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Alex Carnevale

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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.

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In Which Noah Baumbach Is Mistress To Us All



Mistress America
dir. Noah Baumbach
84 minutes

Despite its cliché, I have come to terms with the writer figure, musing over this carnival we call life, in a story: Nick Carraway is nothing if not iconic. In Noah Baumbach's new film Mistress America, the writer is a young woman named Tracy (Lola Kirke) who is starting college at Barnard and finding it lonely. Her mother (Kathryn Erbe) urges Tracy to call Brooke (Greta Gerwig), the daughter of her soon-to-be second husband. Brooke and Tracy meet up in Times Square, where Brooke announces she lives because she incorrectly thought it was the cool place to be when she first stepped off the bus from Jersey.

Brooke is a self-proclaimed autodidact (that’s why she didn’t need to go to college) who works as a SoulCycle instructor who also freelance interior decorates. She has aspirations of opening a restaurant that is also a store and a place to get a haircut. Brooke is also selling "so many things," twittering her mediocre thoughts, and wondering aloud if she should open a cabaret hall called “High Standards” where she sings all the standards. “That’s clever,” Tracy shouts. Brooke speaks breathlessly, enthusiastically. She wears flowing silk blouses and can hold her liquor.

To Tracy, wide-eyed, naïve, and, upon meeting Brooke, beaming, Brooke is a tumbleweed of sophistication, creativity, and energy: “Being around her was like being in New York City,” Tracy narrates, and I eyerolled in my seat. Getting rejected from the literary society, procrastinating her schoolwork, and feeling underwhelmed by college, Tracy spends one night with Brooke and suddenly is rejuvenated and charmed by the glittering world of a thirty-something who “lives as a young woman should,” has a relentless vault of dreams and ideas, and who sees life as an opportunity, not a disappointment.

Of course, not all that glitters is gold (I think Tracy actually says that in voiceover) and the reality that is painfully obvious to the audience when Brooke first ambles down the steps in Times Square sets in for young Tracy: Brooke is actually a huge asshole. She’s self-obsessed, unapologetically cheats on her boyfriend, can’t hold down a steady job, uses her friends before unfeelingly disposing of them, has a history of bullying people in high school, and worst of all, claims she doesn’t need therapy because “there’s nothing she doesn’t know about herself.” Her charm is actually whiny desperation, and she represents not New York City but instead everything that’s wrong with what my mother deems “your generation.”

The twist in Mistress America is what all those twists are with writer-narrators: through the putting down of a story, the writer becomes aware that perhaps she is just as flawed as the character she has constructed. That’s what happens to Tracy, because at Brooke’s urging, she forcefully kisses a young man she meets at college despite his girlfriend’s existence. She also writes an offensive short story about Brooke as a means to enter a literary society, even though it’s a pompous group of jerks who carry briefcases and don Warby Parker frames and who rejected her the first time. I guess, of course, that’s the point: that writing a story that defames someone will get you into the club of people who make it their business to be jerks, and then there you are, also a jerk, but at least your talent is recognized.

Performances were OK. Greta Gerwig is fun to watch in a painful sort of way. Her Brooke is dressed well but also clearly broken inside, exactly what Brooke is supposed to be. She’s clumsy and confident at the same time, making it clear her arrogance is masking insecurity. Lola Kirke's Tracy is also awkward, although she is unable to cover it with any believable amount of bravado. Tracy doesn’t change much in the film, except that she quits the writing society in order to make herself feel better for diatribing Brooke.

A pivotal plot development is that Brooke must make amends with her old friend Mamie Claire (Heather Lind), who according to Brooke stole her fiancé, her idea for hipster flowers on t-shirts at J. Crew and “literally” her cats. It is on this journey to Connecticut, to make peace with Mamie Claire and also ask for money to start the new restaurant, that Tracy really begins to understand Brooke — flaws and all — and casts her for what she is (an asshole) in her short story. The visit ends with Brooke’s former fiancé telling her to just not go through with the restaurant — he’ll pay her not to do it — and then everyone gathering around reading Tracy’s story about Brooke and finding it offensive to women.

In nineteenth-century British novels, characters who don’t belong in British society are shipped off to Australia, or sometimes America or Canada. It’s a trope much like literally everything that happens in Mistress America, and unsurprisingly, Brooke is sent off to California by the end of the film. On Thanksgiving Day, she is packing up the commercial apartment in Times Square she illegally holds as a residence when Tracy comes looking for her to make amends for the mean story she wrote. Brooke forgives her; they tell each other they’re smart, and then they share a meal together and giggle about things. We don’t hear what they talk about because music is playing and it’s supposed to be sentimental and conclusive.

Mistress America has been called “screwball” by many critics — it has fast-paced dialogue and sort of larger than life scenarios — and it does fit that description, although it doesn’t attempt to echo anything of a classic screwball comedy. Instead, it proves that we — or at least people who live in New York — are soulless, cardboard people with an unquenchable and unreachable desire to be unique and notorious. Our only hope is moving to California. It’s best not to write that story.

