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Carl’s Tuesday Musics: “Book of Saints” by Veda Hille (2008)

by Carl Wilson

I had a hell of a time deciding what of Veda Hille‘s to share with you today. Though she hails (and rains and sleets and mists) from Vancouver, Veda is in Toronto right now, because she’s about to open a new version of her (and Bill Richardson’s) musical, Do You Want What I Have Got? A Craigslist Cantata, at the Factory Theatre. She’s also, though this is a highly contested title, probably the least-known of the very best songwriters in North America. You won’t guess that from this one song, though it will help if you listen to it more than once. But it does show off the quizzical sideways leaps of her mind and the wonder-laden shelves of her musical imaginarium. This is from her last studio album, This Riot Life, which mobilizes a lot of fragments of religious language, though it’s not religious, to talk about other matters – the proximity of death to life in the region it’s working, for instance.

It’s only as these songs and their strategies gradually assemble, into a body or constellation or archipelago, that you start to sense their range of silliness and scariness, and get accustomed to their peculiar volatility and spirality, their literally geological wisdom, and feel them becoming indispensable.

So if you’re in Toronto this month, go see Do You Want What I Have Got, and come to see Veda at the Music Gallery on Feb 25. The rest of you maybe go do a little more exploring.

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Carl’s Tuesday Musics: Marker Starling, “Author”

by Carl Wilson

Marker Starling is Toronto’s Chris Cummings, who recorded a series of great albums of “visual music” under the monicker Mantler until jazz musician Michael Mantler (apparently taking out whatever were his own frustrations over his stature in the world as he approached 70) threatened this little-known Canadian artist with legal action and forced him to adopt a new name. No matter, no matter, the beauty carries on, with Cummings’ ownmost amalgam of smooth R&B, disco, organ music, sex and poetry. Just stand back and gape at this opening acrobatic sequence:

Like a face bears a noble expression, it’s not the words you love, it’s the voice of the author. It’s not the story spoken, but the impression furnished.

In dusky theatres of old, in auditoriums dark with age, the speeches actors would unfold, the poems fluttering from the stage: garlands of love, daggers of hate, waistcoats and gloves, prop pieces of eight, fiery hues for burning at stake.

Better pay your union dues: They’ll write a part for you.

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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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Bully: A Film By Lee Hirsch (2011)

by Carl Wilson

I didn’t want to see Bully at first. Immediately when I read about it in the paper, I felt that I could see the whole documentary unspooling in my head, with scenes of micro-brutality and indifferent response that were more than over-familiar, but painfully so. I’m glad the movie exists, along with the whole anti-bullying campaign of recent years (even if I am sometimes a little fatalistically skeptical about how much it can change). Still, I thought, I’ve processed those experiences, don’t want to revisit them, and don’t see any hint that the film has anything unexpected to offer.

Nevertheless, this week a friend persuaded me to go. On one level I guessed right: As cinema, as documentary, this is not highly accomplished. In the final half hour, it descends into PSA territory, as it tours us around rallies held by parents in memory of kids who killed themselves, with the dulling tropes of balloons being released, candles lit, voices supposedly un-silenced – all the modern American mediatized rituals of mourning and “never agains” and the white-on-black number to call in the final frame.

But it turned out to affect me, spending time with these bullied kids and frustrated families –  the heartbreakingly brave and funny lesbian teen who is trying to transform her small town singlehandedly until she realizes that’s way too much to ask of herself, her beautiful friends, the parents trying to reach out and feel the shape of this thing and finding it always too small or too big to get hold of and never just right, the “fish faced” geek who I had to admit irritated me the way he irritated his tormenters.

Sitting through the vérité evidence, moment by moment, did provide a sort of therapy – not so much in the sympathy I felt for what the characters were enduring as in the way it had me constantly anticipating how the moments we were seeing would affect the lives ahead of them. Of course the lens through which I was doing that forecasting was my own experience, and so the lens became a mirror, in which I could see the threads tracing back from today to those moments of my own, way back. It was a very vulnerable feeling, but a cathartic and informative one too, a reminder that we never really finish with any parts of our lives – they just land differently in each successive version of our story.

