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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 (176)

Thursday
Apr142011

In Which The Tree Is A Mnemonic Representation Of Charlotte Gainsbourg

Staring Wistfully At Foliage

by ALEX CARNEVALE

The Tree
dir. Julie Bertucelli
100 mins

After her husband is murdered by screenwriters, Dawn O'Neil (Charlotte Gainsbourg) has a rough time of it. She finds herself sleeping for most of the day, and blogging at night. She blogs about her kids, mainly her daughter Simone, and how she can't get over her father's death and believes the tree overlooking their home is a representation of her partner from the beyond.

She blogs things like,

I live in Australia but I don't feel Australian. (Neither is true, except in the context of The Tree.)

Sometimes I get myself confused with Charlotte Rampling, because we have the same neck.

Tina Brown's Newsweek may be the most boring thing I have ever read in my life.

Why aren't there any Jews in Australia? Who's the Harvey Weinstein of Australia? Probably some dope dealer.

How come Zooey Deschanel is married to Ben Gibbard and my neck is over eighteen inches long?

the director & her stars

It is a virtual certainty that Charlotte Gainsbourg is better at blogging than acting. No one actually uses the internet in Julie Bertucelli's adaptation of Judy Pascoe's novel Our Father Who Art In The Tree. Set in South Wales, the film's visuals are glorious, so fantastic that I suppose no one feels the need to check HoopsHype all the time. Some people can't stop integrating the internet into their scripted storylines; others make movies as if the internet never existed. What happened to a happy medium? They had to at least have dial-up.

The Tree is another sterling example of a bourgeois actress pretending she's a peon, and succeeding by outdistancing meager expectations. There's a scene where Gainsbourg explains to George, the plumber she's rebounding with, that her mother was French and moved back there, as if we needed yet another moment where we are reminded she is about as far from an impoverished Australian housewife with five kids as you can possibly get. I don't suppose she could have attempted an accent; did you know Reese Witherspoon is secretly British?

Gainsbourg spends the entirety of The Tree playing off some talented child actors who constitute her brood. Her eldest is able to move on from his father's passing; her youngest is a mute. In the middle is Simone, who spends all her time in the tree her father crashed into with his car upon suffering cardiac arrest. Her second son, Lou, waters the tree and it begins to overwhelm the house, starting with a gigantic branch falling into Gainsbourg's bedroom. Affixed to the massive, dangling branch was a tiny note explaining the symbolism.

There is a different logic to how children behave, and when it's interwoven with an adult sensibility, the terror of an unobserved child at risk elevates the stakes. Gainsbourg wants to climb into the tree with her daughter to dangle in the embrace of death, her daughter sees a man o'war in the water and feels the burning desire to go near and feel the painful sting of its touch. In such moments The Tree tells us that our outward behavior may change as we age, but nothing else does.

When George asks Ms. Gainsbourg for the story of her marriage, she tells him that she simply met the perfect man for her and abandoned birth control to the wind. "You're lucky you have your keeds," he tells her, and she nods, indicating how unhappy they make her. Some people never get along great with children, treating them as simply an extension of themselves. This is the second worst thing you can do to someone, after treating them exactly as you do yourself.

When The Tree focuses on its precociously talented child actors, it's a completely different film, taking on the magical realist qualities of the novel on which it is based. Everything about The Tree is altered when we watch people who we believe are incapable of protecting themselves. There is no happy ending for a bereaved widow in rural Australia, but there may be something in the way of hope for her offspring.

Such realizations are obvious in the age of the internet. I think I recently read something similar on AfterEllen. Ideally, Australian housewives would get much guidance from This Recording. We are huge in Australia, and we have at least half of the media market in Tanzania. (TR recommended links comprise the evening news in the far places of the world.) Sometimes a lone drifter will turn to This Recording as he travels the plains of the Outback, stopping only to send me an e-mail asking me if I would like to run his essay about 500 Days of Summer. (The answer is no.)

Instead of a innocent portrait of naive souls, we judge these folk more harshly. Viewing their dirty and cluttered house, most feel envious at how low the price of food must be there. You know you're treading on dangerous ground when poverty becomes close to an ideal. What kind of person watches a movie about a grieving family and feels jealous?

