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Alex Carnevale

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Mia Nguyen

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Brittany Julious

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 (224)


In Which Wherever We Go Billy Also Goes

Passing Time


The amount of talking in The Magnificent Seven is truly impressive. Someone is moving their mouth every single second in Antoine Fuqua's version of Kurosawa's Seven Samurai. The original version is the most tolerable of Kurosawa's westerns, which were revolutionary for their time but never compared favorably with American iterations that perfected the genre. Kurosawa too was fond of the endless throes of dialogue, but this chatty aesthetic demands a cast of actors who can pull off this mealy-mouthed script by Nic Pizzolatto (True Detective).

When you think of the sheer number of conversations in this movie which accomplished absolutely nothing, you begin to realize that all the talking is purely for show. Watching The Magnificent Seven with no sound would be just as easy, and the only thing missed would be having to listen to the completely shitty accent Chris Pratt has brought to the role of Faraday.

As the staid and boring marshal putting together this dream team to seek revenge on robber baron Bart Bogue (Peter Sarsgaard), Denzel Washington is completely miscast. His white co-stars get the vast majority of cute quips, but the filmmakers seem to force humor into the diegesis: this is more a sad story than a funny one, and a dramatic opening scene in which Bart Bogue murders Matt Bomer emphasizes this is no buddy movie.

Unlike most directors, Fuqua has no fear of using music to set the mood or situation. He is deeply afraid that The Magnificent Seven might become dreadfully boring if the tension, humor or speech were to drop for a second. There is a moment where the group looks out on the operation of Goodnight Robicheaux (Ethan Hawke collecting what I hope is a mighty check) and a horse nuzzles the ground with his paw. The presence of authentic moment is almost shocking because there is no dirt, disease, or poverty in this edition of the American West.

Kurosawa aimed at a different type of versimiltude. When his heroes moved through the grass, they felt it on their fingers and arms. Pizzolatto turns all of the characters here into verbose outlaws who converse at length in full sentences. "Let the shot surprise you," explains Ethan Hawke at one point. I have no idea why or what this could mean. It is difficult to believe that anyone ever talked like this before the 21st century. "You have to hate what you're firing at," he screams.

Fuqua is a lot more at home when the action begins. The group first enters into a fight with the local lawmen of the town who permitted Sarsgaard to threaten the citizenry. Without a clear villain for most of the film's running time, the focus is generally aimed at Pratt. He is a very charismatic centerpiece, and covering your ears slightly when he speaks makes his accent sound vaguely tolerable.

Learning more about these guys isn't exactly fun. It's implied that Hawke's tiny character owned slaves, but this does not seem to bother Denzel any. No one so much as takes his shirt off, eats or goes to sleep, which turns them caricatures — just as they descend into parody, Fuqua ratches up the dramatic music so that we forget how stupid this all is. "It's a box of death," says someone. It could be anyone.

The film's only happy surprise is the presence of Haley Bennett as a frisky townswoman. She has no actual agency except to beg men for her life, but coming off a breakout performance in the disaster that was last year's Hardcore Henry, she shines. "I had a father, thank you," she informs Chris Pratt, and the only potential interesting aspect of the narrative is destroyed. Fuqua makes her run around without a bra whenever the film starts to seem the slightest bit homoerotic. God forbid one man ever touch another, even if only in kindness.

I really don't know whose idea it was to kill off important characters, since there was serious potential in a sequel that could have been, you know, an actual Western. (Then again, box office receipts haven't been particularly amazing.) This revenge plot of hired men defending a town was always pretty lame, and Kurosawa basically used it as a excuse for everything else his film contained. It did not matter that the story was purely background since his filmmaking offered so much else. Here there is just basic revenge, except the man they are trying to kill gets one scene at the beginning of the movie and then shows up suddenly at the end.

Then again, neither Fuqua nor Pizzolatto seem terribly interested in this time period or material. Working with a budget of $100 million, it seems obvious most of it was spent on the cast. Production values are not noticeably different than films made fifty or sixty years ago, and performances are substantially worse. The film's climatic finale is perhaps its most disappointing element. Watching a Comache sling arrows at a bunch of cornered men, it feels like the enemy is completely outnumbered.

Alex Carnevale is the editor of This Recording.


In Which We Thought Ingmar Bergman Could Be Something More

Revenge Picture


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.



In Which We Have Always Been An Extremely Wealthy Orphan

How Did You Survive?


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.