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Entries in molly lambert (100)

Thursday
Feb102011

In Which We Learn How To Correctly Prepare A Canvas For Painting

I Paint

by MOLLY LAMBERT

Because I didn't go to art school, a class in the painting department was out of the question. Instead I signed up for the introductory painting class in the illustration department. The illustration department was a sort of more old style branch of the school, like what I imagined a 1950s art school to be like. The idea that you could teach somebody how to make art seemed as ridiculous to me as the idea you could teach someone how to write. You either could or you couldn't. You can or you can't.

I was deciding between drawing and painting. Like most people, I maintain a variety of side talents that I can imagine could be my main talent if only I were a little more focused on it, and I am very talented at drawing. I spent the majority of my school years drawing in notebooks during class and while my style is more caricaturish than strictly realistic, I am pretty fucking good. So the prospect of drawing in a real art class was exciting, as was that of life models, which seemed really official and traditional. But given the choice, the asceticism of drawing; the discipline and repetition verging on tedium, the limited supplies? It didn't stand a chance against the painting class. 

Painting, with all its accessories and trappings, had mystique I could not explain. It appealed deeply to my Irish-Catholic half, the side of me that enjoys going to botánicas and cataloguing sins and saints. But it mostly had to do with paintings. With the way that observing certain paintings could induce really powerful feelings in me.

I wanted to see what I had inside. The same way I was sure I could write a great song if I only knew how to play the guitar, I was convinced I had paintings in me. I was sure they would come out of me as soon as I got a brush in my hand. That when I had a little technique and a canvas in front of me it would be impossible to contain them.  

On the first day of class I ran into a really pretty girl I kind of knew who had inspired me a few months before to stop wearing bras entirely after seeing her at a restaurant in a wife-beater without one. "Wow, cool" I'd thought admiringly, "She doesn't give a fuck. And neither do I!" I tend to overdo it when I go to an extreme. She was on her way to the drawing class, and encouraged me to come so we could be in it together. I thought about it for a second. I loved making friends, especially very attractive ones. But I was really committed to the idea of the introductory painting class. To painting.

Every week after that I'd see her in the stairwell. We'd greet each other, then she'd turn the other way to head into the drawing class. Even when I didn't see her I would imagine her going to the drawing class to sketch and long to have followed her that first day. Being good at drawing, it turned out, had no bearing on other kinds of art. 

The painting teacher was a tall willowy bald man in a tunic with the kind of round frame glasses favored by older artist types. He commuted in weekly from New York. He was cold, with a zen master manner that appealed to me. I decided immediately that I liked him. In retrospect he was gay but I never thought about it at the time. During the first class he showed us some of his recent work; a series of grayscale oil paintings of the interior of a washing machine. "This guy is fucking serious," I thought admiringly.  

I was a senior in college, avoiding thinking about what I was going to do exactly after graduating. My boyfriend of a year had gone abroad and I was unprepared to feel so weird about our breakup. I'd decided not to do a thesis because a big project that was due all at once and mostly unsupervised seemed like the worst possible idea for a Ferris Bueller finish everything at the last minute person like me. But my friends were incredibly busy, and I had too much time to think about how I really felt (terrible).

Painting seemed like an elegant solution to all my problems. In lieu of a thesis, it would give me one thing to focus on. Going down to the art school would provide variety in my routine and I could devote all my unspoken for spare time to working on my paintings. To becoming a painter, a thing I was sure I could also be. It didn't occur to me that I might later resent my own arrogant blitheness that it would be easy.

I bought as many art supplies as I could afford, which was not all that many because I learned quickly that oil painting is a truly expensive pursuit. I was attracted to the accessories, the tinctures and tools. But I'd had no idea just how many accessories there really were, how much alchemy and liniment went into preparing the canvases. How familiar I'd soon become with the nightmarish poetic phrase "rabbit-skin glue."

I might have known some of this if I had asked any of my many, many friends who painted and took art classes even the most rudimentary questions about what a painting class might entail in advance of signing up for the painting class at the art school. But I had just charged in confidently like an idiot, like I generally always did.

The first few weeks of the class knocked the arrogance right out of me. I couldn't do anything. I had no knowledge, no background, no color theory. I thinned the paint wrong. I held the brush wrong. I couldn't mix colors correctly to save my life. Everyone else in the class seemed to know exactly what they were doing. They could all paint.

I asked for help every minute, but it didn't help any. I was terrible. Relentlessly terrible. Terrible in new and inventively terrible ways, ways that seemed to baffle the teacher and any classmates who caught a glance of my canvases. There was a wall between me and being any good at painting, and I could not get over the wall. I could barely even make out its sides. But I felt it there in front of my face, blocking me from my goal.

