Monthly Archives: March 2011

Femme Fatale by Britney Spears

by Carl Wilson

Since I haven’t been able to do a full-blown post for a little while, I thought I’d share one of the pieces I have written lately in the B2TW spirit – my review for The Los Angeles Times of the new Britney Spears album, Femme Fatale. It starts like this:

In the annals of radical art, there are ‘multiple use’ names such as Luther Blissett, Monty Cantsin and Karen Eliot that anyone is invited to adopt as noms de plume. They’re meant to assert a communal conception of creativity, as opposed to the Western myth of individual genius, and to let imaginations explore taboo territories under cover of anonymity. The name Britney Spears may be ready to join that anti-pantheon. […]

I’d like to note that the headline is a little misleading: I’m not actually saying that this mindblowingly danceable album lacks “anything deeper” – just that the meaningful elements are on two levels that are not conventionally where people look for depth: First, in the actual textures and dynamics of the music, which are more experimental and have a wider range of  reference points than a lot of people expect from a Britney record (although at least since Blackout that’s been a mistake). Second, perhaps more importantly, in the way that listeners bring their own meanings to her music now because of their own attachment to her death-and-resurrection narrative, her public passion play, so vague in its outline but so dramatic in its peak moments. This kind of extra-textual experience is often dismissed as illegitimate, gossip-level interaction with any kind of art – indeed, as if the amount of it available is inversely proportional to a work’s legitimacy as art. But we’re way past the point where that’s viable.

Hope you like the piece.

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Vagabond (1985) – written and directed by Agnès Varda

by Margaux Williamson

(My friend Amy Lam asked if I wanted to go see this at the Bell Lightbox in Toronto. I had seen it before, but only once on my television. We ran into our friend Jon Davies in the theatre and sat next to him. After the movie Jon told us that this particular Vagabond screening had a no-popcorn-allowed policy. Amy and I were pretty surprised by this information though we hadn’t wanted any popcorn.)


Vagabond is about a young female drifter named Mona who lives mostly in a tent that she carries on her back, having abandoned the accepted needs, requirements and rules of polite society. Vagabond could also easily be described as a movie about filmmaker Agnès Varda’s curiosity with a young female drifter. It is one of Varda’s first movies to combine a documentary approach with fictional content – an interest that eventually drew her out of the “French New Wave Legend” category and into the “Influential Contemporary Genius” category.

The movie begins with Mona’s dead body lying in the cold landscape of a French vineyard. Varda tells us, from behind the camera, that this young woman seemed to have come from nowhere and that now she is gone without anyone coming to claim her body. Varda tells us that she wants to know what her story was – as best as it can be understood. She says she wants to gather information from the people who came across Mona in her drifting in order to find Mona’s story.

And so we start again – with the living Mona coming out of the water. The movie follows the rest of her actions and her interactions (and the testaments of those who interacted with her) until her death. It all takes place in the south of France. Some of the interview subjects offer their judgments of Mona and reveal their prejudices – others express admiration and curiosity. These reactions may not be surprising, but it is compelling that most of the admiration and curiosity comes from the women, old and young. Many of the performers are non-actors. Perhaps it is because Varda is so adapt at directing “play” that the performances from the non-actors fit in so seamlessly with the “actors” and with the loose and direct style of the whole movie. There is a real sense that everyone is “at play” at telling an incredibly serious story.

The characters include Mona’s employers for a short time, lovers for a brief moment, hitched rides that end quickly, and casual companions who are easily lost. These characters end up circling each other, too, at different times and places. It starts to look like a small world with cause and effect. We see a community being created through Mona even as she holds herself away from it. These intricately webbed interactions seem a little bit more fairy tale than realistic but we understand this fairy tale is based on evidence from the real world. Along with Varda, we are telling ourselves a story about Mona too. It is often challenging avoiding the human tendency to make stories – to make order out of random interactions. This movie does not repress the urge to connect the dots. It is the movie’s primary pleasure.

In the narrative hunt to learn who Mona is, we start to see a map of the south of France as traced by Mona – the rich people, the labourers, the small towns, the vineyard landscapes. Mona doesn’t let anyone (not even the audience) into her thoughts and feelings. We feel grateful for this, grateful for this expanse of land outside human neurosis.

We feel grateful too that Varda is more curious about Mona than pitying. Maybe it’s because Mona wants no help, represses nothing and desires little that there is a notable lack of tension around her. Her brutal honesty and lack of social discretion and generosity do her no favours – we see her get kicked out early from a ride because she insults the driver’s car, unprompted. But we also know that she wasn’t really going anywhere anyway so it made no difference that she got kicked out. Her lack of repression combined with her lack of need creates a palatable absence of social anxiety – at least for Mona and for us in the audience who may be inclined to feel sorry for her.

The original French title for this movie translates as “with no roof and no law”. Unfortunately, living without rules comes with its own joyless burden. Boredom trails Mona’s lack of social anxiety like a disease. It is boring to not need anything – to not give anything. We only see Mona’s desire ignited, and boredom lifted, on the rare occasions that she drifts by a radio and hears rock n’ roll.

