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Robert Altman Week

Monday
Jan112010

In Which They Say I'm A Womanizer? I Haven't Met Enough Women Yet

Men In Revolt

by MOLLY LAMBERT

This just in: according to the neurotic Jews and WASPs of the last decade's fiction, American men don't know how exactly they should be acting about sex. This is brand new information! Does masculinity focus on being too self-absorbed? Is femininity still too much about self-abnegation? Is literature self-absorbed? Did Warren Beatty tell Peter Biskind that Jane Fonda can unhinge her jaw like a python? Is Sol the cold sun?

Done are the days of Vice Magazine's tits and cocaine ethos, as are the nu-80s that were the 00s. Somebody tell John Mayer before he threatens to date rape us again. C'mon John, I'm a polymath too, there's no need to keep screaming out for approval constantly. You want to be respected as a comedian? Knock up Jennifer Aniston.

I kid, I kid. Everyone knows the problem with Jen An is that she's too submissive, and what John Mayer needs is a strong top. That's what Brad Pitt needed (also rimjobs). Maybe John Mayer should fuck Madonna? I sort of like Madonna more now that I know she taunted Warren Beatty at gay discos for not dancing with "hey pussy man!"

h8 u & ur aesthetic terry richardson

Meanwhile the not-a-girl, not-yet-a-woman demographic is flooded with New Moon and Taylor Swift. Transgressive as their popularity alone may be, both Twilight and Taylor ascribe to a world view that too many fourteen year girls are already inoculated with. An entirely boy-centric romatic one, where nothing is interesting unless it involves crushes and the surrounding drama. Even fifth wave feminist Megan Fox admits there's no such thing as Megan Fox. No wonder Mahnola is fucking pissed.

love ur raspberries t shirt chabon hope it's these raspberries

I read Michael Chabon's Manhood For Amateurs. The cover has a neat conceit, but it doesn't actually work, a metaphor for masculinity if ever there was one. There are essays about being a son and brother written in the kind of clean clipped front lawn style associated with Richard Ford and the dignity of restrained masculine emotions.

There are essays about fatherhood, married life, and courting his wife that seem overly tailored to the idea that his children might read them someday, which makes them read somewhat dishonestly. There are also a couple of essays about his first marriage and various youthful sexual indiscretions that are frank and detailed (which is not to say erotic) enough to give readers major secondhand embarrassment.

Maybe this is the worst kind of criticism to give these practitioners of the new earnest manhood, but god is it boring. Not that this validates the grand tradition of geniuses as tremendous bastards. One can be a tremendous bastard without being an author or a genius and vice versa. I'm not saying Chabon should go for a ride and never come back, but he should definitely at least stop over-supervising his children's playtime.

In another essay, Chabon admits his worst failing is an inability to write three dimensional female characters. Looking back, it's kinda true. While I commend his honesty, I never understand this, even though it's something I occasionally hear from men. I always say "write a male character, then give them a female name." 

As a girl you grow up seeing yourself in male characters, because (unfortunately) the cool ones are still mostly men. One of the reasons I picked Adventureland as my favorite movie of last year is that it had fully fleshed out and well written characters of both genders. Chabon recognizes that his tendency towards seeing women as mysterious is wrong, but finds it very hard to shake. There is no mystery to women. There is plenty of mystery to sex, but it's equally mysterious to everyone.

For my money, Wonder Boys is still Chabon's best book, and as much as he loves fantasy and genre, the farther away he gets from reality the less interested and invested I get in the characters. This is just a personal preference, I would rather read smaller scale character studies, but I also think that emotional observation is a core component of his talents as a writer. Besides, the genre fic thing is beyond played out. New novels by all writers starting now in 2010 are forbidden from involving the following things: comic books, detectives, baseball, magicians, the holocaust

let's talk about the giant stack of books Ayelet is resting her tiny legs on

Anyway if Katie Roiphe is underwhelmed and unoffended by the sexually neutered males of Brooklyn fiction, she should check out this vast cultural wasteland called the internet. The best writing about sex is currently being done by the people who are smart/stupid enough to date and write about it. Dating wasn't even really invented until the 1950s, it's no wonder nobody knows how to do it.

