In Which We Naturally Appreciate The Effort

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A Woman On Her Own Time

by DICK CHENEY

Bridget Jones’ Baby
dir. Sharon Maguire
123 minutes

Bridget Jones makes something of a scene at the funeral of her old boss, Daniel Cleaver (an MIA Hugh Grant). Hugh Grant felt he was too good to involve himself in Bridget Jones’ Baby, although it is unclear what he found so unpalatable about the project. There are not so many movies about the plight of a 43 year old single woman, although Renee Zellweger is actually 47.

No one involved with Bridget Jones’ Baby has ever heard of the Bechdel test. Maybe it didn’t make its way to England? All Bridget and her friend talk about is men and how much her life would be better if a penis was everpresent in it, I guess for Bridget to address by name in her diary. I don’t know anyone over the age of 30 who keeps a diary who isn’t a war criminal.

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Bridget falls in some slop and is hauled out by Jack Qwant (Patrick Dempsey). The real story should be how Patrick Dempsey with his sketchy beard now looks like a member of ISIS. He has lost almost all of his previous appeal, while Renee Zellweger is a perfectly reasonable facsimile of the woman she was twenty years ago. Bridget starts wearing these weird oversized glasses when she goes out with guys, it makes her look like she is cosplaying as a librarian.

It is a wonderful thing to know you can fall in love at any age. Despite being a somewhat high powered news producer by now, Bridget makes a lot of inappropriate jokes still, and a surprising amount of them are about Hitler. When she goes camping at a music festival with her news anchor and friend Miranda (Sarah Solemani), she ends up sleeping with Dempsey after accidentally wandering into his tent. His penis feels like porcelain soldered onto a metal frame.

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Dempsey seems to be doing some kind of weird accent, but it is unclear what exactly he is going for. Bridget gets on top of him within thirty minutes of knowing him. It is nice to be with someone who has a similar frame for all of her historical references, and it turns out that Qwant is some kind of incredibly wealthy inventor of a romantic algorithm. Someone intelligent would be good for her, since Bridget does not even seem to know that the term MILF is incredibly offensive.

Bridget’s other friend Sharon (Sally Phillips) actually has children, and Bridget sort of ignores them most of the time, like they are completely incidental to her experience. She talks about putting Dempsey’s metal cock in her mouth with her friend, only to disguise it from the kids they call the mechanical item a “puppet.” Children in England are very naive at first.

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When Bridget attends a lovely christening, she poses for pictures with Mark (Colin Firth). The photographer instructs Mark “to give her a kiss” — he means the baby Bridget is holding, but Mark completely misunderstands and gives Bridget this super-intimate soft pressing of his lips to the side of her head. At the ensuing party Bridget gets absolutely wasted while wearing plastic wings on her back to make her look like an angel.

Mark’s reaction to Bridget’s behavior is somewhat puzzling. He sees her dancing and feels joy that Bridget is happy, but somewhat serious disappointment that he didn’t consummate the relationship at an earlier time. There is really no context in which “Let’s Get It On” is appropriate at a christening. During a quiet moment at the party, Mark checks the tag on Bridget’s dress, which I did not even know was a move.

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The sexual intercourse that follows sets up the main premise of Bridget Jones’ Baby, which is that Bridget has no idea who the father of her child is, and has no earthly way of finding out. Medical science simply hasn’t advanced that far. The sex itself is brief but romantic, and the only weird part is that it is contrasted with the rest of the party involving small children and how much fun everyone there is also having.

Bridget leaves a note for Mark, like he is expecting that the fuck he just accomplished off this christening was going to lead to marriage. If Colin Firth wanted to be married, rest assured he would be married. “We could come up with a hundred reasons why we never made it,” she writes to Mark, “but I always found that you were never there, and I was mostly alone.”

Bridget tells Jack Qwant that he might be the father of her child in a terrific scene where he looks like he is about to strike her in the face. Bridget Jones’ Baby could seriously have been a far more entertaining movie if it depicted how men actually behave when they are told they are going to be a father. (My own father actually killed a farmhand when he found this out.) Instead it is just mostly awkward, with each man growing to accept and understand his life is about to be completely ruined.

At some point in Bridget’s journey you realize that this entire time — her entire life — she has never actually communicated honestly with any of these men. This brings up about a important question of why she doesn’t ever do that, which I suppose is because she doesn’t trust them. It isn’t an issue that springs from the relationship with her father, Bridget Jones’ Baby makes absolutely clear, so it must simply be the function of the men she enjoys being with. They are the sorts of fellows who would never want to write any of her story — they would prefer she do that on her own time.

