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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 alice bolin (24)

Thursday
Jun282012

In Which We Take A Shine To The Surviving Horse

photo by Ursula Coyote

No Comment, Cowboy

by ALICE BOLIN

In the first episode of A&E’s new series Longmire, the show’s cowboy detective Walt Longmire asks his sidekick, Victoria “Vic” Moretti, “You know what they call a flock of ravens?” She confesses she does not. “An unkindness,” he says. “And what the hell is wrong with ‘flock?’” she says. “Unkindness is just a little more apropos,” Longmire says, and a second later they discover a frozen corpse in the snow-covered sheep field they were walking through.

The combination of the ham-fisted and the self-satisfied is inherently funny. I know this can’t just be my problem.

When something is utterly derivative, it is easiest to attribute this to creative exhaustion. But when something is well made, as Longmire is, and utterly derivative, the question of intention becomes murkier. The “why” of parody is defined: humor, commentary. The “why” of pastiche is harder to pin down. When something is as replete with clichés as Longmire is, and as totally serious, and as lacking any hint of the meta, maybe then the conventions of the purposely unoriginal do not apply? Maybe then it’s just stupid?

Longmire is woven from clichés on both large and small scales. In true detective-show form, Longmire is tormented by the tragic death of his wife and has a loving but complicated relationship with his daughter. He is also a Sherlock Holmes-style polymath who reads widely, speaks German, and has a magical ability to tell whether a gun has been fired. He gives his rival Branch Connally The Hound of the Baskervilles so that he might pick up a few pointers.

Branch is also a familiar figure, the young upstart deputy who is challenging Longmire for sheriff but whose skills and priorities — glad handing and outfitting that the sheriff’s department with current technology — are trifling compared to Longmire’s intelligence, toughness, and perfect drive to protect the citizens of the fictional Absaroka County, Wyoming. Vic, Longmire’s wisecracking girl Friday, is the show’s resident city mouse: she spent five years working homicide in Philadelphia and then became one of three deputies in a tiny sheriff’s department in the wilds of Wyoming, inexplicably. During a shoot-out at a ranch, Vic suggests that in Philadelphia they would have called in a SWAT team, and Longmire laughs in her face.

Beyond detective-genre tropes, the creators of Longmire are also obviously indulging in the cowboy archetype: Longmire is stoic, laconic, independent, idiosyncratic, and brave. He’s obsessed with not having a cell phone. “No comment” is described as “the Longmire yes.” He arrives at the scene of a barn burning and barges inside to look for the body of the barn’s owner. “At least wear my hat,” a firefighter calls after him. “No thanks,” Longmire says, and gestures at his cowboy hat. “I’ve got one.”

And with Longmire’s best friend and informant on all things Native, Henry Standing Bear, there is an inescapable a Lone Ranger and Tonto vibe. Henry is a likeable character, though it is easy to bristle at his ostensible Indian wisdom. When Longmire is going to meet with one of the operators of a prostitution ring, Henry warns that it sounds like a set up. He suggests what he calls an O.I.T., an old Indian trick, which is essentially to go to the meeting place early. “Surprise is a powerful weapon,” Longmire later explains. When Longmire tells Henry about a Mennonite father who was impassive at the news of his daughter’s death, Henry says smugly, “Every culture processes grief in its own way.”

Longmire also resembles The Lone Ranger’s campier descendent, Walker, Texas Ranger. Though there is a mystery solved in each episode, Longmire definitely favors action to suspense, and, like in Walker, its middle-aged protagonist sees his share of combat. Longmire wrestles for long minutes with a fraudulent federal marshal and eventually incapacitates him. He ends the first episode running and ducking from a sniper, timing his movements by how long it will take the gunman to reload. When he goes to the nearby Cheyenne Indian Reservation to look for a missing girl, he is met at the border by the Tribal Police, who surround him and beat him.

