Tag Archives: actors?

On the Genre of “In Conversation”: David Byrne and Cory Doctorow, Authors at Harbourfront Centre, Toronto, Sept. 19, 2012

(Picture swiped from Hazlitt.)

by Carl Wilson

There were some high points to the staged discussion this week in Toronto between musician/much-else David Byrne and author/Internet activist Cory Doctorow, on the occasion of Byrne’s tour for his terrific-sounding book How Music Works. But they didn’t stop the feeling that this conversation shouldn’t have taken place in this form  at all.

For example, Byrne recounted a conversation with his 22-year-old daughter about copyright, in which he said that under current rules his work would go on supporting her financially long after he was ­dead, and that he thought this was kind of a bad thing, both for the art (which would not join the public domain as it should) and (he implied) for her own autonomy. Sorry, honey!

For his part, Doctorow passionately made a case that the business model that evolved in the 20th century for musical cover versions – the original creators can’t prevent anyone from covering their songs as long as they’re paid a royalty – should in fact be a model for how all copyright, especially online, works. He elegantly argued that music as a human practice long predates the existence of commercial markets for it, and that the only sane way to develop systems of regulation is to make them true to the spirit of the historical norms that surround it, such as that anyone ought to be able to sing any song, in public, and that any reasonable definition of public in the 21st century includes, for example, YouTube.

But there were assymetries in their conversational style that made for an uncomfortable evening, and not in a particularly enlightening way. Byrne is an artist whose social awkwardness (although much mellowed by age) is part of his essential makeup, as is his logical but lateral thinking, and his kind of savant-ish gift for deriving abstract proposition from experience via free-associative rumination. (It’s how he finds himself a city, picks a building that he wants to live in – it’s over there – water flowing underground, into the blue again.) And while he’s a very savvy user of technology for someone of his generation, I don’t think he has immensely much to tell us about the Internet that any intelligent person who’s been paying attention doesn’t also know.

Doctorow, meanwhile, is a professional opinion-giver, a whip-smart advocate for strong positions on contemporary technology and society. Where Byrne conversates a bit like a chickadee lighting from twig to palm with a beakful of seed, Doctorow expounds like an eloquent atheist preacher at the digital pulpit.

Guess which one took up most of the verbal space? Not the person most of the audience was there to hear. As I joked afterwards, when a lot of the audience heard the publicity for a conversation between David Byrne and Cory Doctorow, they heard, “David Byrne and Mwah-mwah-blah-blah-blah.” (Insert Peanuts teacher voice/Far Side “Ginger” cartoon here.)

That’s no slight against Doctorow. The situation did him the greater disservice, making much of the audience turn against him, frustrated they weren’t hearing more from the better-known personality (at least in the demographic that is likely to attend a $25-ticketed literary conversation). No one was going to hold it against David Byrne.

Much beyond the specific miscasting of these two as conversational partners for an audience (I’m sure as conversational partners on their own they’d have a great time), there are general lessons here.

A while ago, I was very kindly brought out to Portland to do a presentation about my work to a university audience. Even more kindly, the organizers thought that since I’d come all that way, we should put on another public event in town. Who else should be on the bill? Portland has a lot of interesting personalities, and to my surprise after some casting about, Frank Black (aka Charles Thompson, aka Black Francis of the Pixies) agreed to participate.

Come that night, even though the themes of our conversation were organized around my book, of course most people who came to the show were there to see Frank Black (in the Q&A they kept trying to get him to sing songs). I was the “Mwah-mwah-blah-blah-blah” on that bill. The only real option for the relatively obscure critic-author on stage with the famous musician was to fall into the role of his interviewer. Charles was extremely gracious and I really enjoyed the experience on many levels, but ultimately, as an event purportedly about my book, it didn’t make much sense.

Let’s derive a few rules of thumb from these stories. (I’m indebted to post-show conversation partners, Misha Glouberman, Chris Frey, Rebecca Payne, Emily Keeler and Charles Yao.) They may even apply to life beyond staged events.

a) When two people are going to be “in conversation,” in public, they ideally should be about equally familiar to the audience. Or something about the situation might mean that they each attract half a crowd, to whom one is familiar and the other is obscure and vice-versa, and your goal might be to introduce these two publics to one another.

b) The subject matter should be something in which they’re both fluent, though hopefully from different angles. (It also should be neither unhelpfully general nor smotheringly specific. A pointed question is a good starting point. The Harbourfront event’s question was “Wassup Internet?” Enough said.)

