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Classic Recordings
Robert Altman Week

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.

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Thursday
Jan072010

In Which We Request A Do-Over On This Last Decade

In the Aughts

by ALEX CARNEVALE

for Leonard Michaels

For most of the aughts, Ellen was the smartest person I knew. She dressed impeccably for parties, she always knew the right moment to use the word 'oeuvre.' People were delighted to be in her presence, as if she glowed incandescently. Later she came down with an eating disorder and wasn't quite as fetching as in earlier years. After all this, she asked me what she was like then, since a woman is rarely aware of her powers. I told her. She exclaimed, "But I was a failure!"

I attended a university where I was perplexed most of the time. In Wayland dorm I met Danish, who had the misfortune to be even more alienated than I was. His roommate spent all his time working out and continually watching movie trailers on his iMac. We observed him with a mixture of fascination and regret that we could not be as he was.

I took a class on the Caribbean writer Maryse Condé; I was the only non-African American female in the class. Once I was pumping my leg up and down absorbed in some lewd thought or another. Someone touched me on the shoulder and asked me very nicely to stop shaking the ground.

My college friend Andrew never found such emphatic endings to his conquests. He preferred to slowly bring up suggestions/complaints to his girlfriends. Once, without thinking, he told a very lovely girl she was too tall.

A phone call or dinner used to be required for intimacy. Then, suddenly, it became available wholesale. I experimented with how quickly I could become close to someone, how emphatically I could ascend in their worldview. All closeness seemed magical, and then waned, and this too was natural.

For the longest time I pretended the pleasure of everything wasn't in its anticipation. Enjoying things became passé, remembering the past fondly was easier on the heart. Danish began dating someone seriously, and all else seemed like a major joke in comparison. When I met his girlfriend, her eyes shone with his light, which in retrospect strikes me as gay.

Ellen and I caught up later. I could tell she was better, but none of her normal pallor had returned. In this fashion I began the inevitable process of confusing pity with sexual attraction, an eventuality that I learned was actually best described in Stanislavsky's An Actor Prepares and the work of Harold Brodkey.

A few of my friends entered the military because they wanted to try to change who they were. For the most part they were successful in this venture.

The first college girlfriend I had was named Alice. She wasn't necessarily as into Fiona Apple as I would have liked, but she did find my then-cutting edge jokes about 9/11 humorous. The morning that 9/11 happened, my political science professor ignored what was happening in favor of what was on our syllabus. It was difficult to respect him, or anyone, for awhile.

I became friendly with a couple that lived nearer to the bottom of College Hill named Jasmine and Ted. They entertained a coterie of lovers and sycophants that I found amusing before I realized I was one of them. As an icebreaker, I used to ask girls their SAT scores. This rarely worked out as well as it might have, but I wasn't deterred in the least. There is a real glory in being as obnoxious and self-involved as you can for short periods, provided you can get over it by Yom Kippur.

Although usually the life of the party, Danish would occasionally get surly if a frat house didn't treat him with proper respect. If a frat boy tried to argue with him, Danish made a habit of mocking his girlfriend's hairstyle and choice of handbag. Once, one of these offended young women punched me in the face. Another time, someone was dragging my couch across the Quad, and when I asked the guy what he was doing, I recognized him as my English 21 TA.

I met a jittery Irish catholic named David with a penis shaped like a soda can. Shockingly, he was incredibly attractive to women. Once, he introduced us to his new girlfriend, a recovering alcoholic. As Andrew put it, "Either we've lost a drinking buddy, or she's about to have a hard life."

Somewhere in there, Dave Eggers decided he'd prefer to only half-shave his face everyday.

Jasmine and Ted wed somewhere in Chelsea, I gave a moving but inappropriately long toast about how much they taught me about love. Old acquaintances and lovers swished around on the floor, Jasmine's sisters were dressed exquisitely. I wrote a rather solemn poem about my emotions that took its cues from Byron's “The Dream” while Andrew blew coke in the bathroom in what I assumed was a committed tribute to Jay McInerney's masterful Bright Lights, Big City.

