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This Recording

is dedicated to the enjoyment of audio and visual stimuli. Please visit our archives where we have uncovered the true importance of nearly everything. Should you want to reach us, e-mail alex dot carnevale at gmail dot com, but don't tell the spam robots. Consider contacting us if you wish to use This Recording in your classroom or club setting. We have given several talks at local Rotarys that we feel went really well.

Pretty used to being with Gwyneth

Regrets that her mother did not smoke

Frank in all directions

Jean Cocteau and Jean Marais

Simply cannot go back to them

Roll your eyes at Samuel Beckett

John Gregory Dunne and Joan Didion

Metaphors with eyes

Life of Mary MacLane

Circle what it is you want

Not really talking about women, just Diane

Felicity's disguise

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Friday
Sep022011

In Which We Watch Our Empty Silhouette

The Waves on the Sea

by EMMA KEMPSELL

I found an old home video recently. It was of my father’s 40th birthday party, which was also his last birthday.

It was the biggest party my parents ever held and I understood later that its purpose was probably to give everyone the opportunity to see him feeling well for the last time. I prepared myself to hear my fathers voice for the first time in 10 years, poured a glass of wine and put the tape in. It begins with darkness and laughter: the only light comes from the candles on the cake. The camera zooms in and the flames glow and blur, just like the memories of my father do. Everybody sings Happy Birthday without trepidation, but there’s a tension hanging in the air. Amidst the clapping when the candles are blown out, all the kids, myself included, shout for the lights to be put back on. The old dial is turned and the lights flicker on as if they are unsure, as if the darkness was in some way better. Smoke lingers and the camera accidentally zooms in on my dad’s head: on the hair growing back over the new scar above his ear. Five months after the party, the real darkness came.

My father died after a five year battle with cancer on August 8th, 1999. As a nine year old, I had a knowledge about death but a profound lack of understanding about what it really was or could mean.

On the day he died, I walked down the narrow hospice hallway with my mother and older brother. My mother was in the middle with her arms around us both; a wall of crooked heights, we supported each other. When she asked if we wanted to see him, I said yes. Of course I wanted to see my dad. My brother answered no, and so we walked on, my mother seemingly ignoring my answer. I didn’t say anything, and remember thinking later that he got to decide because he was older.

It was only years later that I realised my mother's action, or rather, her inaction, was above all induced by the hope of protection. I didn’t have the capacity to understand that I wouldn't have really seen my father; not the father I knew. There would be no sign of the joke teller, the dancer, or the reader of bedtime stories. The worker in the white shirt kissing me goodbye each morning before school; the man who made me proud in front of my friends was no longer in that room, and hadn’t been for some time. If my mother had allowed me to go into the room, I would only have seen more of the glimpse I had stolen through the curtains: a grey, lifeless, bloated lump. His face would be vacant. Even more so than it had been for the last few months. It would hold no trace of the smile that was previously ubiquitous around us. The trauma that engulfed me throughout my adolescence would have doubled.

Alongside my naiveté, I operated within my childish sense of time, judging it only by the seasons: summer sprawled but was perennially cut short, school started in autumn, winter was too long, and school stopped in spring. I understood that death meant the end of things, but I didn’t understand I wouldn’t see my father again, or that at times in the future I would desperately want or need to.

For a short time after my father died, I thought that what happened to me was normal. I knew that everybody eventually died; my friends’ fathers would die, too. When it became apparent that my situation was different, it wasn’t long before I became bitter. I started wishing that it had been my best friend's dad instead of mine. Her life was so perfect, and mine had been, too, before. This produced another layer of feeling too dense for a child to understand. I knew this was a cruel thought, I knew it was wrong, and on some level I hated myself for it.

Of course I was right that everyone dies eventually, but I was also horribly wrong: what happened to me wasn’t normal. Only 4 percent of children in the Western world experience the death of a parent, according to Science Daily.

