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[Poe] Digging the love and cityscapes of Spike Jonze’s “Her”

her-movie-posterCongratulations to Spike Jonze on his Sunday win of the Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay for his latest film, Her. I just saw this movie on Saturday evening, thanks to the propensity for copious films to be available in pirated DVD forms here in China; definitely some of the best 12 kuai (the rough equivalent of $1.95) I have ever spent. This Poe does not feature an excerpt from the film since I do not dive too deeply into any sort of analysis of the film; however, my intention is to merely mention some of the elements which I enjoyed in viewing without getting overly verbose. Many of the elements of the production design (art design, costuming, cinematography…) were delightful, but I leave those to the hands of others.

HerFirst off, I truly appreciate any narrative that features non-normative love between beings which do not necessarily go together in some conservative, anachronistic notion of what that could mean. I recognize it as a whimsical example, but I have always loved Edward Lear’s The Owl and the Pussycat because the two beings getting hitched are a bird and feline, which on one hand is silly and fun, and on the other hand can be taken more seriously in showing us an example of a love in which reproduction is clearly not the end-game. I love that Jonze’s narrative normalizes the love between Joaquin Phoenix’s* Theodore and the “operating system,” aka Samantha, deliciously and huskily voiced by Scarlett Johansson**. The Economist magazine actually gave the film a rather negative review, criticizing both Jonze and the fictitious character of Theodore for immaturity in not moving beyond the inherent “master-slave” relationship between a human and the artificial intelligence program designed to cater to his every nuance; however, I find this slightly unfair since I feel that one of the major features of this love story is the ongoing development Samantha experiences in her being, eventually changing to such a degree that she in fact frees herself. (I do not want to give away too much!) Anyway, I viewed Samantha as a little more complex than merely being a love slave to this man. I do, however, fully admit I am a sucker for the adage, Robots have feelings, too! One of my most emotional cinema-viewing moments came at the end of the Steven Spielberg slash Stanley Kubrick mess A.I.—I was balling like a babe by the time little David became “real.”

There's Oriental Pearl Tower!

There’s Oriental Pearl Tower!

The second part of Her (discussed here, at least) which caught my fancy during viewing, most likely due to my China travels of late, is the fact that the Los Angeles of the near future is in fact the Shanghai of the present. While watching, I did not quite suspect this until Theodore takes the high speed train with Samantha on their romantic getaway (I find it charmingly optimistic that Jonze’s narrative assumes California will have got a high speed line done); after Theodore disembarks, the white, streamlined front of the train registered instantly as the same type of train on which I spend an inordinate amount of time zipping around China. With the close of the film, I studiously observed the credits to see where the film had been shot, and sure enough, it was my beloved Shanghai. (Moreover, if you did not know that I love a good train, there is ample evidence here, here and here.) Throughout the moments in which Theodore is wandering thoughtfully around his cityscape, I had kept thinking, I like how they’re doing future-L.A. I dig that Jonze turned to China, often the cliché place of the next step in development and on the cusp of its own future, as the vision of the eventual Los Angeles. As China rapidly urbanizes on a scale unseen in human history, it may be apt that Jonze shows his future metropolis through the lens of this current one, potentially displaying things to come for cities everywhere.

Lastly, on a note relating to the shooting locations and how these have endeared the film to me, I feel that Theodore and Samantha’s trip to an unidentified snowy mountain locale was perhaps filmed at Donner Lake in Truckee, California. This place maintains a special place in my heart because my gentleman friend’s employer rents a cabin on Donner Lake every winter for him and his colleagues (plus their friends) to appreciate, in rotation. I have spent many a late autumn and winter weekend hiking and cavorting around this lake, and the view Theodore gets from the pass looks just like Donner Lake to me. Maybe falsely, I also recognized the type of trees (which, of course, could be anywhere, yet the way in which the bright green moss grows looks familiar) and the cut of the railway cutting across the mountain that I glimpsed briefly in one scene. I think that visiting three (two perhaps in reality) places which mean so much to me, past and present—Los Angeles (around which I grew up and write about here), Shanghai (a metropolis stoking my big-city passions, having popped in and out during the past years of China travel) , and Donner Lake—further affords Her the means to nestle into my affections.

