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Entries in karina wolf (12)


In Which Pedro Almodóvar Is Both Violator And Violated

Manipulation Without Intervention


The Skin I Live In
dir. Pedro Almodóvar
117 minutes

The first five minutes of a movie are like the opening parries of any relationship the early frames are petitions to invest in the story; looking back, the smallest gesture becomes an index for its unspooling. During the credits of The Skin I Live In, the director Pedro Almodóvar trains his camera on a book splayed across a workshop table: a collection of the works of Louise Bourgeois.

Almodóvar often uses the texts of other artists as a touchstone for his narratives: Tennessee Williams' A Streetcar Named Desire becomes a way to explore reinvention in All About My Mother, the steps of Pina Bausch’s “Café Müller” are a means to examine the attenuation of grief in Talk To Her. The appearance of Bourgeois’ work announces Almodóvar’s direction for The Skin I Live In: among Bourgeois’ most stunning achievements were the figures which she tailored from scraps of clothing gently stitched-together bodies that accordion from one another like paper dolls; torsos linked by copulation or, between mother and child, by placenta. They suggest the inextricable ties of biological intermingling, of libido and maternity. 

Bourgeois was a confessional artist and used materials and techniques – sewing and needlework, for example related to her origins (her parents owned a tapestry gallery) to explore questions of identity and self-definition. Perhaps most disturbing are her series of patchwork heads, which resemble balaclavas, lucha libre masks, or more gruesomely, the skins collected by Buffalo Bill in The Silence of the Lambs. These heads suggest the disfigurement that is a component of transformation and of survival.  

In The Skin I Live In, a loose adaptation of Thierry Jonquet's novel Mygale (Tarantula), an artisan fashions similar cloth heads. The creator is Vera (Elena Anaya), a stunning woman with moist, sad eyes, who spends much of the film kitted out in a flesh colored unitard. Vera is patient, prisoner and cherished fetish object in the home-laboratory of Dr. Roberto Ledgard (Antonio Banderas), a geneticist. 

As the doctor and his housekeeper Marilia (Marisa Paredes) surveil the young woman in a locked room retrieving food from a dumbwaiter, taking medications, practicing yoga, reclining with an Odalisque's awareness she is being watched one wonders how Vera came to be a privileged captive. She has an unsettling devotion to her jailor, and the investment seems reciprocal. Ledgard is as fixated upon his patient as she is by him, perhaps because Vera is the benefactor of an illicit form of Ledgard’s work. He has developed a skin that is impervious to fire. The suit Vera wears is to protect her man-made cells as they graft to her body. 

Marilia explains that the doctor's wife killed herself after being charred in a fire, but for much of the film, Almodóvar and cast generate a hope that Vera might be the doctor’s wife resurrected by the resources of a fervent husband. Certainly, Zeca, the crazed son to Marilia and unknown half-brother to Dr. Ledgard, is overpowered by the notion that Vera is Mrs. Ledgard. After a tussle with Marilia, he gains entry to Vera’s chambers, sheds the carnivale costume that disguises him, and perpetrates a bloody rape.

There are many kinds of violation in The Skin I Live In. Almodóvar is intent on unsettling the audience keeping the loyalties and orientation slightly askew. As Marilia watches the rape through the monitors, she mysteriously urges Ledgard to "kill Zeca, kill them both." Ledgard shoots the attacker and rushes to comfort his violated patient. The structure of the household and the film is forever altered:  in deference to her recent violation, Ledgard sets Vera free, and the two begin a chaste romantic relationship.

Almodóvar works through the conventions of his favorite genre melodrama and the story figure-eights through time to explore the emotional phantoms that shape the present action. The subplot of Ledgard's daughter, an emotionally fragile girl who is institutionalized after her mother’s death, becomes foreground:  the story's main action is the trajectory of Ledgard’s revenge upon a youth who date-rapes his daughter.

With his career in American animated franchises, Antonio Banderas can be dismissed as modest talent with an exceptional face. Here, in his native language, Banderas has never been as sinister. As Ledgard, his beauty is hollowed out by loss, then dehumanized by revenge. He displays a dispassion that would fit as easily on any number of Hitchcock’s anti-heroes. But more importantly, there is the seductive power of the violator and the violation itself.

