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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.

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Entries in alice bolin (25)

Tuesday
Oct082013

In Which We Never Lived Near An Ikea

A Diamond in the Flesh

by ALICE BOLIN

I have to say that early 2013 was tedious for this pop radio listener. Coming off of the top 40 triumphs of 2012 — “Call Me Maybe,” “Climax,” and “Somebody That I Used to Know” all hitting in one year — this year was shaping up to be nothing but an unbearable string of Maroon 5 and Will.I.Am singles, the abomination of “Blurred Lines,” and songs with hashtags in their titles.

The eccentric length of most of the songs on Justin Timberlake’s The 20/20 Experience meant “Mirrors” was its only good radio hit. Miley Cyrus’ boring scandal mongering all but obscured her solid singles “We Can’t Stop” and “Wrecking Ball.” Thank God for the ascendance of Ariana Grande and her ‘90s R&B-influenced debut album Yours Truly, and thank God Katy Perry released her second-best single ever, “Roar” (“Firework” will never be matched), in August, so it could retroactively serve as my jam of the summer.

And then in September, as I was driving down Glendale Boulevard in Los Angeles near the entrance to the Hollywood Freeway, a song came on the radio that started with an anti-boast from a very smoky-voiced sixteen-year-old: “I’ve never seen a diamond in the flesh.” What followed was smooth, hooky, energetic, smart, and strange. In her first single, “Royals,” Lorde says, “You can call me queen bee,” and essentially anoints herself the ruler of a nouvelle vague of pop music. To paraphrase my new teenage queen, I craved a different kind of buzz. And I got it.

Lorde’s emergence, and the heavy beats, trance elements, and velvet vocals of her debut album Pure Heroine, are the culmination of a number of trends. She is influenced by that most Pitchforkian of genres, chill-wave, and its club beats slowed and mellowed to accommodate opiate and MDMA usage. Skrillex led dubstep’s crossover to mainstream pop. Jessie Ware reignited worship of Sade and her sultry R&B. Acts like the Weeknd and Grimes opened the door for indie artists to appropriate elements from commercial pop and hip hop. And Lana Del Rey’s brilliant gimmick — the indie chanteuse who rolls with rappers — was obviously the model for some of Lorde’s swagger.

But Lorde is also doing something very new for pop radio. She is the first New Zealand solo artist to have a number one single in the U.S., and she takes an outsider’s perspective on pop music throughout Pure Heroine. “Every song’s like gold teeth, Grey Goose, trippin’ in the bathroom,/Blood stains, ball gowns, trashin’ the hotel room,/We don’t care,” she sings in “Royals.” This amused, critical stance towards mainstream music’s bullshit opulence is, to say the least, refreshing. “I’m kind of over getting told to throw my hands up in the air,” she sings in “Team.” “So there.”

This is the voice of a girl who grew up in the suburbs in a weird, provincial corner of the globe, who runs with a gang of kids who are not particularly pretty or rich, who has had to make her own fun. Lorde sings in the chorus of “Team,” “We live in cities you’ll never see on screen,” and all the kids in those cities around the world silently give her an amen. I lived until I was fifteen in a small town in northern Idaho, and since then I’ve never lived in a state that doesn’t border Wyoming. When I moved to Los Angeles in August, I realized that lots of city slickers have never encountered someone like me.

My roommate’s friend asked me, “What do people do in Montana?” from which I later gathered that he envisioned the Mountain West as an Oregon Trail-style series of forts and outposts. Another time I told my cousin’s friends that I had never lived anywhere near an Ikea, and they were horrified. I had a weird impulse to tell them to get a life. Hear me: there is more to this existence than your crappy urban amenities.

Maybe this impulse to speak for all the misfits in “torn up towns” is why many songs on Pure Heroine are written in the collective. The album paints a composite picture of a team of weirdos who are scrappy, brave, sensitive, and over it. “We didn’t come from money,” she sings, and elsewhere, “We’re hollow like the bottles that we drain.” “It’s a new art form showing people how little we care,” she says on “Tennis Court.” At times the descriptions are realistic, like when she sings about “the underpass where we all sit/And do nothing and love it,” and other times they transcend realism, like when she declares, “You could try and take us/But we’re the gladiators.”