So here’s what I think I learned: Whatever the particulars of the little bundle of dynamite you happen to carry around under your sweater, even a bad movie about it might be worth seeing, perhaps differently so than a bad book. The way the medium plays with duration, suspending it or simply making you watch every minute more closely, affords you a little space to try moving the hands on the timer, even to bring the explosion a few seconds closer, and then to safely rewind it again.

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Out of the Vinyl Deeps: Ellen Willis on Rock Music, edited by Nona Willis Aronowitz (2011)

by Carl Wilson

There’s been plenty of praise already for this posthumous volume of work by not only The New Yorker’s first pop writer but one of the first rock critics (as opposed to reviewers) – who went missing from the history because she had dropped out of the game by the time it was first being historicized, and no doubt because she wasn’t a guy. I was a fan of Ellen Willis’s socio-political, feminist writing (many fine examples of which are archived on this Tumblr) long before learning she’d been a music critic. Later I couldn’t believe I hadn’t known.

I’m still struck by the uncanny frisson rereading her work imparts. It feels at once anachronistic and full of unfinished business. Early rock critics generally read more like our contemporaries than other cultural critics of the 1960s and 1970s, save perhaps Pauline Kael. But in part that was because they (Marcus, Christgau et al) were having arguments they then went on to finish, or that other people clearly took up (Lester Bangs). They were able to moderate their various romanticisms, rockisms, exclusions and snobberies.

With Willis, you get reflections on anything from Elvis’s comeback to the social meaning of white electric blues to whether David Bowie was a phony, all as offhand, first-draft-of-history musings, necessarily innocent of the big debates to come, often half-wrong but revitalized by freshness as first thoughts. You also get blind spots – it’s misleading that the first piece in chapter 1 is about “Two Soul Albums,” because contemporary black music just isn’t going to come up in this book very often. It’s not an omission anyone writing retrospectively about the 1960s and 1970s would make. But it was one plenty of people did at the time, and Willis isn’t exempt, nor does she get to go back and revise.

More importantly there are the hints and beginnings of big themes she’d never go on to explore in depth – and neither would many others. Part of what was lost in Willis’s voice going missing was the way she treated music not so much analytically, and certainly not categorically, but dynamically. She had a way of talking about artist-audience relationships, specifically fan relationships, that anticipated what would come in cultural studies in the 1980s and 1990s.

But while there was sociology in Willis’s take, it was also self-reflexive and personal – her sense of what she was asking of Janis Joplin and what Janis Joplin reciprocally needed from her, or how she could appropriate the virile aggression of Mick Jagger as a fan, and take on that erotic energy as subject rather than object. (So the Stones’ Under My Thumb is potentially more accommodating to a female point-of-view than Cat Stevens’ Wild World, because a hetero woman couldn’t easily picture herself passive-aggressively controlling an ex-lover by telling him he was too naive and delicate for the big bad world. Molly Templeton has astutely proposed that gender-flip question as Willis’s musical equivalent of the Bechdel Test.)

Here, then, are 5 propositions and maxims that reading Out of the Vinyl Deeps made me think should guide more criticism today.

Music is an embodied experience.

As a feminist, a 1960s counterculture-liberationist and, most of all, as someone who came into a relatively empty field and pursued her passions rather than having a lot of other discourse to answer to, Willis was seldom distracted from the fact that music was something to feel physically – an engine for dancing, a drug for feeling, a massage for pain, an erotic locus and something that pulls you into crowds.

Unlike some members of the boys’ club, she didn’t take that as an excuse for slobbery prose that tried to emulate the music’s (and the drugs’) pulses and waves. She wrote more diagnostically, describing the symptoms caused by these viruses of sound and trying to say what they were good or bad for, and what overall syndromes they might indicate. She knew there were contradictions between rationalism and expressionism, between the body and the mind, but to her that was exactly the meaning and purpose of rock’n’roll.

 It’s natural to have an agenda.

Willis felt no compunction about the fact that Janis Joplin, Bob Dylan, Mick Jagger, The Who and the Velvet Underground (who, amazingly, she’s still written about better than anyone else) were closer and more personal to her than a lot of other figures. She enjoyed keeping in dialogue with them, with each new album or development.

