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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.

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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Tuesday
Apr102012

In Which The Show Concerns A Deceitful Bench

You Can’t Say Th-- on Television

by ALICE BOLIN

Don't Trust the B---- In Apt 23
creator Nahnatchka Khan

Highlights in American history: 1989, the year when Seinfeld freed the situation comedy from the tyranny of the situation. Never forget. No one was about to.

Situation of the new situation comedy Don’t Trust the B---- in Apartment 23: an ambitious MBA grad (Dreama Walker) moves to Manhattan for a job on Wall Street. On her first day of work, the feds shut down her company, and she is forced to find a roommate and a job at a coffee shop. Her roommate (Krysten Ritter) is a con artist who intends to take her money and make her life hell, driving her out of the apartment. Over the course of the pilot, con artist drops her scheme and exposes MBA grad’s boyfriend as a cheating dirtbag. Con artist is also BFF with former Dawson’s Creek actor James Van Der Beek.

Oh, so it’s just about a group of friends who live in New York City?

Yeah, pretty much.

Television is a single gargantuan organism, and with each teen supernatural soap opera, each humiliation-porn game show, each mid-season replacement wacky roommates sitcom, it grows a new appendage. This intertextuality is why there is nothing new on television, and there never will be; why we have to name Murphy Brown as the second coming of Mary Tyler Moore. It is endless entertainment industry samsara, where shows are reincarnated again and again. St. Elsewhere begets ER begets Grey’s Anatomy. I watch Mad Men and I think, I liked this better when it was called Bewitched.

But it’s not only the influences and clichés, it’s the trends. Just think of the weird Hollywood mega-mind that brought forth 30 Rock and Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip at the same time, that produced waves of blended family shows, shows about orphans, shows starring Bob Newhart, that gave Whitney Cummings two shows in one season. And the actors are always a problem. A guy who murdered his wife on one episode of Law and Order plays a defense attorney on another episode and they don’t expect that to cause some mental dissonance? Am I supposed to see Mark-Paul Gosselaar on another show and not think of him as Zack Morris?

Confronting these obstacles to originality, some shows decide to go limp in the face of cliché, to submit to television’s connectedness. This is the tack Don't Trust the B---- in Apartment 23 takes to save itself from mediocrity. June, the MBA grad, says at the beginning of the pilot that she thinks her life in New York will be just like Friends. The show clearly knows its lineage, and throws itself into its situation comedy antics full force. Chloe, the con artist played by Krysten Ritter, is hyperbolically amoral and debaucherous, gargling in the morning with peppermint schnapps (“a whore’s toothbrush”) and hiding contraband Chinese energy tablets in her grandma’s antique ottoman — her hijinks are all the more cartoonish because Ritter looks like a beautiful baby giraffe. There is the sitcom-staple weird neighbor, Eli, who we only ever see through an open window. Wikipedia refers to him as “quirky,” though his schtick is actually “always masturbating.”

Van Der Beek is the most overtly self-conscious part of Don't Trust the B---- in Apartment 23 — he complains on the show that people only ever think of him as Dawson Leery, his role on the classic ‘90s teen soap opera Dawson’s Creek, and won’t give him a chance to play other roles. “I was in an all-white version of Raisin in the Sun!” he says, asserting his acting chops. When he teaches an acting class at NYU, in an attempt both to compete with and emulate James Franco, all he writes on the chalk board is “JAMES VAN DER BEEK!!!” and circles it three times. Van Der Beek has a good sense of humor about himself, as the fictional James Van Der Beek is shown as a frivolous playboy, seducing women by playing the theme song to Dawson’s Creek and wearing Dawson’s trademark flannel.

