In Which Katherine Heigl Falls In Love With A Murderer

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Knocked Down

by DICK CHENEY

Doubt
creators Joan Rater & Tony Phelan
CBS

231466“He’s the first guy I feel like I could really talk to,” Katherine Heigl explains to her mother, who is serving a life sentence since Katherine Heigl was two years old. Her mother is very proud of Katherine Heigl, who has become a noted defense attorney. Why isn’t anyone else proud of Katherine Heigl?

Actually, her boyfriend is. “You fight like most people breathe,” Billy (Steven Pasquale) explains to her over dinner. He has just been released from prison on bail, but Katherine Heigl still finds something attractive about this pediatric surgeon, who is going to be convicted of a murder he committed twenty-four years earlier in Gramercy Park. He is really proud of Katherine Heigl: her education, after all, is considerable. She made it through four years of NYU without killing herself, and then headed uptown to Columbia for her law degree. It taught her, somewhere along the line, that it was OK to make love to her client. “We are the lucky ones,” she muses in a private moment.

Katherine Heigl has everything she could ever want, yet people still don’t want to watch her. At times she looks like a skeleton riding a bike through New York City in Doubt, the new show from the married Grey’s Anatomy producers Joan Rater and Tony Phelan; she resembles a muppet when she is in the courtroom and her lips come together just so. Dulé Hill just looks at her like, “Why am I on this show?”

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I guess it all comes back to when Katherine Heigl started saying bad things about Judd Apatow and how much Knocked Up sucked. It did suck, but maybe it was supposed to? 2007 was a very confusing year for a lot of people. Perhaps it was not the best idea to cast Ms. Heigl in a show that is exactly like Grey’s Anatomy. “Travel’s not my thing,” she explains to her boyfriend at dinner, in an attempt to become even more unlikable to her target audience.

Men gave up on Katherine Heigl when she savagely turned on Seth Rogen, causing him to retreat into his office where he smoked so much pot that he drove other people out of the building. Women could still have a chance of liking Katherine Heigl, but Doubt gives them so many reasons not to do so. Personally, I love Katherine Heigl. Did you know that Katherine Heigl has two adopted children in real life, and is dating a murderer in not real life? “It’s not going to be easy to explain the coincidence of the cat scratch to the jury!” someone bleats in the background.

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In order to discover the reasons why Katherine Heigl’s unpopularity has led to such low ratings, it behooved me to research the cause of Katherine Heigl’s unpopularity with her key audience. This resulted in a somewhat combative conversation with my wife Lynne, which I have reproduced below to the best of my memory.

ME (DC): Do you think Katherine Heigl uses a loofah?

LYNNE: I don’t believe she can actually ride a bike. That’s probably a stunt double.

DC: Did you feel betrayed when she left Grey’s Anatomy?

LYNNE: Not really, I mean, she was an actress on a TV show.

DC: Do you think Katherine Heigl smells like gasoline and Head & Shoulders?

LYNNE: They were still rolling out the credits on this show fifteen minutes in. Is that Omar Epps?

DC: No. Do you think people who travel don’t like people who don’t travel?

LYNNE: I don’t understand the question.

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To be fair, Doubt‘s questionable command of civil procedure renders the show essentially an extended fantasy sequence. In one of the show’s key subplots, another attorney (Laverne Cox) wins the trial of a deranged man who pushed a woman in front of a subway. Afterwards, she commiserates with her associate (Dreama Walker), who exclaims, “Our client is on his way to a mental institution and we’re supposed to be celebrating?” Where did she want a murderer to go, vacation?

Are you maybe starting to get the same sense that I am, that at one point Shonda Rimes killed a dude and the point of all these hour-long shows is to slowly legitimize murder in the eyes of the public until she confesses to Oprah and everyone is like, well, Viola Davis killed several people and continued a fruitful teaching career in a top tier law school, so you’re fine Shonda?