Dick Cheney is the senior contributor to This Recording.

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In Which We Have Always Been An Extremely Wealthy Orphan

How Did You Survive?

by ALEX CARNEVALE

The Handmaiden
dir. Chan-wook Park
144 minutes

Things start to become complicated for Sook-Hee (Kim Tae-Ri) when she is giving the mistress, Lady Hideko (Min-hee Kim) she serves as a maid a bath. In order to pacify her patron during the slow process of cleaning her body, she offers Lady Hideko a lollipop. Hideko complains of a tooth in her mouth, and in the minutes-long scene that follows, Sook-Hee inserts her thumb in and out of Hideko’s jaw to smooth the sharp tooth with a scraper.

Legendary South Korean director Chan-wook Park is known for intersections like these — those which could be played for laughs, but instead fall into a grey area where they become absorbing as actual moments. In his masterpiece Oldboy there is a scene where the protagonist eats a live octopus that is similarly wild without becoming amusing. There are many humorous moments in his adaptation of Sarah Waters’ novel Fingersmith, but the core relationship between a woman and her servant is never treated with anything but the utmost seriousness.

Chan-wook Park decided to make a Hollywood film with 2013’s Stoker. Written by Wentworth Miller, the resulting picture was about as silly as his South Korean noirs, and watching international actors in his familiar style was great fun. Sadly the movie, which starred Nicole Kidman and Mia Wasikowska among others, never achieved nearly the audience it should have.

The Handmaiden gives Park a more heady eroticism to work around. He is the master of how audio cues alarm and excite us, and watching two pert Korean women share a bed becomes a cacophony of swells, sucking, and other substantial sounds. Sook-Hee’s job to is convince Lady Hideko to marry a fellow con-artist so that he can commit her to an insane asylum and the two can make off with all their money.

Naturally, Sook-Hee and Hideko fall in love. The art direction by frequent collaborator Ryu Seong-hie frames every scene of The Handmaiden perfectly. Despite being shot mainly on one Japanese estate like Stoker, even interiors retain their complicated composition without becoming overly busy. Sook-Hee meets with her collaborator under spare branches that frame an endless walking path. As in most of Park’s work, the aesthetic composition of someone’s surroundings tends to reflect whatever inner struggle dogs them.

The two con-artists and their mark spend the summer in a Japanese bungalow far above a lush jungle. As Count Fujiwara, Jung-Woo Ha is the Korean Peter Sellers — completely serious in one moment and mugging for Sook-Hee the next. Park turns even the slow pace of a novel meant to ape a Victorian one into a plot that spins forward so quickly we feel like the mark ourselves.

Oldboy was a Korean film based on a popular Japanese manga about a drunk who is imprisoned for fifteen years in a private prison without knowing why. Spike Lee remade the film with Josh Brolin for some reason and it was a tremendous bomb. Lee’s remake was stylistically very fun, but perhaps too dedicated to Park’s original to truly feel like its own story. In both versions of the tale, the best part occurs during the main character’s imprisonment, when he feels hatred as well as an absurd wonder for his own unexpected plight.

There is a long sequence in The Handmaiden explaining the elaborate backstory of Lady Hideko that feels much like this. As a young girl, Hideko is made to serve her uncle, who is a character sort of akin to Count Rugen in The Princess Bride. Hideko’s aunt and carer hangs herself from a cherry blossom tree, and even in a lavish house, Hideko feels much like Oh Dae-Su in Oldboy. Park cycles through a litany of familiar Japanese imagery to identify the various sexual proclivities which comprise a corrupting element. This culminates in an unforgettable scene where Hideko is entangled with a wooden dummy while suspended in the air. She is the focus of a general, universal desire. “I could perish happily knowing that I tasted you,” Sook-hee admits to her at one point before scissoring.

The Handmaiden is, however, missing the discursiveness that Oldboy embraced at times: the sense that one subject might relate to each other more by association than it ever could directly. Instead it is tightly wrapped around itself, repeating scenes and moments from different perspectives until we understand them in a completely new way each time. This approach gives The Handmaiden the deepening qualities of the best fiction, and gives the story a texture it never achieved in any other form. The truth comes undone like a tightly woven braid.

Alex Carnevale is the editor of This Recording.