This gladiator boast is from the world of “the palace within [her] dreams” that she describes in “Team.” Starting with her monarchial stage name, adopted when she was twelve years old, Lorde has always shown an interest in royalty. But as she acknowledges, suburban teens like her and her friends will never be royal, so she has created her own fantasy aristocracy. “Team” begins, “Call all the ladies out/They’re in their finery,” as she imagines her retinue entering before her. “I’m in love with being queen,” she sings on “Royals,” the new monarch of the small-town teens, and she’s looking to take over the world.

But when the queen bee mask slips, we get a vision of Lorde as an ambitious artist who is ambivalent about her impending mega-stardom, who can’t take any of her friends with her where she’s headed.  These are the moments that make Pure Heroine genius. “I’m little, but I’m coming for the crown,” she boasts on “Still Sane,” but then she makes sort of an apology for her professional drive: “All work and no play keeps me on the new shit,” she explains.

On “Still Sane,” she doesn’t know what it says about her that she craves success so badly, and wonders whether she’ll be sane for long. “Only bad people live to see their likeness set in stone,” she sings. “What does that make me?”  Sensitive, self-aware, super-ambitious female pop stars might be my favorite thing: I think of Taylor Swift singing on “Fifteen,” “Back then I swore I was gonna marry him some day,/But I realized some bigger dreams of mine.” Or Marina and the Diamonds singing on “Are You Satisfied?” “They say I’m a control freak/Driven by a greed to succeed.”

Lorde wants to express two parts of her experience: being a normal kid from New Zealand and also a baby genius who was scouted by record executives when she was twelve. There are many lyrics on Pure Heroine that remind us that the person we’re listening to is only sixteen, like when she sings, “My mom and dad let me stay home.” But there are also instances where she exhibits old-soul syndrome, singing on “Team,” “I’m kind of older than I was when I rebelled without a care,” and on “Ribs” (hilariously, for a sixteen-year-old), “It feels so scary getting old.” It is like Taylor Swift’s song “22,” written and recorded when Swift was twenty-two, in which she talks about “feeling 22.” If you have to mention that you feel an age when you are that age, it means that most of the time you don’t feel that age—I would guess that most of the time Swift feels about thirty-five, considering that she has been pursuing her music career for ten years at this point. 

When Lorde released her first EP, she did it without any pictures or information about herself, imitating the anonymity of artists like Burial and the Weeknd. “There’s a lot of excess information,” Lorde said about her initial anonymity. “I feel like in pop you know everything about everyone, and I don’t know if that's necessary in music.” It also seems protective, projecting a mysterious pop monarch to save the sensitive, ambitious teenager behind her. This might also be true of the “we” impulse on Pure Heroine — if she can make a statement that is collective, generational, she isn’t up on stage alone and vulnerable.

Pure Heroine begins with the line “Don’t you think that it’s boring how people talk?” In a wonderful lyrical move, the album comes full circle, ending, “People are talking./Let ‘em talk.” I am reminded Sky Ferreira and her song “Haters Anonymous,” in which she sings “What’s up with all the hate lately?/It’s like, you don’t know the first thing about me,/So you’re so concerned about who I’m supposedly dating.”

All of the music twenty-one-year-old Ferreira has released has been brilliant, but her recent arrest for drug possession is more proof than ever that public attention and photo-shoots with Terry Richardson are not necessarily good for young women — and that Lorde should protect herself from the people talking with her gang and her regal persona for as long as she wants to. But I’m grateful when she gets a little confessional and just lets ‘em talk. Teenage girls have always been the most sensitive and creative subset of human beings, and today they’re cooler than ever, thanks mostly to tumblr. (“Maybe the internet raised us,” Lorde sings on “A World Alone.”) I’m glad that she speaks for them. And she also speaks for herself.

Alice Bolin is the senior contributor to This Recording. She is a writer living in Missoula. She last wrote in these pages about betrayal. You can find an archive of her writing on This Recording here. You can find her twitter here and her tumblr here.

