In Which We Examine The Base From Which He Took Flight

thebeautiful ava gardner

Do They Stare Back?

Shallowness that asks to be taken seriously is an embarrassment.

Reading the reviews of Pauline Kael is rewarding because of her descriptions of actresses and actors. Beyond taking them to task for their mere talent, she was able to describe the effect they had on people through their continuing cinematic presence. Kael properly deduced that a huge part of going to the movies consisted of how the audience responded to the people on the screen, rather than simply basing her critique on the competence of the writing or the technical aspects of the cinematography. Her sentences in her radio and print reviews about the onscreen talent of the twentieth century rise to the level of expert observation of humanity in all its manifold variety.

ava gee bb

Ava Gardner

Gardner was one of the last of the women stars to make it on beauty alone. She never looked really happy in her movies; she wasn’t quite there, but she never suggested that she was anywhere else, either. She had a dreamy, hurt quality, a generously modeled mouth, and faraway eyes. Maybe what turned people on was that her sensuality was developed but her personality wasn’t. She was a rootless, beautiful stray, somehow incomplete but never ordinary, and just about impossible to dislike, since she was utterly without affectation. But to Universal she is just one more old star to beef up a picture’s star power, and so she’s cast as a tiresome bitch whose husband is fed up with her.

She looks blowzy and beat-out, and that could be fun if she were allowed to be blowzily good-natured, but the script here harks back to those old movies in which a husband was justified in leaving his wife only is she was a jealous schemer who made his life hell. Ava Gardner might make a man’s life hell out of indolence and spiritual absenteeism, but out of shrill stupidity?

super cute dirty harry

Clint Eastwood

Clint Eastwood isn’t offensive; he isn’t an actor, so one could hardly call him a bad actor. He’d have to do something before we could consider him bad at it. Acting might get in the way of what the movie is about what a big man and a big gun can do. Eastwood’s wooden impassivity makes it possible for the brutality in his pictures to be ordinary, a matter of routine. he may try to save a buddy from getting killed, but when the buddy gets hit no time is wasted on grief; Eastwood couldn’t express grief any more than he could express tenderness. With a Clint Eastwood, the action film can indeed, must drop the pretense that human life has any value. At the same time, Eastwood’s lack of reaction makes the whole show of killing seem so unreal that the viewer takes it on a different level from a movie in which the hero responds to suffering.

Woody Allen

Allen appears before us as the battered adolescent, scarred forever, a little too nice and much too threatened to allow himself to be aggressive. He has the city-wise effrontery of a shrimp who began by using language to protect himself and then discovered that language has a life of its own. the running way between the tame and surreal between Woody Allen the frightened nice guy trying to keep the peace and Woody Allen the wiseacre whose subversive fantasies keep jumping out of his mouth has been the source of the comedy in his films. Messy, tasteless, and crazily uneven (as the best talking comedies have often been) the last two pictures he directed Bananas and Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex had wild highs that suggested an erratic comic genius. The tension between his insecurity and his wit make us empathize with him; we, too, are scared to show how smart we feel.

And he has found a nonaggressive way of dealing with urban pressures. He stays nice; he’s not insulting, like most New York comedians, and he delivers his zingers without turning into a cynic. We enjoy his show of defenselessness, and even the I don’t-mean-any-harm ploy, because we see the essential sanity in him. We respect that sanity it’s the base from which he takes flight. At his top, in parts of Bananas and Sex, the inexplicably funny took over; it might be grotesque, it almost always had the flippant, corny bawdiness of a frustrated sophomore running amok, but it seemed to burst out as the most inspired comedy does as if we had all been repressing it. We laughed as if he had let out what we couldn’t hold in any longer.

shitjob pensino

Isabelle Adjani

Only nineteen when the film was shot, Isabelle Adjani is much younger than the woman’s she’s playing. She hardly seems to be doing anything, yet you can’t take your eyes off her. You can perceive why Truffaut has said that he wouldn’t have amde this “musical composition for one instrument” without Isabelle Adjani. She has a quality similar to Jean-Pierre Leaud’s in The 400 Blows not a physical resemblance but a similar psychological quality. The awareness and intelligence are there, but nothing else is definite yet; the inner life has not yet taken outer form, and so in the movie you see the downy opacity of a face in process, a character taking shape. We keep staring at Adele to see what the face means.

Isabelle Adjani has been a professional actress since she was fourteen without tightening; one French directors says that she’s James Dean come back as a girl. Considering how young she is, her performance here is scarily smart. She knows how to alert us to what Adele conceals; she’s unnaturally quiet and passive, her blue eyes shining too bright in a pale flower face. Truffaut had the instinct not to age her with makeup in the course of the film; we can see that years are passing, but the tokens of time are no more than reddened eyes, a pair of glasses, tangled hair, a torn, bedraggled gown.

Robert De Niro

De Niro amply convinces one that he has it in him to become the old man that Brando was. It’s not that he looks exactly like Brando but that he has Brando’s wary soul, and so we can easily imagine the body changing with the years. It is much like seeing a photograph of one’s own dead father when he was a strapping young man; the burning spirit we see in his face spooks us, because of our knowledge of what he was at the end.

In De Niro’s case, the young man’s face is fired by a secret pride. His gesture as he refuses the gift of a box of groceries is beautifully expressive and has the added wonder of suggesting Brando, and not from the outside but from the inside. Even the soft, cracked Brando-like voice seems to come from the inside. When De Niro closes his eyes to blot out something insupportable, the reflex is like a presentiment of the old man’s reflexes. There is such a continuity of soul between the child on the ship, De Niro’s slight, ironic smile as a cowardly landlord tries to appease him, and Brando, the old man who died happy in the sun, that although Vito is a subsidiary character in terms of actual time on the screen, this second film, like the first, is imbued with his presence.

