Building a Merritt-ocracy

Over his Magnetic Fields career, Stephin Merritt has never performed the same experiment twice. After creating the iconic break-up triple record 69 Love Songs, he put out the reverb-drenched Distortion, a Jesus and Mary Chain homage, which found a companion in this year’s Realism. Then there’s his Lemony Snickett soundtrack The Gothic Archies, and his work on last year’s Coraline off-Broadway musical. Through all this he has emerged as a distinct voice for a generation’s worth of heartbreak.

The Varsity: I remember an interview you did with Daniel Handler for the 69 Love Songs box set where he compared something you did to Simon and Garfunkel and you visibly cringed. But Realism is this eclectic folk album—has something changed, or is this a different kind of folk?

Stephin Merritt: I have nothing against Simon and Garfunkel—I quite like Cecilia. I just can’t stand Bridge Over Troubled Waters. I don’t particularly mind that comparison, but generally I don’t like being compared to anybody. I prefer to be eclectic enough that I’m not directly comparable.

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TV: It seems like much of your output has had a tension between romanticism and realism in a way. Do you think that’s fair?

SM: Well, I don’t believe in the category of realism in the first place. I use it as a general term, like Distortion. We use it as a false god—as is folk itself. I don’t believe in folk and I don’t believe in realism. That’s why I titled this record that way: I find the ideas of both of those things highly problematic. I think the marketing category of folk is essentially racism. It’s a way of selling white people singing English, especially in non-standard accents—things that are traditional or sound vaguely that they are traditional, and anything outside of the boundaries of that are called blues or world. Realism has its own problems, but it’s at least not that socially-, sociologically-constructed.

TV: I heard you were going to name the records [Realism and Distortion] True and False, but that you backed out on that. This goes back to that idea of coming up with imperial, binary categories.

SM: I thought it would be annoying to call the folk record True, and the distorted one was called False, but it would be cloying the other way around. So I went with Distortion and Realism, which are actually much better at describing what’s wrong with each record. I want the title to reflect what people are most likely to complain about. As with 69 Love Songs—Tom Lehrer says that 69 Love Songs was 65 love songs too many. He doesn’t like the idea of love songs, but how can you complain when the title is already 69 Love Songs? And with i, all of the track names start with the letter. You can’t complain about that because that’s the title of the record.

TV: I remember an interview you did with Guy Maddin where at one point you said that it didn’t make sense to try to represent oneself realistically in music or film. Do you feel Realism the record is like that?

SM: Actually, the realism of the title just refers to the recording process and if there is any additional resonance to that in the lyrics, it is entirely accidental. I’ve never tried to write autobiographically. Well, that’s not true. I tried to write autobiographically on one record and nobody noticed, so I have never brought it up.

TV: Do you think somebody could figure out which one that is someday?

SM: I suppose someone could delve deep. It’s the only record without any vampire songs.

TV: So it’s not a Gothic Archies record.

SM: No. But that’s pretty autobiographical in a certain way, because it’s about my voice and if that doesn’t reflect my personality, then I don’t know what does. In that way, it’s about me in some way. But it’s more about the three fictional children and the books that were written about them.

TV: With the Magnetic Fields, I find that your music is associated with unrequited love by a lot of people. Do you worry about people projecting their aspirations for what love might be onto your music?

SM: Well, I can’t control what people do with my records. I also don’t know what people do with my records. People write me fan letters saying “I didn’t commit suicide because 69 Love Songs is a good album.” I have no idea what that means.

TV: You have to understand on some level what that means.

SM: I didn’t commit suicide because 69 Love Songs is a good album. We almost all didn’t commit suicide because 69 Love Songs is a good album.

TV: A lot of people find something very personal in the idea of the Magnetic Fields, probably much more than most pop music, I think.

SM: Hm… I don’t know what to say to that. I think most people who’ve ever heard of Magnetic Fields are probably early adopters, who latch on to something they feel like they have found, as opposed to having something jammed down their throat. That probably gives me a more personal connection. But other than the fact that I’m not very famous, I can’t think of a particular personal connection. I don’t know what that is.

TV: Do you consider yourself to be a romantic?

SM: No. I don’t think I know what that means. There’s confusion between the Romantic period, the Romantic movement, and lower case “r” romantic. I don’t know where to begin untangling that. Sorry.

The Magnetic Fields play tonight with Laura Barrett at The Queen Elizabeth Theatre.