"Still Sane" - Lorde (mp3)

"A World Alone" - Lorde (mp3)

Wednesday
Jul242013

In Which We Betray Everyone Without Remorse

We Need to Talk About Pretty Wild

by ALICE BOLIN

At the start, E!’s Pretty Wild might have been destined to be less than a footnote in the history of reality TV. Following two teenage sisters, party morons/“models” Alexis Neiers and Tess Taylor, the show was after the audience of The Hills, MTV’s classic reality show about random rich twenty-somethings in the Hollywood Hills, every stilted, mesmerizing minute of which was staged for the cameras. It is safe to assume that the producers of Pretty Wild at least tried to stage every minute of it too. There are many silly reality TV setups: Alexis and Tess buying bikinis, Alexis and Tess frolicking on the beach in Cabo San Lucas hand in hand. Tess goes on a lackluster “date” with singer Ryan Cabrera, who has been courting girls with reality shows since 2003, when he dated Ashlee Simpson at the time of her MTV series; he was also one of Audrina Patridge’s love interests on The Hills.

Most of Neiers and Taylor’s modeling careers seem engineered for the show too, as when their mom, Andrea Arlington Dunn, reports that she’s booked them a job with “an organization that’s doing a photoshoot.” One suspects that the organization was called E! Entertainment Television. And the girls gamely play up their shallow, ridiculous personas for the camera: Neiers talks about how she is eager to be in the music video for Kid Rock’s new song, “Rock Bitch.” “It says in the song, ‘sliding down from heaven on a slipper pole,’” she says. “And I was like, ‘That’s totally me!’”

The weirdo factor that elevates the girls to subjects of TV-interest is their mother’s wacky spiritualism. Their house is decorated with three-foot Buddha heads. Dunn reports that she’s designed her home-schooling curriculum around The Secret. The family prays incessantly, ending each prayer with the affirmative “and so it is” instead of “amen.” Dunn is often shown wearing the ear clips that go with her “frequency meter.” This might have been all the show was: bikinis and vodka cranberries and “and so it is.” But three factors changed the show’s course and its destiny, making it of significant interest now as an artifact of Hollywood crime history, and as a testament to the competing realities of “reality,” journalism, and art.

The first was Neiers’ arrest, shortly after the show started filming in summer 2009, for involvement in the Bling Ring, a group of LA teenagers who, over less than a year, stole more than $3 million of goods from celebrity homes. The second was Neiers’ arrest, in 2010, for possession of heroin, the year-long stay in rehab that gave her health and sobriety, and her revelation that during the filming of Pretty Wild she “had an over-$10,000-a-week drug habit,” “smoking 20 80-mg oxys a day” and “doing tons of cocaine.” The third was the production of a movie, The Bling Ring, written and directed by Sofia Coppola, which bases characters on Neiers, Taylor, and Dunn, and directly, faithfully reenacts long scenes from Pretty Wild.

Pretty Wild makes for some uncomfortable television — the very real strife in its subjects’ lives resists the show’s genre, that of staged “reality” TV, a form that is typically placid, awkward, and artificial. At times the show tries to co-opt its stars’ troubles for its clumsy set-ups: Dunn adopted Taylor when she was young because her mother struggled with drug abuse, and when Taylor is unable to take care of her new puppy, they have an obviously staged family meeting in which Taylor’s inadequate puppy parenting is unfortunately compared to her own abandonment by her mother.

There are also times when the staged scenes spin crazily out of control, as the family’s problems assert themselves unexpectedly. In the series’ last episode, the producers broach Neiers’ addiction lamely, with scenes of Dunn finding a bottle of Xanax and a sleepy looking Neiers walking around holding a blanket. Dunn says that Neiers has been acting strangely “for the past two days”; she must have been aware of Neiers’ substance abuse before then, since by Neiers’ later account, when the show wasn’t filming she was “living at a Best Western on Franklin and Vine” because of her drug habit.

During the episode, Taylor, Dunn, and Neiers’ younger sister Gabby decide to have what they call “a little intervention.” This was probably meant by producers to come to a happy resolution, with Alexis agreeing to seek help, or to produce some sterile, amusing reality TV “drama.” But the intervention escalates scarily and unexpectedly — especially if we are meant to believe that Neiers had only been mildly abusing Xanax for two days. Shortly after their “supportive” opening comments, the family starts yelling at Neiers, following her as she runs through the house and yelling “You are a drug addict!” and “You are crazy!” “Everyone saw Anna Nicole like this too,” Dunn says to her, “And look at her now.”  That remark hits so close to the reality of Neiers’ drug problem that it seems unlikely it was in the script.

