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This Recording

is dedicated to the enjoyment of audio and visual stimuli. Please visit our archives where we have uncovered the true importance of nearly everything. Should you want to reach us, e-mail alex dot carnevale at gmail dot com, but don't tell the spam robots. Consider contacting us if you wish to use This Recording in your classroom or club setting. We have given several talks at local Rotarys that we feel went really well.

Pretty used to being with Gwyneth

Regrets that her mother did not smoke

Frank in all directions

Jean Cocteau and Jean Marais

Simply cannot go back to them

Roll your eyes at Samuel Beckett

John Gregory Dunne and Joan Didion

Metaphors with eyes

Life of Mary MacLane

Circle what it is you want

Not really talking about women, just Diane

Felicity's disguise

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Thursday
Sep222016

In Which The Only People Concerned Know Nothing

Bad People

by ETHAN PETERSON

The Good Place
creator Michael Schur
NBC

There is a moment in NBC's new sitcom The Good Place where Ted Danson lists a bunch of things which are good and bad, and the numerical positive or negative value he has assigned to each. The first positive thing he shows is "eating a sandwich" and the first negative thing he shows is "buys a trashy magazine." That is the initial troubling sign that the people behind The Good Place have as little idea what it means to be a good person as the show's central character, Eleanor (Kristen Bell).

Kristen Bell is undoubtedly a good person, since you would have to be extremely virtuous to marry or even have sex once with Dax Shepard. (His face looks like the protagonist of Ratatouille.) Then she brought joy to so many young people by voicing that girl in Frozen who was absolutely boy crazy until her sexuality was thawed by leaving the chaste castle in which her parents kept her.

Maybe the creators of The Good Place could have just asked Kristen Bell what it means to be good. Everyone in this version of heaven has dedicated their lives to helping others, except for her soulmate Chidi (William Jackson Harper). Chidi speaks French, although it is translated as English to Eleanor since she does not understand the French language. Chidi was a professor of ethics and moral philosophy, although evidently he was so terrible at academia that he has to remind himself of the basics by reading Kant:

The idea of training Eleanor to be good is repulsive to Chidi, which I suppose also makes him a sort of bad person. Even though Eleanor is the only white person except for a pair of homosexuals who, somewhat inappropriately, enjoy picking up trash (this was not thought out well), she never makes notice of it. Her soulmate is from Senegal, her next-door neighbors are from different parts of Asia and Europe, and Ted Danson is really the only other genuinely white person there. 

The Good Place becomes a weird hymn to white privilege, since Eleanor is transported to these environs without any actual virtue: so it must just be because of her skin color, and maybe her general complexion and appeal. Bell's handsome looks are no longer childlike, and she has become very expressive and soulful as she matures into her thirties. So far, few of her acting opportunities have utilized this new dimension, and The Good Place mainly writes jokes for her that revolve around her not being able to curse.

Sometimes we flash back to Eleanor's live in Phoenix, Arizona. You see, Hollywood writers look down on Arizona because it is nearby and thus an easy target. In Phoenix, Eleanor sold a nasal product that was composed of chalk, even though the FDA would never allow such a thing. This makes Eleanor's real life just as fanciful as her afterlife — it is a clue that you should not think about The Good Place too seriously. Creator Michael Schur emphasizes this when he recently stated in an interview that he started researching religion but gave up because it was too hard and cut into his golf time.

It is not enough that people like Schur not believe in God or any religious concepts: they cannot even be bothered to find out where they come for. Just as valid, they think, is whatever concept for the afterlife that come up with offhand during a pitch meeting. Well, atheists should be allowed their ideas too: what Schur and company have up with is basically hell — an unfunny mess of cliches, jokes stolen from Albert Brooks and physical comedy involving Ted Danson licking the sweat from his armpits. Who would willingly watch such a thing?

The aspect of The Good Place that is most insulting to its viewers is that it has no conception of how racist its ideas even are. The ethnic characters that surround Kristen Bell's Eleanor have no agency or will of their own: they simply exist to make her feel worse or better as the episode demands. The only time these empty shells ever show the slightest bit of agency is when Tahani (Jameela Jamil) decides that she and her Buddhist husband should try to cheer Ted Danson up. Why would he be sad? Danson has more hair now that he did twenty years ago.

Even Bell is afforded nothing but a basic perplexity. She becomes unsympathetic so quickly — she has no other function except to drink and enjoy her time in this new world. She is essentially uncurious and she avoids love or caring as if it these emotions were anathema to her new existence. She and her neighbors cannot be destroyed or harmed by anything in this new place, and yet they run around screaming when they see a group of giraffes stampeding down their streets. The only thing worse than a bad deed is a bad idea.

Ethan Peterson is the senior contributor to This Recording.