One of the great tropes of cinema is the fetishisation of female (and male) flesh the wish fulfillment of intercourse with exceptionally beautiful people. The exquisite horror of The Skin I Live is the complicity of the viewer in the ravishing of Elena. What does it mean when you understand that (spoiler here) you’re watching a man have sex with a man who’s been given the perfect form of a flawless woman. What are you witnessing and what are you wishing for?

The Skin I Live In is a film that has a double life the behaviors we watch at the start of the film have completely revised implications at the film’s end. And so the movie must be viewed a second time, in the theater or the theater of the mind, to evaluate your understanding of the characters, their motivations and behavior.

As with other Almodóvar films, The Skin I Live In addresses libidinous passion, unrestrained violence as an expression of self, and, most importantly, identity that which is given, rendered, and staked out.  Therapeutic capture is familiar territory for Almodóvar, who more than any filmmaker parses the paradoxes of violence. He has made several films (Tie Me Up, Tie Me Down; Live Flesh) in which an amorous man holds captive the object of his lust/affection. Almodóvar invariably finds the tender and the humane in the violator without leaving his victim subordinate.

The violations become our own transgressions in reassembling the film. Isn't it the work of great novels and films not only to allow the audience to understand the lives of others, but to render the reprehensible, and even evil, identifiable to hold up a mirror? Almodóvar is equally excoriating when he addresses his own role as creator. Ledgard's work, like that of Dr. Frankenstein, casts a terrible shadow over the act of creation. On the other hand, the work of Vera, who stitches together rows of cloth figures and scrawls numbers and mysterious phrases on the walls of her room with an unexplained urgency, is a plea for art's resurrecting properties. As Louise Bourgeois stated: "Art is a guarantee of sanity. That is the most important thing I've said."

Karina Wolf is the senior contributor to This Recording. She is a writer living in New York. She tumbls here and twitters here. She last wrote in these pages on Roman Polanski's Repulsion. You can find an archive of her writing on This Recording here.

"In the Present" - Miró Belle (mp3)

"Heart String Swelling" - Miró Belle (mp3)

"21 Years Old Questions" - Miró Belle (mp3)



In Which These Are Sisters In Disguise

This week we look back at the films of Roman Polanski.

The Double Life


dir. Roman Polanski
105 minutes

Catherine Deneuve followed her sister Françoise Dorléac into filmmaking. Acting was the family business – their father had been a voiceover artist, their mother a doyenne at the Odeon Theatre, and their grandmother an off-stage prompter in Paris. Françoise started in a traditional way, studying at the Conservatoire for a career on the stage.

Catherine was less certain — her first job was for pocket money, playing her sister's twin in Les Collegiennes. They were both beautiful: at times you can see the resemblance, like a double exposed negative of the same person. She took her mother's maiden name, Deneuve, to separate herself professionally. Personally, they were distinct in several ways: Françoise was outgoing, impetuous, impatient. Catherine was inward, shy, hesitant.

Like many actors who began as children, Catherine was employed for the implications of her form. In even her youngest, most tentative roles, she imparts an unusual melancholy – she is an ingénue only in her Jacques Demy film, the candy-colored The Umbrellas of Cherbourg. From Demy she learned the importance of mise-en-scene, the choreography of a film's aesthetic elements. Perhaps because she was an untrained child actress, she was willing to be led. In part, it is this strange ability and self-knowledge, this volition to be used, that makes Deneuve the perfect heroine for so many directors.

Polanski uses her sadness and inexperience to great effect in Repulsion. The psychological horror film was the director's first in English. All his movies have a hermetic quality – inspired by but unrelated to the living world. This one, about a French girl in London whose mind is eclipsed by madness, was triply removed from reality:

DENEUVE: Three of us were French: Roman, who, despite being Polish, spoke French all the time, Gérard Brach, and me. We really were the Three Musketeers. Everybody else on set was British. Roman knew exactly how to be respected by the crew, he was no pushover. But because we spoke French, we experienced the making of that film a little from the sidelines, in a rather unique atmosphere. We were a core within the team.

