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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
Jan152018

In Which We Remain Smaller Than We Were Before

All You Have To Do Is Say Yes

by ETHAN PETERSON

Downsizing
dir. Alexander Payne
135 minutes

There is a scene late in Alexander Payne’s Downsizing where a bunch of Norwegians watch the sun go down for the last time. It is an oblique commentary on President Trump’s desire to see more Norwegian-Americans, and as such it is very topical. Around 150,000 non-whites live in Norway, but as Payne pans across this collection of Norwegian people, they are a diverse panoply of different ethnicities. It is the moment where the question of, “Is Downsizing pandering?” is answered definitely in the affirmative.

Payne has been often celebrated for his satires. That is until Downsizing, because no one could seemingly figure out what was being satirized, or why it would be unusual for human beings to shrink down to a size of five inches. Once Paul (Matt Damon) makes this move, his wife (Kristen Wiig) refuses to go through with it and files for divorce. Instead of having a life of considerable wealth in his tiny village, he has to answer telephones for Lands' End, which Payne presents as a humiliating job.

In contrast, Paul’s true calling is as an occupational therapist. He is always noticing when someone is walking funny or suffering from some kind of chronic pain. He dates a woman who doesn’t want him to meet her kid, and comes home to the same shitty apartment he might have in a large person’s world. In other scenes, he witnesses a depth of poverty that transcends the size of the people involved.

Paul spends the rest of the movie as a pseudo-doctor to those in the slums who can’t afford anything better. It is a strange choice for Payne's film, but not as strange as the presentation of poverty in this context. Like many rich whites, Payne believes that those who depend on the efforts of others for their subsistence are uniformly non-white. Payne shares this view with - you guessed it - our beleaguered president.

Watching Matt Damon minister to the poor strikes us as a pathetic recreation of his actual life of justifying and defending the abhorrent behavior of his friends and colleagues. Yet in Paul there is something of the sycophantic enabler that Damon must be to the point where we sense Payne is using our disapproval of the actor behind the mask to draw suspicion to all those individuals who would do something positive for the wrong reasons. In the end, the wrong to be rectified is so much more awful that we accept any reason is just.

Poverty is a disgraceful symptom of a certain, more inclusive society. (Norway has never had to face such problems.) In order to eradicate it, we could conceivably shrink ourselves. As Payne presciently notes, there are ensuing problems – the amount of taxes collected would go down, the amount of consumer spending would go down. But what we should have realized before our government prevented the collapse of massive, irresponsible banks is that a new economy will always replace the old. This is the essential, undiminished spirit of capitalism. Payne writes around this essential question by drawing the world to an end in Downsizing.

By the end the main character in Downsizing becomes Ngoc Lan Tran (Hong Chau), a Vietnamese woman whose leg was amputed at the knee. She falls in love with Matt Damon while he is attempting to fix her prosthetic leg. In one exciting scene, they have sex after he is massaging her stump — she makes very elaborate groans which are meant to be a cue to him to initiate intercourse. Hong Chau is a fantastic actor in a somewhat problematic role, since Lan Tran has no flaws whatsoever and is basically presented as a female Confucius. Still, this at least feels like a risk in a movie that has very few.

As a result, the remedy that Downsizing offers for American life is focused on the personal. It is a very inoffensive, ineffectual answer to the serious economic question posed by this film’s premise, and I think audiences and critics reacted to Payne’s cowardice. I tend to give him a wider berth, but I understand it. In art, it's not enough, anymore, to say how and why the world feels wrong to you. You should probably have an idea of how it could be changed for the better.

Ethan Peterson is the reviews editor of This Recording.

Thursday
Jan112018

In Which We Solve Many Problems Through Tears

Hard to Say is This Recording’s weekly advice column. It will appear every Wednesday until the Earth perishes in a fiery blaze, or until North West turns 40. Get no-nonsense answers to all of your most pressing questions by writing to justhardtosay@gmail.com.

Hi,

I have been dating my girlfriend Lydia for over a year. My apartment was damaged by a fire in a neighboring domicile less than three months ago, so I moved in with Lydia. Things have been going great, but recently she has been alluding to the idea that I won't be moving out.

Living together is a new experience for me, and it is hard sometimes to be around someone so much, even someone you love. We have different interests and it has been difficult making time for some of mine since moving in.

Since it wasn't feasible to secure a new place until I received money from my insurance company, I held off. But I do intend to move out and recently secured a room in a multiperson apartment until I can purchase or rent my own place. What is the best way to break this news to my girlfriend?

Taylor R.

Dear Taylor,

You know that rap song where it's like, "Hotel, motel, Holiday Inn"? That should have been you.

There are a few problems with the path you have chosen. The first is that you did not make your situation clear to Lydia before moving in. You should have done that in writing, and if possible through some kind of henna. The second is that you are looking for a way to not be honest with her. Crying can solve a lot of problems that reasoned discourse can never approach in its particulars.

Who am I kidding? They call HTS the House of Sweet Lies for a reason. The best way to get out of this is if her building doesn't allow pets. If they don't, you can claim an animal has been forced on you. Choose an exceptionally short-lived creature, e.g. a housefly or a pigeon.

Unfortunately a lot of buildings allow pets, which moves our situation to Plan B, which I call the Godfather plan. Someone made you an opportunity you couldn't refuse, and you had to take that apartment. Possibilities include an amazingly cheap apartment, or that your new roommate is a friend who needs you there or (s)he will slit her wrists.

