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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 (249)

Monday
Oct092017

In Which There Remain Monsters Among Our People

Rainer in 1973

Steak For Dinner

by ALEX CARNEVALE

I always make the same film, again and again.

It is fairly easy to be disgusted by the rollicking, painful life of Rainer Werner Fassbinder. No one could reasonably believe he was not culpable for his many crimes, even the ones he committed as a child. It is in fact difficult to believe he ever was a child.

He hated everything about his life then, and resolved to change it completely. There is something very brave in all Rainer did, even his cruelty. He proved that being bold could succeed on the force of its own enthusiasm.

He fled boarding schools, his parents  anything to avoid supervision. His father was a doctor who treated prostitutes, Fassbinder's first friends. His ghastly mother confided her dreams to him, fantasies in which she married her young son. So in that sense, what did he have to work with, really? But no man is less explicable by his childhood than Fassbinder, except perhaps de Sade.

There is the story of the man who was forced to eat his fellow sailors after a shipwreck. He hid food away in his attic for the rest of his life. Rainer did the same thing but with money, stacking his entire salary on the bed of his hotel room during the shooting of his last film, Querelle.

This is making him seem sympathetic. He cannot be, no more than a demon could become an angel. What happened in the country of Germany after the Third Reich remains unclear to most outsiders. In any case, it is probably still happening.

Rainer's life could not help but be a reaction to what occurred there. His bisexuality opened him to an entire coterie of foreigners, disenfranchised men and women who were as strange to the natives as himself. Women were the particular victims of his love/torture combination; many of them suffered merely by his presence.

It is fair to say Rainer attracted masochists, but that cannot be the entire reason for how he subjected his partners to abject horror. He was never an attractive man, but from the first moments he entered acting school, Rainer's charisma was explosive. Both men and women coveted the approval that came through his obsessive, unrelenting nature. In this fashion, he won people over; this dogged persona converted even his staunchest enemies to his corner. Then again, they may have only been relieved to escape his wrath.

His first defining sexual relationship was with the actress Irm Hermann. Thinking he would marry her, she opened herself to him completely, moving in with Rainer and his boyfriend. Her acting jobs paid their rent. Rainer never let her make a single move without his knowledge, berating the woman he claimed to love almost incessantly. Many years later he said that Irm "finds her identity or her pleasure only in suffering, in being oppressed." It was sadism made all the more disturbing by the fact that some part of his allegation may have been true.

He beat her continuously, first in her own squalid apartment, then in public. On occasion the violence occurred in front of their friends. He repeatedly suggested that she should kill herself. Eventually she tried, taking forty soma. When Rainer found her unconscious, he believed her to be faking and struck her again. What else could he have done? 

Once he told her at dinner in a restaurant that for each steak she ate, she earned a fuck. The meat repelled her, she could not keep down even one. This cause Rainer to remark coldly, "I said, eat it, not puke it up. If you want a fuck, you've got to keep the meat inside you." Irm represented only his first major cruelty. Irm's beatings were merely practice. When he dumped her, he made her give him all the money she had.

Irm eventually named her child by another man what Fassbinder asked her to in a telegram. Have you judged him yet?

In Paris Fassbinder sold himself to men from within the confines of a popular sauna. During a dinner party on the set of Querelle, he and his guests used the company's black member as an ashtray.

He wrote off all this sordid behavior as a context for art. One of the most disturbing aspects (but truly not the most disturbing) was that those who surrounded him were more fascinated than horrified, more excited than aghast.

He succeeded partly on this tightrope, but also on the merits of his art. He may have been a tyrant, but it was quite obvious he was the most exciting young director in Germany.

Once he wore out his welcome in the theater, he moved to film. It suited him far better. Fueled by the rejection of the major German film academy, he eclipsed the output of all his peers in a relentless orgy of filmmaking.

It is true that his first films were not very good on either a technical or storytelling level. At the time, though, standing out did not require those virtues. Simple looking at screenshots from his films is enough to understand why they were more titillating than any pornography, more violent than seemed possible in a scarred, censorious German society. Fassbinder's films show caricatures without seeming unreal.

