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Alex Carnevale

Features Editor
Mia Nguyen

Reviews Editor
Ethan Peterson

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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In Which We Reach The Safe Haven At Last

Southern Beaches


Safe Haven
dir. Lasse Hallström
115 min.

When I was 15, not long after switching from a D.C. public school to a small, notoriously liberal private school, I discovered that among all of my friends I was the only avowed atheist. We sat at a beach house passing around a large bowl filled with anonymously written questions, the first one being “does god exist?” While some did not believe in a single paternal Judeo-Christian god, all had faith in some sort of grand proto-spirtual metaphysical force. All, except me. This, in a school with maybe three Republicans, in the most statistically liberal geographic voting bloc in the United States.

Two days later I watched my first (his second) Nicholas Sparks film adaptation, stunned to discover in A Walk To Remember that rural America’s high schools were supposedly so filled with teenage atheists that a single student (played by Mandy Moore) believing in God was openly mocked.

Eleven years and $453 million later, Safe Haven is the eighth Nicholas Sparks film adaptation.

When it begins, we are greeted by frantically cut visions of a brunette Katie (Julianne Hough) running away from a house barefoot in a drab blue dress, skin splotched with blood beneath a cloudy sky. Interlaced with white titles on a black screen, she sprints into a neighbor’s home and is comforted by an old lady.

The next thing we know she is blonde, under a grey hoodie, under a leather jacket, and under nighttime rain, evading a cop (David Lyons) at a bus station as if she is a Mara sister in a badly shot Fincher flick.

But with her escape the sun comes out, and the familiar Sparksian vaguely-Americana singer-songwriter soundtrack accompanies a montage of arriving in the coastal town of Southport, North Carolina. And once again, there are sandy paths, fishing boats, and small seafood restaurants on piers. The majority of Nicholas Sparks films and books are set along the Atlantic coast, and in all of them water plays a major role, as if any chance of romance is useless for those of us not directly adjacent to a picturesque beach or stream.

Safe Haven proceeds to tell the story of Katie’s attempt to start over in this small town, where of course there is a good-looking widower (Josh Duhamel) with two children and no edge whatsoever running the general store. Katie gets a job as a waitress, suffers extreme paranoia and nightmares concerning her past, and learns to love again over canoeing and plaid shirts and beach outings with little children who tell her to paint her floor yellow.

Her only platonic adult friend is Jo (Cobie Smuthers), whose every single line manages to be a cliché, even when she becomes a metaphysical dreamwalker (“I love the way the light comes through the trees,” or “take a lot of pictures, you’ll only regret the ones you didn’t take.”)

All of the above is interspersed with shots of Lyons as a police detective hunting Katie from his office in Boston, switching between a police procedural and someone screaming “there-are-second-acts-in-America-life (!!!),” as if the film is a philosophical battle between Nicholas Sparks and Anti-Nicholas Sparks. That is until multiple twist endings warp the absurdity into M. Night Shyamalan territory.

There is no evidence in Hough’s performance of the slutty reverend’s daughter she played in the 2011 remake of Footloose, no glimpses of the professional dancer portraying a teenager who spends her nights grinding in fast food parking lots to Three Six Mafia. The only scenes in Safe Haven where Hough dances she is a passive partner. The only indications of her other career are visible in the agility she uses to avoid the drying paint on her cottage floor. 

Duhamel, on the other hand, lacks the cult of personality usually associated with a Sparksian male romantic interest. He is not The Gosling, The Efron, or The Tatum, not worthy of a “The,” not ever going to book a role as Soderbergh stripper, getaway driver, or Nicole Kidman kink jailbait.

Safe Haven is the second Sparks adaptation to feature a villainous abusive police officer as an antagonist. (Along with The Efron’s pseudo-incestuous, a-new-younger-exmarine-boyfriend-replaces-my-dead-younger-exmarine-brother, The Lucky One.)

While it is certainly true that law enforcement officers boast a spousal abuse rate double the national average, both films want to have us believe that singular police officers are untouchable, that there are not divorce lawyers, judges, DA’s, and IA agents who have made their entire careers out of destroying bad cops, and that women will never have the strength to fight an abuser without a new man stepping into the picture.

Welcome to the world of Nicholas Sparks. Caller ID, landlines, and digital cameras are all major plot-driving devices, even though we clearly see children playing with iphones. God is always present, even when left out of the dialogue. He’s always there to drop a rainstorm so you have a convenient opportunity for making out, always willing to bring someone back as a ghost to give you fabulous advice. Never does faith go unrewarded. Ever.