She wasn’t uncomfortable with that commitment and contaminated by ideas of objectivity leaking inappropriately in from other branches of journalism. But she also knew that her fan relationship to them was fraught. She cared about whether they were fulfilling their promises without petulantly implying they owed something to her – as if they were the leaders of a republic in which she was just one highly engaged citizen. Pop is about both identification and objectification of the stars, she knew. But just as with the people around us, the projections, identifications and oppositions we bring in are mainly our own problem.

Pleasure is both a moral imperative and a moral dilemma.

None of the liberating power Willis felt in pop music could function without pleasure. In this way, she was ahead of the back-and-forth that would come between the neo-Adorno undergroundist critics who were suspicious of pop pleasure and the (now dominant) faction of poptimists who insist that’s where it all begins.

But she was always asking herself what pleasure meant: I like that beat, but what do I like it for? It’s not just whether and how it works, but what it works, what it’s propelling. She was alert to the possibilities of masochism, of submitting to the force or insinuation of music without questioning what becomes of the self in the process. She also delighted in finding pleasure that was hard to find – that punk, for example, had a positive life-force to offer within what had seemed nihilistic, anti-pleasure to her at first. But when music had no pleasure in it, she was impatient with any other argument it might have to offer.

Music always suggest a philosophy, a life-world.

For Willis, ultimately, the question was whether music was evoking a world she wanted to live in, or at least wanted to work her way through. Her landmark Velvet Underground essay for the Stranded “desert-island disc” anthology was testing exactly that problem: She saw in the VU, and in Lou Reed’s songwriting especially, a search for salvation in a fallen world. The VU was radical in pop music for its depiction of how deeply, violently fallen the world is – how unlike a mental ideal the embodied life is.

But she was convinced the music was about the struggle against that nihilism. She would have had little time for music that embraced the nihilism, a genuinely gnostic music. (Which may be what she thought she heard in the 1980s, and why she quit writing about it.)

Her writing likewise depicted a fight against cynicism and despair, which partly marks its post-60s era – she’s not that far off from Joan Didion in that way, though Willis could never be mistaken as anything but a New York writer. But the details of the philosophical positions involved aren’t so much the crux as is the constant listening for what’s being proposed and the writer’s honest effort to imagine what that has to do with her.

To live outside the law you must be honest – and hurt the ones you love.

All that said, Willis was never willing to straight-out join up. Perhaps her days of countercultural immersion and unthinking loyalty are behind her by the time she starts writing in public. Perhaps they were just never in her character. She makes her alliances tentatively, the way a feminist who loves Dylan and the Stones and the Who has to if she’s not switching her brain off.

She’s no easier on her female compatriots: She made a huge effort to find nascent feminist musicians who would speak to her. She didn’t find many. She witnesses the beginning of the women’s-music-festival movement, and finds it encouraging, but she’s impatient to find the women’s music that really rocks, or at least doesn’t traffic in feminist platitudes.

She keeps searching, but she doesn’t give away too many points for effort, and she’s not afraid she’ll be kicked out of the movement for voicing her misgivings, in part because she does it so clearly with regret. Just as she listens to the music, it seems as if she listens to her own words, asking how her pleasure in writing serves to create more pleasure, to liberate a larger purpose.

She indulges that ego right up to that line but never across it. At the ends of a lot of her pieces, no matter how big or small her claims beforehand have been, she often threw in a little offhand disclaimer: “He’s right, but I still miss it.” “Well, call it a draw.” “You can’t win ’em all.” “But I guess that I just don’t know.” She brings it back down to that human scale, in which the author is merely, again, one citizen of this republic of song, even when she’s saying what the rest of that imaginary nation hadn’t yet thought to think.

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Who’s the Boss? Dialectics for Peter Pan: Revenge Fantasies of the Politically Dispossessed by Jacob Wren and The Promise: The Making of Darkness on the Edge of Town by Thom Zimmy (both 2010)

by Carl Wilson

If you’d asked me last week for a shorthand analysis of my favourite Bruce Springsteen album, Darkness on the Edge of Town, I would have called it his response to punk rock – inspired by it to a new rawness of sound, but on the other hand rebuking it for pitting subculture against mainstream rather than common man against plutocrat.

