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Alex Carnevale
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This Recording

is dedicated to the enjoyment of audio and visual stimuli. Please visit our archives where we have uncovered the true importance of nearly everything. Should you want to reach us, e-mail alex dot carnevale at gmail dot com, but don't tell the spam robots. Consider contacting us if you wish to use This Recording in your classroom or club setting. We have given several talks at local Rotarys that we feel went really well.

Pretty used to being with Gwyneth

Regrets that her mother did not smoke

Frank in all directions

Jean Cocteau and Jean Marais

Simply cannot go back to them

Roll your eyes at Samuel Beckett

John Gregory Dunne and Joan Didion

Metaphors with eyes

Life of Mary MacLane

Circle what it is you want

Not really talking about women, just Diane

Felicity's disguise

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Entries in alex carnevale (220)

Monday
Apr152013

In Which We Do A Few Bad Things First

Deserving

by ALEX CARNEVALE

Top of the Lake
creators Gerard Lee and Jane Campion

Dignity and its absence is not a regularly discussed topic in any form of art. Usually when it is addressed, we view a permanent loss of self-respect, the kind of descent into shit that only happens to older men, since that is apparently the time in which you are supposed to discard any possibility of living with honor. There is no coming back from that.

At one point in Jane Campion's magnificent miniseries Top of the Lake, Robin Griffin (Elizabeth Moss) is hanging out on a little boat with Johnno, the man with whom she began cheating on her fiancee, Steve. He demurs when she brings up the topic of sex, and she responds, "Can't we do a few bad things before we do something good?"

Robin is a detective visiting her hometown of Paradise, New Zealand when a 12 year old girl named Tui (Jacqueline Joe) is discovered to be pregnant. Tui lives with her rough, disgusting family, surrounded by weapons, dogs and cages and a criminal lifestyle that largely ignores that she exists. Robin feels a kinship with the half-Maori girl that goes far beyond gender. She, too, has just left the most recent place she calls home, informing Steve, "You deserve someone better."

The show's primary antagonist is Tui's father Matt Mitcham (Peter Mullan). The sixty-four year old patriarch begins Top of the Lake by accidentally killing a real estate agent he is trying to threaten by dragging him behind his boat in the water. This template for the character says everything we need to know about him - full of menace, devious as he may be, this is someone who often accomplishes the exact opposite of what he is trying to achieve, but doesn't end up paying for it.

In order to threaten Robin when she comes calling to ask about Tui, he puts down a dangerous dog right in front of her with a high-caliber rifle. She is naturally appalled, but it only takes a moment for her to realize that Matt's action itself is merciful, even when all that surrounds it suggests the opposite.

Robin is not really afraid of Matt himself after that. She immediately comes to terms with the idea that the very fact he is not what he seems means is unlikely to be either the father of Tui's baby or the principal cause of her disappearance.

Part of the reason Top of the Lake feels so much more timely than a show it renders amateur hour, AMC's The Killing, is that it shows respect for both sides in the conflict between traditional and progressive ideas.

GJ (Holly Hunter) descends upon a purchased a piece of Matt Mitchum's property with a coterie of women victimized by men, or in one unique case, a chimpanzee. On the surface, she is establishing a support group retreat for these women of various ages.

The portrayal of this assemblage initially verges on satire, but that is only Campion's method for getting the giggles out of the way. Hunter is absolutely magical in this role, and it is a shame they could not do more with her. Mostly she sits in her distinctive chair, elevated slightly, but only slightly, above the rest of her group.

Flowing grey hair to her waist marks a contrast with her perpetually youthful face, and her appearance confuses all who interact with her; as one of her disciplines puts it, GJ "exists on another plane." This indeterminacy too passes, and when she admonishes a bald man who has flown from Shanghai to drop off his daughter with her, we know we are seeing neither hero or villain. 

Robin's first meeting with the long-haired guru is postponed until the series' third episode. GJ threatens her openly, informing her that she will be brought to her knees in a scene where she appears to be telling the detective's fortune. This hits too close to home, feels too familiar.

Robin is busy trying to reinvent the local police department, which maintains an uneasy balance with the impoverished community of Paradise. Her personal life is nothing short of a disaster. Robin's mother is dying of cancer, and she is unable to deal with that either. She never says goodbye to her mother: she only hears a voicemail on her phone.

If the town of Paradise is any indication, tensions between men and women are at an all-time high. Top of the Lake approaches these conflicts from every possible vantage point, swinging the camera high above the lavish natural scenery of New Zealand and close to the anguish of the participants in this drama, when things become most uncomfortable and violent, and then suddenly abstracting us far away again.

