Tag Archives: Sheila Heti

On the Subject of Artists Talking About Art (By Sheila Heti)

Margaux Williamson: A few days ago, I took a walk with the writer Sheila Heti. We got onto the subject of artists talking about art. She had a lot to say about this and I was curious to hear more. I asked her if she would write about it for Back to the World. I’m really glad I asked – my friend sent me this incredibly smart and dead-on post this morning:

vonnegut-asshole

By Sheila Heti

I am not sure how to set down my anger in a way that is coherent – this anger that suddenly hit me a month ago, or maybe a few weeks ago. I spent most of 2012 publicizing my novel, How Should a Person Be? – touring and doing interviews and whatnot. (If you had asked me, a few years ago, what a year spent promoting a book might look like, I would have said it was impossible to do. But I have spent the better part of a year doing just that – and my friends, oy vey.) Anyway, I just looked up a month ago from all this and heard some complaint that I had been deaf to – a common thread of criticism about my book which wasn’t so much about the book (I think) as a proposition the book was making: that a legitimate thing to think and talk about (especially among people who make art) is the making of art. Suddenly, all sorts of words flooded into my mind that had been repeated all year, but which I had not yet put together as the chorus that it was: that this activity is privileged, narcissistic and childish; something permitted to those at university, maybe, but even then, a bit far-fetched as an activity of real importance. Certainly to be put away – along with the other “childish things” – once one becomes a man.

A funny thing is that much of this criticism came from very smart people in populous American cities, where (it is implied) the more mature, less narcissistic, and less privileged thing to talk about is money. Money is a conversation for adults. Art, for undergrads.

I’m pretty sure the majority of people who complained about all the conversations about art in my book are the same people who bemoan the lack of reading in our culture, who bewail the death of the novel, and who wish America was smarter and greater. Yet how can one claim, on the one hand, to wish to protect the cherished art of novel-reading, and on the other, to denounce as childish, privileged and narcissistic a healthy and normal conversation about art’s importance and the best way to make it – especially when that conversation is happening among, of all people, artists!

I think it’s the wholesale infiltration of concerns about money and commerce into art that leads to art’s withering on the vine, not direct and serious conversation about how to make art now. Stop talking about Amazon, for godssakes! For one minute!

I have spent a lot of time among fellow writers in New York, and although I count many of these people as my beloved friends, I rarely have a conversation in that city about art that does not either begin, end, or quickly turn into a conversation about the writing business – about agents and advances and gossip about other peoples’ advances and complaints about not getting reviewed here or there. In Toronto (that childish, infantile place) – or the Toronto that I depict, and that I am and have long been a part of – to turn a conversation in that direction would feel embarrassing. Not because we have so much money or do not need money as much (I don’t know anyone with a trust fund here), but because it would mean taking time away from what is more important and more vital, and which should be at the core of what we’re doing, and which we want to be doing better.

Perhaps this is “uncool.” As Dave Hickey once said of Richard Serra: “He says, ‘Let’s go look at art,’ so that’s what he does. He’s kinda corny because he’s not hip at all. He doesn’t know anybody. He doesn’t know who got AIDS, he doesn’t know who got fired. But he’s a real artist to me anyway.” Richard Serra is one of the artists I was thinking about most intently while I was writing my book – so to learn this from Hickey (a few years later) made sense. Probably that’s why Serra’s art provides so much to think about. What place does cool or hip have in any of this? Looking over my bookshelf at my most beloved writers – Kierkegaard, Franz Kafka, C.S. Lewis, Flannery O’Connor, Vonnegut – this is not a club of cool people, but a club (if it is a club) of those who could never be considered cool. A person can only be cool about what they do not care about. And these people cared more than anyone.

I am not saying that my New York friends or certain reviewers don’t actually care about art. They must. What I am picking up on is the distaste for bringing that caring into public. Caring about art is almost illicit, something one does in the privacy of one’s home, like masturbation. Well, sex and orgies are much more pleasurable than masturbation, and talking about art with other people is much more pleasurable than thinking about it alone. In any case, one can and should have both.