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But back to Katherine Heigl, the only subject really worth writing about. I have devised some suggestions for Katherine Heigl, so that she can resume her rightful career as a serious television and film star. My first thought was that she should do a role with an accent. Katherine Heigl with a southern accent would be just darling. If she can’t do an accent, than she should stop dieting down to fit preconceived stereotypes about how leading ladies should look and play the role of a woman who is almost permanently pregnant. Gentile pregnant women are very sympathetic.

Anyway, it is kind of sad that Doubt is such a mess. I think part of the problem is that the show is photographed and scored like every other Shonda Rimes show. It just comes across feeling so generic at this point. Plus Katherine Heigl’s outfits are not so exciting in this. She wears a lot of sweaters and the ensuing sexual milieu is extremely dated. I understand she is a powerful attorney in this diegesis, but she’s already making love to her client, so keeping up appearances otherwise is maybe a misguided use of resources.

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Dulé Hill and Katherine Heigl have a lot of chemistry. It would have been great fun to see them taking off their clothes, and I think that is where Doubt was eventually going down the road, but we’ll never know now because the show is doing such garbage ratings. That’s a shame, because I would have really enjoyed seeing their bodies press together. It would have sounded like a car wash.

Dick Cheney is the senior contributor to This Recording.

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In Which Marriage Remains Not Quite As Sweet As You Think

Just Another Apple User

by ETHAN PETERSON

Imposters
creators Paul Adelstein & Adam Brooks
Bravo

Despite having been bilked out of his life savings by a disingenuous American woman named Saffron (Inbar Lavi), things are still pretty great for Ezra (Rob Heaps). For one, he does not appear to have much in the way of life savings, as much of his wealth is the wealth of his parents who run some kind of business. Ezra’s bullshit detector should have been ringing loud and clear when a purported waitress from Belgium agreed to convert to Judaism, but for some reason he felt this was par for the course. He’d had a wonderful life.

After Saffron leaves, Ezra meets Richard (Parker Young), who looks almost exactly like him. This is partly because neither actor is in, fact, Jewish, which is a very hurtful casting choice. You will spend a lot of time trying to tell Ezra and Richard apart, although the key can be found in Ezra’s questionable American accent, which slips into British inflection from time-to-time. In the pilot episode of Imposters, Ezra attempts to kill himself with an extension cord after trying to put his head in an oven. He succeeds at neither enterprise, which weirdly makes us loathe him even more. What kind of man sees his marriage fall apart and becomes even less sympathetic? The man with the cringey name of Ezra Bloom.

This is cannily done by creators Paul Adelstein and Adam Brooks, since if Saffron really was a monster, then they couldn’t spend all her scenes putting this attractive Israeli-American actress in a series of less likely outfits. “She’s just doing her job,” Imposters convinces us to think, since the show is not really interested in the victims of crime, who all share a similar (boring) psychological profile exposing their own weakness and vanity. The imposters themselves are the focus here, led by a woman named Lenny Cohen (Uma Thurman).

Victims, according to Imposters, do not really lose much that is not already missing. This is completely fucked up, but what else would you expect from Bravo? After Ezra finds his wife gone, he plans to call the police so he can rescue her from her captors before he views the message she has left for him. It is super-apologetic and very nice overall, thanking him for their time together and asking that he not try to find her. It was a great deal more kind than any break-up I have ever had.

Instead of taking his wife’s well-meant advice, Ezra completely self-destructs. He gets increasingly drunk and tries to convince his friend Gaby (Megan Park) to adopt a Belgian accent during intercourse, since it is the only way he can really get turned on now. Shortly thereafter he finds out that Saffron had engaged a third victim, a woman named Jules (Marianne Rendon), to whom she was also married. The badinage between these three people is enough to make even Lorelai Gilmore take a nap.

Jules lives in the most magical apartment I have ever personally witnessed. Eventually, Imposters means us to conclude that Saffron and her group of con artists only target people with such astronomical sources of revenue that it would be hard to feel any concern for them at all. How would they even miss the loss of income? Even the emotional damage, we are led to believe, is considerably less. Wasn’t Saffron sort of well-meaning in how she broke these people’s hearts?

