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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 michael sheen (3)


In Which We Wake Up And Jennifer Lawrence Is Kinda There

The Sleeping Girl


dir. Morten Tyldum
116 minutes

It is a very weird moment in Passengers when Jim Preston (Chris Pratt) walks by Aurora Lane (Jennifer Lawrence) in her hibernation pod. He has been woken up ninety years too soon on his generation starship, and he is looking for some feminine companionship. The only place he can go for advice is the ship's bar, where an android played by Sarah Silverman's boyfriend tells him not to wake her from hibernation. Jim is so sexually frustrated by Aurora's unavailability that he takes out his anger on a boxing bag. "She's the perfect woman," he whines to no one in particular, even though he has never met her.

Well, Aurora is not the perfect woman, not by a long shot. Jim finds various videotapes of her recorded by the company previous to her interstellar journey that make it clear she is a pretentious twerp. He is still fixated on this one birthmark on her neck and he ends her hibernation anyway, a move so incredibly selfish that is impossibly to like or even respect his character. But then, the more you learn about Chris Pratt, the more impossible it is is like or respect him, too.

Lawrence looks relatively emaciated for the role, but director Morten Tyldum goes to great pains to make her appear very soft. She wakes up with complete makeup, including eyeshadow and immediately has a panic attack that the two of them are alone together. I guess she is afraid of what will happen?

She tells Jim that she can't imagine being completely alone for a year, like this is the dirt-worst nightmare that could befall anyone ever. The room he lives in has a basketball court, couldn't he like work on his jump shot and read Elena Ferrante books? That would have taken until approximately June, and he could have ruined a woman's life after that.

Even though there's a bunch of hibernation pods around that could probably be used to go back to sleep, I guess a part of Jim doesn't really want to, given that he has unlimited alcohol, food and Jennifer Lawrence. The two of them put a serious focus on breaking into the command deck, although it is somewhat unclear as to what they could accomplish there. Eventually they notice that the ship's automation seems somewhat awry, which should have tipped them off to preserving food and reproducing. The two have a warped, semi-passionate sex scene, not halfway as erotic as it is seeing Jennifer Lawrence in a full-body white swimsuit.

With nothing else to distract her, Aurora focuses in on her traveling mate. She asks him questions like she is a combination between Studs Terkel and Jane Pauley. One night she gets dressed up for him and he's like, "Wow." She tells him that he cleans up pretty good as well and they pretend to go on this weird date where it is not completely clear whether or not Jim plans to drug this woman. Aurora has applied an astonishing amount of makeup by this point, like gobs of it.

Now that these two are a couple they try having "spontaneous" sex around the ship and running (?). At this point Passengers slows to a glacial, disgusting crawl. Let me attempt to describe the kind of chemistry Chris Pratt and Jennifer Lawrence have together. It is like when you have a friend who is a very complicated woman, and she meets a man who gets her. Then one time you're out with both of them at a restaurant, and while Jennifer Lawrence is in the bathroom, Chris Pratt tells you that he's on Reddit.

In a very emotional scene, Aurora finds out that Jim woke her up from hibernation, and by this point we sort of hope she murders him and bags his body. Instead she throws a vase and sobs.

The ship breaks down completely after that, and these two twits haven't saved any food whatsoever. Fortunately, Laurence Fishburne wakes up and the entire rest of the plot is forgotten about in short order. Even though Fishburne is the only one who has any idea what is going on, Aurora is immediately combative with him and the only thing she can think of is to tell him how upset she is that the breakfast bar is malfunctioning.

"It's murder," Aurora tells Laurence Fishburne about her predicament, and he gives her a folksy metaphorical, semi-racist way to come to terms with the situation. Shortly thereafter he dies. While the one-sheet for Passengers, promises "there is a reason they woke up," it turns out there is not really a reason whatsoever, and Aurora figures out how to love her murderer. Maybe she'll start doing feminist movies next year.

Eleanor Morrow is the senior contributor to This Recording. You can find an archive of her writing on This Recording here.


In Which We Observe Lizzy Caplan In Her Natural Environment

Arching Back


Masters of Sex
creator Michelle Ashford

Lizzy Caplan's fake eyebrows are organisms in themselves. They represent the little amputations that everyone has on Showtime's Masters of Sex. They indicate the very opposite of what seems most probable. It would be most probable for Lizzy's titular boss, William Masters, to be happy with his blonde, pretty wife and new baby boy. Instead, he is miserable: when his son cries, he maliciously places "Bye Bye Love" on the record player. When his mother objects, he sends her back to Ohio.