In Which We Decide To Become An Actress Living In Los Angeles

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Afternoon Audition

by ELEANOR MORROW

Loosely Exactly Nicole
creators Christian Lander & Christine Zander
MTV

Better Things
creators Louis CK & Pamela Adlon
FX

315059-1Every single person faces the prospect of reincarnation. When we emerge into our second lives, we live either in Van Nuys or Silverlake and go to endless, disappointing auditions. Such is the subject of two new television series, FX’s Better Things and MTV’s Loosely Exactly Nicole.

The latter features a ubiquitous presence on MTV of late, comedian Nicole Byer. It is not hard to figure out why the network is so high on her, since Byer is probably the most charismatic performer they have by leaps and bounds. Loosely Exactly Nicole details her life with roommate Devin (Jacob Wysocki), a massive gay man who has a natural rivalry with Nicole’s other best friend Veronica (fellow standup Jen D’Angelo).

The three of them spend a very serious amount of time talking about men, but it is all talk: even though Nicole’s boyfriend Derrick (Kevin Bigley) features on occasion, he is more just a stationary penis for Nicole to ride during the evenings. During the day, she is a nanny for a Taiwanese kid (Ian Chen), who she takes to her auditions if it seems absolutely necessary.

Loosely Exactly Nicole is the first show to make life in Los Angeles seem the least bit bearable. At times the production seems like it occurs in a series of parking lots; even the scenic park where Devin goes to reunite with a standard-looking white guy from his past looks like dogshit. This seems a conscious choice to make Nicole stand out even more from the world around her. It turns this MTV series into an inspiration, aspirational project for young people: simply by being fabulous you can ascend above your shitty surroundings, wherever they may be.

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Nicole goes on various tinder dates since her thing with Derrick is more of a friends-with-benefits type situation. On one such meet-up, the white man informs her not to get another drink unless she plans to sleep with him. (He had spent too much money this week.) This is the most agency any straight white man shows on Loosely Exactly Nicole; this species is basically a blank canvas for Devin, Veronica and Nicole to project themselves onto at intervals.

Despite a relatively memorable physical form, Byer is so much more of a chameleon than you would think. One episode has her changing hairstyles, and it takes this small cosmetic change to show off what astonishing range she truly has as an actress. The writing on Loosely Exactly Nicole never lets her down: it is consistently hysterical. Watching Amy Schumer after watching this turns Amy into a parody of itself, since all of Byer’s sex commentary is so much dirtier and true-to-life. It will be very difficult for a stronger comedy to emerge from this fall season of television.

Americans S4 Transit Shelter.inddBetter Things, the apology project from Louis CK after he masturbated in front of all those women, does not benefit from this comparison. Pamela Adlon plays herself as Sam, a Los Angeles-based voice and television actress who unlike Nicole Byer lives in a beautiful home with her wonderful children. It is pretty unclear why Adlon is so unhappy. If she actually had to lead Nicole Byer’s life, my guess is that she would drown herself in the La Brea tar pits.

It made sense when Louie was whiny and annoying since the theme of his show was what an entitled prick he was to everyone in his life, at all times. Adlon has a similar perspective on her life, except we are supposed to sympathize with her completely. Louie was also painfully short on actual love stories and geniune connections with people. Better Things features Pamela Adlon obssessing over a guy from her past who texts her that he is thinking about her:

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This eerie anxiety when the ellipsis indicate the other party is typing on their iPhone is the kind of soft touch Adlon & CK bring to some of Better Things‘ more intimate moments. The show falters the most when brings Adlon into broader, showbiz comedy, like a scene where Bradley Whitford performs fake cunnilingus on her. That sketch falls so flat that it makes me wonder whether the half-hour format really suits what they were trying to do here.

Better Things is so much less interesting when Adlon not-so-hilariously fuming at the clerk in a drugstore or complaining about the teacher of her children. Sam’s three daughters are very young, with her oldest, Max (Mikey Madison), just entering her teen years. Max asks her mother to get her pot, a suggestion which is met with complete disdain and utter rejection, even though it is honestly didn’t seem that crazy 20 years ago, let alone now, for a kid whose mother is an actress living in this house:

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Adlon’s actual ex-husband lives in Germany and does not have much of a relationship with his children. We get some sense of how isolating that is for her, and yet the real Pamela Adlon seems like so much more of a happy person than Sam. When it is most predictable, Better Things feels like a televised spin-off of Bad Moms, even though Adlon does not really do anything very questionable with or around her children. She is mostly just sad, depressed and exhausted. It is maybe not the best sign for a comedy that it is most compelling without the jokes.

