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Classic Recordings
Robert Altman Week

Monday
Jul212014

In Which We Catch A Strain Of Something Wonderful

The Folscrum Effect

by DICK CHENEY

The Strain
creators Guillermo Del Toro & Carlton Cuse

When a bald man is given hair for a particular part in this case the leading role in Guillermo Del Toro's The Strain we call that a folscrum in Yiddish. Mounting a turgid wig atop the skull of bald congressman Peter Russo in House of Cards (Corey Stoll) is a capital crime. But then, there are a lot of crimes going unpunished in the world at this time. The Strain is about how all the bad things that happen to humanity are really its own fault.

Just like in the news, The Strain concerns an entire flight of human beings being murdered. While such violence seems senseless in the real world, in The Strain death at least has a purpose. The downed Malaysian Airlines flight in the Ukraine forced Western countries to send a bevy of investigators to the scene of the disaster. Because that's what this scene of total annihilation required bureaucrats from organizations with names like The Center for Security and Cooperation. Ronald Reagan would have been like, "Give me the names and locations of the people responsible."

they even stole the chyron from House of Cards - don't meet your Dad at the Washington Metro, kid

Pampered Westerners never realize the severity of aggressors until things get out of hand. Even after Hitler invaded Poland there were still British politicians who felt things could be patched up with the moustached dictator. Forgiving them their naiveté is easier than accepting those people who want to "investigate" an act of war. "The black boxes will be crucial," they scream, and then submit a report and go back to their wives. Miss you so much RR.

after 200 people have been infected with a parasite, maybe not the best time for canoodling Peter Russo, if that is your real name

The Strain has a similar group of innocents trying to figure out why all the victims perished with only a small incision in their throat to account for cause of death. Only one coroner is permitted to look over the bodies, and when the bodies start to wake up, he is overwhelmed by their need for vampiric sustenance. The Strain imagines this plague only in medical terms as a disease with a small snake-like host.

Del Toro frequently uses non-white characters in his films, and The Strain is no exception. He has carefully transcended the boundaries of typical roles offered Latino actors by casting a Queens-born Latino character as a criminal with a heart of gold who is working for some kind of undead conglomerate. Progress, indeed. At least Peter Russo's love interest is a woman of color.

The part of the open cadaver was, I think, played by Mary Elizabeth Mastroantonio

For Del Toro, presentation is everything, and The Strain takes a tired New York setting and brings the action in all the boroughs you do not normally see on The Good Wife. Originally Fox executives wanted to turn Del Toro's concept into a comedy. This is a lot less of a stretch than you might think, since there is always something hokey and broad about the way Del Toro writes characters they are so frequently exactly what they seem.

Nothing gets Corey Stoll as sexually riled up as couples therapy and the outbreak of a potentially fatal disease.

Fortunately, this fits exactly with Lost showrunner Carlton Cuse's ideas about character and plot. Cuse eschews believability at all times, preferring to opt for a more fanciful approach that means somehow the CDC would be the only organization involved in trying to ascertain why an entire plane full of people ended up dead. No FBI or CIA would even get involved; there's not even a hint of Europe's ever-so-important Center for Peace Relations NGO. It's basically just drunk congressman Peter Russo and the babe he is cuddling responsible for the answers, which makes sense.

"People, quiet please. I'd like to talk to you today about how I used to be bald. That's over now. There was a folscrum."

It is hard to complain about the silliness when a show is as slick and gorgeous as The Strain is. Del Toro's technical acumen in integrating film-quality special effects into this television series blows away anything we have seen before. He makes the amateur hour bullshit on Game of Thrones look like a kid's level diorama. I can't even look at Daenerys' pathetic dragons now without thinking how absurdly fake they are.

There is a different, more cinematic feel to what The Strain offers. Maybe it's the presence of Samwise Gamgee, or having unusual locations in such a familiar place. So much of television seems to be a matter of holding back the best material for later. This exhausting strain (cough) of set-up after set-up after set-up numbs us to what the best thrillers offer escalation of stakes and conflict beyond our imagination.

An inside look into Elizabeth Warren's master bedroom.

