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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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In Which Nothing Exists That Does Not Empty

The Pissarro Affair


Am I the bumblebee in the sun's cause? - Joseph Ceravolo

It helps to have something light to focus on. I enjoy any story, as long as it does not go on for too long. I start to wonder to myself, where will it go?

The most surprising things seemed to bring Sarah joy. When my friends met her, they seemed to distrust this aspect of her, so I began to do the same. Just as I believe she is reading this, she read, over my shoulder, some terrible line in a poem of mine. The line itself had been fashioned out of the refuse of Raymond Carver and Sharon Olds; it was juvenile in their fashion and a bit in my own. I cannot recall it exactly now, but it had to do with the way water ran over a corrugated surface in utter darkness.

I do remember her saying she would not forget what I had written. Stupidly I judged her for this bit of naivete. Partly I was correct, undoubtedly she has lost the thread by now.

I have been embarrassed to write of all the rest, but not of Sarah. I was always proud, pathetically proud, that anyone like that could not only find something tolerable in my presence, but be so continuously excited by it. 

I showed her Pissarro, who I have loved since someone I can never forget showed him to me. Pissarro's view of the road to Versailles occupied her for many vital reasons, and we would go to the Met to see his work there whenever we could. I will try to list the reasons I think she liked his paintings without drifting into my own:

1) It proved that reality is basically only constructed of temporary things, like wind and rain, which can dissipate. They are merely a covering that can be peeled back with time.

2) He knew the way the wind touched the earth, and the way the earth touched the wind.

3) It showed that any place a man and woman are together, there is a road to something better.

I will not give her real name, unless Sarah is her real name. She was adopted by a loving family in upstate New York, she told me, and once asked me to meet them. I had something else to do that day, or I found something else to do. Why did I not meet her parents as she requested and maybe even required?

I will list the reasons I did not alongside the fourth aspect she loved in the road to Versailles:

1) I thought they might laugh when they saw me with their daughter.

2) I supposed it was equally possible they might cry.

3) They knew her last boyfriend, and I happened to think he made a lot better presentation than me. (He was not a better writer, though, thank God.)

4) Lately I have a hard time trusting atheists or agnostics. It is not that I think they must necessarily serve someone but it makes me uncomfortable, the idea of them not serving anything. Pissarro's given name was Jacob Abraham, but his French alias served him far better than his real name.

At the time I would not have been able to articulate this as a reason not to meet my girlfriend's parents, but it strikes me as an entirely plausible one now.

So you will not have to skim to the end to find out how this comes out, I will describe the last time I saw Sarah. We went to the movies; I can't remember what exactly we saw, but I am pretty sure George Clooney was in it. The wrinkles on his forehead were not the only reason it was hard to focus on the screen. Sarah had her legs sort of twisted around me, the way a parasite wraps around its host. (I don't think that now, but it was how it seemed then.) I knew by this how forgiving she was, since I had tried to break up with her a few days before.

I've noticed how I make you feel sometimes. Did you think I had not?

Always turn an accusation into a question. It's the perfect distraction from your own culpability in any matter.

Everything I said in those years, and much of what I have written since, was completely cynical, except as concerns the road to Versailles. Then it retains a simple beauty mostly lost to civilization after the flush of the renaissance.

A few days ago, my grandmother died in her sleep. My grandfather passed the previous year, and prior to his death he had promised to reveal several things about his wife's mother that we did not know. Since he died first, it was not possible for me to go to any other source. At a birthday party for my cousin's children, I asked my grandmother about her childhood.

Her father was a carpenter with two small daughters. He prized one over the other. On his off day he took the kids into the mountains for a picnic. (Newark has generally provided very good reasons to flee from it whenever possible.) Her mother, it was implied, had been institutionalized, either for some harm she had done to herself, or the threat of harm to her daughters. My grandmother spoke sparingly of these times, lending a subtlety to the descriptions I admired. Like many people, she had a tendency to flatten out certain parts of the tale, and omit key elements.

I am obliquely referencing the frame of this story.

I love describing the physical thrill of being with other people. I have never once not found it completely overwhelming. Isn't presence wonderfully absorbing? On the road to Versailles we can see families there, linked by arms. Even not touching is a kind of touching, rendered by Pissarro; the touching of the road to the sky, the trees to their branches, and our arms to anything that moves.