This is absurd, of course — he couldn’t even lure Dawson’s Creek super fans this way. Van Der Beek’s Dawson’s Creek character was a whiny fifteen-year old wannabe filmmaker with a massive, doughy face who struck out with both bad girl Jen, played by Michelle Williams, and tomboy Joey, played by Katie Holmes. The true heartthrob of the show was Joshua Jackson’s Pacey Witter, who began the series with a storyline about fucking his hot English teacher. Williams’ Academy Award nominations and Holmes’s movie career and high-profile weirdo celebrity marriage would also indicate that there is no Creek curse — it has pretty much only been bad for Van Der Beek. But Dawson was remarkable for his skewed self-perception, always viewing himself as a nice guy who finished last rather than a babyish beta male, so maybe Van Der Beek’s I-was-a-huge-1990s-crush-object schtick on Don't Trust the B---- in Apartment 23 is just following in Dawson Leery’s deluded tradition.

The creators of Don't Trust the B---- in Apartment 23 outsmarted the associative mechanisms of TV by giving into them — if they had cast Van Der Beek as the frivolous playboy friend, the audience would have thought of him as Dawson anyway, so why not build that into his character? The self-awareness is smart — it pulls the show from the realm of shows like Friends and makes it a stranger and more heightened world, more of a farce. But the four dashes standing in for the letters i-t-c-h in the show’s title probably say it all: this show is edgy, like other shows are edgy. They’re still using a formula.

 

There is a myth that self-consciousness is critique. A lot of low culture is marked by the use of formulas— television, pop music, genre fiction. Parody uses the formula to comment on the form; self-consciousness only points out that the formula exists, and continues to use it. When both the creator and the consumer can say, “I know I’m not supposed to like this, but I do,” everyone feels better about themselves. Similarly, any fondness for somewhat stupid cultural relics of the recent past, Dawson’s Creek, for example, is protected by nostalgia. These forms of passive self-awareness are designed to allow me to like Katy Perry or Gossip Girl or Twilight while still thinking of myself as too smart to like those things. Self-consciousness is a guaranteed way to transcend the trash while still participating in it.

It’s a natural impulse to not want to be one of those fans — the ones who post pictures of Krysten Ritter on Tumblr with lines from Sylvia Plath about dying being easy and tag it #Anna Karenina and #Leo Tolstoy. We apply some remove to save ourselves from the embarrassing adolescent earnestness. Don’t Trust the B---- in Apartment 23 is also just applying remove, rather than contributing any innovations to the situation comedy form. But I think of the alternative, the dozens of crappy traditional sitcoms that are still on the air, recycling jokes about in-laws and women wanting to cuddle after sex and airplane food and white guys drive like this, black guys drive like this, and I wish for one second they could acknowledge how stupid they were. Self-consciousness isn’t inherently virtuous, but TV can always use a new gimmick. 

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

"You Don't Make It Easy Babe (live on Vicar Street)" - Josh Ritter (mp3)

"You Don't Make It Easy Babe (acoustic)" - Josh Ritter (mp3)


He is also one of the few writers I have read who incorporates computers and the Internet into his stories with unabashed poise.
Friday
Mar232012

In Which We Sample Nostalgia From 2005

Our Actual Life

by ALICE BOLIN

21 Jump Street
dir. Phil Lord & Chris Miller
109 minutes

Phil Lord and Chris Miller’s remake of 21 Jump Street begins with a large title reading “YEAR 2005,” and Morton Schmidt (Jonah Hill) appears dressed in a style that has not been lampooned enough: peroxide blond Caesar haircut, white t-shirt, preposterous baggy jeans. It earns Schmidt the nickname “Not-So-Slim Shady,” and he is a dead ringer for that kid — every mid-2000s student body had someone who looked exactly like him. Just the sight of him in this get-up makes for its own comedic beat, but the humor catches us off guard — how could a look that was so ubiquitous to high school campuses and 7-11s seven years ago be so absurd now, such an easy laugh? Was 2005 really that long ago?

The point of 21 Jump Street is that it was a long time ago, and all the rules — of going to high school, or making a movie, or making a movie about high school — have changed since then. Schmidt and his partner Greg Jenko (Channing Tatum) are undercover cops assigned to investigate the manufacture and distribution of a mysterious hallucinogenic drug at a high school, and they learn that the social order is not so clear-cut as when they were in school. Back in ’05, Jenko was a jock who made fun of the nerdy Schmidt, but this binary of cool and uncool doesn’t apply in the same way at the school they’re infiltrating. And what a relief that is for the film’s audience — who could possibly be interested in that dynamic anymore?

