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Alex Carnevale
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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 (220)

Tuesday
Sep202016

In Which We Thought Ingmar Bergman Could Be Something More

Revenge Picture

by ALEX CARNEVALE

Mrs. Vogler desires the truth. She has looked for it everywhere, and sometimes she seems to have found something to hold onto, something lasting, but then suddenly the ground has given way under her feet. The truth had dissolved and disappeared or had, in the worst case, turned into a lie.

My art cannot melt, transform, or forget: the boy in the photo with his hands in the air or the man who set himself on fire to bear witness to her faith. I am unable to grasp the large catastrophes. They leave my heart untouched. At most I can read about such atrocities with a kind of greed - a pornography of horror. But I shall never rid myself of those images, images that turn my art into a bag of tricks.

Ingmar Bergman's notebooks

I can't think of Persona without remembering the numerous defenses Roger Ebert made of it.  

Revisiting the film in 2001, Ebert opens his review with "Shakespeare used six words to pose the essential human choice: To be, or not to be?" It is the kind of "common-man" bullshit Bergman specifically ignored, the kind of lazy writing he is making fun of in Persona.

Dumbly, Ebert follows up this banner lede by admitting, "Persona was one of the first movies I reviewed, in 1967. I did not think I understood it," and then spends the rest of the essay proving he still does not understand it at all. Persona lacked the kind of subtlety Ebert's brand of criticism rarely picked up on anyway.

Persona is an insolent work, written in the days that followed Ingmar Bergman's recovery from exhaustion and pneumonia developed while he directed the largest theater in Sweden. It will always be the most sardonic of his films, sketched out as it was at a time of high stress and possible decombustion.

Bergman wrote to himself before embarking on the project:

I will attempt to keep the following commands:

Breakfast at half past seven with the other patients.

Thereafter immediately get up and take a morning walk.

No newspapers or magazines during the aforementioned time.

No contact with the theater.

Refuse to receive letters, telegrams, or telephone calls.

Visits to home allowed during the evening.

I feel that the final battle is fast approaching. I must not postpone it further. I must arrive at some form of clarity. Otherwise Bergman will definitely go to hell.

He was cracking, and Persona's disjointed opening gives evidence of that.

Bergman's journal reconstructs the film's opening sequence from a childhood memory he had:

I imagine a white, washed-out strip of film. It runs through the projector and gradually there are words on the sound tape (which perhaps runs beside the film strip itself.) Gradually the precise word I'm looking for comes into focus. Then a face you can barely make out dissolves in all that whiteness. That's Alma's face. Mrs. Volger's face.

Elisabet Volger (Liv Ullman) is a famous actress who has a nurse, Alma (Bibi Andersson) taking care of her. Volger takes a vow of silence. Bergman remarks in his journal that "So she has been an actress one may give her that? Then she fell silent. Nothing remarkable about that." The empathy Ingmar extends to her is really for himself. When Mrs. Volger is presented a picture of her son, she tears it up, staring for hours at the atrocities of the war in Vietnam she sees on television.

There is a disease of overempathy that allows some of us to become easily affected by events we read in the news or see on television. Elisabet is afflicted by this as surely as her creator. Even before the internet and bbs there was still the tendency to get drawn into the suffering of others, that anguish that exists outside of us and for that reason is unchangeable. In the face of this Ingmar had become mute so why not mute a woman, you know, as a kind of revenge?

Liv Ullmann

The performance was a star-making one for Ullman. The feat of carrying an entire movie just from reaction shots had only been achieved once before, in the work of Akira Kurosawa. Ullman's face never moves when we stare directly at it; given the task of playing a mute, every small moment in her representation seems like either an instruction or an exaltation.

Elisabet is a fallen angel and demon incarnate in herself, but at the edge's of Ullmann's performance, Persona feels rather thin. The production itself was troubled from the beginning. On set Bergman shot more takes than he ever had, almost to the point of compulsion; nor was he ever more difficult with his cast. Persona did not concern itself with his own external awareness, only his inner doubts. That he had them and was capable of acknowledging them would always be his unforgivable sin.

During one particular scene in the film, the two women exchange personalities. Alma spends the rest of the film imbued with Elisabet Volger's dissatisfaction and anger, while Volger stands in repose. Eventually they are merely two sides of the same person. The images of the director and DP on Persona scouting locations provide an offscreen male corollary to the events of the film. See here:

Bergman and director of photography Sven Nykvist tried to focus on the unattractive side of each actresses' face, so when you showed them half-illuminated in shadowy light, they would look something not of themselves. Or as the banal Ebert put it, "The two actresses look somewhat similar." With this kind of feedback, it's no wonder Bergman repeated this trick in every single one of the films that followed. It never fails to achieve its distinguishing effect of unsettling confusion.

Ebert's defenses of the man who fooled him more than once continued after the aging director allowed him access for a long profile. Even when the director himself began to shit all over his past works, Ebert held firm.

The worst part of Persona is actually the scene where we see both faces; because of the dullness of the monologue Bibi Andersson delivers, and the self-indulgence of the shot.