Artists should think about art, and should talk about it together, the same way people agitating for social change should talk about social change together. Would Occupy Wall Street have happened if people didn’t finally decide to put their collective grievances into a public space and talk about them? Art is not frivolous. Art is not a luxury. It moves the world forward. Like Occupy, it speaks for the pockets of our culture and our hearts that the mainstream, commercialized world does not want to hear about; art elbows its way in. It’s about balancing – about justice. It allows our deepest grievances and sorrows to take centre stage. Art is an example of human freedom and striving. It defines and stretches our humanity, it clears the world of convenient lies, it touches the loneliness that plagues us all and replaces it with fellow-feeling. It creates models of possible worlds in opposition to the worlds we live in, which we cannot imagine our way out of without art.

If my book can be placed among those that create possible worlds, I suppose  it’s a world in which artists can talk about art with dignity, because there is nothing to ridicule there.

If conversations about art are “privileged,” then it is also a privilege to talk about injustice. And maybe it is! Yes, I suppose it is a great privilege to be able to speak about art and justice. It is a great privilege, also, to be alive. And yet we do not all stab knives into our chests. It is a great privilege to be so far advanced in human history that writing and reading exist for so many. Yet that these things don’t exist for all, does not mean that those who read should poke out their eyes with sticks. All these privileges are meant to be taken. And used.

Finally, narcissism is something that begins and ends with itself. The artist is not narcissistic; she looks at her self in order to talk about other selves. She then creates something and gives it to the world. Someone who does this could be considered narcissistic in her personal life; only her friends and family know for sure. Yet people who look at themselves in order to better look at the world – that is not narcissism. It is, and has always been, what people who make art do, and must do. You cannot do it blind. You cannot do it by looking at a toaster. We do not look at ourselves in order to bask in our vanity (do you think anyone writes in furs?) but to understand ourselves as human beings – so as to understand other human beings – the human: fiction’s greatest subject. If we as a culture hate art, and this past year has made me suspect we do, I can only think it is because we are afraid to look at ourselves. And we hate the artist because she can look, and does.

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Filed under books, guest post, literature, margaux williamson, visual art

Tea With Chris: The Scorched Hills of Sudbury

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:

Margaux: I finally read the beautiful piece by Mark Greif on Radiohead from a 2005 N+1 issue. He writes about how the music builds a memorizing construction of a person coping with both tolerance and defiance (and occasionally forceful acceptance) for a world he can’t fight or escape. Since he believes himself to be alone in these feelings, defiance is his main option. Greif’s approach to pop is a little more anthropological than participatory, but I am always happy with an approach to pop. His text offers one of the most poetic and concise distinctions between defiance and revolution that I have come across.


by BeerMagnet

I read Greif’s text about a month ago and it has stayed in my mind while I’ve watched the coming together of so many people in the Occupy Wall Street movement. It has been hard so far in the baby part of this century not to feel lamely defiant and isolated:  Uselessly playing tear-gas-cat-and-mouse with the police at G20 summits while those in power get a great amount of work done somewhere way beyond the high fences. Watching Ralph Nader (at that point with a good amount of momentum and support) both be denied to participate in the 2000 presidential televised debates and then later be escorted off the corporate premises. He was escorted away even though his ticket was just for a seat in a distant screening room. Seeing the cynicism that allows for so much that is immoral to also be so completely legal and seemingly accepted. To see the same old banking CEOs in positions of highest power in the Obama administration. Speaking of which, I just looked up the documentary “Inside Job  (about the late-2000s financial crisis) on Rotten Tomatoes and saw that it received 97% approval rating from the top critics. This says a lot for a movie that consists of talking-heads, charts and graphs – and a movie that involves Matt Damon – but only uses his voice (as narrator). Even if you know everything about the financial crisis, it is really worth watching for the amazing interviews with some of the participants of the disaster.


by jgwiz2008

It is easy now to see old Thom Yorke wasn’t alone.  We can see people coming together publicly against recent tragedies,  including the execution of Troy Davis and the shooting of the 24-year-old Iraq war veteran Scott Olsen in Oakland.  And all of the other injustices that are occurring not just to individuals but to a growing mass.

Back to N+1. I was surprised to see that the fairly good-intentioned, Ivy-League-masculine literary magazine had put out the “Occupy! Gazette” . Its contributors are a much more diverse lot from across North America.  It’s really good to see, in the Occupy movement and in this Gazette, the coming together of such different groups of people. It was initiated by the activist and filmmaker Astra Taylor and the editor Mark Greif  and edited Sarah Leonard of Dissent. It’s a generous and useful action to share publicly these early stages – as it has been with the website occupywallst  and the more participatory Wiki Occupy Home.

