Winners and Losers is utterly brutal. Apr 25, 2014

by Eric Olson

Response by Tessa Hulls and Eric Olson.

Tessa: The show opens with two men drawing a chalk box around a mostly empty stage. They scoot around the floor on hands and knees, bounding in a world comprised of one folding table, two chairs, and two of the sorts of bells that one might have used to ring in on a gameshow back before everything went digital. The men introduce themselves as Marcus Youssef and Jamie Long and then proceed to give us a quick rundown of who they are. They mostly focus on similarities: they are within spitting distance of the same age, live in roughly the same part of Vancouver, are both fathers with two children, and are both in possession of bodies at the beginning stages of the exponential uptick of middle-age thickening. They speak of differences, too, but their points of departure have already been loudly broadcast by their footwear choices:

Marcus wears a pair of brown shoes that seem unable to decide whether they are loafers or sneakers. They are a mishmash of leather and engineered performance webbing, shoes that belong on the feet of a computer programmer who probably strolled along the signed pedestrian walkway of a tree lined campus during his lunch break. They are demure, but they want to make sure you know that they could go hiking if they felt like it.

And Jamie, the carelessly charismatic Irishman, wears bright red athletic sneakers that both contrast and compliment his aggressively nonchalant black T-shirt, black-jeans (which, we will later learn, are $200 jeans), black boxers, and black socks. The shoes loudly shout the challenge of his devil-may-care indifference: these choices are not studied, I didn’t think about this too hard.  

But I have the suspicion that every moment in Winners and Losersis intensely studied, that even the improvisations carry with them an almost palpable level of painfully measured intentionality.

Marcus and Jamie begin the sprint of their conversation by passing judgment over a number of random topics (microwaves, First Nations members, Pamela Anderson, the entire country of Mexico, therapy, the Occupy movement, etc.). One man throws out a word, and they both debate whether the noun is a winner or a loser and ring their bell when they’ve decided. On the one hand, it seems as though the eventual conclusion hardly matters, but there is an undercurrent of competitiveness that gradually becomes more and more personal as the show progresses. Winners and Losers may open with Pamela Anderson, but in this case Pamela Anderson is merely Chekhov’s rifle, and one cannot view the early banality of their banter without preemptively wincing at the knowledge of how the gun will eventually be fired.

And Winners and Losers goes there. By the end, the two friends have entirely dropped the veneer that they are judging anything but one another and they are ripping each other apart with a brutality that is difficult to watch. They are not taking cheap shots, but their blows are the calculated and deliberate exploitation of points of weakness that are only accessible because of the vulnerability of enormous intimacy. And it is both painful and fascinating to see these two men use their friendship to cut one another down with a level of ruthlessness that can only exist where there has been great love.    

Some of the things that the two men say to each other are so deeply cutting that it almost doesn’t seem right to still refer to them as friends. Jamie lambastes Marcus’s privilege and the sensitive martyrdom he plays it off with, saying, “You’ve never been the victim of anything except your own entitlement.” And Marcus hits back with something even more eviscerating and tells Jamie that he’s too afraid to spend time with his own children because he is incapable of dealing with the fact that loving other people “demands that you deal with their irrational weaknesses.”

It’s strange to watch such an intimate fight between strangers. We lack any emotional investment because we do not know these two men as anything other than performers, and so we are able to approach their fight analytically. Our detachment means that we can think about the mechanics of argument, about what it looks like to deliberately choose to abuse your power. I do not know that I have ever felt so acutely aware of the magnificent delicacy of trust.

Jamie is the one to finally pull the trigger, to fire the inevitable gun: he slouches back in his chair, arms crossed and mouth pulled back in a sneer of defensive aggression, and offers himself as the item to be deemed winner or loser.

The answer doesn’t particular matter: this is a question that can only end in mutually assured annihilation.  

After the show, Eric and I turn and look at each other and wonder how we are going to attack responding to this one. “I guess we’re going to have to destroy each other,” I say, not sure whether or not I am joking.

