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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

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Metaphors with eyes

Life of Mary MacLane

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Entries in alice bolin (24)

Monday
Jan092012

In Which Charles Dickens Wanted To Hurt Everybody

Cold Feet

by ALICE BOLIN

Great Expectations
dir. Brian Kirk

What must first be said about the BBC’s latest miniseries adaptation of Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations is that it looks good — it’s this sort of visual pleasure, the care taken toward both beauty and ugliness, that drives reviewers to use words like “sumptuous” or “glorious” or even “delicious.” The marshlands of the series’ beginning are perfect in their lonely beauty, washed out by layers of fog. The director, Brian Kirk, seems to take a painter’s pleasure in the scenery, and we are often treated to shots of the entire misty landscape, including a huge sheet of sky.

It must further be said that gorgeousness here is not gratuitous. Dickens is English literature’s supreme evocateur, and setting dictates mood, or maybe vice versa. Spark Notes informs me that the environment of the marsh connotes ambiguity and alienation, and that seems about right. This is, after all, where our urchin-hero Pip meets and helps Magwitch, the escaped criminal who is to become his mysterious benefactor. But in terms of triggering feeling, the setting de resistance of Great Expectations is Miss Havisham’s Satis House, with its stopped clocks, its cobwebs, its rotting wedding cake. The house has attempted to resist time and is instead overtaken by it, which is, of course, just it.

The parlor of Satis House is filled with plunder from Miss Havisham’s late brother’s exotic adventures: a tiger rug, tiny replicas of whales, horns and shells, globes, stuffed birds in glass cylinders gathering dust. The room’s focal point is a display of butterflies in a huge glass case, slowly growing over with cobwebs—it’s shabby-chic, biology-chic, like a room from the Anthropologie catalog that’s been badly neglected. “He went to the furthest reaches of the earth in his search for the purest specimen of beauty,” Miss Havisham says of her brother’s butterflies. “When he found it he stuck a pin through its heart.” Do you understand? There is a figurative meaning. To the butterflies.

Satis House is an extension of Miss Havisham, and she is its most disturbing relic. Gillian Anderson’s portrayal is brilliantly freaky — she plays her like a frail but erratic animal, speaking in a baby’s sing-song. Her lips are gray and peeling, her hands are bloody from where she has scratched them raw, and she only grows more pale and withered throughout the series, until she is literally skeletal.

Miss Havisham is only one of the characters who appear more monster than human. When Magwitch emerges from the marshes, his huge bald head and mud-caked skin make him look like a swamp creature. The evil Orlick, Pip’s brother-in-law Joe’s assistant on the forge, has black cracked teeth and dead eyes and sores covering his face, and he grins and lumbers around like a zombie. Some of these characterizations are small: the way the filmmakers give the foul but well-bred Bentley Drummle a cleft-lip to indicate his inner badness was downright Dickensian. (N.B.: when my younger brother was entering college, I asked him how his freshman orientation had gone. “It was full of dickheads,” he said. “It was dickheads-ian.”)

Pip and his true love, Miss Havisham’s daughter Estella, are, by contrast, immaculate. The actors who play them, Douglas Booth and Vanessa Kirby, both have that fashion-model beauty that is soft and unusual and endlessly compelling. In one scene they are picnicking by a lake, and Estella, overcome with abandon, pulls off her slippers and stockings and wades in the water, scandalously holding her petticoats above her knees. Pip follows her in and they share a tentative kiss. For a moment I was transported out of the series and into a Ralph Lauren perfume ad.

If you don’t remember reading about the tender picnic in your ninth grade English class, that’s because it isn’t in the book. Neither is the scene where Drummle takes Pip to his “other club,” a fancy whorehouse appearing to boast prostitutes from every continent. Thankfully the filmmakers take some liberties. I did regret their choice to omit Biddy, Pip’s childhood confidante and later Joe’s wife, from the miniseries — first because it is all too predictable that they would eliminate the only kind and sensible female character, and second because I wanted Joe to end the story with a lady by his side.