Sarah loved to look at my old photos. I have never really felt a fascination with the pasts of those I loved. I asked about all her old boyfriends of course, but only to learn how they treated Sarah so I would not make any of the same choices, no matter how effective they were. I didn't do it because I wanted to know.

(Some people are so honorable that they will not share certain parts of themselves with you unless you ask. Others incorrectly think that not telling someone you hope to love everything is dishonor.)

I never told anyone this before and I have no plans to do so again.

Sarah tossed her shoulder-length brown hair back and went about her day. She seemed always to be wearing lipstick, even when I knew she had none on. She had a fantastic grasp of how things looked on her body, which only briefly widened at the waist, foreshadowing the person she was to become. Everywhere else she was too slender.

It only came to me later, or maybe it never actually came to me, how much work had to go into all of that.

I was slow to discover Pissarro, since I was unnaturally biased against landscape painting until the age of 24. He and I are also nothing alike: he had a successful career in business that paralleled his passion without informing his life as an artist. In view of the Dreyfus affair, Pissarro told his son, "Despite all these anxieties, I must work at my window as if nothing had happened."

The only thing I have patience for is punishment through silence. Pissarro was thankfully not like that, as most great painters are not. Again and again he painted the road to Versailles from that window. I try to show how much I have changed by the fact that I am able to sit and absorb his work so much longer now. The Met is a terrible museum, but every large house has a few pleasant rooms.

I received an e-mail from a friend during the rendition of this broadside. One line in it said, "I think a lot of what you witness is how others react to you and your behaviors. Or proxies thereof."

I can never forget the person who introduced me to Pissarro. I don't think she loved virtually any of the same things about him, or the world, that I did, or even knew that I loved her, since I did not bother telling her. (She did not respect me enough to make me say it, either.) The reason I did not trouble myself by confessing was because of a particular piece of pablum I had read in a vacuous novel, that love was either simple or impossible. If you had to ask for it, that just meant it was impossible.

I now know that idea is a lie. Still, I have never had anyone change their mind about me. I have altered my own romantic view of others, and not simply over time, or because my friends disliked Sarah so openly and continuously. I admit I judged Sarah for the imperfections they showed in her, but I also judged my friends for what they said as well. Pretty much everyone was made worse by this relationship.

Changing one's mind should ideally be a sign of strength. At first I despaired that I could so easily go back on my word, or desire something I had sworn I never wanted or needed in my life. Now it is a part of myself I have grown to respect; as Jung put it, "He did not think, he perceived his mind functioning." I am so glad that I am changeable, that I can keep discovering things about the people that I love, or find new ways to care for them. It gives me faith that I still might change the way you see me.

You can ask someone to come closer. Even if Sarah did not do it the first time I asked, she was willing to say she might. I loved her for that concession, and to honor it, I have made a lot of compromises since for the sake of others, which of course are only for myself.

with Cezanne

When I first met Sarah she was with her boyfriend. I hated the way she touched him; it resembled how Goldilocks stroked the empty beds of the bears whose house she broke into.

There is a particular piece of my writing that my grandmother brought up to me every time I saw her. Sarah thought it was both difficult to understand and riddled with cliches as well, and I have to admit she was probably right. Since I wrote it when I was thirteen, she should have been a whole lot more forgiving, but I respect that she was not. Forgiveness is never a very attractive quality.

My grandmother said the essay, which concerned the seizure I had at the age of eleven, reminded her of her own childhood and showed to her that some of things she had seen and felt then were not shameful or strange at all, or perhaps that they were, but not unique.

I am attempting to replicate something of that feat here. I will know whether or not I have failed by the e-mails I receive in the days to come. If I see Sarah's name in the From: field, I will not read anything she says, I will just print out the message, stuff it in my pocket, and leave it on the doorstep of a fire station.

Sarah is married now, and I saw some photos of her and her husband on flickr, before I realized how sick it was making me. I can tell how much he loves her. I can tell how much she loves him by how he seems to resemble the man I was.

Dan Carville is the senior contributor to This Recording. He is a writer living in Brooklyn. He last wrote in these pages about an hour of sleep in the snow. You can find an archive of his writing on This Recording here.

Photographs by the author.