First the Bravo Network ruined the entire concept of divorce, which I had so much faith in up until now. Now they purport to implode the entire premise of human emotions and trust in general. These are deeply cynical, awful television executives, and it somehow makes it so much worse than they have cast these extremely beautiful and kind actresses in the roles of villains. The only time I ever really hated Uma Thurman was when she was intimate with Quentin Tarantino.

Watching Ms. Lavi perform Saffron’s various roles, including the cuckold of an asshole banker (Aaron Douglas) and the boyfriend of a tech mogul (Stephen Bishop), is quite frankly delightful. She is extremely talented at using her body language to convincingly influence other actors — she gives them so much to engage with as a performer. Ms. Lavi’s different accents begin to slip at times, but who can blame her? Each of the people whose lives she enters would probably give her everything if she simply asked.

Ethan Peterson is the reviews editor of This Recording.

In Which We Calmed Down After The Screaming In The Sky

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Second Person

by DAN CARVILLE

I like a girl with personality. I have a lot of personality myself, and when I see someone else that has it, my heart goes out to them. – Ross Macdonald

The thing about the second person that is a mistake is that writers like you think it is the only form of address. Maybe your ex will feel it is him or her you are really saying this all to, and when they realize that, they will come to their senses. Only if you had ever become important enough to be addressed in the medium of literature, most likely you never even took the time to read about all the people whose hearts you tore up, stomped on, and drowned off the dock at Pacific Point.

There are other modes of address, and I will tell you about them after I get through this. There is a way of writing that is therapeutic, sure. Afterwards, this bracing feeling floods me, like my body is filled with nature, if I am in nature. Coleridge said that you see the beauty if it’s inside you, otherwise the viper thoughts are all that’s left in the remarkable scene. Then again the man was addicted to opium. After he wrote, he did some more, so each feeling was artificial and he could no longer discern what was therapy, and what was trauma. I don’t do drugs anymore: you made sure of that.

Well, the first month we were dating, I was not so sure it was going to last. I told you I was going to Oregon for the weekend and the phone service might not be the best. You said, “You’ll get a lot of writing done.” You said, “Isn’t it beautiful up there?” I had taken a lot of pictures on my phone from another time I was in Oregon. If you really look at a picture you can tell the time it was taken, but I knew you weren’t going to go to all that trouble, and that you believed me. I was in Oregon.

I guess it’s not really cheating, only I wasn’t going to tell you or anyone else about it, and I never have until now, because it is so far past making a difference to anyone. Her name was Patricia, I mean was it really? No, but what do I get out of saying her true name. We already established that I lie. She had this vitality that was something apart from her, feeding off who she was. For that reason Patricia could never get whole. I gave her some Valium I had – I don’t remember where I got it, and we went to the museum down here.

It was the exhibition that they have every two years, and she told her friend to come. The friend was a local who was very frumpy and obviously in love with Patricia. She also dated some guy who had been in prison and I think this made her interesting to Patricia, because Patricia’s boyfriend was also something of a bad guy for other reasons, not like he went to jail but he had very specific sexual requirements and yelled at her when he drank. In contrast, I realized after listening to their discussion, I must be the most milquetoast fucking person in the world.

I never let myself love Patricia, because I knew nothing would ever come from it. She was a tourist in my life, and that only gives you a sad feeling if you let it. If you (and I don’t mean the editorial you) shut down your emotions at the first moment they occur, then they have only happened once, and are unlikely to repeat themselves. That kind of emotional control is priceless, only I do not have it anymore.

I may end up going east for school. That’s one of the things I wanted to tell you. I decided it would be better not to have to walk around this place getting reminded of where we got ice cream, or I took you to some dinner on your birthday. Those are sad details now, and the park across from your apartment (that you never went to) is not so bad either. It is quite painful to think of all the misapprehensions I have had about the world, because they make me realize that I see people in that mistaken way as well. For God’s sake I trusted you.

When I write ‘you’, I feel like there is another you, waking up somewhere. That’s all I need to get by. But there are other forms of address — more indirect ones.

