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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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Tuesday
Oct112011

In Which We Are Psychologically Attached To Willem De Kooning

In or Out of Hell

by BARBARA GALLETLY

de Kooning: A Retrospective
The Museum of Modern Art
on display until January 9, 2012

Clear even in Willem de Kooning's earlier work, in the beautiful pants on "Seated Man" and in the pretty, pensive "Portrait of Elaine" is his uncanny talent for dynamic composition, an ability to deliver serenity and the verge of madness in the same package. So it is only natural that his shift from realism to abstraction was graceful, intelligent. Just a few years later, in his early 1940s portraits of men and women where deliberately articulated design elements and limbs float on color-blocked fields of turquoise, yellow, pink, de Kooning would already be the de Kooning we know.

This is also the period in which Elaine, who would become de Kooning's wife, morphs into the painter's better-known women of the early forties. I think even 1944's famous "Pink Lady" looks an awful lot like her. These ethereal, amorphous women will have her eyes as long as they have eyes at all. Even without exception of the famous black-and-whitening of his paintings that took place after his term at Black Mountain College (fine, let’s except a couple of paintings, 1951's "Untitled," and other sapolin on enamel works), his color palate remains recognizable. Pinky, fleshy tones he used in the forties and fifties populate a plurality of paintings in the show. Familiar slatherings of yellows and turquoises offset the human tones.

in East Hampton, 1953

A retrospective at a major museum is an interesting tribute, especially when a very famous artist is involved. What would be a more natural way to demonstrate that artist’s value, his mark on the world, than to guarantee he join the immortals as really, tremendously important? The homage is a function of, or will almost certainly result in, a critical reevaluation and revision of cultural memory of the artist exhibited. It makes a mark on a personal level too. Pacing madly around galleries that claim to contain a complete record of a great artist’s career, one can’t help but wonder what it means that immortality can be distilled in such a way or what it means to be so close to it.

Well, I agree with the whole world even if I don’t love Willem de Kooning quite as much as Peter Schjeldahl does. MOMA’s de Kooning, A Retrospective, selected and mounted meticulously by chief curator emeritus of painting and sculpture John Elderfield, is wonderful. Much has been written on the painter, but only now are we presented with the opportunity to meditate on his prolific genius in person, freed from comparisons to his contemporaries like Jackson Pollock (to whose his fame, prestige, influence his has been considered runner-up). Its transcendental beauty is that it documents the painter's uncanny ability to portray the complexity of human emotional life, even if it is just his own, as it evolved.

"Portrait of Elaine" 1940-41

I must mention two things. One, Willem and Elaine were married in 1943, five years after they met (his 1940 drawing was made early in their relationship). And they remained married until her death. Both painters were passionate in their personal and creative lives, and it was by all accounts a strange and stormy sixty years, replete with interloping third parties and alcoholic binges. This may be putting it mildly: for most of their marriage they lived separately; he had a daughter with his longtime lover, Joan Ward, and Joan would eventually host Elaine’s funeral.

I think it is possible he really hated her on a subconscious level, but Elaine was equally strong-willed, a driven perfectionist determined that her husband would succeed, and while she maintained her own career separately she supported him publicly, promoting his work in a way he was never capable of doing. As Marc Stevens and Annalyn Swan recorded in their excellent 2004 biography, de Kooning: An American Master, Elaine once commented that, for her husband, "a woman is a woman is a woman." This quite apart from his comment: "We have no life together but I'm psychologically attached to her."

"Woman" 1949

Second, if the more famous remark he made that "Flesh was the reason why oil painting was invented" resounds in his work, I think just as interesting is the statement he made regarding abstraction, which can be found mounted on a card in the gallery containing "Excavation":

I’m not interested in 'abstracting' or taking things out or reducing painting to design, form, line, and color. I paint this way because I can keep putting more and more things in - drama, anger, pain, love, a figure, a horse, my ideas about space. Through your eyes it again becomes an emotion or an idea. It doesn’t matter if it’s different from mine as long as it comes from the painting which has its own integrity and intensity.

I mostly take this to mean that de Kooning paints more like Cy Twombly than Jackson Pollock: he is dealing in signs, flesh and feeling. These unequivocal statements are cues, and evidence in favor of the assumption that no matter how abstract a form it takes it, flesh is a major part of the extraordinary appeal of de Kooning’s work.

