Category Archives: dance

Carl’s Baker’s Dozen of Things He Loved in 2012, Not Previously Discussed Here, in Alphabetical Order

By Carl Wilson

The slogan of B2TW is “Untimely Talk About Culture,” so while we like doing year-end best-of lists, we like to wait a while with them, like till after Chinese New Year so everyone’s more on the same page. Sorry that’s so inconvenient for Christmas shopping. Margaux posted hers last week, Carl’s is today, and Chris’s will be next week. Hope you enjoy.

1. BackStory podcast

I’m pleased this list begins with maybe the geekiest thing on it – what’s more, not produced in any conventional cultural capital but at the University of Virginia.

backstoryThe M.O. of the weekly podcast and public-radio show BackStory is simple: It seizes on a topic in the recent news (or an occasion such as Thanksgiving or the election) and squeezes it through the wringer of American history. The chatty and casual hosts are three UV history professors, the “American History Guys”: “18th-Century Guy,” “19th-Century Guy” and “20th-Century Guy.” The latter has the rawest deal because the other two are kinda automatically fascinating. Though they are all white men, they invite female historians most often as their guest experts and they are highly conscious of the racial dimension of American history, as how could you not be.

Drugs, gun control, voting, infectious disease, the postal service, attempts to control the weather, presidential inaugurations, courtship, public education – just start with whatever most gets your attention. You will find out that colonial Americans were basically drunk all the time and Christmas was illegal. You will fill up your store of “Did you know?” stories for any dull moment in conversation. And you will be trained painlessly in historical thinking: that it was never “ever thus,” that most stories have so many sides that they are smooth ungraspable spheres and that common knowledge is often neither. This should comfort you in the bleakest moments and vice-versa.

2. Borgen, Season 1 (TV series, Denmark, 2010)

 The glut of great Danish television is no secret by now; the country seems to be picking up from HBO’s 2000s in the 2010s. This drama about Birgitte Noyberg, who nearly by accident becomes the first Danish female prime minister (which proved prescient), is tense, enlightened, funny and human. The acting is as good as the furniture and the political analysis better than most journalism. (“Borgen” means “the Castle,” which is what Danes call the main government building.) The episode in which Noyberg has to deal with a scandal in Greenland – which is basically to Denmark what Nunavut is to Canada – treated aboriginal issues more perceptively than I could ever hope for on a Canadian series. It was wrenching.

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3. Dead Authors Podcast, Chapter 12, with Laraine Newman and Paul F. Tompkins

Character comedian Paul F. Tompkins is the single funniest person to hear on any of the endless flood of comedy podcasts that come from L.A. now. I was disappointed at first with this literary-history series, in which the conceit is that H.G. Wells (Tompkins) uses his time machine to kidnap writers from the past (played by other comedians) and interview them in the 21st century. It seemed flat and mumbly early on. But then I heard this episode, with a live audience, and with first-generation Saturday Night Live comedian Laraine Newman impersonating Mary Shelley, discussing feminism and Frankenstein and what pricks the Romantics were. And more recently, the latest one with Jen Kirkman gender-bending into the role of Abbie Hoffman going on endlessly about “pigs.” Again, with a live audience.

It seems difficult to do really good improvisation without an audience or at least more participants – it’s difficult to keep a two-person feedback loop going in a vacuum unless you are Mel Brooks and Carl Reiner, or having sex (or both). In any case I love the tension between mockery and respect here. Kids would get more out of books in school if we told them their writers were not only great but also nuts, and had lives that were amazing and also ridiculous. Just like theirs.

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 4. James R. Gaines, Evening in the Palace of Reason: Bach meets Frederick the Great in the Age of Enlightenment (published 2005)

I’m excited about the upcoming first book by my friend John Shaw in Seattle, which is about the intertwined histories and meanings of the songs This Land is Your Land and God Bless America. He told me many times that Evening in the Palace of Reason is the best book about music he ever read. This summer, I finally started it, on a stay at my friend Julia’s cottage. I read it all night and all day; I don’t think I even stopped to go swimming.

Like John’s book, it’s a double-threaded story: It weaves together the backgrounds of two Prussian dynasties, the Bach family and the Hohenzollern line of rulers, leading of course to J.S. and Frederick the Great, climaxing in the famous “Musical Offering” in which Bach composed a series of ever-more-complex fugues on a theme supplied by the hobbyist-musician king (which Frederick had assumed would be impossible).

You might see why I didn’t rush to read it when John suggested it.

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But it’s about so much more. For one thing Frederick’s father and grandfather were insane assholes – his grandfather, for instance, literally had a collection of “giants,” tall men whom he had abducted from their home villages and held captive so that he could fetishistically enjoy watching them walk up and down the courtyard. The Bachs were strange in a whole other set of ways. And James R. Gaines has the most compulsively readable prose on Earth. But along the way he also makes subtle arguments about the relationships between faith, art and the Enlightenment. I think the implication is that art is a bit like A.A.: It doesn’t have to be a god, but it helps to serve a power higher than the self. 

5. Title cards of Girls, designed by Howard Nourmand

There are many other things I could name to admire about Lena Dunham’s inexhaustibly discussable HBO show – Adam Driver’s performance and character arc is the first to come to mind for me; Margaux pointed out several others – but they all coalesce at the beginning of each episode when after some pungent set-up, the screen clears and we see, for a brief moment, the stark colour-on-colour card that says GIRLS.

It has so many simultaneous pleasures. I can think of one for each letter.

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G: It respects the way we often watch television now, in multi-episode saved-up or downloaded or streamed bunches of episodes, which means you don’t want to sit through some long credit sequence repeatedly. (When I rewatched all of The Sopranos in the early winter – it held up remarkably well by the way – I couldn’t fast-forward through the credits quickly enough, even though I love that theme song.)

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I: Instead it’s like a silent-film title card, a cheap solution, a low-tech necessity. It could be held up on a square of construction paper. Girls does have a silent-comedy feel, if a silent film were really, really talkative; Lena Dunham is a little like Charlie Chaplin, if Charlie Chaplin were naked all the time. It’s a rebuke to the expectation of realism, a tip of the bowler to the potential for farce.

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 R: Of course it’s also a hashtag-style punchline to whatever’s just happened or is about to happen: Hannah is eating a cupcake in the shower? #girls. Shoshana is describing a reality show where people reveal their “baggage” and saying hers would be “that I’m a virgin of course”? #girls. Or, best, Ray and Charlie, rehearsing their stupid indie band, ransack Hannah and Marnie’s apartment and steal Hannah’s diary? #girls. It’s self-deprecating and disarming but simultaneously sardonic, kissing the stereotype off blithely.

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L: It’s oddly soothing and utopian. The colour contrasts pulse like an orb from space or a Brian Eno iPhone app or a pricey sex toy. This goes nicely with the theme music, composed as far as I can figure out by Michael Penn (Sean’s brother btw), which is just slightly more elaborate than the sound your computer makes when it powers up. So it is like the show, like Girls as a technology, is powering up. (On Windows the startup sound was of course itself composed with Brian Eno.)

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S: Finally, there’s also a cumulative effect: The trivial-but-felt suspense of wondering what the colours will be this week. The instant-dopamine rush of familiarity and celebration: Yes, it’s here, it’s on, it’s that time again, the all-too-short season has not ended. And the anticipatory awareness that soon you will be echoing it in some conversation or another: “Did you watch this week’s G I R L S yet?”

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Here’s a nice set of pictures from the designers showing all the stages they went through to get there. I don’t like a single one of them better.

6. Aimee Mann, Charmer

In the past I’ve always liked but perhaps underrated Aimee Mann, former singer for 80s Boston synth-pop band ‘Til Tuesday, married to the aforementioned Michael Penn, and composer of the main music for Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia. I might have compared her unfavourably for instance to Sam Phillips, who makes equally pretty (you’ve likely heard her sighing la-la’s on Gilmore Girls or more recently Bunheads) but more obviously barbed and painful songs. But this album kept resurfacing and insisting on itself, at a time when I wasn’t even listening to that much music.

I liked the theme that runs through it, of either being or dealing with the charming person, who may or may not also be a functional or decent person. I’d become aware that Mann is friends with a lot of comedians I admire, and I could detect a comic knowingness in the voice of her writing, almost as if each piece were a sketch. But most of all, and this is odd because I never say this, it was the craftsmanship of it – the way that each proficient melody was fitted perfectly to the words, and rhyme to rhyme, and structure to theme. It’s like a meal of fresh ingredients perfectly cooked, though there’s nothing exotic about the dishes. Just exquisite care, to be savoured.

Yet you didn’t hear people talk about it the way they talked about, say, Grimes (whose video for Oblivion would be on this list if I hadn’t mentioned it on this site already – I hope it wins the new Prism Prize for Canadian videos next week). This is the curse of the mid-career artist these days and I think even more so the female mid-career artist. That’s the not-so-funny joke behind the Portlandia sketch in which Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein hire Mann as their cleaning lady, keep telling her what big fans they are, but then keep scolding her for how she does the laundry.

It’s good to see her comedy friends helping her out in real life though, as when Tom Scharpling directed the videos for Charmer, including the one for “Labrador,” which remakes shot-for-shot the minor-80s-iconic Til Tuesday video “Voices Carry,” featuring among others Mad Men’s Jon Hamm.

7. Kacey Musgraves, “Merry Go Round” (from the upcoming album Same Trailer, Different Park)

From a veteran singer-songwriter to a great newcomer: My friend Jody Rosen turned me on to the wordplay and emotional wallop of Nashville’s Kacey Musgraves last year – “Merry Go Round” was a minor radio hit this fall, and her first major-label album is just about to come out in March. I had hoped Taylor Swift might mature into this kind of voice as she grew up, which doesn’t really look to be happening. But Musgraves simply begins from there, doing with country music what it often seems only country music can – address white people who have much more to worry about than “white people problems.”

(Or so I say in the middle of this very damn white list. There are a couple of exceptions coming up, but just wanted you to know that, yeah, I see it.)

