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Entries in eleanor morrow (42)

Friday
Aug032012

In Which He Ate It Whenever He Could

Looking Glass

by ELEANOR MORROW

Just now, taking Coleman off the turntable, the cold sharpening my bones, I had a sudden intimation of my true character.

- Rosmarie Waldrop, A Form/of Taking/It All

Red-rimmed or opaque, Sheila manages a coil (hair-wise) with an aubergine staff. When she approaches, her stopping point is a lecturn. The right skirt ascends slightly above the waist, where it resembles a massive throat choked by a giantess.

This was before, but only moments before, each individuated object in the extramuros became the subject of a photo. A necessary preserve evolved, completely online, and the ensuing catalog became too extensive. If we did not have someone to reduce our number of choices, it would be easy to turn into Jonah Lehrer, or if not him, a fern.

Sheila was three years older than me but nowhere near as accustomed to the vagaries of urban living. She came from a troubled upbringing; her father was no longer living. She spent hours shifting things around in her immediate space. She was not shy of asking my opinion, and when I detailed my views, I found her absorbing them slowly, like a medication designed to release its contents at a nonspecific, later date.

The world outside a 12th century convent must have appeared impossibly fast to its citizens. Extrapolate: are we the ones beyond the high walls, or essentially contained in that cloister, in the original sense of the term? We elide in open air, what some call the sinful, extramuros world, where this could be referred to as a dog:

Sheila began to mirror her roommate in a number of ways I found alarming. One day she saw me wiping up the windowsill with a paper towel. Every morning thereafter she ran them clean with steel wool. When I asked her what she was doing she nearly screamed.

Sheila's vision was severely worse in one eye, and when she took out her contacts before bedtime she often got a headache. (Watching her touch an eye with the tip of a fingernail was an evening in itself.) Instead of resenting the pain, she felt she deserved it. Or maybe I just wanted to believe this because it made me feel better.

There were other things. She eliminated any visible mark. We had one marble countertop, far more "marble" than marble. She guarded this thing as if it was sunrise at Le Havre. It held something for her, like a repository. The countertop rewarded what she put into it, because I could hear her version of an orgasm through the wall, and there's an app that tells you whether it's real or not, for $2.99.

So I went out more. When I came to others as a stranger, I felt the first, most advantageous way of seeming. I myself marvel at how many people keep it together so well. They look prepared for this, cast in a certain light, turning to a partner or loved one in the vague, abstract background of my day-to-day life.

The most ubiquitous combination in the extramuros is mother-daughter. This is followed by

father/son
a senior citizen and another senior citizen
A chatterbox and someone who listens to it
five Hasidic men eating licorice
A woman, another woman, and an ugly man
Girlfriends

I never knew Sheila to drive a car, so I was mildly surprised when she brought one around. It was not a Cadillac. She mainly drove it on Saturdays to the laundromat, and I never knew where else she went. When I tried to follow her she always lost me without meaning to.

In restaurants, I'm usually into hearing other people's conversations. I like to know what they're talking about, but only in the broad outline. When it gets too serious I focus on my food.

Sheila got a boyfriend on New Year's Eve. He came up to her at a party and complimented her shoes. At first all I knew about him was that he loved Riesling. When he didn't fade after a few awkward, drunken dates, she appeared visibly relieved at this turn of events. Strange southern expressions started creeping into her day-to-day dialogue, so I made assumptions, but instead Timothy was a thirty five year old Korean obstetrician. One of his loves was origami, another was Sheila, a third and yet still essential desire was for fondue. He ate it whenever he could.

When I went home to see my parents, I was astonished at how much they'd changed. Perhaps they were a certain kind of individual, and combined, none of their specific qualities emerged from the collision. With enough distance from a mistake, the bad choice transforms into something completely unexpected.

I heard that Sheila had a baby and named it Chelsea, after nothing.

In the extramuros, a place represents something else besides itself. It is a natural inclination, I am told, to return to the sight of familiar shitholes and stuttering haunts. The abandoned meeting space of my old school reflected at night elicits anguish, but I also have to admit I feel relieved in the presence of familiar environs. I am glad to know that I am altered from what I was, for if not, everything would necessarily be the same. The lack of change would be a worse kind of horror.

In Sheila's photos (easily available online) she dresses differently now, but it is all the same notes. I have to wonder what the person she is parroting now is like, whether this particular woman salvages any of my verve or grace. There might well be a house somewhere where all its denizens are people she has iterated on. Parcel to post, a safer existence — not that I'm tarnishing hers — remains unacceptable.

