Monthly Archives: April 2013

Carl’s Tuesday Musics (on Monday): “Empire of the Senseless,” The Mekons (1989)

by Carl Wilson

If this week has given us anything so far, it’s that a lot of people have learned about the great British anti-Thatcher songs of the 1980s and 1990s. (Although anyone who thinks, like Slate’s David Wiegel, that “we Americans had nothing like this” really wasn’t paying attention.) Elvis Costello’s Tramp the Dirt Down would be the great anthem specifically looking forward to Thatcher’s death (rivaled by Hefner’s The Day That Thatcher Dies and Morrissey’s Margaret on the Guillotine) but one I haven’t seen mentioned is this song from one of my favourite albums, The Mekons’ 1989 Rock’n’Roll.

It doesn’t call out Maggie by name (though it does mention “the hard lady”); in fact the only political figure name-dropped is an American, Oliver North (“Boring Ollie North down in the subway dealing drugs and guns/ turning little liars into heroes, it’s what they’ve always done” – and this was decades before North became a Fox News pundit). Instead it’s about a whole suite of Thatcherite policies, in the “culture wars” ambience of censorship and intolerance of the ’80s.

What I like best is its demonstration of the particular, peculiar sense of humour you develop when you spend a decade being near-continuously pissed off.

The now-odd-sounding lines, “This song promotes homosexuality/ It’s in a pretended family relationship/ with the others on this record/ And on the charts and on the jukebox/ And on the radio” refer to Thatcher’s family-values legislation Section 28, while the earlier, “These lines are all individuals/ And there’s no such thing as a song” parodies Thatcher’s famous claim that “there is no such thing as society.” (Man, she was a piece of work.) “Even the silent are now guilty” refers to legislation her government passed saying that while accused people would retain the right to remain silent, judges and juries would be free to interpret their silence as an admission of guilt. The line “turning journalists into heroes takes some doing” is a joke about the popularity of Charter 88, a petition protesting Thatcher’s restrictions on press freedom. And finally, the closing lines take off from Thatcher’s notorious line on immigration that “people are really rather afraid that this country might be swamped” – turned around to say “people are really rather afraid of being swamped by selfishness and greed.”

I’m sure there are other references I’m missing. The title is of course borrowed from Kathy Acker’s then-new, excoriating novel, which in turn I guess was playing on the title of Nagisa Oshima’s classic Japanese S&M art film, which in France was called L’Empire des sens, “empire of the senses,” itself a play on Roland Barthes’s book about Japan, The Empire of Signs …

“All unacceptable gropings have been removed from the screen. Only eyes full of unspeakable thoughts remain.”

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Tea With Chris: The Avant-Garde Detective

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

Margaux: Sad to hear about Roger Ebert. I always like reading his sincere reviews and was always impressed when he changed his mind about a movie – sometimes, years later. It’s a pretty rare trait for a critic, or for ANYONE, to say so easily that their first impression of a work might have been wrong or shortsighted. An easy man to like.

The HBO show Enlightened by Laura Dern and Mike White is really good. And is being cancelled – while other shows blossom like tumors on the televisions.

Speaking of shows that got cancelled. I was directed (by curator Tom McCormack) to ‘s video Art Tape: Live With / Think About – a 3 minute video of jovial art appreciation/justification  that opens with a clip from Law & Order: Criminal Intent.  The clip has two police detectives, played by Vincent D’Onofrio and Kathryn Erbe, standing together in a museum, presumably lead to the dirty side of the museum for a murder investigation. When questioned by his partner about what in the world could be redeeming about the art they were seeing, Vincent D’Onofrio explained he wouldn’t necessarily want to live with it, but he would like to think about it. If you haven’t watched Law & Order: Criminal Intent, Vincent D’Onofrio plays a murder detective that drags murder confessions out of people, not by threats or violence, but by making his subjects extremely uncomfortable. The avant garde detective.

