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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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Wednesday
Nov302011

In Which We Reject The Ultimate Pronouncement

photo by Molly Dektar

Sex and the Ivory Tower

by KARLA CORNEJO VILLAVICENCIO

Seeing the men in their dirty little tractors spray-paint the lawn green is how you know the tourists are coming. In college, we called any non-student with a camera a “tourist” though I know, in a vague statistical sense, that there must have been a lot of false-positives. I was born near the Galapagos Islands and went to high school in Times Square; I grew up knowing what it feels like to have to dust off the glitter in order to come to terms with a place. Harvard felt like a perfectly organic extension of Times Square, so it took some effort to not resent people who didn’t know the pristine grasses were painted-on. I sometimes played this game where I would spot them by the lanyards around their necks. (I wasn’t very good at this game.)

There’s a biblical sensibility to this resentment, a rallying against the golden calf. It made me uncomfortable to see buses of Japanese schoolchildren swarm around the John Harvard statue in their starched white shirts and navy blazers, rubbing the bronzed booted foot that my douchier friends drunkenly peed on some nights. They loved Harvard because they did not know it, but they could not love it until they did. Luckily, there’s no shortage of people who want to show them around.

The campus novel has been around since the 1950s and has, since its conception, introduced gentiles to the rituals and totems of the ivory tower. There is a lot of tenure-track malaise in these books, but that’s a niche concern. The genre’s real major draw is the sex — and there’s a lot of it. It makes sense. If you want to get to know place vicariously, what’s more fun than entering it through the bedroom door? Illicit sex is a respite from any monotony that the lifestyle might entail; in Willa Cather’s The Professor, the protagonist has a brush with death after a gas stove leaks in his study. I cannot think of a lonelier way to die.

photo by Molly Dektar

But the genre does more than bring outsiders behind the scenes. It allows insiders to engage in self-fictionalizing. Read solipsistically, “ethical” and “unethical” become null categories replaced by amoral aesthetic designations of beautiful and not-beautiful. If we are all characters in the campus novel, then anything we do can be contextualized, excused, forgiven. Bad behavior, so long as it is written well, is romantically metabolized into a tragic flaw.

Once, in college, a former professor unsuccessfully tried to hit on me by referencing an excerpt from a novel in which the protagonist, a humanities professor (and it is always, or almost always, humanities professors: the genre’s authors rarely place their men in the cold-shower carnal biome of hard science) close-reads what he calls “the podium effect,” a phenomenon whereby the “ugliest and most squalid, horrible, tyrannical, and despicable among [professors] arouse spurious and delusional passions… I’ve seen dazzling women barely out of their teens swooning and melting over some foul-smelling homunculus with a piece of chalk in his hand, and innocent boys degrading themselves (circumstantially) for a scrawny, furrowed bosom stooped over a desk.” 

The writer — Javier Marías — is being satirical here, but that’s the thing about satire, isn’t it? Some people don’t get the joke. Still, there is some nuance to Marías. (And an attempt to pretend there are loads of classic academic novels about boys “degrading themselves” for older women in power. There aren’t.) Other novels don’t even invite misinterpretation. Here are titles of the books in Philip Roth’s David Kepesh trilogy: The Professor of Desire, The Breast. You needn’t have read these books to guess what they’re about.

The third book, The Dying Animal, is my favorite. The novel’s protagonist, a literature professor, patronizingly describes a young Cuban-American student’s thinking (he’s already described her “gorgeous breasts”) in this way: “She thinks, I’m telling him who I am. He’s interested in who I am. That is true, but I am curious about who she is because I want to fuck her. I don’t need all of this great interest in Kafka and Velazquez. Having this conversation with her, I am thinking, How much more am I going to have to go through? Three hours? Four? Will I go as far as eight hours?”