I grew up in the middle class suburbs of Glasgow. Within my extended family and circle of friends, there wasn't even a history of divorce. I didn't meet a classmate from a single parent family until high school, and even then, their dads had left, not died. I still couldn't relate; it's not the same. Throughout my teen years I isolated myself because I believed that no one I knew could understand. None of my friends could ever feel the pain or the emptiness I was capable of feeling. This produced an absurd combination of self hatred and arrogance. I was different and no one was capable of understanding me.

My mother told me that when my dad died I became less confident, more angry. I know that I feel owed a debt by the world. Something magnificently integral has been taken from me: what feels like essential organs, my insides, have been ripped out. This should be acknowledged and I should be repaid. So when other significant things went wrong, when my mum moved on too quickly for me, when I felt ignored by my family, or when I was bullied at school, anger filled me. I might have been able to deal with such things if I still had my father. Under attack, I became defensive. I know that the world isn’t attacking me, no more so than it attacks anyone else. I know others have it much worse than I do. The world is simply, utterly unfair. I know this, but I still feel owed.

When someone dies, a common phenomenon is the employment of magical thinking. For example, if I was running a race in the school sports day my inner monologue would read:

Run! Run faster! If you run fast you’ll see Dad!

When you get to the finish line Dad will be there!

Imagine you’re running to Dad! If you win you’ll see Dad!

I would do this with any kind of competition or test, and as a perfectionist, I used it a lot. Of course, these are merely fantastical thoughts. They do not work in either of the intended ways. I knew so as I thought them and I never won anything. I realise now in writing this that the pain of losing was then compounded as it was associated with losing my father and my inability to bring him back.

Another aspect of magical thinking is the ability to imagine seeing the deceased alive again. There can be moments when you see a lookalike across the street and for a second believe that a vast conspiracy is being played out around you, as in The Truman Show. The thought process reads:  

Dad isn’t really dead!

This has all been some weird experiment, and it’s finally over.

Look! He’s right there!

And then the man turns around and you see that the man is a stranger, and you always knew he was a stranger. Slowly, these thoughts become more and more untenable, despite being utterly unrealistic in the first place.

The thought of seeing him diminishes, until it can only be found in dreams, photographs, songs, smells or forced imagination. By “forced imagination” I mean forcing yourself to see something that isn’t there. This is not the same as mistaking a man on the street for the deceased, but rather, projecting his image onto something you know not to be him. For example, I would sometimes stare at the back of my stepfather’s head in the car and pretend it was my dad. This only worked at night because my stepdad is bald, and my dad had a full, thick head of hair.

We didn’t talk about my dad much after he died because we couldn’t without crying, and we’d done enough crying. I was too young, and I have no real time memories, nothing that isn’t triggered by a photograph or a smell or a song. I can’t play out a scene in my head. I don’t hear my father’s voice until I hear my brother say, “Hello” on the phone, and even after that word, that’s it, it’s over. I rarely dream of him, and when I do living without him the next day is worse than the day before. The absence is intensified. But once that day is over I still long to repeat it. Over and over again, to be with him even for a second in a dream is worth being turned back to the cruel joke of reality. Because that’s where I’d be, anyway.

My life is split in two. Before and after. I have a utopian view of my childhood. Everything until that sunny August day, that rainy funeral and the blur of years that follows it, is perfection. Nothing can compete, and I constantly want to return to that place of home that only exists in my heart. My family will never be whole again, and neither will I.