8. The Music Box: A Shantytown Sound Laboratory, New Orleans

This I mentioned quickly on B2TW in the summer but it deserves note again. You know the old line that writing about music is like dancing about architecture? Here’s the architecture you can dance to. A collective led by street artist Swoon and others turned a set of dilapidated structures (not exactly hard to come by in New Orleans) into a playable, amplified, megaphoned, wind-driven, synthesized, climbable, jammable, avant-gardable, neighbour-kid-interactable structure called the Music Box, on a none-too-affluent NOLA block. It was full of horns you could blow into and weather vanes that played chimes and organs and drums and looping devices embedded in all kinds of crannies. I visited it the last day it was open and wished I could spend many more days there with the local children and teens who were enchanted with it and the vital spirits who built it. Luckily, though it’s over, it’s not over: The Dithyramblina , like the Hacienda, must yet be built.

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9. Eddie Pepitone at the Dark Comedy Festival, Toronto

I could name instead Maria Bamford’s set at the same festival, which was a lot like her amazing special that she performs for just her parents; or Kathleen Phillips volunteering as a foul-mouthed sacrificial “virgin” in a lame Satanic ritual in a Halloween comedy show at Double Double Land, but I have talked a lot about those two hilarious women. Eddie Pepitone was new to me this year. Not sure how that happened, it just did.

And I don’t think I’ve ever laughed so cripplingly continuously – while being moved and politically challenged and thinking about psychoanalysis and the entertainment-industrial complex, and slightly frightened because he would bomb out into the crowd to sit in any empty seat and heckle himself (because who else could heckle him so effectively?) and I had an empty seat beside me – in my life. I could try to repeat jokes to you but that never works. Pepitone also had a very affecting interview on the Marc Maron podcast, talking about his mother’s mental illness and his father’s frustrated ambition and growing up on Staten Island. I’d like to see the documentary about him, The Bitter Buddha.

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10. Jerzy Pilch, My First Suicide, translated by David Frick (Polish 2006, English 2012)

A stroke of serendipity: John Darnielle (aka the Mountain Goats) mentioned Polish novelist Jerzy Pilch on Facebook one day last spring, and I asked him which book he’d recommend. He told me a different one, but literally a day or two later there was a charity book sale at work and this was there for $5. I read it the next weekend on a beach.

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This is basically the biography of the viewpoint character – apparently autobiographical though the deviations are difficult to plot – in linked short stories, in what turns out to be the distinct counterculture of Calvinist Poland – like Garcia Marquez, but with Eastern European dour humour, he creates an entire world.

And then he tears it down, with a crash of vodka bottles, deactivated cellphones and dubious liaisons. The only lesson one could take from it is never grow up.

But it is fiction that is indelibly itself, with a voice that gets right into your duodenum and I will read anything he writes that I can find. The lesson I take from that is, sometimes you get lucky.

11. Three dances on the This American Life live special, The Invisible Made Visible

 Last May the Chicago radio show did a live concert that was simulcast into theatres all over the continent. I couldn’t make it to any of the screenings but I downloaded the show later. There are lots of nice things in it but three great ones, all dances: Ira Glass was inspired to do the show because he sensed his audience would love the blend of virtuosity and clumsy dailiness in the work of choreographer Monica Bill Barnes, but of course he couldn’t put a dance company on the radio. This turns out to have been a very smart instinct: I’m no dance expert but I’ve seldom seen anything (though Toronto choreographer Ame Henderson’s work with Public Recordings comes close) that posed such effective solutions to the issues of the form’s artificiality – an artificiality that we desire because it’s beautiful, but might also find irrelevant because it is rareified. One Barnes dance here was based on audience behaviour at a James Brown concert; the other involved having a lot of cardboard suitcases being stacked by and then thrown at a dancer. (I took it to be about moving house.) They were gorgeous and funny and breathed a recognizable flavour of air. I told a friend they felt like a Trampoline Hall lecture in dance form. I couldn’t take my eyes off them.

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The other dance was by David Rakoff (who was from Toronto by the way) talking about the cancer that cost him the ability to dance, and then doing it anyway. This performance is already kind of famous. He died not long later and a lot of people who didn’t know him are still heartbroken about that, including me.

12. Reggie Watts at the Mod Club, JFL42 festival, Toronto, Sept. 21, 2012

 A continuing theme of the comedy-related items here is that I am not quite sure how to write about them. I can do it in the immediate wake of those experiences, but retrospectively they have an elusive quality. That’s both more and less true of Reggie Watts. In a sense I am on firmer ground with him because he’s also a musician, but what happened in his show was hard to keep track of even while it was happening – he would begin speaking about soda or about some street name he saw that day, and it would become this involuted R&B riff and a keyboard solo and then a falsetto rap about the constellations. He is a virtuoso in a form that doesn’t exist until he creates it, and then demolishes it. Like the best comedy and in a way the best music, it is at once profoundly intellectual and boldly stupid. The best way I can communicate it I think is to let you watch his TED Talk, which also operates very gratifyingly as a demolition job on the whole once-promising and now-bloated phenomenon of the TED Talk.

13. Your Sister’s Sister, a movie by Lynn Shelton, 2012

I guess I didn’t see that many movies in 2012, considering that I have only seen one of the nominees for Best Picture in the Oscars next week. But one that stuck with me is this film written and directed by Lynn Shelton, who made the quizzical but compelling Humpday, also starring Mark Duplass, in 2009. Her ken for sexual farce is carried forward here but into a much darker, sadder place. The funny thing is that there are things terribly wrong with this movie, including at least one chokingly bad and unbelievable twist on which the whole story hinges and a resolution that seems completely pat and again hard to swallow considering the ordeal the film’s just put you through. But the acting and the dialogue in the rest of the film make that completely unimportant. Duplass, Emily Blunt and my current favourite actor in the world, Rosemarie DeWitt, are completely present and incarnate in every frame and every second of their inappropriate triangulation, such that I felt like I was breathing and aching right in rhythm with them. The story is minute and intimate and dwells on the completely central but not-often-enough-grappled-sincerely-with subject of how people can be remotely decent to each other when they need so much and are so basically fucked up from the first dice toss. I almost wonder if the hard-to-credit happy ending is simply a vote on the side of, “Let’s say we can, even if that’s probably a lie, because otherwise, ouch.” Which is a violation of logic and form and honesty that I will take from a movie, if it’s already convinced me we are copacetic. How are you supposed to end a story, anyway? It’s always a feint. True stories don’t really end so much as stop. Like this.

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The Dearth of the Cool: Bunheads, by Amy Sherman-Palladino/ABC Family (2012-13)

by Carl Wilson

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Let’s just say it: The TV series Bunheads, which returned from a five-month hiatus this week, is not cool. Its creator Amy Sherman-Palladino’s previous series, Gilmore Girls, also was not cool. They are frantic and twee, tell not show, lacking all restraint. Unconventional but not transgressively. Awkward about sex. Oblivious about race. Bunheads is on ABC Family for god’s sake, though there isn’t a traditional family anywhere in it.

It’s not a comedy the way 30 Rock is a comedy nor a drama the way Breaking Bad is a drama, nor even a comedy the way Breaking Bad is a comedy, all self-aware and taut and a hundred paces ahead. In the schoolyard smoking area that is smart TV today, it’s not invited. In a way it’s an evolutionary holdover from the stage between network TV and post-Sopranos cable.

That was also the era of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and I think it’s significant that both Sherman-Palladino and Buffy’s creator Joss Whedon were once staff writers on Roseanne. They’re carrying on Roseanne Barr’s project of exploring what role feminism can play in making popular art.

(By the way, did you ever see Whedon’s 2006 speech accepting an award from feminist group Equality Now? Worth the time.)

Roseanne’s was a more realized populism because Barr thought more deeply about class than her younger middle-class protégés would. But their shows strive for populism in a way sophisticated cable shows aren’t trying to do – they don’t seem interested, and they don’t need to be because that’s not their economic model. Those shows need to be cool because cool is what excites the tastemaker, social-media-savvy, dinner-party-going audiences they sell to networks, advertisers and aspiring fellow cable subscribers.

Watching Bunheads can be a reminder that cool takes its own toll.

Sutton Foster’s Michelle, the central character of Bunheads, is a lot like Lauren Graham’s Lorelai, the lead of Gilmore Girls: a witty, mouthy, knockout brunette who at some point has fallen from grace. Lorelai had a daughter born when she was 16; Michelle was a serious dancer whose fuckups reduced her to Vegas showgirl. Ducking out of the life script liberated them to be their own inventions. But as each series opens the women are reaching ages when it’s more difficult to slide by on charm, when what they’ve sacrificed for their originality, whether in income or intimacy, is becoming more painfully clear. It’s like what Elizabeth Wurtzel was addressing in her now-infamous New York Magazine verbal purge, without the crippling entitlement and spotlight syndrome. (Or at least with less.)

Sherman-Palladino’s (henceforth AS-P’s) way to make this very specific kind of dilemma more universally accessible is to surround it generationally: The core of Gilmore Girls was the love triangle between Lorelai, her estranged parents and her daughter Rory. On Bunheads, the triangle is more oblique: Without spoiling too much, in the opening episode she precipitously gains a husband, who is then excised from the narrative as efficiently as the parents in a children’s adventure story. Michelle is left in possession of his California homestead, inhabited by his mother (Kelly Bishop, who also played Lorelai’s mom) and the dance studio where she teaches ballet to apparently every teen girl in town who isn’t a cheerleader (and a few boys).

Thrust upon Michelle, then, are a mother figure and a bunch of surrogate daughters, as she becomes their teacher too. Her quest, just like Lorelai’s, becomes to adapt herself to these mature relationships and burdens without losing her unique spark. As a safety zone for working all that out comedically, on each series AS-P exiles her characters to a Shakespearian “green world” (as Northrop Frye put it) in the form of a quaintly eccentric imaginary small town. The laboriously quirky townie characters are her most gratingly uncool creations, but it’s also a sitcom-populist device that goes back to Andy Griffith’s Mayberry – with the difference that her quirk-arcadias are more or less female-dominated, less matriarchies than perhaps sorarchies. The difference is that by the time we met Lorelai she was a firmly established, beloved figure of Stars Hollow, Conn., while Michelle is, literally, a stranger in Paradise, Calif.

Even more than Gilmore Girls, where Lorelai and Rory’s respective romances took up space from the start, Bunheads is gunning for high score on the Bechdel Test: It features almost no one but women, who do almost nothing but talk to each other, about almost anything other than men. About work, their pasts, ethics, real estate, money, food and most of all about dance. About the pain and strain it extracts. About what’s worth doing for it, and about what would be dumb to do. It stands not so much for art as for geekily driven self-realization: Only one girl shows clear dance-career potential, and it distances her from those for whom the gratification is shorter-term, though it gives her a special link to her ex-pro teachers.