c) When that’s not possible or desirable for some reason, don’t play the less-well-known person for a patsy. The simplest thing might be to say upfront that they’re interviewing the better-known person. Bonus points: A very good trick can be to have the better-known person be billed as interviewing the less-known person. This can bestow a glow of generosity to the whole proceeding.

d) If that’s not what you want, there is a solution: a moderator, who relieves the speakers of visible responsibility (and blame) for guiding the conversation. A good moderator will help keep the share of time in balance. A really good moderator can also lend shape to a conversation that might otherwise ramble on endless tangents. A great moderator can do all that while seeming invisible.

e) If all else fails, you can alleviate a great many sins by bringing the audience into the conversation. At heart why should a question-and-answer period be so much shorter than the period speakers spend deciding the subject matter? The crowd is often much more dynamic. Obviously, again, a moderator needs to keep the Q&A on track, but I’d be as happy to go to a show that was all Q&A and zero meandering speaker as vice-versa.

In fact, the nicest moment the whole night was when a very young man came up and asked Byrne if he could repeat the name of the song he’d said he heard as a young man himself, whose sound “let him know there was something else out there.” Byrne paused for a moment, confused, and then answered, “Oh, you mean by the Byrds?” I think so, the young man said. And then very carefully copied in pen on his notepad, syllable by syllable, echoing Byrne’s answer out loud: “Mis-ter… Tam … bour… ine… Man?” In case we needed reminding that you can never assume worlds overlap. (People laughed, but it was just amazingly sweet.)

Ultimately, any form of entertainment that solely consists of somebody or somebodies speaking, if they are not just telling jokes, is dicey. It is only so much fun to listen to people talk and not to talk back, unless it’s very lively and engaging. There are a million ways for it to go wrong and the only way for it to go right is for someone to think through, carefully and conscientiously, “Just what is this going to be like?” Otherwise it is dubious that it should be done at all.

And this is worth talking about right now because these kinds of staged conversations and lectures and such have retaken a central place in our culture – the decline of print and rise of the digital-virtual somehow combining to generate a keener hunger for physical presence and non-fiction discourse than previously in my lifetime, like a return to the days of the chalk talk and Mark Twain. And, as it was then, it’s becoming one of the few ways writers can make a living. If that’s how it’s going to be, it should itself be a kind of art, not an afterthought.

PS: If you’re interested in this general subject, this series of video chats between Misha Glouberman and speakers’ agent David Lavin might be worth watching.

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Filed under books, carl wilson, events, lectures, music

Tuesday Musics: “All Women Are Bitches,” Fifth Column, 1992

by Carl Wilson

All excited to go see Kevin Hegge’s documentary He Said Boom (that’s a great interview about it) on Toronto queercore/riotgrrrl-goddamnothers Fifth Column tonight in Hot Docs in Toronto. Was looking for the mid-8os zine/7″ flavour, but didn’t feel satisfied, and this is the better visual, but finally went for the hit.

(Tuesday Musics will get less nostalgic someday, promise.)

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Filed under carl wilson, movies, music, Tuesday Musics

Vagabond (1985) – written and directed by Agnès Varda

by Margaux Williamson

(My friend Amy Lam asked if I wanted to go see this at the Bell Lightbox in Toronto. I had seen it before, but only once on my television. We ran into our friend Jon Davies in the theatre and sat next to him. After the movie Jon told us that this particular Vagabond screening had a no-popcorn-allowed policy. Amy and I were pretty surprised by this information though we hadn’t wanted any popcorn.)


Vagabond is about a young female drifter named Mona who lives mostly in a tent that she carries on her back, having abandoned the accepted needs, requirements and rules of polite society. Vagabond could also easily be described as a movie about filmmaker Agnès Varda’s curiosity with a young female drifter. It is one of Varda’s first movies to combine a documentary approach with fictional content – an interest that eventually drew her out of the “French New Wave Legend” category and into the “Influential Contemporary Genius” category.

The movie begins with Mona’s dead body lying in the cold landscape of a French vineyard. Varda tells us, from behind the camera, that this young woman seemed to have come from nowhere and that now she is gone without anyone coming to claim her body. Varda tells us that she wants to know what her story was – as best as it can be understood. She says she wants to gather information from the people who came across Mona in her drifting in order to find Mona’s story.

