Quantcast

Video of the Day

Masthead

Editor-in-Chief
Alex Carnevale
(e-mail/tumblr/twitter)

Managing Editor
Kara VanderBijl
(e-mail/tumblr/twitter)

Features Editor
Mia Nguyen
(e-mail/tumblr/twitter)

Senior Editor
Durga Chew-Bose
(e-mail/tumblr/twitter)

Senior Editor
Brittany Julious
(e-mail/tumblr/twitter)

Live and Active Affiliates
Search TR


follow us in feedly

Classic Recordings
Robert Altman Week

Entries in rachel sykes (13)

Friday
Mar212014

In Which Hannibal Contemplates An Aesthetic of Murder

Consumer Society

by RACHEL SYKES

Hannibal
creator Bryan Fuller

The remarkable thing about Hannibal is that it should never have existed. Adapted from the fiction of Thomas Harris, whose novel Red Dragon originated the Hannibal myth in 1981, when the show premiered in 2013 it seemed like a redundant addition to an already exhausted format.

The compelling first season largely dismissed low expectations by focusing on the budding relationship between FBI investigator Will Graham (Hugh Dancy) and forensic psychiatrist Hannibal Lecter (Mads Mikkelsen) as they work to solve a number of highly disturbing murders. Indeed, their relationship upends the Hannibal canon by disturbing the viewer’s expectations of who the reliable narrator might be. Agents refer ambiguously to Will’s place on the “spectrum” yet the FBI continues to exploit his inability to judge social situations, to rely heavily on the paranormal levels of empathy that allow Will to visualise the ways in which a killer has worked simply by attending the crime scene.

Of course, Hannibal still murders people and regularly feeds their limbs to his house guests in increasingly ambitious and experimental attempts at haute cuisine. But throughout the first season, it is equally clear that Will is unfit for FBI employment, that he struggles to function in society, to maintain personal relationships, and ultimately to switch off from the horrific crimes he is called on to solve.

The finale of Hannibal’s first season was particularly startling for the speed with which it motioned towards the future in which Will and Hannibal are mortal enemies. By the end of the episode, Will realises that Hannibal is the psychopathic murderer the viewer knows him to be and, just as quickly, Hannibal frames Will by planting the ear of one victim down his throat miraculously, and comically, intact. The finale also set the scene for a startling twist on the memory of Lecter as he will be in The Silence of the Lambs.

At the beginning of Hannibal’s second season, it is Will who wastes away in an archaic prison cell, waiting for his fate to be decided in an elaborate series of dystopian cages and ever decreasing scenes of grey. The bleakness of Will’s reality is then mirrored, if not parodied, by the FBI’s increasing involvement with Hannibal, who becomes central in aiding their investigations. Will can only escape his cell through the power of hallucinatory daydreams.

What’s interesting about Hannibal and its distinctive take on mass murder is its curious reach for objectivity. At times, the show comes close to stilted affectation because each character seems so consumed with the avoidance of emotion. With Hannibal, this process is self-explanatory - mass murderers pathologise the emotions of themselves and others in order to enact their gruesome tasks. But with others the absence of feeling spreads like a sickness and emanates from their involvement with Will and the crimes to which he lends his profiling acumen.

Similarly, show runner Bryan Fuller’s phantasmagoric approach frames the act of murder as a statement of aesthetics, troubling the idea that Hannibal is set in any reality we might know. None of the murders in Hannibal could be described as crimes of passion and motives are generally conceived aesthetically.

This variant of Harris’ text is disinterested, then, in serial killers as an absent threat or as a symbol of fear – if Hannibal, or any his contemporaries, want you dead then you will, very soon, be dead. Rather, the killings that occupy the center of each episode are statements on the nature of art and reality, on the aesthetic differences that colour our varied perceptions of the world. People are murdered in Hannibal, often graphically and without warning, not to induce fear or disgust in the viewer, but to show how people express and hide themselves in art and how the artistic process is at once creative and destructive, for the creator but also for the consumer.

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 American Hustle.

"Give" - Octo Octa ft. Raw Moans (mp3)

"Cause I Love You" - Octo Octa (mp3)

Friday
Jan102014

In Which We Get Lost In The Follicular

Consider the Hustle

by RACHEL SYKES

You may not have heard, but American Hustle opens on a hair. David O'Russell's newest film begins with a single strand, quickly revealed to be part of a larger, more capricious hairpiece that is itself just one of many sculpted styles punctuating the movie. If the internet is to be believed, as many people leave American Hustle with an appreciation for its styling as for its Bee Gees-heavy soundtrack. The clue is in the title. A film about hustlers, it’s a film about front, a film about image and what we do to both make and keep it. From Christian Bale's opening toupee to Amy Adams's disco crimp, from Bradley Cooper's tightly manicured perm to the desperate flop of Jennifer Lawrence’s platinum curls, the movie’s many stars recreate the 1970s through the rich, external life of their hair.