The young cast make credible student dancers although I suspect they’re all sneakily more expert, and for a show about ballet there’s a decent range of body and character types. Like Lorelai’s, a lot of Michelle’s jokes have to do with her gluttony, which in both cases would require superhuman metabolisms but is a lot more refreshing in this context than bulimia – Bishop’s matriarchs are left to do the shuddering and criticizing (though her character here is way less uptight, way more post-hippie west coast than Emily Gilmore).

When they are not talking they’re often dancing, but the dance sequences are held back from becoming production numbers, kept just amateurish enough, a casualness that actually makes them better. Even in this bigger setpiece, for instance:

Compared with Glee or Smash, this seems partly a choice to be female instead of camp. Not that it’s not campy, but it ain’t drag. In fact the way AS-P’s shows skirt queerness can be disconcerting; maybe here is the downside of populism. But perhaps it’s also a way of keeping the eye on girlhood and womanhood, insisting they’re complex enough in themselves, without being distracted by something shinier and “more interesting” – even if that means excluding certain experiences of girlhood and womanhood. AS-P’s shows are vulnerable to a lot of the same criticisms that were directed at Girls last year, with fewer aesthetic outs. (Though what they do have is age diversity.)

None of this means you would like and should watch Bunheads. If it weren’t for my general weaknesses for faux-screwball-comedy pacing and teen (especially teen girl) drama I might not watch it, either. The first season has just resumed after five months’ hiatus and it may well be too geeky to make it to a second. There’s no question that Breaking Bad, Mad Men, Homeland and many of the other post-Sopranos, post-Arrested Development shows that we’ve been lucky to watch in the past decade have greater dramatic and comic scope, have deeper existential, psychological and philosophical strains, and are more compelling viewing.

But their aims and their economics dictate that they will lean to the dark, the odd, the sexually outré, the violent, the startling. That leaves a lot out, or at least relegates many of the perplexities of life to subplots and subtexts, or to allegory at best. (I exempt Girls and Louis here, though not altogether.)

Many of those plotlines particularly shortchange women, despite their creators’ best intentions – or at least reduce the feminist point to “and the women get fucked over,” all too literally. Think of Joan on Mad Men last season.

Before Bunheads, I might have guessed that Sherman-Palladino would attempt to join the lionized “better than the movies” TV crowd. Maybe she’s not up to it, or maybe she didn’t like what it would have demanded.

Instead she’s kept the lamplight burning in her fantasy town with its mirrored room where girls take up and trade positions, mangled toes concealed, bleeding and keeping on smiling, with the idea that perhaps something in this move, or the next, will be a clue to what they need. Perhaps a grace not learned and submitted to but earned and commanded. A grace the new wave of TV, in many ways, has yet to know.

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Robert Wilson and Philip Glass, “Bed” from “Einstein on the Beach” in Toronto, June 9, 2012

by Carl Wilson

 Einstein on the Beach had been kind of a legend to me my whole post-adolescent life. I don’t know where I first stumbled on references to it, but it must have been in connection to the New York artists I was so taken with in my teens, people like David Byrne and Laurie Anderson, who either collaborated later with its principle creators or simply bore the marks of the downtown aesthetic of which it was, at least in scale, kind of an apotheosis when the opera premiered in 1976.

At some point I got the boxed vinyl set of recordings – not sure if I owned it or if it came from the library and I taped it. But I spent a lot of time listening to a choir singing “1-2-3-4, 1-2-3-4, 1-2-3-4-5-6 …” and wondering what kind of stage production could be represented by the few photographs I’d seen, in which people stood in matrices of illuminated boxes doing cryptic actions, or seemed to be caught mid-way while falling in perfect unison out of chairs.

It seemed, with all the kinds of abstract theatre and dance and music I embraced later, as if it was the influence on my tastes that I knew the least about. So it was self-consciously an Event when decades later, last weekend in fact, I finally had the chance to see a production of it in person, as part of Toronto’s Luminato festival.

The production as a whole, all five hours of it, does turn out to defy speculation and certainly description. There’s something naive and hokey about it, on one level, with its Atom Bomb-panic themes, its Kafkaesque trial scenes, its Happening-style everyday-life importations, its use of big broad gestures and the Einstein iconography and even a little message about peace and love at the end, carefully framed with ironic distance just in case. There’s also an incredible discipline and rigour to it, whether in the performer-punishing repetition of the singing and movement or in the great tableaux and stage-paintings and feats of theatrical craft it builds out of what are, by 2012 standards, crude techniques. It’s the kind of theatre that seems in its spectacular visuality to be trying to compete with cinema until you recall that it’s actually happening in front of you, being carried out by bodies and voices and objects in motion. You can’t think about it too much or it seems too exhausting, as if you are almost complicit in an abuse.

The producers try to ease some of that tension, and the anxiety that afflicts people when they’re told they’re going to be confined to a tight dark space for five hours, by saying that spectators are free to come and go, whenever they please, to stretch or go to the can or get drinks or just get out for a while. And even though this does involve a lot of being climbed over by your seat neighbours or people standing up in front of you or wandering around lost in the aisles, the spirit of non-coercion does seem significant, a delineating line between this “new” High Art and the old (though of course if you go back far enough in official opera history to when it was itself a popular art, people were even more shockingly informal, eating and talking and shouting at the stage). But the most pleasurable thing about the option to leave was, to me, that it made staying, never rising from the seat or even taking my eyes off the stage for more than a couple of seconds, also seem like a very voluntary choice.

Because staying, and watching, and listening, and watching, and listening, turns out to be the way this piece works. This meditation on time and transport and technology reveals itself, elegantly and lightly mysteriously, as its own technology of transport and time. By about halfway through, I no longer had any idea how long I had been in the auditorium or how much longer I would be, and I no longer cared. The production is so full of small things done very slowly and again and again, and like the machinery of the industrial-to-post-industrial age that is its subject to the degree that it has one, the effects of these small things repeated and repeated proves cumulatively to be kind of monumental. I am not a person who is very capable of just watching, not thinking, not distracting myself – few people are, perhaps fewer and fewer. But that was what watching Einstein finally found me liberated to do, by this sympathetic collaboration between it and me.

Different viewers will have varying highlights. By far the most unforgettable scene to me was “Bed,” the halfway point in the final act. In it, what looks like a pillar of light but is actually the illuminated side of a huge bed on a pitch-black stage rises by millimetres from a flat position until it is perpendicular, levering gradually gradually gradually upward. Then, when it is perpendicular it begins rising straight up until it disappears into the flies above. Meanwhile a soprano sings a wordless aria to the relentless trilling of an electric organ. That is all that happens for what the score tells me is about 12 minutes but easily seemed like an hour. I was transfixed the whole time. When it started going straight up I almost cheered, saying to myself, “Thank god! I was hoping it would do that!” And when the last few inches of light vanished above the proscenium I came very close to bursting into tears.

So on some level this show had rendered me kind of crazy, like someone who believes he’s having a love affair with an inanimate object, or at least infantile, like a child upset at the disappearance of the object (the phallus? the excrescence?) in a game of peekaboo. But what I was really having was just a very heightened experience of the passage of time and the arrangement of space. The kind certain hallucinogenic drugs produce. The kind that we have evolved pointedly not to have because it is a completely impractical relationship to have with the physical world. But the kind where everything feels lit up (this show is completely okay with being very literal).

Some part of me felt like I had spent 40 years watching various kinds of art, and that the human race had spent millennia learning how to make it, just so we could figure out our way to this point, where (to quote David Byrne out of context) we can “imagine that nothing at all could be so exciting, could be so much fun.”

I wondered too if my responses have something to do with being a child of the 1970s, like the show is. Watching the ridiculously entertaining long white line made me feel as if finally, after waiting all my life, I was achieving my 4-year-old dream of being inside one of those jazzy animations from Sesame Street, where a shape or a letter or a number just dances its heart out, or perhaps its infinitely repeatable and recontextualizable philosophical essence out, for your delight. “1-2-3-4, 1-2-3-4, 1-2-3-4-5-6. … ”

Six! Six! Six! Six! Let’s sing a song about six! How many is six?

Yes, and how sol-fa is a soprano? How tall is light? How few is a monolith? How bright is darkness? How long is five hours? How far is a century? And what needs to happen in the relationship between the observed and the observer to let us sound out those questions without asking the story to at least lie up an answer? Relatively little, relatively everything.

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Filed under carl wilson, dance, music, visual art

Teach Me How to Boogie Guest Post: Beyonce vs De Keersmaeker

by Amelia Ehrhardt

In October of 2011, more than a dozen of my Facebook friends posted a video called “Split Screen Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker and Beyonce Knowles”, a video highlighting the similarities between Beyonce’s video for “Countdown” and many of de Keersmaeker’s films. I typically fall into the internet outrage trap easily, and this was an extreme example. I’d studied this film in university – de Keersmaeker is a well-known dance choreographer – and while I initially hesitated about how much Beyonce could have stolen, I realized pretty immediately that the answer was “pretty much everything.”

Rosas Danst Rosas was first choreographed for stage in 1983, when de Keersmaeker was only 23 years old. It was one of de Keersmaeker’s earliest choreographies, one that is still performed by the company. The piece was created in close collaboration with the musicians Thierry de Mey and Peter Vermeersch, and, like much of her earlier work, deals explicitly with female sexuality and experience without necessarily being about feminism. The film version, directed and shot in 1996 (also by Theirry de Mey) expands on the original piece’s choreography and concept. I spent about five minutes while watching it just trying to figure out how the dancers were counting one section of choreography (I finally figured it out as four, five, four, three, five: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zS_kWttptS4).

That same meticulousness exists in the editing: the repeated cutting between shots manages not to be overwhelming or muddy, as the specific movements are matched up frame by frame – each shot follows the one before it, until right after the film’s courtyard scene. The precision that had existed before, in all elements of the work, breaks down here to make space for a surprisingly stark ending.