Played by Shaun Dooley, Joe is a big ruddy pillar of pathos, designed to perfectly elicit love, admiration, and pity. When Joe is enlisted by magistrates to repair Magwitch’s shackles, Magwitch claims he has stolen a piece of Pip’s family’s Christmas pie. “Us don’t begrudge you a bit of pie,” Joe says angelically. Miss Havisham finances Pip’s apprenticeship to Joe to become a blacksmith, and Joe signs the contract just “Jo,” and God, he is so strong. It sprains your heart when Pip leaves for London and Joe calls, “Don’t forget about us Pip!” and when Joe shows up at Pip’s club in London and Pip snubs him, it breaks. Your. Heart. Joe is the kind of character that bestirs ovaries, like the Irish cop in Bridesmaids.

In Vanity Fair recently there was a feature on Courtney Love, who, after losing her daughter and all her money, is now obsessed with marrying into British nobility. I thought of Courtney as I watched Miss Havisham, particularly when she pawed at Estella, clutching the letters she had sent from London and crowing, “They’re not detaaailed enough!” Miss Havisham’s desperation has no nuance, and her dialog’s anvil-subtlety supplies countless delights. When little Pip asks if her feet are cold, she replies, “All of me is cold.” “It is the ghost of a wedding cake, and I am the ghost of a bride,” she explains for Pip and anyone else who is a little behind. She vows to make Drummle’s world “a cold and joyless stone” once he marries Estella. “You know nothing about men, Miss Havisham,” Pip says, in the understatement of the nineteenth century.

Thanks to cable television, we now have a word for what Miss Havisham is: a hoarder. The source of the dysfunction at Satis House is as obvious as on an episode of Hoarders — you know, “I started that pile of dirty diapers the day my son died,” etc. Indeed, Miss Havisham and Estella are remarkably contemporary in their ability to psychologize themselves. “How could you be so cold?” Miss Havisham asks Estella. “It is what you trained me to be,” Estella replies. Estella tells Pip, “Everyone’s meant to love me. But I don’t love back,” and then Pip cries pretty-girl tears. “I wanted to hurt you. I wanted to hurt everybody,” Miss Havisham says to Pip at the end of the series. Hurt breeds hurt; you don’t have to consult Oprah to know that. You could have heard it on The Tyra Show.

It’s understandable that Estella would have some issues with marriage. She is shown hyperventilating under her veil on the day of her wedding, a shot that is echoed moments later when Miss Havisham lowers her own veil, walks downstairs to the dining room, and sets herself on fire. Miss Havisham’s self-immolation was what I was most looking forward to here, and it is worth the price of admission, even if that price were more than zero dollars. She gazes in the mirror with saintly ecstasy as the blaze envelop her body; her form becomes a shadow in the mass of flames. It is Miss Havisham herself who insists that beauty is a destroyer, and her death is the fulfillment of the visual ethic of the series — its most terrible scene is also its most beautiful.

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 David Milch's Luck. You can find an archive of her writing on This Recording here.

"Amygdala" - Valets ft. Moral Reef (mp3)

"American Style" - Valets (mp3)

"Lines" - Valets (mp3)

Monday
Dec192011

In Which Luck Appears So Slick As To Become Sterile

Running the Numbers

by ALICE BOLIN

Luck
creator David Milch

HBO’s new series Luck is Dustin Hoffman’s crack at the trope of the weary gangster, and he is just as punchy, tired, and insecure as you would, I guess, hope. The show begins as his character, the crooked businessman Chester “Ace” Bernstein, is released from prison after serving three years for unspecified dirty dealings. That same day, he visits a former partner at the man’s swanky nightclub, and during the course of their meeting, Ace moves with weird efficiency through the entire emotional range of the archetypal aging crook.

He is first full of self-doubt — “Sometimes I wonder if I’m still an asset,” he admits. Then in a fit of defensive anger, he leaps from his chair and rips his shirt open, shouting the delightful reproach “You got qualms?” He is instantly sheepish about the tantrum and is considerate enough to explain for the audience what has just happened. “I tore the buttons off my goddamn shirt,” he says. “I make a fool out of myself first day out.” For the rest of the scene, he is sure to remind us that he is old — I can’t think of a more crotchety remark than “My blood pressure is sky-high right now” — and prison has withered him both emotionally and physically. “I shrunk. I’ve got to get new shirts,” he says, awkwardly lying to cover the fact that his shirts are probably all missing buttons from his Incredible Hulk outbursts.

