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Alex Carnevale

Features Editor
Mia Nguyen

Senior Editor
Brittany Julious

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.

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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 Sleepwalk At Our Convenience

photographs by Yasmine Chatila

The World Inverted


It is impossible to describe insomnia to people who are sound sleepers. These are the people who trust that getting in bed will be followed by falling asleep, as surely as night follows day; these are the fearless people. Sleepless people are a very different breed. They know what insomnia really is: not just the failure to fall asleep, but the fear of that failure. For an insomniac, there is no such thing as a good night. Every evening – even if it eventually, mercifully comes to an end – is shredded by anxiety. To reach sleep the insomniac must first pass through terror.

The fearless person also fails to understand how easy it is to become one of the sleepless people. All it takes is one bad night. That bad night begets others: once you know you might not be able to sleep, you can't. Recognizing that staying awake all night is a very real possibility, something that could actually happen, is no different than realizing that your boyfriend might no longer be interested in you, or that the friendship you thought was indestructible is, in fact, as vulnerable as anything else, or that you could very well not succeed at doing the work you so badly want to do. When you imagine such scenarios, you seem almost to will them into existence. To see the abyss is to take the first step towards it. What made F. Scott Fitzgerald “sleep-conscious,” as he called it, was a mosquito: the bug bothered him all night, and after that he had trouble sleeping for years.

And while you can always find a new boyfriend, there is no substitute for sleep. Anyone who has ever had trouble sleeping knows that all treatments for insomnia are in some way inadequate. Melatonin stops working when you take it too regularly, and alcohol only postpones the problem. If you have a glass of wine, or two, or three, you will start awake in the middle of the night feeling feverish and fretful and maybe a little fat. Ambien works, but only if you can set aside eight or nine hours for sleep. Any fewer and you wake up thick-headed and heavy-eyed.

A cure that leaves you groggy or hungover is no cure at all. The point of sleep, after all, is that it is supposed to restore energy, and hope. It makes you alert enough to do things, and optimistic enough to believe they are worth doing. If you wake up feeling otherwise, what's the use?

The sleepless become superstitious. Once she has tried the standard solutions and found them wanting, the insomniac devises her own treatments, her own odd rituals. In order to exhaust themselves, Emily and Charlotte Brontë walked in circles around their dining room table. Teddy Roosevelt took a shot of cognac in a glass of milk, and W.C. Fields found he could only fall asleep if stretched out in a barber’s chair or on a pool table. If rest still remains elusive, you can at least force others to suffer with you: Tallulah Bankhead hired “caddies,” young gay men who would chat with her and hold her hand until she finally drifted off to sleep. Groucho Marx would pick up the phone, dial the first number that popped into his head, and insult whoever answered his call.

If pills and drinks and caddies don't work, all you can do is wait. When morning comes – when, as Philip Larkin put it in “Aubade,” the rest of the “the uncaring / intricate rented world begins to rouse” – some insomniacs are relieved. Now, at least, they can stop trying to get some sleep; now they have a reason for being awake. “Work,” Larkin wrote, “has to be done.” Others remain in bed. In one diary entry, William Wordsworth's sister noted that, as of ten o'clock in the morning, the poet was still in bed, hoping to fall asleep. Insomnia infects your whole life. It renders meaningless the distinction between day and night: if you cannot sleep, and you have nowhere to go, you will be as oppressed when the sun is up as when the sun is down.

Another option available to the insomniac is acceptance. This requires a slight rearrangement of attitudes, the editing of various terms: it's not that you “can't sleep.” You're simply “resting” or “cleaning” or  “working late.” Vladimir Nabokov called sleep “the most moronic fraternity in the world” and claimed that he often wrote better during periods of insomnia.

If you can't write, or clean, or even rest,  you can always do something else: “an ideal insomnia,” Joyce Carol Oates once said, “allows for a lot of reading.” The best books to read late at night are ones full of facts. Facts act as a kind of anesthetic: they numb you to yourself, the subject to which your thoughts would otherwise turn. The gratitude you will feel for these books, and their authors, will surpass your usual appreciation for a good book. It will be deeper, more personal, and more possessive. I have had more than a few long, bad nights, and more than a few good companions. Two of the best were Joan Didion's Miami and Eula Biss's Notes From No Man's Land, and I recommend both to anyone in need of a shot of novocaine.