Watching that video lead me not to more art, but to more Law & Order: Criminal Intent. I turned one episode on and half an hour later I was looking at Patti Smith’s beautiful face. And I was, what!?  So, yes! you can go to the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto right now to see Patti Smith’s exhibition Camera Solo, or you can go to Law & Order: Criminal Intent. Patti Smith must like that 3 minute video, or the avant garde detective, as much as I do.

Speaking of the AGO, ran into Carl and Chris there recently for the not-to-be-missed opening of Amy Lam and Jon McCurley’s Life of a Craphead Retrospective, an exhibition about all of the work they will ever make. Placards have never felt so true. The show is downstairs in the Education Gallery. The Education wing is always FREE.

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Also at the AGO tonight (April 5) – Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller opening – FREE. 

& a performance by Barbara Hammer – also AGO – NOT FREE.

followed up at TIFF Lightbox tomorrow night (April 6) by a screening of Barbara Hammer’s first feature-length film Nitrate Kisses. The wonderful Alexandra Tigchelaar (Sasha) will be interviewing her live after.

Who else is in the world? – here is everyone

Speaking of the world – Amelia Earhart on marriage

Speaking of leaving the world – a video on astronauts having to come to terms with the perspective developed after having seen Earth from really, really far away. Astronaut Edgar Mitchell on trying to make sense of his feelings – “There was nothing in the science books, nothing in the religious literature that I looked at. So i went to the local university and asked them to help me understand what I saw.” (thanks to Jean Marshall)

Chris: The most heartwarming thing I saw in the past week (aside from those photos of the racist EMT crying) was Danzig’s pro-gay-equality tweet. Henry…

If you never have, this would be a perfect weekend to watch Beyond the Valley of the Dolls:

Carl: In 20 short minutes, the Fits – the Vancouver “vaudeville duet” of Veda Hille and Patsy Klein – render all music equal and potentially infinite. This leg of the journey covers The Ladybug’s Picnic to The Sex Pistols, with stopovers at The Simpsons’ musical of Planet of the Apes (“I hate every ape I see, from chimpan-A to chimpan-Z”) blended with This Monkey’s Gone to Heaven, Springtime for Hitler blended with a Sound of Music medley, the Star Trek theme (now with lyrics!) and the greatest Electric Company ballad ever (“lower-case n”). Play it loud, we’re geeks and we’re proud.

RIP to Roger Ebert. One friend pointed out his elegant 2007 evisceration of Conrad Black. Another the humanity of his 2003 review of Bad Boys II (no kidding), which reminds me a bit of something Margaux would do.

RIP Maurice Silcoff, at 104. “He was one of the last remaining figures of a unique movement in Canadian history: The Jewish labour movement.” With sympathies to his granddaughter Mireille, a writer we know.

Let’s all go to the Getty Research Institute and look at Harry Smith’s stuff!

William Gaddis’s letters: “if you are a writer, they don’t want to buy and print yr writing, but rather a picture and what you eat for breakfast, &c. But then good God! that’s what the book’s about— It’s difficult not to strike a pose, for being ‘eccentric’ enough to try to get across that: What do they want of the man that they didn’t find in the work?”

Legendary California broadcaster Art Laboe on the birth of rock’n’roll and how to kiss on the radio.

Sixty people wish erstwhile jazz/improv enfant terrible John Zorn a happy 60th birthday, including many fellow musicians and composers, poets (“the imagination must keep track of the flesh responding … a slow progression/ it must be beautiful and it can’t be free”), curators, critics, directors, producers and artists and one Yoko Ono.

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Margaux’s Friday Pictures – Kate Wilson

 

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Memories of Memories: Nine Cultural Favourites from 2012

by Chris Randle

As Carl noted last week month, we like our year-end lists untimely here. We also like them extremely long – scrolling backwards now, to the tune of thousands and thousands of words. I don’t mean to abandon that tradition, only to get a little pointillist, and focus on isolated textures, moods, moments. Why the conceit? It was a pleasantly messy 2012. There is no order.

Future, “Same Damn Time”

Motivational rapper and outer space enthusiast Future had such a surfeit of material last year that he was able to release an actually good bonus album, but my favourite song was this ode to multitasking, recorded in an idiosyncratic tone of frustrated triumph. And what’s more integral to hip-hop than polysemy? “I am fluid, mercurial.”