Ace exemplifies Luck’s most striking characteristic, that it is ambiguous and complex at the same time that it avoids any kind of subtlety. The first episode, directed by Heat's Michael Mann, introduces no fewer than sixteen characters, all connected in some way with horse racing at Santa Anita Park in Los Angeles. The audience must keep track of a huge volume of characters, their relationships to one another, and their many concealed interests. This is, I think, the point.

Add to that the difficulty of any story involving gambling: it will eventually require the audience to attempt to comprehend strategy, statistics, and large sums of money. This show with nothing but principal characters, many of whom have no name and only the vaguest of back stories, about the most obscure aspects of an obscure sport, egregiously also includes math.

Much of the first episode revolves around a group of gamblers’ pursuit of a huge Pick Six jackpot and their strategy for winning it, which hinges on betting on a single horse in the fourth race — apparently a pretty bold move. The discussion of “singling the fourth” is the most technical dialogue in the episode, so baffling that I was almost thankful that the characters discussing it are so obvious.

The gamblers are singularly pathetic — their ringleader is confined to a wheelchair, punctuating his conversation by huffing from an oxygen tank. They are of that special breed of loser geniuses who populate the minds of movie and television writers, convinced that smart-but-not-successful is a reliable shortcut to interesting. When one of the gamblers cheerily approaches the others and says, “Got my Social Security, 125 simoleons!” it’s clear that “fresh” isn’t necessarily what Luck is going for.

The show relies on characterizations that are easily shorthanded: The Irish Jockey, The Stuttering Agent, The Handsome Gambler. The most frequent method for this is to give a character an accent or vocal tic, making them more cartoonish while, in true Luck style, making their stories harder to follow. The writing seems aware of this — a jockey with a strong Cajun accent says of the Hispanic horse trainer Escalante, “He foreign. He a little hard to understand.” The show laughs at itself but also at its audience, who are trying to figure out what the fuck is going on. Characters often comment on how overt the characterizations are — Escalante calls The Stuttering Agent "Porky Pig", and Ace calls Escalante "Desi Arnaz". The Handsome Gambler refers to a money-lending racetrack security guard as Shylock, and it’s like, “You might be flattering yourself about your use of archetypes, Luck.”

Still, this self-awareness might be the show’s greatest hope to provide its characters with nuance. Ace has bought a racehorse covertly, holding it in the name of his driver, manservant, and main thug whom he calls “the Greek.” When the Greek visits the stables to check on the horse, Escalante flatters and fawns on him, saying “I’ll call you ‘El Natural.’” “I’ll call you ‘El Bullshitter,’” the Greek replies. Other characters also hint that Escalante might be laying it on thick — “He’s serving it up to the Gringo owners and trainers, cold,” says a racetrack official. Escalante is known not only for his talent as a trainer but his savvy; he is able to control people’s expectations of him and his horses. He and others in Luck are consciously performing, playing into their perceived roles as a way of hiding their true motivations.

The show also finds ways to acknowledge how confounding its subject matter can be. One of the gamblers’ backers (a male prostitute who wears a boater hat and brags that his clients call his penis “the Emperor,” I feel compelled to report) is bewildered by the Pick Six scheme. During the climactic eighth race, he says, “I don’t get it. We bet every horse, who do we want?” forcing them to reiterate the stakes of the scene. “Will someone please tell me what’s going on?” he whines as they are about to win the two million dollar jackpot. His cluelessness provides the audience with a point of connection in a world that is opaque with lingo, calculations, and specialized knowledge. When he speaks our confusion on the screen, it feels like a moment of mercy.

Luck’s other saving grace is its sophisticated visuals. It is shot beautifully and deliberately, with contrasting styles and palettes for the intersecting domains of the show. Ace exists in a silent world of glass, chrome, marble, and granite. The scenes at the racetrack, by contrast, are frenetic and colorful, and the racetrack setting brilliantly incorporates contrasting visual elements. The grimy stands open onto the vibrant scenery that frames the outdoor track: palm trees, hills, the sky and white sunlight. Nick Nolte’s character, the gentle horse trainer just called “the Old Man,” brings a bit of the pastoral with him by force of spirit. We find him in a green space behind the stables saying to his horse in a gravelly coo, “You don’t know how special you are, do you?” The bucolic scene seems distant from the rest of the track, which is shot with such intensity.