Women occupy a lot of the work in the exhibit in a fairly obvious way, tempering abstraction, facilitating an observer’s entry into the paintings. There are exceptions. Take two roughly contemporaneous works: "Gansevoort Street," from 1949, is awash in red meat, butcher blood, isn’t it? This and his largest easel painting "Excavation" are hard to love. I think this is because they are too red, too white, and therefore drained of life: too inhumane. "No one has ever written, painted, sculpted, modeled, built or invented except literally to get out of hell," wrote Antonin Artaud, and I can't help but agree that this is the case for de Kooning.

Post-"Excavation" came more women and some of de Kooning’s most famous work. Presented in a gallery called "Women to Landscape," are a series of large format paintings: "Woman I," 1950-2, was a work he painted and repainted, and the various iterations are shown on the MOMA's exhibit website. The canvas is populated by a scrapped city of women over time, or an exploding woman layered in frames on top of herself. De Kooning stabs "Woman III" with smears of red, but she is nothing compared to the gruesomely bloody "Woman V." I find these paintings deeply violent, profoundly disturbing. But then again, the rather abstract "Woman Wind Window II" from 1950, is a cheery, almost Pop-y work.

In the next two decades de Kooning distanced himself from such evident violence (from "Women to Landscape," was born "Full Arm Sweep"), as if his rage has suddenly mellowed. This period was characterized by a new painterly expansion of strokes, a freedom from black, from line. A total departure from the urban landscape of 1955, "Gotham News," was de Kooning’s subsequent foray into abstract pastoral landscape. "Rosy-Fingered Dawn at Louse Point" is beautiful in a new way, calmer and bright; de Kooning’s flesh tones have returned, this time in pale sand that blushes under the yolky sun.

"Clam Diggers", 1963

Beginning in the sixties flattened fields of female flesh also frolic on the shores of eastern Long Island. "Clam Diggers" seems to prefigure the doughy bodies of "Montauk III" and "Montauk I." In the "The Visit," a bare splayed nude appears to me as a mother nursing a baby. Most creepy is "Woman, Sag Harbor" from 1964, which, perhaps because of the context from which it has emerged, reminds me more of a Soutine animal carcass stitched with shocks of red than anything else. One or two works from this period incorporate collage, reminders of historical context: 1964 was also the year Robert Rauschenberg won the grand prize at the Venice Biennale (in 1953 Rauschenberg had produced the sensational "I Erased de Kooning").

"New Directions" (1969-1978) encompasses his final and mad effort to squeeze life out of life. De Kooning’s sculpture of this era is a fascinating, palpable embodiment of the physical and emotional expression of which he had become master. Beginning in the late 1970s though it became evident that de Kooning was entering the early stages of dementia or Alzheimer’s, and his eyesight began to deteriorate. He would continue to work through the mid-eighties. In the words of John Elderfield: "I think there's something poignant about an artist painting his own disappearance. It's something that doesn’t happen much..."

Finally come the "Late Paintings," including an almost cartoonish "Garden in Delft" and his most contemporary painting in the exhibition, 1987's "The Cat’s Meow" — which is now owned by Jasper Johns — in which de Kooning is no longer to attack entire canvases, and he has returned to the line. For the first time in his life, he does not spread himself over every breath of canvas, and this is a strange moment indeed. Just two years later he would be in such a diminished state that he never knew Elaine had died.

Barbara Galletly is the senior contributor to This Recording. She is a writer living in Austin. She twitters here and tumbls here. You can find an archive of her writing on This Recording here. She last wrote in these pages about her summer.

"Two Women With Still Life" 1953"Last Chance for a Slow Dance" - Hyde and Beast (mp3)

"If You Could Buy Me Anything" - Hyde and Beast (mp3)

"Go to Sleep" - Hyde and Beast (mp3)

Monday
Oct102011

In Which We Witness The Victory of Walter White

Dig Two Graves

by ELISABETH DONNELLY

Breaking Bad
creator Vince Gilligan

It's horrifying to imagine that you're born, live a life, and then go back into the ground, simply forgotten. Humans naturally want to imagine that their life has some importance. Being a maverick or a wild card is appealing, since it means that you matter. You want to be the one who knocks. But life has a funny way of messing with you, changing up the circumstances so that you're suddenly faced with who you are under the most boring and dire of situations. An unblinking red dot, the camera-eye of Gus's surveilance, has been on Breaking Bad's Walter White all season long as he tries to make meth and somehow counteract what has already been set in motion his inevitable death.