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

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In Which We Behave At The Expense Of Culture And Class

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,

My boyfriend Davis served a short prison term from 2011-2012. He was incarcerated because of a drunk driving incident where he harmed another driver.

Davis and I have been talking about possibly getting engaged in the next year. My question is whether you think I should mention any of this to my family before or after the engagement/wedding?

Mallie R.

Dear Mallie,

It is impossible to keep such a thing a secret if you are going to include Davis as part of your family. It is going to come out at some point, e.g. when his prison buddies show up to take you hostage demanding liters of your blood or Jim Beam.

The key is to present this information to your family in the correct way. That correct way includes while Davis is performing some relevant community service, like ladling out soup at a kitchen, counseling young individuals on the error of his ways, or cunnilingus. Let your family know that Davis is a changed man. I assume he gives speeches for a modest rate as a part of his rehabilitation? OK, see ya.

Hi,

After my freshman year of college, I feel like all the people I met there are so much more like me. It is difficult to go back to my high school friends. The subjects they talk about seem rote in comparison, and all they want to do is smoke pot, play video games and gossip about things that frankly do not matter much to me anymore.

Is there any graceful way to get out of this or hang out with them without wanting to tear my hair out?

Karen B.

Dear Karen,

Becoming educated means that everything you once enjoyed will now taste and smell like shit. You will never be able to enjoy your high school friends as you once did. They are lost to you, as is the music of Kelly Clarkson, the thrill of Orange Julius, and anything purchased from Urban Outfitters.

It is on you to uplift your old friends. Take them to see art and music: perhaps a production of It’s A Wonderful Life staged by a local regional theater might lead them to realize what silly dodos they are being. They need to love each other, but not at the expense of culture and class. Explain why every painter since 1891 was a total asshole. They will be unable to find out such information on wikipedia; perhaps they do not even know what wikipedia is? You must show them.

Hi

My fiance and I recently went on a cruise to the Bahamas. While we there I noticed him looking at other women and their bodies quite often. I don’t say I have never noticed him doing this before, but the extent of it was troubling. I worry that this means I’m not good enough for him or that he has a wandering eye. Do you think I should be concerned?

Jennifer D.

hard to say mia nguyen

Dear Jennifer,

The vast majority of men think they are in a novel checking out the women that mar their vision of the world. Each time a female enters their field of vision, they have no choice but to observe her, to take in all that she is and wonder, ‘Would I be a happier individual if she was my everything?” It’s gross.

Men need to feel they are slightly viable to other women, that they are not simply an emasculated husk of penis parts. By noticing women they wish the object of their attention to return the favor of a momentary appraisal. Then they can reject the advances: I already have one of your kind, but thank you for noticing my mere existence.

You might ask yourself if this simple interplay is necessary. At least he feels comfortable existing in your presence.

In Which We Look Nothing Like Her

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Coming from America

by ETHAN PETERSON

The Collection
creator Oliver Goldstick

Berlin Station
creator Olen Steinhauer

Iscreen-shot-2016-09-13-at-9-38-53-amt is time for America to begin explaining Europe to itself. The island nation of England has been properly sedated and isolated. David Cameron has resigned and the next leader of Britain will begin preaching austerity in time. This means America has the European Union all to itself, and now it can begin making the proper, condescending form of media that conveys what it is like for disparate peoples and places to be grouped together purely for economic reasons.

In this vein is the wretched new Amazon series, The Collection. Richard Coyle (Coupling) plays Paul Sabine, a fashion executive who steals all his ideas from his profligate gay brother Claude (Tom Riley). France commissions Sabine’s company to develop a new style (?) after the Second World War. Paul is married to an American woman named Helen (Mamie Gummer), who admires him because of, not in spite of, his flaws.

It is not overly clear whether the Sabines are French or English or some disturbed amalgamation of the two. Much of the excitement comes from Paul Sabine’s willingness to do various disgusting things to get ahead in the world of fashion. Showrunner Oliver Goldstick (Ugly Betty) seems to think this turns him into a Don Draper-esque bad boy, but it actually identifies him as a terrible human being.

Although it seems definite that Amazon spent a great deal of money on The Collection, the fashion industry in the 1940s wasn’t exactly blowing anyone away. Tons of costume dramas come from more exciting aesthetic eras. British audiences get a steady diet of this genre on a weekly basis; you would honestly be forgiven for thinking there wasn’t a present moment in England at all. Even though The Collection is ostensibly set in Paris, certainly no one speaks French and most people have British accents.