I live in his absence, in the crater left in his wake. I watch other fathers, and it makes me smile before it begins to ache. At the Brooklyn Bridge Park on a Saturday afternoon I watched a young man play with a child no older than two. Or, maybe older than two, but no bigger than two. (I cannot guess children’s ages.) This is what I wrote:

She is tiny. He spins her around in the air, holding her wrist and an ankle. She squeals in delight and he lays her down softly on the jaggy green grass. She lays on her back and so does he, beside her. After a minute she gets restless and she climbs on his chest, her face in his neck and her legs only reaching where his belly button would be under his shirt. He wraps his arms around her; she is so small that his arms fit around her and himself, and his hands find his sides easily, his finger tips grazing the grass. They lie like that for a moment and I want to tell him,“Don’t let go. Don’t let her go.” But she squirms, and it’s too late, they’re up and she’s in the air, the colors of his red shirt and grey shorts whirring past her eyes.

When the tape of my father's party finished, I took my drink outside and lit a cigarette. It was a summer evening, the sky was pink and warm. I heard someone yell something that sounded like my name, and within five seconds, my mind tried to convince me that it was my father.

Once when I was a child my brother and I ran to meet someone we hadn’t seen for years. I want to dream that it was him. I run down the street that we grew up on. We used to walk it together, his hand enclosed around mine. I see his figure looming in the distance, it has been years, but it feels like forever. My hand drops from my mother’s and my feet slap hard, painfully on the ground, my hair flying violently behind me. Tears are running down my face as quickly as I am running towards him. But it feels like slow motion. Purple flowers in nearby gardens blur and the sun is shining, like it always did, as he gets closer and closer. My blue eyes are swimming. Everything is a hazy mess of gold light, green, and purple flowers. I see him clearly, wearing jeans and an old red sweater that I still keep in my closet. I can almost feel him hugging me. How small I’ll feel, enveloped in his arms, my eyelashes wet, and the smell of his neck. But we don’t live there anymore, and no matter how hard I try, I almost never dream of him.

I am left wondering what difference having a father makes. There are studies that say teenagers without fathers will be more promiscuous, more rebellious, they will do badly in school and they will have a reduced chance at every kind of success. Every case is too different to be comparable. When we are taught that grief ends, we are being lied to. Grief is like a river: it moves through us and through time. Sometimes it is bearable, and other times not; sometimes it feels like drowning. Grief turns us into water: it slips through our fingers but makes us stronger, strong enough to hold up a ship.

I know that the findings in any study are not my story; they are not me. My story is one that I am making for myself, and I can feel it firmly in my hands. I live with and in his absence, I try to live wholly with an emptiness that I try to fill only with success, and with more love. I live the lessons he taught me when he was alive, and those I have been forced to learn since his death: to be strong and to be yourself, and to be unyielding in that; to be sensitive to your own pain and to the pain of others, to live as best you can and to do things that scare you, because those are the best things you can do for yourself. That, and it will all be over too quickly.

Emma Kempsell is the senior contributor to This Recording. She is a writer living in Glasgow. She tumbls here. She last wrote in these pages about ending the cosmic friendship.

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"Solsbury Hill" - Peter Gabriel (mp3)

"Mercy Street" - Peter Gabriel (mp3)

"Losing My Religion" - R.E.M. (mp3)

"Try Not To Breathe" - R.E.M. (mp3)

Thursday
Sep012011

In Which These Young People Are More Than Usually Self-Regarding

The Feminist Who Wasn't

by ALEX CARNEVALE

Liberal Parents, Radical Children
by Midge Decter
248 pp, 1975

I remember the first time I saw Midge Decter. It was on C-Span. Midge was promoting her memoir An Old Wife's Tale: My Seven Decades In Love And War about her upbringing, her life in the New York publishing world, her marriage to Norman Podhoretz and her struggle against the forces of communism. Booknotes host Brian Lamb mentioned that she had just been in Chicago, and this cast fell over her face. "Chicago," she intoned with a throaty brill, "is a greeeeeeeeeat American citay." The feeling of hearing something trite made unfamiliar and interesting by context first occurred when God laid out the Ten Commandments; it was later repeated by David Ben-Gurion, and here, by Midge Decter herself.