Plot on Breaking Bad is a gorgeous, cruel thing. Decisions and consequences fold in on each other like a house of cards' inevitable fall. The squeeze has been placed on every character Walter and his estranged wife Skyler, his paralyzed DEA brother-in-law Hank and wife Marie, his partner Jesse Pinkman, the meth kingpin of the southwest, Gus Fring, his right-hand man Mike, even former Mexican Cartel kingpin Hector Salamanca, now festering in a nursing home, helpless, save for the bell he uses to communicate 'yes' or 'no'. The squeeze has been less of a thing to Walt's son Walt Jr., who mostly showed up for breakfast, and, quite possibly, in the very last scene where Walter White retains a little bit of vulnerability and feeling in a world that's pushing him to the edge of humanity.


Walt may be convinced of his own power "I am the one who knocks!" he bellowed to his estranged wife Skyler, asserting himself in the face of her doubts but is Walt really the one who knocks? The cruel, brilliant twist to this season had Walt besting his boss Gus Fring in one chess move after another. He made Jesse execute the other meth cook, dear departed Gale, so that Jesse and Walt would be indispensable. And yet, upping Gus that one time brought Walt no peace. He's just another drone, a cog in the machine, laboring under the watchful red dot of a surveilance camera, making meth day in and day out until he dies.

Convinced that Gus is going to kill him any chance he gets, Walt has been bent on revenge. And crucially, in his mind, it is vengeance, and it is justified. Walt is a volatile force: emotional, irrational, dangerous, given to blustering speeches full of hubris, and while he spins, we get to know some of what drives Gus Fring.

The Chicken Man makes revenge look good. Whether in the premiere episode, "Box Cutter", where he methodically sliced an underling's throat, blood spurting out, to send a message to Walt, Jesse, and Mike, or when he journeyed to Mexico, pulling off puking with elegance as he took down the entire Mexican cartel, Gus executes his plans gracefully. He strides through a hail of bullets because he's not going to get hit. He is the exact opposite of fluttering, flailing Walter White, and even though he's a bad man, he retains some sympathy.

Gus is a thorough, meticulous boss. His whole grasp for meth power was motivated by the murder of his very first chemist, his hermano, his probable lover. Revenge for the shocking, pointless murder of a loved one is an understandable thing. Who knows how many bright chemistry students have gotten scholarships from Los Pollos Hermanos as a result?

Walter White, on the other hand, is the sweaty, sniveling underling nobody wants to be, given to speeches full of empty bombast and generally pissing people off this season. What is his motivation? Does he want to live, does he chafe at being a company man under Los Pollos Hermanos? Back at nearly season one levels of impotence, Walt squirms miserably, stuck in a mouse trap, trying to get his power back but bested by Gus in most operations. He can't even win at home, where Skyler has become his partner in money laundering, dangling reconciliation like a carrot, but mostly screwing up his plans with the newbie criminal's first mistake: half measures. (Example A: Rest in peace, Ted Beneke.)

Walt is so far from human he can't even see the misery that Jesse went through in murdering Gale. When Jesse gets under Gus's thumb and learns how to be a company man, Walt responds with, "It's all about me!" It was easy to root for him when his newfound meth career had a motivation he was doing it for his family, to pay for Walt Jr.'s medical bills, for the life of baby Holly. But when as a narcissistic, ego-centric man turning in on himself, convinced of his death, the protagonist became something else.

Jesse retains some heart, even when he's ping ponging between a variety of potential father figures: from his mentor, Walt, who's saved his life numerous times, to gruff uber-company man Mike, as he learns how to be an even more vital cog in Gus's operation. After a downward spiral where he turned his brand new house into a terrifying drug den with bleating methheads, he got cleaned up and became useful, convinced of his value in Gus's world. By the time he saved Gus and Mike, hustling them to a makeshift, creepily white medical tent somewhere in Mexico, he was valuable. And he still ended up using some of his ridiculous drug world riches to send out support to his girlfriend, Andrea, and her young son Brock. He managed to put other people first, in a way that Walt simply could not.

And what does Walt get, as a result of his paranoia? He ends up in his coffin-like crawl space, laughing a laugh of chilling madness and mania, with far less money and power then he thought. Did he rise, Heisenberg-like, out of the ashes? Quite possibly.

The penultimate episode, "End Times," left us with a cliffhanger Andrea's son, Brock, is in the hospital and poisoned. Jesse is missing his ricin cigarette. Jesse accuses Walt, Walt blames, Jesse talks to Gus, who has enough Spidey-sense to avoid the car bomb on his crappy car, planted by Walt. It was the question: what really happened? Did Gus poison the kid? If he did, why would tell Jesse to come back when he's ready? Did Walt do it? Would Walt poison a kid?