The cool kids at their new school are crunchy and progressive, led by Eric (Dave Franco), who was accepted to Berkeley “early admish” and has a biodiesel Mercedes that runs on left over grease from Hunan Palace. He tells Schmidt that he and his girlfriend are not exclusive — “I just don’t believe in possession, jah feel?” — and plays a song about Mother Earth on his acoustic guitar. Schmidt, once a member of his high school’s Juggling Society, is thrilled at how the tables have turned, as he catalogs with wonder the things that are now considered cool: liking comic books, environmental awareness, being tolerant. Former jock Jenko is not so excited. “Organized sports are so fascist. It makes me sick!” Eric yells after a track meet. “I don’t get this school,” Jenko says.

Jenko claims to know why high school has changed: Glee. “Fuck you, Glee!” he yells in the lunchroom. But we may see this more broadly as part of Judd Apatow’s late-2000s loser coup, a real life revenge of the nerds that we ultimately have to thank for the phrase “Academy Award Nominee Jonah Hill.” This shift is an important reason why 2005 is so distant: the string of films Apatow produced in 2007 and 2008 revolutionized the stoner comedy, the high school comedy, and the buddy comedy. It’s Apatow’s classic but short-lived Freaks and Geeks, resurrected and taking revenge on the network suits who didn’t get it, with Knocked Up and Pineapple Express (freaks) and Superbad (geeks) reclaiming things for themselves.

A key feature of these Apatow productions is the study in male best friendship. As with all depictions of close male companionship, there is an element of the homoerotic (Frodo and Sam, hi), but in the bromance, it is not read indirectly, with sexual tension permeating through the friends’ brooding or aggression. It is not properly a subtext at all — bromance relationships are overtly tender, and how gay they are for each other is, you know, the joke.

With Jenko and Schmidt, it’s true love: they strap gun holsters under their ivory tuxedoes as they prepare to take down the drug dealers once and for all at the prom. “Jenko,” Schmidt says, looking over at him. “Will you go to prom with me?” At the end of the film, Jenko jumps in front of Schmidt and takes a bullet in the shoulder. Schmidt leans over him on the ground and says sweetly, “I fucking cherish you.” After they are forced to take the mystery drug at school, they run to the bathroom, desperate to throw it up. Their attempt to purge each other, sticking their fingers in each other’s mouths and making loud choking groans, is kinky as hell.

Where 21 Jump Street succeeds is in applying new conventions to old genres. This is a reboot, after all. Nick Offerman makes a hilarious cameo as the gruff captain who assigns them to the undercover division. They are reviving an old undercover program from the ‘80s, he tells them — “The guys in charge of this stuff have no creativity or imagination. All they do now is recycle shit from the past and expect us all not to notice.” The filmmakers seem aware of how silly remaking 21 Jump Street is — they share the reservations that have made reviewers and audiences unable to report that the movie is good without employing the word “actually.” “Report to Jump Street,” Offerman tells Jenko and Schmidt meaningfully. “37 Jump Street… No that doesn’t sound right.”

Ice Cube portrays the head of Jump Street, Captain Dickman (in the tradition of Ice-T, a once terrifying gangster rapper playing a police officer. Rappers get irony.), who describes himself as the stereotypical angry black captain. “Embrace your stereotypes,” he advises the future undercover officers. In some ways, the film employs this advice, taking the path of least opposites-attract comedy resistance. There is the standard training montage as Jenko and Schmidt go through the police academy, with brainy Schmidt helping Jenko with his exams, and sporty Jenko helping Schmidt with the physical requirements. Each has what the other lacks — it is the movie’s prevailing cliché. At the end of the film, Jenko describes what he has learned about covalent bonds in chemistry class. “It’s when atoms share electrons,” he explains. “They both need what the other has, and that makes them stick together.”

