybe the hardcore fans just couldn’t get enough “Bay of Pigs.”

Dad: Quite good to listen to, overall. Some of the lyrics are good. It’s harmless, I would say. It sounded…languid. This 25-year-old throwback to jazzy soft rock. You never get the sense that Brian Ferry is just sitting around singing, it always sounds like they’re in a club or some other smoky, boozy place. [Bejar has said that he recorded some of Kaputt‘s vocals while lying around or “fixing myself a sandwich.”]

Chris: One review invoked the cover for Leonard Cohen’s Death of a Ladies’ Man – it argued that Bejar is playing a similar character, this aging playboy who’s become a little wiser and faintly amused by it all.

Postscript: I’m not sure what conclusions to draw from this conversation, if any, but it is funny that lots of music nerds (myself included) hear jarring, almost toxic beauty in Kaputt when my dad just thought it was blandly pleasant. Épater that!


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Black Swan (2010) – conceived and directed by Darren Aronofsky, written by Mark Heyman, starring Natalie Portman

by Margaux Williamson

(I saw this movie with my friend Ryan Kamstra. I wasn’t sure if I would like the movie, but I thought I might like it better if I saw it with Ryan. We have a pretty easy time laughing at things while also taking them very seriously. This is usually helpful with work that takes no breaks for jokes. We saw it at a big multiplex during the day.)

Swan Lake is an old story. Tchaikovsky brought it into form for the ballet in 1876. It tells the story of a princess who is under the spell of an evil sorcerer. By day, she is a swan, and at night, a woman. Other women are under the same spell but the princess is called the Swan Queen. They are confined all together in the prison of Swan Lake. The only thing that can break the spell is the promise of true love from a prince.

We have enjoyed this story for so long because the story both helps to clarify and to mythologize the medium that delivers it – ballet. During the day, the ballerinas are on their toes, defying gravity and human limitations to move in freakishly hypnotic and otherworldly unison. We sense there is something wrong but we also so enchanted. Afterwards, if we happen to be at the same party with the dancers, we watch them smoke cigarettes, drink vodka and occasionally glare in our direction. Mere mortals! But mortals are the only things we ever fall in love with.

In the movie Black Swan, the story of Swan Lake is updated for both the 21st century and the medium of film. This changes a few things. Here the story extends beyond the stage and into the lives of the people creating the staged performance of the Swan Lake ballet. This solves a perpetual problem with the old story: We never really knew why a sorcerer would turn a princess into a swan – other than “because he was so evil” and that is never such a good answer.

Now,  freed from the narrow perspective of the stage and the fairytale, we understand more easily that a sorcerer would turn a princess into a swan because it is really something to watch a woman dance like that.

In the old story, a prince does come. He even comes close to breaking the spell for the Swan Queen, but his efforts are thwarted by the sorcerer’s trickery. The sorcerer presents his daughter to the prince as though she is the Swan Queen. The daughter, although dressed in black, is a look-alike of the Swan Queen.  The prince is fooled and offers his everlasting love to this wrong woman – this black swan.

When learning of his mistake, he runs to the Swan Queen begging for her forgiveness. Being young and full of goodness, she easily forgives him, but that is not enough to end the spell. The ballet ends with a suicide or sometimes with a double suicide – since now this is the only remaining option.

But here, in the 21st century, we are not so interested in the prince. The prince, whose only purpose is to break the spell of being such a strange creature, is of no use to us.  If the spell broke, the Swan Queen would lose her day job. So, in Black Swan, the prince is barely more than a prop. Though we see some elements of his character fused with that of the sorcerer (the company’s artistic director) – the man in charge of the swans and picking the right woman for the role of the Swan Queen. What the Swan Queen wants more than anything is to be all swan. The Swan Queen here is Nina played by Natalie Portman.

Though the prince has lost sexual value, the sorcerer (the director) and the black swan (a new dancer at the company named Lily) have gained it considerably.  The director is the boss that Nina wants to please and learn from. And Lily,  with her playfully devious and sensual nature, inevitably interests Nina. Lily has so much to show her. These objects of attraction we can understand. They can only help improve her craft, bringing her closer to staying a Swan Queen forever.

Since the origins of the Swan Lake ballet, the Swan Queen and the black swan are often played by the same dancer. Nina’s attempt to embody the black swan successfully (having mastered the Swan Queen already) forms the narrative of Black Swan.  If she fails to embody the darker, more sensual depths of the black swan, Lily might be cast in her place.

In an earlier movie of Darren Aronofsky’s, Requiem for a Dream, his manner of exploring the murky and painful depths of drug addiction in Hubert Selby Jr.’s book of the same name, seemed a little generic or unfocused – as though the formula for serious art was obvious: the darker the art, the better the art.

But in Black Swan, Darren Aronofsky’s intentions seem much more articulated and transparent. It seems as though he has set himself up in this underworld, roaming around in the clichés and sludge, because that is the place he loves the best. His pleasure and a very subtle humour accompany everything – though there are no jokes. It helps here that the characters are not victims of drugs, but of excellence. The goal for excellence frames the masochism involved, in this decent into the underworld, as a rare pleasure rather than a necessary cost of pleasure.

One of the best things about the movie is the complete naivety that surrounds Nina as she bravely and blindly attempts to descend to the depths. Because of her inexperience in these depths, she gives everything she finds there the same value:  sex is equal to murder is equal to confidence. This makes her quite a villain.

Throughout the movie, Nina longs to earn the ballet director’s nickname “little princess” that he bestows on only the rarest and finest of Swan Queens. It is really something to see how bloody things get before this small woman finally earns her nickname.

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