Category Archives: other

A New Canadian Myth for New Canadian Times (By Sheila Heti)

 

image thanks to thirdi blog

 

The Globe and Mail—the newspaper I saw my father reading every day when I was growing up—published a profile of me this past weekend. In it, a familiar Canadian story was told: Canadian artist, neglected in Canada, finds acclaim in the States, and only then at home. While there is certainly some truth to this, and a lot of what I said in the piece seemed to corroborate it, I made a point of telling the journalist that my story feels different to me, as does the story of my latest book’s publication, and that I think it’s time for a new story.

Of course, what one says in an interview is always used to support the myth the journalist has—or in this case, that Canada generally has of Canadian artistic success. But it’s not precisely the case that n+1, or the article in the Observer, or the piece in the Guardian, caused the success of the book. Especially in a place like Canada, the ones who facilitate success are primarily the other artists.

While it seems from the article like I have been neglected, the truth is I have had tons of support over the years, more support than any artist could hope for – from writers, painters, musicians and poets.

It isn’t (and I suspect it never has been) the presumed engines of Canadian culture—The Globe and Mail, the Giller Awards, the Governor General’s Awards, etc.—that make Canadian artistic culture. My book was tepidly reviewed in the Globe three years ago. I have never received a Canadian award.

Meanwhile, during the seven years I was working on this novel, Margaux Williamson, my artistic collaborator, spent hundreds of hours reading drafts and giving me notes. I received feedback on drafts from the theatre director Chris Abraham, the novelist Christine Pountney, the artists Shary Boyle and Leanne Shapton, Coach House editor Alana Wilcox, Vancouver novelists Lee Henderson and David Chariandy, former CBC producer and writer Kathryn Borel, the artist Sholem Krishtalka, Geist editor Stephen Osborne, I could go on and on (the poet Ryan Kamstra, the essayist Mark Greif…). Rawi Haage lent me his Montreal apartment so I could finish an edit there. I have never received so much support in my life. These were people with their own work to do. But they helped me. As we all help each other.

The real story about my book and its “success,” it seems to me, is how it was supported by people who relied on their own judgments, without external validation, who influenced its shape.

The years I spent on my book weren’t years spent alone in my apartment, but a time when I spent weeks touring through Europe with the Toronto- and Berlin-based band, The Hidden Cameras (even though I’m a crummy musician, they still put me on stage with an instrument). I worked long hours in Margaux’s painting studio, travelled to the States to meet fellow writers and artists, and participated in the activist projects of Dave Meslin and the Toronto Public Space Committee, all of whom I learned from, whose work and thoughts developed my art and changed its direction.

We live in a place where the official rewards aren’t so grand, but that means something else happens: Artists slide between mediums, they work on each others’ projects, and new forms emerge. I often think of how the ethos here makes it easy to even find someone to rip tickets at the door of your show. We put hours into each others’ art, despite (or perhaps because of) the fact that the only rewards we can count on are the rewards of creating, the pleasures of doing it together, and the satisfaction of being in each other’s audience.

It’s a rich, complex, and intelligently critical world we inhabit: a world that produces great art, and that does not burn brightest when the CBC or the Globe take notice, or when the Americans or Brits do. It’s a world populated by writers and artists who give help and recognition without scoping the horizon for whether the arbiters are near. We are the arbiters. Whether the myth of Canadian achievement includes this world or not, this world exists. It’s true.

15 Comments

Filed under books, guest post, other

Movie Stars and Buffy the Vampire Slayer – A Summary

by Margaux Williamson

My friend Sheila send me this link this morning, with the subject header “this is kinda fascinating (a TINY bit)”.

It’s a “news” clip that attempts to make a story about a rivalry between two serious young female movie stars.

Then she sent me another one with the subject header “and then this”.


It made me think of the end of the television series Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Knowing my friend hadn’t seen the show and probably never would, I emailed her a summary which I’ll post below. If you are saving Buffy the Vampire Slayer television for the future,  NOTHING BUT SPOILERS AHEAD.
_________

The hole of Hell (in California) is getting too big and all the hell creatures are coming out. It’s too much for Buffy (the vampire slayer) to handle alone. If she can’t handle it, the Earth will turn to Hell.

