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Entries in durga chew-bose (44)

Friday
Sep032010

In Which Alice In The Cities Develops Promptly And Rather Eerily

Not One Picture Leaves You In Peace

by DURGA CHEW-BOSE

Alice in the Cities

dir. Wim Wenders

110 minutes

Philip Winter is stricken with writer's block. Having missed his magazine deadline, he sells his car to a garage in Queens, bringing to a close his failed American road trip. Nearby an organ ushers us through a pan of Shea Stadium on a clear day and eventually settles on the organist, an elderly woman with cat-eye glasses and a sedate smile.

This scene near the start of Wim Wenders’s Alice in the Cities, isn’t extraordinary. In fact there is something remarkably untouched about it, as if it were cut from a reel of lost documentary footage. The camera's surveying sweep and soft focus appears infinite yet arbitrary, as though the movie might turn on itself entirely and follow a trail of summer vestiges instead: colossal cranes at a downtown construction site; teenagers on the boardwalk; an overcrowded public pool and the patter of kids racing to the diving board, oblivious to the lifeguard's warning whistles.

In road movies these tangents acknowledge the necessary — stops for food, sleep, an empty gas tank — but also salute those fugitive, sometimes beguiling pockets of prosaic realism; a young boy bicycling alongside a stranger's car, peddling fast to keep up, or another child, in another city, leaning against a café jukebox and humming along tunelessly to "Psychotic Reaction." As long as there is road ahead, digressions like these last two, collect, and the push to keep moving abides.

But momentum isn't pure motion; it's also the power that inhabits a moving object. Meet Alice (Yella Rottländer), a nine-year-old girl who Philip (Rüdiger Vogler) is forced to care for while her mother, Lisa (Lisa Kreuzer), disappears for a few days. With nothing more than a photograph of her grandmother's home in Germany, Alice and Philip return to Europe and set out to find the house. In this odyssey, the capricious and improbable nature of their relationship--largely buoyed by Alice's intuitive silence and gamine stomp — outdoes the possibility of threat. Instead, their shared withdrawal and homelessness induces a sense of fantasy.

In one scene Phillip concedes and deposits Alice at the local police station in Wuppertal. In vintage Wenders design — serendipitous Americana souvenir — he attends a Chuck Berry concert in the same German city. The event is surreal. The departure is loud and electric, and resembles a dream. But once the show is over, as if waking from this dream, Alice reappears at Winter's car door. Though their reunion is expected, the way in which it materializes is almost divine. Like the Polaroids that Winter compulsively takes, she too 'develops' promptly and somewhat eerily.

There are two types of precocious girls that exist in film. The first being more patent, cherubic and dovelike, who parades her show business smile and displays a homespun sense of superiority towards adults. Her accessories? Germane. A balloon, a hula hoop, a gold fish, a letter from a dead father, a loose ribbon in her hair that she might later tie around a boy's wrist. This girl asks questions about morals, her mother's first time, and local, unsolved murder mysteries. We won't wonder about her once the movie is over.

And then there are girls like Alice. Agile around adults yet slightly departed. Breathless. She sort of knows what's going on in the next room; she is suspicious of sex. She is clever but not cheeky and her affections might be confused as indifference. We envy her retroactively, hope to win her approval, and wonder about her adolescence: in love for the first time, she'll appear disenchanted; corruptible and sometimes curt, she'll still wear the same ALASKA varsity jacket from childhood. We imagine her in the future as slightly inelegant, a fast runner, whip-smart, warmhearted but impatient. Alice's gestures anticipate a later self rather than entertain a temporary quirk or tap dance.

For Philip, she offers something foreign, or at the very least, forgotten: the dewy and resolute charges of childhood. Alienated by the American landscape, Winter meets Alice at a particularly lonely time in his life. "Not one picture leaves you in peace," he announces near the beginning as he considers the lifelessness of his Polaroids — a rest stop like any rest stop; the framed ashen fragment of a nameless beach. But Alice does not fill this void, she joins it.

At first their exchanges are limited and take on a Marco Polo, Kublai Khan, incoherence. Later he takes a Polaroid of Alice as they ride the ferry. As it develops, Winter's worn-out reflection appears on the photograph. A barefaced metaphor, this image does however band with the movie's larger influence. While some films wonderfully entertain and distract, and offer immediate familiarity, humor, distress, fear, or romance, others impart mood and psychic moments of recognition that inexplicably resonate despite foreign intrigue, foreign relationships, humiliation and heartache. Instead of happening to you, these movies chime in and out with discerning reciprocity.