Once accommodated, insomnia can provide certain pleasures. You are privy to the other, secret world, the one that begins when everyone else goes to bed. Being awake during these long, hidden hours is like taking the subway during the middle of the day or walking around Manhattan after a blizzard. All is private, silent, and still; for once the world is polite, and for once it belongs to you. Light, and its absence, command your attention: in Central Park, the shadows of the branches look like black bones in the snow. In your room, the movement of the moon shows itself on your wall, a patch of light that creeps from corner to corner as the hours pass. All night a streetlight shines into your window.

If you live in a city, other people's apartments are a matter of much concern. The lights in the building across the street go out, one after another, but in one window a television flickers, its invisible owner keeping you company late into the night. He is your first mate, your loyal fellow officer: together you sail into the vast night. Then, without warning, he jumps ship. The television turns off. You cruise on alone. The night is as deep and endless as the ocean.

This is when the bad feelings find you; this is when reading is something you do not just to keep busy but to blunt the pain. After a certain hour, even the best natures start to go bad. Once, while visiting a friend, Mark Twain threw his pillow at the window in a fit of frustration. The pane shattered, letting in the “fresh air” Twain needed for his rest, and he fell asleep. In the morning, he discovered what he had broken was not a window but a glass-enclosed bookcase. (Everyone knows time passes oddly in the insomniac’s bedroom, but space can shift, too.)

Acceptance might work occasionally, but a series of sleepless nights – and the hot sheets and aching hips that accompany them – will exhaust anyone's patience. In many poems, the ever-joyful Wordsworth manages to remain humble and hopeful, trying to coax the “blessed barrier” between days into existence. But eventually even he got angry: "Shall I alone, / surely not a man ungently made, / Call thee worst Tyrant by which Flesh is crost?" In another poem, sleep is personified as withholding lover whom Wordsworth must beseech: “Do not use me so but once and deeply let me be beguiled.”

Wordsworth was not alone in imagining sleep as someone who would not join him in bed. It's a common image, perhaps because when you can't sleep your thoughts often turn to those people who have refused your company, or forsaken it after many shared nights. One of Elizabeth Bishop's most famous poems concludes with the following lines: “So wrap up care in a cobweb / and drop it down the well / into that world inverted / where left is always right, / where the shadows are really the body, / where we stay awake all night, / where the heavens are shallow as the sea / is now deep, and you love me.” The title of the poem is “Insomnia.”

Bishop is describing second-stage insomnia, which takes over after the first thrill of inhabiting a secret, hidden city wears off. In the second stage, you mourn for the people who left you behind, the people who no longer love you, the people who did you wrong. If you are sharing a bed with someone else, this is the time to leave the room. Staying will only make you resent him: the silence of sleep will begin to sound like indifference.

What comes next is worse. What comes next is a catalogue of everyone you did wrong, everyone you betrayed, everyone you loved less, or worse, than you should have. This is third-stage insomnia, and if at this point you don't take another Ambien what follows is even more brutal. Why stop at listing everyone you've ever hurt? Why not see if you can think of every single thing you've ever done wrong in your whole entire life?

If you stay awake late enough, eventually you remember everything. All your usual defenses dissolve. Your mind is weary, and there is nothing in your white, silent room to distract it. Your exhausted brain can no longer apply the pressure needed to repress your memories, and they all come back, all of them, every one, and especially the ones that prove you are the worst version of yourself: the lies, the evasions, the unreturned emails, the shoplifted packs of gum. And, of course, every single ungenerous thing you have ever thought, no matter how fleetingly or how long ago, about the people you love most. Anxiety cascades: just when you’ve drained one disaster from your mind, another breaks the dam. The panic and shame that overcome you when you find a really old to-do list and realize you haven’t done a single item on it? Multiply that feeling by the number of minutes left until sunrise. You can tell yourself to be reasonable, to count your blessings, to get it together, but such reassurances will ring hollow. As Fitzgerald put it, at three o'clock in the morning a forgotten package feels as tragic as a death sentence.

