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This Recording

is dedicated to the enjoyment of audio and visual stimuli. Please visit our archives where we have uncovered the true importance of nearly everything. Should you want to reach us, e-mail alex dot carnevale at gmail dot com, but don't tell the spam robots. Consider contacting us if you wish to use This Recording in your classroom or club setting. We have given several talks at local Rotarys that we feel went really well.

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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Monday
Nov052012

In Which Ben Affleck Summons Good Intentions

Argo & the Myth of America

by SHAHIRAH MAJUMDAR

Argo
dir. Ben Affleck
120 minutes

The palimpsest of America’s history and the history of Hollywood illustrate how intertwined the two are in the imagination; how, in powerful ways, they are one and the same and that the myth of the movies is the myth of America: the myth of the hero, that the good guys win, that we are the good guys— and that, though the dark lands beyond us are wild, impenetrable, often unknowable, always we fumble for order, always we grasp for meaning, struggling to emerge as finer, stronger, wiser (if somewhat chastened) selves.

Argo’s opening scenes treat us to a history of the U.S. involvement in Iran’s (and Afghanistan’s) political affairs. Floating above scenes from the streets and the revolution, a disembodied female voice reminds us that the tangled skein of modern geopolitical conflict is shot through with American interventions, secret and overt. The voice itself is a warning – velvet but distant, a quiet survivor’s voice, the accent soft and radio perfect – inflecting nuance and understanding to the senseless scenes of militant students outside the gates of Tehran’s U.S. embassy clamoring for a kind of justice and baying for American blood (#muslimrage).

These scenes are intercut with scenes from inside the embassy: diplomatic staff, pale and hushed, destroy classified documents, hands shaking, fear blanking all emotion in their eyes. As protesters crowd the door, one man –a security guard – decides to be a hero. He’ll go talk to them. He opens the heavy doors in an attempt at civilized negotiation and the next thing we know – these scenes are supremely cut – a gun is to his head; now he is the enemy banging at his own gate. He is his own Trojan horse, punished for his naivety by becoming the entry point by which the militants enter the walls. 

It’s an old story to be betrayed by one’s good intentions, for one man’s sincere attempts at heroism to backfire in hellishly spectacularly ways. What’s interesting is the macro and the micro of it all: the man who breaches his own embassy doors becomes an emblem of America. The 52 Americans who are taken hostage for 444 days can be read as a metaphor – if an inexact one – for the many ways that rash American action in Iran, Afghanistan and beyond have led to further chaos and greater global bloodshed, and to a world that feels more unsafe for Americans to be American than it did before.

In the end, however, Argo is a Hollywood movie made by a big Hollywood machine, a big Hollywood star. There is redemption to be offered, a myth to be made, an audience to be assured and entertained, and the enduring figure of the American cowboy to be reified for new American generation. We must be astonished. We must have meaning. We must have our heroes and reasons to go on.

And so a movie whose foundations are littered with the bones of anti-heroes becomes a classic heist flick. The 52 hostages still in the embassy are put on the backburner and the story’s frame tightens around the six Americans marooned in Tehran’s Canadian embassy who must be extracted by Ben Affleck’s lonesome CIA agent: a man with a sad haircut but with a hero’s moral code. Also in the foreground are John Goodman’s Hollywood make-up artist and Alan Arkin’s movie producer. Both are classic types, brash but good-hearted, ingenious in that scrappy American-style and devoted to the idea of a challenge: to the fashioning of a triumphant fiction, however limited the tools. Together, our heroes select a real script (an intergalactic fantasy screenplay called “Argo”) and erect a fake movie, which will become the vehicle by which they whisk the six Americans from under the noses of the Revolutionary Guards.

A script is a powerful metaphor. When Affleck’s agent Mendez plucks “Argo” from the heaped piles of Hollywood hopefuls, it is a moment on which history seems to turn. Why this script and why not another? How, with one gesture, do we choose our fates? Once we set down that path, does it become inexorable? Is it possible to derail the narrative? Or is the script actually a thing that coalesces only in the rearview mirror? Always, all around us, we are choosing and following scripts, sometimes with, sometimes without knowledge of what we do.