Consuela has no interiority. Kepesh fetishizes her because he infantilizes her, and we spend the next couple hundred pages learning to find redemption in his character, because he has found her beautiful, the ultimate pronouncement. He is a professional aesthete and he's chosen her. She, and I, and you, should feel anointed. 

In n+1’s review of Elegythe movie adaptation of The Dying Animal, Molly Young writes, “I do not speak for all women when I say this, but in reading the book it is possible to feel vicariously worshipped for nothing more than sheer femaleness." This is true. Roth’s descriptions of Consuela’s long, black hair made me feel an almost erotic appreciation of my own. This is the power of Roth’s writing (and maybe my vanity, a little bit). But in reading the book — in reading most of these books, The Dying Animal and Herzog and Disgrace and The Gold Bug Variations, it is impossible to not feel infantilized and essentialized and caricatured. It is impossible, in some way, to not feel completely devastated.

photo by Molly Dektar

F. Scott Fitzgerald once described falling in love as the dipping of all things into an obscuring dye. It consumes. His words have always seemed to me a more accurate description of depression, and I thought about those words often in the days after Javier Marías was used against me. That's how I remember the episode. The devil had cited Scripture for his purpose, and I was sad as hell.

It was made un-sad by one of my mentors at Harvard, a female professor who's read her share of academic novels and doesn't hide behind language to skew reality. She told me about a lot of hard things in the days following Marías' betrayal, about gender and power and bureaucracy and ethics and responsibility and foolishness and sexism and ego. She also told me some things about narration. She told me this: do not let men in power narrate you to you.

There were moving trucks outside the window when I started writing this essay. I’m studying literature at Yale now, reading my way towards a PhD. Student-led tour groups walk across campus, pausing before important-looking buildings so people can take pictures. My ID swipes me into majestic buildings that tourists cannot access, but on sunny days like this, I like to do my work outside, on the wide, grassy lawn. It is open to the public. It is almost winter now, and the green has faded. 

Karla Cornejo Villavicencio is a contributor to This Recording. She is a writer living in New Haven. This is her first appearance in these pages. She tumbls here.

"X2" - The Juan MacLean (mp3)

"Feels So Good" - The Juan MacLean (mp3)

"Let's Talk About Me" - The Juan MacLean (mp3)

photo by Molly Dektar

Tuesday
Nov292011

In Which Violent Delights Abandon Violent Ends

Convincing Nihilism

by DAYNA EVANS

Carnage
dir. Roman Polanski
79 minutes

Carnage, Roman Polanski's latest, is seventy-nine minutes, features only four characters, is not a part of the Fast and the Furious franchise, and — worst of all — is an adaptation of a stage play. What kept me watching as I struggled with the desire to never have to see Jodie Foster’s face again was the possibility of a blooper reel of John C. Reilly clips at the end in which he happily goofs around. Yes, the individual performances of Carnage are convincing, and their interactions with each another feel natural, but sometimes I found myself asking, "Why does this movie exist?" And I mean that in the nicest way possible.

The film opens with a long shot of a scene of young boys arguing in a Brooklyn Bridge Park and an altercation between two boys in particular leads to one grabbing a large stick and whacking the other across the face with it. It looks painful because that stick was, like, really big. This is our expository opener from which the whole film moves forward. Cut to the glowing screen of a Mac, where Penelope Longstreet (Jodie Foster) narrates an insurance claim as she types, three adults standing behind her. Penelope is predictably wearing octagonal tortoise glasses and is a skilled typist.

From the minute she presses print and lets the claim stream out of the printer into her hand, we have now witnessed all of the action Carnage has to offer. Quietly, I prayed that at least Ethan Longstreet, her “mutilated” son, will show up to bear to us his totally gnarled face and incisors, for necessary gruesome effect. (He doesn't.)