And so we start again – with the living Mona coming out of the water. The movie follows the rest of her actions and her interactions (and the testaments of those who interacted with her) until her death. It all takes place in the south of France. Some of the interview subjects offer their judgments of Mona and reveal their prejudices – others express admiration and curiosity. These reactions may not be surprising, but it is compelling that most of the admiration and curiosity comes from the women, old and young. Many of the performers are non-actors. Perhaps it is because Varda is so adapt at directing “play” that the performances from the non-actors fit in so seamlessly with the “actors” and with the loose and direct style of the whole movie. There is a real sense that everyone is “at play” at telling an incredibly serious story.

The characters include Mona’s employers for a short time, lovers for a brief moment, hitched rides that end quickly, and casual companions who are easily lost. These characters end up circling each other, too, at different times and places. It starts to look like a small world with cause and effect. We see a community being created through Mona even as she holds herself away from it. These intricately webbed interactions seem a little bit more fairy tale than realistic but we understand this fairy tale is based on evidence from the real world. Along with Varda, we are telling ourselves a story about Mona too. It is often challenging avoiding the human tendency to make stories – to make order out of random interactions. This movie does not repress the urge to connect the dots. It is the movie’s primary pleasure.

In the narrative hunt to learn who Mona is, we start to see a map of the south of France as traced by Mona – the rich people, the labourers, the small towns, the vineyard landscapes. Mona doesn’t let anyone (not even the audience) into her thoughts and feelings. We feel grateful for this, grateful for this expanse of land outside human neurosis.

We feel grateful too that Varda is more curious about Mona than pitying. Maybe it’s because Mona wants no help, represses nothing and desires little that there is a notable lack of tension around her. Her brutal honesty and lack of social discretion and generosity do her no favours – we see her get kicked out early from a ride because she insults the driver’s car, unprompted. But we also know that she wasn’t really going anywhere anyway so it made no difference that she got kicked out. Her lack of repression combined with her lack of need creates a palatable absence of social anxiety – at least for Mona and for us in the audience who may be inclined to feel sorry for her.

The original French title for this movie translates as “with no roof and no law”. Unfortunately, living without rules comes with its own joyless burden. Boredom trails Mona’s lack of social anxiety like a disease. It is boring to not need anything – to not give anything. We only see Mona’s desire ignited, and boredom lifted, on the rare occasions that she drifts by a radio and hears rock n’ roll.

Like the differing opinions of Mona help by the characters she comes across, the audiences will have a million different opinions about Vagabond. For me, it made me think that too much freedom from society can feel less like rock n’roll and a lot more like a muddy, boring entropy.

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Filed under margaux williamson, movies

B2TW’s 100,000th Word Party: Guests Announced!

Last month, we announced an overdue launch party for B2TW. It’s happening on March 23, at Double Double Land; $5 will get you in the door. And now we can reveal the interesting locals who’ll be meeting for the first time onstage:

Ryan Kamstra and Alex Lukashevsky will talk about writing songs not like a man.

Jon McCurley and Michael McManus will talk about acting.

Shary Boyle and Jordan Tannahill will talk about fantasy lands (on Earth or elsewhere).

All this plus drinks, chatting, dancing (courtesy of DJ Daniel Vila) and five-minute choreographic lessons from Amelia Ehrhardt. (Topics, lines and motives of conversation are up to you.) Chris will be the host, but what will our 100,000th word be? Come and find out!

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

The Bands that Don’t Reform, by Antony Harding and Darren Hayman

by Carl Wilson

Hefner, in their salad days, with singer Darren Hayman at left, drummer Ant Harding second from right.

I’m beavering away on my lecture for next week’s 2011 Pop Conference in Los Angeles, where both Chris and I will be presenting among tons of other prominent nerdz. I’ll be schematizing the various ways artists have violated or repositioned the “fourth wall” in their music and how that may or may not relate to reality TV, creative nonfiction and other recent phenomena. I’m not sure if this example is going to fit into the talk (it’s a bit slight) but it tickled me to stumble across it.

Darren Hayman (last seen on B2TW posting a song a day in January) has just put up a single that he recorded with his ex-Hefner bandmate Antony Harding a couple of years ago, “The Bands that Don’t Reform.” The meta-reflexive-whatchamacallit of the project is evident in the title, of course: Here are two members of a band that’s not reforming nevertheless semi-reuniting,  and flirting with the subject in an era when many groups of their ’90s vintage such as Pavement and the Pixies were getting back out on the road to finally get a payday proportionate to their reputations.