This slippage between the real and the fake is disorienting and sad. One can imagine that the family might find comfort in the ordered, artificial “reality” that the show laid over their lives — that it might have helped them to have some distance from their pain. Their enthusiastic participation in this heightened, simplified performance of their lives could explain why the most real moments on the show feel the most false. When the police come to the house to arrest Neiers for her involvement in the Bling Ring, Gabby appears at the top of the stairs and yells theatrically, “What is going on?” Her performance is so phony that one starts to believe that the cameras may have missed the actual moment of the arrest, and the show’s producers have had to reenact it. But then the police officer at the door says, “Shut off the cameras,” and the picture goes dark. So the scene couldn’t have been staged. Could it?

The immortal moment in Pretty Wild occurs after Neiers has agreed to be interviewed by Vanity Fair reporter Nancy Jo Sales, who has promised to “tell [her] story.” Neiers is devastated by “lies” Sales writes about her, including that she wore six-inch Christian Louboutin heels to court, when in fact she was wearing “four-inch little brown Bebe shoes.” Neiers is shown in hysterics, recording voicemail after tearful voicemail for Sales.

On the show we see a portion of their interview, and it is so chummy that Sales’ ultimate betrayal does feel a little unseemly. “We are so wholesome and down-to-earth,” Neiers says, lounging with Sales on a bed. When Neiers breaks down, talking about the “very rocky, tough, tough times” in her life, Sales gives her a hug. This is just the predicament of the journalist that Janet Malcolm talks about in her classic book The Journalist and the Murderer. Malcolm describes the journalist as “a kind of confidence man, preying on people’s vanity, ignorance, or loneliness, gaining their trust and betraying them without remorse.” The journalist promises to tell the subject’s story, when that is never their intention — Sales was loyal to her own story, not Neiers’. Sales’ article also mentions Neiers’ use of oxycodone, which is a more logical reason for her meltdown than Sales getting her shoes wrong. This fact is not mentioned on the show, which is, of course, not telling the whole story either.

Coppola based The Bling Ring on Sales’ article, and the film follows it very closely, with its dialogue often pulled directly from the article. The most outrageous borrowed lines in the movie come from the character based on Neiers, played by Emma Watson. “I’m a firm believer in karma,” Watson simpers, “and I think this situation was attracted into my life because it was supposed to be a huge learning lesson for me to grow and expand as a spiritual human being.” Watson’s contempt for her own character is obvious. “I want to lead a huge charity organization,” she says with sticky insincerity. “I want to lead a country for all I know.”

Coppola gave actual words spoken by Neiers to a classy British actress to say in an over-the-top valley girl accent, so that the fakeness of the delivery heightens the reality and ridiculousness of the lines, making the obvious point of the film even more obvious: these kids are shitheads. The film also restages scenes from Pretty Wild, as when Dunn is giving the girls a home schooling lesson on “character development,” and asks them what characteristics they admire about Angelina Jolie. “Her husband?” Taylor says.

But as closely as the film recreated things Neiers really said, Watson’s portrayal of her is different than Neiers’ character on Pretty Wild. On the show, Neiers is babyish, shallow, and mannered — she comes downstairs the day after she’s arrested wearing a pair of pink short shorts with “POLE HOTTIE” printed on the seat — but she is not the cold, robotic, empty-headed beauty queen of the movie. She is at times blindly affectionate towards her sisters, at other times hysterical and desperate — which is understandable when considering the severity of her addiction and the long prison sentence she was facing.

Coppola’s film allows the audience to enjoy the audacity with which the Bling Ring fulfilled their fantasy of owning a piece of celebrity, while it comfortably condemns them as stupid, entitled, and amoral. They almost certainly were these things. But Pretty Wild, despite all of its artificiality, sometimes gets closer to the real story, by acknowledging a truth The Bling Ring doesn’t deal with: shitheads have feelings too.

It is notable throughout Pretty Wild’s nine episodes the number of times that Neiers bursts into a litany of her good attributes. “I’m a great person,” she says, “And people who really know me, who did do their research on me, would know the great things I do for the community, for this universe.” “We are successful, independent, strong women,” she and Taylor tell each other on the beach in Cabo. “My main destiny in life is to be a leader,” Neiers tells Sales during their interview, and later, when she is leaving her a voicemail, she says, sobbing, “I opened up to you so the world could potentially know what a great, amazing, strong, talented, healthy girl I am.”  When a guy she’s on a date with asks about her involvement in the burglaries, she says, “You should at least know that I’m an honest, good, spiritual person.”