I visited one school the other day. The students are noticeably younger than I am, but not so much that they will know I have had a hard time up until now. I plan to pretend I am like them: full of this contained grace. It is an asset, as we enter middle age, not to be soured by what we have experienced, but I do think I needed to be touched by the world in order to claim it. Standing at a distance will not help in your writing, or any profession you select. It only means you will not get to pick the moment you are drawn into things.

After the museum, when her friend had gone to sit shiva for her grandmother, Patricia and I fooled around on the beach. It felt like I was alone because you were not there, so I sent you a picture of Oregon. Later I called to hear your voice. I did not like to talk on the phone much before then, but I remember the first time I called you. Outside, a plane was streaking across the sky and I took a picture, since nothing ever seems that close to the moon. We told each other what we knew about ourselves. I know you liked what you heard. I barely even knew you to say hello at that point, but I hoped you did. And those marvelous months together. How did I screw up that up? Oh well.

Dan Carville is the senior contributor to This Recording. He is a writer living in Manhattan. You can find an archive of his writing on This Recording here.

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In Which Georges Braque Survives Multiple Wars

A Break From All That

by ALEX CARNEVALE

As he had for André Derain, Pablo Picasso chose Georges Braque’s wife. Marcelle Vorvanne had modeled for other painters, including Modigliani, and had many cheerful anecdotes about doing so. She loved to drop nicknames on unsuspecting artists, terming Max Jacob “the magus.” Her mother was an upholsterer, her father was absolutely missing. Madame Vorvanne was a tiny, stout woman with a low center of gravity; her frequent donning of a large hat made her look something like a striped or patterned turtle depending on her mode of dress.

Marcelle’s birth name was Octavie, but she discarded it with much else. Reinventing yourself in Europe at this time was not terribly difficult, and she did it more than once. While Braque was a domineering type, he did not mind having a wife with her own mind. Marcelle was expert at giving people exactly what they wanted or needed. Her major tool of benign manipulation was food and drink; after a conversation with Marcelle, participants frequently felt undone.

In the first year of their dating, Braque was still keeping time with a courtesan he had known since boyhood, Paulette Philippi. Madame Philippi ran an opium den in Paris, and the drug would eventually ruin her good looks and sour Braque’s view of her. Braque took Paulette to dinner and sometimes lectures, but he felt his heart moving towards Marcelle. When he returned from an uneventful bout of required military service in 1922, he and Marcelle moved into a double apartment in Paris. She continued calling him by his last name for the rest of their lives.

Marcelle usually went to church alone, which is not to say Braque had no faith in the almighty. He did avoid the chapel in Marseilles when they were summering. “It’s probably because I know it too well,” he said, “but it bothers me that when I go to the House of God it’s Matisse that lets me in.” Despite their cohabitation, the two would not be officially married until fifteen years later.

By 1914 the war was on. Braque and Derain were both immediately transferred to the front. Picasso took them to the station, writing fallaciously, “On 2 August 1914 I took Braque and Derain to the station at Avignon. I never saw them again.” In the thick of the fight, Braque was awarded the Croix de Guerre and appointed Chevalier of the Legion of Honor.

In a battle at Neuville-Saint-Vaust, Braque was struck in the head. He became temporarily blind, a condition that was relieved by trepanning two holes in his skull to relieve the pressure. “I was afraid of finding him so badly wounded,” Marcelle wrote, “that I would not be able to hide my despair.” Braque would spend month after month under the care of doctors, during which time he could not even think of returning to his studio.

Picasso and Braque reunited, but as close as they had been before the war, they never got back to where they were. Picasso was deeply troubled by his own avoidance of battle, and remarked to Gertrude Stein, “Will it not be awful when Braque and Derain and all the rest of them put their wooden legs up on a chair and tell about their fighting?” Pablo was an all-around disgusting man.

Return to painting was slow for Georges. It took him until he received his full discharge, after two solid years of convalescence, to think of proceeding past still-lifes. “Survival does not erase the memory,” he wrote.

He looked differently at those who had avoided combat: Gleizes and Picibia, Delaney and Duchamp. Even his closest friend. While Braque was fighting for his country, Picasso had become famous and rich. Still serving in the war, Derain looked down on them both.