In TV footage from his set, Polanski demonstrates for his star the body language and timing of her character’s reactions quite specifically. He counts out the rhythms of the camera movements; he mimes the intensely fragile delivery of the central character. Deneuve says she is quite pleased with the director: he began his career as a performer, so he understands how to talk to an actor.

Deneuve described the shooting of the fraught film as paradoxically happy. She had a British husband, David Bailey (the inspiration for the lothario photographer in Antonioni’s Blow Up), tony friends (Mick Jagger was the best man at her London wedding) and a sympathetic director who spoke her language (unlike her husband).

There are probably as many ways to direct a movie as there are auteurs. But part of the impulse to produce an effect: I’ve sat with more than one director who has monitored the minute physical reactions of an audience during a screening. The profession is part puppetry and part self-revelation, wherein the director can mold a universe in which the characters and story create a pleasing reality (though pleasing for a director might mean emotional provocation for everyone else).

By having a barely-fluent lead, Polanski's film reinforces the odd idea that sound and dialogue don’t mean much in film. At other times, his sets and cultural referents are those of a person who may have read about a place but never visited it. It’s as if all experience of the outer world is filtered in third-hand. This is fine, of course. Polanski isn’t exactly interested in recreating a documentary world. One can be tempted to say that perhaps it's a documentary of Polanski’s rather unusual psyche.

Repulsion is an experimental film, the kind a college student might attempt, with its fish-eyed closeups of the heroine, who moves from extreme sensitivity to murder and madness. At times, the film is little more than an excuse to look — at length — at one of the world’s most beautiful women. And to watch her suffer, and then take sudden, poisonous revenge on the world that threatens her.

His films as recently as The Ghost Writer and The Pianist make it seem that Polanski’s priorities are unchanged. I was impressed with The Pianist's long passages of silence, when the hero wanders an empty expanse of bombed out Warsaw; his isolation is heightened by the temporary hearing impairment from an explosion. Many of Polanski's characters are cushioned by a similar deprivation. Silence can be restful and protective, or pernicious and toxic.

In 1966's Cul-de-sac, human nature is equivalent to a scorpion’s. Françoise Dorléac's Teresa is unfaithful, slightly spoiled, beautiful and reactive, very much the opposite of Deneuve’s Carol in Repulsion. She’s a real woman who exists in the world — confined in a marriage to an ineffectual but very wealthy member of the British upper class.

The film begins with a couple of criminals whose car stalls on a beach in low tide. One of the pair is gravely wounded. The other, a slab of a man with a boxer’s brow, stumbles off in search of help — he finds Françoise, topless on the beach and embracing a young man. The bully wanders onto the estate — and there we discover Françoise is actually married, and to a different man from the one she was kissing. The husband is George, a bald would-be gentleman who has bought an island castle, it seems, to show off to his friends.

Polanski is terrific at using the camera for a slow, controlled revelation. There's an odd visual pantomime of the exchange of gender roles. Teresa dresses George in her dressing gown, then paints makeup on his face. It’s completely plausible behavior, but as Polanski films it, it’s troubling. What is the relationship between these two? The decoration of George is intimate and playful but irreverent and emasculating. In effect, she dominates him. When the criminal breaks into the house at night to use their telephone, George responds to the intruder while still in female dress. It is utterly impossible for him to regain his footing as the lord of the manor, and the couple are quickly held hostage by the brute who awaits the arrival of Mr. Kastelbach, a Beckettian crime lord whose arrival will signal their delivery to safety. Naturally, Mr. Kastelbach never shows. The criminals don’t survive the siege — but that is unsurprising. The couple is unspared as well, mostly by their own violence.

Polanski assigns intensely angry impulses to his protagonists. When impotent, they have diversely self-harming behaviors. Françoise's character becomes provocative, setting fires between the toes of their sleeping attacker and leveling an empty shotgun at herself while she checks to see the gauges are empty. 

Cul-de-sac has a broader arc of action, a more diverse playing field of characters. So why does Repulsion linger in the public imagination?

ARNAUD DESPLECHIN: What I see is the mark of an auteur. Beyond the excellence of your acting, what all your films seem to share, is your gaze, your point of view.