When all the movie critics in all the movie rags talk to us about how Affleck the unremarkable actor has buffed brass to gold with his unexpected directing chops, that’s a script from a bag of tricks they have used before. When Mitt Romney talks to us about American exceptionalism, about how America is one of the greatest forces for good that the world has even known, that’s a historically resonant script from which he’s riffing. Obama’s election in 2008 was all about a script we wanted to write for ourselves as a nation. And the Wednesday morning after this election, we’ll wake up to another script about who we are as Americans and what kinds of heroes we envision and need.

In Argo’s script (Argo the Affleck film, not Argo the film within a film), Affleck’s character – our space age cowboy in the Middle East – has a choice to make. When best laid plans starts to crumble and the higher-ups say lets the chips fall where they will, when everything is stacked against him and everyone with power stands in his way, he has to make a decision to do the ethically correct thing. In one whiskey-fueled, dark night of the soul, he makes that choice, of course — though, cinematically-speaking, it appears to be largely dumb luck and Hollywood logic that make the fake movie-crew plan succeed. Argo’s finale is nail-bitingly tense, dense with action, finely wrought, and filled with all sorts of split-second timing decisions that — if they had gone the wrong way — would have led to failure and capture. But this time, when the hero makes the brave choice, no one can stand in his way.

You wonder how Affleck/Mendez’s decision is any different in nature than the embassy guard’s decision at the beginning of the film. The success of both are contingent on circumstances outside of their control. We are given to understand that the guard’s decision was absolutely mad – there wasn’t enough time, or prep, or forethought to make it work– while Affleck’s could lean on long, careful consideration and planning. Yet, qualitatively, we are meant to read both decisions as made on the basis of emotion: decisions made less with the head than with the heart and the gut. Neither man could stand to do nothing. You have to do what feels right. But one fails, and yet the other succeeds. We want to believe that there’s human verity to be extracted from the plan’s success: that there’s right and there’s wrong and that right will triumph. But the lesson from the film’s beginning is that sometimes the script fails us… And when that happens, what can we do?

A few days after I saw Argo, I spoke with a friend who had been young and full of fire in the 1960s and believed in the change that, together, we could bring to the world. She remembers vividly the hostage crisis and what it was like to endure day after day of not knowing what would happen, how it would end, of not understanding why it is that they seem to hate us so. She remembers this as a time when everything felt like failure, a time of great American anxiety about our sense of safety, and the good or evil we could do – or could be done to us – in the world.

Over 30 years later and this breakdown of mood and meaning feels as fresh as ever. Have any of the events that have since unfolded restored America to the longed-for position of hero? How do we help ourselves? How do we help this world be better? Can we, as individuals or as a nation, ever truly be heroes in the sense we want to be? When oh when will we feel safe again? In this age in which the enemies at the gate seem to have become more and more unknowable, is the choice between the script of electing Obama – the introspective guy with a sense of fairness who advocates diplomacy & understanding – and script of electing the hawkish, neo-con-tainted Romney even a choice that effectively makes any difference at all? The fact is that, not only do we have fewer horses and bayonets, but we have fewer cowboys and more (and more dangerous) Indians... Only we call them terrorists now, and they call us the same. (As an American-born Muslim who grew up half here and half in a troubled, insecure Muslim nation, I don’t know how to reconcile who is “us” and who is “them.”)

The film ends with an ode to heroes. There are homecomings. There are medals. There is an elegiac voiceover from Jimmy Carter as a final bracket and a parade of a child’s Star Wars figures that texture the frame. It’s an odd choice — but perhaps what it tells us is that there are no lessons to learn. Perhaps there is no sermon in the suicide. Perhaps the world is arbitrary and Luke Skywalker only a figure limned in plastic. Even when we isolate where things went wrong, how we could have done it differently, is understanding just a story we tell ourselves? And, even if so, isn’t it still a story that must be told? In the end, we turn inward and Argo is about us: about American subjectivity (in fact, there is only one Iranian character, the lovely Sahar, who is granted any subjectivity at all) and how we try to make sense of our place in the world.

