(from Picture This, by Lynda Barry, 2010)
(from Picture This, by Lynda Barry, 2010)
by Chris Randle
[I totally lifted this concept from Greil Marcus as well. My list is unranked and impulsive to the point of randomness; I avoided writing about anything I’ve already touched on at B2TW. And now, all hedges and caveats aside…]
John Seroff’s epic Singles Jukebox blurb is a beautiful consideration of “Whip My Hair,” but to me the clip below embodies this ultra-processed, aggressively silly song. What’s more absurd, more galvanic in its absurdity, than a weak-voiced nine-year-old touting their “swag” and finally managing to convince? A parrot dancing to the same track! I can only assume that the lone Youtube user who clicked “dislike” here is even now teetering atop Mt. Crumpit with a sleigh full of stolen presents.
2. Damascus, Palestine, Texaco
A cut from Jean-Luc Godard’s maddening, cryptographic and sometimes very funny Film Socialisme:
3. “I’mma start rocking gold teeth and fangs” (Nicki Minaj’s 32 feral bars)
Still waiting on the music video, which promises lots of squicky necrophiliac imagery (I was hoping for a colony of bats nesting in Rick Ross’ giant beard), but “Monster” already has a storyline: it’s the track where Nicki Minaj reduces the world’s two most famous rappers to afterthoughts.
Her feat is less impressive than it appears on a tracklist; wheezing Grizzly Bear fan Jay-Z sounds like an awkward fogey here, and while Kanye acquits himself well enough, even pulling off a good punchline for once rather than a stupid non-sequitur (“Have you ever had sex with a pharaohhhhhh / I put the pussy in a sarcophagus”), he still strains as an MC. His other guest doesn’t. Nicki’s virtuosic verse mutates new flows, accents and personae at rapid speed: “Pink wig / Thick ass / Give ’em whiplash / I think big / Get cash / Make ’em blink fast.” She shares Kanye’s monstrous ambition, but not his self-pitying insecurity. Her climactic “AAAAAAH” modulates a scream queen’s cry with sharpened glee: suck in breath, grope around on the floor for your male gaze.
4. Light the Pentagram-Signal: Doctor Hurt in Batman & Robin
This one requires some nerdy backstory. Five years ago, DC Comics made Scottish weirdo Grant Morrison the writer of its main Batman series. (His anarchic 1990s head trip The Invisibles influenced my teenage self to a degree that is almost embarrassing.) A characteristically metafictional conceit of Morrison’s early issues was that all the Bat-archetypes from 75 years of publication history – the original pulp vigilante, the bizarre ’50s version who wore zebra suits and inspired Adam West, etc. – were his actual memories, and the stress of keeping these disparate personalities straight was driving Bruce Wayne insane.
The process was accelerated by Morrison’s new villain Dr. Hurt, a mysterious psychiatrist who claimed to be Bruce Wayne’s newly-undead father Thomas and then distributed evidence revealing that the orphaned hero’s parents were not saintly philanthropists but a locus of corrupt decadence. Eventually, in a crossover called Batman R.I.P., he put on a camp opera outfit, injected Bruce Wayne full of drugs and dumped him on the street to subsist as a disturbed homeless person. Then our protagonist made a new costume out of rags, regained his bearings with the help of fifth-dimensional imp Bat-Mite (seriously) and they had a big fight. But Dr. Hurt returned in 2010 for a final storyline that Morrison called “Batman R.I.P. repeated as farce.” It began, context-free, with this scene:
It’s a perverse inversion of the most familiar origin story in comics, one so famous that Morrison and artist Frazer Irving can go minimalist and rely upon iconic visual elements (the pearls that always scatter, the eternally recurring Zorro marquee). Dr. Hurt’s masturbatory fantasy comes complete with the sort of infernally opulent yet faintly ludicrous sex club that only exists in Radley Metzger movies. Remember the sight gag at the end of Rosemary’s Baby, where an upside-down cross is repurposed as crib ornament? The longed-for Black Mass emphasizes Hurt’s unusual nature as a foil: he thinks that merely killing his foe is so dull. “I will be Batman in my great black car, preying on the weak, in Gotham’s endless night.”
The conventional idea of an obsessive super-nemesis is strange enough already; imagine one who yearns to expose every certainty in your life as a pathetic, comforting lie. He could be a jilted fanboy. Even after discovering that the bad Doctor was neither Thomas Wayne nor the devil, just (in his creator’s words) “this gibbering idiot with a very comic-booky origin,” his anti-prologue retains some Satanic allure. In a storyarc that also featured Shavian villain Professor Pyg raving about “the multitudes of the mother goat,” it was the creepiest moment of all, a flourish of satirical geek-blasphemy.