Of course, Safe Haven is just another in a long series of attempts to capitalize on the success of The Notebook, the movie (and novel) that plucked Nicholas Sparks from the sea of other bestselling neo-romance writers and placed him on the altars bookshelves of sorority girls everywhere. There have even been non-Nicholas Sparks Nicholas Sparks movies (Charlie St. Cloud, The Vow), which always star actors and actresses who have appeared or would end up appearing in his work.

There was a time, before The Notebook, where thinking Ryan Gosling was the sexiest man alive was solely the province of proto-hipsters and film geeks, aroused by the idea that some Mickey Mouse Club kid could play a Jewish neo-Nazi in The Believer. But that’s how powerful The Notebook was, propelling The Gosling on his way to becoming the most feminist male American sex symbol in history.

At a party in 2006 I met a high-ranking executive of a large multinational advertising agency who explained to me that sometime during the late 1990s American females became particularly susceptible to something she called the “plight of the poor little trapped rich white girl.” While the character trope has a long history (see: William Shakespeare or John Hughes) I was told that  somewhere along the upward curve in mass-media, standard of living, and evolution of adolescent heartthrobbery it had become the dominant romantic narrative to sell to young American women. This was opposed to, for example, the rags to riches tale of Pretty Woman, the foremost romantic film fantasy of the prior decade or so, and the highest grossing “romantic comedy” of all time.

By making the female protagonist rich (and with unforgiving parents) instead of poor you change up the “normal” order of events. Landing the guy is no longer the way to landing the pretty expensive stuff. You combine the dramas of familial pressure, guilt of privilege, suffocating misogyny, and cross-class dating, all starting from a fantasy of materialistic wish fulfillment (one that so many corporations have worked hard for decades to imbue in young female consumers). As the marketing executive explained to me, “Rose in Titanic only gets to wear the diamond in that story if she’s rich.” This was why Sparks had been so successful with The Notebook, she said.

Whether or not I think she was right, what is particularly interesting about the enduring success of such dramatic works is most of the people who consume them will never date, let alone marry, someone outside of their own class or ethnic background. That despite the fact that the outright social taboos are gone, a modern day Sybil from Downton Abbey marrying her family’s chauffeur would still cause gossip and raised eyebrows. All measures of social mobility in the United States, even including marriage, are at historic lows. In a very different way our society might be as hostile to straight women pursuing the kind of love from The Notebook as it is to gay men pursuing the kind of love from Brokeback Mountain.

In light of Twilight, the sands may have shifted, and the trapped rich white girl story may be already relegated to secondary status in favor of more metaphysical (and sometimes disturbingly regressive) romantic concerns. But it is still the arc that made Nicholas Sparks a household name. And even in Safe Haven, where the characters are theoretically working class, everyone still ends up with beautiful beachfront property or quaint forested cottages. And the bad guys end up wonderfully dead by grand confluences of natural forces or misdirected bullets. And not because Jessica Chastain sent some Navy Seals to kill them for her, or because Katniss Everdeen learned to hunt and put an arrow through their skulls, but because God, metaphysical spiritual force or otherwise, judged and deemed it so.

Maxwell Neely-Cohen is the senior contributor to This Recording. He is a writer living in New York. You can find his website here, and his twitter here.

"Feet Off The Ground" - Three Six Mafia (mp3)

"Spirit in the Sky" - Norman Greenbaum (mp3)


In Which We Iterate Upon Ourselves

To Think Of While Writing

Setting it down is a difficult part, but not the difficult part for the writers who speak below. There is a world that surrounds what we read, and our inquiries into is are so often completely inadequate. Not the how and why of the creative act, but what remains after the writing has been consumed and forgotten like any other artifact.

In a sense there is an existence beyond the page, but it could never really compare.

Vernor Vinge

It was 1962. I was a senior in high school, and I wanted to write about the first man to have a direct mind-to-computer link. I even thought I might be the first person ever to write of such a thing. (In that, of course, I was wrong - but the theme was rare compared to nowadays.) I worked very hard on the story, applying everything I knew about writing, I put together a social background that I thought would make things interesting where the story sagged: cheap fusion/electricity converters had been invented (that worked at room temperature!), trashing the big power utilities and causing a short term depression. And of course, there would be experiments with chimpanzees before the IQ amplifier was tried on my human hero.

Having thought things out, I described the plot to my little sister (a tenth-grader). She suffered through my endless recounting, and then remarked, "Except for the part about the chimpanzee, it sounds pretty dull." What a comedown. Still… she had a point.

Diane Williams

Very early on, I had a vision of excellence and a sense of responsibility of monstrous proportions.

It is best if no one ever sees me again. (You will thank me.)