Bergman explained where this came from to Ebert:

The most beautiful of all is that you're close to the human face, which is the most fascinating subject possible for the camera. On TV a few days ago, I saw a little of Antonioni's new picture, The Passenger. And you know, I am an admirer of Antonioni, I've learned so much from him, but I was struck by the moment they cut from his film to a closeup of Antonioni himself, for the interview. As he was sitting there, here was his face, so normal, so beautiful and so human - and I didn't hear a word of what he was saying, because I was looking so closely at his face, at his eyes. The ten minutes he was on the screen were more fascinating than any of his, or my, work.

If Bergman is telling the truth, he is indicting himself. If he is lying, then the emperor has no clothes. It is the kind of no-win situation Persona explores as a binary theme that has been imitated in so many pictures since.

on the set of Persona

At one point Alma discovers Elisabet's view of her in a letter she intercepts. In that bit of correspondence, Elisabet marvels that Alma's convictions are so totally unrelated to her actions. It is no wonder Bergman felt disoriented as a filmmaker around this time.

Yet it is even worse for the critic, who is permitted no ambiguity in his judgments. Bergman describes the situation of the artist in Volger/Alma there is always some outstanding question of seriousness, an overwrought scene can be ascribed to a joke or reference. No one ever had to ask, after reading an Ebert review, did you like the movie? The proper question was rhetorical, and ancient. Must all life be a chorus of good or bad? Have you not thought it might be something more?

Alex Carnevale is the editor of This Recording. You can find an archive of his writing on This Recording here.

 

Friday
Sep162016

In Which We Have Always Been An Extremely Wealthy Orphan

How Did You Survive?

by ALEX CARNEVALE

The Handmaiden
dir. Chan-wook Park
144 minutes

Things start to become complicated for Sook-Hee (Kim Tae-Ri) when she is giving the mistress, Lady Hideko (Min-hee Kim) she serves as a maid a bath. In order to pacify her patron during the slow process of cleaning her body, she offers Lady Hideko a lollipop. Hideko complains of a tooth in her mouth, and in the minutes-long scene that follows, Sook-Hee inserts her thumb in and out of Hideko's jaw to smooth the sharp tooth with a scraper.

Legendary South Korean director Chan-wook Park is known for moments like these — those which could be played for laughs, but instead fall into a grey area where they become absorbing as actual moments. In his masterpiece Oldboy there is a scene where the protagonist eats a live octopus that is similarly wild without becoming amusing. There are many humorous moments in his adaptation of Sarah Waters' novel Fingersmith, but the core relationship between a woman and her servant is never treated with anything but the utmost seriousness.

Chan-wook Park decided to make a Hollywood film with 2013's Stoker. Written by Wentworth Miller, the resulting picture was about as silly as his South Korean noirs, and watching international actors in his familiar style was great fun. Sadly the movie, which starred Nicole Kidman and Mia Wasikowska among others, never achieved nearly the audience it should have. 

The Handmaiden gives Park a more heady eroticism to work around. He is the master of how audio cues alarm and excite us, and watching two pert Korean women share a bed becomes a cacophony of swells, sucking, and other substantial sounds. Sook-Hee's job to is convince Lady Hideko to marry a fellow con-artist so that he can commit her to an insane asylum and the two can make off with all their money.

Naturally, Sook-Hee and Hideko fall in love. The art direction by frequent collaborator Ryu Seong-hie frames every scene of The Handmaiden perfectly. Despite being shot mainly on one Japanese estate like Stoker, even interiors retain their complicated composition without becoming overly busy. Sook-Hee meets with her collaborator under spare branches that frame an endless walking path. As in most of Park's work, the aesthetic composition of someone's surroundings tends to reflect whatever inner struggle dogs them.

The two con-artists and their mark spend the summer in a Japanese bungalow far above a lush jungle. As Count Fujiwara, Jung-Woo Ha is the Korean Peter Sellers — completely serious in one moment and mugging for Sook-Hee the next. Park turns even the slow pace of a novel meant to ape a Victorian one into a plot that spins forward so quickly we feel like the mark ourselves.

Oldboy was a Korean film based on a popular Japanese manga about a drunk who is imprisoned for fifteen years in a private prison without knowing why. Spike Lee remade the film with Josh Brolin for some reason and it was a tremendous bomb. Lee's remake was stylistically very fun, but perhaps too dedicated to Park's original to truly feel like its own story. In both versions of the tale, the best part occurs during the main character's imprisonment, when he feels hatred as well as an absurd wonder for his own unexpected plight.

There is a long sequence in The Handmaiden explaining the elaborate backstory of Lady Hideko that feels much like this. As a young girl, Hideko is made to serve her uncle, who is a character sort of akin to Count Rugen in The Princess Bride. Hideko's aunt and carer hangs herself from a cherry blossom tree, and even in a lavish house, Hideko feels much like Oh Dae-Su in Oldboy. Park cycles through a litany of familiar Japanese imagery to identify the various sexual proclivities which comprise a corrupting element. This culminates in an unforgettable scene where Hideko is entangled with a wooden dummy while suspended in the air. She is the focus of a general, universal desire. "I could perish happily knowing that I tasted you," Sook-hee admits to her at one point before scissoring.