There is a point after which it is no longer possible to be productive, a point after which you are too harassed by regret or simply too tired and brainless to work. Not being able to work compounds the agony of not being able to sleep: you feel useless, ashamed, fraudulent. Fitzgerald described his own sleepless nights as encounters with “horror and waste,” with “waste and horror – what I might have been and done that is lost, spent, gone, dissipated, unrecapturable.” Perhaps, he wrote, the restless night prefigures “the night after death. . . No choice, no road, no hope – only the endless repetition of the sordid and the semi-tragic. Or to stand forever, perhaps, on the threshold of life unable to pass it and return to it. I am a ghost now as the clock strikes four.”

Like Fitzgerald, Larkin heard death approach in the empty, abandoned hours of early morning. “Aubade” is one of the best descriptions of the final stage of insomnia, which, once you've experienced it, renders the other, earlier stages even more painful, because you know what's coming: “Waking at four to soundless dark, I stare. / In time the curtain-edges will grow light. / Till then I see what's really always there: / Unresting death, a whole day nearer now, / Making all thought impossible but how / and where and when I shall myself die.” In the middle of the night, the insomniac weighs her remembered mistakes and finds what makes shouldering their burden so painful is the knowledge that some day she will have it, that burden, taken from her. How much better would it be to regret everything forever! “This,” Larkin observed, “is a special way of being afraid / No trick dispels.”

Sleep can't always undo insomnia's ill-effects: Fitzgerald's struggle with insomnia heralded his breakdown. “In a real dark night of the soul,” he wrote, “it is always three o'clock in the morning.” The bad things you think alone in your room sometimes turn out to be true. And, as with insomnia itself, sometimes it seems like they turned out to be true precisely because you thought of them: if you had been asleep you wouldn’t have felt like a failure, and if you hadn’t felt like a failure you wouldn't be a failure. Despair is a stowaway, hopping into our soul in the middle of the night and smuggling itself into our days.

Sleep is not like death. It is insomnia that is the first taste of death: dead, you will never sleep again. There will be no more soft beds, no more clean sheets; never again will you pile pillows around yourself, never again will you find contentment beneath a warm blanket on a cold night. In “Sad Steps” – which, like “Aubade,” unfolds at four o'clock in the morning – Larkin described the longing that overcomes the insomniac when she looks out her window, the desire she feels that is deeper than other desires, because it absorbs them all. In the middle of the night, the moon's “white stare / is a reminder of the strength and pain / of being young; that it can't come again, / But is for others undiminished somewhere.” You will never again be the person who made all those mistakes; you will never again be the person you once were, as foolish as she was, or even the wretched, sleepless person you are now. The only thing left to do is get older. And to sleep, if you can.

Elizabeth Gumport is the senior contributor to This Recording. She is a writer living in Manhattan. You can read more of her work here and here. She last wrote in these pages about Dawn Powell's New York.

Photographs by Yasmine Chatila, which can be seen here and here.

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In Which We Charm Absolutely No One

Notes on Margaret


dir. Kenneth Lonergan
150 minutes

Kenneth Lonergan’s hold on the countless ways we fail to communicate is Margaret’s most bewitching coup. Rather than gaining mileage from what is unsaid, his teenage protagonist, Lisa Cohen (Anna Paquin) clashes with each person in her ever-growing sphere as she tries to reconcile with a fatal bus accident in which she feels partly responsible.

Discovery, as Lonergan lays bare, is often achieved with fight. Shushing, shouting, crying, dismissive arm-waving, passively listening, correcting someone’s grammar, mimicking, misunderstandings, storming out and slamming doors, all inch Lisa further from resolve but closer to breaking through her childhood safeties and habitat, the Upper West Side — a character unto itself in Margaret.

Anna Paquin is terrific as a teenage girl. She struts to her desk. She pouts. She still has baby fat. Her skirt is too short and her henley shirts, too tight, but with stretched sleeves to pull over her hands in more contemplative, panicked moments. Her hair is greasy at the roots. Her eyeliner, reapplied regularly. Her eyebrows are over plucked and her stare is restless no matter the emotion — eagerness turned frustration, grief turned anger. Her attitude thaws with adults who outdo her wit or minutes before she loses her virginity.

