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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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Sunday
Mar202011

In Which Three Really Is Company Not A Crowd

Basic Arithmetic 

by NELL BOESCHENSTEIN

I first heard Trio as a seven-year-old in the backseat of my mother’s Oldsmobile station wagon. We were probably on our way to my violin lesson because in my memory we were always on our way to violin lessons when I was seven. The album was one of two tapes mom kept in rotation for car rides in the late 80s, the other being Paul Simon’s Graceland. (My first favorite tape was a group tribute to Woody Guthrie that I listened to nonstop between the ages three and six.) That said, I didn't yet quite understand what a "Rosewood Casket" was or grasp the concept of a "Hobo’s Meditation." What I did understand was that this was an album of songs I could listen to repeatedly and that Dolly Parton, Emmylou Harris, and Linda Ronstadt were women I wanted not just in the car with me, but in the kitchen, in the bedroom, on sleepovers at Caetie Ofiesh’s house, and in class as I learned basic arithmetic: one plus one plus one equals three, and that’s no lonely number.

Cream

Supergroups were the spawn of the late 60s. Cream is the archetype. Think also The Traveling Wilburys. The Plastic Ono Band. Supergroups did sometimes, too, exist outside the realm of rock and roll. The Highwaymen (Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson, and Kris Kristofferson), for example, and it’s not too far-fetched to say The Three Tenors were one for the tails and white gloves set.

They were also often a way for the guys to get together, puff feathers, and engage in a ritual of musical one-upmanship. As a result the projects were notorious for being unable to withstand the weight of collective egos. That said, they weren’t always men and they weren’t always frustrated by the complications of said egos. Trio — starring the thinking people’s queens of country music — was one for sure and for the ages. The album was released in 1987 but the women had been planning a record together for at least a decade.

Describing how they first met in an interview, Harris explained how she was on the road with Gram Parsons and Ronstadt was on the road with Neil Young and they “kind of converged and, um, we revealed to each other that our favorite girl singer was Dolly Parton and from there our friendship blossomed because we had something very important in common.” About the first time the three of them sang together shortly thereafter, she continued, "The sound that we made together surprised and astonished the three of us. It was a very, very special sound and we knew that at some point we needed to do some singing and get it down on tape." But their 70s schedules proved too difficult to synch, so the Trio dream was temporarily deferred.

When their schedules did finally let up enough to collaborate it was at a time when country music was increasingly commercialized; what Trio proved was that the traditionalist approach maintained a beating heart of a fanbase. The album hit #1 on the country charts, won a couple Grammys in 1988, had the mainstream buzz to be put up against Prince, Michael Jackson, U2, and Whitney Houston for album of the year that year (it lost to The Joshua Tree, produced by Daniel Lanois who Emmylou Harris later hired to produce her famous 1995 album Wrecking Ball), and sold more than four million copies.

It’s sort of funny to watch the video from the 1988 Grammys as the nominees for best album are named. U2, Prince, and Michael Jackson all get audible cheers and catcalls, but when the nomination for Trio is announced there’s an almost awkward silence, as if people haven’t quite heard of these women or the little album they made sans drum machines and synth. "Funny," because it’s nearly impossible to overstate the combined influence of Harris, Parton, and Ronstadt. Even if they may have been losing then finding their ways again a bit as the 80s progressed, each was already a living legend, having become as much by remaining largely faithful to a basic American vernacular from whence she came.

This sense that each came from somewhere and wears that somewhere like a badge means something to me. I am from Virginia and wouldn’t want it any other way. I think about this fact maybe more than my therapist would like me to and that’s saying something since she, like any therapist, is hardly in favor of an ahistorical individual. Regardless, I’d be lying if I said I didn’t sometimes feel defensive in New York about my Virginia aesthetic, despite the fact that it is just that: an aesthetic, frosting on a deeper philosophy.

linda ronstadt

While neither Parton, nor Harris, nor Ronstadt are particularly arty — they aren’t Yoko Onos or Patti Smiths — they nevertheless warrant podiums. Behind their costumes and hair and makeup, Parton, Harris, and Ronstadt are as rock and roll in ethos as anyone, as pure awesome, as badass because, boys, Nashville can be as hard on a girl as New York. It takes a certain kind of stubborn, almost perverse, sense of subversion after all to stick to the dulcimer. Not to mention to be the sort of true blues they are in the red world of country.