Evil Las Vegas

Consider an early scene in Saint John of Las Vegas: John (Steve Buscemi), a drone at an insurance company, is called to see his boss, Mr. Townsend (Peter Dinklage). Townsend gives John a chance at a promotion when he assigns him an insurance fraud investigation, for which he is also given a hard-nosed partner, Virgil (Romany Malco). Townsend’s office is jarringly bizarre—painted garish red, with picture frames and desks cramped in front of the walls’ centres, and four Roman pillars around the desk—and as the scene progresses, it also becomes clear that Buscemi, Dinklage, and Malco are never photographed together. Director Hugh Rhodes cuts back and forth between the three actors. The editing, framing, and set design combine to create an odd, alienating effect that pervades the film.

Now consider the next scene. John has learned from Townsend that Jill (Sarah Silverman), his attractive co-worker at the cubicle next door, “likes a good hair pull,” so John hovers behind her and tentatively, almost apologetically tugs her hair before rushing back to his desk. She then reaches her hand into his cubical and taps the wall suggestively, and we see that her fingernails are painted with yellow smiley faces. We later learn that they immediately had sex in the bathroom off-screen.
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This is, for want of a better phrase, the movie’s “love story,” and during his insurance investigation John periodically talks to Jill on the phone, as if to establish their relationship as the story’s emotional centre. Yet while Buscemi and Silverman give surprisingly sincere performances, their characters’ relationship is built upon a comic scene involving a ridiculous sexual fetish, and none of their miniscule screen time together suggests any chemistry. Is Rhodes playing this relationship for laughs? Does he want it to have emotional resonance? Or does he want to have his cake and eat it too?

Saint John of Las Vegas is the type of film that causes one to question over and over again what the director was going for. In scene after scene, game actors stand in Rhodes’ carefully-detailed compositions—often right in the middle of the frame, surrounded by empty space, as if stranded—and deliver ludicrous dialogue with straight faces (“They got this expression in prison: if a cross-dressing skinhead don’t rape you, just take your smokes and don’t ask why”), and the effect is peculiarly unfunny. The deadpan ambience, the deadpan acting, and the deadpan script create an orgy of deadpan, with no two elements generating any comic tension. However, this is not the fault of Buscemi, who, as a recovering gambling addict returning to Las Vegas with great trepidation, is completely believable. With sideburns, heavy bags under his eyes, crooked teeth and a suit jacket/undershirt ensemble, he looks like a cross between Elvis and John Waters.

Some of the comic set pieces are so leaden they practically fall off the screen. A scene in which John and Virgil run afoul of a gang of militant nudists comes with the sinking realization that Rhodes sees the nudists not as a set-up for a joke, but as the joke, period. Ditto a scene where John interviews a circus carnie (John Cho) in a flammable suit. Cho lights the suit over and over and over and over again until a restless audience lowers its estimate of the intrinsic comedic value of flammable suits.

With its slow, strange ambience and its episodic structure, Saint John of Las Vegas reminded me of The Limits of Control, Jim Jarmusch’s recent attempt to strip the thriller genre down to its most basic elements. In that film, a stoic assassin travels between locations and waits for instructions for most of the two-hour running time. I wonder if Rhodes is attempting something similar with the mismatched-buddy subgenre. Like, say, Rush Hour, this film’s leads are racial and temperamental opposites partnered against their will in a crime-fighting context. In this film, however, they develop no fondness, understanding, or empathy towards each other, and their little episodic misadventures never build. Perhaps Saint John of Las Vegas is a Dadaist prank? Unlikely, I know, but maybe this is what film criticism is for: assigning arbitrary meaning to shaggy dog stories.

Saint John of Las Vegas is now in theatres.

SCSU president impeached

UTSC students have voted to remove Zuhair Syed from his presidency of the Scarborough Campus Students’ Union, three months before the end of his contract.

Almost 10 per cent of students voted in the referendum amid fierce campaigning from both sides, with 554 for impeachment and 477 against. There were 14 abstentions and 34 spoiled votes.

The referendum was called after SCSU’s board of directors gave Syed a Tier 3 censure last December for “his inaction in representing the student interest as the President & CEO of the SCSU.” All of Syed’s presidential duties have been handed over to VP external Amir Bashir, the current acting president and CEO.

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The board has yet to ratify the unofficial referendum result released on Saturday. The next scheduled board meeting is on Friday, Feb. 12. Since that date will be the last day of campaigning and voting for 2010-2011 executive elections—and a number of board members are running—there may not be quorum to hold a meeting.

Unless board members complain about illegitimacy in the voting process, the referendum results will be ratified, said humanities director Martine Lee. “I am glad the truth side won,” she said. “Not because I have anything personal against [Syed but because] students deserve justice.”

Syed could not be reached for comment.