Genuine questions, the sort of questions that make a week's worth of waiting for an episode delicious torture, and last night's finale "Face Off" knocked them down like a bowling ball. Jesse's suggestion of ricin poisoning put him in the hands of the police in front of where Walt sat in a hospital waiting room with a bomb in his child's diaper bag. Because Jesse has been detained by the police, he calls Saul Goodman, his lawyer. When Saul talks to Walt, he tells him about Gus's one point of pride and weakness the still-alive Hector "Tio" Salamanca, rotting in a nursing home, visited only by Gus, who delights in informing him of the many members of his family who he has killed.

Which gives Walt his chance. Playing on Gus's pride, his very insistence that he must be the one to torture Tio, he conspires with the old man to take him out. The bomb in the diaper bag is attached to Tio's wheelchair. Gus is lured to the nursing home, a vial of poison at the ready. He wears his best blue sportscoat and takes the long walk into Casa Tranquila like a man about to face a reckoning. What reckoning it is, he doesn't know.

When he comes out of the room after the explosion, he is as dapper as ever, perfect posture, straightening his tie. Then the camera circles around him, in an Oh Shit! reveal, and he collapses. Goodbye forever, Gus. May nobody step on your Air Jordans in Chicken-Man Heaven, and may your dick ever be hard in a cruel and harsh world, be it Bed-Stuy or Albuquerque.

For his part, Walt has broken crazy. He has broken evil. He has learned what it takes to be a good boss convince someone to do something for you, to improve your means. Never actually do the job yourself as was proven all season long, Walt couldn't kill Gus directly. He and Jesse reunite to take out the 8 million dollar meth lab in a cool-guy explosion, and then Walt has his moment of initial kingpindom. He calls his wife to tell her the news. Standing on the top of a parking lot, surveying the land, he talks with Jesse. Brock will survive; the culprit was Lilly of the Valley berries. The very plant sitting in Walt's backyard next to his swimming pool of doom. Vince Gilligan has turned his protagonist into the antagonist, and he's subverted audience expectations in a way that feels nearly radical within the constraints of genre-driven television. Walter White has won.

Elisabeth Donnelly is the senior contributor to This Recording. She tumbls here and twitters here. You can find an archive of her writing on This Recording here. She last wrote in these pages about Nicholas Winding Refn's Drive.

"Broken" - Katie Stelmanis (mp3)

"You'll Fall" - Katie Stelmanis (mp3)

"Steady" - Katie Stelmanis (mp3)

Friday
Oct072011

In Which Downton Abbey Fought In A War

All Useless on the Western Front

by KARA VANDERBIJL

Downton Abbey
creator Julian Fellowes

War suits Matthew Crawley (Dan Stevens) intolerably well. The first three episodes of the British drama Downton Abbey’s long-awaited second season simply brim over with his bliss. The Western Front of the first World War seems to place a new resolve in him. The discomfort of unwittingly becoming heir to the huge estate of Downton and being shoved into matrimony is forgotten in favor of grander purpose. Not once do we see him weep over his fate. Not once does any blood smear his flesh. He spends approximately two days at the front before returning home on leave, some important duty always on the horizon, always beckoning, always putting him on a train in a wake of weeping women.

Wars and rumors of wars trim away the superfluous like leaves from a hedgerow. Still, the most important query — namely, what will happen to the manor of Downton Abbey if Matthew Crawley perishes in the Great War?! — goes unanswered. The forecasted nuptials between himself and Lady Mary Grantham dissolved into thin air with the possibility of a new heir, yet somehow international bloodshed ensures his inheritance. Nothing but the prospect of a sudden removal from earth will make people fall for you so entirely and forget your country bumpkin ways.

In the interim between Archduke Ferdinand’s assassination and the Battle of the Somme in 1916, Matthew’s eye has settled on a sweet blondish creature, Lavinia (Zoe Boyle) for some reason or another, much to the Granthams' chagrin. They will do everything to investigate the poor girl’s history, not because they feel she is particularly unworthy but because their desire to remain entombed in Downton is strong. As Matthew slips from their fingers into the spoils of military command, the promise of their continued legacy at the mansion begins to fade. Matthew, for his part, seems nonplussed by Lavinia except as a concept to move towards while halfway underground with hundreds of dying men.

