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Alex Carnevale
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Ethan Peterson

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
Apr162012

In Which Whit Stillman Is Overly Familiar

Marbled Wonderland

by SARAH LABRIE

Damsels in Distress
dir. Whit Stillman
97 minutes

People like to give Whit Stillman a hard time for making movies about rich people who only care about themselves, but really he makes movies about rich people who care a lot about bad dancing. Metropolitan, Last Days of Disco and Barcelona all promote terrible dancing in public as a therapeutic pastime. Damsels in Distress — Stillman’s first feature in more than a decade — is also his first to elevate the bad dancing/therapy dichotomy to a cure for all life’s social ills. I, for one, came away convinced.

Damsel’s heroine Violet Wister (Greta Gerwig) dreams of “changing the course of human history” by inventing an international dance craze. In off hours she tries to reform the Roman Letter Clubs (Stillman’s version of frats) of Seven Oaks College by showing up at their parties and waving her arms around. She’s a junior, I think, but she doesn’t ever talk about summer internships or studying abroad. She’s sacrificed a four-year education for loftier ambitions, like the prevention of suicide in the student body’s depressive population through tap.

With her normal-person body, gargantuan smile and eyebrows that don’t match her hair, Gerwig’s Violet is hard not to love. She’s the least movie-star-pretty girl in her posse of ladies, which means, of course, she is the leader. Her sidekicks, Rose and Heather glitter like they got lost on the way to a Gossip Girl shoot but they turn up mostly to protect Violet’s ego, along with the free donut box at the suicide prevention center where she volunteers.

Part of the reason we love Violet is that she fails and fails again. Nobody shows up for the premiere of her international dance craze, and in spite of her best efforts, students keep jumping off buildings. Still, she never so much as doubts herself and for this, she deserves a spot among the Katniss Everdeens and Lisbeth Salanders of the season, if not a throne in movie heaven next to Tracy Flick.

We all know people who claw through life cheerfully deluded, but oftentimes when these people show up in movies, they have penises. Violet has floral silk dresses and a Kate Spade full of good intentions. In the same way Young Adult gave us a female lead who, over the course of a two-hour film, didn’t learn anything or change, Stillman gives us Violet Wister and her all-consuming dedication to beautiful things that don’t matter.

If the whole set-up sounds twee, know that on screen Violet’s perspective comes off as darkly nihilistic. She wants to live in imaginary universe free of aggression, hostility, stupid nicknames, body odor, porn, politics, history or the Internet — a marbled, antiseptic female wonderland where perfume and a pastel dress code are strictly enforced. “In some ways, it is distinctly Whit Stillman,” Gerwig said in an interview, “but in other ways, it’s totally — it’s like an alien made it. But in a good, interesting way.”

Opposite Violet, we get Lily (Analeigh Tipton), a new student at Seven Oaks with baby deer eyes and a teensy-tiny head. We know right away Lily is trouble because she doesn’t wear dresses and she refuses Violet’s offer of a makeover. At first Stillman tries to pit Lily and Violet against each other but Violet doesn’t stand for negativity. Lily calls Violet arrogant and Violet thanks her for her “chastisement”. Lily calls Violet nosy and Violet vows to improve herself. Lily calls Violet crazy and Violet agrees. Lily calls Violet’s boyfriend Frank, “a moron,” and Violet tells her she’s being “a bit harsh.”

Over the course of Damsels, nothing changes, nobody yells at anyone, and nobody makes any decisions. In the end, the whole cast dances and then dances some more. Also, a frat boy who can’t name his colors sees a rainbow. I left the theater thinking, “Nothing as amazing as watching that movie is going to happen to me all year.” (Also: “Why isn’t Adam Brody in more things?”)

