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This Recording

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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 Henri-Georges Clouzot Leaves Them Changed

Blown to Bits


In the 2009 documentary Henri-Georges Clouzot’s Inferno, filmmakers Serge Bromberg and Ruxandra Medrea unravel 185 cans of recovered footage from Clouzot’s unfinished project L’Enfer to tell the story of the legendary French director’s attempt to make what he saw as his most important film. Given an unlimited budget by Columbia Studios and inspired by the op art of the ‘60s, Clouzot set out to make a work whose innovation would surpass that of his young New Wave rivals and once again establish him as a pioneering filmmaker.

Serge Reggiani in a scene from L’Enfer

Set in a lakeside resort town, the film is about a jealous husband Marcel (Serge Reggiani) who becomes increasingly obsessed with the idea that his wife Odette, played by Romy Schneider, is cheating on him. It is through Marcel’s visions of his wife's infidelity that Clouzot endeavored to change the visual vocabulary of cinema. The surviving footage is hypnotic and dazzling.

Schneider is captivating. A siren covered in olive oil and glitter, she patiently seduces Clouzot's camera, exhaling a cloud of cigarette smoke under pulsating blue and yellow lights — a nightmarish vision of sensuality.

Clouzot and his team of special effects engineers spent months conducting camera tests for L'Enfer. The tests sought to construct a world deformed by jealousy — a discomforting one in which the viewer loses his or her spatial bearings. Relying heavily on kinetic sculpture, op art, mod fashions, and repetition of images and phrases, the crew toiled away in experimentation, becoming what one cameraman calls "experts at optical coitus." In palette and tactility, their kaleidoscopic imagery often resembles the gory seductiveness of a Marilyn Minter artwork.

Romy Schneider during a color test for L’Enfer

L'Enfer was never finished. Reggiani quit the project, Clouzot had a heart attack while filming a scene, and the reservoir where the film was set was drained. But these were just the dramatic final blows to a career dogged by fear.

There had always been a sense of foreboding surrounding Clouzot. It started when, at the age of 27, the director was diagnosed with tuberculosis and sent to a sanatorium. Clouzot spent the next four years of his life reading voraciously and studying story and plot, and confronting the absoluteness of mortality.

Marylou played by Dany Carrel

After being released from the hospital, Clouzot found that the German occupation and the subsequent flight of France's Jewish filmmakers had left the country's film industry in shambles. However, through a contact from his previous job as a script translator in Berlin, he got work at a Nazi-run studio, the same one that would produce his first two full-length films, L'Assassin Habite au 21 and Le Corbeau.

Le Corbeau

Le Corbeau, released in 1943, is a deeply paranoid film. The psychic terror of the sanatorium and the horror of World War II had moved Clouzot's work in a dark direction. Opening on an anonymous provincial setting, a town’s new doctor begins receiving poison-pen letters denouncing him as an adulterer and abortionist. Soon everyone in town is receiving the letters, spurring forth a fervor of accusations at each other. The local psychologist compares the villagers' rising levels of fear and suspicion to a fever — a metaphor that occurs throughout Clouzot’s work. The French public was outraged over its critique of the bourgeois paranoia and informant culture of the occupation. After the war, Clouzot's work for the German studio got him blacklisted for several years.

Brigitte Bardot in La Verite

Clouzot resented this punishment, having already had his career sidelined by sickness. He made his comeback, though. The director's mastery of suspense and character earned him ranking among France's premier directors of the time. He was referred to as the French Hitchcock — mostly because of his ability to keep audiences guessing and build tension, but also because of his brutal treatment of actors.

If the script had his characters eating rotten fish (as in Diabolique), then they ate it in real life; if his character was getting manhandled by the police (as in Quai des Orfèvres), then Clouzot would slap him around before the next take. In La Verite, when Brigitte Bardot’s character was supposed to have overdosed on sleeping pills, Clouzot slipped her sleeping pills, saying they were aspirin, to get the dazed, drowsy look her character needed. His manipulation at times was sadistic. His first wife, Vera Clouzot, who — like the schoolteacher she played in Diabolique — suffered from a weak heart, was practically worked to death by her husband.

During the filming of Les Espions, Clouzot made Vera film a physically taxing scene of her character’s mental breakdown 48 times only to then use one of the first takes. She died of a heart attack a few years later at the age of 46.

