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Classic Recordings
Robert Altman Week

Monday
Apr072014

In Which We Sample The Empty Bodies Of Nymphomaniac

Fate and Flesh

by KYLEE LUCE

Nymphomaniac: Volumes I & II
dir. Lars Von Trier
241 minutes

The first Google result for “sex ego death” is a crowdfunding attempt from August 2013 that raised 15 dollars. The funds they failed to crowd were intended to erect a “sex and ego death” billboard on Rodeo Drive in Los Angeles, in order “to MAKE PEOPLE THINK, and through that process gain enough understanding of their ‘true self’—the self without judgments or social constraints.” 

Nymphomaniac, Lars Von Trier’s latest two-part sexual provocation, has a similar aim but with a budget of 10 million; a chunk of change that managed to secure, alongside stars Gainsbourg and Skarsgård, the presence of Christian Slater, Uma Thurman, Christopher Walken, and Shia LaBoeuf.

Shia, who might be infamously hotheaded but, as he announced by scrawling in Sharpie across a brown paper bag and wearing said bag over his head at the Berlin premiere, is not famous anymore. Shia's supersized sense of self has long since bestowed him the post-empire honor of being a celebrity who Gawker, along with everyone else, hates; but he’s brilliantly cast here because plenty of us would still fuck him.

Incidentally, the first Google result for just “sex ego” is the wiki for the term “Ego-dystonic sexual orientation,” described as a “mental disorder characterized by having a sexual orientation or an attraction that is at odds with one’s idealized self-image.” My grey matter doesn’t really square with psychoanalysis; “It’s boring,” I’ve said enough times to bore myself. But early this year my eyes fell on the phrase “ego death” and snared there, mid-Google search for “sleep deprivation,” which I did after reading a study showing that ceasing to sleep for a few days was temporarily effective in cutting through the psychic chokehold of depression. Nymphomaniac is the last entry in Von Trier’s “Depression Trilogy.” 

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The rug wasn’t exactly pulled out from underneath me. I didn’t trip so much as decide to jump, fling myself from a flying carpet; but there’s a dim panic that descends when major pieces of your life tumble into chaos like a pile of loose change, a slanting tendency to do things you thought weren’t like you at all. Like, for instance, staying awake for two days straight and then going to a mall-watching assorted legs wander the sky bridge over the street separating the cheaper stores (glaring Forever 21 bags stuffed like suitcases) from the seductively expensive Tiffany’s section, a rail train slotting down the middle like needle into vein; like suddenly finding it unbearable to be anything close to sober in the presence of other people; like finding it even more unbearable to be alone. 

In this phantom-limb delusion of fresh heartbreak I told myself that love was a flying carpet and I had rug burns; that this faded, insomniac floating felt like salve.

I was sleep-deprived and riding shotgun on a long drive when, down a barren stretch of desert road, talk turned to Lars Von Trier; someone said he thought Melancholia was meant to indict us. I asked if every movie had to have a message, if intent even mattered (it does, a little bit); but Von Trier isn’t quite on par with the natural nihilist in Harmony Korine, wrecking sandcastles for fun. Closer to him is David Lynch, whose work is like a long bath just beneath a hard surface, like dunking into a subliminal cenote. 

Twin Peaks was the first thing I felt like watching after moving into a new apartment for one, because its project was to map the blood relation between nostalgic beauty and death, between ugliness and love. And in Lynch’s cosmology their symmetry has a glinting refulgence. The best scenes make me feel the same way that Von Trier’s best movies do, which is drenched in a kind of molecular, vibrating awareness. 

In Von Trier’s own words, “Maybe Lynch and I share a fetish.”

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We meet the nymphomaniac facedown in the street. Joe (an ever-magnetic Charlotte Gainsbourg) is bruised and bleeding when the sexless, aging Seligman (Stellan Skarsgård) takes her in and makes her tea. “What happened?” he asks. She replies, “I’m just a bad human being.” He tells her he doesn’t believe in such a thing, and from there she proceeds to relay her entire life’s sexual story to a riveted audience of one. 

