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Classic Recordings
Robert Altman Week

Monday
Jul072014

In Which It Is The Only Thing We Find Reassuring

Abundance

by MIA NGUYEN

My mother grew up on a tea and coffee farm in Vietnam before immigrating to the United States. I learned about the importance of drinking hot green tea or chrysanthemum flowers on a daily basis. The calming properties within each hot mug are my safe haven. Mom told us stories growing up on how she used to hide stashes of tea and coffee in her knapsack in order to smuggle them into Saigon on her bicycle. These tricks were of course forbidden and illegal, but the important thing was that they worked.

A 25-pound bag of rice isn’t something that can be purchased at an American grocery store. After selecting the type of rice from the counter which is usually classified by type and year. The heavy sack is usually carried out with a dolly and loaded into a trunk. Keeping stocks of rice has always been commonplace in my household. Up until I was 8 years old, I thought families in my neighborhood kept an abundance of rice in their pantry for meals. The bag has its own closet and a large bin filled to the brim.

For the most part, grocery shopping is a cathartic and therapeutic experience. I find myself wandering into the produce section to caress the perfectly stacked apples, avocados, and the crates of blueberries. Dancing from aisle to aisle to search for something I’m not quite sure looking for always feels like dangerous game. Supermarkets and grocery stores are intimate and enticing.

Asian supermarkets are not a commonplace concept for the average American. There’s an art in maneuvering through the aisles. I’ve had to navigate my friends through the bakeries, gift shops, and food markets nestled in Boston’s Chinatown. The idea of going alone without any form of assistance was intimidating and taxing quest for my friends. I opened them up to world an entire world they might have not found themselves. They got to experience not being carded for Sapporo pitchers, fanfare of sushi making supplies, hot pot, drunken karaoke, and cheap produce. My entire college experience can be narrowed down to the summation of teaching people how to use my rice cooker as a means to prepare spicy ramen.

The tea aisle is a tantalizing and mysterious human experience. You’re stepping into a world of countless possibilities and combinations from strange herbal remedies to miso pastes and powders. Walking down the tea aisle of any Asian supermarket is especially daunting, mortifying, and exciting. I feel like an instant yogi looking for a euphoric buzz.

There are thousands of boxes neatly stacked with mystical clip art and questionable outrageous medical claims with little or no scientific evidence. I find my eyes darting in every direction with a strong anticipation of finding something special, maybe worthwhile, if I’m lucky. The cheap and affordable sachets of tea are appealing, and speak to any tea lover’s soul in an exuberant manner. There’s also a fair amount of self-control and caution that needs to be exercised if you don’t know how to read Chinese characters.

Menopause has the potential of being made “easy”, a good night of rest is guaranteed, weight loss is promised, and a clear voice can be achieved. The thought of achieving an ultra hot body and a good night rest is the ultimate dream and goal.

The strategic public relations and marketing method of tea lies within its reputation, which has been built on a utopia of eternal promises of beauty, youth, and longevity. The reassurance feels phony, and at times, comical. A part of me actually believes this stuff will work fully without any repercussions. Drinking tea is attractive and it makes you feel cool depending on your tastes.

My cupboard is currently filled with a plethora of tea including: matcha, chai, honeysuckle, green, oolong, rooibos, chrysanthemum, darjeeling, passion fruit, and many others. The abundance of boxes and flavors makes me wonder why I don’t welcome more visitors over. The rotation of tea depends on the season and mood I’m in; it means I am usually opting for oolong and green tea all year around.

My mom didn't fixate on finding romance until she was in her late twenties. When she met my father in Monterey Park, California in the early '90s it was one of her first dates. My dad bought her a carnation and she knew she was going to be happy for a while, but not forever. 

"It's hard being with one person for the rest of your life," she said as we made our way through the supermarket. She believes it's going to be harder for me to find someone who is monogamous. My father has lost part of his hearing and that's what she struggles with on a daily basis, someone who doesn't understand or listen to the thoughts and feelings she tries to communicate. 