Alex Carnevale is the editor of This Recording. He tumbls here and twitters here. He last wrote in these pages about life after death.

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"The City" - Patrick Wolf (mp3)

"To Build A Home" - The Cinematic Orchestra ft. Patrick Watson (mp3)

"Big Bird In A Small Cage "- Patrick Watson (mp3)

Tuesday
Apr052011

In Which We Take The Long Sleep

What's After Life?

by ALEX CARNEVALE

Before we die, it's a continual panic about things coming to an end, kind of like how all goodbyes are depressing. After we die, what a rush! We can deduce that several things occur after death just from the living world itself.

  1. The cancellation of Firefly was an egregious mistake rectified in the afterlife, where Joss Whedon's storyboards are viewed behind angel-proof glass.
  2. We can't communicate with our loved ones or use the bathroom for its proper function beyond the grave.
  3. We may return.

Are you familiar with Dr. Ian Stevenson? The McGill-educated biochemist/psychologist spent the vast majority of his life exploring the phenomenon of reincarnation. He found about 2500 children who claimed to partially retain the memories of people who had died, usually under tragic circumstances. Often he found birthmarks or defects that indicated some similarity between the child and the deceased. Although he pursued his passion project with the scientific method in tow, Stevenson's drug experiences informed his work. In a lecture to a group of similar-minded people, he expounded on parts of his process:

While I was still involved with psychoanalysis, I began experimenting with hallucinogenic (perhaps better called psychedelic) drugs. I have taken or had administered to me a number of drugs and anesthetics as part of a search for drugs that would assist psychiatrists in interviewing or in psychotherapy. However, here I shall speak only of the effects on me of mescaline and LSD.

Mescaline could not improve my vision, but it vastly bettered my appreciation of what I saw. The beauty of the colors that I inwardly saw under the influence of mescaline made me ever afterward far more sensitive to color both in nature and in art than I had been before. From my experience with mescaline I also became more aware than I had been of the subjective element in our sense of the passage of time.

With LSD I had less experience of beautiful colors and much more of memories of my early life. With one of my experiences with LSD I also had a mystical experience by which I mean a sense of unity with all beings, all things. After the second of my LSD experiences I passed three days in perfect serenity. I believe that many persons could benefit as much as I did through taking psychedelic drugs under proper medical supervision, which is the only sensible way to take them.

Unlike most evidence for life after death, Stevenson used a scientific approach to collecting the stories of the "reincarnated." He published a book that met with a lot of attention, but refused to delude himself that people were giving real credence to his ideas. He knew they bought the book because they wanted to believe. In reviewing Stevenson's findings, Carl Sagan found them to be the most convincing evidence of life after death. As Dr. Stevenson explained in an interview:

In many of our cases in northwest North America and Burma, people in the same family or village are involved. So there's a likelihood that some adult or older child has talked about a deceased person and the child has absorbed the information, as our questioning makes clear. This is not, however, an issue in most cases I cite in India, many of which involve long distances, twenty-five to fifty kilometers or more, with no contact between the villages. Often the child has quite precise details.

Stevenson's subsequent scholarship in the field was even more exacting, and some of the coincidences he finds in his fieldwork are indeed astonishing.  In one such interview, a Lebanese boy speaks of being a mechanic in his early twenties killed in a car crash near a beach. Stevenson has multiple witnesses who heard the boy give the driver's name, where the crash occurred, and names of the victim's family. This is only one of many such impossibilites Stevenson documented. Connections between the recently deceased and the recently born abound in his research.

Something less than a total skeptic, at some point Stevenson purchased a filing cabinet and inserted it in his UVa Division of Perceptual Studies office. He locked it with a combination that only he knew, and planned to trasmit the combination after he passed. It is unknown whether that combination was a word or a sentence, and since his death from pneumonia in 2007, the filing cabinet has not been opened.

The psychiatrist Harold Lief argued that Stevenson was a "methodical, careful, even cautious, investigator, whose personality is on the obsessive side." He also wrote: "Either he is making a colossal mistake, or he will be known . . . as 'the Galileo of the 20th century.'" Mystic or doctor? I'm not sure what motivated Stevenson. He wanted to convince others than reincarnation might be possible, but to what end? Did he want to influence a generation of the deceased to possess the souls of living children? He thought of himself as a scientist who had to reach his conclusion no matter its purpose. Many religions hold this life is only preparation for the life beyond, which is a lot more useful fiction than those that Stevenson could provide.

