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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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Entries in alex carnevale (246)

Monday
Aug142017

In Which We Walked Through Fire To Save Our Lives

What a Country!

by ALEX CARNEVALE

The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp
dir. Emeric Pressburger and Michael Powell
163 minutes

Imagine making the most rah-rah pro-British film in the history of mankind and the British government preventing your distributors from releasing it outside England for a predetermined period of time. Churchill hated Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger's The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, although I have no idea why. Were England not such a bizarre and astonishing place that thrives on such contradictions, this would seem sort of Kafkaesque. Maybe the reason it made him so cross is that the film suggests it is a lot easier to admire England from afar - unless you find that over time you have become English.

There are a lot of jokes about this idea in The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp. Here are some witticisms regarding England that are made in the miniseries-length project, almost all of which I disavow or would insist apply equally to the people of Toronto:

The English can't cook worth a shit.
The English bring England everywhere they go.
The English, when rich, are insufferable.
The English subscribe to their own rules.
The English have poor teeth and limited or awful facial hair.
The English have fantastic women.
The English sometimes patronize or dismiss their fantastic women.

Clive Candy (Roger Livesey) is one hell of a guy with basically zero flaws. He fought in the Boer War, which a soldier in the Great War later dismisses as a skirmish. Upon his return to London, he immediately heads to Berlin to defend England's role in the war. There he meets a woman named Edith Hunter (Deborah Kerr). He finds her the utter essence of femininity, and when he observes her body in a striped blue top, he is nearly overwhelmed with a sexuality he expresses by growing a mustache. When she attempts to make Clive Candy jealous by flirting with a German man, Theo (Anton Walbrook), he pretends to be happy for her. She is deeply upset, but because she is English, instead of giving up the game, she marries Theo and bears his two sons. Both boys become Nazis.

In an American film, this would be a serious tragedy that would drive the protagonist to drink or worse. In a Russian film it would be a prologue. In a French film it would be a prelude to a three-way. In an English film, things are likely to get much better – after all, the people involved live in the greatest country on earth!

In the film's second act, Clive Candy is still obsessed with this brainy redhead type. The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp flashes forward twenty years to the tail end of the Great War, when Candy sees a nurse named Barbara Wynne (Deborah Kerr again) who looks just like Edith Hunter. He marries her, even though he is 40 and she is 20. They have two adorable cocker spaniels, and live in an apartment in London with eighteen rooms. This was Deborah Kerr's first big role after catching the eye of director Michael Powell, who used her as a walk-on in a previous film, and she is spectacular in it. When she initially appears as Edith, you're just so-so on her, because she has these really awful-looking bangs. As Barbara she only lasts about twenty minutes of screen time, but those are twenty of the most special minutes of my entire life.

This is, of course, a metaphorical ideation of England's glee after the war. Meanwhile, Clive Candy's German friend Theo is utterly devastated by his country's defeat, so he becomes a chemist. His wife wants to come back to England, but he gives her a hot "Nah" and they stay in Berlin. The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp is mostly savage to the German people, pointing out their salacious methods of war, and ultimately framing the triumph of Nazism as the dominance of one way of thinking over a moral but weak Germanity. All I know is that the only Jew in The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp is the one who wrote the script.

Emeric Pressburger assimilated himself into one hell of an Englishman. Where he is buried, in Suffolk, his is the only Star of David on any grave. (Then again, Jews most often have their own cemeteries.) Pressburger was of a generation with my grandfather Abe, who left Poland when he was a teenager. (He loathed the anti-Semitic Poland that he fled.) Pressburger's private school education was a side effect of his father's wealth, but after his father died, he was forced to make it on his own.

Abe Bernstein never had even a high school education, although he was widely read and laboriously self-taught. He possessed very strong feelings about Europe in general, and especially Germany. (New Jersey was his new mother country.) No one could have been less English than he was, but he admired the English because he could not conceive of one tiny island creating all that culture. (Some of this benign, naive admiration no doubt passed along to his grandson.) There was also a certain cynicism to his respect, however, since I think he was convinced that Nazism never would have been possible without the English. The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp suggests much the same thing.

Although the considerable amount of hair on his body testified to his Jewishness, I don't think my grandfather believed in God, and he had good reason to think God had abandoned his people. There is something of that in this film, too, of how those who are not believers see events differently from those who do. Among the many millions that perish over the fifty years this nearly perfect film accommodates, no one ever says a prayer for living, let alone the dead. Like my grandfather, Pressburger put his faith in an historical-economic view of the world. "We'll need to trade with your country," opines Candy to his dispirited German friend, who had spent the better part of the six months following the end of war in the nicest POW camp on record.

