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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

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 kara vanderbijl (81)

Tuesday
Apr092013

In Which This Is Our Funeral

New Don

by KARA VANDERBIJL 

Mad Men 
creator Matthew Weiner

We left Don Draper in a bar making eyes at two women over an old-fashioned, a scene that is now as familiar to us as pretty much everything else he does. Yet this was a significant moment. Up until those last few minutes, Season 5 was a loop of repetitive images: Peggy feeling underappreciated, Megan crying, Betty eating, Roger bribing everyone to do his bidding, and the drinking. Oh, the drinking. But then Peggy quit Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce. And Lane hanged himself. And Don, who had been frighteningly faithful to Megan all season long, suddenly slipped back into his old familiar skin. We don’t know for sure whether or not he cheated that night, but that isn’t the point. The point is that the pattern broke.

It sucks a little bit when you realize that even your favorite shows have their limitations. It isn’t that Sunday’s premiere was boring, but I will say that I would have preferred if the entire thing had been a shot of Sally sassing her mother over a half-consumed jar of Smuckers in the Francis family mansion. Sally, who in her pre-teen bloom resembles nothing as much as a young bloggeur, calls her mother by her first name now and twists phone cords around her finger. She is the only one, at first blush, who has absolutely nothing to worry about. Even baby Gene should have some residual anxiety about his lack of screen time, especially since everyone still thinks he’s a baby. Shouldn’t he be at least 8 by now?

Matthew Weiner makes a point of concealing what year it is, but judging by the hairstyles and Jetson-esque costumes the ‘70s are right around the corner if not upon us. It is Christmas. Carols surf the radio waves in Hawaii where Don and Megan are vacationing. Of course, it’s for business: Sheraton wants SCDP to sell their latest hotel experience. Only Don seems to understand that success in an advertising career depends entirely on the amount of pleasure you experience on a regular basis. He’s reading Dante on the beach while Megan gets asked for autographs. Obviously, times have changed. Everyone looks older, but Don just looks tan.

If his series of reinvented selves have driven the series thus far, then it's his inability to change that closed last season and opens this one. The people who once tightly surrounded him have scattered. When he isn't writing the script, he hasn't got much to say, which is why we have to listen to Megan talk about how much better sex is when you're high for the first fifteen minutes of the episode. She is radiant and he doesn't give a shit. Like Betty and Peggy, she has moved so far out of his line of vision that when he looks at her, he's only looking at a past version of himself that he is no longer interested in embodying. What Don hasn't figured out, but what we're beginning to understand, is that none of this is about him.

I'm so proud of Peggy, even though I like her a little bit less with each season. Is it sacreligious to say that? She's kicking ass and taking names at Cutler, Gleason and Chaough, but it seems like she is still unhappy. I am waiting for her to become who she is instead of who she thinks she wants to be, that is, a female rival/foil for Don, who literally doesn't even remember her. Her boyfriend Abe lost last season's leather jackets in favor of a bad Jesus or John Lennon impersonation, but he's the muse behind her work and brings her sandwiches, so I suppose he can stick around.

Altogether the crew at Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce is a little shaggier and saggier. Stan has become a pothead which isn't any great surprise to anyone. Kenny's hair is parted differently, and Pete has sideburns. They appeared to repeat the same lines from some previous episode. When Don chides them for trivializing the word "love" in an ad for oven cleaner, I miss Peggy so much it hurts. They've replaced her with an older woman whose name I didn't catch, but here's hoping they give her more camera time than baby Gene.  At least now there is a grand staircase leading to a second floor and so many employees that Don can't keep them all straight. Business is booming, but for how long? A sense of unease filters through even the most idyllic vistas.

It's not just the riots, the misunderstood hippies, or Henry Francis' awful Christmas sweater. Peggy and Don can't pitch the ads they want to pitch because their best ideas are all suddenly about death. Vietnam is sending men home in bags. When Don suggests that Sheraton capitalize on the idea of shedding one's skin on the shores of Hawaii and launching off into the great unknown, the clients aren't the only ones thinking about suicide.

