In Which We Possess Carte Blanche Of An Unmistakable Variety

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 or by dropping us a note at our tumblr.

Hi,

I have been dating my new boyfriend, who I will call Sauron, for about six months give or take a week. Recently I received a message from an ex-girlfriend of Sauron’s that was rather spiteful in nature. I showed it to my boyfriend and he became very upset, at first, mainly at the idea that someone from his past was trying to sabotage his current relationship. He hasn’t brought it up since, but I have to admit the idea of being discarded by someone not interested in a relationship brings up some of my trust issues and I have found myself holding back more. It’s hard not to ask about the full story but I don’t want to make it seem like I’m jealous or petty. Is there a way of getting over this without screwing up or making a wrong move?

Emily H.

Emily,

I send out spiteful messages all the time, often to people who I never even dated. Here are some examples:

Hi, I miss you and I love you. Do you know where you put my slippers?

Hey, what’s up. Did you see that video where the guy drank the entire cup of hot coffee? Classic.

Hi, is this Tim? Where is Tim? I miss you.

These kinds of strange messages are sure to contribute to an underlying instability at the center of the world. You seem to think that because you received a message from the past, it needs to affect your future. No one wants to see someone they care about moving on with anyone new. A facebook message is about the most mediocre expression of rage that exists, so consider yourself lucky that you were not run over by this woman’s car. If things are going well, just forget it ever happened.

Hi,

I recently met a woman through some mutual friends. Dee is a social worker who is very devoted to the people she helps get on their feet. She is great at her job.

Frequently, our dates or hangouts are postponed because things come up unexpectedly. Dee doesn’t have a lot of faith in the people with which she works, so she feels like she has to handle these things herself. I try to accept that I am not always going to be her number one priority, but I am starting to worry it might be this way forever. She is apologetic and feels really guilty when she cancels the plans, and I try not to make things worse. I don’t feel comfortable bringing it up to her since we have only been dating for four months. Should I give up now, or is it possible things will change in the future?

Henry P.

Dear Henry,

Dee probably is balancing a lot of things on her plate at one time, and since she deals with people who are used to letting her down and feeling bad about it, she is reflexively adopting their behavior. A good psychologist could probably fix her in a month or two.

We don’t have that kind of time. It seems like she likes you because you are the one person she can disappoint, which means you may be very special to Dee. The irony seems to be lost on you.

Your instinct to wait until further in the relationship to make this an issue seems sound. By six months she will have bonded to you further, and you can influence her decision-making without her openly wondering where you got the nerve to tell her what to do. Four months in, you’re just another aspect of the patriarchy holding her back.

Hi,

In September I am planning on marrying my boyfriend of four years, Darren. Recently the wedding preparations have begun in earnest and while I don’t have any hesitation about my decision to get married (I hate the expression tie the knot, it is gross), I am a bit worried about how many people seem to be involved in the ceremony. Both of our parents are contributing financially to the event, and understandably they both expect to be a part of the process.

The wedding already seems like it will have to be much larger than I ever imagined it – over 100 people! – and the amount of money and time that is going into one day is starting to bother me. Should I just suck up my feelings or should I try to do something about it?

Jamie P.

Dear Jamie,

Many weddings and genocides share a common trait – they both involve over 100 people. I have attended many weddings in my time, and the only one I really truly enjoyed the bride got incredibly drunk and slept through most of the reception. Basically, as a bride, you are allowed several common expressions that will curtail a lot of this chicanery without coming off as a party pooper:

– “I always imagined a small wedding.”

– someone suggests inviting Aunt Helen. “Didn’t Aunt Helen once say ADHD was caused by grapefruit juice? She is not welcome on my special day.”

– “Whose wedding is this?”

– “Darren and I need to talk that over.”

– “Whose special day is this?”

– “Aunt Helen once thought my Armenian friend was a terrorist.”

– “They had that at the Katie Holmes-Tom Cruise nups. Remind me how that special day worked out.”

– “You’re not my mother.”

– “You might be my mother, but this is not your special day.”

– “I need to talk that over with Aunt Helen.”