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If I were a man, which is something I've obviously spent a great deal of time thinking about, I would feel as insulted by the bulk of male culture as I am by most things steered to women. The men I know are nothing like the caricatures of "men" I see advertised to me everywhere. They are not oafs or jerks or lazy misogynists. They have more feelings than they know what to do with. They are real people, and they deserve to be insulted by what masculinity has come to represent.

The best advice I have ever heard about sex, romance, and masculinity is from porn star/P.T. Anderson muse John Holmes in Exhausted: John Holmes The Real Story.

"You don’t have to be overly macho. You don’t have to be over-complimentary. Gain her respect. And that’s treating her as an equal. Don’t bullshit her. Treat her as a human being. Treat her as you would treat yourself. As soon as you have that respect from her, she’ll treat you with the same respect that you show. Then you fuck the shit out of her." - John Curtis Holmes 

Molly Lambert is the managing editor of This Recording. She tumbls and twitters.

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"Heart and Soul (Martin Hannett mix)" - Joy Division (mp3)

"From Safety to Where (Martin Hannett mix)" - Joy Division (mp3)

"Passover (Martin Hannett mix)" - Joy Division (mp3)

Sunday
Jan102010

In Which We Preemptively Acknowledge Our Flaws

The Impulse To Expiate

by EMILY GOULD

Woody and Diane Keaton meet, in Manhattan, and immediately start contradicting and one-upping each other. They do so intensely, with a focus that excludes the people they’re notionally on dates with. Watching them, you might find yourself suddenly seized with a strange and increasingly less-shakeable suspicion. You, too, have some habitual patterns of interacting with the romanceable people you meet, you've noticed. But have these habits developed organically, or are they just a set of tricks and tics that you subliminally learned from watching early Woody Allen movies? Do these movies succeed, as you’d assumed they did, by evoking the shock of recognition, or is the shock of recognition you feel, watching them, just the end product of a feedback loop?

Regardless, the depth of identification you (fine okay I) feel watching jerks fall in love can be so intense it’s jarring. And when those love affairs fail to end happily — and no matter how many times you’ve seen the movies, those failures somehow have the power to surprise again and again — it is possible to become super bummed out.

Manhattan is also a bummer because, while it is formally the best Woody Allen movie — the Woody-Allen-movie-est Woody Allen movie — it also codifies the fatal Woody flaw, which is his un-get-aroundably creepy thing for little girls.

Mariel Hemingway got an Oscar nomination for her performance as Woody’s Dalton-senior love interest in this movie, but the prize seems inadequate compensation for the then-16 year old's having been subjected to multiple takes of the scenes wherein the fortyish Woody gropes and kisses her. Her fundamental physical indifference, even as she mouths lines like "Let’s fool around!", is legible in every line of her coltish body.

The ick factor is especially pronounced when these scenes are juxtaposed with the ones that showcase Diane and Woody’s unfakeable chemistry. But we do believe that Mariel’s Tracy thinks she loves Woody’s Isaac, and that consequently he is able to hurt her. Their love scenes may be stomach-turning, but when he dumps her, Tracy’s obvious pain reveals Isaac’s essential sliminess with unprecedented vividness. "Why should I feel guilty about this? This is ridiculous!” he says, as her beautiful, reason-to-live face quivers on the verge of eerily childish tears. The chord of recognition is struck here too — we have all tried to break a heart guiltlessly, or witnessed someone try guiltlessly to break ours. (But did these movies teach us, and them, how to go about it?)

Tracy, we’re told, is mature for her age. That’s why Isaac is attracted to her, he says early on. But somehow the moments that are meant to demonstrate this maturity are the moments when his real desires slip out – part of his character’s charm, of course, is that he is always helplessly showing his hand. "You keep stating it like it’s to my advantage, when it’s you that wants to get out," she says when he explains why they should break up. "Don’t be so smart, don’t be so precocious," he commands. In their final scene together, when she refuses to buy the recantation of this breakup speech, he tells her not to be so mature.

Isaac's romance with Diane Keaton's Mary Wilkie has its creepy moments too. There is one moment especially when Mary is talking to Isaac but really she is talking to herself, about how she deserves better than Yale, Isaac's married friend who she’s seeing. She is giving herself a little self-esteem lecture about how she is young and beautiful and smart and deserves better. Like Isaac, she is helplessly showing her hand, but unlike him, her foibles aren’t presented lovingly. Isaac’s selfishness seems meant to come off, thanks to his ostentatious self-awareness, as a lovable quirk. Mary seems to have no idea how monstrous she’s being, and therefore seems doubly monstrous.