But danger lurks in Luck’s temptation toward the music video effect — the reliance on montage editing, slow motion, and loud music cues, especially in the race scenes, can be so slick as to become sterile. There is a gut-turning slow-motion shot of a horse’s leg snapping in the last race, but the scene is so stylized that it is emotionally removed. As I watched the animal being put down with a giant syringe, I wondered to myself, “Are they seriously playing Sigur Rós right now?”

The first episode of Luck abounds with agonizing dramatic irony. In the last scene, when Ace tells the Greek, “I don't trust anyone, not even myself. You, I give a pass,” we get the feeling that a little too much might be hanging on this relationship. “Alls I’m worried is you relying on me when I’m working out past my depth,” says the Greek, and he almost certainly has reason to be worried. The gamblers’ storyline ends with them discussing grand plans for what they will do with their two million dollar jackpot and ominously deciding not to come forward with the winning ticket until the next day. The Handsome Gambler sings “America the Beautiful” as he watches the final race and it’s clear no one should give these fuck-ups two million dollars. The teaser for the rest of the first season, in addition to introducing five new characters (!), promises a yacht, a bloody ashtray, lines of cocaine, and large wads of money. It’s easy to say what will become of Luck’s dozen plus protagonists: nothing good.

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 Martha Marcy May Marlene. You can find an archive of her writing on This Recording here.

"Golden Touch" - Araab Muzik (mp3)

"Free Spirit" - Araab Muzik (mp3)

"Electronic Dream" - Araab Muzik (mp3)

Friday
Dec022011

In Which We Flee The Cult Of Our Dreams

She's Just A Picture

by ALICE BOLIN

Martha Marcy May Marlene
dir. Sean Durkin
101 minutes

In a scene from Sean Durkin’s psychological drama Martha Marcy May Marlene, charismatic cult leader Patrick (played by John Hawkes) plays a song he has written for one of his followers, a young woman named Martha (Elizabeth Olsen). “Oh she’s just a picture/Who lives on my wall,” he sings, as the camera lingers on Martha’s lovely, nymphic face. As the song continues, the camera focuses also on Patrick’s face, his intense, smiling stare. We understand in that moment that we are seeing Martha — or Marcy May, as he has renamed her — as he sees her.

The question of whose eyes we are looking through, whose picture we are seeing, is the mystery weighting the center of this complex story. Martha Marcy May Marlene follows the traumatized Martha as she escapes from the cult’s commune to her older sister’s upscale Connecticut lake house. What we know of the cult is shown through flashbacks, so Martha’s past and present unfold simultaneously. As Martha grows more paranoid that members of the cult are pursuing her, the past looms more dangerously and invades the present more violently. Fear distorts her experience, so what is really happening (and what has happened) are ever more uncertain.

Martha Marcy May Marlene is obsessed with doubles and doppelgangers — places from the past and present mirror one another, and people represent and replace one another. The wooded area surrounding the cult’s farm resembles the wilderness near the lake house, and the lake house also recalls the large houses the cult members burglarize to support the commune. Martha and her yuppie older sister Lucy (Sarah Paulson) are an imperfect reflection. (I don’t mention that Olsen’s real-life older sisters are famous duplicates.) It’s no wonder Martha is often confused: “Is this from the past, or is this now?” she asks Lucy.

A more sinister multiplication exists among the women of the cult, who are essentially interchangeable. The women are active in assimilating new members — we see them leading Martha around the commune, explaining the workings of the farm to her. And their participation goes far deeper than that: after a drugged Martha is raped by Patrick, the other women comfort and reassure her. “I know you’re feeling like something bad happened in there, Marcy May,” one woman tells her. “You have to trust me, that wasn’t bad.” Another admonishes her not to be selfish. “You have to share yourself,” she says.

When a curly-haired and youthful girl named Sarah joins the commune, Martha is assigned as her mentor. We watch as Martha mimics her own initiators, showing Sarah the eating and sleeping quarters, even repeating verbatim what one of the other women told her: “It takes time to find your role in a new family.” When the time comes, Martha gives Sarah the drug-laced drink she has prepared; “This is your special night with him. Enjoy it,” she glows. When Sarah is led away to be raped by Patrick, Martha sits in the same chair where she herself sat, horror-stricken, after her own rape. Martha is “one of them,” fully complicit in the cult’s crimes.