Wednesday
Sep212016

In Which We Lasted A Whole Lot Longer Than You Did

Hard to Say is This Recording’s weekly advice column. It will appear every Wednesday until the Earth perishes in a fiery blaze, or until North West turns 40. Get no-nonsense answers to all of your most pressing questions by writing to justhardtosay@gmail.com or by dropping us a note at our tumblr.

Hi,

My wife and I have been friends with another couple, who I will call Jean and Greg, for a few years. We all enjoy spending time together. My wife recently told me that Jean has informed her the two are having some problems and Jean met someone else. Jean is unsure whether to leave Greg or cut this other guy out of her life.

After talking to Greg casually about the issue and offering my ear if he wanted it, he opened up to me. It's obvious he has no idea what is actually going on and only knows what Jean told him. I want to tell Greg the truth, since I am not a very good liar. Also, if he finds out later on that I knew, I fear losing him as a friend.

My wife isn't going to care what I do either way, and I feel more loyal to Greg in this situation. I know getting involved could mean we lose Jean and Greg as friends, but I think that might be worth the trouble. What should I do?

Max B.

Max,

It is possibly, but not likely, than you know everything about the life that Jean and Greg had. We often make the mistake of thinking we know what is going on in a relationship, but it is very, very easy to mistake the symptom for a cause.

I had a friend whose girlfriend was frequently quite mean to him in public. Many people commented about how she acted, but it turned out that my "friend" was actually quite disgusting to her in private. Did this justify her behavior? Absolutely.

It is also completely in the realm of possibility that Greg knows about this other guy, but he is hiding it from you to save face. Or maybe it is not just of any concern to him, since he knows that the real problems in his relationship aren't going to be solved by eliminating a rival.

Even if you tell Greg the truth, he is probably going to hate you for it. If you really want to retain him as a friend, lie and tell him you knew nothing about it when the time comes.

Hi,

I have been with my girlfriend Nancy for the past four years. We have shared a lot together, and helped each other through so much, and I truly love and respect her as my partner and a human being.

Nancy was married before so it's not something she has a great deal of interest in at this time. We do live together and share expenses. She recently broached the concept of having children. The more I thought about it, the more I realized I did not want to have kids if we were not going to get married. Then I wasn't even sure if I wanted that.

I don't know if my doubts about the relationship now are just because Nancy's idea about children made me think of things in a new light, or perhaps I am just getting committment jitters. I don't know how to interpret what I am going through. I love Nancy, but I also don't like the idea of never being with anyone else.

Armin P.

Dear Armin,

You realized that having children with Nancy means that it would be very difficult to bail out of the relationship later on.

If you wanted all these things with her, you would know it. You would be building a crib and convincing her to marry you. There is no woman who is in that kind of love who would really resist marriage if it were put to her in a correct way. It was a happy thing for you that she was not super-pushy about the future, since you did not actually envision a future with her.

Four years is a long time, but it could be a lot worse. Nancy could have adopted a whole legion of children, stopped doing whatever it was to your butt you enjoyed so much a decade ago, filed for divorce, and found out about your affair with Marion Cotillard.

Illustrations by Mia Nguyen.

Tuesday
Sep202016

In Which We Thought Ingmar Bergman Could Be Something More

Revenge Picture

by ALEX CARNEVALE

Mrs. Vogler desires the truth. She has looked for it everywhere, and sometimes she seems to have found something to hold onto, something lasting, but then suddenly the ground has given way under her feet. The truth had dissolved and disappeared or had, in the worst case, turned into a lie.

My art cannot melt, transform, or forget: the boy in the photo with his hands in the air or the man who set himself on fire to bear witness to her faith. I am unable to grasp the large catastrophes. They leave my heart untouched. At most I can read about such atrocities with a kind of greed - a pornography of horror. But I shall never rid myself of those images, images that turn my art into a bag of tricks.

Ingmar Bergman's notebooks

I can't think of Persona without remembering the numerous defenses Roger Ebert made of it.  

Revisiting the film in 2001, Ebert opens his review with "Shakespeare used six words to pose the essential human choice: To be, or not to be?" It is the kind of "common-man" bullshit Bergman specifically ignored, the kind of lazy writing he is making fun of in Persona.

Dumbly, Ebert follows up this banner lede by admitting, "Persona was one of the first movies I reviewed, in 1967. I did not think I understood it," and then spends the rest of the essay proving he still does not understand it at all. Persona lacked the kind of subtlety Ebert's brand of criticism rarely picked up on anyway.

Persona is an insolent work, written in the days that followed Ingmar Bergman's recovery from exhaustion and pneumonia developed while he directed the largest theater in Sweden. It will always be the most sardonic of his films, sketched out as it was at a time of high stress and possible decombustion.

Bergman wrote to himself before embarking on the project:

I will attempt to keep the following commands:

Breakfast at half past seven with the other patients.