"Love Is Won" - Lia Ices (mp3)

"After Is Always Before" - Lia Ices (mp3)

photo by Kate Edwards


In Which We Had Previously Been Comatose

In Hollywood


We’ve written twenty-three books between us and movies financed nineteen out of the twenty-three.

John Gregory Dunne, The Paris Review, 1996 

When he was done, the executive asked the writer, “Do you know what the monster is?” The writer shook his head. The executive said, “It’s our money.”

– John Gregory Dunne, Monster, 1997 

The millennium is here, the era of “fewer and better” motion pictures, and what have we? We have fewer pictures, but not necessarily better pictures. Ask Hollywood why, and Hollywood resorts to murmuring about the monster. It has been, they say, impossible to work “honestly” in Hollywood.

Joan Didion, I Can’t Get That Monster Out Of My Mind, 1964

Scriptwriting partners Joan Didion and her late husband John Gregory Dunne had a code for when it was time to cut their losses with a production company and fly the coop. In meetings, while negotiating the terms of a script, if Joan and John sensed the beginnings of disaster — studio dawdling, uneven notes, nonplussed silence — one would look at the other and say, White Christmas. Their choice of words, however, had little to do with Bing Crosby and Rosemary Clooney, with treetops glistening or sleigh bells in the snow. Instead, it relates to Vietnam. As Dunne explains in Monster, his 1997 account of Hollywood’s pecking order detailing the eight-year, twenty-seven-draft saga of Up Close and Personal, Joan and John’s code was a nod to the Fall of Saigon. In April of 1975, “White Christmas” was played by army disc jockeys on the Armed Forces Radio Network as a secret signal to the remaining Americans that “the war was over, bail out.” 

John shares this anecdote a quarter of the way through his two hundred page book as part of an epiphany he and Joan have days before his aortic valve replacement surgery in 1991. To a degree, their penchant for weighing a project’s cost imitates Dunne’s expedient writing style. Bottom line? Utility leverages storytelling. Luckily, his reserve of keenly culled nuggets on Hollywood types, like Didion’s and his brother Dominick’s (perhaps the most imbued by celebrity) is never scarce. For every six or so tailored sentences, one diverges and is often marvelous. Hollywood hobnobbing, near spurious hooey.  

For instance, at a breakfast meeting with Scott Rudin, the producer detailed to John and Joan a visit he took to Michael Jackson’s Neverland with director Barry Sonnenfeld. Michael was late, en route but still in the air. And so, Rudin kicked back, enjoying the Ranch’s amusement park and zoo. He and Sonnenfeld were invited to stay for lunch and were seated at a table set with expensive linen. They were served ham and cheese sandwiches under silver domes on expensive china which they “washed down with Pepsi-Cola,” as Michael was the company’s spokesperson. For dessert? Bite-sized Snickers in a silver bowl.  

Similarly absurd was Dunne’s account of Sunny von Bülow’s room in the Pavilion at Columbia-Presbyterian where John coincidently was recovering. Every afternoon a high tea was served “while a cocktail pianist in black tie played such the dansant favorites as “Send in the Clowns,” and “Isn’t it Romantic?”” 

As a quick aside, Sunny had been comatose for close to ten years at this point and her husband, Claus, had been twice accused of attempting to kill her. Incidentally, Dominick had covered the second trial for Vanity Fair, having only written for the magazine once before — a March 1984 piece entitled “Justice” chronicling the trial of his daughter’s killer. Like his sister-in-law, who zeroes in on diagnostic if not sometimes distracting ritz (in Blue Nights, the red soles on her daughter’s wedding day Louboutin’s that showed when Quintana “kneeled at the altar” or Madeleine-type episodes brought on by Saks or the St. Regis) Dominick too, never missed an occasion to mention Sunny von Bülow’s embroidered Porthault sheets.  

Despite the Hollywood mixing, Monster is in many ways the ultimate articulation of Dunne’s pragmatic writing style and accordingly, the writer’s and any writer’s inherent nearness to the idea of End. After all, in it he admits that the central reason he and Joan agreed to write Up Close and Personal in 1988 was due in large part to Dunne’s health. Earlier that year John had suffered his first collapse while speed walking in Central Park. “When I regained consciousness, I was stretched out in the middle of the road rising behind the Metropolitan Museum, a stream of joggers detouring past without looking or stopping, as if I were a piece of roadkill,” he writes. Heart surgery was inevitable and as doctors’ visits, tests, and hospital bills were soon to pile — a “very expensive gig” — the WGA’s health insurance became crucial. The deal was closed.  

