In Which We Land In The Childhood Of Ingmar Bergman

Invisible Ink

by ALEX CARNEVALE

The difference between a dated film and a timeless one is measured by the lengths of the skirts.

Irish hermits colonized Faro Island, halfway between modern day Norway and Iceland, in the eighth century. Ingmar Bergman shot The Passion of Anna there during the fall of 1969. Anna (Liv Ullman) appears almost out of nowhere in the film’s opening minutes, gripping a shabby cane and asking to make a call to Stockholm. Andreas (Max Von Syndow) forces himself to listen in on the conversation.

In his notes for the film, Bergman writes, “One morning I awakened and decided to abandon the story about the two sisters. It feels too large, too unwieldy and too uninteresting from a cinematic point of view.” Instead The Passion of Anna revolves around Andreas’ interest in two women, neither of whom he has any idea how to love.

Shortly after the introduction of Anna, we meet Eva (Bibi Andersson) who is her more desirable double. It is the performance of her unhappily married woman opposite Andreas that gives meaning to the entire film, for where Anna’s style is basically dated, Eva is disturbingly modern in contrast. “It is hard to realize one day that you’re meaningless,” she informs Andreas, inculcating his worst fears. After the overwhelming eroticism fades, both ourselves and Bergman’s hero are left with not very much. Therefore he looks to Anna.

Bergman hated the miniskirts that Bibi and Liv Ullman suggested their characters wear, but he gave into their instinct. “That misfortune was not noticeable then but revealed itself later,” he complains in Images, “like writing in invisible ink.” Miniskirts are the least of the horrors on the island, since such things come into fashion again. Elsewhere, eight sheep are mutilated and killed; an innocent man is pushed to suicide after he is accused of the crime. Andreas finds a dog almost dead by hanging and serves it milk, but he is fighting a losing battle against the universe. His despair is Bergman’s.

Between scenes of Andreas’ desolate hermit life on the island and his seduction of the women there, Bergman blends straightforward interviews with the actors about portraying their provincial characters. He later regretted including these departures, admitting “the interviews should have been cut out.”

Watching a documentary about a movie alongside the movie itself is not so nearly disorienting today, and it gives The Passion of Anna an inflated importance, making the film’s chaotic events seem to add up to more than they really do. The masterfully subtle performances Bergman receives from Von Sydow and Ullman further distract from the inadequacies of the script. The Passion of Anna is not near one of Bergman’s best films, but it is his messiest.

During the forty-five days it took to shoot The Passion of Anna, Bergman fought endlessly with his cinematographer, Sven Nyquist. Bergman felt he needed The Passion of Anna to be a success after the financial failure of Shame, and he was handicapped in his ambitions by the fact the screenplay he took to Faro Island was incomplete, comprised mainly of “moods.” Images finds Ingmar musing that “The Passion of Anna could have been a good film.”

It was their first color effort together, and although the natural light they received on the island is perfect, the final color of the film is disastrous, frequently displayed as overexposed and especially hard to look at in interior scenes. Sometimes this is intentional, as when infidelity occurs. Other times, the spectrum is simply chaotic. The Passion of Anna is one of Bergman’s only films to not rate highly in its overall presentation, suggesting why he was so frustrated by the process of filming it.

Faro Island for Bergman was a kind of hell, representing what he called a Kingdom of Death. Any tendency towards isolation, The Passion of Anna suggests, is self-annihilating. This anoints the present as a sincere improvement on the past, for the reason that we are all closer together now than we ever were. “You are scared,” Bergman writes, “when you have for a long time been sawing off the branch on which you sit.”

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from Ingmar Bergman’s Images

There are two godfathers to Fanny and Alexander. One of them is E.T.A. Hoffmann.

Toward the end of the 1970s, I was supposed to direct Hoffmann at the Opera House in Munich. I began to fantasize about the real Hoffmann, who sat in Luther’s wine cellar, sick and nearly dying. I wrote in my notes: “Death is everpresent. The barcarole, the sweetness of death. The Venice scene stinks of decay, raw lust, and heavy perfumes. In the Antonia scene, the mother is intensely frightening. The room is people with shadows, dancing, and mouths gaping. The mirror in the mirror aria is small and gleams like a murder weapon.”

In a short story written by Hoffmann there is a gigantic, magical room. It was that magical room I wanted to re-create on stage. The drama would be played out with that room set on stage. The drama would be played out with that room set in the foreground and the orchestra in the background.

There is also an illustration from E.T.A. Hoffmann’s stories that had haunted me time and time again, a picture from The Nutcracker. Two children are quivering close together in the twilight of Christmas Eve, waiting impatiently for the candles on the tree to be lighted and the doors to the living room to be opened.

It is that scene that gave me the idea of beginning Fanny and Alexander with a Christmas celebration.

The second godfather is Dickens: the bishop and his home, the Jew in his boutique of fantasies, the children as victims; the contrast between flourishing outside life and a closed world in black-and-white.

One could say that it all began during the fall of 1978. I was living in Munich and felt ill at ease. I was still enmeshed in the tax imbroglio, and I didn’t know how or when it would end. On September 27, I wrote in my workbook:

There is no longer any distinction between my anxiety and the reality that causes it. And yet I think I know what kind of film I want to make next. It is far different from anything I have ever done.

Anton is eleven years old and Maria is twelve. They act as observers of the reality I wish to depict. The time is the beginning of the First World War; the place is a small town, exceedingly quiet and well-kept. There is a university, a theater, and a hotel some distance away. Life is peaceful.

Anton and Maria’s mother is director of a theater. When their father died, she took over the management of his theater and now runs it with authority and shrewdness. They lie on a quiet street. in the back of the theater lives a Jew, Isak, who owns a toy store. It contains some other interesting and exciting objects as well. A frequent Sunday visitor is an old lady who used to be a missionary in China. She performs Chinese shadow plays. There is also an uncle who is a little crazy but is harmless and who takes certain liberties. The house is well-to-do and extremely bourgeois.