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For some reason Goldstick focuses a great deal of the story on an American photographer named of all things Billy (Max Deacon). He is naturally a misogynist, but he is that rare breed you see – he pities women, and considers himself a cro magnon with a heart of gold. He tells a French girl that she needs to smile more and goes around taking terrible photographs of the Seine for like ten minutes. Understand that not a single moment of this dreadful production is meant to be tongue-in-cheek.

screen-shot-2016-09-13-at-9-38-30-amEven more painful is the forthcoming debut of Epix’ new series about a CIA operative played by Richard Armitrage (Thorin Oakenshield in The Hobbit trilogy) operating in Germany, Berlin Station. Oh boy is this a dreadful mess. Armitrage plays Daniel Miller, whose shaky accent is accounted for by the explanation that he grew up as an Army brat in Berlin.

The worst plot device ever opens Berlin Station, a flash forward where Daniel is shot. A short time earlier, Daniel spends most of the show following around an attractive woman who he seems destined to eventually meet, clutching a USB drive as in the worst John Le Carré novels. She is the contact for a Julian Assange-type character named Thomas Shaw.

Since this story could not possibly hold less of our interest, the focus in Berlin Station is more on the other officers working abroad. Their lives are given Grey’s Anatomy style complications – one (Rhys Ifans) is fucking his informant, another (Richard Jenkins) his secretary. Only the token woman (Michelle Forbes) is given very little of interest to do, which probably means she is a mole of some kind.

Berlin and Paris, in these imaginings, look nothing like foreign places. They have been completely Americanized to our expectations of them. (The Collection could be a live-action version of Ratatouille.) The real thrill of drama in a foreign setting should not be to show how the entire world is not that much different than our own country.

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This is a more difficult task than it seems at first glance, since it requires an intimate knowledge of France and Germany that most lack. Even the brilliant and authentic Deutschland 83 by Anna and Joerg Winger, which was focused on East Germany’s conflict with the West, had the most perplexing American soundtrack. It was meant to convey the entrance of certain global ideas to the country, but there are only so many David Bowie songs one can tolerate being deployed over montage sequences of characters sobbing in empty rooms.

In order for this sort of thing to be accepted by American audiences, it has to be divested of all intrinsic difference, making the end result — in the case of The Collection and Berlin Station — this inescapably bland combination of both and neither. In its own disturbed way, this is the deranged lesson America has for Europe. Melting your differences away ultimately makes things so much less entertaining.

Ethan Peterson is the senior contributor to This Recording.

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In Which We Generally Take What We Can Get

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The Condo

by ELIZABETH J. THEIS

I’ve wanted to write about The Condo for years, so when I was approached and given a deadline, I did what any gal would do: I put my blinders on and pretended it didn’t exist for a while. See, I’ve developed a defense mechanism that doesn’t allow my mind to go there very often. So, after a solid day of lying around in the fetal position, I’m sitting here with only a couple good hours left in me, and I am Totally Ready to Write This Thing. This is a story about a very distinct time period in my life that Built Me Into Who I Am Today.

It’s funny how the 90s have recently made a comeback. It seems like everyone is passing around click bait like “50 Signs You Grew Up in the 90s” with images of Crystal Pepsi and other nauseating reminders of the chemicals and dyes that were in snack foods at the time. But for me, the age of slap bracelets and TGIF elicits memories that make me sick to my stomach on a psychoanalytical level. Just seeing a certain shade of floral print thrusts me back to my stomach churning pre-teen years. So let’s start where many 90s stories begin: in the 80s.

In 1988, I remember going to lots of doctors’ appointments with my mother. Well, I remember sitting in lots of dim, brown-carpeted waiting rooms, anyway. I was 6 years old, and it was the year she was diagnosed with relapsing/remitting Multiple Sclerosis. Those were some pretty big words for me at the time, so if there was ever a family discussion about it (and I don’t remember it if there was), I’m sure it was simplified for my tiny ears by saying “sometimes Mommy won’t be feeling well.” Relapsing/remitting MS is the most common form of the disease, which creates lesions along the nervous system, and is characterized by phases of symptoms that come and go.

In the years following the diagnosis, my mother looked and acted reasonably healthy, and we continued to live as we had up until then. We had a comfortable-enough suburban, working class family – myself, my two elder sisters, my mother a nurse and my father a lineman for the telephone company. Vacations were to Disney World and vegetables came from a can. We grew up on a cul-de-sac and had an aboveground pool with a deck my father built himself.

My mother even started her own crafting business, an artisan craft where she would frame stamps and first-day covers and sell them at craft fairs across Connecticut. Sometimes one or more of the daughters would accompany her to help her sell and set up under a pop-up tent.