It seems Longmire made enemies of the Tribal Police when he busted them for running an extortion racket. This larger cowboys versus Indians trope, particularly with the portrayal of the reservation as an anarchic nether-zone and the tribal police as corrupt and incompetent, is intro-to-cultural-studies “problematic.” But it’s part of what makes Longmire so resolutely western, and its setting is, in some ways, the show’s strength. The pilot, especially, was astoundingly beautiful, with wide shots of sprawling ranchland building into snowy mountains.  At one point a herd of antelope arc across a field, in a visual echo of “Home on the Range.”

Absaroka is in a lonesome corner of Wyoming — “That’s practically Montana,” someone says of it — and its rural police force is low on resources and high on vigilante ethic. Longmire actively hates and avoids involvement from the feds, scoffs at computers and cell phones, and, conveniently for the show, has to do most of the work on every case by himself. And the purported lawlessness of the mountain west might help to explain why such bucolic surroundings experience so many homicides: “This is Wyoming,” a character explains. “Everyone hears gunshots.”

And this isolation means that Longmire interacts with cultural enclaves that exist sheltered by the mountains — we might think of the Indian reservation this way. In the show’s second episode Longmire encounters a group of Mennonite kids who are on their rumspringa, the time in late adolescence when they live apart from their families before deciding whether whey want to stay on the Mennonite colony for good. He visits the colony and its inhabitants are wearing full Amish garb, riding in horse-drawn carriages, and speaking Pennsylvania Dutch. The Mennonite girl who was murdered is a stripper in a nearby town, one that has experienced an economic surge thanks to the discovery of oil nearby. The tension stemming from an energy boom on the once-empty range is refreshingly real — this is an issue that people living in this region are actually dealing with, rather than an exaggeration or a product of cultural myth, John Wayne’s western fantasia.

Life in big sky country isn’t as remote as Longmire would have you believe, but in the show’s sweeping views of field, mountain, forest, and sky, there is the sense that true wilderness is startlingly close. Maybe that’s why the lives of the animal citizens of Absaroka County are protected just as strenuously by its police force as its human ones—in the pilot, Vic is sent out to investigate the shooting of a sheep before they come upon the man who was murdered. In the barn fire, two champion show horses are killed and a third is badly injured. Longmire’s father was a farrier, and he takes a shine to the surviving horse — he pays for the horse’s veterinary bills, visits it at the vet’s office and keeps it company. 

When it seems like the horse is going to die, Longmire talks to it, and tells it that it doesn’t have to prove how tough it is. “It’s okay to go,” he tells it. This moment is quiet, well acted, and genuinely moving — as are Longmire’s love for his daughter and his grief for his wife. And in this way, Longmire succeeds. It may not be subtle or original, but there is something real working beneath its surface. Like its protagonist, Longmire is plodding, but it’s got some heart.

Alice Bolin is the senior contributor to This Recording, a polymath and the finest horse trainer of her time. 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.

"Just a Silhouette" - Exlovers (mp3)

"Emily" - Exlovers (mp3)

The new album from Exlovers is entitled Moth.


Tuesday
Jun052012

In Which We Cite The Original For A Change

But I’m a Cheerleader

by ALICE BOLIN

Buffy the Vampire Slayer
dir. Fran Rubel Kuzui
86 minutes

As far as high school movies go, as far as the line between the comic and the uncanny, for what it’s worth, the original, early-nineties Buffy the Vampire Slayer takes a turn for the weird almost immediately. In the first scene, high school queen bee Buffy, played by Kristy Swanson, and her fellow cheerleaders perform a dance routine at a basketball game. The film’s first lines of dialogue come from the school’s basketball coach, giving his players a pep talk. “Repeat after me,” he says. “I am a person. I have a right to the ball.” His self-help-y rhetoric continues in the other game shown in the movie. “You’re in,” he tells a player. “Now remember: you’re special. Assert your personhood! Actualize!” “Score some uh… points!” he calls from the sidelines.