Because there isn’t much else to the plot, and the scene is set within the same boringly obvious Brooklyn apartment, stylized with attention toward modern academic nuances and laden with postmodern art books, apple-pear crumble, and fresh tulips from the "florist on Henry Street," we are forced to focus on the ultimate devolvement of civility between four grown adults. Even the merest discord amounts to high drama for Polanski: when Penelope asks Nancy if she knows a florist, she stares blankly at her. The viewer bears witness to a conversation-cum-argument between the couples for the entirety of the movie, and despite the short length, what it provides is not in itself enough to be compelling.

Enjoying the tension of watching Carnage is about praying for things to get physical — the closest we come is when Penelope tosses Nancy's very expensive-looking purse into the air and Nancy shrieks, "She broke my makeup mirror! And my perfume bottle!" I found myself applauding their sons for at least having a little more gall to pursue resolution with violence instead of with ninny philosophical language and whining. Probably that is Carnage's entire point.

Despite its shortcomings — lack of plot, lack of realism, lack of purpose — there is a glowing light to Carnage that cannot be forgotten, and his name is John C. Reilly. Call me biased because of my love for Steve Brule and Stepbrothers' Dale Doback, but this man is like a blessed angel sent from heaven to shine all over Jodie Foster’s perpetually grapefruity face. While Penelope is busy screeching about her out-of-print Kokoschka book that Nancy has vomited all over, ("There is no other one; it’s a reprint from the catalog of the 1957 show in London"), Michael is busy just playing the role of refined, adult goofball. "Is cobbler cake or pie? Why should pizza be a pie?" he asks, as a means to lighten the conversation. An interesting question, Michael! Perhaps the film's screenwriter (the same as the play — Yasmina Reza) could have added some more thought on that conundrum.

Instead, the decision was made to erode even Reilly’s character into a moral absurdity that looks weirder on him than the maroon merino wool V-neck sweater that he’s wearing. We find out that he’s somewhat of a nihilist. Does a man who refers to vomiting as "tossing your cookies" make for a convincing nihilist? Not exactly. The poor guy is afraid to touch his son's hamster (as he abandons the animal in the street) out of a severe psychological fear of rodents. I mean, come on.

The other adults — Nancy, Penelope, and Alan — are all decently acted, as well, but none really have the bite in them that I was looking for. Penelope is a pitiful drunk who turns into a puddle of tears and belligerence after two sips of scotch, while Nancy becomes less buttoned-up and more of a loud-mouthed aggressor who throws around slurs like "faggot" when she’s feeling feisty. Christoph Waltz, brilliantly cast as Alan, is a sinister and rude attorney who has yet to learn table manners. And though his character acting is brilliant, his constant barking into a blackberry (product placement) only begs the question of why his wife, an investment broker, is not as busy. She has nothing to damned do except sit around and wait to stage reconciliations between adolescent boys. And why the hell is her hair pulled back so tight?

Carnage gets most of its mileage by repeatedly pointing out Brooklyn mothers have no sense of humor. Penelope even reminds us, "I don’t have a sense of humor and I don't want one." Or maybe it’s just all mothers in general who don’t know how to laugh at things that are funny. Michael and Alan get to be leaders of gangs and Ivanhoe disciples, a contrast that strikes me as a little unfair and a lot outdated. It's also impossible to believe that pearl-wearing, fresh linens, and patent-heeled Nancy is actually a Brooklyn mother. That cerulean Pashmina scarf has never seen the light below 57th street.

Watching the claustrophobic Carnage, I was entertained by the novelty of the performances, contained as they are in a small space. By the end, I started to dislike it and was, more than anything, irritated by its existence. This represents an unfamiliar kind of betrayal for me because I usually sit through every movie quietly disliking it from the get-go unless it’s full of explosions or it gives me an opportunity to admire the overt dullness of Paul Walker.

The film concludes with a dramatic gesture from Nancy, who pulls the Henry Street tulips from their vase and smashes them all over the recently vomit-covered coffee table as she lazily mutters, "This is the worst day of my life." The blackberry buzzes, the screen fades to black, and within seconds, it fades back to a little orange hamster sniffing happily in the grass outside in the big, bad world. And boy, do we feel for that hamster. Free from the caricatures of New York City parenthood, there are no bounds to what you can do, little guy. Run with it.

