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Memories of Memories: Nine Cultural Favourites from 2012

by Chris Randle

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

Future, “Same Damn Time”

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

The Clock, by Christian Marclay (2010)

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

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

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

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

I Love Dick, by Chris Kraus (published 1997)

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

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

Shoshanna, woman of Girls

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

The Capsule, a film by Athina Rachel Tsangari, 2012

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

James Adomian at the Comedy Bar, Toronto

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

Carly Rae Jepsen, Kiss

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

Building Stories, by Chris Ware

I mean, look at it:

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

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Pat Thornton’s 24-Hour Standup, Comedy Bar, Toronto, Nov. 15-16, 2010

by Carl Wilson

It was about 1:45 in the morning and I was trying to control my breathing so that I didn’t spew beer all over the person in front of me like an incontinent whale. The reason: A man on stage was reading a slip of paper that said, “Man, last night we got so drunk, we can’t find our friend the yak skeleton. I’m sure he’s okay.”

Explaining why that was so funny is pretty near impossible. Even more than usual for jokes. You didn’t just have to be there. You had to have been watching for hours at the Comedy Bar in Toronto, where from dusk Monday to dusk Tuesday, one performer – with a dozen or so off-stage writers, a few dozen audience members and a couple of hundred other people online – had been creating a new genre of comedy, almost involuntarily.

It was a lateral, discontinuous, stream-of-collective-consciousness narrative with dozens of ongoing characters, as much wordplay as Tristram Shandy and an enormous amount of plagiarism and appropriation, digital interactivity and audience participation.

This invention’s progenitor was definitely necessity – and charity. Just the way that your cousin or your co-worker will bug you to pledge a certain amount for every mile they walk for cancer or for the moustache they’re growing this month, comedian Pat Thornton was for the second year doing a 24-hour stand-up comedy marathon for the Stephen Lewis Foundation, which fights AIDS in Africa.

Other comedians have done sets this long or longer in recent years in order to set Guinness records, probably drawing on every line they’ve ever written and whatever else they can generate on the spot. For that purpose, doing it the way Thornton does — by getting friends and viewers to write him jokes and even in dry spots turning to printed joke books (or the joke books written by nine-year-olds that his teacher friend had created for the occasion) – would probably be considered cheating. But for Thornton it’s just getting through the 24 hours that matters. And so the stage filled up with piles of slips of paper that the writers and those transcribing from the Internet were constantly putting on his chair to pick up and read.

As the hours went on the jokes became much more self-referential. Somehow, early on in the event, there were some references to Kevin Sorbo, the actor who starred in the 1990s Hercules TV show, imagining him now out of work and desperate for a role (begging to host Sunday Night Live at the Comedy Bar, for example). By 19 hours later, the fantasy had been spun out to the point where Kevin Sorbo was well known to eat garbage and hair, when he could get them (a snake, which came from the pages of one of the kids’ joke books, was his much-more-successful rival for garbagey snacks), he had bees living all over his body, and he would do literally anything, physically possible or not, for money. He would hang around, a bit troublingly, with a blind kid, trying to trick him to get money and food. He had some competition in all this from the also-broke Wesley Snipes. There were hundreds if not thousands of jokes told on this basis.

In a kind of intramural meta-charity motif, there was a long series of jokes based on Toronto’s new mayor Rob Ford confusing “Movember” with things that rhyme with it (“Rob Ford is giving men blowjobs for Homo-vember”), punctuated by Thornton shouting in an exasperated voice, “Rawwwb! You grow a moo-STACH!” America had a nine-year-old president (“Nine-year-old president doesn’t care about black licorice”) with a douchebaggy Dude Vice-President (“I’m throwing all the states out of the union except Hawaii”), and another kid named Tristan became famous for breaking crayons.

All kinds of people and things were “in the woods” (meaning targeted for jokes), from George Lucas to marmalade. Rap Grimace was a big purple monster fond of distorting Jay-Z lyrics. There was a series of character based on condiments, chief among them the beloved Mustard Andrew, and an ineffectual supervillain called Shitty the Riddler (“I’ll give you one guess … and then I’ll just tell you”) who spawned a “shitty” meme for bad versions of other people and things (“I’m just looking for a place to park around here” – Shitty Joni Mitchell).

For the sake of people newly joining the audience or web stream, every hour or two Thornton would attempt to provide a recap. (When I first arrived I had to look up Kevin Sorbo on my iPhone, because I’d never heard of him.)

It all worked as a kind of elaborate mechanism to produce, among a random collection of viewer-participants, the kinds of inside jokes that you have in early adolescence with your friends – the made-up words and oblique references that you use at that age to begin to draw some kind of map of the world from your own perspective, and in some ways to create an illusion of control and/or superiority over the overwhelming mass of people and things you’re becoming aware of. And of course to form intimate bonds with the other people who are in on your special sets of slang and mockery. There’s no humour like it, nothing so able to make you gasp for breath and spit beverages all over the sidewalk.

That effect feels almost impossible to recreate in adult friendships, most of the time. But not so! It turns out all you need is 24 sleepless hours of forced perpetual joke production.

I like good standup, on the rare occasions I find it, but more than almost any other art form, it often lacks any conceptual layer. Thornton’s annual event (if that’s what it’s going to be) is a pleasure in part because it adds a What – the challenge of the 24-hour structure – when comedy is usually nothing but How (how are you going to make me laugh now? and now? and now?).

Artists are always dreaming of making up a new form purely via their own genius, but forms are more reliably created by conditions – by new technologies and new social arrangements, so that the printing press gives you the pamphlet or the Depression/Prohibition creates noir film and fiction. In that case perhaps the trick for an ambitious artist is to impose conditions upon yourself that force you to generate fresh solutions. In this age of stunt charity, maybe we needn’t be so suspicious of stunt art.

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