Eleanor Morrow is the senior contributor to This Recording. You can find an archive of her writing on This Recording here. She last wrote in these pages about Shameless. She tumbls here.

Photographs by Kara VanderBijl.

"Swanlights (live)" - Antony and the Johnsons (mp3)

"Rapture (live)" - Antony and the Johnsons (mp3)

Friday
Jan072011

In Which We Were Born In The Mud

Don't Look So Affected

by ELEANOR MORROW

Shameless

creator John Wells

premieres Sunday, January 9th

The glorification of American poverty is at an all-time high during periods of recession, the glorification of American wealth is always at an all-time high. In case you don't remember how Roseanne began, the female Jackie Gleason worked at a plastics company with her sister Jackie, who was dating her supervisor. The foreman was named Booker Brooks, and he was played by George Clooney. The subtext was obvious: how bad exactly was American poverty when your sister was dating George Clooney?

Ronald Reagan spent the 1980s broadcasting optimism after a period of economic struggle, an attitude that disgusted Roseanne Barr. By 1989, in only its second season, Roseanne shot to the top of the Nielsen ratings and remained there until most of the cast was replaced by Sarah Chalke, who would go on to be the only actress in Hollywood other than Rachel Bilson willing to kiss Zach Braff with tongue. The current number one comedy on television takes place in a beach house in Santa Monica: Roseanne tried to make us really feel the pain of Lanford, Illinois.

Perhaps unsure about whether the public wanted a show about incredibly rich people or incredibly poor people, Fox placed its only two new comedies on its fall schedule back-to-back. First came My Name Is Earl creator Greg Garcia's series Raising Hope about the poorest people on the block, followed by Mitchell Hurwitz' return to collaboration with Will Arnett in Running Wilde, about the richest people on it.

Garcia's previous effort may have been more boring and preachy than a Sunday sermon, but the real core of situation comedies depends on whether the audience has an ongoing connection to the plight of these characters. Initially titled Keep Hope Alive, Raising Hope concerns Jimmy (Lucas Neff), who becomes a father after his one-night stand is revealed to be a serial killer who is executed after giving birth to his daughter Hope. Despite featuring more messages than an after-school special, the plot and situations are never phony or unbelievable, and Martha Plimpton plays the best female character in television outside of the late Lucille Bluth as Jimmy's mother.

In contrast, it should surprise no one that a series about the rich son of an oil magnate (Arnett) who wants to copulate with a woman (Keri Russell) who lives for free in his treehouse and was the daughter of his family's maid has not exactly struck home with American audiences. Even though the aforementioned Two and a Half Men takes place in brightly appointed haunts, everything from the dialogue to the characterization of a man-whore and his poor chiropractor brother (Jon Cryer) screams otherwise.

It was really a plague of unfunny scripts that doomed Running Wilde with critics (the show is already deader than Keri Russell's sex appeal). From the beginning the Will Arnett vehicle had no chance with audiences, who ran from Arrested Development, the series that originally ruined puns for the world. Development proved that no matter how funny a show is, if you don't create sympathetic characters, audiences will never attach themselves to the serial plot. How exactly are Roseanne and Dan Conner supposed to sit down and enjoy an episode on whether it's harder to care for a child or attend a high society gala, or about a misunderstanding between Will Arnett and Andy Richter over whether or not each is gay? The show's writers had so much trouble thinking up storylines for Keri's daughter Puddle that she made a diorama in three straight December episodes.

Despite being presented to the identical audience, Raising Hope got a full season order and there are already $ signs in the eyes of Fox executives, while Mitchell Hurwitz has to sit through his 4,058th meeting about a movie of a show no one watched. The message is clear — if you want ratings, pity, not envy, is the right emotion to tap into in the hearts of mainstream Americans.

Would it surprise you to know that none of the shows I have mentioned so far has a single black character? (The joke on Running Wilde's ethnic butler is that he steals from his employer. Funny!) Raising Hope's Jimmy has friends of color, but they get 1/4058th of the screen time of Cloris Leachman, whose portrayal of Hope's great-grandmother deserves some kind of commemoration from the Obama administration. My point is that shows about how hard the world is end up making poverty appear heartwarming and fun.

You will not have this problem during the opening moments of the new Showtime series Shameless, translated from the popular British show of the same name. The only possible thing you will be thinking about is the exposed carapace of Fiona Gallagher (Emmy Rossum), whose constant contortions and pervasive near-nudity constitute a more stimulating way of saying the show is on premium cable than the dull and profane narration of her single father, Frank Gallagher (William H. Macy). The five other children are distinguishable by their abilities: Ian Gallagher (gay), Phillip Gallagher (smart), Debbie Gallagher (female), Carl Gallagher (cat murderer) and a baby (African-American).

