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Alex Carnevale

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Mia Nguyen

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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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In Which We Enter The Coven Of Our Dreams

The Beauty Myth


American Horror Story: Coven
creators Ryan Murphy & Brad Falchuk

Witches are malicious, or so we’re told, in the pursuit of youth and beauty. And for witches, who, on film, must always be beautiful, there is no greater threat than the co-existence of the young. Youth reminds the beautiful that their time, if not over, is pending. So when Coven, the third incarnation of Ryan Murphy’s American Horror Story, opens in Louisiana in 1834, we don’t bat an eyelid as Madame LaLaurie (Kathy Bates) rubs the blood of a virile young slave across her face, claiming that their pancreas diminishes the waddle of her neck. In the present day, we don’t flinch when Fiona Goode (Jessica Lange), the greatest witch of her generation, experiments on monkeys and sucks the life force from a young scientist. It’s of no great importance, killing in the name of beauty - it’s what witches, what all women, ideally would do.

It’s been two decades since Naomi Wolf voiced similar concerns in her first book, The Beauty Myth. Despite the growing freedoms that women had experienced over the century, Wolf claimed that the pressure to reach exacting standards of physical beauty had continued to grow. Society, she wrote, “really doesn’t care about women’s appearance per se. What genuinely matters is that women remain willing to let others tell them what they can and cannot have.” Standards of beauty would continue to be unachievable because they grow with each freedom women receive. The myth of beauty is so damning, then, not only because it matters so little to the patriarchy, but because it is enforced by women themselves.

This idea is blindingly apparent in Murphy’s all or nothing handling of witchcraft. The pilot forces young and the old together under one roof - Lange’s terrifying Fiona is the Grand Supreme, the strongest witch of her age, who returns to Miss Robichaux’s Academy for Exceptional Young Ladies to reconcile with her daughter, Cordelia (Sarah Paulson). The Academy, we’re told, was purchased by a proto suffragette in the 1860s, who would train sixty girls at a time to master their powers. Unlike the almighty Supreme, most witches only get one trick: Queenie (Gabourey Sidibe) is a human Voodoo doll, Madison (Emma Roberts) has the power of telekinesis, Nan (Jamie Brewer) is clairvoyant, whilst poor Zoe (Taissa Farmiga) can only shag people to death.

Unlike the days of old, however, when clever witches escaped northern persecution by running to New Orleans, these witches are dying out. The genetic line is breaking as families choose not to procreate and those witches unlucky enough to be born in the sticks are burnt at the stake. A sense of persecution is rife even before splits are revealed within the world of witchcraft itself. From the second episode, Fiona is at war with voodoo queen Marie Laveau (Angela Bassett), who has kept the murderous LaLaurie prisoner for 180 years and uses an immortality potion that Fiona is now set on obtaining. In the place of solidarity, it seems, there is a battle for youth and beauty.

As the Supreme takes on the education of young girls, she is contrarily engaged in the fight to retain her own youth. In interviews, Lange has identified the Dorian Gray effect as Coven’s central theme: “What do you trade off for this idea of eternal youth and beauty and how much are you willing to sell for that? How much of your soul are you willing to give up?” But if Lange frames the series as a conflict between self and soul, Murphy seems more interested in how many other souls we might sacrifice. As is transparent through most of our fairy tales, and reinforced by Wolf’s idea of the beauty myth, these women might be under threat, but they are of the greatest danger to each other.

In this way, Coven functions as a grand old metaphor for feminism. The academy is founded by a suffragette, for a start, and we’re told that the line of witches is under threat, that their public visibility has waned as witches got too scared or too comfortable to protest their persecution. Fiona’s daughter, Cordelia, is the mediator: she thinks the fight is over and teaches her pupils to make do and get by.

Fiona, however, is the radical. Leading the girls on an impromptu “field trip” through the streets of New Orleans, she praises an alternative coven, a radical splinter group, who in the 1970s were proud and public in their defence of their group. In the fight between voodoo and witchcraft there’s even an intersectional split when Fiona describes Laveau’s voodoo magic as the “nail” to witchcraft’s “hammer”.