The work presents a take on women that was striking and risky at the time of its creation. Viewed now, and perhaps even in 1996 when the film was shot, many of its feminist stances could seem kitschy or demoralizing, but the repeated gesture of taking off the shirt, exposing the shoulders, and putting it back on again describes what is to me an important problem in dance around women and women’s bodies. In a field vastly dominated by women, men still hold the majority of leadership positions and are more likely to receive funding: in 2005, the Dancer Transition Resource Centre reported that 71% of professional dancers in Canada were female, yet 10 out of the group’s 15 associated companies were under male artistic directorship. Dance Theatre Workshop in the States notes that “in 2000, of the 18 modern dance choreographers who received grants from the National Endowment for the Arts, 13 were men”. The men received a total of $200 000 with a typical grant of ten grand, and the women received a total of $45 000 with a typical grant of five thousand dollars.

The life and work of a dancer is taxing and difficult, and the problems around the female body in dance are numerous and notorious. With so many men running the show, I have to wonder how much longer we can ignore these issues. Skimpy costumes on women and rampant eating disorders, coupled with lower rates of pay for the same work, paint a depressing picture of women’s complicated place in the dance community, and yet in 1983 de Keersmaeker was presenting work, as a young female choreographer, where women exposed themselves, “exploited” themselves. Suddenly this gesture of exposing the shoulder seems to me pretty radical. This work predates Madonna and riot grrrl, and though it comes after two “waves” of feminism and a number of strong women asserting themselves and their sexuality – Wendy O. Williams and Sylvia Robinson come to mind – not many of the women who took a more aggressive stance reached the point of critical acclaim that Rosas did.

The film version’s resemblance to a music video stands out for me now – I have tried to learn some of the choreography and remembered sections of it in a vocabulary that almost seems more commercial, more hip-hop than anything else. It’s a rare instance in dance when I feel like an all-female cast is a specific choice to say something meaningful about female sexuality or the place of women in the professional dance community, as opposed to just a reflection of available collaborators. Grabbing their own breast, taking off the shoulder of their shirts, and writhing slightly all fit into the larger vocabulary of pedestrian movement, released arms, and a mind-bogglingly precise relaxation. Complicated floorwork and athletic throws are juxtaposed with flirtatious looks from the women.

Despite the commentary the work makes, it isn’t just about gender and sexuality for me. My first reaction to the piece was actually that it must be about anxiety or obsession, based on the preoccupation that seems to have a hold on the dancers throughout. Finding out that this film version was shot and edited by a man, I have to admit, changed things a bit for me, however much I’m keeping myself satisfied by believing that de May, as a longtime collaborator of de Keersmaeker’s, worked with and understands her vision for the work. There’s also, I think, a difference between this male gaze, and the one that follows contemporary female pop singers.

Contemporary pop stars like Beyonce. In 2011, her music video for “Countdown” was released to an immediate fury of online sharing. It didn’t take long for dance nerds everywhere to notice the obvious lifting of choreography, costumes, set, and timing (so pretty much everything) from de Keersmaeker’s work. Beyonce is not new to plagiarism charges – earlier in the same year she was accused of stealing some moves from Lorella Cuccarrini at the Billboard Music Awards. The director of the video for “Countdown,” Adria Petty, claims to have brought different “inspirational sources” to Beyonce to use in the video, and, in her words, “believe it or not, many of them were German modern dance references”.

The distinction between Germany and Belgium notwithstanding, there’s a thin line between inspiration and plagiarism that anybody on the Internet is familiar with. Any 14-year-old with a Mac and Photobooth is capable of creating Warhols. Webcomic creators everywhere are plagued with random Internet users taking frames from strips and using them as Facebook profile pictures, showing how much they identify with the sentiment of “clean all the things”. A million memes of Sgt. Pike pepper-spraying some kids are now floating around the aether, with no sense of who the original creator might be. Does anybody know who created LOLcats?

In this sense, it’s hard to accuse Beyonce of plagiarism – after all, this wonderful modern world makes it easy to “plagiarize” anything. In December 2011 I screened de Keersmaeker’s film with no permission to do so. If you want a copy of the DVD you can download it, just like I did. There’s even evidence to suggest that “borrowing” in dance work is just the reality of what we do – the neurological activity of watching and performing movement is identical, which, coupled with the fact that learned movements patterns are stored in the long-term memory, suggests the possibility of kinesthetic memory triggering at any given moment.

This problem of originality is a sort of obsession for me. I’ve had the call for “original movement vocabulary” shoved down my throat so much in my training as a choreographer that when I actually started reading neurocognitive studies on movement creation and found that “muscle memory” is a real thing, I was thrilled to be free from the burden of making unique stuff. But this doesn’t mean, in my mind, that we can now run around stealing other people’s choreography because our somatic mindbody memory made us do it. Rather, I think of this as more of a call to dance artists everywhere for academic honesty – let’s just acknowledge our training, our prior collaborators, and choreographers we’ve worked for as being the source for all our own movement. Beyonce’s video may be a poor example of this. Somatic mindbody memory doesn’t force you to copy someone’s costumes and sets.

It’s not just the one film that Beyonce ripped here, either. The entire movement vocabulary in “Countdown” is a lift from something else. When asked about the clip, Beyonce is quoted as saying: “Clearly, the ballet Rosas danst Rosas was one of many references for my video ‘Countdown.’ It was one of the inspirations used to bring the feel and look of the song to life…I was also paying tribute to the film Funny Face with the legendary Audrey Hepburn .” She later added: “My biggest inspirations were the ’60s, the ’70s, Brigitte Bardot, Andy Warhol, Twiggy and Diana Ross…I’ve always been fascinated by the way contemporary art uses different elements and references to produce something unique.”

My own perspective on the matter of lifting and inspiration is muddy. I don’t particularly care about originality, and I’m not bothered when I see dance work whose movement vocabulary shows clear influence from another choreographer. I actually think that rules. I draw the line around this when a work of art that’s seminal in its field but little-known outside of it is lifted without any credit or sourcing, in a product that will make someone who is already incredibly successful that much more wealthy. It would’ve been pretty exciting to me if this video had gently referenced de Keersmaeker, or given the occasional subtle nod to Rosas Danst Rosas. I have personally done the exact same thing, with the exact same piece of choreography – I find it hard not to, given its importance. I also know that sampling is integral to the realm of music Beyonce is working in, and often practiced without any reference, citation, or recognition. To be honest, I don’t know how to reconcile that: after all, this video is just another sample.

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Friday Pictures – Adam Yauch, Fight For Your Right (Revisited) video, full length / Beastie Boys

 

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Filed under dance, Friday Pictures, movies, music, TV/video, visual art

List of mostly good things, big and small, that I can remember from the world in 2011 – in order of rememberance

by Margaux Williamson

1. Remembering what a brilliant idea feels like –  Occupy Wall Street

It was a simple and brilliant idea – that people could “occupy” a space in addition to protesting it, that the power and action could be contained and directed inward to make something new, rather than all thrown at an opponent (where it often just falls uselessly at their feet).

It made me think of something that the physicist Lee Smolin wrote in his 2006 book The Trouble with Physics.  In the book he attempts to untangle the genuinely revolutionary ideas in contemporary physics from the ones that might be time-consuming dead-ends. To begin this untangling – and to help identify the promising theories from the dead-end ones – he looks for the commonality and rules that past genuinely revolutionary scientific ideas share.  Some of the rules, for instance, involved simplicity, uniqueness, immediate impact on other related problems and, also, that once you truly understand the genuinely brilliant scientific idea, you can’t (for the life of you) see the world in the old way again.

Coming from the arts, where words like “genius” are flung around just as often in hopeful declarations as in certainty, and where the term avant-garde more often than not describes a genre from the past rather than anything new (or involves an isolated “newness” that doesn’t in the least impact anything else), I had been very attracted to thinking that truly brilliant ideas have a natural order to them and clearly identifiable nature. Because this natural order seemed so comforting when I first read it, I had wanted to apply it (however unwisely) to everything. Though I simultaneously thought that such rules could never apply to something genius like the civil rights movement where the struggle is so long and complicated and where it can take forever to invert people’s world view.

But seeing the simplicity and brilliance of this protest shift on Wall Street made me remember to be more humble in my thinking of what is a truly brilliant idea – that of course in a movement hoping to get somewhere new,  a lot of genuinely revolutionary ideas, thinking and actions are essential along the way.  Maybe it is just easy to forget all of the brilliance because the better the ideas are, the more quickly they become obvious to everyone – as though they had never been invented or discovered in the first place.

I remember awhile ago at a talking tour I had given for Ryan Trecartin’s work at the Power Plant Gallery here in Toronto, I had been asked by someone in the audience (who was skeptical of the brilliance of Trecartin’s work) if the work would still be important in 100 years. I had said – I hope not! I said, I hope it’s such useful work for understanding our time that we’ll completely absorb it into culture and forget that what this artist knew and could express was ever separate from what we knew and what we could express. I said that’s probably why I never thought Picasso was so special – his work probably actually worked, it probably impacted and was absorbed by culture by the time I came around. At which point I was like, duh.

2. Music videos – Beyoncé and The Beastie Boys change things

Beyoncé’s song Run the World (Girls) has given me at least two solid waves of power goosebumps. In the beginning of the song Beyoncé authoritatively sings Girls! we run this motha ___ (yeah!). To me, it sounded like the censors had taken the fucker out of mothafucker and that She is singing Girls! we run this mothafucking (world). You hear this suggested adjective while simultaneously also hearing that it was only ever motha – motha the noun, that the Girls are running the motha (the world). Motha (in a second) suddenly becomes more powerful and crazy than motherfucker ever was or could be. Mothafucker has always been a real challenge – it has such weight. But here Beyoncé brilliantly and effortlessly handed the sinister and seductive weight over to something both more ominous and familiar. Re-appropriation at it’s best. Also (and as usual) the dancing is amazing.

Before watching the 2011 30 minute video written and directed by Adam Yauch Fight For Your Right (Revisited) Full Length (the sequel the Beastie Boys1987 music video (You Gotta) Fight for Your Right (To Party!) I watched the original 1987 music video first. I was surprised at how incredibly slow the original felt. It made me think that things in 1987 must have been ever slower than the video since I had remembered the video as being very exciting.  The new one – inexplicably filled with famous actors and comedians – is weighty and strangely fast-feeling for it’s 30 minute length and heavy use of slow motion. The video takes the original premise (of reckless partiers) and simply makes it more real. A more reality-based representation of destruction and stupidity turns out to be incredibly captivating and frightening. After 30 mintues, it is hard to know where the time went but you want to watch it again – this also happens to be the gist of the narrative.  More movies from Adam Yauch!