As an American, anarchy was all too present to him – the anarchy of the Badlands of Terence Malick’s movie and his own song. Rather than transgression for its own thrilling sake, Bruce wanted to betray betrayal and get fidelity; to sin against his country’s original sin and create virtue. Beyond contradiction to dialectic.

But this week I watched a new documentary about the making of the album. Turns out that though punk and politics were factors, Bruce was responding to a lot of other things. Namely, he and his former manager were suing each other, over the contract he’d naively signed that gave the manager control over how he made his records and half-ownership of his songs. This kept the band out of the studio for a long, frustrating time. It kept them from following up his first big hit, “Born to Run,” at the point conventional wisdom in the mid-1970s said they must or risk career death. He was terrified of losing everything, then jubilant when he could finally get back to work.

This part’s not politics. It’s careerism. There’s a daisychain of desire connecting Bruce to the elite. After years as a struggling artist he’d quite quickly become a rock star. He wanted to stay a rock star. All of which is in the songs: “Poor man wants to be rich, rich man wants to be king.” But he knew he had to be wary of success as much as failure, of becoming his own enemy: “A king ain’t satisfied till he rules everything” (a duality always inherent in his nickname, “the Boss”). He talks in the documentary about the danger of losing yourself, the spark that made you do the work, made you who you are –not just as a human being, one understands, but as a rock star too.

He could see only one safeguard: He had to grow up.

Adulthood, he felt he’d learned from his parents, is a state in which you’ve learned what you have to compromise (song after song refers to paying the price, the cost) and what you must not, while giving up the fantasy that you can dodge compromise altogether: “When the promise is broken, you go on living,” he sings in the song that gives the documentary its title, one of many he cut from the record, dumbfounding his collaborators: When a song sounded like it could be an overshadowing hit, he’d cut it for the sake of the whole, giving for example “Because the Night” to Patti Smith, which became her sole radio success. Perhaps this was the adult thing to do. (A double-disc collection of those songs comes out in November. [Yes, please.])

Springsteen was moving away from kids like the lovers in “Because the Night,” who want escape – the heroes of standard rock’n’roll politics, even in punk. He turned towards the viewpoints of people like his parents – his father went deaf (symbolically enough) working on a factory floor – or those even more damaged and hopeless. It wasn’t the guitar sound or the shredded larynx that made Darkness seem almost more punk than punk. Its commitment to reality came with a bitter willfulness that was bigger than nihilistic escapism, the way Hank Williams’ does (another new discovery for Bruce at the time).

Like his earlier work, though, and in fidelity to rock, it still sought redemption in love. When Bruce had two versions of “Racing in the Street,” one just about the two drag-racing buddies and another that adds a painful love story, he asked a longtime female fan as well as Steve Van Zandt which one they liked better. They both said, “The one with the girl.” Bruce was surprised Van Zandt said so and asked why. “Because that’s how life is: You’ve got a friend, the girl comes along, then you don’t have that friend any more.”

At the end of the song, the couple plans to “ride to the sea, and wash these sins off our hands.” The abandoned Sonny has merged into the girl the singer’s somehow made hate her life. In the film, Bruce says the point was that you couldn’t get rid of sins, only figure out how to live with them. How to be faithful to your betrayals. Beyond contradiction to dialectic.

I’m sure he’d be surprised to be compared to Springsteen, but Jacob Wren’s Revenge Fantasies of the Politically Dispossessed is a novel that seems to revisit many of the same problems a Christ’s age later.

Jacob’s a Canadian practitioner of experimental theatre of a sort, and a friendly acquaintance of mine. He’s another heir to punk, particularly to the communitarian-anarchist and more self-consciously avant-garde, dadaist strains of it that would develop in the 1980s, when he was getting started as a playwright prodigy with the wonderfully adolescent pseudonym “Death Waits.” (I know Jacob Wren isn’t his birth name either, though I don’t know what that is.)

He gained a lot of notoriety around Toronto at that time, and the traces of that child-star-type brush with fame continue to haunt his work – like Bruce he wants both to hold onto success and reject it, although probably in inverse proportions. He does his best to be no one’s Boss, even when he is directing a theatre company.