Reading all these things is like looking at early blueprints – sketches of a project just started. It made me think of one of my favourite books – Stuart Kauffman’s “At Home in the Universe: The Search for the Laws of Self-Organization and Complexity”. It’s a science book and not at all about social movements. But Kauffman’s argument is about the natural self-organization of life. He talks about how the greatest amount of new life develops between the greatest amount of chaos and, on the other side, order. It is great to see that the Occupy movements haven’t moved to too much order just yet. It is great to have the upside-down world land in such a mess and see so many people patiently start to organize what is around them – to be more concerned with the blueprint than with declarations of war.

Instead of fighting outside the gates of power, we are now the ones who are holding the meetings. And not just a meeting, but maybe one of the longest conferences in history – thanks in part to the difference between occupying and protesting, being able to re-claim space and time in public. In Art Fag City, in an article by Paddy Johnson about artists occupying art spaces, Johnson nicely articulated this point: “This is what is new and transformative about the movement and, ultimately, what Occupy Museums is about: using the open process of self-education as a means of self empowerment. It is a fight against passivity”.

Occasional, it’s wise to try to keep your mind in the boundaries of what you understand to be realistic hopes, but it can also make you deformed. It sure does feel like a mind-blowing expansion of those boundaries to suddenly hear the words anarchism and socialism mentioned (occasionally) in less villainous terms in mainstream media.

All of this feels like watching a little flowers grow on the scorched hills of Sudbury. **Oh! Sorry Sudbury, I see your clear-cut-mining-sulfuric-acid-charred hills have been growing little flowers for quite some time now!


by Manfredhaukenfrers

Chris: Corporate executives judging value poorly, part one: the $130 cheque that bought all rights to Superman. (Though one could say DC was all too insightful in this case.)

Corporate executives judging value poorly, part two:

The birth of a legend: “the other day i was talking to a friend of mine about this pet store in orlando (where i went to college) that hired a guy to stand outside in a dog costume and wave at cars.

occasionally, that guy would just start crumpin’ up a storm when cars would be backed up at the red light near him; it was always my favorite part of my daily drive home from school — i’d literally hope against hope that Crumpin’ Dog would be out and in full-on freak mode…”

Our friend Sheila Heti compiled this oral history of the Mad Hatter, an anarchic birthday-party venue that marked a generation of Toronto kids with its degrading rituals, sullen teenage tormentors and aesthetic of nightmarish surrealism. There’s already dozens and dozens of reminiscing comments, which only reinforce the impression that it was like a sort-of-fun Salo. My parents weren’t too overbearing, but I grew in the ’90s here, not the ’80s, and by then the notion of leaving your spawn in some juvenile demimonde for hours was already unbelievable. Us millennials had to make do with the relatively mundane likes of Laser Quest and Playdium.

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Tea With Chris: The Chairs Are Where the People Go

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: The log that’s a bench. I like the idea of carving modern furniture into various parts of the landscape, as if inverting the ethos of those men in downtown Toronto who only wear lumberjack shirts.

The Xiu Xiu cover of Rihanna’s “Only Girl (In the World)” sounds exactly like I expected (well, aside from the “we can make sandwiches” interpolation) but that is very much okay.

A K-pop summer jam for you, complete with dubstep breakdown:

Margaux: In a waiting room, I came across this article by Fania Fainer in Chatelaine Magazine “Would you risk your life for a friend?”. I stopped to read it because I know Fania Fainer and recognized her picture. I’m friends with her daughter and have met Mrs. Fainer several times. She’s a very charming and open-minded woman. The article is incredibly short, and it’s one of the most meaningful things I have read in a long time. I highly recommend it.

Two of my favourite people (one of my best friends and my partner) made a book called The Chairs Are Where the People Go that’s just coming out now. It was included in a summer reading list, in spot #2 for New York magazine. Sheila Heti talked to her good friend Misha Glouberman to see if they could come up with chapters on what he knows. He knows 72 short chapters. It’s a strange, elegant and deceptively simple book – even useful.