My local library contained only one of Decter's books. Last year was its 35th anniversary. Midge introduces Liberal Parents, Radical Children with the following explanation:

I will be presenting you here with a series of portraits of significant types among you, as seen under the aspect of certain of the patterns of conduct by which you have distinguished yourselves as a generation: dropping out of school, using drugs, sleeping around, creating and defecting from a communal way of life. These portraits are not of real or particular individuals though the experiences ascribed to their heroes and heroines are, as I believe, real experiences.... If such a question is at all of importance to you, it might be said that what I have undertaken to do is an essay in fictionalized sociology.

You might be asking yourself, "Midge, what exactly is fictionalized sociology?" How dare you. You disagree with this woman at your own peril.

After outlining the general problems with keedz in those days, Midge gets into it immediately. What exactly is wrong with young people in 1975 you ask?

The first thing to be observed about you, then, is that taken all together, you are most than usually incapable of facing, tolerating, or withstanding difficulty of any kind.

Wait, there's more.

The second thing to be observed about you is that, you are, again taken as a whole, more than usually self-regarding.

Starting to hit a little too close to home there, Midge. Lastly:

The third thing to be observed about you it is really in some sense a concomitant of the first two is that you are more than usually depending, more than usually lacking in the capacity to stand your ground without reference, whether positive or negative, to your parents.

These epithets against an entire generation of people feel like shots against the bow of today's young ones, which makes sense because here were Midge's criticisms of their laissez-faire parents. There is some carping against young people that is nothing more than static noise; some dumbass scholar always pining, "They don't love books the way we do!" No, guy, they read twice as much as you ever did. You didn't read the internet. They've read the internet, the whole thing. Since when does reading only count if it's in the thrall of a deceased tree?

Midge Decter may well have stood for recycled paper in 1950, I regret that I haven't had the chance to ask her. Then known as Midge Rosenthal, she was herself the first of a generation.

Fleeing St. Paul, Minnesota for the possibilities of New York, Midge was an unskilled college dropout, and soon a young mother who divorced her first husband, a veteran attending schoool on the G.I. Bill. Living in the lower class neighborhood of Glen Oaks, Queens, she improbably provided for her two daughters through her jobs in journalism. She worked at then-liberal journal Commentary until she moved to Harper's, where she eventually became the executive editor under the magazine's young editor-in-chief, Willie Morris, and the magazine became hot for the first time.

Willie Morris

Inspired by a story she heard about a daughter who had run away from her family to become a Buddhist, she wrote Liberal Parents, Radical Children, her first long form book. Each chapter contains one life story childhood, adolescence, early adulthood — of an archetype described by Midge. In the third chapter, "The Pothead," a young woman's fictional travails in the drug culture are related. (This is a chapter among chapters: it is magnificent.) She takes about 1500 words to describe the girl's upbringing up to adolescence, before writing the following:

The onset of adolescence, then, produced in her an utterly naked expression of the turbulence through which both her soul and her body were being made to pass. Half the time she would appear before them in the guise of a provocative young woman, painted, languorous and knowing. She would patronize her parents, sigh contemptuously in response to any of their demurrers about her conduct or appearance, and waggle her hips in a manner intended to communicate to them that she was no longer to be excluded from the realms of worldly understanding.

Uh-oh. After this made-up young woman drinks too much cough syrup one night, shit gets very real. "Secretly, illegally," this little thing was learning to drive. And then her relationship with pot begins.

They had been supplied with a couple of cigarettes containing the magic weed by a recent newcomer to their circle, a young man who was a freshman at a nearby college and had become the lover of one of the girls. He instructed them thoroughly in the art of marijuana use; and as the clumsy little-hand-rolled cigarette, heavy with saliva, was passed around from mouth to mouth, as the deep inhalings were taken, held within the throat and chest, and sparingly released, as eyes rolled upward and heads sank back against the nearest support, she began at last to glimpse the state towards which all her earlier efforts had only been aspiring.