*It is worth watching to the end credits – Seth Rogen walking down the street in slow motion as the credits role is somehow better than any cartoon I have ever seen.

3. THE CLOCK, a 24 hour movie in real time constructed by Christian Marclay

Congratulations to Christian Marclay for making a great piece of art that would even move and intellectually simulate aliens with superior minds who might be shamefully ignorant of our small and complicated art world. This 24 hour movie is comprised of clips, taken from a million different movies, that all feature some indication of the actual time. The clips from these other time/spaces correspond exactly to the real time of the audience watching.

If you haven’t seen it, Zadie Smith wrote a beautiful piece on it here, and Jerry Saltz here. It is simple and big and makes you think of the strangeness of time. You can see a little piece of it on Youtube, though for instance, this clip has the thoughtful request: In order to respect the concept of Christian Marclay’s work, spectators are kindly requested to play this video at 4 pm, local time. If time is passed, please wait for tomorrow or another day same time. Thank you.  I hope Marclay puts this work on a 24-hour-moving website soon. This one shouldn’t be hoarded by real space. The aliens need to see this.

4. The Hunger Games – the trilogy by Suzanne Collins

This was recommended to me this year by a lot of tough 12 year old boys. The scenario doesn’t sound exactly promising -“Set in a future where the Capitol selects a boy and girl from the twelve districts to fight to the death on live television” – but the young adult books are very serious and very pleasurable. The story is about how a revolution begins.  In the book, the main instigators for revolution are a tough teenage girl with a bow and arrow, a cool-headed adult fashion designer and a sensitive son-of-a-baker who paints. Of course me and the 12 year old boys loved it.

5. Thank you for television – True Blood and Whale Wars

I was housebound for a good part of 2011 with health problems which led me to watch a lot of television which led me to want to write a letter to the makers of True Blood and thank them – except then I remembered I wasn’t 11 years old. (The houseboundness accounts for my heavy-on-pop-culture list this year). I started watching True Blood after being compelled by a perplexing video that Snoop Dogg (who often shows up in various seemingly random screens around the screen world – maybe to tell us that those screens are real, or that he is real, or simply to help identify that the screens we see him in are from the time of now).

The best thing about True Blood (based on the books by Charlaine Harris and created for television by Alan Ball) is the full insertion of these fantasy characters – vampires, faeries, werewolves – into a reality-based narrative where vampires have to fight for equal rights and where werewolves haven’t yet come out of the closet. This is the only way I can enjoy fantasy, when it is firmly but campily tied to the ground. It is funny when a vampire never lies about being a vampire. The second best thing about the show is that it is more emotionally intelligent than usual,  with bad vampires and good vampires, bad Christians and good Christians. The bad vampires often become good and vice versa. And like life, it is the rule that the best (or at least most tolerable) characters occasionally partake in some healthy self-hatred.

I would alternate between this show and Animal Planet’s Whale Wars  which my friend Steve Kado had brought over. It’s a documentary television show about environmental pirates battling Japanese whaling ships in order to try and save the whales. If you are also sick, I highly recommend watching these shows together – a near real-life (and dream) simulation.

Best single episode of television this year – the Louis episode where he goes to Afghanistan
In this episode of the show Louis, Louis C.K. travels to Afghanistan to perform his comedy act for the American troops. But while there he finds himself to be (for all narratively practical reasons and with the help of an American cheerleader, a group of Afghan locals and a duckling) suddenly a real clown, with actual white face paint, with everyone around him laughing. It was a brilliant shift for what a contemporary comedian can be – far from (but logically connected to) the standard boring shock-talk of cable comedy specials. Thank you Louis C.K. for making everyone laugh and for trying to end a small piece of the violence with some good self-humiliation.

6. Melancholia



Speaking of learning how to see oneself as both good and bad, Lars Von Trier seemed to have opened up like a flower this year to mixed results. He was banned from France’s Cannes Film Festival after a misstep at a press conference. It involved Von Trier’s half hearted and confused attempt to make jokes while also maybe trying to say that it might be just as useful for the world to occasionally identify with a monster as it is to identify with a victim. He was inarticulately crossing into dangerous terrain for the delicate people of earth for sure, but getting banned suddenly made France (or at least the Cannes Film Festival) seem like a television show for children.

In a funny way, it was as though Von Trier was being more confused and open himself – less in wry attack mode and more just trying to survive and communicate.  Or maybe it was that this feeling was very apparent in his latest feature – Melancholia. Often, the stories for his movies involve a darkly funny punch line with the generosity and depth of his vision reserved for the politics of his structural and aesthetic choices – embedded in every inch of his works.

But in Melancholia the story is more searching and seems more like a story he needs to tell himself than he needs to tell to others. This makes Melancholia feel like one of his deepest works – or at least certainly the most generous. What we need to tell ourselves is often more complicated than what we think the world needs to hear. And the story doesn’t suffer for this searching – the small but piercing details that connect together a story here resonate deeper – they are the kind of details from our own lives that we grasp together and attempt to make stories out of. When the main character Justine (Kristen Dunst) says passionately and convincingly – in a conversation she is having with her sister regarding  her wishful certainty that the evil world will end – “I know things”,  we feel both in the heart of the only possible meaning one could find in life and also completely lost. It is the attempt at stories that is heartbreaking here –  the paradox of making meaning while telling a story of meaninglessness.  One of the nicest things that a human could do.

7. Biography & autobiographies big and small

I read a lot of these books this year. They all seemed to fall into one of two categories – feeling very claustrophobic and depressingly small or feeling very big – even when the facts of the lives  presented didn’t seem very different.  The most fun big-feeling one was John Water’s book Shock Value that my friend Lynn Crosbie gave me. I somehow had never read this before even though I love him. The healthy, generous, positive and curious mind evident in this book is a good reminder of where a lot of great art comes from. It’s hilarious to hear him describe how great everyone was during his Mondo Trasho days, from the local priest to the owner’s of the hair salon he accidentally flooded in a film shoot. Clearly, he is a very easy man to get along with.

Sempre Susan, a short and pleasurable book about Susan Sontag written by Sigrid Nunez, also fell into the bigger category – even though I came to it because it was being passed around gleefully on a summer cottage trip after its original owner described it as a high-class gossipy People magazine article. And though this description was true, the book also is also simple and quiet and good with lots of room to move around in and take things in.  The space it allowed me made me think of Sarah Manguso’s book The Two Kinds of Decay  a beautiful memoir detailing a prolonged illness the author suffered. The two books are similar mainly in that both writers were writing about something they were so entwined in without bothering to mention in any great detail their own fraught feelings or inner turmoil, even as their presence was right there next to you the whole time. The resulting powerful intimacy of both books reminds us that for finding love, excessive emotional transparency might not be the way, but you do probably have to get naked.

8. Movie directors waving their hands in front of the camera

I saw Moussa Touré’s Poussieres de ville in a program of short works curated by Jean-Marie Teno called Reframing Africa 1: Representation or Reality?.  In Touré’s movie, we first see young boys wake up in odd positions in various stalls at an empty market. The work is immediately playful and visually compelling which makes it a bit hard to tell off the bat if it is a fiction or a documentary exactly. As the work progresses, questions start to come from behind the camera, asking the boys more specific questions regarding their homelessness. Near the end of this 52 minute work, hands emerge to offer clothes and new backpacks. And then, with even more presence but also more uncertainty, the hands deliver the kids each to separate relations who may or may not look after them. I am very sympathetic to this solution – you do the best you can with the information you have before you.

Documentary movie-making can have some pretty crazy and uptight rules. It was great to see a director allow themselves to be a logical human participant in relation to the complicated subject matter before them, and to react in the best way they knew how – rather than a director who thinks that their objective distance is useful (or even possible). In Poussieres de ville, high-minded silliness was abandoned for deceptively simple thoughtfulness.


Werner Herzog’s engagement with subject came out too in his recent Into the Abyss; A Tale of Death, A Tale of Life . He introduces himself  to a young prisoner on death row before he begins an interview with him. Herzog says to the young man (in essence): I am sympathetic to your situation, I feel for you and your situation – and that doesn’t mean that I have to like you, but I am sympathetic.

This scene made me think of an art movie I had coincidentally watched the day before with my friend Amy Lam at University of Toronto’s Justina M. Barnicke Gallery. It was a work from Dutch artist Renzo Martens called Enjoy Poverty. Enjoy Poverty is comprised of footage from Martens time spent in the Congo. His intentionally simplistic and painfully committed approach – that involved his desire and attempt to help people in poverty by getting them to consider their poverty as a commodity to sell – was conceptually smart and tight. But unfortunately,  the director’s character feels like all cruel fiction (to prove a point) and the world he is engaging with that feels like all fact. So as you see him engage with yet another poor local, saying something intentionally naive and stinging (he is committed!) it very often looks like the local is doing their best not to cry. I am guessing we (the audience) were supposed to feel like villains alongside the director, but we feel like the victims too.

I love art that engages with the reality of the world and that uses persona, specifically the persona of the director, to create a story. Even better, sometimes, if the director generously plays the villain.  But I always think it’s most interesting when there is fact and fiction mixed together in a persona – it is always much less like a cartoon and always more strange. Watching Enjoy Poverty  made me think of a Hollywood comedy that I really understood, Tropic Thunderspecifically a scene where one of the actors playing another actor talks to one of the other actors while they are doing some acting in the jungle. The wiser actor tells the other actor (in regards to winning Oscars), “Everybody knows you never go full retard man. .. never go full retard. You don’t buy that? Go ask Sean Penn 2001, I Am Sam, remember? Went full retard. Went home empty handed.”

Herzog is an expert at being comfortable with (or intrigued by) his subjects’ discomfort on film – and with his booming voice coming from behind the camera, he often doesn’t see so far off from a villain. But in this scene where he introduces himself to the young man, you see the complications and bravery involved in being a real human – even one who is playing.

Apart from all that, Into the Abyss is also deceptively simple and full of enormous depth. Part of its success (apart from the incredible storytelling craft evident in the way the questions were asked and how the editing was done) is in the equal time that Herzog gives to everyone involved in the execution: a sister of one of the murder victims, a brother of the other, the accused murderer’s collaborator, the collaborator’s wife, the minister at the prison, the executioner, etc. The suffering of the executioner was particularly eye opening. The story that emerges from these subjects (especially in relation to the various generations involved) hints at something old and sinister and alive – something even more chilling the calm facade of one psychopath.

