Category Archives: literature

Memories of Memories: Nine Cultural Favourites from 2012

by Chris Randle

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

Future, “Same Damn Time”

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

The Clock, by Christian Marclay (2010)

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

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

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

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

I Love Dick, by Chris Kraus (published 1997)

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

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

Shoshanna, woman of Girls

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

The Capsule, a film by Athina Rachel Tsangari, 2012

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

James Adomian at the Comedy Bar, Toronto

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

Carly Rae Jepsen, Kiss

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

Building Stories, by Chris Ware

I mean, look at it:

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

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Filed under books, chris randle, comedy, comics, literature, movies, music, TV/video

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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Filed under books, carl wilson, comedy, dance, lectures, literature, movies, music, other, TV/video

List of Cultural Remembrances from the Year of The Dragon

by Margaux Williamson

1. Trickster Makes This World (2010) – book by Lewis Hyde

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Best book ever, man. Lewis Hyde examines the origin stories of hunger, rule breaking and loopholes from different cultures all over the world. I would call it invaluable – and dense. For some reason I didn’t think I would like it, so I read the chapters that seemed most interesting, then I started from the beginning and read the whole thing again, losing it twice along the way. I could say a lot about it, but mainly, if I knew you, I would buy it for you. The subject matter of “tricksters” might seem specific, but this book is far-reaching and deep. And rigorous.

Because the book looks to so many different cultures, it inevitably seems to create a new one – but because the subject matter is about corrupting what becomes too immovable, this new world culture doesn’t feel oppressive, it just feels older and wiser and full of troublemakers who are here to help.

2. The Woman Warrior: Memoirs of a Girlhood Among Ghosts (1975) – a memoir by Maxine Hong Kingston 

Trickster Makes This World cited the work of a lot of people I love and am familiar with, like Marcel Duchamp, Allen Ginsberg and Frederick Douglass, but also one I didn’t know – Maxine Hong Kingston. I ended up picking up her book  The Woman Warrior: Memoirs of a Girlhood Among Ghosts shortly after reading Trickster Makes This World. The voice of the book is angry and uncertain, the heroine trying to figure out what is real from the old world or the new world, from inside her house or outside. It’s like she is throwing her arms and legs around to figure out what the actual boundaries are, and in doing so, finds the new framework of her specific world. It is epic and intimate.

According to Wikipedia, the book:

…has maintained a “vexed reception history that both attests to its popularity and questions it.” Much of the debate concerns issues dealing with “autobiographical accuracy, cultural authenticity, and ethnic representativeness,”  while the critical center of the battle is whether or not Kingston offers a faithful representation of Chinese culture and of Chinese-Americans.

The book was criticized by the American writer Frank Chin for being “unChinese” and “a fake” and by the Chinese American writer Jeffery Paul Chan for being called non-fiction and for belittling Chinese-American experiences.

Both criticisms brought to mind another captivating and subversive book I read this year: I Love Dick (1997) by Chris Krausa book that attracted similar criticisms from male colleagues but did well to wait for the younger critics, as seen in this really good essay on the author by Elizabeth Gumport. Here’s a passage from I Love Dick that Gumport quotes in her piece:

Because most “serious” fiction, still, involves the fullest possible expression of a single person’s subjectivity, it’s considered crass and amateurish not to “fictionalize” the supporting cast of characters, changing names and insignificant features of their identities. The “serious contemporary hetero-male novel” is a thinly veiled Story of Me, as voraciously consumptive as all of patriarchy. While the hero/anti-hero explicitly is the author, everybody else is reduced to “characters.” . . .

When women try to pierce this false conceit by naming names because our “I”s are changing as we meet other “I”s, we’re called bitches, libelers, pornographers, and
 amateurs.

Well said, Chris Kraus.

3. The animated movies of Studio Ghibli at Toronto’s TIFF Lightbox

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Greatest art pleasure of the year:  a month-long program of Studio Ghibli animated movies at the TIFF cinemas during the spring.  For movies that continuously touch on the battle between nature living and dead, there is no better venue than a warm theatre in a cold Toronto March.

4.  Idle No More 

It’s been amazing to see the different Canadian Aboriginal communities move together for the  Idle No More protests across the country. It made me think of the smallest and the biggest gestures of trying to right wrongs and change your neighbourhood or the world. Small things like – I took a Canadian art history course once with a professor named Lynda Jessup. Maybe assuming we had already had our fill of the Group of 7 and their nature, Lynda Jessup taught us about the dead Catholic nun paintings (doesn’t count as vanity if you get your portrait done after death) from the early white colonialists, and then went straight to contemporary First Nations, Inuit and Métis art. Her course program gave me a sense that Canada was more exciting than it would lead you to believe. I felt grateful for it, and to other small and big gestures from friends and groups like the ImagineNATIVE Film Festival  where I’ve seen great and surprising things including, this past year, Alanis Obomsawin’s movie The People of the Kattawapiskak River, about the Attawapiskat housing crisis, which I wrote about here.

5. All the wrong people telling all the right stories

I started the year off reading Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884) on my Kindle – about a poor young white boy and an escaped slave’s adventures around the Mississippi river in the mid-19th-century . Somehow, Ernest Hemingway’s critique of the book had always stuck in my head. Hemingway said it was the greatest American novel, the novel that all other American novels come from, except for the horrible few last chapters , which no one should read. Though I hadn’t read Huckleberry Finn, I assumed Hemingway was wrong – maybe out of a random but sturdy loyalty to Mark Twain that must have ignited when I put on a Mark Twain wig and mustache at age ten for a school play.

Hemingway wasn’t wrong. Huckleberry Finn is a remarkable book and I wanted very much to cut out the last chapters and grind them down in my compost and let the worms eat them.

Suddenly feeling closer to Ernest Hemingway, I finally read his beautiful The Sun Also Rises about an American in Spain saying something about America. A book that made me feel that my alcohol consumption is totally moderate. Which echoed in my mind as I later read Ben Lerner’s beautiful novel Leaving the Atocha Station (2011) about a more contemporary man in Spain who is there to write something about Spain but then says something about America. A book that made me feel that my drug consumption was totally moderate.

But back to Huckleberry Finn; those terrible last chapters of Huckelberry Finn, and the great majority of chapters, kept thoughts of appropriation, political engagement and entertainment in my mind all year – thoughts heightened by good movies like Beasts of the Southern Wild (made by Benh Zeitlin and Lucy Alibar),  Django Unchained (made by Quentin Tarantino)  and The Paperboy (made by Lee Daniels). What those movies have in common with each other and with Huckleberry Finn is the Deep South, complicated appropriation of voice, and a desire to go towards pleasure, beauty, fantasy and heroes within stories that are fundamentally painful.

Appropriation is always a complicated issue. For me personally for instance, I always wish more men wrote in women’s voices. Though of course people are bound to get things terribly wrong, it’s hard not to see an empathy or loyalty develop to characters you work hard to identify with. Which suddenly makes me remember some interesting articles by Sarah Bakewell on Montaigne that ran in the Guardian last year (oh! now I see it’s a book). To sum up her summing up Montaigne: “Once you have seen the world from someone else’s perspective, it becomes harder to torture, hunt, or kill them.”