Isaac’s no monster, though, or at least he isn’t meant to seem like one. His overlay of protective self-awareness — his preemptive acknowledgment of flaws that you haven’t even noticed yet, the sense that he hates himself more than you ever could — has provided a reliable template for future generations of dudes, cinematic and otherwise. It’s this kind of guy who’d think to inoculate himself against charges of misogyny by having Bella Abzug make a cameo in his movie about a forty year old man who’s fucking a high-schooler. These dudes don’t just to get away with being assholes, they want to be loved both for and in spite of it.

You have met these dudes. As kids, they were mocked for the same traits that they’ve now transformed into social currency, but this reversal hasn’t fully salved the wounded rage in them. So they are maybe going to take that anger out on some powerless girls, but they’re going to be so super aware the whole time, of what they’re doing and why. To paraphrase the terrible novel whose opening paragraph Isaac is writing at the movie’s outset, New York is their town, and it always will be. And maybe they live here because the city is like them: trapped between the impulse to expiate or to celebrate its sins, and trapped in the misconception that admitting to them somehow accomplishes both things at once.

Emily Gould is the senior contributor to This Recording. She is a writer living in Brooklyn. She blogs here.You can pre-order her book And the Heart Says...Whatever here.

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Friday
Jan082010

In Which We Are A Commodity To All Who Love Us

Cherry Picking

by KARINA WOLF

Both Nine and Broken Embraces propose that finishing a film is a life or death deal. Certainly, to the protagonists — addled directors with chaotic emotional lives — film is all-encompassing escape. As Woody Allen says about the profession: “You get the reward of distraction — you don’t think about the outside world, and you’re faced with solvable problems, and if they’re not solvable, you don’t die because of it. I get to live with very beautiful women and very witty men and they have costumes, and the sets are beautiful. It’s a very pleasant way to waste your life.”  Who wouldn’t perceive threat to this lifestyle as a kind of imminent demise?  

I’m surprised no one pitched this Hollywood folly in The Player: morph Fellini’s into Nine (is the relativity of a fraction is too tough on an audience?), a Broadway show turned into a filmic musical about a director who can’t find an story. While Fellini’s Contini seems quite aware of his absurdity, his shadow self in Rob Marshall's Nine holds his head as if he’s pondering Yorick’s skull. 

Leave it to Judi Dench to recognize that filmmaking is not brain surgery; it’s about decisions. “You say yes and no,” she summarizes Contini’s job spec.  Though they’d like to think otherwise, the people sustained by this enterprise are cast and crew.

Like Fellini, Almodovar lets us suppose his protagonists might be his stand-ins: directors, writers, dancers, drag queens — storytellers — populate his films. At the start of 2004's Bad Education, we are allowed insight into what might be the filmmaker’s method of conceiving a story. An auteur scavenges a tabloid for clippings that he might fashion into a film. The source material makes sense — art, after all, is cherry-picked from experience. And Almodovar’s strength lies in his joy at life’s outlandish variety, in his empathy for the preposterous and the perverse. A nurse rapes an unconscious patient, any number of men kidnap and tie up their girlfriends, jilted women poison their boyfriends’ gazpacho, all in a way that’s logical and ineluctable. While another director might want to prod an audience, Almodovar makes them love the characters they want to judge. Characteristically, Broken Embraces’ personae embody a spectrum of human weakness.

Everything has already happened, says Harry Caine, the film’s pseudonymous hero. The only thing left is to enjoy life. Thus the blind man excuses his tryst with a blonde who helps him cross the street and shags him on his living room sofa. The camera is a double for Caine’s desire. The blonde’s breasts and a tray of tomatoes and Penelope Cruz’s face are all shot delectably. In an interview at the DGA, Almodovar admitted that a scene in Law of Desire, in which Carmen Maura allows a street cleaner to hose her down in the early morning heat, was his own fantasy. For him, for all of us, cinema is wish fulfillment, the ultimate opportunity to enact missed opportunities and to forge resolutions.