From this conceptual jump off, Coven deploys some brazenly literal reversals of power. Murphy neatly flips the patriarchy by creating a show full of women where men are pretty much ineffectual. When Madame LaLaurie tortures slaves, it is only male bodies that she mutilates. This is in contrast to the real LaLaurie, who committed similar crimes in the 1830s, but who primarily tortured women. Every guy Zoe sleeps with swiftly dies of an aneurysm. When Madison is raped at a party she kills a bus load of frat boys with a flip of her finger. The school’s male butler seems nice enough, but is missing a tongue. In Coven, men are the subjugated, and they don’t get the time to speak, let alone practice magic.

Ruled by supernaturally powerful females, Coven seems more fun, between atrocities, than either previous season of American Horror Story. However, the same reversal of power is less effective when it’s applied to the issue of race. Madame LaLaurie, a real life serial killer, is captured by a group of slaves seeking revenge for her crimes. In the present day, to complete the reversal of roles, LaLaurie is then forced to be a slave for Queenie. Look through enough of the show’s promotional imagery and it becomes clear that almost everything within the coven is literally black and white. After Fiona’s arrival, the group dresses only in black, starkly contrasted to the pure white of the house. Even the opening credits, already shot in monochrome, show a group of hooded figures, dressed all in black, approaching a blonde girl like an inverse Ku Klux Klan.

This switch, like Coven’s entire engagement with slavery, is both well intentioned and massively uncomfortable. It seems problematic that Queenie, the only African American in the coven, is unable to feel pain because this claim was once made in defence of slavery. LaLaurie’s brutal and extensive torturing of her slaves is not only unpleasant, it also makes little sense. Keeping her slaves tied up and mutilated in an attic fetishizes the cruellest aspects of slavery, isolating the violence perpetrated by slave owners from the economic purpose of owning slaves in the first place. The conceptual overload of American Horror Story is also kind of its charm, but the number of atrocities per act doesn’t leave enough time to work through the problems of representation in an issue this complex.

It seems either fortuitous or unfortunate, then, that the show should premier in the same week as critics write in praise of Steve McQueen’s Twelve Years a Slave. Widely celebrated for its dramatic merits, the key debate seems to be whether slavery should be represented on film at all.

Speaking about the film on NPR, the historian David Blight suggested that representing slavery is so problematic because we like narratives of progress too much. Audiences, he says, want a pleasing story, and in the case of slavery, not only are the details unpleasant, but “you have to work through to find your way to something more redemptive.” This too seems to be Coven’s narrative impasse. Flipping the roles of men and women, slave and owner, defining everything in black and white, is a neat enough trick. Yet it does little to nuance the portrayal of oppression or to articulate how it feels.

Rachel Sykes is the senior contributor to This Recording. She is a writer living in Nottingham. You can find an archive of her writing on This Recording here. She tumbls here and twitters here. She last wrote in these pages about Showtime's Masters of Sex.

"Don't Mess With Karma" - Brett Dennen (mp3)

The new album from Brett Dennen is entitled Smoke and Mirrors, and it was released on October 22nd.


In Which We Profit Entirely By Conjecture



I believe in quantum physics, kind of. I don’t study it and I certainly can’t prove it, but like Christians in a casino or a child in a buffet line, I muse its most attractive theories.

Wormholes, for instance, are tunnels of negative space energy that link sets of any two points in the universe. The conjecture of Stephen Hawking and a handful of science fiction writers, wormholes can be visualized as a funnel between a two-dimensional surface that folds over a third dimension, allowing the two ends of the funnel to be however infinitely apart, yet connected. Black holes, the nihilist version of wormholes, have funnels with only one end that eventually tapers into nothingness.

Admittedly, I had to Google “wormhole” for its technical definition. I used to snooze through physics class except for when my teacher, a young, lanky Christian, born and raised in western Pennsylvania, would use words like “spacetime” and “exotic matter” to describe phenomena that he attributed to God.

Maybe it was Mr. Gardner’s sermon-like cadence or maybe I so desperately want to grasp onto some sort of cosmic enlightenment, but the notion of wormholes and dark matter stuck with me. At first they were just nice ideas to cogitate, theories with which to coyly embellish a conversation and to speak of with a tinge of irony. But certain things in life have a way of popping up and then disappearing, and as I encounter more and more strange, arbitrary happenings, I’m now willing to accept the mysteries of life as mysteries of the cosmos.

by vija celmins

Now consider this: I am a 20-year-old Chinese immigrant, a soon-to-be first generation American citizen and the daughter of a scientist. Having spent the first eight years of my life in Communist China — i.e., modern China — I didn’t have a conventional childhood.