Above all, lie, prevaricate and postpone any decision you feel the slightest bit uncomfortable with. No one ever looks back on a bride’s behavior before a wedding and says, “She was just so indecisive, Shelia!” It’s just par for the course.

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

 

“Legend of the Keeper” – Magic Sword (mp3)

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In Which Colin Howell Wished Only To Be Caught

No Service in the Club

by ELEANOR MORROW

The Secret
creator Stuart Urban

The secret in The Secret is as follows: a God-fearing Christian man named Colin Howell grows tired of his wife and takes up with another man’s beloved, a woman named Hazel Elkin. At a public pool in Northern Ireland he strokes her legs and thighs underwater. She has been desired, but not recently, and not in so open a fashion. Many women do not wish for worship, but those who do find it relatively intoxicating.

But this is not a secret for long. They are too open about their adultery — isn’t it awful how people who commit indecent acts on some level wish to be caught? The shame is twice as uneasy as the act itself. This is not something religion instills in us, we bring it with us to our faith, or lack thereof.

In any case, they are spotted and Colin’s priest comes to him with an accusation. (This is all a true story, or at least as much of it as we can stand.) Colin denies the allegation, but altogether not fervently enough. When Hazel is approached by the priest, she confesses immediately.

So at some point Colin gets in his head that if his ungrateful wife Leslie and his girlfriend’s meek husband Trevor are still standing in the way of their love, instead of fading away as seems appropriate, it might be time to murder them. The real Colin Howell, it emerged recently, watches The Secret from his prison cell in Co Antrim. He can probably be proud of the performance James Nesbitt gives in his stead.

At first it seems like The Secret is just having a laugh at the expense of persnickety zealots. This is untrue, and potentially damaging to Colin’s current reputation in prison. You see, Colin did hide his murder of his wife and his girlfriend’s husband, but he never lost sight of what God wanted for him. (Police amazingly believed it was a double suicide.) And which is more important, really?

The first indication Leslie had that something was wrong was the money she found in the pockets of her husband’s athletic gear. He used it on a payphone to call Hazel during his runs. In order to prevent their late night phone conversations from being recorded on the telephone bill, each lecherous conversation between Colin and Hazel was kept to a period of nine minutes, the perfect length for anything.

After Colin was caught out the first time, he insisted that he had never consummated the relationship. The spouses and their church believed them — what else could they do? Leslie Howell considered suicide and took a trifling overdose without success. She spent money on new clothes, dieting to become more appealing to her husband. After her father died, the inheritance was enough to pursue a new life. After she died, her killer took that money, some quarter of a million pounds.

The night of the murders, Hazel mixed a strong sedative into her husband’s food. Colin blocked his children’s doors with a hockey stick so they wouldn’t walk in on things. He planned to gas Leslie quietly as their children slept, but she woke in her last moments, and he had to smother her with a quilt to finish off the murder, as she cried out for her son. For this murder, he will serve nothing close to life in prison: just twenty-one easy years.

Instead of turning Colin into an uncaring sociopath — he isn’t a mass murderer after all — Nesbitt portrays him as a twitchy cautionary tale. His singing and guitar playing in church is solid if unspectacular. As a father he was kind to children who had to live without their mother, and has six more kids with his second wife Kyle. As a doctor he committed more crimes, touching female patients when it suited him. This is a person who maybe only has a few things wrong with him, but they are the worst possible things.

Maybe the wildest part of Colin Howell’s story is that he was free and clear of murder charges but that he felt guilty enough to confess decades later. The Secret itself, despite being a retelling of a well-known true crime story, is still sensitive enough a subject to inspire secrecy.

“We have been left trembling in the wake of it,” said one of Howell’s daughters about the television production. “The insensitivity of this intrusion is in direct proportion to the trauma that it causes.” The fact of a failed marriage is the real secret, the disastrous life that led to the killings. These Christians believed as a corollary to their faith that unhappiness must be concealed, hidden. This misery should have been abandoned by any of the participants, but since they knew no other reality, they kept on living their nightmares.

Eleanor Morrow is the senior contributor to This Recording. She is a writer living in Manhattan.