To love Trio as a trio is not to admire these women any less as individuals, but that’s not my point. Beyond the strength of their individual personas, what never ceases to amaze me about the album is how the three share the spotlight without ever stepping on toes.  Parton leads on four songs, Ronstadt on three, Harris on two. Parton is pure, aching, bawdy country in "Those Memories of You"; Harris is somber on "My Dear Companion", her voice full of the sound of loss for which it is known (goodbye again, Gram), made only more so by the harmonies in the chorus; Ronstadt has something to prove in “Telling Me Lies,” and prove it she does. The three sing ensemble-style on "To Know Him Is To Love Him" and round-robin style in the final song, the gospel classic "Farther Along."

When harmonizing, their voices meld but maintain what allowed them to be plucked out of the cacophony in the first place. American folk and country music are about singing together: in church, in the fields, on the porch, wherever. That is what this is about. Preach, practice, etc. "The music brought us together," Parton has said. "And the fact that our voices are completely different, all three of us, and our personalities are completely different, our look is completely different, you wouldn’t think that we would fit together in all the ways we do, but we’re very compatible in every way and it’s worked out real good. Since the early 70s we’ve been together and hopefully we’ll be together forever."

There is the sense here that they need each other. Even when not performing as a trio, they are known to pop up and play songs at one another’s shows and to talk in interviews about the years spent together on the road, how unusual that was at a certain time and how important it was to have the companionship and sense of camaraderie they provided each other. Sometimes I find myself at the butt of gentle jokes because I have a fondness for getting out the guitars and mandolins, the Rise Up Singing, and the whiskey, and singing so that all of Myrtle Avenue can hear. I don’t care because afterwards I feel better inside than I did before.

The other thing I didn’t understand when I first heard Trio in the back of the Oldsmobile but do now was that I wanted those women in the car and in my math class for beginners because they were an artistic embodiment of female friendship and collaboration. The imperative importance of those things are learned over time and neither is always easy. In footage of Trio performances you can see that that Parton, Harris, and Ronstadt have all taken notes on those lessons: these women love each other, love working together, love making it work, figuring out the equation so that it adds up correctly, balances out.

Nell Boeschenstein is a contributor to This Recording. She is a writer living in Brooklyn. You can find her website here. This is her first appearance in these pages.

"When We're Gone, Long Gone" - Trio (mp3)

"Feels Like Home" - Trio (mp3)

"He Rode All The Way To Texas" - Trio (mp3)

dolly

Saturday
Mar192011

In Which We Regularly Play Ping-Pong With The Princess Masako

Sayonara

by LENA DUNHAM

I awake the next morning feeling like I need a blood transfusion. Our guide Shiori arrives at noon, chipper as ever and ready to take us to the airport where we'll board the plane home. She hands me a gift. "From Kazu. To remember last night."

A pleather nurse's cap.

My goodbye with Shiori is bittersweet — we have truly become friends, despite the uncrossable cultural chasm, a chasm evidenced by the fact that she is shocked by frank discussions of sex but was not at all surprised by what we witnessed last night at the S&M bar in the Rappongi district. "I love you," she says, handing me a bag of "bean sweets." I promise to send her the ugg boots she so desperately wants.

"Remember to e-mail Tada," she says. The sleeve of her raincoat is still dotted with red wax from a candle wielded by an obese dominatrix. "The gift he gave you was very expensive. He says you promised to take him to all the clubs of New York."

Did I? I don't remember that. I guess, like so many of my Japanese exchanges, it was lost in translation.

Ground Control To Major Mom

We've come to Japan because my mother is having a small retrospective of her photographs at a gallery in Tokyo.

Traveling with my mother has its challenges. She's adorable, a real gem, but she won't shut up and she generates little bits of trash and she is very nervous about Japanese customs — for instance, her guidebook tells her that the Japanese don't like public nose blowing, which she adores, and that's been a real source of anxiety.