In 1973 Rainer took over a theater in Frankfurt. He ran it into the ground in short order. Allegations of anti-Semitism, perhaps unfounded, dogged his last production, and his reckless temperament was on full display. This experience murdered the theater for him, forcing Rainer to admit that on some level he remained too unreliable for a medium that demanded the same show every night.

He might accomplish something once and preserve it forever on film. He had zero chance of making a habit of any virtue.

On set, his manner had the same impatience as his off-set mien. He eschewed repeated takes, giving his actors something to be thankful for, given that the abuse suffered at his hands was partly mitigated by immediate satisfaction of the result.

He told his actors, "Everything I examine I have somehow or other, also to rework, in order to have the feeling I've experienced it." It was the closest he could come to an apology for who he was. What a roundabout way of describing a total lack of self-control. A peaceful thought in the hands of a saint, a frightening one in the hands of the devil.

Men held the greater attraction for Rainer over time. They could plausibly fight back, and he loved that resistance, the ebbing away of his considerable power over others. Having more than one person dependent on him was part of the fun, he sometimes encouraged his male lovers to cut off the hair of his girlfriends.

His relationship with the Moroccan actor El Hedi ben Salem ended after the man completed his amateur performance as Ali in Fear Eats the Soul. Salem loved Rainer desperately, but the director was not as enamored with Salem's children, considering them an unnecessary complication. Eventually, when the film's production concluded, Rainer cut him off without a word.

Contemplating revenge, Salem drank himself in a stupor and he stabbed three others with a kitchen knife. On the run, he reached out to his ex. Rainer refused him completely, and Salem hung himself in a French prison cell. It was a familiar tune for Rainer; these sorts of stories followed him.

Rainer's next target was Armin Meier. Meier was fairly gorgeous, the actual product of Nazi experiments in perfection. Rainer found him working in a butcher shop, and considered him basically a plebian orifice. He was not entirely happy with Armin's lack of sophistication, but the boy was beautiful.

Meier killed himself eventually too, just from Rainer's abuse, but not before Rainer turned him into a cocaine addict. Meier loved the happy drug, but Rainer wasn't satisfied with the high it provided. He drank bourbon out of a beer stein constantly as he was working, and cycled pharmaceuticals according to his mood. The illiterate Meier killed himself on Rainer's birthday; it was a feeble revenge, but a revenge it was.

He married one of his actresses, Ingrid Caven, half to see what it was like, half as cover for his homosexual needs. Fondly recalling her husband's proposal, Caven once said, "He'd always go to the men's public toilets for sex and then we'd go out on the town."

In the 1970s, cocaine took over Rainer's life completely. He would plan the locations in his films based on their convenience to his drug suppliers. He not only sampled the drug constantly, but had to ensure that all those around him were likewise in its thrall. He particularly foisted it upon his actors, claiming at great length that it would improve their performances. This had two positive consequences from Rainer's perspective: his actors would become increasingly indebted to and intoxicated by him, and they would struggle to find other jobs because of their addiction.

with Andy Warhol

He enjoyed making his stars ugly with makeup. His favorites he allowed to keep their natural beauty, but everyone else had to come down to his level. In most ways, Rainer was amazingly perceptive of his own ugliness. He looks like a blob among his fitter gay friends; his profile looking more natural with women, made less repellent by proximity to their beauty.

He began mimicking de Sade openly in shooting his 1976 film Satan's Brew. The drugs consumed him entirely. As he spiralled towards his death throes in his final years, he would sleep for only three hours during the night, eat like a horse, manage two bottles of bourbon per day, top that off with several Bloody Marys, a coterie of joints or hash brownies, and put himself down with a sleeping pill called Mandrax, a quaalude you could mix in a pipe with weed or hash. Rainer loved showing his friends just how much he could consume, the vast quantities of uppers and downers it required to even let him sleep those three hours. He was a mess. 