9. Helen DeWitt’s Lightning Rods


Helen DeWitt’s novel feels like a Kafka fable written by a friendly can-do American from the future who filled it, using a confident steady-hand, with insane pornography, solid jokes and an optimistic (or chilling) matter-of-factness about dealing with people not as they should be, but as they are. I wish this book was small enough to allow for teenagers to keep it in their back pockets. DeWitt received a lot of accolades for her first novel “The Last Samarui”, but the deceptively simple and strangely clear Lightning Rods is, in my opinion, the real masterpiece.

10. Rise of the Planet of the Apes


Instead of the desert, in this Planet of the Apes, we have the lush and moist San Francisco. That, right off the bat, makes this Planet of the Apes infinitely more watchable. Also the more ape-like and less human-like apes, makes it infinitely less creepy. But the strange and exciting this about this movie, apart from the  AWESOMENESS THAT ONE DESIRES FROM A GREAT HOLLYWOOD MOVIE, is that it’s less a metaphor for human rights than it is actually about animal rights. Sitting in the audience at the multiplex, it seemed suddenly like the first Hollywood blockbuster I had ever seen that dealt seriously with animal rights. These monkeys represented monkeys! It can take awhile, but eventually you’ll get a crazy story right.

11. Songs and paintings

I came across the book 1000 paintings while I was staying at my friends Jean and Mic’s place in Thunder Bay (the book had been a gift). I hadn’t seen anyone in a few weeks and somehow, as a leisure activity, I had a great time looking at every single painting in sequence. This painting from Maruyama Ōkyo was my favourite. True Blood television enriched my love for Neko Case’s song  Wish I was the Moon. It does what most good songs do – makes your bad feelings seem useful.  And Efrim Menuck’s album Plays “High Gospel”, which first caught me with the beautiful song I Am No Longer a Motherless Child, proved to be good company when I went back to work making paintings – a good album if you need to get to a deeper place  fast  – and are too tired to go alone.

ALSO *My boyfriend Misha Glouberman and my best friend Sheila Heti wrote a great book called The Chairs Are Where the People Go – that I am perhaps too close to to add to my year end list, but luckily The New Yorker added it to theirs.

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Filed under books, comedy, dance, literature, margaux williamson, movies, music, TV/video, visual art

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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Teach Me How to Boogie #5: DJ Chipman

by Chris Randle

My family’s elderly dog died this week, which hasn’t allowed me much time to post, so here’s a brief edition of Teach Me How to Boogie. The music in the clip above was made by DJ Chipman, a Florida producer I know almost nothing about beyond the fact that he’s working in a booty-laden Miami bass context.

I like the wall of speakers and the kid who coyly shoves his pants in his pockets before getting down, but the most interesting thing about this style is how little the dancers’ legs shift around. Perhaps it’s the choreographic equivalent of improvising over a steady groove, a bodily inversion of bounce moves. The participants resemble malfunctioning robots. I also like that they apparently shot this in a random playground, no big deal: of the club but not in it.

(Via Dave Quam)

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10 Things I Liked in 2010 (Singles, Supervillains, Socialism)

by Chris Randle

[I totally lifted this concept from Greil Marcus as well. My list is unranked and impulsive to the point of randomness; I avoided writing about anything I’ve already touched on at B2TW. And now, all hedges and caveats aside…]

1. Yeahhhhhhh

John Seroff’s epic Singles Jukebox blurb is a beautiful consideration of “Whip My Hair,” but to me the clip below embodies this ultra-processed, aggressively silly song. What’s more absurd, more galvanic in its absurdity, than a weak-voiced nine-year-old touting their “swag” and finally managing to convince? A parrot dancing to the same track! I can only assume that the lone Youtube user who clicked “dislike” here is even now teetering atop Mt. Crumpit with a sleigh full of stolen presents.

 

2. Damascus, Palestine, Texaco

A cut from Jean-Luc Godard’s maddening, cryptographic and sometimes very funny Film Socialisme:

 

3. “I’mma start rocking gold teeth and fangs” (Nicki Minaj’s 32 feral bars)

Still waiting on the music video, which promises lots of squicky necrophiliac imagery (I was hoping for a colony of bats nesting in Rick Ross’ giant beard), but “Monster” already has a storyline: it’s the track where Nicki Minaj reduces the world’s two most famous rappers to afterthoughts.

Her feat is less impressive than it appears on a tracklist; wheezing Grizzly Bear fan Jay-Z sounds like an awkward fogey here, and while Kanye acquits himself well enough, even pulling off a good punchline for once rather than a stupid non-sequitur (“Have you ever had sex with a pharaohhhhhh / I put the pussy in a sarcophagus”), he still strains as an MC. His other guest doesn’t. Nicki’s virtuosic verse mutates new flows, accents and personae at rapid speed: “Pink wig / Thick ass / Give ’em whiplash / I think big / Get cash / Make ’em blink fast.” She shares Kanye’s monstrous ambition, but not his self-pitying insecurity. Her climactic “AAAAAAH” modulates a scream queen’s cry with sharpened glee: suck in breath, grope around on the floor for your male gaze.

 

4. Light the Pentagram-Signal: Doctor Hurt in Batman & Robin

This one requires some nerdy backstory. Five years ago, DC Comics made Scottish weirdo Grant Morrison the writer of its main Batman series. (His anarchic 1990s head trip The Invisibles influenced my teenage self to a degree that is almost embarrassing.) A characteristically metafictional conceit of Morrison’s early issues was that all the Bat-archetypes from 75 years of publication history – the original pulp vigilante, the bizarre ’50s version who wore zebra suits and inspired Adam West, etc. – were his actual memories, and the stress of keeping these disparate personalities straight was driving Bruce Wayne insane.

The process was accelerated by Morrison’s new villain Dr. Hurt, a mysterious psychiatrist who claimed to be Bruce Wayne’s newly-undead father Thomas and then distributed evidence revealing that the orphaned hero’s parents were not saintly philanthropists but a locus of corrupt decadence. Eventually, in a crossover called Batman R.I.P., he put on a camp opera outfit, injected Bruce Wayne full of drugs and dumped him on the street to subsist as a disturbed homeless person. Then our protagonist made a new costume out of rags, regained his bearings with the help of fifth-dimensional imp Bat-Mite (seriously) and they had a big fight. But Dr. Hurt returned in 2010 for a final storyline that Morrison called “Batman R.I.P. repeated as farce.” It began, context-free, with this scene:

It’s a perverse inversion of the most familiar origin story in comics, one so famous that Morrison and artist Frazer Irving can go minimalist and rely upon iconic visual elements (the pearls that always scatter, the eternally recurring Zorro marquee). Dr. Hurt’s masturbatory fantasy comes complete with the sort of infernally opulent yet faintly ludicrous sex club that only exists in Radley Metzger movies. Remember the sight gag at the end of Rosemary’s Baby, where an upside-down cross is repurposed as crib ornament? The longed-for Black Mass emphasizes Hurt’s unusual nature as a foil: he thinks that merely killing his foe is so dull. “I will be Batman in my great black car, preying on the weak, in Gotham’s endless night.”

The conventional idea of an obsessive super-nemesis is strange enough already; imagine one who yearns to expose every certainty in your life as a pathetic, comforting lie. He could be a jilted fanboy. Even after discovering that the bad Doctor was neither Thomas Wayne nor the devil, just (in his creator’s words) “this gibbering idiot with a very comic-booky origin,” his anti-prologue retains some Satanic allure. In a storyarc that also featured Shavian villain Professor Pyg raving about “the multitudes of the mother goat,” it was the creepiest moment of all, a flourish of satirical geek-blasphemy.

 

5. The moral responsibility of the blowjob artist: How Should a Person Be?

The second novel by friend of the blog Sheila Heti was, as they say, a long time coming. (There was an impatient Facebook group, even.) It still doesn’t have an American publisher, and a new article in the New York Observer speculates why: Too much cribbing from reality? Too many graphic descriptions of blowjobs? I would add another factor, one that took me by surprise despite my membership in that social-media cheer squad: the extreme depths of black comedy that Sheila reaches. There are lantern-faced fish swimming alongside some of these jokes. How Should a Person Be? is about struggling to live the good life, whatever that is, and Sheila the character’s earnest, agonized desire to become a great artist (or at least a famous one) is played for many painful laughs.

A later chapter, for example, ends with this passage: “I hadn’t realized until this week that in [Moses’] youth he killed a man, an Egyptian, and buried him under some sand…I used to worry that I wasn’t enough like Jesus, but yesterday I remembered who was my king; a man who, when God addressed him and told him to lead the people out of Egypt, said, ‘But I’m not a good talker! Couldn’t you ask my brother instead?’ So it should not be so hard to come at this life with a bit of honesty. I don’t need to be great like the leader of the Christian people. I can be a bumbling, murderous coward like the King of the Jews.”

As a blond gentile with an Old Norse surname – some drunk girl once asked me, “Did you steal your eyes from a dead Nazi?” – I felt a little uncomfortable just reading that. (The sexual interludes, not so much, perhaps because they’re specific to a particular situation.) I can see why publishers might shy away from it. But all the mordant humour extracted from her protagonist’s indulgent delusions and artistic crises has a point, and a pertinent one: What does it mean to be a writer or painter in a world where niche-level, D-list celebrity is radically accessible?

As for that “fact or fiction” question, a parlour game without the fun, let me cite Harry Mathews, whose last novel My Life in CIA explored similarly muddy waters: “Henry James once said that the Venetian painter Tintoretto never drew an immoral line. That seems madness, because Tintoretto was squiggling all over the place. I came to the conclusion that what James meant was that the moral responsibility of the artist is to make something real happen, whatever it takes. And for me, that is the moral responsibility of a writer: to make something real happen on the page. Its relation to fact is irrelevant. “

 

6. One word uttered forever

Toronto’s Double Double Land hosts an occasional series called Talking Songs, where lecturers play various pieces of music for the audience before discussing them. Carl’s spoken there before; I have too. At the event’s return a few months ago, one of the performers was York University professor Marcus Boon, who gave a talk called “Chopping and Screwing: From Terry Riley to DJ Screw.” I don’t really remember anything he said. What I do remember is that he finished by playing a single 25-minute-long drone and asking us to listen.

