Tag Archives: Adam Phillips

Bob Wiseman, “mothface@yahoo.ca” and other titles on Giulietta Masina at the Oscars Crying (2013)

by Carl Wilson

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Bob Wiseman, Tracy Wright & Sky Gilbert.



Bob Wiseman’s new album, Giulietta Masina at the Oscars Crying, sets a series of challenges like crossword-puzzle clues. Each title is syntactically structured “[Subject] at [Location/Activity],” almost as if in an index. Together they ask: What difference does it make whether we get exactly what a song is about?

The subjects can be anything from cultural or political figures to personal friends: Neil Young at the Junos, The Reform Party at Burning Man, Aristide at the Press Conference, or Portrait of Phil at Various Times in a Closet. The one cover song both fits and breaks the mold, Sam Larkin’s Children at Play. (Here’s the original on Rdio.)

And one title plays on the fact that this is also the syntax of email: mothface@yahoo.ca, the address of the Toronto actor Tracy Wright (previously discussed here), who broke many of our hearts when she died at age 50 in 2010 of pancreatic cancer.

The song tells the story of a time in the 1980s* when Wiseman agreed to act in a play Wright wrote “that made no sense” because he figured no one “in their right mind” would put it on, but then theatre artist Sky Gilbert signed on to produce it in his Rhubarb experimental-theatre festival. As a result, Wiseman sings, “I always knew that I had nothing in common with Sky Gilbert.” The line is repeated over and over, anthemically, in harmony.

Hearing it first at last week’s launch concert at the Tranzac Club in Toronto, it started annoying me: Who outside a small Toronto arts circle gives a shit how Bob Wiseman feels about Sky Gilbert? Why write a song picking on Gilbert anyway?

Then the lyrics cross-cut to Wright’s memorial, when Gilbert got up and said just what Wiseman was feeling and thinking about her, and moved him to tears. It turned out the two had something in common after all: “the love of you.” And I came close to tears myself.

I wondered whether other people, who hadn’t known Wright or who Gilbert is, would be so touched. Would they even keep listening up to the final twist? It made me ask, too, if the electricity of the launch, where many members of the local music community were renewing frayed connections, would come across to an outsider, and whether that mattered.

These are questions Wiseman’s album prods: the effects of reference, and specificity versus so-called universality.

The particularity of Wiseman’s subjects is part of his modus operandi as an artist engagé, a creative activist: the naming of names, the preservation of place, the marking of dates and times. Early in his solo career, he wrote songs that gave a blow-by-blow account of the Union Carbide disaster (live, starts about 0:55) or implicated the president of Pepsi Cola by name in the assassination of Salvador Allende. (A move that infamously got the first thousand copies of his first major-label album destroyed.) You could describe it as a Brechtian gesture of counter-propaganda, or as keeping shit real.

But it’s never solely political. It’s in Wiseman’s voice, a harmonica-like needling without a hint of false gravitas. It’s in the way he’ll often interrupt a catchy melody with a dissonant solo or silly backup vocal, recklessly undermining what might have been some kind of “hit.” It’s in the cranky energy and nearly painful innocence of his writing, which attest that these aren’t positions struck but art made by following the tracks of his preoccupations.

He sounds like a regular person who’s ruefully aware that his complaints can’t reroute the flows of power, but can at least take satisfaction in sharing and laughing or weeping over them. If some personal situations won’t be transparent, perhaps listeners will connect anyway with having relationships and experiences that are exactly that, obscure and opaque in the supposed big picture of news and celebrity. Just like our own. And no less crucial to us for being so.

I do have affection for certain email addresses. Maybe your loved ones’ familiar @’s also set off a warm and quiet hum.

Purposefully or not, the variations Giulietta Masina plays on the “X at Y” formula work through a range of possibilities about how we’ll relate to the subject of a song. Neil Young at the Junos, for instance, treats a figure Wiseman can rely on his audience feeling like it knows well, then tries to say something unexpected – neither hagiographic nor cheaply skeptical – about him.