The basketball coach isn’t an important character; he has no bearing on the plot, and he doesn’t even interact with any of the film’s major characters. He is only part of the absurdity that the film’s horror elements afford it. There are many features of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, in addition to its goth-punk vampires, that feel almost imaginary, a step beyond the real. Take Buffy’s supremely self-absorbed parents. “Kiss noise!” her mother calls as she and Buffy’s father take off for the weekend. When Buffy comes home dirty and bruised from fighting vampires in the graveyard, her mother meets her at the door, looking stern. “Do you know what time it is?” she asks. “A little after ten?” Buffy says. Her mother looks at her watch. “I knew this thing was slow. You pay a fortune for something!”

There’s also Buffy’s school principal, played by Stephen Root, who, believing Buffy is on drugs after her attendance slips once she begins fighting vampires, tells her a long story about taking acid at a Doobie Brothers concert and thinking he had turned into a giant toaster. Even the school’s mascot — The Hogs — feels a little not-quite-right. This heightened reality is one of the things that make Buffy the Vampire Slayer so enjoyable and special; it is also a reason it is surprising that the film hasn’t received more cult acclaim. What, after all, do cult audiences desire more than camp?

The immense success of the Buffy TV series has not been good for the film’s reputation, and Buffy’s creator, Joss Whedon, who wrote the film, has distanced himself from it, saying that his vision for it was darker and less comedic. “It didn’t turn out to be the movie that I had written,” Whedon said. “They never do, but that was my first lesson in that.” He walked off the film because he couldn’t stand the presence of Donald Sutherland, who played Buffy’s guardian “watcher” Merrick, and who, according to Whedon, was “a prick” with “a very bad attitude.” So his devoted fans have exiled the Buffy movie from the Whedon canon. This is really too bad.

It is true that the film is strange and uneven, with a plot that might not make complete sense even after many viewings. Los Angeles experiences a rash of vampire attacks, so superficial valley girl Buffy is sought by the watcher, Merrick, as the latest in the long line of slayers fighting the vampire kingpin, Lothos (Rutger Hauer). Midway through the film, when Lothos kills Merrick as Merrick is trying to protect Buffy, Merrick tells her to listen for when the music stops; then, he echoes Hamlet, the rest is silence. This cryptic wisdom about the music and silence somehow helps Buffy to defeat Lothos in their final conflict at her high school’s senior dance, in ways that aren’t totally clear. But the film is also hilarious and delightful, and an artifact of a kind of feminism unique to its time, one we might think of as genuine “girl power,” less cynical than The Spice Girls’ packaged independent-women schtick.

In fact, this feminism is the guiding ethic of the film: any man who displays sexist attitudes is swiftly and often gruesomely punished. At times it is up to the universe to avenge misogyny. Buffy’s ultimate love interest and partner in vampire elimination is the grungy mechanic Pike, played by Luke Perry. When they first meet, though, Buffy and her friends clash with Pike and his friend Benny, played by David Arquette, at hangout spot Café Blasé. Afterwards Pike and Benny wander drunk at the top of some cliffs, and Benny complains about Buffy and her friends. “Those rich bitches are a plague,” Benny says. “Like they’re not even human.” “But would you bone ‘em?” Pike asks. Benny says emphatically that he would, especially Buffy. “You’re disgusting,” says the noble Pike. “You don’t even like her, and you’d sleep with her.” Immediately after, Pike passes out on the street and is rescued by Merrick, and a vampire flies up behind Benny and bites him on the neck.

More often, though, this justice is meted out by Buffy herself. At the café, Benny taunts Buffy with a hot dog held to his crotch, which she spears in two with a butter knife. Lothos’ clownish right-hand-man, played by Paul Reubens, says, “Admit it, Buffy. Aren’t there times when you feel less than fresh?” shortly before she drives a stake into his heart. Some bikers catcall her on the street, asking if she wants “some real power between her legs.” “Yeah I do,” Buffy replies, throwing one of them to the ground and riding off on his bike. “Dyke!” they call after her. “You’re a dyke!”