A short essay of aphrorisms published by Braque in Nord-Sud helped him regain his creative compass and was variously praised and ridiculed by observers. Picasso and Derain in particular thought that “Thoughts and Reflections on Paintings” was nonsense, but it holds up somewhat better today:

In art, progress does not consist in extension, but in the knowledge of limits.

Limitation of means determines style, engenders new form, and gives impulse to creation.

Limited means often constitute the charm and force of primitive painting. Extension, on the contrary, leads the arts to decadence.

New means, new subjects.

The subject is not the object, it is a new unity, a lyricism which grows completely from the means.

The painter thinks in terms of form and color.

The goal is not to be concerned with reconstituting an anecdotal fact, but with constituting a pictorial fact.

Painting is a method of representation.

One must not imitate what one wants to create.

One does not imitate appearances; the appearance is the result.

To be pure imitation, painting must forget appearance.

To work from nature is to improvise.

One must beware of an all-purpose formula that will serve to interpret the other arts as well as reality, and that instead of creating will only produce a style, or rather a stylization…

The senses deform, the mind forms. Work to perfect the mind.

There is no certitude but in what the mind conceives.

The painter who wished to make a circle would only draw a curve. Its appearance might satisfy him, but he would doubt it. The compass would give him certitude. The papiers collés in my drawings also gave me a certitude.

Trompe l’oeil, is due to an anecdotal chance which succeeds because of the simplicity of the facts.

The pasted papers, the faux bois— and other elements of a similar kind— which I used in some of my drawings, also succeed through the simplicity of the facts; this has caused them to be confused with trompe l’oeil, of which they are the exact opposite. They are also simple facts, but are created by the mind, and are one of the justifications for a new form in space.

Nobility grows out of contained emotion.

Emotion should not be rendered by an excited trembling; it can neither be added on nor be imitated. It is the seed, the work is the blossom.

I like the rule that corrects the emotion.

Derain in particular was contemptuous of the publication. “I’m staggered by the aphorisms of Lieutenant Braque,” he wrote to his wife. “I even feel sorry for him, I have to say. What a filthy journal! He doesn’t see that the others are using him. I’d like to know what the General of Cubism thinks of it. As a reflection, he doesn’t exactly strain himself… I can’t help thinking about Braque’s nonsense. It’s so appallingly dry and insensitive. It manages to combine fanaticism with some initial omissions. One needs centuries of painting, good and bad, for or against, in order to have an idea about art. It regulates the imagination.”

Along with the essay, a new spate of paintings followed and sold for obscene amounts. This allowed Braque and his wife to move to Montparnesse, where they commissioned the building of a house. Braque’s studio took up the entire top floor of this magnificent, modern domicile. Servants filled the new home: a cook, a chaffeur. Marcelle ensured the walls were mostly yellow, the color which did not disturb her husband’s restored and fragile vision.

The second World War smashed this reverie. The Braques fled Paris, meeting the Derains south of Toulose. Eventually, however, they would be able to return to their home, finding it had been used as a German officers’ quarters. (Only Georges’ accordion was missing.) Derain visited Germany as a honored guest of the Nazis, accepting commissions from the party.

Braque refused all entreaties from Berlin. He did leave his home in order to show his face at the funeral for Max Jacob, who had died on the way to the extermination camp at Treblinka.

Alex Carnevale is the editor of This Recording.

In Which We Tell An Exciting Half-Lie

Hard to Say is This Recording’s weekly advice column. It will appear every Wednesday until the Earth perishes in a fiery blaze, or until North West turns 40. Get no-nonsense answers to all of your most pressing questions by writing to justhardtosay@gmail.com.

Hi,

I made some mistakes in my friendship with a co-worker who I will call Jane. Although I am in committed relationship and I told her that, we both have not really brought it up too much since then. It is nice to have someone to talk to at work and if I am beginning honest, things in my relationship have been a bit stale — my girlfriend works long hours as well.

I have been sort of toeing the line with Jane and although I really do like her, I don’t want to break up with my girlfriend. Is there anyway to reestablish boundaries? (Nothing physical has happening, although we have come close.)