On screen, teenage rebellion is charming. But not Lisa Cohen’s. Hers is not easy to look at — it overcompensates, it’s at times ugly and a bit ridiculous. It’s authentic. For years on screen, Kirsten Dunst sought to be Lisa Cohen.

In one scene she wanders drunkenly around a party, stumbling from a boy named Paul to another boy named Darren. She is bold and willing with Paul in the bathroom but it’s the way her body flops down on the floor in the hallway to make-out with Darren, only to struggle as she gets up, that is exact.

Lisa Cohen is both the heroine in a 19th century novel and a character from a post 9/11 graphic novel.

Margaret is cut somewhat messily; some jumps are more abrasive than others. In this way, everyone’s story is told alongside Lisa’s. Everyone is defenceless, including the audience.

She dismisses a boy’s phone call and we are immediately dropped in his bedroom where he sits on the edge of his bed, crying beside his Pavement poster.

A conference call with lawyers and loved ones, and Lisa, contrasts with three New York buildings — Lisa’s urgency calmed momentarily, not by a parent or a friend, but by her city.

“What’s Indiana like?” Lisa inches in to ask her teacher. They are sitting on the couch in his sublet. Seconds later the camera cuts away, and in the next scene, she stands at his front door as he apologizes for what just happened.   

Like Maurice Pialat in A Nos Amours, who too directs and plays the father of a teenage daughter, Lonergan is Karl, Lisa’s dad who lives in California, remarried. Shots of Karl pacing outside his beachside house as he speaks somewhat idly to his daughter, contrast with her relentlessly shifting world. His sky is blue and empty while wide shots of Lisa walking home after school are peopled and hectic — a huddle of boys part as she digs her hands in her skirt pockets and passes them, bothered by the unwanted attention.

Margaret slows in parts to truly appraise emotions. Instead of dialogue as a tool used to forward plot, it rationalizes a character’s feelings. Lisa’s mother, Joan (J. Smith-Cameron) is dating a man named Ramon played by Jean Reno. One night she asks Lisa’s opinion about a date outfit. Their exchange is immediately cruel and spirals as if on each side, the breaks have jammed. But neither is in fact mad. Both are hurting and experiencing the kind of homelessness only possible in one’s own home, at the end of a week that crawled with failed attempts. A mother readying herself for a date is no match for a daughter afflicted with misunderstood angst.

Lonergan’s long takes ripen as Lisa’s emotions, no matter how sincere, heighten. It’s as if something on screen thickens, like batter, when the camera sticks with a conversation that at first appears to have no direction. It’s exhilarating. 

At an outside terrace, Paquin, Jeannie Berlin, who plays a dear friend of the deceased, and a lawyer meet for lunch. They discuss legal options. Lisa interrupts a number of times. Salads are served. It brought to mind a scene in Olivier Assayas’ Summer Hours where three adult children, mourning the loss of their mother, discuss her will and the family’s summer home. They speak diagnostically much like in Margaret where emotions turn to equation. In both films, unglamorous details are entirely involving. 

Durga Chew-Bose is the senior editor of This Recording. She is a writer living in Brooklyn. She last wrote in these pages about the city of Los Angeles. She tumbls here and twitters here. You can find an archive of her writing on This Recording here.

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In Which We Cannot Offer Him Sympathy

Mere Presence


dir. Steve McQueen
123 minutes

Those who haven’t seen Shame utilize curiously identical vocabulary to describe it. “Sex, right? With that actor in X-Men.” In some ways, it’s an advertising home run. The truth is, Shame, directed by British filmmaker Steve McQueen, has resuscitated the MacGuffin. Yes, it highlights sex (and often), and yes, Michael Fassbender takes on his role with rigor, but McQueen’s latest feature pushes in one direction and pulls in another. Addiction takes on many facades — the ferity, the desperation, the inability to withstand lack — and yet, for want of being a film about a sex addict, Shame reveals itself to be a precise, manicured portrayal of control, not its loss.

Brandon (Fassbender) has a tasteful apartment in Chelsea, a friendly albeit sleazy boss (James Badge Dale) in a nondescript corporate job, and effortless attention from women. All of this is unsurprising, intentionally uninteresting. Kindred in spirit to Patrick Bateman’s, this formulaic universe dims in light of Brandon’s bodily needs — if not a prostitute, a cam session; if not in the shower, then in the bathroom at work. McQueen visually ascertains this consistent boredom: like Brandon’s routine, the camera jumps from work to home, ass to tits, one impending orgasm to another. The cyclical pulsations of his needs are always clear: all ironies observed, Brandon is a clean addict.