Jane Fonda

Jane Fonda having sex on the wilted feathers and rough, scroungy furs of Barbarella is more charming and fresh and bouncy than ever the American girl triumphing by her innocence over a lewd comic-strip world of the future. She’s the only comedienne I can think of who is sexiest when she is funniest. (Shirley MacLaine is a sweet and sexy funny girl, but she has never quite combined her gifts as Jane Fonda does.) Jane Fonda is accomplished at a distinctive kind of double take: she registers comic disbelief that such naughty things can be happening to her, and then her disbelief changes into an even more comic delight.

fitting in you guys

Dirk Bogarde

As the philosophy-don husband, Dirk Bogarde is just about perfect: he acts like a man who’s had a spinal tap. He’s a virtuoso at this civilized, stifled anguish racket, better even than Ralph Richardson used to be at suppressed emotion because he’s so much more ambiguous that we can’t even be sure what he’s suppressing. He aches all the time all over, like an all-purpose sufferer for a television commercial locked in, with a claustrophobia of his own body and sensibility.

Bogarde looks rather marvelous going through his middle-aged frustration routines, gripping his jaw to stop a stutter or folding in his arms to keep his hands out of trouble. The Ralph Richardson civilized sufferer was trying to spare others pain, but Bogarde isn’t noble: he goes through the decent motions because of training and because of an image of himself, but he’s exquisitely guilty in thought a mouse with the soul of a rat. He compulsively tells little half lies that he attempts to make true and hesitates before each bit of truth he calculatingly parts with.


Isabella Rossellini

Rossellini doesn’t show anything like the acting technique that her mother, Ingrid Bergman, had, but she’s willing to try things, and she doesn’t hold back. Dorothy is a dream of a freak. Walking around her depressing apartment in her black bra and panties, with blue eyeshadow and red high heels, she’s a woman in distress right out of the pulps; she has plushy, tempestuous look of heroines who are described as “bewitching.” (She has the kind of nostrils that cover artists can represent accurately with two dots.)

Rossellini’s accent is useful: it’s part of Dorothy’s strangeness. And Rossellini’s echoes of her mother’s low voice help to place this kitschy seductress in an unreal world. She has a special physical quality, too. There’s nothing of the modern American woman about her. When she’s naked, she’s not protected, like the stars who are pummelled into shape and lighted to show their muscular perfection. She’s defenselessly, tactilely naked, like the nudes the Expressionists painted.

Once, in Berkeley, after a lecture by LeRoi Jones, as the audience got up to leave, I asked an elderly white couple next to me how they could applaud when Jones said that all whites should be killed. And the little gray-haired woman replied, “But that was just a metaphor. He’s a wonderful speaker.”

Her mixture of wide-eyed wonder and cuddly drugged sexiness seemed to get to just about every male; she turned on even homosexual men. And women couldn’t take her seriously enough to be indignant; she was funny and impulsive in a way that made people feel protective. She was a little knocked out; her face looked as if, when nobody was paying attention to her, it would go utterly slack — as if she died between wolf calls.

She seemed to have become a camp siren out of confusion and ineptitude; her comedy was self-satire, and apologetic — conscious parody that had begun unconsciously. She was not the first sex goddess with a trace of somnabulism; Garbo was often a litte out-of-it, Dietrich was numb most of time, and Hedy Lamarr was fairly zonked. But they were exotic and had accents, so maybe audiences didn’t wonder why they were in a daze; Monroe’s slow reaction time made her seem daffy, and she tricked it up into a comedy style. The mystique of Monroe — which accounts for the book Marilyn — is that she became spiritual as she fell apart. But as an actress she had no way of expressing what was deeper in her except in moodiness and weakness. When she was “sensitive” she was drab.

Paul Newman

Somehow it all reminds one of the old apocryphal story conference — “It’s a modern western, see, with this hell-raising, pleasure-loving man who doesn’t respect any of the virtues, and, at the end, we’ll fool them, he doesn’t get the girl and he doesn’t change!”

“But who’ll want to see that?”

“Oh, that’s all fixed — we’ve got Paul Newman for the part.”

They could cast him as a mean man and know that the audience would never believe in his meanness. For there are certain actors who have such extraordinary audience rapport that the audience does not believe in their villainy except to relish in it, as with Brando; and there are others, like Newman, who in addition to this rapport, project such a traditional heroic frankness and sweetness that the audience dotes on them, seeks to protect them from harm or pain. Casting Newman as a mean materialist is like writing a manifesto against the banking system while juggling your investments so you can break the bank.


Barbra Streisand

As Streisand’s pictures multiply, it becomes apparent that she is not about to master an actress’s craft but, rather, is discovering a craft of her own, out of the timing and emotionality that make her a phenomenon as a singer. You admire her not for her acting — or singing — but for herself, which is what you feel she gives you in both. She has the class to be herself, and the impudent music of her speaking voice is proof that she knows it. The audacity of her self-creation is something we’ve had time to adjust to; we already knew her mettle, and the dramatic urgency she can bring to roles.

In Up the Sandbox, she shows a much deeper and warmer presence and a freely yielding quality. And a skittering good humor — as if, at last, she had come to accept her triumph, to believe in it. That faint weasellike look of apprehensiveness is gone — and that was what made her seem a little frightening. She is a great undeveloped actress — undeveloped in the sense that you feel the natural richness in her but can see that she’s idiosyncratic and that she hasn’t the training to play the classical roles that still define how an actress’s greatness is expressed. But in movies new ways may be found.

