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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 (162)

Monday
Sep062010

In Which There's No Use Crying Over Fish In The Sea

It Was A Confusing Time

by ALEX CARNEVALE

Apart from the astonishingly disproportionate amount of attention it gets from the media, Mad Men isn't very popular. The show's ratings are worse than HBO's Hung or its AMC lead-in Rubicon, and dropped precipitously after the season premiere. The advertising industry itself is fond of saying that it markets to younger people, but while young people might do the buying, they don't do the watching. The people driving television ratings are the older crowd, and they don't like Mad Men.

The media loves Mad Men, and Hollywood loves Mad Men, but regular people don't like Mad Men. Despite its third consecutive Emmy for best drama, the show's audience has remained tiny in comparison to its inferior competition.

Although Mad Men is the best show on television, a fact that is not likely to change until Breaking Bad returns to the air, even the show's biggest fans can admit there are a lot of reasons not to like Mad Men. A few even seem to derive pleasure from speaking out against the show, as if not experiencing something were itself a badge of honor.

As we all know, exposure effect runs the world. In fact, social psychologist Robert Zajonc was doing his work on mere exposure effect during roughly the same period that Roger Sterling dumped his wife of thirty years. We not only are predisposed to like things that we've experienced, but if other people don't immediately share our view, there is trouble on the horizon. This line of sight runs both ways. We can barely stand to try to enjoy something that we are told we should enjoy. I know; I've tried to get my mother to read a particular novel for the last six months, and she can't even get past the first page. She also won't watch Mad Men. I should have told her it sucked.

Mad Men has a number of elements that make it incredibly unappealing to people of a certain generation. The first is that it's a lively caricature of a time period they already lived through, and the second is that it plays that time period entirely for laughs. In reality, the 1960s and 1970s wasn't all drinking in offices and waking up with your cleaning lady. It was a very scary time in American life for a lot of people, and reliving it must feel like it's happening all over again.

Older people don't want to hear catty jokes about how racist and sexist things were back then. Maybe they were a bit of both, come to think of it, but broadcasting it feels like an insult to the participants. On its own this could be overcome, because all period pieces bear more resemblance to the present than their own times. The more prevalent complaint that people offer about Mad Men is they don't find anybody on the show with which they can sympathize.

This is the least convincing of the world's slanders, primarily because people said similar things about The Sopranos. But in point of fact it is fairly hard to identify with characters on either show. It's no coincidence that the major relationship of both shows is a mentor-protege conflict. Peggy is really the protagonist of Mad Men, and it would be wrong to say that either Don or Tony Soprano is the antagonist, but in a very crucial way, they are the obstacle to the heroine getting what she wants.

Only, it was a little more obvious what Christopher Moltisanti wanted. He wanted Ben Kingsley for his movie Cleaver, and he wanted power, money, and even fame. Peggy just wants respect from her peers, equal treatment in business, and maybe a Clio. It's not a lot in comparison. And that's what we think she wants — we don't really know, and perhaps neither does she. She has dumped her sex-crazed boyfriend and seems willing to embark on a new adventure of some kind, but she is just as likely to castrate Pete Campbell and take the train back to Brooklyn as she is to come up with the Absolut Vodka campaign all by her lonesome.

Like many characters on both shows, we can't really say what we expect from them. It's gotten so bad that this misguided New York recapper insanely believes that Don and Peggy are about to embark on a sexual relationship. Believe me, that last thing Matthew Weiner wants to do to his protege is have sex with her.

We always knew what to expect from Tony Soprano, however, and that's how he became a hero in spite of himself. The Sopranos was one of the funniest comedies on television, because we usually knew exactly what Tony was thinking in every situation, and as such, his reactions — grimacing, snoring, rage — were their own mime show, the kind that you already know all the moves to, but you like anyway. We also have an easier time liking someone we're supposed to hate.

Don Draper replicates this utter sense of abandon; but because he is a mystery to himself, we don't know exactly why he's a piece of shit. There must be some reason every douchebag is one, but not everyone can be lucky enough to know it.