She uses a magical device to meet with the ancient men who gave the first young girl (the first One True Slayer) all the power to fight evil. The ancient men initiate a ritual that will give Buffy more demonic power. She’s in chains I think. She’s so mad at the men. She’s mad that they made her the slayer, ’cause she never wanted to be. She’s mad that she has to fight and that she’s lonely ’cause no one’s like her. She’s distrustful of the men. She doesn’t want to lose more of her humanity. Her temper makes her lose the vision and abruptly stop the ritual.

Back at home, her and her friends try to be positive: “It’s okay, Buffy, we’ll find another way.” But everyone, including herself, suspects they blew the one chance of  getting enough power. A few episodes go by. People are miserable, there’s fighting, no one’s trusting Buffy and she’s starting to hate everyone.

During this time, they have gathered as many of the “potential slayers” together that they could find (15 year old girls who are not powerful but could be someday if Buffy dies) and they’re all (with Buffy’s crew) staying at Buffy’s house. The “potential slayers” are there because the people who want hell on earth had started to kill them one by one to ensure the end of the line for these ONE TRUE SLAYERs that keep the earth from turning into hell. The potential slayers are kind of useless and they don’t like Buffy since she’s never around and is kind of miserable and bossy.

The Hellmouth is getting bigger and will open fully in two days. Buffy and her friend Willow, who is a witch, have a plan. Willow will override the original spell that the ancient men cast and attempt to give the power to all the latent slayers. They don’t think about it too much other than that if those girls also have power, they might be able to stop hell. No one wants them to do this, to override the ancient laws laid down by these men, but it’s their  only chance and they have nothing to lose. Everyone is leaving town, normal people and demons alike. No one wants to be near the Hellmouth.

Willow casts the spell just as Buffy and the potential slayers and their friends all enter the Hellmouth. It works: the potential slayers become powerful and strong enough together to fight the Hellmouth and stop it from becoming big enough to devour Earth.

The side effect of Willow’s spell is that all the potential slayers all over the world are suddenly woken up and given power  – the ones that they couldn’t find or didn’t know about, hundreds of girls. The characters don’t know about this side effect, but the camera shows all these girls all over the world “waking  up.”
They win and ride away in a school bus with their town collapsed like under a meteorite. And Buffy’s lonely problem of being completely alienated from others because she is so strong is gone too. All (the ones who survived) her equals around her.

2 Comments

Filed under margaux williamson, other, TV/video

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

by Carl Wilson

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

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

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

Filed under carl wilson, other, Tuesday Musics

Can We All Get Along!? (By Steve Kado)

Margaux Williamson: Steve Kado is one of my favourite artist people in town – who is sometimes not in town. He has startled and delighted me while standing on stage with a microphone and he is also very fun to talk to while not on stage.  He doesn’t write often and I asked if he would write something for Back to the World. He sent a post from L.A.

proxy.storify.com_-598x412

 

 

By Steve Kado

My friends and I were driving from Los Angeles to Tijuana to go to an art opening. Everyone in the car was involved in art to different degrees. One of our number was actually in the show we were going down to see. Three were from Australia and New Zealand; I was/am from Toronto. In San Diego we picked up Scott, a genuine American, who was in town visiting his mom – normally he lives in the desert where he builds his own house and designs books. At the same time, that weekend, there was a massive manhunt on for Christopher Dorner, the disgruntled victim of discrimination and racism within the LAPD who had had enough and gone on a cop-killing shooting spree. Confusingly, he did not exclusively kill cops, but also family members of cops.

Being that everyone in the car was from the arts, news-awareness was not always a strong point. Also, some people were travelling in America, not residents or even one-time-residents, and we all know how hard it is to keep up with the news when you’re on vacation. Unable, somehow, to bear listening to any news on the radio, we heard no broadcasts or music and tried to discuss the issue amongst ourselves. Earlier I had read that manifesto Dorner wrote. I would say that it was very easy to be sympathetic to him until he got to the killing part, and especially when he broadened the killing part to include family members of cops.

We were fuzzy on the excesses of the LAPD reaction. We had all heard something to the effect that they had shot up several (one? two? three?) different trucks, all because they feared Dorner was inside. In every case they had been wrong – Dorner was not in either of the vehicles they did in fact shoot at, neither vehicle was the make, model or colour of Dorner’s, and in one case the occupants were not even the right gender or number, being instead two Latina women doing a paper route. The asymmetrical and seemingly random armed response by the police force towards “trucks” as a category did, regrettably, seem to support aspects of Dorner’s manifesto.