5. The moral responsibility of the blowjob artist: How Should a Person Be?
The second novel by friend of the blog Sheila Heti was, as they say, a long time coming. (There was an impatient Facebook group, even.) It still doesn’t have an American publisher, and a new article in the New York Observer speculates why: Too much cribbing from reality? Too many graphic descriptions of blowjobs? I would add another factor, one that took me by surprise despite my membership in that social-media cheer squad: the extreme depths of black comedy that Sheila reaches. There are lantern-faced fish swimming alongside some of these jokes. How Should a Person Be? is about struggling to live the good life, whatever that is, and Sheila the character’s earnest, agonized desire to become a great artist (or at least a famous one) is played for many painful laughs.
A later chapter, for example, ends with this passage: “I hadn’t realized until this week that in [Moses’] youth he killed a man, an Egyptian, and buried him under some sand…I used to worry that I wasn’t enough like Jesus, but yesterday I remembered who was my king; a man who, when God addressed him and told him to lead the people out of Egypt, said, ‘But I’m not a good talker! Couldn’t you ask my brother instead?’ So it should not be so hard to come at this life with a bit of honesty. I don’t need to be great like the leader of the Christian people. I can be a bumbling, murderous coward like the King of the Jews.”
As a blond gentile with an Old Norse surname – some drunk girl once asked me, “Did you steal your eyes from a dead Nazi?” – I felt a little uncomfortable just reading that. (The sexual interludes, not so much, perhaps because they’re specific to a particular situation.) I can see why publishers might shy away from it. But all the mordant humour extracted from her protagonist’s indulgent delusions and artistic crises has a point, and a pertinent one: What does it mean to be a writer or painter in a world where niche-level, D-list celebrity is radically accessible?
As for that “fact or fiction” question, a parlour game without the fun, let me cite Harry Mathews, whose last novel My Life in CIA explored similarly muddy waters: “Henry James once said that the Venetian painter Tintoretto never drew an immoral line. That seems madness, because Tintoretto was squiggling all over the place. I came to the conclusion that what James meant was that the moral responsibility of the artist is to make something real happen, whatever it takes. And for me, that is the moral responsibility of a writer: to make something real happen on the page. Its relation to fact is irrelevant. “
6. One word uttered forever
Toronto’s Double Double Land hosts an occasional series called Talking Songs, where lecturers play various pieces of music for the audience before discussing them. Carl’s spoken there before; I have too. At the event’s return a few months ago, one of the performers was York University professor Marcus Boon, who gave a talk called “Chopping and Screwing: From Terry Riley to DJ Screw.” I don’t really remember anything he said. What I do remember is that he finished by playing a single 25-minute-long drone and asking us to listen.
Erik Satie’s avant-garde endurance test Vexations, 34 dissonant chords typically performed 840 times in a row, is often said to have quasi-hallucinogenic effects on audiences. Palpable heat, like the kind inside DDL – it’s perched above a Portuguese bakery – must only intensify that. While Boon’s drone pulsed, time collapsed inwards before stretching out as if it might snap; most eyes stayed shut out of reverence or boredom, but sometimes I cheated and caught others fluttering open, sexy in their languour. After the noise spent itself, Boon very quietly asked how it made us feel. I still don’t know what my answer is.
7. The image world: Picture This, by Lynda Barry
Picture This asks the big question on its cover: “Do you wish you could draw?” Barry’s manner is the best Grade 3 teacher any kid/adult could hope for, supportive and pedagogical yet utterly free of condescension, and it comes through in her cartooning. Like Sean Rogers notes, this is an activity book featuring such activities as “collect blue.” Barry argues that we’re encouraged to trace and doodle as children only to be dissauded while we grow up, and her attempts to liberate your inner scribbler echo the open-ended tone of John Cage’s motto: “Get yourself out of whatever cage you find yourself in.”
One of Barry’s strips, “Chicken Attack,” was written by a five-year-old boy named Jack. He was sitting next to her on an airplane. While Mom dozed, he came up with a script: “One morning, the chicken was eaten by a man. The man went to work. His stomach started to feel funny. He went to the port-a-let, and then he went. The chicken came out. The man was surprised. The chicken was also surprised. The chicken ran from the port-a-let to the construction site. They put the chicken in charge, and from then on, the chicken was boss.” Lynda Barry is also pretty boss.