Then, as most do, my parents’ marriage came to an end. It was 1992 when my mother ended it. She had decided she’d had enough of “being controlled” by my father, an ex-marine who worked long hours and liked to finish his day with a Coors and a can of sardines.

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When my mother was working out her thoughts of whether or not to leave my dad, she spoke to the people around her that she felt were most equipped to tell an adult woman what to do. Those people were her three daughters.

The day she brought it up, my mother took me for a walk around the perimeter of a nearby playground that was named after my eldest sister’s teenage friend, who was killed in a drunk driving accident. I remember distinctly the playground and my mother to my right and Surf Avenue to my left, with nothing between myself and the road where that drunk driver skid into that young man years prior. She asked me what I thought about her leaving my father and taking my sister, Tricia, and myself with her. The eldest would have already left the house by the time the change occurred.

Are you kidding?! I thought. Of course I wanted her to leave my father! As an 9-going-on-10-year-old child, I knew quite well that a man who gruffly tells you to eat your vegetables, finish your homework, and take out the garbage is a tyrant, and such wonders would lie before me if I were to relocate to the magical, lawless land of Momsylvania.

My mother purchased a condo on the other side of town, a brand new one, which meant we got the exciting task of picking out the color of the rugs and the Formica countertop patterns. We went with “mauve,” a dusty rose-colored carpeting for the bulk of the house. She even had contractors build out the basement so “the girls” would have a bathroom and three separate bedrooms (even one for the daughter who’d never live at home again), and each daughter got to pick out the color of the carpeting of our room. We went and picked out new furniture, including table lamps that you turned on merely by touching. They were sooo cool.

One day, before coming into the condo, my mother told me there was going to be a surprise for me. When I got inside, above the brand-new floral couch hung a $400 pastel painting of racehorses (I was a horse girl) that I had begged her to get while in a furniture store picking out the aforementioned floral couch. Our new house was a home. A 90s ladies’ lair.

Life with mom in the new condo became the norm. There were few home-cooked meals. We’d switched to more fun things like takeout from Little Caesars and McDonald’s. The only foods my sister and I absolutely remember having in the house were hamburger meat and Jell-O. (My mother was on the Adkin’s diet.) Sometimes, when I was hungry, I’d simply microwave some bacon between paper towels, and snack on that while watching Nickelodeon. If that wasn’t enough, I’d do it again.

During these years, Tricia and I became incredibly close. We shared a thin wall between us in the basement where our rooms were, but I’d often spend nights in her room, sleeping on the flip-and-fuck because it was just a little bit scary down there. Those are the last, blissfully innocent and ignorant times that I remember from my childhood. We’d laugh well into the night—we still do over text messages, her from her family’s home in Baltimore, me from my one-bedroom apartment in Brooklyn.

On nights Tricia was out with her friends, I had a TV in my room where I’d watch back-to-back episodes of Mama’s Family followed by back-to-back episodes of Family Feud. I’m sure Channel 20 had some sort of clever “family” lineup thing going there. Even though I’d had a fresh start at a new school across town, I still didn’t have a ton of friends at school, but home life was pretty cool. It was a constant TV and takeout party. I had it pretty good.

Slowly, though, the honeymoon period began to fade. I’m fairly certain things began to decline following the death of my maternal grandmother. She was 72, and was diagnosed with liver cancer. She didn’t live more than six months after that. She was beloved by everyone in the family, and the glue that held together my mother’s family. So her passing began the unraveling of my mother’s personal family life, but also her own diagnosis changed. She went from relapsing/remitting subtype of MS to a more rare, progressive type of the disease where an individual experiences a steady neurological decline.

The beginning of her decline marked the beginning of my coming-of-age.

Like it had been in the past, my mother’s condition was simplified for me. I must have been told that she would be getting sicker, but I was still at an ignorantly blissful age that couldn’t comprehend the future. I didn’t really understand why my mother started walking funny, or why her voice was sometimes raspy, or why her moods got the way they did. If friends came over, they’d often have a lot of questions, “what is your mother doing…” when they would see her stop in her tracks in the parking lot, coming in from the car, and stare up at the sky for what seemed like a little too long.

“I dunno. She’s weird.” I’d say. Because “weird” is a word that any tweenaged girl loves to throw around. But having few friends and few engaged adults in my life, I had no perspective on just how different my life was from most kids my age.