As I mentioned last Monday, the Museum of Modern Art is screening Deborah Kerr's best films through August 31. The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp is a very long movie, and at some point in the film's third hour, a woman cried out, "And it's still going!" Most of the audience was very fucking annoyed with her outburst, since talking is intensely frowned upon at MoMA screenings. I once saw a older woman who spoke actually pushed by another theatergoer, and everyone around was like, "She had to push her, there was no choice." It's a real tough environment.

Kerr pops up again in the third act, where she portrays Candy's driver, Angela Cannon. For some reason, army fatigues really suit her – probably related to the fact that all redheads look good in green. Candy has lost his wife to cancer by then, and he picks Angela as his driver so he can check her out and be reminded of his only love. In the film's key scene, he states that he never got over losing out on Edith, which is quite the admission considering he never contacted her after she tried to troll him by getting engaged to that German fellow.

Anyway, Pressburger gives Angela a few scenes to establish she is really nothing like the ghost of the woman that Candy admired all those years earlier. Her boyfriend is a really intelligent fellow who is clueless as to how good he has it. This angel was fresh and proud, beautiful and free, and English. God damn was she English.

Alex Carnevale is the editor of This Recording.


Monday
Aug072017

In Which We Remain Miserable Throughout France

No Time For Sad Lament

by ALEX CARNEVALE

Bonjour Tristesse
dir. Otto Preminger
115 minutes

This summer, the Museum of Modern Art is presenting an exhibition of films featuring Deborah Kerr, a subtle and graceful actor born in Scotland. Far and away the best of this group is Otto Preminger's Bonjour Tristesse. This novella-type project feels today like an Americanized-Eric Rohmer moral fable, owing to a similarity in the source material. Anne (Deborah Kerr) is a successful fashion designer in Paris who is prepared to give everything up to marry Raymond (David Niven) against the wishes of his daughter Cecile (Jean Seberg) in a glorious house overlooking the French Riviera.

Preminger brings his own moral judgments to this milieu, and they are decidedly different from anything Rohmer had to offer. As a result, Bonjour Tristesse is a great deal less heartening than its peer films like Claire's Knee and The Collector, and probably one of the most depressing movies ever made. It begins with Cecile driving a young artist into the city. He asks her to marry him, but unfortunately she is largely dead inside, paralleling the real-life depression of Seberg, whose career in Hollywood slowed down considerably after she gave $10,000 to the Black Panthers.

Most well-known for her role in Godard's Breathless, Seberg is always initially charming to look at and listen to, like a perfectly preserved slice of cake. Gradually and sinisterly, we begin to loathe her in any role. As soon as Kerr comes on the scene and suggests she take care to study for her philosophy exam, she is dead set on eradicating this unpleasant new stepmother from her life. In order to do so, Cecile enlists the help of the local Jews – namely her father's ex-girfriend Elsa (Mylene Demongeot) and a law student named Philippe (Geoffrey Horne), with whom she never consummates a summertime affair.

Cecile's colorful time during the summer is contrasted with the following winter, which she endures in harsh black and white. Paris resembles a baby perpetually trying to be born into a lusher, more omnipotent reality. Cecile's severe depression as various men fight over her and request her presence at such amusing events as the racetrack, dinner and dancing is mostly due to her father's inability to parent his daughter.

Indeed, the disturbing kisses that Raymond gives his daughter on the mouth are more inappropriate than invasive, but whatever the meaning of these pecks, it is clear that Raymond should not be drinking with her daughter, double dating with his daughter, or pincing the ass of a very violated local woman he has hired as the family maid. Seberg's acting adds to the idea the relationship is rather unconvincing.

Still, reactions to Jean Seberg's performance at the time Bonjour Tristesse debuted to mostly empty theaters were a bit out of proportion. Critics seemed to believe that somehow an American playing a coy French girl was on the level of a cosmic calamity. In the New York Herald Tribune, William Zinsser explained that Bonjour Tristesse  is "as self-conscious as a game of charades played in an English country home. In the pivotal role, Jean Seberg is about as far from a French nymph as milk is from Pernod." The New Yorker suggested that Seberg required "a good solid, and possibly therapeutic, paddling."

