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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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Wednesday
Sep082010

In Which For Martin Scorsese It Was The Subculture

Making It Up As You Go Along

Martin Scorsese is a revolutionary figure in American cinema and not just for the unblinking originality of his films. As much a calculated auteur than a regular guy putting forth his vision of the world, Scorsese prefigured the democratization of the cinema by bringing his violent and disgusting adolescence to life. He is also a talented critic and historian, infusing his films with a network of tributes to the legends of the movies he loved as a child. In this far ranging chat with critic Anthony DeCurtis that appeared in the South Atlantic Quarterly in spring of 1992, he touches on the making of his most important projects and what's it like to be Marty.  - A.C.

ANTHONY DECURTIS: I want to start with Goodfellas. Obviously you have returned to some familiar terrain. What brought you to that specific project?

MARTIN SCORSESE: I read a review of Wiseguy back when I was directing The Color of Money in Chicago, and it said something about this character, Henry Hill, having access to many different levels of organized crime because he was somewhat of an outsider. He looked a little nicer. He was able to be a better front man and speak a little better. I thought that was interesting. You could move in and get a cross section of the layers of organized crime — from his point of view of course. Which could be true — maybe, who knows? It's what he says. You get into two different areas there. What he says the truth is — you have to take his word for it, which is .... I don't say it's doubtful, but it's like...

AD: It's a version.

MS: The second element is really the most important one: his perception of the truth. Where, you know, if somebody gets shot in a room and there's five people who witnessed it, you'll probably have five different stories as to how it happened. You know what I'm saying? So you have to take that all into consideration. But that's what fascinated me about the book. So I got the book and I started reading it and I was fascinated by the narrative ability of it, the narrative approach.

AD: Henry has a real voice.

MS: He's got a wonderful voice and he has a wonderful way of expressing the lifestyle. He reminds me a lot of the people that I grew up around. It had a great sense of humor, too. So I said, "This will make a wonderful film." I figured to do it as if it was one long trailer, where you just propel the action and  you get an exhilaration, a rush of the lifestyle.

AD: That acceleration at the end of the film is amazing, when Henry is driving around a madman, blasted on cocaine, trying to deal for guns and drugs while the police helicopter is following him, and, through it all, he keeps calling home to make sure his brother is stirring the sauce properly for dinner that night.

MS: Yeah. The sauce is as important as the helicopter. That's a whole comment about drugs, too. When I read about that last day in the book, I said I'd like to just take that and make it the climax of the film. Actually, the real climax is him and Jimmy in the diner. A very quiet moment.

AD: When you talk about the world you grew up in, as it happens, it is virtually the same world I grew up in. I went to Our Lady of Pompeii in Greenwich Village.

MS: Great!

AD: On Bleecker Street.

MS: It was the West Side, though. You were on the West Side. That's a funny thing, on the East Side, we didn't have the influx of other cultures, that very important bohemian culture.

AD: My family was Italian and working-class — I wasn't part of that. I grew up in a world as enclosed as the one that you describe. But there was always this sense that there was something else. I mean, when I was a kid, the Village Voice office was around the corner. So when it got to the point where like, as kids, everybody was getting in trouble with the police, I had a very clear vision that there was some way out.

MS: There was another world. We didn't know that.

AD: It's a very clear distinction. The bohemian world of the Village was like another world, even though you only lived a few blocks from the Village.

MS: I never went to the Village until I enrolled at NYU in 1960. I grew up on the East Side. From 1950 to 1960, for ten years, I never ventured past Houston Street, past Broadway and Houston. I think my father took me on a bus when I was five years old or something, I remember Washington Square. I was on a double-decker bus. And I remember a friend of mine, I was about nine years old, his mother took us to the Village on a little tour to see the little houses and flowers. It was like a wonderland, because they had flowers. It was a very different culture.

I was used to, you know, wonderful stuff too, on Elizabeth Street, which was five grocery stores, three butcher shops all on one block. Two barbershops. And it was barrels of olives — which was great. Growing up down there was like being in a Sicilian village culture. It was great. But you come from there so you know. It's complicated to explain to people who didn't grow up in it.

AD: It is. When I'm trying to tell people about it, I refer to your movies. I don't know any other representations of it.

MS: A good friend of mine I grew up with just sent me a letter. He just saw GoodFellas and he said he had just spent a sleepless night remembering what a great and incredible escape we both made from that area, from that whole lifestyle.

AD: I first saw Mean Streets after I had left New York to go to graduate school in Indiana. I had never been west of New Jersey, and I saw Mean Streets...

MS: In Indiana!

AD: And it was like, "Wow, somebody got it. There it is."

MS: That's the whole story of Mean Streets. I mean, I put it on the screen. It took me years to get it going. I never thought the film would be released. It just wanted to make, like, an anthropological study; it was about myself and my friends. And I figured even if it was on a shelf, some years later people would take it and say that's what Italian-American on the everyday scale — not The Godfather, not big bosses, but the everyday scale, the everyday scale — this is what they really talked like and looked like and what they did in the early seventies and late sixties. Early sixties even. This was the lifestyle.