Speaking of New York magazine, I appreciated this article by art critic Jerry Saltz on the Venice Biennale a few weeks ago (as did 292 people on Facebook). Saltz writes of being worried by the majority of the art he saw there – work that speaks to and interacts with the concerns of an older generation of art academics. I share this concern. He seems worried, but from where I stand I see the battle between those working within an older academic dialogue (looking to their teachers for their concerns and for their audience) and those striving to communicate beyond the contemporary confines of the art world (hoping to contribute to a contemporary world dialogue rather than just an inner art world dialogue) as pretty 50/50. Unlike Saltz, I am confident that the world kids will win – even if they aren’t yet being warmly invited to the Biennales. Or maybe they are just having too much fun on the internet.

Dear Toronto’s Bell Lightbox. Everyone loves your cinemas and everyone complains about your website. Everyone wants a clearly-visible button that will take you to the monthly schedule – they want a clear monthly schedule in your catalogue too, like in the olden days of cinema. Everyone also complains that they can only pay with Visa like at your film festival. People really don’t like that – especially the people who have a Visa card and none of their other friends do so they have to buy all the tickets.

Dear Lady Gaga, you can still work a persona even if you’re not acting all the time. A persona in the natural world is crazy! Wearing sneakers and dirty hair, with a boring old human face. That can be a dangerous and exciting platform for some persona play. Some people might not even know there is any persona play – and that can be fucked up.

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Tea With Chris: The Many Revenges

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: I’m in New York City. During my first and only previous visit, I crossed paths with St. Vincent after emerging from the subway in Manhattan. I wanted to say hi, maybe tell her she’d been great in Toronto the week before, but it was the hottest day of the year and I was a sweaty stranger who had just seen a dead-looking person trapped beneath an overturned van, so I shambled on uptown in silence. At least I can shout out Annie Clark on the internet, such as for this clip from last week, where she covers Big Black in  world-destroying fashion.

Marginalia!

Carl: Rock’n’roll pioneer Bill Hayley’s widow and children finally speak about his sad diminuendo. Her undying love for her very difficult husband kept her quiet all these years – but she eventually realized that her silence was muting his reputation and erasing his history. Michael Hall’s piece from Texas Monthly rocks – must I say it? – right around the clock.

For three weeks I’ve been meaning to write something about my dear friend Sean Dixon‘s excellent new book, The Many Revenges of Kip Flynn. I wanted to discuss it in the context of Torontopia and Toronto-dystopia, of which it is probably the best example in fiction, and I wanted to talk about the way that it colour-saturated my mental image of certain city locations, and the rich ways in which the real biographical facts about Sean that I know shine through cracks in its architecture. But then I discovered that, minus the bio-friendship aspect (which was always a little indulgent), that my post had already been written, by Amy Lavender Harris, who is far more qualified to write it than I am, being an expert on the ways Toronto has been rendered and transfigured in prose and poetry through the years. Her essay more than merits your attention. It should convince you how much the book does.

Speaking of friends and books, it was very enjoyable to see the Los Angeles Times this week call our friends Sheila Heti and Misha Glouberman‘s forthcoming collaboration The Chairs Are Where the People Go ” intelligent, quirky, charming, hard to classify … a sign of health in the publishing industry. It shows that there is a willingness to take risks – and maybe even have some fun.”

Enough logrolling. I leave you with the time that Pere Ubu was mistaken for children’s music. Was it the name?

Margaux: I came across this hilarious and painful Edmund White book review “In Love with Duras”  about the French filmmaker and novelist Marguerite Duras. It’s also kind about the one-time French president François Mitterrand (and the good and the bad things things he and Duras did during the World War 2). I lost track of what book it was talking about – it includes the line “he was finally shot by a madman in 1993 – fortunately for everyone” – but I sure do now have a better sense of Marguerite Duras and how she sometimes made fiction a little bit safer than real life.

We miss you William O. Douglas (1898 –1980), U.S. Supreme Court Justice, he who declared, “Trees have standing.” Justice Douglas famously argued that “inanimate objects” should have standing to sue in court (thanks to Chris Randle!):

The critical question of “standing” would be simplified and also put neatly in focus if we fashioned a federal rule that allowed environmental issues to be litigated before federal agencies or federal courts in the name of the inanimate object about to be despoiled, defaced, or invaded by roads and bulldozers and where injury is the subject of public outrage. Contemporary public concern for protecting nature’s ecological equilibrium should lead to the conferral of standing upon environmental objects to sue for their own preservation.
 