The grandmother is an almost mystical figure who lives in the apartment below. She is fabulously wealthy and was in her past a royal mistress and a great actress. Now she has retired, but sometimes she will appear in an occasional part. In either case, it is a world completely dominated by women, from the cook who has been around for a hundred years to the little nanny who is cheerful, freckled and limps because one leg is shorter than the other, and who smells deliciously of sweat.

The theater is both a playground for the children and a haven. Sometimes they are allowed to participate in a play, which they find enormously exciting. The children sleep in the same room, and they have many things to keep themselves occupied – their own puppet theater, their own movie projector, toy trains, dollhouses. They are inseparable.

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Maria is the one who takes the most initiative. Anton is rather anxious. Their upbringing is strict, and severe punishment for even the most trivial offenses is not out of the question. The church bells measure the passage of time; the small bell at a nearby castle announces when it is morning and when it is evening. The Vicar is always a welcome guest, even at the theater. One might suspect that Mother has a special relationship with the vicar. However, this is difficult to know right away.

Then Mother decides to marry the vicar. Mother cannot continue to manage her theater; she must become a wife and mother. It is already apparent that her belly is swelling. Maria does not like the vicar; Anton does not like him either. Mother transfers the ownership of the theater to her actors; crying bitterly, she bids her people farewell and moves into the vicarage with Maria and Anton, who are raging with anger.

Mother is a good wife to the clergyman. She plays her part irreproachably: she gives birth to a child and invites the parishioners in for coffee after the morning service. The church bells ring, and Maria and Anton brood, thinking of revenge. They are no longer allowed to sleep together in the same room, and the cheerful Maj, the nanny, who has become pregnant, is fired and replaced by the vicar’s sister, who is a dragon.

With my divining rod, I searched the ground for a source and came upon a vein of water. When I began to drill, it gushed out like a geyser. My notes continue:

Through my playing, I want to master my anxiety, relieve tension, and triumph over my deterioration. I want to depict, finally, the joy that I carry within me in spite of everything, and which I so seldom and so feebly have given attention to in my work. To be able to express the power of action, decisiveness, the vitality, and the kindness. Yes, for once, that would not be a bad idea.

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From the very beginning one can see that with Fanny and Alexander. I have landed in the world of my childhood. Here is the university town and Grandmother’s house with the old cook; here is the Jew who lived out back; and here is the school. I am already in the place and beginning to roam around in the familiar environment. My childhood has of course always been my main supplier, without my ever having bothered to find out where the deliveries were coming from.

On November 10, I write in my workbook:

I often think of Ingrid Bergman. I would like to write something for her that would not be too demanding, and I see a summer porch in rain. She is alone, waiting for her children and grandchildren. It is afternoon, the whole film is set on a veranda. The film will last only as long as the rain. Nature is showing her fairest face; everything is enveloped in this soft unceasing rain. When the film opens, she is speaking on the telephone. Her family is out on an excursion around the lake. She talks with an old friend of hers, who is much older than she. A deep trust exists between the two. She writes a letter. She finds some object. She remember a theater performance – her big breakthrough. She sees her reflection in the windowpanes – and can catch a glimpse of herself as a young woman.

The reason she has stayed at home is that she has sprained her ankle – it is only a slight sprain; mostly it feels good to be alone. Toward the end of the film, she sees the family returning from their trip; the rain is still falling, but it is now a peaceful, quiet drip.

Everything should happen in a major key.

The porch in summer – everything is enveloped in a soft chiaroscuro. In this piece there are no hard edges; everything must be as soft as the rain. A neighbor’s child comes and asks for other children. She has bought wild strawberries, and she is given a treat. She is wet from the rain and smells wet. It is a kind life, a good, simple, incredible life. When she sees the child’s hands, the most unusual thoughts come to her, thoughts that she has never had before. The cat purrs, stretched out on the sofa, the clock ticks; the smell of summer pervades over all. She stands in the doorway to the porch and looks out over the meadows with the oak tree, the meadow that leads down in the old bridge and the bay. To her, everything looks both old and familiar and yet new and unexpected. It is strange how longing emanates from sudden solitude.

This looks like a different film, independent of the first, but the material came to good use in Fanny and Alexander, the decision to depict a life, luminous and happy, was there from the moment I found life truly difficult to bear.

Harmony is not a feeling that is totally unusual or foreign to me. If I am just allowed to live quiet and create in a calm environment without being tormented, where I can have a clear perspective of my existence, where it is possible for me to be kind and not need anything or have to keep lots of appointments, then I can function at my best. Such an existence reminds me of the good-natured passive life of my childhood.

On April 18 I wrote, “I don’t know much about this film. Yet it tempts me more than any other. It is enigmatic and demands reflection, but the most important thing of course is that the desire is there.”

On April 23 I note: “Today I wrote the first six pages of Fanny and Alexander. I actually enjoyed doing it. Now I am going to write about the theater, the apartment, and the grandmother.”

Wednesday, May 2:

I must get away from rushing and straining. I have the entire summer in front of me to do this, more than four months. On the other hand, I should not stay away from my desk too long. But no, it’s all right to walk around a bit! Let the scenes settle themselves down as they please. Let them become what they will. Then they will be on their best behavior!

Tuesday, June 5:

It is dangerous to invoke the infernal powers. In Isak’s house lives an idiot with the face of an angel, a thin, fragile body, and colorless eyes that see all. He is able to do evil. He is like a membrane for wishes that quivers with the slightest touch. It is Alexander’s experience of the Secret that makes him what he is. The conversation with his dead father. God showing himself to him. His meeting with the dangerous Ismael, who sends the burning woman to annihilate the bishop.

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The manuscript was finished on July 8, not quite three months after I began it. There followed a year of preparation for filming, a long and surprisingly pleasant time.

Then, I suddenly stood there and had to materialize my film.

Watching it today, I see that the long version could have been trimmed down half an hour to forty minutes without anyone noticing it. As it was, the work was heavily edited down to the five different episodes for television. But from that point down to the reduced theatrical version was a long step.