On the 14 hour plane ride she watched Lost In Translation on her in-flight entertainment system. Good movie, but it is now a near-constant point of reference, and likely will be for the entirety of our time in Tokyo. After all, she was quick to note that I am a recent grad with hair vaguely the color of Scar Jo's, traveling with a working photographer. Only my shutterbug partner-in-crime is not Giovanni Ribisi. She gave birth to me.

When we land at Narita Airport twenty tiny men in scrubs and gloves and white rubber rain boots come aboard wearing masks, and announce they're going to take our temperatures as a precaution against the spread of swine flu. They have syringes in their fanny packs and I actually get very scared.

We are greeted in the airport by Shiori, a young representative from the gallery where my mother's work is being shown.

"I will be your guide," she says. Our friend Matthew warned us not to bond with any gallery girls because "you'll never lose them" but I like her. She insists on carrying my suitcase even though she weighs about seventy-three pounds and has hands like paper cranes. The taxicab's seats wear a cloak of white lace. The driver dons matching gloves and takes your Yen (thousands of them!) on a small silver tray.

I once saw a movie in which Toni Collette has hot sex with a Japanese businessman who then dies. She spends the next hour lugging his lifeless body through the Australian outback and crying.

Judging by the medical mod squad and this cab driver's stiff posture, I can't imagine a passionate affair with a native man. A few minutes after we check into the hotel the maid comes into our room to turn down the beds. Panicked, my mom stuffs her dirty underpants into my purse to keep up appearances.

Japanese American Princess

Shiori, helpful gallery girl extraordinaire, has a rival in my new friend, manga artist Miyu. Although thirty-one, Miyu looks approximately fourteen and wears an Anne-of-Green-Gables-inspired hat that only Audrey Hepburn or Audrey Tatou could pull off outside of Japan. She makes beautiful comics about coming of age. She gives me her books, but I cannot read them.

Miyu brings me to 7-11. In the US, 7-11 is just a burial ground for coke slurpeez and microwaveable pizza. Here in Japan, it purveys complex sushi rolls, tempting noodle bowls and delicate pastries with thousands of flaky layers (the label on the yummiest reads "A Taste of The Bread").

Yellowish Fever

I know I said I could never imagine a Japanese affair, but I've changed my mind. Kazu, the art handler hanging my mom's show, is gorgeous like the strong, sexy, dreadlocked Mongol in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (causing my sister to email the instruction: "Yeah, girl. crouch that tiger, hide that dragon. P.S. That's a Chinese movie").

I'm Big In Japan

I get drunk fast on sake. I haven't eaten meat in ten years but this beverage tastes fleshy somehow. I can't stomach much of what is brought to the table at a seven course meal with uber-friend Shiori and Tomio, mom's squat art dealer.

Toshi brings along a well-known Japanese painter who informs me that he comes at his art from a very "passionable" place. I learn that he is also very passionable about Buffalo Springfield, Burt Reynolds ("to most, he is sexiest man") and the Jack Black vehicle Nacho Libre.

He would like a friend in New York, as his only friends are Yo La Tengo and they are always on tour. Poor guy.

After the Party is the After-Party

At 3 a.m. I hear my sleepless mother sighing.

She is sipping chardonnay by the computer. I tell her to take an Ambien and I fall back asleep. Big mistake. Girlfriend takes an Ambien. And she follows it up with a healthy Ambien-inspired nosh session that encompasses two mini-bottles of vino, a tube of Pringles, a box of Ritz Bits, a smattering of mixed nuts. Then there's a mug of sake and a salmon-flecked rice ball. The contents of the mini-bar have been eradicated. When I awake at 9 a.m. she is snoring peacefully, surrounded by wrappers.

To See What There Is To See

We spend the afternoon wandering through the Shibuya neighborhood, which is like if Soho and Times Square had a baby and then moved to the moon to raise it. It is also where many of Lost in Translation's most memorable visuals were captured: filmed, I'm told, from the window of the mega-Starbucks at Shibuya crossing. I'm beginning to resent Sophia Coppola's subtly fascistic dictatorship over our travel experience.

Every linguistic foible, every longing glance out a cab window at dusk — if my mother doesn't say it, then I feel it. We are in someone's else's movie.