*I have had a little man crush on Joaquin Phoenix ever since his turn as the sinister Commodus in Gladiator. (Additionally, he was super hot as the sexually suppressed clergyman of Quills.)

**I also nurture a little lady crush on Scarlett Johansson, whom I loved in Ghost World and Lost in Translation and find to be one of my favorite mainstream actresses.

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Dispatch from the People’s Republic: Fireworks Magic Time

beijing-fireworks-161171809On a relatively modest list of my favorite things in life, seeing fireworks in the sky is nearly at the top. I think of the Fourth of July in my hometown, on a hill by my parents’ house. Sometimes New Year’s Eve, depending on where I am or what I am doing. Exploding lights and colors in the sky awakens a very sentimental and romantic part of my being deep down inside, and, spending this year in the People’s Republic of China, I have had many opportunities to feel this love stir. During the Spring Festival, or Chinese New Year (celebrating the lunar new year in January of February—depending on the movements of, well, la lune—instead of the new year of the Gregorian calendar celebrated in the West), which I came back for the tail-end of after having been in California, Chinese folks certainly like setting off fireworks. And none of that namby-pamby nonsense of concentrated locales and designations for how these bursting sirens are given to the night sky; everywhere I turned, there were fireworks. Anyone in those moments could have been the Gandalf of Chinese New Year, raining down fiery goodness around us. In Beijing, for my return at the end of the holiday, each night up through February 14 featured a demonstration of evening pyrotechnics, with the most bang coming on this final night. (The previous evenings to the final night sounded like some sort of aerial bombardment—I am glad that I am privileged enough to not actually know what this sounds like.)

From the rooftop of my apartment building in Beijing, each direction in which I could turn contained a show. Electric color shimmering through the milky night—while noxious to breath, the infamous Beijing air pollution rendered this night beautiful. Running down from the roof and out to the surrounding plazas, the roar of the fireworks was absolutely deafening; eventually I retreated back inside due to a soreness in my sweet ear-holes. Some sounds were simply loud explosions, felt in the ear and in my chest. Some fireworks shimmered like thousands of tiny comets pinpricking the night, creating the sound of heavy rain hitting a window. Families were in the streets, setting off smaller fireworks to the jubilation of small kids. Slightly older kids were making little bonfires from the cardboard refuse of these wonders. Having retreated to my apartment, drinking tea in my veranda-kitchen, I attained a moment of pure fixation when a series of fireworks were set off in the street directly below me so that the radiance of light thundered directly at the level of my eleventh floor windows. I was blessed for a moment in what seemed like my very own fireworks show, enjoyed from the comfort of my kitchen table.

While this episode is recent and fresh in my mind, it did not mark the beginning of fireworks magic time in my Chinese sojourn. When I first arrived here, six months ago at this point, I needed to stay in a southern city called Ningbo for a time in order to help out by teaching in one of my company’s English programs. Ningbo is a lovely city, south and around the corner from Shanghai. The high school in which I was teaching is located in a suburban district, slightly off the beaten path. One evening after classes wrapped up, I was told that it was too late to catch the bus back to my apartment, and I would need to take a taxi. I walked out of the school to a forlorn-looking intersection of this suburban night, and not a soul was stirring. In that moment, melancholy set about me; I missed my gentleman-friend and my loved ones at home, and I felt alone with no way to get home. Standing there, waiting for a taxi that did not seem to be coming, I was bummed. Another moment passed, and I had given into the eventuality of starting the somewhat long walk to the apartment, when *WOOSH* *BANG*!!! Above the intersection, from behind a building, a series of fireworks rocketed into the night sky and cast their light upon the whole street like the flares of a shipwrecked soul in the endless sea. The red, green and yellow florescence of light burned away my despair. Moments passed, and fireworks continued shooting into the sky. I stood transfixed, enjoying the surprise and delight of the moment. However, the fireworks ceased after awhile. As the cacophony faded from the night almost as instantly as it had arrived, a taxi drove up. I flagged it down, entered, and got home.