On June 10th, 1982, his girlfriend Juliane Lorenz found him lying dead on his bed with a cigarette in his mouth. A policeman told reporters, "Even Fassbinder's just a man." The funeral proved otherwise  who can really tell if those in attendance were sad, disgusted, or just envious of the rain?

Ms. Lorenz has taken up the legacy of the man she found dead in her bed. It's macabre but necessary; even a demon deserves a lawyer. Do not envy her the task: it's impossible to hide all the terrible things about Rainer. They just keep coming out, even from those who loved him. His ex-wife described the scene of his death, mere days before Rainer's passing: "The room was utterly disgusting. It was a pigsty. It was so dreadful. Ashtrays, cigarette ash and old newspapers everywhere. Whiskey bottles, everything you could imagine lying around. It stunk, and his bed was so filthy that I didn't want to sit down on it, it was that bad. He was as possessive as ever."

Alex Carnevale is the editor of This Recording.

Monday
Sep112017

In Which We Leave New York In A Panic

The Mistress of Fevre-Berthier

by ALEX CARNEVALE

In 1958 New York was a dark city. Much more so than Paris, I remember that from the window of my room on the ninth floor, looking out over 85th Street, I couldn't see what was going on below. I could hear cars passing and see their headlights, but I couldn't see the street. New York is as dark as it is beautiful.

At the age of forty-two, Jean-Pierre Melville went to a New York he knew from the movies. He had just discarded a film-in-progress that would never be released — a spy movie featuring frequent collaborator Pierre Grasset. His new project detailed the story of a French cabinet member's death in his girlfriend's apartment. He had shot twenty minutes of it when Charles de Gaulle came to power in 1958, forcing Melville to reconceive of the project in America, though the interiors for Two Men in Manhattan would be filmed back in Paris.

As de Tocquevilles go, there is none better. Although Two Men in Manhattan is something of a disaster as a motion picture with an engaging plot, it is better conceived as a documentary of New York in the late fifties, with a particular focus on the sorts of women that Melville met in the city.

Some of the many women that Moreau (Melville, in his only starring role) and Delmas (Pierre Grasset) meet are lesbians, many are non-white, and most have tremendously large breasts. "This seems to be the American ideal of beauty," Melville told Rui Nogueira. "You had the feeling that Americans were suffering from a mammary complex and still needed to be breast-fed. It was very disagreeable, repugnant even."

Watching Two Men in Manhattan today, you come to the sinking conclusion that very little has changed. The entire film takes place two days before Christmas, and Rockefeller Center looks exactly the same as it does every year. New York is dark, vast and nearly infinite in Melville's conception. It took him a few weeks to learn what took me years and years. If only I could see as Jean-Pierre did; that is, everything at once.

Photographed by Michael Shrayer, this New York is rooms and elevators, small and tinnier. Lights passed through surfaces translucent, then mysteriously opaque. Sound bounces around and begs to be removed. Suddenly Two Men in Manhattan becomes unbearably loud with the sound of horns, before transforming, not a moment too soon, into the elegiac ballad you were never expecting. Along with the proliferation of rats, it is really enough to begin to loathe the place.

Grasset's character is a lothario member of the paparazzi. About halfway through the film, he and Moreau find the young girlfriend of the diplomat in Roosevelt Hospital. She has tried to kill herself by slashing her wrists, and she lies helpless and alone in bed. Moreau enters first to try to find out what has happened, but when he cannot get the information he wants, he sends in his less scrupulous friend.

This moment of violation, of utter violence, is awful to witness. But Melville is suggesting that as indecent as it is, this is nothing compared to what we do to ourselves. Jean-Pierre repudiated Two Men in Manhattan many times, and the dialogue in the film appears to have been devised in a rush. As an actor, Melville comes across like a minimalist eunuch. Unfortunately, he lacked the training to conceive of his priggish character as anything but a schlub. Ashamed, he never appeared in front of the camera again.