Later in the book, in a rare moment of self-reflection Dunne describes the replacement valve’s clicking sound and how it signified “reassuring proof [he] was still alive.” This newer, louder heartbeat, so to speak, appealed to John’s mortality. So much so that Monster itself is structured around Dunne’s many hospital visits, often yielding for more thoughtful bits as if the narrative, like John, had been ordered to meter the pace.  

Even Joan, whose voice is rarely heard in Monster, has her say with respect to John’s condition. One evening, a couple years after John’s surgery while dining at Chinois in Santa Monica, a certain Michael Eisner, who too had had a similar operation, expressed to Dunne that his bypass surgery was in truth “more serious” than John’s. Didion, maddened, immediately shouted, “It was not!” "[She’d] never been an easy fit in the role of the little woman."

The clicking sound of John’s valve resonated with Quintana too who, entertained by the sound, began calling her father the Tin Man. While throughout Monster many friends and colleagues fall ill or die—of old age, of a sudden heart attack, of complications from AIDS, of unhealthy sped up lifestyles—there is an indistinct quality to that last image as both John and Quintana have since died. As though John was writing from his prophetic gut, from that sense of congenital doom and loss that writers are born with, of which his wife described in her 1966 essay “On Keeping a Notebook.” Perhaps it is Dunne’s use of “reassuring proof,” like a child who despite being promised something, commands an actual “Promise.” Or maybe it’s him and her, father and daughter, paired in a single moment, attune to each person’s inherent rhythm. Or maybe it’s simply this reader’s willingness to let the image go there. Either way, the “clicking” abides. It greets the page and far outlasts it. 

Panic in Needle Park

It was John Foreman, a friend and producer, and former Princeton classmate, who first approached Joan and John about writing a screenplay based on Golden Girl, Alanna Nash’s biography of the network correspondent, Jessica Savitch. Five years prior, Savitch had died in a car accident. Martin Fischbein, president of the New York Post, was also in the car. At this point, John and Joan had already written the screenplays for The Panic in Needle Park, Play it as it Lays, A Star is Born, and True Confessions. At this point, they were still incapable of “good meetings,” meaning, they could not schmooze or quicken deals. They were not ‘package’ material and certainly understood that screenwriters occupied an “inferior position on the food chain,” or as Jack Warner (of the Brothers) once said, were thought of as “Schmucks with Underwoods.” But they liked Nash’s book and were ready to proceed with Disney. Or so they thought. 

With Disney comes the Kingdom. And with the Kingdom comes the fairy tale. But Jessica Savitch’s story was no fairy tale because in the fairy tale the princess never dies. She is however made over.

Savitch was a woman whose news reporting inexperience was outdone by her ambition. Impelled by some inner fidget, she restlessly wanted more. Her strive had presence, prompting collateral excess. As Dunne describes, she had “an overactive libido, a sexual ambivalence, a tenuous hold on the truth, a taste for controlled substances, a longtime abusive Svengali relationship, and a certain mental instability.” In Disney’s eyes, her “ugly duckling turned golden girl” story possessed too much ugly. Interracial love affairs, cocaine, a gay husband who eventually hung himself, and abortions, were all embargoed narratives. The stuff of Didion and Dunne. A couple who no matter what city they visited, made sure to stop at its courthouse.  

Having come off the success of Pretty Woman, Disney wanted a similarly Cinderella setup. As Dunne puts it, they wanted a Pretty TV Reporter. That is, they wanted a Rodeo Drive sequence, in which instead of swapping sky-high over the knee boots for a polka-dotted polo dress, Michelle Pfeiffer as Tally Atwater would lose her perm and pink blazer for more beige, more poise, and ultimately, the guidance, respect, and love of her news channel director. His name would be Warren Justice — “an appropriately classless first name” — and the role would go to Robert Redford. Near the end of Monster, Dunne fondly remembers one evening when while watching Three Days of the Condor on cable, Redford called him to discuss his character in Up Close. There he was, code name Condor, on Dunne’s television. And there he was too, on the other end of Dunne’s phone. For John, “he was, when all was said and done, Robert Redford.” At a glance, infinite.  