Growing up I wasn't allowed to go out on dates, and my parents never met or found out about guys I saw. I was too ashamed of what they would think of me. My mom didn't want me to waste my youth fixating on this one thing that seemed to be the most important to me, finding mutual love and understanding with another person. 

When I compare myself to her life choices, there always seems to be small things I carry from one event in my life to the next, especially when it comes to romance. My mom sees the possibilities of removing the abundance and starting over.

Mia Nguyen is the features editor of This Recording. She is a writer living in Rhode Island. You can find an archive of her writing on This Recording here.

"Whatever You Want" - Dot Hacker (mp3)

"First in Forever" - Dot Hacker (mp3)

Friday
Jul042014

In Which We Skip Over Words Feverishly

Buried Face Down

by DURGA CHEW-BOSE

Seventeen
dir. Joel DeMott and Jeff Kreines
120 minutes

"You need a half-a-cup of white sugar and half-a-cup of brown,” instructs Mrs. Hartling, Southside High School’s Home Economics teacher. In Seventeen, the documentary by Joel DeMott and Jeff Kreines, Mrs. Hartling’s class is in the final lap of their senior year. They are loud and unimpressed, near delirious. Sitting on a counter, one boy casually beats batter with one hand while resting his head on the other. Another student, Lynn Massie, is taking a nap. When questioned about skipping class, one girl quips, “So?” Her parting shot, “Kiss my ass.”

The year is 1982. The town is Muncie, Indiana. And the kitchen classroom, like Mrs. Hartling’s shrill and grinding voice, her tunic apron and Estelle Getty glasses, is a time capsule dressed in blue checkerboard curtains, fluorescent lights, plywood cupboards, and beige stoves. Today, pie: “Never re-roll a pie crust! Ever!” Tomorrow, citizenship, and “how to be a good person, to be honest.”

Conceived and produced by Peter Davis for PBS, Middletown was a six-part television documentary inspired by the sociological studies of Robert and Helen Lynd, Middletown: A Study in Modern American Culture (1929) and Middletown in Transition: A Study in Cultural Conflicts (1937). Divided into categories — religion, work, politics, play, marriage, and education — the series is a close and critical meditation on everyday working class American life in the early 1980s.

Reminiscent of Robert Drew and D.A. Pennebaker, Middletown is a slow moving train, slackening its pace in Muncie. Happenings, whatever they may be, are coeval. The mayoral election no more important than the pizza parlor facing foreclosure or a couple’s second go at love.

But Seventeen, the sixth in the series, never made it to television. Scheduled to air nearly thirty years ago on April 28th, 1982, the film was deemed too controversial and ran into what Davis calls, “an institutional buzzsaw.” While it eventually went on to win the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance, hailed as “without a doubt one of the greatest movies, perhaps the greatest, about teenage life ever made,” PBS’s decision to cut it from the series resembles an adult dismissing his or her adolescent years. A shame, because more so than revolt or hotheaded choices, a “me too” moment in high school is closest to windfall.

Teenagers being teenagers, the plenary account — smoking pot, “getting good and drunk,” merrily swearing, giving birth while the baby’s father is at “the Boy’s Club playing basketball,” being angry and scrappy and rude, partying and getting sad, reading “dirty books” out loud in the library, disrespecting teachers, crudely talking about sex — was simply too hot for TV. Like the girl in Mrs. Hartling’s class, whose duelling “So?” is nasty but also bankrupt and idle, Seventeen is a portrait of what it is to be young, pivoting from stitch to sweet spot, stitch to sweet spot.

Perhaps most decisive was the subject of interracial dating: “White girls don’t mess with black guys but we swallow our pride for you guys because we care for you guys,” Tink and Massie inform their dates at the fair. When a cross is burned on Lynn parents’ lawn, she challenges the taboo and continues to see John. Harassing phone calls result; threats are made — parent to classmate, classmate to classmate. “My mom carries a gun and she ain't afraid to use it. Neither am I,” Lynn barks into the receiver.