Despite the book version of The Strain written with the indescribably bad Chuck Hogan being so terrible, this concept was made for a series, where we can be subsumed by the vapid spectacle of watching a vampire thousands of years old wait all this time just to get across the bridge from Queens to Manhattan. It is a relief not to have to look at Stephen Moyer's face anymore.

Dick Cheney is the senior contributor to This Recording. He is obsessed with Emily Gould's novel Friendship at this time, and only takes breaks from rereading it to watch The Strain and Hemlock Grove. He hates Alan Ball with an all-encompassing passion.

Hobbits aren't great with technology.

"May 15" - Wray (mp3)

"Blood Moon" - Wray (mp3)

wasn't this guy the lead singer in Mumford & Sons?
 

Friday
Jul182014

In Which We Try To Find A Way To Unwind

White Houses

by BREANNA LOCKE

I was once told that no one ever wants to hear the ‘death of a grandparent’ story. We all have to experience a first death some time, and as children, it's usually an older relative who departs from your life first. While sobering to experience as a child, it is a perverse but ordinary rite of passage. A few days after my great-grandmother's death, I ended up finding something that disturbed me in a way very separate from this new discovery of mortality.

I remember my mother’s face when she addressed me and my sister. “Girls,” she began with concerned eyes, her hands resting on our shoulders, “Great Grammy died.”

Died? I thought back to her 100th birthday party we attended a few years earlier at her big mysterious white house. Its large early nineteenth century structure always spurred overactive imaginations in my sister, cousins, and me. There were just so many nooks and crannies and staircases and rooms. While the adults mingled, we would always be wandering off, investigating. My great-grandpa — who I’d never met — used to be a doctor, and his old office remained in one large room on the first floor. It was still set up like it was in the 1950s with old glass bottles of tinctures and medical supplies nestled neatly next to each other on shelves. A leather doctor’s bag and even a stethoscope rested on the old davenport desk. It was all pretty Norman Rockwell-esque, but after dark, the scene took on a more eerie aesthetic.

The attic had two closet-sized nooks where we were told slaves lived long ago. We’d knock on the walls and listen to see if any spots sounded hollow. Then we’d crawl down under staircases, certain that we would find some kind of hidden room or secret passageway somewhere in the huge house. It had been Jamie’s idea; my big sister loved her Nancy Drew books.

Later that the night, we all sang to my great grandmother, the beautiful pink frosted cake sitting before her on the long dining room table. There weren’t a hundred candles on the cake though; I was told they just simply wouldn’t all fit. My great grandma had been so present, so warm and loving and lively despite her wrinkles and tiny, slouching frame. Her smiles were always genuine and lovely. She didn’t speak much anymore, but she could still communicate, especially with those smiles. She was one hundred! I guess I just assumed she’d live forever.

At eight years old, I had a rudimentary understanding of death. I knew it happened to other people — characters in movies and TV. And in real life too, I supposed. How else would ghosts exist? But I had never considered the fact that death was capable of intruding into my own life.

Would there be a funeral with everyone dressed in black? The only dresses I owned were sprinkled with bright, floral patterns.

I did end up going to the funeral, and my mom bought me a black dress just for the occasion. After I put it on, I found myself squirming in it, and my stomach hurt like I had eaten too much candy. I quickly made sure that Jamie would stick by my side throughout the whole ordeal. Though only a few years my senior, at 12 she was a grown-up in my eyes.

My mother explained to us that the night before the funeral, there would be a wake. And she warned us that it might be open casket. I knew she wouldn’t have black Xs over her eyes like in cartoons, but what would she look like?, I wondered. Grey and skeletal, or beautiful like Snow White in her glass coffin?

From the outside, it just looked like an attractive white house. But upon entering, it became all too apparent that it was a funeral home. We hugged my grammy and grandpa, my aunts, my uncles, my cousins, and some relatives I didn’t even know. And then I peered into the large room behind them.

Chairs were arranged in a way that reminded me of church pews. There was even a priest. But it wasn’t Father McKenzie; it was an unknown stranger holding a bible, and he was standing beside a casket. And the top lid was open, exposing my great grandmother.

