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The Pick: The Artist Is Present, a look behind Marina Abramović’s carefully guarded public persona

The performance artist Marina Abramović comes across as positively otherworldly. She looms on the stage, tall and imposing like a pagan priestess. She moans and writhes, chanting in a sonorous, Slavic-accented alto. She flogs her naked body and carves pentagrams into her abdomen. She stands passively, surrounded by sharp objects and a gun (with one bullet) and challenges her audience to harm her. In her most recent exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, she sat for eight hours a day, staring both blankly and piercingly at an endless parade of curious patrons. In all of her pieces, she exhibits supernatural stamina, a wilful disregard for social norms and a chilling solemnity. The new documentary The Artist Is Present, currently playing at the TIFF Bell Lightbox, dismantles that carefully guarded public persona—in it, Abramović is disarmingly human.

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The Pick: The Men’s fuzzed-out reinvention of punk rock at NXNE

(Image: Angel Ceballos)

No one would confuse 2012 with 1979, but thanks to genre-bending acts like Denmark’s Iceage, Vancouver’s White Lung and local faves Fucked Up, punk rock is experiencing a modern-day renaissance—both in creativity and in critical adulation. North by Northeast, which runs until Sunday, June 17, certainly isn’t immune to such trends: last year at Yonge-Dundas Square, The Descendants earned devil-horned salutes from yoga moms and denim vest–wearing truants alike. In 2009, fierce girl group Mika Miko, paired with No Age at Lee’s Palace, stole hipster hearts by the bushel. So, at this year’s fest, what new group is poised to graduate from grimy VFW halls to the main stage? The smart money’s on Brooklyn foursome The Men.

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The Pick: Einstein on the Beach at Luminato, your one chance to see Philip Glass’s masterwork

Einstein on the Beach, the 1976 magnum opus scored by American minimalist composer Philip Glass, isn’t your average opera: it’s an intense avante-garde bricolage of music, theatre, dance and spoken word. It’s also four-and-a-half hours long and is performed without intermission (audience members are encouraged to come and go as they please). The show hasn’t been performed in over 20 years. But Einstein is such a cultural landmark—and, by all accounts, such an overpowering artistic experience—that we simply couldn’t not recommend it.

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The Pick: Indie Game, a movie about the tortured artists behind, yes, video games

Video games don’t get enough credit. They’re the ugly stepchild of popular culture, dismissed from most serious discussions about art, craft and social influence (unless there’s a fresh panic regarding their pernicious effects). Indeed, the rest of popular culture usually paints video games as the domain of shut-ins, insomniacs and socially handicapped man-children. Indie Game: The Movie, by first-time filmmakers Lisanne Pajot and James Swirsky, aims to change that perception, taking us behind the scenes into the lives of game designers. And it’s way more exciting than it sounds.

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The Pick: Berenice Abbott’s unsurpassed visions of New York

Photomontage, 1932 (Image: Berenice Abbott / Commerce Graphics Ltd)

One big omission in Woody Allen’s cavalcade of American expats in Midnight In Paris: Berenice Abbott, who started her career as Man Ray’s assistant, but later became a renowned photographer in her own right. Though her name might not be familiar, Abbott was one of the first proponents of documentary realism in photography, and, from 1935 to 1939, she captured iconic images of New York City that have since become a visual shorthand for big city living. A new exhibit at the AGO—which originated at Paris’s Jeu de Paume—goes beyond the famous Manhattan shots, displaying over 120 photographs from Abbott’s varied 60-year career.

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The Pick: the Bolshoi’s Swan Lake, a breathtaking production of the quintessential classical ballet

Maria Alexandrova as Odette in Swan Lake (Image: Damir Yusupov)

Late last year, Moscow’s Bolshoi Theatre reopened after a seven-year, $760-million renovation. There was a splashy gala, where statesmen, billionaires, grande dames and Mikhail Gorbachev all came to show their support. The company marked the occasion with the signature dance from its signature work: the elegant pas de deux from Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake, which had its world premiere at the Bolshoi 135 years ago. This is a ballet—and a company—that has withstood revolution, totalitarian Communism and censorship, and now the touring company has brought the hallmark show to Toronto for a week of performances.

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The Pick: Dan Dubowitz’s apocalyptically still images of Fordlandia

Vultures from Dan Dubowitz’s Fordlandia (Image: Courtesy Bau-Xi Photo)

In 1928, Henry Ford seemed to epitomize everything noble about America: he was enterprising, industrious and self-made (not to mention the richest man in the world). That year, Ford bought a sprawling 10,000-square-kilometre plot of land in the Amazon rainforest to use as a rubber plantation for his tires and car parts. Adjacent to the rubber trees, he built Fordlandia, an all-American apple pie town where his workers could live. It was a spectacular failure. In a haunting new exhibit as part of the Scotiabank Contact Photography Festival, Dan Dubowitz captures the eerie remnants of Henry Ford’s ghost town.

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The Pick: The Mechanical Bride, a new documentary about sex dolls (and the men who love them)

(Warning: the trailer contains mildly NSFW images of sex dolls without clothing and, at times, heads)

Last week, we recommended an opera in which a man falls in love with an automaton. This week, we’ve got the real thing. The Mechanical Bride, showing this Sunday at Hot Docs, delves deep into the bizarre world of sex dolls, fembots and the men who love them. The film is packed with grotesque imagery—Realdolls being groped at a sex show, disassembled body parts in a workshop—but it’s also surprisingly nuanced, venturing deep into the ethics and science of the subculture.

