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Alex Carnevale

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Entries in alan ball (3)


In Which There Is Nothing To Be Afraid Of

Lady Banjo Eyes


Breaking Bad
creator Vince Gilligan

True Blood
creator Alan Ball

Walter White (Bryan Cranston) is distracted from his job for a moment, but no more. On his 51st birthday, his wife slowly walks, fully-clothed, into the family pool. She can't get good with the way things are now that Walt is running his own business. She chainsmokes in the home, she begs for his cancer to return, she can barely manage to bake a chocolate cake. Her behavior is so exaggerated that she has turned into the Danielle Steele version of an adulterous wife.

It's a lot harder to write a character sketch like this about the protagonists in the eighteenth season of HBO's True Blood. What's that you say? It only feels like the eighteenth season? No matter. The typical scene on True Blood lasts only the thirty or forty seconds it might take you to get bored of it before moving onto the next character. It's like skipping from YouTube to YouTube, and in every episode, there are over a thousand.

not casting Fred Savage as Godric was an almost unforgivable mistake

The character I least understand on True Blood is Eric Northman. When the show began he was completely committed to the superiority of vampires over humans, now he walks around acting like he's Saint Ignatius. You have never seen a man so completely convinced there is no vampire god. He's become a Christian message board troll who waits for someone to espouse their faith in under 130 characters and then chimes in with a "Not likely!"

Understanding the motivations of a drama's personages is the first step to empathizing with their predicament. I almost admire how much True Blood eschews this. The only time it has its characters even react to the madness that surrounds them is when they cry afterwards. By the next episode, they are generally fine. The rule on True Blood - that everyone gets a storyline - extends even to the most peripheral characters, especially if they were kind enough to offer Alan Ball an on-set blowjob.

Alan Ball and Anna Paquin will not be doing any USO tours, of that much we can be certain

After a time, playing with the lives of fictional people becomes like moving things around on your desk. Alan Ball hates God so completely he had to become him.

Everything bad on True Blood is associated with religion, even the eating of a child. Ball believes that faith is the corruptor, the scapegoat instrument by which evil is wrought. His most sincere and good-willed individuals on the show are completely without faith; they feel lost in the world as he does, and simply by virtue of not knowing exactly what they are, are blessed and imagined as heroes.

No such luck for Walter White. He spent his entire life before he got brain cancer afraid of things, unable to decide who he was or what he should be doing with his life. Once he realized that, his new problems began.

I have lived longer than anyone I have talked about so far in this essai besides Eric Northman. One of mankind's most enduring cliches is that success comes with a price. (This cliche was first associated with Jesus, and later, Kristen Stewart.)

Whatever truth there is in this statement exists completely outside the realm of human experience. For those who aren't successsful, no price is too high. And for those who are successful, like the creators of Breaking Bad and True Blood, there must be some other reason for their unhappiness, an explanation that lies outside themselves. If they actually found they liked being miserable, success would feel like a curse.

taking Nancy Pelosi's dream and bringing it to life

Basically, it's easy to forget that you are the one who knocks. Many years ago my daughter came to me and explained that one of her classmates was afraid of me. What was I going to do about that? I offered to meet the young man, and he came over to our house for dinner. I asked him if he still felt afraid of me. "No," he said. I told him to wait.

Walter White is happy, perhaps the happiest he's ever been, but there is no one to enjoy it with him. Is this what it is truly like to run a critically acclaimed television series? Must there be a feeling in everything that they will be found out as a fraud, a charlatan? Did Matthew Weiner put his blood in a syringe and infect everyone in Hollywood with his identical insecurities?

I noticed some years ago that I find myself happier in the company of sad people, simply by comparison. And when I meet truly happy people - Oliver North comes to mind - I feel sorry for myself, that I cannot be as they are. Even more astonishing is that I am allowed to behave this way by the people in my life.

Beel, drain this woman while I watch the uneven bars

There might be another reason that this cliche keeps reoccuring in our popular fictions. Vampire leader Salome Agrippa (Valentina Cervi) has quickly become the worst character on True Blood. Her scenes are completely boring; she speaks with a vague monotone that is supposed to come off as threatening but in reality just lulls the viewer to sleep. Her idea of acting consists of brushing back her bangs. If I have to view her bare chest one more time, I'm going to start missing the acting "skills" of the guy who played Lafayette's top.

But besides the fact that Salome can't act and looks completely unappealing without clothes, the various travails of Salome don't interest me or my wife because she is truly satisfied with herself. Salome is incapable of change. Eventually this will be her downfall as she tries to take over the world for her vampire God, but until then I guess I have to keep watching Bill (Stephen Moyer) penetrating her with his ass raised high in the air, like he's about to hammer a nail.

you killed off Christopher Meloni FOR THIS?