Thereafter immediately get up and take a morning walk.

No newspapers or magazines during the aforementioned time.

No contact with the theater.

Refuse to receive letters, telegrams, or telephone calls.

Visits to home allowed during the evening.

I feel that the final battle is fast approaching. I must not postpone it further. I must arrive at some form of clarity. Otherwise Bergman will definitely go to hell.

He was cracking, and Persona's disjointed opening gives evidence of that.

Bergman's journal reconstructs the film's opening sequence from a childhood memory he had:

I imagine a white, washed-out strip of film. It runs through the projector and gradually there are words on the sound tape (which perhaps runs beside the film strip itself.) Gradually the precise word I'm looking for comes into focus. Then a face you can barely make out dissolves in all that whiteness. That's Alma's face. Mrs. Volger's face.

Elisabet Volger (Liv Ullman) is a famous actress who has a nurse, Alma (Bibi Andersson) taking care of her. Volger takes a vow of silence. Bergman remarks in his journal that "So she has been an actress one may give her that? Then she fell silent. Nothing remarkable about that." The empathy Ingmar extends to her is really for himself. When Mrs. Volger is presented a picture of her son, she tears it up, staring for hours at the atrocities of the war in Vietnam she sees on television.

There is a disease of overempathy that allows some of us to become easily affected by events we read in the news or see on television. Elisabet is afflicted by this as surely as her creator. Even before the internet and bbs there was still the tendency to get drawn into the suffering of others, that anguish that exists outside of us and for that reason is unchangeable. In the face of this Ingmar had become mute so why not mute a woman, you know, as a kind of revenge?

Liv Ullmann

The performance was a star-making one for Ullman. The feat of carrying an entire movie just from reaction shots had only been achieved once before, in the work of Akira Kurosawa. Ullman's face never moves when we stare directly at it; given the task of playing a mute, every small moment in her representation seems like either an instruction or an exaltation.

Elisabet is a fallen angel and demon incarnate in herself, but at the edge's of Ullmann's performance, Persona feels rather thin. The production itself was troubled from the beginning. On set Bergman shot more takes than he ever had, almost to the point of compulsion; nor was he ever more difficult with his cast. Persona did not concern itself with his own external awareness, only his inner doubts. That he had them and was capable of acknowledging them would always be his unforgivable sin.

During one particular scene in the film, the two women exchange personalities. Alma spends the rest of the film imbued with Elisabet Volger's dissatisfaction and anger, while Volger stands in repose. Eventually they are merely two sides of the same person. The images of the director and DP on Persona scouting locations provide an offscreen male corollary to the events of the film. See here:

Bergman and director of photography Sven Nykvist tried to focus on the unattractive side of each actresses' face, so when you showed them half-illuminated in shadowy light, they would look something not of themselves. Or as the banal Ebert put it, "The two actresses look somewhat similar." With this kind of feedback, it's no wonder Bergman repeated this trick in every single one of the films that followed. It never fails to achieve its distinguishing effect of unsettling confusion.

Ebert's defenses of the man who fooled him more than once continued after the aging director allowed him access for a long profile. Even when the director himself began to shit all over his past works, Ebert held firm.

The worst part of Persona is actually the scene where we see both faces; because of the dullness of the monologue Bibi Andersson delivers, and the self-indulgence of the shot.

Bergman explained where this came from to Ebert:

The most beautiful of all is that you're close to the human face, which is the most fascinating subject possible for the camera. On TV a few days ago, I saw a little of Antonioni's new picture, The Passenger. And you know, I am an admirer of Antonioni, I've learned so much from him, but I was struck by the moment they cut from his film to a closeup of Antonioni himself, for the interview. As he was sitting there, here was his face, so normal, so beautiful and so human - and I didn't hear a word of what he was saying, because I was looking so closely at his face, at his eyes. The ten minutes he was on the screen were more fascinating than any of his, or my, work.

If Bergman is telling the truth, he is indicting himself. If he is lying, then the emperor has no clothes. It is the kind of no-win situation Persona explores as a binary theme that has been imitated in so many pictures since.

on the set of Persona

At one point Alma discovers Elisabet's view of her in a letter she intercepts. In that bit of correspondence, Elisabet marvels that Alma's convictions are so totally unrelated to her actions. It is no wonder Bergman felt disoriented as a filmmaker around this time.

Yet it is even worse for the critic, who is permitted no ambiguity in his judgments. Bergman describes the situation of the artist in Volger/Alma there is always some outstanding question of seriousness, an overwrought scene can be ascribed to a joke or reference. No one ever had to ask, after reading an Ebert review, did you like the movie? The proper question was rhetorical, and ancient. Must all life be a chorus of good or bad? Have you not thought it might be something more?

Alex Carnevale is the editor of This Recording. You can find an archive of his writing on This Recording here.