For the individual that fights in this war, it is the only way to deal with it and continue living. The remarkable fact is that they are able to go on, with the suggestion being that in some parts of the world, women do not really have a choice, or a retreat.

At first it seems like Robin is dealing with a misogynist roadblock in Al Parker (David Wenham), the resident chief of police. Once we learn the history between them, both of their behavior becomes a lot more complicated. Campion lets this play out over the beginning of Top of the Lake's fourth episode. The scene itself, a simple dinner in an empty house, is made possible by the depth of the performance the director coaxes out of Moss. On her other show, Moss is only permitted the chopped staccato cadence in which something is always being teased, concluded or resolved beyond the actual existence of the characters.

Moss' skills have undoubtedly been improved by her time on stage. She slips into a whole other persona here, not just in how believably she able to shift between the role of victim and aggressor. She also proves this transition can take place in a single moment if we are willing to pay the attention it requires. In this area Top of the Lake shows how inadequate traditional drama can be.

Campion often takes up the stories of children, whose characteristic relationship to the world around them has always been curious to her. It is distinctive that in Top of the Lake, for the first time I can remember, there are not any. Yes, Tui is only twelve. But that means so little to anyone in her world, and we slowly adjust to this reality. There no abdication of responsibility, no protection that comes from whatever innocence is possible in a place like this one. "In nature there is no death," GJ says. "Only a reshuffling of atoms."

Alex Carnevale is the editor of This Recording. He is a writer living in Manhattan. He tumbls here and twitters here. You can find an archive of his writing on This Recording here. He last wrote in these pages about behavioral conditioning.

"A New Independence" - Jamie Woolford (mp3)

"A Framed Life In Charming Life" - Jamie Woolford (mp3)

Thursday
Mar212013

In Which We Simply Cannot Control Ourselves

Mission Control

by ALEX CARNEVALE

I am the person I'm most concerned with controlling.

1972

B.F. Skinner was used to looking out for things that could not manage for themselves. In his laboratory, rats and pigeons remained under his watchful eye.

When his wife Yvonne gave birth to his second daughter, Deborah Skinner, he thought of ways he might better care for the girl. In his basement his built a crib enclosed completely in safety glass, replete with a thermostat. In 1945 they would name it: the Heir Conditioner.

He had noticed how hard it was for the bundled Deborah to turn over. In the Heir Conditioner Deborah could always be in a diaper, allowing for total movement within the unit. Air that entered was moistened, sound was absorbed by the walls. Because the child was totally contained in the system, General Mills feared what would happen if the climate apparatus were to fail - an overheated or frozen child. After the company passed on the Heir Conditioner, Skinner decided to publicize his invention through an article in Ladies' Home Journal entitled "Baby in a Box."

Skinner himself was not responsible for the article's title. "The word box," he later admitted, "led to countless confusion, because I had used another box in a study of operant conditioning. [They] assumed I was experimenting on our daughter as if she were a rat or a pigeon." (Years afterwards, a rival faculty member started a rumor that Skinner's daughter had committed suicide, presumably as a result of the device.) Despite the poor word of mouth, Skinner got a manufacturer interested, but because of the device's high cost (over three hundred dollars to fabricate), it was never successfully produced on any real scale.

His next project was the utopian novel titled Walden Two. The book examined how behavioral conditioning could improve American life. There is one scene from the book I have never been able to get out of my mind. Skinner imagines children sitting around a table at meal time, preparing for their food. He suggests that one set of children be served while the other half of the group watches their peers eat. In this way he planned to eliminate the concept of impatience at an early age. It seemed then, and still does appear to be, a marvelous improvement on the world. At the same time it is absolutely terrifying.

with wife Yvonne

Luddites continue to haunt our world. They romanticize not even just the past, but the very recent past, like flip phones and AOL.com. Technology itself contains no content, and fear of it is understandable, since it may be used for good or ill. Skinner's changes to the established way of living, harshly received as they were, possessed great utility, perhaps even more so as part of today's culture than the one that received Walden Two. Even Skinner seemed to realize this in subsequent years.

Concluding that the realization of the intentional communities he described in Walden Two was a long way off, he turned his attention to improving the academic life around him. Writing to his colleagues in the Harvard psychology department in 1955, he told them, "We do not teach; we merely create a situation in which the student must learn or be damned." The problem, as he saw it, was that "the students were not being told at once whether their work is right or wrong... and they were all moving at the same pace regardless of preparation or ability."

as a boy

To remedy this, he invented a teaching machine. "There is no reason," he wrote, "why the school room should be any less mechanized than the kitchen." Harvard officials allowed Skinner to set up his machines in the basement of Sever Hall where he might test them on students. IBM became interested in producing the device, but backed out after researching the market.