Theo A.

Dear Theo,

Jane does not sound much like an innocent party either. She knew you were in a relationship and that was probably part of the reason the two of you became so close. There are so many different ways two people can derive sustenance with each other. The kind you have chosen is essentially unhealthy, since it lacks real intimacy with either party, but maybe that is just the sort of arrangement you prefer.

The real problem is in your primary relationship. Maybe you don’t want to be with someone who works such long hours. Normally I would advocate a fresh lie, but telling everyone involved the truth is most likely going to lead to your best result. Half relationships can sometimes become full relationships, and it is possible either of these situations might be repaired to your satisfaction.

Hi,

 

It is always disgusting or skeezy to ask someone who you met while they are working? I have built up rapport with an administrator who is employed at a hotel I often visit for work. I don’t want to make her uncomfortable by hitting on her, but there must be some way of letting her know I am really interested.

thanks,

Daniel S.

Dear Daniel,

She has to deal with this a lot in her job. Building “rapport” as you call it is really just an aspect of service jobs. You’re a client and thus you receive this treatment because you have paid to receive it. It is really no indication of romantic interest on her part.

It is OK to drop hints, but never intrude on her private space or well-being. If she really picks up on what you are broadcasting, maybe it is then OK to straightforwardly ask if something more is going on. Without that green-light, you are just being a dick.

Illustrations by Mia Nguyen.

In Which We Always Desired A Normal Relationship

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Mr. Grey’s Beads

by DICK CHENEY

Fifty Shades Darker
dir. James Foley
118 minutes

screen-shot-2017-02-13-at-9-29-43-amIn a Seattle cafe, Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan) explains in the most half-hearted manner imaginable that he wants Anastasia Steele (Dakota Johnson) back in his life. He is willing to change, he admonishes her, why would you ever believe otherwise? A moment before, the waiter struggles with a bottle of wine. Both diners appear flummoxed. You see, when two people are together, one of them always feels the slightest bit awkward.

Later, during the first sex scene in Fifty Shades Darker, Jamie Dornan pants like maybe he is going to be out of breath. Regular sex is much more taxing than torture, and it is part of the reason he used to have a contractual agreement that allowed him to take powders for water and gumballs. Next to his stash of various whips, chains and chokers is a glorious room of gumball machines that he only shows to Matthew Fox, and on more serious outings, former child stars. It reminds them all of what they lost.

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Grey tells much of his backstory while trying on this normal relash for size. His mother was a crack-addicted so-and-so. It is quite disturbing and boring to realize someone’s past explains their present, and even more so when it does not fully take into account the considerable weight Jamie Dornan has put on his slender frame for this important sequel. Comparing him to the original Christian Grey, it might be said that there are now two of them. If you did not know any better, you might conclude that Dornan does not give a fuck.

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Ms. Johnson on the other hand, really gives her all in this role. She clearly does not want to seem ungrateful: the money from being “fucked” by this man will keep her on easy street for the rest of her life, and she does not actually even need to wintercourse with the blubbery mess like Chloe Sevigny. When Grey gives her an iPhone and a Macbook as a gesture after they reconcile, he texts her to dream of him. She responds, “Maybe. Laters Baby,” and Dornan gets this little smile on his face, like how is this woman wanting to work in publishing when she sounds like Demi Lovato after four drinks?

Ana is not really liking her new job, because why would she be an assistant for some guy who looks remarkably similar to her boyfriend, when she could just serve her boyfriend? Eventually, Grey purchases the publishing company. She is not only unsurprised by the fact that she is suddenly working for him, she does not complain. Later, she accepts the position her boss had filled at the top of the editorial chain. Her first memo naturally ends with Laters Baby.

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No it does not. She never sends out a memo, or knows what one is, since she has only been an assistant whose main job is to book hotel rooms and relay messages. Despite having nearly unlimited economic resources, Grey keeps having strange women approach him with vague accusations. Normally this would be a red flag for his girlfriend, but it’s not like he did anything else weird recently. Bored with their sex life after a single week, he introduces anal beads and a new haircut into their lovemaking. She raises her right eyebrow like The Rock.