The best film about death ever made is Defending Your Life. Albert Brooks plays Daniel, an advertising executive who runs into a truck as he's adjusting some papers in his new BMW convertible. Rather than being an evil man, or a virtuous man, Daniel is just another guy. When he wakes up, he finds himself on a tram entering Judgment City, a place that resembles Los Angeles so the dead from the Western half of the United States feel at home. In Defending Your Life, reincarnation is a punishment meted out to those who haven't conquered their fear of life and thus aren't worthy of entering the afterlife.

In Judgment City you can eat anything you want and you never gain a pound. Daniel meets Meryl Streep of twenty years ago. She's a very nice person who adopted two children and saved a cat from dying when her house was on fire. (The character appears to have been modeled after Angelina Jolie.) She immediately falls in love with Daniel. It's really easy and fun. All they do is make out and binge eat. Who couldn't close with those givens? The cinematic idea of the afterlife usually involves some fantasy of the actual life.

Tormenting the ones we love while they still exist doesn't exactly seem like a great use of our time, although it does make widows a lot more susceptible to practical jokes. Most of us would find the involvement of the dead in our personal affairs and hobbies more disconcerting than reassuring. That is why reincarnation is such an appealing idea. We do come back — but we come back not as ourselves. Given our lives to do over again, we are able to correct some serious imbalance. For example, I would be able to pick up on the 467 times a girl was interested in me and I did nothing about it.

When I was young I harbored a sneaking suspicion that while I was doing this for the first time, everyone else was faking that this was new to them. I was also convinced my 2nd grade friend Tim was a robot, a possibility only enhanced by the fact that he moved to Japan with his mom. I watched him wave at me from a bus and I never saw him again.

In Defending Your Life, such important moments are played before Albert Brooks, and he finds himself explaining his behavior; why he lied to save a boy from being expelled, and why he recanted when his father threatened to take away television. He realizes that while his ideas about the past haven't changed, their relative importance to him has.

Part of why Defending Your Life is so perfect is because unlike the traditional Hollywood representation of the afterlife, acceptance of the world beyond is immediate and natural. "They make it easier for us," Meryl Streep says as a way of explaining that once you're dead, your old life might as well be a book you've once read. We can intuit a hint of truth in this no matter what we think lies beyond Earth.

I actually think Defending Your Life ruined Albert Brooks' career. It did not do very well at the box office, even though it was beloved by both critics and audiences and became a television staple. But really, who wants to see a movie about death in the theaters? It was difficult to get over that this is going to be hysterical, and as funny as Defending Your Life is, ultimately the movie is  a depressing fiction. Whenever a studio executive endured Brooks' pitch meetings in the ensuing years, they must have only thought of their own mortality. There is really no other reason that his masterpiece with Debbie Reynolds, Mother, is not shown to schoolchildren along with To Kill A Mockingbird.

Perhaps not coincidentally, the same sort of thing happened to Howard Storm, whose near death experience, as chronicled in his account My Descent Into Death, changed him from an atheist to a proselytizer. Storm's NDE attracted the attention of such serious outlets as The Oprah Winfrey Show and 48 Hours. Storm endured a terrifying ordeal in a Paris hospital, after which he became a  much better person, a transformation partly due to what a dick he was before his incident.

Storm's description of the afterlife, on the other hand, is ludicrous. It is crazy not because it can't be verified, or because it doesn't have a ring of truth. Storm's story is silly because it has all the logic of a dream, and is familiar to anyone who does dream. Since he was basically delirious from pain, his lengthy description of the afterlife was nothing more than a nightmare. Storm saw scenes from his life, and he turned away from them. Presumably Jesus showed him how much of a dick he was. (Some people are so stubborn they only listen to Jesus or his counterpart Paul Krugman.)

After his surgery, Storm refused doctor's advice to recuperate and he became beset by complications suffered when he travelled back to the United States. He spent most of his time weeping and praying and his wife threatened to leave him. He gained some distance from his experience, and the fact that he was able to talk to hospital staff before his surgery indicates that despite his severe condition, he was never dead, only dying.