Inanimate objects are sometimes parties in litigation. A ship has a legal personality, a fiction found useful for maritime purposes. The corporation sole — a creature of ecclesiastical law — is an acceptable adversary and large fortunes ride on its cases…. So it should be as respects valleys, alpine meadows, rivers, lakes, estuaries, beaches, ridges, groves of trees, swampland, or even air that feels the destructive pressures of modern technology and modern life. The river, for example, is the living symbol of all the life it sustains or nourishes — fish, aquatic insects, water ouzels, otter, fisher, deer, elk, bear, and all other animals, including man, who are dependent on it or who enjoy it for its sight, its sound, or its life. The river as plaintiff speaks for the ecological unit of life that is part of it.

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Tea With Chris: Crows Keep Company

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: Rich Juzwiak, hero of the internet.

Kelli Korducki writes about being a quote-unquote halfie: “I may rock the white priv, but it’s never sat so great.”

Is it weird that I want to know what Terry Riley and Big Boi ate when they were hanging out at Burger King?

Margaux: A masculinist of my own heart, boy uses logic and loopholes to get his legs into a breezy skirt. (thanks to Sheila Heti)

Speaking of Sheila Heti (friend of Back to the World and brilliant interviewer) – Sheila Heti and Ross Simonini from The Believer are hosting the event THE ART OF THE INTERVIEW at the New York Public Library tomorrow (Saturday) from 1 to 3 pm… with Dick Cavett, Lorin Stein, Kenneth Goldsmith, Claudia Dreifus, Simon Rich, etc! Should be great.

Speaking of boys and skirts, poor old Lars Von Trier – holed up in a hotel room somewhere in Cannes as Mel Gibson roams free. Poor old Jodie Foster. Society is weird.

I’m in the woods and the crows keep me company when I go running. This makes me think about them a lot. Here’s a great Ted Talk from Joshua Klein about just that. (thanks to Misha Glouberman)

Colourless food. Awesome. There should at least be a year where there is no food colouring. That would solve a few problems probably and would be a easy year to remember.

I just saw the refreshing and good movie “Bridesmaids”. There was a giant poster outside the movie house, where I saw it, advertising one of its competitors “Something Borrowed” with Kate Hudson. This reminded me of Lynn Crosbie’s hilarious critique of that movie using only the movie’s trailer “(try to tell me that’s not enough!)”.

Carl: I had a favourite Ted Talk this week too, not new but new to me, in which a brain-research scientist gets to examine her own brain in slow motion when she experiences a stroke, and the result basically has her talking like a psychonaut pioneer on LSD or ayahuasca: Apparently one hemisphere of our brain is quite aware that we are all made of energy and there are no real inside-outside boundaries and we are all joined by infinite love. The other side, well, it has language. (Thanks to Buffy Childerhose)

My favourite literary event in Toronto, and therefore in the world, is coming to an end: This week the Scream Literary Festival aka The Scream in High Park announced that this year’s 18th annual event would be the last. I’ve had the thrill of reading on the Scream’s mainstage and the pleasure of being in a bunch of its panels and hosting other events, and it’s always been smart, irreverent and nimble. It will be very sad next summer when it doesn’t happen. But for now, as they say on that link, there’s various kinds of helping hands they could use to shut ‘er down in style, so lend one if you can.

Nancy Updike had a beautiful piece on This American Life last week, about the meetings seemingly everyone in Egypt is having every day to try to plan the future of their society. If you don’t have a war after you have a revolution, this is what you get to do. (I admit it: I like meetings.) It’ll all come down to earth one day or another, of course, but what a spring it must be to be there and to be alive.

Speaking of revolutionaries: Here’s Roseanne. Love, love, love.

That Rapture thing: A bunch of critics pick music to die by.

Among the many nice things I got to do this week, the best was to hear Luc Sante talk about Robert Frank at the Art Gallery of Ontario. This article isn’t quite as wonderful as the talk was, but it’s got the gist.