I heard Kevin Hegge, who made the movie She Said Boom: The Story of Fifth Column about the all-woman Toronto rock band, be asked on the radio this past year if he had been hesitant about directing  a movie that was so much about women’s voices. He said he tries very hard not to take offense at the assumption that a woman directing would have been uncomplicated. There are women who are not feminists, he said, continuing: I am a feminist – a feminist needed to direct this movie.

video still of artist and musician G.B. Jones from "She Said Boom: The Story of Fifth Column"

video still of artist and musician G.B. Jones from “She Said Boom: The Story of Fifth Column”

I think that’s what he said. I didn’t write it down.

6. Behavioral science: B.F. Skinner wasn’t totally wrong

Speaking of Montaigne trying to see things from other cultural perspectives (but mainly trying to imagine what his cat was thinking), behavioral science came back in fashion this year, or at least it seemed so to me after reading David H. Freedman’s article The Perfected Self, which lingered in my mind long after reading it. I always kind of liked B.F. Skinner, having picked up his book Beyond Freedom and Dignity because I thought the title was funny, but ending up really appreciating it and B.F. Skinner along the way.  This was all in my mind as I read Jane McGonigal’s book  Reality is Broken about how gamers have this sense that reality is broken because reality feels so much less meaningful and rewarding than video games. Though the book contains matter-of-fact lines like “we know regular life is meaningless, so …”,  it’s a somewhat hilariously practical approach to thinking about how humans can change their behavior.

7. Dante’s Inferno (around 1320)

I had no idea how gentle and completely captivating this book was.  I loved especially the first realm of hell, Limbo. It felt like a best-of, having all the people in history unlucky to be born just before Jesus. Even apart from finding Homer, Penthesilea, Orpheus, Plato and Euclid there, it felt so familiar. Dante’s empathy with the sufferers he came upon as he carried on through the realms of hell made you really feel sad that the work isn’t part of the  bible.

Loved this painting this year: 

St. Anthony Beaten by Devils, panel from the Altarpiece of the Eucharist, 1423-26 (oil on panel) / by  Sassetta (Stefano di Giovanni di Consolo) (c.1392-1450)

St. Anthony Beaten by Devils, panel from the Altarpiece of the Eucharist, 1423-26 (oil on panel) / by Sassetta (Stefano di Giovanni di Consolo) (c.1392-1450)

Also loved this one by Chris Ofili that stayed in my head all year:

Chris Ofili / Lover’s rock – guilt

Chris Ofili / Lover’s rock – guilt

8. We Need To Talk About Kevin (2011) – movie by Lynne Ramsay

With some of the movies I mentioned above, I thought about the function of fantasy and entertainment in regards to painful political situations.  For instance, Mark Twain’s attempt at a happy ending for a story that is contained firmly within the time of slavery.  Or Quentin Tarantino with Django Unchained, staging a story two years before slavery ends, adding to the story a triumphant ending no less – Tarantino getting as close to hope and a hero as one could possibly fantasize about. I couldn’t help but imagine the opposite movie, a movie not about the near end of American slavery but about the beginning, a story that would feel centuries away from hope – how impossible it would be. How it hurts to even imagine. How not like the movies it would feel. I thought about these things in positive terms, not just as though it’s dumb or dangerous to find delicious and pleasurable stories to tell within the worst stories that we have, but also that it serves a purpose.

The movie that stayed with me most in this way this year was Lynne Ramsay‘s We Need to Talk About Kevin.  I had never thought of the genre of reckless-feminist-fantasy movie (in this case, a shifting-of-perspectives fantasy contained within a nightmare situation). But this seemingly effortless masterpiece is now my favourite of the genre. I’ll write more about it soon.

9. The Swerve: How the World Became Modern (2011) – book by Stephen Greenblatt

Speaking of happy endings to the worst stories we have, Stephen Greenblatt wrote a brilliant book that I somehow couldn’t put down, about a book hunter and a book that may have greatly contributed to the undoing the spell of the centuries-long dark ages. He tells the story of Poggio Bracciolini, a book hunter and papal secretary from the 15th century who found the poet Lucretius’  On the Nature of Things, a work written in the first century BC in service of Epicurean ideas. Lucretius’ work includes explanations of atoms, evolution and returning to the ground when you die. The Swerve flies from the 15th century back to the collapse of the Roman Empire, forward to the Renaissance, back to the dark ages and forward again to *spoiler* Thomas Jefferson. Within all the most painful stories about where humans can go and how long they can stay there, it tells the best story – the one about how one beautiful book saved the world.

10. Lena Dunham’s television show Girls

Lena Dunham’s television series Girls is great – as many people have said and many have disagreed with. I love that virgin character and her virgin-lover.

All the criticism about the lack of people of colour on the show was true, but so strange in comparison with all the other popular shows by white men that leave everyone out. It made me think that maybe white men are still universal and white women are still just white women.

Or maybe the creators’ casually audacious attempt to be universal with the title “Girls” but be so so specific in content is what brought on the attention. But maybe that’s good. Maybe we can add it to the pile of universal specifics that is getting more interesting by the day. We can know it as Lena Dunham’s Girls, right there next to Rye Rye’s Hardcore Girls, next to these true crime hardcore girls, next to my sweet little nieces (who are girls).

Since I’m suddenly lost in the subject of girls, let’s go to Honey Boo Boo child and recognize that she, Alana, is a powerful child-pageant contestant who is destroying the perverse realm of learned femininity and child sexuality from within. On television, she gets to use her own words rather than speaking the words that someone in an office far away wrote for her.  She might not be writing her own scenes yet, but she’s in control of the dialogue and she’s pretty great at dialogue.

Also – thank you Tina Fey, and good job The Mindy Project. The thing you notice about women making their own television shows is that the men on television get a lot more interesting.

Back to Lena Dunham’s Girls. The most criticism I saw for the show seemed to initially come out of New York. It’s hard to do something in your hometown I guess. And maybe the story of second-generation artists and trust-fund kids running around in the city without looking out at the world is a more embarrassing story than the one New York used to be able to tell. But you got to use what you’ve got. When the neighbourhood changes, the story changes.

11. Speaking of using what you’ve got: Friends in my Toronto neighbourhood

Darren O’Donnell continues to be one of the most interesting artists around, with his and others’ Mammalian Diving Reflex (“Ideal Entertainment for the End of the World”) and the band of teenagers The Torontonians growing in art and skill.

Lynn Crosbie, who wrote one of my favourite essays this year about violence in movies, continued to devastate and bring the sun in with her beautiful book Life is About Losing Everything.

And Sheila Heti, whose latest book I acted in, continues to get much-deserved rave reviews like this really smart one from Joanna Biggs of the London Review of Books.

Etc. Etc.

* Honourable mentions: Los Angeles – you are so beautiful in January. Attack the Block – you were as good as E.T.

2012-01-18 16.20

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Carl’s Tuesday Musics: Francis Bebey, “Pygmy Divorce”

Bio, found on YouTube: With the sudden heart attack of songwriter, poet, and novelist, Francis Bebey, on May 28, 2001, Cameroon lost one of its most creative artists. The recipient of the prestigious Grand Prix Litteraire De L’Afrique Moudio for his first novel, The Son of Agatha Moudio, in 1968, Bebey went on to scribe several additional novels and scores of poems and songs. Active until shortly before his death, Bebey released two albums of his songs — Dibiye and Mbira Dance — to celebrate his 70th birthday. His compositions were covered by John Williams and the Kronos Quartet. According to Stelio Farandjis, secretary general of the High Council of Francophonie, “(Bebey’s) voice, his flute, his guitar, and especially his heart and his faith, enchanted the large ones of this world like the humblest among the humble ones.” Born in the Cameroonian capital city of Douala, Bebey was educated in his homeland and in the United States.