In other cases, though, expected tropes are played with and subverted. Ellie Kemper plays the chemistry teacher who is instantly, ravenously taken with Jenko. Her deranged advances are scene stealing, but she figures into the movie’s plot almost not at all. It is as if she exists simply because a horny teacher is something that would exist in a high school movie — even if it’s a trope that the filmmakers ultimately decide not to make use of. Other characters are comically under-used — the other officers in the Jump Street division, played by Rye Rye and Dakota Johnson, are shown from time to time wearing cheerleading or marching band uniforms and bragging about the cases they’ve closed, seemingly as effective at their jobs as Schmidt and Jenko are inept. We get the feeling that there is any number of possible storylines, that a lot of the action is happening just off-screen.

It turns out that 21 Jump Street is ideal for the tongue-in-cheek remake, as it was both a high school drama and a police procedural — two genres that are ripe for parody. But the crime fighting in the film seems less influenced by 21 Jump Street than the maverick cops in Die Hard, a franchise that envisioned police officers who said the word “motherfucker” more than any had before. The main bad guys in 21 Jump Street are a gang of motorcycling drug dealers with face tattoos, and they aren’t really sources of comedy — they are straightforwardly terrifying. As the film takes a turn for the graphically violent toward the end, there is another layer of genre that the filmmakers are referring to and reckoning with: the action film.

These different genre elements mingle and combust. In the final shoot-out at a hotel room during the prom, two members of the motorcycle gang reveal themselves to be undercover DEA agents — played by Johnny Depp and his former 21 Jump Street cast-mate Peter DeLuise. Depp’s character yells at Schmidt and Jenko for ruining the DEA investigation. “We had no idea,” Schmidt apologizes. “You’re an amazing actor, man.” Schmidt and Jenko reveal that they’re in the Jump Street division, forging a camaraderie with Depp’s and DeLuise. “You know we were actually Jump Street?” Depp’s character asks. All this self-consciousness is too much and Depp and Grieco are both shot to death during this banter. It is an inevitable and perversely satisfying consequence of taking on so many influences: the features of one genre will not allow for the features of another.

At one point, Jenko and Schmidt are in a car chase with the drug dealers, and they shoot holes in an oil tanker and a truck carrying cans of propane. In both cases, they’re amazed that the truck does not blow up — ultimately it’s a collision with a chicken truck that causes the explosion. This dynamic, of the explosions they anticipate versus the one they actually get, speaks to the careful game of expectations. It’s a kind of gentle parody: if they are poking fun at the conventions of genre, it is as admiring as it is critical. “We’re like in the end of Die Hard right now, but it’s our actual life,” Schmidt says to Jenko after their final triumph over the bad guys. In the end, there’s something remarkably hopeful about 21 Jump Street — that a comedy can use the best parts of Die Hard and leave the rest. That high school can be something more than jocks and nerds, and a high school movie can be too.

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

"The Chamber & the Valves" - Dry the River (mp3)

"Weights & Measures" - Dry the River (mp3)

Wednesday
Mar072012

In Which We Winnow Our Toes To Tapered Points

Swan Maiden

by ALICE BOLIN

The eponymous schoolteacher of Muriel Spark’s 1961 novel The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie has for her students in 1930s Edinburgh an eccentric panoply of heroes: Giotto, Charlotte Brontë, Mussolini. Not the least of these idols is the imminent ballet dancer Anna Pavlova, at the time one of the world’s biggest celebrities. “The term was filled with legends of Pavlova and her dedicated habits,” writes Spark, “her wild fits of temperament and her intolerance of the second-rate. ‘She screams at the chorus,’ said Miss Brodie, ‘which is permissible in a great artist.’”

Spark expresses in her novel the defining contradiction in popular thinking about Pavlova: she embodied both the dogged and the sublime. Miss Brodie emphasizes Pavlova’s “dedication,” a drive that ultimately led her to die of pneumonia at the age of forty-nine after twenty years of continual world tours. But she was also the definition of the dancer-as-artist, subordinating technique to delicacy and lyricism. “A dedicated woman,” Miss Brodie deems her, “who, when she appears on stage, makes the other women look like elephants.” It is this combination of elements, effort and magic, doing and being, that made Anna Pavlova the greatest ballerina of the twentieth century.