The description of marijuana use that follows is an uncomfortable interlude. Midge seems to be speaking from experience; and perhaps caught in the glow of her own remembrances, she turns it into a tantalizing journey: "time seemed to stop," "she did not particularly want to move." Later, The Pothead thinks she spots a plainsclothed detective observing her and her friends in the coffee shop, but writes it off as paranoia.

Eventually the Pothead begins using every day, and her parents become aware of her addiction to marijuana. The Pothead's only conclusion: "They pretended they wished to know all about her, she thought bitterly, but in truth they only wished to know that which suited their own narrow and particular sense of life." In the end, the Pothead moves out of her parents' lives and into a co-ed apartment to pursue her new lifestyle.

The Pothead gets off easy. Midge may not like drugs, she may not approve of the effects they have on people, but at heart her love of freedom does not allow her to kill off The Pothead, or force us to witness the girl's destruction. No, drugs are just not a great choice, she seems to be saying. But it is nothing next to her next chapter: "The Sexual Revolutionist."

young Norman

To understand Midge's view of feminism, it's important to understand her own marriage. She met Norman Podhoretz when she first came to New York, when she was spending eight hours a day studying the Hebrew Bible at the College of Jewish Studies. She found herself married to a guy named Moshe, a veteran she finally divorced in 1954 after bearing two daughters.

Midge loomed three years the elder of Podhoretz, who was 26 when his Jewish girlfriend's desire to make things legal encroached on his bachelorhood. He was wary of becoming a stepfather, and his mother Helen Podhoretz was horrified by the possibility of this development. When she met Midge and her daughters, she instantly softened when young Rachel Decter told her, "You're so beautiful!"

In so many ways, Midge overcame barriers women had to cross before feminists had named them. She required no man to prop herself up, she complained not at all of the misogynistic treatment she must have endured at times in her professional life. It was in her blood and her bones to treat all people equally. As a young woman, she considered herself and her friends liberals; what else? Even her second husband, Norman Podhoretz, saw her as a feminist "in the classical sense," even though she handled most of the duties around their home.

Midge's talent for being a mother orients around a statement she makes in the chapter titled "The Sexual Revolutionist." It is intrinsic to our understanding of parenting now, but then it was not: They were members of the first generation to understand how real and weighty was their true power over the psychic development of their children. In essence, it was becoming a parent that finished the idea of Midge Decter, the feminist, before it ever had a chance to gestate. As soon as she saw how other parents regarded their children, enduring the 1960s was a matter of surviving a hell of their devising.

The parental units of the girl who would become The Sexual Revolutionist are no sociological fiction. In this chapter's titular character we can see her second daughter, Rachel. That she would tell the story of her own daughter seems not only contradictory but insincere, but some of the details match. Midge once described her daughter as "everybody's longings rolled into one package," and the same is true of the girl who will become the Sexual Revolutionist. It is her parents who are the real revolutionaries, however:

Mankind's resistance to the force of sex, born in ignorance and taboo and the impulse of organized religion to deny its adherents their innocent pleasures, had let to a notion of the body as somehow loathsome and unclean; and this notion had served for century after century to twists the sexual appetites of men and bury or extinguish altogether the sexual desires of women. Few had escaped unscathed or untormented. They themselves, while they had grown up in a world on which the grip of the sexual taboo had by comparison with the past already been considerably weakened thanks to the heroic labors of a lonely band of doctors and philosophers had had to work with all the powers of reason and self-discipline they could muster to overcome the shame of their birthright.

So far, so good. In time, the parents of the girl who would become the Sexual Revolutionist take her to get a prescription for the pill. The girl's mother has a strange reaction, despite being on the drug herself:

As the doctor wrote out the daughter's prescription, her mother could not resist one small pang of envy. She did not know whether her daughter yet had need of this new medication or not, and did not want to know, since it was up to the girl to decide how much of her life in sex she wished to share with her parents. (They hoped, they were to tell her laughingly over her birthday celebration dinner, it would not be too much.) But now her daughter would never in her whole life know either the sickening need to hide and dissemble before her mother, such as she had once so painfully lived with, or that one last ineradicable bit of anxiety that women before her had always carried into bed. Her daughter, in other words, would never know how lucky she was.