DENEUVE: Yes, you’re right, that’s what it is: a gaze. I think I’ve always leaned toward that. Perhaps because I never went to acting school and never worked with actors. I only ever met them on film sets — I never really had any actor friends, apart from my sister. I was always on the director’s side, or the screenwriter’s. I didn’t choose to, it just happened.”

AD: Like the film you made with Demy, Repulsion demands a closeness between the director and the actor.

CD: Yes, I felt very, very close to Roman. That’s the film I feel I helped make. The producers were used to producing porn. It was a small budget film and for them, nothing of great consequence.

You could argue that Françoise was the better-looking sister, with more symmetrical features and a lither figure. Catherine had prominent eyes, deeply shadowed eyes. Her jaw and nose are less graceful. But why is she the greater star?

In Four Beats To The Bar And No Cheating, Bailey contrasts his first wife and muse Deneuve with his second, supermodel Jean Shrimpton, who he calls a "democratic beauty." Shrimpton was unintimidating and appealing to many. Of course, one could say "undemocratic beauty" is really what we know as "cute."

There's a notable immobility in her expressions — she is an actress who learned her craft while she was doing it, from other actors, and perhaps more importantly, from the directors who saw her as the perfect conspirator. When she's interviewed as a young woman, her inexperience is evident. She purses her lips and flirts with the camera with the assuredness of the beautiful (the smiles, flicking her tongue along her upper lip when she talks). What's wonderful about her as an actress is that she loses all those ticks onscreen.

She is her own center of gravity — and for the first chapter of her career, seemed to work better in films that were overly stylized. Her initial skills as an actress were the guilelessness and remove that accompanied her odd, slightly disturbing beauty. She lets herself go: "Sometimes you have to accept that the image is more powerful than you…" 

Karina Wolf is the senior contributor to This Recording. She is a writer living in Manhattan. She tumbls here and twitters here. She last wrote in these pages about the rabbit hole. Her book The Insomniacs is forthcoming from Penguin Putnam.

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"Paris Paris" - Malcolm McLaren & Catherine Denueve (mp3)

"Je T'aime...Moi Non Plus" - Malcolm McLaren (mp3)

"Revenge of the Flowers" - Malcolm McLaren & Francoise Hardy (mp3)

"La Main Parisienne" - Malcolm McLaren (mp3)

He's Only One Man: Roman Polanski

Daniel D'Addario on Frantic

Kara VanderBijl on Tess

Alex Carnevale on Bitter Moon

Karina Wolf on Repulsion & Cul-de-sac

Durga Chew-Bose on Rosemary's Baby

Polanski's Script


In Which We Are The Picture Of Mental Health

The Rabbit Hole


On Wednesday, Julia says she doesn’t want us to read for an entire week. No, she amends, not just no reading, also no talk radio, no music with lyrics, no television, no e-mail, no web browsing, and no chatty phone calls that we wouldn’t ordinarily make. "I'm not going to tell anyone not to see a movie," she hedges. "But there may be other things you can do with your time."

The Artist’s Way is the perfect workshop for an aspiring Left Coast-ist. There are affirmations, visualizations, and the idealization of synchronicitous events. The author of the book and workshop, Julia Cameron, also talks about her ex-husband, Martin Scorsese (Sicilian Scorpio) and about herself (sensitive Pisces). She’s writing a musical and, sometimes, there is group singing, which she insists puts us in touch with our better nature. It’s a strange group, between 50 and 70 students, a salad of Westchester moms, brides-to-be, guys with broken hearts and broken limbs, students who are doing NIA dancing, whatever that is, and a photographer who’s following the Diamond Approach. A latently angry lot. This is group therapy for artists, creative recovery according to Julia.

I’m open-minded about personal betterment strategies. I’ve been subjected to a lot of them, thanks to all the therapists in the family. I’m also starting to think that, like my dogs and my niece, I’d have a greater sense of security from a better set of rules. But as a freelancer who works from home, I know this will be an interesting experiment in madness.