All we painted were still lifes. There would be three set-ups and over three hours, and each session was a lesson for me in abject failure. I was the worst person in the class by a long shot and it was humiliating. I fucking sucked. The teacher would come stand near me and just sort of shake his head. He was right to be confused. Why was I there?

Our homework was the same as the classwork. Three still lifes, a different color scheme each week. I went to the art building on my campus and set up my easel and materials by the picture window. I was jealous of the studio cubicles, especially of the clippings taped up inside, your own space to just dwell on inspirations and ideas.

Having a cubicle means you are a real artist, I thought. I saw the real artists I knew, working on their thesis projects, utterly consumed in themselves. "Why didn't I do a thesis? Why didn't I write a novel? Or short stories? Because I am a fucking idiot."

Then I tried to paint the shells that I was looking at again, and failed. Each attempt a failure in a totally different way. In one the shells are much too pink. In another the arrangement appears two dimensional. I found a new way to fail every time. I painted slower, then faster. Sober, then high. I went to the studio drunk and ended up falling asleep on the bench in the lobby. I woke up and outside the glass it was snowing.

I began to dread painting, because I dreaded being terrible. I hated the endless inevitable failures that were my attempts at translating an image from real life onto a canvas. I did not enjoy being terrible at it, and the classwork and homework were so rigid that there was no possibility of adjusting the subject matter to my outsider style, as I had done in other fields such as dance. I wondered a lot why it was that I so vehemently couldn't enjoy something I wasn't good at. How egotistical that was.

I was accustomed to picking things up easily, impressing and occasionally frustrating others with the seeming effortlessness with which I could pick new things up at will. There was no picking up painting. It was hard work and I was out of my depth. And I could tell. And the teacher could really tell, and he was getting sick of my excuses.

I had been able to bullshit my way through a lot of things in life, but I could not bullshit a painting. Furthermore, there was no failing, because I had already failed a class earlier in the year. I needed the credit to graduate. I stopped going to class.

My refusal to attend coincided with a big snowstorm after a long weekend and I wrote off the first couple weeks of missed classes as weather related. The third week I was just slacking and knew it. The teacher knew it too. He e-mailed to say he'd fail me if I didn't show up the next week. "This guy is fucking serious," I thought irritatedly. 

I came back to class and tried to be less of an asshole, but was almost definitely even more of one in this attempt. The only place I really thrived in the class was during the critiques. Oh I had opinions about everyone's paintings. Positive ones! I could talk all day about what I liked about one painting or another. I loved talking about what I liked about things. I was still the worst painter but I sure talked the most during the crits.

I thought a lot about this tendency I had, towards language. How when I saw a tree I immediately began describing it in my head. I had talked about it with my boyfriend right before he'd left. He had countered that he never did that. That when he looked at the tree he saw only the tree. And if he started to break it down, it was into colors and shapes. Images, not words. I didn't understand. He never read for pleasure either. 

Painting seemed more mystical than ever. Now that my fantasy of being good at it had been destroyed and replaced with the truth (that I sucked) I was in complete awe of anyone with any painting talent. Anyone who was better than me was a genius. I admired those with talents I couldn't master. It was like being good at a sport. 

I continued to go to class. I stopped dreading failure. I didn't expect failure, but neither was I devastated when it happened. My ego was no longer in it. I had no natural talent for painting, but that didn't mean none could be cultivated. Sometimes I'd feel as though I had gotten one detail about the set-up across in my painting, and that would satisfy me enough to keep going. I had a couple of stupid winter hats, and whenever I wore one I was mistaken for an art student (and then asked directions).

It was not sudden but I began to understand. I started to look at things differently. I learned to think about the quality of the light. How things appeared to be different colors depending what time of day it was. How to observe buildings. How to describe without words. How this was a whole other language, a universal one, and I did know it. I had just been trying too hard to force everything into my own native dialect. 

We stopped doing still lifes and started painting nudes. I liked the life models. I felt connected to my own brushstrokes and color choices in a way I previously hadn't. Whatever it was I was trying to comprehend, I couldn't possibly put it into words, and I understood now how that was the point (zen master indeed). I had climbed the wall.

As with any fallow time, when I think about this period of my life I just wind up romanticizing it. I remember how cold I was and how heartbroken, how thwarted I felt and how hurt. I see myself riding my bike to the studio through the snow, listening to Southern gangsta rap on headphones, the music you listen to that helps blunt your feelings (rather than the miserable music you use to indulge them) with my portfolio slung over my shoulder. How determined I must have looked. It makes me laugh.

I proposed a series of paintings of small toys for my final project and was approved. I hung out with my other recently single friend who was an actual painter and we worked on our art in her attic room which had a big awesome skylight. We smoked joints and listened to Electric Light Orchestra albums on her record player while we painted. That I thought I was miserable that semester seems so ridiculous now.