For a memorable time in her early adulthood Joe is fucking “up to ten men a night.” In carefully orchestrated trysts Stacy Martin, young Joe’s avatar of droll face and lithe flesh, spends Volume I gyrating against nearly a new body per frame per second. Young bodies, old bodies, bodies that walk like big cats, bodies that do nothing but eat her cunt; the only constants being that they’re all men and her own omnipresent nudity. But the most memorable, and most Lynchian, scene of the first film finds her fully clothed, staring blankly at the floor, while Uma Thurman’s scene-stealing scorned wife (“Mrs. H.”) tries to scorch her from her mistress’ seat. 

It doesn’t work. Joe’s sexual nihilism turns out to be flameproof right up until her desire burns out. But sometime during the close shots of the philandering father’s children’s faces, or definitely by the time Mrs. H. departs down the stairs with a piercing, anti-comic shriek of pain, it occurred to me that Nymphomaniac, in spite all those O-face promotional posters, is hilariously unsexy. Which should have come as no surprise — I remember feeling more titillated watching Rooney Mara’s Dragon Tattoo rape scene, a textbook example of men filming the sexual violation of women like they’re gunning for an AVN award, than anything Von Trier has ever done. 

Tiny pleasure-rushes from a few beautiful bodies in the buff (LaBeouf had a great personal trainer, and Martin might be a real mermaid, the kind that drown men for fun) flutter like dying insects under the film’s morgue-esque moods. In young Joe’s final scene on a speeding train every pore on her face pops into relief under sickly fluorescent light, open mouth and lidded eyes evoking an undead Megan Fox, right before she coerces a stranger into a blowjob; the overarching sensation being something like a death dream. 

That ever-enduring debate (don’t say Woody All...) about separating the artist from his art has become deeply dull because it’s beside the point. Every known thing about a person inevitably informs their work like tributary streams, all flowing into the same final destination: the noumenal ocean of the Internet, where I read the following Lars Von Trier quote in an interview about Antichrist: "If the film has anything to do, it has to do with that there is no God; that is how I see it.” In the same interview he said he “hadn’t read much of” and “(didn’t) want to talk about” Nietzsche, which didn’t do much to halt a lot of theory-bro thinkpieces, or me. If God is dead, then Antichrist was an arch illustration of his absence, Melancholia an apocalypse fantasy as foray into the gothic swamp of the (mad) mind; Nymphomaniac, on Von Trier’s other hand, tears into the last component of the Cartesian divide: body.

In careening withdrawal from a specific body it feels like you might actually die from an absence of touch. There’s a line at the end of Lindsay Hunter’s short story “Three Things You Should Know About Peggy Paula” that immediately became one of those arrangements of letters etched in tattoo ink across my memory. It’s recurred to me in recent months like a wave of déjà vu: “because if no one is there to touch you are you even really there?”

In a new city and beside a new body, I had the dumb compulsion to say, “This is kind of out of character,” a phrase I had started using like it was a protective umbrella that would shield me from the results. But words aren’t waterproof. Do something outside your idea of yourself and your stick-figure lines just expand to encompass it; everything you’ve ever done is you.

Joe, the teenager who would only fuck a man once, eventually tries to grow up. She falls in love and becomes a breeder; years that she once counted in collected cum pass stoically behind a baby stroller. But after trying on a normal life for size — to our utter unsurprise — it just doesn’t fit. Without her rabid sex-life Joe feels dead. Lust is the closest approximation of living she’s got and she can’t even come. Volume I may witness her watching the shit-and-blood bodily failure and death of her father, but in Volume II she unequivocally declares: the worst thing that ever happened to her was losing her ability to orgasm. 