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[Travelogue] I ♥ Shanghai

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Fun juxtaposition of wild graffiti art and monotone urban cityscape.

Picking up where I left off in gushing over Hong Kong, it is about time that I turned my attention to Shanghai, a place that has come in two visits to be one of my favorite collections of urban nuttiness on this planet. It has turned into my traditional destination when I finish teaching at Wuhan University in July; the perfect place to wind down from  the mainland China experience, as it feels more cosmopolitan, globalized and international than other Chinese cities, such as Beijing and Wuhan. This year I stayed right off People’s Square in the heart of the city, and everything was a stone’s throw via the lovely Metro system. In returning with fellow teachers in the Wuhan University teaching program, I certainly enjoyed a fair amount of leadership roles, including as an informal adviser to the general China experience; while this is always the most dramatic when I use my select but effective repertoire of Mandarin language skills, it was often the most enjoyable when navigating groups of friends through the Beijing and Shanghai metro stations labyrinths, changing trains and seeing the sights.

What is is that I enjoy about Shanghai? Despite having had a relatively short existence so far (especially by Chinese standards of the conceptualization of the history of time and civilization in the Middle Kingdom), Shanghai has an intense history to it: Communists vs. Nationalists;  imperialism & the fruits of globalization.  I attempt to remain critical of the sense that I love Shanghai the most of the cities in China precisely because it is the most familiar, a true world-city. What does that mean for me? More ‘European’ or more ‘like New York’? Folks are actually pretty chill on the subway, not necessarily bum-rushing the doors, yet the raw numbers of the crowds gives it a certain level of intensity. While I get this feeling, I still rub against the pure Chinese ambiance of the city that remains through the haze of chicness. There are certainly still fruit-marts, and steamed buns and dumplings on the street. One can bounce between a host of cold beverage joints that serve highly sweetened kumquat/lime juicy-drinks, such as Happy Lemon and Coco.

To be explored.

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[Travelogue] Back on the train!

It’s funny how hanging out with friends who are writers (Lania Knight and Matt McBride linked, but come right back here folks) when traveling makes one want to write more; I turn to an old post about my joys, experiences, and personal literary connections around taking trains from days of yore (in relation to this record, at least) to re-ignite my own writing through this web journal. On my recent third trip to the People’s Republic of China, a fair number of trains were taken in various contexts. I have been going to Wuhan regularly now during the summer, and there will be a return in a short few weeks, so I am only going to get more of train travel in China. This represents an easy means of initiating some reflection around my recent return from Round 2 of the teaching at Wuhan University, and my upcoming and (temporary) relocation to Beijing.

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Looking down the cars on the Shanghai Metro.

One of the most enjoyable things for me in China is being able to ride the subway in the major cities; Beijing and Shanghai are rendered manageable because their metros are quick, relatively clean, and affordable. 2 kuai, anywhere in the vast metropolis which is Beijing! The carriage can be absolutely sardine-like at many hours, including rush, but overall I find it very exiting and enjoyable.  To tread into the cliche, China seems to be a country on the move, and this is so well-exemplified by an afternoon on one of the subways. Jam-packed at all sorts of hours, riders whisk back and forth between exits and transfers. The carriage doors separate, initiating the dash on and off, simultaneously in and out all in that moment.  Yesterday evening, having returned to my beloved San Francisco, I found the rather proper, lining up of the BART commuters so quaint in comparison. While exhausting, I love the no-nonsense feeling I get from the metro riders in China—I find it reminiscent of the vibe I get in New York. One of my regrets on this latest trip to Wuhan is not having had the opportunity to ride the relatively new Wuhan Metro, despite a somewhat determined effort to do so. With some intention there, group trips to Hankou from Wuchang ended up being cab-based; the one time I made it to Hankou by myself, the metro closed for the night as I arrived to the platform, and I was instructed by the eerily-accurate English language voice to leave the station immediately. While I managed to get to Hankou more than once this year (a goal from last year), I feel satisfied with knowing that eventually taking the Wuhan Metro can come with a future trip to Wuhan.