But returning to Up Close, where within the first seven minutes of the movie, Pfeiffer clumsily spills the contents of her purse everywhere. Redford, forever wearing a collared shirt, bends down to help her clean up one tube of lipstick, a loose tampon, some change, and a crumpled dollar bill. Nickels, dimes, no Money, and a pair of female things. Pfeiffer is crestfallen, and in her boss’ eyes, nothing but nerves and legs. Within the first ten minutes, he asks her, “Do you always wear that much make-up?” Later he offers her a job as the weatherperson in which she wears oversized clown glasses and a goofy yellow rain jacket and hat.

Play It As It Lays An early draft of Up Close was given to Mike Nichols who responded with the “graciously noncommittal comment” that his marriage to ABC’s Diane Sawyer created an unfitting atmosphere for any project about TV news. While Joan and John never mentioned this detail to Nichols, Diane Sawyer’s first on air experience at a channel in Louisville, Kentucky, was what inspired Tally Atwater’s debut.  

A few years past and not much came of Didion and Dunne’s original Up Close script. In those in between years, Joan worked on her Central Park Jogger piece for The New York Review of Books and John finished Playland. They had meetings with Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer detailed in a section titled, “Bully Boys,” began writing a script in which they called Michael Crichton for advice on string theory, and endeavored incorporating with Elaine May and Peter Feibleman as a rewriting team and company, only agreeing to work on productions that had already began shooting. No more first drafts, no more free meetings or readings; “the meter would start running the moment the screenplay arrived.” 

Then Scott Rudin rolled in. Monster is dedicated to him, along with director, Jon Avnet and in memory of John Foreman. Rudin did as Rudin does: he got the movie made. He was “the bully boy’s bully boy.” But most importantly he offered Dunne the most producer-ly advice ever. When asked by Dunne what he thought the movie was really about, Rudin, forever skewed to money and éclat, answered, “It’s about two movie stars.” 

Which briefly brings to mind Aaron Sorkin’s HBO drama The Newsroom. Rudin is an executive producer on the show and one cannot help but wonder if he gave Sorkin similar advice. The show, much like Up Close is less about the news and more about the dopey hearts of those involved. Basically, it too is centered on two or more “movie stars.” The newsroom is their stage and so far, their love entanglements are its crux. Everything else is merely crosstalk. Women with alliterative names in silk shirts flail their arms, stutter, shriek, and may as well be spilling the contents of their purses everywhere. Meanwhile, the men speak in sports metaphors, are romantic dolts, and threaten to congratulate their female coworkers for having gumption and good ideas. Music swells, smug smirks are protracted. Sorkin, forever the guy who writes soap operas about guys on their soapboxes.  

While Rudin did push for more romance in Up Close, reminding Joan and John that it was a love story after all — to “deliver the moment, deliver the moment” — John was adamant about one thing. He told Rudin, “I don’t do love.” Thing is, composer Diane Warren and Céline Dion sure do. Avnet hired both and the song “Because You Loved Me” came to be. Number one in the United States for six weeks, its music video featured Céline in a makeshift control room performing with burning credo as clips of Pfeiffer and Redford, punch-drunk and sweet for each other, fade in and out. Today, sixteen years later, clips of Emily Mortimer and Jeff Daniels’s Mac and Will could comfortably replace those of Tally and Warren.

While an appraisal of Sorkin, Dunne and Didion, all in one breath, is slightly offhand, it does invite a closer look. In October 2011, A.O. Scott did exactly that for his review of Bennett Miller’s Moneyball, which was co-written by Sorkin. In it, Scott opens by referencing Didion’s 1988 New York Review of Books piece on the presidential election entitled, “Insider Baseball,” published mere months before she and John agreed to write Up Close. “The process” as she explains and as Scott quotes, is “not about ‘the democratic process’ or the general mechanism affording the citizens of a state a voice in its affairs, but the reverse: a mechanism seen as so specialized that access to it is correctly limited to its own professionals.” As Scott spells out: narratives that function as “durable forms that cater to this appetite for exclusive knowledge, inviting the reader or viewer to learn something about how the professionals do it and to feel vicariously, like one of them.” 