When Deborah Kerr's Ann arrives on the scene, Raymond makes a big show of moving into the guest house while Cecile and Elsa occupy the other rooms in the main house. Ann's closed-off room parodies her private self – the walls are lined with books, and one lonely window looks out on the sea as she constructs deft and appealing sketches of her dresses. Meanwhile, Elsa's bedroom is atop the entire structure and features an astonishing amount of windows and doors, reflecting the transparency of her flighty, ethnic personality.

Preminger was the master of making do with what he had. Bonjour Tristesse's script, by Arthur Laurents, was written over the course of a few days, and Laurents passed on being on the set during film. "He really just left me on my own," Laurents later said of Preminger, whose direction never impressed him, "with one basic instruction, that we are to be removed from the characters, who don't have passionate emotions. Otto thought that kind of distance was 'high style.'" Where the screenwriter parted ways with Preminger was in the casting of British actors to play French parts. "Then, in the midst of this chic atmosphere, there is Jean Seberg - Miss Iowa," Laurents complained. He told Otto that Jean would sink all three of them and Bonjour Tristesse.

On the set of Bonjour Tristesse, Preminger was his usual tyrannical self. He particularly went after his pet project Seberg, who had little training as an actress. The starlet's face was also somewhat sore from an operation to remove moles from her cheeks and neck before she left for Europe to begin shooting. While Preminger undoubtedly had a very good reason to get her upset, since she is meant to be angry in most of Bonjour Tristesse, it made for an uncomfortable atmosphere.

As Forster Hirsch recalled in his biography of the director, Deborah Kerr stood up for her younger colleague against Otto's abuse.

I said, "Please, Otto, do you have to shout at the poor little girl like that? She seems to be taking all right but I'm not. I cannot work with this kind of atmosphere. I'm terribly sorry, but I just can't." The battering she received finished me, but it didn't her. I used to be a bit frightened for Otto. I thought he was going to have a heart attack, with his eyes popping and his face purple. But the next minute, it was gone. Completely gone. And this man who could be such a bully on the set, and who could destroy people, would then be a charming, witty companion at dinner who knew the best wines and caviar. 

Part of Preminger's antagonism towards Seberg was borne out of their previous collaboration, Saint Joan, a Joan of Arc biopic that had been Preminger's most devastating box-office bomb up to that point. Seberg has her struggles in Bonjour Tristesse, but her mannered style of acting is not all that out of place today. The sets and tailored environments ultimately overwhelm and distract us from Jean's inadequacies. Just to see the French Riviera in this special time and place transports us in and among the atmosphere so seamlessly that Bonjour Tristesse ages like the wines the man knew so well. Even a fake France of 1958 is substantially better than a 2017 anything.

The final scenes of Bonjour Tristesse, filmed in the somber black-and-white that Preminger slips into as a hokey conceit, accentuates Seberg's total  despair. At the age of forty, Seberg disappeared from her Paris home, taking only a blanket with her. She was found in the backseat of her car, a white Renault, having taken a massive quantity of barbiturates. Jean was on her third husband by then.

Alex Carnevale is the editor of This Recording.

Monday
Aug072017

In Which Wim Wenders And Sam Shepard Begin To Understand Each Other

The Irredeemable World

by ALEX CARNEVALE

Don't Come Knocking
dir. Wim Wenders
122 minutes

Wim Wenders and Sam Shepard's 1984 film Paris, Texas runs 147 long minutes. The central performance, by Harry Dean Stanton, is quite breathtaking in its solipsism, and the movie includes many of Wenders' signature shots of the harsh environment of the American West with which he fell in love. Like any film by Mr. Wenders, you have to wait a good hour to decide exactly how much up its own ass this production will end up being. His collaboration with Sam Shepard, then, seemed so unlikely precisely because the playwright got through to what actual people wanted and desired so much more organically than Wenders ever did.

If you could not tell, I was never the biggest fan of Paris, Texas, although it is a gorgeous and moving film. Wenders and Shepard finally reunited to atone for the sins of the past with 2005's Don't Come Knocking, which is substantially better in every way. Let me tell you why.

First of all, there is the matter of Sam Shepard's performance as the titular character, a vain and stupid actor named Howard Spence. Besides Harold Pinter, there probably has never been a playwright who was as good on film as Shepard, who is now no longer with us. Shepard was a genius for the stage; I mean he just knew exactly how everything should be played, but the amazing thing is he never wrote this in his scripts. His plays are all meant for the actors to do as they will, which is funny because he knew better than anyone how many bad actors there were after decades in the theater.