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Here’s the train we took coming over the Yangtze River bridge, eventually passing Wuhan’s famous Yellow Crane Tower.

Taking the overnight train from Beijing to Wuhan is a repeat experience which goes far in making the overall Wuhan experience so much fun, and I believe I am starting to appreciate it in the way that ritualistic train rides have grown on me in other travel experiences. This ride again afforded me the chance to hang out with my fellow teachers and build our eventual friendships—with 8-10 folks jammed into a four-person sleeper card to play Apples to Apples, this year’s overnight ride was so enjoyable, as we drank warm beers and bulshitted about 90′s music, tellingly revealing our generational place. The night passes quickly out the window, and eventually one wakes up to Hubei Province spinning past—some pastoral-light, leading into a tell-take sign of the suburban Chinese experience:  rows and rows of anonymous, identical apartment towers.

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High-speed train, Shanghai to Suzhou!

The last time I took a high-speed train, I was a green traveler going from Paris to Nîmes, so I was excited to continue my rail journey and experience in China by taking the quick train from Shanghai to Suzhou for a day trip. Despite a little confusion in actually finding the place at the station in which a foreigner can buy a ticket, involving a nice, hot long walk around the entire station, the whole high-speed rail experience was so easy; additionally, it was a quick 25-minute dart to Suzhou and back. The whole thing really put our train experience here in the States to shame! It makes me a little frustrated and sad that we are having such a hard time getting something similar up and running here in California.

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[Travelogue] 7-year anniversary, living in SF

Seven years ago today I left Santa Cruz and finally moved up to my desired target of city-living, San Francisco. The city… as Eddie Izzard so aptly poked fun. It’s definitely my city at this point, the home to which a return is always filled with warmth; not to mention awe as I come over the bridge and see the city laid out along the waterfront before me. I feel the energetic draw of San Francisco, a major component of which is the sheer physical beauty of this particular urban landscape. It’s no joke (!); the general love so many people have for this space is understandable and right as I take it all in. I feel so fortunate to be here; here’s to seven more years!

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Obama finally comes out! (in support of gay marriage…)

In winning the election on November 4, 2008, Barack Obama uttered the words gay and lesbian during his victory speech, and I must admit I was pretty juiced that such a figure on such a stage had finally recognized us queers as addressable. Since that lovely evening, I have grown less excited for the man’s work, yet I do recognize that it is most likely a tough job and there has been progress. (Yay healthcare!) [While not being thrilled for the repeal of DADT on pacifist grounds, I do appreciate Obama’s work on this issue, as it is so important to the wider community.] However, the man has caught my fancy again by making this announcement, taking the definitive stance and positioning himself in contrast to Mr. Mitt Romney. While cynical notes of the potentiality of this stance being aimed at electioneering the queers onto his side (had we gone anywhere else though?), I still get the warm fuzzies around thinking, “wow, he said it, he said the word gay, he really likes us!” Even if it’s a pragmatic feature of our political theater, I am happy that Obama’s staked this place in our public discourse. How will this impact this upcoming November’s election? What does it mean for the States? The Defense of Marriage Act? Stay tuned and we will all find out: should be exciting.

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[Poe] Writers with the last name Ish—.

It would seem that I have a certain proclivity for other writers with a last name starting Ish—. Thinking that Christopher Isherwood as the ubiquitous subject of poe had finally been exhausted, I came back to the beginning and stumbled upon another writer with the same first three letters in his surname, begging comparison to Isherwood and swirling about in my mind recently. This literary mind-quest starts with an account mentioned previously, a few years ago when I was sitting in the Muddy Waters and picked up a tattered copy of Isherwood’s The Berlin Stories. I acquired the book that started my passion for Isherwood’s writing, and ultimately the life he lived which informed so much of his work. Somewhere in this initial reading of Mr. Norris Changes Trains and Goodbye to Berlin the old, down and out copy I had found got misplaced, prompting a trip to the library so I could finish these stories. In finding the appropriate area of the fiction section, I found a replacement copy for The Berlin Stories and learned the titles of Isherwood’s other works, yet also noticed his neighbor on the alphabetically aligned shelves: Kazuo Ishiguro.