People need a reason to change their lives, and if they don't have one, they'll make it up. Before his NDE, Storm was an atheist, and by all accounts a horror to friends, family, and students. Afterward, he turned into a nicer man who believed in God. Perhaps he couldn't handle the idea that he had made the change himself, so he had to attribute it to a man who lived and died so long ago.

Many saints lived an ignominious existence before coming to Jesus. The sight of Christopher Hitchens in a prayer group is avant-garde indeed. The guy smoked 450,000 cigarettes, what did he think was going to happen? This is not to say that there isn't something very noble about putting your faith in something larger than yourself. But that's not what Storm, or Hitchens, or Anne Rice is doing.

The scientist puts the evidence before himself — he knows he is small in comparison to everything, even God. The proselytizer puts himself before the evidence, and it is because he is afraid of one of those things: the evidence, or himself. A rabbi once told me that if you need God, he is there. And if you don't, he is there. I remember thinking that struck me as sexist.

There is a vexing curiosity to find out what will happen, something along the lines of what dooms Inception's Mal. It is potentially the source of all madness. Stevenson's cabinet remains locked.

Recently I mastered the art of lucid dreaming, which is something like what Howard Storm went through in that hospital in Paris. In the dream world, I control all of my behavior, but others still act of their own volition. Despite the illusion of dream control, I am less and less excited to descend into the dream world. The imagined projections in my mind move nearer to reality, instead of the real world inching closer to my fantasy. It may be this is only a consequence of getting older. We find, like Howard Storm, that we do want to make a transformation, even if we like the person we were. Even though I am already someone worthwhile, I long to be someone else.

Alex Carnevale is the editor of This Recording. He tumbls here and twitters here. He last wrote in these pages about Todd Haynes' HBO miniseries Mildred Pierce.

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"Electric Mainline" - Spiritualized (mp3)

"Anyway That You Want Me" - Spiritualized (mp3)

"Take Your Time" - Spiritualized (mp3)

"Broken Heart" - Spiritualized (mp3)

Friday
Apr012011

In Which Mildred Pierce Bids Goodbye To Sam Mendes

The Fallen

by ALEX CARNEVALE

Mildred Pierce

dir. Todd Haynes

Guy Pearce plays Monty Beragon in Todd Haynes’ HBO remake of Mildred Pierce, the first bit of extant culture that would have never existed if not for Matthew Weiner besides Elisabeth Moss’ first marriage. Pearce almost makes up for ruining The Time Machine; during his love-making with Kate Winslet’s titular character he displays a maddening smile, as if desperate to remind us of how enthused he is by the intercourse. During one intimate moment he flashes a thumbs up.

The 1930s were rife with people — mostly women — pretending to enjoy intercourse. Gloria Steinem once admitted to Katie Couric that she had faked over 10,000 orgasms, which seems low. Remember when Daniel Mendelsohn was insulted because Weiner’s show was too preachy about how racist and sexist America was in the past? (Chuck Lorre has that review taped to the back of his bathroom door.) If you thought the 1960s didn’t have black people in them, wait until you see Todd Haynes’ version of Los Angeles in the 1930s.

Haynes has always been one of the most distinctive American filmmakers — 1998's Velvet Goldmine remains a work of unadultered genius — and now Todd is even willing to appeal to an older generation desperate to relive the genre conventions of early Hollywood. Mildred Pierce is a Horatio Alger novel, rolled into a romance novel, with the rest copied from Theodore Dreiser. Haynes’ version of it is so much better than the original it is hard to believe the two are even related. The director's Mildred is sort of an olden day Elaine Benes; she means well but she ends up sleeping with the weirdest guys. I believe Elaine even did Newman in an episode that doesn't run in syndication anymore.

After Mildred tosses her husband for working over some other lucky lady, she starts waitressing. Winslet holds every scene together by basically doing the acting Olympics: sometimes other members of the cast find themselves watching her. Once, in a hospital, she pretended to wake up so marvelously I thought they should have just faded to black. You can try to understand the reason that Sam Mendes was more interested in Rebecca Hall, but it definitely was not because Kate was not as good at acting.