“But I’m going to make you cry,” Eric responds.
“I’m going to make you cry, too.”
“That’s fine, I always cry.”
“I don’t.”

Eric and I never planned to start doing these joint response pieces. They happened organically, and working together on these weird little projects has definitely changed our friendship. We have learned so much about one another, about our clichés and hypocrisies and our easy ways out, about our strengths and fears and points of vulnerability. And we have learned about the things that are truly off-limits as much as we may loudly proclaim that they are fair game.

Our relationship as collaborators works because we have a shared interest in probing the boundaries of our own discomfort, in picking apart our own biases and using ourselves as guinea pigs in ways that often make the people around us wince. And the end result of all this is that, yes: we could definitely make each other cry. We know exactly where the structural weaknesses are, where the well-placed kick would need to go in order to bring the whole card castle tumbling down.  

Winners and Losers is 85 minutes of watching that castle fall, and it was impossible for me to watch without thinking about the parallels between Marcus and Jamie and myself and Eric.

There were the uncanny structural parallels—we each used games of ping pong as vehicles for discussions of competitiveness and reciprocity, and the game of Vulnerability Twister that Eric and I played was remarkably similar to Marcus’ and Jamie’s wrestling match— but it went beyond that. There were strong similarities in perspective and personality: to get all online quiz about it, I am definitely Jamie, and Eric is definitely Marcus.

As Marcus would put it: often, the dynamic of the friendship between Eric and I does not fall along traditional gender lines and I exhibit traits more commonly associated with masculine identity while Eric is more in touch with the sensitivity usually linked with femininity. Or, as Jamie would put it: I am the man in our relationship.

Eric and I agreed that we couldn’t respond to Winners and Losers with a tongue in cheek one off, and that instead we should talk about how watching the semi-scripted, spiralingly brutal dissection of weakness between a close creative duo made us look at our own collaborations. We decided that, as two people who love creating data visualizations of abstract or emotive qualities, we should make some charts:

Tessa's Charts:


Eric's Charts:

Eric: Winners and Losers was extremely brutal, and that is why I loved it. In the beginning it reminded me of a silly Q&A Pitchfork does with musicians called Over/Under. I kept wanting to jump in and argue against their reasoning for one thing being a winner or a loser. Some might remember I was quite the competitor on my high school knowledge bowl team. Yet after watching them so beautifully pull off their elegant disaster, the bar for a similar competition is set at a venerable height.

As you can see in our graphs, if I was to pick the performer I relate to most, it would be Marcus. We both love therapy, have a bunch of issues with privilege, and have a strong obligation to family. On the other hand, I completely relate to Jamie’s issues with class and growing up in a lower class family. It really fucks a person up. For Tessa, Jamie definitely reminded me more of her. They both would rather be physical than emotional, they avoid the things in their past that make them feel vulnerable, and have issues with their fathers. Yet Tessa has a way better temper and is far less smug.

I could see Tessa and I trying to best each other in a similar competition, yet there is no doubt that both of us would cry. I also would probably want to give up halfway through because I couldn’t stand parts of the pissing contest. Also the wrestling part reminds me too much of my childhood best friend trying to prove his worthiness and superior masculinity by causing me to time and time again beg for mercy. I am sure that Tessa would basically do the same to me.

What makes the performance so beautifully tragic, is that it reminds us these competitions in life are impossible to win. Without compassion for one another, we all end up losers.

Email from Tessa this morning at 10:58AM:
Hey! My bike and I are at the train station, early wakeup writing didn't happen. Playing winner or loser with sex with someone I'm almost never on the same continent as vs. writing about contemporary performance... Seemed pretty clear. So wrap up is on you, sorry. My parting two cents are that the piece made me think of this line from a poem by Marianne Moore:

"There never was a war that was not inward;
I must fight till I have conquered in myself what causes war
but I would not believe it."