Erik Satie’s avant-garde endurance test Vexations, 34 dissonant chords typically performed 840 times in a row, is often said to have quasi-hallucinogenic effects on audiences. Palpable heat, like the kind inside DDL – it’s perched above a Portuguese bakery – must only intensify that. While Boon’s drone pulsed, time collapsed inwards before stretching out as if it might snap; most eyes stayed shut out of reverence or boredom, but sometimes I cheated and caught others fluttering open, sexy in their languour. After the noise spent itself, Boon very quietly asked how it made us feel. I still don’t know what my answer is.

 

7. The image world: Picture This, by Lynda Barry

Picture This asks the big question on its cover: “Do you wish you could draw?” Barry’s manner is the best Grade 3 teacher any kid/adult could hope for, supportive and pedagogical yet utterly free of condescension, and it comes through in her cartooning. Like Sean Rogers notes, this is an activity book featuring such activities as “collect blue.” Barry argues that we’re encouraged to trace and doodle as children only to be dissauded while we grow up, and her attempts to liberate your inner scribbler echo the open-ended tone of John Cage’s motto: “Get yourself out of whatever cage you find yourself in.”

One of Barry’s strips, “Chicken Attack,” was written by a five-year-old boy named Jack. He was sitting next to her on an airplane. While Mom dozed, he came up with a script: “One morning, the chicken was eaten by a man. The man went to work. His stomach started to feel funny. He went to the port-a-let, and then he went. The chicken came out. The man was surprised. The chicken was also surprised. The chicken ran from the port-a-let to the construction site. They put the chicken in charge, and from then on, the chicken was boss.” Lynda Barry is also pretty boss.

 

8. Continue: Scott Pilgrim’s Finest Hour, by Bryan Lee O’Malley

The movie was fun, partly because its doomed marketing showed Torontonians that our shitty lives could be the basis for a fantastical mythos too. But it wasn’t first to do so, and in other ways I preferred Bryan Lee O’Malley’s print finale. It begins with depressed Scott Pilgrim acting like a skeezy jerk, hitting on his teenage ex: “So…uh…what’s it like to no longer be a child in the eyes of the law?” It gives another ex, Envy Adams (Chaotic Neutral), a costume that says “Legend of Zelda boss as worn by Lady Gaga.” And its unconstrained space allows for many pages where people just sit around and talk.

In that sense, the supporting cast was especially hard done by during the adaptation process; a lot of secondary characters got compressed to a single note or joke where they had originally existed in a broader context, one the self-absorbed hero didn’t always notice. As Mike Barthel wrote, “that sense of outward focus and of ladies existing without reference to dudes (or dudes without reference to ladies, honestly) absolutely vanishes [in the film].” I lament this both as someone who wants more movies to pass the Bechdel Test and as someone who thought Alison Pill was cute, which is probably to say, a confused someone.

Finest Hour‘s luxury of sprawl also benefits the villainous Gideon Graves. (That’s him above. In the movie he’s played by Jason Schwartzman, which is perfect casting if you dislike the public persona of Jason Schwartzman.) Gideon is a disquieting portrait of the smart, arty kid who becomes a grasping and covetous adult. A grimly funny, comics-only detail marks him as the only character in their thirties – indeed, he shares an age with his (happily married!) creator. The evilest ex is emotionally controlling on a megalomaniacal scale: Instead of stalking “the ones who got away” on Facebook, he captures them inside an elaborate machine borrowed from some Final Fantasy boss.

When O’Malley launched the series’ final volume last summer, my life was a bit like a Scott Pilgrim book – the bantering romantic scenes, not the epic battles, though they often bleed into each other. I didn’t strap somebody into a…device so I could siphon their vitality. But there were moments that resembled a flashback in Finest Hour, where the younger, less-evil Gideon watches pixie pugilist Ramona Flowers literally disappear from his life; moments that were one long uncomprehending “Whyyyyyyyy?” (Then, to fizzling teleportation residue: “But I thought it was going so well…”) This was maladroit and thoughtless for various reasons, as I probably would’ve figured out anyway, but the literary synchronicity led to a pre-emptive realization: Why would you ever want to act like a bitter, stunted asshole while blaming it on someone lovely? So call this comic a cautionary tale, as well as a damn entertaining one.

 

9. Torontopia time machine: Wavelength 500

I doubt that I could describe this event any better than Carl already did – or Michael Barclay, for that matter. The 10th anniversary of Toronto’s integral PWYC music series ended with a reunion of the Barcelona Pavilion (who broke up when I was still in high school) and a surprise set by Owen Pallett (who debuted his solo project at a 2004 Wavelength before going all those places). The BP were raucous and baldly conceptual again, even in the ways they scorned misty local eyes; their encore was an iPod singalong as it played Mag & The Suspects’ “Thousands Dead.” Whether or not nostalgia is misplaced, they certainly merited some.

Kids on TV followed, and then Owen, and then the 2003 iteration of the Hidden Cameras briefly swept aside layers of antipathy to play “I Believe in the Good of Life,” along with the half of the crowd that joined them onstage. There’s no visual record of it. (Never mind: Colin Medley popped up in comments to link his video!) I have to give you this clip instead, Owen and Steve Kado teaming up to cover “Independence Is No Solution.” It’s a great song about everything you believe in turning to shit: “Babies want to have publicists / Because better babies make best-of lists.” (No publicists contacted B2TW while we threw these together.) In that room, though, on that night, it felt more like shoving a crowbar in the coffin than a nail.

 

10. Thrash this mess around: Four Corners, at Steelworkers Hall, July 23

The concept for this show was simple enough. Four bands, all of them loud and scuzzy, manned the corners of a large room inside venerable Steelworkers Hall. We were in the centre. When the available light changed to a given colour, we streamed towards that corner for a few songs’ worth of ritual abuse. The beauty was in the details, and not just because the bill included Anagram, one of my favourite local bands.

Wandering through the cavernous Steelworkers Hall, with its tributes to industrial unionism and lefty agit-kitsch, I thought the venue could almost be a museum for older models of independent music. Meanwhile, the spastic colour cycles appropriated the structural logic of video games. But underneath those lurid lights, radical politics no longer seemed anachronistic, and the moshing reminded me that cathartic fake violence has its own history. To echo one of Carl’s entries, it was a new way of living. If you’re the resolution-making type, I hope you find a few of them.

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Filed under books, chris randle, comedy, comics, dance, events, lectures, literature, movies, music, TV/video, visual art

Top 10 Moments, Gestures and Consolations of 2010

by Carl Wilson

[With a debt of gratitude to Greil Marcus’s Real Life Rock Top 10, the Back to the World team is reviewing 2010 on a free-associative, nerve-impulsive basis. I’ve confined myself to things I haven’t already written about at length on this site this year, and discarded all critical-game rules of rank, comprehensiveness or balance. Another week it might be another 10.]

1. Collective redemptions: Auto-Tune the Meme

Antoine Dodson, singer of the year

I don’t know how long it will last but for now it’s a blessing to live when whatever nonsense goes viral will be remixed with Auto-Tune, usually by the reliably silly Gregory Brothers. What was the sonic signature of high-end rap/R&B (and Asian and Caribbean pop) in the ’00s becomes the crazed sound of the inside-out unconscious of the Internet digesting fetishes in the ’10s. Which comes with a disturbing side, of course: What seems fair game for politicians and newscasters on the Bros.’ great, long-running Auto-Tune the News series, and unimportant when it’s Double Rainbow Guy, becomes more complex when it comes to Antoine Dodson losing his shit about a rapist in the Huntsville projects on a local news report.

Without music, it seemed nauseatingly clear people were mocking the way a gay, black man in a poor neighbourhood of Alabama spoke in a state of distress. But the music, I’d argue, really did transform that into a celebration of Dodson’s flair and sincerity, into a tune so distinctive that it can be played without words by a marching band (at a historically black university, fwiw) and still hit the same sweet divot in the brain pain. And the Dodson family was able to buy a house on the spinoff proceeds, inverting the usual consciencelessness of that Internet unconscious.

Would it be too treacly to say that it’s a reminder of how rhythm, melody and harmony are ancient technologies to mediate alienation and generate human connection? Definitely, but grant me an Xmas pass.

2. Candid-camera delusions of grandeur/grotesquery: Destroyer ft. Loscil, “Grief Point” (Archer on the Beach EP)

Destroyer, Archer on the Beach

Another angle on the music/reality blur zone comes from Dan Bejar: This song is how it would be if songs or albums regularly came with the commentary tracks we’re used to on DVDs of movies and television, presuming that the commentaries were written by self-excoriating poets of course. (There’s precedent in the Dr. Horrible musical’s musical commentary tracks, though to more blatantly comic effect.)

Dan voices notebook entries seemingly written while recording last year’s “Bay of Pigs,” the “ambient-disco” song apparently originally titled “Grief Point” (or “May Day,” or “Christine White”) that reappears as the closing highlight of the upcoming Kaputt album, about which much more in the New Year. The way this track keeps up the links in this three-year chain of significance/striptease is part of the pleasure.

I prefer the denser EP version to the superminimal “Making of Grief Point” that Loscil (Vancouver electronic composer Scott Morgan) released earlier in the year: This one better fulfills and thus escapes what Dan calls “the same old shit. A potential, complete ignorance of ambience, real ambience, in that: Can you really construct it, every last bit of it, and just let the listener feel its effects? And is this the right treatment? Always the same question.”

The paradox of the ambient, which is Loscil’s genre, has percolated since Brian Eno coined it: How to listen to music not designed to be listened to, only heard? This track revisits that issue as the life/art problem (blah blah John Cage blah) etched in blood: Trust Destroyer to come up with a genre one could call Brian Emo.

As Dan considers whether to quit music or to be happy that he hates what he’s recording because “it means I’ve changed,” he flirts with the lines between social-media-panoptical self-indulgence and self-celebritizing and the substantive mental torment inherent to making meaning.

That’s what many of the most vital artists’ work currently does – such as B2TW intimate Sheila Heti’s 2010 novel How Should a Person Be?, which found a surprising champion in The New York Observer this week; but then the Observer, name down, has always been the cultural voyeur’s broadsheet.

Yet Destroyer was in this territory well ahead of the pack – “your backlash was right where I wanted you/ yes, that’s right, I wanted you,” he sang, before having enough recognition to get backlash. And he approaches it with a half-careless swagger but also a wolfish hunger to make the risks count, this fucking time at last at last.