I’ve read this novel twice now and have trouble reaching a full verdict, but I find it very compelling. It’s set in the very near future, or perhaps an alternate now, and centres around a group of people who have decided to hold weekly meetings to discuss political questions. Specifically the questions, rather than the answers. They feel the left has gone wrong somewhere, stuck between emotional irrational reaction and well-worn quietistic analysis. They think that if they talk in circles, rigorously, critically, long enough they might somehow break through these impasses – political discussion as a kind of Zen meditation. I’d like to attend these meetings, but in themselves they wouldn’t make a very good novel, of course.

What begins to spin out of them, instead of never-attained political nirvana, is a love triangle between a political philosopher, a doctor-without-borders and a nondescript participant who strikes me as the main viewpoint character, though the actual p.o.v. shifts from chapter to chapter. The affair strains the whole group, but it’s especially disastrous for the three of them, who end up separately turning to sexual (mis?)adventure, an expatriate life of fraud and blackmail, and an improbably plausible career as a reality-TV radical activist. Meanwhile the society around them is descending into nearly open fascism, putting all of them in a danger that both attracts and terrifies them.

Like Springsteen’s, this work is about the problem of adulthood and what compromise consists of, and the meaning of fidelity – personal, romantic/sexual, idealistic. It has a more tragicomic sense than Bruce’s and lacks his heroic dimension, as seems inevitable three decades further on in post-industrial capitalism. But it certainly does deal with chains of desire and ambition, and how (or is it whether) to transcend mere contradiction, mere negation.

The question is what the darkness is on the edge of town: Global political exploitation, or the personal darkness that makes us both prey to and complicit with it, and on which nonetheless we have to make our stand? Both of course. But Jacob’s characters are middle-class educateds in despair over injustice, while Bruce’s are closer to the actual sufferers of injustice. What seems amiss in Jacob’s title is that his characters are not dispossessed in the usual sense (in interviews he’s speculated that what he means is that he’s without possession of a viable political position or stake) and they don’t really get any kind of revenge.

The story in some ways seems to sate an urge to experience a much more brutal and vicious western regime to stand against, for capitalism to become the caricature its most conspiratorially minded critics imagine. The title should be something closer to Dispossession Fantasies of the Politically Depressed. If there weren’t a darkness on the edge of town, Wren’s characters might be forced to invent it. Bruce’s version is more surely not made but found.

The paradox here is of course self-conscious. I doubt Jacob thinks we’re close to a state in which writing a book about non-monogamy, or even professors sleeping with their students, would get you disappeared and tortured, no matter how many Tea Party Republicans get into Congress (or lefty bureaucrats to university administrations). Much less if you’re living in Montreal.

So there’s a satirical spirit. But the writer Wren reminds me of most in this book, Wallace Shawn, has a much surer hand with that kind of escalation of absurdities into a harrowing thought experiment. I waver about how much to credit Wren’s relative messiness – whether it’s an admirable attempt to complicate such methods further, or just plain messiness. (Though it’s certainly praise even to make the comparison.)

On the other hand as he’s gone on Springsteen’s projective identification with the downtrodden – who’ve become less Jersey workers, more dust-bowl John Steinbeck characters – has become less and less credible. He wavers between fidelity to that tough realist voice on Darkness and rock-star do-gooder sentimentality. In that sense Jacob’s got a more adult, sustainable fix on himself. In the evasions they each still make, there’s that tension between Peter Pan romanticism and the cynical ruin it can become (as Joni Mitchell memorably warned in “The Last Time I Saw Richard”).

Yet both these artists make stirring leaps at a near-insurmountable wall. As they say about death and comedy (and the parallel’s pretty accurate): Punk is easy, adulthood is hard. I’d love to hold a meeting to talk about it. Or a rock show to shout about it. Or a bed to whisper it in. I’ll be there on time, and I’ll pay the cost.