In his 1985 review of the film, Vincent Canby likened Lynn to Belle Starr. One, a high school senior with Kristy McNichol hair, nervy swagger, and a slight squawk when she yells. The other, a 19th century Oklahoma outlaw. While the comparison is dreamy, it does appreciate the fugitive quality of adolescence, that roaming fidget and fixed urge to not give a damn.  “Get me the hell outta here,” Lynn mumbles in monotone one day. She’s referring to Muncie. But without much of a plan, the here is more immediate: that day, that week, her house, a dip in her after school plans, her bad mood. Lynn's solution? “Gonna get bombed outta my head."

Although those rarely seen on screen bits are true (and do wonder what would happen if Albert Maysles, Larry Clark and Joey Jeremiah were to toss around a few ideas), Seventeen does enjoy the airier side of high school: the boys, the girls, the feelings, the prom, the epistolary mechanics of it all. In one scene, Lynn, who emerges as one of the Seventeen's main faces, sits in her car with her girlfriend and reads a note from a boy. She’s already read it, chances are more than once, and skips over words feverishly only to jump back and enjoy them for what feels like the first time. As if running her eyes up and down a BINGO card, anticipating a win, she holds the crumpled piece of paper breathlessly. Moments later, dulled by after school boredom, Lynn coolly admits to cheating on him multiple times. She chucks his note on the dashboard and smiles, “I went out on him all the time.” The girls laugh, roll down the windows, turn up the radio, and sing off-tune.

At the championship basketball game, angst fades and the gym’s yellow lights, the pompoms, the players, all burnish the crowd’s faces with what PBS originally had in mind. A row of high school seniors watching their last basketball game is a conceit often used in movies because it’s so easy to pretend the entire world exists in those minutes. Even Lynn lets loose a keenness she would never reveal to her teachers or parents.

Later that week Lynn invites everyone over for a party. Her parents, Jim and Shari, are present but not as chaperones. They drink with her friends, even making breakfast late into the night, drunkenly frying eggs and flipping pancakes. One boy chews on a piece of bacon, catching it before it falls out of his mouth. He can barely stand up. Nearby, an off-duty soldier shares his story about being “15 or 20 miles from the warzone,” as a crowd hangs on his every word. The Four Tops, “Reach Out I’ll Be There,” plays.

The house is chaotic but grows drowsy, and gets at why this, the documentary, is the best way to portray a teenager. Those moments on the weekend when the party starts to die down and boys get hungry and girls are told not to be shy, and unfailingly, someone is trying to revive the affair with music or booze, is specific to that time in life because later on, though the same nights recur over and over, “passing the time” is no longer a valid activity. Even the expression expires.

In the film’s most moving scene, a group gathers in a bedroom listening to the radio. Their friend, Church Mouse, has just died in a car accident and they’ve dedicated a song to him at the local station. “Crank it!” one boy shouts as Bob Seger’s “Against the Wind” begins. It plays in its entirety. The lyrics resonate sincerely — a perfect send-off. You realize early on that nobody will cry, and briefly, you half expect the friends to grow up before your very eyes. Never have you seen them so thoughtful at school. As the song fades, so do those sober minutes. Somebody mentions how Church Mouse was buried in his tennis shoes. He pauses and continues, “I wanna be buried face down so the world can kiss my ass.” And just like that, the kids are back. Gloriously so.

Durga Chew-Bose is the senior editor of This Recording. She is a writer living in Brooklyn. She last wrote in these pages about Rachel McAdams. She tumbls here and twitters here. You can find an archive of her writing on This Recording here.