3. Sex is so much more than sex: You Can Have It All, a performance by Mammalian Diving Reflex, Feb. 12-13, Toronto

"The Best Sex I've Ever Had"

Perhaps Ontario, the home of the old-lady sex Yoda, Sue Johanson, may inevitably eventually have generated something like this performance, but we’re lucky to have artist Darren O’Donnell to nudge it along.

Having advertised on telephone poles and bulletin boards for people “over 65 and still thinking about sex,” he gathered an incredible panel of women and men to first workshop and then publicly talk about their erotic lives in intimate, funny and often wrenching detail.

I can’t reproduce the effect here, except to say how exhilarating it was to hear how recent the participants’ greatest sexual experiences (in their opinions) often were. And conversely how intense it is to talk about great sex with someone now dead. … Funeral speeches that never were.

For all their universality it’s also a very local conversation; every community should bring in O’Donnell to root out these words stirring unspoken among them.

But the thing I was left thinking about most was that all the straight men on the panel dropped out before the performances: Was this just a generational blip or does it reveal something deep and hard to uproot about gender, power and vulnerability? (Including O’Donnell’s own power dynamic as a director, though that seems too simple.)

4. Past, unpassed: Richard Harrow (played by Jack Huston) on Boardwalk Empire

The best TV show I watched in 2010 was no doubt the third season of Breaking Bad, but the best thing on TV was this extraordinary character on an otherwise mediocre series.

Sniper-turned-hit-man Richard Harrow is a veteran of World War 1 whose face was so maimed in battle so that he wears a painted tin mask in public – a historically accurate representation inspired by this Smithsonian Magazine article. He befriends one of the central characters, fellow vet Jimmy Darmody (the anemic Michael Pitt), whose mutilation is less visible but similarly soul-obstructing. Together they use their skills to make themselves other-than-disposable to men in power the one way they know: murder at someone else’s command.

Yet Harrow (despite his wince-worthy, typically Boardwalk Empire-showboating name), as image, and in Jack Huston‘s physical and vocal dance (he is the mess of tics we all would be in his place, but never a cartoon), more than even Steve Buscemi’s ever-virtuosic lead, inspires a sympathetic vibration very near love. At one point, to soothe spooked children, he jokingly calls himself the Tin Man (referring to the book, not the yet-unmade film). Huston (grandson of John, nephew of Angelica) earns the parallel.

Boardwalk Empire‘s fatal flaw is its jones to emulate its media-gangster icons, from The Sopranos (on which its creators worked) to The Godfather and the best films of producer Martin Scorsese. But to do something memorable with the dawn-of-Prohibition lawlessness it aimed at, it needed someone more like David Lynch, who could capture the uncapturability of those silent-film years: the way its sensibility is just out of reach of an audience for whom history really begins with the talky mass-cultural connection that’s come to spell “20th century.”

That there was a 20th century before the 20th century is a fact the tapes in our cathode-ray lizard-brain stems don’t readily disclose. (As a music guy, I’m sad their takes on Eddie Cantor and Sophie Tucker don’t gel, though the Hardini-Houdini’s-brother riff had legs.)

Thus the series can’t give us the uncanniness, the unheimlich feeling of meeting Freud’s day on its own terms. Except with Richard Harrow. In his face we get a time before medicine was anything we’d see as fit for the title, when the compromises had other stakes – the spasms that pushed the modern out its birth canal. Upheavals still felt like phantom pains in today’s post-everything pathologies. What a story that could have been.

5. Mantler, Monody

There were days this year I wanted to live in a ditch. I wanted rats to nibble at my shoelaces and beetles to replace the pupils of my eyes. Too often I got right down in that culvert and dug my elbows into the grime and let the parasites feast on my shit, then come back up and spit it in my ears.

If I knew a little better any given Sunday, though, I’d put on Toronto singer-songwriter Mantler‘s record and then the goat-footed balloon man would come laughing, “Have you forgotten the word ‘mudluscious’? What’s wrong, fetish not got your tongue? Displace a little up-up-and-away into me, and wrap your troubles in dreams till they’re helium-drunk and far and wee.”

That most hospitals were never told about this miracle cure is one of the true scandals of 2010. That it had been six years since the last release of the absintheian elixir that Mantler (Chris Cummings) pours generously out of a cauldron full of white suits and colour organs and herbs that taste like bells is the occasion of every party you should have been invited to when some sad bastard forgot your name.

6. Not ready to make nice: Bernie Sanders’ 8-hour semi-filibuster

Bernie Sanders: Mad as hell and he didn't have time to go round and round and round... but did it anyway, dammit

What I don’t really want to talk about, despite how much it weighed through 2010, is how hard it was to keep supporting Barack Obama (if Canadian support counts). Especially after November, when the tax deal, in particular, seemed to squander a vital “lame duck” opportunity to counterbalance the upcoming bullying of liberty, logic and economic justice by the Republican House.

But then there was this bit of performance art in opposition to tax cuts for millionaires at the expense of the vanishing middle class (and not just in America) by the only avowed democratic socialist in federal American politics, and nearly the only mensch (well, along with Barney Frank). It was just what I wanted for Christmas and Hanukah. This shit is the gelt.

Sometimes you speak truth even knowing power is deaf. And abusive. And would rather look good at basketball than take, to revisit a theme, a goddamn risk.

7. Stretching for substance: Taylor Swift, “A careless man’s careful daughter” in “Mine” (Speak Now LP)

From the "Mine" video: I didn't post the rest 'cuz it's awful

This year Taylor Swift fell into a tabloid-tell-all mode that’s warped the naturalism that served her so well, not to mention overmilking the princessy crap. And where her nemesis Kanye at least freaked out creatively about their encounter of the 2009th kind, making it the sub-theme of his fine (if overpraised) new record, she was all too level and dull on the topic, on an album that marks her predictably awkward transition from teen songwriting prodigy to young-adult celebrity.

Notwithstanding, a key line in the record’s lead single has followed me through the months: “You made a rebel of a careless man’s careful daughter.” It may be the most writerly moment in her career, at least in a chorus, with its un-Nashvilley cram of syllables. You can tell how proud she is of it because she puts it in the repeated pivot point of the song. You almost want to come back with the old saw of writing-advice, “Kill your darlings.” But a songwriter in her position might need her darlings in a way a poet or novelist wouldn’t, as a creative love-rival to fame’s blandishments.

In “Mine,” we never hear anything more about the father, but the line tells us enough about who the protagonist is, and who the boyfriend is (his version: “I fell in love with a careless man’s careful daughter”) to double the narrative’s heft.

That reversal of P.O.V. when the boyfriend assuages her fears could seem rote as craftsmanship, but in pop, rote narrative moves that sync up just right are the ones that get you teary-eyed. Hell, it’s not that dissimilar to the move Stephin Merritt makes in one of my favourite songs, “Papa Was a Rodeo” – it just lacks the knowingness about itself as a move.

I’m not sure why it’s so effective at lumping my throat. Maybe it’s that I’m a careful man’s more careless son. I’ll keep mulling the question in 2011. But I hope that in the next few years, Swift stays proud of it and fills more of her songs with lines like it, till they become adult stories. She’s a country songwriter, after all, and she’s got examples like Dolly Parton and Merle Haggard to show that if you hold true to your craft, hang your heart on those pivot points, they can take you anywhere. It’s not about being as fancy a syllable crammer as Elvis Costello, who just as often is hoist on that petard. There’s so much that suggests Swift could get there, and so many reasons to fear that she won’t. Grant me another Xmas pass here while I bet against the house.

8. The medium isn’t such a mess-age: The San Francisco Panorama


After years when there’s been nothing but gloating and/or despairing obits for the print media in which I mostly make my living, I want to give thanks to McSweeneys/The Believer for demonstrating that death isn’t the only possible future.

Their one-shot example of what a glorious print newspaper could look like (it came out in late 2009 but was widely available in 2010) may be starry-eyed, but it makes concrete what I often say to my peers: Losing the position of first choice for news every weekday morning doesn’t doom newspapers. Play to strengths: weekend features, investigative reporting, physical scale and, well, “eye-feel” (the way foodies talk about mouth-feel). And – well, maybe not a 96-page books section, where the publishers played too aggressively to their strengths, but a books section, because those other people of words are allies. I think people would pay, and they’d stay.

My paper took baby steps this direction this year but those booties need a harder sole (soul).

9. Chatty Kathy

Has any cultural source made me regularly happier than Kathleen Phillips’ video blog in 2010? Her live character comedy came close, particularly when I got to help program her (playing a deluded actress-turned-writer) as part of the Scream in High Park this summer. But can that compete with The Ballad of Four Feet Joe? With her other animations of the inanimate? Oh, world, you will never look quite the same and thank Heaven or whatever department is in charge. Even if Virgin Mobile ripped it off in the name of Christ.

10. Sex is so much sexer than sex: The collected works of Tonetta; Good Intentions Paving Company by Joanna Newsom, 4:35 to end.

It’s been a long year. Remember when all we could talk about was Lady Gaga?  But finally some serious sensual competition came along in the struggle to make humans delirious, delusional, demented by delight. Toronto’s own Tonetta might have occupied my whole year if I were still writing a locally centred music blog (good thing there was someone around to fill in). You could shorthand it as Jandek meets Gaga meets Iggy in your pervert uncle’s basement, but the catchy hooks and obscenity and freak-flag-fluttering come with a poignant sense of a man finding himself in the act of losing himself (this is his post-divorce project). Social-media-voyeurism comes in for a lot of bashing, but Tonetta suggests one of its graces: Helping us discover what in us is worth gawking at.

Joanna Newsom has had that kind of gnosis for a long time, even too much so – she’s less sharp about what to leave out. Still, there are also great grasshopper artistic leaps on her 2010 album Have One on Me, including a verse that leaves me dizzy with desire – not for its singer (however deserving, vide the lascivious montage above), but with thoughts of people in my life who can reliably and relentlessly render me this way:

But it can make you feel over and old, Lord, you know it’s a shame / When I only want for you to pull over and hold me/ Till I can’t remember my own name.

And as she casts this invocation, horns and strings rise restless from every corner as if to redecorate the room for their sex-magickal rites. (RIP Peter “Sleazy” Christopherson.) May that be your benediction in the gloaming  of 2010, and as 2011 rises, aroused.

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