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The loss of her desire was the more existential loss, and through his anti-heroine Von Trier asserts the impossibility of mind over matter, or matter over mind. In Nymphomaniac there are only -alities: states of being alive. To mourn, or in Joe’s case to lubricate, is at least a feeling; depression is the state of being without any, the -ality of the void. (“Fill all my holes,” Joe commands Jerome, the only lover she’s ever actually loved, while naked on top of him. “I can’t, Joe,” he says.) 

Desperate to “rehabilitate” her sexuality, she resorts to replacing penetration with pain; this time, beneath the spanking-crop of a suave blond dom, it works. To the tune of “FIDO,” her new name, her lust finally moves like the blood to her ass. The most graphic shots by far in this purported porno aren’t of cocks but of purpled and bleeding welts and wounds; and thanks to them she’s back in business, in more ways than one. 

But like most hard-won victories, this one comes with casualties; completely gone from her life is her family, is love. Soon she’ll be horizontal in a gutter. If depression can be understood as an enduring state of alienation, the separation from shared reality can act as dangerous buffer. Destruction is all fireworks from a distance. “For a human being killing is the most natural thing in the world. We’re created for it,” Joe says. And for all Seligman’s insistence on her innocence over her self-proclaimed indictment of her own moral character, kill she eventually does. 

Why doesn’t matter. Von Trier cares not about reasons. Or at least Joe doesn’t seem to have any beyond fate itself, narrating that she “discovered my cunt at age two” and spiraled into ruin from there. Outside of “sheer lust” there’s no discernible motive driving anything she does, from Volume I’s teenage sex competition on a train (one of the movie’s many conceits so masculine they make a case for the queerness of the director’s lens — the popular theory that he identifies as the women in his films rather than the men) to Volume II’s forty Roman ass-lashes and ruinously-wounded cunt. 

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In an interview with The Daily Beast, Uma Thurman said of Von Trier: “The idea that people debate whether he’s a misogynist? People should debate whether people who don’t even write women are misogynists. The fact is, he’s dedicated a large portion of his artistic life to the exploration of the female psyche — good and bad, light and dark, shadows, textures.” Von Trier himself has said, “I, of course, believe that women are as bad as men.” He neglects to mention that women may well be born as bad but are then nurtured into being much worse off.

In a 1951 speech called “Keeping Calm and Composed, Let Us Awake to Our True Self,” the Japanese philosopher Shin'ichi Hisamatsu spoke about his idea of the “formless self”: the highest state of which he called “formless composure … unobstructed by mind and body.” He then quoted from the Buddhist text The Heart Sutra: “Emptiness, just as it is, is form.” 

In his last three films, Lars Von Trier has attempted emptiness as emotional form. Modern life can be seen in macro as the division of human consciousness into cubicles, then the movies in the Depression Trilogy — in their exploration of alienation-ality — all perform a possible set of psychic consequences. And this last entry, in its blithe parade of bodies, feels emptiest of all. 

A dualistic God demanded that we master the body; love just wants to subjugate lust; and Nymphomaniac is a circle in red ink around the pointlessness of both endeavors. But there’s something weirdly comforting about the bare honesty of its effort. In yet another interview about Antichrist (he hasn’t done any since Melancholia premiered, when he made a few spectacularly PR-unfriendly comments about Hitler,) our Danish auteur said, “No matter how ridiculous it might seem, the film, like all my work, is made from what I would call a pure heart. I am not ever trying to, as you say in England, take the piss.” 

Self-induced insomnia never killed my ego, but without sleep I felt blurred, somehow softer, like my sharper edges were sloughing off. Deep in the snarl of sex I sometimes feel the opposite — a temporary expansion of self, a euphoric unfurling. As Susan Sontag wrote in her journal: “The coming of the orgasm is not the salvation but, more, the birth of my ego.” In the final scene of Volume II, Joe waxes poetic about what she has decided is her only way forward: eradicating her sexuality completely. “I will master all my stubbornness, and my strength, and my masculine aggression,” she whispers to Seligman, calling him “my one and only friend.” Minutes later, she shoots him. That the film’s framing centers around a single question — whether or not Joe is a bad human being — is in the end a red herring that fades into black, swallowed whole by the real conundrum: the pure fatalism of having flesh. In the way she describes giving birth to her child: “I didn’t feel fear; more like a kind of disgust. I could have sworn I saw him laughing.” In Von Trier’s empty visions, fate laughs at us.

