A Smattering of Readings

A few paragraphs that I found interesting, but didn’t merit a full post and were too long to quote on Twitter…

Firstly, a particularly insightful bit from the always provocative Slavoj Žižek:

“I’ve noticed how many of the people who consider themselves to be more radical than the liberal standard do not work in political theory proper but, as it were, hide themselves as literary critics or philosophers. It’s as if their radicalism is an excess which requires them to change genre… This excess of radicality concretely art­iculates itself in some kind of general moralistic outrage. You get a kind of abstract, moralistic politics in which you ­focus on groups which are obviously underprivileged – other races, gays and so on – and then you explode in all your moralistic rage. This has to do with what you might call our cultural, post-political capitalism, in which the most passionate struggles are cultural ones. A large majority of the left doesn’t question liberal democracy and capitalism as such. In the same way that when we were young we wanted socialism with a human face, what a large part of today’s left want is capitalism with a human face.”

Secondly, the excellent last paragraph from a short fiction piece by C.U.’s own Michael Shirzadian:

“No woman, no cry, he whispers to himself, mistaking Marley’s lyric for something prescriptive, something almost didactic, a warning that love isn’t worth it. He believes it’s a philosophy to live by. Believes it’s a universal maxim sent by a good god, a merciful god, a god of music and fertility; a trickster, some say.”

Thirdly, we have a funny-but-true quip from the dude behind Stuff Fundies Like:

“If you believe that saying grace over every meal (including the bag of popcorn you consume while watching The Sound of Music) is always meaningful but also think that having Communion once a week will trivialize its practice — you might be a fundamentalist.”

And lastly, an excerpt from A.J. Jacobs’ The Year of Living Biblically — the book I’m reading currently — wherein he humorously echoes my own experience with a massive beard:

“As I write this, I have a beard that makes me resemble Moses. Or Abe Lincoln. Or Ted Kaczynski. I’ve been called all three.
It’s not a well-manicured, socially acceptable beard. It’s an untamed mass that creeps up toward my eyeballs and drapes below my neckline.
I’ve never allowed my facial hair to grow before, and it’s been an odd and enlightening experience. I’ve been inducted into a secret fraternity of bearded guys — we nod at each other as we pass on the street, giving a knowing quarter smile. Strangers have come up to me and petted my beard, it’s a Labrador retriever puppy or a pregnant woman’s stomach.
I’ve suffered for my beard. It’s been caught in jacket zippers and been tugged on by my surprisingly strong two-year-old son. I’ve spent a lot of time answering questions at airport security.
I’ve been asked if I’m named smith and sell cough drops with my brother. ZZ Top is mentioned at least three times a week. Passersby have shouted, ‘Yo, Gandalf!’ Someone called me Steven Seagal, which I found curious, since he doesn’t have a beard.
I’ve battled itch and heat. I’ve spent a week’s salary on balms, powders, ointments, and conditioners. My beard has been a temporary home to cappuccino foam and lentil soup. And it’s upset people. Thus far, two little girls have burst into tears, and one boy has hidden behind his mother.”

Konichiwa Khap

I’m back in Bangkok again and thought I’d give a brief trip report about my time in/on Okinawa. It was a really excellent break from Thailand and I had a great time, even with less-than-ideal weather (typhoon-induced rain for 60+ hours, etc). One semi-surprising treat was the flight leg between BKK & Narita on All Nippon Airways. At a time when American airlines are starting to charge you for daring to bring luggage, it was nice to be back on an Asian airline that gave great service reminiscent of the Cathay Pacific trips I took as a child. Except now I get Haagen-Dazs, alcohol & a “personal entertainment system” instead of crayons and a coloring book.

(As always, click here to skip to the Flickr photo sets)

As mentioned before, Mike and I spent the first few days up north at picturesque Okuma:

IMG_2157

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Koko Wa Doko Desuka?

We’re in Japan! Konbanwa! A week ago I realized that my Thai visa would expire the very next day so I made a 12-hour round-trip journey to Poipet, Cambodia to get a new stamp on my passport. Since I only spent all of 10 minutes actually in Cambodia, the obvious choice was to scratch my travelers itch by immediately jetting off to Japan. Well actually, on Sunday my brother decided to fly me out to visit him on Okinawa Island and within 24 hours I was all, like, konichiwa Nippon, yo. Mike is celebrating his last week stationed here and we both fly out on Tuesday; him to America, me to Thailand.

Right now I’m in Ginowan City, but we spent the first part of this week up north in Hentona on the US Air Force’s Okuma resort facility. It’s a very beautiful place and had me spellbound, even with less-than-perfect weather. Yesterday we mostly lounged around in/near the ocean, but did get off our butts long enough for some sick jet ski action. Wave Race 64 fans will be disappointed to know that no, in fact, dolphins do not always magically appear to loyally follow around jet skiers.