AD: Why was it important to do that? To document that?

MS: Oh, you know — myself. I mean why does anybody do anything? You know, you think you're important so you do a film about yourself. Or if you're a writer you write a novel about yourself or about your own experiences. I guess it's the old coming-of-age story. Actually there were two of them for me. Who's That Knocking On My Door? and Mean Streets. Who's That Knocking I never got right, except for the emotional aspects of it — I got that.

AD: I watched it recently and was struck by how strong it was. How do you feel about it at this point?

MS: I dislike it. Only because it took me three years to make. And, you know, we'd make the film and we'd work on a weekend and then for three weeks we wouldn't shoot and we'd work another weekend. So it wasn't really a professional film to make. It took three years to make. The first year, '65, I cast it. We did all the scenes with the young boys and we had a young lady playing the part of the girl. But later we came up to about an hour and ten minutes and there was no confrontation. The young girl was always seen in flashbacks and asides. It was all between the boys. So you never understood what was happening between the Harvey Keitel character and the girl. The conflict was, of course, being in love with a girl who is an outsider, loving her so much that you respect her and you won't make love to her. Then he finds out she's not a virgin and he can't accept that. it's that whole Italian-American way of thinking, of feeling.

Finally we got it released. We got it released by '69, when we were able to put a nude scene in it. In 1968, we shot a nude scene. In '68 there was a new tolerance about nude scenes. Very old, wonderful actors and actresses were playing scenes in the nude — it was very embarrassing. We had to get a nude scene. We shot it in Holland, because I was up in Amsterdam doing some commercials for a friend of mine. We flew Harvey over and we got the young ladies there and we did this nude scene. I came back, kind of smuggled it back into the country in my raincoat, put it in the middle of the film and then the film was released. But it was still a rough sketch to me. I wish... ah it's the old story: if I knew then what I know now it would be different.

AD: One of the most interesting parts of the movie is the sexual fantasy sequence while The Doors' "The End" is playing.

MS: Well, that was the scene done in Amsterdam. That was fun.

AD: The Oedipal drama in the song underscores the Oedipal struggle of the Keitel character. Using that song also captures the way that you were profoundly affected by what was going on culturally in the sixties. But for the characters in your movies, the sixties don't seem to exist. Their world is...

MS: Medieval! Medieval. Well, that's the thing. When I was about to release the film, we were having a problem getting a distributor and my agents at William Morris said to me, "Marty, what do you expect? You have a film here in which the guy loves a young woman so much that he respects her and he won't make love to her. Here we are in the age of sexual revolution, and you're making a film about repression! Total sexual repression. Who's going to see it? Nobody."

Yeah, I mean, that was my life. When I went to Woodstock in '69, I mean, it was the first time I started wearing jeans — afterwards, I took cufflinks; I lost one of the cufflinks. Certainly it was having come from that neighborhood and living there completely closed in, like in a ghetto area, not really leaving till the early sixties to go to the West Side. So I had one foot in the university and the other foot in Mean Streets, you know, that world, that lifestyle. i became aware of other people in the world and other lifestyles, other views, political and otherwise, much later. But I was quite closed off. It was like somebody coming out of the Middle Ages going to a university.

AD: In a documentary that was done about you, you said that you would see certain things when you were young and you would say, "Why don't you ever see this in a movie?" I was wondering what it was you were seeing, or what you felt was missing then in the movies?

MS: I think it is the way people behaved. I'd be sitting and watching something on television. My uncles would be in the room. My mother would be there. One of my uncles would say, "That wouldn't happen that way. It's a good picture and everything else, I really enjoyed it, but, you know, what would really happen is such an such. He would do this and she would leave him and the guy would kill the other guy." They would work up their own versions of the film noir that we were watching, and they were actually much better. My uncles' and my mother's and father's ideas were much better than what we were watching on TV. And it had to do with what was based in reality. What would really happen.

AD: That's an interesting aspect about your movies. Obviously you're completely soaked in film history and you've seen a million movies. But your movies never become just movies about movies. There's never anything cute or clever about them. Even when Henry in GoodFellas says, when the police are coming for him, that things don't happen the way they do "in the movies', it doesn't seem contrived. Of course, you got that from the book.

MS: I was going to take that out, but I left it in because I felt it had more of an honesty to it. I hope it had an honesty to it, if you understand. I always find that sort of thing too cute or too self-conscious or something — thought I don't mind being self-conscious at all. I like Joseph Losey's films. You see the camera moving, it's very self-conscious. But it took me years to get to understand the precision of it and the beauty of that, you know? And I don't mind the self-conscious aspect. What I do mind is pretending that you're not watching a movie. That's absurd. You are watching a movie and it is a movie.

But Henry, did say, "They don't come to you like you usually see in movies." So he's not talking about this movie. He's talking about other movies that you see. And I was even thinking of saying, "I know you're watching this as a movie now." I was even thinking of putting that in. Then I said, no, it get too — what's the world for that? — maybe academic to get into that. There's a falseness about that that I wanted to avoid here.