Warren Beatty

There is a story told against Beatty in a recent Esquire — how during the shooting of Lilith he “delayed a scene for three days demanding the line ‘I’ve read Crime and Punishment and The Brothers Karamazov‘ be changed to ‘I’ve read Crime and Punishment and half of The Brothers Karamazov.'” Considerations of professional conduct aside, what is odd is why his adversaries waited three days to give in, because, of course, he was right. That’s what the character he played should say; the other way, the line has no point at all. But this kind of intuition isn’t enough to make an actor, and in a number of roles Beatty, probably because he doesn’t have the technique to make the most of his lines in the least possible time, has depended too much on intuitive non-acting — holding the screen far too long as he acted out self-preoccupied characters in a lifelike, boringly self-conscious way…

The role of Clyde Barrow seems to have released something in him. As Clyde, Beatty is good with his eyes and mouth and his hat, but his body is still inexpressive; he doesn’t have a trained actor’s use of his body, and, watching him move, one is never for a minute convinced he’s impotent.

Cary Grant

Cary Grant is the male love object. Men want to be as lucky and enviable as he is — they want to be like him. And women imagine landing him. Like Robert Redford, he’s sexiest in pictures in which the woman is the aggressor and all the film’s erotic energy is concentrated on him, a sit was in Notorious: Ingrid Bergman practically ravished him while he was trying to conduct a phone conversation…

Many men must have wanted to be Clark Gable and look straight at a woman with a faint smirk and lifted, questioning eyebrows. What man doesn’t — at some level — want to feel supremely confident and earthy and irresistible? But a few steps up the dreamy social ladder there’s the more subtle fantasy of worldly grace — of being so gallant and gentlemanly and charming that every woman longs to be your date. And at that deluxe level men want to be Cary Grant. Men as far apart as John F. Kennedy and Lucky Luciano thought that he should star in their life story. Who but Cary Grant could be a fantasy self-image for a president and a gangster chief? Who else could demonstrate that sophistication didn’t have to be a sign of weakness — that it could be the polished, fun-loving style of those who were basically tough? Cary Grant has said that even he wanted to be Cary Grant.


Katharine Hepburn

There were occasions in the past when Hepburn had poor roles and was tremulous and affected — almost a caricature of quivering sensitivity. But at her best — in the archetypal Hepburn role as the tomboy Linda in Holiday, in 1938 — her wit and nonconformity made ordinary heroines seem mushy, and her angular beauty made the round-faced ingénues look piggy and stupid. She was hard where they were soft — in both head and body. (As Spencer Tracy said, in the Brooklyn accent he used in Pat and Mike, “There’s not much meat on her, but what’s there is cherce.” Other actresses could be weak and helpless, but Davis and Hepburn had too much vitality.

Unlike Davis, Hepburn was limited to mandarin roles, although some of her finest performances were as poor girls who were mandarins by nature, as in Little Women and Alice Adams, rather than by birth or wealth, as in Bringing Up Baby and in the movie that the public liked her best in, The Philadelphia Story (even if her dedicated admirers, including me, tended to be less wild about it). Hepburn has always been inconceivable as a coarse-minded character; her bones are too fine, her diction is too crisp, she wears clothes too elegantly. And she has always been too individualistic, too singular, for common emotions. Other actresses who played career girls, like Crawford, could cop out in their roles by getting pregnant, or just by turning emotional — all womanly and ghastly. Hepburn was too hard for that, and so one could go to see her knowing that she wouldn’t deteriorate into a conventional heroine that didn’t suit her style…

When an actress has been a star for a long time, we know too much about her; for years we have been hearing about her romances or heartbreaks, or whatever the case may be, and all this carries over into her presence on the screen. And if she uses this in a role, she’s sunk. When actresses begin to use our knowledge about them and of how young and beautiful they used to be — when they offer themselves up as ruins of their former selves — they may get praise and awards (and they generally do), but it’s not really for their acting, it’s for capitulating and giving the public what it really wants: a chance to see how the mighty have fallen.

Meryl Streep

Meryl Streep just about always seems miscast. (She makes a career out of seeming to overcome being miscast.) In Postcards from the Edge, she’s witty and resourceful, yet every expression is eerily off, not quite human. When she sings in a country-and-Western style, she’s note-perfect, but it’s like a diva singing jazz — you don’t believe it. Streep has a genius for mimicry: she’s imitating a country-and-Western singer singing. These were my musings to a friend, who put it more simply: “She’s an android.” Yes, and it’s Streep’s android quality that gives Postcards whatever interest it has.

This tale of sorrowful, wisecracking starlet whose brassy, boozing former-star mother (Shirley MacLaine) started her on sleeping pills when she was nine is without the zest of camp. It’s camp played borderline straight — a druggy-Cinderella movie about an unformed girl who has to go past despair to find herself. The director, Mike Nichols, is a parodist who feigns sincerity, and his tone keeps slipping around. What’s clear is that we’re meant to adore the daughter, who is wounded by her mother’s cheap competitiveness. Nichols wants us to be enthralled by the daughter’s radiant face, her refinement, her honesty. He keeps the camera on Streep as if to prove that he can make her a popular big star — a new Crawford or Bette Davis. (She remains distant, emotionally atonal.)




In Which We Refuse To Ask For Any More From You

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


I have a friend, who I will call Nina, who is intensely jealous of the time I spend with others. Usually I do invite her along if it makes sense, but you can’t always invite someone along every time, especially if it’s just you and another person and they may not know or like Nina. Nina will make comments like, why didn’t I invite her, she always invites me. This is not even true!

I have confronted Nina about this before, but I guess it is an element of her personality I can’t change but addressing it directly. I do value Nina for other reasons, and I would like to continue having her as a friend – let’s just say there are advantageous reasons to do so and she does have some positive qualities. How can I get her to change her behavior?

Jenette N.