Reflecting on it all now, one must also say that the silence about what happened to the police officers who reacted so excessively towards widely varying vehicles and people (at least in the news I’m getting) leads one to believe that perhaps nothing has really changed since the Rodney King and Rampart division scandals that Dorner mentions in his screed.

The mantra-like repetition of the phrase “cop killer” by others in conversation, before the car trip and during, led to the first attempt to hear music – Amy put John Maus’ Cop Killer on her phone. Playing out of the tinny speakers, all we could hear over road noise was the incessant repetition of the phrase “cop killer.” Scott put on the Body Count song of the same title but somehow it didn’t stick, despite arguably being more relevant to the specific situation and police force in question. All that night and the next day we would gloomily intone, a la John Maus, those two words.

After the opening we went to a very democratic dancing area. All types, ages and sizes were out there, giving it to the parquet flooring. We got very drunk. Then, around 2 am, a group of men with camouflage balaclavas, assault rifles and (perversely) GoPro cameras strapped to their heads trooped in. Taking one look at our half-antipodean gang the armed men (who seemed to be police) decided that we were of no consequence to them. They proceeded to ignore us while many of the other patrons in the bar were spread out against the walls, searched, forced to empty their pockets and line everything they owned up in neat lines on the ground and other such things. Finding nothing of interest, the armed men left, the music came on again a bit louder than before and things continued as if nothing had happened.

Back in LA, days later, Travis and I are walking from the Gold Line up to his house on a hill in Lincoln Heights. Every yard on the street he lives on is fenced in and contains between 2-4 dogs. These dogs are never walked, vary widely in size and do nothing but run in their yards and bark. The first day I arrived and woke up at Travis’, the first living animal I saw was the chihuahua across the street vigorously humping the terrier across the street. Choral waves of barking follow the passage of anything human or mechanical up or down the street. Acoustically, it is close, for me, to hell. Tonight, however, the dogs are quiet. “Cop killer,” we confide to each other, awed by the night’s silence. Almost immediately, a slow moving police car cruises by, checking us out with its search light. Neither of us match the profile of Christopher Dorner: Travis is a six-foot-something white beanpole and I am a less tall half-Asian person wearing a large backpack with huge glasses. Neither of us is an ex-reservist, neither of us seems interested in killing cops. The cops drive off but then circle back a minute later, just to make sure that we haven’t somehow merged Voltron-style into a cop-killing ex-reservist.

Later that week, the entire saga came to an end. Dorner was killed in a fire started by incendiary smoke grenades lobbed into the mountain cabin that he was hiding out in. He shot at and killed some more police before the fire got him. This was, more or less, how we all expected this to end. Watching CNN’s coverage of the minute details of one of Dorner’s police victims’ funerals in a Vietnamese restaurant, Travis and I try and make sense of a military ritual where a horse is led around with a pair of boots lodged backwards in the stirrups. It looks like someone had been riding a horse backwards and then vanished, leaving their boots behind. Neither of us can hear the CNN anchors explaining this over the din of noodles and slurping that fill the air. Everything from the emergence of a disgruntled ex-cop on a killing spree to the excessive reaction of the police once threatened and the inevitable Waco-like showdown felt grimly pre-recorded. But no one told us about the boot-thing that would happen at the end.

Comments Off on Can We All Get Along!? (By Steve Kado)

Filed under events, guest post, music, other, TV/video, visual art

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.

borgen-greenland

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.

deadauthors

 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.

eveningpalace

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.

Girls_logo

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.)

girlstitle06

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.

girlstitle07

 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.

girlstitle2

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.)

GIRLS

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?”

girlstitle4

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.

musicbox

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.

EddiePepitonecreditrebeccarotenberg_jpg_627x325_crop_upscale_q85

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.

pilch

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.

monica-bill-barnes-and-anna-bass

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.

yss1

2 Comments

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

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.

3 Comments

Filed under carl wilson, literature, movies, music, other

Announcement: Gone Fishin’, or, Squeezing Out the Last of Summer’s Lemons

For the next couple of weeks, the Back to the World crew is buggin’ out for the territories – whether to the Yukon, the Muskokas, the former Lenape lands of Manna-Hata or the vast unexplored tracts of our inner lives – and will be pointedly ignoring you. Please use this time to indulge in activities you think we might not approve of. See you in September. xo

Comments Off on Announcement: Gone Fishin’, or, Squeezing Out the Last of Summer’s Lemons

Filed under carl wilson, chris randle, margaux williamson, other