By making both of his protagonists unlikeable journalists, Melville indicted his critics. But in a weird way, this was the right choice for Two Men in Manhattan, since it makes the diverse roster of women that the men query throughout into the secret heroes of the film. All of the women lie to these men they barely know, since it is the only way to protect themselves from the patriarchal harm Moreau and Delmas represent.

Built into this portrayal is Melville's definitive brief on the opposite sex. Without saying anything or stating it outright, Two Men in Manhattan is concerned with what Melville admires about women, and also what he feels is not present in individuals of his own sex. Dispensing with conventional wisdom and stereotype, Melville finds these feminine human beings have all sorts of qualities that he is lacking, and cataloguing them would take as long as the film's running time. Crucially, it is not that they are better or worse than men, it is that they less frequently delude themselves about this subject.

I took this lesson to heart. I used to walk by the United Nations building, featured numerous times in Two Men in Manhattan, quite a lot. There is a development site several blocks long not far from the U.N. that has featured a massive pit for as long as I can remember. In China the site would have been developed in a weekend, but here in New York the project never stops oscillating. To prevent people from falling in, a white curtain blocks a stunning view of the East River. God forbid you are ever able to pretend you are anywhere other than where you stand.

My memories of New York are a day in the Central Park Zoo, and standing near that fake castle in the rain. My friends who I loved are still there, well maybe some of them are. Perhaps I'll check when I find the nerve. The subway broke down near Columbia. We all got off, some of us did, others stayed on, waiting to see where the train went. I walked to the top of the park with sweat in my eyes. A fire filled up a trashcan, so I told a doorman. The next day was the Puerto Rican Day Parade.

No time to think about who and what I miss. God gave me a letter, and I walked all the way down Second Avenue and back. Jamie came over to take care of the mice, and went out again. Helping my professor sort through his crowded apartment, his prints. Spring was always the wrong season, smiles were too seductive or not enough. I left her at 72nd Street. When I came back, she was still crying. Now so am I.

Alex Carnevale is the editor of This Recording. He is a writer living in Los Angeles.

The Greatest Trick Mr. Melville Pulled Was Convincing The World He Didn't Exist

Alain Delon plays a schizophrenic assassin running from his employers and the law

The men and women of the Resistance find a way to survive

Jean-Paul Belmondo's appeal to women knows virtually no bounds

This was the straight-up inspiration for Reservoir Dogs

Lino Ventura is a criminal who knows his life has come to an end

Two or maybe three men in Manhattan

Monday
Aug282017

In Which There Was Something Japanese About Him

This is the first in a series looking back on the films of the French director Jean-Pierre Melville.

Beauty In Excess

by ALEX CARNEVALE

In 1949, after singlehandedly producing, directing and adapting his first film La Silence de la Mer, Jean-Pierre Melville received respect from the only people that mattered to him. As he recalled to Rui Nogueira,

Jacques Becker was the only French filmmaker to bother himself about me when I was on my own. One day in 1948 I received a telephone call. "Hallo, Becker here. This morning Jean Renoir and I saw La Silence de la Mer, and I'd like to meet you for a drink.' I was a shy young man and found it difficult to ask him what he'd thought of my film. He'd loved it, and won me over completely by talking to me as though I were an old friend. When I asked him, rather timidly, what Renoir's reaction had been after the screening, he replied, 'Well, Jean said something that wasn't very nice from my point of view. He said that La Silence de la Mer was the best film he'd seen for fifteen years. And as I've made quite a few since showing him my first...'

Melville never received the same kind of acclaim from the critics of his native country. (He was born in Alsace in 1917.) In fact, the central film authority of France fined him fifty thousand francs simply for making La Silence de la Mer. This reaction had a little to do with his filmmaking, since the techniques he pioneered and in some cases appropriated from the American films he loved so well, did go against the convention. But mostly it was because he was not very deferential to anyone, and he was a Jew.

Melville, whose name before the Second World War was Jean-Pierre Grumbach, was not exactly the religious sort. ("For me faith, whether in God or Marx, is a thing of the past," he once said.) But he kept in contact with his extended family in Belfort throughout his life, even as he cast off aspects of his ethnicity in order to pass.