Julia Clarke is the senior contributor to This Recording. She is a writer living in Manhattan.

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In Which We Receive A Police Escort At All Times

Oscar Isaac's Digestive Tract


Show Me A Hero
creators David Simon, William F. Zorzi & Paul Haggis

Nick Wasicsko (Oscar Isaac) flirts with a secretary at City Hall in Yonkers. He corners her and leans over, letting the bacon and gasoline smell of all the men in this New York City suburb wash over her in an awesome wave. He won't leave her alone, and demands they go out for "steaks." When she is ready to be taken home, he demurs and lets her find her own ride, explaining that he is too hyped up and tired at the same time, mixing Maalox in with his usual vodka drink.

Creeping on the secretaries at City Hall does not remind one of heroism necessarily.

Obnoxious Bruce Springsteen plays throughout. David Simon (David Simon) is from Washington D.C., so he probably does not understand that Bruce Springsteen is closely associated with New Jersey. No one in Show Me A Hero, an HBO miniseries about how poor ethnic minorities were basically doomed until the federal government made available public housing in the area, openly dislikes Wasicsko, and most feel sorry for him. He has no choice but to support compliance with the ruling of a Jewish judge (Bob Balaban), and to order to signify his agreement, he wears the world's worst wig.

After she gets off her shift, it's off to the runway where she earns her children's lunch money.

Alma Febles (Ilfenesh Hadera) is a Dominican woman raising three kids who can't afford anything except a cute winter sweater and a movie ticket after her salary is deducted from her rent. She relocates her family to the DR and everything is perfect, but she can't find gainful employment so she heads back to America, where she wears the most adorable onesie I have ever seen. Show Me A Hero is a True Storybut it feels about as real as Hadera looks in this part.

I was in Wal-Mart the other day and there was an Ethnic Hair Care section. True Story.

Isaac seems to be playing the exact character he did in A Most Violent Year, and he is even wearing the same hairpieces. The struggle for housing rights mostly takes place in courtrooms and offices. It was necessary to make this more exciting for the purposes of television so the awful music of Bruce Springsteen was brought into the diegesis, and the visual composition of the scenes is 13.9 percent the legs of Winona Ryder:

Gentlemen, one of you will go home with Winona. Reach for the piece of paper under your chairs.

Ryder plays Vincenza Restiano, a longtime New York politican whose legs were the central part of this important legal battle. In one scene she asks Wasicsko to meet up with her so she can explain how depressed she is that she was voted out of office for a white man. "Give me your stress!" she begs him.

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Instead he gives his stress to the secretary Nay (Carla Quevedo) who also lives with her mother. They bond over this important commonality. An important subplot features Doreen Henderson (Natalie Paul), an African-American who goes from the suburbs to the projects and watches her life fall apart. These sad stories took place less than thirty years ago, and they do not seem very dated at all. The problem with making history out of them is that it makes the production of Show Me A Hero seem like the dismissal of a worse time and place.

Nobody was like, 'Maybe using Bruce Springsteen songs will make people think this is about AIDS'?

Yonkers still exists. I was once there meeting with an official of the Catholic Church. He offered me a cigar and my choice of altar boy. New York is still hopelessly corrupt; the mayor seems to make all his important decisions based on which lobby has most recently absorbed the dust and decay from the underside of his scrotum. New York is a fucking mess: horses continue to shit all over Central Park.

Show Me A Hero was directed by Paul Haggis, since HBO owed him a favor after he appeared as an ex-Scientologist in Going Clear. He directs the show exactly like a lazier version of The Wire, which is everything it did not need. The overseriousness and clear black and white morality of Simon's writing reappears in Show Me A Hero, except we are a bit more inured to it by now. We were betrayed by The Wire: it now seems a terrible thing to make something look like a documentary when it cannot be.

You know David L. Simon wrote this when in this three minute scene, the judge walked to his office and read the newspaper.

The Wire admittedly had that feeling of versimilitude, but Show Me A Hero descends into silliness when it begins to try to give humanity to the anti-Semitic and anti-black homeowners in the Yonkers area. Simon dresses Catherine Keener as a senior citizen in a gray wig for some reason as one of these anti-integrationists. She looks absolutely absurd laughing when her anti-Semitic friends throw dirty diapers at a city council meeting held in full view of the public.

There is a funny scene in the first episode of Show Me A Hero where Simon has a leader of the NAACP confessing that he is not sure imposing federal housing in the Yonkers area is even the right thing to do. He explains his resignation to lawyer Michael H. Sussman (Jon Bernthal), who absorbs the cynicism into his own worldview. The show does not really attempt to explain why the government was set on doing this in the first place, which is kind of important to the whole story. 

The Dominican Republic looks like Eden in this show.