Today’s highlight was the Ocean Expo Park — a ridiculously nice waterfront extravaganza that features Churaumi Aquarium, the 2nd-largest aquarium in the world. Churaumi is obviously a main attraction, but the whole park is really brilliant. Hopefully soon we’ll be able to go snorkeling and see some of those cooped up fish in a more natural environment.

Photos will be forthcoming later. I have to leave now to figure out a way to keep Japanese curry from destroying my bowels.

What Life Was Like

Maudlin showman Glenn Beck has the blogosphere yapping over a new schlocky spiel that features saccharine eulogizing for a mythical lost era of innocence and sweetness. In a popular YouTube clip from last Thursday’s show, Beck is seen tearing up repeatedly while fondly remembering “what life was like” during “simpler times.”

The insidious nature of nostalgia is on full display here, since Beck’s rose-colored glasses help him forget what life was really like back then. Like most sappy trips down memory lane, Beck’s “life back then” is an ache for his childhood days — ie, late ’60s and through the 70s. Which is what makes his sentimental jibberish confusing, amusing, and sad. When we hear Baby Boomers pine for “the good ol’ days,” they usually have the supposedly-desirable days of the ’50s in mind. I think the clip has gained notoriety for portraying as idyllic two of the most controversial decades in US history. This is the era of Vietnam and the My Lai massacre; of the Cold War and nuclear proliferation; CIA-backed dictatorships and assassinations; peak oil in the US and massive inflation; race riots and the slayings of R.F.K. & M.L.K. Jr. We had Watergate, the introduction of AIDS, passage of Roe v. Wade, and the start of the culture wars, etc ad nauseam… For anyone, especially a Republican, to claim (albeit with a hollow recognition that everything “wasn’t perfect’) that this was a “simpler time” is just laughably ignorant.

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It Felt Like a Trap

I’ve spent the last couple of days of soaking up more films by Adam Curtis, one of the best living documentary filmmakers. Last year I watched The Power of Nightmares; earlier this year I saw The Century of the Self; lately I’ve been working through his two most recent: The Trap (2007) and It Felt Like a Kiss (2009).

It Felt Like a Kiss is an experimental film that is a haunting evocation of the essence of life during the Cold War. Its cast features “Rock Hudson, Saddam Hussein, Lee Harvey Oswald, Doris Day, Enos the chimp, and everyone above Level 7 in the CIA.” The excellent soundtrack was composed by Damon Albarn (Blur, Gorillaz, etc) and performed by the Kronos Quartet, with loads of additional pop tracks from the period. There’s no real semblance of a plot or, unlike Curtis’ other films, any sort of thesis. It Felt Like a Kiss is quintessential Curtis in terms of look: heavy use of montages (including some dizzying works of editing genius) and heavy use of archival footage, proving that Curtis probably spends 8 hours a day poring through old film reels. Yet this is also a new Curtis — less documentarian, more artist. The result is a trippy hour-long exploration of the ironies, oddities, and ambiguities of 3 or 4 of the most pivotal decades in American history. Were the U.S. a psychotic individual, this film would be its deranged subconscious bubbling up, exposing some of the roots of our modern American madness.

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I’m Like a Nok

Last weekend my parents, their boss, and I took a whirlwind four-day trip to the southern & northern ends of Thailand to see family friends and colleagues.

Down south we visited the Phang Nga province, an area that was totally devastated by the tsunami of December, 2004. This is a famous patrol boat that was washed up about a mile inland.

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God’s Word Has a Liberal Bias

The Conservative Bible Project is a tragi-comic effort by some politically conservative Christians to produce a translation paraphrase of the Bible that removes/edits anything that can even remotely be considered “liberal.” It’s not worth writing much about this because the problems with this approach should be so LOLobvious that I won’t waste my time. I will say, however, that I continue to wonder if my alma mater is ever going to repudiate this type of stupidity and permanently sever ties with the batshit-crazy wing — ie WorldNetDaily, Worldview Weekend, et al — of conservative Christianity.

I’m also amused because I, too, started a conservative paraphrase of the Bible. A little over 12 months ago I wrote a draft entitled “A Practical Guide to Waging a Just War: by Jesus of Nazareth” but never put it online until now. Inspired by the CBP, here’s my conservative rendering of Matthew 5:1-13:

Now when I saw your military bases, I immediately went to the mess tent and sat down. Many of your troops came to me, and I began to teach, saying:

Blessed are the poor, for they are easily persuaded to join the armed forces.

Blessed are they that mourn when a buddy is killed, for they shall then have the motivation to kick more ass.

Blessed are the badasses, for they shall conquer the earth.

Blessed are they that hunger and thirst for righteous wars, for they will certainly invent them.