I will not go to see someone just because he or she is inconveniently located.

And, if you do that thing again, evil people will be ruined completely. Good people will feel great. Springtime will span the year because that's my decision. Anyone who would have preferred some other season may feel a not-so-serious mistake has been made.

When the good people begin their lavish new life, they will be especially indebted to Ira, who will provide everyone with a set of easy instructions to follow so everything turns out all right for them. Oh, they will be indebted to Ira.

I used to see a lot of this one woman. Ira will take care of her, because I've had it up to here.

Now, do you understand?

Hart Crane

For some time past I have been seeking employment in New York, but without success so far. It's the usual problem of mechanical prejudices that I've already grown grey in trying to deal with. But all the more difficult now, since the only references I can give for the last two years are my own typewriter and a collection of poems.

I am, as you probably recall, at least avowedly - a perfectly good advertising writer. I am wondering if you would possibly give me some recommendations to the publicity department of The Metropolitan Opera Company, where I am certain of making myself useful. I was in New York two days last week, trying to secure emplyment as a waiter on one of the American lines. I found that I needed something like a diploma from Annapolis before hoping for an interview.

A few years ago I registered with the Munson Line with reference to my qualifications for a particular position which every ship includes - that of "ship's writer" or "deck yeoman": but I always found that such jobs were dispensed to acquaintances of the captain or to office workers, and that my references were never taken from the file. I am not particular what I do, however, so long as there is reasonable chance of my doing it well. The Aeneid was not written in two years, nor in four.

Robert Creeley

You know the way people say we all have a story within us - something specific in our lives that would, if we could only get it said, be something worth hearing. That may well be true but I don't think art is particularly involved by it. Writing, for example, is an activity dependent on words as material. It may be felt that it matters what they "say" but far more decisive is the energy gained in the field or system they are used to create. In like sense, the "Chef's Special" may sound good to you - but it may be awful to literally eat, and you won't know what it is until someone who does know tells you.

Time is either an imagination or else a phasing inherent in the system, organic or inert (including abstractions). What is your life that you're going to write it down, or make films of it, or whatever it is you had in mind. The one thing clear about your life is that you are living it. Whitman was quick about it, saying, "Who touches this book touches a man."

Mavis Gallant

I still do not know what impels anyone sound of mind to leave dry land and spend a lifetime describing people who do not exist. If it is child's play, an extension of make-believe - something one is frequently assured by persons who write about writing - how to account for the overriding wish to do just that, only that, and consider it as rational an occupation as riding a racing bike over the Alps? Perhaps the cultural attaché at a Canadian embassy who said to me "Yes, but what do you really do?" was expressing an adult opinion.

The impulse to write and the stubbornness needed to keep going are supposed to come out of some drastic shaking up, early in life. There is even a term for it: the shock of change. Probably, it means a jolt that unbolts the door between perception and imagination and leaves it ajar for life, or that fuses memory and language and waking dreams.

The first flash of fiction arrives without words. It consists of a fixed image, like a slide or (closer still) a freeze frame, showing characters in a simple situation.

Stories are not chapters of novels. They should not be read one after another, as if they were meant to follow along. Read one. Shut the book. Read something else. Come back later. Stories can wait.

Mario Vargas Llosa

If the words and the structure of a novel are efficient, and appropriate to the story that the novel intends to make persuasive, this means that its text is perfectly balanced; theme, style and points of view are so perfectly harmonized, and the reader is so hypnotized and absorbed by what is being told, that he completely forgets the way it is being told, and is under the impression that technique and form have nothing to do with it, that life itself animates the work's characters, landscapes, and events, which seem to the reader nothing less than reality incarnate, life in print. This is the great triumph of technical skill in novel writing: the achievement of invisibility, the ability to endow story with color, drama, subtlety, beauty, and suggestive power so effectively that the no reader even notices the fabrication exists; under the spell of its craftsmanship, he feels that he is not reading, but rather living a fiction that, for a while at least and ad far as he is concerned, supplants life.

Harry Mathews

Unless I am hopelessly mistaken, it seems to me perfectly possible to write well in French simply by writing correctly - by writing well I obviously do not necessarily mean elegantly or brilliantly; I mean only that there exists a normative written language available to anyone who takes the trouble to learn it that will enable its user to write prose than can be universally read without objections. Such a "correct" language does not exist in America (or in England for that matter). Left to itself, merely correct American English tends to go flat. American writing of any kind has a kind of ad hoc quality about it, a quality of having been improvised for the occasion; and good writing invariably involves the admixture of a particular individual manner.