Almodovar’s stories explore obsession — what it prompts, how it’s remembered, occasionally its causes (because those are so tricky to pinpoint), always its consequences. Once called Mateo Blanco, Harry was a director of some renown, popular enough to attract a devoted staff, a fanatical fan base, a volatile mistress and an inspiring muse (Penelope Cruz). Like Contini, Broken Embraces’ director character is endlessly indulged. The film proceeds by jumping between past and present, tracing the events that led to Harry’s loss of sight and identity.

Broken Embraces is marketed as Almodovar’s tribute to filmmaking, though this tagline might be applied to any number of his films (along with those of Tarantino, and any other cineaste who works out of love of the medium).  In All About My Mother, he references All About Eve and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.  In Broken Embraces, we detect Belle de Jour, Sunset Boulevard, Elevator to the Gallows, Arthur Miller, and the vampire subgenre. Broken Embraces also winks at Almodovar’s own oeuvre, specifically his breakthrough work, Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown (the stand-in film is called Girls and Suitcases).  We might accuse the director of enacting a kind of Paul Auster postmodernism. Almodovar leans more on melodrama than noir, but he relies too much on the uncanny and doubled characters, as if the existence of multiple selves could be a revelation.

*

I remember reading somewhere that French President Mitterand thought a woman was at her best in her thirties. It is probably cultural imperative for a French President to comment on beauty in women. (What’s more, Mitterand was hoping to make Juliette Binoche his mistress with the remark.) It turns out he's right.  At 35, Penelope Cruz has achieved her pinnacle, where form functions beautifully in service of emotion.

The film withers without her — there are several nested tales within Broken Embraces, but none of them breathe in Cruz’s absence. Each time the story revisits her Lena, it is renewed: she is a desperate woman trying to be respectable, a frivolous mistress, an empowered actress, a passionate artist who will sacrifice anything for her work and for the lover who directs her. You’ll never see her as good as she is in this movie; that’s counting Vicky Cristina Barcelona for which she won an Oscar and All About My Mother and Live Flesh, in which her brief scenes linger longer than her screen time. 

In a wonderful moment, Almodovar reinvents the Hollywood montage by posing Cruz as the goddesses, great and minor, of cinema. Here, Almodovar treats us to a wonder we don’t witness in ordinary films, in which the direction is cut from the recorded performance. Mateo/Harry instructs Lena, and we get to see the energy and persuasion with which Cruz imbues each shot. She enacts innumerable quick changes:  she is endearingly comic (one character says she’s too pretty to be funny, an utterly incorrect appraisal) and tragic and startled.  She blooms. An amusing hairdresser produces a white-blonde wig that’s light and effervescent and glaringly fake. It’s fanciful but Cruz isn’t allowed to be happy: “No smiles,” Mateo tells her. “The wig is false enough.”

Mateo’s comment makes it clear: Lena is a commodity to all the men who love her.  Mateo would rather construct a beautiful image than see her smile. It strikes me that despite his prompts, Cruz’s Lena is not meant to stand in as the Spanish Audrey Hepburn or fizzy Goldie Hawn. Those are two empowered stars. Broken Embraces is a Marilyn story. Cruz, celebrated and elevated by Almodovar’s sumptuous conception, is for once not the victor or even the heroine in this fable. Her tragic end is an uneasy fit for Almodovar who is usually so generous with his characters. The women are comic and strong; the men are oversexed but romantic:  they cry at the ballet and over old films, they are nostalgic narcissists. Sex is a sport and a pastime and also the ultimate iteration of love. Here a man allows his lover to be abused and prostituted so that he can continue his own work.

Broken Embraces is the film I watched the most in the last year. First, because it was the new film by Almodovar. Second, because I wanted to know why it made me sad. Third, because on consideration, I expect sadness from Almodovar but I also expect justice or at least a kind of balance. This time he sacrificed humanism for the sake of making art. "Films should be finished even if they are finished blindly,” Mateo/Harry says. The director is revived at the expense of his muse. In Nine, Marion Cotillard plays wife to the errant, unreliable Guido. She understands the impulse behind a remark like Harry’s. "You forgive yourself in the public eye," she says of Guido’s false promises. Despite its voluptuary's pleasures, Broken Embraces is guilty of the same misdeed.

Karina Wolf is the senior contributor to This Recording. She is a writer living in New York. She tumbls here.

"Girl I Love You" - Massive Attack (mp3)

"Babel" - Massive Attack (mp3)

"Splitting the Atom" - Massive Attack (mp3)