For a moment, my eyes refused to look away. From this distance it seemed that she was only sleeping. Why wasn’t anyone waking her up? Because she’s dead. Suddenly, I was able to turn away.

Jamie and I didn’t have to sit in that room with the dead body while the relatives mingled, expressing their feelings of loss to each other. We were told it was okay for us to stay around the common rooms in the front of the funeral home, where collages of photos were set up. Still, the atmosphere from the back parlor seemed to keep creeping in, and it made me dizzy.

It wasn’t long before our confinement to stuffy rooms and their velvet couches wore on us. So we began to wander. And it was down a hallway past the bathroom where we came upon a door with a sign on it.

“Game Room,” my sister read aloud. It seemed like that would be the perfect place for us. Kids should be with games, not death.

“We're not allowed in there,” I said.

“I think it’s okay,” she said, her voice sounding eager, though slightly uncertain.

No one was in sight as we stood staring at the door, so finally, after some contemplation, Jamie cracked it open. It revealed a staircase leading down into the basement. Was there really a game room down there? Despite any doubts we had, she flicked on the light switch next to the door, illuminating the descending trail. And down we went.

At first it seemed to make sense. It was a game room — there was a pool table. But then we noticed a silver pole on the other side of the room. It reached from a platform on the ground all the way up to the ceiling. A disco ball hung in the center of the room, casting glints of light onto a dancing cage. There was an orange shag rug beneath our feet, and it looked dirty. And the room carried a lingering odor that made my nose tingle, like beer and smoke that would drift in from the bar section to the dining area at a local restaurant we frequented. My eyes continued to scan the room that was making me feel increasingly uneasy. I noticed the posters on the wall, each featuring an almost-naked woman and some brand of alcohol. One was a close up of a tan blonde woman with sly-looking eyes holding a pitcher of beer. Her tongue was licking white froth from her lips.

Something was not right. This was not a place for kids.

Suddenly it didn’t feel like we were in a funeral home anymore. But somehow, this place was scarier. The room was silent as my sister and I said nothing. I felt wholly unnerved, and I could tell by the look on her face that Jamie did too. But our curiosity continued to grow.

When we noticed a door on the far wall, we had to investigate. We opened it to reveal a darkness that made it impossible to see anything inside. Jamie felt around for a light switch inside by the door, but found none. So she entered the room.

She searched the air for a string to pull from the ceiling. That’s how our closets at home were—exposed light bulbs activated by the yank of a string.

My attention must have been elsewhere when that room first lit up. I imagine I was looking around behind me, feeling anxious, like someone could come down the stairs at any moment and find us in this weird basement where we did not belong.

From the corner of my eyes, I saw the light coming from the closet, but before I could even look inside, Jamie rushed out and slammed the door behind her.

Her face looked white and clammy, and her eyes began to water.

“What’s wrong?” I asked. “What’s in there?”

She didn’t answer my question. “We should go upstairs,” she said. I followed behind her towards the stairs, and from the sounds of our feet hitting the steps, I realized that we were running.

Jamie threw open the door at the top of the stairs, I switched the light off, and as soon as I was out, we made sure that that door marked “Game Room” was shut tightly.

When we made it back to the main front room, we took a seat on an isolated couch in a corner.

“What was in there?” I asked again.

This time, with enough distance now between us and that basement, she told me. The room was a large storage closet. She’d walked in deeply enough so that she could find the dangling light string with her hands in the dark. But when she pulled it, she found herself standing alone in an oversized closet, surrounded by coffins.

For a moment I wondered if they were filled. Is that how funeral homes stored bodies for upcoming funerals? My stomach burned.

While being shielded from getting too close to the first dead person we’d ever known, my big sister and I had discovered an “adult” playroom. No flowers, no prayers to be heard, just a pool table and a gleaming stripper pole sitting atop a musty shag rug. And amidst any debauchery that could happen down there, there would always be that closet of caskets tucked away in the corner.

I realized that even undertakers have to find some way to unwind. Maybe it’s necessary to preserve their own sanity. But I did not think games and coffins could exist so closely to one another, so closely that they occupy the very same basement. I had never considered that coffins were stacked up somewhere, waiting for people to die so they could be filled. As the night wore on, I imagined myself being surrounded by caskets almost every time I blinked. And somehow that made me feel incredibly small.