8. Continue: Scott Pilgrim’s Finest Hour, by Bryan Lee O’Malley
The movie was fun, partly because its doomed marketing showed Torontonians that our shitty lives could be the basis for a fantastical mythos too. But it wasn’t first to do so, and in other ways I preferred Bryan Lee O’Malley’s print finale. It begins with depressed Scott Pilgrim acting like a skeezy jerk, hitting on his teenage ex: “So…uh…what’s it like to no longer be a child in the eyes of the law?” It gives another ex, Envy Adams (Chaotic Neutral), a costume that says “Legend of Zelda boss as worn by Lady Gaga.” And its unconstrained space allows for many pages where people just sit around and talk.
In that sense, the supporting cast was especially hard done by during the adaptation process; a lot of secondary characters got compressed to a single note or joke where they had originally existed in a broader context, one the self-absorbed hero didn’t always notice. As Mike Barthel wrote, “that sense of outward focus and of ladies existing without reference to dudes (or dudes without reference to ladies, honestly) absolutely vanishes [in the film].” I lament this both as someone who wants more movies to pass the Bechdel Test and as someone who thought Alison Pill was cute, which is probably to say, a confused someone.
Finest Hour‘s luxury of sprawl also benefits the villainous Gideon Graves. (That’s him above. In the movie he’s played by Jason Schwartzman, which is perfect casting if you dislike the public persona of Jason Schwartzman.) Gideon is a disquieting portrait of the smart, arty kid who becomes a grasping and covetous adult. A grimly funny, comics-only detail marks him as the only character in their thirties – indeed, he shares an age with his (happily married!) creator. The evilest ex is emotionally controlling on a megalomaniacal scale: Instead of stalking “the ones who got away” on Facebook, he captures them inside an elaborate machine borrowed from some Final Fantasy boss.
When O’Malley launched the series’ final volume last summer, my life was a bit like a Scott Pilgrim book – the bantering romantic scenes, not the epic battles, though they often bleed into each other. I didn’t strap somebody into a…device so I could siphon their vitality. But there were moments that resembled a flashback in Finest Hour, where the younger, less-evil Gideon watches pixie pugilist Ramona Flowers literally disappear from his life; moments that were one long uncomprehending “Whyyyyyyyy?” (Then, to fizzling teleportation residue: “But I thought it was going so well…”) This was maladroit and thoughtless for various reasons, as I probably would’ve figured out anyway, but the literary synchronicity led to a pre-emptive realization: Why would you ever want to act like a bitter, stunted asshole while blaming it on someone lovely? So call this comic a cautionary tale, as well as a damn entertaining one.
9. Torontopia time machine: Wavelength 500
I doubt that I could describe this event any better than Carl already did – or Michael Barclay, for that matter. The 10th anniversary of Toronto’s integral PWYC music series ended with a reunion of the Barcelona Pavilion (who broke up when I was still in high school) and a surprise set by Owen Pallett (who debuted his solo project at a 2004 Wavelength before going all those places). The BP were raucous and baldly conceptual again, even in the ways they scorned misty local eyes; their encore was an iPod singalong as it played Mag & The Suspects’ “Thousands Dead.” Whether or not nostalgia is misplaced, they certainly merited some.
Kids on TV followed, and then Owen, and then the 2003 iteration of the Hidden Cameras briefly swept aside layers of antipathy to play “I Believe in the Good of Life,” along with the half of the crowd that joined them onstage.
There’s no visual record of it. (Never mind: Colin Medley popped up in comments to link his video!) I have to give you this clip instead, Owen and Steve Kado teaming up to cover “Independence Is No Solution.” It’s a great song about everything you believe in turning to shit: “Babies want to have publicists / Because better babies make best-of lists.” (No publicists contacted B2TW while we threw these together.) In that room, though, on that night, it felt more like shoving a crowbar in the coffin than a nail.
10. Thrash this mess around: Four Corners, at Steelworkers Hall, July 23
The concept for this show was simple enough. Four bands, all of them loud and scuzzy, manned the corners of a large room inside venerable Steelworkers Hall. We were in the centre. When the available light changed to a given colour, we streamed towards that corner for a few songs’ worth of ritual abuse. The beauty was in the details, and not just because the bill included Anagram, one of my favourite local bands.
Wandering through the cavernous Steelworkers Hall, with its tributes to industrial unionism and lefty agit-kitsch, I thought the venue could almost be a museum for older models of independent music. Meanwhile, the spastic colour cycles appropriated the structural logic of video games. But underneath those lurid lights, radical politics no longer seemed anachronistic, and the moshing reminded me that cathartic fake violence has its own history. To echo one of Carl’s entries, it was a new way of living. If you’re the resolution-making type, I hope you find a few of them.