Kylee Luce is a contributor to This Recording. She is a writer living in Salt Lake City. This is her first appearance in these pages. You can find her tumblr here and her twitter here.

"Send Her To Holloway" - The Rails (mp3)

"Panic Attack Blues" - The Rails (mp3)

Friday
Apr042014

In Which We Travel The Rift Rails To Find The Young God

VR

by ALEX CARNEVALE

And even so, could you delimit what you saw?

A friend of mine has a pretty bad commute. She rides all the way out to the tip of the island, where it looks out on the ocean,  and then back into the city. The way out is slightly shorter; just over two and a half hours, and there is no good way of getting back. Since she is an instructor, she uses her time to grade papers, send oblique messages like "u there?" or "thanking bout you" and quietly shift in her seat, indicating to herself the provenance of an event that may never come.

She is a religious woman, and she thinks of God during these times (I think of Michelle Obama). She wonders, with no small amount of respect for the entity she has determined is greater than herself, why has He put her where she is?


Virtual reality has come a long way since Nintendo produced an ill-fated device called the Virtual Boy. Selling just over a million units worldwide far below the company's expectations the device rendered simple games, 2-D and 3-D, in a flummoxing red and black. Still, your eyes were properly ensconced among these awkward visions indisputably, you had entered another world.

VR prodigy/prophet/sellout Palmer Luckey sold his new and improved virtual boy, code named Oculus Rift, to Facebook last week for $2 billion. His company was on the verge of releasing its second prototype, a $350 pair of goggles intended mainly for developers, but made available for the greater public as a both a nod to the history of new worlds, and to fulfill promises made in their first effort at fundraising on Kickstarter.

Why is Luckey a prodigy? His ideas about Oculus VR being primarily a gaming experience and pitching it directly to friends in the development community proved savvy so far, but he has proven his pedigree by attracting programming talents like those of ID founder John Carmack to his vision of what the VR platform should mean for users.

Mark Zuckerberg changed all that. "If we can make this a network where people are communicating, and buying virtual goods, and there might be ads down the line," he told stockholders in the understatement of the year. "That’s where the business could come from."

Yes, an alliance with Facebook means ads in your new universe, but did you really think any new world would ever be without them? Someone else has chosen the universe you will enter; creating universes for others will soon become a caste, just as there is a commuting caste, or an iPhone caste. I believe Neal Stephenson was the first to develop this idea.


Such caste divisions will also exist in Riftworld, but violence and bodily harm are impotent there. Trade and financial considerations will still change lives. Relationships and betrayalthons are likely to continue as distinguishing features of human existence, such as the vitriolic barrage that pelted Luckey when he sold his fledgling company to a data-mining behemoth headed by a man who never made anything in his life except money.

Supporters of the Rift's early prototypes have disparaged Luckey for seeming to compromise a stated plan to be an independent, open piece of hardware. Comments on the company's KS page excoriated the founders for "giving up their vision." More than a few demanded the latest prototype for free, "as a gesture." Others idiotically and amusingly requested part of the company's purchase price.

Deeply hurt by his most devoted subjects' irritation, Luckey sprang out to the media to reassure his followers that Mark Zuckerberg might be a very powerful man in the IRL existence we all know and treasure, but in the VR world he was planning, such estimable influence was merely a function of godliness.

The wounded god sputtered out: "I am sorry that you are disappointed. To be honest, if I were you, I would probably have a similar initial impression! There are a lot of reasons why this is a good thing, many of which are not yet public." Not even the Wizard of Oz so quickly drew his curtain!