I had no idea if I was going to pass the painting class given those three absences, and passing was necessary for my graduating, and graduating seemed crucial given how much money I was now (am) in debt for. I was nervous regarding a lot of other things about my immediate future, absolutely none of which would turn out to matter at all. 

When I think of the thing I might have written that semester had I dedicated myself to it I feel no remorse. No regret that I failed to take on a big writing project instead. No curiosity about what I might have produced. It would never have been any good. You cannot produce something great on purpose or on schedule. The painting class was more important, akin to psychedelics. It was the most important class I ever took.

The teacher surveyed my final project; small still lifes of toy cars. In his affectless tone he said something measuredly complimentary about my curve towards improvement and I felt myself stir with deep pride. How could I tell him how much it meant that he had tolerated me, had humbled me, had let me learn the lesson for myself? And then how much I had learned? I couldn't tell him, so I didn't. I passed painting with a C.

Molly Lambert is the managing editor of This Recording. She is a writer living in Los Angeles. She twitters here and tumbls here. She last wrote in these pages about her feud with Jack Nicholson.

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Wednesday
Feb022011

In Which We Break Jack Nicholson Down Again Into Five Easy Pieces

Playing Piano On Top Of A Truck In Traffic 

by MOLLY LAMBERT

Five Easy Pieces, 1970

dir. Bob Rafelson

MOLLY LAMBERT V. JACK NICHOLSON: ROUND 2

I encountered Jack Nicholson onscreen for the first time in 1997, when I saw James L. Brooks' As Good As It Gets. In that film Jack Nicholson plays a character whose entire existence requires the context of "Jack Nicholson" to make any sense. Here is how I saw it: a sad neurotic old man totally undeserving of love gets his wish fulfillment fantasy via a much younger waitress who doesn't really make any sense as a character and Greg Kinnear is gay. I had never been so mystified to see a movie win so many awards. "Man, Hollywood..." I said, shaking my head perplexedly and being fourteen.

I enjoy an intellectual romantic comedy as much as the next English major but I could not get behind that movie. We're all trying for Annie Hall but there's nothing worse than characters that assume your sympathy without really earning it. Woody's heroes are often horrible people but they manage to be sympathetic. Woody's worst movies have many of the same problems as As Good As It Gets. "You make me want to be a better man." What made you so sure you're such a bad man to begin with Jack? 

My freshman year of college I saw Carnal Knowledge, a movie which opens (semi-hilariously) with Jack Nicholson as a freshman in college. Suddenly I got Jack Nicholson. I got what As Good As It Gets had assumed I would already know. And I understood that the current Jack Nicholson, the grandfatherly type in sunglasses in the front row of the Oscars, still felt exactly the same inside as this guy I really wanted to fuck. And that was really weird, vaguely creepy, confusing, hot, and the very end of puberty.

1970s Jack Nicholson is THE man. He wins everyone over and gives the appearance of not trying. He walks into the room and pushes the needle off the record player. He looks incredible in clothes. He says something completely terrible and insulting and then is forgiven because he smiles to acknowledge that he knows he is being terrible. What he wants he just takes and if he can't get it he destroys property. He is charming but he is also evil. Are all charming people evil? Isn't that sort of what charm is about?

image probably repeated on This Recording the most times in different posts 

Jack Nicholson believes that men are innately different from women ("cunt...can't understand normal thinking") He thinks men have egos that overpower everything around them and appetites that require constant maintenance to be restrained. He does not understand that this is the human condition. It would be insulting to say that he is too old to learn this, but I suspect it is something he has secretly known all along, and that most of being Jack Nicholson is pretending to be "Jack Nicholson" for the enjoyment of people wishing to live vicariously through his imagined lifestyle.

That men have a brute sexuality uncomplicated by emotion is the biggest lie ever. So why is it pushed on us so hard, in Jack, James Bond and Jay-Z? It is the founding lie of rap music and pornography. Remember how cool Jay-Z used to be and how lame he is now that he's crazy in love with Beyoncé? Why did he seem so much cooler when he was pretending like no woman ever had any effect on him? Because the truth; that men are vulnerable, with emotional needs, things projected on people like Jennifer Aniston (who is fine, duh) is so deeply threatening to the present order of the universe. 

The men who admit to these vulnerabilities are free. To quote myself to myself: It's not emasculating if you like it. The other human condition is being deeply horribly sensitive in a way you are convinced must be specific to you. We are all the main protagonist of our own life. That is why Jack Nicholson is so beloved. He is bigger than everyone else onscreen. I don't think everyone who has a good live show hates themselves necessarily, but that is certainly the message suggested by Five Easy Pieces. Plenty of people just hate themselves and don't even have a good live show. 