There are so many businessmen and business-ladies in Shibuya, all over Tokyo really. A sea of briefcases! Japanese people look so young — fourteen year olds in ill-fitting suits. What kind of business could they all be doing? When they cross the street it looks like a music video, or the cover of Abbey Road. They are so orderly and leave a foot of space between themselves and the next office escapee.

The White Man Cometh

We attend an opening at the Hara museum, all art by hip young collectives, and I develop my second Japanese crush, on a mophead in a t-shirt that says "Hustler: Hardcore since '74."

Being the only Caucasian in a room, you almost feel invisible because you are so visible. When you're in Mexico or someplace, at least they want your paper dollars. But here, we are uncouth, smelly, hairy. We have swine-flu. Our currency is inferior and our history is short. Yet the Japanese also love Sid Vicious, cowboys, birthday cakes, bagels.

It's such a confusing dynamic.

Memoirs of a Geisha

It's a complex process to even get near the hotel pool, one that involves a mandatory shower and a key that you strap to your thigh. But I am immediately thwarted when I see a sign announcing that no tattooed persons may enter the water. My mother is not content to either follow or ignore this rule, so she presents me to the locker room attendant, pointing to my arm and announcing/asking "THIS IS OK!?"

The sweet-faced girl looks vexed, turns a bit red, pulls out a roll of medical tape and proceeds to cover up all my tattoos — even the one my lower back, which she claims to find "kawaii" (cute). I do twenty laps and shed all the tape in the water, mummy-style.

Night On Earth

My mother's opening is considered a smashing success, although attendance is estimated at approximately twenty.

She is interviewed by a Japanese TV crew while I spend a long time talking with a bald Canadian man named Todd who says he is a "thought-leader entrepreneur at the forefront of the meeting between business and education." Todd says it's good to move to Japan because you can get famous more quickly. For instance, he regularly plays ping-pong with the princess Masako, and attends her wine tastings.

At the post-opening dinner, I drink a bit too much sake and have to take a genteel vomit break. When I return from the bathroom, all red and shiny, Shiori is waiting with a knowing grin. She is seated near my crush Kazu, who looks like Heath Ledger and James Iha merged and then put on a ruffled blue blazer. I have been informed that he loves to get high and was waiting for signs of drug use, but it turns out he "doesn't need no drugs, just a trance music." Shiori is looking at him, then back at me, over and over.

"What?" I demand.

"You must go talk to Kazu to learn he is a PUHVERT. I think he's the gay, but he very nice guy. Go sit behind him to learn why he the PUHVERT."

"But I don't speak Japanese, so I don't know what he's saying. Is it about sex?"

"NO, NO!" She blushes. "He very nice guy. Go sit behind him. He the PUHVERT, though. At the clubs he go crazy. You think he's the gay?" I am thoroughly confused and ready to let this whole exchange slide. But outside, after dinner, Kazu motions me over to him.

Quietly, he speaks. "Late this week, we go to the club?"

"Sure" I say. "Are you going out tonight?"

"We cannot," he tells me. "You are wearing wrong shoes. So we will go Thursday together to the club."

"OK. Great." I smile.

Shiori hurries over. "Did he talk to you? Now you see how forward he is!" It is surreal to get into a taxicab with your slightly tipsy mother and look out the window to see fifteen smiling Japanese people in leatherette formalwear waving goodbye joyfully from a street corner. They all bow in unison, over and over, until you are out of view. 

An American Werewolf in Japan

My mother wants to go for a drink with Shiori on the 57th floor of the Park Hyatt hotel, where Lost in Translation was filmed.

I really do like that movie, just as much as the next recently-teenaged girl, and I'm not sure why my mother using it as a constant reference point makes me so crazy. There are several Hyatts near this Hyatt and we spend almost an hour riding up and down the elevator of the wrong one, wandering the darkened halls of its conference center, before we realize our mistake.

When we finally arrive we enjoy an uncharacteristic martini, listening to the smooth sounds of the resident jazz band. "In the movie it's a band called Sausalito and Bill Murray sleeps with the woman. Remember?" mom asks.