AD: It seems exactly like what he would say.

MS: It just sounded right to me, you know what I'm saying? It sounded right in the context of the way he was speaking and all, so I just let it go.

AD: That approach to things related well to the subterranean world you deal with in GoodFellas and some of your other movies. You depict a real world of consequences, in which people don't get a lot of chances to make mistakes. There is a clear sense that if you step out of line, if you do the wrong thing, you're going to pay for it.

MS: That's very important. These guys are in business to make money, not to kill people, not to create mayhem. They really want to make money. And if you make a big mistake, you bring down heat on them, you bring attention to them, you cause strife between two crime families, somebody has to be eliminated. It's very simple. Those are the rules. Very, very simple. I mean, you can't make that many big mistakes. You don't rise in the hierarchy if you do. It's very much like a Hollywood situation, where, you know, how many pictures could you make that cost $40 million that lose every dime. You can't. It's purely common sense. And so they work out their own little elaborate set of rules and codes.

AD: It's also a means of working out a certain version of the American dream. In GoodFellas Henry says he'd rather be a wise guy than be the president of the United States.

MS: It's better, because you can do anything you want. And you can take anything you want, because, like Henry says, if they complain, you hit them. It's very simple. it's more exciting, and the opportunity is endless. And this is the great country for it to happen to, because the opportunity here is endless, usually.

However, I always quote Joe Pesci, who pointed out that wise guys have a life cycle — or an enjoyment cycle — of maybe eight or nine years, ten years the most, before they either get killed or go to jail and start that long process of going in and out like a revolving door. I try to give the impression of that in the film when Henry gets to jail and says, "Paulie was there because he was serving time for contempt. Jimmy was in another place. Johnny Dio was there." I mean, this is like home for them. Then the life begins to wear you down. The first few years are the exuberance of youth. They have a great time — until they start to pay for it. Tommy starts doing things, just unnecessary outbursts. Look why Jimmy goes to jail — because he beats up some guy down in Florida. It's a long story in the book; in the film, it's totally unimportant as to why they're even there. We did so quickly to show you how, just as fast as it happened, that's as fast as he could go to jail for something he forgot he did.

AD: Tommy and Jimmy in GoodFellas are, like Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver and Jake La Motta in Raging Bull, walking powder kegs. What interests you about characters like that?

MS: There are a thousand answers to that. It's interesting. It's good drama. I'm attracted to those kinds of characters. And you see part of yourself in that. I like to chart a character like that, see how far they go before they self-destruct. How it starts to turn against them after awhile — whether it's shooting people in the street or arguing in the home, in the kitchen and the bedroom. How soon the breaking point comes when everything just explodes and they're left alone.

AD: You once said that the La Motta character in Raging Bull never really has to face himself until he's alone in his prison cell, hitting his head against the wall.

MS: Totally. That's the one he's been paranoid about all along. I mean, it gets to be so crazy. If his brother, and if Tommy Como, and if Salvie and if Vicky did everything he thought they did — he can do one of two things; kill them all or let it go. If you let it go, I mean, it's not the end of the world. But, no, no, he's got to battle it out in the ring. He's got to battle it out at home. He's got to battle it everywhere until finally he's got to deal with that point where everybody else has disappeared from him and he's dealing with himself. He didn't let it go. And ultimately, ultimately it's you.

AD: Is that the source of all that violence, of all that paranoia and anger?

MS: Oh, I think it comes from yourself. I mean, obviously it comes from Jake. It comes from your feelings about yourself. And it comes from what you do for a living. In his case, he goes out in the morning and he beats up people. And then they beat him up and then he comes home. It's horrible. It's life on its most primitive level.

AD: But that doesn't account for the sexual paranoia.

MS: Well, yeah. I don't know if it does. But I am really not a psychiatrist. It just comes from the fact that the guy is in the ring and you feel a certain way about yourself. You could take anyone, you see; the ring becomes an allegory of whatever you do in life. you make movies, you're in the ring each time. Writing music — if you perform it, you're in the ring. Or people just living daily life, when they go to their work - they're in the ring. And, I think, it's about how you feel about yourself that colors your feelings about everything else around you. If you don't feel good about yourself, it takes in everything that you're doing — the way your work is, the people who supposedly love you, your performance with them, your performance in loving, your performance in lovemaking — everything. You begin to chip away at yourself and you become like a raw wound. And if a man spits across the street, you say he spit at you. And then you're finished. Because then nobody can make a move. You'll think, "Why did you look at me that way?" Who's going to be with you? Who can stay with you?

AD: At the end of Goodfellas, you leave Henry in a more problematic spot than the book itself does. Is there any reason for that?

MS: It's not about Henry, really; it's about the lifestyle. It's about all of them together. Henry's the one who gives us the in; he opens the door for us, but basically, it's about all these people. So it's more a comment on the lifestyle than it is on Henry. I mean, he's just left out in God knows where, annoyed because he's not a wise guy anymore. I was more interested in the irony of that. There wasn't a last paragraph in the book saying, "Now I know what I did. I was a bad guy, and I'm really sorry for it" - none of that. Just, "Gee, I can't get the right food here." It's right in line with when he says as a kid, "didn't have to wait in line for bread at the bakery." I mean, it's the American way — getting treated special. It's really a film about that. It's a film about getting to a position where you don't have to wait in line to get served in a store.