Much of his work was rereleased last year by French label Born Bad. Here’s Robert Christgau’s review.

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On the Subject of Artists Talking About Art (By Sheila Heti)

Margaux Williamson: A few days ago, I took a walk with the writer Sheila Heti. We got onto the subject of artists talking about art. She had a lot to say about this and I was curious to hear more. I asked her if she would write about it for Back to the World. I’m really glad I asked – my friend sent me this incredibly smart and dead-on post this morning:

vonnegut-asshole

By Sheila Heti

I am not sure how to set down my anger in a way that is coherent – this anger that suddenly hit me a month ago, or maybe a few weeks ago. I spent most of 2012 publicizing my novel, How Should a Person Be? – touring and doing interviews and whatnot. (If you had asked me, a few years ago, what a year spent promoting a book might look like, I would have said it was impossible to do. But I have spent the better part of a year doing just that – and my friends, oy vey.) Anyway, I just looked up a month ago from all this and heard some complaint that I had been deaf to – a common thread of criticism about my book which wasn’t so much about the book (I think) as a proposition the book was making: that a legitimate thing to think and talk about (especially among people who make art) is the making of art. Suddenly, all sorts of words flooded into my mind that had been repeated all year, but which I had not yet put together as the chorus that it was: that this activity is privileged, narcissistic and childish; something permitted to those at university, maybe, but even then, a bit far-fetched as an activity of real importance. Certainly to be put away – along with the other “childish things” – once one becomes a man.

A funny thing is that much of this criticism came from very smart people in populous American cities, where (it is implied) the more mature, less narcissistic, and less privileged thing to talk about is money. Money is a conversation for adults. Art, for undergrads.

I’m pretty sure the majority of people who complained about all the conversations about art in my book are the same people who bemoan the lack of reading in our culture, who bewail the death of the novel, and who wish America was smarter and greater. Yet how can one claim, on the one hand, to wish to protect the cherished art of novel-reading, and on the other, to denounce as childish, privileged and narcissistic a healthy and normal conversation about art’s importance and the best way to make it – especially when that conversation is happening among, of all people, artists!

I think it’s the wholesale infiltration of concerns about money and commerce into art that leads to art’s withering on the vine, not direct and serious conversation about how to make art now. Stop talking about Amazon, for godssakes! For one minute!

I have spent a lot of time among fellow writers in New York, and although I count many of these people as my beloved friends, I rarely have a conversation in that city about art that does not either begin, end, or quickly turn into a conversation about the writing business – about agents and advances and gossip about other peoples’ advances and complaints about not getting reviewed here or there. In Toronto (that childish, infantile place) – or the Toronto that I depict, and that I am and have long been a part of – to turn a conversation in that direction would feel embarrassing. Not because we have so much money or do not need money as much (I don’t know anyone with a trust fund here), but because it would mean taking time away from what is more important and more vital, and which should be at the core of what we’re doing, and which we want to be doing better.

Perhaps this is “uncool.” As Dave Hickey once said of Richard Serra: “He says, ‘Let’s go look at art,’ so that’s what he does. He’s kinda corny because he’s not hip at all. He doesn’t know anybody. He doesn’t know who got AIDS, he doesn’t know who got fired. But he’s a real artist to me anyway.” Richard Serra is one of the artists I was thinking about most intently while I was writing my book – so to learn this from Hickey (a few years later) made sense. Probably that’s why Serra’s art provides so much to think about. What place does cool or hip have in any of this? Looking over my bookshelf at my most beloved writers – Kierkegaard, Franz Kafka, C.S. Lewis, Flannery O’Connor, Vonnegut – this is not a club of cool people, but a club (if it is a club) of those who could never be considered cool. A person can only be cool about what they do not care about. And these people cared more than anyone.

I am not saying that my New York friends or certain reviewers don’t actually care about art. They must. What I am picking up on is the distaste for bringing that caring into public. Caring about art is almost illicit, something one does in the privacy of one’s home, like masturbation. Well, sex and orgies are much more pleasurable than masturbation, and talking about art with other people is much more pleasurable than thinking about it alone. In any case, one can and should have both.

Artists should think about art, and should talk about it together, the same way people agitating for social change should talk about social change together. Would Occupy Wall Street have happened if people didn’t finally decide to put their collective grievances into a public space and talk about them? Art is not frivolous. Art is not a luxury. It moves the world forward. Like Occupy, it speaks for the pockets of our culture and our hearts that the mainstream, commercialized world does not want to hear about; art elbows its way in. It’s about balancing – about justice. It allows our deepest grievances and sorrows to take centre stage. Art is an example of human freedom and striving. It defines and stretches our humanity, it clears the world of convenient lies, it touches the loneliness that plagues us all and replaces it with fellow-feeling. It creates models of possible worlds in opposition to the worlds we live in, which we cannot imagine our way out of without art.

If my book can be placed among those that create possible worlds, I suppose  it’s a world in which artists can talk about art with dignity, because there is nothing to ridicule there.

If conversations about art are “privileged,” then it is also a privilege to talk about injustice. And maybe it is! Yes, I suppose it is a great privilege to be able to speak about art and justice. It is a great privilege, also, to be alive. And yet we do not all stab knives into our chests. It is a great privilege to be so far advanced in human history that writing and reading exist for so many. Yet that these things don’t exist for all, does not mean that those who read should poke out their eyes with sticks. All these privileges are meant to be taken. And used.

Finally, narcissism is something that begins and ends with itself. The artist is not narcissistic; she looks at her self in order to talk about other selves. She then creates something and gives it to the world. Someone who does this could be considered narcissistic in her personal life; only her friends and family know for sure. Yet people who look at themselves in order to better look at the world – that is not narcissism. It is, and has always been, what people who make art do, and must do. You cannot do it blind. You cannot do it by looking at a toaster. We do not look at ourselves in order to bask in our vanity (do you think anyone writes in furs?) but to understand ourselves as human beings – so as to understand other human beings – the human: fiction’s greatest subject. If we as a culture hate art, and this past year has made me suspect we do, I can only think it is because we are afraid to look at ourselves. And we hate the artist because she can look, and does.

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Tell It Slant: Of Pink Boys, Masters, Muppets and/or Men

by Carl Wilson

There’s a recent essay by a person I know a little bit, the poet and critic Stephen Burt, called “My Life As a Girl,” in which he explores a twilit place in the gender continuum – that he likes to wear women’s clothing sometimes, but only sometimes, and doesn’t feel like he is a woman, but maybe that he’d wish to be one, at least sometimes. (That’s him above.) He muses that he is a grownup version of the “pink boys” that the NYT Magazine wrote about in August (that piece is well worth reading too).