Like the differing opinions of Mona help by the characters she comes across, the audiences will have a million different opinions about Vagabond. For me, it made me think that too much freedom from society can feel less like rock n’roll and a lot more like a muddy, boring entropy.

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Little Boxes #39

(from “Rumors I’ve Heard About Anna Wintour,” by Lisa Hanawalt, 2011)

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Tea With Chris: Marinetti as MC

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: Thanks to everyone who attended our 100,000th Word party on Wednesday! We’re going to post transcripts of each conversation soon. Meanwhile, my tea is all-video today. Tyler Coates makes some excellent expressions in this:

“I’m the cat whisperer. I’m here to whisper some fuckin’ secrets to your cats.” Featuring Lizzy Caplan, crush object for at least one-third of B2TW.

I was in L.A. pop-conferencing when it took place during Toronto’s Rhubarb Festival, so I’m very happy that Steph Davidson put the Life of a Craphead performance Please Copy Us Forever on Vimeo.

Carl: A couple of years ago I was pleasantly startled to discover in the pages of The New Yorker a poem that included lines like, “That elk is such a dick. He’s a space tree” and “I translate the Bible into velociraptor” and referenced Buju Banton. This week there’s an interview with the poet, Michael Robbins, in Bomb, the home of great interviews, in which he says this:

“There’s much in my poetry that’s offensive to certain sensibilities, and people are wedded to their offence. Their offence is part of them. So they feel affronted. And, of course, that’s part of what the poetry is designed to illicit. Questions like, What is at stake in our offence? Why do we have such a very unskeptical view of our own offence? And why is it that we’re so willing to rely on our offence and our taste as barometers of . . . anything? Except something about ourselves –because it doesn’t necessarily tell us anything about the world.”

That’s a nice lead-in to this essay by Bethlehem Shoals about the controversial Los Angeles teen shock-rap collective Odd Future Wolf Gang Kill Them All (Odd Future for short), whom Shoals compares not just to Jackass and Dennis Cooper but to Marinetti and Mayakovsky. All of which is valid – I’d also compare them to Harmony Korine, LeRoi Jones and Takashi Miike – but while that may make them artists, it doesn’t make any of the aforementioned not misogynistic at the same time. It seems a little rich after 40 years of feminist cultural criticism to think that one descriptions contradicts – and excuses – the other. (A commenter, Chloe S., wrote yesterday that you could as easily trace Odd Future’s fantasies to the date-rape problem in California skater culture.) But likewise dismissing the stuff because it’s misogynistic fails as both aesthetic and political critique, as Mike Barthel recently pointed out, linking to a 1997 essay by Ann Powers (who was recently catcalled for her attitude to Odd Future at SXSW) that remains a rare primer on thinking about what she calls “violator art.”

Meanwhile to address another kind of offence, here’s Nitsuh Abebe on what he calls “The Robert Palmer Problem” – which you could also call the Elvis or Pat Boone problem – of whether redoing a song from one culture in another context (e.g. R&B into white pop, in the days when they were quite segregated) is properly described as “watering down” or if something more complex is happening. When I put it that way, of course, it’s predictable which one he chooses, but the essay is much richer than that either/or. And part of what occasions it is the new House of Balloons mixtape by Toronto-based “mystery” buzzband The Weeknd, who have some kind of association with Drake (who this weekend’s Junos make an MC-turned-emcee) and seem to involve one Abel Tesfaye on vocals & Jeremy Rose as musician-producer, perhaps with some involvement by Drake producer Noah ’40’ Shebib, though none of that is certain. At first I was a bit wary of the cocktail of trendy sounds The Weeknd seems to swizzle up, but then I heard a couple of songs that couldn’t be reduced to that, like these:

And if you’re in Toronto, may I recommend a weekend activity? Go to the Revue Cinema at 1 p.m. on Saturday and see The Legend of Pale Male, a documentary about a red-tailed hawk’s love affair with midtown Manhattan over several decades. It’s an urban-nature film that manages to be beautiful, amateurish, personal, political, funny and tear-jerking, often simultaneously, with a heroic cameo role played by Mary Tyler Moore. I saw the first screening last weekend and this one’s the last, sponsored by the High Park Nature Centre, our own hawk-watching home base. Love is all around, no need to waste it: C’est la poésie.

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Rescue Dawn (2007) – directed by Werner Herzog, based on the life of Dieter Dengler

by Margaux Williamson

(I saw this while in a hut on the coast of Mexico. For dinner, I had split a can of beans with my boyfriend while we looked through the movies I always bring with me when I travel. They are movies that I sort of want to watch and sort of don’t want to watch so they keep for a while. Rescue Dawn was there in a sleeve along with Old Boy, Dawn of the Dead and a Cassavettes movie. We decided on Rescue Dawn. It ended up being a great movie to watch in the tropical dark while the palm trees shook around outside, ants climbed into my drink and giant cockroaches walked by.)