True Blood and Breaking Bad, as they ascended to their first heights, made a point of portraying strong and powerful women. Now that these dramas near their conclusion, these women are actually revealed only as exceptions to the general rule of female archetypes - power and vulnerability can no longer exist within one human person. There may be sexism behind this, and I'm sure there is, but I can suggest another cause as well.

sexism, yoWhen a man changes his mind, or becomes something different than what he is, it is not a betrayal. This is expected of him: it happens when he begins a household, settles down with his partner, has children. These are all changes for him, and the responsiblities are said to improve who he is.

When these things happen to a woman, it is thought to be no more than a natural extension of herself. Lies. This vicious canard is completely subsumed in how men think of the opposite sex. But the reality is not that women aren't changed by the contours of family and marriage. It is that, on a conscious or even subconscious level, women are better at understanding what change implies than men will ever be.

Dick Cheney is the senior contributor to This Recording. He is the former vice president of the United States. You can find an archive of his writing on This Recording here. He last wrote in these pages about the beginning of Breaking Bad's season.

"We Are Not Good People" - Bloc Party (mp3)

"Octopus" - Bloc Party (mp3)

The new album from Bloc Party is entitled Four, and it will be released on August 20th.


In Which Our Heart Fills Up Like A Balloon That's About To Burst

The Soft Animal 


American Beauty
dir. Sam Mendes
92 minutes

A few days ago I stopped at the St. Mark's Bookshop and bought a collection of Mary Oliver poems. I was trying to give myself the gift of therapy. I wanted to be told, "You only have to let the soft animal of your body love what it loves." That's good advice. In House of Light, I found a poem I really like, not so directly therapeutic as the well-known "Wild Geese", but a little funnier, and still affirming, called "The Gift." In the poem, Oliver tells a story about listening to a bird's song, hearing Mahler in the song, and bringing “a machine" (a boombox, as I picture it) out to the bird so she can play it some Mahler. The last line of the poem is, "And mostly, I’m grateful that I take this world so seriously."

It is characteristic of American beauty, lower-case, to be profoundly confused about how seriously it takes the world, and, inversely, how seriously the world should take it. In 1999's American Beauty, Wes Bentley’s character, Ricky, asks Thora Birch’s character, Jane, whether she wants to see “the most beautiful thing” he has ever filmed. Together, they watch a plastic bag float among autumn leaves; they watch on a huge flat-screen in his decked-out bedroom.

Reliving the moment of seeing and capturing the bag’s beauty, Ricky almost weeps. "That’s when I realized," he says, "that there was an entire life behind things." Ricky, as Jane is learning, gets a real spiritual kick out of things that most people find repulsive: a homeless woman, frozen to death; a dead bird lying at the feet of his true love. Ricky is not like other people. He claims no direct influences, sees the hidden beauty in things. He is grateful that he takes this world so seriously.

The late 1990s were a time at which the culture felt particularly comfortable diagnosing itself. The Clinton years had proved that everybody was libidinous and money-grubbing, but we had yet to learn to feel protective in the face of criticism and attack. America was perfecting the art of self-effacement: as all handsome losers know, the right joke at the right time, at one's own expense, can really charm the ladies.  

Kevin Spacey and Alan BallAmerican Beauty is a product of the same charming loser — Hollywood — that brought us, in 1999, Being John Malkovich and Fight Club. Like those movies, it is dandy and a flirt, posing as a cynic. In high school I thought American Beauty was, you know, beautiful. And it is: the production values here are so high, and the cinematography so accomplished, that even a plastic bag floating in the wind looks really, really good.

People were fond of saying that American Beauty was a "black comedy," since Fargo and other dark films had established a precedent for that kind of thing, and since it will, at moments, make a similar kind of joke about the depressing and routine nature of suburban existence. But what is in other, truer satires absurd and bleak, becomes in American Beauty the foliage floating, necessary but unnoticed, around the plastic bag at the heart of it all. That Kevin Spacey delivers his lines with some ironical flourish, and that, in the end, he dies, does not make this Death of a Salesman. Indeed, it is more Field of Dreams or It’s a Wonderful Life — a thorough genre mash-up, a ride up and down the ladder of success, a list of clichés.

The ambiguity of what American Beauty is going for is more apparent now that it has aged a little bit. "My wife and daughter both think that I'm this gigantic loser," says Lester Burnham, "and they’re right. I have lost something. But it’s never too late to get it back." In Hollywood, when five to one hundred talented people throw all their energy at a single problem — how best to affirm America's sense of itself — what comes out is often both sentimental and, subtly, unhinged. And it is difficult to measure the seriousness of their multi-million dollar efforts: how, for example, should we evaluate the cultural impact of a movie like Forrest Gump?