I liked Stephen’s essay the way I like anything that tangles up the strings of the either-or. In the movement to recognize trans-people’s identities, as I think generally happens when there’s a breakthrough of recognition, realignments of categories, there’s a tendency to talk as though the boundaries are fixed and definitive. This is often necessary, in order to make practical demands or simply to establish some clear space. But there’s also some losses and diminishments that happen there, at least temporarily. “My Life As a Girl” reminded me of the way “queer” was used more in the 1990s to put forward the skewed inbetweenness of much of life and identity. No matter how you define yourself, you have a queerness to you, and Stephen’s piece really vividly challenges us to honour that – to “tell it slant,” as Emily Dickinson advised.

I most identified with the section in which Stephen talks about his attraction to “twee” music, an indie-pop subgenre in which “nobody wanted, or tried, to be a real man.” In my aesthetic life, I’ve often embraced the apparently weak and girly, or at least the brazenly non-masculine – poetry, soap-operatic melodramas and miniseries, the fantastical, and so on. But as I’ve aged I’ve been drawn more to varieties of realism than I once was, and some of that tweeness has definitely drained away. I appreciated having the frillier, featherier part of my taste tickled by Stephen’s story.

Two very different movies I’ve seen lately touched a similar nerve, both of them through music. (And note, I’m going to “spoil” things about both, so if that kind of thing raises your umbrage, act accordingly.) The first is The Master, Paul Thomas Anderson’s latest epic, with Philip Seymour Hoffman and Joaquin Phoenix squaring off against each other in a life-duel – it’s a mentor-student relationship, a father-son one, and finally a suppressed love affair. That’s hinted at in various sequences in the movie but only fully acknowledged in their final scene together, when the Master sings “Slow Boat to China” to his wayward ward, shakily as a confession, almost an apology – that perhaps if he’d admitted his infatuation earlier, their dealings with each other needn’t have been so violent, one long wrestling lock between two scorpions.

The story is hypermasculine, although ultimately the most powerful person in it is a woman, Amy Adams’ beautifully controlled performance as the Master’s vigilant wife, who by seeing through the absurdity of the boys’ games is able to turn them to her advantage, at least as much as her subservient position allows.

Like Anderson’s last film, There Will Be Blood, it’s about (among many other themes) the way that blinding your heart to the queer fractures in your self can be fatal, though how deliberate the resulting annihilation is (“fast living, slow suicide”?), it’s impossible to be sure.

And then there’s another recent Amy Adams movie – the one with Jason Segel, songs by Brett McKenzie (Flight of the Concords) and a whole bunch of muppets. And the Oscar-winning song, “Man or Muppet.”

There’s another male dyad here, but this is the triumphantly queer, comic version in contrast to The Master’s tragic one.

The queer hinge in the whole Muppets movie is Jason Segel’s relationship with his “little brother,” a muppet named Walter, who is small, asexual and childlike. It’s amusing throughout the film that the fact that his brother is a muppet a tenth his size has never given Segel pause until now, and what to make of that is  unstable – at times it seems Walter might have some kind of developmental disability, or has somehow been traumatized (the absent parents, perhaps).

But the emotional crux of the plot is that Walter has to separate from Segel to take his place in the muppet world – a very queer storyline, about moving from birth family to chosen family, which Walter manages in a beautifully campy gambit I won’t give away. And Segel, meanwhile, has to separate from Walter to vouchsafe his hetero-masculinity with Adams, in line with the “manchild to family man” arc of a lot of the Judd Apatow-style, non-puppet-musical comedies that Segel’s normally in. (That said it’s worth mentioning that Adams’ very girly character is first seen repairing a car and later proves to be a master electrician.)

But the “Man or Muppet” song serves, in what might otherwise be a very rote story, to acknowledge and mourn the double-edgedness of that choice, with both Walter and Segel singing about their mutual queer-identity crisis into mirrors where the muppet sees himself as a man (Walter sees the actor who plays the Aspergers-savant case Sheldon on Big Bang Theory) and Segel sees himself in muppetface (which is at once funny and unheimlich). But the trick is in the chorus when they sing: “If I’m a muppet, then I’m a very manly muppet,” and “If I’m a man, that makes me a muppet of a man.” For all kinds of practical, life-map kinds of reasons, or at least in the eyes of Hollywood, you may have to make some socially legible choices around sex-gender identity as an adult, but you do need at least the leeway to affirm, the way Segel does at the end: “I’m a muppety man/ That’s what I am.”

(unfortunately I can’t find the actual movie clip, only the official trailer-ized one, in which other scenes from the movie are cut in – it doesn’t quite have the same effect, but you’ll get the idea)

… Otherwise you may end up confining your true self in a ship in a bottle, drifting so slowly it will never reach China or any other port, all by itself, alone. By contrast, Segel and Walter’s duet, like Stephen’s essay, is a true anthem for the Ambiguity Liberation Front.

PS: The muppet movie’s other delightful little ode to wholesome perversion is “Me Party” sung in a similar dissociated-duet by Adams and Miss Piggy, which includes a nice little Chaplin tribute, and gleefully owns up to its onanistic subtext in its final line. Adams just shines.

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Lynn Crosbie – Life Is About Losing Everything

by Margaux Williamson

I’ve had the good fortune of becoming friends with the writer/academic/cultural critic Lynn Crosbie in the past few years; I have been a fan for much longer. Though she is famous for many things, there was something about her weekly column in the Globe & Mail that I needed and have always paid close attention to. In retrospect, I think, in some ways, her column was teaching me how to talk.

I remember, when I first started reading it years ago, I was living in a gloomy basement by the Leslie Spit and finishing George Elliot’s novel Middlemarch. Middlemarch has an unsual narrator – a narrator that is sometimes omniscient, sometimes addressing you directly, and sometimes trapped within the knowledge limitations that a typical literary character (or human) often has. The confidently wandering nature of the voice, to where it needed to go, was both thrilling and strangely subtle, both reckless and completely masterful. It was a hilarious voice to have in a novel where the main story arc involves an earnest and intelligent young woman, Dorothea, who wants to use her limited powers on this earth to aid the middle-aged Edward in finishing his great work The-Objective-History-of-Everything.

*SPOILER* (Edward turns out to be not-such-a-big-genius.)

I felt an actual sadness in letting this strange voice of Middlemarch go when I finished the 1000 pages. I’m a slow learner and sometimes 1000 pages isn’t enough to understand  a new thing. I remember feeling grateful that Lynn Crosbie’s column came every week – her deeply human and masterful voice was just as thrilling to me as George Elliot’s had been. I think Lynn Crosbie’s column helped me to learn, slowly and in my bones, that speaking clearly, from where ever you happen to be standing, with the information you happen to have, accepting of flexibility and imperfection, can be a thousand times deeper and more useful than the boring tomb of carefully constructed cliches that Middlemarch’s Edward hoarded and handed down with shaky authority from that fancy desk he had in his study.

In Lynn Crosbie’s column,  there are no qualifiers, there is no fear, there is no condescension, there is no sense that the topics or subjects aren’t heavy enough or in the proper location for the world’s spotlight and respect (or respectful wrath!). She is always just getting down to business, starting or participating honestly and earnestly and humorously in a conversation that she is invariably an asset to.

I was thinking about Crosbie’s work recently (and its effect on me) because, in April, I read her new book of poetic prose Life Is About Losing Everything. Though is about that, about losing everything, when you look up from the book while riding on Toronto’s Dufferin bus, everyone and everything looks so much more valuable.