The basic chords in Fanny and Alexander are summed up exhaustively in The Magic Lantern:

To be honest, it is with delight and curiosity that I think back on my childhood. My imagination and sense gained nourishment, and I cannot remember ever being bored. Rather the days and hours exploded with these strange wonders, unexpected sights, and magical moments. I can still roam through the landscape of my childhood and re-create the lighting, smells, people, places, moments, gestures, intonations, and objects. Seldom do these memories have any particular meaning; they like bits of film, short of long, with no point, shot at random.

This is the prerogative of childhood: to move in complete freedom between magic and oatmeal porridge, between boundless terror and joy that threatens to burst within you. There were no limits except forbidden things and rules, which were like shadows, mostly unfathomable. I know, for instance, that I could not grasp the concept of time: You must learn to be punctual; you have been given a watch, you must learn how to tell time. Yet time did not exist. I was late for school, I was late for meals. Unconcerned, I roamed around in the park by the hospital, looking around and dreaming; time ceased to exist, then something reminded me I was hungry, and trouble began.

It was difficult for me to differentiate between what existed in my imagination and what was real. If I made the effort, perhaps I could make the reality remain real, but then, for instance, there were always the ghosts and the visions. What was I supposed to do with them? And the fairy tales, were they real or not?

Translated from the Swedish by Marianne Ruuth.

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In Which Bullets Flew All Through The Abbey

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Wrote A Hit Play

by ETHAN PETERSON

The Halcyon
creator Charlotte Jones
ITV

The Halcyon (of ITV’s spring series The Halcyon) is a hotel somewhere in London, I can’t say precisely where. It has one Jew, one black man, one Indian fellow. It has one gay, several unmarried women, one German, one Austrian, one American. It really has everything when you think about it. It even has the singular crush of Max Fischer, one Olivia Williams:

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Watching Wes Anderson’s disturbing 1998 film Rushmore is now an altered experience in several ways. A close friend of mine suggested that Anderson should do a cut of the film without Bill Murray, in the style of Garfield Minus Garfield. After all, Fischer’s relationship with his older patron is sort of besides the point. It is not the real reason he cannot consummate a romantic relationship with his teacher. The real reason is that she is not a very good or interesting person. Max’s young love seems impossible in retrospect.

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So does the Second World War. Events at the Halcyon Hotel are often interrupted by air raid sirens, but everyone involved tries to go on having a good time. Creator Charlotte Jones goes to substantial pains to make this Downton Abbey-clone less innocent overall. The action of the war is serious and severe, and many lose their lives.

Lady Hamilton (Olivia Williams) is an awful crone whose husband cheated on her with an anti-Semitic German woman. After he dies, Ms. Hamilton takes over the hotel with her two sons, the gay Toby (Edward Bluemel) and Freddie (Jamie Blackley), who is carrying on an elaborate love affair with the assistant manager of his hotel, a woman named Emma (Hermione Corfield). Lady Hamilton is a serious villainness for most of the show, which does not really put Rosemary Cross/Olivia Williams’ extensive charm to good use.

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Coming from the stage, Charlotte Jones is very deft at patterns of speech, and it is a relief not to hear Julian Fellowes’ distinctive period pitter-patter. At times the denizens of The Halcyon talk like the twentieth-century actors they actually are, but this kind of verging on melodrama is actually a welcome relief. It is tedious to watch reserved people all the time.

Unfortunately, the minority characters of the Halcyon are employed purely to make their British betters look more virtuous, a clever retcon of history. The Halcyon’s manager, Richard Garland (Steven Mackintosh), announces that France has fallen to the Germans and all the British people joke about how they’ll get terrible sauerkraut there. Soon the severity of the war awakens a collective sense of self-preservation, but all-in-all, this took far too long. Six million Jews died while the U.S. and England were content to joke around.

Despite its rather ragtag plot and character work, Jones has selected an impressive cast of performers who keep her lively dialogue humming. It is difficult to grow bored of watching The Halcyon given the seventeen plotlines occuring at any one time. At times Jones’ substantial monologues and speeches become seriously hokey, but as long as you are celebrating England, you may as well do it with a lecture and a song.

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Still, it is hard not to watch all these British stories and think of the six million. There is one Jew in the cast, and he is a cook. British anti-Semitism never makes more than a token appearance. At the Halcyon, as on Noah’s Ark, diversity is tolerated as long as no one minority becomes a majority. Even the Nazis here are not so bad – like Hitler, who prized British society and customs, they are respectful of the one place they never seemed keen to conquer.

The simple fact of being British overcomes a lot, and The Halcyon restates this again and again. Such nationalism is timely and uncomplicated, like Max Fischer’s love for this chain-smoking old woman.

Ethan Peterson is the reviews editor of This Recording.

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In Which We Broke Several Mirrors In The Process

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,

In recent weeks, my girlfriend Maria and I have begun talking about getting engaged, a conversation that she initiated. In the course of our discussions about whether it is the right step for us, she mentioned that she has no interest in taking my name or having our potential children take my name. I was a bit surprised but I said nothing.

After thinking about it more, I can’t help but feel a bit bothered by this. She has no professional reason not to do it, but my main concern is that kids would find it confusing to be called by different or hyphenated names. Should I bring up this concern to Maria and how should I do it?

Roberto T.

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Dear Roberto,

Modernity has equipped us with a phenomenon called concern trolling. It’s actual a quite ancient method. It allows people to offer a series of hypothetical statements intended to shit all over a topic without actually saying what is meant. In your situation, a concern troll might suggest, “Is it really the best for a child to be concerned about her name?”

Nothing actually has a name. These are simply made up designations. You are no more a Roberto than you are Matzoh Ramshackle. You’re just a thing that exists, a thing that spends hours and hours concern trolling yourself, asking, “What should I call things, and what should I call myself?” in a high voice that sounds like Minnie Mouse.

If you really loved Maria, you’d take her name. However, she has not asked you to do this. If you offer, she might take yours, but probably not, because Maria Ramshackle sounds like the name of a prostitute. If you ever have a child, let your wife name it. It came out of her body after all. You can give your most raucous bowel movements your last name.