To new viewers of the show, Don must appear something like a hero, and no one wants to watch their hero drunkenly hit on every woman with a functioning vagina, and wake up with one named Doris. Don isn't a hero. He's not even nice, and he treats Peggy even worse than he treated his ex-wife. The only nice thing Don ever did was pay for a hooker that looked like Peggy for Lane Pryce, and that was more polite than genuinely good.

This makes it all more baffling that Jon Hamm's voice is being used to sell cars and insurance on radio and television. Clearly the advertising executives don't watch the show that is ostensibly about them, because if they did, they'd realize the voiceover is Satan's intonation. The most positive thing you can say about Dick Whitman is that he tells the truth when he's drunk.

So I can't blame people for not liking Mad Men. No work of art is intended for everyone, not even The Sopranos, the triumphant achievement of serial television from which Weiner's show takes so many of its tonal elements and characterizations. Besides being a period piece, Mad Men is a thinly veiled chronicle of how Matthew Weiner relates to the world. In brief, he mostly thinks we're his servants.

The culmination of four years of dealing with Don's garbage was last night's morality play, where the disease and poison of Don's own mental processes was reflected by mice, cockroaches, and the human vermin that is Duck Phillips. The late Mrs. Draper packs them all up in her Samsonite briefcase and takes off. The problem, as always, wasn't with the writing, although it took several unimaginative shortcuts to make the two closer — Don sobbing because he has to pay the mortgage for some Berkeley grad who wouldn't even give him an HJ, Peggy fishing for compliments about how 'pretty' she is (is that all this was about?) and Bert Cooper having no testicles.

The problem with having Don's protege relationship supplanting his love relationship is that while almost everyone has some kind of love relationship in their life except for Jennifer Aniston, not that many people can relate to the psychotic creative director-precocious protege relationship. And in fact, Peggy does a much worse job arguing her case than Don does his for treating her like his lapdog, making the conflict less than a battle of equals.

Peggy giving up her birthday dinner isn't the same as Don giving up his special time with Roger Sterling, whom he misses so much he plays cassette tapes of the man's voice. The mercurial Draper seems almost rational when he tells her that her time will come, avoiding the point completely; she won the Clio, not him. The work he stole from Roger's wife's cousin wasn't his either, it was just another drunken theft, the cure for the common being terrible at life.

It's fabulous that the new Don wants his door open, and that he shaved for the first time since his divorce. Congratulations. Jon Hamm gets to make out with Jessica Stein every night while Elisabeth Moss' ex-husband Fred Armisen has intercourse with every twenty-something in Park Slope. Peggy has to wake up in her own office with the Three Stooges when all she wants is to have Pete Campbell's baby inside her and the Popsicle account, and a fancy dinner where her mother isn't involved. (Really, she should probably be thankful she doesn't have to hear about Freddy Rumsen's arrowhead collection.)

When Mad Men attacks cliche, it usually does it in such an unusual way that you forget the basic storylines of Peggy's pregnancy, Don's infidelity, Joan's rapist doctor husband, and Betty's unfit mothering have been staples of daytime television since Susan Lucci was in diapers. In a way, it feels like this is the first time we're seeing these plots play out, and they take on a freshness other dramas can't approach. Don's Cassius Clay ad is now a terrible cliche itself, and let's face it, a million other agencies probably had the exact same idea that morning. But in his office, growing a slanted erection from the incidental touch of Peggy's hand on his own, it may as well be the face of the new sun.

This same sort of temporary enlightenment happened to Tony Soprano more than once. Each time he resolved to be a better man, it inevitably resulted in Carmela falling in love with Tony's imported henchman and Tony forgetting all about his resolution once he was crossed in any way. Don's not turning over a new leaf; his sickness may have been locked up in that eidolon's Samsonite briefcase, but his conscience carried it out the door and disappeared.