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Mansfield Park (1999) – Written and Directed by Patricia Rozema, Based on Jane Austen’s novel

By Margaux Williamson

(I was having a great leisurely day and I went to the video store wanting something familiar and expensive. I picked out Mansfield Park, a movie by Patricia Rozema based on the Jane Austen book of the same name. The characters in Jane Austen’s work spend most of their time having complicated thoughts about intellect, about how to judge others and about their own emotions (how to have them, how to control them). I didn’t read a Jane Austen novel till I was 21. Prior to that I had always figured that most people have virtues and flaws in equal measure, even if the specifics of those virtues and flaws are very different. I figured the good and the bad are just highlighted or more deeply shadowed in different contexts. So from that logic, it seemed reasonable for people to move around a bit, till they find the best place to stand. Somehow it really had never occurred to me how much value or worthlessness one can ascribe to another human being until Jane Austen came along. The books are always a bit foreign to me, but they are always a complicated pleasure.

There was something wrong with the DVD or my DVD player and near the end of the movie – the top of the image went askew. So for about 15 crucial minutes of the movie, people’s heads were pretty far away from their bodies. It was pretty distracting.)



Fanny Price is sent off at the age of ten on a horse-drawn carriage, away from poverty and towards a mansion. When she arrives at the mansion, she starts a new life as a half relative/ half servant to her mother’s extended family, the Bertrams. The only person who is kind to her is her cousin Edmund Bertram, a virtuous young man who will eventually become a clergyman.

Fanny Price, and her four Bertram cousins all grow up together at Mansfield Park. In the day-to-day Fanny is often overlooked and disrespected (because of her different class background and unremarkable looks). It is easy to feel for her and the injustice of her specific situation, and easy to see that, though overlooked, she is intelligent and is watching everything. The bulk of the action takes place in 1808 when Fanny and her cousins are young adults. The narrative primarily involves other people in and around the household taking action and making mistakes. Fanny Price, however, takes no action and makes no mistakes. Fanny Price’s greatest virtue, in the end, is that she is the last one standing, having made no grave mistakes at all. Like a pay-off from a Hollywood movie, all of Fanny Price’s judgments and suspicions regarding the failings of others’ characters are proven to be sound.

Needless to say, she is difficult to fall in love with. In this movie, she continues to be difficult to fall in love with. In the book, Fanny Price is a bit dull, morbidly shy, pious and reserved with her compliments. Here in the movie, Fanny Price is stronger, more modern, less dull and more confident. I can imagine Rozema wanting to make Fanny Price more of a contemporary feminist hero, but the new qualities placed in the same frame create some weird side effects.

Now that she is more confident (and so therefore, more like the other young adults around) Fanny Price’s judgments (regarding love-choices, the worthiness of the arts, the vanity of women, the faults of people’s pasts) seem more harsh and also more confusing. Here, when we see her reserved pleasure at the eventual misfortune of others (valueless characters who were once cruel to her) we think: fair enough. Though now that here we can see her smile, and the modern glint in her eye, it all looks a little bit more like revenge.

To complicate matters, this Fanny Price comes into contact with damning information regarding her uncle’s involvement in the slave trade (in the book, it is more of a cryptic and passing reference). Now, the small protest Fanny Price musters for this occasion seems so inadequate and out of proportion to the clever judgments she formed against an adulterer, a snob, a cynical woman and a lovesick idiot.

Her uncle switches his business to the tobacco industry, and life at Mansfield Park pretty much continues as normal. I’m not sure if it’s the early 19th century time period or the jarring of two different time periods that make this forgiving and forgetting feel so morally confusing and foreign.

These criticisms made me think of Jane Austen in a new way. It made me think more about what resources are possible if one’s mobility is taken away by societal restraints or by one’s own fear of displacement. Suddenly it seemed as though trees would be the most judgmental but forgiving, and the ocean the most generous but fleeting. If you are not free to go, maybe the ability to judge is one of your rare weapons – and forgiveness, a necessity.

Fanny Price marries the soon-to-be clergyman Edmund Bertam, the only person she seems to like. In the last scene of the movie, they walk arm in arm across the garden and into a house – still contained within the boundaries of Mansfield Park. Edmund suggests to Fanny a title for the book she has been working on (in this movie, Fanny Price is a writer). After he suggests a title, Fanny Price laughs, “That’s a terrible title” she says as they get smaller on the screen and the credits start to rise. Good luck Edmund! I think to myself.

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