That red-haired vixen isn't here tonight. It's a Vanessa Williams look-alike crooning Cole Porter. It's very interesting to hear Shiori discuss concepts such as "honor" "respectability" and "modesty." Her former colleague (a word she pronounces cawl-eee-gew) had an affair with Kazu, art handler crush, and it was a great dishonor, not only for that woman's husband but for everyone who knew either cheater.

Once Shiori was in a club chaperoning a visiting German artist and he kissed a Japanese girl who then fainted. I ask why and Shiori says "because he pulled all the energies from her."

Oodles of Noodles

Manga-artist Miyu giggles constantly, as if any question ("where this street is located?" or "what is that root vegetable called?") is the most embarrassing thing that has ever befallen her. She often knocks on nearby pieces of wood for luck. She has, I hear, published three books, two of which are bestsellers. She lives in a tiny cottage that once belonged to her now-hospitalized grandmother. She dresses like Daisy Buchanan and claims never to have googled herself. She has no idea how many books she has sold. She makes it all look so effortless.

Speaking of effort, I've stopped trying to imitate Japanese manners and now I consume "A Taste Of The Bread" right in the streets, cream on my face, ravenous. Eating in the street is considered very rude here, but I spotted a commuter munching a sandwich in the subway so the jig is up.

Too Much Hospitality

Sometimes, when you've been in Japan for ten days, you start to get a little funny. First, you'll stop noticing the preventive flu masks around you. A businessman will stand out in a crowd because of his Bon Jovi-esque haircut and not because he is wearing a mask over his face.

You will start bowing to people who hold open a door or sell you a honeydew yogurt or inform you that there are fish flakes on some crackers you're not sure you want. You will flash a peace sign and assume a pigeon toed stance whenever someone aims a camera at you.

You have adopted/adapted all these traits, yet you're also low-grade tired all the time. From trying to avoid beef broth. From making sure to remember that L's sound like R's and vice versa. From the outrageously reliable Japanese friends you have made — they are always early and always offering to pick things up for you at the convenience store and always buying you sweet treats that you claim not to want, but that they know you will eat because you're an American with as many stomachs as a cow. It's enough to make you miss the enervated flakes you surround yourself with in New York City.

No One Can Take A Joke

I spend the afternoon with Nanako, a teeny art critic in a deconstructed blazer and Harry Potter glasses. I'm stunned by this culture of hospitality —everyone we meet offers a tour, some tea, a red bean cake — so I jokingly tell Nanako that if my life in the US doesn't deliver I will just move to Tokyo and act on Japanese soap operas. Todd the Canadian thought-leader says everything is easier here. But Nanako is stern. "You'll never get respect that way, or long term satisfaction."

They Might Be Giants

I go to Harajuku Street hoping to spot G. Stefani's muses but am informed that the look is out of fashion. What's cool now is dressing like a secretary — cardigans, pearls, practical pumps. At Uniqlo they don't sell jeans in a size bigger than 27. There's a boutique with a window-full of baby-colored mini-dresses. They'd make nice pillows in the Real World Malibu Barbie house, but they won't suit me. The salesgirl doesn't agree and insists I try on three.

None fit because I am not a Japanese woman and my stomach(s) need some room. I am developing a rash, sweating, can't bear to explain myself so I buy a silver mesh tank top with bells on it. The armholes are far too tight. Returning to the hotel, grumpy and huge, I yell at my mother when she makes the Lost in Translation reference that breaks the camel's back.

Are You There, God? I'm In Tokyo

I'm going to a club with Kazu. What do I wear? How do I dance? If he did kiss me, which he won't (will he!?) then would he want to use tongues? I haven't seen a single dog here, and the streets are so shiny and clean. People have different house slippers designated for every room, so I really can't imagine the use of tongue. Germy. But this is also the country that spawned bukkake, tentacle-rape porn, and Sailor Moon.

I'm starting to understand my resistance to Lost In Translation references. Firstly, it sort of makes me feel like one of those women who visits New York and takes the Sex & The City bus tour. Secondly, as a filmmaker I like to believe that anything I do might be grist for some future movie-mill, but a twenty-something blondish girl wandering Tokyo is someone's private property.