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The Pick: The Tales of Hoffman, a comic opera that’s actually funny

Andriana Chuchman as Olympia, Steven Cole as Cochenille (i.e. the Igor role) and Michael Barrett as Spalanzani (Image: Michael Cooper)

There’s funny, and then there’s opera funny. You know, the kind of lost-in-surtitled-translation wit or pro-forma buffoonery that might elicit a chuckle here or a stifled guffaw there, but rarely any real belly laughter. The humour in the Canadian Opera Company’The Tales of Hoffman, now on stage in a visually striking production at the Four Seasons Centre, isn’t just opera funny, though: it’s straight-up, knee-slapping funny. Sure, the production runs for three-and-a-half hours, and large chunks of the plot only make sense after a glass of wine during intermission. But when it’s funny? It’s funny.

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The Pick: Jean Painlevé’s hypnotic underwater films, accompanied live by Yo La Tengo

In 1930, a silent science film documenting skeleton shrimp and sea spiders screened in Paris, earning accolades from painter Marc Chagall, who called it “genuine art,” and artist Fernand Léger, who said it was the loveliest ballet he’d ever seen (he would know). The film was by French Surrealist director Jean Painlevé, who spent the better part of the 20th century shooting some of the most dazzling underwater footage ever committed to film (when he wasn’t hobnobbing with Luis Buñuel and Jean Vigo). In 2002, indie darlings Yo La Tengo recorded The Sounds of the Sounds of Science, an original soundtrack for 11 of Painlevé’s short films; this Saturday, at the closing gala for the Images Festival, the band will be performing the score live to accompany a screening of Painlevé’s work.

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The Pick: Clybourne Park, an acerbic play about the intersection of race and real estate

Jeff Lilico, Sterling Jarvis, Maria Ricossa and Audrey Dwyer in Clybourne Park (Image: John Karastamatis)

Clybourne Park, the Pulitzer Prize­–winning play currently running at the Berkeley Street Theatre, feels almost tailor-made for this ethnically diverse and neighbourhood-obsessed city. With a mix of irony and sobering insight, it follows the eponymous Chicago enclave’s evolution from middle-class oasis to black ghetto to gentrifying hip strip, teasing out the deeply entrenched racial and cultural barriers between its characters in the process.

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The Pick: photographer Arnaud Maggs’s turn as history’s greatest sad sack

Pierrot in Love and Pierrot Receives a Letter, by Arnaud Maggs

Octogenarian photographer Arnaud Maggs keeps making himself over. He started his career as a graphic designer for an advertising agency in the ’60s, then transitioned into fashion and lifestyle photography (he even shot some vintage Toronto Life covers back in the day), before emerging as a visual artist and art photographer in the mid ’70s. In his latest series of photographs, Maggs reinvents himself once more: with a little powder, a ruffled collar and a touch of black lipstick, the self-portraits reimagine the artist as Pierrot, the sad French clown of the commedia dell’arte.

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The Pick: The playful pop subversions of Stephin Merritt’s Magnetic Fields


Stephin Merritt’s band, The Magnetic Fields, is technically a five-piece outfit, but for all intents and purposes, Merritt runs a one-man show: he’s been the primary writer, singer and producer on all of the group’s 10 albums. In certain indie circles, Merritt—who plays the Sound Academy this week—holds godlike sway, revered for his erudite sensibility and reverberating, layered synth-pop orchestrations. With his trademark self-consciously witty lyrics, Merritt has crafted some of the finest pop hooks of the past two decades.

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The Pick: The lush, whimsical and stark visions of childhood in the films of Studio Ghibli

Chihiro meets No Face in Spirited Away (Image: Courtesy Nibariki)

About a week ago, The Guardian reported the discovery of 500 previously lost German fairy tales. The stories are refreshingly dark and untainted by the sanitizing influence of the last century, cataloguing the stark and often frightening truths of childhood. These days, that spirit has been all but exiled from children’s popular culture—but the films of Studio Ghibli are a notable exception, a consistent reminder that kids’ media doesn’t have to be saccharine and safe. Beginning this week, the Japanese studio’s haunting, gloriously weird anime films get a retrospective at the TIFF Bell Lightbox.

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The Pick: Joshua Jensen-Nagle’s dreamy echoes of the golden age at Bau-Xi Photo

“Quiet Confusion,” “Silent Places” and “Lost Days” (Images: Joshua Jensen-Nagle/courtesy: Bau-Xi Photo)

Every generation idealizes one that came before—just ask Gil Pender from Midnight in Paris. Another case in point: the Instagram phenomenon. With a quick point and tap, anyone with an iPhone can create hyper-stylized, retro-shabby art photography that looks straight out of the ’70s. The breezy, warm-toned photos that crowd Facebook feeds and Pinterest boards are pretty but soulless—their desperate artificiality shines through the soft-lit patina. New Jersey-born photographer Joshua Jensen-Nagle embraces the romantic nostalgia of the Instagram generation—but he also brings a fine art sensibility to his lush images.

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