Pavlova distinguished herself quickly after her debut in the Russian Imperial Ballet in 1899 at the age of eighteen. Her slender body wasn’t typical of ballerinas of her day, who were known more for their power than their emotion, and her long limbs proved to be extraordinarily expressive. She became a prima ballerina in the Imperial Ballet in 1906, and the next year she began her life of touring, first dancing with Sergei Diaghilev and his legendary Ballets Russes in Paris, then touring New York and London with her partner Mikhail Mordkin, then forming her own company and visiting India, China, and South America.

There is no doubt that Pavlova was a workhorse, a tireless emissary for dance around the world. With her trips to India, Pavlova not only opened ballet to new audiences but also broke important stylistic ground with the piece Oriental Impressions, a suite of short dances that borrowed Indian dancing styles and the stories of Hinduism; her company collaborated on the piece with a young Uday Shankar, one of the fathers of modern Indian dance. But for the most part, her aesthetic was conservatively classical and her work, for someone whose reputation was so grand, surprisingly modest.

Her career was built on performing the same short solos over and over; she was not known primarily for performing in full ballets or choreographing dances of her own. Her reputation for artistry did not come from creative ambition, necessarily, but from the depth and nuance of her soul. Her one major piece of choreography, Autumn Leaves, expresses this sensitivity: it tells the story of a chrysanthemum that is tended by a poet until it is killed by the autumn wind. She called it a “choreographic poem.”

But when seeking the true source of Pavlova’s gift, we find it somewhere beyond the poetic. Watching her perform her signature solo, The Dying Swan, she is irresistible. Her legs, arms, and hands flutter with an alien grace that is otherworldly, inhuman — the audience is transfixed, and she is transfigured. Pavlova loved birds, and photographs show her entwined with one of her pet swans, his neck circling hers like a garland. She studied her swans, and she imitated them completely; this was her true talent, as a shape shifter. Watching The Dying Swan, it is hard to believe there isn’t something avian in her. How else, we ask, could she move like that?

Of course, “How can they move like that?” is the question that ballet aims to elicit. It makes the human form unfamiliar—the body in ballet is harder and sharper, while also quicker and more pliant, than we have ever known it in life. It follows, then, that of the many strange things we ask ballerinas to be, birds are a constant. They are graceful and severe, beautiful and frightening. It is vaguely creepy when a woman is described appreciatively as “birdlike” — it implies she is small, dainty, frail. But ask Natalie Portman in Black Swan: a woman as a bird has a terrible power, and it is not a sexual power. For Pavlova in The Dying Swan, it seems her bird body can be a conduit for true emotion.

Pavlova’s skill in transformation is related to a tight control of her image, an aspect of her celebrity that feels eerily contemporary. She is immortalized in hundreds of carefully posed studio photographs depicting her many dramatic incarnations: as a fairy, a swan, a flower. She insisted that the photographs were retouched, hiding any physical imperfections and, particularly, winnowing her toes to tapered points. For the same reason that she didn’t allow photographers in the theatre when she danced, she was secretive about her marriage to her manager, Victor Dandré. The public would see what she wanted them to see.

“Pavlova the artist, and Pavlova the wife, they are two very different persons,” she said. For her audience to have all of the artist, they could have none of the wife. She engineered the illusion there was no Pavlova offstage. Outside of airbrushed pictures, she did not exist beyond her art; for that she was a true artist. How else could she become a bird before the audience’s eyes, die nightly and then live again? As Miss Jean Brodie says to her students, “Pavlova doing the death of the swan, it is a moment in eternity.”

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. She last wrote in these pages about The Bachelor.

"Spitting Fire (acoustic)" - The Boxer Rebellion (mp3)

"The Runner" - The Boxcar Rebellion (mp3)

"Doubt" - The Boxcar Rebellion (mp3)