Do you think He reveals himself to those who do not please Him?

Churches have many influential supporters, until they don't. In some areas that means a reduction in services for the poor and homeless. In my hometown, a soup kitchen is badly needed, and no local church has the financial wherewithal to offer one. An extensive VR operation, with rows and rows of terminals for the needy, requires no expensive supplies of meat and vegetables, since eating is nonce in Riftland. We do not have to cure poverty or hunger, we must merely provide a useful means of allowing a person to ignore it.

This notion, of worlds below worlds, is more ancient than recent. Popular beliefs among the early Nordic peoples suggested that time ran at different speeds, slower in the lower worlds, faster in the higher ones, and even differently in the spaces between those places. Being able to postpone an emotion is surely useful, and this feature, adapted from real world denial, has a variety of military and non-military uses. There is almost always a place we would rather be than the one we are in.

It is easy to conclude that $2 billion dollars, most of it in overvalued FB stock, was a cheap price to pay for what is essentially an unstable entry into Hogwarts. As for my dear friend who rides the railroad for hours on end, I'm certain my own heart would be ten times more comfortable knowing she could be in Riftland during that long commute, observing Hawaiian sea turtles or climbing the Western Wall.

There, in that new place, each thing is either different or the same as every other thing. She will be sworn to an allegiance not unlike the one she took with the man who created the real universe. Joining Riftland, there is another God, in his early twenties, named Palmer Luckey. He did an AMA on reddit, he probably linked it on his twitter?

Alex Carnevale is the editor of This Recording.

Photographs by Julia Clarke.

"Booty Killah" - Elliphant ft. The Reef (mp3)

"Everything 4 U" - Elliphant (mp3)

Thursday
Apr032014

In Which We Write In Very Small Handwriting

at her usual table in the Café de Flore, 1945

Her One Reality

by ELLEN COPPERFIELD

What is an adult? A child blown up by age.

Young Simone de Beauvoir shared her room with the maid. Outside her family's Paris apartment was the Boulevard Raspail and the Boulevard du Montparnesse. At the age of three she threw her first conscious temper tantrum. To her credit, she stopped when she no longer required the attention.

Her parents spoke to her only in a reproving tone during those difficult years. Simone reserved her true conversation for her sister Hélène. They made up a language their parents would not understand, full of winks and sounds, intimate gestures that they alone could understand in the presence of their parents. Together they created a fantasy world based on the lives of the saints. Simone would play the martyr almost exclusively.

She wrote of Hélène that "she was my accomplice, my subject, my creature. It is plain that I only thought of her as being 'the same, but different', which is one way of claiming one's preeminence. Without ever formulating it in so many words, I assumed that my parents accepted this hierarchy and that I was their favourite."

the sisters aged three and five

Although Simone's father was engaged in the slow process of falling out of the upper class, he would not send his children to the public lycée, fearing contamination. One of her father's favorite remarks was, "The wife is what the husband makes of her: it's up to him to make her someone." The pressure he puts on his wife Francoise extended to his precocious young daughter, who he expected would discuss books with him. Simone de Beauvoir had a library card at the age of four.

The de Beauvoirs fled Paris in fear at the onset of the first World War, but soon returned. Georges de Beauvoir was called to the front and returned to his family after a heart attack. Back in the presence of his young daughters, they could not help but be antagonized that his moustache had gone as well. The sound of gunfire could be heard every night. The family was forced to subsist on a corporal's pay, and Simone imitated her mother's frugality.

In her 1990 biography, Deirdre Bair recalls Simone's younger sister Hélène telling her, "In our games when she liked to play the saint, I think it must have given me pleasure to martyrize her even though she was so kind. I remember one day reaching the summit of cruelty: she took the role of a young and beautiful girl whom I, as an evil ruler, was keeping prisoner in a tower. I had the inspiration my most serious punishment for her would be to tear up her prayer book."