Though I know her work very well, I was still kind of amazed at both the depth and the strange brightness of this book. Her heavy talent and heavy intelligence somehow makes her genius seem so light and natural. Maybe in a way it is, and it’s the living that’s so hard. It’s written in short chapters, and involves my always-favourite art project: how to take the bones of loss and meaninglessness and make meaning.

It is my favourite book of hers so far. I’ll be co-hosting the book’s launch, under The Production Front, along with House of Anansi Press at The Mascot on May 10th.

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Ten-plus Cultural Experiences I’m Still Thinking About Now that 2011’s Done with Us

by Carl Wilson

 [With trademark untimeliness, Back to the World is presenting a series of belated, cross-genre, year-end lists, as we did last year, and again loosely on the model of Greil Marcus’s long-running Real Life Rock Top Ten. Margaux posted last week and Chris will post soon. Once again I’ve confined myself to topics I haven’t written about at length here before, or in my year-end chatter in the Slate Music Club (and accompanying Spotify playlist).]

1. Marcus Boon, In Praise of Copying (out, late 2010; read, early 2011)

 The Toronto-based writer, musician and scholar Marcus Boon’s generous intervention (that’s a full, free PDF) over one of the issues of our time (cf SOPA) seemed to echo everywhere – as far out as the viral reproduction of revolutionary courage through Arab countries, and the call-and-response of the “human microphone” of Occupy Wall Street and its own hashtag-breeding copycats.

What I found so moving, even given the book’s digressive wander through a potentially infinite subject (and the foolhardiness of trying to control infinitudes) was its restoration of copying’s many sensual and spiritual connotations in what has been much too abstract and legalistic a debate. The back-and-forth weave and warp of repetition and difference is a pervasive leitmotif of existence, and not just the human. Boon’s treatment is elusive, with no definitive answers, but that means it will reward repeated re-reading, never just a copy of the first time.

2. The sex scenes in Todd Haynes’ Mildred Pierce (March, 2011)

 

There was a lot of debate about what Haynes, one of my favourite American film directors, did in his HBO mini-series with the template of the 1940s melodrama starring, of course, Joan Crawford: Had he evacuated the original film’s queerness, its camp, and left only a portrait of a status-and-materialism-driven woman who brings ruin, reinstating the misogyny of James M. Cain’s 1941 novel? Yes and no. Yes, he was bringing back the sting of the novel’s more radical anti-capitalism. But he was also taking the mini-series’ extra time to push the viewer’s nose far deeper into the mortification (social death, social stiffening) Kate Winslet’s Mildred endures when all the guarantees of the social contract are pulled out from under her by economic-cycle brutality and masculine bad faith, and the contradictions she helplessly generates (chiefly in her daughter, almost earning Evan Rachel Wood’s scenery-masticating performance) in the course of trying to maintain vestiges of her expectations within that outcaste position.

But Haynes also grants Winslet’s Mildred a grace Crawford’s could never taste – full-blown, full-grown sensual gratification, in her leggy, languorous love scenes with Guy Pearce as aristocratic reprobate Monty Beragon, the real sex object of the piece. Granted, the plot ensures this is in many ways another trap, but between them the actors and Haynes refuse that old morality’s to overpower the commandments of skin and light on skin, the manifesto for being and perseverance that an intimate bodily encounter can’t utter but can proclaim. It enacts what camp once did but no longer can: victory within defeat, not just despite but also because of loss, in its unapologetic ensnarement with entropy and other ultimate unfairnesses, against which desire still demands, “Live all you can.”

By making that so vivid, and driven by the will of the “unrespectable” woman, Haynes discredited his own tragedy, asking why a male film figure like George Clooney or Clark Gable (whom Pearce’s Monty directly recalls) can give that same kind of vicarious pleasure and get at best lightly slapped, while Mildred Pierce has to be dragged through the shoals. In this, though the rest isn’t perfect, Haynes really made a melodrama to end all melodrama.

3. WTF with Marc Maron interviewing Bryan Cranston (June 10); Bryan Cranston and Aaron Paul on Breaking Bad (all year)

 

If you measured by the number of hours spent on it in the year, you would conclude my most cherished art form is not music, literature, live performance or even TV, but the podcast. Check my iTunes: I’m currently subscribed to about 65, though the majority are really radio shows, not native to the pod. And the majority of those aren’t mwhusic but talk. Perhaps it’s that I live alone and am comforted by the chatter during cleaning, cooking, trying to go to sleep and other routines (I wish I were better with silence). But it’s also because non-broadcast radio lets people take liberties with talk – that most eternally human of media – that feel fresh and exciting without being consciously experimental and avant. There’s no better example, title down, than Marc Maron’s What the Fuck?! I came to it a little late, compelled by its backstory: A veteran, never breakout comedian who’s struggled with personal demons gets new career success and satisfaction by sitting down with people in his field in his garage and asking them frank, patient questions of craft, d but also how their own flaws and hauntings have affected their stories – empathetically sounding their barriers and/or divulging his admiring but frustrated puzzlement at how they surpass them.

The editions that draw hype tend to be confronting, sensational – a showdown with a hack, an uncomfortable discussion with a friend, a comedy writer confessing an attempted suicide. But I love the quieter talks he has with people about their growth. One of my favourites was with Breaking Bad star Bryan Cranston, and not just because he’s an actor whose work left me wide-eyed over the past several years (as it clearly did Maron). Cranston is at once enormously garrulous and open about his route to his ambitions (he tells stories with theatrical gusto) and humble (not showbiz humble, but humble) and grateful for the improbable fact that his journeyman dues-paying led to an artistic and career jackpot. I listened in early summer and have thought about it at least weekly since.

  

 Bryan Cranston, out of character … and in.

For several months, that was partly because a highlight of each week was the fourth season of Breaking Bad, the best drama on television since The Wire, even better if only because it had the previous show to go by (just as The Wire had The Sopranos). Unlike those two, it isn’t a big ensemble piece. Supporting players are super, but this is a show about two people, Cranston’s Walter White and his protégé (considering how terribly he’s protected, that’s exactly the wrong word): Aaron Paul’s Jesse Pinkman. I have nothing original to add to the accolades: Beyond character and cinematic weave, what’s remarkable is its arc in which a good man becomes very far from good, at first for circumstantial reasons and then for deeply rooted ones, and the audience has to test how far our sympathies can extend, even as we vicariously participate in the rot.

The season finale is the obvious standout, featuring both one of the most ingenious murder scenes ever committed to film or video and an ending many viewers might find it hard to get past (and not just for its dangling plot threads). But three weeks earlier, there was an atypical episode, in which the focus shifted from Walter to Jesse for nearly the whole hour and forced the younger man to find unexpected strengths. It mattered because the question has become whether anyone in this saga will walk away alive with something like an intact soul, and there’s really only one hope left. Here we begin to see that a story that seemed to be about one person and his themes and issues might really be a story about someone and something else. As always: The story of the parents turns into the story of the children, which then turns out to be the story of their children, and the next, and so on. If it doesn’t, that’s when there’s real trouble. (Attention, anyone who compared Occupy Wall Street to Woodstock.)