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See, I was navigating middle school social horrors during all of this. I was pretty much at the bottom of the popularity food chain during those years. It didn’t help that I went to school in dirty graphic tee shirts and one of the many pairs of stirrup pants I had with holes in the crotch. One day, while waiting for the bus, two older girls giggled behind me because they could see the distinct bulge that told the world I was wearing a maxi pad underneath those skin-tight pants. My mother also splurged and got me a very difficult to maintain spiral perm that quickly fell flat and made my hair resemble our cocker spaniel’s.

I figured it was just me that was the problem, that I was just an ugly person. And many times, my sister and I were told that we were the problem. Fights became more frequent as my mother neglected us, and all the while we were slowly being boiled alive as my mother’s health worsened. My sister would drive me to school and picked me up, and sometimes we’d just drive around just to not be in the house.

Around the time Tricia left for college, my mother was spending a lot of time with a friend she’d made at meetings she was attending at a nearby church. Her name was Gail, and although she was nice at first, she soon gave me really bad vibes like she was taking advantage of my mother. I couldn’t quite put my finger on it, but I started to resent and dislike Gail.

One night, my mother and Gail were watching television in her bedroom. I went to ask my mom permission for something. Oddly, the door was closed, and when I tried the handle, it was locked. Unusual, I thought. They must have locked it accidentally and then fell asleep watching TV.

It wasn’t even my mother, it was Gail who told me that the two of them were having a lesbian relationship. Fucking Gail. The two of them called me into the dining room for a talk. I burst into tears and ran into my room. I think during this time my mother called Tricia and asked her to talk to me and tell me everything was going to be all right.

the-rivertingidsndisms

In the years that followed, I bounced back and forth from the condo to my old house, where my father still lived. I wanted to go back to school with my old friends, and my mother’s health had deteriorated so much that she was no longer able to take care of me. Though I often spent the summer at my mother’s house, which became a popular destination for sleepovers, because we could get away with smoking cigarettes and weed in the basement (she had no sense of smell) and sneaking out in the middle of the night with friends. I practically spent an entire undisciplined summer sleeping at my friend Adriana’s house, because my mother let me stay there night after night. When we got older and started spending time in a nearby city, my mother would sometimes pick us up with shaky hands in her Grand Marquis while I helped her by telling her when to turn the wheel.

My mother’s relationship with Gail eventually ended, and when I was 17, I had to drive over to a nearby restaurant to pick up my mother, who had fallen down in the parking lot. In that same year, the condo flooded, destroying much of the things that were left in the basement, papers, unicorn posters. I remember salvaging a pink and black Beverly Hills 90210 water bottle. It wasn’t long after that my mother moved into an assisted living home. Some of her belongings went with her, and some went to storage.

The condo was left behind, an entropic pastel shell. The metaphor of faded colors is too rich to spell out on paper.

My mother now lives in a nursing home about a mile from the house that was once home to a comfortable-enough, suburban, working class family, while across town, a new family is living in a condo with three different colored carpets in the basement. I haven’t visited her in about two years. It’s like I am wearing blinders and pretending it doesn’t exist. The times I have seen her, the visits are short, and I never go alone. The last time, she thought I was my sister’s daughter.

Mother’s Day recently passed. It is a holiday I would rather not be reminded of, but that’s just short of impossible once I start seeing the advertising, the sales, and now, my facebook feed filled on the second Sunday of May with lovely maternal dedications. I put on the blinders once again, because for me, I have fewer fond memories of my mother than I have questions I’ll never get answers to.

My father is gone now. He passed away almost a year ago now. That is still a fresh wound and a story I’ll hesitate to tell on another day. I am still coming to terms with essentially being an orphan, flailing out in the world, feeling unequipped as an adult woman at 32 years old — every day getting further away from the feeling of having a mother hold me close and tell me everything would be OK. But I’ll never know if she really did only marry my father to escape her family, or if she meant it when she told Tricia she never even wanted children, or why, during the divorce, she emptied the college funds that my father worked so hard to build up and squandered it on a brand new condo.

The answers, I’m afraid, lie somewhere under a horse painting and three different colored carpets in the basement.

Elizabeth J. Theis is a contributor to This Recording. She is a writer, filmmaker and video artist living in New York. You can find her tumblr here and her twitter here. You can find her vimeo here and her facebook here.

lizand-iasiasnia

 

In Which Queen Sugar Delights And Amazes Us All

Dandelion Wine

by ALEX CARNEVALE

Queen Sugar
creator Ava DuVernay
OWN

queen-sugar-2016-posterThe two sisters at the heart of Ava DuVernay’s first original series are always waking up in a man’s house, a place not quite their own.