Gene Wolfe

At this point it is traditional to state dogmatically that every short story must show a beginning, a middle, and an ending - the lash employed by editors and other critics to flog writers. And it is true enough that every story should, although it is not of much use to know it. Authors (and they are very rare) who commit stories lacking one of the three necessities always believe the missing element present; and the truth is that a good story must have much more than that.

You are both a woman, amused by men, and a man, enthralled by women. You realize that is is only in our own time that life has become easy enough to permit a handful of us to abrogate our ancient alliance. Your lively imagination is governed by reason; you find it difficult to make friends, though you are a good friend to those you have made. At certain times you feel you are insane, at others than you are the only sane person in the world. You are patient, and yet eager.

How and Why To Write

You can find the first five parts of this series here:

Part One (Joyce Carol Oates, Philip Levine, Thomas Pynchon, Gertrude Stein, Eudora Welty, Don DeLillo, Anton Chekhov, Mavis Gallant, Stanley Elkin)

Part Two (James Baldwin, Henry Miller, Toni Morrison, Kurt Vonnegut Jr., Margaret Atwood, Gertrude Stein, Vladimir Nabokov)

Part Three (W. Somerset Maugham, Langston Hughes, Marguerite Duras, George Orwell, John Ashbery, Susan Sontag, Robert Creeley, John Steinbeck)

Part Four (Flannery O'Connor, Charles Baxter, Joan Didion, William Butler Yeats, Lyn Hejinian, Jean Cocteau, Francine du Plessix Gray, Roberto Bolano)

Part Five (Rosmarie Waldrop, Joyce Cary, Fernando Pessoa, Martin Amis, Lewis Carroll, Margaret Atwood, Ursula K. Leguin)


In Which We Follow Every Bump In The Night

Morbid Curiosities


Our world gives us easy passage to most of our desires, but we are still haunted by satisfactions not yet met. For all the talk of innovation and the future being very much now, it is all for nothing, it seems, if we cannot attain the following: (1) the knowledge whether or not love is truly enough and (2) the knowledge of being dead; and if not (2) then (2.5) eye contact with death. There are, some insist, reasons enough for us not having access to these things. "We don't deserve it" likely ranks as the highest, perhaps alongside the Lovecraftian fancy that we would not be able to handle the truth we might find. But leave it to us to kindly overlook these warnings and plough forth into all things black-shrouded and a little musty! We’ve become content with leaving love to unsupervised children with only the faintest feeling of shame, letting our search of death amass its own proportions even in the face of the sternest, longest, plumpest wagging fingers.

Death adventuring is not what it seems at first blush. Maybe, at the peak years of the Reagan era, some people would have been content to go base-jumping blindfolded or engage in autoerotic asphyxiation, but this hasn’t been the case since we sobered up and started pining for a quiet place into, and perhaps beneath, the wilderness.

The new adventuring comes out of the popular idea that there are two versions of America. People say this all the time, of course: “rich America” versus “poor America,” “white America” versus “not white America,” “red America” versus “blue America,” and so on, but the new adage frames it as a “living America” versus “dead America.” The America of the living we know well enough. Full of splendor, laughter, and relatively clean air and water. The American land of the dead, by contrast, offers none of these amenities. But it is attractive in its own way if one is eager and does not mind risking the conveniences of basic comfort and physical safety.

America has plenty of entryways and shelters where all things deceased convene and assume brotherhood, whether they be dead spaces, cultures, ideas or people. In many ways they are like our pyramids, mausoleums that seem to force land in the shape of their own contours rather than the other way around, that harbor relics of a time and things that bear no relation whatsoever to how we understand the world and ourselves. If they bear names at all, they are innocuous and bureaucratic, they sprawl over hundreds of acres and hide a labyrinth-like infrastructure below. They were once heavily populated and overly depended upon, but now have no other use besides satisfying our own curiosity and amusement. They are not the only type of derelict structures around, but few other types are obsessed over quite like the psychiatric institution.

Psychiatric hospitals (lunatic asylums, whatever you want to call them) were the peculiar institutions of the 20th century. They lived and died according to a given amount of knowledge we had about the problems they were meant to solve. In other words, the less knowledge we possessed, the greater they thrived. In the 1980s we had reached full knowledge, or at least the full knowledge that the many decades the asylum system had spent underserving its larger purpose was several decades too long and cost billions of dollars too much. And for decades more they remained, ceding much of their ground back to the elements, housing squatters and vandals. The death tourists would follow soon enough, whether in the form of ruin pornographers, TV producers, or filmmakers. They were ready as ever to scour every inch for secrets and other related knick-knacks that could not be found in mundane, laughter-filled places.