On the way out, I check for texts, e-mails, and Facebook updates, call my dad and walk to Magnolia to buy a fortifying dose of sugar. I suspect that the instrumental Arvö Part on my laptop will only heighten this Bergmanesque austerity, so I stuff my iTunes with Charlie Parker and Miles Davis (no duets with Ella, though: no lyrics!). I am now hopped up on green tea latte and chocolate cupcake. There is nothing to do but spy on the naked neighbors, clean the refrigerator and listen to “In a Sentimental Mood” 45 times.

Before I fired my acupuncturist, Dr. Y determined (through muscle testing) that all my problems stemmed from “the concept of living through others”. I want to congratulate him—the entirety of my thoughts and memories seem to come from media, ether- and other-generated materials. I linger nostalgically over my most recent media forays: that puzzling YouTube clip about John “Walnuts” McCain; the wiki entry about Charlie Parker’s recording of "Lover Man"; those Asobi Seksu songs.

Certain half-measures occur. Can I, for example, flip through the Maira & Tibor Kalman book of photos that I just bought? No words there. But I’m bargaining. It would be a little like when I went to the fascist nutritionist who nixed sugar, dairy, wheat, starches, fruit, caffeine, and alcohol from my diet. Sometimes the desire for bread became so intense that I’d have to unfasten a bag of sourdough just to sniff at the contents. If I’m still craving it, I’m probably not cured.

On Thursday, I’m perfect — most of the day. It’s raining so I can’t get Hector to install the pigeon wires. There is nothing to do but walk the pups and write.

I had already made plans to see Gemma Hayes and Mundy at Mercury Lounge, and I decide to soak up every locution and lyric that comes my way. Nourishment for my inner artist. Gemma Hayes has West Coast malaise: she was shopping for a bikini in LA and discovered the one she liked was dry clean only. Get it? Her remarks are a little evolved for the crowd, a rowdy Saint Patrick’s day warm up. But she is gracious when someone’s mobile phone interferes with the sound, and her song “Back of My Hand” echoes pleasantly in my word-parched brain.

Gemma admits that kids are cruel. When she was 9 or 10, there was a little boy in her class who kissed her while the teacher was writing on the blackboard. All the other students jeered. Gemma waited after school, beat the crap out of him, and threw the boy and all his copybooks into a puddle. A few days later, the boy came over to her, apologized and gave her a present. "So treat ’em mean, I guess," she says, after apologizing to the memory of the humiliated schoolboy.

Mundy is a little rough around the edges. "Someone up here farted?" He waves his hands around. “It’s a fart with wings, then. Or someone has a very high ass.” He plays a couple of songs. I even get a shout out before his single from the Romeo + Juliet soundtrack. There are a couple of wolf whistles, though my name means, obviously, nothing and Mundy also dedicates the song to some stewardesses, buxom blondes, and bartenders who are following him around.

Afterward, we find ourselves at the Scratcher, where Paddy Casey is sitting at the bar like a gnome on a toadstool. Mundy comes along, then the cabin crew from his Aer Lingus flight, then the guy from The Frames who won the Oscar.

At the bar, we talk to a transplanted record producer, Shuggie, whose eyes are springing from his head—think Susan Sarandon with hyperthyroidism. Can you guess where my name comes from, he challenges us. The most famous Shuggie of them all. Can you guess. Guess.

I take a stab. Shuggie Otis?

No. He’s crestfallen. Sugar Ray Leonard.

I met Mundy in Monaghan. Recalling this, he pulls out the book he’s reading — Patrick Kavanagh, he believes, is going to inspire the final song for his new album. I’m three paragraphs into the Monaghan poet’s The Green Fool before I realize I’m having Word Rush. I feel exhilarated and slightly queasy, the sensation you’d have shopping at the Columbus Circle Whole Foods after exiting a sensory-deprivation tank.

I hand back the book and start talking to Paddy, who is a cross between Vladimir Putin, Crispin Glover and Lyle Lovett. Discretion of Putin, stare of Crispin, frizzy hair of Lyle. He also has the tiniest, most recalcitrant mouth I’ve ever seen. His cure for writer’s block, he tells Mundy, is to unplug everything in the house and lie in the dark until something happens. Seems to work; he’s being followed around by MTV for a documentary about his new album.