“Dear Brother” – Nadia Nair (mp3)


In Which We Research All Of Your Lore Questions

Sit Back & Thrones Me

by DICK CHENEY

Bran Stark is 400 years old now. He has lived so long quietly enjoying the past in that wizened tree shed that he now looks like Zayn Malik crossed with a peasant boy. Maybe instead of going back to his father’s time he can warg up a prequel series about everything that happened in Robert’s Rebellion, since the world of Westeros is coming to an end and all he can think to do is curl up in the snow.

Not only is Bran now a full-blooded adult male looking to score with that intriguing young woman from the salt marshes, but he has become ethnic, which is a twist almost none of us could see coming. The people of the salt marsh are akin to the Israelites, and if that’s the case, then the wargs could be like Christians, bringing a new faith to Westeros in the guise of their suddenly Jesus looking paraplegic.

Even without the use of his legs, he is the hero we deserve. Everyone else is mediocre in comparison to New Bran. I hated Old Bran because of the whining and whinging, I love the new Bran because he is our Lord and rightful king of the north.

I take copious lore notes during every episode of Game of Thrones. Over time I have collated most of the pertinent details surrounding the life of Aerys Targaryen. He was the Mad King, and it has now clearly been verified by a reliable gossip in the shit quarter of King’s Landing that penis envy was the main cause of the Rebellion.

It must be weird to have been married to someone and never think or talk about them, as Cersei Lannister does. Her former husband Robert Baratheon was an impotent alcoholic, and I understand that his death was necessary in a lot of ways. He wasn’t really much of a character, but no one ever discusses him. None of these Stark children even talk about their parents, either, especially their mother, who died in a retcon.

The dead fade so quickly from memory in a world where perishing is a constant part of the experience. Roose Bolton and Balon Greyjoy were some of the most underwritten characters imaginable, and the similarity between the sudden turn in their fates lessened the impact of both. (I’m really starting to hate the North.) I wish George had never committed to finishing these books. I realize they are a major cash cow and he sold the rights too cheaply, but there is really no reason this show needs to stop. The books are clearly less than at this point, and as a former television producer, George should know that.

Catelyn Stark came back to life in the books for no reason, but it was deemed that this would steal too much of Kit Harington’s thunder. As that old woman was bringing him back to eXistenZ in the least surprising development since it turned out that Kristen Stewart is gay, I was screaming at the television and calling these people various names. I was also making lore notes at the same time, but the screaming was my dominant motif.

I will never forget what the bastards that wanted Jon Snow back did. Just because the illiterate servant of a demented king thought Jon would be a cute replacement for the vacancy in his idol worship does not mean that this had to happen. Not even Kit Harington’s mother thinks he can act.

What’s wonderful about politics is that when someone truly is defeated, they can’t suddenly change it up and be the winner. After more people vote for a meglomaniacal businessman than a woman lawyer, there will be no take-backsies. It will just be the end of the line. Jon Snow was at the end of the line, and this joy was taken from me. The ensuing annoyances of, “My lord Snow! You’re alive!” and “Jon! I thought you were finally off this series!” forthcoming in the next episodes will be no salve to my wounds, k?

At least that scene made sense. It was a fair amount of time ago that the frozen former wildings were marching on Westeros. I realize they are just going to be murdered by Dragon 1 and Dragon 2 (official GRRM lore), but what did they do, hit up a Gregory’s Coffee just north of the wall and wait for their cue? I was sort of hoping that the little kid who stabbed Jon Snow in the midsection would have been eaten by dogs, but no such luck. David Benioff will tell us when we are allowed to be heartened by the death of a child.

Dick Cheney is the senior contributor to This Recording.

“Off the Water” – Plants and Animals (mp3)

In Which We Remain Nothing More Than A Composite Image

The Way In

by LAUREN CIERZAN

There’s a system to it, really. By calling it a system, you don’t have to call it fear. Scan the windows for movement as you sidle up the driveway. Look for shadows, lights once off now on. Ease open the door and listen. No footsteps, no strange shifting weight, no breathing. Move fast, pave a trail of brightness through every room, switch flipped before you step through a doorway. Reach the bedroom, lights on, door shut, check the closet, jerk at a sudden shiver in the floorboards and realize it’s only car tires on the main road running past or the neighbor’s stereo seeping through the walls or the dryer or the refrigerator or any other appliance alive with electricity, and then.