AD: A significant issue in the arts in recent years, and particularly, in your case, with The Last Temptation of Christ and Taxi Driver, has been various attempts at censorship. What are your feelings about that?

MS: Obviously, I'm for freedom of expression. I was very glad that The Last Temptation of Christ was able to be made by an American company, that I didn't have to go to Europe or some other country to get the money for it. That's what this country is about, to be able to do something you believe in. I'm for freedom of expression, but in each generation there are threats to it, and you have to keep battling and fighting. I'm concerned about the educational system because it seems to be at a low level at this point in our history and that means that a lot of kids are not learning about this, are not learning that they have to fight for this freedom in this country. I don't necessarily mean going to the Mideast. I'm talking about fighting for it at home, fighting for it in your school, fighting for it in your church. Because they have a low level of education, many people are not going to know that. They're going to take it for granted and it's going to become worse and worse of a problem and there's going to be fewer people to make sure that we secure these rights, to take the right stand.

That's all I'm concerned about. I personally don't like a lot of the stuff I see — it's offensive to me. But that's what it's about. You have to let it go. As far as my personal way of dealing with subject matter, I can't let anybody tell me, "Don't do that, it will offend people." I can't do that.

On one level, when I'm dealing with a Hollywood film, that means I have to do a certain kind of subject matter that will make a certain amount of money. If I decide to make less money, that means I  can take a risk on subject matter. So the only criterion on the films I'm willing to take risks on is that it be truthful, that it be honest about your own feelings and truthful to what you know to be the reality around you or the reality of the human condition of the characters. If it's something that's not honest, not truthful, then it's a problem. If you don't believe in it, why are you making it? You're going to offend people to make some money? What for? It doesn't mean anything. The money doesn't mean anything. All that matters is the work, just what's up on screen.

So that's it. I'm not like some great person who's out there undaunted, fighting off all these people. I didn't think any of this stuff would really cause trouble — let alone Taxi Driver. The Last Temptation, I knew there would be some problems, but that's a special area for me. I really demand that I get to speak out the way I feel about it, even within the Church, the Catholic Church. Some of my close friends are still priests and we talk about it. I just heard from one today, and they support me.

AD: But you must think about the potential impact of your movies. I remember your saying that you were shocked when audiences responded in an almost vigilante fashion to the end of Taxi Driver.

MS: To The Wild Bunch, too, they reacted that way. I was kind of shocked.

AD: It would suggest there's some kind of fissure between your moral and spiritual concerns and how the films are perceived.

MS: No, I went to see the film that night and they were reacting very strongly to the shout-out sequence in Taxi Driver. And I was disturbed by that. It wasn't done with intent. You can't stop people from taking it that way. What can you do? And you can't stop people from getting an exhilaration from the violence because that's human, very much the same way as you get an exhilaration of violence at the end of The Wild Bunch and the violence that's in Taxi Driver — because it's shot a certain way, and I know how it's shot, because I shot it and I designed it — is also in the creation of that scene in the editing, in the camera moves, in the use of music and the use of sound effects, and in the movement within the frame of the characters. So it's like...art — good art, bad art, or indifferent, whatever the hell you want to say it is, it's still art. And that's where the exhilaration comes in. The shoot-out at the end of The Wild Bunch is still one of the great exhilarating sequences in all movies, and it's also one of the great dance sequences in the movies. It's ballet.

Now Taxi Driver may be something else, I don't know. It may be something else entirely. the intent was not necessarily the reception I saw. I know it can't be the reaction of most people who have seen the picture. I was in China in '84 and a young man from Mongolia talked to me at length about Taxi Driver, about the loneliness. That's why the film seems to be about something that people keep watching over and over. It's not the shoot-'em-out at the end. As much as I love the shoot-'em-out at the end of The Wild Bunch, I wouldn't put it on for fun. If you put it on for fun, that's something else. That's a whole other morbid area.

There's an interesting situation going on. There's lots of movies that have been cut and movies that appear on video with scenes put back in and you begin to get these esoteric groups in the country, people who become obsessed with getting the complete film. The films can range anywhere from Lawrence of Arabia to some very, very shlocky horror film that shows dismembering of bodies and disemboweling of people, so that you can see every frame of disemboweling. That's something else. I can't think about that. I don't know what that is.

AD: Living in New York, obviously violence is around you call the time.

MS: Oh come on. I just took a cab on 57th Street, we're about to make a turn on Eighth Avenue, and three Puerto Rican guys are beating each other up over the cab. Over it — from my side, onto the hood, onto the other side. now, this is just normal — to the point where the cabbie and myself, not a word. We don't say anything. He just makes his right turn and we move on. It's at least two, three, four times a year that happens. I'm not in the street that much, but it would happen much more if I were.

AD: But complaints about violence in your films don't bother you?