The direction here is all wrong. The documentary feel of The Wire — the handheld cam, the view of people in their natural habitats — has vanished, replaced by a smooth officiousness that makes Yonkers neater and tidier than it ever was. Although Isaac's charisma is like a volcano, focusing on the doomed Wasicsko was a mistake. At times Show Me A Hero feeds on the chaos of the political process so that the show almost transcends being a mere echo of Mr. Simon's past ventures, but it always retreats to Isaac doing the dull work of a politican. We never have very much fun.

Dick Cheney is the senior contributor to This Recording.

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In Which Ladel Ourselves Wet Fan Service

God & Jon Hamm


Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp
creators Michael Showalter & David Wain

It was right before Christmas in the year of our lord 1993 that The State debuted on MTV. Sketch comedy was previously the province of the old; Steve Martin was already in his late 60s by this time, and dating women a mere forty years younger. People still thought Eddie Murphy was hilarious. Non-Seinfeld based comedy as we know it was largely based around puns and the crankiness of Tim Allen's fictional wife Jill (Patricia Richardson). No one was sure what exactly was funny, or why. For some reason, people even found Chevy Chase amusing, or pretended to.

There was nothing to laugh at before The State came on the scene, and Wet Hot American Summer was basically a reunion show for the sketch comedy series that influenced so many young people of every profession. Did it matter that Ken Marino was now in his early forties and that apparently no one liked Kevin Allison enough to invite him back for this project? No. All that mattered is that we could laugh again.

The State's breadth was stunning, and its innovation fantastic — even its worst sketches were so mind-numbingly bizarre that they became even more humorous in retrospect thinking of the idea that MTV allowed them to air on cable television. Most older comedy shows just sit like lumps; quickly becoming dated because of a topical humor that is only understood in context. The State was nothing like that — those of its concepts which did not resonate at the time are now retrospectively funny twenty years later.

The one thing The State constantly avoided being was fan-service. Instead the half-hour show delivered what you did not expect, usually without incorporating profanity or lame cameos from more famous performers as surprises. The fact that it did not have to appeal to any extant audience is what allowed it to exist on its own terms. Well, all of that is flushed down the toilet with Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp.

The original cast of the film looks surprisingly spry in this short Netflix series, with even David Hyde Pierce seeming like he has been in cryogenic sleep since Frasier. Only Showalter himself looks meaningfully different from his original character. I was watching First Day of Camp with a friend of mine whose idea of comedy is Sam Waterson playing gay, and she asked me to explain what the joke was here. "So they were old too old to play campers? And now they're still too old?" I nodded and focused my eyes on the tiny tee-shirt worn by Gerald "Coop" Cooperberg (Michael Showalter).

One of the most embarrassing things Roger Ebert ever wrote was his review of the original movie. None of the jokes resonated for him at all, probably because he was a generation older than any of the writers or performers in the film. He should have at least appreciated the lush, colorful aesthetic that David Wain has made his signature style. No one does a better closeup in this industry, and the broad array of talent is so wonderfully directed that even Chris Pine comes off as a magnificent performer.

First Day of Camp is a prequel to the original film. Coop has arrived to meet up with his girlfriend Donna (Lake Bell), who seems more interested in visiting Israeli counselor Yaron (David Wain). A camp production of the musical ElectroCity pairs theater counselor Susie (Amy Poehler) and dessicating Broadway character actor Claude (John Slattery). A subplot involving the government dumping chemical waste near the camp allows camp directors Greg (Jason Schwartzman) and Beth (Janeane Garofalo) a romantic interlude and explains how Jonas (Christopher Meloni) became Gene, the disturbed camp cook of the original film. Lastly, reporter Lindsay (Elizabeth Banks) goes undercover as a counselor to get a story about reclusive musician Eric (Chris Pine).

What exactly is First Day of Camp missing? It is almost completely composed of fan service, but that is not really the problem. Opening up the universe to amusing scenes filmed in New York in the office of magazine editor Alan (Jordan Peele) adds something different to the experience, even if characters like John Slattery's lecherous veteran actor, Jon Hamm's government assassin The Falcon and Michaela Watkins' lecherous choreographer fall a bit flat.

Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp is such great fun it seems silly to ask for anything more. But extended scenes set at David Hyde Pierce's university or the courtroom of attorney Jim Stansel (Michael Cera) remind us of how exciting it would be to see a new comedy set in this wild universe instead of the familiar summer camp drama.

Demanding our most serious comedic talents revisit the scenes of their finest successes led to Beverly Hills Cop 3. Sure, without the comfort of the characters that proved so successful in the original film, Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp would be an inconsistent mix of brilliant satire and completely bizarre flops (still not sure what Showalter was going for with his performance as Ronald Reagan), but that was pretty much The State. At least it wasn't content to trod out the same characters again and again, looking to resurrect whatever bit of genius captured the imagination the first time. Instead they moved onto the next thing.

Eleanor Morrow is the senior contributor to This Recording. She is a writer living in New York.

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