Bad lipreading: “Party in the USA” -> -> “Black Umbrella (The Right Stuff).” (Thanks to Douglas Wolk)

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Somewhere (2010) – written and directed by Sofia Coppola

Intro by Margaux Williamson, text that follows by Sheila Heti

(I went to see this in a theatre in Los Angeles. I sat next to my friend Sheila Heti. Sheila and I can as easily agree as disagree about a movie we watch together, but in this case, when the credits started to roll and we looked at each other, it was clear it hadn’t worked its magic on either of us – even though it was interesting to watch a movie about driving around in Los Angeles since that’s what we had been doing all day.

I think the elements that were supposed to resonate with me didn’t. I couldn’t see the poetry or the power of the movie, and I had been holding out hope for these things till the end. When, before going into the bathroom, Sheila critiqued the movie, she talked about the main character in a way that I never think about, and I really wanted to hear more. The only thought I’d had about the main character was that it was it too bad they hadn’t cast Bruce Willis.

But when she came out of the bathroom, we couldn’t discuss it because we were late meeting someone for a drink – strangely, at the nearby Chateau Marmont. The Chateau Marmont was the setting of the movie we had just seen, a place I had been unfamiliar with before we stepped into the cinema. Our friend must have picked the hotel after we told him which movie we were seeing.

I asked Sheila if she could write about the film and character here so that I wouldn’t miss out. )


Somewhere covers a few weeks in the life of a 30-ish movie star named Johnny. Instead of acting, he goes to press junkets. He is offered sex at every turn. He drinks and smokes in his un-fabulous apartment at the Chateau Marmont. He feels and thinks nothing.

At one point, he is asked to look after his 11-year-old daughter, Chloe. Chloe’s mother can’t take care of him because she has to do something (we never find out what, or find out whether the mother is Johnny’s ex-wife or his ex-girlfriend or his ex-lay). So Johnny and Chloe hang around. Her beautiful, innocent pubescence returns him to feeling, somewhat. After depositing her at camp, he sees that he is empty. He sits on the floor beside his bed and calls a woman (we don’t know who) and asks her to come over. “I am not even a human,” he says. “Why don’t you volunteer?” the female voice asks. She doesn’t come over. A few scenes later, Johnny calls room service, asks for his apartment to be packed up, drives to the desert, gets out of his car, and walks off screen.

We have no indication of what he means to do off-screen (kill himself? take a piss? return to his daughter?) just as we don’t know why the mother left, or who Johnny called. But I didn’t struggle to find answers to these questions, I think because one senses that there are no answers – that even Sofia Coppola doesn’t know.

For most of us, the details in life matter, because it is the details we have to contend with; the details are the stuff on which our choices turn. In Sofia Coppola’s world, there are no choices, and nothing is difficult to contend with.

In her films, people aren’t deciding-beings or responsible-beings; they are, simply, their context — which they didn’t even get themselves into, but simply where they find themselves placed. Johnny finds himself in the realm of celebrity, so he’s a celebrity. When he’s around his daughter, he has a little more feeling in him, because being around daughters gives one a little feeling. In Lost in Translation, Scarlett Johansson looks about weirdly because Tokyo makes foreigners look about weirdly. Sofia Coppola is a filmmaker because she was born Sofia Coppola.

What separates a human from a light bulb is that a human creates her life. A light bulb is screwed in. If a human is not shown to make her life, but rather, is just this thing that has been screwed into place, there’s nothing to say about that human.

Sofia Coppola’s protagonists are light bulbs.

Charitably, one might consider that Coppola’s simply representing what it looks like when people have no experience of their own agency. But I actually don’t think the question of agency ever comes to her mind. In one scene I can’t forget, Chloe sits listening to her father play the piano, her arm draped unnaturally over the back of the chair. No little girl would sit that way, but it certainly looks good to place a girl that way. Sofia Coppola’s world is purely a visual one. She reproduces what she sees around her (in this case, one supposes, her friends) and human motivation and choice aren’t things one sees when one looks at people – these things have to be thought about.

What does Coppola think about Johnny? Simply that Johnny is Johnny because that’s how Johnnys are. She doesn’t ask why Johnnys are this way. I’m not sure why she doesn’t ask this. It’s probably because no Johnnys have asked her.

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10 Things I Liked in 2010 (Singles, Supervillains, Socialism)

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…]

1. Yeahhhhhhh

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.

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