Involving Kim Basinger in these proceedings, at an Eyes Wide Shut style masquerade charity event no less, is a bit of a low blow. Director James Foley makes her look like Chelsea Handler a decade-hence. Basinger still gets my blood moving, and it is hard to realize why she is wearing a headscarf like a cancer patient. It turns out that she introduced Christian to this whole psychosexual lifestyle. “Without me, he would be in jail or dead,” she tells Ana. “If you really want to make him happy, you’ll let him go. Nothing lasts.”

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Afterwards, Ms. Johnson washes Mr. Dornan with a loofa. During each subsequent sex scene, Mr. Dornan’s body is more and more burnt and abused, whereas in some scenes they don’t bother applying the makeup since it distracts from his penetration. Everyone who has ever loved anybody knows that Kim Basinger is right and this relationship is going nowhere fast, but she really enjoys the high points: his cabin in Aspen, his massive yacht. I think the subtle moral code here is that having a lot of money is more important than good sex, and maybe a lot more important.

Dick Cheney is the senior contributor to This Recording.

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In Which We Start On Proust At Some Point

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He Hated The City

by ALEX CARNEVALE

In order for me to find myself worthwhile, I have got to be pretty brilliant, and understand everything.

Paul Bowles arrived in Paris in 1931. When he rode up to the home of Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas, they could not believe they had been corresponding with a college student. “I was sure from your letters that you were an elderly gentleman, at least seventy-five,” Stein told him. He was twenty-one years old.

Bowles started fast. He had been insulated from the world until the age of six, when he was sent to school. “I developed a superiority complex the first day,” he wrote in one of his many, many letters. His advancement continued apace:

When I was eight I wrote an opera. We had no piano, but we had two or three pieces of sheet-music which I studied and I had a zither which I tuned in various scales and modes. My first sexual thrills were obtained from reading newspaper account of electrocutions. At the time I was quite unconscious of the facts, except that I had the New England guilt about it.

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Bowles’ first literary idol was Poe, and crossing the Atlantic aboard the S.S. McKeesport he contemplated setting some of the man’s poems to music. As a self-described modernist snob, Bowles’ perspective on other artists resembled his shaky feelings about being turned on by torture –  a mix of wonder, awe and pain. Upon his arrival in Paris, the first person he went out of his way to meet was Jean Cocteau. At the beginning of April 1931 he writes that Cocteau

rushed about the room with great speed for two hours and never sat down once. Now he pretended he was an orangoutang, next an usher at Paramount Theatre, and finally he held a dialogue between an aged grandfather and his young grandson which was side-splitting. I think never have I seen anyone like him in my life. He still smokes opium every day and claims it does him a great deal of good. I daresay it does. By definition, the fact that it is considered harmful for most mere mortals would convince me of its efficaciousness for him.

Reading Bowles’ private letters is like watching the precise movements of a guided laser. He writes completely differently depending on the level of intimacy with his correspondent. He penned almost stream-of-consciousness Joyce imitations to his friend Bruce Morissette, adopting a more formal tone for those whose friendship he coveted and had yet to earn. With his closest ones he even vacillated between styles with a severity of purpose nearly bipolar in its enthusiasm.

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By June of 1931 he was in Berlin. He hated the city, all rain and mosquitos, but it was mostly that the place suffered in comparison to Paris. It is obvious how much his surroundings affected Bowles’ personality. In his letter to the Paris-born Jew Edouard Roditi, Bowles accurately described his view of the German metropolis:

if only the world were stronger! if only there were more dimensions! if only we thought in terms of perfumes! if only there were a third world where we could hide from the other two. then the other one would not be always grinning in feeling so perfectly well that we could do nothing when it intended to enter. there would be two of them there, and the two would be easier to fight than the one. but now it is always either one or the other, and neither one stays away long enough. in full noon sleep falls upon one for one tiny second without measurement and one knows there is no escape. berlin is not a beautiful city

Later he would tell Roditi, and in a sense himself as well, that “I have the feeling you are primarily two people, one of which should be killed.”