Lane Pryce's death last season was just the beginning. Underneath the luster of success looms impending doom. Don and Megan's doorman has a heart attack which he barely survives. Roger Sterling's mother dies, throwing him into the only version of an existential crisis he is capable of experiencing; the women in his life file by. He weeps when the man who shines his shoes also ends up dead. When Don stands by his office window and recalls the shores of Hawaii, I keep thinking he's going to jump. If the opening credits are any indication, he has a big fall coming. 

He's having another affair. It's with his downstairs neighbor, Dr. Rosen's wife, which wouldn't be so bad except that we spend the entire episode thinking that Don and Dr. Rosen have developed a friendship. I'm not sure I really want to watch Don anymore. He has moved to the periphery of the room, has had too much to drink on an empty stomach and sleeps through the most important parts. Betty just became a brunette and she's big and bold and I'm sure Sally has a picture of a boyfriend or an unfinished novel hidden in some girlish sock drawer somewhere. Megan is gracing a soap-opera screen four nights a week and Peggy is inspired. His end is just their beginning. 

Kara VanderBijl is the managing editor of This Recording. She is a writer living in Chicago. She last wrote in these pages about .gifs. She twitters here. You can find an archive of her writing on This Recording here.


Friday
Mar292013

In Which We Give You A .Gif

Refresh

by KARA VANDERBIJL  

Even on my best days I am a series of repetitive gestures, an assembly line that finishes the evening in pajamas on my apartment floor, up to the chin in chocolate milk. These gestures are a hodge-podge of embarrassing human habits and internet inside jokes. Lather, rinse, repeat. I don’t press snooze but in this defiance to laziness I am regular. I look at my bowl of oatmeal in the morning and feel the contents of my belly shift low on the grade. I suppose it makes sense that in the morning, when I am least conscious, I should brush my teeth in the same tired circular motions. I’ve perfected these gestures down to the very minute in which they are performed, so that I can continue sleeping in my brain while darkness lifts off the city and traffic picks up. 

My street smells like bacon when I step out the front door because the breakfast joint on the opposite corner just opened for business. The same two gentlemen sit on the same two seats in the train and talk (presumably) about the same facts. Why do I take pleasure in these things? Isn’t this the very stuff of ennui, the boring picket-fence existence that can only culminate in divorce, disaster, and early death by artificially-sweetened diabetic coma? I am an unabashed creature of habit — why try to make something “better” when it is already so very good? — which may have something to do with my deeply structured days, down to moments of calculated madness.  

Some of what gives people the deepest physical and psychological pleasure comes from repetitive motion. If you start rubbing your eyes right now, I guarantee that you won’t stop until you have fallen asleep or died, whichever comes first. Should I even mention the complex bodies of flavor that explode in your mouth the more you masticate? And sex, of course, the moment of orgasm almost overshadowed by the pleasure of repeated friction.  

I have to believe the Ancient World had some way of duplicating their pleasures, mirroring their experiences, revisiting emotions. What is catharsis but the repetitive performance of profound fears, meant to move the audience into some sort of controlled, miniature insanity?  The oral tradition was simply a jury-rigged copy machine for cultures that had not yet developed toner. Still, the ancients’ collective memory was vast. What would it have been like to live in a time when you were never guaranteed to see something more than once? (Including your best friend, who may at any point be carried off by barbarian hordes.)  

The invention of the VCR hastened the advent of cultural immortality. Not only did it become a way for parents to perpetuate an already overly-long and embarrassing childhood (especially in front of high-school crushes, college friends, and eventual love interests), but its crowning glory was without a doubt its ability to rewind the magnetic tape inside. Within seconds, you could return to a past sequence of frames and watch it again. (This process is also known as how I ruined my Anne of Green Gables box sets within a few years of obtaining them.) Before the cassette tape there was no such luxury; once simply had to be enough.  

When I was a child and briefly insomniac, my parents used to come into my bedroom and rub my back gently while I waited for sleep. The gesture was incredibly soothing and during these nocturnal visits, I couldn’t go to sleep because I wanted to enjoy every minute of the back rub. Waves of panic would wash over me, in rhythm to their sleepy hands, when I remembered that they would eventually tire of soothing me and return to their own bed. This worry made it impossible for me to fall asleep.  