Dear Jenette,

My first suggestion would be to fake cry, but the more that I think about it, the more I think Nina is not the type of person who is affected by vulnerability. If she cared for the feelings of others you both would not be in the position that you are in.

Instead, consider criticizing someone else for the exact behavior that you want Nina to change. If possible, have one of your friends act like Nina so she can see how ridiculous she is being from a third-party perspective.

If this doesn’t work, more extreme measures will have to be taken. Consider fulfilling Nina’s request, and inviting her to absolutely everything. Soon she will be overwhelmed and no longer need whatever approval she requires from you that you are currently not providing. If possible, get her to pay for things as well.


I have been dating a wonderful woman for six months. I know in my heart that I want to spend the rest of my life with her. I realize that it is probably a bit soon to drop this on her, and I do want to take things slow. On the other hand, I really don’t want to anything to get in the way of my goal. How should I approach this?

Brent R.

Dear Brent,

It seems you are putting a lot of pressure on you and your girlfriend. There are an incredibly large number of clichés that address this issue better than I probably ever could, but suffice it say it would be best if you put this emotion deep inside you, waited for her to express something similar, and reciprocated the feeling. In the meantime, do everything you can to make the relationship good for both of you, and don’t lie or mislead her for any reason, even if the reason is small.

Illustrations by Mia Nguyen. Access This Recording’s mobile site at


In Which We Are Not New To This Part Of The World


Pros and Cons of Cairo


PRO: The elevators, I’ve always thought, are like how H.G. Wells imagined time machines. So rickety, so brassy, buttons like old saxophones and levers like The Future. The way the past imagined the future. I know logically it’s because I don’t live in Cairo. When I lived in Amman the elevator just signified nuisance, especially after that time it broke down, 3:30 p.m. in late summer, in an air-conditionless purgatory and my useless fists hitting at the door. It felt like a sign of my uselessness in those years, that I’d be using my energy punching things while obsolete engineering suspended me between two actual places.

Cairo elevators, as a novelty, are the opposite of purgatory — you are in the past and future together, up and down all at once and with such handsome structure for the journey. When the doors close the stutter noise is so elegant, like the machinery is speaking a second language it learned at a school where uniforms were compulsory. You get in and your companion is a neighbour still smoking indoors or someone coming to fix something else inside the building or just your daydreaming. If the elevator is going up, your daydreaming is that you are Charlie in the Chocolate Factory, except instead of chocolate you are being given the gift of an evening. If the elevator is going down, your daydreaming is that you are plunging, like Jacques Cousteau, in a complicated apparatus whose confines are a small price to pay for the endless expanse it buys you, to explore — a sea, a city. In this Jacques Cousteau daydream Cairo is a coral reef wide as the side of Australia, street corners covered in star-fish. Elevators are the second-best thing made out of iron in this city. The first best thing is bed-frames.

CON: In a taxi, this is not in any of the many views I respect The Way To The Airport.


PRO: The stray cats have never forgotten that they were once worshipped. Like many people on the periphery of my life, I get the tingling sense that they are biding their time — that they know their turn will come again. They have never gotten into the elevator with me, the way they did with my friend. Instead they get me just outside the door, tail-up and too-clever and insistent. When I lived in another Middle Eastern city, the rule I had with my housemate was that a cat had to follow me all the way home — cross the threshold like a bride — and then I’d be allowed to keep it.

Here both I and the cats are too proud to make the necessary moves, and instead share lunch and afternoons as I take cigarette breaks too often between my solitary report-writing. But since I do not have a companion or rule-making housemate here, I indulge them in my afternoon-daydream literary allusions. I talk about Colette’s cats, and T.S Eliot’s. And the other Eliot. My favourite George Eliot novel is the unshowy, graceful Daniel Deronda, a wrought iron elevator of a novel if ever there was one. But even in her maturity Eliot gives in to the literary clemency that cats inspire. The house cat in Daniel Deronda, the opulently-named Hafiz, offsets the handsomeness of the human characters, a single pure indulgence. In breaks from my work I talk to the creatures on the doorstep about which works of contemporary literature would have been improved by the presence of cats. The unanimous verdict we reach is ‘all of them’.

CON: In a taxi, I think of all the people who may have opinions on the act — perhaps doctors or bureaucrats.

PRO: Some of my friends here laugh and others roll their eyes when I tell them that I have come up with the name the ‘Ikhwan Ice-cream Van’. It is the truck that goes round in the run-up to the December constitutional referendum, telling the neighbourhood during the lull of the afternoon that “the people demand the implementation of shari’a”. This is a reworking of the Tahrir Square cry that “the people demand the overthrow of the regime”. Like a bad 2012 remix. The ‘Ikhwan Ice-cream Van’ truck drives up and down the streets with its loudspeakers and its lack of tact. The neighbourhood replies with children running around in groups of five or six, the voices of soap operas tentacling out of windows, and the dissenting mewling of the cats. I love this neighbourhood; it is the first time I have stayed here. It is also the first time I have been here since the revolution. I love it even when, living-alone and lost in my thoughts, I hear things in the night that make me hold the edges of anything I can touch. I should probably state here that the Muslim Brotherhood did not — as far as I am aware and according to my sources — hand out any ice-cream to Egyptian citizens in the run-up to the December constitutional referendum.


CON: In a taxi, I curse — of all things — my fingernails.