"Old Love" - Witness (mp3)

"Twenty Years From Tomorrow" - Witness (mp3)

joel demott

Thursday
Jul032014

In Which We Burrow Under Scarlett's Skin

Scarlett Inside Of Scarlett

by ALEX CARNEVALE

Under the Skin
dir. Jonathan Glazer

108 minutes

Under the Skin uses a lot of non-actors from the Scotland in which its Stranger in a Strange Land-story is set, filming by a hidden camera on the dashboard of a van. None of them imagine that Scarlett Johansson is anything but a confused American, and a very poor driver. In their thick Scottish accents you can barely make out what they are saying even if you knew what driving directions they were conveying to her. The joke is that they are both aliens to each other.

In this third film by Jonathan Glazer (Sexy Beast, Birth) Scarlett is supposed to be an alien, though. Despite the fact that her exaggerated features and pin-up body have made her look inhuman in comparison to her fellow actors for almost a decade, Under the Skin tones back that otherworldiness throughout.

Instead, it is supposed to be Ms. Johansson's awkward, mannered gestures that suggest she is not from Earth. This succeeds about as well as you would expect while a swirling, faux-Kubrickian cinematography tries to obscur Scarlett's utterly human sexual presence.

Scarlett is not the only alien in Scotland. There is also a motorcycle-riding alien is who is a bit suspicious of the positive inroads Scarlett seems to be making in the Edinburgh comunity. Like Scarlett, this speedier iteration murders human beings for their carapaces, seeming to find as much pleasure in his own shell as he does in dissecting theirs. In Under the Skin, death is not the end for the bodies the aliens discover and appropriate for themselves.

Scarlett eventually meets up with a creature as bizarre as herself a man with severe facial bloating and scarring. She tells the elephant man that he has wonderful hands, although it unclear why she would offer such a compliment. The music becomes seriously wacky as they touch and the elephant man shows her his dick. Taking the joy out of watching Scarlett Johanssen walk backwards nude is an impressive achievement.

For some unknown reason the grotesque man's plight affects her, even though it is hard to believe she has any concept of beauty, despite being extremely humanoid in her actual form:

In the film's opening scene, she delicately picks an ant off a body she stripped for its clothes. None of her human movements come across as the slightest bit unnatural, and this last gesture seems almost too familiar. Like the rest of Under the Skin's symbols, the ant parallel is so facile it doesn't really hold up under interrogation. Whatever point the film is making about how real people react to a beautiful woman is subsumed by how staged it feels that Scarlett is involved. The thing you really need to keep in mind is this: Scarlett is not one of us, and she never will be.

Disoriented by encounters with human beings where they don't want to kill her or put her on the cover of their magazine, Scarlett attempts to approximate humanity by eating cake and sampling physical love. Further disturbed, she flees into the woods where rapists live. One particularly goofy criminal tries to have his way with her. He screams, "Black Widow!!!" and attempts to enjoy the horrific act, but he only ends up tearing her skin as she flees. Frightened by her actual shape, he douses her with kerosene and burns her body.

By that point we are somewhat tired of looking at Scarlett, as the director clearly enjoys her form more than is healthy. To make Scarlett's body such a centerpiece betrays a love of that voluptuous shape. In Under the Skin each individuated part of her body always seems to be pleasantly extruding in every direction. Unfortunately, there is nothing subtle or transcendant about her physicality; the only advantage it offers is constant presence.

This makes it very difficult for her to carry off the role of an alien, especially since that curvy physique is so familiar to us anyway. It is not supposed to be fun to watch her, so when it is, we feel uneasy. That effect, at least, is unique.

Under the Skin does the best it can to distract from this unsettling contradiction Glazer's manipulative camera tricks are satisfying at first, but exhausting taken in total. It is a serious achievement that we want so badly to avert our eyes from this situation, creating a moral dilemma for ourselves that rarely exists in cinema. Under the Skin's anguished unfolding, stepping on a thin line between pain and wonder, exemplifies the reason it is rare.

Alex Carnevale is the editor of This Recording.

"Still Madly Crazy" - Robin Thicke (mp3)

"The Opposite of Me" - Robin Thicke (mp3)