It turns out that most libraries and bookstores conveniently arrange their books alphabetically, and with my habit of always checking out the Isherwood scene in any library or bookstore in which I find myself (having long since become a devotee of his writings), I find myself saying hello to Ishiguro as well, who is usually sitting just on Isherwood’s left (our right.)

Never having read a hint of his prose, nor having much of an impression beyond having absorbed at some point that The Remains of the Day, a common presence in the otherwise Isherwood-inspired interlude at the shelves, had been morphed into a cinematic adaptation (a process that has sparked my incredulity), I did not keep Ishiguro in mind as a writer to invest reading time in. In no way was this a negative judgment; seeing him regularly next to Isherwood took whatever place Ishiguro might otherwise have occupied on my nebulous, internal list of writings to be read.

With the affordances of a friend’s commode library of leftish magazines, I stumbled upon a review of a similar Ishiguro-to-film transference in Never Let Me Go; and I learned for the first time of the story’s nuanced sinisterness amongst the banality of English schooling. What I now see as Ishiguro’s talent for mixing tropes from across prose forms, which I have come to enjoy as I read more of his work, initially caught my attention for the mixture of science-fiction themes with the realistic and mundane setting. Often feeling satisfied with reading a review of a film over actually viewing it, I did find a place for Never Let Me Go on the grand, above-mentioned list.

Before getting to that reading, a Master’s program exploded all over my life and fully consumed my temporal assets, which allowed little if no personal reading space. However, a literature course on short stories as a global form, taken this past semester, did give me the chance to read my first Ishiguro, Nocturnes: Five Stories of Music and Nightfall (simply Nocturnes from here on out.) While not loving all of the stories in that collection, I did enjoy two in particular which shared a certain haunting weirdness I have found to be sticking with me in my thoughts, Nocturne (the singular title refers to the collection’s fourth story) and Come Rain or Come Shine. In finally getting to the public library’s copy of Never Let Me Go, I have uncovered for myself more of Ishiguro’s affinity for musical references and styling in his prose, and I feel as though I am gaining a stronger sense of him as a writer and artist. The centrality of music to his work is all the more evident in reading Never Let Me Go after Nocturnes, as they have many striking similarities. There’s a simpler level where names such as Come Rain or Come Shine and Never Let Me Go are the titles of songs which play prominently in their respective narratives. Yet a more nuanced scene is framed with Ishiguro’s twin images of ladies losing themselves in the musical moment. First, Kathy is the subject of the following from Never Let Me Go,

“Maybe the volume had been turned right up by whoever had been using it last, I don’t know. But it was much louder than I usually had it and that was probably why I didn’t hear her before I did. Or maybe I’d just got complacent by then. Anyway, what I was doing was swaying about slowly in time to the song, holding an imaginary baby to my breast. In fact, to make it all the more embarrassing, it was one of those times I’d grabbed a pillow to stand in for the baby, and I was doing this slow dance, my eyes closed, singing along softly each time those lines came around again: / ‘Oh baby, baby, never let me go…’” (Ishiguro, “Never Let Me Go” 71)

This scene is mirrored in the story Nocturne by Lindy Gardner’s moment of nonlucidness, as she processes her separation from her now ex-husband Tony and goes into a different space with the narrating protagonist actually watching, “After a while, though, I’d stopped paying much attention to the music because there was Lindy in front of me, gone into a kind of dream, dancing slowly to the [Tony’s] song” (Ishiguro, “Nocturnes” 142). Each lady is dancing slowly by herself with different levels of voyeurism going on by another presence, unknown in the first and seemingly known in the second. Both are expressing some sort of disregard for their surroundings in their absorption with their respective music, the first with the inattention to volume and the second with the blatant check out. By reading more of Ishiguro’s work I hope to encounter more of his women characters and their music, in an effort to shed more light on what he is up to with these tropes.