There's an early scene where two girls hitting on Jack start talking about his hair and he looks tremendously worried all of a sudden, like they might start talking about how he is balding. That men have no physical insecurities is the other biggest lie ever. Vince Vaughn might not have any physical insecurities but damn dude you fell off SO HARD. In Husbands Cassavetes is constantly bringing up his own shortness. Can a woman have a Napoleon complex? I'd still like to be tall every time I'm at a show.

"Hey Dennis. Hey Dennis. Hey Dennis, man. Hey Dennis. I'm going to fuck your wife."

And yet young Jack Nicholson is as attractive as a person could possibly be, in part because he pretends not to care. Is it pretending not to care that is attractive? Actually never caring about anything is completely impossible. We all care in some situations and feel nothing in others. And then pretend to care/not care in various amounts. Thus is Don Draper. Bill Murray's whole pathos is perched on the gulf between them.

We associate sunglasses with cool, and Jack Nicholson with sunglasses. Sunglasses block the eyes from view, thus blocking others from being able to see what emotions a person is actually feeling. They do not prevent you from still feeling those emotions. A character like Jack Nicholson's Bobby in Five Easy Pieces, who so aggressively displays his ability to hurt people and not ever feel bad about it, is more terrified of getting hurt than anything. Hurting other people first is merely a preemptive strike.

Value is largely construct. Competition creates value. I guarantee you Warren Beatty never once left Julie Christie alone with Jack Nicholson. The reason Warren would never have left Julie Christie with Jack Nicholson is because he knows just how easily he Warren Beatty, the great seducer, was seduced by Jack. The weird thing about straight male sexual competition is how little it can have to do with women. That's why it is so refreshing when men treat you like a human being. That it is refreshing is depressing. 

Discussing the Warren Beatty/Jack Nicholson/Dustin Hoffman FMK post Julie Klausner and Natasha Vargas-Cooper wrote for The Hairpin (a truly astonishing piece of writing that is, to quote James L. Brooks on Annie Hall, "like watching a spaceship land") in an e-mail with me Klausner said "Well, the '60s caused the '70s. And in some cases, the '70s caused the '70s. These three bros basically caused the women's movement."

It is not hard to feel totally horrified reading the infamous Teri Garr AV Club interview where she talks about how Dustin Hoffman grabbed her ass in every take of a scene on Tootsie and Sydney Pollack thought it was hilarious. I get the impression this is why Megan Fox actually left Transformers. I want to radicalize Megan Fox so fucking bad. I am sure she has caught on by now that it is still always Mad Men somewhere.

Five Easy Pieces alternately celebrates and repudiates Jack Nicholson's brand of charisma. It is Easy Rider's black swan for sure. It understands that volatility is not without expense, but neither is it without enormous payoffs. Nicholson's character Bobby is not violent, but he uses speech as violently as The Shining's door axe chop. Talking is a sexual act and Jack Nicholson is always trying to fuck everything in sight.

The problem with being a woman and romanticizing a boys' club is that you would not actually be welcome. The fantasy of being welcome there is an impossible fantasy, one nobly attempted by Anjelica Huston. You never feel completely welcome, because your presence makes it into something else. Not all groups of men are boys' clubs. Boys' clubs specifically involve the exclusion of women with the occasional tokenism.

Five Easy Pieces is a slice of life movie. Much of the tension comes from putting characters in rooms together and then leaving the audience in suspense a little bit about what their relationship is to one another. You think Bobby is a blue collar drifter and then it turns out he's an upper class kid trying to escape his intellectual family. It's very beautiful and realist (László Kovács!), evoking Ed Ruscha in the oil fields portion and the figurative work of Fairfield Porter in the last act at the family estate.

The famous "chicken salad sandwich" scene, where Jack as Bobby (but let's face it, Jack) berates a waitress is about the way you put yourself on stage sometimes in order to perform your personality. Involuntary non-genuine performance (as in working retail) is different from voluntary genuine performance. Whether genuine performance is a contradiction is an ultimate question. I had just been talking with Tess about how we both often insist on ordering for everybody at restaurants. What the hell is that about? 

Performing yourself all the time is exhausting. That's why traveling with people is so hard. There's no person that doesn't need downtime from being themselves. The public self is such a weird thing, especially for women. Kartina Richardson wrote a great essay about Black Swan and bathrooms, bathrooms being one of the only places you can escape the gaze of others (also the only thing I remember about The Bell Jar).

Jack Nicholson can be a truly astonishing actor. He may be arrogant bordering on sociopathic, but he earned it with his performances. Towards the end of Five Easy Pieces there's a moment where he stops at a gas station bathroom, looks at himself in the mirror, and you can see him think "Who the fuck are you kidding?" The most performative actor when he speaks, Jack does subtle remarkable work with silences.