Masters' own missing pieces are all figments of his imagination. He is not really devoid of anything, since he is a man. Others shamed by the explicit depictions in his revolutionary sex studies are reduced to menial labor and propositioned in bathrooms, but he not only gets his sex study back, he gets a new gig at a hospital with a lewd president (Danny Huston).

It is the wackiest kind of fun to watch Michael Sheen play this man who can emit so little of himself into others without ceasing to function. Masters' spastic attempts at trying to relate to people at all transform into misunderstandings that feature great deal of apprehension on both sides. In the bedroom he is like a tiger, all energy directed towards what he wants. A killing lion is to be envied; isn't William Masters just Aslan in a gynecologist's wardrobe?

The revolution can never completely succeed or fail because of men like Masters, who never forget that they are beasts, and never stop being ashamed of it. It is substantially easier to feel sympathy for someone like that than, say, Alec Baldwin. Don Draper can damn well help being who he is. Masters lacks that basic programming of self-awareness, and never bothers to apologize for not having it.

A friend of mine recently visited St. Louis. She said there was nothing there. Masters of Sex is as far from a love letter to the area as you can imagine. You can ascend, she said, in a tiny little pod that takes you to the top of the city's signature arch. At its zenith, you are still somewhere between the ground and the sky, and you have had to give up so much to reach it.

Lizzy Caplan/Virginia Johnson does not seem to spend very much time with her two children by her first husband. The show seems to share Sheen/Masters' disappointment with the sinister beasts, even though Virginia's kids are adorable and nearly self-sustaining. To feed them she tries selling diet pills, something she obviously would never do.

Children on Masters of Sex are solely an appendage that no one knows what to do with. When one philandering doctor's wife finds out his infidelities, she brings the kids to the hospital so that they can all confront him. (The offending adulterer hides under a desk.) The young ones are always around when you do not want them, and missing or nonexistent when you do.

Virginia breaks up with would-be fiance Ethan on the phone, and Dr. Masters hears her doing it in the next room. Later, Virginia asks if he heard her, as she had intended, and he said that he had, and did not sound pleased by the content of the call. How difficult it is to not hear a judge's sentence and think your fate is not being described as well!

The best part of the entire show is William Masters' home. The doctor has no eye for furnishings himself, and how his wife arranged the space is pleasing to him, but also a disturbing exertion of control. He strains at that, and there is something so lonely about his environment - open spaces in the living area that he feels drawn to not occupy, or move through quickly. Standing in the middle of his own house, he looks as if he might disappear into the wallpaper.

At times people fall out of love. But that is only rarely, if it really was love at the start. Usually what happens is that a misunderstanding of sorts existed. It went uncorrected at the time. The affair went on, resonating like love in each chasm or enclosed place, dwarfed only by innocence and naivete. No one on Masters of Sex can claim to be innocent, so it should not be surprising that these people are so frequently unsure whether or not they are in love.

There is a snake that lived in Nysa that always acted in the same fashion as its prey. If its prey fell in love and cozied up to the snake, the reptile would return the warmth to whatever extent he could. If the prey struck out at him in jest, he responded the same. And finally, when the prey ceased being prey, the snake hid.

Eleanor Morrow is the senior contributor to This Recording. She is a writer living in Manhattan. You can find an archive of her writing on This Recording here.

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In Which We Routinely Roll Our Eyes At Institutional Sexism

For Sex and For Science


Masters of Sex
creator Michelle Ashford

There is an awkward moment in the second episode of Showtime’s Masters of Sex, and it happens fully clothed. It’s October 1956 and a young woman, called Jane, is reading alone in the canteen of Washington University Hospital when she is approached by two men. The first is married and intent on beginning an affair which she, politely, declines. The second asks her to recommend the sluttiest girl in the room. Again, Jane declines, laughing at both parties as she pulls the book’s title into view. As she reads aloud, the audience is copied in on the joke. These men never had a chance: Jane’s reading The Second Sex

The prop department’s brief nod to philosophy would be laughable, if it wasn’t so sincere. Jane’s moment of triumph in the canteen is short, but the agenda bashing flash of The Second Sex is part of a disarming directness that runs throughout the show’s opening episodes.