Dayna Evans is the senior contributor to This Recording. She is a writer living in Bangladesh. You can find an archive of her writing on This Recording here. She tumbls here.

He's Only One Man: Roman Polanski

Daniel D'Addario on Frantic

Kara VanderBijl on Tess

Alex Carnevale on Bitter Moon

Karina Wolf on Repulsion & Cul-de-sac

Polanski's Script

"Out Loud" - Kidstreet (mp3)

"Nineteen Ninety-Three" - Kidstreet (mp3)

"Penny Candy" - Kidstreet (mp3)


Monday
Nov282011

In Which We Tribute The Sweetheart

Gift of the Mundane

by EMMA BARRIE

While You Were Sleeping
dir. Jon Turtletaub
103 minutes

I have an idea that some men are born out of their due place. Accident has cast them amid certain surroundings, but they have always a nostalgia for a home they know not. Sometimes a man hits upon a place to which he feels he mysteriously belongs. Here is the home he sought, and he will settle among scenes that he has never seen before, among men he has never known, as though they were familiar to him from his birth. Here at last he finds rest.

– W. Somerset Maugham

As a child, movies taught me what it meant to be a real family. Real families only exist in late fall or winter. They must live in New York or Chicago, not in sunny Los Angeles. If you have a real family you will know it, because on Christmas your house will be magically outlined in twinkling lights. Everyone will wear hounds tooth coats and cable knit sweaters, oversized to perfection. You will sip grandma’s much-too-potent eggnog, and talk over each other in a comforting rhythm, perfected by decades of practice. To be a real family, you must have inside jokes, history, layers, and an emotionally charged instrumental score. The camera must pan up and away, over you and your snow-covered, neighborhood street.

For me, the Callahans have always been the perfect family. They remain intact in my mind, even though two members (Peter Boyle and Jack Warden) have since died, or become more famous for other things like their roles on The O.C. (Peter Gallagher and Peter Gallagher’s eyebrows). Their loving and realistic family dynamic was one of many things that separated While You Were Sleeping from every other 90s romantic comedy. If I didn’t know any better, I’d say the cast of the film spent 15 years living together in house on a tree-lined block in preparation for their roles, arguing about what makes a good pot roast and putting together scrapbooks.

Jon Turteltaub's film tells the story of Lucy Moderatz (Sandra Bullock), a lowly orphaned tollbooth operator in Chicago (hey — it could happen) who one day saves a man when he is pushed onto the tracks. At the hospital, while he’s in a coma, his entire family mistakes her for his fiancée. A rom-comedy of errors ensues. Lucy immediately latches onto this family, and while Peter is in a coma, she falls for his hot but relatable furniture-making brother, Jack. You follow?

But While You Were Sleeping isn't just about two people falling in love. The film doesn't leave you with the idea that as long as you find "the one" you'll be set, rather it's about finding your tribe. Lucy doesn't have any family left, and aside from a few work acquaintances, she can't really call anyone a friend. We learn early on that Lucy has been wandering through the world alone and restless, searching for some sort of connection.

Peter remains in a coma for a majority of the film, and Lucy, as his phony fiancée, is invited to every family holiday event. On Christmas, the Callahans plus Lucy sit around the tree opening presents, and Lucy is given hers. She doesn't expect to get a gift, nor does she care what's inside. The fact that she was given one is enough. She cradles her wrapped present, watching as everyone else exchanges theirs. They rip open wrapping, drown each other in hugs, and exhibit genuine excitement about mundane gifts like mittens or a cordless glue gun.

Lucy couldn’t be happier. She's finally found what she’s been looking for. The camera pans away and we see that on the fireplace, a new stocking with Lucy’s name has been hung. The initiation has begun.