Hey,

My girlfriend Andrea takes so many showers. Like so many. Whenever we leave our apartment for any extended period of time — when we come back, the first thing she does is shower. Maybe I would understand this if we lived in a particularly dirty city or if she had the same level of obsessiveness about her clothes, which actually touch chairs, couches and seats where other people’s bodies have been.

I know for a fact that she is not OCD about anything else in her life, so this passion for showers is inexplicable to me. When I ask her about it, she just acts like it’s no big deal and she enjoys the private time or whatever. But I mean this is like ninety minutes every single day just holding yourself under running water.

Jessica C.

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Dear Jessica,

Given that your girlfriend does not seem terribly worried about making herself clean, it is probably something that she is hiding in the shower. It is at least conceivable that she is using drugs in the shower, or maybe just devouring a giant sized cupcake. I once ate a chicken sandwich in a bathroom; it is not a time in my life I am particularly proud of. She probably could hide both of these habits in easier ways, and there is a simpler explanation: masturbation.

A lot of people feel they can’t masturbate in front of their partner. They don’t want their significant other to feel like because they enjoy pleasuring themselves that it makes the other person inadequate. Many people masturbate within the context of relationships, either because they have a higher sex drive than their partner or more likely because it is an ingrained habit of dealing with stress or anxiety.

Illustrations by Mia Nguyen.

In Which We Endure The Same Ending

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Down Deep

by HEATHER MCROBIE

I once read that Nora Ephron knew the identity of Deep Throat from the start of the Watergate scandal, and would go round cheerfully telling people at D.C. dinner parties, but nobody listened because Nora was just the brownie-baking novelist wife of Carl Bernstein. So let it be a lesson to investigative journalists and modern historians alike: always listen to the clever, neglected wife.

Still perhaps the twentieth century is best understood not through neglected wives but through the damaged daughters of privilege. This is the coded manifesto of Jean Stein’s biography of Edie Sedgwick, Edie: American Girl. That there was something about Sedgwick’s power and powerlessness so closely bound together that refracted the contradictions of the period as a whole: to be both an heiress and be abused by your father.

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And that Sedgwick’s artificial doll-ishness and supposed built-in self-destructiveness made it alright for Warhol and Dylan to variously use and abuse her and not feel bad about it afterwards, like they might’ve done if she had been a good ‘authentic’ woman, like Joan Baez. (Spoiler alert: a lot of good progressive men of the period didn’t feel too bad abusing the good ‘authentic’ women either, but there seemed – there seems – to be a particular delight in some quarters in ripping the spoiled gamine girl to pieces, as if in punishment for her unearned privilege). Patti Smith maybe understood this later, in her poem to Edie: I never got a chance with her/ though I really asked her/ down deep/ where you do/ really dream.

In cinemas Natalie Portman in all her Harvard-and-multilingual pedigree has been playing at Jackie Kennedy – iconic mourner, New England heiress, the Good Wife. This last decade television has turned to the emotional range – the masochism; the complicity – required of the wives of politicians. Maybe because it was the decade in which Michelle Obama’s poise and Hillary’s presidential campaigns together ripped at the seams the medieval absurdity of the institution of the First Lady. But all this daydreaming and reworking of the Kennedy-era Camelot in the 2010s ignores the fact that the most interesting Kennedy wasn’t even Jackie. It was Rosemary – the damaged daughter, the silent sister, who never got to perform the glossy, demeaning role of public wife.

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Rosemary Kennedy was born in 1918, with two older brothers and a surname already heavy with association. From early childhood, her doctors and parents expressed concerns at her ‘developmental delays’, and at the age of 11 she was sent to a boarding school for ‘intellectually challenged’ students. Though observers in her teens found her charming, the Kennedy parents worried about her ‘unruly’ behaviour, particularly after the family returned to America in 1940, when Joe Kennedy’s ambassadorship to Great Britain came to an end.

It seems the parents feared that Rosemary’s ‘disability’ – acting out, occasional violent outbursts of frustration, seizures upon her return to America – would hold back the other siblings, as if mental illness was a contagion. (Even if it is, Google Wittgenstein’s family tree and tell me a genealogy of mental malaise stops a brilliant brain). So in 1941, at her father’s command, a doctor drilled two holes in her head. Rosemary was told to sing songs as the doctor drilled; he stopped when she fell silent. And she fell silent. For the rest of her life she walked with a limp, and never fully regained the use of one arm. The prefrontal lobotomy the doctor had performed on her – a contested surgery, even at the time – certainly stopped any ‘unruly’ behaviour from Rosemary, but with it her speech, and her ability to properly express herself.

dsfsffsfsfsfYou want to fight her corner, of course, say that all contemporary accounts of Rosemary’s behaviour really don’t make her sound crazy by any normal standards, but just a girl who climbed out of her window to kiss boys in an era that still pathologised female desire. The feminist reading of women and madness sometimes requires the Bovary versus Karenina test. The test goes – ask yourself honestly, was it the stifling forces acting upon her, or would she have been a bit fucked up anyway? Anna Karenina passes and Emma Bovary doesn’t, because that’s the spectrum of humanity and patriarchy as a power structure can coexist with people sometimes just still being people in all their unpleasantness, their disappointing-ness. You get the same ending either way, but one of them was avoidable and one of them would have been like that anyway.

The truth is I have no idea if Rosemary Kennedy would have been like that anyway. But the question chews at me. Kate Clifford Larson’s biography of Rosemary offers some clues: how her siblings were impatient when she struggled to keep up with them, how her parents’ fears that men might sexually prey upon her vulnerability seemed to come less from a genuine concern for Rosemary’s safety than worry that the resultant scandal would harm the sibling’s political prospects.