He illuminates the intimate connection between the two; performing one's self, which you attempt to control and through that control other people, and then just being one's self, which nobody can control. That's what makes him so magnetic as an actor. He is never just a dick. If he were really just a dick, he would not be nearly as interesting. Jack, it is implied, is only such a dick because he is so deeply emotional. Endlessly relentlessly unable to stop feeling things, always trying to silence his inner self. It is what makes his performance in Chinatown so insanely perfect and poignant.

In Five Easy Pieces Jack Nicholson expounds so much forceful energy creating and implementing his persona, and then is disgusted by anyone who can't immediately see through it to his white hot core of self-loathing. He can't respect anybody who'd respect him. Does Jack Nicholson actually hate himself? His films are constantly positing this as a corrective to his real life image and insane seeming levels of narcissism but it could just be wishful justification for him fucking Paz De La Huerta.

Lest you think only men can be Jack Nicholsons, I give you Paz De La Huerta and Angelina Jolie. All eight hundred kids aside, I'm not sure Angelina Jolie is capable of putting anyone before herself any more than Jack is. When you take Ayn Rand as gospel certainly you can achieve some ambitious goals, but other more mundane ones become impossible. Compromise is seen as weakness, and human relationships require compromise. You can't really love anyone without giving up some control.

Taylor Swift's insane crusade for true love is just as impossible and entitled as Jack Nicholson's endless fuckquest. What is so super hilarious about Taylor Swift and her surprise face is that no amount of fake humility can cover up her tremendous ego, her enormous feelings of entitlement, and barely-disguised Kenny Powers rage that she has not been immediately given everything she feels she justly deserves. She won't own up to her aggression. She is a Jack Nicholson who is a virgin who can't drive. 

Swift's experience with Taylor Lautner seemed to open her up somewhat to realizing that this thing she thought she wanted more than anything might not actually be what she wants at all. That there is a certain perverse pleasure in wanting and getting not necessarily present in having. That she desires John Mayer because she can't have him and doesn't care about Lautner until he is unavailable. That on a sick level she wants it to be hard, correlates difficulty to satisfaction, and like Jack is making everything impossible for herself. Hopefully she figures out next that she's primarily just horny.

Warren Beatty fell in love onscreen a hundred times before he ever fell in love. It's like the gap between John Mayer's music and John Mayer. If Jack Nicholson tells us in films and interviews that he is sensitive, that what he really desires is to be dominated by a woman with a personality as strong as his, does it matter if he's really still out fucking twenty year old cocktail waitresses? I am sure nobody finds the idea that getting laid by a new girl constantly is supposed to be making him happy more ironic than Jack. 

How much of charisma is related to being a prick? I've always respected aggression much more than passivity. We all want to ask for things and be given them. At what point does aggression become poisonous? To what extent does its poisonousness aid in its effectiveness? Kanye, Brando, Tony Soprano, Tony Montana, Frank Sinatra, Don Draper, Kenny Powers, Kobe, LeBron, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, Daniel Plainview.

this doesn't need a fucking caption why are you even reading just look at these two

The man with no self-restraint is the American archetype. But he is always just kidding himself that he has no capacity for self-restraint. He restrains himself every day, even if it is mostly to restrain himself from restraining himself. There is wildness in restraint. People like having their bluffs called just as much as they like bluffing. They can't believe everyone buys what they're selling and they secretly hope someone won't.

That is also why I talk about John Mayer so much. If he brought any of the aggression that he brings to his own life to his music, he'd be making early Elvis Costello albums. Although to be fair, those early (perfect) Elvis Costello albums are about my least favorite kind of prick, the person who is a vengeful angry prick about how he's not getting laid, which is really the same kind of prick Taylor Swift is. Ladies is pricks too

Everyone is chasing the feeling of winning. The feeling of triumph. And yet while short term success does bring temporary happiness, endlessly chasing ephemeral successes is a guaranteed roadblock to long-term happiness. And then sometimes long-term happiness can get really fucking boring and you remember what you liked in the first place about the whole process of chasing it. No person can always be winning at all times. Into each life a little The Two Jakes/Anger Management/The Fortune must fall.

I also watched Nicholson's directorial debut Drive He Said, which has some genuinely astonishing shots and sequences. One wonders why Nicholson didn't direct more, although the failure of The Two Jakes probably accounts for that (Jack had no chance at topping Polanski). Drive He Said is not a film noir but a coming of age movie about a college basketball player. Nicholson never appears in it, but his aura is spread out among the three main characters. I was never bored and I was occasionally stunned.

The protagonist (William Tepper) is a troubled athlete, possibly more conventionally handsome than Jack but lacking any of his magnetism. The guy utterly looks the part but there is nothing there, no spark. Whatever Jack Nicholson has, this guy doesn't have it, which brings us back to what it is exactly that Jack Nicholson has. Michael Margotta plays the crazy radical roommate like James Franco in Pineapple Express.