What Happens in Rappongi Stays In Rappongi

We begin my final night at the opening of Tada, a hot commodity in contemporary Japanese ceramics. He's considered sort of an enfant terrible in the ceramics world, and he further cultivates this image by wearing a turban and pounds of silver rings.

"Tada is very sexy, no?" Shiori asks. "A cool kind of big deal artist!" She insists that we stand very near him and just sort of slump and smile.

Afterwards, we are guests at the seated-on-tatami mats dinner to celebrate Tada.

Kazu, is there, wearing a frilly collar that makes him look like a sad clown as re-imagined by Commes Des Garcons. But his body is so long and sinewy, and his ponytail so well done, that I take it in stride. Although neither of us smokes, my mother and I bum cigarettes off a table-mate and someone calls us "naughty women."

Tada and I speak a bit with the aid of a translator (a giggling red-faced Shiori). Outside, it's pouring rain. We are all handed clear plastic umbrellas, and it's beautiful when everyone stands together and chats and there is this sort of anti-rain ceiling covered in droplets and illuminated by Tokyo's myriad neon signs. I tell my mother that if I were to make a film set in Tokyo, I'd want to capture this clear-umbrella phenomenon, but guess who already committed this savvy detail to celluloid? Sofia Coppola, that's who.

Kazu announces it's time to hit the clubs, so I bid mom farewell and wander through the wet streets with Yasu, a disarmingly chatty guy with Buddy Holly glasses and a messy bun. Tada rolls deep with a bad-ass ceramicist dude-crew, and Yasu is the standout. He is wearing a raging bull t-shirt and attended an American University as an exchange student, where he "majored in smoking." He tells me all about his wife, who is at home because she's eight months pregnant.

We arrive at Club UNIT, the pulsing crowd full of Japanese hipsters in suspenders and fedoras. The DJ's are German youth who have clearly moved to Tokyo to be worshipped as gods of fun and style.

Their plan is working. Club-goers bum rush the booth, fighting to get near. The DJs, in turn, take digital photos of their disciples. Kazu and Tada insist on buying me drinks and, more unexpectedly, carrying my purse.

When I protest, they tell Shiori to tell me that "We will show you how a Japanese man is. You are a princess." They think I am a loose girl from the land that birthed reality TV and Cheetos. Shiori says Kazu has a "thing" where he only "has the sex with girls who have never had the sex. He thinks any other way is dirty."

Tada asks my age. I say "23, last week." He's excited. "HOPPY BIRSDAY!"

Suddenly I am faced with a huge bottle of Dom Perignon and a bald man who just keeps pouring it while Tada yells "HOPPY BIRSDAY," again and again. He hands me a pewter mini-vase of his own creation and says "my gift of you." New Order comes on. I let my hair down and dance. Kazu lets his hair down too and tries to waltz. I roll with it. He delivers a long monologue to Shiori, who looks at me and laughs. "What!?" I demand. "He says you are sexy." I'm flattered, considering I'm roughly the size of ninety-one Shioris lined up in a row. S. Coppola really did nail the phenomenon of a Japanese utterance that sounds like an epic and translates into nothing more than a sentence fragment. Recall the scene of Bill Murray being screamed at for minutes by a rockstar director, who has really just asked him to tilt his head slightly.

Now it's time to head to the bar. "A special bar" Shiori says. "A bar for the sadistics." We take a cab to "Fetish Bar." As fetish bars go, this one seems pretty weak. It's about the size of Puffy's Tavern, the bar down the block from me in Manhattan that sees fifteen customers on a good night. Cocktail waitresses wear leather thongs and carry dinky, sub-par whips. One of them is very fat, an oddity in Japan. A sort of big pun den mother, I hear her demand that an ornery client "shut a fuck up." Tada immediately asks that I put on one of the sexy outfits hanging by our banquette. I demur for almost an hour. Shiori sets in. "Why not? This will be the fun. Just a nurse one." I say no. Again and again I say no. I watch Yasu get tied up and "whipped" by our cocktail waitress and I keep saying no.

I allow her to burn my arm with a candle, don't flinch, and I still say no.