When I told Ellen I couldn't stand to see her anymore, she seemed distracted or unwilling to listen. There should be a term - there probably is a term - for nostalgia for something that hasn't happened yet. I explained this to her. She said, "I know what you mean." I still wonder if she did know. She began dating a guy who had the word executive on his business card and smelled like vanilla.

In a writing workshop, a troubled young woman wrote about an unhappy sexual experience (cunnilingus) with a classmate, who happened to be sitting next to her. The story took place during the sex act in the minds of the characters, in what I privately felt was a ripoff of that Susan Minot book. The normally quiet classmate objected to the story on several grounds, trying to improve it seriously. Our professor said (to someone), "I can't help but wonder how much of yourself is in it." "Didn't you guys see Todd Solondz' Storytelling!" I screamed.

I worked for a novelist who lived in an apartment overlooking a park on the Lower East Side. I noticed he didn't have any male friends, except a noted artist who had recently passed on. I felt the urge to ask him the reason for this predilection. "Why would I want to talk to a man," he said, "when I can talk to these beautiful creatures?" Shortly thereafter, I found myself leaving his employ.

Danish began to work at Google. The guy who created Urban Dictionary worked on his floor. No matter what we pitched him, he always told us no.

My dad met some of my college friends. "Your gay friend seems nice," he said, pointing to Morgan. "Because of the sideburns?" I said.

Before a writing workshop I was in, a red-haired girl with knee-high socks and what I viewed as an extremely poor attitude asked me, after reading what I'd written, if I was insane. I reread the offending story and felt I had to concur. Until then, I had not realized this no doubt pertinent development.

Ellen revealed that she'd been dumped by the executive and was now fielding offers. She used to control men with the glint of a smile, the sweep of a blouse. Now they controlled her, or so it seemed. I asked her what was most difficult about her breakup. She said, "He used to bring me warm milk before bed every night." That took me about four weeks of therapy to work out.

In the 00s I tried to like people I wouldn't normally have liked. More and more, people were vastly different from their appearance, a development I attributed to adults rather than children being my peers. When I met someone I cared about, I usually informed them of this directly. In a similar case I took up an indirect approach that met with better results. Then I switched back again. After a fashion, I surmised that it was the world that was changing, not me.

At first I introduced myself to people without thinking. Then I became more cautious. What benefits could I bring them? What boons, what booty? The uncanny wisdom, the magnificent self-deprecation; how could they possibly interact with me and not grow irrevocably changed for the worse?

Since my parents never divorced, I witnessed the first serious endings to long relationships. Frederique had been dating a guy who worked at a magazine; directly before dumping her he passed along a year's worth of issues in a bound volume.

I worked for various people: Nobel Prize winners, toity fools, moronic news anchors, magnetic visionaries, complete shitheads. All of these flawed people had one thing in common: they had no idea how to blog.

Once I found myself walking across an island near the coast of the Eastern seaboard. It was early morning. The date seemed significant, but I found I could not recall it. Ahead of me, Ellen raised her skirt and let it blow through the mist. I thought of a place we could go, but we never went there.

Soon enough it was explained to me that apparently I liked unavailable people, enjoyed drawing them out the way they'd never be able to do with me. After this process, I grew bored with what they couldn't provide me. This struck me as something of a devil-may-care attitude and I resolved to keep it up no matter how much pain I caused myself.

A movie came out based on my early years called 8 Mile.

Sometimes I will hear from someone I knew in the 00s. (This happens fairly regularly, since this is still the 00s.) Occasionally it will be a person I met in the 90s. I am astonished and not infrequently appalled that they consider the Alex they knew then to be in any way similar to the me that exists now. They are confused. Increasingly, their messages describe events that I can't fully recall. Perhaps I can blame a selective memory, but some of these incidents, as described in their correspondence, sound glorious. My life was so obvious, it would have been such a simple matter to grab it and not let go.

I visited Danish in San Francisco, where he chose for his lodging the top of the highest hill. He seemed happy, if a little restless. His ex-girlfriend drove us around Berkeley. His hair was wild like the mane of a fetching pony. She took some unknown delight in this. Her jokes about American Idol were essentially spot-on. I took pictures of them together.