The Handmaiden is, however, missing the discursiveness that Oldboy embraced at times: the sense that one subject might relate to each other more by association than it ever could directly. Instead it is tightly wrapped around itself, repeating scenes and moments from different perspectives until we understand them in a completely new way each time. This approach gives The Handmaiden the deepening qualities of the best fiction, and gives the story a texture it never achieved in any other form. The truth comes undone like a tightly woven braid.

Alex Carnevale is the editor of This Recording.

Friday
Sep092016

In Which Queen Sugar Delights And Amazes Us All

Dandelion Wine

by ALEX CARNEVALE

Queen Sugar
creator Ava DuVernay
OWN

The two sisters at the heart of Ava DuVernay's first original series are always waking up in a man's house, a place not quite their own.

Charley (Dawn-Lyen Gardner) rises in a bedroom that looks through prismatic glass windows down on Los Angeles. The entire domicile is transparent, which affords very little privacy when her husband is charged with participating in a group rape with other members of his professional basketball team. She is so disgusted when she finds this out during one of his games that she charges onto the court and begins screaming at him. Strangely, they haul her off instead of him.

Nova (Rutina Wesley) is dating a white guy and practicing some serious herbal medicine in her and her half-sister's hometown in rural Louisiana. She wakes up in this man's arms, but for some reason she feels she cannot introduce him to her family and friends. Actually, we know the reason: it is because everyone else on this show, with the except of a land developer who wants to buy her father's farm, is black.

Charley soon returns home to Louisiana, where her siblings and her aunt are generally uncomfortable with how bourgeois she has become. The rest of Charley's family seem to be struggling financially even though their father Ernest (the enigmatic and charismatic Glynn Turman) dies in the first episode of Queen Sugar, leaving behind a massive tract of farmland.

Charley's husband Davis West (Timon Kyle Durrett), who plays power forward, checks their residences in Aspen and Palm Springs and eventually discovers her whereabouts in time to attend the funeral. He claims he is innocent of raping anyone, suggesting that he merely brought the victim into the room where the alleged crime took place before excusing himself to play Candy Crush. West is a fantastic character — because DuVernay is invested with giving all her creations an elemental human dignity, he is not just brushed off as a sociopath.

I remember reading Magic Johnson's autobiography when I was eleven. Boy was that an eye-opener; I can't believe they had this thing at the local library. He had sex with a different woman in every American city. The real mystery is how he didn't contract AIDS more quickly. NBA players do some unfaithful things to their wives; it is unclear as of now how much of this Charley expected or could be willing to forgive.

Her immediate response after confronting her husband is to retreat to bed. She takes a serious amount of pills to dull the pain of being who she is, but not so much that she is unable to hear when her son comes into her room to tell her that her father is on the verge of dying.

The concept that we know what kind of people with which we are involved is an important theme in Queen Sugar, the best American serial to premiere in many years. DuVernay has the most important writing talent there is — she is able to make us feel distinctly for people when we are already predisposed to see a situation or circumstance as manipulating our feelings, without then also feeling controlled.

The incredible cast she has assembled for Queen Sugar begins with the tremulous intensity of True Blood's Rutina Wesley, but Wesley requires strong presences to play off in order to be at her best. As Charley and Nova's brother Ralph Angel, the Ghanian actor Kofi Siriboe portrays a man fresh out of prison. He struggles to take care of his young son financially and resorts to intermittent crime to meet his financial obligations. The boy's young mother is a drug addict who has abandoned the child in the past.

Ralph Angel is reluctant to make a connection with his son's teacher, Reyna (Marycarmen Lopez). The low-key sexual energy projected by Lopez gives Queen Sugar the shot in the arm it requires at various intervals. DuVernay's long experience in the industry has allowed her to make quite a few stars in such a short time, and she really reveals how terrible most black roles are in Hollywood just by proving these new performers are capable of star-making performances.

All the main sets in Queen Sugar are absolutely gorgeous, and Louisiana is perfect as a place that can switch between paradise, limbo and hell within the space of a few blocks. The only disappointing scene takes place when Davis West comes to visit Charley in Louisiana in order to tell his side of the story to his teenage son Micah (Nicholas Ashe). Instead of probing the area for a landscape that would show Davis to be sufficiently out of place in Louisiana, DuVernay shoots the moment in the gym of the local high school.

DuVernay herself is from Los Angeles, although she spent summers in Alabama where her father grew up on a family farm. The Bordelon patriarch's house borders land which he stopped maintaining in his last years, forcing him to take a job as a janitor. What DuVernay is consistently successful at as a writer is allowing us to see particular situations through her character's eyes. She recognizes what should be obvious to anyone alive: that we are more shaped by what we observe in others than anything else in our world.

She extends her empathy, which is more serious than anyone working her medium, to the lives of children, which are so often ignored or simplified in drama. Queen Sugar is rife with the possibilities of different intersections that a family drama affords; individuals in the Bordelon House relates to each other person in a specific way, changing them, altering their presence in our own lives. This gives Queen Sugar a feeling of versimilitude that has been missing from television since The Sopranos.

Alex Carnevale is the editor of This Recording.