4. The consolations of comedy: Party Down on Netflix, “Adults in Autumn” (Chris Locke, Kathleen Phillips, Nick Flanagan, 
Rebecca Kohler, 
Jon McCurley, 
Tom Henry
, Glenn Macaulay) at Double Double Land (November), Louis CK at the Sony Centre (October) and Louie, Maria Bamford at Comedy Bar (January), Parks & Recreation, Community, the Comedy Bang Bang podcast …

Along with having become a podcast nerd – and abetted by it – what really struck me in 2011 is that over the past several years I was becoming a comedy nerd. I’m now usually more enthusiastic to go see people say funny things than to hear a concert, or to listen to or watch comedy on my computer than to listen to music. I follow local comics, especially the way-underpublicized Kathleen Phillips, as avidly as I used to follow bands, even here in the greatest musickest citiest of them all-est. I am still puzzling. Perhaps it’s just that a change is as good as a rest, as they say: The comedy nodes in my brain may be less worn-down than the music nodes. Or perhaps there really is more fresh happening in comedy than in music (in Toronto specifically or in general?), or more likely that whatever was new a half-decade ago or more to true comedy nerds finally has become obvious and available to us rabble. (The fact that I still don’t love the Best Show on WFMU is the clinching evidence, right?)

Or as Woody Allen would say, maybe I just needed the eggs. A lot of us had a grim year.

And speaking of eggs, I agree completely with Margaux about the Louie duckling-in-Afghanistan episode.

5. Have Not Been the Same by Michael Barclay, Ian A.D. Jack and Jason Schneider: reissue (June), panel (Soundscapes, Toronto, July) and CD (November)

Have I gotten this far without having to declare any conflicts of interest? No matter, plenty more to come.

Even in this supposedly retromanic age of eternal re-re-return, the bubbles of cultural history with local habitations but no names can easily pop away and leave only stains on the barroom floors. A decade ago, three Canadian music writers, one of them my friend Michael Barclay, tried to guard against that by writing a history of the Canadian music world (mostly indie division) from the mid-‘80s to the mid-‘90s, Have Not Been the Same: The Can-Rock Renaissance. It was a fairly thankless task in 2001, when those scenes were waninh, fractured and with little apparent trace, though since the book mentioned dozens upon dozens of people it sold well enough. Perceptively, though, they later realized the Canadian successes of recent years lent their subject renewed relevance – and that made it incomplete as history. So they undertook many more interviews, updated the individual stories and overall tale with a new introduction and conclusion and brought the book back this year. They held launch concerts and discussions – including a panel at Soundscapes record shop in Toronto with Julie Doiron (ex-Eric’s Trip, current-Julie Doiron), Don Pyle (ex-Shadowy Men, ex-Phono Comb, many more, current Trouble in the Camera Club) and Alison Outhit (ex-Rebecca West, ex-Halifax Pop Explosion, current FACTOR) that was one of the most worthwhile discussions of how musicians and music live and that life has changed I’ve experienced in ages, even (I think) without nostalgia.

Michael’s also curated a companion soundtrack, possibly the first of many, with more recent Can-Rockers playing gems from the book’s era. Which coverers and coverees you like best likely will depend on your own faves: For me, there’s something especially poignant about the Hidden Cameras coaxing out the gentleness of Mecca Normal’s “Throw Silver,” or Richard Reed Parry (of Arcade Fire) and Little Scream slipping into the steamy ether of Mary Margaret O’Hara’s “When You Know Why You’re Happy.” Maps overlaid, outlines of one sunken continent shimmering around the contours of one newer-risen. Lenses, focusing other lenses, or a more vibrant blur.

6. Stand-In (1937) with Leslie Howard, Humphrey Bogart and Joan Blondell, on Turner Classic Movies (August 24)

Not at all new, of course, but new to me when I stumbled upon it on TV in the summer. It’s a bundle of this-but-that: A screwball, Hollywood-skewers-Hollywood comedy that bridges Bogart’s tough-guy and leading-man days, with Busby Berkeley star Joan Blondell (the excuse for its airing, in an evening featuring her) being cutesy-charming but also the brains of the outfit, Leslie Howard stiff and patrician-blinkered but then melting and gaining his senses, and the whole thing ending with a ridiculous/stirring Hollywood labour uprising that gives away its Depression-to-New Deal moment, hard to imagine in many other eras. Apparently the original was more radical still – censored were “a speech about the stifling of competition in the industry and the crushing of independent companies by the majors; and … a speech by Atterbury at the end, in which he says he is going to start a Senate investigation of the motion picture business.”

Here’s a link to the whole movie, as long as it lasts:

It probably stuck with me because the broadcast just preceded the #Occupy moment, but anything mainstream-American that talks explicitly of economic justice without patting itself on the back until its spine breaks (like recent supposed treatments of the financial crisis), frankly, is memorable on its own.

7. The Citizens’ Filibuster (July 28)

Another classic movie came to mind in Toronto a month earlier, on the night of July 28: Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. We mentioned it and pictured it here at the time, but too briefly: The bizarre, nearly-24-hour session of citizen testimony – or, as it became known, the “citizens’ filibuster” – against Rob Ford’s attempt to slash budgets was, just as Torontoist says, one of the truly heroic moments of the year, here or anywhere: Our local mini-Newt’s attempt to force closure became the opposite, a populist force to pry the oyster of debate back open, which led to this month’s still-surprising turnabout, in which Ford’s agenda was, for the time being, trounced.

Culturally, whether you were at City Hall or following it on the simulcast and especially social media, it was incredible civic theatre, in which vivid characters (none more heart-tugging than the one below, but some others close) displayed the eloquence and, more significantly, the expertise of so-called ordinary people who normally aren’t even allowed to pick up the marbles in the political game. It’s a contrast to the ugly pro-death-penalty and anti-immigrant ovations of selected attendees at Republican primary debates, for instance. Don’t let those things kill your faith in humanity. The corpse of that faith is what the vultures feed upon.

8. DJs Debate Club at the Henhouse (March 6)

This entry’s a tad more self-indulgent: For the past few years, the Henhouse on Dundas West in Toronto has been the place that I and a few close friends have gone to get our cheap beers on and make like Jonathan Richman, except in a post-Will-Munro-polymorphic Third Place. Our hosts Katie Ritchie, Jenny Smyth and Vanessa Dunn made us more than welcome, and last spring invited me and pal Michael McManus (yes, the last of the Brunnen-G) to DJ one night under our Henhouse nickname, Debate Club (for our propensity to jawbone loudly about politics till closing time).

On the theme of #occupy-precursors that runs through this list, Michael decided we should intercut tracks of famous political speeches between tracks. It would have been a big hit if it had been six months later. Instead we eventually abandoned poor Mario Savio when cooler (but sweatier) heads prevailed and taught us girls just wanna have Robyn. I hadn’t DJ’d since the last time I supplied Wavelength with an iPod playlist, and had forgotten what a rush it is to play music very, very loud, like conjuring worlds, and sex, and astral projection. (Thanks also to Jacob Zimmer, Small Wooden Shoe and Dancemakers for letting me do it again at a fundraiser in December.)

The Henhouse has changed hands now, sadly for its denizens, end of an era. Ladies, you regularly made a room a festival and a roundup of strays into a small community, as best a bar can do. You’ll be missed, but I’m excited to see what you all do next.