Fortunately or unfortunately, American Beauty is iconic. Mena Suvari will be frozen in that web of red rose petals forever. When I got an iPhone in 2009, the “Xylophone” ringtone reminded me of the American Beauty score, and it still does. The actors inhabit the metaphors of their characters very precisely, and this is — Ricky would agree, I think — beautiful. I do not object to cliché as an instrument in storytelling; storytelling, obviously, cannot escape cliché. Stories that drawn on clichés as widely and schizophrenically as American Beauty indicate, I think, the depth of American hunger — for that moment when, in hearing a bird’s song, or filming a dead bird, you transcend your ordinariness.

American Beauty is an arrogant movie. Like any other creature too satisfied with itself, it stops being fun after a while. It sates certain appetites, like the appetite to look at a perfect bowl of oranges while telling yourself that you don't really need or want a perfect bowl of oranges in your own house. When I imagined writing something about the film, I assumed there would be something funny to say. I had forgotten its seriousness.

Elena Schilder is the senior contributor to This Recording. She is a writer living in New York. She tumbls here. You can find an archive of her writing on This Recording here.

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"Peaceful" - Amatorski (mp3)

"Cheapest Soundtrack" - Amatorski (mp3)


In Which True Blood Contains Multitudes

Tears of a Clown


True Blood

creator Alan Ball

While the sheriff of Area 5 Eric Northman is all sad about his maker dying, the town of Bon Temps, Lousiana has been overcome by a maenad. The god Dionysius in the person of Michelle Forbes, called Bacchus by the Romans, has had her way with the town, and the only person who can help matters is Sophie, the Queen of Louisiana.

True Blood has a funny way of introducing major characters when you're not looking. What's never explained is why this show doesn't have all the characters it needs. When the only chance Hoyt Fortenberry has to shine is trying to keep his Mom occupied while she battles zombies on Bill's Wii, you know this show has sailed clear of all meaning to a darker place.

When Alan Ball gets tired of finding motivations for deep characters of color, he assembles them into a makeshift army with their oppressers and consumes their leader with the idea of locking up Sam Merlotte. It's hard not to lack confidence in the abilities of the Jason Stackhouse-Andy LeFleuer-Sam Merlotte triumvirate. Like Sookie, we've resorted to calling Biiiiiiiiiillll in a really shrill voice until our vampire arrives to comfort us.

On the other hand, turning Andy into the hero is best thing this show has going right now, and his inspired nonsensical musings about the pig he saw have now given way to the man he saw disappear. Andy isn't going to like that his fridge buddy defies the laws of physics — cops rarely do.

It was only a few weeks before that Sam Merlotte was having sweet, savory sex with another one of his barmaids. Randy Newman might hate Merlotte's kind, but I love little people. Why must happiness for Sam Merlotte be so fleeting? Dionysus turned the love of something at the expense of all else back on Midas, why not to those who believe that workplace romance will take them to the promised land?

The maenad replaces the need humans have for expressing themselves; they killed Orpheus after all. The idea of a destructive, impossible to control God runs throughout the spine of history. Gods were born vengeful, or didn't you know?

The vampires can only extract their fangs and try to make the entranced humans cower. Sookie, for her part, has an ability that repels it. She is part-fairy, or nearly so. Bill's like, "Hey Sook can you do that again?" When he bites a maenad, he becomes infected with her vile poison. "Don't call Biiiillll so much anymore Sook. I can't come everytime you call."

Instead True Blood simply picks on the simpler ones, those of us more susceptible to life's torments. Ex-soldier Terry, for example, is a lot more emboldened as a possessed lunkhead than he ever was as a short order cook. It's fascinating to watch how each group deals with their deluded friends and family. For example, I suppose it really is true that videogames keep families together.

I used to have a similar expression on my face when I played Wii Tennis. Lafayette and Tara's mom, however, prefer the bitchslap method. To each his own is what the first disciples of Dionysus said to one another before they descended into the fury that was to come.

In Donna Tartt's classic first novel The Secret History latin students venture in the Dionysian beyond for beautiful experiences and sometimes painful ones. It is a learning process that allows humans to achieve enlightenment, see George R.R. Martin's A Song for Lya for another example. We all ache to belong to a fugue that exceeds the bounds of the possible.

Bill gets really mad when humans sell vampire blood. Lafayette cares enough to send some a really pretty coed who needs V for finals. Men and vampires are obsessed with worldly concerns that do not trouble the entombed, or Hoyt Fortenberry. The afflicted give themselves over to the deadly haze, but at its epicenter it is a wonderful mask to wear.

In our dreams we find ourselves waiting to be overcome.

Alex Carnevale is the editor of This Recording. He tumbls here. You can find past True Blood reviews here, here, and here.

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