We notice that Paddy is wearing seven layers of zip-up jackets. He is his own nesting babushka/tootsie roll pop. We set about unlayering Paddy Casey. He is resistant. He leaves at four because he has to make an in-store appearance at ten in the morning. How are you going to wake up, we ask him. I don’t have to wake up. He smirks. Someone will do that for me. This reinforces my thought that everyone needs personal support staff.

I have a hangover for four days.

The following afternoon, I meet another friend-from-abroad and we walk down past Battery Park to the piers. Spalding Gray departed on his final ferry ride here and this is the site of the catalytic events of Desperately Seeking Susan, when Rosanna Arquette loses her memory. It is pissing rain but my friend has never seen the Statue of Liberty and we decide to take the trip anyway. Why not? A chance to rewrite history. The last time I was in Staten Island, I had gotten trapped at a party in New Dorp and a 50 year old roadie was trying to read my palm (I was 17).

On the way over, it is grey and foggy and the windows are so steamed up it is impossible to see anything. We get out of the station, head for a bar and decide to exchange music. I’m violating the word-rules again but I reason that this is more of a melodic dialogue — my friend wants to play something new he’s written.

A big, balding, grey-complected guy is writing out bills at the bar. Hey, he yells. Take the earphones out and talk to each other. He keeps harassing until we turn off the iPods and chat to him. Not talking is gonna break you guys up. I’m assuming you’re a couple.

We were, says my friend. We broke up an hour ago but we’re thinking of getting back together.

Sometimes people break up in order to make up. It’s the making up, if you know what I mean. Harold — or Harry, or Hal — starts singing Al Green songs. He’s a widower (last May) but feels that he’s ready to move on. He also tells us that he lived in Bournemouth for 6 months, and the highlight of that time was his participation in Grab a Granny parties, the very Brit-perv tradition of going off for a night with an elderly woman. Hal went home with a 70 year old when he was 35, he tells us, and it was the best sex of his life. We cover our ears.

We return in heavy rain to line up for the departing boat. There is a giant aquarium in the waiting area. We look at the fishes. One of them looks like a parrot (it has blue, beaky lips), one is a stick of chewing gum, the silver ones resemble Lamborghinis, one strangely shaped guy with bulging eyes is kind of "slow." On the return, the ferry passes the Statue of Liberty, and we imagine having the lone night watchman job.

We had a week-long fling a while ago, me and this friend; we always have a good time but I’m suddenly certain that Julia would say the right thing is always to keep moving forward.

The next day, my father, Dr. W, stops by after the panel on erotic transference. He's glowing. He liked all the speakers, he tells me, even the elderly Jungian, who was happily married and only realized her feelings of eros toward a patient after having a dream in which a Bengal tiger was riding shotgun in her car. I think you would have found it enormously helpful, my father tells me. Sometimes he forgets that I am not a work colleague. Or maybe it’s wishful thinking. He has brought mail, including books I had ordered from Amazon. I’m not tempted, even though I had so much coffee at lunch that I lie in bed all night, thinking. Barry has started to snore. I wonder if he has a deviated septum, sleep apnea, food allergies.

On Sunday, I am forced to read. In these cases, Julia advises, we should keep a media log. I head up to my teaching job, spend the morning with the Koreans and write down: 7 vocabulary questions, one dual passage on Gone with the Wind and Sherlock Holmes, one long passage on wolf behavior, one New Yorker article on Michelle Obama.

I’m stoic on the return subway. I can’t listen to any more ambient music. I will just look at people, the way Maira Kalman does. I get home, can’t sleep, eat quantities of sugar, tear open the box from Amazon and sink into 90 pages of Susan Shapiro’s addiction memoir, in which she chronicles giving up smoking, toking, drinking, eating bread and chewing gum. I don’t even feel guilty, I’m enjoying it so much. I force myself to stop and do my own writing. I stop my own writing and finish the entire book.

Julia would call this a binge. Shapiro would say I’m "self-soothing" by practicing my word habit. Learn to get comfortable with suffering, her shrink Dr. Winters asserts.

I have been trying all week to think up things to tell George, my new therapist, and have been keeping a list of dreams. Luckily, the caffeine intake has produced some restless nights. I am able to recall that the character from V for Vendetta pursued me in the most recent one. George hasn’t seen Vendetta so he asks me to free-associate on the Hugo Weaving character. He’s wearing a Guy Fawkes mask, I muse. When I say that I associate Guy Fawkes with resistance instead of rebellion, George finds it very interesting.