Breanna Locke is a contributor to This Recording. She is a writer living in Medford. You can find her tumblr here.


Thursday
Jul172014

In Which We Were Most Certainly Raised As A Child

Boyhoods

by HELEN SCHUMACHER

Extant
creator Mickey Fisher

In the new Extant, Molly Woods is an astronaut who has returned from a year-long solo space mission pregnant. The show boasts the star power of Halle Berry in the lead and Steven Spielberg as an executive producer, but not much else. While it is too early to tell whether Extant’s space mysteries and conspiracies will offer viewers intrigue, the show's beginnings mostly amount to cyber fluff. 

Extant opens with Molly’s welcome home party. Molly (Berry doing what she can with the role) is in the bathroom puking, her son Ethan is beating up another child, and her husband John, played by Goran Visnjic, is barbecuing in a cardigan. Besides being an avid fan of cable knits, John Woods is an engineer working in the field of artificial intelligence who built Ethan after the couple was unable to conceive. Ethan is a prototype Humanich, an android who learns how to be human by being raised as a child.

The next day John brings Ethan as show-and-tell for a funding presentation. Self-righteous declarations about morals and souls abound, and his request is denied when the company’s board learns there is no kill switch for the androids. Or because Humanichs is a horrible name. 

Meanwhile Molly is back at ISEA headquarters, a private-sector version of NASA, learning of her pregnancy. In a flashback at the doctor’s office, we see her aboard the space station as a solar flare triggers a mechanical failure and Molly is visited by the apparition of a former lover. He’s unable to string together words to form a sentence, but possesses the ability to impregnate Molly with the touch of his finger. It’s an interstellar homage to Michelangelo's classic Sistine Chapel fresco Creation of Adam.

Molly awakens after the encounter in a panic and deletes the videotaped evidence of her hallucination, which arouses the suspicion of her employers back on Earth. After a few cryptic references to a deceased astronaut who also was affected by a “solar flare” while on a mission, the ISEA decides to keep a close eye on Molly. Lucky for them the Yasumoto corporation that funds the agency is the same corporation John was hoping to get money from. Yasumoto circumvents the board’s decision and offers him the money personally. They also tap Molly’s conversations with her company-appointed psychologist.

Back on the domestic front, Molly attempts to reconnect with her family are faltering. She interrupts Ethan practicing his emotional intelligence in front of a mirror with a trip for ice cream in the park. Precocious and doe-eyed, the child really delivers the uncanny valley. (Ethan is played by Pierce Gagnon, the boy who nailed creepy in the movie Looper.) After a mysterious note spooks Molly, she tries to leave. Ethan runs away and, it’s insinuated, snaps a bird’s neck in retaliation.

The episode ends with Molly back at home. She is taking out the trash when a shadowy figure appears in the driveway. It’s Harmon Kryger, the astronaut who supposedly committed suicide after finishing a mission like Molly’s. “Trust no one,” he whispers before disappearing back into the hedges. 

In effect, both Molly and her husband have been impregnated by their imaginations: John through his robotic work (his workshop looks like it could have belonged to Jim Henson) and Molly through her space hallucination. It’d be fitting for a show attached to the Spielberg name to make precious the imagination. The show as a metaphor for what human creativity could birth in the future would give it the gravitas network dramas often lack. Alas, this is doubtful. Extant has no imagination of its own. Its pastiche sci-fi terrain is already well mapped.

Helen Schumacher is the senior contributor to This Recording. She is a writer living in Brooklyn. You can find an archive of her writing on This Recording here. She tumbls here and here. She last wrote in these pages about Device 6.

The Best of Helen Schumacher on This Recording Is Yours

Her time at recess & LHOTP

Which of the following images do you think represents this game?

The career of June Mathis

It was all a means of divination

Falling victim to the gory seductions of Clouzot

The life and death of Veronica Geng

Joy Williams oozes a milky substance

"Atom to Atom" - Klaxons (mp3)

"There Is No Other Time" - Klaxons (mp3)