9. Misha Glouberman’s Negotiation Class (winter/spring)

Along with assuming the role of author (along with our comrade Sheila Heti) of The Chairs are Where the People Go (about which I really recommend this Los Angeles Review of Books podcast, along with LARB in general), B2TW associate Misha embarked on another new venture this year: An experienced teacher of many forms of improvisation and facilitator of conferences and events, he began this year giving a class in negotiation and communication born of both his innate inclinations to and his concerted studies of  reason, compromise and low-bullshit ways for people to have difficult conversations.

I took the pilot-workshop version of it last winter, with mostly Misha’s friends in it, at a time that I was navigating some crucial personal and professional transitions; some parts worked out and some didn’t, but I’d been given new tools to break down what was happening and address it with, most of all, relative fearlessness. That’s what much of Misha’s work is about: how to cope with the fear that human exchange sparks, which causes us to act protectively in ways that read as irrational to the very people we want most to understand, and find productive alternatives. Generosity, he shows, is a more winning position – not #winning, but in the sense that there’s usually less substantial conflict than meets the eye. (The urge to win, itself, might be an evolutionary catch-22.) He’s teaching a short, intensive version of the course again next month at the Art Gallery of Ontario.

10. Quite Interesting (QI) with Alan Davies, Bill Bailey, Rob Brydon, Jimmy Carr and Stephen Fry (Sept., 2007)

Back to humour again: This is from a few years ago but I first saw it because over Vietnamese dinner Misha brought up the BBC quiz/chat/comedy show QI, hosted by Stephen Fry, so I spent an afternoon watching clips. And then I hit this, which (beginning at 0:22), makes me laugh helplessly and forgive Britain all its sins. I like to watch it any time I feel overwhelmed, with no straight lines to follow. Or maybe I’ll do it ritually every year, as a colonial amusement, the way northern Europeans watch Dinner for One.

PLUS

Melancholia, especially Charlotte Rampling as the archetypical Bad Mother, and Earth as the even more archetypical Bad Mother; Kirsten Dunst at the Cannes press conference for Melancholia; the BBC series Sherlock, the other BBC series The Hour, and the other (much less smart about Britain, class and war, but still absurdly entertaining) BBC series Downton Abbey; Christian Marclay’s The Clock at Paula Cooper and Alexander McQueen’s “Savage Beauty” at the Met (the two art shows I most regret missing) and “Alexander McQueen” (the song by Tomboyfriend); Ryan Trecartin’s “Any Ever” in Queens (the show I’m gladdest I didn’t miss); the Doug Loves Movies podcast and the (for me, unplayable) Leonard Maltin Game (throughout “Two Oceans 11”); the Slate Culture Gabfest (especially being on an episode, which was a thrill); The Ex with Brass Unbound at Lee’s Palace in May; two concert/tour movies about Canadian artists that I didn’t expect to like but that each made me cry, watching them in immediate sequence, Look at What the Light Did Now (Feist) and We’re the Weakerthans, We’re from Winnipeg (Weakerthans); the saving of Saint Mark’s Bookshop; the Smee jokes in Pat Thornton’s third 24-hour standup marathon at Comedy Bar; Tim Hecker’s pipe-organ concert at the Music Gallery; poems by Michael Robbins and D.A. Powell; John Hawkes and Elizabeth Olsen in Martha Marcy May Marlene; Sandro Perri’s CD launch concerts at the Tranzac in November; Ty Segall at the Wrongbar in NXNE (June); Jeff Mangum at Trinity Saint Paul’s church in Toronto, Aug. 12; discovering this early-1980s scene from a Ron Mann art film featuring Jim Carroll and Jack Layton improbably together, both RIP, #occupymemory; as an epigraph to the year, these lines from “Hindsight,” by Richard Buckner: “Stricken as we stood/ Broken as we made/ Time for make-believe/ Stealing, when we should/ What we couldn’t give away.”

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Filed under books, carl wilson, chris randle, comedy, comics, events, lectures, literature, margaux williamson, movies, music, other, poetry, 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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Kaputt by Destroyer (2011)

by Carl Wilson

Two minutes into “Suicide Demo for Kara Walker,” perhaps the most-talked-about song on Destroyer’s new album, Kaputt, I start getting insistent tugs on my ear from this 35-year-old antecedent (the guitarist in the video even looks a little like Destroyer’s Dan Bejar):

“Lovin’ You” always bedeviled me, with its insipidly fluid bliss and its deeply dubious central assertion, “Lovin’ you is easy ’cause you’re beautiful.” Which makes me want to sing along with Dan on “Suicide Demo” (words provided by artist Kara Walker): “You’ve got it all … wrong. You’ve got it all backwards, girl.”

As the entire tradition of romantic lyric back to Sappho underlines in red ink, being in love with someone especially beautiful is generally not described as “easy.” Khaela Maricich (The Blow) once joked that “Lovin’ You” was the only song she could think of “just about happily being in love with someone and everything’s great and you’re just chillin’ there together”; she mimicked the way Minnie Riperton’s verses trail off into non-verbal babble as proof of how little you can say about that state, if it even exists and isn’t just a utopian lie we tell.

There’s a 1975 glibness in “Lovin’ You”‘s use of the word “beautiful” – yr beautiful, baby, don’t ever change, yr beautiful, I’m beautiful, we’re both so beautiful to me when U walk behind me as I gaze into this mirror naked, upper lip & nostrils caked w/ layer on layer of cocaine, & btw lines we come down on a half-bottle of Jack. Lovin’ U is EZ, when U can get it up tho that’s less & less often…

Less cynically, given its period context, maybe Riperton’s alluding to “Black is beautiful,” staking claim on that utopian story specifically for black men and black women together: given the wreckage slavery and racism have wrought on black families and relationships, an even more utopian, radical proposition than usual. (Worth mentioning here because, through [consensually] appropriating Walker’s words, this is the first Destroyer song I can think of that’s even obliquely about race.)

Like a lot of utopian slogans, “Black is beautiful” always had a difficult undertow: Did it mean that Black Power (as the Angela Davis/Huey Newton image  could imply) belonged to the young and fine, not the aging, broke-ass, wrinkly-mugged, poor, hungry or cranky? Many Sixties ideals were doomed to premature decadence because “don’t trust anybody over 30” tilted against the bodily, biological destiny of the radical subjects themselves.

On a simpler level, the hook of “Lovin’ You” always drove me nuts because of its implicit corollary: On the other hand, lovin’ you would be difficult-to-impossible, because you’re one homely mofo. I’m out of your league. What’s ‘easy’ for me has to flatter my shallow narcissism, the way those glissandos and flutes do. (NB this is the song saying this, not Riperton herself.)

So have at it: Is it easier to love the beautiful? In aesthetics this is the riddle of the Sphinx, with her upper lip and lower nostrils caked in layer upon layer of history, mystification, rejection and body glitter licked off the ski-slope bosom of a life model.

Alexander Nehamas has written, “Beauty is the most discredited philosophical notion – so discredited that I could not even find an entry for it in the index of the many books in the philosophy of art I consulted in order to find it discredited. … For it is the judgment of aesthetic value itself – the judgment of taste – that is embarrassing.”

