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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.

Her

 

First 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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general, Travelogue

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] 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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(Still) not learning poo from history?

Quickly, Octopoe returns to this concept that we (Americans as generally manifested on the global geopolitical stage) often miss those vicissitudes of history which could otherwise inform our current set of predicaments. It is my sense that our public discourse has increasingly sensationalized an adversarial duality between China and the West, some of which twinges on talk of a seemingly impending military clash. In drawing some connections between this contemporary dilemma and a time from the past, we do not have to jump back to antiquity as before to dig up a historical precedent long since missed about our devastating involvement in Afghanistan. We need only skip back about a century or so to the late 19th and early 20th centuries, cheery years filled with fierce nationalistic rivalry for political and economic domination of the globe, intensified by the imperialistic expansion of the industrialized powers – the United States, Europe in many of its national manifestations, the Empire of Japan. Images of industrial war modeled on this period have been featured on Octopoe in the past.  In the one hundred years leading up to the end of the Second World War, nearly every corner of the world had been touched by the global economic order (via imperialism or imbalanced foreign relations) and affected by the industrial-scale wars which left swathes of Europe and Asia destroyed. While the history is admittedly complex and nuanced, one can draw simple tropes from the record, such as the reluctance of those powers in relative control of the global geo-political scene to make room for the rising players while nationalistic rhetoric fuels competition and ultimately conflict. Some writers whom I have read on the subject speak to a relative unlikelihood of conflict with the trade connections between the two and the general troublesomeness it would create for a region which will only thrive with continued stability. A country which can barely keep the top on its on kettle at times, and flinches at the mere hint of a whistle (thinking about the Western media’s recent reporting of increased crackdowns within China against artists and dissidents, such as Ai Weiwei) may desperately avoid a destabilizing war. Being an internationalist pacifist and a language educator who has nothing to gain from conflict between my people and my number one client, I hope this recent bout of nationalistic propaganda does not drum us into the horror of the trenches and camps, the aerial bombardment and atom bombs.

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City College still needs help

In an ongoing, depressing campaign to keep minds learning, City College of San Francisco (CCSF) is still appealing for aid from the public. They have now developed a pretty smooth interface on their own website from which to handle donations. Our bankrupt state has slashed out $630 million from the California City College System, which means a mere 1,500 classes have been cut for this year. If you have a spare moment and dime, consider helping out your local community college in order to keep classes open and minds learning.

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CCSF Donation Drive for Fall 2010 Classes

Below is the verbatim message that I received from City College of San Francisco (CCSF), which is trying to make up for the shameful lack of prioritized resources by turning to their staff and students to raise the needed funds. On the line are classes and resources which arguably need to be saved. What are the political implications for a society that cannot prioritize higher education enough to keep minds learning? Depressing! But if you have five bucks and can afford to spare them, consider helping out your local community college:

TO: CCSF Community
FROM: Chancellor Don Griffin
RE: Donation Drive
DATE: March 1st, 2010
Today, in cooperation with the Planning and Budgeting Council,  we are embarking on a community-wide City College of San Francisco (CCSF) Donation Drive. If each CCSF employee and student donates $5 or more, we can raise over $500,000 – half a million dollars! All money collected will go directly to the restoration of classes and services at CCSF for the Fall semester.
Please consider making a donation of whatever you can. Each donation matters. A little from each can make a big difference for all. Hundreds of us have already begun to donate. Please join us in this effort!
We will tally the donations weekly and keep you posted on our progress.
HOW TO DONATE?
Drop cash donations in one of our donation boxes at the Ocean Campus Bookstore or Cafeteria (we plan to expand to other campuses in the future). Or  you can mail a check payable to City College (subject reference: Restore Classes Fund) and send to:
City College of San Francisco — Bursar
50 Phelan Ave. Box E103
San Francisco, CA 94112
For more information, please email ccsfsave@ccsf.edu