MS: It's never stopped me. You do the subject matter because you think it's going to make a lot of money — I don't do it. I just don't do it, you know? If I'm making a more commercial venture — I mean a more commercial venture like The Color of Money — it's something else. It becomes a different kind of movie and I think you can see the difference. My new film will be something else. It's a more mainstream commercial film for Universal Pictures.

AD: What are you doing?

MS: It's a remake of Cape Fear, the 1962 film directed by J. Lee Thompson, with Robert Mitchum and Gregory Peck. Bob De Niro wants to do it. It's more of a commercial venture. You do have a certain kind of responsibility to the audience on a picture like that because, number one, you have certain expectations from the genre, the thriller genre. You work within that framework and it's like a chess game. You see if you can really be expressive within it. I don't know if you can, because I always have that problem: loving the old films, I don't know if I can make them. You become more revisionist. I mean New York, New York was obviously revisionist. but The Color of Money I went half and half, and it should have been one way, I think.

AD: New York, New York pitted its period style against completely unnerving contemporary emotions in the plot.

MS: The reality of the story. That was conscious. That was a love of the old stylization, you know, a love of those films, but then showing what it really is is like as close as possible in the foreground. That's, I guess, what they call revisionism and that's why the picture — besides being too damn long, it's sprawling — didn't catch on.

AD: Are there any new directions in which you'd like to move your work?

MS: I find I have a lot of things in mind and I want to be able to branch out and go into other areas, different types of films, and maybe some genre films. But there's no doubt, even if I find something that's dealing with New York society in the eighteenth century, I usually am attracted to characters that have similar attributes to characters in my other films. So I guess I keep going in the same direction. I'm fascinated by history and by anthropology. I'm fascinated by the idea of people in history, and history having been shown to us in such a way that people always come off as fake — not fake but one-dimensional. And I'm interested in exploring what they felt and making them three-dimensional. To show that they're very similar to us. I mean, they're human beings. So just because the society around them and the world around them is very different, it doesn't mean that they didn't have the same feelings and the same desires, the same goals and the same things that haunt us in modern society. And in going into the past, maybe we can feel something about ourselves in the process.

AD: It seems like that was a lot of the impetus behind The Last Temptation of Christ, too, a desire to portray Christ in more three dimensional terms.

MS: No doubt. To make him more like a person who would be in this room, who you could talk to.

AD: There's a genuine concern with spiritual issues in your movies, at the same time that there is also a brutal physicality. How do you square that?

MS: It's just the struggle, that's all. The struggle to stay alive to even want to stay alive. Just this corporal thing we're encased in and limitations of it and how your spirit tries to spring out of it, fly away from it. And you can't. You can try. people say you can do it through poetry, you can do it through the work you do, and things like that. Thought. But you still feel imprisoned. So the body is what you deal with, and it's a struggle to keep that body alive.

AD: You spend a great deal of time thinking about the world that you grew up in. But you are no longer part of that world. Does that create any complexities for you?

MS: Oh, because you left it behind doesn't mean you don't have it. It's what you come from. You have an affinity to it and very often you have a love of it, too. I can't exist there now. I don't belong there anymore. But I can damn well try to make sure that when I use it in a film like GoodFellas, I make it as truthfully as possible. What's wrong with that? It's part of your life, and if you try to deny that, what good is it? A lot of what I learned about life came from there. So you go back and you keep unraveling it. For some people it was the family, for other people it's the state. I don't know. Me, it was the subculture.

AD: What things do you learn there?

MS: People are usually the product of where they come from, whether you come from a small farm in Iowa and you had your best friend next door and you went swimming in an old swimming hole — in other words, whether you had an idyllic American childhood — or you were a child in Russia or you were a child on the Lower East Side. The bonds you made, the codes that were there, all have a certain influence on your later in your life. You can reject them. You can say, "Okay, those codes don't exist for me anymore because I'm not of that world anymore," but the reasons for those codes are very strong. The most important reason is survival. It's very simple. Food, safety, survival. It comes down to that. That struggle of the human form, the corporal, the flesh, to survive — anything to survive. And you learn in each society it's done a different way. In each subculture another way. And all these rules are set up and you learn them and they never really leave you. It's what everybody learns when you're all kids in the street or in the park. I think those things you carry with you the rest of your life.

And then, of course, it causes problems in that your response to certain stimuli at that time was one way, and when you get the same sort of stimuli now, you've got to be very careful you don't respond in the street fashion. Because they're different people. They don't really mean it. It's something else entirely. It's very funny because, you know, it's like I've seen people do things to other people that I said, "My God, if a guy did that, if that woman did  that to me or friend of mine back in 1960 or in that neighborhood, they wouldn't be alive." And you have to realize it's a different world.

You just learn your way in and out of it, how to get in and out of the moral inlets of this new world, whatever the hell it is. I don't know what it is. Basically, I'm here, in this building. I stay here. Here in this chair. That's it. I answer the phone. They let me out to make a movie. People come over to eat. That's it. I mean, I just do my work and see some very close friends. That's all. So that's what it comes down to. So in a funny way all the trauma of trying to find the new ways to react to the same stimuli in these new societies, it's kind of past me, I guess. I'm past that, which is good.