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The title track unfolds most like a riddle: When Wiseman started playing it at the launch, my friend and I said to each other, “Do you have any idea who that is?” Then partway through I said, “For some reason I’m thinking about Fellini.” And just as I was looking her up on my phone, Wiseman sang the final words, “8½.” Giulietta Masina was Fellini’s actress spouse.

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I only later discovered that Ruby Bates at Grad School, one of my favourites, is about a woman who’d been an accuser in the racist 1930s Scottsboro Boys rape case, but later recanted her story and was vilified for it. I haven’t identified the second woman, more contemporary, described as dying in an ambulance in the last verse, and am glad I haven’t.

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I knew right off who the protagonist of Robert Dziekanski at the Airport was – the Polish immigrant the RCMP mistakenly tased & killed at the Vancouver airport in 2007, and then whitewashed. A straight protest song, a bit obvious. Then I read a college student’s review of the album who was startled to find out or be reminded of this event six long-to-him years ago.

Finally there’s this guy Phil in the closet, along with someone named Rob Noyes who apparently dies, and “the campers of B.B. you’ve heard so much about.” No clue. But I’m stirred by its final plaintive lines about wanting to repay Phil, “it’s awful,” for “being there at the airport or hospital.” Would listening to the song about Tracy feel like this to others, like an emotional mystery?

My misgiving about Wiseman’s songwriting is that he often is too literal for my tastes, even if I see why. This album, more than any since his now-storied debut In Her Dream, when he pretended to be singing songs by someone named “Wrench Tuttle,” unsettles that directness fruitfully.

In his new book Missing Out: In Praise of the Unlived Life, the psychoanalyst and critic Adam Phillips has a chapter called “On Not Getting It.” He investigates how our drive to get the point, to nail down the meaning of a joke or a poem, to understand ourselves, to truly “know” other people (especially our lovers, our families), may become an evasion of other ways of existing and of allowing others to exist with and apart from us.

In Bob Wiseman’s more literal songs he gets at things worth knowing for certain and stating clearly, most often how an injustice has been perpetrated or excused. But there are things worth being clueless about, worth never knowing – such as not knowing what we do and don’t have in common, so we can be surprised when perhaps we need to be. Such as not knowing how to repay certain debts when all that really can be done is to acknowledge them.

Music has an unusual capacity to say a lot without knowing everything or even much at all. We can “get” a song’s texture and its atmosphere without wanting to “get” all its content. We can hear it many times and only “get” something like “blah blah blah Gilbert, blah blah blah Gilbert … the love of you,” and yet treasure the song.

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Phillips quotes the notoriously elusive poet John Ashbery as saying that he writes as he does because if all you do is tell people things, they stop listening. But if they only overhear, they will be curious. On this album Bob Wiseman has things he wants to tell, but also lets us eavesdrop on him talking to himself or to others, about things we might not know or even need to know. The sites from which he sings can be nearby or at a distance, his phrases sharp or indistinct.

By ranging this way, by not always demanding we understand him, he implies that it is okay if we, his listeners, aren’t utterly knowable too. By extension the people he sings about, at his best, cannot be captured and summed up, not reduced only to political subjects but allowed to be humans like the one who is singing about them.

At the least, a cop and an immigrant, Neil Young and Jean Bertrand Aristide, the Oscars and the airport, the halls of parliament and an ambulance all are, and acknowledging that may be to admit they share something unnameably more than everything that isn’t** – including so-called universals such as patriotism, duty, righteousness.

In this sense, being specific, if you are specific about a great many things, might be a different program than we at first thought: less like itemizing a legal brief, and more like giving up on coercion.

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This section originally said Wiseman and Wright were dating at the time; Wiseman writes to tell me I misread his use of the word “girlfriend” – they were just friends.