But the wink gets more strobe-like in velocity on the very pretty song itself, which turns out to be the story of a couple in the throes of disillusion: “Something here ain’t right/ I loved you at first sight, so why don’t I love you tonight?” They run down all the traits that are driving them apart and reach out in desperation (“tired of getting no sleep”) to “count the things we both believe,” of which there seems to be only one: “We love the bands that don’t reform.”

It could read as a pretty thin joke about a couple of those aforementioned nerdz realizing that they only have their petty music-fanatic dogma left in common, but there’s a second, more bittersweet layer: If they don’t think even the relatively minor business of a rock band trying to reunite has any hope of a good result, then why are they trying to glue together a couple of split-up hearts?

These scenarios seem to melt into each other as the song goes on; many details involve driving from place to place and having mishaps (though also seeing beautiful scenery) like a band on tour. As they explain elsewhere, the love story is a camouflage: The song is about how “they were both crazy when they were in Hefner,” and aren’t crazy anymore, and so won’t ever take the chance of starting that project up again.

Which is another mirror-within-a-mirror: In the song, they’re the audience not wanting their favourite bands’ selfish profit- or glory-seeking to spoil memories of things past; but behind the half-opened fourth wall, they’re musicians with private reasons not to reunite though their fans persist in wanting them to.

Although they don’t say reunite; they say reform, with its other meaning of  shedding bad old habits, becoming a healthier, more law-abiding citizen, not crazy anymore. So the song whispers under its breath, “You don’t want us back like that, anyway, reconstituted as some bland grownup working unit. You want us crazy.”

As Bill Hicks once put it, “When did mediocrity and banality become a good image for your children? I want my children listening to people who fucking rocked! I don’t care if they died in pools of their own vomit! I want someone who plays from his fucking heart! ‘Mommy, the man Bill told me to listen to has a blood bubble on his nose.’ Shut up and listen to him play!”

On the other hand,  Bill Hicks is dead, and while it was cancer not the drugs and alcohol and cigarettes, it may be his own reform came too late. Besides, Hefner were never exactly the trashing-hotel-room types; they were the critics’-darlings-who-look-and-sound-like-critics kinda band.

So this song sees both sides, tells its ambiguous story with a loping, lullaby-like lilt rather than a Hicks-like roar. They still play from their hearts; those hearts are just calmer, and heavier, now, and they play them as they lay, and let sleeping bands lie, in both senses of the word, as we ought to expect by this point.

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Exit Through the Gift Shop – a movie by Banksy, starring Thierry Guetta

by Margaux Williamson

(I rented this movie recently and didn’t watch it. Then I saw it lying on my friend Carl Wilson’s coffee table and asked to take it home. I managed to not watch it again but did pay some more overdue movie money. More recently, I ended up watching it one night as it came through my television from the internet while I sat on my bed with three friends. We all liked it more than we thought we would. I think. )


We start out in Exit through the Gift Shop with a lot of amateurish, rough and beautiful video footage. It has supposedly been shot by the star of the movie, a mustachioed and side-burned Frenchman living in California. The Frenchman is named Thierry. He is obsessed first with videotaping everything in his daily life and then with taping famous street artists at work. His obsession does not come with discipline but the years of it has lead to a hoard of unwatched videotapes, the casual neglect of his wife and children, and an introduction to the elusive British artist Banksy. Banksy is an artist who works anonymously and has an unconfirmed identity. In the movie we meet him but do not see his face.

Banksy (the more disciplined and purposeful obsessive) encourages Thierry to make a movie out of the videotapes. Thierry comes up with an old-fashioned avant-garde mess. After Banksy see the video, he encourages Thierry to leave the tapes with him and let him see what he could do with them. He encourages Thierry to take a break and maybe have an art show. As Thierry initiates a giant art show of his creation under the name Mr. Brainwash, Banksy makes Exit through the Gift Shop.

Exit through the Gift Shop is presented as a documentary. We see bits of Thierry’s sweet private life as shot by him. We are told stories about the narrative by Thierry and Banksy and also by the American street artist Shepard Fairey. We watch the pretty remarkable collected footage of street artists in action. When Banksy takes over the movie, we watch Thierry try to be an artist, to put his tag over other artists work, to put on his art show. We watch the public line up and buy his work.

I have read one movie critic who saw Exit through the Gift Shop as a straight up documentary and another, as a complete hoax. My default viewing position for most movies involves being comfortable being “a sucker” who is often mesmerized by story and flashing lights, as well as taking pleasure in my subjective position that often has no access (or admittedly, curiosity) about the “authentic” origin or intention of the work that I’m watching.