Blessed are the merciful, for they lull the enemy into complacency while we find more grenades.

Blessed are the pure in eyesight, for they shall see their enemy clearly and snipe him unscoped.

Blessed are the warmakers, for they are peacemakers in disguise.

Blessed are those who are persecuted for freedom, because our enemies hate our freedom.

Blessed are you when pacifists confront you, and march in your streets, and say all manner of untruth about you. Rejoice, and be exceedingly glad: for great is your reward in Washington.

You are the asskickers of the earth. But if the asskickers stop kicking ass, how will the world get democracy? Former asskickers who conscientiously object are no longer good for anything, excepted to be relentlessly hazed and dishonorably discharged.

B.I.F.F. Day 5

Just got home from the last film of the Bangkok International Film Festival and still bummed I knocked out all the best films straight off, though Everyone Else was minor redemption in my otherwise consistent slide to the bottom. Tonight’s full house screening of Mammoth was no exception, sadly.

mammoth_detMammoth (trailer)

Country: Sweden
Director: Lukas Moodysson
Length: 124 mins
Grade: D-

Synopsis: “Leo and Ellen are a successful New York couple, totally immersed in their work. Leo is the creator of a profitable website [a Kongregate rip-off] and finds himself in the world of easy money and big decisions. Ellen is a dedicated ER surgeon who devotes her long shifts to saving lives. Their eight-year-old daughter Jackie spends most of her time with her Filipino nanny Gloria.When Leo travels to Bangkok, he unwittingly sets off a chain of events that will have dramatic consequences on himself and his family.”

Don’t believe the synopsis. Leo (played by Gael Garcia Bernal) does nothing even vaguely similar to setting off a chain of events. In fact, the film is offensive simply for pretending there are “dramatic consequences” for this family. Because Leo & Ellen (Michelle Williams) aren’t just “successful,” they’re filthy rich to the order of tens of millions of dollars. The most dramatic thing to happen to them, and this is ridiculously underscored in the parting shot even, is that they no longer have a live-in nanny/maid and will have to find a new one. That’s it, and I’m not exaggerating. That’s the big conclusion. Yawn.

The fact is that Mammoth is a wholly pointless and utterly plotless movie that rightfully met with a vigorous chorus of boos at the Berlin International Film Festival. Blues Clues has more of a plot than this movie, at least for 80% of the film. In the last 20% director Moodysson attempts to salvage his movie by punishing all non-white, non-rich, non-Soho-dwelling characters in the film. And does this for no discernible reason. Mammoth is like a less-offensive Babel clone, except unfortunately it’s still a Babel clone, by which I mean to say it’s terrible. Beautifully shot, with excellent actors, on fantastic locations**… all in service of a banal script that’s knee-deep in elephant shit. I almost rated this better than Jamila and the President before realizing that Mammoth is equally pretentious, except here the whole brouhaha is simply to make this point: sometimes life is sad, I mean, like real sad, for us rich folks.

** A Swedish / German / Danish production with Mexican & caucasian leads playing a New York couple with a Filipino nanny, Singaporean business partners, African-American coworkers; shot on location in Soho, Olongapo, Bangkok, and some Phuket-esque beach… wowee, it’s all so multi-cultural, isn’t that cute? How precious, just precious.

B.I.F.F Day 4

I had a pretty mixed experience yesterday at the Bangkok International Film Festival. I only saw two movies, one shitty and one great, but mostly kept wishing I could re-watch I Killed My Mother. Tonight is my final film, Mammoth, which will probably play to a very packed house. It’s been really fun to attend a major film festival, and a cheap one at that (ended up being ~$2.60 per film).

Jamila and thre President - Poster4Jamila and the President / Jamila dan Sang Presiden

Country: Indonesia
Director: Ratna Sarumpaet
Length: 97 mins
Grade: D

Synopsis: “Jamila is a prostitute serving a life sentence behind bars. She surrenders herself to the authorities after admitting she killed a high-ranking minister, and refuses to be represented by any lawyer or request a plea to ease her sentence. The controversy spreads all over the nation, followed by a reaction from a militant group forcing the government to give the death penalty to Jamila. The prison slowly reveals Jamila’s story: she is a victim of child trafficking, a crime that has become a custom in many places. Jamila represents millions of children who has been sold in the name of poverty and the lack of education.”

Weighty, important subject matter does not necessarily mean a weighty, important film. Jamila and the President is overwrought, daytime soap opera material. Good production values can’t hide the fact that there’s nothing at its core except a poor script overacted by melodramatic people. Sarumpaet adapted the screenplay from her own theater play and this is very obvious in a few key scenes that don’t translate well to film at all. Most characters act illogically and unrealistically, and by the end I cared little about or for any of them. My bad experience with this movie was not helped by subtitles that were poorly translated and written in large, Comic Sans font.