Seeing Greta Gerwig in Stillman’s shiny snow-globe of a universe is off-putting. So is watching her recite his blueblood-inflected dialogue. Gerwig got her start in grimy no-budget festival movies like Hannah Takes the Stairs and Nights and Weekends. (In Hannah she plays the trumpet naked in a bathtub with Kent Osborne and in Nights she has actual sex with Joe Swanberg on the floor.) Neither feature required her to memorize lines or finish sentences. Her presence in this film, at first, feels like a calculated wink to moviegoers who knew who Gerwig was before Greenberg. Probably, it is. Supporting actors include Alia Shawkat of Arrested Development, Aubrey Plaza from Parks and Recreation, Caitlin Fitzgerald and Hugo Becker of Gossip Girl, Zach Schwartz from The Office and Brody who will never need his credits listed. A consulting producer is Alicia Van Couvering who also produced Lena Dunham’s Tiny Furniture and Nobody Walks. Dunham was supposed to be in Damsels as was Chris Eigeman, but they both dropped out to do the Girls pilot.

Casting these actors helps Stillman prove he’s still hip in all his premeditated unhipness. It also meant he didn’t have to pay anybody movie star asking prices. Thanks to Damsels’ small budget, Stillman doesn’t need to pander to anybody to make his money back. He can include his weirdo P.G. Wodehouse dialogue and not cater to anybody’s narrative expectations but his own.

Untrammeled freedom isn’t always a good thing though, and parts of Damsels are genuinely bad. One of the damsels can’t act at all, and only one of the frat boys can. Some lines landed on the audience not so much with a thud as with the nervous through-the-nose exhale people reserve for New Yorker cartoons, or unfunny friends whose feelings they don’t want to hurt. “What was that?” asked the woman behind me as the credits rolled. “Whose idea was that movie?”

She probably wasn’t the only person who felt that way. One major critique I imagined coming out in reviews is that it’s tone-deaf to politics. The world the Damsels live in looks more like the Clueless era than this modern age of scrambling economics majors and unemployed law school graduates. But just because an agenda isn’t timely doesn’t mean it’s not relevant. What people who rail against the film’s superficial materialism are missing is that a major theme of Damsels is the decline of decadence. Adam Brody writes a paper on the topic and Violet and her posse attend a drunken frat boy bacchanal.

Perched on top of a rock situated high above the brawling mass of oafs, animals, spilled beer and toilet paper, Violet muses, “This is what happens when decadence infiltrates a society from within… such a society is destined to be overrun. Maybe that’s a good thing.” For all her oblivious insanity, you’d be hard pressed to argue she’s not making a valid point.

Sarah LaBrie is the senior contributor to This Recording. She is a writer living in New York. She tumbls here. She last wrote in these pages about Jennifer Egan. You can find an archive of her writing on This Recording here.

"At the Table of the Styx" - Will Stratton (mp3)

"If You Wait Long Enough" - Will Stratton (mp3)

The latest album from Will Stratton, Post-Empire, was released on February 12th.


Saturday
Apr142012

In Which We Remain A Vagabond At Heart

You can read all the stories from our Saturday fiction series here.

Diegesis

by JOSHUA D. FRANK

A month out from their arrival on Tonga the three of them spied a small settlement in the distance. They'd been on foot through this deserted part of the island the entire time, and with one member of their party sick (or dying, depending on your point of view) it was a welcome sight. To think of food in such a place was a near impossibility, but every tiny outpost, even an abandoned one, was likely to have a source of fresh water.

They had been forced to let one of their cameras go when they last saw signs of human habitation, trading it for five gallons of water and a bag of highly caloric nuts which tasted something like burnt popcorn. Once you grew accustomed to it, the nuts weren't half bad, but the flavor stayed in Derwin's mouth for hours afterwards, turning sour and making him gag.

He left Tellman and Karen with the sidearm while he investigated the settlement alone. They had argued for a time about who should keep it, but he had won, although as he double-timed it unarmed in the direction of the largest structure, it did not feel like a victory. He did not particularly like the idea of leaving them. Tellman's attitude had gone from a sort of vague optimism to a spiritless drone rather quickly and he worried it might be contagious.