I had similar phobias about my favorite foods, whenever they were served for dinner either at our home or in a stranger’s. I would watch over the bowl or platter like a hawk before the meal to make sure nobody snuck a handful or a bite before everyone had sat down, before everyone had a fair chance to get their share. I would eat the food as quickly as I could, so that I could get a second helping before anybody else. My greatest fear was that I would miss out on the repetition, that the last spoonful would be claimed by another person.  

Fear of missing out on something, whether it’s a material good or an experience, can cause repetitive behaviors. Addiction seeks to replicate a past euphoria, a previous sequence of frames that existed before the hangover or the overdose or the alienation. Be kind, rewind. Believing that there is not enough of a good thing to go around is a particular neurosis, one that thrives on habit, on going through motions, on completing a set of rituals that lead without fail to a specific result. Repetition ensures pleasure because if I’ve already experienced it, the memory of it will infuse every subsequent reinterpretation, whether or not I actually enjoy these simulacra as much as I enjoyed the original.  

If I can repeat any pleasure at any moment, pleasure becomes repetitive. I am less sensitive to it, and it eventually morphs into the very stream of mundane events which caused me to seek it in the first place. I am still not sure whether my enjoyment of something increases the more I am exposed to it or the more I must anticipate it.  

My coworker and I have begun to act out popular .gifs in response to questions or else, sometimes, within the stream of normal conversation. It is not an affectation, precursor to Tourette’s or even particularly clever. The .gif embodies and tests this debate; it takes plot elements, personal confessions, and pretty much any other weird thing you can find online out of their original context and places them on the surface of our collective consciousness. Are you happy about the donuts your coworker brought today, the aesthetic cocktail you’re about to enjoy, the concert you went to last night? Then scream “Bees!”, obviously. Navigating the train platform during rush hour calls for none other than this gem. It's not that difficult to say no, as long as you have a good sense of humor. Everything is so beautiful; so, so beautiful. Honey, puhleeze. Naturally, it's all about the queen.

And the list goes on. Almost nothing is spared the .gif treatment. Is it better to know a .gif’s original context? Does it make the joke funnier? A .gif is telling us part of a story; it would say more, but it can’t go any further. Complex context is reduced to a single movement. Like a broken record, it’s caught on a portion of a song, catering to attention spans the length of a blink, a scroll down.

How many hours have I spent clicking Refresh, picking at the virtual scab, waiting for something new to pop up and occupy me? Concerned as I am to miss out on something big, I have not yet realized that the reward is rarely worth this endless repetition. 

Kara VanderBijl is the managing editor of This Recording. She is a writer living in Chicago. She last wrote in these pages about embodiment. She twitters here.

"Kronos" - Keaton Henson (mp3)

"In The Morning" - Keaton Henson (mp3)

 

Monday
Feb252013

In Which We Give You A Body

Encounter

by KARA VANDERBIJL 

I have a hard time with art galleries, whether they are very small rooms on the way to work or large museums packed with artifacts. I would like to enjoy my time in them but for the most part, I do not. I have never had a satisfying experience in an art gallery and I would not say that it is the gallery’s fault or even particularly my fault. Why speak of fault at all?  

Art is about embodiment, and the space between the walls where the paintings hang protected and my body is large. I cannot be what I am seeing or do anything about it. I must blindly consume, pronounce a judgment, feign a stronger emotion than I am feeling. This appreciation is dismembered; much like standing in a crowded room, when I do not have enough hands to touch every person around me in greeting, enough mouths to speak to them, I cannot give enough of myself to this experience. I am paralyzed, made unbodied.

What do I mean when I say embodiment? I mean quite simply that the objects we create are incarnational. They are ideas become flesh, dwelling among us. They are real and not deceptive, although they are incredibly disruptive. To create an art object is to endow a beloved or feared thought with arms and legs and a will of its own and watch it build and destroy worlds. This has nothing to do with whether or not it is “good” by any standard. This has something to do with an old, bearded God reaching upside-down across the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel and touching a human into life. “I know you, come to life,” he says, “now go do.”