In this way, the most important doubling in the film is of her past and present selves, Martha versus Marcy May. Marcy May is Patrick’s creation, and she has been fully indoctrinated by him. Although Martha escapes Patrick’s influence, she does not rid herself completely of Marcy May. At the lake house, she seems to have forgotten social norms, to the horror of her conventional sister — after saying she’s going for a swim, she strips on the pier and jumps naked into the water. Martha wanders into her sister’s room while Lucy is having sex with her husband, Ted (Hugh Dancy), and curls up on their bed. Martha is bewildered by Ted and Lucy’s anger. “It’s a big bed, and you guys were on the other side,” she explains.

Martha also finds herself speaking to Lucy and Ted in the cult’s rhetoric. “People don’t need careers. People should just exist,” she tells workaholic Ted. When she grows frustrated with Lucy, it seems Marcy May comes out: “I don't need your guidance now, and I didn’t then. I’m a teacher and a leader,” she says, exactly echoing something we hear Patrick tell her. Clearly, her role in the cult still influences the way she sees herself. Martha’s internal fissures cause the fissures that open up in the film’s present.

And so, on the one hand, Martha Marcy May Marlene is largely shot and structured in sympathy with Martha’s experience. We see her memories as she has them, and as her fear grows, we take part in that fear. Often we share in Martha’s confusion about where and when she is, whether this is from the past, or this is now. Martha’s swimming in the lake transforms seamlessly to her memory of swimming with the members of the cult. We see long, dreamy shots of naked bodies as the camera moves in and out of the water. Like Martha, the scene floats between two states of being, present and past, emerging and submerging.

The film’s audio particularly manifests Martha’s perception — when Patrick and the male members of the cult confer, they are often visible but inaudible, reflecting Martha’s lack of access. The white noise in the film is frequently stifling, as Martha’s mental discord seems to mount over the rest of the action. In one remarkable scene, Ted and Lucy attempt to subdue a hysterical Martha after she thinks she spots a cult member at a party they are hosting. The broad, static frame takes in Ted and Lucy’s bedroom, Martha thrashing and crying, and the others attempting to restrain her. The sound is overwhelmed by loud, harsh violins. As Martha’s terror subsides, the music quiets, and the picture slowly fades to black.

In the last scene of the film, one of the members of the cult clearly runs across the road in front of Ted and Lucy’s car as they are driving Martha to a psychiatric facility, and we are ready to disbelieve what we see, to imagine that it could all be in her head — because “her head” is the space where the film purports to take place. But there is evidence that the film does not solely record Martha’s perspective. When Martha is shot through a doorway or window, who do we imagine is looking through its frame? Why would the camera so often follow her like a specter down a dark hallway? Martha is being watched, and the gaze that is trained on her is dogged. The camera is fixated — the frame will stay focused on her face even when the dialogue is taking place between two other people. We often watch her sleep.

When Martha scrambles through the woods in her escape from the commune, the camera pursues her, jumpy and desperate — she resembles an animal fleeing a predator through a path in the trees. In one scene we follow Martha’s torso and legs down the hallway to her bedroom. Then she is lying on her floor, camera on her ass and legs as pee soaks through her dress. The frame stays still as she stands, wipes the pee from her legs and stuffs the dress under her mattress. This feels more than predatory. It’s lurid. It’s unforgivable.

One possibility is that Martha has so internalized Patrick’s objectification of her that she participates in it, that it is how she sees herself. Maybe. But I think it’s also possible that Martha Marcy May Marlene can’t help but agree with Patrick — if only a little — that Martha is primarily something to look at. She’s just a picture. We watch her in bed through a cracked door, a conversation between Ted and Lucy playing over top. As she listens to them discuss her, she moves her head and stares into the camera for several unsettling seconds, her eyes meeting the gaze that has been aimed at her. In this film, where everything contains its undoing, the picture looks back.

Alice Bolin is a contributor to This Recording. She is a writer living in Missoula, Montana. She tumbls here and twitters here. This is her first appearance in these pages.

"Terrible Tommy" - Ryan Horne (mp3)

"All Hope Ain't Gone" - Ryan Horne (mp3)

"Don't Try And Rescue Me" - Ryan Horne (mp3)

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