What helps even more in the case of Exit through the Gift Shop is that in all conceivable possibilities for how this movie was made, it is pretty easy to see that someone with a talented and thoughtful hand was making the most of their resources.

Imagine if the movie began with a room full of videotapes with the creator explaining that they had gathered hundreds of hours of footage of street art, shot by a mess of street-artist and their friends, and was now going to try to make something that the world should see.

Sometimes a lie wastes our time less and gives us more. Even if the movie is 100 percent true, Banksy’s nudging of Thierry to create an art show and leave him with the footage is a construction. A way of making art in the world from real things in the world. Pretty similar to what Banksy got himself famous for.

In Exit through the Gift Shop, we see a room full of videotapes, shot by one man, a man obsessed but, unfortunately, also overwhelmed. Here we demand order or crave it. Please, we think, make some sense of this man’s obsession. Free the disciplined artists caught by this fool.

I should mention that this fool has true gifts. In one scene as he sits in a backyard, looking at the camera and grasping for words to explain the feelings he had when he met Banksy for the first time – the performance is beautiful. Whether he is an actual street-art obsessive fan, or an amiable friend improvising, or France’s great actor – he nailed it.

The movie is accessible, clear, humorous, thought-provoking and entertaining. Or, to say it another way as one critic did, nothing new! But that is the wonderful thing about some great art – especially great street art. Communicating pain, politics and playfulness with clarity, lightness and charm should never be discounted as old-hat. It is always the hardest trick.

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Filed under margaux williamson, movies, visual art

How Should a Person Be, Teenager Hamlet and Don’t Go to School: MFA, Oct. 14, 2010

by Carl Wilson

Tonight, in a couple of hours, three of my closest friends are holding a launch party for the results of their three respective long-term projects, a novel and a movie and an album.

They all examine the relationship of life to art, using the people and places right around them as their subjects and sources. (It’s less obvious with the album, but we tend to forget that almost always when a band plays, we’re listening to a set of dynamic relationships in space; the “community band” element of Tomboyfriend emphasizes that.) They also served as each others’ characters and aides-de-camp.

The launch party takes place in a bar basically across the street from the apartment where I lived in the years they worked on their projects. And that seems apt. I was a participant too: I played a plump, pasty-skinned, city-slickened swamp ghost in the play-within-the-movie, the “ex-husband” around the peripheries of the action of the novel, and the music critic doing what he can do for friends-within-a-band. But mostly I was in another room, at middle distance, framed by a window, finishing my own project, my own book about art and life, which likewise involved them, though mostly less visibly. I almost wish I hadn’t finished it so long ago so I could be launching it tonight too. Instead, I marked the occasion by moving out of that apartment.

There are many tests and lessons involved in being a close part but not a collaborator in other people’s projects. Some have to do with ego, with the way the bubble can envelop you in warm inclusion but then pop you out into chilly dispossession. It’s good for the metabolism to get used to the coming-and-going.

More importantly it’s really educational to be sampled – that is, to be reproduced, in snippets, to be recontextualized and rewritten, to meet a blurry third-gen doppleganger who sounds more like someone else. Most of us aren’t 1970s funk musicians so we’re probably more accustomed to being on the other side. We may be accustomed to being linked or quoted in social media, but being sampled is a more intense sense of self-displacement. To adapt to your life being sampled may be a 21st-century necessity.

That it’s a little harder than you expect gives you sympathy for some of those older artists who take the copyright issue so much more personally than the scope of the financial issues involved. There’s the nightmare vision of being disassembled and reassembled atom by atom in a Star Trek transporter, but put back together in an utterly wrong order. (See also Cronenberg’s The Fly.) Or the subtler nightmare of being reassembled perfectly and yet no longer being “right.” Yet it is also deeply meditative, allowing oneself to be copied, mistranslated: When you think, “Wait, that’s no longer myself,” the next natural step is to wonder whether it was yourself to begin with and whether there is such an animal as yourself or whether you would recognize it if you met it.

So sweetly intoxicating to dare to think not, especially when a crowd of people are daring it with you (out of bravado, perhaps, too proud to be the one to say no, but it doesn’t really matter why, only that you did). It’s becoming the done thing, perhaps, in commercial and fame-economy culture to look at reality as a liquid commodity, worth more in exchange than in savings. But when what you’re buying with it is a dispersal rather than a magnification of self, it seems different enough to matter, which may be as far away from a dominant paradigm as one is usually able to get. Anyway I’m going to let me be proud of us, tonight.