Sorkin’s breakneck dialogue deals with characters, mainly men, who run countries, television networks, professional sports teams, who invent algorithms in order to make friends and humiliate girls. As Scott points out, these characters are all, by some means, a performance of Didion’s sentiment. They claim “specialized” speak, when inevitably the tensions return to sex and money, and winning. Proximity to transparency, to insider-y yackety-yak, assumes entrance. And yet, as Didion reminds, “what strikes one most vividly about such a campaign is precisely its remoteness from the actual life of the country.” Her remarks about the electoral process could be applied to Sorkin’s Zuckerberg, to Will McAvoy, President Bartlet and Billy Beane: “These are people who speak of the process as an end in itself, connected only nominally, and vestigially, to the electorate and its possible concerns.” All that walking, all that talking.  

Interesting then to examine Dunne’s Monster, which in many ways is the ultimate insider’s look into Hollywood’s process. Written from the vantage point of someone who was involved from the very start, from meetings to rewrites, rewrites to more meetings. From the Beverly Hills Hotel where Nora Ephron, who was staying across the hall, volunteered business advice or to Tony Richardson’s Bonjour Tristesse-type St. Tropez hamlet — Le Nid du Duc — where his daughter, the late Natasha ‘Tasha’ Richardson was once a chain-smoking teenager who wore a micro miniskirt and as Didion writes in Blue Nights, “devised the fables, wrote the romance.” Or back in LA, a few years later, for the funeral of Tasha’s father and a gathering of friends in his Hills home — the Kings Road house that once belonged to Linda Lovelace. The list of trivia goes on and on. Who, what, when, where, why, how, Hollywood!  

John Gregory Dunne and Joan Didion were deeply embedded in the “private idiosyncrasies of very public people.” As Dunne affirms, he was simply there — “the reporter’s justification for what he does.” Surely, Sorkin could sniff out his next script there too. Didion and Dunne’s ‘White Christmas,’ an elucidation of what A.O. Scott terms the “half-secret language…a body of artisanal lore.” 

It was announced last year that Didion would be penning a script with Todd Field. Todd Field who wrote and directed In the Bedroom and Little Children, and who in Nicole Holofcener’s 1996 Walking and Talking, proposes to Anne Heche’s character by hiding the ring in her round birth control pack.

As a filmmaker, his movies look like worlds Didion might mine: tortured, grieving parents in one, and the crepuscular, discontented mood of middle-class suburbia in the other. Both films are literary. Both films portend menace, as if from the opening credits, somebody has a hunch. Both are carefully constructed — quiet and sustained like a yawn. Both are all whites, pale blues, and greens, with freckled, sun kissed skin. In both films, light filters through windows no matter how melancholic the scene. Even each poster’s plain serif font: exactly bookish. Precisely Joan. And yet, no matter how ideal the pairing of Field and Didion, Dunne tolls — that “clicking” sound, sounds. Her all white office; his wood-paneled office. His, hers.  His first draft and her reworking of it. “The version the studio sees is essentially our third draft,” Dunne told George Plimpton. He went on to share that he and Joan, before beginning any script, would watch Graham Greene and Carol Reed’s The Third Man. “The best collaboration between writer and director I can think of.” 

Monster, despite little emotional bulk is nostalgic by nature. Eight years, twenty-seven drafts, and two presidential elections later, John wrote it as though summoning memories at a table of close friends, far into the night, long after dessert was served and more drinks were poured, at that delirious hour when leftovers are pulled out of the fridge, unwrapped, and eaten without plates. One gets the sense he could have written twice as much. One gets the sense his memory was trained to pocket stories, not for sentimental reasons, but because he knew what he was seeing, others would savor. His account is entirely generous, if not a little boastful. His last words, “We also had a good time,” belong sincerely to Joan.  

Durga Chew-Bose 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 twitters here. She last wrote in these pages about ways to describe Casey Affleck.

"Nocture" - Wild Nothing (mp3)



In Which The Protagonist Never Was Very Good

Having Made It


Anchorman II: The Legend Continues
dir. Adam McKay
119 minutes

A friend and I saw Anchorman the day it came out in 2004. Twenty-four hours later, we were back in those same bucket seats at the Providence Place Mall, laughing at Ron Burgundy and the gang in a half-filled theater. Fast forward six days and some friends who had grown tired of not having any context for our endless quoting came along as we saw it for the third time in one week. 