If you go to a cocktail patty, someone comes over to you...like I don't know, some strange insult occurs. You know, "How dare you!" You know, in the old days, in those neighborhoods, if you stepped on the guy's shoe, you could die, let alone come over and insult him. He'd kill you. It's so funny. Oh, you'd be surprised how the insults come — it's just wonderful what they do. And people wonder why you don't want to talk to anybody. But it's fascinating. One person in a university, in the academic world, was introduced to me. We were having a few drinks after the David Lean American Film Institute dinner, and the woman said, "I must say I'm an admirer of some of your films, because, after all, I am a woman." Who needs it? Who needs it? Who needs it?

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"I'm Walking This Road Because You Stole My Car (Don't Go)" - Fascinoma (mp3)

"Caesar" - Ty Segall (mp3)

"I Was Thinking..." - Gauntlet Hair (mp3)

Tuesday
Sep072010

In Which You Should Be Thanking Me Every Morning When You Wake Up, Along With Jesus, For Giving You Another Day!

Why Is There A Dog In The Parthenon?

by MOLLY LAMBERT

"Once you start expressing your innermost thoughts and feelings, it's kind of hard to stop." - Don Draper

No just kidding that was actually Nick Jonas in Camp Rock 2, but there's a little something about Don in there too amirite? Nick Jonas will be legal on September 16th, just three days after my/Alex's 27th birthday. Here's something Don actually said: "You are twenty-something years old. It's time to get over birthdays." 

Here is a not good way to go about your life: have a two-item checklist that reads "Career" and "Relationship." Spend your whole twenties trying to check off one or both items, eventually finding out that every time you check off one side the other column will mysteriously spring a leak. Even if you choose to opt out there will always be the occasional Megan The Secretary butting in to tell you if you're "doing alright" or not.

Spend some time without either thing in order to learn what you are truly like. Find out that you truly like to download music and stay up way too fucking late. Familiarize yourself with the less well-lit corners of your your adult mind. Decide that you are depressed. Later, romanticize your "depressed period" as a golden age of personal growth and stealth fucking around. Realize as you approach your thirties that you will never escape the tyranny of the checklist, which you never even chose to buy into.

Should you somehow manage to get both plates spinning simultaneously you will be seized with a bout of "What Does It All Mean?" after realizing that achieving your goals has changed absolutely nothing besides to make those goals meaningless, at which point you will hit the reset button on one or both, if only to give your life the semblance of direction and some kind of forward propulsive movement again.

"You look like you could use a good cry" is a great pick-up line to try on dudes. Life is less like The Game Of LIFE and more like a game of Chutes And Ladders. Don and Peggy both need a copy of Kelly Cutrone's If You Have To Cry, Go Outside. When a beautiful woman succeeds, her looks are over-credited. When a handsome man succeeds, it's assumed he was just so successful he also willed himself handsome. 

Don is always failing to earn women's first impression of him, whereas Peggy is always saying something "witty" or doing something smart that makes men give her the condescending surprised respect that all smart girls get used to early on in life. Don is still learning one of life's basic confusing lessons: that who you're most physically attracted to might not correspond to who has the most attractive personality.

Have you ever had a romantic evening with someone that didn't culminate in sex? That doesn't mean there was no sexual tension, just that it was buried down far enough under the conversation that you couldn't even really think about it? Which is actually more romantic than the kind of romance based around suppressing your deep-willed desire to bone somebody long enough to make perfunctory smalltalk, since it is grounded in the attractiveness of your personality, not just your appearance?

What do you call a bromance across gender lines? A platonmance? A friendship? If Peggy were a real person in the modern era she would be rolling her eyes at the world's oversharey facebook status updates like errday. As a fictional character, we just get to see her politely give the extreme side-eye to Trudy's smug pregnant attitude.

Mad Men is neck and neck with Louie pushing the boundaries of meaning, narrative, and comedy in television. Why is it so funny to see Don Draper burst into tears? Because it's deeply cathartic and semi-humiliating to watch? When Duck called Peggy a whore I half-expected her to be like "thank you finally someone who gets my duality!" 

One thing we learned from "The Suitcase": Don is not half-assing it with the S&M lifestyle. Dude is roping Peggy into a serious BDSM relationship with his promises of never-ending all-nighters, furtive half-clasps, and alternating between yelling personal insult tinged inanities and crying just as hard as he throws up Greek food. 

This episode also featured one of my favorite Matthew Weiner thematic touches: the tension-release vomiting spectacle. (see: Betty in the car after learning about Don f-banging Bobbi Barrett, Roger after oysters and a flight of stairs). In lieu of being able to kill people, Mad Men often goes for hardcore throwing up. Don's badge of honor for his bout of late-night personal growth was a well-placed vomit stain on his shirt.

The main complaints I've heard about this season are that the ad campaigns are (purposefully?) no longer good, and that it seems like they have suddenly changed the rules of drunk behavior. Personally I think they're focusing on demonstrating the difference between being a high functioning alcoholic and a non-functioning one.