** The basic idea about things that exist having existence in common is someone else’s that I heard, read or was told about recently. I don’t remember the source. My elaboration on it is my own (mis)interpretation.

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“Video Killed the Radio Star,” as used in Take This Waltz by Sarah Polley (2012), a movie about love and, perhaps, technology

by Carl Wilson

[NOTE: This post “spoils” major plot points.]

I couldn’t be less capable of forming an opinion about Sarah Polley’s recent Take This Waltz. It is set not just in Toronto but in my exact Toronto – Parkdale, Kensington Market, the Island, the airport. Call it what you want. (I know what you’re calling it.) The star, Michelle Williams, hits me emotionally on screen more than any of her contemporaries, even when she is just interacting with shafts of light (as she often does here); her romantic foils are Seth Rogan, who’s charmed me ever since Freaks and Geeks and can be enough reason to see a movie that looks unpromising, and Luke Kirby, who’s an old friend-of-friends. (The plot, boiled down to a peashoot: Williams leaves Rogan for Kirby.)

It’s a little difficult, too, living here, not to have preconceived reactions to the very idea of Sarah Polley that I wouldn’t if she were in L.A. or London. (I couldn’t make it through her last film, feeling bored, though I should try again.)

More potently it is also about the Toronto I know because it is about marriages between decent people that break up mainly because, as Sarah Silverman tells Williams in the movie, “Life has a gap in it, it just does,” and it is hard to know how large this chasm is supposed to be and which resorts to bridging or filling it are fair, reasonable or crazy ones. (It is about, in other words, How Should a Person Be?) Some friends and their friends were also on the soundtrack. And it’s titled after one of my favourite songs, more about which later.

But mainly I can’t form an opinion about it because I was crying for the entire final third of the film, almost certainly a personal Guinness Record. I cry easily at movies, which means my eyes are streaming sort of neutrally (I’m not gasping, heaving; often I’m laughing at the same time) while I continue to watch, like an android weeping over a dead electric sheep, but I don’t pretend my judgment can be fully engaged then.

I suspect the film has significant flaws, but I would have to watch it again to articulate them … aside from the sex montage with the two threesomes – one MMF and one FFM, too symmetrical, too concerned with what it might have said to pick one or another, which contributes to the way we fail to get any sense of the second relationship compared to the first, except that there is sex finally, and in a ravishing loft space that those characters could not realistically afford.

That’s broadly a legitimate choice, but its execution seems representative of what the movie doesn’t quite achieve. It feels more like Seth Rogan’s character’s paranoid fantasy of what would be happening (cf. John Cusack in High Fidelity: “No woman in the history of the world is having better sex than the sex you are having with Ian in my head”). Although of course early-relationship sex can in fact be amazing.

But there’s one thing I can judge, which is that Take This Waltz makes the best use of the Buggles’ “Video Killed the Radio Star” in the history of that song, if we discount (as we must) its literal, legendary use as the shot-across-the-bow first video on MTV in 1981.

The other music in the movie is indie twee, though not bad. I loved the Feist cover of “Closing Time” by Leonard Cohen (which features Afie and Jason from Bahamas and Mike from Zeus) in the fraught party scene, thinking in that moment that it would be so smart if the movie didn’t include any other Leonard Cohen, especially not the title song. Then that song shows up in the sex montage, and it’s all but awful there, way too weighty, with its double-barreled Cohen/Lorca imagery and lush continental tune, for the scene.

“Video Killed the Radio Star” comes up twice: First, it plays while Williams and Kirby are on an illicit date at Centre Island, on an amusement-park ride, the Scrambler, that they choose ostensibly because it goes “so fast” that they won’t be able to do anything inadvisable, a ridiculous rationalization (yeah, being on a tilt-a-whirl, thrown against each other involuntarily by the force of gravity – no one’s used that metaphor for love ever). There the song is all momentum, giddiness and dreamlike tacky-innocent nostalgia, which is what “Radio Star” typically represents in movies, TV shows or real-life dance parties.