Skinner's ideas never were fully embraced by companies because he had no grasp of the capitalist mentality. Whether something could reasonably be accomplished suffered in comparison to whether it should. Skinner tried to get his devices used in Harlem middle schools, but he despised the educational experts who saw the machines as a replacement for their way of life. As computers began their ascent, he saw they heralded the natural extension of his ideas. He never learned to use one.

His next book was Beyond Freedom and Dignity. In one sense the book could not have been timed better - it led him to the cover of Time magazine. But the ideas in Beyond Freedom and Dignity entered an evolving America obsessed with the concept of freedom of body and mind. The manuscript reads like a long lecture, rarely referring to any source outside itself. "I am not a historian," Skinner wrote in a later article, "I don't remember what I read, and I keep only sketchy notes."

When Skinner found out Noam Chomsky would review Beyond Freedom and Dignity for The New York Review of Books, he blanched and exploded with rage.

He was right to fear. He learned from a friend that Chomsky described his book as "beyond bed-wetting its bullshit." Other critics found even more to dislike. Stephen Spender termed it "fascism without tears," and Ayn Rand explained that "Beyond Freedom and Dignity is like Boris Karloff's embodiment of Frankenstein's monster: a corpse patterned with nuts, bolts and screws from the junkyard of philosophy, Darwinism, Positivism, Linguistic Analysis with some nails by Hume, threads by Russell and glue from The New York Post."

When the great furor surrounding the book had died down, Skinner remained as he was before: with relatively few friends inside or outside academia. He retired and was presented with a special copy of Walden by Harvard. He focused on writing his autobiography. Split into three parts, it would span over 1300 pages, with the main goal being that he wanted "people to like me." I recommend them in their entirety; engineers have always been the best writers.

Skinner's ideas would have been received far better in this time. At his moment one could live independently from a set of common stimuli. Now we all share so many of the same experiences that we are conditioned behaviorally, but not by the altruistic benefactor that Skinner imagines in Walden Two.

Instead our enslavement is unknowing. We are devoted to the idea of freedom, not actual freedom itself. We shame individuals who do not share our views. We do not require conditioning now to become more alike; as Skinner put it, "A person is not only exposed to the contingencies that constitute a culture, he helps to maintain them, and to the extent that the contingencies induce him to do so the culture is self-perpetuating."

Skinner, and only Skinner, prepared to save us from this fate. To break this cycle we must be trained by some intelligence in the philosophy of freedom, which, as Karl Jaspers noted all those years ago, consists of knowing that a choice made now, today, projects itself backwards and changes our past actions.

Alex Carnevale is the editor of This Recording. He is a writer living in Manhattan. He last wrote in these pages about the Chagalls. He tumbls here and twitters here.

in retirement

"Strawberry Bubblegum" - Justin Timberlake (mp3)

"Let The Groove Get In" - Justin Timberlake (mp3)

yvonne checking on the baby

Tuesday
Mar052013

In Which It Was Something We Cannot Explain

My Chagall Memwah

by ALEX CARNEVALE

The Chagalls planned to return to Paris after the Second World War. They waited in New York, Marc and his wife Bella did, exhausted by its crowds and pollution, for their home in France to be free. Occasionally they stayed in a hotel in the Adirondacks to get away from the bustle. "Here the only Jews are God himself and us," wrote Bella Chagall.

To pass the time Bella penned her memoirs. (At this point in time they were not yet better known as memwahs.) Put down in her glorious Yiddish, she described her life in Russia before her family had been splintered apart and taken from her. She wrote for hours at her desk in her characteristic black dress. She had been afraid to tell her story before, despite encouragement from friends and family, because of her shyness. The Russia she reimagined then no longer existed.

Marc described his wife during their last months together.

All calm and deep presentiment. I can see her again from our hotel window, sitting by the lake before going to the water. Waiting for me. Her whole being was waiting, listening to something, just as she had listened to the forest when she was a little girl.

Bella died of strep throat six days after the American army liberated Paris.

+

"I don't recognize the world," Marc Chagall wrote after her death. In her biography of the artist, Jackie Wullschlager describes him turning his canvases to the wall. He wept uncontrollably during his wife's funeral, she tells us, shocking onlookers. As he dealt with her passing, news flowed in of relatives alive and dead in the war. Joy and grief intermingled freely. In his confusion he even addressed a letter to Joseph Stalin.

"Bella and Ida" 1916

In tandem with his daughter Ida, Marc worked through his wife's papers. His daughter's many friends flowed through the apartment; on any given day as many as six languages were spoken there. Family members returned to the Chagall's Paris home, and there was naturally celebration for those who had survived. He wrote his friend Jean Grenier to say "I am very miserable at this time. I have lost the one who was everything to me - my eyes and my soul. If I continue to create and live it is because I hope to see France and the people of France again very soon." And to another: "I must cure myself of myself."