It must have been extremely tempting to just transport the entire cast of Juno to the show's Chicago setting, and indeed Allison Janney was the first choice for Frank's love interest. In the ensuing pilot, she has been replaced by Joan Cusack. Cusack is only 48, but her best option is an alcoholic father of eight hundred? Maybe she can go back in time and beat out Laurie Metcalf for the role of Jackie. Normally, this would only be a small subplot among a greater array of complications, but it turns out that being extremely poor on television is really not that bad in comparison to being poor in real life.

Rossum's Fiona is the show's protagonist, although we only see her in the role of sex object or mother. The point of her existence on the show is to make us ask, "Should someone that beautiful be working concessions at a hockey game?" (The correct answer is maybe.) The point of her multiple brothers and sisters on the show is to create a jovial, Brady Bunch-esque atmosphere in order to address Real Issues. It should come as no surprise to anyone that not only are the Gallaghers poor, they're also homophobic, multiracial, homosexual racist animal-torturers. Their house alone should horrify anyone who knows how to operate a vacuum cleaner, and it is supposed to.

Above all, the Gallaghers are wonderfully happy, like clowns in Shakespeare. They may all have to crowd around one table at breakfast, but the important thing is that they have breakfast together, not the size of the table. Prepaid cellphones are available in every neighborhood in America for the price of a hamburger, but the Gallaghers share minutes on one cell phone, because poverty is a transient thing that can be passed around or ignored when feasible.

After her purse gets snatched at a Chicago club, Fiona meets her knight in shining armor, Steve (Justin Chatwin). In the show's least believable moment, he parks his Jaguar on her street. After having condomless intercourse with Fiona on her kitchen counter while her father is returned to the house by the police, he convinces her to be photographed for the above modeling portfolio, and ten years later she is accepting a check for $20 million to star in The Tourist. Well, they do have unprotected sex, that much is true.

Since Showtime mostly reaches upscale homes, the audience is turned into the good witch Glenda, hoping against hope that Dorothy will be plucked out of some depraved existence. I don't know whether it is sadder that whiny TV critics think Shameless is an approximation of lower-class Chicago, or that TV writers think residents of upper class Chicago are more worried about how hard "they party" — in the words of Frank Gallagher — than caring for their children.

Ronald Reagan suggested the Gallaghers should pull themselves up by their bootstraps. George Bush wondered if a bootstrap was what he used to ride horses at Kennebunkport, Bill Clinton felt their pain and appeared in every Southern Baptist Church in the country. George W. Bush barely left Crawford, Texas except in an ATV or Air Force One and Barack Obama took a million dollar Christmas vacation in his home state. The point of Roseanne was that poor people in Lanford were just like us. The point of Shameless is that they aren't.

Eleanor Morrow is the senior contributor to This Recording. She last wrote in these pages about the ITV series Downton Abbey

"Around Us (acoustic)" - Jonsi (mp3)

"Animal Arithmetic" - Jonsi (mp3)

"Time to Pretend (MGMT cover)" - Jonsi (mp3)

Wednesday
Nov102010

In Which We Find The Ideal Mad Men Replacement

Maids, Gays, and the Assassination of the Archduke Ferdinand in Sarajevo

by ELEANOR MORROW

Downton Abbey

creator Julian Fellowes

It was long overdue for Gosford Park screenwriter Julian Fellowes to be given the tools to a castle of his own. His place is Downton Abbey in 1912, where he reimagines the world of Jane Austen a century later as a far more realistic and wonderful place than those who wrote during the time of its existence could possibly understand.

The result is the complicated partitions of Downton Abbey, an hour-long serial that has more characters than any show ever done in prime time. Even a decade ago it would have taken an act of God to bring the soapy pleasures to our TV screens. Happily, the series that just completed its first season on England's ITV is already out on DVD, and plans are in the works for it to eventually come to NBC as a miniseries. (You can also download the second episode here.)

Much as Avatar ruined the budding romance between James Cameron and Sigourney Weaver, so too did the actual sinking of the Titanic shake things up at this ancient estate. Gifted with three lovely daughters, Robert Crawley (the magnetic Hugh Bonneville) sees the first two male heirs of his family perish in that maudlin disaster, and his distant relation, civil lawyer Matthew Crawley (Dan Stevens), becomes the inheritor of a massive fortune he never asked for.