Despite his libidinous nature, the face Brandon presents is charismatic. When an overwhelming amount of porn is found on his work computer, a vengeful intern is immediately blamed. Out in bars with Dave, his boss, he is observant, quiet. As such, he succeeds where Dave’s insistent, desperate approaches fail.

This veneer pleases Marianne (Nicole Beharie), his coworker, and they go on a date. He is a perfect gentleman, makes her laugh, doesn’t even try to kiss her. Instead, a request for second helpings: for a moment, there is a glimmer of his emotional desires. He likes her. He throws out his porn collection for her.

Sadly, a bad habit cannot be turned to one’s liking. When he tempts Marianne with an afternoon in a hotel room, Brandon finds himself unable to rise to the occasion. Like foreign objects, his emotions are rejected and replaced, with the help of another nameless body. He and Marianne never speak again, and they don’t have to: averse to sentimental complications, the carnal realm requires no such elaboration. Sex, no longer seminal, becomes excremental.

Brandon’s pace syncopates when Sissy (Carey Mulligan), the sister whose messages are deleted before they end, surprises him in his own apartment for a crash stay. She’s in New York for music gigs, is used to fucking up, cuts out of boredom and fucks for the same reasons. They are altered manifestations of the same character, but this nuance is made differential. Their relationship is intensely confrontational, and ambiguously physical. She makes the conventional mistakes: sleeps with his boss, lives messily. But these mistakes break the controlled sterility of his environment and for that, he cannot stand her — her mere presence reminds him of things that he has not learned to classify, repress, deny.

In her presence Brandon’s frustrated venereal energy escalates, and when the narrative crest breaks, it’s expected, almost insultingly so. After a particular tense fight with Sissy, Brandon implodes — he lewdly propositions a girl at a bar, gets beat up by her boyfriend, and in a self-punitive blur of events, travels all over Manhattan in search of release. One, a club, where he is recognized (“Not tonight, man”) and turned away. Two, a gay club. Three, a brothel.

Then, of course, a watershed suicide attempt. He returns home to find Sissy’s veins slashed, a crimson body in his previously pristine bathroom. When he weeps uncontrollably, clutching her wrists to stop the blood flow, the sound is muted — even the rawest moments have to be pasteurized. After he checks on her at the hospital, Brandon collapses into sobs outside the building. Again, our protagonist’s climatic sobbing is moderated, paced, and perfectly framed. Where Brandon disintegrates, McQueen congeals.

with the director

Unlike films such as A Single Man, which also rely on self-aware, stylistic cinematography to dress the story, Shame does not wear its beauty well. Like a poorly-chosen perfume, its presence does not flatter, but distracts instead. This is true for both micro- and macrocosm — the film’s potential heaviness is fluffed by its clean compositions and lambent pans over Manhattan, just as Fassbender’s attractiveness complicates the viewer’s distance from the topic at hand.

The most complex questions, as expected, are eschewed. Take Sissy’s final plea, for example: “We’re not bad people, Brandon, we just come from a bad place.” How perfectly vague. Just enough to denote tragedy, but not entirely evocative. For the filmmaker, this hint of turbulence is enough, in that it is chaos contained — never removed far enough from him to surrender to the viewer’s curiosity. It is a formulaic set-up. Wave the cape, and the bull will charge into air.

It’s a pity — the tensions between Brandon and Sissy were too evident to be overlooked, but neglected by the director all the same. Their bodily confrontations were in perfect sync with the film’s interests, but were deemed earth to leave unturned. Again, the delineations of Brandon’s addiction must persist. No one dares speak of incest, and yet, it speaks. In his obsession with forcing our gaze, McQueen struggled to extract Shame’s beauty, but it was unwise of him to ignore the beast.

Tracy Wan is the senior contributor to This Recording. She twitters here. You can find her website here. She last wrote in these pages about Keira Knightley. You can find an archive of her writing on This Recording here.

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