Then, you try to forget about the system. Bide your time and wait for the metal grunt of a roommate’s key. Forget until the stillness between midnight and dawn. Besides the cars ploughing wind on Main Street, there’s too much to hear in a quiet house. Try not to hear locks being forced, windows whining open. Try not to hear the wrongness of a stranger’s rustle. Ignore anything that is not the slow, warm breathing beside you and keep a hammer by the bed.

It started at thirteen. Before then, I remember only a bedtime nervousness, vague fear dissolved by night-lights and counting backwards from a hundred. Seventh-grade year, I read ‘In Cold Blood’ for the first time. Any safety I felt sleeping in a place with so many ways in, Truman Capote beat to a pulp and left for dead somewhere between describing the Clutter family in their quaint Kansas home and killer Perry Smith’s coldly quipped: “I thought he was a very nice gentleman…I thought so right up to the moment I cut his throat.” In the period of sweet innocence prior to reading that sentence, I slept without second thoughts. There was no trying. It was what happened when I laid down, an on-or-off operation. Awake. Asleep. There was no feverish middle ground. Our house was old and fussy, the floors groaning with arthritis. Any sound loud enough to shake me conscious had, before, been chalked up to a ghost, at best, at worst, some goon from the Twilight Zone re-runs I watched through gapped fingers. Now, I knew. The occasional thumps, the shapes and shadows, had nothing to do with undead anything or some guy crawling around in criminally bad prosthetics. They belonged to psychopaths that were absolutely going to murder me and my family in our beds, regardless of our shining personalities. And so, the system was born.

There was an incubation period, a kind of festering. In Cold Blood was followed by consecutive crime drama benders. C.S.I. and its various location incarnations. 48 Hours. Law and Order, namely Special Victims Unit. I added deranged rapist to my list of night terrors. Pacing the library’s Criminal Justice aisles meant too many details memorized. If forced to be home alone, I triple-checked the locks, ran up the electric bill, and locked myself in my room with the family phone. Waiting, for the familiar crash of parents’ voices or imminent doom, whichever came first. Why do we feed our fears? There are reasons, maybe. False relief, the same as tonguing sore teeth or peeling a scab – induced pain, that added pressure, wheedles the original ache down to a joke. An unconscious grab at adrenaline or simple instinct or all of the above.

Todd Hido 3

I nursed my anxiety like most people nurse grudges. Perhaps that’s all it ever really was – resenting a man for writing a book good enough to scare me neurotic. I slept with the lights on regardless. It was Chicago that straightened me out. Independence and self-awareness played their parts, but the city pulled the strings. College time came and I was lost. There was a feeling, a fist white-knuckling my heart, that dared me to go somewhere new and see if I made it out alive. Where I really wanted to be was nowhere, not home, not some unknown place. Nowhere sounded safe.

Sometime during a summer of willing that to be a possibility, Chicago came as a half-thought. I knew it vaguely, a city exclusive to school trips and family weekends. It was familiar and foreign and that was enough.

In fall, I went. Relatives hugged me goodbye and tucked halfjoking reminders of my inevitable assault, rape and/or murder into graduation cards. Cities were, after all, dens of sin and crime and so on. I went anyway. The first night, I stood in the dark of my dorm room and took in a fourteenth floor view, waiting for a chill to spasm in my chest. It coming meant clenched sheets, sweat, hours questioning the quality of the deadbolt. I studied the constellations of lit windows, the lake tugging patiently at the shoreline. Laid down and still looking, I thought about the lives behind each light long after sleep pulled me under.

For three years, the chill rarely paid a visit. The system rusted from lack of use. I had scares in Chicago, as does every other person living there. There’s only so much you can expect from a million people fighting for the same job, the same bus seat, the same air. We are all quietly afraid of each other. Cynicism, likely, but mostly just animal nature. Despite those moments, the dark times I staggered through there, I always slept easy, the quilt half-on and the blinds open. The lives and the lights they tethered to kept a knowing calm. The smallness of my apartment was a strongbox, several stories’ worth of height an assurance. A bird in a nest.