Less involved with choice, Alice in the Cities patiently imparts emotion to inaction. Stillness, like Philip slowly unplugging the bathtub with his toe, is who we are when our emotions no longer have dramatic gestures or words. Delay, dissatisfaction: these sensations cannot be seized in one cartoonish sigh. These sensations exist uninterrupted. Like Alice, slouched in the passenger seat, as if her entire self might stem from the center of her wilted torso. When I see it, I will know, she repeats to Philip as they drive up and down Wuppertal's gangly streets. Her certainty tolls, and we believe her.

Durga Chew-Bose is the senior editor of This Recording. She is a writer living in Brooklyn. She tumbls here and twitters here.

"Lazy Jane" - Jake Shimabukuro (mp3)

"While My Guitar Gently Weeps" - Jake Shimabukuro (mp3)

"Wish On My Star" - Jake Shimabukuro (mp3)

Friday
Jul302010

In Which We Pass On Some Do It Yourself Makeover Tips

The Edge of Seventeen

by DURGA CHEW-BOSE 

Seventeen was treated like a nonrival good. Passed around from sleepovers to backpacks to bio class to cafeteria huddles, the magazine was rarely read alone and circulated with the same urgent mien of teenage insecurity. Questions about Like vs. Lust vs. Love, prom, parents, back to school layering, and ratifying horoscopes, were asked and then answered in one sweeping quiz, personal essay, or celebrity interview.

Especially iconic were the covers: a close-up of Jennifer Love-Hewitt cozied in her white turtleneck, Claire Danes crouching in a pink trench with Mod Squad 'tude, Reese Witherspoon sprawled on a chaise lounge, a Drew Barrymore cut-out from Ever After, Jordana Brewster! Brad Renfro! They just don't make 'em like they used to. Luckily, I dug up some old covers and added a few extra trimmings for good measure.

"The New Me!"

Contemplating buying a pair of "Brilliant Blue" colored contacts

Determined to find the pink Gwyneth Oscar gown for prom

From here on out, no more smiling in pictures. Just pout.

Entrepreneurship vs. Environmentalism? Hmm...

Often seen twirling car keys

"The Cat Woman"

Self publishing comic zine based on Queen Cordelia

Family friends often remark, "You're looking more and more like your mother!"

Secretly already have an outfit planned for Accepted Students Day

Bored by girls who are only now obsessing over Christiane F.

“The Twister”

Parents are upstairs

Apparently there’s a boy who’s coming who might spike the punch

The girls know all the words to "The Boy is Mine"

Count four pairs of dELiA*s platform Mary Janes

Later, Donna Martin Popcorn Ice Cream in bed while reading Little Girl Lost

“Doing Homework On the Bed”

Middle part, no eyeliner, no mascara, just ChapStick

Uses Rhodia notebooks

Surprises everyone and auditions for the lead in the school play

Reads her mother’s copy of To Kill A Mockingbird instead of the one handed out in class

Likes resting face on cold surfaces like marble countertops

"The Pre-Haircut"

Summer before college road trip with Mom to The Mount

Rosy cheeked after one glass of red wine

Recites The Gettysburg Address as nerve pacifying technique before tests or first dates

Romanticizes growing up in a suburb subdivision

Durga Chew-Bose is the senior editor of This Recording. She is a writer living in Brooklyn. She last wrote in these pages about list-keeping. She twitters here and tumbls here.

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"Edge of Seventeen" - Lindsay Lohan (mp3)

"Edge of Seventeen (White Label mix)" - Stevie Nicks (mp3)

"Edge of Seventeen" - Stevie Nicks (mp3)

Tuesday
Jul132010

In Which We Neaten Each Crease

Those Marble Composition Books

by DURGA CHEW-BOSE

On that first date we fell asleep watching Bottle Rocket. The poem ended one line after as I described his tissue paper thin t-shirt that I borrowed for the night.

I was twenty-two and high the first and only time I have ever written a love poem. With perceived eloquence I sat on my bed and remembered a first date from years ago, detailing each bit chronologically on a piece of paper I have now lost. Using the kind of scrutiny one might assume when proving a point, I produced a poem that offered little attention to feelings or the fumbling beginnings of closeness: shaky eye contact, commonalities, taut and clumsy flirtation, cool smiles, heartbeat. Instead, I rattled off a joyless inventory of the night; a tally of what I had ordered, what he had worn, which album we had argued about, and on what street we shared a kiss. My bias for pragmatic writing outdid my hope for something more sentimental (!) and meaningful. This was a list disguised as a poem, and worst of all, I took pleasure in its accuracy, persuaded that precise recollection might yield more tenderness than dopey hearts and shooting teenage inclinations.