So more than outrage and sadness at the thought of a young woman brutalised, as they’ve so often been, for her human desires – you want to argue, God, it wasn’t Rosemary, it was the others. Look at the photos of Rosemary with her brothers. (If you want to pathologise anyone’s behaviour, run through the list of the public and private acts of the male Kennedys.) Rosemary had a non-freakish IQ and no desire to remake the free world in her vision; you want to say – hey, Rosemary was just fine, but maybe they should’ve lobotomised the rest of them. Except you can’t say that, given how everything turned out, with the rest of them.

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Rosemary Kennedy never recovered from the surgery on her brain, and was sent to a series of permanent care facilities; her father stopped visiting her after several years, while Larson’s biography describes how, after the surgery, her mother ‘couldn’t face her.’ It was Eunice Kennedy Shriver – the other sister – who eventually took over her care, and, when her brother became president, she lobbied him (to speak of unnatural behaviour – to have to lobby a brother) to improve national services for the disabled. Rosemary died aged 86, the way that normal people do – no assassinations and no great fanfare.

Larson’s biography claims that the matriarch of the Kennedys – Rose – blamed her husband for what happened to her daughter, but nonetheless toed the family line and colluded in keeping Rosemary out of sight, purportedly both for the sake of her sons’ political careers and to protect her vulnerable daughter. Rosemary isn’t just more interesting than Jackie, she’s more haunting than Rosemary’s Baby. Because this is the horror story the twentieth century’s Rosemary tells you through her silence: that those who seek to lobotomize you will later say they did it out of love.

Heather McRobie is the senior contributor to This Recording. You can find her twitter here and her tumblr here. She is a writer living in Tel Aviv. She last wrote in these pages about Tahrir Square. You can find an archive of her writing on This Recording here.

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In Which She Left Her Hand Where It Was On The Table

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Sentimental Value

by TARA LINDHOLM

“She’s single-minded,” suggested Willie, who was unusual in appreciating his own qualities in other people. – Penelope Fitzgerald

Check-out is at 3, so we have all the time in the world.

Marco splits on the fifth day we are in Seattle. It is not because he does not want to pay the bill, since I was always going to be the one paying it. There is a reason they demand a deposit – that way if you leave, you’re ruined. But I don’t know if the place always gets their money. I think they do, because otherwise they would not be in business. Anyway, I settle up with what’s left of my savings, and I go looking for him.

By the next afternoon I don’t care where he is particularly. A strong wind pushes me forward. A good place is the waiting room of a doctor’s office, since it is virtually certain to be warm there, and the last thing they want to do is ask a young, potentially fragile young woman how long she has been waiting.

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painting by Leandro Manzo

I decide to head to California. I was only going north because of Marco. He was Canadian, but he did not look or sound it; so I guess I only have his word on that. You would think his say-so would not be worth very much, and you would probably be right, but it does take some fundamental amount of energy to lie. Suppose the person you love had the means to lie about that, but nothing else? You could not know where you stood. You wouldn’t even be standing.

Anyway, I am glad enough that Marco did not take my guitar, since that would have been more than unkind. He plays it better than I do, but he didn’t like playing it half as much. I sell it for $95, which is a substantial windfall. The meal I eat afterwards shakes the rafters. What rafters, you ask? Well, it rains a lot, so if you sleep outdoors, it is best to find cover. Those are the rafters, and when you look up at them long enough they don’t resemble anything at all.

Portland is lovely but too cold at night, and the level of scrutiny is appalling. It is easy to make friends but I am not so facile at keeping them. It is hard for me to believe in people, and while I try to bury that distrust so far beneath the surface they will only discover it at some later, greater date, I worry it bleeds into my talk, small and large. What an effort it takes to prevent ourselves from being exactly what we are!

Dave drives me from Portland to San Francisco, a trip he often makes to visit a girl who lives in the Mission. I know he likes me, maybe a little too much, but he isn’t brave enough to say anything about it. This is one reason I let him drive me. The whole way down, he plays the worst death metal you can imagine. At the end of the ride he very seriously asks me what I thought of the music. A lot is hinging on this, so I reply, “I am always surprised at what inspires me,” and this takes more than twenty seconds to register, like what the fuck have I meant by this statement, but then he frames it for himself. “I used to love watching Oprah,” he says.

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painting by Leandro Manzo

When he drops me off in a tony neighborhood uptown, I think, well, if he had asked nicely enough and he did not have this other girl, it would have been a warm bed. That’s when I get a call from my cousin Cindy. She says I can stay with her as long as I like, only how I am going to get from San Francisco to New York? It is $250 to board a plane, which does not seem like that much of a figure, only I am down to sixty dollars at present with not much in the way of tangible assets except some jewelry that will be impossible to move and has vague sentimental value.

Now I regret not tracking down Marco in Seattle, because he probably would have given a small sum out of guilt and perhaps more if I demanded it. I mull over whether to text him how much he owes me, but if I do that, I won’t see a dime. I could tell him that I’m pregnant, but he’ll never believe it. No man ever had so much faith in the concept of withdrawal. I can tell him the truth, that I just would like to see him for no real reason. This is what I do, and wait for a reply.

Except for Cindy, who is my cousin, I always feel like people in my life are never reaching out in a timely fashion. When they call me, it is never at the key moment. They want to be close when I am far away in my heart, and when I desire their company, they are floating in the Dead Sea. They wanted to go their entire lives.

In order to make some money, I beg for a bit and get nowhere. San Francisco is overly crowded for this. I have this busted up iPhone I use to get sympathy which works pretty well. Only they always want to know how exactly how you broke it. If you find this protective American male, he might like to hear your boyfriend did it. Whether or not that comes across believable to a god-fearing all-American mark is a gamble. Mostly what you get is a dollar for the bus or to go away. It is easier just to find work.

Before I try doing that, Dave calls me and says they broke up. Do I want to go back to Portland with him? I explain I’m on vacation. Does he want to make it somewhat less lonely? He kisses me on the esplanade like I am the first woman he has ever met, and I bear him a grudging respect for that. I promise myself I will not ask him for money, but he is staying at his buddy’s Airbnb and it’s a lot better than where I had been the previous night. Marco would not have minded the smell, but I did.