As for the ad campaigns, they can't do anything remotely close to the Kodak Carousel pitch that famously closed out season one without venturing into self-parody. I buy the idea that clients are stupid, and SCDP is a smaller company, so they have to win people over more. The carousel pitch was Kennedy's America, now they're adjusting to post JFK's death Conquest Of Cool stuff, and they're not quite hitting it yet.

I think the theme of this season especially, as Don mentioned, is the line between brilliance and stupidity and how it is very often just chance that makes some people into life's winners and others into losers. I've got excuses for everything on Mad Men, except for the ghost of Anna Draper, and the line about leaving the door open (groan). I hope Peggy's doofusy fiancé is gone to the Bobbi Barrett character consignment pile. 

Peggy Olson doesn't want to fuck Don Draper, although she is obviously a decent judge of handsomeness and it's LOL that her real tastes run towards the athletic (feel u girl). No, she's got bigger plans than that. She wants to be her own Don Draper. The real question is how did Don get so clean overnight? Does SCDP have an executive washroom on the imaginary second floor of the fictional office building? INCEPTION'D.

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

"Minotaur" - The Clientele (mp3)

"Nothing Here Is What It Seems" - The Clientele (mp3)

"Strange Town" - The Clientele (mp3)


Monday
Sep062010

In Which There's No Use Crying Over Fish In The Sea

It Was A Confusing Time

by ALEX CARNEVALE

Apart from the astonishingly disproportionate amount of attention it gets from the media, Mad Men isn't very popular. The show's ratings are worse than HBO's Hung or its AMC lead-in Rubicon, and dropped precipitously after the season premiere. The advertising industry itself is fond of saying that it markets to younger people, but while young people might do the buying, they don't do the watching. The people driving television ratings are the older crowd, and they don't like Mad Men.

The media loves Mad Men, and Hollywood loves Mad Men, but regular people don't like Mad Men. Despite its third consecutive Emmy for best drama, the show's audience has remained tiny in comparison to its inferior competition.

Although Mad Men is the best show on television, a fact that is not likely to change until Breaking Bad returns to the air, even the show's biggest fans can admit there are a lot of reasons not to like Mad Men. A few even seem to derive pleasure from speaking out against the show, as if not experiencing something were itself a badge of honor.

As we all know, exposure effect runs the world. In fact, social psychologist Robert Zajonc was doing his work on mere exposure effect during roughly the same period that Roger Sterling dumped his wife of thirty years. We not only are predisposed to like things that we've experienced, but if other people don't immediately share our view, there is trouble on the horizon. This line of sight runs both ways. We can barely stand to try to enjoy something that we are told we should enjoy. I know; I've tried to get my mother to read a particular novel for the last six months, and she can't even get past the first page. She also won't watch Mad Men. I should have told her it sucked.

Mad Men has a number of elements that make it incredibly unappealing to people of a certain generation. The first is that it's a lively caricature of a time period they already lived through, and the second is that it plays that time period entirely for laughs. In reality, the 1960s and 1970s wasn't all drinking in offices and waking up with your cleaning lady. It was a very scary time in American life for a lot of people, and reliving it must feel like it's happening all over again.

Older people don't want to hear catty jokes about how racist and sexist things were back then. Maybe they were a bit of both, come to think of it, but broadcasting it feels like an insult to the participants. On its own this could be overcome, because all period pieces bear more resemblance to the present than their own times. The more prevalent complaint that people offer about Mad Men is they don't find anybody on the show with which they can sympathize.

This is the least convincing of the world's slanders, primarily because people said similar things about The Sopranos. But in point of fact it is fairly hard to identify with characters on either show. It's no coincidence that the major relationship of both shows is a mentor-protege conflict. Peggy is really the protagonist of Mad Men, and it would be wrong to say that either Don or Tony Soprano is the antagonist, but in a very crucial way, they are the obstacle to the heroine getting what she wants.

Only, it was a little more obvious what Christopher Moltisanti wanted. He wanted Ben Kingsley for his movie Cleaver, and he wanted power, money, and even fame. Peggy just wants respect from her peers, equal treatment in business, and maybe a Clio. It's not a lot in comparison. And that's what we think she wants — we don't really know, and perhaps neither does she. She has dumped her sex-crazed boyfriend and seems willing to embark on a new adventure of some kind, but she is just as likely to castrate Pete Campbell and take the train back to Brooklyn as she is to come up with the Absolut Vodka campaign all by her lonesome.

Like many characters on both shows, we can't really say what we expect from them. It's gotten so bad that this misguided New York recapper insanely believes that Don and Peggy are about to embark on a sexual relationship. Believe me, that last thing Matthew Weiner wants to do to his protege is have sex with her.

We always knew what to expect from Tony Soprano, however, and that's how he became a hero in spite of himself. The Sopranos was one of the funniest comedies on television, because we usually knew exactly what Tony was thinking in every situation, and as such, his reactions — grimacing, snoring, rage — were their own mime show, the kind that you already know all the moves to, but you like anyway. We also have an easier time liking someone we're supposed to hate.