The Clock, by Christian Marclay (2010)

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I saw less than half of Christian Marclay’s celluloid stopwatch during its run at a local gallery, but completism would be missing the point. Spliced together from thousands of film clips that display or mention or unwittingly pun on the moment in time when you see them, The Clock is a mesmerizing totality, grandly incidental. There are countdowns from action movies – the kind of plot hinges that Barthes called a narrative’s “cardinal functions” – and clocks ticking away in the background, details captured accidentally, like fossils. There are ornate towers and eerie chimes and blearily regarded alarms. Marclay’s piece moves in overlapping polyrhythms: amidst the march towards some climactic stroke, one notices little repetitions, hourly patterns, images connected with a nimble cut. People get most excited about noon and midnight, because who doesn’t love a good reckoning?

I didn’t witness either. On Nuit Blanche, I lined up for The Clock well before 12:00 but only got in long minutes after that. In retrospect, though, I think missing the big culmination gave me a greater appreciation of what followed it. Beyond midnight, the film drifts ever further into unreality. Diners and bars grow desolate. Ominous things happen at parties. If people managed to fall asleep at all, they’re woken up by unpromising phone calls. The sex becomes increasingly desperate, and sometimes hotter. Vincent Price puts in multiple appearances. Around 3 or 4 am, harmonizing with its exhausted audience, The Clock turns luridly hallucinatory – I still remember a sequence of impalement via levitating ornamental pyramid. As dawn broke, I jerked my head up from the flicker-lit sofa and saw Margaux crossing the room to relax in front. I left soon afterwards, almost felt like I needed to, to complete the moment. It was as if Marclay’s meticulous, monumental reworking had begun to synchronize the very universe.

Jacob Lusk & The R. Kelly All-Stars at Pop Montreal

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I saw R. Kelly himself last year as well, and while if it was a screening rather than a performance, he did lead the audience in an a capella rendition of “I Believe I Can Fly,” after which we triumphantly ascended into paradise. Several months before that, however, Jacob Lusk left a more lingering mark on me by rescuing Kells from irony. Some subset of the fans who made Trapped in the Closet a mid-2000s Internet phenomenon gave the unsettling impression that they were laughing at its creator, as if a black R&B singer couldn’t possibly tell jokes he was in on. Eschewing that material for earlier cuts such as “Bump N’ Grind,” his pants evoking gaudy temple walls, Lusk paid Chicago’s horniest a giggly respect. The former American Idol contestant even got a very white, very Montreal crowd to two-step. It was fitting that he and his backing band (local indie types) dwelled on their inspiration’s gospel leanings, because the covers set was equally buoyant and reverent.

I Love Dick, by Chris Kraus (published 1997)

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So far I’ve told “our” story twice, late last night, as fully as I could, to Fred Dewey and Sabrina Ott. It’s the story of 250 letters, my “debasement”, jumping headlong off a cliff. Why does everybody think that women are debasing themselves when we expose the conditions of our own debasement? Why do women always have to come clean? The magnificence of Genet’s last great work, The Prisoner of Love, lies in his willingness to be wrong: a seedy old white guy jerking off on the rippling muscles of the Arabs and Black Panthers. Isn’t the greatest freedom in the world the freedom to be wrong? What hooks me on our story is our different readings of it. You think it’s personal and private; my neurosis. “The greatest secret in the world is, THERE IS NO SECRET.” Claire Parnet and Gilles Deleuze. I think our story is performative philosophy.

Not the world’s greatest, but a secret nonetheless: this book is, among other things, really fucking funny.