His temporary roommate is a slender gay Asian named Bagel. (It’s pronounced differently.) I ask what Bagel does for work and Dave explains that he writes the documentation for a software engine. “They actually had really terrible documentation until Bagel came along,” Dave says, possibly half-seriously. The only thing I don’t like about San Francisco besides the hills is that you can’t tell how much anyone knows about themselves. I text Marco again, but this time it is not a question, it is just a depressing emoji. He does not write back.

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painting by Leandro Manzo

Sex with Dave is a welcome distraction. He does not have much of an appetite for it, probably because he mixes substantial amounts of marijuana edibles with prescription opiates. His apology, if and when he loses his erection, is a vague grumbling at himself. I grow very tired of this in one week, and think about stealing a laptop. Only I don’t do it, since I don’t want to get pinched when Cindy is sticking her neck out, coast-to-coast. And I know it’s wrong, even if they can afford it.

Finally I ask Dave for a loan. He wants to know what it is for, and I say, it’s to go to Los Angeles, since if I tell him I am going to New York, he will realize he will never see me or the money ever again. He just nods, and says he will think about it. That night Bagel comes home and asks me how much it will take to leave. I think about it for a hard second, wondering how much I can get out of the deal. You never know, because documentation can be very lucrative. But if I go too high I know I will not see a dime. “$300,” I say, and he hands it to me out of his wallet in twenties. “It’s nothing personal,” he says, “only Dave will never leave unless you do. He told me he’s never met anyone like you.” Bagel mimes sticking his finger down his throat.

Above this country, in the air, I stick to the basics. I do not like to fly, but when I do it, I want to believe I am going faster than all the other planes. Why not believe I am the best in the world at something, darling?

Tara Lindholm is a contributor to This Recording. This is her first appearance in these pages. She is a writer living in Manhattan.

Paintings by Leandro Manzo.

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In Which Rebecca West Flees To America

Midnight Blue

Rebecca West had a child with H.G. Wells named Anthony, and for a brief second, everything was fine. Then this repulsive, married man showed his true colors. Eventually West fled to America, writing the whole time. The following letters show how difficult it was for her to obtain what was she and her son were owed, and how brave she was for breaking free of Wells. The process of extricating herself from this abusive and deceptive person took several twists and turns.

Dear H. G.,

During the next few days I shall either put a bullet through my head or commit something more shattering to myself than death. At any rate I shall be quite a different person. I refuse to be cheated out of my deathbed scene.

I don’t understand why you wanted me three months ago and don’t want me now. I wish I knew why that were so. It’s something I can’t understand, something I despise. And the worst of it is that if I despise you I rage because you stand between me and peace. Of course you’re quite right. I haven’t anything to give you. You have only a passion for excitement and for comfort. You don’t want any more excitement and I do not give people comfort. I never nurse them except when they’re very ill. I carry this to excess. On reflection I can imagine that the occasion on which my mother found me most helpful to live with was when I helped her out of a burning house.

I always knew that you would hurt me to death some day, but I hoped to choose the time and place. You’ve always been unconsciously hostile to me and I have tried to conciliate you by hacking away at my love for you, cutting it down to the little thing that was the most you wanted. I am always at a loss when I meet hostility, because I can love and I can do practically nothing else. I was the wrong sort of person for you to have to do with. You want a world of people falling over each other like puppies, people to quarrel and play with, people who rage and ache instead of people who burn. You can’t conceive a person resenting the humiliation of an emotional failure so much that they twice tried to kill themselves: that seems silly to you. I can’t conceive of a person who runs about lighting bonfires and yet nourishes a dislike of flame: that seems silly to me.

You’ve literally ruined me. I’m burned down to my foundations. I may build myself again or I may not. You say obsessions are curable. But people like me who swing themselves from one passion to another, and if they miss smash down somewhere where there aren’t any passions at all but only bare boards and sawdust. You have done for me utterly. You know it. That’s why you are trying to persuade yourself that I am a coarse, sprawling, boneless creature, and so it doesn’t matter. When you said, “You’ve been talking unwisely, Rebecca,” you said it with a certain brightness: you felt that you had really caught me at it. I don’t think you’re right about this. But I know you will derive immense satisfaction from thinking of me as an unbalanced young female who flopped about in your drawing-room in an unnecessary heart-attack.

That is a subtle flattery. But I hate you when you try to cheapen me to myself, the things I did honestly and cleanly. You did it once before when you wrote to me of “your—much more precious than you imagine it to be—self.” That suggests that I projected a weekend at the Brighton Metropole with Horatio Bottomley. Whereas I had written to say that I loved you. You did it again on Friday when you said that what I wanted was some decent fun and that my mind had been, not exactly corrupted, but excited, by people who talked in an ugly way about things that are really beautiful. That was a vile thing to say. You once found my willingness to love you a beautiful and courageous thing. I still think it was. Your spinsterishness makes you feel that a woman desperately and hopelessly in love with a man is an indecent.

Rebecca West

To H.G. Wells

Dearest Jaguar,

I hate being separated from my Jaguar. Do you realise you were away from me for a month and that I have only seen you twice since? I hate it. I am going up on Monday to see about that studio. There is no life for us separately. Just a few nice hours over our books and articles and then when we can’t write any longer an empty feeling.

Your loving Panther

To Ottoline Morrell

Dear Lady Ottoline,

Thank you so much for the diary. Its blue watered silk is a special joy to me as I hate leather anywhere except on my feet. I hope you had a pleasant Christmas. I am feeling rather uninterested in New Year’s, as I feel so doubtful of having one of my own, as I am going over to Paris by air tomorrow. If I arrive there whole I am going to leave flowers for Katherine Mansfield, who is out at Fontainebleau and (I hear) very very much worse. I shall be back about the 10th — do let me know if you’re in town. I lunched the other day with Mary Somerville who talked much of you. I think she’s so picturesque — like the youth of a Raeburn old lady. With best wishes for the New Year.