PRO:  My landlady lives in the same apartment building, some floors directly above. With the complications since Morsi’s decree in November and the referendum in December, prices of things have warped, the economy buckled like scrap metal. As it gets colder, the price of staying warm goes up. I know this from the newspapers and from friends but still my landlady tells me I need to stay warm, she has a spare electric heater. From high up in her apartment, she lowers it down to me in a basket, making a pulley system which we also later use for me to send paperwork up to her. The basket dangles past my window. The basket makes me think idly about Moses. This makes me think idly about scrolls. I unwrap the packaging of the sweets I’ve bought like they’re sacred. I lie back into the blank-page of the iron-framed bed. In text and in reality, it is one of the best afternoons the world has given me. I dream that everything I have to write will be sent to me from baskets, from stone tablets, or via elevators. Delivered to my door as certain as a cat.

CON: In a taxi, I make prayers I don’t believe and no-one else believes and even if they did believe they would say it was too late anyway. 

PRO: I met you at the church at just the time you said — the traffic mushed all over the bridge couldn’t keep me. Evening was falling in great chunks like stubborn shop-front shutters: a section of sky, and then another, and then another, dimmed itself in turn. Cafés are opening now like oysters or like flowers or like scrolls. Café after café unfolds. The streets are thick with people and also some roadblocks and also some cats. I tell you about my research and all the things I didn’t write properly. I tell you about all the places I haven’t seen or should have seen more properly. In general my way of looking is — all there is still to do, to be done. This is early-evening thinking. You look like early evening too, lashes falling. You look like Moses baskets falling from the sky, the way your eyebrows shoot up when you are explaining something. You wave your hands around like palm trees. You laugh like copper or brass. We go into one café where I take photos and you laugh at me. We go to another one where I’m really feeling all these things so then you don’t laugh at me. When we walk back out and into the thick of the street the church makes a noise like pearls or the sea or something and I don’t want to leave. I explain to you about coral reefs and cats and Costeau diving-suits and the Moses baskets and all the everything-all-at-once that I love. At least, I try to explain things.

CON: In a taxi, weighed against all of that, is the inconvenience of bodies.

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




In Which We Effort With All The Subtlety Of The Period

Clap Your Hands Over Your Eyes


creators Grant Morrison and Brian Taylor

Happy! begins with Nick (Christopher Meloni) alone in a bathroom of a bar. The unavoidable irony (the first in the completely expected series of many such switcheroos) is that he is miserable. Nick – a former cop turned killer for hire – throws up and imagines blowing his head off. In his fantasy, his cranium spurts with blood as go-go dancers accompany his distress.

Distress was also the name of a 1995 science fiction novel by Greg Egan. It is the kind of actually meaningful project that SyFy could approach if it wasn’t constantly trying to copy the dismal success of The Walking Dead. Distress concerns an African scientist who develops a theory that makes her the target of a disturbed cult, and an intersection that changes humanity completely. Egan, unlike Grant Morrison, was the sort of writer to take seriously, because his development of characters doesn’t solely turn on making a cop a hitman, a prostitute a sensitive soul, and an Italian mobster the victim of molestation.

Such ugliness makes Happy! an adult comedy, except in typical SyFy fashion, it shies away from any true unpleasantness. Death as conveyed by Nick is painless, efficient and actually somewhat boring. Meloni, who is the classic case of an actor of limitless talent who never found the right role (he came close in Oz), is tries his best to save this tonal mess of a series.

Worst is Happy himself, an imaginary friend voiced by newly remarried comedian Patton Oswalt. As usual, Oswalt does a fantastic job trying to make the awful material Grant Morrison writes for him sound the least bit humorous. Unlike say, the stuffed bear Seth MacFarlane created in Ted, the joke is not that Happy says things that are amusing coming from a cartoon unicorn. Actually his dialogue is quite dull, and before he emerges to haunt Nick so he can save the little girl whose daemon he is, the show is considerably more exciting.

While the art direction in Happy! is up and down, Brian Taylor (Crank) clearly brings a joy to the production design. Happy! looks just as good as feature films which cost a great deal more, and Taylor’s energetic gambits with angle, lens and mood all pay off. If you didn’t actually have to have a story, and could focus merely on acting performances and visual composition, this show would be in a class of its own.

Unfortunately, the source material is lacking. In the tradition of his brother-in-spirit Mark Millar, Morrison’s only instinct is to splatter more blood, and have Nick say things that could be construed, optimistically, as parting shots even Bruce Willis would leave on the cutting room floor. Like Millar, Morrison seems to think there is a puritanical aspect of America that is shocked by such gruesomeness. But who can even be shocked by their own way of life? With or without an invisible friend, Happy! is a dreary ride through the mind of a self-involved person. Ultimately, this is a trip that each of can take at any time, simply by closing our eyes.

Ethan Peterson is the reviews editor of This Recording.


In Which We Would Like To See You Again

Christine’s Piety


Lady Bird
dir. Greta Gerwig
93 minutes

Lady Bird is a phenomenon now, but it is still hard to be prepared for this film. We are simply not conditioned by current cinema to notice what it notices: the way an awkward young woman falls back on words like “cool” and “awesome,” not because she is inarticulate, but because she is nervous and confused and in love; or the way she suddenly feels desired when a young man says he’d like to see her again; or the way her voice deepens and grows in confidence when she responds to him.

Or the way when sitting in a group and something astonishing happens, and you hear others reacting, you might immediately look not at the event but at your best friend’s face, to see her reaction. Or the faintly attracted, disinterested way you notice a handsome new boy when you already have a boyfriend. Or how, when stuck in a car with friends who are bad to you, at the very moment you realize it, you muster the nerve to get out by sneaking proud glances at yourself in the rear-view mirror.