In the first grade, my classmates and I were indoctrinated as junior comrades of the Party. We were sanctioned to wear red ribbons around our necks, which I thought at the time was to commemorate Mao Zedong’s favorite color.  In the second grade, I participated in a school-wide campaign against superstition and religion. The principal recited Marx over the intercom.

In the third grade, I found myself scrutinized by inquisitive faces, some with yellow hair and blue eyes, like the Chinese imitation Barbies I used to own. This was in Morgantown, West Virginia, where I spent my next five years learning about the English language, Harry Potter, chicken nuggets, the Beatles and eventually, about god.

I guess God could’ve been an easy fix for the perpetual cultural quandaries that ensued in my adolescence. If Chinese counterfeit Barbies had yellow hair and blue eyes, why didn’t I? And how could I have let my parents eat spaghetti with chopsticks in front of my friends?

by vija celmins

But I was the daughter of a scientist, a communist expatriate scientist for that matter. I was never sold on god. I had science and Marx, and I’d rather not elucidate upon the latter, though it’s probably in my blood.

Out of my white, baptized group of friends, I think I was the first to board the bandwagon of existential doubt (I was later reaffirmed by my uncanny keenness for A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man). They’ve caught on by now, of course. We are twenty-somethings, after all. But all of this — the communists, the angst, the James Joyce — leads me back to the notion of wormholes, black holes and dark matter.

Let’s, for a moment, forget about the grandiosity of existence. Forget about life and death and the meaning of it all. Let’s look at the little luxury of poetry and of language, a practical and tangible thing. For all intents and purposes, let’s consider it matter, because it exists in ink on paper and thus, it exists in some sort of fathomable sphere. Different languages, then, are the different states of matter and each meaning is like an element on the periodic table — it can differ in form but never in essence.

But that’s not how language works. Human communication does not follow the conservation of mass and energy. Take the Chinese word, 亲人, or “tsing ren.” The most direct translation in English would be “relative” or “kin.” But that’s far off from the literal meaning of the Chinese word, which in essence, means someone who is close to the heart. The essence of the word, therefore, disappears through translation — the same way matter disappears into the singularity of a black hole.

Likewise, emotions can be contextualized as matter or energy. Anger, apathy and happiness — among the infinite palette of human emotions — can be traced to a specific part of the insular cortex, i.e. the left side of the brain, induced by a specific sequence of nerves and receptors. Feelings, at the very least, are energies we utilize. But when a certain mental sensation is channeled into something else — say, a jog around the neighborhood, an act of revenge, a personal essay — its existence transcends the human body and recalibrates on another medium, separate yet connected to its origin in the mind.

by vija celmins

On the other hand, emotional energy without an outlet eventually dissipates and ceases to exist entirely.  In certain cases, caffeine might be a good remedy. But some, if not most, feelings fade, and nothing can change that. Not even caffeine can make love forever. Shakespeare knew that, though I didn’t believe him until I was 16 and on the receiving end of lost affections, adrift in the relentless gravitational pull of a black hole. I was the end of the funnel.

When we lose something in life, we’re told to let go. In order to grieve, we must eventually accept the dearth of a being that used to be. We quote Vonnegut and buy posters that say “live and let love” to hang on bare walls. We put up and put out. It goes against the circle of life, in which everything is supposed to be connected. And then at some point down the road, we must accept that Mufasa was wrong and that not everything exists in the paradigm of a beginning, middle and an end that leads to new beginnings.

It seems to me that the universe is full of contractions — of conservative Christian physics teachers, of irreconcilable languages and of parents who eat Italian pasta with chopsticks. I hear the universe is also constantly expanding, perpetually mobile, like a haphazard middle school dance with which the only way to keep up is to accept the fact that it’s supposed to be awkward and random and at times, tender. This, I believe.

A few months ago, I was reading 1984 on my commute to work. It was a typical rush hour El ride until I noticed that the lady standing over me was also reading 1984. It would’ve been a regular, serendipitous coincidence if it weren’t for the fact that she was holding the very same Signet Classic paperback edition, published 1950. Mine was a literary artifact that I borrowed from my roommate, who received it as a birthday present from his sister in 2004. To put this in context, there are more than 450 English editions of Orwell’s masterpiece, nearly 800,000 El passengers each weekday and approximately 145 different El stops in Chicago.  I’m not really sure what it meant or if it means anything at all. But in that moment, I was reminded of a particular day in AP Physics. I had woken up just in time before the class was dismissed to see Mr. Gardner drawing a worm poking out of a black circle on the white board.