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B.I.F.F. Day 3

Last night’s films were quite a change from the bing-blang-blaow extravaganza that was Dogtooth, A Prophet, and I Killed My Mother. These two were also different in that both had Q&A sessions afterward with the film’s director. I’ve also used some forward-thinking and bought tonight & tomorrow’s tickets ahead of time so I can stop showing up 75 minutes early and still only get mediocre seats.

Petition - Poster2Petition

Country: China / France
Director: Zhao Liang
Length: 123 mins
Grade: B

Synopsis: “Since 1996 Zhao Liang has filmed the “petitioners,” who come from all over China to make complaints in Beijing about abuses and injustices committed by the local authorities. Gathered near the complaints offices, around the southern railway station of Beijing, the complainants wait for months or years to obtain justice. Peasants thrown off their land, workers from factories which have gone into liquidation, small homeowners who have seen their houses demolished but received no compensation, all types of cases are represented. The film was shot right up to the start of the Olympic Games, showing the persistent contradictions of China in the midst of powerful economic expansion.”

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BFF With BFF

I’ve been serendipitously dropped in Thailand just in time for the Bangkok Farang Festival Film Festival. Kick off was last Thursday with an invitation-only screening of Bad Lieutenant and runs until this coming Wednesday. I’ve still been fighting the same cold from Argentina, only this past week it ramped up to bona fide H1N1 proportions and wiped me out. All that to say, I didn’t get to see anything until Saturday evening. My three reviews from my first 2 days are below. Each cheesy synopsis is copied verbatim from the Bangkok Film Festival guide.

kynodontas-2009Dogtooth / Kynodontas (trailer)

Country: Greece
Director: Yorgos Lanthimos
Length: 96 mins
Acclaim: Prix Un Certain Regard at Cannes
Grade: A-

Synopsis: “A father, a mother and their three kids live in a house in the outskirts of a city. There is a tall fence surrounding the house. The kids have never left the house. They are being educated, entertained, bored and exercised in the manner that their parents deem appropriate, without any influence from the outside world. They believe that the airplanes flying through the sky are toys and that zombies are small yellow flowers. The only person allowed to enter the house is Christina.”

Christina is introduced by Father (all characters are nameless) to perfunctorily satisfy the sexual drives of Son, and of course with the introduction of sex things start to fall apart pretty quickly.  In the world of Dogtooth, that old Baptist joke proves true: avoid sex, because it leads to movie-watching, which leads to dancing. Christina triggers a cataclysmic unraveling of the carefully manufactured world the children live in, all leading to an agonizing climax that could’ve been written by Flannery O’Connor herself.

It’s been a long time since I’ve seen such a refreshingly bizarre piece of filmmaking. Everything about this movie is askew: its morals, its personalities, its reality, even its camerawork — though the cinematography (with tons of fixed camera shots) makes for a really beautiful-looking film. Very little is explained by Lanthimos, forcing viewers to piece things together on their own and provide their own interpretations (Why, for example, are the parents doing this? What’s up with the oft-discussed, never-seen, possibly-nonexistent 2nd Son? etc). Dogtooth is a masterful work of dark, black comedy with enough tragedy to make it stick. It’s hard to even pinpoint why such an crazy, off-center film is so damn riveting — right down to the killer last shot, a testament to the power of subtle horror.

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Sawasdee Krap, Amigos

This is the obligatory I-made-it-safely-to-Thailand post. My trip was 33 hours door-to-door; flights mostly via Malaysia Arlines, but a quick jaunt at the end from Kuala Lumpur on Thai Airways. Here’s my flying steel tube parked in Cape Town, South Africa:

cape town

My leg from BsAs to Cape Town was maybe 8 hours and my row was empty. I stretched out and watched The Proposal and Running the Sahara (A+, highly rec’d). We skipped over to Johannesburg (or “Jo-burg” as the cool kids say), where I did not see any Prawns. JNB to Kuala Lumpur was maybe 10 hours or so, but I was too doped up to watch movies. They served free alcohol, so I went all menopausal and OD’d on white wine & Tylenol PM. I needed the doping to help me forget that the Langoliers stole my Thursday.

So far I’ve really done nothing in Bangkok, which is fine by me. My airline food was spicier than anything in Buenos Aires, and I’ve continued the streak here by eating green curry, stir-fry chicken, and pork noodles. Definitely wouldn’t mind having a Quilmes though. Here’s what else I miss about Buenos Aires:

— cafe culture
— great architecture
— millions of bookstores
— sweater weather (it’s mid-60s there, mid-90s here)
— cheap steak & cheap wine

Too bad TESL pays so poorly there. C’est la vie. Here’s to hoping South Korea works out.