All is status quo until the girl who will become the Sexual Revolutionist meets a man. He is only one man, but he is not a particularly great man. He is college-aged, she is still in high school. They have sex every day, but they never discuss it. When they're out among friends, he pantomimes his desire for other girls in front of her. Once, she finds him on top of her unwilling best friend in a bedroom at a party. She goes on seeing him. She marvels at his intelligence, she marvels at her own empathy. He is older and she is his: "She liked belonging to him."

Eventually, this guy/goy moves in with her and her parents, where "she gave herself to him on their living room couch." (They also have intercourse at the beach, in the sand.) She finds herself fighting with her parents, regarding their views on things as hopelessly naive. When her boyfriend encourages her to give him head in front of their friends, she hails a taxi and gets out of there.

This bad experience with men is the catalyst for everything that happens afterwards. For Midge, it was possibly redolent of a man Rachel had brought home to them as her fiance, a skilled, beautiful farmer from a kibbutz who Midge regarded as Satan incarnate, even though she permitted Rachel to marry him against her better judgment.

Meanwhile, Rachel's fictional counterpart, the girl who would become the Sexual Revolutionist, heads off to college. Although the men are on the whole lot nicer to her there, she is faced with the thorny problem of rejecting their sexual advances. Midge discusses this as if it had never happened before: "All she got for her pains was the souring of a friendship." But eventually she meets a new prospect, one she regards as a keeper.

He listened as no one had ever listened, his face a tender pool of comprehension and sympathy, and he responded in kind. He too was alienated from his parents, who were brutal, particularly his father, in their disappointments with him. He told her of his psychoanalyst, of the fact that he was presently having deep difficulty concentrating his mind on his studies, of his longing to be loved for simply what he was. Not very long after they met, they sat together on a grassy hillside beneath a cloudless sky and exchanged avowals of profound love. He held her hand, caressing her fingers on by one, while they discussed the details of moving in together.

Of physical sex there had been none between them, not a hint or gesture.

You'll be surprised to know it turned out he was gay.

In the wake of her disappointment, the girl who would become the Sexual Revolutionist wanders into a feminist lecture. (This is evidently the only reason Midge can think of for someone to become interested in the empowerment of women.) The lecturer informs the students that men are oppressive and unnecessary, and that "it was the clitoris, rather than the penis, which was the true instrument of female pleasure."

She returns to her parents with a spate of "mimeographed articles" and a passion for her new creed. Her father is both shocked and relieved at what's happened - shocked because he feels potentially implicated in her oppression, relieved because he had suspected she did not enjoy the sex with her high school swain.

Her mother, on the other hand, is at first not so enthusiastic. Having given her daughter the kind of freedom she herself never enjoyed, she cannot imagine the source of the girl's complaint. In the end, she comes around, reckoning that she may indeed have been forced into her own life as a mother. She begins to see her daughter's attitude as simply a natural extension of the freedom that was afforded to her. Is this Midge's own view? Not quite.

Midge at an event

Today, she is just as offended by how women dress and act as she was in 1975. Her problem with feminism began with Betty Friedan's The Feminine Mystique. She hated it: "This work had seemed to me both intellectually and stylistically very crude. It was also unbelievably insulting to ordinary housewives, written on the level in exactly the kind of lingo previously used by a number of pop sociologists to denigrate the postwar lives of the ordinary people of Glen Oaks."

Midge did not like the late 1960s, but it was not the movement towards civil rights and freedom that caused offense, it was the protests of white college students in the early 1970s that truly incensed her. In contrast to African-Americans who fought for their own rights in the south, college kids picketing Woolworth's in New York drew Midge's ire in the extreme. For her, the chaos of the time represented a class war rather than a gender one: she represented individuals, male and female, who lacked power, and to see privileged students from rich families raging against working class people from her own background was too much to bear.