Along the way he saw several peka, the creepy Tongan fruit bats, circling overhead. Strange to see them out in the day. That they could not possibly want to consume human flesh was no comfort when he saw their weirdly coyote-like visages. Everything has a face, he thought. After forty-five minutes he stopped to slake his thirst, and the jungle had diminished enough to where he could see the structure more clearly. He had twisted his ankle on their first day on the island, and it ached now, but he pressed on.

From afar the structure resembled a simple hut, but the closer he ventured to it, the larger it became. At a distance of a hundred meters it loomed large overhead, almost blacking out the heat of the afternoon sun. From the overlaid carvings on the exterior it appeared quite old, but certainly not ancient. After approaching more closely, he decided it was a temple of some kind. Tellman would be unhappy he was not present for the discovery, but considering Karen's condition there had been no choice but that the man with some modicum of medical skill should care for her.

He tried the door, and it quickly gave way to his pull. He entered the temple only after finding twelve to fifteen huts of the kind he had imagined on the horizon surrounding the place. To his disappointment, but not to his surprise, they were all empty, and from the looks of it had been so for a long time. With the possibility of thieves and the occasional film crew accidentally stumbling on the settlement, anything of value was likely underground, and he could see no other viable access point.

As he entered the temple, he felt a cloud of dust enter his lungs and eyes, and some of it made its way into his mouth. He moved more cautiously into the anteroom after that, even as he grew more hopeful. If there were booby traps or deadfalls in this empty place, it only implied that there were items of value to protect.

The inside of the main chamber was filled with more carvings along the lines of what he had seen in the anteroom. All were done in a dark wood he could not identify: perhaps it was not even from the island. At the rear of the room was a rostrum, and behind it one large tableau to which all others seemed to direct and refer. The scene depicted an old and emaciated woman either leaning against a staff taller than herself as support or, as he decided was possible, commanding it. Behind her loomed what Derwin at first identified as a sun, but upon closer examination, the globe seemed to radiate no heat or energy, and he could see a landmass, faint but discernible, on its surface. Earth.

Next to the image of the old woman (he had to remind himself it was only a representation) was a small rodent or possum, most likely the woman's familiar. His eyes lingered on the old woman's face. There lurked both a quiet assurance and a subtle hint of fear. He did not know how long exactly he viewed the elaborate carving, but it was long enough to know he was not entirely well. When he tried to stand, propping himself on two legs felt fine for a moment, but then the light headaches would come in again.

When he woke there was no longer light coming in through the parapets. The woman was gone, and he was lying on his back in a different place. He smelled the dank aroma of popcorn with which he had become so familiar. He heard the sound of footsteps nearby, and tried to raise his head, but found he could not without furthering a dull, then searing pain in the back of his skull. Given a moment to his collect his wits, Derwin was sure he was experiencing the most savage hangover of his life. The only solution he knew of for a hangover was more alcohol, but when he reached into his pocket for the flask, he found it had vanished along with his only knife.

When a large figure entered the room, he immediately hid behind a wooden door. The slow moving shape entered, and seeing him no longer resting on the hard slate, let out an anguished cry. He pinned what he was now sure was a young man's hand behind his back and twisted. He would have threatened the boy quietly but his Tongan was rudimentary at best and pain would carry the message more quickly. What unnerved him was that the boy did not utter a sound after the first scream.

He noticed hanging from the boy's belt of rope, his only remaining knife. He had traded the other two he had brought with him in Vava'u for the seervices of a guide who had disappeared into the jungle as they marched west from the tourist-y part of the island. He pocketed the knife and slammed the boy's head as hard as he could against the door. Staring at the unconscious native, he knew that leaving him alive to follow was not a viable option. Leaning down, he plunged the knife into the boy's heart and felt a shudder: his own.

