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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 ryan murphy (4)


In Which Joan Crawford Possessed The Requisite Nerve

The Disagreements


creator Ryan Murphy

Mannerisms have always been Jessica Lange's great forte as an actress. She is most deft at using her head, which never seems to be in motion, yet it is generally turned in exactly the right direction — away from the inevitable, and towards a possible recusal of the pain any other avenue offers. Feud's Ryan Murphy (American Horror Story) loves her for these subtle contortions, and for how her unmistakable vocal properties can accelerate from the austere iciness with which we associate her finest roles, to a hot, insensate rage. Joan Crawford was nothing compared to her.

In Feud, Alfred Molina plays director Robert Aldrich. Educated in Providence, RI, Aldrich became a brilliant director after running away, West, from his family fortune. Aldrich becomes the weirdly sympathetic center of Feud, which is not terribly surprising given that he has to deal with both Bette Davis (Susan Sarandon), one of the strangest looking women of her time, and Crawford herself, who was a slightly better human being, if Feud hews at all close to the truth, but no picnic.

Aldrich was an artist in the studio system. His story is at least the equal of any actor, but he is merely an accessory to the main story here, which is, I'm not quite sure. Murphy makes a lot of noise around the idea of a feminist allegory to this story, whose essential composition — that women in the same business struggle to get along — is anthetical to the stated point.

The rest of Murphy's cast is filled with exciting actors in familiar roles. Kathy Bates and Catherine Zeta-Jones make cameos in the pilot, and the wonderful Judy Davis stars as a reporter. Her scenes with Lange are both the most humorous and the most joyful. In contrast, Sarandon does not seem to have the quite the same joy in hamming it up, sensing that this approach is a bit facile. Murphy doesn't rest the weight of this show on its made-up surfaces, but he knows how good he is at that part of things.

There really is not anything close to enough material for eight episodes here, and Feud suffers from frequent slow patches where he relies on the basic charisma of his actors and his Douglas Sirk-esque sets to fill time between the spicy confrontations that feature prominently. It is never very clear why exactly Ms. Davis and Ms. Crawford detest each other from the start, only that we should not allow it to undermine the very basic theme that there are not enough roles for older actresses.

I don't know if we can exactly say that this is completely true anymore, given that Lange and Sarandon have not stopped working at all in the past two decades. The idea that any actor should be entitled to work, when they rely entirely on writers and directors for their roles, is a bit inexplicable. Here Joan Crawford does not rest on her laurels when parts are not coming her way: she reads every book with a woman on the cover of it before happening upon a paperback copy of Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?

There is a lot less joy, by half, in the Bette Davis sections of Feud. Positioned as the more serious actress, Davis' overwrought style is very much out of date. Rewatching Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? the Aldrich film on which the two women clashed, is very difficult because of these performances. Aldrich's director is impressively modern, but he seems to have to work around the dated style of acting that Davis made famous. The idea that we are entitled to the same success in old age that we achieved in youth, regardless of the work's quality, is a very American notion.

Ethan Peterson is the reviews editor of This Recording.


In Which Ryan Murphy Corrupts This Poor Woman

The Four de Sades


American Horror Story
creator Ryan Murphy

It was sometime during the second orgy of the American Horror Story premiere, where Lady Gaga was humping an Asian woman she had met at an outdoor screening of a lesser Bela Lugosi movie. Despite being a spirited performer onstage, Ms. Germanotta is not much of an actress and you can see that she seems a bit confused about how exactly to play Ryan Murphy's amusing bon mots. She got this look on her face like, even I have no idea what's happening here.

Murphy hired Kathy Bates to be the proprieter of a sadistic hotel this season, and the show never really delves into suspense too much. It is mostly just gore and sex. You can't say Murphy's heart isn't into it: the first thirty minutes of Amercan Horror Story features several rapes, cannabilism, necrophilia and a man with his penis superglued inside of a woman. Detective John Lowe (Wes Bentley) instructs his colleagues to cut the man loose.

Chloe Sevigny tries desperately to anchor this ludicrous situation as a mother of a missing child married to Bentley. Watching Gaga slit the throats of Swedish tourists or snort cocaine feels pretty familiar, but Chloe Sevigny as a modest housewife trying to do right by her family is far more transgressive than anal rape. Sevigny was made for camp.