Don Draper replicates this utter sense of abandon; but because he is a mystery to himself, we don't know exactly why he's a piece of shit. There must be some reason every douchebag is one, but not everyone can be lucky enough to know it.

To new viewers of the show, Don must appear something like a hero, and no one wants to watch their hero drunkenly hit on every woman with a functioning vagina, and wake up with one named Doris. Don isn't a hero. He's not even nice, and he treats Peggy even worse than he treated his ex-wife. The only nice thing Don ever did was pay for a hooker that looked like Peggy for Lane Pryce, and that was more polite than genuinely good.

This makes it all more baffling that Jon Hamm's voice is being used to sell cars and insurance on radio and television. Clearly the advertising executives don't watch the show that is ostensibly about them, because if they did, they'd realize the voiceover is Satan's intonation. The most positive thing you can say about Dick Whitman is that he tells the truth when he's drunk.

So I can't blame people for not liking Mad Men. No work of art is intended for everyone, not even The Sopranos, the triumphant achievement of serial television from which Weiner's show takes so many of its tonal elements and characterizations. Besides being a period piece, Mad Men is a thinly veiled chronicle of how Matthew Weiner relates to the world. In brief, he mostly thinks we're his servants.

The culmination of four years of dealing with Don's garbage was last night's morality play, where the disease and poison of Don's own mental processes was reflected by mice, cockroaches, and the human vermin that is Duck Phillips. The late Mrs. Draper packs them all up in her Samsonite briefcase and takes off. The problem, as always, wasn't with the writing, although it took several unimaginative shortcuts to make the two closer — Don sobbing because he has to pay the mortgage for some Berkeley grad who wouldn't even give him an HJ, Peggy fishing for compliments about how 'pretty' she is (is that all this was about?) and Bert Cooper having no testicles.

The problem with having Don's protege relationship supplanting his love relationship is that while almost everyone has some kind of love relationship in their life except for Jennifer Aniston, not that many people can relate to the psychotic creative director-precocious protege relationship. And in fact, Peggy does a much worse job arguing her case than Don does his for treating her like his lapdog, making the conflict less than a battle of equals.

Peggy giving up her birthday dinner isn't the same as Don giving up his special time with Roger Sterling, whom he misses so much he plays cassette tapes of the man's voice. The mercurial Draper seems almost rational when he tells her that her time will come, avoiding the point completely; she won the Clio, not him. The work he stole from Roger's wife's cousin wasn't his either, it was just another drunken theft, the cure for the common being terrible at life.

It's fabulous that the new Don wants his door open, and that he shaved for the first time since his divorce. Congratulations. Jon Hamm gets to make out with Jessica Stein every night while Elisabeth Moss' ex-husband Fred Armisen has intercourse with every twenty-something in Park Slope. Peggy has to wake up in her own office with the Three Stooges when all she wants is to have Pete Campbell's baby inside her and the Popsicle account, and a fancy dinner where her mother isn't involved. (Really, she should probably be thankful she doesn't have to hear about Freddy Rumsen's arrowhead collection.)

When Mad Men attacks cliche, it usually does it in such an unusual way that you forget the basic storylines of Peggy's pregnancy, Don's infidelity, Joan's rapist doctor husband, and Betty's unfit mothering have been staples of daytime television since Susan Lucci was in diapers. In a way, it feels like this is the first time we're seeing these plots play out, and they take on a freshness other dramas can't approach. Don's Cassius Clay ad is now a terrible cliche itself, and let's face it, a million other agencies probably had the exact same idea that morning. But in his office, growing a slanted erection from the incidental touch of Peggy's hand on his own, it may as well be the face of the new sun.

This same sort of temporary enlightenment happened to Tony Soprano more than once. Each time he resolved to be a better man, it inevitably resulted in Carmela falling in love with Tony's imported henchman and Tony forgetting all about his resolution once he was crossed in any way. Don's not turning over a new leaf; his sickness may have been locked up in that eidolon's Samsonite briefcase, but his conscience carried it out the door and disappeared.

This season began with Don Draper's first fame, and he is now about to explode. If he takes Peggy along with him, it will probably allow us to enjoy the ride. Many people never watched The Sopranos while it aired, because they also felt they could not relate to its foreign milieu. This was their loss, and oh what a loss it was, like pretending Van Gogh wasn't painting or William Faulkner wasn't writing. No matter how many Emmys Mad Men wins, some people will stay away because of how little comfort the show offers us during a difficult time in American life. Matthew Weiner's show is no warm blanket, but taste is fickle, and nobody has to love every work of art, even when it's this good.

Alex Carnevale is the editor of This Recording. He tumbls here and twitters here. He last wrote in these pages about Fairfield Porter and the New York school of poets.

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"Nobody Loves Me (Massive Attack remix)" - Portishead (mp3)

"Acid Jazz and Trip Op (remix)" - Portishead (mp3)

"You Find The Earth Boring" - Portishead (mp3)