Nicholson's deep understanding of cinematic aesthetics makes itself evident immediately. Hidden safely offscreen he elucidates some of his own private themes; the conflict between the athletic physical self and the intellectual spiritual self. Jack exposes the pure graceful masculine performance of basketball as the inspiration for his own acting style and generally proves that he is a sentimental Irish-Catholic boy.

The best and most revelatory performance belongs to Karen Black, who plays Nicholson's conception of a sort of female Jack Nicholson. It is a testament to Karen Black's acting talents that I had no idea she was not really her character in Five Easy Pieces, who is kind of a beautiful idiot. In Drive He Said she plays a female character that is so much more interesting and complex than most of what you see onscreen that it makes you a little depressed there aren't more movies with characters like this.

It's incredible that Jack Nicholson manages to do what seems to elude so many male directors; he gives his female character subjectivity. Karen Black's Olive is judged no more or less harshly than the men. She is naked several times but never merely objectified, which is amazing given Karen Black's cartoonish beauty. She is neither overly idealized nor overly cruel. She is idealized and sentimentalized by the main character but not by the film. Jack Nicholson is not a misogynist. He's a champion of pleasure. He doesn't hate women at all. He loves women. He loves them too much

Sometimes when I go in really hard on somebody I can't tell if it's obvious that I'm only going in that hard because I respect them a lot. I went in incredibly hard on Aaron Sorkin because I loved The Social Network. You know what's cooler than being quoted a million times? (yes, you do) Some things you love unconflictedly, but I'm always most drawn to the things that open up internal contradictions. It's not just that I enjoy Jack Nicholson's acting and want to fuck him but that I feel exactly like him constantly. 

I'm writing about him again because of all those contradictions; that me feeling like Jack in no way means that Jack ever thinks he feels like me (the mistake Madonna made when she took on Warren Beatty), that it can be really fun to watch somebody being a prick until they're being one to you, that channelling ability sometimes means having to crush everyone in your path and there's really no way to be nice about it.

That women, starting from birth, are encouraged and expected to be "nice" in ways that men are not, and then are rewarded and punished accordingly throughout their lives. How an old man can live on eternally in the memories of the extremity of his talents as a younger man. I will probably keep writing about Jack Nicholson forever. At least as long as we're still stuck in traffic and I've got this piano on top of this truck.

Molly Lambert is the managing editor of This Recording. She is a writer living in Los Angeles. She twitters here and tumbls here, and runs GIF Party and JPG Club. She last wrote in these pages about author photos.

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"In the Real World" - Bright Eyes (mp3)

"Singularity" - Bright Eyes (mp3)

"Lua" - Bright Eyes (mp3)

Wednesday
Jan262011

In Which We Pay Mind To Author Photographs And Facebook

Cowgirl Mouth

by MOLLY LAMBERT

To become an author photograph, you must stop being yourself. You must sit in a chair looking serious, possibly on a deck or otherwise inside a room filled with books. You must stare off as if possessed by thought, and then you must pretend you are thinking about something besides how the picture is going to look. You must not make the face that you actually make while writing, or you will look crazed.

Some people prefer to look crazed, but that's a very specific kind of author photo and those people are usually Hunter S. Thompson impostors lacking in the effortless stylishness and talents of the actual Hunter S. Thompson. William S. Burroughs also preferred to look cool. A crazed photo will not make your writing any more crazed.

A good author photo will last you several books. A truly iconic image can be repeated infinitely. If you are attractive enough, you can put the picture on your book. If you are a talented enough writer, no one will suspect that anyone buys your book because of what you look like. If you are a man, putting a picture of yourself on the cover implies some self-seriousness, especially if you are handsome. If you are a woman, putting a picture of yourself on the cover implies frivolity or that you are a C-List celebrity trying to sell books. Most serious new books do not have author photos on the front.

Unless you are Patti Smith. If you are Patti Smith you can do whatever the fuck you want. Also if you are Susan Sontag or Joan Didion or Hannah Arendt. People take a woman seriously so long as she is not also trying to seem beautiful. If she can fake a lack of vanity, or transform her vanity into an attack on generalized female vanity.

I have looked at Sam Shepard's author photograph countless times. People don't automatically think that Sam Shepard is trying to seem handsome in his author photo because male beauty is assumed as a thing that just is, that naturally exists. In actuality all beauty is somewhat acted, even in the beautiful. A candle must be lit. 

What does Sam Shepard want us to know about himself? That he is married, or at least that he sports a wedding band. He wears a denim work shirt to show his allegiance to the West (although he is from Illinois) and to demonstrate a kind of folksiness, to differentiate himself from all the authors in their starched oxford shirts or sweaters or white suits. To show us that he is a Sam, not a John, and everything that implies.  