This is the stuff of clichés, but there are no clichés in this coming-of-age film. It proceeds in vignettes. What feels clichéd in a single scene is every time redeemed by a detail that would be missed by one who is critical of clichés. The film avoids them not by daring to be different but by daring to be similar. It seeks common ground, that is, between itself and its audience. It trusts its audience to trust it, which is a radical thing to do in a time of inhuman cinema, destructive of the qualities needed for that trust. A pervasive inhumanity can only prepare us for alternating evils: give in to the false pleasures and manipulations of Hollywood, or be made mistrustful and cynical, be made to always be on the lookout for clichés. Those of us who have chosen the second option out of necessity are challenged by this film. Lady Bird rejects this problem and suggests itself as a third way.

It is, then, truly an ambitious film. Its director-writer, Greta Gerwig, positions herself as a wise woman, as a filmmaker that the defiant and radiant Christine “Lady Bird” McPherson (Saoirse Ronan) could have learned from. A character who renames herself is not the kind of person who would listen to just anybody. Gerwig understands the way Christine smiles at New York City the first time she sees it, emerging out of the stairs from the subway as if she had lived her whole life underground until then. But Gerwig also understands how the excitement of a new home won’t make you happy if you’re running away from an old one.

She understands how Christine might, on one random Sunday away from home, almost inexplicably, walk into a church service and listen to the music. She also understands why she might only watch from the balcony, or not stay for very long, but be moved nonetheless, and walk away with new hope and a little more self-understanding. Gerwig’s religious scenes are like Eric Rohmer’s in their almost muted piety and in their full confidence in that quietness. Gerwig knows that piety is a powerful thing and need never be loud. She also knows that piety can be ridiculous, inflamed, or very disagreeable, and that it might especially seem so to someone like Christine.

Lady Bird is a love letter to its characters, and to those watching who might also love its characters, and learn from that love modeled by the director. But love letters sometimes never rise above platitude; they sometimes lack the tension of stinging self-awareness. It can be the mark of both a cynic and a mature man to be skeptical of love letters. The cynic doesn’t want to feel his feelings. The mature man wants to feel them thoughtfully and in proportion. He wants to feel them in a way that leads to a deeper understanding; he wants to leave room for his reason. The immature person might want to obliterate his reason; he might want to feel his feelings too much, or linger in his memories for too long. Lady Bird proceeds in vignettes because we remember our lives in vignettes. One feels that Lady Bird the character is remembering her youth as an adult via Lady Bird the film. This is an accomplishment by the director. It is not a crutch of autobiography, but an invitation to remember with her.

Still, one worries that Christine lingers too long in her memories. Understanding the film as a succession of memories illuminates at the same time as it disturbs us in its overwhelming affection for them. Christine seems to be unusually invested in and attached to her adolescence, or rather, to its very end. The cusp of adulthood is brilliantly remembered and depicted, but perhaps overly loved.

That heightened love has the tendency to hide or impoverish Christine’s inner life, especially its darker moments of guilt or regret. It is conceivable that our decent director does not find “guilt” to be helpful, or has not reflected that reflecting on guilt can change the quality of that guilt, from something that haunts you to something that saves you. One scene shows a young man, guilty of hiding a secret from his unaccepting family, suddenly sob. Guilt, here, is portrayed as something to overcome or escape from, and secrets are shown to be special, inviolable, and at the core of one’s identity.

Other scenes recommend the notion that privacy, secrecy, and safety make up the sanctuary where one can become who one is. The family bathroom, door locked, is the only place Christine can be her true self. The film obscures the interplay between public and private in which one contemplates, in private, what one has done and said in public, and what one will or will not do in the future. Thoughtful, public action implies private thinking. Otherwise solitude is self-absorption.

It is a mark of Lady Bird’s realism that this complaint may be read as description. Unbearable family life destroys the dynamic between public and private. When the family-authority cannot maintain its power without belittlement or manipulation (not unlike how Hollywood works), then the private becomes a shelter from that authority. One escapes from the public to the private. The private becomes a place to contemplate, not reality, but fantasy. This is why teenagers like Christine might decorate their bedrooms. It is healthy for young people to fantasize or decorate their future selves. But they should imagine becoming someone they could admire and respect after hard work and experience. Christine wants to become someone now, without sweat and without failure. Early in the film, she admires a favorite song because it was “written in 10 minutes.”

We shouldn’t expect Christine to grow up immediately. But we should expect it, hypothetically, in five or ten years, if we are to expect adulthood from the film itself. Lady Bird sometimes seems to assume that identity comes easily, that conflict can be solved by sentiment or a phone call, or even that watching TV news is political engagement. Christine follows the American wars overseas, but she never talks about them, just as she never really talks about who she wants to be outside of the near future. The gist of her voiced introspection is that she wishes her house had a dedicated “TV room.” It is perhaps the saddest remark in the film, full of hope yet on the verge of stasis.

Bobby Vogel is a contributor to This Recording. This is his first appearance in these pages. He is a writer living in Texas. You can find more of his writing here and here. You can e-mail him at


In Which We Have A Lovely Circle Of Infidels

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 or by dropping us a note at our tumblr.


My fiancee Jerome and I have a lovely circle of friends. We want to include everyone in our pre-wedding preparations, but Jerome doesn’t get along with one of my college friends, a woman named Kaitlin. I honestly don’t know who to blame for the impasse, but the two seems like polar opposites in every conceivable way. Last time we all had dinner, the two got into a twenty minute debate about Christina Hoff Sommers. I cried.

I know there is a type of fighting that is kind of like flirting in a way, and I am worried this is an example of that. I mean why would they be talking about her in the first place? This has gotten out of control and I’m really worried. I have tried to avoid taking sides but being a peacemaker has officially ended its utility and I just want this resolved.

Brenda N.

Dear Brenda,

If you are picking up on some kind of sexual tension, I wouldn’t worry too much about it. It is more likely that Jerome is assigned some residual anger/upset about his commitment to you on someone else, which is not exactly the worst case scenario. Christina Hoff Sommers is not really something to get upset about. She is just a person, like Meghan Daum or Carly Simon. They wake up, take shits, and go to bed; the things that everyone does.