Coppola has interpreted this habit basically as a kind of PR damage control, Neiers’ clumsy attempt to shape her public image. But Pretty Wild offers another explanation. The beliefs that Neiers was raised with, essentially the self-help spirituality of The Secret and Ernest Holmes’ Religious Science movement, place a huge emphasis on the power of positive thinking. This compulsive affirmation was the way Neiers learned from a young age that she could control her reality. “If Buddha can sit under a tree for forty days, I can do this,” Neiers says after she is sentenced to six months in jail. “I can do this.”

Alexis, her sisters, and her mom are a close, indulgent family, saying, “I’m so proud of you” at the smallest signs of progress. Their cheery approach to their problems is ultimately what makes Pretty Wild so sad. Dunn talks about how she wasn’t raised with any boundaries, so she hasn’t been able to set them with her children — she walks in on Taylor in the shower and says, “Nobody has breasts like you do.” Then she enlists Gabby to help with an impromptu nude photo shoot; “You are so gorgeous,” she says while instructing Taylor to soap up her breasts. At one point, Dunn tearfully apologizes for not being a good role model and not setting rules for the girls. “Yeah, we’ve been crazy and wild,” Neiers says, “But we love each other.” This is obviously true, but it couldn’t prevent Neiers’ jail time, it couldn’t prevent her heroin addiction.

The proof of the sincere intentions behind Neiers’ words on Pretty Wild is how much she still sounds like this now — now that she is sober, an adult, a wife, and a mother. Her message is still similar to the one Watson repeated in The Bling Ring, that her hardships were all for the best. “I believe that, in some weird way, this whole thing with the Bling Ring, this whole reality show, is going to give me an opportunity to help people,” she said recently in an interview. It seems like the spiritualism she was raised with has dovetailed in some ways with the rhetoric of addiction and recovery. But recovery places an emphasis on honesty, stripping away the layers of deception that build up in an addiction — and this honesty is also a pose, just like the positivity of her childhood. Like all systems of self-improvement, it’s a way to fake it until you make it.

Even today, Neiers denies any involvement with the Bling Ring burglaries. Despite the fact that other members of the group have talked about her involvement, and she is shown on a surveillance video leaving Orlando Bloom’s mansion, and items stolen from celebrities were found at her house, she insists that she sat in a parked car outside Bloom’s house, “totally loaded,” while the others committed the burglary, and she “never stepped foot in that house.” “I gladly share my deepest and darkest secrets to the world in the hopes of helping others with my story,” she said. “Why wouldn’t I admit to stealing to support my drug habit?” But as we have seen, there are so many motives, so many complications — the reality of Neiers’ story doesn’t have to be the real story.

Alice Bolin is the senior contributor to This Recording. She is a writer living in Missoula. She last wrote in these pages about Cleo from 5 to 7. You can find an archive of her writing on This Recording here. You can find her twitter here and her tumblr here.

"Roadside" - Whitley (mp3)

"My Heart Is Not A Machine" - Whitley (mp3)

Friday
Jun212013

In Which It Is Even Written On Her Face

Everything Turns Black

by ALICE BOLIN

I have, as I write this, an earache and pain in the left side of my neck, symptoms of a sinus infection that was impervious to Amoxicillin. Periods of mild terror have accompanied this sickness, as they have most other physical discomfort I’ve experienced in the last year or so. Something I read or heard once about cancer or meningitis or parasites, about women knowing their bodies, knowing when something is wrong, will couple with any slight symptom in a wave of obsessive thoughts that locks up my stomach and convulses my legs and makes my heart beat in my teeth. The fear of illness has physical symptoms. I know that worrying isn’t helping anything.

And it’s not even a complicated problem. It’s easy to reason out the origins of my recent hypochondria. This nebulous time of my life would explain it — that I’m not sure where I’ll live or what I’ll be doing in a few months, and it’s hard to picture myself moving beyond my current confusion. This sort of anxiety can’t be simply analyzed away — because it is, taken broadly, valid. How do I talk myself out of a fear of what might only be forestalled, but not avoided? Here is dread at its most basic, and most founded: the day will come when I no longer control my body. It controls me.