How do you decide what face best represents you? How can you possibly pick one image of yourself to represent you at all times? If you pick a serious photograph you are discounting all the times you are not serious. If you pick a smiling photograph, the light-heartedness seems grotesque because it was so obviously faked or staged.  

Hunter S. Thompson holding a stick suggestively as a young man without sunglasses 

But no person is entirely funny or serious, so one photograph seems impossible. Maybe two photographs next to each other, one representing each. Maybe one superimposed on the other. The other solution is to smirk, which implies seriousness and humor at the same time. Some people use candids, but they're still choosing which one. Any face you make in a self-take will seem ridiculous, because it will be. 

Gertrude Stein by Carl Van Vechten

Not too long ago it was taboo to put a picture of yourself up on the internet. It was something reserved for only the truest geeks who it was assumed had nothing to lose in devaluing their privacy, feelings about which are a true generational gap, (although obviously now your grandparents are on Facebook) and dating websites, which were also considered taboo. It implied a kind of sad desperation. It still carries some of those connotations. People feel more ashamed using Photobooth than PornHub, but there's hardly a person alive that you can't find a picture of now on the internet. 

When I get spam friend requests on Facebook I always spend some time looking at the picture and wondering who they are, whether their personality bears any resemblance to the fake facts in their info section, what the actual original context of the picture was and whether they know they are being used to represent an imaginary human being. It's like having a staring contest with a robot. If you win, it explodes.

Rita Hayworth photographed by George Hurrell

The author photo was previously only an issue if you were famous or notable. As a kid I used to pore over a book of George Hurrell photographs that had the unretouched photos on one side and the finished images on the other and wonder why the real pictures of movie stars looked less "real" to me than the retouched ones. How I recognized Bette Davis and Ginger Rogers in the pictures with blown out exposure and dramatized contrast, and who were these strange mundane people right next to them?

You go to bed with Gilda and wake up with Rita Hayworth. You go to bed with Rita Hayworth and wake up with Margarita Carmen Cansino. You cannot wake up with Gilda. How could it be I had never noticed the retouching before then? I had just accepted automatically that the finalized image was truth. Thus is Facebook.  

Hunter S. Thompson, a few cool guy accessories and a plaid flannel later

What's especially amazing is that nobody had to be taught how to do it. Everyone just understood how from viewing and absorbing images, a process jacked to warpspeed by the internet with sites like flickr and tumblr. I used to have boxes full of pictures I cut out from magazines. Everyone has seen enough album covers, enough movie posters, enough author photos, to understand how to present themselves in a picture.

Once you start thinking about this, it is impossible to stop. You can't look at anyone's facebook pictures of themselves without determining how they are trying to portray themselves, how they want to be perceived: cool, pretty, fun, serious, goofy. You are never just being yourself in a photograph. You are being yourself in a photograph.

Sam Shepard and Wim Wenders

What is it that men see in cowboys that they want so much to see in themselves? A natural seeming lack of desire to demonstrate or communicate feeling? A sort of wildness, freedom from constructed identity, even though "cowboy" is one of the most deliberately constructed identities there is? Writers seem particularly drawn to them because they represent pure physicality, a direct line between being and deeds. As if cowboys never stay up at night in cluttered rooms thinking about who affects them.

It's why I fantasize about being a doctor even though it is as ridiculous for me to say I'd like to be a doctor as to say that I would like to be a duck, and yet I still fantasize about both in equal measures for the same basic reason. A purpose of spirit divorced from personal purpose of mind. An objective practice with concrete goals.

The illusion that all that matters is whoever's on the operating table that day, or however many cows need to be roped, and then you're too exhausted from the physical fullness of your work to take it home with you. But of course you do. 

Fact: Ernest Hemingway was forced to wear a pink gingham dress as a child

People romanticize cowboys for the same reason they romanticize gangster rap. It is the idea that there exist somewhere men for whom masculinity is natural, not a performance. The biggest lie of course, in rap and also Westerns, is that anyone exists who can kill people and have no feelings about it. That is how countries get men to join the army and go to war, by glamorizing this idea, and why they then get PTSD (shellshock) and are fucked up about it for the rest of their lives. The Wire is essentially a treatise on the endless fucked up cycle that permits and reinforces this.  

It is a partial lie that distracting the body can distract the mind. When the mind is overly preoccupied there is literally nothing that can distract it from itself. ("There is no geographical solution to an emotional problem.") The illusion I have that doctors live a professional life uncomplicated by personal relationships? I know it is a total lie. The doctors I know have told me that it is a lie. Everyone imagines themselves succeeding in some field that is different from the one they have chosen to pursue. All fields are equally ensemble casts. That is why ensemble casts are so relatable as an idea. 