Any argument that is not between family members, no matter how pervasive, annoying or visceral cannot keep building strength. It must either culminate in what could very well be an exciting murder, or fizzle out into discontented silence. If you have to side with someone, side with your fiancee by excluding Kaitlin from events if necessary. Otherwise, pretend they are having some tiff akin to the feuds between seventh graders. By diminishing it in your mind, you will diminish it in theirs.

Also, I suggest you never discuss anything other than Chris Pratt at dinner parties.



My boyfriend Hal and I were recently watching a reality show for reasons. One couple on the show renewed their vows in Las Vegas. It was absolutely disgusting.

Hal started talking about his only trip to Vegas seven years ago, and confessed that during the trip, after some encouragement from his friends, he had sex with a prostitute in a brothel.

I guess I didn’t really know how to react at the time. Maybe I still don’t. I know STD-wise that Hal is clean, but I’m having trouble dealing with this admission. Am I right to be upset?

Joan R.

Dear Joan,

I’m more worried about Hal’s judgment. He could have lied about this and you would never know the difference until the prostitute in question came looking for child support. I had a friend who looked for sex on Craigslist for years before his marriage. He also patronized Asian massage parlors quite frequently.

Whether or not his wife knows about this period, I couldn’t say, but I told him what I would have told Hal. Nothing good comes from telling the truth about sex with women for money. As is, there’s no going back to the place where you did not know this information.

The bright side is this: not only do you have a get out of jail free card for anything you want, you can be sure Hal is super into you. Finding a man who can’t lie is not the worst development. Make sure this is the case by going all “Did you order the Code Red?” on him and try get him to admit to other prostitutes. Also, ask the woman’s name. It always helps to get all the information first.

Illustrations by Mia Nguyen. Access This Recording’s mobile site at


In Which There Was A Freedom She Searched For And Did Not Find




from Meaning: A Life

The people I see and talk to, the ways they earn their livings, the children I watch, the courting customs, the ways of parents with their children are all to me learning, and I re-evaluate my own ways and my country’s ways every time I travel.

It is not comfort, ease, or previous knowledge that takes me travelling; travelling is never as comfortable as being at home, and I am thrown out of my accustomed style and habits on meeting situations and people for whom I have no preparation.

I think I go travelling in order to be jostled and jolted and confronted with the necessity of thinking faster to meet fast-changing occurrences. Happiness comes in the conversations and the learning that I have to master, even in the barest knowledge of how to get from here to there. It is culturation simply to gain insight to yet one more country or city I never saw before; if I do not learn it well, at least I meet it freshly at the moment I confront it.

In Paris the Impressionists were not yet all dead; in 1930 even their art was not yet in the old established museums, and we went to a private gallery to see Picasso’s latest show. I noticed Picasso himself watching us to see our reactions to his paintings, which were the first I had seen of women distorted into their social and emotional meanings, beyond the portraits of previous times. Meanings which were painful to accept I later found to be profound class judgments and beautiful in new ways, in their colors and design. After seeing these portraits, women on beaches and bourgeois women in cafes had a different meaning, in which Picasso had caught and held them. His contribution of fifty years as a painter, most of which time I have been alive, has put him on a list of those who will speak for us to a future time.

the line of scrimamg

Apprehension mixed with elation as we disembarked at Baltimore and began the drive to New York City. As we approached the first stoplight, grown men, respectable men stepped forward to ask for a nickel, rag in hand to wipe our windshield. This ritual was repeated every time we paused, until we felt we were in a nightmare, our fathers impoverished.

Manhattan loomed across the New Jersey flats; it grew into pinnacles as sunset lit the windows, and we entered the long tunnel under the Hudson River. In Brooklyn we rented an apartment on Willow Street, the first of many apartments we have lived in at one time or another in that same neighborhood of Brooklyn Heights.

Louis Zukofsky, the slender dark young man, sloping along on his long stalk-like legs, head forward, shoulders hunched, a little close-visored cap on his head. Louis so delicate I didn’t think he’d live out five more years, Louis in my mind associated with his own Mants.

super daxzx

But as his long life has proven, Louis is hardy, more hardy than we knew. He has survived with Celia, refusing the attentions of the young who have come admiring him and his place in poetry. He survives, perhaps strengthened by his bitterness and feeling that he must be the only poet or he will not accept acclaim. Louis had not been to Europe; he had only corresponded with Pound. The problem was that Louis had no money; the trip required that Louis’ friends help to pay his way. Somehow this was done, and several of us made contributions.

Lorine Niedecker, a student of Louis’ at the University of Wisconsin, followed him to New York; we invited her to dinner, and after waiting for her until long after dinner-time, we ate and were ready for bed when a timid knock at the door announced Lorine. “What happened to you?” we asked.

“I got on the subway, and I didn’t know where to get off, so I rode to the end of the line and back.”

“Why didn’t you ask someone?”

“I didn’t see anyone to ask.”

New York was overwhelming, and she was alone, a tiny, timid small-town girl. She escaped the city and returned to Wisconsin. Years later we began to see her poems, poems which described her life. She chose a way of hard physical work, and her poetry emerged from a tiny life. From Wisconsin came perfect small ms of poetry written out of her survival, from the crevices, that seeped out into poems.

Walking with Louis when Discrete Series was in manuscript, George was discussing it with him before showing it to anyone else. Louis turned and with a quizzical expression asked George, “Do you prefer your poetry to mine?”