We cannot blame them for being so attracted to these places that have barely a tenuous connection to normalcy. Hospitals like Danvers in Massachusetts or Greystone in New Jersey, with their bat-like Kirkbride design, are more alien than earthly. Unless you end up studying, say, social work in college, it is possible that you will never learn about them, what they did and why they are in the state they’re in. It is not hard, then, for the desire to rummage through an asylum to become an imperative. Suddenly we have a right, no, an entitlement to stare in the face of something — anything — dead.

So, let's not blame these seekers for relying so often on the tropes of horror. Whether it is a narrative film, any kind of documentary (be it a YouTube video or a reality show) or a photo essay, its makers are continuously tempted to frame their findings within elements of dread, uncertainty and especially repulsion. The asylum system never offered anything less, almost to the point of insisting upon its own horror. Accounts from Titicut Follies, to the LIFE article “Bedlam 1946”, to Geraldo Rivera’s report on the children of Willowbrook do not reflect the quirky, generation-actualizing worlds of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest or Girl, Interrupted. What quirks are there in being restrained for hours on end, being force-fed through a nasal tube, or being flippantly quizzed about one’s masturbation habits? What actualization could be gained by being strewn about the halls of Byberry, with little to no clothing and about as much humanness as a half-formed, long-clawed blotch in one’s nightmares? This is, to some degree, the summation of horror, or at least certain strains thereof, that progress had failed to make "normal" those who were abnormal.

Blame it then, if you must, on The Blair Witch Project for prioritizing thrill-seeking above all else. The 1999 no-budget film’s final minutes had the protagonists running up and down a gutted house in the middle of the woods. The only lighting source was from their cameras. The set design was largely by nature. The quickened pace and already hectic cinematography made it obviously the most frightening part of the film; some would say the only frightening part of the film. The non-resolution piqued, rather than satisfied, interest.

This would be capitalized upon in short order. MTV produced Fear in 2000, in which random young people were sent into the bowels of allegedly haunted locations in search of answers. The second episode was filmed at the Fairfield State Hospital and featured what appeared to be a fake cadaver. It lasted two seasons but geared up momentum for other filmmakers and “paranormal investigators” to intrude upon similar spaces. Before Ghost Hunters, et. al. there was Scared!, a Staten Island public access show that trespassed onto Danvers and Pennsylvania’s Byberry, two of the worst-run hospitals in American history. Not to be left out, narrative films took part with Session 9, also filmed at Danvers, a remake of The House on Haunted Hill, The Devil’s Chair and most recently Grave Encounters, as well as a slew of other low budget “found footage” films.

These films are always on the search, with the grace and focus of an oil drill, for a revelatory source to help them process the magnitude of the place, as if something other than the creators' most recent life choices pulled them along. Paranormal investigators follow (rather unsafely) every bump in the night. Characters in The House on Haunted Hill and Grave Encounters find themselves pitted against some force of evil that had corrupted the institutions to their core: lobotomy-friendly sadism or the occult, generally. This would be pure entertainment if the plots weren’t so often rehashed, and the same assumptions reached. It has become routine in all instances that the surface be scratched just a little regarding what actually happened in these locations. Glib exposition gives enough to the viewer to understand that lobotomies, hydrotherapy, ECT, abuse and overcrowding happened, and their harm greatly outweighed their good, but not so much so as to clarify that it was not because a legion of American Mengeles (or actual Mengeles, in the case of American Horror Story) made it so.

Regardless of the means, adventurists find their ends unreachable. They look for death, or something like it, so as to see it on what they assume is their own terms. But nothing they see is quite dead. Yes, they see what it is like for buildings to go years without occupancy and they see the end result of healthcare becoming indistinguishable from public storage. That’s failure, kept alive but beaten by the fact that the problem it had been put in place to solve not only remains, but festers all the same.

Healthcare generally in the United States has always had a landfill mentality, but special distinction goes to the treatment of the mentally ill, care for which remains ever inadequate and underfunded. After deinstitutionalization, those patients who weren’t sent off to those few hospitals still active or community-based centers were sent off on their own. Today’s answer to deinstitutionalization is the prison system, wherein (as of 2006) an estimated 1.26 million mentally ill inmates are incarcerated at the state, federal and local level. With the prison system itself already an institutional travesty, surely some cannot wait for their mass closure and deterioration as well. Horror abounds, it seems, with little need to record it, whether it is the horror of ignorance or the horror of repetition. There is never an overcrowding problem in Hell.

Chris Morgan is the senior contributor to This Recording. He is a writer living in New Jersey. He last wrote in these pages about adapting Lovecraft. You can find his website here. He twitters here.