Cormac McCarthy as a young man, not yet a professional fake cowboy

Cormac McCarthy is from Providence, Rhode Island. He is as much of the West as H.P. Lovecraft is of R'lyeh or Yuggoth. The only citizen of a place that exists entirely in his mind. I often think about Cormac McCarthy being a kid fantasizing about the West, and then I think about my own childhood fantasies of New England.

I like to think about the childhoods of people I can't imagine as children. I just picture them as a tiny version of whatever they look like now. It's especially funny with guys who have facial hair. Rhode Island is the smallest state, California one of the largest, but they are equal sizes in my mind. 

take me seriously because I am so very serious 

In New England during college, I developed my own Western fantasies. Finally delivered to the land of my teenage ideals, of real seasons and people who care about books, I started dreaming about the open plains. I thought about avocados and listened obsessively to Gene Clark and Gram Parsons. I could always locate myself much more easily in lonesome men than in their female counterparts. There was something too affecting to me about female plaintiveness. A part of myself I did not wish to have. But then I listened to Emmylou Harris and Dolly Parton and found myself in there too. 

Larry McMurtry, champion of the emotional cowboy

We long for companionship, and then we long equally to be alone. That is what Westerns are about: pursuing aloneness together. You love the people who know you best, who know you as much as anyone can. They keep you alive in the wilderness. 

William S. Burroughs all eyez on me

Male loneliness is overly romanticized, female solitude overly demonized. There is occasional pleasure in loneliness because there is pleasure in being alone. The thing people actually like about Jennifer Aniston is that despite coming up in an ensemble cast show about friendship, she comes across as kind of a loner. Not a loser necessarily, although that is also a part of her charm. Mostly a loner (also, a stoner).

Aniston is a female take on 1970s antiheroes like Elliott Gould in The Long Goodbye or Jack Nicholson in Five Easy Pieces. She just needs to find a way to translate it back into film. Her best roles, in Friends With Money and The Good Girl, capture this about her. That quality of being a loner is also what women like about Angelina Jolie, Winona Ryder, and Aniston's closest predecessor Barbra Streisand. Actresses who seem like outsiders are the most beloved because all women feel like outsiders, since they are.

When you think of yourself, you think of yourself as you are with yourself. Not as you are with friends, although that is also how you are. You spend an inordinate amount of time in conversation with yourself every day of your life. That's why you go out in the world and live, to try and lose track of this conversation. Identity is contrast.   

When you long for the West you are longing for space. For room between places and things but also between your thoughts. For a few years I used to say that New York made me feel overly claustrophobic. The buildings are so close together, I would say, they are pushing my thoughts that way too. But they weren't. It was just that I was pushing them that way. At its best New York pushes your thoughts upwards.

Joan Didion neckscarf diva

If you grow up intellectual in Los Angeles, you are constantly told that you do not belong there. People told me this so much growing up that I really believed it. Now I know you can be anything anywhere, an idiot in Paris or a genius in Des Moines (calm down IA intellectuals, I picked Des Moines because it's French and I like the way it sounds. Real G's move in silence like Des Moines.) That the people who think California is full of idiots bought an image they were sold, and they're no more foolish for believing it than I was for believing that New England would not also have idiots. 

Susan Sontag stacking paper

The public narrative about Los Angeles is that its beauty hides a corrosive interior. That you can't have temperate weather and fruit out of season without being punished for it somehow. That the Black Dahlia and the Manson family murders and all the fires and floods and quakes and riots are retribution for something, for original sin, for the buying and selling of false images and idols. That pleasure creates Puritan debt.

Raymond Chandler and friend

That concern with appearances means you care nothing about insides. That if something is beautiful it cannot also be serious. That if something is evil it cannot also be sometimes good. Even that artifice is automatically evil. I have never believed any of it. Los Angeles to me is edenic, even now knowing all its tricks. Los Angeles is corrupt but small towns have just as much sin. Los Angeles is a hooker with a heart of gold. 

The internet is the open country of the mind. The promise of space, no boundaries or bindings, no MLA handbooks or proofreaders. No set ideas about how writing or images "should" be, just how they can be and are.

No prejudice against fragments and run-ons and parentheticals, which I have always felt are truer to the way people actually talk with each other than "real" sentences, which have rules that that can ruin translation of thought. No old gods.  

It is freeing to write a "bad" sentence. It does not destroy the integrity of the "good" ones. If anything it props them up, the way "fucking" can be the best modifier. If you make your point, it does not matter how you make your point. Informality helps.

That is the purpose of blogging, of writing, of poetry. It's why we love Gertrude Stein. She is the founding father of This Recording and Allen Ginsberg is the founding mother. They cared that words could not so they broke it. 

Molly Lambert is the managing editor of This Recording. She also tumblstwitters and runs GIF Party and JPG Club. Go fuck yourself with your atom bomb San Diego. She last wrote in these pages about the internet.

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