Shoshanna, woman of Girls

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I think my appreciation of Lena Dunham’s one-woman WPA for cultural writers is more complicated than Carl’s or Margaux’s, but the pinkish anxiety cluster played by Zosia Mamet is one part I do love without ambivalence. Over the course of 2013’s second season, she developed from an innocent-naif caricature into this emphatically self-possessed neurotic, a comic persona that felt entirely new. You could see it in embryo last year, though, when Mamet’s timing was briskest or her awkwardness extra-expressive. I always think of the early scene where she’s watching some shitty reality series called Baggage, and Dunham cheerfully asks what her baggage would be (for that is the conceit of the show), and Shosh replies: “That I’m a virgin…obviously…” So much nervy restiveness in a single adverb.

The Capsule, a film by Athina Rachel Tsangari, 2012

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For its high-fashion fantasy, its juxtaposition of Gothic cruelty and sudden dance sequences, but perhaps most of all for its pompadoured goats. (Hoofed animals are a B2TW year-end-list favourite.)

James Adomian at the Comedy Bar, Toronto

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The list of male standup comedians I can watch talking about gender/sexuality/etc without cringing every few minutes is a lot shorter than the number who’ve made me chuckle at some point, so it was nice to expand the former last year. That’s partly because James Adomian is gay, I’m sure – he has a hilarious bit about homophobic beer ads co-opting straight women for their watery purposes – but not as much as every single profile of the guy suggests. His focus on impressions seems integral, in that he considers famous or  memorable people not only as challenges of mechanical imitation but as cultural signifiers too. Mimicking Sam Elliott, Adomian captured both his laconic rumble and the pantomime of American masculinity it represents. (“He sounds like a dad who ate another dad.”) By the time he reached a virtuosic climax, channeling all the caricatured gay villains he loves – Kaa the python as reptilian Truman Capote, Vincent Price introducing his “curious associate” Raoul – I was laughing so often that it wasn’t really laughter at all, just an open-mouthed ache.

Carly Rae Jepsen, Kiss

The thing about getting involved with somebody from the Internet, as I did more than once last year, is that the situation foregrounds its own absurdities. (I don’t mean Internet dating, which is weird in its own way, just more standardized.) The thing about Carly Rae Jepsen’s album is, not to diminish indelible #1 2012 single “Call Me Maybe” or those sprinting strings, but it has nine other songs that are almost as good. The thing about those tracks was how their liminal relationships and uptempo uncertainty and omens of kisses all matched the cartoon emotions of romance filtered through social media, with its constant yet selective flow. And the thing about “This Kiss” is that it sounds like a marginally less horny “Little Red Corvette.” Before you came into my life I missed you so bad.

Building Stories, by Chris Ware

I mean, look at it:

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A graphic novel is of course much more than its physical dimensions – and less, too, because Building Stories collects a decade of comics into 14 different segments of varying formats and possible configurations. Whatever narrative you form with them, it follows the lives of residents in the titular Chicago edifice, the structure itself, and one neurotic, sexually bipolar boy-bee. The central character is vivid enough to make her wistfulness infectious: a failed artist but fulfilled mother, only occasionally delusional, whose dark humour dwells on her imperfect body. The story she ends up writing is her own, a memoir pieced together from haltingly remembered moments, and I found it so moving that I tried to produce a minor tribute. You’ve just finished reading it.

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Carl’s Tuesday Musics: “March of Greed,” by Pere Ubu, Sarah Jane Morris and Alfred Jarry, video by The Brothers Quay

by Carl Wilson

In honour of the week of Fools, this is from Pere Ubu’s Bring Me the Head of Ubu Roi, adaptation – finally, after nearly four decades – of the Alfred Jarry 1896 grotesquerie that gave the Cleveland proto-punk band its name when it formed in the 1970s. Sarah Jane Morris, who plays Mere Ubu, is formerly of The Communards (“Don’t Leave Me This Way“). The Brothers Quay are of course the American-British brothers best known for Institute Benjamenta.

As says the uber-Ubu, David Thomas: “Whoever you personally think is the Bad Guy – whether you demonize those on the Left or the Right, or everyone In-Between – the Church or the State, Big Business or Big Labor – Père Ubu can supply the face and voice. Ubu is a portrait of the soul of every do-gooder monster.”

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Little Boxes #134: Fire Sprites

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(cover of Frontier #1, by Uno Moralez, 2013)

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