Not long ago, I left. To be home had come to mean being with a someone two hundreds miles away, so boxes were packed and I watched the Sears (never Willis) Tower shrink in a rearview mirror. I live in a house now. A place with so many ways in. I thought I had forgotten, but the first nights here proved otherwise. Sleep kept light by noise, broken by tires biting pavement or books shifting on a shelf or gravel footsteps. The homeless community claims our driveway as a shortcut and I listen to shoes kicking stones past my window well after 3 a.m.

It’s lost some of its old edge. I wake less often, sweat-pricked rather than soaked. It’s soothing to share a bed. The tension will always be too familiar. It will always stab, shoot steel through my veins. But there’s a system to it, really. By calling it a system, I don’t have to call it fear.

The steps have stayed the same. The hammer hides on a nearby shelf. The chill never changes, frosting my ribs under piled blankets. Often, he does. Him. I see his face through closed eyelids, street lights strobing its features in the dark. It’s a shifting composite image, rifling through memories of every stranger to unnerve me with a stare. His eyes are pupil-less, black as a shark’s. The hand reaching for my doorknob is always meaty, always callused and cracked to shit. I hate that hand, and I hate him, a man that doesn’t exist. Sleep comes only because I know one thing. I’ll be ready for that moment he opens the door.

Lauren Cierzan is a contributor to This Recording. She is a writer living in Michigan. She tumbls here.

Photographs by Todd Hido

Todd Hido 4

In Which Martha Hanson Strays From The Path

Clark?

by ALEX CARNEVALE

The Americans
creator Joe Weisberg

Who among us hasn’t wanted to give Martha a tight little punch in the chest? On The Americans, everyone gets a receipt for what they’ve done.

The notion of karma was invented in 1938 by a Ukranian tailor who emigrated to Sand Hill, NJ. His given name was Terence Hordiyenko, and he came to this country seeking a brighter future for his two daughters, Enid and Caroline. Enid was a soft girl who did not really fit into her new country. The younger Caroline fit in well, and joined others in mocking her younger sister. But her sister invented a process for stitching dresses more quickly, and Caroline never married. Still her father, who was called T-Bone by his friends, loved Caroline more than Enid. On his death bed he turned his unwanted daughter away, and God made his first appearance in New Jersey. God said, “Because you did not love both of your daughters, I have decided not to call you T-Bone in the hereafter.” T-Bone was saddened by this, but he understood.

If you sleep with another person’s betrothed, who knows what they will call you in the afterlife.

It bothers me sometimes that we have forgotten what Stan Beeman did. He cheated on his wife with a KGB agent. Why is that never brought up? Agent Gaad should have simply explained that he was playing “the long game” with Martha. “Playing the long game” is a fantastic excuse that I use whenever I don’t want to do laundry, make borscht for dinner, or watch whatever is left of Broad City.

Even the most disturbing partnerships are in fact partnerships. A weird sexual tension perverts every relationship of its kind: friendships are rarely so entwined. Without their parents it is only natural that Paige feels a closeness with Henry that goes beyond the strictures of traditional brother-sister behavior. Her metaphoric pouring into his cup made me think of Tijuana. It was there, also in 1938, that remorse was defined as a philosophical concept.

But now the year is 1983. Stan Beeman is maybe the worst FBI agent in the office besides his direct boss. They have Martha, I mean they really have her, and Stan is channeling visions of himself lying down with Martha and then torturing her in some flophouse on Martin Luther King Boulevard. You see, if Stan was in a similar situation, the only thing he could think to do was kill himself. And the irony is, of course, that he is in that exact situation.

Elizabeth shows up at Rock Creek Park. We never see the gun in her pocket, and why even bother? Maybe it’s a needle filled with poison, or a picture of herself in coitus with Clark Westerfeld. Either would be just as effective in stopping the beating of Martha’s heart. Clark knows his mark better than anyone, and even if she needed the story of him joining her in Moscow, she’d lose faith at another lie.

It seems clear Martha will not be making it to Moscow, which is a damn shame. The show was better off with her comic relief. I don’t really see how she is useful to Russia anymore, and if she was smarter she probably could have got something by lying to the FBI and explaining she was blackmailed into cooperating.