We have in Buffy’s avenging spirit a depiction of girlhood that is smart, sympathetic, and legitimately empowering. Buffy was one in a string of young female characters in the early nineties who were naïve and superficial but also goodhearted and confident — this rehabilitation of the valley girl included Parker Posey’s downtown club kid-turned-librarian in Party Girl and culminated with benevolent Beverly Hills socialite Cher Horowitz in Clueless. (We may remember that Cher was saving herself for Luke Perry.) In these movies, the main characters may become more responsible and less self-involved, but they don’t lose their admirable qualities — those qualities are actually what enable their transformation.

Even more refreshingly, these characters are not punished for not knowing everything, nor for being beautiful or interested in fashion, parties, or other traditionally frivolous things. This is a version of female empowerment that is not, thank you God, just a repudiation of the feminine — though Buffy becomes more hardcore, she ultimately defeats Lothos wearing a ruffly white dress.

Relatedly, importantly, Buffy is a testament to teenage-girl aggression. Buffy’s dual identities as cheerleader/prom queen/mall rat and anti-vampire warrior are not really that incongruous — Swanson looks like the beautiful but terrifying volleyball players who rule every high school. The film has a training montage, of course, with Buffy doing gymnastics and karate kicks and using a punching bag, but we are also to understand that Buffy’s slayer-ness was inborn; she has always been “the chosen one,” and her character is fierce and snotty from the outset. When she first meets Merrick, she is understandably suspicious of him. “All right, let’s get this straight,” she says. “You want me to go to the graveyard with you because I’m the chosen one and there are vampires? Does Elvis talk to you? Does he tell you to do things?” Later she complains that Merrick doesn’t do enough to help her fight the vampires. “I play my part,” Merrick says. “You can play with your part all you want, but it’s my neck on the block,” she replies.

In fact, it is Buffy’s snottiness, her defiance, that leads to her success. “None of the other girls ever gave me this much trouble,” Merrick says when Buffy insists on cheerleading at a basketball game. “And where are they now? Hello,” Buffy says. As Merrick is dying, he commends her for making trouble. “You do everything wrong,” he tells her. “Do it wrong. Don’t play our game.” Buffy says at one point that it is her “keen fashion sense” that sets her apart from the other slayers, and while this does eventually help her with Lothos — she holds a burning cross to his face and then sprays it with hairspray — it really is her sense of self that distinguishes her. Lothos attempts to use a supernatural charisma to overpower her, but Buffy refuses to be seduced by his narratives: “You and I are joined,” Lothos says, and “You are my destiny.” “You and I are one,” he tells Buffy. “One what?” she says. “Cute couple? I don’t think so!”

If in Buffy the Vampire Slayer we have an innovative depiction of feminine strength, we have an equally liberating take on masculinity. At the scene of Buffy’s first confrontation with Lothos, Pike shows up unexpectedly, ready to slay some vampires. “What are you doing here?” she asks him. “I’m saving your butt,” he says. She looks at him skeptically, and he backpedals. “Well, it was more like an exchange of butts.” The dynamics of protection in their relationship are based on exchange. Buffy is certainly no damsel in distress — in the last scene, she prepares to leave the dance to fight Lothos’ hoards. “I’m not going to let you go out there by yourself,” Pike says. “Don’t piss me off,” Buffy says, then she kisses him and goes by herself into the night. But it isn’t a pure role reversal either, with Buffy constantly saving Pike from peril. Their relationship is a real partnership, where neither is resentful of the other’s strength.

Here we have an illustration of what pages of feminist theory will tell you: that subverting the patriarchal order makes both men and women better. “You know what it’s like when everything’s suddenly different?” Buffy asks Pike after their first joint skirmish with the vampires. “You find yourself babbling incoherently to a strange man in your living room.” “Are you calling me a man?” Pike asks. Pike is more grown up, more manly, because he values Buffy for her power and lets her exercise it. It’s pretty beautiful.