If the film asks a lot of interesting questions only to elide them in favor of mostly feel-good answers, what of it? We have our movies, our Hollywood, our myths: the America that endures forever in the rearview mirror. The irony is that it is, after all, Hollywood – all those silly movie people with their foibles and tricks – that offers us something redemptive, that does what a hero does by allowing us, if not to transcend history, at least to transcend ourselves.

Shahirah Majumdar is the senior contributor to This Recording. She is a writer living in New York. You can find an archive of her writing on This Recording here. She last wrote in these pages about a premonition of enlightenment.

Saturday
Nov032012

In Which We Vow To Stop This Immediately

You can find an archive of our Saturday fiction series here.

Red Portrait no. 2, Adam Neate

Things I Will Never Do In My Writing Again

by LOIS EHRENREICH

Finish in the place that I started.

Have a protagonist reassure another, even in jest.

Create a victim of any accident, unless it is the breaking of a fingernail or burning of a house.

Ring a doorbell.

Reveal a detailed background on how anything received its name except a boat.

Use water as a metaphor for rebirth; e.g. feeling better after a hot shower.

Force one character to respond to another by saying, "Yes."

Imply a married woman is tormented by an abusive or compelling relationship from her past.

Someone is a moment too late flipping off the safety of a gun.

End with a man opening or closing his arms.

Pray.

Unveil sex that concludes when someone leaves without saying a word.

Suggest stairs that only last for one flight.

Let my people imagine they cannot leave the world in which they live.

Have anything hinge on the gesture of someone giving away their money, whether it be a nickel or a billion dollars.

Pretend e-mail and cell phones never existed.

Speak to the dead.

Give a personal history of a character that includes the sentence, "After graduating from Columbia..."

Detail the appearance of the ocean or the power of the weather.

Describe disgust as if it were not also a kind of pleasure.

Play with the ring on her finger.

Divine any political point more complicated than hinting that poverty is degrading.

Give a blessing.

Sing a song.

Make any reference, no matter how oblique, to him.

Lois Ehrenreich is a writer living in New York.

Paintings by Adam Neate.

"Hunting For You" - Robbie Williams (mp3)

"Different" - Robbie Williams (mp3)


Friday
Nov022012

In Which We Are Jealous Of What They Must Know

Mom

Dressed Up

by REBECCA ARMENDARIZ

My mother loves ghosts and spirits and the television psychics who communicate with them. She’s currently waiting her turn to talk with the dead via the innate gift of Theresa Caputo, "The Long Island Medium," whom she calls by her given name and not her showbiz title. "Who's Theresa Caputo?" I say each time my mother mentions her. "The Long Island Medium!" she yells back, flustered by having to clarify it for me again. The list of people wishing to pay Theresa to talk to their deceased loved ones is two years long, but my mother's already been on it for a year.

Mom says she only saw a ghost herself once, when I was a baby. I’d woken up for a middle-of-the-night feeding, and as she describes it, she got up from bed, walked toward my room, and turned her head right to flip the hallway light on before facing my doorway. In the second after her head pivoted left, she saw an elderly woman in a nightgown standing there, who disappeared within seconds.

“I saw her. I can still see her as if it just happened. It was the most amazing thing I’ve ever experienced. You can’t make that shit up – that kind of adrenalin at 3 a.m., half asleep,” she recalls.

Mom’s had other paranormal experiences -- she heard someone whispering her name once when she knew the house was empty. Another time, on a drive to Allentown, she felt a hand press down on her shoulder. “It was like my guardian angel was letting me know she was there,” she says.

I have limited faith of my own, and can’t pinpoint exactly how I feel about the afterlife or whether the dead maintain a presence in my space. It’s hard not to trust in some sort of magic, though, when my mother and her concrete beliefs come to visit. She’s jealous of what they must know, she’s told me.