My friends have themed their event as a kind of senior prom for their collective auto-didactic artists’ post-grad education (their autonomous “MFA”), but I think of it like a wedding, perhaps because I also think of all their projects as love stories. (Any launch is like one’s wedding anyway – you are obliged to talk to every person there, you mostly miss the actual party, and you’re completely exhausted by the end.) So I’ve composed a brief epithalamium for the occasion – in places, since fair isn’t fair, reappropriating lines from their works and others. Here’s to being foxy in one another’s henhouses.

From an Extra in the Movie,
Novel and Album of Your Lives

By a simple life, I mean a life of undying fame
That I don’t have to participate in. It’s the real guilty
Pleasure – like sex with animals: Licking Crisco
Off a gibbon’s tongue. Consent doesn’t equal silence,
But you can’t make an omerta without breaking legs,
As Aunt Jemima said to Jimmy Hoffa at the Inferno Disco
Roller Rink between choruses of “Bad Girls.”

Both their mothers were out at the pro-capitalist marches,
And they needed new ideological parasols
But didn’t have the language, or the polkadots.
When buttons came in, about 1650, private life was
Completely transformed. The purpose was
To leave them
unbuttoned. Leave more
To be abandoned without visible support by the imagination.

I know you only made it with me to help you
Make it without me. And it looks suspiciously
Like we made it out alive, but that might just be Art.
(Ho ho, did any actor ever have a better name than
Art Carney? It’s all the barnumanbaileying ballyhoo
Of the old commedia long con, in one pow
Straight to the moon, where love is just a word.)

If you’re not better off than dead here, where they all
Speak Esperanto underneath the ground,
You can’t make it anywhere. It’s up to you, new yore,
To be the first generation to swear off posterity
And disappear
Down the block, red-rain slatternly with all your
Fire-engine cherries on, three emergencies to go
Unanswered but arm in arm in arm.

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Tea With Chris: Everyday Tastes

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

Chris: Margaux is still swamped, so it’s two for Tea today. This telling chart of “EVERYDAY TASTES FROM HIGH-BROW TO LOW-BROW” comes from Eric Harvey and a 1949 issue of Life:

Upper middlebrow reading: “Solid nonfiction, the better novels, quality magazines.” Lowbrow reading: “Pulps, comic books.” There are heavier crosses to bear. I also like that highbrows apparently wear the same outfit in town and country. Those cosmopolitan elites!

Carl’s allusion to accidents of fame below reminded me of this article about an aging, iconoclastic Syrian actress: “As for Igraa, who still uses that name, she now lives mostly nocturnally, rising in midafternoon. Her apartment is a decaying museum of her own career, with dozens of pictures of her alongside bizarre collections of cheap trinkets and stuffed animals. In her late 60s, she still dresses like the precocious teenager she once was, with tight jeans, pancake makeup and a spectacularly bouffant wig hiding her gray hair.” Liz Taylor, you are not alone.

Carl: This is just a movie review on Salon. This is just how an average review in your newspaper or website ought to be. But in our culture of criticism, it’s not. So it’s worth reading. Andrew O’Hehir on Secretariat, speaking truth to (horse)power (and manure): “Big Red himself is a big, handsome MacGuffin, symbolic window dressing for a quasi-inspirational fantasia of American whiteness and power.”

Our friend Sheila Heti’s new book has just come out this week, and to mark the occasion she had a chat with another writer friend, Lee Henderson and, well, this is the kind of conversation you wish you could have every day. “I don’t think there’s a single person in the world who deserves the level of fame they have today. Who deserves to have their name passed down through the ages? That would be great if we all, everyone today, agreed to it – shook hands over that: None of our names will outlast our bodies. Agreed. What freedom! It would be a much more friendly world. We should be the first generation to say, Forget it. We should all, collectively, opt out of posterity.” Also, the part about Henry Miller as Heidi Montag. (Sheila’s book, How Should a Person Be?, launches in Toronto with Margaux’s movie and our friend Ryan’s band’s album next week.)

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

Town Bloody Hall (1971 – 1979) – Event produced by Shirley Broughton & Theatre for Ideas, filmed by DA Pennebaker & later edited by Chris Hegedus.

By Margaux Williamson

(My friends Sheila Heti and Lucas Rebick saw “Town Bloody Hall” over the weekend. Sheila called on Monday to see if I wanted to watch it, she said I would like it. My TV was broken, so I walked over in the rain and sat down on a couch that only had one leg. Sheila used to have a small tv, but now it is very big.)