Before the vampires descend on the dance, Pike says, “Buffy, you’re not like other girls.” Buffy shakes her head. “Yes I am,” she says. The equality present in Buffy the Vampire Slayer isn’t a result of its heroine’s remarkable strength — it’s a result of male and female characters who are allowed both strength and weakness, who can rely on one another, who don’t always have to be remarkable. There is an amazing moment at the very end of the film, after Buffy and Pike have defeated Lothos. In the midst of the destruction the vampires have wrought in the school gym, Pike tells Buffy he’s saved her a dance. “I suppose you’ll want to lead?” he asks her. “No,” she says. “Me neither,” he says.

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

"Dear Believe" - Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros (mp3)

"All Wash Out" - Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros (mp3)

The second album from Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros, entitled Here, was released on May 29th.

Monday
Apr302012

In Which We Become A Mystery To Ourselves

I Sometimes Really Feel That Way

by ALICE BOLIN

My first day teaching creative writing to middle schoolers, I walked into the room where my class would meet, normally a health classroom, and found a large piece of butcher paper taped to the blackboard. Written in teacher handwriting across the top of the paper was the question “WHAT IS UNINTENTIONAL INJURIES.” I was on my laptop, trying frantically to record all the examples of unintentional injuries that had resulted from the health class’ brainstorm (“to accidently drop a baby,” “committing suicide on accident,” “accidentl death”), when my group of eighth graders started trickling into the classroom.

There I was, strange adult, rapt by the results of a seventh grade health class activity and clearly taken off guard by their appearance in my classroom. The eighth graders didn’t laugh at me, didn’t even smile, only stared at me skeptically. I scrambled to put my computer back in my bag and stand at the front of the room like some sort of authority, but the damage was done — it is a particular kind of indignity to be regarded as freakish by a group of nerdy pre-teens, one of whom is actually named Anakin.

There was just no way to explain to them what I was doing. “Look at this thing,” I said, pointing to the butcher paper. “Isn’t it funny?” They only eyed me more dubiously. In my first act as their teacher, I had inadvertently revealed my strongest personal compulsion, which is to hoard verbal matter, overheard conversation, stray remarks, stray thoughts, notes, lists, e-mails, gchats, text messages, diaries, notebooks, any and every piece of paper on which something mysterious or funny is written.

For instance: I have in my pocket at this moment a note I don’t remember writing to myself that I found recently on my floor. It reads, “Landscape quote: O pardon me thou bleeding piece of Earth.” (Googling reveals this is from Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar.) Also in my pocket is a note card where it says in my graduate thesis advisor’s handwriting, “Question / Is there a historical reason for the great number of rear/alley entrances/exits in Missoula bars?” Also: a stranger’s to-do list I found tucked in a book I ordered online; its only noteworthy item is “Return Cal’s pants!”

Why I keep these things, why I needed to document “What Is Unintentional Injuries,” why I write down any interesting group of words that I hear or see, even just phrases that materialize in my brain suddenly but insistently — it is impossible to account for this practice completely, even to myself. As Joan Didion writes in her essay “On Keeping a Notebook,” “The impulse to write things down is a peculiarly compulsive one, inexplicable to those who do not share it, useful only accidentally, only secondarily, in the way that any compulsion tries to justify itself.”

The easy justification, the one Didion is referring to, is that these random words might some day make it into a piece of writing, and of course they might. But I can tell you this happens for me remarkably rarely: the sentences I treasure most as found artifacts do not transform gracefully to components of writing, either poetry or prose, that could be judged as traditionally “good.” For over a year I kept a file on my computer where I recorded my most emphatic thoughts, in an attempt to identify my mental refrains. I believed this file might become a useful reserve of poetic lines; instead it only serves to illustrate my incredibly vulnerable self-talk.