It is possible that Murphy uses Wes Bentley in the lead role here simply for the number of humorous references to American Beauty he can make. Bentley is by nature a joke: a goofy, blue eyed manikin who talks in a whispered hush at all times. He is absolutely perfect for this role, and Murphy's costumes for him are laugh-out-loud funny.

It does not seem Murphy is really having fun until he descends into amusing flashbacks of a mortified Kathy Bates searching for her drug addicted son. He is great at perching on the edge of something outlandish without going all the way there, which is why Lady Gaga talking about her days in New York and leading a little boy into a decadent room filled with unlimited candy and weird video game displays is kind of a drag.

Usually the problem with camp is that every once in awhile, usually by accident, it hits on something that is both sincere and original. Either one is fine on its own, but Murphy excels at never shying away from where his fantasies take him.

The best scene in American Horror Story is Wes Bentley and his daughter eating raw fish at a restaurant, a pastime every bit as disturbing as any sexual dysfunction, or the scene where Gaga slits the throat of a Swedish tourist with her fingernail.

Murphy is just as good as subtle repulsion as the bigger fish. In a film there is no time to explore the genuine expressions of emotion that exude naturally from the satire and parody inherent in camp, but Murphy can pretty much do whatever he wants in the loose format of American Horror Story. There is nothing else around with his whimsy, and that is why Nip/Tuck was much more amusing the more seriously it took itself.

Alex Carnevale is the editor of This Recording.

 "Two From The Vault" - David Bazan (mp3)


In Which We Enter The Coven Of Our Dreams

The Beauty Myth


American Horror Story: Coven
creators Ryan Murphy & Brad Falchuk

Witches are malicious, or so we’re told, in the pursuit of youth and beauty. And for witches, who, on film, must always be beautiful, there is no greater threat than the co-existence of the young. Youth reminds the beautiful that their time, if not over, is pending. So when Coven, the third incarnation of Ryan Murphy’s American Horror Story, opens in Louisiana in 1834, we don’t bat an eyelid as Madame LaLaurie (Kathy Bates) rubs the blood of a virile young slave across her face, claiming that their pancreas diminishes the waddle of her neck. In the present day, we don’t flinch when Fiona Goode (Jessica Lange), the greatest witch of her generation, experiments on monkeys and sucks the life force from a young scientist. It’s of no great importance, killing in the name of beauty - it’s what witches, what all women, ideally would do.

It’s been two decades since Naomi Wolf voiced similar concerns in her first book, The Beauty Myth. Despite the growing freedoms that women had experienced over the century, Wolf claimed that the pressure to reach exacting standards of physical beauty had continued to grow. Society, she wrote, “really doesn’t care about women’s appearance per se. What genuinely matters is that women remain willing to let others tell them what they can and cannot have.” Standards of beauty would continue to be unachievable because they grow with each freedom women receive. The myth of beauty is so damning, then, not only because it matters so little to the patriarchy, but because it is enforced by women themselves.

This idea is blindingly apparent in Murphy’s all or nothing handling of witchcraft. The pilot forces young and the old together under one roof - Lange’s terrifying Fiona is the Grand Supreme, the strongest witch of her age, who returns to Miss Robichaux’s Academy for Exceptional Young Ladies to reconcile with her daughter, Cordelia (Sarah Paulson). The Academy, we’re told, was purchased by a proto suffragette in the 1860s, who would train sixty girls at a time to master their powers. Unlike the almighty Supreme, most witches only get one trick: Queenie (Gabourey Sidibe) is a human Voodoo doll, Madison (Emma Roberts) has the power of telekinesis, Nan (Jamie Brewer) is clairvoyant, whilst poor Zoe (Taissa Farmiga) can only shag people to death.

Unlike the days of old, however, when clever witches escaped northern persecution by running to New Orleans, these witches are dying out. The genetic line is breaking as families choose not to procreate and those witches unlucky enough to be born in the sticks are burnt at the stake. A sense of persecution is rife even before splits are revealed within the world of witchcraft itself. From the second episode, Fiona is at war with voodoo queen Marie Laveau (Angela Bassett), who has kept the murderous LaLaurie prisoner for 180 years and uses an immortality potion that Fiona is now set on obtaining. In the place of solidarity, it seems, there is a battle for youth and beauty.