“I am happy about [the referendum results] but it is a bitter-sweet kind of happiness. [Syed] was my frosh leader and I used to look up to him,” said Stephanie Fan, a third-year management student. “But he had an important position. You have to do your job and you can’t assume things will go unnoticed. People are watching you.”

“[The vote] just goes to show that democratic values are fundamental to people on campus,” said Julia Varshavska, who added that some campaigners were disrespectful to their opposition.

Syed’s supporters were disappointed. Second-year student Maryam Shah said she is “through with student government” after this referendum. “Zuhair was a great president. The allegations against him are just that: allegations,” she said, adding that she is boycotting the presidential election to take place this week.

Last month, Syed admitted to some of the allegations regarding his negligence of presidential duties, such as missing numerous SCSU board, academic committee, and governing council meetings. He also acknowledged his failure to submit reports to the board from August to December last year. He said he was busy opening up a new restaurant on campus and attending meetings regarding the Pan Am Games athletic facility in addition to taking on the duties of the VP campus life, who was absent due to illness.

Syed denied allegations accusing him of unavailability during his office hours, smoking shisha in the office, and threatening the VP academics after she joined a Facebook group advocating his impeachment. The board’s chair, who investigated the allegations, also said Syed tried to threaten him.

Syed’s presidential term was to end in May 2010.

UTSC to vote on athletics levy

An upcoming referendum will decide if UTSC students are to help pay for a new athletics complex. The $170-million project was confirmed after Toronto was chosen last November to host the 2015 Pan Am Games. The referendum will run from March 17-19.

If passed, the levy would amount to $40 per semester for full-time students and $8 for part-timers. The fee will increase by four per cent each year until 2014, when the facilities are scheduled to open. Fees will then increase to $140 per semester for full-time students and $28 for part-time students.

The proposal has students contributing $30 million over a 25-year period, or 18 per cent of the total cost. The Pan Am venue will be located along Military Trail and Morningside Avenue as part of an expansion project that runs to $750 million.

“The history of UTSC is, in many ways, a story of […] students having the generosity and vision to leave their successors a better place just as their predecessors did for them” said Tom Nowers, dean of student affairs at UTSC. Nowers said he was confident the levy would pass.

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Amir Bashir, interim president of the Scarborough Campus Students’ Union, did not respond to requests for comment. SCSU has just concluded an impeachment referendum on Zuhair Syed and has begun elections campaigns.

The new sports complex will include fitness and training facilities, two 50-metre competition pools, and a multi-sport field house.

According to UTSC’s website, alumni will have access to the facilities through an alumni membership, and students’ contributions between 2010 and 2014 can be credited toward this future membership.

Give us your cells!

This Wednesday, the student group Stem Cells 4 Life will campaign across three campuses to raise awareness of stem cell transplants and encourage students to register in the Stem Cell Database.

Stem cell transplants involve the transfer of bone marrow stem cells, benefiting patients with blood cancers, such as lymphoma or myeloma, and those with immunological and metabolic disorders. It is usually an alternative and last resort treatment to cancer therapies such as radio, chemo, and gene therapy.

“Of Caucasian patients in need of stem cell transplants, there is an 83 per cent chance of finding a matching donor; whereas Chinese patients—or really any ethnic minority—they only have at most 1.4 per cent chance of finding a matching donor,” said Darryl Houang, president of Stem Cells 4 Life.

Houang said that potential donors could be discouraged by inaccurate information, and sought to distinguish stem cell transplants from controversial embryonic stem cell research. “Stem cell research is done only on embryonic cells. Our stem cell registry is for only bone marrow transplants,” he said.

The Canadian Blood Services reports that 233 Canadians received transplants in 2007. Most of the transplants—77 per cent—were imported from other countries. The selection process for matching stem cells is far more rigorous than finding a match for blood types. At most, 30 per cent of patients are able to receive transplants from their own family members. To better match donors and recipients, the group OneMatch works in association with the CBS to create a database.

Donors are asked to send in four cheek swabs. If a patient is a match, the donor is contacted and the cells are either drawn through blood or from the hip. Stem cells are regenerated within two to six weeks.

Stem Cells 4 Life will be at the Medical Sciences building at St. George, the Meeting Place at UTSC, and UTM’s student centre on Feb. 10. For more information or to register, head to

Are all disasters created equal?

In the event of a human tragedy where there is a significant loss of life and entire cities are reduced to ruins, how should one respond?

In the case of Haiti, where a 7.0-magnitude earthquake killed over 212,000 people and caused billions of dollars in damages, there has been no shortage of charitable benefits or people opening their wallets to help the devastated nation. At the University of Toronto, our student union has started a fundraiser with the goal of raising $50,000, hopefully to be matched by the administration. Also, UTSU’s Board of Directors unanimously approved donating between $500 and $1,000 of student levy money to Partners in Health, a charitable organization that works in Haiti.