Art is incarnation. The only gallery I have enjoyed visiting is the Villa Borghese outside of Rome. Many of Bernini’s sculptures live in this manor, where only small groups of people are permitted to enter at a time. Apollo and Daphne, one of Bernini’s best-loved works, stands in the center of a room. You can walk up quite closely to it and look at the folds of stone cloth and the dimples where Apollo is pressing his fingers into Daphne’s flesh.

Apollo wants to rape Daphne. He has been chasing her through the woods, and when she realizes that she will not be able to outrun him, she calls upon her father to transform her into a laurel tree. As Apollo wraps an arm around her waist, he discovers bark where there was once soft skin. Her fingers and arms turn into branches. Her hair sprouts into the very wreath of leaves that Apollo will later use to decorate the heads of victors, of men become gods...

Only what is incarnate can be violated.

+

Being a body narrows you. Genetics predetermine the star of your face, the hills and valleys nourished below. I cannot be all things, as a body. As a mind, I can bear all things, believe all things, hope all things, endure all things. But my body is a full stop, a contained space, an impermanent expression of creative energy.

Art objects, too, are narrow. “Writing is a little door,” said Susan Sontag, “Some fantasies, like big pieces of furniture, won’t come through.” An art object is a slice of the world, a representative, perhaps male or female, of one race or another, a tightly-packaged experience. I want this object to be all things but to ask it to contain more than it does is to deny its very being. As an embodiment, it is bound by its curves and contours.

When I ask, “Why doesn’t this art object embody an experience that is important to me?”, and become angry, it is a bit like shaking a child and screaming, “Why aren’t you a bird?” I may marvel at the fact that this object could have been any number of things, so long as I recognize it for what it is, give it credit for the beautiful disaster that is its embodiment.

Criticizing an art object, faulting it for its lacks and limitations, is a violation; a small one, yes, but a violation nonetheless.

+

“What about bad art?”

Irrelevant question.

+

Dance, then, is absolutely pure. And isn’t it ironic that it is this form of art, this form of expression, that causes the most panic and self-consciousness? We dance in small, dim spaces, mostly hidden from view. The act has been called frivolous, childish, dangerous, yet there is no form of embodiment more intense than dancing. Here, various incarnations touch, interact, share a moment in time. If anything this is the only place where art can be panoramic: bigger than itself, more than a single voice, experience or expression.

+

 

Tastes and preferences change over time. If I am starving, I will eat what is put on the table in front of me, even if the meat is tainted or the fruit is rotten. Given the choice, though, I will eat what is satisfying, nutritious. Given a myriad of choices, I will eat what is popular, easily acquired.

Like so many people, I am secretly starving for companionship. I will listen to what voices I can get, at the press of a button, at the recommendation of a web site. I will not necessarily go looking for the relationships that truly fulfill me. Then, poorly satisfied, the words mal-absorbed into my system, I will complain that what I found was not what I was looking for.

When I learn that an object is poisonous, I know I should stay away from it. But it doesn’t take much pride for me to continue consuming it, believing as I do that my body is above corruption and violation.

I ask, “What will this do to me? What will I do with this?”

+

Is it important that I identify with an art object? In my view, I am simultaneously the most beautiful and the most foul being imaginable. This double vision applies, too, to art; what enamors me can in its own time become frightening. What is delicious can be too rich, too much for me to handle. I am not always ready to encounter what I observe. Like my relationships, the traumas of which mold and shape my personality, my interactions with art have taken me out of myself, made me intensely uncomfortable. The ones that have not done so, the ones that have been too cloying, too reassuring, I have not been able to trust.

This is, after all, a personality flaw.

But in the same way that I would not want a friend who would not tell me true — even if it meant that I had to see myself in a garish new light, hang in a different, less-visited corner of a gallery — I do not want to surround myself with art that does not occasionally put me on edge, or break my heart.

+

It takes two to create: myself, and the strain of thought inside of me that won’t be still until it has been given a body. 

Kara Vanderbijl is the senior editor of This Recording. She is a writer living in Chicago. She last wrote in these pages about Tumblr. She tumbls here and twitters here.