In the journalism world, this story would help establish some sort of journalistic credibility, a reason why I am fit to review Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues. (In the real world, all it does is establish the fact that I had nothing to do in the summer of 2004.) It's akin to a cheeky anecdote Burgundy might tell his viewing audience, punctuating the narrative with a fake laugh and a wink at the camera, an in-joke between him and his millions of adoring viewers.

He has that massive audience because the sequel – nearly a decade in the making – begins with our favorite mustachioed anchorman and his anchorwoman wife, Veronica Corningstone, having made it to the big time. The duo are reading the news in New York City. The Big Apple. Unique New York. The pair looks older but only one of them is wiser. Within minutes, Ron gets himself fired and ends up hosting a dolphin show at the San Diego aquarium. This goes poorly.

He is at the end of his rope, quite literally, when a man arrives to rescue him. You see, some wacko Australian airline tycoon has a crazy idea to launch a 24-hour news network. He wants Ron and the news team to work the graveyard shift. Burgundy acquiesces, hijinks ensue gathering the group, and, eventually, they arrive in Gotham.

The legend does indeed continue, mostly because the template has not fallen very far from the movie outline tree. The voiceover guy does his voiceover thing. Burgundy has lady issues. Champ Kind yells. Brick is a bumbling moron, right up until he's not, and then he is again. Baxter saves Ron from certain death by animal. A massive news team brawl features more cameos than recent Saturday Night Live episodes. Burgundy messes up his life, learns a lesson (sort of), and we go home happy. It's essentially the same film.

So why is it so unsatisfying?

The original succeeded because it delicately bounced from bit to bit. It's not Citizen Kane, but it's an elegant conglomeration of character studies that understands its strengths. The film doesn't get bogged down in things like "plot" and "morality" and "lessons." When Burgundy, always a buffoon, gets his comeuppance, we've seen it coming since the opening minutes. It's a tacked on resolution that only occurs because all movies need to end. Nearly everything that happens does so inservice of getting to the next sight gag, absurd scenario, or Brian Fantana report from the field. It's no coincidence that the initial idea to base the movie around Corningstone's abduction by a Maya Rudolph-led gang didn't work.

Anchorman II is funny – more so than I expected, honestly – but it's not particularly fun. Like other recent Ferrell vehicles it's part of a class of comedies that feel the need to be about something more than laughs. It wants to make a point about The Way We Live Now, using the 1980s as a parable. Which fine, whatever, but this is also a movie that features a person getting hit in the gut with a bowling ball and Brick's stupidity played for laughs. These are, obviously, at odds with each other. Why must these comedies be infused with such heavy-handed morality plays? Where's the levity? Tis the season, after all.

It's also the season for commerce, and it's impossible to write about Anchorman II without discussing the massive marketing campaign that was unlike anything ever. Jesse David Fox's piece on Vulture offers the best summation of the blitz, but it essentially boils down to creativity inspired by a small budget. Ferrell, for example, didn't get paid for doing those Dodge Durango ads. He certainly has plenty of money (and may get some percentage of the produces due to his producing credit), but he still did an impressive amount of free promotion. In the past, Ferrell has said Burgundy is his favorite role to play – he's basically just saying things that make him laugh – and it's clearly true. His joy is evident, which makes it even stranger that the film is so un-fun.

If the opening weekend is any indication, the promotional push largely failed. The movie grossed $26.8 million, less than the first one, which was the 23rd biggest opening of 2004. (It only made $85 million, a disappointing 30th overall. The film sits sandwiched between The SpongeBob SquarePants Movie and Scooby-Doo 2: Monsters Unleashed on the 2004 total gross chart.) Anchorman gained a cult following later, slowly and organically. This one won't fare as well. It feels like it's looking into the past rather than forward-thinking like the original, which spawned hundreds of memes. It's surprising for Anchorman II to miss since every good newsman knows his audience. But then again, Burgundy never was very good.

Noah Davis is the senior contributor to This Recording. He is a writer living in Brooklyn. He last wrote in these pages about Calvin and Hobbes. He tumbls here and twitters here.

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