Still these tricks I play on myself, the counterfeiting of signs and certainty, are not valid. The border between confronting life’s hardest truth and indulging in the most juvenile self-deception is the hypochondriac’s domain. As Antoine, the young soldier of Agnès Varda’s film Cléo from 5 to 7, says to the title character, "Every great feeling is full of little vanities, also the great spirit of silliness."

Death omens disguising themselves as license-plate numbers and offhand remarks are preferable to an unknowable future, promising loss stranger and more painful than I am imagining. Cléo from 5 to 7 is one of the greatest investigations of hypochondria as a modern ailment and fear as a kind of decadence. Cléo meets Antoine in a park after she has spent the day in mental agony, waiting for test results that will tell her whether her stomach illness is something serious. Antoine comments that it is the first day of summer: "It’s the longest day of the year," he says. "Today the sun leaves Gemini for Cancer." "Shut your mouth," Cléo says.

Cléo, a pop star who is remarkable for her vanity and childishness, does what she can to ransom some knowledge of the future from the present — content to exchange good fortune for certainty, she sees calamity at every turn. The first scene of the film shows Cléo visiting a psychic for a tarot reading, one which presages “evil forces,” illness, and even death. “The cards said I was sick,” Cléo sobs to her assistant after the reading. “Is it written on my face?”

Her question is central — what can be known from what can be seen? Just as we attempt to divine the future from the present, we want to read the internal in the external. Cléo regards herself in mirrors constantly, and we often hear her thoughts in voiceover as she does. “Ugliness is a kind of death,” she thinks. “As long as I’m beautiful, I’m alive.” Her life is distinguished by that most modern activity: to look, to watch. As a pop singer she participates in creating the cultural spectacle, and she either sees or imagines people leering at her everywhere she goes. On the streets of Paris large crowds surround a man swallowing frogs and another piercing his arm with a long piece of wire, the coarsest embodiments of what it is to be public, what it is to be on display.

Cléo from 5 to 7 is not a meta-film, concerned with filmmaking and theory, but in its exploration of spectatorship and consumerism, Varda's film does seem aware of itself as a product. At one point Cléo and her friend Dorothée go to a movie theatre where they watch a silent short featuring French New Wave superstars Jean-Luc Godard, Anna Karina, Eddie Constantine, and Jean-Claude Brialy. Godard plays a man who watches his lover, played by Karina, walk down a flight of stairs and trip on a hose. Godard puts on his signature dark glasses and everything turns black — including Karina’s dress and her complexion. It seems Karina has died in the fall, and a sooty workman, played by Constantine, sprays her corpse with the hose. An undertaker appears in a hearse to remove her body. Godard is inconsolable, but as he removes his sunglasses to wipe his tears, he sees the scene take place another way. After Karina trips, a doctor in an ambulance appears, rather than the undertaker in the hearse. As if she were looking in a mirror, Cléo sees her own problems reflected on the screen. Cléo from 5 to 7 shows the act of watching as directing the self inward, rather than outward. Like hypochondria, it allows for the illusion that everything is about you.

The filmmakers of the French New Wave knew that the great unfulfilled promise of spectatorship is escape, and dread lingers on the periphery of every happy distraction. In one scene, Cléo tries on hats, blissfully taking in her face in many mirrors, thinking, “Everything suits me. Trying things on intoxicates me.” Then the camera moves outside, and the cars and passersby on the street are reflected in the window of the hat shop. This is an intrusion: traffic sounds drown out the scene’s romantic music as the real world is superimposed on Cléo’s fantasy world.

Afterward, in a taxi with her assistant, Cléo listens to news dispatches on the radio. She can only hear herself in one item, a story about the singer Edith Piaf recovering from an operation. The rest tell of farmers’ unrest and military tribunals, and they are unwelcome reminders that most of the world does not concern her, and larger troubles than hers exist. Other envoys of the outside world disturb Cléo during the ride — large African sculptures in a window display, a group of art students who descend on their cab wearing masks. These are hints of the specter haunting the film, the true source of dread, the greatest proof in France in 1962 that the world is neither good nor predictable — the Algerian War.