Rescue Dawn is a drama based on the true story of Dieter Dengler’s crash into enemy territory during the early days of the Vietnam War. It was made by Werner Herzog who, ten years previous, made a documentary about Dieter Dengler called Little Dieter Needs to Fly. The drama is pretty accurate, the documentary (one of my favourites) takes some liberties.

Rescue Dawn begins and ends within the time of Dieter Dengler’s U.S. Navy service. Little Deiter Needs to Fly is focuses on Dieter as a middle aged man who lives in California. In California, Dieter tells and reenacts the story of his life to Werner Herzog. He is handsome and thoughtful. He is not resentful of anyone he recalls and is quick to smile. He looks a touch uncertain of Werner Herzog’s process but also completely committed to it.

In the documentary, he tells us about his childhood in World War II Germany. It involved being hungry and bombings from the U.S. military. He tells us that during a raid on his village, as he stood in an upstairs window watching the chaos, that he caught the eye of a U.S. pilot who happened to be flying by the window. He said it was then that he knew he had to fly.

He immigrated to the U.S. when he was 18 and joined the navy. He eventually went to Vietnam where, on his first mission, he crashed a plane into enemy territory. This was followed by his capture, his imprisonment at a POW camp, an escape from the POW camp, a journey through the jungle and an eventual rescue by the U.S. Navy. Hunger is also a big part of this part of the story.

When Dieter tells his story, there is very little dramatization or emphasis on emotional pain, very little emphasis on the cruelty of others. It is easy to believe that there is no repressed rage or revenge fantasies for this man – only an endless depth of successful defense mechanisms and a mountain of hard-won understanding on human life. Later, in California, he shows the camera his stockpile of dry food that he keeps in giant barrels under his suburban floorboards. This is almost the most painful part of Little Dieter Needs to Fly, and here he doesn’t say anything. We understand that he is both optimistic enough to survive the unimaginable but also realistic enough to survive it too.

I probably would have watched Rescue Dawn earlier had that one person at the Toronto Film Festival not told me that it was very bad and had that movie poster featured a goofily beaming Christian Bale instead of a serious Christian Bale. Also, I loved the documentary so much and had seen it several times so I wasn’t sure it was necessary to see it dramatized.

Though after watching Recue Dawn, I remembered that what is even better than a favourite movie is a good story that is worth repeating. Had I not watched Rescue Dawn, I might have missed that within one of my favourite movies was also one of the best stories that I know.

In Rescue Dawn, as we witness the actors committing themselves to their roles within the story’s parameters, it is easier to make some sort of logic out of Dieter Dengler’s ways. In one illuminating moment, after a fair amount of ill treatment at the hands of his captors, one of them blows a shot gun close to Dieter’s head – knocking out his hearing for a moment but not hurting him otherwise.

After, already, a fair amount of suffering, Dieter finally looks genuinely startled by the blast. “NEVER, NEVER do that again!” he screams, still contained in his handcuffs, surrounded by enemies. It was as though he had been in reasonable negotiations up until that point but now they had really crossed a line. His scream was a warning to not cross that unreasonable line again. Here we understand immediately how reasonable he thinks humans are, how much he is relating to them – even the ones that don’t speak his language, who drag him through the jungle in chains and point a gun at his head. It is as though he really understands that he could have been in their position as captors. But still, he is screaming, he has limits.

This is a person who had somehow managed to be on the ugly side of two ugly 20th century wars, was a victim of both and who voices no complaint. It is fair to say that with this complicated history maybe he did not so easily choose to make villains out of others.

Apart from Werner Herzog’s brilliant Little Dieter Needs to Fly, we now have more of the story of Dieter Dengler, a person whose kind, knowing and careful eyes and whose piles of food under his Californian house’s floorboards still have a lot to tell us – something about how to be insanely optimistic about other humans while staying realistic to the core.

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Little Boxes #38

(from Aya, script by Marguerite Abouet and art by Clément Oubrerie, 2007)

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Tea With Chris: Cesare Pavese Follows

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:

Carl: When someone publishes a “greatest books” list, it’s usually either the same list as every other list, or not actually featuring great books. But this 100 books list shocked me because I’ve never seen half these novels listed like this before, and the ones that I’ve read are among my own favourite books. This was especially surprising because what you see first, at #100, is a Margaret Atwood novel, inauspiciously. But then Cesare Pavese follows. (Don’t worry, there are lots of other women on the list.) It’s great that Alex Carnevale includes mystery and science-fiction novels, and a deliciously indulgent number of Thomas Bernard books. And the capsule descriptions sharply convey the character of each book and the thinking behind its selection. If you’re like me and haven’t read nearly half of them, there are months of pleasure in store for us.

Chris: Via Aaron Ulledal on Facebook, a two-minute neo-noir:

Here are several fine stills of the late Michael Gough, including one from Ronald Neame’s The Horse’s Mouth where he closely resembles a guest of our 100,000th Word party next week.

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