She could have told them about Clark, and Frank Langella, and maybe the rat in the fridge would have bought her a house in the Hamptons. She could tell them phone numbers, places, dates, the particulars of the Kama Sutra. How Clark fucked her, loved her, and left her. Even if they didn’t believe her, she would have still been an American.

Alex Carnevale is the editor of This Recording.

Previously on the Americans

Young and Foolish – Episode Six

It’s Enough Paige – Episode Five

Birdwatching in Winter – Episode Four

Makeup – Episode Three

Church Garb – Episode Two

Son of a Preacher Man – Episode One

“Magnificent Time” – Travis (mp3)

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In Which We Approach You Cautiously From Range

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,

One month ago, my girlfriend asked me to marry her. I said yes. We expect to have our wedding in the fall.

When I tell people that my girlfriend proposed, they have been very accepting of that, but some of them wonder why I didn’t do it myself if I was really wanting to be with her for the rest of my life. Or they feel sorry for us because it seems like something was taken away from each of us in the process. I don’t share these feelings, but I can’t help but feel they were an unexpected, unpleasant consequence of the way this went down. What should I say when people tell me this stuff?

Carl D.

Carl,

Prejudice against men is an emerging trend happening worldwide. You will want to officially register as a victim and spend most of your days cowering in a corner somewhere. But really, if the people around you want to continue living in the pre-civil rights era, that is more their problem than yours.

Make sure they know how offended you are by their insinuations about the love you share with a woman, who I will call Cecilia. Explain that the love you have for her is immaculate and immortal, and whatever love they may have with their own partners frankly pales in comparison. Introduce them to your close friend and confidante, Nicholas Sparks, who will explain that nowadays it is de rigeur (French) for a woman to express her feelings openly. “Anyone can ask anyone for love,” you will explain in a throaty whisper, as you subtly stroke Nicholas Sparks’ full mane of hair and wonder where Cecilia has got to.

 

Hi,

I have become really close with a coworker of mine named Dave. It’s great to have someone at work to talk to who is going through the same issues. Dave also has a group of college friends who live in this city, and we all hang out from time to time.

Recently I became more serious with a guy I was seeing. I’ll spare you the details but it was a long distance deal until he decided to move here and things have been great ever since. 

The issue is that recently Dave sat me down for a heart to heart and told me that he has really strong feelings for me and he wanted me to know. I explained that I cared for him, but obviously since I was involved with someone else nothing would happen. To his credit Dave has taken this rather well, but since Hard to Say is the king of useful lies, is there any way to smooth this whole thing over?

Daisy H.

Dear Daisy,

Of course there is. Human emotions are nothing more thetans, easily controlled by messianic celebrities and their docile servants. Given that, don’t you think you can trick one simple man into not feeling like shit that he can’t be with the woman he loves?

Since the ideal situation is that Dave keeps caring for you as a friend but you don’t feel any of the negative energy resulting from your rejection of him, it’s time to get your boyfriend involved in this scheme.

He must tell Dave in sobbing fashion that he views him as a “real threat” and he obviously has a “large cock.” This will make Dave feel like a man, a sensation he has probably not experienced for some time, and certainly not since he gave you that whiny speech about his emotions. Love’s either simple or impossible. If you have to ask for it, that just means it’s impossible.

After your boyfriend’s faux confession, things should pretty much return to normal. Dave has been validated as a man, and you seem more appealing to your boyfriend as a woman desired by so many complex individuals. The only loser here is any semblance of the truth.

Illustrations by Mia Nguyen.

“Good Reason” – Balue (mp3)

“Eternal Honeymoon” – Balue (mp3)

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In Which The Coen Brothers Enter The Studio System

Backstroke

by ALEX CARNEVALE

Hail, Caesar!
dir. Joel Coen & Ethan Coen
106 minutes

History becomes ancient history. When American people thought of the recent past in 1953, the cultural life of the previous fifty years had not quite absconded from them, principally because there was not too much of it. For Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin) to manage his job as a movie executive, he only has to know five or six things, and once he knows them, he has plenty of time to genuflect as to whether he really does know them.