Yours very sincerely,

Rebecca West

To Sally Melville

Dear Sally,

I am as miserable as Hell. I have gone back to H. G. I am going down to the country with him this evening. What else can I do? He says that if I go back to him he will leave Anthony as much money as his other boys—that will mean about £20,000. I daren’t gamble on making that myself because I feel dead beat—and though I might marry I could never get any man to give Anthony £20,000. So there it all is. I could cry when I think of how I’d planned to go to Italy alone —  I’ve never been alone in my life. I am sick of it all. I could have made H. G. get divorced and marry me — he wanted so much to get me back, but I thought it wiser not to. I don’t want Lettie to know of this. I’ll have to tell her later but not now.

Yours,

Rebecca

To Sally Melville

Dear Sally,

Alas! I couldn’t see a soul. H. G. has been giving me an awful time lately, firstly by absolute dependence on me — Then a fortnight ago he began to realize I really was going — then he got horrid — tiresome and jealous and quarrelsome—and never left me alone an instant — Then this last week he got very affectionate — he really is very fond of me — but still was dreadfully jealous — and wouldn’t let me see a soul—man or woman. It’s rather trying — and I’ve had no time to do my lectures — no energy pray Heaven I’m not sick on the boat for I shall have to do them there—and I feel so dog tired.

I don’t know when I shall be back. My dear, I’ve often thought of giving you the enclosed — it’s what Violet Trefusis gave me and is fairly good (very old, I believe) I’ve often thought it would suit your style. Take it, dear S. M., as a token of my very great affection for you.

My best wishes to both you and J. B. It’s midnight and H. G. has just gone and I’ve still to go over my papers!

Yours wildly,

Rebecca

To Bertrand Russell

Dear Mr. Russell,

I cut off from England in a state of such despair that I couldn’t see anybody. Otherwise I had very much wanted to see you and tell you about a problem that has vexed me very much. Now other circumstances have turned up, and although I’m still too stupid to tell you about things I’m driven to write to you about it after all.

May I tell you the story of my life? I’m afraid it amounts almost to that.

I left H. G. in 1923 when Anthony was nine years old, for various good and sufficient reasons. He demanded from me rather more than a husband usually demands in the way of continual help and care, he would give me only the barest amount of money, he prevented me from doing much work and the money I earned, such as I could do, he insisted on my spending immediately on the household expenses, he was extremely bad-tempered and cruel in case of illness or any difficulty arising out of our illegal relationship, and, above all, he was jealous and hostile to my son. He grudged every penny he spent on him, and even objected to my spending my own earnings on him. He was furious if I devoted any time to the child, and he loved exposing the child to strangers by advertising that he was his illegitimate child. This is to give you only the bare outlines of the relationship. The details would persuade you that I was compelled to leave him out of consideration for Anthony.

I had several times tried to leave him before but I never succeeded till I went to America for six months. During my absence he caused ghastly trouble by going to Anthony’s school and parading his parenthood before the other children so that some of them tormented the child about it. But when I came back things went along fairly indifferently until last year.

Last year H. G. took a violent loathing to me. I don’t know why. He hadn’t seen me for several months. Just about this time Anthony fell dangerously ill with a novel form of pneumonia which was at first mistaken for TB. H. G. came to see him when he was most dangerously ill, but left for the Continent and sent no word of enquiry for five weeks. At the end of that time I wrote and told him that Anthony was better and got a curt letter of acknowledgment. During the six months Anthony was in the sanatorium he visited him once, for about an hour. He made no move to pay the expenses of the illness, which amounted to over £300, until I sent him a bill for £30 and told him that he had got to pay it because I had no more money. He paid that bill but offered no further assistance. (I had better explain that my sole private income derived from H. G. amounts to less that £300 a year.)

During the autumn I was more and more conscious of an insane antagonism, which came to a head at Christmas. Gyp and Marjorie Wells asked Anthony down to Easton, either for Christmas or a later weekend. As we had made our Christmas plans I accepted the alternative and received innumerable insane letters abusing me for keeping Anthony with me for Christmas. He also refused to pay Anthony’s school fees for Stowe unless he was described at school as H. G. Wells’ illegitimate son. I was pursued by letters so insulting and accusing me of such unheard of offences — such as having wasted enormous sums of money he had given me and having prevented him from seeing Anthony (he has never in his life seen Anthony except at my suggestion) that I went to Charles Russell and said that he must carry on all communications for me.

It happened that Russell advised me to adopt Anthony legally to save death duties and save him various minor inconveniences. This I did. It should have cost me about £50. H. G. turned up and opposed it. And what alarms me is that he instructed his counsel to bring forward all these stories about me—which shows that he believes them. I was of course able to produce all his letters showing that he had never been denied access to Anthony, so it didn’t matter. Also he assured the court that I was an unsuitable person to bring up Anthony, and exposed him to the society of persons who were not respectable.

This did not impress the court — but what did was that the £8,000 he has settled on Anthony (which is mostly tied up till he is 21) are all the subject of revocable settlements. Therefore I had to buy him off. I had to promise to let Anthony spend part of his holidays with H. G. and to consult with H. G. about his education, and to make him one of Anthony’s guardians in my will.

Now this last is what strikes me as serious. His behaviour seems to me insane. I am aware from my knowledge of him that he has a violent anti-sex complex like Tolstoy’s—You punish the female who evokes your lust. But it seems to me to be reaching demented extremes. I hear from the lady with whom he lives at present (who is quite mad) that he frequently hits her and gives her black eyes, and so on, which is surely not done in our set. (This was not cited as evidence of cruelty, but as evidence that they were living a rich and satisfying life.) Also this month has shown him quite unbalanced. He went down to Stowe before the term ended and created more trouble, and has removed Anthony to Easton from this perfectly lovely villa for the last three weeks of his holidays. (The boy adores him—I’ve always brought him up to do so, which I rather regret now.) This has all been done with an extraordinary and insane air of a saint struggling with the personification of evil. He has shown in every way of late the most extraordinary unwillingness to let anybody have their own way. For example, he opposed his son Frank’s marriage most virulently on the ground that the selected female was common, and then summarily forbade them to have children.