Cléo from 5 to 7 was released in April 1962, a month after a ceasefire was declared between French troops in Algeria and the National Liberation Front (FLN) insurgents, and just two months before Algeria was declared independent. The Algerian War exemplified particular type of modern war: one waged against communist or Muslim insurgencies; one which resists the word “war” (in Algeria, the term of choice was “pacification”); one marked by the use of terrorism and torture; one in which victory is impossible, and anyway, beside the point. (The history class I dropped in my junior year of college on twentieth-century Algeria would probably have been relevant here; I was so depressed then that all I could do was read fashion magazines, and that might also be relevant.) That this kind of warfare gnaws at the liberal western conscience and undermines the security wealthy countries believe they have earned is something any American living in 2012 knows.

For France, this was not merely a far-flung colonial conflict. Cléo’s Paris was shaken by ancillary violence, including the Paris Massacre of 1961 where perhaps hundreds of pro-FLN Algerians were killed by law enforcement. Acts of terrorism known as the Café Wars claimed civilian lives in Paris throughout the war. But the terrorist, like the filmmaker, acts with knowledge of the spectacle, and where apparent comfort still exists, fear is often sublimated to fascination. Cléo listens to news of Algeria on the radio with the partial attention that she listens to her own songs. A crowd surrounds a window shattered by a bullet hole as if it were a man swallowing frogs.

Cléo from 5 to 7 is a covertly political film, and in this way, it is didactic. The viewer is meant to uncomfortably identify with Cléo; she is a sympathetic figure, but not an attractive one. Signs of cruelty and devastation surround her, but her terror manifests itself as self-absorption. Only when Cléo can truly accept the scale of horror and destruction is she able to free herself from some anxiety. Antoine is on leave from Algeria, a visitor from the heart of danger. "I'm afraid of everything," Cléo tells him. "Birds, storms, elevators, needles, and now this great fear of death." "In Algeria, you’d be afraid all the time,” Antoine says.

He has to return to Algeria that night, and he agrees to go to the hospital with her to get the results of her test if she will see him off at the train station. On the hospital grounds, Cléo is overcome by the smallness of her problems. "We've got so little time,” she says. "It's silly to go looking for the doctor. It doesn’t matter. I can phone him later." Her doctor then speeds up in his convertible and tells her blithely that her illness is not serious. "My fear seems to have gone," Cléo says. "I seem to be happy." It is unclear whether she is released from her despair by the diagnosis, or by a realization that the diagnosis is ultimately insignificant.

The entire film depicts Cléo’s journey to find peace in the universe’s indifference. She realizes halfway through the film that everyone is as self-interested as she is, that her feeling of specialness is an illusion. “I thought everyone looked at me,” she thinks to her reflection in the mirror. "I only look at myself." Just as Dorothée explains about her job as a nude model for a sculpture class: "They’re looking at more than just me. A shape, an idea… it’s as if I weren’t there."

Cléo is amazed by her friend’s job. "You don't mind posing,” she says to Dorothée. "I’d feel so exposed, afraid people would find a fault." Dorothée replies, “My body makes me happy, not proud." There is some freedom in the body’s impermanence — but I still haven’t found a way to stop grieving it. It would be noble to let go of worrying about my body’s ultimate decline, but there is the illusion of nobility in tormenting myself with the inevitability of death. It reminds me of a line from John Ashbery, that "the agony is permanent,/rather than eternal" — though that is what I have referred to before as a “feelings distinction,” rather than a logical one.  

In the most amazing scene of Cléo from 5 to 7, Cléo is practicing new songs with her songwriters. One song, a ballad called “Cri d’Amour” ascends from a simple rehearsal to a full musical number, complete with an accompanying orchestra. Cléo’s performance is affecting — tears stream down her face as she sings of a lost love. The lyrics emphasize how the sorrow has manifested itself physically: “With beauty unseen, exposed to cruel winter,” she sings. “I’m an empty house without you.” After the performance, her songwriters congratulate themselves. “This song will revolutionize the music business,” they say. “What’s a song?” says a sobbing Cléo. “How long can it last?”

Alice Bolin is the senior contributor to This Recording. She is a writer living in Missoula. She tumbls here and twitters here. You can find an archive of her writing on This Recording here.

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