Hail, Caesar! is a kind of anti-nostalgia, pared down to its bare essentials. Scarlett Johansson has only two scenes in the movie as a kind of anti-Esther Williams, a Brazilian actress giggles through one scene like a jack-in-the-box, Tilda Swinton plays twin sister gossip columnists for a combined five minutes and that is it for women in Hail, Caesar! Hollywood during this period (and when you think of it, most others) was largely composed of the interlacing stories of male homosexuals and Jews fleeing Europe.

Esther Williams’ movies are not half bad if you watch them today. A lot of times she portrayed the same role she played in life: a talented swimmer in a stage show at odds with the management. Williams’ brilliance at marketing herself and her evident abilities as a performer are never touched on in Hail, Caesar!

Instead she is a foul-mouthed slut sleeping with a foreign, married director, not her first. Abandoned by the father of her baby, she has no other options, and so marries Jonah Hill after admiring his physique. Hill is in the movie for two minutes, and Scarlett only five more than that, so how they had made it on the poster moves beyond deceptive advertising into the realm of true evil.

But then, the male stars are just as vapid and sloppy in their art, except for Burt Gurney (Channing Tatum). The best part of Hail, Caesar! by far is an extensive song and dance routine about how there will be no women on a submarine the sailors are boarding in the morning. Tatum, who was recently so awful in The Hateful Eight, appears to be some kind of oscillating god here, and his singing and dancing is ten out of ten. Maybe in the future he could just not talk.

The rest of the movie sets that Josh Brolin strolls onto are shooting awful, satirical versions of failed projects from the period. Clooney is better at pretending to be a period actor than performing a modern role. His not-so-hidden homosexuality is a riff on Tony Curtis, but the vapidity of the character is not. Turning Tony Curtis, a Bronx Jew who was savagely beaten by his schizophrenic mother, served in the U.S. Navy and achieved success from the most meager circumstances imaginable into a spoiled, whimpering ditz is pretty low.

Clooney’s character, Baird Whitlock, is abducted by a group of communists. The humor comes from the idea that they explain they have been actively plotting to include communist ideas in their Hollywood scripts in order to do their part for the movement. Isn’t this ridiculous? the Coens crow. Except there were films which presented Russia as an idyllic utopia — after all, communists were always substantially better at explaining themselves than actually governing.

But the important thing is that Hail, Caesar! is funny, right? If something is funny, it doesn’t matter who it makes fun of, or why, or whether it’s true because that would mean, you know, like, actual research. The Coens aren’t too good with that part of the process. Over time any director acquires a sinister envy and disgust for actors. Laurence Laurentz (Ralph Fiennes) even slaps around his young star for not being able to say, “Were that it twere so simple” in a convincing manner.

You feel the contempt for the performers in most scenes of Hail, Caesar! We rush so quickly from moment to moment as Brolin assuages the feelings and insecurities of all these people that you start to think of them not as individuals, but only as problems. Hail, Caesar! is a bunch of brilliant skits that explain all of the jokes for people who don’t grasp the overly familiar subject of Hollywood satire. I think most of us understand it by now. William Goldman’s book about one year on Broadway, The Season, once estimated that 80 percent of the subject matter in any given Broadway year concerned the theater itself. Today an endless parade of comic book movies saves us from the harsh reality of old.

When I do watch films from this period on TCM, I am not struck by any difference in quality, or even production values. The most obvious change between Hollywood’s output today and then is the seriousness of its story choices. During this period, scripts explored non-trivial issues even in frivolous films, and they took their characters just as sincerely, even in goofy contexts. There was a chance of doing that here, but it vanishes as swiftly.

Josh Brolin comes home to dinner with his wife. He doesn’t touch her, kiss her, or even look at her. He considers a job offer from Lockheed Martin that would have him working substantially less hours at a higher rate. “What should I do?” he asks his wife (Alison Pill) as he eats the food she has prepared for him, prompting her to comment on a decision that could completely alter the next decade in her own life and the lives of her children. “You know best,” she tells him. Maybe I didn’t get the joke.

Alex Carnevale is the editor of This Recording.

“The Caterpillar Workforce” – Guided By Voices (mp3)