John CrawleyThis lighthearted premise has adorned novels since Ms. Austen was in diapers, but the way it plays out is unlike any in British fiction. The real source of Downton's immense wealth is the Earl's monied American wife Cora (Elisabeth McGovern). Since the purpose of the Earl's marriage in the first place was to solidify the financial standing of the estate, it's now subject to English laws, which means that the Earl's first born daughter Mary (the weird-looking Michelle Crockery in star-making role) is shit out of luck when it comes to her future now that her fiance is holding hands with Kate Winslet in the deep.

Matthew and Mary CrawleyWhen we read novels that take place at the end of the English empire, we feel an affection for the customs of the period. The servants of Downton by and large don't share this optimistic view of the cosmos. The inclusion of the trials of the servant class was what make Gosford Park one of Robert Altman's most touching and vital films, and there are really no better protagonists than maidservants, butlers, and footmen.

As in Downton Abbey's literary opposite numbers, the real protagonist of the show is a heroine — Mary's maid Anna (Joanne Froggatt). Most of the experienced servants are given perilously complex portraits, and Anna is no different. Her love story with the estate's new arrival, former soldier turned manservant John Bates (Brendan Coyle) constitutes a breakthrough performance for both of them, and with record audiences, the show has already been renewed for a second eight episode season.

The show's second offering deals with how uncomfortable the country solicitor who will inherit Downton feels upon the ubiquitous presence of his manservant. Matthew Crawley is a spirited capitalist, and surely the idea of having a servant of one's own should feel strange to most of us. Downton Abbey's servants learn of this truth and others as they intuit the unfolding of events far better than their masters. But there Fellowes does an exciting dance, where he proves that the idea of the wise yet lowly individual's sagacity is purely an illusion of the masters themselves.

Mistakes were made. Downtown Abbey looks back at this period with something like the careful ministrations of Trey Parker's Captain Hindsight.

How silly the death of one duke and his wife seems a hundred years or so later, where we can see it for what it wasn't rather than what it was! Something the European Union took from us is the ability to imagine these places making war on another again, as if it were the first time we had observed it from across the Atlantic.

The show's first season ends with the onslaught of the War to End All Wars, the most significant event in history about which most Americans know almost nothing about. Men in the movies are always returning from war, so it is somewhat exciting and macabre to see a young man, in this case the wonderfully manipulative homosexual footman, go to one.

Americans dispense with their history when it is irrevelant to the present; the men and women of England have an empire to look back on and sigh appreciatively. What if we were watching the fall of the primacy of our civilization, dressed up in colorful attire and made fragnant by the mere passage of time? It is impossible for an American to truly understand these attitudes, because when she walks into a church she can be sure it is no more than four hundred or so years old.

Mary's aunt, called the Dowager Countess of Grantham, is played by the very familiar Maggie Smith. When she learns that her niece has been divested of the Downton fortune, she quickly springs into action to wed Mary to the new heir. Unlike the girl's overbearing Earl of a father, the Dowager Countess accomplishes her aims indirectly, and even while painting her as something of an antagonist to Matthew Crawley's equally headstrong mother, the show can't resist pointing out that she is the one in control. It is a mastery of the disappearing world.

Comparisons to Mad Men are inevitable and complimentary; but Julian Fellowes is no Matthew Weiner. (Almost everything has to be compared to Don Draper, or else how would we know what it is?) The 61-year old screenwriter penned romance novels in the 1970s under female pen names, and he desperately wants us to love the men and women in this milieu. In fact, the show is so redemptive that when one of the characters fails us, we might make excuses for them as we would with our own child.

In a way, of course, that is what is comforting about classics like Emma and Pride and Prejudice besides the gainful employment they offer to Colin Firth. The love affair between classically acted and styled hopefuls cannot really compare to a truer love between an audience and its wayward heroine, who is stranded on a dangerous road, lacking the proper footing for her horse. To talk your way out of such challenges represents the exact reason young people get in them in the first place.

To us, Downton Abbey is an even more foreign conglomeration than for the country that originated it. The dialogue is the best on television; the garish sets are unlike anything done outside of pay cable. In their arms we are transported: the dancing, the hunting, the endless meals might as well be taking place in sub-Saharan Africa, or on the moon. Here is a place where no secret remains for long, where we can go and escape into a life more sheltered than our own.

Eleanor Morrow is the senior contributor to This Recording. She is a writer living in Manhattan. She last wrote in these pages about the show Skins. She tumbls here.

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"Seven Sons" - Mini Mansions (mp3)

"Girls" - Mini Mansions (mp3)

"Crime of the Season" - Mini Mansions (mp3)