Among so many potent writers and artists, it was natural for young Bowles to feel a bit discouraged in his own writing. Yes, he could write or speak to Gertrude Stein anytime he liked, but reading further and further into her work, he despaired of his own.

All my theories on her I discover to be utterly vagrant. She has set me right, by much labor on her part, and now the fact emerges that there is nothing in her works save the sense. The sound, the sight, the soporific repetitions to which I had attached such great importance, are accidental, she insists, and the one aim of her writing is the superlative sense. “What is the use of writing,” she will shout, “unless every word makes the utmost sense?” Naturally all that renders her ‘opera’ far more difficult, and after many hours of patient reading, I discover she is telling the truth, and that she is wholly correct about the entire matter. And what is even more painful is that all my poems are worth a large zero. That is the end of that. And unless I undergo a great metamorphosis, there will never be any more poems.

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In August he boarded another ship, the S.S. Imerethie II, with a destination of Tangier. His reaction to this lush place was the polar opposite to his experience of Berlin. In a postcard to John Widdicombe he wrote, “here I shall live until the eucalyptus leaves all fall and it starts to rain across the strait.” He took up residence in a villa with Aaron Copland. The villa featured a permanently out of tune piano, and while Copland found he could not do his work, Bowles’ mood improved immediately. After a sojourn in Marrakech, Bowles returned to Paris before stopping in London at the beginning of December.

London did not offend him as a city, but as a way of life. In a letter to Charles Henri-Ford, he writes,

I have crossed the little water that is mightier in its human gap than an ocean, and fallen again into the great pit of London. The chalk cliffs at Newhaven were all greyer through the dawn rain than any human eyes could be, and white gulls fluttered out of the black wind into the vague lights of the boat, and seemed to cry when their flight crossed the boat, but to be silent when they went back into the darkness again. There is little change, save that Piccadilly grows more and more like a sprawling Times Square, running down Haymarket and Coventry and Regent, all garish and burning with neon. It doesn’t fit. In New York, the great planes of the lifting buildings can carry it off, in London it stays right there, on the ground, on your mind, on your hands, and you can’t lift it. I am sad for this.

Paris left me empty. I look only, everywhere, all hours, for that new way of looking at the human thing, the heart, I suppose, of the world, and I found it not there. I was childish to look for it. Only the echo of the beat, not the strong pulse.

At any rate, it was good of you to lead me about by my nose, and to let me meet so many people. As you know, I like to meet everyone in the world at least once.

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He had met many of the most important artists of his generation; from Klee to Gide to Stein to Copland to Pound. For a short time, it raised all boats to be amidst such individuals, but eventually Bowles’ surroundings discouraged him: 

Literature has never lived on literary talk, and literary acquaintances. I want to take every poet and shove him down into the dung-heap, kick all his literary friends in the ass, and try to make him see that writing is not word-bandying, like Stein, and the thousand legions of her followers, but an emotion seen through the mind, or an intellectual concept emotionalized, and shaping its own expression. You can’t write from a literary vacuum, and all of Paris, I felt, was trying to. They get all tangled up in trying to write cleverly and as no one else has, and get lost in the timber hills of their effort. I can’t help thinking Shakespeare never worried about writing a new kind of blank verse, just went ahead instinctively and did it.

The artists and writers Bowles once idolized had begun to let him down, as they had to. (He called Gertrude Stein, who told him, “Why don’t you go to Mexico? You’d last two days there.”) Friends he depended on for money were no longer as forgiving; after all, he had been in Europe for almost a year. A traveler is always welcome, a wayward resident finds himself more swiftly resented.

Even Copland became slow in answering his letters, and Bowles stopped visiting the Stein home. He developed syphilis and then acute tonsilitis, medical expressions of how little Europe had left for him. How he loathed these ancient cities! By the same token, he did not want to go home at all. In Algiers he began, for the first time in his life, to read the work of Marcel Proust.

Alex Carnevale is the editor of This Recording. You can find an archive of his writing on This Recording here.

photo-by-cherie-nutting