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

(Picture swiped from Hazlitt.)

by Carl Wilson

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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