This season began with Don Draper's first fame, and he is now about to explode. If he takes Peggy along with him, it will probably allow us to enjoy the ride. Many people never watched The Sopranos while it aired, because they also felt they could not relate to its foreign milieu. This was their loss, and oh what a loss it was, like pretending Van Gogh wasn't painting or William Faulkner wasn't writing. No matter how many Emmys Mad Men wins, some people will stay away because of how little comfort the show offers us during a difficult time in American life. Matthew Weiner's show is no warm blanket, but taste is fickle, and nobody has to love every work of art, even when it's this good.

Alex Carnevale is the editor of This Recording. He tumbls here and twitters here. He last wrote in these pages about Fairfield Porter and the New York school of poets.

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"Nobody Loves Me (Massive Attack remix)" - Portishead (mp3)

"Acid Jazz and Trip Op (remix)" - Portishead (mp3)

"You Find The Earth Boring" - Portishead (mp3)


Wednesday
Aug112010

In Which You Begin To Grasp His Unique Pain

The Great White Male

by ALEX CARNEVALE

Louie

creator Louis C.K.

It's hard to be a white man. Pale skin glittering in the sun, your garden variety of white man is twice as susceptible to skin cancer as his peers. If he walks into someone's grotto, he's expected to know what a grotto is and remark, "What a lovely grotto!" He can't enjoy the comedy of Tyler Perry and anytime Will Ferrell cries, he's expected to laugh.

This is the basic premise of Louis CK's new show, Louie. Victimhood never know its name until it met the comedian, whose divorced life as a New York City stand-up is the inspiration for the show. CK's live-studio audience HBO sitcom Lucky Louie was canceled a few years ago despite being the first convincing television show about people below the poverty line since Friends went off the air.

Lucky Louie was half-Roseanne and half a desire to put something on television that hadn't been there in decades or more. Louie and his nurse wife (writer and comedian Pamela Adlon) lived in a two-room apartment with their daughter and had regular problems. CK and Adlon's most famous bit was a ten minute essai on the perils of anal intercourse. What made Lucky Louie such a mindtrip was that something about it was transparently false, just as most of it was frighteningly real:

Lucky Louie was canceled after one season just as it had begun to find a real audience. Ultimately HBO higher-ups felt the working class vibe of nowhere, Massachusetts didn't fit into their Entourage profile, and that's a shame because the show's language was so explicit it could never have survived on any other network.

CK turned down other offers to make the Louie pilot for $200,000 because FX gave him full control. As he recalled:

I went [to Hollywood] and I had other networks offering me a lot of money to do a pilot, and I got this call from FX and they said 'Well, we can't offer you a lot of money, but if you do the show for us, you can have a lot of fun.' He was offering me $200,000 as the budget for the whole pilot and I was like 'So what do I get paid?' and he was like 'No, that's the whole thing, $200,000...' I said 'Look, the only way I'm doing this is if you give me the $200,000 - wire it to me in New York - and I'll give you a show. But I'm not pitching it, and I'm not writing a script and sending it to you first.'

The end product Louie is likely to become the success that Lucky Louie wasn't. Although the comedian's childhood in Massachusetts under less than ideal circumstances was cinéma vérité enough, that isn't the person he's become. CK is more comfortable as an asshole, not because he really is one but because he finds it the only reaction to the world that subjugates and humiliates him whenever it can. If you can understand how a popular comedian with a television series can feel discriminated against, you're about halfway to describing how infectious the political mood in this country is right now.

Fame changes people, and CK is no exception. The difference is that he believes he's a nice guy. The show's placid opening tells all — in the show's title sequence, he emerges from the subway like a regular guy, eats a slice of pizza before his show like a normie, and goes to his job. There's a pretension of drudgery that he loves associating with stand-up comedy, and in a recent episode he addresses how humiliating he finds being a comedian. "All these guys, their lives suck," he tells a heckler after his set, indicating a group of white male comedians. "The fifteen minutes they spend on stage are the only time they get to be in charge, and you took that away from them."

As in Larry David's comedy, minorities are CK's favorite foil. After awhile, you discern that it has nothing to do with them, and everything to do with him. He thinks he's one of them — that he knows what it's like to be black, or hispanic, or a woman. And then he sets out to convince you that there is something in common, until he totally undermines that perspective. One of the show's funniest moments had CK chaperoning a bunch of students and getting stuck on a bus in Harlem. His first act was to tell all the black students to take the window seats. "That's horrible," his co-chaperone tells him. "I know," he says.