One of my sociology instructors had served an unhappy term in the Israeli army. He was an impressively ethical man; I loved showing off what an incredible moralist I was. I went over to his house on Thayer Street for Passover and he got me so drunk I fell asleep in some rose bushes. After I told him what had happened, he said, "I knew you were a pussy.”

After a spirited debate, I was awarded the title of most empathetic person on Earth.

I met Molly Lambert in playwriting class. She didn't stop talking for three full minutes before I got a word in. Morgan tried to make out with her on Halloween but was shut down. Danish told me that anyone who went to Harvard-Westlake was bad news. Molly's play was called Bake-Off, and she forced our professor to play a wacky hippy who takes LSD in her staged reading. I was the only one amused by that. I had never made a friend from Los Angeles before.

Whenever I think I'm about to see someone I know on the Williamsburg Bridge, I cover my face with my hands.

I remember talking about Stanley Elkin's teaching methods with my advisor, a woman who had released three similarly brilliant novels. After reading a student's first chapter, he sketched an entire cliched manuscript that would no doubt follow. He did it to show what a predictable hack his disciple was. I listened attentively to my advisor's long blond locks and stroked her Alaskan malamute Tony. She said, "You will find it impossible to believe what all the people you know now will become."

My mother wrote a novel and asked me to read it. In it my father perishes and she's left with my brother and I. We're very affected by Dad's death, but we are able to move on. I returned the novel to her with the typos corrected.

Meeting people unhappier than you are is Darwin's mood corrective. There is always someone who has it worse and is still paying for it. For example, I recall feeling terrible about one of my romantic disappointments. I related the story of the incident to David, who couldn't stop smiling. "Someone loves you," he told me. I never could take him seriously after that.

Once I met a very special woman. My own interest surrounded her every thought. The fact that I was capable of this kind of affection was wildly out-of-character. Unfortunately, she also perceived this and the relationship fell apart quickly thereafter. It is astonishing how much of life is mere accident, however predetermined it appears in hindsight. Much later, she approached me with the kind of maddening reserve you expect from debutantes, a fashion that always signals doom.

My professor of poetry picked me up in an Oldsmobile the color of dogshit. We went to Keith Waldrop's house and watched Cocteau's Orphée with a bunch of other people. His wife had recently left him, and he was drinking too often. When he taught us Spring and All, I didn't believe a single second of it.

"It does no good," I recall explaining to Andrew, "to be both sensitive to others and not tough enough to inure yourself from them." "You sound like a seven year old," he said. "Grow up."

Life spiraled onward, you could never get a month off to just think about stuff. My Jung typology wavered and then settled on INTJ. Women wore overcoats or freshened their makeup on the subway; I worked on Long Island and maintained a serious attitude about things. Whenever someone asked me how they looked, I told them.

In a writing workshop I wrote a story about the close rapport of my parents. Never had I portrayed anything so evidently personal from my own life. There was general agreement from the class that my parents should separate and weren't a great fit together. This seemed to express how I felt about the two sides of my own personality – one incredibly kind and taciturn, and the other imbued with utter James-Dean-esque darkness.

I moved uptown. Mothers became ubiquitous, seniors more so. Once an elderly man and I slept through No Country for Old Men and when we woke up during Tommy Lee Jones' incredibly boring monologue, we both received an identical look from our paramours. Shortly thereafter I departed my relationship. I don't know what he did about his marriage.

Danger stalks me at every turn, intrigue is as familiar as incense. The world sometimes tilts on its axis when viewed from the right perspective. A man isn't born, he is unearthed and then poured into a smaller or larger cup depending on the circumstances. After metaphors collapse, people still fill the streets. That was the end of the aughts.

Alex Carnevale is the editor of This Recording. He tumbls here and twitters here.

"The Way I Are (French version)" - Timbaland (mp3)

"The Way I Are" - Timbaland (mp3)

"The Way I Are (Private Tool remix)" - Timbaland (mp3)