It did not take long at all to realize he was underground. By following a long pathway, lit by a torch every five meters, he worked his way back into the anteroom. There was the old woman again, in the thrall of the planet, and he realized that he had missed her. He wanted nothing more than to sleep on a pew, to rest the aching head that weighed heavier on his shoulders with every step, but he could not. The one saving grace was that his ankle felt fine, better than fine. His strength grew as he walked and then ran away from the village, and even the pain in his head began to abate.

Tellman and Karen were not where he had left them. The majority of their supplies and the remaining camera were hidden in a nearby bush. He hoped this meant they would not be gone long, but leaving such things unprotected and nearly in the open mystified him. At the bottom of the pack he found the satellite cell phone he could not imagine them leaving behind, no matter how long the trip. He tried to puzzle it out: they thought they would be back quickly and were attacked; something had happened to Tellman and neither of his colleagues could carry the pack. No explanation seemed to take all of the aspects into account, and then he noticed the date and time on the satellite phone.

If the clock was correct, he had been gone over thirty-five hours, which must have raised an alarm. But for them to move, with the condition Karen was in... Crossing a fragile rope-bridge the previous day, she had cut herself on the twisting boards as they splintered. Infection was the biggest fear, but she had also lost a lot of blood in the accident. Her legs might have carried her as far as the temple, but he could not see Tellman risking it if he was with her. He would have left her here to wait if he had done anything at all. Would he have taken the sidearm with him? Derwin could not answer that, but it also seemed probable.

He thought to himself, Tellman leaves to go find me. Karen can't carry the gear and must leave it behind if she wishes to follow. She hides it and comes after him. Within the realm of possibility, but again something was not right. As night began to fall more of the peka circled, chirping at him when he stood up to shoo them off.

After making another meal of the foul popcorn, he hid the majority of the gear in a more concealed spot, strapped the pack to his back, and resigned himself to heading back towards the temple. There was no place else they might have gone. Halfway out, the Tongan rain began, a drenching, unrelenting stream that at first cooled him off, and then began to chill him.

On the steps of the temple he found the boy. Feeling quite silly, he checked for a pulse. Still dead. He viewed the wound and found another incision on the left side of the torso. As he closed the corpse's eyes, a burst of sudden recognition arrived. Add a beard and perhaps one or two kilos around the midsection, and he was certain the young man had been their derelict guide, who had vanished with a camera and a pack after promising to scout the the way ahead more than a week ago. They had hired the boy to help them look for a grave, the final resting of place of a legendary aviator. Tellman had been so sure, that the woman's body had been traded for gold, interred and dug up, passed around so many times, he actually found himself believing it might be found here. It hardly mattered now.

He put an arm through the temple doors, and then extended his right hand, clad in a latex glove, to examine the substance he had ingested on his first go round. The color was a sickly green, probably a native poison of some kind. Incapacitated so, it was no wonder he was unable to recognize the guide as his victim. The influence of the substance may have also been what allowed him to take a life in such a cavalier fashion. He still did not feel entirely like himself.

He found a second entrance to the tunnel system quite by accident, hidden below the rostrum. He fought the urge to stay above ground, not to descend below. There was nowhere else to go, so he followed, dropping seed behind him as he went so he would not find himself moving in circles. Soon the sound of voices grew louder, and this time he did not try to return to the surface, following the dank path until it opened into a larger cavern. He hid near the entrance, and in a moment he saw a glimpse of Karen, seated on a makeshift chair. He thought to try to signal quietly. Before he chanced it, his eye was drawn immediately to her injured arm. She no longer wore a sling, and moved the limb without effort.

He simply watched then. After ten minutes, Tellman made his first appearance, and they both worked in front of laptops. He decided that what unnerved him most was that they did not speak to each other at all. Occasionally Karen would turn to the spectacled Tellman and look as if she might either say something or cry, but after a moment, she returned to eyeing her terminal.