Haynes' twist on the dated story is to invest it with a quivering tendentiousness that implies other possibilities. Every pseudo-heterosexual move of Monty Beragon shivers the timbers of women and men, and even Mildred's simple making of French toast engenders an otherworldly satisfaction. As in his Douglas Sirk-tribute Far From Heaven, Mildred learns how to experience the world in a more satisfying way, and whatever is not useful to her lies faded and wilting, sure to die. Shame and humiliation can be dispensed with if properly forgotten.

When Pearce's Monty Beragon picks her up on her last day working as a server, he takes her to his beach house, where there is not a single bookshelf. When she asks him if he's just a loafer, he produces his penis. They dazzle one another with the spontaneity of their love-making; he applauds her for her unpredictability. She says, by explicit request of an HBO executive, "I guess I've sort of fallen for you, Monty." 

When MP asks for a ride back to her house, Monty wags his engorged phallus back and forth while humming the music that played while that retarded plastic bag floated around. Do you think Roger Ebert looks back on his absurd **** review of American Beauty and thinks about how he can blame it on Bill Kristol? He probably should have packed up his shit the minute he wrote its last sentence: "He may have lost everything by the end of the film, but he's no longer a loser." Oops.

It must be frustrating to be way more talented than your partner but not able to say it, except when you whisper it between takes to Leonardo DiCaprio. Can you even imagine how many times Mendes made Kate sit through Road to Perdition, a film with a working title of Journey to Boredom? Collaborating with Mr. Haynes, by any measure the man to Mendes' childish grasp of cinema, is a direct hit for the former Mrs. Douchebag, although this particular new man in her life can't offer a romantic entanglement. If anything can turn Todd Haynes straight, it's probably not the outfits Guy Pearce wears in Mildred Pierce. (He looks like he was chopped off a slab of granite.)

men were often never nudes in the 30s

The Daily Mail covered Winslet's divorce like London was being bombed again: She was seen weeping at Mexico City airport on Sunday, but tried to cover up her distress by putting on over-sized black sunglasses. Kate is now receiving regular sex from a model, while Sam Mendes still has to look at Away We Go when he re-checks his own IMDB entry just in case. For both Mildred Pierce and Ms. Winslet, feeling bad for her is about the silliest thing you can do.

The parallels between Mildred Pierce and Kate Winslet’s own personal story percolate the drama. She is forever undressing or being undressed, and she is never alone, never without someone to witness some instance of her ignominy. Forcing herself to consider a job as a housekeeper, she finds she cannot possibly accept a lot in life as a servant, which seems more about her vision of herself than sheer repugnance for what appears to be a difficult job.

something old, something newThere are rumors - only rumors - that after Winslet saw Away We Go, things were never the same. She kept asking her friends in private moments whether their husbands smiled during sex, and if they thought Vendela Vida's novels were any good. The Believer started to seem a little cloying and the ubiquitous presence of rose petals in the Mendes home began to trouble rather than comfort her. She found she had come to loathe the very sight of Rainn Wilson.

For some reason they did not have cell phones in the 1930s, probably because Japan was just a twinkle in the eye of Michael Crichton back then. After Mildred moves on to her new life, her youngest daughter falls ill and no one can reach her. The story of the woman whose personal life evaporates as her business interests soar usually ends in Christina Hendricks being forcibly raped by her husband in Don Draper's office. Mildred's punishment is less clear.

Whenever men imagine the emotional lives of women, it usually says more about the men themselves. The males in Mildred Pierce aren't puppets and they aren't decision-makers. It's like they're all taking lexapro or listening to the Barnhouse Effect. Mildred has just as much agency as Alger's Ragged Dick, but she's also more beneficent than Mother Teresa when it comes right down to it. She even spanks her older daughter (Evan Rachel Wood, starting this Sunday) adorably.

The men are just as harmless, even impotent, like a story incapable of frightening you because you know the ending. We already know what will happen to Mildred Pierce, but we must refresh websites continuously to find out what will become of Kate Winslet.

Alex Carnevale is the editor of This Recording. He last wrote in these pages about the love life of Warren Beatty. He tumbls here and twitters here.

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"No Widows (live)" - The Antlers (mp3)

"Every Night My Teeth Are Falling Out (live)" - The Antlers (mp3)

"Rolled Together (live)" - The Antlers (mp3)