She was surprised to learn that journalist Gloria Steinem ("a so-so talent") was a voice in the movement. She agreed to debate Steinem in a downtown ballroom. She recalls the scene in her memoir:

The debate took place in a downtown ballroom that often served as a union meeting place, and the room was packed. Actually there were four women debating that night, on her side a black social worker and on mine, a black official of the teachers' union. Gloria was unforgettable that evening, for she turned up in a crotch-high suede skirt and knee-high suede boots and kept warning the men in the audience that they had better wake up and realize that she and women like her were dead serious, and no longer were women going to put with being their playthings. I think she even stamped her foot, while I, looking at that skirt, had to control my impulse to giggle...

Later in the evening she declared that women no longer needed men, and that men had better get used to it, whereupon her own debating partner jumped up and said, "Oh no, Gloria! What women in Harlem need is husbands!"

gloria in the 1960s

Perhaps Midge's view of Gloria Steinem and Betty Friedan sounds like sour grapes now. By the time she was inspired to write Liberal Parents, Radical Children, her daughters were all out of the house leaving her only son, a junior in high school at the time. She was not so much older than the women in the movement, but she felt like she was from a completely different time and place in comparison. The movement never mentioned grandmothers, soon she was one.

They both became well-known, powerful actors in their circles; Steinem for her outspoken, groundbreaking feminism in addition to her founding of Ms. magazine, and Midge for her invention of the Committee for the Free World (CFW) to fight tyranny around the globe, as well as the Independent Women's Forum, which has been a crucial part of ensuring women have a strong voice in the conservative movement.

The fact that two Jewish women from a similar Midwestern background could find this much on which to disagree is an American phenomenon, a cultural artifice that posits difference where there is similarity, and the inverse. Two charismatic and inspiring women fought for everyone's liberty for the emancipation of women is impossible without the same for men. One of these women was called a feminist, another an anti-feminist. What better way to repay the debt they are owed than according both the Presidential Medal of Freedom?

Alex Carnevale is the editor of This Recording. He is a writer living in Manhattan. He last wrote in these pages about Harold Pinter's adaptation of Proust and the death of Jim Henson. He tumbls here and twitters here.

"Come Out And Play (Keep 'Em Separated)" - The Offspring (mp3)

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"Why Don't You Get A Job?" - The Offspring (mp3)

"Self-Esteem" - The Offspring (mp3)

Wednesday
Aug312011

In Which Just Saying It Could Even Make It Happen

Almost Divine

by DURGA CHEW-BOSE

Alice in the Cities
dir. Wim Wenders
110 minutes

Philip Winter is stricken with writer's block. Having missed his magazine deadline, he sells his car to a garage in Queens, bringing to a close his failed American road trip. Nearby an organ ushers us through a pan of Shea Stadium on a clear day and eventually settles on the organist, an elderly woman with cat-eye glasses and a sedate smile.

This scene near the start of Wim Wenders’s Alice in the Cities, isn’t extraordinary. In fact there is something remarkably untouched about it, as if it were cut from a reel of lost documentary footage. The camera's surveying sweep and soft focus appears infinite yet arbitrary, as though the movie might turn on itself entirely and follow a trail of summer vestiges instead: colossal cranes at a downtown construction site; teenagers on the boardwalk; an overcrowded public pool and the patter of kids racing to the diving board, oblivious to the lifeguard's warning whistles.

In road movies these tangents acknowledge the necessary — stops for food, sleep, an empty gas tank — but also salute those fugitive, sometimes beguiling pockets of prosaic realism; a young boy bicycling alongside a stranger's car, peddling fast to keep up, or another child, in another city, leaning against a café jukebox and humming along tunelessly to "Psychotic Reaction." As long as there is road ahead, digressions like these last two, collect, and the push to keep moving abides.

