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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 (234)

Monday
Oct032016

In Which Bulletproof Is The Only Word You Need Remember

Variations

by ALEX CARNEVALE

Luke Cage
creator Cheo Hodari Coker
Netflix

There is a scene near the end of Netflix series Luke Cage where an African-American cop beats up a twelve year old boy in an interrogation room. We cannot be sure that such a hideous act never occurred in Harlem, but as something that could happen, now, today?

Luke Cage creator Cheo Hodari Coker is just getting started. The evil villains of Luke Cage are an arms dealer named Cornell "Cottonmouth" Stokes (Mahershala Ali) and his cousin, a city-councilwoman named Mariah (Alfred Woodard). Here is their devious plan: they plan to take money they've made selling guns to other gangs and repurpose it for the good of the community. Luke Cage (a horrendous Mike Colter, oh my god is he the worst actor in a long time) has an idea to foil this plan: he takes the money and gives it to the police. What do they use for? I can tell you candidly it will not be invested in Harlem.

Let's talk about why some minority communities turned to crime to begin with: hint, it wasn't because they were evil. It was because the easiest access to wealth that some Italians, Jews, blacks, Irish, and later on other groups had was illicit. Racism and bigotry prevented other opportunities. But now Mr. Hodari Parker has come up with another reason, only I am not quite sure what makes Cottonmouth so bad. Presumably Mr. Coker realizes that the United States government sells guns as well?

It is painful but also amusing to watch Luke Cage's idea of what makes someone a bad person. It would seem that during his extensive stay in jail for a crime he did not commit, Cage would have learned not to judge a book by its cover. The naivete of Luke Cage's titular hero threatens to turn this show into a kiddie version of the same.

Besides being bulletproof, Cage can also bend guns in half, destroying them. He does this to cops and criminals alike, since they both open fire on him frequently. Someone tries to kill Luke Cage by opening an entire magazine of bullets on him in every episode; by the finale it is the most boring gag imaginable. Between the scenes where Cage mauls gun-toting adversaries like a stuttering bear, there is another more entertaining show that actually takes the time to pay tribute to Harlem as a cultural touchstone in black America.

Luke Cage does not actively hate cops, but he never tries to help them accumulate evidence on the people he has recklessly determined are bad for his community. Cage has sex exactly once during his own show, and the subject of his affections is a police detective named Missy Knight (Simone Missick). After a few hours together he catches feelings even though he has been floating negs to her all evening. You would think super strength would complicate the idea of sex immeasurably, and true to form, Missy gets a call and never comes back to Cage's dingy apartment above a barber shop.

Luke Cage takes time to establish the lengthy backstory of Cornell Stokes, who is given very little to do as a "villain" other than laugh and play the piano. (Once he punches a guy in the face and cackles. Who among us is not guilty of that?) Stokes loves music because his early ambitions were to create it himself. At his fantastic club, Harlem's Paradise, Mr. Coker presents a series of musical acts intended to reflect the extensive diversity of African-American music. Outside of one time, we never see the club packed and joyous, perhaps because of Luke Cage's budgetary restrictions. These financial limits also make Cage the least action-heavy of all the Marvel shows.

Cage is so clearly not a role model. His ex-girlfriend Misty Knight is a lot closer to one. She never faces any racism or sexism in her job as a police detective, and all of her superior officers are also black women around the same age. I guess since Luke Cage's sister series Jessica Jones was so focused on the particulars of women's suffering from violence and sexism, Luke Cage is so reluctant to touch on any of those things.

Women in Luke Cage are never powerless. Alfre Woodard's magnificent performance as Mariah here generally keeps the entire show from falling apart. Coker has the most fun writing for her character when she is telling the truth and has something useful to say; at other times, she is too much of a garden variety hypocrite. In flashbacks that go back to Mariah's life as a teen, he does a fantastic job giving us an idea of how blacks viewed their white neighbors, and related to each other as members of the same clan. When Claire (Rosario Dawson) comes on the scene as Cage's sidekick, she feels weirdly outside of events because she cannot understand them in the same way.

Luke Cage has various new things to say about what it means to be black in America, and the vivid world that surrounds Cage is infinitely more intriguing than its centerpiece. The show's most tedious episode explains Cage's origins. The years he served in prison were not particularly difficult; he escapes a fire and busts out of the walls of the penitentiary. Free at last, he works as a dishwasher and sweeps up hair in his friend's barbershop. Unfortunately for us, he quits both of these jobs in short order and never works another day. It is unclear how he supports himself after that, although he steals $80,000 from a heavily protected safe to purchase his friend's barbershop.

The fact that Luke Cage used to be a police officer should give him some context for how he relates to men and women in blue. Instead, the fact that he is identified as black completely dominates his previous identity. He struggles to form relationships with anyone who does not have a similar background. Even being a former cop gives him no advantages or disadvantages in prison: he is always seen as who he is in the moment – a dangerous, powerful/powerless black man. This subtle indictment is never focused on or identified, which perhaps makes it all the more deft.

Policing urban communities is the kind of thing people are always saying, "Let's have a frank, open conversation about this." But like, later. Next week? After the election. Maybe we should be happy that the subject is being mentioned at all in a genre that is usually considered mindless entertainment. I blame Mr. Coker, who displays his characters reading and reflecting on fine literature, for giving me hope. In different moments, Cage brandishes paperbacks of Walter Mosley and Ralph Ellison. Then, as he becomes more and more concerned with his survival, he finds that he no longer has time to read.

Alex Carnevale is the editor of This Recording.

Friday
Sep302016

In Which Wherever We Go Billy Also Goes

Passing Time

by ALEX CARNEVALE

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.

Tuesday
Sep202016

In Which We Thought Ingmar Bergman Could Be Something More

Revenge Picture

by ALEX CARNEVALE

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.

 

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