Most of Simone and Hélène's classmates had left the city. Walking the grounds of their school was most eerie, almost like visiting a graveyard. The date was 1918. Paris had always disappointed her; it was too familiar, and she had nothing else with which to compare it. Simone de Beauvoir was ten years old.

She wrote in her memoirs that "I had made a definite metamorphosis into a good little girl. Right from the start, I had composed the personality I wished to present to the world; it had brought me so much praise and so many great satisfactions that I finished by identifying myself with the character I had built up: it was my one reality."

Her father's law practice had faltered, and a job with his charlatan father-in-law also dried up as soon as the company's military contracts vanished. The family moved into a middle class building at 71 Rue de Rennes. The fifth floor flat had no elevator, and Simone now shared a bedroom with her sister. Seeing the small room, their friends could not contain their looks of shock. Her father wanted to give the girls bicycles, but her mother, in view of the family's finances, could not allow it.

She did not understand sex, although she was determined to flirt with men, to do anything impetuous or brazen to attract their attention, not knowing what any of it meant. When she was very small she had thought her parents bought their children in a shop.

Until her adolescence began, she was her father's favorite. The entire family had listened to her stories with rapt attention. But acne interfered, and soon she was clearly the less beautiful of the senior de Beauvoir's two daughters. It was not simply her new appearance that so disgusted Georges de Beauvoir, it was that his daughter's education had not stopped in the place that his had. She was becoming an intellectual, and he hated that sort. He called her ugly.

At school she fared no better. Her classmates ignored her, bullied her, mocked her. She told Bair, "Of course it bothered me that I was not popular. But when I compared all to the satisfaction of reading and learning, everything else was unimportant. Those slights meant very little, and soon I didn't even think about it." Even as a lie, it was a good one.

The last time Deirdre Bair saw Simone de Beauvoir was on the afternoon of March 7, 1986. It is difficult to imagine her at this age, so small and frail. In the introduction to her biography, Bair describes the last tiny embrace Simone gave her, hugging her lower body. Bair towered over Simone by several feet.

with sartre and others in 1951

Her first attempt at writing was titled, "The Misfortunes of Marguerite." She abandoned it when she realized, after consulting an atlas, that the crossing of the Rhine where she had set the story did not in fact exist. Her parents had a low opinion of cinema; they regarded Charlie Chaplin as completely silly, even for their young daughters.

When she found that despite her Catholic education, she was both willing and eager to discard God, Little Women entered her life. Of course she was Jo. She fantasized about her own death, imagining her funeral, the weeping mourners.

with sartre in china

Her first real friend was Elisabeth Le Coin, an emaciated little girl with a dark scar on her left leg, suffered at her own hand. Elisabeth replaced Hélène in Simone's life, much to the younger de Beauvoir's chagrin. The two became inseparable. Simone's mother would tell her nothing of becoming a woman, so Elisabeth and Simone were forced to figure out the particulars together.

Sexuality scared her more than anything. Once a young clerk in an antiques shop exposed himself to her, and she had no idea what to make of it.

with Richard and Ellen Wright on her first trip to New York City, 1947

Her prettier sister had no such conflicts with men. They both had heard their parents engaging in rowdy sex through the thin wall in the tiny apartment, but Hélène alone was normalized by relationships with her peers. Although she was at the top of her class, her parents' only wish was that she meet a man and get married.

Simone found an article in a magazine about a woman who had become a philosopher and was now teaching the subject. Her mother was completely disappointed by Simone's lack of interest in her Catholic faith. To hide from her mother's frequent invasions of privacy, she wrote in handwriting so small it could not be detected by any eyes other than her own.

Ellen Copperfield is the senior contributor to This Recording. She is a writer living in San Francisco. She last wrote in these pages about the first marriage of Gregory Peck. You can find an archive of her writing on This Recording here.

"Collapse" - Vancouver Sleep Clinic (mp3)

"Flaws" - Vancouver Sleep Clinic (mp3)