Buried Child was probably Shepard's best ever play, but 1980's True West was his broadest story and will probably end up his most well-known effort. The only Shepard play I ever saw live was Philip Seymour Hoffman and John C. Reilly switching the main roles of True West, which kind of never made sense to me, even though they were both very good at it. The idea was it kept the concept of the two brothers fresh, and the actors enjoyed it. When I went to see True West at the Circle on the Square, Bruce Willis was sitting across from me, because he was doing True West on Showtime, maybe the worst version ever done of the play. He was horrified by what he was seeing, probably because he knew the role did not suit him.

The best part of True West and every Shepard play is the language. He knew exactly how people talked, and his characters did not talk the same. This was not David Mamet where it turned into this weird omnipoetic thing or Suzan Lori-Parks where the language overwhelmed everything and became more like a chorus. This was people and how the main fact of their speech patterns indicated their desires, ambitions, and flaws.

In Don't Come Knocking, he takes on this very slight, often drunken man who walks off the set of a Western he is filming in Utah. The first thing Howard Spence does after he escapes is go visit his mother (Eva Marie Saint). That's one of the things I enjoy most about Don't Come Knocking. His mother picks him up at the bus station, she has a couple scenes with him after that, and then he just goes on his way.

Howard heads to the Montana metropolis he passed through while he was working on another film. While he was there, he impregnated a waitress named Doreen (Jessica Lange) who he kind of had a thing for. He wants to get back to that, even though twenty years have passed. In Don't Come Knocking, she never takes him back, because this is not a Hollywood movie, thank God, it is a Sam Shepard play only with better sets, if not actors.

In that town of Butte is a woman named Sky (Sarah Polley). Sky recently lost her mother, and she carries the woman's ashes around in an urn. It was clear then that Polley was a dynamic talent, and her mere presence in Don't Come Knocking is completely overwhelming. Shepard has this great scene where he meets her and at first he thinks she's a fan, and even after she convinces him that she is not one, he still warms to her slowly. When you've been hurt the thing you learn is how dumb it is to trust someone in those first five minutes.

Sutter (Tim Roth) is an insurance man sent to bring Howard Spence back to the set by any means necessary. When he finally finds Howard, he handcuffs them together. This is such a Shepard thing, and it is a great onstage conceit in general. Roth has always been terrific when it comes to bringing a basic humanism to every kind of role, even that of the traditional antagonist. But as in many Shepard plays, the true antagonist is far more difficult to discern.

Shepard and Jessica Lange, his one-time wife, have this supercharged scene that takes place as they are walking through the main drag of the town. In this sequence, Wenders works considerable magic with windows and reflections, and the dialogue is so completely right for how people who know each other a little, but not a lot, make sense out of the conflict intrinsic to their lives.

Howard Spence knows that he has a son named Earl (Gabriel Mann) this entire time, and he goes to see him. Earl responds by throwing all of his own belongings out of his window onto the street and breaking up with his girlfriend Amber (Fairuza Balk). She sticks around anyway, sensing that this difficult moment is not really about her.

Polley is phenomenal in her scenes with Shepard, but she interacts with her potential stepbrother even better. in both circumstances she glows with a vital radiance all the other participants in Don't Come Knocking are so keen to recapture. We never do find out if Sky is actually Howard Spence's daughter, and it is implied that she is probably not. But that actually only improves things for Howard Spence, because he finds it easier to love someone he never was told he had to be responsible for than his actual son. In typical fashion for this great American author, one form of love ends up being a bridge, the only true path, to the other.

In every narrative, the idea is that by the end something has to change. Shepard gave this rule of stage a clever and brutal twist. He conceived of the idea that people could try to evolve, but nothing could actually change them - not dialogue, not action, not violence, not death - they could only react to it unconsciously, like putting on a winter coat to repel a cool breeze. Things were altered, but not necessarily what was needed.

The most redemption Howard Spence receives is a soft hug. This is not only enough for him, it is beyond his wildest expectations. Years and years of loneliness change what gives us pleasure; the merest thought of those we truly care for, not the return of the affection, can provide solace. It is enough to see and be around those we love.

Alex Carnevale is the editor of This Recording.