Vera Clouzot with Simone Signoret in Diabolique

Vera was Brazilian, and she and Clouzot traveled to South America for their honeymoon. The trip helped inspire Clouzot to create Wages of Fear in 1953. A white-knuckle thriller trimmed of all unnecessary frills, Wages of Fear takes place in the fictional Venezuelan town of Las Piedras. In it, a group of expatriate men pass their days in the shade of the village's one bar while scheming of ways to make it out of the isolated region. Their big break comes when the Southern Oil Company, an American company in trouble for their exploitation of the native population, decides to hire a few non-union men for $2,000 to drive two trucks stocked with nitroglycerine across the mountains to an inflamed rig that needs the explosives in order to stop the blaze. Selected for the job are friends Mario and Jo in one truck and the caricatured Italian Luigi and Dutch Bimba in the other.

The majority of the film follows the four men as they rely on machismo and prayers to make it across washed-out roads, hairpin turns and petroleum bogs and claim their paycheck.

Wages of Fear

Wages of Fear seems prescient in its ability to foreshadow the career-long consumptive battle, both physical and mental, that led to Clouzot's downfall on the set of L’Enfer. In the film, again fear manifests itself as a physical ailment. Even if the men do manage to complete the journey, the stress of the mission is guaranteed to leave them changed. One prospective driver, a man from the oil fields of Texas who had seen the effects such a trip can have, ominously warns, "Once you have the fear, it's for life. Your hair turns grey and you shake like palsy."

The drivers and an oil company man before their suicide mission

Since leaving the sanatorium, Clouzot had been plagued by insomnia. As in his bedridden days, he used these sleepless nights to work on his movies. Crew members often complained about his habit of waking up them at 2 a.m. to work on the filmmaker’s latest idea. The lack of sleep made his collaborators resentful and it made Clouzot unpredictable and unstable. The anxiety that comes to one in the middle of the night can be insufferable, and it’s easy to imagine that Clouzot spent many of the nights worrying about the ridicule he had been receiving in the pages of Cahiers du Cinéma regarding his detail-obsessed filmmaking. It’s a scenario that brings to mind the conversation between elder Jo to the younger Mario during their trek where Jo tells Mario that he lacks fear because he lacks imagination. “I see the explosion; I see myself blown to bits,” says Jo.

Jo (Charles Vanel) and Mario (Yves Montand) contemplate death by nitroglycerine in Wages of Fear

While filming L'Enfer, Clouzot tried to prove that illness could be controlled, that it could be mapped like coordinates on a grid, that “madness could be conceived as an equation.” In the end, what emerges from the documentary is the story of how a master of French cinema was undone by sickness. It tells of Clouzot's eventual defeat, not to the changing style of filmmaking, but to the pathological symptoms that had plagued him since entering adulthood.

Like a cinematic Marie Curie, whose experiments in radioactivity won her Nobel Prizes in Physics and Chemistry but who later died from aplastic anemia brought on by working with the toxic elements, Clouzot became of victim of the emotions — jealousy, fear, paranoia — that, previously, he had expertly manipulated to create the work that made him such a celebrated filmmaker.

Clouzot on the set of L’Enfer

Henri-Georges Clouzot died in 1977 while listening to Hector Berlioz’s "The Damnation of Faust."

Helen Schumacher is the senior contributor to This Recording. She is a writer living in Brooklyn. She tumbls here and here. You can find an archive of her writing on This Recording here.

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The films of Nicholas Ray

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Lauren Bans' classique review of Fast Five

The making of Bonnie and Clyde

Alex Carnevale/Noah Baumbach/Todd Solondz concordance


In Which We Spend The Summer With Her



My summer began with a bang. A bullet, which I later collected for the police — six miniature pieces of delicately warped copper metal smashed my second floor bedroom window as I watched game four of the NBA Finals in my living room. My roommate and I had only been in our new place for a little over a month. The unusually long walk down our hallway from one end of the apartment to the other was still novel, and often, the source of newfangled ways to strut, lunge, race, or complain down its exaggerated path. Even then, as we shakily walked towards my broken window, the hallway's reach offered a touch of comedy to an otherwise nervy moment.

An hour or so later, after I'd cried and two police officers had arrived and returned a second time to retrieve the bullet bits, my roommate and I went back to the game as if nothing had occurred. We even paused the DVR at one point so I could snap a picture of our TV with my phone: Lil Wayne sitting behind the basket with his new girl, Dheaa rare find at the time.

Catherine Keener and Anne Heche in Walking and Talking

As it happens in the summer, unlike winter where a stupor of shorter days allows for the stewing, knotting and eventual swelling of events, this particular trauma came and went. Well, sort of. Rather, I began to spend an unusual amount of time indoors, at mine, watching movies; specifically any and all of Nicole Holofcener's works.