He’s also skeptical about the word assignment. I consider aloud whether conversation and alcohol are in violation of the no-media rule.

“Words are supposedly allowing me to avoid feeling and now maybe I’m substituting conversation for feeling.” George thinks I think too much, and reminds me that it is healing to interact with other human beings. "I think it’s okay if you skip the logos fast," he advises. In celebration, I go home and listen to podcasts with the Coen brothers and the screenwriter Ronald Harwood. Harwood is out of this world.

Then I receive an alarming e-mail from my sister-in-law. I can’t help but read it.

I can't believe you are taking an actual class with the woman who wrote the Artist's Way! I can't believe it! I can almost remember her name, is it Julia Cameron? I didn't realize she had been married to Martin Scorsese. How many times has he been married, anyway? I know about 20 years ago he was married to a woman who had his baby at like age 55, but since it wasn't all over the news, I am guessing she used someone else's eggs and they hush hushed it. I remember thinking that was very intriguing at the time, and wondering why I couldn't read all about it in People magazine. Was that the same woman?

I faithfully followed her book during a period when I was feeling incredibly uncreative, and I really adhered to the whole protocol down to the last detail. I certainly DO remember how tough it was not to read anything for that time, I remember forcing myself not to cheat and read the cereal box at breakfast.

Busted. My sister-in-law goes on to tell me that she was able to earn a living entirely from her own artwork after following the protocol in this book. I have to reconsider George’s words.

Elizabeth Hardwick’s book Seduction and Betrayal lies abandoned by the nightstand. In it, she writes about my favorite novel, Wuthering Heights. WH is not a deconstruction of social constructs like Charlotte’s Jane Eyre. (Was it Charlotte who wrote Jane Eyre? Without the internet, I’m creating an entire literary history, like that woman who wrote a world history entirely from her own spotty memory; or Maira Kalman’s mother, who drew a subjective map of the United States when compromised by dementia). The novel’s interest is in following a perpetuating psychic trap. And by this point, I know: I am caught in my own psychic trap.

I survive until Wednesday. Before class, I run down and take a picture of the billboard I keep thinking about whenever I walk by the river. Albee is always trenchant:

The best part of Wednesday night is when Julia reads out our cards about how we’ve completed the weekly assignments.

We get to hear what each person has done for his artist date (an activity, carried out alone, that’s fun or stimulating artistically). Someone went to see Richard Diebenkorn; someone saw Dianne Wiest in The Cherry Orchard; someone had a threesome. “I know it involves two other people, but my artist self was very happy.” Another student: “I wrote a love letter to a woman whom I’ve recently fallen in love with. I’m a woman with a boyfriend. It’s your fault, Cameron.” Guffaws and clapping.

Then we talk about how people experienced the reading ban. Some people found that words were a barrier between themselves and their own perceptions. Some discovered that no media meant they stopped living vicariously. Some people drew better boundaries. One student asks Julia how often she uses these kinds of strategies in her own life. “As needed,” Julia says. “I do it when the class does it. And then sometimes spontaneously. Probably a lot of you know that I had a nervous breakdown last year.”

Clearly, not everyone knows she had a nervous breakdown last year.

A guy who has told me he’s depressed raises his hand and asks, “So what were the causes of your breakdown? Were they mostly external things?” I know that he’s asking because of his own difficulties, but it feels like an invasive question in front of a huge group.

Julia answers pretty honestly. A combination of external things, the wrong meds, a family history of depression — this hasn’t been the first time. She is so gracious and poised. Everyone is quiet. "I was fine on Tuesday — I was teaching this class — then all of a sudden, I couldn’t form sentences. My mind was fragmented. And it was interesting, because a lot of the recuperative therapy involved exercises like the ones in creativity class." Suddenly, everyone laughs and any resistance evaporates.

Karina Wolf is the senior contributor to This Recording. She is a writer living in Manhattan. She twitters here and tumbls here. You can find an archive of her writing on This Recording here.

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