Based on Thomas Maier’s 2009 biography, and inheriting its unenviable title, Masters of Sex is the True Hollywood Story of respected gynaecologist William H. Masters (Michael Sheen) and his secretary-turned-collaborator Virginia Johnson (Lizzy Caplan) as they begin their ground-breaking research into human sexuality.

This much history, and Google, can fill in: Masters and Johnson worked for nearly forty years to develop a scientific dialect for the various stages of copulation, tireless in their pursuit of a language for orgasm that moved beyond puritanism and witchcraft. From the first episode, we see the difficulties of turning sex into science; their work was in constant danger of being shut down, by every possible authority. Masters of Sex begins with their first tentative, illegal encounters as they trail brothels in search of willing subjects, and continues as Masters, a frigid but rigorous scientist, and Johnson, a sex positive anachronism, convince the chastened university to work in their (sexual) favour.

With this relationship at its heart, Masters of Sex can’t afford to stand on ceremony. It’s a tale of unravelling and revealing, of candour and seriousness, of reclaiming what is deemed unknowable as a field of potential discovery. Sex is the ultimate unmentionable and the clothes are off within the first few minutes. By the end of the pilot, Masters and Johnson are brandishing a vibrator/camera named ‘Ulysses’ as the provost of the university (a wonderfully perplexed Beau Bridges) internally monitors poor Jane’s climax.

To both anticipate and suppress the snickers, however, Masters of Sex offers up a sincerity which, it turns out, is the most disarming of their devices. Take Jane, for example. Despite the fact that her boss is sitting somewhere between her thighs, Johnson coerces her into staying with a series of grandiose and po-faced lies. “He’s not watching you,” she claims, “He’s watching science.” This is a line that Johnson peddles repeatedly and that people repeatedly buy, slowly building the idea that this study could be the greatest step for women since they obtained the right to vote.

Jane blithely and robotically chants about her contribution to science, and Masters, too, states motives of the highest order, ranting to the disapproving provost that he studies in the name of truth, unchartered territory, and, of course, the Nobel Prize. “Science!” is the show’s real battle cry, but it becomes more of a central thesis then the sex itself.

Masters of Sex was created by Michelle Ashford, the show runner on HBO’s The Pacific and John Adams. Ashford describes herself as “a perpetual student” and her loyalty to historical detail, to biography, make her shows oddly free of subtext. This is even more evident in Masters of Sex where the title gives up the game before any flesh has reached the screen; Ashford seems to embrace the fact that the story’s end is a foregone conclusion. This is a show refreshingly unafraid of spoilers, liberated by the fact that there’s no detail on Masters and Johnson that couldn’t be looked up online.

In other words, it’s a show without a climax, and a show about sex without a climax. Stripped of intrigue, it’s also markedly different from Mad Men to whom comparisons seem inevitable, if a little unfair. It’s not until midway through the pilot episode, as Caplan gamely juggles a mid-century secretarial pool and a wrathful ex-lover, that you realise how Draper might have ruined it for the rest.

When Sheen is introduced to the audience as Masters, at a lavish dinner in his honour, we can’t help but ask what’s wrong with him. But unlike Mad Men, where each episode is bound up in the slow reveal of hidden foibles, everything is already on display. To make this point more blatant, Masters proposes sex to Johnson, as part of their experiment, within the first episode. Is he attracted to her? More than likely. But Ashford knows there’s no point in keeping the audience guessing. 

What’s telling, though, is the weight of this hindsight. If we think about that moment with The Second Sex once more, we suppose that Jane can laugh as the men approach because she knows that the tide is turning. We, the audience, see change as inevitable because we live in the progressive future. But the bluntness of this technique is also a kind of double-bluff. Masters of Sex approaches sexism with the same sensibility of Mad Men, presenting it as so overwhelmingly pervasive that it constantly knocks you on the head. When we meet Virginia Johnson, we roll our eyes at the institutional sexism she faces just to enter the typing pool. Yet we only laugh at how times have changed before we realise how little they have. De Beauvoir hovers somewhere out of shot not from narrative ham-fistedness, but because it is still jarring to see her name in passing. And we can only laugh at the prudishness of the 1950s, until the instinct to giggle takes us over.

Rachel Sykes is the senior contributor to This Recording. She is a writer living in Nottingham. You can find an archive of her writing on This Recording here. She tumbls here and twitters here. She last wrote in these pages about the storm outside.

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