But then it comes back at the movie’s end, when Williams is unsure, half-regretful, over her choices, but also stuck with them, and perhaps content to be. On one level, a conventional flashback – remember the Scrambler, when none of this was real yet and therefore thrilling but also as safe as a stupid old 80s song? Now that’s gone. Nostalgia has lost its innocence, and so is doubled.

Yet of course that rhymes perfectly with the lyrics of the song: “We can’t rewind, we’ve gone too far.” And so the the film and the song begin singing questions into each other’s mouths: When we move from one love to another, is it as shallow a difference as that from one delivery method for the three-minute rush of a pop song (or of sex, of a moment of affection, of a good teasing joke that makes the world warmer) to another?

Adam Phillips, in his book, Monogamy: “For the monogamist the thought of infidelity is the secular equivalent of the afterlife. It is the thought of something infinitely better or infinitely worse: something perhaps one has to earn; a blackmail of sorts. Certainly something for the future. But then what no one ever dared think about the afterlife was that it might be exactly the same as this one.”

The Buggles: “Pictures came and broke your heart/ Put the blame on VTR”  (video tape recorder).

Did the eclipse of radio by video really remake the musical/media world? For the better or the worse? The joke “Internet killed the video star” has been made many times, framing this within a shift we tend to count as more profound. But perhaps video did have that impact. We came to relate to music through a different scrim after that, one with less mystery, just as the invention of the rock star had altered that balance decades before. Indeed, from the Residents through Jandek and the Weeknd, there’s a recurring counterreaction, artists set upon stripping away visual and biographical cues, restoring mystique to music and therefore in a sense its freedom. (Who would fantasize about fucking Jandek? Someone, surely.)

In our personal lives, as in our pop-culture lives, we don’t know the answers to any of these questions beyond knee-jerk opinions. Everything takes on a cast of inevitability, and so we rationalize in reverse to say that the way things went was how they had to go: Who could have known that a high-speed tilt-a-whirl would be so arousing?

There is a more compelling logic, it seems, in technological change than in personal change, though it’s still open to critique: Read thinkers like the Christian anarchist Jacques Ellul on techne, or Ivan Illich, not to mention environmentalism generally – are we as a species unable to take any other forks in the road than we do? Are we unable to think preventively, and should we? (Put another way: Does free will exist?)

Now reflect that back on the intimate version: Are we unable to do anything else with the ebb of passion than to surrender to the next flow, at least without a social support system that integrates love, and our impulses around it, into a more finely tuned ecology? The downtown-urban life, so pleasurable in so much of this movie, lacks a lot of the traditional embeddings of long-term monogamy, such as the extended family. The movie is careful to show that Rogan’s and Williams’s marriage does have a reinforcing network – though notably, that it is more his than hers, and it is called into existence at gatherings, on special occasions, not so much in the neighbourhood, the day-to-day battleground where magnetic temptation may be just across the street.

A chance meeting on a trip, on a plane, can be more powerful than the bonds of five years – at least in a life in which five years at once feels like a long time and can be compressed by the magic of traumatic transition into a forgettable moment.

Further, can these modes, of sequential passions versus long-lasting loves, somehow coexist, or must they be engines of mutual destruction? And is that dilemma different for men and women? The movie is serious about that.

Phillips again: “For some of us – perhaps the fortunate, or at least the affluent – monogamy is the only serious philosophical question.” That might be the bigger definition of what’s wrong with Take This Waltz. But there is a broader question, implicit in “… Radio Star”, about why people who have so much are so inclined to stop wanting it, to be driven to replace it. These are intractable issues about the persistence of hungers, of shortsightedness, of how much humanity can change. If we cannot find balance in these close-up interactions, with people we understand, can we find it between nations and peoples? Or can distance be the saving grace?