It would be easy to get lost in the follicular, but stay a moment to consider the hustle. Based on the true story of the Abscam scandal, the film begins in 1978, as FBI agent Richie Di Maso (Cooper) forces con artists Irving Rosenfeld (Bale) and Sydney Prosser (Adams) into an elaborate sting operation to unseat corrupt politicians in New Jersey. While the sting itself was real enough, O’Russell pre-empts the audience’s disbelief with a screenshot that reads “some of this actually happened,” a phrase so callously open to inaccuracies that it draws laughter from the audience.

Truth is en vogue this Oscar season. Since Argo won Best Picture over Lincoln and Zero Dark Thirty, this year's American Hustle must square up against The Wolf of Wall Street, Saving Mr. Banks, and 12 Years a Slave, all films that are, in some way, “based on a true story.” However, O’Russell’s admission that only “some” of the scenes in his film “actually” happened paraphrases Mark Twain’s oft-quoted phrase: “I have been through some terrible things in my life, some of which actually happened.” Twain’s point riffs on the idea that the imagination is capable of projecting events that might never have occurred, a theme that the movie’s hustle embodies. In a world where the con is your living, the film asks what prevents the con from then becoming your life.

Behind or even beyond the hair, Twain’s quote speaks to the existential angst in which O’Russell’s film is immersed. These characters are troubled for the sake of making trouble, lost in a swirl of frustration and naivety that characterized the limited freedoms of the 1970s. Indeed, American Hustle feels very much like a director assembling a company in order to set them free. It is not surprising, perhaps, given the O'Russell’s reputation for treating his cast with an air of barely concealed aggression, that Hustle's actors seem pushed to the edges of their impulses, producing performances that feel like fight or flight.

Christian Bale is unrecognizable as the hairpiece-fondling, potbellied Irving, whose belief in the love of a good woman leads to the most romantic dry-cleaning montage ever committed to celluloid. By his side, Amy Adams reaches peak sincerity as a lost girl desperate to believe in love and other transformative costumes. Together, the two lead the audience through questionable dialogue and a meandering plot, buoyed by equally low neck lines that sweep Bale’s impressive potbelly and Adams’ omnipresent side boob with indiscriminate joy. Jennifer Lawrence, as Irving’s destructive wife, steals every scene she’s in, depicting a woman so young and fragile, so oppositional to Adams in her complete fear of change, that she can’t fix the curls on her head long enough to put out the fires she quite literally starts around her.

You'll instinctually love or hate this kind of acting; instinct, also, will define the extent to which the disturbing revelations about O’Russell’s personal life change your understanding of the film. Whatever the truth to the accusations, there is an incredible innocence to American Hustle’s version of the 1970s that remains unsettling, a pervasive nostalgia that ear marks the decade as a time when things were simpler, when sex was sexier, when corruption was a little more innocent. Halfway through, Sydney and Di Maso strike out on their own and head to the discothèque. She's Donna Summer and he's John Travolta, so iconically dressed that the costumes often become divorced from the context in which they were once so powerful. The earnestness with which Sydney and Di Maso believe in the healing rhythms found dancing under disco lights is another kind of nostalgia porn that feels good to the audience because it is so easy on the eye.

Adams's brief nod to Donna Summer as a style icon is also telling of the movie’s wider problem of diversity. Though the stars and associates of American Hustle are white, the African-American and Latino populations of Atlantic City are only granted a brief cameo as prospective recipients of charity from a politician come good. Not only do the spectres of diversity feel like an allusion to a collective poor that have been filed, neatly, somewhere off screen, but their appearance in the film is no larger than a scene in which they are called to collectively applaud their benefactors. No voices, then; just the sound of applause.

The silencing of any non-white voices extends to the plot of the hustle itself. In order to convince politicians that a mysterious Sheikh is willing to fund their project, the team dress an FBI agent of Mexican descent in Sheikh-like clothing. This allows for a pithy punchline, but you can't help but get the sense that the storyline exists to silence the "Sheikh": he must hold his tongue so as to keep his poor command of Arabic a secret.

As a result, American Hustle feels like a film about fantasy, simultaneously attempting to convince you of the illusion while constantly alluding to the fact that it's just an illusion. This was a problem, too, in Silver Linings Playbook, a film stuck somewhere between Garden State and Dirty Dancing, that never seemed to settle on how it could represent its characters' emotional truths. In both cases, it is often hard to tell whether the actors are tapping into profound emotion or simply making loud noises to convince you that they are.

When Irving and Sydney first meet at a party they connect over a love of jazz. Making doe eyes at each other over a Duke Ellington record while the party continues around them, O’Russell misses something fundamental about their situation. Unable to communicate the profundity that follows an unexpected connection with a like mind, he draws the scene around his actors like two teenagers who believe no-one else could ever understand them. And that, his films suggest, is what O’Russell believes of himself.

Rachel Sykes is the senior contributor to This Recording. She is a writer living in Nottingham. She last wrote in these pages about music in December. She tumbls here and twitters here

"We All Went Down With The Ship" - Ed Harcourt (mp3)

"Love Is A Minor Key" - Ed Harcourt (mp3)


Monday
Dec232013

In Which She Had Heard The Song Before

Of the Season

by RACHEL SYKES

Something about music feels different in December. The sounds of Christmas are familiar, but the end of a year brings lists and the writing of lists brings regret. Thinking back on a year and wondering what was new, the music you listened to and the music to which you might have listened tend then to blur. This is the year in which I’ve grown stubbornly against recommendations, taking an instant if inadvertent dislike to that which people say I’ll love. In the same breath, I’ve grown lazier too, gaining music in fits and starts, as if my attention could only grasp the dirtiest beats.