But momentum isn't pure motion; it's also the power that inhabits a moving object. Meet Alice (Yella Rottländer), a nine-year-old girl who Philip (Rüdiger Vogler) is forced to care for while her mother, Lisa (Lisa Kreuzer), disappears for a few days. With nothing more than a photograph of her grandmother's home in Germany, Alice and Philip return to Europe and set out to find the house. In this odyssey, the capricious and improbable nature of their relationship--largely buoyed by Alice's intuitive silence and gamine stomp — outdoes the possibility of threat. Instead, their shared withdrawal and homelessness induces a sense of fantasy.

In one scene Phillip concedes and deposits Alice at the local police station in Wuppertal. In vintage Wenders design — serendipitous Americana souvenir — he attends a Chuck Berry concert in the same German city. The event is surreal. The departure is loud and electric, and resembles a dream. But once the show is over, as if waking from this dream, Alice reappears at Winter's car door. Though their reunion is expected, the way in which it materializes is almost divine. Like the Polaroids that Winter compulsively takes, she too 'develops' promptly and somewhat eerily.

There are two types of precocious girls that exist in film. The first being more patent, cherubic and dovelike, who parades her show business smile and displays a homespun sense of superiority towards adults. Her accessories? Germane. A balloon, a hula hoop, a gold fish, a letter from a dead father, a loose ribbon in her hair that she might later tie around a boy's wrist. This girl asks questions about morals, her mother's first time, and local, unsolved murder mysteries. We won't wonder about her once the movie is over.

And then there are girls like Alice. Agile around adults yet slightly departed. Breathless. She sort of knows what's going on in the next room; she is suspicious of sex. She is clever but not cheeky and her affections might be confused as indifference. We envy her retroactively, hope to win her approval, and wonder about her adolescence: in love for the first time, she'll appear disenchanted; corruptible and sometimes curt, she'll still wear the same ALASKA varsity jacket from childhood. We imagine her in the future as slightly inelegant, a fast runner, whip-smart, warmhearted but impatient. Alice's gestures anticipate a later self rather than entertain a temporary quirk or tap dance.

For Philip, she offers something foreign, or at the very least, forgotten: the dewy and resolute charges of childhood. Alienated by the American landscape, Winter meets Alice at a particularly lonely time in his life. "Not one picture leaves you in peace," he announces near the beginning as he considers the lifelessness of his Polaroids — a rest stop like any rest stop; the framed ashen fragment of a nameless beach. But Alice does not fill this void, she joins it.

At first their exchanges are limited and take on a Marco Polo, Kublai Khan, incoherence. Later he takes a Polaroid of Alice as they ride the ferry. As it develops, Winter's worn-out reflection appears on the photograph. A barefaced metaphor, this image does however band with the movie's larger influence. While some films wonderfully entertain and distract, and offer immediate familiarity, humor, distress, fear, or romance, others impart mood and psychic moments of recognition that inexplicably resonate despite foreign intrigue, foreign relationships, humiliation and heartache. Instead of happening to you, these movies chime in and out with discerning reciprocity.

Less involved with choice, Alice in the Cities patiently imparts emotion to inaction. Stillness, like Philip slowly unplugging the bathtub with his toe, is who we are when our emotions no longer have dramatic gestures or words. Delay, dissatisfaction: these sensations cannot be seized in one cartoonish sigh. These sensations exist uninterrupted. Like Alice, slouched in the passenger seat, as if her entire self might stem from the center of her wilted torso. When I see it, I will know, she repeats to Philip as they drive up and down Wuppertal's gangly streets. Her certainty tolls, and we believe her.

Durga Chew-Bose is the senior editor of This Recording. She is a writer living in Brooklyn. She tumbls here and twitters here. You can find an archive of her writing on This Recording here

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