Indeed, Gosford Park scribe Julian Fellowes wastes no time taking us to the trenches; they divide both France and portions of Downton’s halls as differences brew between servant and master, servant and servant, and master and master. As it is, the pandemonium of the front can only translate to the genteel English countryside as a prevalence of raised voices, as maids serving the supper instead of footmen, as nearby buildings transforming into hospitals for the wounded. The residents must adjust in their own ways to a rapidly changing environment: some making their sacrifices willingly others grudgingly letting go of what has always been. Reluctance strains on both sides, but it is surprisingly the servants of Downton who have more trouble accepting the change.

Power always remains in some form, but those who live on the penny of power quickly become obsolete.

Downton Abbey houses three types of servants: those who aspire to be more, those who are more, and those who don’t care. The new housemaid, Ethel (Amy Nuttall) entertains delusions of grandeur although she doesn’t have the presence of mind to know when she is being made fun of. Chauffeur Tom Branson (Allen Leech) believes in the socialist ideal and will do anything to be heard. Men like the valet John Bates and the butler Mr. Carson sacrifice their own health and happiness for the sake of the Granthams and their family honor. Of all the characters, culturally we are the least like them, and the most like Ethel, insisting that the best be set aside for her.

Many men have gone to war, but not all. The Earl of Grantham balks at being too old to join the ranks at the front while the eager young footman, William (Thomas Howes), does not understand why his father will not let him enlist. A white feather is enough to send a man blazing in injured pride to his death, but it will take a greater sacrifice to bring him home again.

When Downton footman Thomas deliberately gets himself shot in the hand, he incapacitates himself not only in his role as soldier but also in his former role as servant. Henry Lang, the Earl’s new valet, suffers from shell shock and commits a series of humiliating blunders before they finally let him go. We must imagine that some men returned home relatively sound of mind and body, but they are perhaps more useless to the stories of horrific war than are the millions of mute bones lying beneath Verdun.

And what of the women? The Countess Dowager (the elegant and familiar Maggie Smith) continues to fix flower arrangements, ones that ominously resemble funeral wreaths. Lady Grantham holds Downton Abbey in patient hands, obviously conflicted between a desire to serve the cause wholeheartedly and to hold on to remnants of a fading world.

Matthew's mother Isobel Crawley (Penelope Wilton) continues to baffle and exasperate all with her bluntness and her attempts to control. When she encourages Sybil to become an auxiliary nurse, Lady Grantham and the Earl hesitate — but accept their daughter’s need to prove useful. Because she is the middle daughter, her whims are neither regulated nor overly indulged; while Mary must continue to uphold family honor and custom by searching for a suitable mate, and Edith suddenly and wildly volunteers to drive a tractor at neighboring farm, Sybil’s decision goes unquestioned. Without the familial duty to protect honor or the reckless impulse to gain recognition, she sails through uncharted free territory. She lives in no man’s land.

We tend to glorify ourselves when we imagine the past, taking for granted that we would be kings and queens, clean and fat and absolutely without disease. Most importantly, we would be on the right side. But history has no sides — only truth, untruth, and that vast shell-shocked territory in between. When Thomas lifts his lighter, trembling, over the lip of the trench, he’s not only gambling with gangrene and death but also his sense of identity. A man can put on a footman’s livery and still not be a footman, and he can put on fatigues and be a soldier for a while until he’s wounded. What is Thomas, when he returns to Downton? Nobody has tried on as many uniforms for size.

I am reluctant to call him the archenemy of Downton Abbey, but not as reluctant as I am to believe that the middle daughter, Lady Edith (Laura Carmichael) will set aside whatever petty competitiveness drives her and find a healthy niche in the world. One can hardly imagine a more fertile place for a young woman to bloom than on a farm in early twentieth-century England, but Edith foils her own attempts to be useful during the war by getting involved with the married farmer whose tractor she helpfully drives. The more she attempts to set herself apart from her sisters, the more she resembles Mary, whose own desperate attempt to forget Matthew leads her to court a man with a disturbing lack of eyebrows (Iain Glen). No other family in television has worked so disharmoniously on a common cause.

Kara VanderBijl is the senior contributor to This Recording. She is a writer living in Chicago. She last wrote in these pages about Roman Polanski’s Tess. You can find her website here. You can find an archive of her writing on This Recording here.

"Bittersweet Melodies" - Feist (mp3)

"The Circle Married The Line" - Feist (mp3)

"The Undiscovered First" - Feist (mp3)