"But you are such a sexual person," Yasu informs me. No.

"Can I kiss you?" he asks. "I will not tell my wife because I am my own man of pleasure." No.

"Do you think we're so fucked and inside of ourselves because we are Japanese? We cannot get loose?"

"I don't know," I say. This is making me sad.

So they keep asking about the vinyl nurse's uniform, and I keep drinking. And finally it's just, like, why not? This is the only part of my Tokyo experience Scarlett Johansson can't touch, and anyway, interesting people need to have stories like this.

Shiori and I step into the bathroom, where we stand with a middle-aged salary man wearing only shrunken trousers, his hairless chest covered in red wax. She zips the "dress" on and we emerge. A waitress shouts "KAWAII!" Tada says " LIKE BRITNEY SPEARS!" A random guy in a French maid's apron says, "You so sexy, RENA."

Yasu is awfully wasted and squeezes my butt cheek so hard under the table that I cry out in pain: "NO." For all this talk of honor, there is a surprisingly huge problem with unsolicited ass-grabbing in Tokyo. During rush hour they designate a ladies-only car on the subway.

Yasu goes to another part of the bar and allows the waitress to spread his ass cheeks open and pour hot wax inside.

When his penis comes out, he says "It's not so big — Japanese size! But it can get bigger. Sometime." I am ready to go home. At which point things suddenly get formal.

"It was honor," Tada says, bowing.

"Please you enjoyed Japan," Kazu says.

"Such a nice girl," Yasu slurs.

In the cab back to the hotel, I think that I am starring in a movie about a girl who has just experienced something foreign.

Lena Dunham is a filmmaker from New York City. You can find her website here and she twitters here. Photographs by the author.

Friday
Mar182011

In Which In Politics Artists Don't Understand Anything

Rodin's Shitheel

by ALEX CARNEVALE

Adolf Hitler's favorite artist was the sculptor Arno Breker, who died in Dusseldorf in 1991. The most important thing about a Nazi is the date of his death, and Breker was among the more long-lived of his brethren. Breker's sculptures represent a technical competence that is so thorough it is repulsive, and his pseudo-heroic depictions of the human form horrify me. Hitler felt that Greek and Roman art was not tainted by Jewishness, and so Breker followed his Führer's gesture to that place.

Breker's father was an abusive disciplinarian, and he loved his old man dearly, which explains a lot. Arno's biggest influence was Rodin, and he kept a copy of Rilke's book about the legendary sculptor all his life. As a young man he visited the Bauhaus and saw Paul Klee working on multiple paintings at once. Breker felt that it did not "represent real creativity," and took his work in another direction.

It would not be a terrific leap to assume fascists only desire to repress and destroy the arts. The opposite is true: they are captivated, fascinated, and very aware of the power in artistic expression. Not knowing very much about politics when the Nazi party began its rise in Germany, Arno Breker was easily taken in by the sharpness of its propaganda and the movement's popular support. When he finally did join the party in 1937, it was as a uniform, serving as both political leader and artistic guide. By 1940, Breker was already the recipient of the Golden Badge of the Nazi Party. He was forty years old.

breker and assistants put the finishing touches on a work, 1942

Breker's work entailed powerful representations of German heroes, and he controlled the artistic climate in Germany in the 1940s. A mere look from him at the opening of a gallery or a show was enough to ensure no critic would write about the event. He sent for a paper delegation of French artists to Germany in 1941, and when the group returned to France their leaders called artists in Germany "the cherished children of the nation."

Arno Breker with a bronze of his 1939 work, Héraut

Breker's career as a Nazi did not wholly consist of meting out death and pain. When the Gestapo found out that Pablo Picasso was sending money to Spain and Russia, Breker got in touch with Jean Cocteau, who he had charmed in Paris as a younger man, to get him to stop the transfers. Eventually he was called in front of the Führer on the matter. Hitler responded to him by saying, "I am going to tell you once and for all: in politics, artists are like Parsifal; they don't understand anything."