If you can't think of a compelling reason, suddenly explain that you have been doing some thinking and there is evidence to suggest that people have better relationships when they don't live together before marriage. Lydia's eyes will light up at the thought of a long term committment with the plan who is currently plotting a way to spend less time with her.

Hi,

My boyfriend Davis served a short prison term from 2011-2012. He was incarcerated because of a drunk driving incident where he harmed another driver.

Davis and I have been talking about possibly getting engaged in the next year. My question is whether you think I should mention any of this to my family before or after the engagement/wedding?

Mallie R.

Dear Mallie,

It is impossible to keep such a thing a secret if you are going to include Davis as part of your family. It is going to come out at some point, e.g. when his prison buddies show up to take you hostage demanding liters of your blood or Jim Beam.

The key is to present this information to your family in the correct way. That correct way includes while Davis is performing some relevant community service, like ladling out soup at a kitchen, counseling young individuals on the error of his ways, or cunnilingus. Let your family know that Davis is a changed man. I assume he gives speeches for a modest rate as a part of his rehabilitation? OK, see ya.

 

Illustrations by Mia Nguyen.

 

Wednesday
Jan102018

In Which We Recognize Ryan Gosling For A Reason

Gestalt

by ETHAN PETERSON

Blade Runner 2049
dir. Denis Villeneuve
161 minutes

Blade Runner 2049 begins when K (Ryan Gosling) kills a robot on the robot’s farm, which is owned by Wallace (Jared Leto) who invents robots for a living and is probably a robot himself. (K is also a robot, the most handsome robot imaginable.) If you just take as a given that everyone is a robot in Blade Runner 2049, you will be fully correct most of the time, since the film has taken the step of eliminating the distinction between humans and automatons with their own consciousness, if there ever existed one in the first place.

Gosling reports back to his boss at the LAPD, Madam, who is played by Robin Wright Penn. All of Wright Penn’s recent roles have involved an unfeelingness, so I guess this is why Villeneuve cast her in this familiar part. This is a general problem across Blade Runner 2049 – when actors are too readily identified with their roles, we substitute our knowledge of their characteristics for ones that may be present in the drama.

Villeneuve leans on this heavily, since there is not a lot here in the way of character development in general. In Blade Runner 2049, a crooked businessman is a crooked businessman, a fixer and forger is a decent and hearty sort, and a prostitute sells her body for a reason.

At the site of the killing, Gosling finds the remains of Rachael, a robot from the first movie. The skeleton indicates she was pregnant. Wright Penn’s character wants to find and destroy the child for the implications a pregnant machine would bring, whereas Wallace wants to find a way to breed robots since it is too expensive to construct them on the interplanetary scale he requires. The implication is that neither solution is definitively correct, since both approaches involve the underlying assumption that an articially constructed person is not a person. “You got along just fine without one,” Penn tells Gosling. He responds, “Without what?” “A soul.”

This kind of hamfisted obviousness was missing from Ridley Scott’s original, as was the concept of an automaton as a kind of depressed person who believes or she is missing something because they are not fully human. The date of birth of the robot reminds Gosling of an implanted memory he has – in short, he is running from other boys at an orphanage, and he has to hide a wooden horse from them. On the bottom of the wooden horse is the same date as the one on the birthed robot.

Gosling perhaps reasonably assumes that he is the birthed robot, who was given over to an orphanage. In order to be sure, he visits the creator of the memory to see if it is a real memory or a fake one. When she looks at it, she says it is real. But she is lying to him, because she is actually the first and only robot baby, and she is in hiding. Her father is Deckard (Harrison Ford), and for some reason he is living in a decimated Las Vegas, where some kind of electromagnetic bomb went off.

Gosling is usually a treat to watch. He has great facial expressions, and an engagingly repressed enthusiasm for life. In casting him as a robot, Villenueve goes to great lengths to preserve these strengths, even though the natural limitations of the role are at odds with them. We don’t realize how much Gosling seems to strain at these restrictions until we meet Deckard inhabiting an empty casino where videos of Elvis Presley and Frank Sinatra cycle from before the blackout.

Mr. Ford is not much of a pilot, but he is tailor made for this role. Even his expressions of what, on the surface, appear to be genuine human emotion contain an innate reserve that we often call dignity. In contrast, Gosling’s anguish is of a more base, helpless variety. There is something powerful in the contrast of the two performances, but it is only natural that we gravitate as viewers to the one that places our species in the most positive light.

Villeneuve is a slick director with a gift for composition and a handle on what is required in successful art direction. There are lots of neat touches and update to the genre defining look that Blade Runner introduced when it bombed at theaters in 1982. Even some of the same locations get a makeover, although for the most part the grittiness and verite of the original is missing here, replaced by the emptying aftereffects of climate change.

You could probably make an infinite number of Blade Runner movies on roughly the same themes — how technology has the potential to continue the objectification of women, pets, and racial minorities, how replacing humans with AIs makes no tangible difference to life as it is generally constructed, how every living thing demands to be treated with a certain amount of respect no matter who or what it came from. All these messages are timeless, but in Blade Runner 2049, they start to feel a bit closed off to us. Should the future be so concrete?

Ethan Peterson is the reviews editor of This Recording.