“Yes,” answered George, and the friendship was at a breaking point.

with linda

We went exploring with our friends Mary and Russel Wright, through the East Side of the city where lines of drying clothes festooned the area-ways and back yards of the tenements. Fruit stands and vegetable stands and wagons drawn by horses were piled with heaps of color created by oranges, lettuce, tomatoes and watermelons. Russel wept at the color.

Women leaned with their elbows on pillows at their window sills, idly gazing at the street scene, or shouting at children in the street, or engaging in conversation with a next-door neighbor, window to window. Everything seemed to be going on at once; men hurried across streets pushing loaded racks of clothing, and boys carried bundles of cut cloth to be sewed at home for bosses, who sent out the cut pieces and later collected the finished garments. Sweatshops in every block hummed with their machines, and small industry crowded in among the workers in the neighborhoods where they lived.

At Coney Island we went into the hall of mirrors and laughed at ourselves, then as we stepped out onto the promenade, a blast of air raised Mary’s skirts above her head; her arms went up too, and she was a pretty Hower, a half-naked shrieking girl. We rode the giant Ferris Wheel which lifted us up above the city and the sea, and when our car reached the top, high above the surrounding city, a system of rails started the car in a slide of its own as the rest of the wheels stood still, and rocked us in a violent pendulum motion before it came to an abrupt stop. Russel bellowed, and we screamed. His voice rose above the noise of the holiday makers, “GET US OUT OF HERE!” The Ferris Wheel made a half revolution, without any stops, brought us to the platform and let us out.

We took Mary and Russel sailing on the Hudson before we laid our cat-boat up for the winter, and we found that our boat, so roomy for two during the previous summer, was crowded with four. On our return to the mooring, I lost my balance in excitement and misjudgment, and in what seemed to be slow-motion comedy I fell in a forward somersault into the water. I seemed to see myself fall, and I clambered out in chagrin.

There was no way to be adequately myself while, soaking wet in a new red sweater and skirt, I entered the hotel lobby and dripped up in the elevator to change clothes. Zukofsky went with us to strip our boat for laying her up at the end of summer.

like urlacherrr

I took off the sail and tied it into a bundle, Louis continuing to talk. I started up the steel stairway to Riverside Drive, with Louis right behind me; George followed with his burden, up the stairs, across the tracks, and up the next Hight of stairs. Louis gallantly protested, “Mary, let me carry it, Mary please.” Near the top I turned and handed him the sail. He staggered and went down a few steps before he landed against the railing to recover himself. I gathered the bundle again in my arms and dragged it to the top of the stairs.

Aunt Elsie took me to lunch one day to ask me if we intended to have children. I thought it was none of her affair and said no, but I did not have any kind of birth control and we had gotten no advice from doctors we had asked. She took me to the birth control clinic the next day and I never had to have another abortion. I wrote to Nellie and to my sister-in-law Julia, who had so many children, and told them they must find birth control clinics at once. Nellie replied in high glee, with cartoons, but Julia could not arrange getting from Oregon wilderness to a San Francisco birth control clinic, and she had one more child. At that time there were only eleven states that allowed even doctors to give birth control information.

During those years Linda and I did not laugh much. In pictures we look like refugees — remote, thin and bleak. Linda looked like a little wild girl; she would not have her hair combed. When George came home at last I told him, “Linda does not understand what a joke is; laughter is threatening.” George made little jokes for her, and we laughed, but we needed time to recover our spirits.

Linda also needed to learn that George and I were equal as her parents — she would turn to me for permission when George had already told her what she might do.

New York City was not a place we understood in ways we needed to understand to bring up a child. George and I visited the school I would have chosen for her to attend in the fall; we tried to imagine what life was like for a child growing up on city streets, and we quailed from it.

We needed to get out of New York City, where tension and too much argument had to be faced; we needed to get away from the scene of wartime living and be a family again. We needed to be free of close neighbors and be together, just three of us, free of the tight living of New York City. We needed space, sky enough to see the sweep of it, stars at night, forests, to have a garden and ride horses.

We retrieved an old open trailer from New Jersey. George parked it at the curb in front of our house in Sunnyside and began to build it into a camping trailer for our trip west — we were going to California. Our neighbors were incredulous, and fathers brought sons on Sunday to watch George at work on the little camp trailer, making a place to sleep, a little shelf for a stove and food, a hitch for the car to pull it. They said, “That trailer will never make it over the Rocky Mountains.” At war’s end these neighbors were buying their first automobiles and learning how to drive them.

In March 1946, we drove west. Linda stood behind the front seat and kept up a constant conversation, happy that she had us where she could touch us. We had barely started to be a family when the war came upon us, and Linda had had only stories of a father. Her love was for us, and to be with us was her life.

Mornings we drove until we found a roadside place open for breakfast. We discussed farms, animals, horses; I told Linda an endless story about Hoppy the Frog until she began calling me “Hoppy.” We passed horses on the prairie, and George caught one for Linda; he has a poem:

“Horse,” she said, whispering

By the roadside
With the cars passing.

Little girl welcomed,
Learning welcome.

In France in 1930, from the art of the Louvre, paintings speaking out of different times, from the streets of Paris which make their patterns and take their names from the earliest use the ancients gave them, from a cafe for writers, tourists, artists or students, we looked on and tried to absorb the meaning to us of a culture which accepted living artists, writers and students into the social fabric with a freedom we had searched for in the United States and had not found.


I think I travel to ask the questions which are hard to formulate about one’s own times because one is in the midst, at home, of all that one has seen so often that one does not receive the jolt that might confront one with the uncomfortable but important question. Not with answers — answers are not possible for one’s own times and in one’s own place. The answer only becomes obvious after time has passed, and we can see, if we have survived it, the predicament that we have passed through.

Mary Oppen was an artist, photographer and poet. She was also the wife of George Oppen and this is an excerpt from her autobiography Meaning: A Life.