When his eyes had fully adjusted to the lack of light in the room, two things jumped out. The first was that the room was completely flooded with the fruit bats. The peka inhabited the cavern like ants on a hill, and they barely moved except to clean themselves. They second was that his sidearm lay well within reach, if he could move without being seen or heard. His two travelling companions were so involved in what they were doing he doubted he would arouse their attention, but what if the bats took notice?

Instead he stood and calmly walked across the cavern. He made no move towards the gun. He simply went over and stood before them. "What's going on here?" he demanded.

Tellman held up a solitary finger. In a moment, the cavern began to shake, subtly at first, but quickly the vibrations grew stronger. He heard Tellman say, "The boy was strong, and you must have been in the first stages of the virus. I'm surprised you were able to overpower him." Derwin thought to explain that it had been self-defense, but realized the very idea of defending his actions was absurd. 

"She's well," Derwin said.

"She's an automaton," Tellman said. "It's necessary to have one on board."

"You tried to kill me," Derwin managed.

"I'm sorry for that," Tellman said. "I truly am. We needed organs in case ours fail during the trip. You and that autochthon have the same blood type. I'm not being deceitful when I say I hoped you would win, and I left the gear for you to prove it."

"How have you..." he began. "Why the bats?"

"They're quite nutritious and tasty," Tellman said. "We'll need lots of food. Get comfortable. It's a long ride."

Joshua D. Frank is a writer living in Portland.

"Black Eyes" - Talk Less, Say More (mp3)

"Sky Over Everything" - Talk Less, Say More (mp3)


Friday
Apr132012

In Which We Descend Further Than Jacques Cousteau

Habitat Jones

by ALEX CARNEVALE

Since eventually the lands of Earth will be subsumed by the rising tides of the planet, it is imperative we learn to live completely underwater. A lot of things are better underwater. Synagogue services are only twenty minutes, for example, and imitating Lord Grantham isn't as bougie. Other aspects are less appealing: no smoke breaks, movies by Ridley Scott just feel claustrophobic, and it's impossible to read Jules Verne without marvelling at his naivete. What is certain is that mankind will be irrevocably altered by this sea change. Jacques-Yves Cousteau termed this new species homo aquaticus, and made a mock dictionary definition of the phrase with a picture of Andrew Sullivan swimming the butterfly.

JYC and Simone with their pet dachshund

"In ten years," Cousteau said in 1962, "there will be permanent homes and workshops at the bottom of the sea where men can stay for three months at a time, mining, drilling for oil, coal, tin, other minerals, and farming seafood and raising sea cattle." The Captain, as he was often called, was a fervent believer in stock farming, and he equipped his flagship Calypso with massive explosives to lay the groundwork for underwater mining until his conscience got the better of him.

That year Cousteau launched a livable capsule that held two members of his team in a project called Conshelf I. The long hours were relieved by radio and television relayed from the surface, and the capsule even featured the ability to provide long, hot showers. Great care was taken to ensure that Albert Falco and Claude Wesly had every comfort in their new underwater home.

the DiogenesFalco suffered terrible nightmares in the Diogenes. When he closed his eyes, he imagined a hand coming to strangle in him in his sleep. The merest indignity because a horrible nuisance; when divers came to maintain the habitat he called them "surface people" and berated them for stirring up a murky haze that obscured the view from his "home." In his diary he moaned, "We are sentenced to remain underwater for a week!"

After Cousteau ordered the divers to avoid disturbing the homo aquaticus, Falco mellowed to the experience. When he returned to land after a mere ten days, Cousteau asked his colleague what exactly it had been like down there as they strolled the streets of Marseilles. "Oh Captain," he responded, "everything is moral down there."