Though Stalin was a fan of the sculptor, after Germany fell to the Soviets Breker fled to the Alps. When he was called before the Americans, he denied ever being an officer, and was generally treated as a victim of the Nazis. His networking skills served him again and he was even approached about sculpting a bust of Eisenhower.

breker comes before a de nazification court in October of 1948The man Hitler tapped to begin to assemble his art collection was Hans Posse. As director of the Führermuseum, Posse put behind previous interests in artists like Klee and Kandinsky and focused on work that was more up his boss' alley. He was possessed by the idea of creating the greatest art collection in the world, and sought no financial advantage for himself from the considerable power he wielded. Naturally, he confiscated Jewish property without a second thought in his zeal.

degenerate art exhibitAlthough faith in ethnic superiority did not usually go with a love of artistic achievement, Hitler's proxies were usually motivated to safeguard treasures and would sacrifice much to preserve them. In contrast, art dealers saw a tremendous opportunity for profit. They wrote to the regime begging to get a chance to acquire artworks the state confiscated from Jews for exportation and financial profit. The regime presented and toured an exhibit of "Degenerate Art" with paintings accompanied by mocking labels explaining why the works were inadequate.

the alte pinakotek after its destruction, 1948

Breker continued to pursue his career after the war, but he was consistently identified with the Third Reich. Critics compared his Nazi sculptures to the work of a cosmetic surgeon, because his men contained no flaws visible to the human eye. This fascist ideal continued to appeal to clients, and even the Nazi-loving Cocteau couldn't resist getting a bust done of himself. Breker's sculpture of Wagner linked him to Hitler's favorite composer, and the connection between the two only intensified the trouble they had in reclaiming their lives in postwar Germany.

Breker's bust of WagnerAlive when others were not, Breker became a secret cause celebre for the German right wing. One pro-Nazi gallery, the Galerie Marco, passed out photographs of Breker with popular artists and public figures to increase his palatability to the public at large. Breker became more symbol than man, and over time his defenders grew.

While students and young people protested his exhibitions, others argued that he should be able to continue his life's work without denigration. There remained a question of whether art created for and by Nazis should be displayed to the German public at all, complicated by the fact that the Reich had displayed the sinful etchings of their victims strewn everywhere, as trophies of death.

Breker's denials throughout were many. He argued that French Jews had not been dispossessed of their property, and he defended the many of his actions during the war. Whereas his friend and Hitler's chief architect Albert Speer apologized and said that he regretted the crimes he committed during the Third Reich, Breker dismissed him, saying, "I don't like his view of the past."

protest against an exhibition of breker's art in Berlin, 1981

Because of his lack of repentance, Breker's art never received a wider airing. Since it is extremely imitative, this is no great loss, but a deluded niche can find power in the strong expression of anything, even evil. Damaged people in a shamed nation create otherworldly reimaginings of their enemies' destruction. To see why Nazi art violates our aesthetics, we can look to the fact that this is neither a relevant or productive message to anyone but Glenn Beck.

But can it be that National Socialism produced no artistic work of any value? In so many ways, Hitler's dedicated agents ensured an anti-Renaissance, but they also aimed to replace what they destroyed with their own version. Daniel Goldhagen has argued that anti-Semitism was so prevalent among the intelligentsia that politics became more important than culture for the appreciators of the period.

Jonathan Petropoulos, in his book The Faustian Bargain, finds an additional cause. He writes of the appeal of violence to the educated class under the guise of the 'noble savage.' Both these motivations would seem to serve an artistic sensibility, and they only reinforce a basic precondition of civilization: that everything has a corresponding artistic culture to accompany it.

with albert speer

Like Breker, Hitler's filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl defended her work on its own merits until she died. (Hitler's biggest fan, the woman lived to 101.) Some jaded bastard screened Triumph of the Will for me as part of a course when I was 12, and I never forgave him. For the only reassuring aspect of the Third Reich is the moral certainty that nothing of what they were is in us, really. Riefenstahl's talent was too prodigious: the remarkable technique shines through the horror of its subject. Witnessing delighted Germans applauding a stoic parade of murderers is too strange and disturbing a sight to do anything but awe.

Alex Carnevale is the editor of This Recording. He last wrote in these pages about the hundred greatest novels. He tumbls here and twitters here.

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a breker statue toppled during the war