Apparently the lyrics of “Video Killed the Radio Star” were sparked by a J.G. Ballard story in which an opera singer is found hiding in a sewer by a mute boy, in a world in which music has been abolished. That expands what Trevor Horn, in his casual pop-culture tone, is asking: Does video conquering radio mean music itself vanishes? Without marriage, is there love? Like the boy in Ballard’s story, as a viewer in tears I was in a sense mute, unable to join Take This Waltz in duet. Or in a deeper critique.

I knew the injudicious weeping was going to happen when I watched this movie. For that reason I put it off for a few weeks, and waited till I had the right person (who was also of course the wrong person) to watch it with me. When we go into relationships, or enter optimistically into new eras of innovation, don’t we know, really, what is going to happen, at least if we are not kids anymore? (Williams’s character here is about to turn 30.) Yet we “lie awake, intent on tuning in on you,” as the Buggles sing. (I don’t think my viewing companion ever cried.)

We are the creatures, as Cohen has it, of “this waltz, this waltz, this waltz, this waltz” – hear him sing it four times, not the musically symmetrical three, always waltzing one time too many – with “its very own breath, of brandy and death, dragging its tail in the sea.” Does this stale heady air belong to the waltz itself, or to our own mortal, social, erotic myopia, or is it even possible to tell the waltzer from the waltz? What a relief, then, whatever the case may be, to give in, to give it away. “It’s yours now, it’s all that there is.”

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Tea With Chris: Sofia Cosplay

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:

Carl: Psychoanalyst-essayist Adam Phillips, one of my favourite writers, talks to human-rights activist Sameer Padania: “This is where an information culture counts against us. People need to be educated into believing that evocation is more important than information. If we could bear listening to people, without trying to understand what they’re saying, we would get more from them. Effectively, psychoanalysis listens for the incoherencies that are saying more, or something other, than the coherences. It’s got something to do with the musicality of people’s voices and intonations; it’s a form of listening that’s less hypnotized and distracted by their coherences.”

Your call: Is Kate Bush’s new album, as my friend Ann argues here, “just what the best of Bush’s work has done since she burst on the scene, Spandex bat wings flapping, at the dawn of the New Wave era. It melds extravagant tales to unconventional song structures, and spirits the listener away into Bush’s distinctive hyperreality”? Or is it, as my friend Patrick has found, “feeble, empty, mindlessly repetitive, adolescently self-indulgent and, more than anything else, boring. … How does a great chef come to offer the world cold hot dogs in his own restaurant with a straight face?”

Tom McCarthy, author of The Remainder and C, eulogizes the communications theorist Friedrich Kittler, author of Gramophone, Film, Typewriter, while lovingly lampooning his acolytes, actually known as the Kittlerjugend. Tribute and travesty at once, it’s a ticklish balancing act, but McCarthy finesses it.

What would Kittler have to say about this? Christianity, remixed as crypto-postmodernist poetry. (Thanks to Sasha Chapin for the diversion.)

Chris: Rich Juzwiak judged a child beauty pageant and the resulting essay is amazing, venturing into this demimonde of flattery, rhinestones and outlandish performance with the perspective of a temporary insider. He ends up demystifying the pageant circuit’s notoriously strange image somewhat, but one can only do so much: “The weirdest celebrity emulation was Sofia Coppola, as brought to us by a child in the 11-13 group named Courtney. Her dress looked like an old-time director’s slate, bordered in thick, diagonal black and white stripes and featuring a blank template on the chest (‘Movie: ________’). Clearly, someone had found this and thought, ‘Who’s a reasonably young, attractive, brunette, gawky director? Oh right. You’re Sofia Coppola.’ She danced around with an actual slate to a disco version of ‘Hooray for Hollywood,’ much as I presume Sofia Coppola does on her days off.”

Five facetious future literary movements, from noird to salvagepunk.

Jessica of the K-pop group SNSD does not fuck with cucumbers.

Oh, Frank O’Hara.

 

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