The central schism of identity is a key aspect of the original script for Le Samouraï, which he wrote in 1963. For several years Melville struggled to find the right actor for the central role of the assassin whose murder puts him at odds with a detective (François Périer) and his criminal employers. Enter Alain Delon to play the protagonist: Jef Costello. "There was something Japanese about him," Melville observed.

Most of Melville's failures in the cinema occured only because he had the wrong actor for a particular part, either because he was forced into taking someone on (Les Enfant Terribles) or the performer he wanted was unavailable. He saw that Delon's minimal style would suit the type of films he was making by the sixties. Perhaps the pre-eminent French screen actor of that decade, Delon rejected several entreaties until he saw Melville 's 1966 heist tour-de-force Le deuxième souffle. Now, it was only to find the right role.

Melville's concept for the film he finally pitched to Delon was this:

An idea for an alibi. A man commits a crime in the presence of eye-witnesses, yet remains unperturbed. Now, the only alibi you can really count on in life is the one backed up by the woman who loves you. She would rather be killed than give you away. I liked the idea of beginning my story with a story of meticulous, almost clinical, description of the behavior of a hired killer, who by definition is a schizophrenic. Before writing my script, I read up everything I could about schizophrenia - the solitude, the silences, the introversion.

Selling it to Delon was easier than he expected.

The reading took place at his apartment. With his elbows on his knees and his face buried in his hands, Alain listened without moving until suddenly, looking up to glance at his watch, he stopped me: ‘You’ve been reading the script for seven and a half minutes now and there hasn’t been a word of dialogue. That’s good enough for me. I’ll do the film. What’s the title?' 'Le Samouraï,' I told him. Without a word he signed to me to follow him. He led me to his bedroom: all it contained was a leather couch and a samurai’s lance, sword and dagger.

Dealing with a talented but mercurial actor was a lot better than dealing with the reverse. Delon was open to instruction, and in the rare moments of Le Samouraï when Delon is meant to show emotion, Melville was most particular in his instruction. For the most part, Delon's face remains completely implacable; but there is something beneath his steely expression that explains every single facet of his behavior — and his power to take the life of another; likened here to giving life, too.

Watching Le Samouraï today, certain moments and scenes come across as eerily familiar because they have been imitated so many times: the closeness of the cops to their prey, the stylized movement and violence that seems to erupt before letting up when you least expect it. There is also something the slightest bit tongue-in-cheek about the whole affair, from a masterful scene where the boyfriend of Jef Costello's alibi faces an entire room of people who look exactly like him, to Jef's pet bird, a female bullfinch, to the American name of the protagonist.

Costello has a woman vouch for him, and Melville cast Alain's wife Nathalie Delon in the role. The distanced, incomplete intimacy she shares with her husband on screen was not only disturbingly real, the goodbye she says to Delon in Le Samouraï represented a literal end to their real-life marriage. In a side role as the only witness to Delon's murder at a club, the West Indian actress Cathy Rosier seems in a way Jef's only true equal.

The ostensible cause of all the film's scattered events is Jef Costello's mental illness. This important background is never focused on or addressed directly. In the final scene of Le Samouraï, where Jeff perishes, Melville originally planned to give his anti-hero a creepy smile, before concluding that the gesture was too overdone. (He kept the take anyway, as you can see in the above photograph.)

Critics roundly misunderstood the masterpiece. Michel Cournot in Le Nouvel Observateur described the picture as "a very banal gangster story, nothing more," opining that "Delon's vacant face looks like that of a bloated Henry Fonda." Some even went so far as to call Le Samouraï a "pseudo-film," making it completely clear that they did not see the Jewish director as a real French filmmaker. Jean-Pierre Melville never let their ignorance get to him. "Even today, when one says French cinema," he said later, "it has an oddly pejorative taste in both mouth and mind."

Alex Carnevale is the editor of This Recording. He is a writer living in Los Angeles.