It’s April 30, 1971 and we’re at New York City’s Town Hall. There are a few tables on stage with white tablecloths and several microphones. There is one podium off to the side. We watch the people on stage and in the audience settle into their seats. People seem excited.I am not one to normally be nostalgic for the past, but man (!) does everyone look good. Everyone looks totally different from one another and there is an absence of polar fleece (not to be invented until 1979). Is that a fox around Germaine Greer’s glamorous shoulders? Jill Johnston looks like the fun member of the Ramones. Norman Mailer (who is the only man on stage) looks like Norman Mailer.

The other heavyweights, along with the three just mentioned, are Jacqueline Ceballos and Diana Trilling. Susan Sontag and other famous writers fill the seats in the audience closest to the stage and will soon ask some hilarious questions. Norman Mailer has just published The Prisoner of Sex, and Germain Greer, The Female Eunuch.

The event was put together by the Theatre for Ideas and here are the rules of the evening: Norman Mailer is the moderator, all five panelists are allowed 10 minutes to make a speech at the podium, Norman Mailer is to cut people off when they have gone over their time and also to then ask them a question (in response to their speech) that they are not allowed to answer till the end of the evening.

All five panelists are incredibly intelligent and have interesting, complicated opinions, especially Germain Greer who is like an inexplicably calm lightening rod. Each say totally different things from the others. Most of them can barely look at each other as they argue their position with force or respond to each other’s question – except for Jacqueline Ceballos who seems to be enjoying herself immensely as an on-stage spectator.

The audience seems ready to burst with their wavering reactions to what is being said – and occasionally does. One man from the audience starts screaming incoherently about “humans” as he wrestles to put on his jacket and storms out. Later, another woman bursts in angrily yelling about not getting in because there were no seats left. She is escorted back out.

This structure set up by Theatre for Ideas creates really great theatre. For instance, having Norman Mailer function literally as the authoritarian for the event both mimics life and also reveals its inherent absurdity. If the event had been set up as an ideal political structure for a panel discussion on women’s liberation (i.e. the man not in charge) the “art” wouldn’t be there to bring out the tension and humor or the playful and painful metaphors. This choice shows Theatre for Ideas’ interest and skill in art over an interest or skill in setting a political standard – or it shows, maybe, that they believe art will help get them there faster and in a more amusing manner.

The choice of Norman Mailer is great too. Though he is, by our 2010 standards, wildly sexist (presenting while on the panel, for instance, a strangely illogical semi-defense of wife-beating), he is not smarmy or condescending. There is no grin upon his face. He is exasperated and humourless, like a great clown. And, like a great clown, he keeps accusing the women libbers of being humorouless. Then, when the women make great jokes, Norman Mailer accuses them of being from Brooklyn.

The monologues are presented from the podium against the mass of the sometimes supportive, sometimes jeering, and sometimes dismissive audience. This is where I remember the value of a live event. It is easy to forget that a monologue isn’t just a conversation with oneself. It can also be the pushing of a thought into public space. And this movie shows that process. It is very clear that enduring the jeering while remaining firm about what one is saying, or persuading the audience through rhetoric to be cheered on, can be as important as what is being said. It is even clear here (maybe never more true than at New York’s Town Hall in 1971) that the visibility and unwavering stance of the speakers was as important as the details or arguments in the monologues.

The movie is thrilling and entertaining. Afterward, Sheila and I wondered about the filmmakers not doing anything with the footage till 1979. I thought that maybe (as has been our own occasional experience with live performance and cameras) the event was so intense that they filmmakers just couldn’t think about it for awhile. That maybe they put the footage away in a drawer for their own sanity.

My guess was corrected by a few meager facts on the internet. The filmmaker DA Pennebaker, had been told about the event from Norman Mailer. DA Pennebaker went down to Town Hall to shoot it. Afterwards, he put the footage aside thinking the footage “showed how silly women were, taking themselves so seriously.” A few years later, a new editor working with him, Chris Hegedus, ended up salvaging the project. As DA Pennebaker put it, Chris Hegedus “disabused me of that idea”.

There is always jeering, dismissal and prejudice – thankfully this movie is proof that brilliant monologues, brave stances and thoughtful art structures sometimes make it through the belly of the beast.