From December 2012, a fallen post-it behind my desk lists songs by British Sea Power in the hand of someone I loved. An email from the same month, the subject line: Scott Walker, written by a friend who kissed, proficiently but tentative, whilst his new album played behind her. I have listened, now, to neither. Making room for the new isn’t easy. If favourite songs are incantations, the spell of the familiar must be broken to allow the new to take hold. I often think that to do so means emptying my mind entirely, the contents strewn upon the carpet perhaps sixty per cent lyric and forty per cent bass, each syllable bluntly punctuating what grey matter was left behind.

But each December I make a playlist, as if trying to guess what music will stick through January. Imagine then what these playlists would say about me. They tell me that last December I walked to my office to Azealia Banks, pounding steps to the rhythm in the hopes that my concentration would emerge at the end. As the drizzle turned to ice, frost settled on the lake and I would pass by, sometimes, with Jessie Ware playing softly, attempting to skate across the ice and into a calmer state of work, deeply praying that the frost wasn’t thicker than the soles of my new shoes.

As December began, I helped plan a conference that, like all conferences, felt like a failure until the mistakes had gone unnoticed and wine spilled down the shirts of our supervisors.

Waiting for the final speech to finish, we ducked behind velvet curtains that divided the audience from the food, running in and out of the grand hall with huge plates like we’d been given the keys to our kindergarten. Where the attendees could not see, we sprinted towards the wine bar and I jumped to click the heels of my shoes as Billy Joel played in the background. In the glee of partial success, hopeful in the potential of a leftover wine store, we sang Joni Mitchell around a piano and read from Moby Dick at midnight.

In the morning, we spoke of literature before the coffee brewed. Mid-December, I came home, and fell asleep in large headphones whilst listening to Marvin Gaye. Having obsessed and re-obsessed on Frank Ocean, I became nostalgic for the break-up albums my mum had played around me, hidden from new boyfriends in the glove compartment of her Nissan. “That comes from me,” she said, when Otis Redding was on my night stand, forgetting her larger love for Rod Stewart, the rotating tapes of Gabrielle and late ‘90s Simply Red.

My playlists might say all of this, but with technology I am careless, if not precariously near Luddite. Between this and last December I have plugged and unplugged my walkman into too many computers, with too rough a hand, and it has wiped and been wiped a dozen times or more. This is good for me, I guess, emptying out what I find comfortable, the chants and spells I pound into the pavement, in the favor of the new. These songs have been fortifying, but when you walk the same streets each day, stuck in the same riffs and hooks that are plugged so deeply in your ears, you risk becoming weighed by all the thoughts they’ve saved you from.

This December, for several days, my Walkman wouldn’t turn on. Fine, I thought, except that this loss coincided with the unusual need to learn seventeen disco songs. My first paid gig with a functions band, I struggled to differentiate between the lyrics of Chic, to keep in mind which line followed which, baffled by the lack of storytelling and how I could sing about being the peg on someone’s ladder. Without headphones, I couldn’t follow the eighteen bar break as the keyboards climbed, ominous, one tone at a time, blanking on which point I needed to interrupt with a yell of “Freak!” I sat in the bathroom during the interval with my eyes tightly shut, running the lyrics down the inside of my eyelids and wondering if I could gauge the right pitch by singing in my head.

Over the walls of the stall, two of the party guests chattered, asking which boss was drunkest, wondering about the deepness of my voice, and questioning the decision to extend ‘Get Lucky’ by ten minutes. But the band finished with our mistakes unnoticed.

This December, there was also Beyoncé, or a whole page of my notebook titled “Feelings about Beyoncé.”

For three days, I kept forgetting that ‘***Flawless’ had been written, rediscovering it when the videos shuffled and the thrill of conviction seemed new again in her eyes. No one I know will talk to me about it, so I have to use analogies. Imagine if the sports team you’ve followed your whole life won the championship. Imagine if a writer you’ve admired and supported suddenly pushed every envelope you didn’t know they knew. But Beyoncé, and my Feelings about Beyoncé, are bigger and more surprising than analogies can stretch to.

Perhaps, next year, I will need better friends; I have already started to make one. This December, I’ve been driven around, because I never learnt to drive. It’s become a family tradition; my biological father failed his test thirteen times and when he eventually passed decided he didn’t much like to. Having never deigned to drive, I have never much thought about playlists for driving but now, in December, I am starting to. Circling around our town quite early on a Saturday the kind of blinding sun that cracks only occasionally through December poured into the car. At the same time, Chvrches, a band I’d not really cared for, played too loudly for our heads. I’d heard the song before, of course, but the whole sound made more sense, right then, if only for that moment.

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 Katy Perry and John Mayer.

"Valentine" - Jessie Ware & Sampha (mp3)