My habit for list keeping could be isolated to a single memory, like connecting someone’s command and sway to that first group exercise in the fourth grade in which there was a time keeper, a secretary, and a leader, and where we were taught the verb to delegate, or, like tracing versatility to resourceful, creative parents who despite moving the family numerous times in earlier years, were quick to design the notion of home around a single and consistent possession or tradition; the giant Dieffenbachia plant, banana fritters after school, or sandalwood soap in all of the bathrooms. In my case, I’m sure there was an adult—a friend’s mother, a piano teacher, most likely a woman who could French braid and who kept curative distractions and snacks in her purse, and that I ruefully wished was my own mother—this same woman, hoping to quiet whatever anxiety was overpowering me at the time, handed me a pad and pencil and said, Here, Durga. Make a list.

I am unclear if this likely compounded memory mushroomed into a character trait, though part of me believes that my impulse is largely intuitive and present in those who, from very early on are bound by some need to record and restore, and seek pattern, as if preoccupied with some expectation of defeat.

As a kid, I often spied on everyday happenings, assuming a Harriet Welsch compulsion to fabricate intrigue in nominal things: decoding neighbors' license plates, perceiving foreign accents, supposing ulterior purpose from things that unscrewed, appeared fancy, or were unmarked. I collected long lists of notes that shared zero relation but were somehow kindred because I had decided on that day to collect them in a blue spiral notebook on a page marked Thursday, June 5th, 1995.

I was nine and couldn't steady the length of our aluminum pool skimmer. I remember the feeling of cold water running down my arms as I tried to navigate the net before giving up and asking my brother for help. I sat and watched as he scooped and cleaned the leaves that had fallen from our neighbor’s Maple tree. The sound of the pole’s metal din as it scraped the sides of our pool was very specific and I haven’t heard it since. Years later as I scrambled to find a half-filled notebook and recycle it for a new class, I discovered the page on which I had seemingly indexed our entire backyard. I had accounted for everything: the chipped shed door that revealed an old coat of aquamarine, the fat azalea bush, the smell of chlorine, the feel of wet cement under my bare feet, and the sound of the skimmer as it shaved the side our pool. Matching that uniquely stark shift of entering a place where quiet is obliged — the library, a museum, a church — I read the list over.

Though I was happy to find this anecdote from my childhood, I was troubled by its judicious and ordinary range, but more so by its delusive expectation of custody...and loss? Still, these concerns pass just as easily as they present themselves. Our childhood, a maudlin alloy of lapse memory and possession: my cursive handwriting was once bulky, round and sweet; the bottom corner of the page still curls where I pressed hard on my palm and wrote in black ballpoint.

Sometimes hidden among my lists were a build-up of details that hinted at change — notes on a distracted family dinner, unusual pairing-offs of parent with child; splitting up to park the car, buy the tickets, save the seats — and by and by, clear signs of my mother and father’s eventual divorce.

Children list-keepers expect filigree from collected facts. They care deeply about their first family tree assignment in school, and though their T-shaped diagrams might pile awkwardly to one side of the page, lopsided with a wing of extended cousins or half-siblings, its carefulness and fidelity to specifics embodies the kind of exhaustive design that inhabits their everyday. Baited by Haeckel's lithographs, by grandparent stuff, and by cutaways in DK Eyewitness travel guides, children list-keepers are yanked by asides, labyrinths, and stories of missing kids and mysterious abductions. Envious of those with photographic memory, children list-keepers will anxiously store incidentals that might later guild together. Their minds: a cherry wood curio cabinet filled with doodads and trinkets, invaluable for future analogies, and called upon years later in college when a professor assigns the ratios and ornament amid expanse of Moby Dick.

It was in my literature classes that my hankering for cataloguing was put to use. I would copy a novel's first sentence only to hear its echo in Part IV or Part V. I would predict romantic pairings based on how a woman's dress was depicted — not its cloth nor its color — but how it moved at her feet or sat on her shoulders. I kept notes on recurring characters, peculiar posture, food pageantry, and individuals who never removed their gloves or their hats. I especially took to narratives where childhood was imparted with an overture-type clairvoyance. Those were my favorite.

Instead of flagging pages with post-its, I dutifully copied entire passages into notebooks that I would return to when writing a paper or when trying hopelessly to retrieve whatever it was in that particular sentence or pair of words that had originally wooed me. Sometimes my reason was far less calculated: a Dickens character that I imagined as a Tintin character, and that I'd share with my friend, Tait, via text message on my walk back to the dorm. Studying literature paired the utility with the coincidence of list keeping; something I had seldom enjoyed before. Because my first impulse has always been to write it down, whatever it is, immediate function has been a rarity and meaning has presented itself in belated, sometimes confused, bounty.

Durga Chew-Bose is the senior editor of This Recording. She is a writer living in Brooklyn. She last wrote in these pages about Daddy Longlegs. She twitters here and tumbls here.

"Our Composition Book" - Wild Nothing (mp3)

"My Angel Lonely" - Wild Nothing (mp3)

"Chinatown" - Wild Nothing (mp3)