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I’m Still Here (2010) – a movie by Casey Affleck and Joaquin Phoenix

by Margaux Williamson

(I saw Joaquin Phoenix’s notorious 2008 Letterman Show appearance when he presented himself as a non-responsive, sunglassed and bearded guest. He was mumbling about becoming a hip hop artist. I thought that he was playing with performance in a reality-situation and I was pretty curious. Contemporary culture is still a bit fuzzy on how and when to assign authenticity to the different types of interaction, perspective and persona creation that continue to be created by new technologies. The general public is becoming as attuned, and as confused, with the concept of persona as actors are. A good actor even in his sleep, Joaquin Phoenix seemed as likely a candidate as any to explore persona in a reality-style work (where there is often much sleeping). So I was excited when I heard about the movie “I’m Still Here” being presented as a documentary. When it was announced, by the creators, as a hoax during the Toronto Film Festival, I felt disappointed. A hoax suggest more of a put on than an experiment. It also suggested a bit of a failure. Unambiguous creative sucess rarely needs to come with such foreceful, and unambitious, explanations. I went to see it anyway with my friend Julia Rosenberg, a movie producer, who had also been following the process. We had popcorn.)

Joaquin Phoenix decides to leave acting. It’s confusing being an actor and also confusing to be a celebrity. I believe this. He looks good, he’s hiding out in a well-worn hoodie, smoking at night on a grassy hill and looking down at the bright lights of Los Angeles. His friend, Casey Affleck is filming him. “I don’t want to play the character of Joaquin anymore” Joaquin Phoenix says. This scene is physically dark, seductive and promising. We don’t care if it’s documentary or staged because we suspect that, as with any good documentary or fiction, something truthful might be happening here. Unfortunately this is the most truthful-feeling part of the movie.

Joaquin Phoneix spends the rest of the movie smoking pot, growing his hair, yelling at his assistants and chasing down Diddy (formerly P. Diddy), the famous music producer. Joaquin Phoenix’s plan is to become a successful hip hop artist by finding Diddy and having Diddy produce his album. When securing Diddy’s help fails, along with Joaquin Phoenix’s meager and wildly unsucessful 4 or 5 public hip hop performances, Joaquin Phoenix collapses, mentally and physically, and then returns to his birth place for some water redemption.

In the last scene Joaquin Phoenix walks down a river. It is shallow at first and then becomes deeper. We follow him from behind. There is some “movie music” overlaid – the kind of music that reminds you to have feelings now. It doesn’t give me feelings, it makes the scene feel clumsy, long and sentimental. A joke or not – I don’t know. But at this point in the movie, I was needing some “real” in my “reality tv”. I wanted the music to stop and to at least, after enduring this movie, be allowed to indulge in the refreshingly natural sound of a quiet river. If Joaquin Phoenix was going back to nature, I wanted to come with him.

It’s hard to know what was intended. Did they set out to make fun of reality tv? Were they interested in mocking the public – hoping to hold up a mirror, showing them embracing Joaquin Phoenix as a hip hop artist because he was famous – but then were derailed by the public’s poor reaction to the idea? Were they hoping to say something about the insanity of celebrity culture but then didn’t quite know what to say? Were they trying for a remarkable performance? Was the absense of any visible sign of hard work (on the part of Joaquin learning to be a hip hop artist and Casey Affleck learning to be a director – or the two as artistic collaborators) an indication of the creators conceit of a famous fame-seeker not having to work hard – or was it a genuine misconception about how one goes about making art? Was Joaquin’s painful “failure” after simply not securing one of the world’s most famous music producers and not doing well at a few gigs supposed to really represent genuine failure? Or was it to show someone who is bound by being an actor? Was it all really just to say that something that looked real was scripted? Was the music at the end supposed to be funny?

I wouldn’t ask these question if there was something truthful here at the centre to hold on to (I consider a biting satire truthful for instance). If there was something truthful at the centre, then all these questions would be trivial and besides the point. But at the end, I just had the questions and a wish that the creators had worked longer or harder or had taken the ideas to a more developed place. I think there was a lot of potential. I hope Joaquin Phoenix tries something like this again, just… with everything else different. Much has been made of the ridiculousness of Joaquin Phoenix suddenly becoming a hip hop artist, but no one has mentioned how crazy it is for Casey Affleck to suddenly become the director of a contemporary reality experiment. The traditional well-oiled machine that makes a Hollywood movie might have been an easier choice.

When Joquin Pheonix finally manages a meeting with a hesitant and wary Diddy, Diddy eventually looks over at Joaquin and says slowly, “You can’t come into this shit disrespectfully.” I agree, this shit is hard – respect is essential. That goes for reality tv, experimental movies, and hip hop (acting was properly respected in this motion picture). Joaquin Phonix nods along with me. I believe him.

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