Before Kaputt, Destroyer seemed a strong partisan of that discomfort, holding that the beautiful – the materially beautiful, the well-made, sensually satiating, seductive, limpid or opulent – is the enemy of love, or at best the frenemy: It wasn’t shut out – this wasn’t noise music; there were melodies, chord voicings, cadences resolving, singers going “ladada,” as well as mentions of pretty girls and Rubies – but those things came in for heavy ribbing and skepticism.

Kaputt’s closest precedent among Destroyer albums to now was Your Blues, his previous “farewell to rock” in favour of more butterfly-wings textures, but because the strings and woodwinds were MIDI simulations they came with their ironies programmed in, their “embarrassment” in Nehamas’ terms: With its laminated surfaces reflecting back the acknowledged tackiness of their prettiness and amiability, the record kept itself on the “right” side of camp (that is, the left side). Kaputt works without that hedge.

People who didn’t like Your Blues called it ugly, jokey, anti-musical, while people who don’t like Kaputt, like some members of the Polaris Prize jury at large, call it “wallpaper music.” Your Blues threatened you with gorgeousness barely enough to lure your feet to the trap door and your neck to the noose. Kaputt just comes on gorgeous and necks with you and leaves you to wonder whether you are now in Heaven or in Hell, or (forget it) Chinatown, Jake.

With an opening track titled for that interzone where all rules are suspended or reversed, we’re put on notice this is still Destroyer here, still Shiva among the aspects of the godhead– the trickster, transformer, prankster, Heath-Ledger’s-Joker of music, the lunging voice darting between levels of rhetoric. Did I ever tell you how I got these scars? – setting in spin a rotating display of mendacity: I got them on the Nile, rescuing Jews from Pharaoh; I bought them from a dominatrix at a hefty price; my mother kissed me too hard as a baby; they’re all self-inflicted with my K-Mart calligraphy pen …

“You terrify the land,” Bejar sings on “Blue Eyes.” “You are pestle and mortar. You’re first love’s New Order, Mother Nature’s Sun, King of the Everglades, Population One … I write poetry for myself, I write poetry for myself. (Oh, baby.)”

I write poetry for myself, so I let it get pretty silly, but for you I’ll make these crystal baubles of sonic costume jewellery, and you can wear them cockeyed or straight.

At last, Destroyer’s roguishness has lost all trace of brattiness. It’s the music of the rake, the seducer for whom the boudoir is the site of both sustenance and cosmic belly-laugh, a game of chance that – and this is both graciousness and ultimate manipulation – he flatteringly assumes his partner(/listener) can play with equally wised-up gusto.

It’s not just a change of style but a reassessment of stakes, as any alteration in an artist’s relation to Beauty has flat-out got to be. After a mid-period of what now looks a bit like a style outliving its agenda, Kaputt transports us to a plane where pre-emptive radical pessimism reconciles with the biological, with the body – which is to say pop music. After all, this is Bejar’s first record after becoming a father (a transition that for a while found him flirting with giving up on music altogether, as we heard on “Making of Grief Point” in 2010), and as he’s pushing 40.

The stakes used to be cultural life-or-death, even though death was almost certain to win; now the stakes are just plain life-and-death, and since there’s no “almost” in how that pans out, the only smart contrarian way to go is to put some life into it, some pleasure principle, some sensual consolation, while not ignoring the social friction, the bumps and scars (did I tell you where I got them?) that come from bodies shoving against each other to claim resources: “Kara Walker” aside even, there are more explicitly political jibes and japes on this Destroyer record than on any since the early tapes, or at least ones that aren’t transposed into jokes about monarchs,  aristocrats and/or the music industry.

The ingredients of the sound are post-glam 1970s like Bryan Ferry and Roxy Music, “Quiet Storm”-style R&B of the kind Riperton presaged (a lot of people, without mentioning “Lovin’ You,” have compared her voice to that of  Sibel Thrasher, the Vancouver soul-gospel singer whose frequent contributions on Kaputt finally bring counterpoint to all the female foils/projections that have dotted Destroyer lyrics), lovers’ rock like Sade, post-punk Nu-Romantic keyboard bands (the sound of Dan’s adolescence)… all post-radical musics for cultures in recovery and all involving  rehabilitations of Beauty, which after each failed revolution sounds so old and long-forgotten that its reappearance is as startling and exotic as a red-shanked douc.

Dave Hickey famously wrote (referring to Liberace) that “good” taste is just the residue of somebody else’s privilege, but that kind of taste can also be the residue of the radicalism of someone who might have borne your own name: a way of reincorporating, altered, what we once rejected and negated, not having known we might need it to survive the aftermath or at least the afterparty. Either way whether those efforts get received as good taste or bad depends upon where the observer stands on our ignoble effrontery in continuing on past a story’s designated end.

Most of those Kaputt influences were savaged by critics in their day, though they’ve retroactively gained cred in our own more ecumenical time. (Which suits Dan fine, as only a foolish artist keeps trying to stay “ahead” stylistically once they’re no longer young, when it’s time to stop trying to be novel and try to be better.) I think in particular of Greil Marcus saying, when asked about Anita Baker (a clear heir to Riperton): “I think Anita Baker is ridiculous. Any time you hear somebody bringing back this kind of genteel, effete black music – the same number the Pointer Sisters pulled in the early ’70s when they gave concerts with ‘Black Tie Recommended’ printed on the tickets – it’s an incident in class politics that has nothing to do with music.”

My friend John has frequently railed about that quote as the epitome of the white hipster critic’s inability to get behind materially underprivileged people’s rational aspiration to comfort, gentility, privilege, all that’s been denied them. John’s gone so far as to call it “hateful” on that level, but I’m more inclined to extend forgiveness for the letdown, Panther-sympathizer, revanchist perspective it comes from, however armchair and half-cocked.

What Marcus overlooks is that aspirational sounds can not only ring of the post-radical but of the post-colonial, decline-of-empire, will-to-justice. In that sense they’re all our recessionary peers: Outside the 10% who control the 50%, who can afford not to aspire now? And who at any time, pushing 40, is not aspirational in the impossible lottery of immortality, of restored youth, of even imagining having the will, much less the liberty to “chase cocaine through the back rooms of the world”? All music becomes aspirational given world enough and time, so you don’t have to call it retro, as you can always have your nostalgia in advance, a case of déjà-preview: That’s why instead of “yacht rock” or “dad rock” I prefer to call Kaputt “positive witch house.”

Kaputt can admit all those urges, and put them in quotes-within-quotes, without finding them justifiable. What’s interesting is how many people, aside from a few wallpaper-sayers, seem to get it: When I saw a Destroyer video on MuchMusic for the first time the other night, namely Dawn Carol Garcia’s ticklish video for the title track, I said in my Facebook status update, “2003’s head just exploded.” Maybe what people are liking is just the beauty, the glimmer of the production values, like the old folks at Sulimay’s. But I think they’re also liking the taste of poison within the sugar pill, that metallic edge, the familiarity of the bitter.

As Nehamas goes on to say: “Unlike a conclusion, [beauty] obeys no principles; it is not governed by concepts. It goes beyond all the evidence, which cannot therefore justify it, and points to the future. Beauty, just as Stendhal said, is a promise of happiness.”

A promise it has no intention of keeping, unless the promise is enough. Which it isn’t. Lovin’ Kaputt is easy, because it’s a beautiful loser, but beauty is only the beginning of terror, coolly declining to destroy us today. One more day. At a time.

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