“Why do I keep forcing myself to think about this?” reads one item in the list. Another reads, “I have to not think about it.” “We have all learned to ignore it” and “It’s no one’s fault,” read others. There are pleas: “Don’t get some other girl.” “Don’t bring your girlfriend.” “Don’t kiss where I can see you.” And confessions: “I’m fairly obsessed with you.” “Sorry I’m so obsessed with you today.” But most of all there are just so, so, so many feelings: “I sometimes really feel that way.” “I am a happy person always.” “I’m always sad, but it’s okay.” “Am I sad or happy?” “I am sad or happy.” “I have no feelings.” “I’m a thing, I’m a feeling.” “I’m a thing.”

Didion also mostly records cryptic phrases, but she relates the strange items that she writes in her notebook as guideposts to memories, the one detail needed to evoke an entire place, time, and mood. The phrase “So what’s new in the whiskey business” written in Didion’s notebook calls to her mind a blonde woman conversing with two fat men by the swimming pool of the Beverly Hills Hotel — an intact context exists in her memory. “'So what’s new in the whiskey business?'” Didion writes. “What could that possibly mean to you?” But for me it is exactly the lost significance, the sentiment that is not meaningless but only unmoored from its origins, that appeals to me about this kind of collecting.

I suppose this can’t be separated from my relationship to poetry: that I love the way that poetry makes words strange and frees everyday speech from its everyday uses. Any carefully written thing can be loved for the beauty and ingenuity of its language, but it is poetry’s main selling point that we may enjoy it at the level of the poem, the stanza, the sentence, the line, the word, the syllable. And much of contemporary poetry is explicitly about divorcing words from their contexts, evoking emotion without a discernible story. So while the sentences I write down rarely become poetry, I have noticed that it is often other people who love poetry who I see also grabbing their notebooks after hearing a startling turn of phrase.

And it is often these same poetry lovers who produce fodder for notebooks: my experience in grad school for poetry was remarkable for the incredible sentences I heard and read delivered offhand. I have recorded in old class notes countless statements like, “Pennies are probably our most happy coins,” “‘I don't want to think about that’ is what my sisters say,” and “Debra says squirrels smell like mice with rotten teeth.” My colleagues annotated my work with comments like “Sexy connotations!” and “I read your movements as ‘begat, begat, begat’ and also ‘subsumes, subsumes.’” Taken in context, none of these remarks are as odd as they seem written here; that’s why it’s so important for me to remove the context, so I can delight in them.

My collecting is not only about enjoying language in its mystery but also becoming a mystery to myself. I often write things on my cell phone’s Notepad feature late at night, when I am half-asleep or drunk, that I puzzle over in the morning.  There are two identical entries that say, “Rom com: woman lives in vegas and is a court reporter.” Another: “Hersheys kisses mutant chocolate chip something.” One of the things I am most grateful for in life is to find traces of my own former thought processes and feelings that I could not possibly replicate or inhabit again. I read “I’m fairly obsessed with you” written in the file of my thoughts and I have no idea whom I was addressing.

“We forget all too soon the things we thought we could never forget,” Didion writes. “We forget the loves and the betrayals alike, forget what we whispered and what we screamed, forget who we were.” She ignores that to forget can be a supreme grace.  I treasure all of the diaries I kept when I was a child precisely because of the distance I feel from the girl who wrote them. Seventh grade Alice: “It’s totally cool because it’s like we’ve moved on to another level of flirting.” Eighth grade Alice: “You know I’ve been thinking way deep things lately.” First grade Alice: “Dear Alice, I don’t know. Love, Alice.”

I have always been a person who is “sensitive,” and I take too long to get over everything. Reading old journals and notebooks, I am reminded that feelings are, in their essence, immediate, and they pass over us like shadows. All the words I collect are artifacts of sentiments that do not exist and could not even be conceived of again — ideas that once desperately needed to be expressed disappear, leaving husks of language that I save, I care for.

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

Images by Yayoi Kusama.

"Met Your Match" - Brendan Benson (mp3)

"Thru The Ceiling" - Brendan Benson (mp3)

The new album from Brendan Benson, What Kind Of World, was released on April 21st.

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