Once political correctness held a lot of sway in this country's day-to-day affairs. This is no longer precisely true, but for the white comedian it is the most serious form of opprobrium. And yet, when CK has fellow comedian Nick DiPaolo insult Barack Obama, Louie almost gets in a fistfight defending the honor of the president. This was his way of making sure we knew that he is a liberal. Otherwise, his jokes about homosexuals doing it wrong and black people not tipping enough don't seem as enlightened.

If he could, Louis CK would himself be a minority. He has a long writing relationship with the comedian Chris Rock, and his 2001 directorial debut Pootie Tang was a bizarre satire of blaxploitation films, which always seemed like a strange contrast to the reality of his stand-up. Of the incredibly weird end result, Roger Ebert wrote, "This film is not in releasable condition." In his new show, he turns away from what he believes himself to be, and focuses on what he is: a divorced father of two who only becomes older, fatter, and more repulsive to friends and family by the moment.

Above all, Louie's main concern is his own physical appearance. Half his comedy revolves around convincing the audience how disgusting he is. One vignette had him approached by an attractive young women who fetishized just how old he was. As she had sex with him, she continually cried out, "You're so old" until the point of orgasm. Until last year, Louie was married to New York artist Alix Bailey. His stand-up has never been very complimentary towards his now ex-wife, who he seemed to regard as an extension of his own self-loathing.

All the authority figures in Louie are older men, who he regards with a mix of suspicion and disgust. Besides his agent, Louie also takes advice from his senior therapist (David Patrick Kelly), who has the advantage of being even more misguided than he is. Like astral projections, these figures seem to taunt Louie into believing that they are an entity he might someday become. The idea that he will be a wrinkled old bigot like all the older men he knows is a strong reminder to himself to stay engaged with the present, lest he become stuck in past time like his crone of a mother.

While Louis CK's early comedy was largely observational, that's not the most accurate term when what you're observing is your real life, your existence with a wife and two daughters. Last week's Louie revolved around the hatred of his own mother (the transcendent Mary Louise Wilson). His daughter asks him, "Why do you love her?" and he finds he can't think of an answer. (So far his ex-wife has been politely excluded from the show, a strange move from someone who gets a lot of mileage onstage from executing sacred cows.)

Still, it seems that Louis CK does enjoy something about the one part of his life not entirely consumed with self-analysis: his time with his two kids. When a PTA-acquaintance (Adlon) and her son visit his New York apartment for a playdate, the two parents discuss what the most horrible thing they've ever thought about doing to their kids is. Louie can barely think of anything. In fact, his daughters are the only people on the show he has a nice word for. Everyone else is terribly misguided or judging him so harshly that he puts his gee-shucks look on his face and pouts through the rest of the episode.

The comedian's recent stand-up special Hilarious is the first film of that kind to be accepted at Sundance. Yet Louie feels that if he thinks of himself as successful, he'll lose the sharp edge of his comedy. It's true what he tells his heckler, though. Onstage is where CK has all the power. You can see how comfortable he is there; his shoulders are wide and proud, and he's never apologizing there, only seeking to explain something he can never tell the other people in his life. He is hurt, simply by being who he is.

It was inevitable that white people would start thinking of themselves as victims at some point. In four American commonwealths they are already a minority, and no amount of immigration reform or restriction of birthright citizenship is likely to change that. And so what if they feel persecuted because of the color of their skin? For everything there is a season.

The political movement that has sprung out of this feeling has itself little to do with race — the race of the president or the race of the whites fleeing from his bandwagon. The last president to make white people feel powerful was, of course, Ronald Reagan. Unlike the current talk of hard choices and important sacrifices, Reagan's great insight was that he'd be reelected if he stressed that America would be fine.