I realize the risk of talking about this movie to someone who hasn’t seen it is that Lucy comes off sounding like a creep. "No no, you don't understand, she just pretends to be a coma patient's fiancée for a few weeks so that she can infiltrate his family! …Oh."

But Saul (Jack Warden), the Callahan’s neighbor and the kids' godfather, is there to sanction the lie. Like Lucy, Saul is not blood-related to the Callahans, yet he belongs with them. When Saul discovers the truth early on — that Lucy was never engaged to Peter — he confronts her. Though she is immediately apologetic and says she will come clean to the whole family immediately, he tells her not to confess. As one outsider to another, he says, "They need you, Lucy. Just like you need them."

Jack, Peter's brother, is played by the most charming guy in the world (I took a poll), Bill Pullman. Clad in light Levi’s and workman’s boots, his hair in a perfect swoop like a bird’s wing caressing his forehead, Jack is a 90s dream man. He even builds rocking chairs, owns two different trucks, and you can practically see the calluses on his hands. He knows just how to banter (Lucy: "You don’t have to walk behind me." Jack: "I'm blocking the wind!"), makes eye contact with her in crowded rooms, and mutters "I doubt it" under his breath when she says she’s not photogenic. He is the perfect first love for any pre-teen. And Lucy is the perfect role model.

Sandra Bullock, in her best role ever — forget that Oscar win for The Blind Side — plays loveable, vulnerable and tough all rolled into one big bundle of knitted sweaters. As Jack says to his coma-ridden brother, "She drives you so nuts you don't know whether to hug her or, or just really arm wrestle her." The answer is, of course, both. In every scene, Lucy follows the dress code of adorable frumpy casual. Her hair is so perfectly messy, her dead father’s coat hangs off her narrow shoulders, her fingerless gloves make her look like she’s about to rob Kevin McCallister’s house.

Watching this movie in your adolescence, hoping for connections to people that don’t yet know you exist, Lucy has lines that feel like they were written specifically for you. She asks a still-asleep Peter, “Have you ever, like, seen somebody? And you knew that, if only that person really knew you, they would, well, they would of course dump the perfect model that they were with, and realize that you were the one that they wanted to, just, grow old with.” I think I have that scribbled in margins of notebooks somewhere.

Not only is she likable and human, Lucy is resilient. In fact, she’s kind of a badass. To the untrained rom-com eye, she may seem like a pathetic and spinstery lady who dips Oreos into her cat’s milk bowl. But the truth is, Lucy doesn’t crave pity. Her parents died and she works in a tollbooth. I would pity her if she asked for it. But for Christmas, she gets her own tree and pulls it up through her apartment window with a rope. Sure, the rope breaks and the tree crashes through someone else’s window, but she’s doing it. While we want Lucy to get out of the tollbooth and visit Florence like she’s always dreamed, we don’t ever really feel sorry for her. She doesn’t whine about the lack of stamps in her passport. She never succumbs to going on a date with the tenacious and obnoxious Joe Jr. — the landlord’s son who asks her out relentlessly. If she really felt sorry for herself and was so depressed about being alone, she would have gone to the Ice Capades with him years ago. Lucy is one tough cookie, not some helpless waif.

Watching Lucy and Jack fall in love is an absolute pleasure. (That’s what I would have written on their report cards if I was their fourth grade teacher and they were falling in love before my eyes. An absolute pleasure.) Unlike most rom-coms of its time, While You Were Sleeping lacks the Motown montage. We don’t see them repaint a room or bike ride on the boardwalk or go into a lot of stores and try on outfits. Instead we see them gradually fall in love one night as Jack walks Lucy home along the water. We hear the jokes they make, and the conversation that endears them to one another. Then we see them slip and slide across an icy path, because what is a rom-com without some physical love-humor?