You may perceive that I do not feel the smallest confidence in leaving H. G. as guardian of my only child. I think that if I died he would get bored with the boy, and would get his fun by frustrating him at any crisis.

Therefore—

I wonder if you would be Anthony’s testamentary guardian also? I haven’t a soul I can turn to in this difficulty. The man who would have attended to it out of affection for me died two years ago. My sisters are silly and inexperienced. I have few friends who are sufficiently interested and enlightened to understand children. I am sure you would always want an adolescent to have just the freedom that I would. Obviously you would be the best person in the world. It plainly wouldn’t be any adequate compensation but I would also provide in my will that so long as you were Anthony’s guardian you could have so much a year paid into the funds of your school. We could settle the amount later.

Would you do this? I know it’s a lot to ask—but I feel you are a really merciful human being — and Anthony ought not to be left in the care of this lunatic.

I’m here till the beginning of October.

Yours ever,

Rebecca West

I haven’t explained this well — but the point about having you as guardian is that H. G. is afraid of you and wouldn’t dare to oppose you or do anything in your sight that was manifestly reactionary.

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In Which Howard Hughes Felt Overly Constipated

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Desert Inn

by ALEX CARNEVALE

Rules Don’t Apply
dir. Warren Beatty
127 minutes

51dbptd1uhl-_sy450_In the last year of his life, Howard Hughes focused his efforts on two of his favorite pastimes: taking drugs and watching movies. His two most important drugs were Valium and a laxative called Surfak, and he took them both in incredible quantities. In order to relieve constipation, you were supposed to take maybe one Surfak over the course of a day or two. Hughes would take ten or twenty over that period. His prostate gland swelled to over three times normal size. His kidneys shrank in fear.

There is something sad about going out this way, Warren Beatty displays in Rules Don’t Apply, his sensitive and entertaining depiction of Hughes’ final years on earth. But there is also something very hateful about Howard Hughes that Beatty generally avoids putting his finger on, maybe because he tasks himself with playing the role of the reclusive scion.

Hughes watched the same movies again and again. In particular he watched Bulldog Drummond pictures repeatedly, over the course of several days. He also liked mysteries, even when he knew how they ended.

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Frank Forbes (Alden Ehrenreich) becomes a member of Hughes’ management team. In Hughes’ inner circle, none of these “executives” had any authority over each other, and all were granted a great deal of leeway in how they interpreted the man’s instructions. Starting his work for Hughes as a driver, Frank meets Marla (Lily Collins), one of Hughes’ contract actresses and drives her and her mother (Annette Bening) around in Hollywood, where they have never been.

In what is perhaps the most direct tribute to his film’s subject, Beatty spent a great deal of money recreating the place in Rules Don’t Apply. In the course of funding the project, Beatty has taken on an improbably large coterie of producers. An astonishing sixteen people, including the current Secretary of the Treasury, are credited as producers on Beatty’s film, in what might be a warped commentary on the way Hughes did business. Hughes excelled in one-on-one conversations where he could convince people to do what he wanted. It cannot have simply been money or power which accounted for his influence on individuals.

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Rules Don’t Apply depicts Hughes in the best possible light considering the facts: here he is merely a crazy nut with a heart of gold. The real Howard Hughes was contemptuous of black people and an incredibly unethical and mostly ineffective businessman with some strokes of genius. His personal relationships were few. A long scene in Rules Don’t Apply occurs when Hughes finds Marla drunk and waiting for him in a bungalow. He has been informed that to protect him from being declared an invalid as part of an airline deal, it would be better if he were married. So he proposes to the first woman he sees, and they have sex on the couch.

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Ehrenreich’s character of Frank Forbes loses his admiring view of the boss rather quickly, and the preternaturally talented actor shows every disillusionment on his face. It takes Frank Forbes until the end of Rules Don’t Apply to realize that Marla had sex with Hughes and bore his child. Once he does understand that, he forgives her and spends the rest of his life with her. I mean, it was Howard Hughes, what else could she do? Ehrenreich’s chemistry with Lily Collins is so insanely exciting that I wish the entire movie had been them talking to each other with no Howard Hughes. Then again, Howard is supposed to be the villain.

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After intercourse, the only thing Hughes really retains from the encounter is his promise to give all his contracted actresses their own automobiles. Marla cannot even start hers and, soon afterwards, moves back to Virginia. Frank moves to Las Vegas where Hughes unsuccessfully tried to enter the casino industry for some reason. Rules Don’t Apply rarely gives the full context for Hughes’ business dealings – it is not that kind of biopic.

Instead Beatty’s film focuses on a unique theme – the concept that we know as little about ourselves when we are old as when we are young. Rules Don’t Apply faithfully depicts Hughes’ notorious aversion to children. Hughes once wrote a several page memorandum to evict an annual Easter Egg Hunt from his casino in abject fear of the damage they might do to the premises. In the final scene of Rules Don’t Apply, the son Howard Hughes never actually had watches him sitting in his bed with a small television nearby. “I should really get out more,” Hughes announces, and the kid takes his advice.

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Certain aspects of Rules Don’t Apply remind us of what made the casting and performances of an earlier age in Hollywood so artistically and commerically successful. Beatty is a master at finding the right person for each role, and the cinematography of these familiar environs renders Los Angeles a gorgeous and frightening place. Other particulars of the film’s production seem haphazard or rushed – the editing lacks transitions, and short shrift is given to any introspection or continuity.

Instead, we keep returning to this dreary magnate, who alienated almost everyone in his life. We sense that Beatty has met many men like Hughes, who were so wealthy that the only code they were able to live by was that of their own personal preference. Talking to such self-involved individuals, especially when you require their money to pursue your dreams, is a particularly noxious sort of defilement, and depicting it onscreen weirdly justifies it. I loved Rules Don’t Apply, but I can’t imagine anyone else feeling the same.

Alex Carnevale is the editor of This Recording.

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