Above the Diogenes, things were decidly immoral. Cousteau provoked the animals of the sea constantly to get the reactions he desired for his underwater films. The Calypso would tear through assemblages of sharks, whales and dolphins to torment the poor beasts into savagery, creating an innate fear of humans that was generally spread by word of mouth. Once an imprisoned octopus (Cousteau had commented that he hoped the creature "would accept its situation") lifted up his aquarium cover and marched back into the ocean. The crew nearly killed many of the dolphins of Monaco when they tried to capture them, not realizing they were markedly different from the more docile dolphins of the Americas. Another time, Cousteau tried to tame a three ton elephant seal. If the animals survived the capture, Cousteau named them.

Cousteau never sat still. His relentless energy is a distinctive quality of all achievers. It bears little to no relation to his own intelligence or the merits of his ideas, only to the likelihood of their accomplishment.

Near the end of 1962, Cousteau addressed the so-called World Congress on Underwater Activities. He argued for the existence of homo aquaticus and informed the group that by the year 2000, people would be born and die at the bottom of the ocean. His next experiment, Conshelf II, placed five men in a star-shaped base at the bottom of the Red Sea, at a cost of $1.2 million. The only way he could afford to fund the research was to sign a movie contract.

They called this second capsule Starfish House. For the ten men inside the air conditioned structure, all was peaceful and idyllic, and the television was nearly always on. The habitat contained quarters for eight men, a kitchen and dining table, a biological laboratory and a dark room. For the massive team on the utility ship Rosaldo and the Calypso, the calm beneath the sea required round-the-clock work in temperatures of more than 100 degrees, as delays had postponed the experiment into the summer though it had been designed to take place in March.

Most of the photography was done at night, when temperatures were cooler and tropical waters flooded with a variety of species. A nasty pack of seventy sharks tormented the crew from the first days of filming, and several close encounters with the beasts nearly killed an inexperienced diver. Given these handicaps, Cousteau's record of preserving the lives of his crew is regarded as sterling considering just how many dives they made.

Of greater concern was the house's deep cabin, which mysteriously kept flooding despite the ideal pressure of oxygen and helium in the unit. The team eventually figured out that helium was seeping out of the habitat through the television cable. The documentary about Starfish House, entitled World Without Sun, won an Academy Award.

emerging from Conshelf III live on EurovisionFor their third experiment in underwater living, Cousteau submerged a globe seven meters in diameter at nine times the depth of Starfish House. On the other side of the planet the U.S. Navy was testing its own venture in underwater living, Sealab II, and the two groups were linked by telephone. The U.S. government experiment entailed aquanaut/astronaut Scott Carpenter confined below for an entire month. Easing his time was a bottlenose dolphin named Tuffy who had been trained to bring supplies to the unit.

The environment aboard Conshelf III was no less lavish. Aquanauts consumed wine and cheese at their leisure, fresh fruit was an absolute mainstay. Cousteau and his wife Simone even celebrated their 26th wedding anniversary in the habitat. Conshelf III launched Cousteau deeply into debt, and the next project, planned as a 300-ton ten man sub that would operate at a depth of 700 meters never materialized. In Cousteau's mind, it would have been the first step to an underwater Disneyland.

The $4.2m deal Cousteau signed with ABC to create a series of television specials marked the end of his serious research. Governments also were turning away from the oceans and focusing on the possibilities of space. Both refuges afforded a measure of distance from reality. It would feel like a relief, on some level, to rid yourself of the landlocked world. The inside of the ocean (for all things contain some penetrable interior, even endless ones) envelops willing participants as a cocoon, and nothing can intrude without permission. It would also be important to have pets.

Alex Carnevale is the editor of This Recording. He tumbls here and twitters here. He last wrote in these pages about the writing of The Lord of the Rings. You can find an archive of his writing on This Recording here.

The best way to observe a fish is to become a fish. A shark is no more a killer than the housewife who served bacon at the family's breakfast table.

"Watch the Show" - M. Ward (mp3)

"There's A Key" - M. Ward (mp3)

The new album from M. Ward is entitled A Wasteland Companion, and it came out on Tuesday.