As the Supreme takes on the education of young girls, she is contrarily engaged in the fight to retain her own youth. In interviews, Lange has identified the Dorian Gray effect as Coven’s central theme: “What do you trade off for this idea of eternal youth and beauty and how much are you willing to sell for that? How much of your soul are you willing to give up?” But if Lange frames the series as a conflict between self and soul, Murphy seems more interested in how many other souls we might sacrifice. As is transparent through most of our fairy tales, and reinforced by Wolf’s idea of the beauty myth, these women might be under threat, but they are of the greatest danger to each other.

In this way, Coven functions as a grand old metaphor for feminism. The academy is founded by a suffragette, for a start, and we’re told that the line of witches is under threat, that their public visibility has waned as witches got too scared or too comfortable to protest their persecution. Fiona’s daughter, Cordelia, is the mediator: she thinks the fight is over and teaches her pupils to make do and get by.

Fiona, however, is the radical. Leading the girls on an impromptu “field trip” through the streets of New Orleans, she praises an alternative coven, a radical splinter group, who in the 1970s were proud and public in their defence of their group. In the fight between voodoo and witchcraft there’s even an intersectional split when Fiona describes Laveau’s voodoo magic as the “nail” to witchcraft’s “hammer”.

From this conceptual jump off, Coven deploys some brazenly literal reversals of power. Murphy neatly flips the patriarchy by creating a show full of women where men are pretty much ineffectual. When Madame LaLaurie tortures slaves, it is only male bodies that she mutilates. This is in contrast to the real LaLaurie, who committed similar crimes in the 1830s, but who primarily tortured women. Every guy Zoe sleeps with swiftly dies of an aneurysm. When Madison is raped at a party she kills a bus load of frat boys with a flip of her finger. The school’s male butler seems nice enough, but is missing a tongue. In Coven, men are the subjugated, and they don’t get the time to speak, let alone practice magic.

Ruled by supernaturally powerful females, Coven seems more fun, between atrocities, than either previous season of American Horror Story. However, the same reversal of power is less effective when it’s applied to the issue of race. Madame LaLaurie, a real life serial killer, is captured by a group of slaves seeking revenge for her crimes. In the present day, to complete the reversal of roles, LaLaurie is then forced to be a slave for Queenie. Look through enough of the show’s promotional imagery and it becomes clear that almost everything within the coven is literally black and white. After Fiona’s arrival, the group dresses only in black, starkly contrasted to the pure white of the house. Even the opening credits, already shot in monochrome, show a group of hooded figures, dressed all in black, approaching a blonde girl like an inverse Ku Klux Klan.

This switch, like Coven’s entire engagement with slavery, is both well intentioned and massively uncomfortable. It seems problematic that Queenie, the only African American in the coven, is unable to feel pain because this claim was once made in defence of slavery. LaLaurie’s brutal and extensive torturing of her slaves is not only unpleasant, it also makes little sense. Keeping her slaves tied up and mutilated in an attic fetishizes the cruellest aspects of slavery, isolating the violence perpetrated by slave owners from the economic purpose of owning slaves in the first place. The conceptual overload of American Horror Story is also kind of its charm, but the number of atrocities per act doesn’t leave enough time to work through the problems of representation in an issue this complex.

It seems either fortuitous or unfortunate, then, that the show should premier in the same week as critics write in praise of Steve McQueen’s Twelve Years a Slave. Widely celebrated for its dramatic merits, the key debate seems to be whether slavery should be represented on film at all.

Speaking about the film on NPR, the historian David Blight suggested that representing slavery is so problematic because we like narratives of progress too much. Audiences, he says, want a pleasing story, and in the case of slavery, not only are the details unpleasant, but “you have to work through to find your way to something more redemptive.” This too seems to be Coven’s narrative impasse. Flipping the roles of men and women, slave and owner, defining everything in black and white, is a neat enough trick. Yet it does little to nuance the portrayal of oppression or to articulate how it feels.

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 Showtime's Masters of Sex.

"Don't Mess With Karma" - Brett Dennen (mp3)

The new album from Brett Dennen is entitled Smoke and Mirrors, and it was released on October 22nd.