Charley (Dawn-Lyen Gardner) rises in a bedroom that looks through prismatic glass windows down on Los Angeles. The entire domicile is transparent, which affords very little privacy when her husband is charged with participating in a group rape with other members of his professional basketball team. She is so disgusted when she finds this out during one of his games that she charges onto the court and begins screaming at him. Strangely, they haul her off instead of him.

Nova (Rutina Wesley) is dating a white guy and practicing some serious herbal medicine in her and her half-sister’s hometown in rural Louisiana. She wakes up in this man’s arms, but for some reason she feels she cannot introduce him to her family and friends. Actually, we know the reason: it is because everyone else on this show, with the except of a land developer who wants to buy her father’s farm, is black.

Charley soon returns home to Louisiana, where her siblings and her aunt are generally uncomfortable with how bourgeois she has become. The rest of Charley’s family seem to be struggling financially even though their father Ernest (the enigmatic and charismatic Glynn Turman) dies in the first episode of Queen Sugar, leaving behind a massive tract of farmland.

Charley’s husband Davis West (Timon Kyle Durrett), who plays power forward, checks their residences in Aspen and Palm Springs and eventually discovers her whereabouts in time to attend the funeral. He claims he is innocent of raping anyone, suggesting that he merely brought the victim into the room where the alleged crime took place before excusing himself to play Candy Crush. West is a fantastic character — because DuVernay is invested with giving all her creations an elemental human dignity, he is not just brushed off as a sociopath.

I remember reading Magic Johnson’s autobiography when I was eleven. Boy was that an eye-opener; I can’t believe they had this thing at the local library. He had sex with a different woman in every American city. The real mystery is how he didn’t contract AIDS more quickly. NBA players do some unfaithful things to their wives; it is unclear as of now how much of this Charley expected or could be willing to forgive.

Her immediate response after confronting her husband is to retreat to bed. She takes a serious amount of pills to dull the pain of being who she is, but not so much that she is unable to hear when her son comes into her room to tell her that her father is on the verge of dying.

The concept that we know what kind of people with which we are involved is an important theme in Queen Sugar, the best American serial to premiere in many years. DuVernay has the most important writing talent there is — she is able to make us feel distinctly for people when we are already predisposed to see a situation or circumstance as manipulating our feelings, without then also feeling controlled.

The incredible cast she has assembled for Queen Sugar begins with the tremulous intensity of True Blood‘s Rutina Wesley, but Wesley requires strong presences to play off in order to be at her best. As Charley and Nova’s brother Ralph Angel, the Ghanian actor Kofi Siriboe portrays a man fresh out of prison. He struggles to take care of his young son financially and resorts to intermittent crime to meet his financial obligations. The boy’s young mother is a drug addict who has abandoned the child in the past.

Ralph Angel is reluctant to make a connection with his son’s teacher, Reyna (Marycarmen Lopez). The low-key sexual energy projected by Lopez gives Queen Sugar the shot in the arm it requires at various intervals. DuVernay’s long experience in the industry has allowed her to make quite a few stars in such a short time, and she really reveals how terrible most black roles are in Hollywood just by proving these new performers are capable of star-making performances.

All the main sets in Queen Sugar are absolutely gorgeous, and Louisiana is perfect as a place that can switch between paradise, limbo and hell within the space of a few blocks. The only disappointing scene takes place when Davis West comes to visit Charley in Louisiana in order to tell his side of the story to his teenage son Micah (Nicholas Ashe). Instead of probing the area for a landscape that would show Davis to be sufficiently out of place in Louisiana, DuVernay shoots the moment in the gym of the local high school.

DuVernay herself is from Los Angeles, although she spent summers in Alabama where her father grew up on a family farm. The Bordelon patriarch’s house borders land which he stopped maintaining in his last years, forcing him to take a job as a janitor. What DuVernay is consistently successful at as a writer is allowing us to see particular situations through her character’s eyes. She recognizes what should be obvious to anyone alive: that we are more shaped by what we observe in others than anything else in our world.

She extends her empathy, which is more serious than anyone working her medium, to the lives of children, which are so often ignored or simplified in drama. Queen Sugar is rife with the possibilities of different intersections that a family drama affords; individuals in the Bordelon House relates to each other person in a specific way, changing them, altering their presence in our own lives. This gives Queen Sugar a feeling of versimilitude that has been missing from television since The Sopranos.

Alex Carnevale is the editor of This Recording.