“There are things in physics I can’t really explain,” he said, dotting two little eyes on the worm. And then the bell rang.

Cathaleen Chen is the senior contributor to This Recording. She is a writer living in Chicago. You can find her twitter here. You can find an archive of her writing on This Recording here. She last wrote in these pages about Chopin.

"The Old and the Young" - Midlake (mp3)

"This Weight" - Midlake (mp3)


In Which We Stop Counting The Masseuse's Lies

The Light of My Something


Enough Said
dir. Nicole Holofcener
93 minutes

Eva (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) is the only masseuse in the world who has never had a pedicure. She is a snob. Her daughter is a snob; same goes for her daughter's friend. Her boyfriend is a snob, her best friend is a snob. Her ex-husband is a snob. His wife is a snob. Her friend's maid is a snob, her clients are all all snobs, especially Marianne (Catherine Keener), who is probably the queen of all snobs. Nicole Holofcener has reduced the behavior of all white people to its basic component wanting to be better at something than someone, anyone.

In her cathartic and disturbing masterpiece Friends with Money, Holofcener made a maid the centrifuge of her Los Angeles satire. That this maid looked to be, from all evidence, Jennifer Aniston, hampered her point a bit. Louis-Dreyfus is a lot more believable in the role. "I guess I'll have to find a hobby," she says, because her daughter is headed to Sarah Lawrence in the fall. There is no way of knowing whether she means it, because she lies so often.

Amazingly, Eva condescends to date an overweight man named Albert (James Gandolfini). Gandolfini resembles a balloon about to pop. Whatever charm he might have retained from his signature role has dissipated, and if you rolled him down a hill and off a ramp at a high speed, he would soar into the sky. He works for a television museum, but informs Eva that he loathes contemporary television.

Later Albert explains that he only likes Jack Benny, whom I presume was a slaveowner. My knowledge of the television of the 1930s (1830s?) is limited at best.

Eva finds out that Albert's ex-wife is her client/friend Catherine Keener. Ensconced in fabric so enveloping it resembles a muumuu, she explains that her ex-husband does not have any friends, although, "Neither do I." Keener then goes on to relate all the ways she found her ex-husband inadequate: she wasn't interested in him sexually, he never seriously tried to lose weight, he didn't have any bedside tables.

Chief among her complaints is the way he swirls his guacamole. Watching the nearly comatose Gandolfini try to sit on a couch (he more perches, like an orangutan) and reenact the source of his ex-wife's complaint is a last meal of sorts. It is certainly no fun.

There are precious few laughs in Enough Said, not because Holofcener's script isn't cynical enough. It is so cynical it makes Gulliver's Travels look like a ringing endorsement of its time.

Toni Collette plays the one semi-likable character, a therapist named Sarah who detests her patients so much she makes fun of them eating their own mucus at dinner parties. The only thing sympathetic about her is that she has a terrible, unhappy maid.

Eva's daughter seems mostly inclined to ignore her mother in the months before her departure. As a surrogate relationship, she mothers over Chloe (Tavi Gevinson), who comes to her with such difficult questions as, "Should I fuck my boyfriend?" (She should and does.)

Tavi's cinematic debut is not a total disaster at times she projects an earthy somnolence, other moments scream her inexperience. Still, outside of Please Give's Abby, young people are usually just an appendage in Holofcener's films, mini-mes destined to suffer the same travails as the parents they so closely resemble.

Holofcener is coming to her point throughout, however. At first, only a few people felt sorry for themselves. The rest were just glad to be alive. Things could have been worse; they could be in Saigon/Vietnam/Korea/Iraq. Feeling sorry for yourself has become such an attenuated art form that it represents a moral given. A matter of degrees separates us only, of how sorry for yourself you feel, and what you deserve in spite of all the lies you told, or because of the truths you inherited.

It was difficult to watch Gandolfini's acting ability decline with his health. (Even Marlon Brando would have turned aside the dinner that finished him off.) It is even harder to spend one second feeling sorry for him, and it is unlikely he ever managed to feel sorry for himself.

Although his personage here is loathsome (he accidentally shows Eva his penis during brunch and begs her to compliment it), at least, in stacks of digitized video of the past, he has found something to enjoy. All around him, these people do not even have that.

Alex Carnevale is the editor of This Recording.

"Can't Wait" - Arcade Fire (mp3)