Time spent with a Holofcener movie can feel curative: a helix of close and complicated female friendships, a nod to those compulsive habits we keep private, to the snug and the sound, and to the funny, like a pick-me-up come to life. But it can also feel entirely indulgent. Relating to a slew of passively worn relationships, or perhaps less whopping, passively worn personal hygiene or clothes — greasy hair, jean overalls, pajama t-shirts in the day — can shift significance to self hatred, fast. Things will get ugly. Belonging is oftentimes static.  

Friends With Money

Catherine Keener, the director’s muse, has mastered the deadpan droop. She is beautiful in a tomboyish way and sexy in a scrappy way. The combination is faultless when casting a female lead whose hang-ups are meant to appear relatable — and are ultimately very charming, and described by critics as “spirited” — for 90 minutes.

Keener's tone is flatline, slow and soft, and a bit chipped. She stands with her upper body at a slight angle as if she’s only ever carried canvas tote bags instead of leather purses. Her face and body are bony. Shirts sit on her shoulders as they would on the hanger and sweaters, no matter what size, are oversized. Her clothes seem resigned to her body in the same way the characters Holofcener writes for her seem resigned to whatever the current crisis might be: finding “a job, job,” guilt-driven charity, navigating a teenage daughter, mourning a dead cat, divorce. Holofcener dresses Keener, even in the daytime, as if she’s driven to her friend’s house in the middle of the night to cry, plot, laugh, and eat ice cream from the carton — a wealth of cardigan sleeves stretched and pulled over her hands, shawls, linen, little boy tees.

As Michelle in 2001's Lovely and Amazing, she plays a fatalistic mother-wife-daughter-sister, and would-be arts and crafts artist living in L.A. Her Eeyore affectations are offset by her sarcastic smile, which widens in proportion to her growing disregard for her mother’s liposuction, her husband’s cheating, and her sister’s insecurities. By the end, Keener’s indignant glow lulls and Holofcener’s restorative mold surfaces — an unlikely romance with a teenaged Jake Gyllenhaal, a final scene with her adopted 8 year old black sister, Annie.

Lying on my couch, Keener’s half-smile, made unusually bright by an L.A. McDonald’s fluorescent lights, was necessary. That’s what Holofcener does. She rounds things off only to make you feel, moments later, unwieldy in her absence. It’s as if the whole affair was made, by some means, to mock you. Credits rolled up my screen while there I was, still on my couch.

Friends With Money

What Holofcener does so well is pinpoint and spotlight her actors’ strengths. She has this uncanny way of condensing their careers into a single gesture or a series of actions. Call it cruel, but it’s a clever choice casting Jennifer Aniston in multiple scenes, squeezing pricey sample face creams, hoping for one last drop. Her character, Olivia, is a pothead, a maid, single, broke, tired, and pissed off. Thwarted by her last mint green Clinique mini-tube, Aniston’s disheartened face — bitterness turned tantrum, and soon turned conniption — has never been better optimized.

Her friends are rich and married, and writing checks to charities. Beyond any romantic comedy where Aniston’s on screen life mimics, to some degree, her much gossiped about off screen life, her scenes as Olivia, alone in the bathroom, thumbnails pinching tubes of pastel-colored face creams, portray a type of hopelessness that in reality is nothing more than pure and outright frustration, but in the movie, acts as its center. Another director might have asked Aniston to pull a few Flashdance "Maniac" moves in the bathroom, or slap on some lipstick, toss her hair a bit, and just go out. But not Holofcener. Aniston returns to Nordstrom’s and sheepishly scours for more samples — one for her and one for "a friend."

Mortimer with Dermot Mulroney

Similarly, Holofcener cast Emily Mortimer in Lovely and Amazing as a twiggy aspiring actress who fudges an audition because she isn’t sexy enough. Later, she dares her date to critique her naked body. Suddenly there she is: bare, bushy, skinny, flawless and flawed in the way any naked body can look like an extreme of either. It’s a strange scene, and perhaps even unbelievable, but Mortimer’s gawky looks fit the part of a willowy actress who isn’t objectively beautiful but has that elusive "something."

Keener as a television writer in Friends with Money, who’s remodeling her house and unknown to her, ruinning her neighbors’ views, is a pitch-perfect amalgam of her many Holofcener roles. Her character, Christine’s, seemingly ideal marriage is about to unravel, her sarcasm is her swordplay, her friends are her tonic, and her son, Max, offers moments of calm as the two read together. In watching those scenes during an escape home to Montreal two weeks ago, I immediately thought of Spike Jonze’s Where the Wild Things Are, and especially the scene where Max crawls under his mother’s (played by Keener) desk and picks at her stocking-ed toes as she types a story he recites to her. Maybe Spike Jonze watches Nicole Holofcener movies too? Maybe she’s one of his favorites? I wouldn’t be surprised.

