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.

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

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