Ida and Marc, 1945

Spring reinvigorated Marc Chagall's creative drive. He had grown accustomed to working with his wife - he considered her opinion on his work invaluable. Bella's favorite color was green; sometimes when she sat for him she read passages aloud from the Old Testament in Yiddish. His many paintings of his wife are not simply portraits, they show Bella Chagall in the act: of gardening, of drinking, of existing as if her husband were only moments away from entering the scene. The empathy they display - albeit for an extension of himself and his love for her - nearly screams.

detail of "Bella with White Collar", 1917

+

Ida Chagall met Virginia McNeil through a friend. Roughly the same age, Virginia required work: her husband was an insane, depressive drunk poet, and their five-year old daughter could not count on her father. The Englishwoman became the family's new housekeeper after repairing some socks, moving into the house with young Jean. Marc called the girl Genia because it sounded more Jewish.

Virginia McNeil could not help but be attracted to the older widower. Watching him paint, she took every opportunity to flirt, observing his shirtless attire during working hours. They hid the relationship from their daughters at first. When they vacationed in Sag Harbor, Virginia slipped in and out of Marc's room at night. This new, illicit relationship came out in his brush. "You must be in love!" his friend told him after seeing one particular painting.

Chagall did not get along with young Jean/Genia McNeil - he had never been fond of any children while they were children, not knowing how to relate to them. When his relationship with Virginia became more obvious and official, he demanded the girl be sent to boarding school in New Jersey. A month later, Virginia told him that she was pregnant.

in New York, 1942Their relationship recollected his marriage when it could. Marc suggested Virginia convert to Judaism, but that never came to pass. He settled for having her attempt to make Russian food. Before the birth of David Chagall, Marc preemptively left for Paris, enlisting a friend to circumcize the baby. The day he sailed for Paris on the SS Brazil, Virginia sent for Jean to come home from boarding school exile. Chagall had not even left her enough money to pay the bills.

+

He had planned to only visit Paris, staying in the rooms his daughter rented for him. Instead he remained apart from his child for two years. Ida tried to explain to Virginia, with whom she continued to consummate an uneasy friendship, that her father had purpose in Paris: "People are waiting for him. Their expectation is something to be treasured, not despised. He owes Paris at least a semblance of return. It's like a gift; it must be given at the right time. Paris is Paris, beautiful, decaying, full of sweetness and bitterness."

at the window of his apartment, 1958

Eventually, he did miss Virginia. Maybe he had from the start, but between gallery events and lectures, there had been too much to occupy his attention. He brought her to Europe instead. The happy family:

Her essential non-Jewishness haunted their life. As a replacement for his wife the goy remained inadequate. His paintings continued to be concerned with Bella alone: they were constantly surrounded by the woman in heart and in mind. When he talked to Ida, they spoke in Russian, excluding Virginia from their conversations. This use of language replaced any lingering respect he could have had for Soviet Russia after seeing what the country had done to his friends and relatives.

Jean was constantly envious of her new brother; they sent the girl to live with her grandparents in England. Marc and Virginia attempted to live together in France, but Marc had lost the sexual desire which tied them so closely before. As Virginia flirted with their hippie neighbors and entertained ideas of other men, Marc spent most of his time with the famous artists he counted as friends.

In June of 1951 they went together to Israel. Both were uncomfortable in this foreign place; they barely touched each other. The distance was obvious. Virginia wrote, "I longed for some of the passionate tenderness that filled Marc's paintings, and it was something I couldn't explain to him. By nature, Marc was shy and undemonstrative in love. He talked a lot about love in general, he painted love, but he didn't practice it."

Alex Carnevale is the editor of This Recording. He is a writer living in Manhattan. He tumbls here and twitters here. You can find an archive of his writing on This Recording here. He last wrote in these pages about W.H. Auden coming to America.

with Bella in Marseilles, 1941

"Song For My Brunette" - Mathis Haug (mp3)

"Sad And Lonesome Day Blues" - Mathis Haug (mp3)

Is It More Important To Be A Great Artist Or A Great Person?

Ellen Copperfield & Frida Kahlo

Damian Weber & Andy Warhol

Isabella Yeager & Auguste Rodin

Timothy Stanley & Louise Bourgeois

Brittany Julious & Lorna Simpson

Sarah Wambold & Grant Wood

Alex Carnevale & Lee Krasner

Ellen Copperfield & Dorothea Lange

Elaine de Kooning & Mark Rothko

Alexandra Malmed & La Monte Young

Barbara Galletly & Willem de Kooning

Alex Carnevale & Fairfield Porter

drawing of Marc and Bella as a young couple