Walking and Talking

After watching Walking and Talking, I considered taking a cue from some of its assets and main concerns: nurturing friendships, weekends out of the city, wearing overalls, borrowing & returning, therapy. I have attempted four out of the five and succeeded at three. The movie was part of what spurred that side of me itching to feel better, go out more, and trade in my anxieties for concerns less self-involved.

As with Amelia, who’s played by Keener, there’s a neediness that evolves from moving forward. You need someone to bear witness, to validate your effort. And that need, more or less, feels like moving backwards. Change can be disorienting, and in a New York summer, especially exhausting.

Since then I have watched Holofcener’s four features. I have e-mailed one friend detailing a few stylistic connections I made between Holofcener’s films and the episode of Gilmore Girls she directed, "Secrets and Loans." I have even considered future Holofcener titles: Home and Country, Blemishes, Winning Smiles, Sound and Imperfect, A-Ok.

It will soon be two months since the bullet. Three months since I moved to my new apartment. Five months since I began feeling whirlybird uncertainty in crowds, opting for nights in instead of out. And six months since my 25th birthday. I look at that evening in June as a blip, a bookmark keeping my place in case I choose to revisit and consider it, a slight pivot, and the start of this particular summer. Really, it meant nothing, in that slightly maddening way a Holofcener movie means nothing but means something, and then means something big (!) and then means nothing at all (but secretly remains urgent and important). I’ll leave that night and these movies alone for a while. Despite a few setbacks, some midweek bouts of inertia, hooky and halfhearted note keeping, and a sweet tooth for cancelling plans, I’ve started keeping tabs on things I start and things I finish. Ratios, those remedial proportions of work and play, time trapped inside my head vs. time outside of it, time inside my apartment vs. time outside my apartment, it would seem, got lost somewhere in the mix. I’ve started running. There’s that. My neighborhood is quiet in the early mornings. I pace myself and breathe, inhaling and exhaling — a two to two rhythmic ratio, every couple steps.

Durga Chew-Bose is the senior editor of This Recording. She twitters here and tumbls here. You can find an archive of her work on This Recording here.

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In Which Our Clothes Pop Off When We Double In Size

Born Free


Captain America: The First Avenger
dir. Joe Johnston
125 minutes

Chris Evans is extremely attractive. Not in a sexual way, but in a glossy I wonder if I threw chewing gum at his chest it would bounce off? kind of way. Looking at him is like looking at a Chippendale calendar or one of the bright plastic desserts on the after dinner tray waitresses bring over to tempt you - incredibly appealing but infinitely replaceable.

with Hayley Atwell

Even his double first-name name, albeit totally fake (but whatever, postmodernism, blah blah blah), is a Zangwillian wet dream. I don’t care if this guy got his American visa yesterday, he is America incarnate.

Hence, Chris Evans is Captain America. We’re supposed to believe this is some sort of movie acting, when really it’s just analogous to The Switch. You know, Jason Bateman is Ryan Reynolds. Ryan Reynolds is Jason Bateman. Like my friend Devin says, "Why would anyone make a movie about them switching bodies when they’re already the same?"

Hugo Weaving as Red Skull

Luckily, that’s the goal in Captain America. For the good of the country, a small outcast allows himself to be injected with a military scientist’s crazy growth serum (think: steroids on steroids) and goes from an individual to an ideal. His body explodes in size. Basically America creates a Frankenstein of Aryan perfection to fight the Nazis. Because that is the way we roll. We will steal your fascist standards, and then have them literally punch you in the face.

Note: Whatever technology they used to render Chris Evans small in the beginning is brilliant and amazing and Peter Dinklage better warn his agent. Though I am still very upset that Captain America's pants did not explode off during the super-sizing scene. It’s not right. His thigh 2.0 has the circumference of one of the smaller Great Lakes.

If you can stomach the tongue-in-cheek-so-we-can-get-away-with-it jingoistic tone (like all post-9-11 comic book movies have), Captain America is actually really good.

There’s only one moment when the rhetoric goes over the top in a way that veers on obnoxious. Captain America is engaged in fisticuffs with Red Skull (the Nazi’s abominable mutant) who, employing the Darth Vader flattery techinique, tries to get Captain America to switch sides. Like: You're special! Join forces with me. We will control all, etc. Captain America responds, "I’m not special. I’m like any one of those other guys out there." I mean, fuck you dude. You're seven feet tall and your arm alone could feed a family of nine. There's nothing like false modesty to make you really happy for the current "Army of One" branded rampantly narcissistic patriotism.

Lauren Bans is the senior contributor to This Recording. She is a writer living in Brooklyn. She twitters here. She last wrote in these pages about Fast Five. You can find an archive of her writing at GQ here. You can find an archive of her writing on This Recording here.

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