However, it seems not all human tragedies are created equal.
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Last year, UTSU’s Board of Directors decided that they would use money raised from UTSU-sponsored events in support of Palestine to send to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency schools in Gaza, after the Israel Defense Force launched a series of air strikes on the Gaza Strip, killing roughly 1,300 Palestinians and injuring 5,500 more. However, this past summer, UTSU decided not to send money to Sri Lanka after the deadly civil conflict between the Tamils and the Sinhalese. The conflict in Sri Lanka saw over 20,000 civilians killed between January and May of 2009, not including the casualties incurred in over 26 years of fighting between both groups. Moreover, no relief had been sent to Mumbai in the wake of the November 2008 terrorist attacks that killed 176 people. Four human tragedies, three of which are the result of conflict, the other caused by natural disaster.

Some would say that we should approach each disaster on a case-by-case basis. However, this principle is far too inconsistent. A consistent rule needs to be applied to each instance of human tragedy.

One principle that can be used as a guide is moral philosopher Peter Singer’s argument for the obligation to assist. The argument has the following principle as its foundation: if we can prevent something bad from happening without sacrificing anything of comparable moral significance, then we ought to do it. This principle de-politicizes tragic events and forces us to recognize that no matter what the circumstances, if we can contribute something to alleviate suffering without causing ourselves to suffer, then we should do it.

If UTSU truly wants to be an organization that promotes social justice, then it should not take the myopic view that only some tragedies are significant while others are not. UTSU should be giving the same amount of support it’s giving to Haiti to Sri Lanka, Darfur, Palestine, Mumbai, Zimbabwe, Ethiopia, Burma, and other regions that have experienced natural or man-made disasters. If not, then it should drop its social justice role and just focus on being an administrative council. It could then empower clubs that focus on these issues by giving them more funds to raise awareness among U of T students. Either they treat each tragedy equally or they stop their social justice activities altogether.

Only by applying a consistent moral principle to each case would they be considered just.

Correction: this article originally read that the “Israel Defense Force launched a series of air strikes on the Gaza Strip, killing over 14,000 Palestinian civilians and injuring over 400,000 more.” The true numbers are roughly 1,300 killed and 5,500 injured, and the article has been updated to reflect this. The Varsity regrets the error.

Teens: Argumentative

The best high school debaters in Canada came to U of T last week to fine-tune their skills before the 2010 World Schools Debating Championship in Doha, Qatar, which will take place from Feb. 8-18.

Team Canada consists of the country’s top nine debaters: Sarah Levy, Andrew Morrison, Sophie Bird, Vinayak Mishra, Iqbal Kassam, Jonathan Carson, Keenan MacNeil, and Veenu Goswami. Head coach Tracey Lee has been teaching and coaching debate for over 16 years.

The team flexed their rhetorical muscles in a show debate at St. Hilda’s College, Thursday, debating the resolution that doctors should report evidence of marital abuse to the police.

The pro side argued doctors’ moral obligation to provide the best possible treatment meant they should report any sign of spousal abuse, as such measures would reduce abuse. “The law should be a sword for the victim rather than a shield for the oppressor,” said one debater.

The opposition responded that the measure would destroy the concept of doctor-patient confidentiality and drive people away from seeing their doctors: “Trust is required for truth, and truth is required for treatment.” They added that individuals should have the right to make their own decisions.

Afterwards, some of the team members talked about how they got their start in debating.

“My brother hated debating, so naturally I had to do it,” Mishra said with a smile. Bird was sent to debate camp in grade seven, where she overcame her fear of public speaking. “For me, debating started in Grade 8 as a school club I wanted to be a part of,” said Morrison.

“My first position was to fill in for a teacher on maternity leave, and she coached the debate team,” Lee said.

MacNeil recalled the lighter side of debating: in-jokes like quoting “challenge accepted” in the manner of a character from How I Met Your Mother or the practice where over-eaters were said to have “dangerously high masses.”

As for the business of winning, teamwork and cohesiveness factor in. “Everyone has a specific role to fill,” said Goswami. “All of them are equally important.”

“It’s more like volleyball than basketball. In basketball you can have one person win you the game,” said MacNeil. “In volleyball, if one person drops the ball, the whole team loses.”

How to win an argument

1. Prepare your case: You should be able to argue both the affirmative and opposing side of the case, so you’ll be ready to argue for your side and prepare counter-arguments.