Louis CK doesn't feel it's going to be okay. Half the time he indicates how powerless his surroundings make him feel. Even when he's powerful, the attitude is pervasive. After his ancient Jewish agent tells him he's secured him a part in Matthew Broderick's all-Jew remake of The Godfather, CK politely refuses the part, sending the man into a fatal heart attack. Instead of being amazed by his own power, he shuffles out of the emergency room, the victim of another humiliation. Like the mass of white male voters, he doesn't realize he's the one in control.

It is almost impossible for one person's comedy to continue to break new ground, but there has never been anything on television like Louie and it's doubtful there ever will be again. At its best moments Louis CK's comedy has no fear at all in depicting people and situations perilously true to reality but never before brought to living rooms. The day-to-day sufferings of wealthy white males are thankfully never without voice. Then again, there's something a little comforting in knowing that he too suffers.

Alex Carnevale is the editor of This Recording. He tumbls here.

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"A Bit of Glue" - The Tellers (mp3)

"Hugo" - The Tellers (mp3)

"Second Category" - The Tellers (mp3)


Tuesday
Aug032010

In Which The 90s Are Lost For Good

The Last Tantrum

by ALEX CARNEVALE

Kicking and Screaming

dir. Noah Baumbach

Life During Wartime

dir. Todd Solondz

The 1990s in America were among the least serious, most frivolous periods in the history of any country, and that includes France pretty much from beginning to end. Whenever we start getting too ahead of ourselves as members of the human race, it is time to view the Noah Baumbach film of the previous decade and wince.

Kicking and Screaming is Baumbach's ode to Whit Stillman and to a lesser extent, Woody Allen. It depicts a set of college graduates disembarking into the most ridiculous and transitory world that has ever existed. If you lived in the world in 1995, you had to actually obtain your knowledge from printed sources. This was the regular and accepted way of acquiring information. Can you even imagine? What could be more inefficient?

There's a finite limit to how many books a person can read, but there's no measured limitation on how much internet a person can absorb. I set a record, long ignored by mainstream sources, by going inside the internet and reading all of it. The whole internet. But this was back when Prodigy was the centerpiece of any existence, and Magic: The Gathering still more essential, especially if you had a white and black deck that was on the wow side of unbeatable.

Kicking and Screaming is mostly composed of memes explained as if they were conversational pitter-patter. I'm not really sure what they were called before they got on the internet, witty things men said in social settings to impress women? Viral content used to get people laid at parties, now it's ruining the lives of those still hopeful about working at Newsweek. Jeff Jarvis doesn't need a woman, he compensates with a lot of play dough and ideas generated in a dynamic classroom environment.

I'm having one of those times where my name sounds really weird to meIt is strange to watch Kicking and Screaming for all the places where our world is identical to the film's. Although I have been in a lot of writing workshops since I was 11, they never do seem anything but anachronous. It is hilarious to see a bunch of people discussing a short story. Was the telegraph not available? Yes, the times are always threatening to pass us by.

This is a universal feeling, deeply connected with our tendency to romanticize anything that has recently happened. In the case of 1990s, it is hard to mistake how different things were. If you wanted to know what Eric Stoltz looked like, you know, from the front, you had no way of finding out except by way of a costly cross country flight, the purchase of a firearm and the ginger's address. Parker Posey had never met Christopher Guest. Molly McAleer didn't know what a blog was. Anna Paquin had just made her stunning debut in Jane Campion's The Piano and wasn't topless at every opportunity. It was all ahead of us.

All the characters in Kicking and Screaming are writers recently graduated from institutions of higher learning (or as they're sometimes called, "interns"). Christmas vacation is a terror, a reminder of the impositions of the real world. Elliott Gould shows up and tells his son, "I bet if your math scores were higher you could have gotten into Brown." Other people's dreams are your tepid reality. Graduates stroll about their campuses, as if they didn't get the message evident from the diploma they were handed. They don't even know about the recession. They think it's going to be all right.

During this period of American life, there was also a palpable thrill in meeting people, seeing whether or not you were alike, without any of the prologue and epilogue that comes from constant communication. It was like a quieter alien planet where Parker Posey never became any older, she's still your sister and she's too goddamn young to drive.