Whereas Ishiguro often invokes music in his writing, Isherwood takes the role of the indifferent camera, having written in his highly autobiographical Goodbye to Berlin, “I am a camera with its shutter open, quite passive, recording, not thinking. Recording the man shaving at the window opposite and the woman in the kimono washing her hair. Some day, all this will have to be developed, carefully printed, fixed” (Isherwood 1). In this mode, we get the vivid prose portraits which Isherwood made a hallmark of his work, and about which I have written about extensively on Octopoe so will not gush over now.

While these two men diverge in their writing around whether music or photography influences their prose style, there is a strange connection to be made between Kathy in Never Let Me Go and the later events of Goodbye to Berlin when a post-abortion Sally Bowles says:

“You know, Chris, in some ways I wish I’d had that kid… It would have been rather marvellous to have had it. The last day or two, I’ve been sort of feeling what it would be like to be a mother. Do you know, last night, I sat here for a long time by myself and held this cushion in my arms and imagined it was my baby? And I felt a most marvellous sort of shut-off feeling from all the rest of the world. I imagined how it’d grow up and how I’d work for it, and how, after I’d put it to bed at nights, I’d go out and make love to filthy old men to get money to pay for its food and clothes… It’s all very well for you to grin like that, Chris… I did really!” (Isherwood 55)

Isherwood and Ishiguro provide us with two young ladies, each lost in a moment of cradling a cushion to her breast as an imaginary baby, neither of them able to have children themselves, Kathy due to her biological preconditions (no spoilers this time around) and Sally because of a metaphorical immaturity and unpreparedness to cope with the actual reality of rearing progeny. Still recovering from the operation which satisfied her desire not to have the child, Sally fickly daydreams about motherhood. She loses herself in the moment, shutting everything out as Kathy did in her own pseudo-maternal slow dance, yet follows up with a quick distancing from this personal tone by impersonalizing her own imagined offspring with the genderless pronoun it. Sally’s description of motherly life does not convey confidence that she actually knows what being a mother would be like.

These young women from the worlds of Ishiguro and Isherwood are losing themselves in the fleeting moments of music, or solitude, which might make one slow down and dance, or mutter the most delicate fantasies. Or sing out the wildest dream. I love the humanity these two writers bring to their prose, and having fallen for Isherwood hope to continue exploring Ishiguro’s works for more of the same. Distractingly, however, I feel my appreciation for Isherwood extends into a complex realm where I have found odd little commonalities between us and have read extensively of his works, crowding out other writers. I now increasingly read the work of his peers as well, namely W.H. Auden, Stephen Spender, Paul Bowles and Gore Vidal. Upon the release of Tom Ford’s adaptation of Isherwood’s seminal A Single Man, I braced myself emotionally for the worst. However, I absolved Mr. Ford upon seeing the film. Further processing had to occur when I was hanging out in the Park Branch public library down from my apartment on Page Street. I read an interview by The Advocate magazine of Ford, who spoke of his affinity for Isherwood and – the catalyst for crazy – spoke to an experience of having met Isherwood in southern California in his youth. Knowing that Isherwood died in 1986, I will never meet my most revered artistic predecessor. Simply, I was jealous of Ford, yet feeling this allowed for his adoption of Isherwood’s text to spark my own mental disengagement from Isherwood’s literary world, in which I had become enmeshed.

Slowly I am moving away from exclusively reading Isherwood & Friends, even if it is only down the library shelf at Ishiguro. Yet what I have read up to this point is promising, and hope that the recently checked out An Artist of the Floating World, and When We Were Orphans contribute to a new pocket of knowledge in the literary solar system in my head.

Works Cited

Isherwood, Christopher. The Berlin Stories. New York: New Directions, 1935. Print

Ishiguro, Kazuo. Never Let Me Go. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2005. Print.

Ishiguro, Kazuo. Nocturnes: Five Stories of Music and Nightfall. New York: Vintage International, 2009. Print.

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