2. Develop a compelling thesis: This should be a summation of your main argument and should get right to the point.

3. Watch the clock: Debaters get penalized for going over their time limit. Keeping your argument to the bare essentials will ensure you don’t wander from your main point.

4. Ask your opponent questions: In most debates, the other side is allowed to ask questions, called points of information. Team Canada says teams are expected to take at least two questions. Good questions show that you are engaged and can reveal weaknesses in the opposing side’s argument.

5. Know your audience: According to Team Canada, judges from Australia and New Zealand enjoy good time splits while judges from Ireland and England look for good style. Although all judging is subjective, knowing some of their prejudices and tailoring your argument accordingly can make or break a case.

U of T gets a B

The College Sustainability Report Card—arguably the most comprehensive survey on American and Canadian universities’ environmental commitments—has consistently placed the University of Toronto in and around a B average. Despite what seemed to me like a fairly progressive agenda and my readiness to make excuses for my university, U of T truly is a B student.

Beginning with a B- in 2007, it seemed to show improvement with a solid B in 2008, but then dipped back down into a B- in 2009, only to settle again with a B in 2010. The newly installed solar thermal heat recovery system at the Athletic Centre is what catapulted the grade to a B this year.

Even though the report card has not seen an A in its four years, I was still curious to know what was causing our university to consistently hover in the realm of the lacklustre.

The report said that only the newly built Exam Centre on McCaul meets the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design for Existing Buildings—a set of performance standards that ranks sustainability measures in buildings already constructed. Because of this, the university received a C under the green buildings criteria. But then again, the nature of retrofitting a sprawling campus with enrollment nearing 50,000 cannot occur overnight. I then noticed a glaring F under the shareholder engagement criteria.

However, a few positive notes caught my eye. The Sustainability Office maintains seven full-time staff, has diverted 62 per cent of recycled waste from landfill, and has been successful with the Lug a Mug campaign.

To compare, I decided to peer into how three other universities—all known for their good green doings—were scoring.

First up was College of the Atlantic—“devastatingly progressive” as one graduate put it—situated in Bar Harbor, Maine.

Long known for sustainable practices matched only by the progressiveness of its curriculum, COA traded in incandescent light bulbs for CFL ones long ago. All its electricity now comes from hydropower, with all landscaping done through organic methods. Aside from the (now) standard use of bicycles and composting systems, the college has chosen to ban bottled water (hurrah!), and serve up strictly grass-fed beef and confinement-free eggs from adjacent farms.

How do they do it? I took one glance at their endowment and enrollment ($15 million and 300), and decided that this alternate universe of compost toilets and waterless urinals (yes, they are what you think they are) was only possible for such a small campus.

I decided to shift my gaze to Maine’s neighbour two-over, Vermont. Middlebury College, long known for its outstanding language courses, has now become the poster child for campus sustainability. Many of its graduates have gone on to run global environmental campaigns and win fellowships for new approaches to solving social problems.

Middlebury has pledged to go carbon neutral by 2016. In so doing, it has purchased solar arrays, thermal heating, and a demonstration wind turbine. Much of its reduced energy record is owed to a cogeneration plant (an energy recycling system that makes use of biomass or other municipal waste) fuelled by woodchips, and the purchase of so-called “cow-power” (glorified farm manure). They even have a sustainability-themed residence. My mind immediately wanders into a fantasy world featuring twenty-somethings toasting their own granola, making their own jam, and playing the banjo by their garden patch of tomatoes and zucchini.

Middlebury has also shown remarkable campus cooperation: used vegetable oil from the dining services is donated to the athletic department, which in turn uses the waste to fuel a vehicle for the ski team. I pause to wonder if it’s these small pockets of carbon neutral spaces that will “solve” climate change—or at least make a valiant attempt at it—instead of fruitless meanderings of multilateral diplomacy. I again take one look at Middlebury’s endowment and enrollment ($691 million and 2,500) before dismissing it entirely.

My next stop is the University of British Columbia. With over 30,000 students and an endowment around 1 billion, it serves as the most apt comparison to the University of Toronto. With its B+ worthy green acts, I also figured that they might serve as a vision of what we could aspire towards.

UBC has pledged to go carbon neutral by the end of 2010 through a climate action plan that contains measurable strategies for emissions reductions. Much of its produce comes from campus farms and the school offers a sustainability minor in all disciplines.

Toronto may not have the same amount of yoga studios and health food vendors lining its streets to promote green living as the new modus operandi. We probably can’t milk our own cows by King’s College Circle, or install compost washrooms at Robarts. But we can make structural adjustments big and small, that take into account our urban setting, the size of our student body, and the constraints of our financial endowment. My next few articles will address some of the areas where we do have legroom.