It is precisely because nostalgia is our brain's first attempt at sense-making that it is so difficult to ignore. The world of Kicking and Screaming no longer exists. It was not very long ago, but it is gone forever. A boy in a dorm room telling some girl "I didn't want to have any attachments at school" could be taken seriously then, but not now. Under fifty percent of signs had signifiers. Whatever these people turned into, at least it wasn't us.

Kicking and Screaming is basically a Jewish Metropolitan, which let's be honest I'm not sure the world needed. Cannes asked Baumbach to cut fifteen minutes from Kicking and Screaming, he refused, and Abe Foxman rightly accused the festival of anti-Semitism. It was pretty big news, I think there was at least a sentence about it in Entertainment Weekly. You couldn't find out any solid information about it, no rumors, or gossip. Life without the internet was like doing wild improv all the time, and also people enjoyed watching others do improv, presumably because they had long hours to kill.

Is this a world we want our children growing up in? Go ahead, write a thank you note to Bill Gates or if you're feeling even more generous, rid the world of Steve Jobs.

It is not a contradiction to say that while the 1990s are basically the Stone Age to us now, they had their moments. Number one is that they were not the world that gave rise to Todd Solondz' long-delayed new film Life During Wartime. The sequel utilizes an entirely new cast reprising the characters from Solondz' best film, 1998's Happiness. Perhaps because of how difficult it was for Solondz to get the film made, Life During Wartime is about seventeen times as angry as the rest of his oeuvre.

Solondz was the Jonathan Swift of American cinema until satire became unequal to the task of describing his revulsion for the rest of humanity. Secretly Noah Baumbauch believes that the happy result of every writing workshop is a super cute love story with a girl who tells interesting pre-Internet anecdotes about her mother loving raisins. It was status quo and completely appropriate to meet someone this way and not end up filing a restraining order. In Solondz' movies, such a storyline inevitably concludes in a large red mark being inserted via computer over images of the writing workshop's professor violating his prized student. (This actually occurred in 2001's Storytelling.)

Life During Wartime doesn't present anyone broke or starving, or getting it in the rear. No, the film focuses on an abrasively disturbing look at the return of a sex offender to his upper class Floridian family and their subsequent efforts to move on with their lives. In Todd's mind, this is good for a laugh. It is our sworn duty to realize he is right. 

Life During Wartime is the rare sequel that makes more sense if you have never seen the original. Happiness' numerous plot threads weren't exactly the most essential parts of the overall mood, and replacing the actors with cost-effective replacements results in a series of inside jokes entertaining to those who have followed the director's career since his masterful Welcome to the Dollhouse in 1995.

Solondz' characters are only sieves through which various feelings of his sole protagonist — himself — are strained. Like Baumbach, his characters also talk in an identical, jaunty, inflected upper class non-accent, like they were pronouncing everything for the joy of their audience, hoping to sound as much like the author of their words as possible. As in Kicking and Screaming, the momentum of the film leans almost entirely on the dialogue; both films resemble mannered stage plays with little in the way of action.

All satire eventually becomes realism, but this process usually requires some duration of time. Unfortunately for Todd Solondz, there is no longer a craziness in his head that surpasses what exists in reality. A few years after The Onion made jokes of questionable humor about Gillette manufacturing a five-blade razor, the company did it. This is something like what was happened to our best satirists. Now that we no longer have to parse Entertainment Weekly for gossip, all the jokes have been made, and they require no exaggeration. Crystal Renn now regularly feasts upon living children, eat your heart out Jonathan Swift.

At least Todd Solondz's projections know that life is a low down dirty trick. The existential dread of Kicking and Screaming gives voice to a convincing complaint about the world that surrounds young men and women emerging from the darkness of higher education. Rendered null and void by technology, Kicking and Screaming has turned into a eulogy for a before-times America that is now nothing but a figment of our imagination.

Alex Carnevale is the editor of This Recording. He twitters here and tumbls here. He last wrote in these pages about the poet Anne Sexton.

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"Shutterbugg" - Big Boi ft. Cutty (mp3)

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