While You Were Sleeping was written by Daniel G. Sullivan and Fredric LeBow, both who only have the one credit to their names. Most mornings, I consider writing them a letter. I want to know what they’re doing now. I want to know if they’ve written other things as touching and perfect, but for whatever reason every studio has passed. I want to know if they quit the biz after While You Were Sleeping because they told the story they needed to tell, and then decided to become carpenters or school teachers. Most importantly, I want to know if they want to collaborate with me on a variety of projects.

As a tribute to those dialogue-geniuses, I will leave here this lovely family dinner scene, transcribed, forever immortalizing it on this webpage:

Elsie: I could never make a good pot roast.

Saul: You need good beef. Argentina has great beef. Beef and Nazis.

Ox: John Wayne was tall.

Saul: Dustin Hoffman was 5’6″.

Ox: Would you want to see Dustin Hoffman save the Alamo?

Midge: These mashed potatoes are so creamy.

Saul: Spain has good beef.

Midge: Mary mashed them.

Saul: Cesar Romero was tall.

Elsie: Cesar Romero was not Spanish!

Saul: I didn't say Cesar Romero was Spanish.

Elsie: Well, what did you say?

Saul: I said, Cesar Romero was tall.

Elsie: We all know he’s tall.

Saul: Well, that’s what I said. Cesar Romero was tall. That’s all I said.

Towards the end of the film, Lucy admits to the Callahans she was never Peter's fiancée, but instead kept up the act because she fell in love with Jack and, more importantly, she fell in love with the entire family. "I went from being all alone to being a fiancée, a daughter, a granddaughter, a sister, and a friend," she says through tears.

It is possible the first time I saw the film, I thought the Callahans might never forgive her. But watching it now, I know they have to — and not because the film is formulaic or because it needs a happy ending. I know Lucy will be forgiven because I have come to know this family, and I have learned how strong their bond to Lucy has become. Saul is right: they do need her, just as much as she needs them.

In the last scene of the film, Jack shows up at the train station to propose, slipping a ring into the token slot. In the spirit of the movie and in the spirit of the family, all the Callahans join in, a gesture sure to convince Lucy she is forgiven. With hearts made of gold and full of warm hot chocolate, they all crowd around the token booth, instructing Jack on how to propose. "Lucy, I have to ask you something," Jack says in a voice so gravelly and rugged you’re just waiting for his muscles to pop through his Gap denim-lined jacket.

The peanut gallery pipes up from behind: "Get down on one knee, it’s more romantic." "He’s proposing, let him do it." "I am letting him do it." Lucy, in true Lucy fashion, places the ring on the tip of her index finger, inspiring lonely middle school girls everywhere to take note in their diaries of what adorable gesture to someday mimic.

Halfway through While You Were Sleeping, Lucy’s boss Jerry chastises her, "You’re born into a family. You do not join them like you do the Marines!" But the film proves otherwise. It proves that if you are wandering the world feeling restless or alone, it's possible, as Maugham said, to come upon a place where you "mysteriously belong." As a lost and misplaced adolescent, I never tired of watching the film. Never tired of the pot roast, the chatter, the reassurance. Yes, we have a place in the universe and yes, when we find it, there will be people waiting to welcome us home.

Emma Barrie is the senior contributor to This Recording. She is a writer living in Brooklyn. She twitters here and tumbls here. She last wrote in these pages about her heirlooms. You can find an archive of her writing on This Recording here.

The 1990s Really Seem To Have Occurred

Elena Schilder on American Beauty

Elizabeth Gumport on Wild Things

Hanson O'Haver on Airheads

Alex Carnevale on Indecent Proposal

Emma Barrie on While You Were Sleeping

Jessica Ferri on The Devil's Advocate

Molly Lambert on Basic Instinct

Alex Carnevale on Singles

"Wherever Would I Be" - Daryl Hall & Dusty Springfield (mp3)

"This Never Happened Before" - Paul McCartney (mp3)

"Don't Tell Me" - Madonna (mp3)