Last weekend, she drove to D.C. to take me to see another TV psychic she admires speak about his life and contact select audience members’ dead family members. Chip Coffey claims he began exhibiting these tendencies as a toddler, when he would name the person about to call on the phone before it even rang.

I just think it would be nice to get dressed up, my mom texted me a few days before the event, so we wore heeled boots and lipstick. When Chip walked onto the hotel ballroom stage, she blushed. “He's SO adorable,” she whispered to me. He’s a short, out gay man with icy hair and a Georgia drawl in a T-shirt and patterned scarf, and she’s right.

"Do not let anyone tell you what you should or should not believe; it's none of their damn business,” Chip said at the beginning of the night. “I just basically say ‘fuck you,’” he said of critics. Before the event, my mom tried to influence my opinion by pointing out Chip’s status as an advocate for both gay rights and animals in shelters, which worked, in part. His middle-finger philosophy solidified his likeability. “Leave me alone, or respect me enough to just live my own life!” I put one foot on board.

Chip showed us black and white photos of his ancestors and pictures of himself as a child and teenager. "I had that hair before he did, bitches," he said of a Bieber-reminiscent high school haircut.

About 150 people, most of them women, beamed at him from their seats. Husbands and children dotted the room. The crowd eagerly interacted with him, verbalizing their approval. Those with VIP laminates happily wore them around their necks – including me (hey, I didn’t pay for it).

During the question and answer session, a man tearfully professed his “man crush” on Chip and asked for and received a hug. His wife looked proud to sit beside him. Another praised him for his work helping children deal with the difficult aspects of their abilities on Psychic Kids, a now-canceled A&E show. Chip said he certainly believes in angels: “It’s kind of like God is Donald Trump with much better hair, and he has his apprentices.”

Chip used his spirit guides to lead him to one of the many hands raised in hopes of receiving a reading. He doled out either life advice based on his future-seeing ability or words from the dead person of their choice. Predictably, most people wanted to catch up with someone from the past and gave him three requested details to go on: the person’s name, the nature of the relationship, and how much time it’s been since the death.

I wasn’t impressed at first. One man’s uncle “talked with his hands,” Chip divined. Grandma was and still is a “spitfire,” though she’s calmed down in the afterlife. A man and his wife would have a second child, a boy, and their two-year-old daughter would soon break her arm.

Another man lost his dad when he was 14 and wanted to know more about him. Chip was unapologetic: “He was a shit.” But he praised the son for being a loving family man who needs to knock himself up a few notches on his own to-do list.

A 13-year-old girl there with both her mother and grandmother wanted to talk to her paternal grandpa, who died when her dad was young and before she was born. Chip mentioned a dog that scoots his butt on the carpet (“That’s Pepper, our dog that died!”) and an argument about pierced ears (Yes, she’d botched the job behind her parents’ back, and now they were healing and closing up. Should she be allowed to get them re-pierced?). “What’s the thing with the shoes?” Chip asked. Why, they’d just been fighting over leaving their shoes in the entryway earlier that day. This proved, Chip said, Grandpa’s lasting involvement in the smallest details of their lives. Everything he said rang familiar to them, and now I was paying attention.

The last person to stand up lost her 13-year-old daughter eight months ago. “She knew she was going to die,” Chip said. Yes, the mother confirmed; it was a suicide. She hung herself and didn’t leave a note. Chip mentioned details, inside jokes, and I could feel the mother’s recognition in my body. My mouth hung open as she laughed and gripped her husband’s arm. 

I know he could be a con artist; he could just be very good at guessing.

My mother dreams of the dead she’s lost. “He said he’s very happy you’re happy,” she told me after one night when a boyfriend of mine, who died of cancer in 2009, came and spoke to her. I usually change the subject.

But when they visit, it makes her feel better. Her ghosts don’t haunt her, they reassure her. There are certainly worse things to believe in.

Rebecca Armendariz is a contributor to This Recording. She is a writer living in Washington D.C. This is her first appearance in these pages. You can find her website here. She twitters here.