[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.

[Travelogue] Wandering through The Valley

Being an enthusiastic émigré from the greater Los Angeles area earlier in life, going back on the annual holiday-induced pilgrimage to visit family and friends is a loaded prospect nowadays. I have nothing short of the perplexing love/hate feeling towards Los Angeles, and this applies to the vast environs that are connected to it by the endless strips of concrete, box-stores, and neon lights that are the region’s highways. Namely, these are the 101 and the 118*, my links from Thousand Oaks to Los Angeles and the San Fernando Valley, popularly known as The Valley, respectively. The part that is always partially stunning is the amount of driving that needs to be undertaken while touring the region. Having given up my car years ago for the bus in San Francisco, I personally do not drive much these days and do not particularly enjoy being driven around. However, while in southern California, it’s simply not convenient to be riding public transit between the far flung points to which one may have to go. I typically arrive in an airplane, usually Southwest to Burbank, and get picked up by someone in a car. We drive to some other point in The Valley, or to the Conejo Valley, in which is nestled the sweet little city of Thousand Oaks. It is really just over a small range of hills, easily reached in your individual automobile pod along the 118. From my parents’ fortified suburban stronghold, there is no bus, there is certainly no train. We drive and drive to eat at restaurants or buy food to bring back and devour in time, usually under the auspices of holiday feastings. The hill and field which were once open space near the stronghold are quickly being devoured by new suburban bastions. Another disconcerting element of being in Thousand Oaks is the pristine silence that can be reached in the quiet hours of the night. I stand on the porch of my parents’ house and hear absolutely nothing. Sometimes you hear the baying of coyotes. Days are accorded to quality time with different people, whom I can usually only reach by car. I went from Thousand Oaks to Granada Hills (one of the many cities in The Valley!) to spend a day with my cousin and her French husband, a day of driving around and around, smoking and listening to music. We saw an old Cold War missile defense installation on top of a hill, restored unlike Hill 88 in Marin. It necessitated a consideration of the sweeping views of the entire San Fernando Valley, gray and white with high clouds. We lost our minds and thought it a good idea to go to Griffith Park and see the view from the Observatory, which was a strategic mistake in having to deal with hordes of people and the automobiles which helped them carry out the mutual intention. The view of the Los Angeles cityscape was worth it though, as the lights of the valley sparked into flares consistently as the sun went down over the sea in the distance. The twinkling lights and incredible redness of the sky from the pollution fueled sunset burned in such a way as to unnerve me. The crimson dusk was ominous as we returned to the car, desiring beer to warm ourselves and limber our minds. The evening eventually brought us to what was described as one of the numerous dive bars dispensing libations in The Valley, a windowless hole which time had long since passed, Casey’s Tavern. Three dollar cocktails were brought to our boothed table by an ancient waitress. The transaction seemed to go one forever, but it was fine. New Year’s decorations festooned the drab interior, worn with years of use and smelling of it. In these moments, the boundary between love and hate is mixed. I feel at times warmth for the nostalgia of coming back to these southern California locales, memories of them built in childhood. Of course not Casey’s particularly, but these newly accessed spots add to the old. The height of the blend comes with driving around Granada Hills endlessly, passing the same nameless mini-malls with their precious individual parking lots in search of a madly Christmas-themed house, epic in proportions, at the whim of my cousin’s husband (a willing émigré from France to this place). Santa clung to a helicopter, loading spinning presents onto a western-themed wagon-sleigh, drawn by the reindeer, partially lifting off into the sky. Every other part of the house was covered in some sort of holiday piece or string of lights. A bench was provided for one to have a picture taken with the orgiastic display of Christmas spirit. My ambivalence comes from all these reminders of the place I left ten years ago, thrown into my face constantly by those that still connect me to this place.

When this portion of the trip wraps up, I am driven to Union Station in Los Angeles, the disembarkation point of a train (a fresh relief as mentioned before) to the similar if slightly different, same-same but different, San Diego, for more days of driving around to culinary points of interest and passive hanging out activities. Most of this time is spent in Encinitas actually with friends and not in San Diego proper. The only time I see my charming public transit again is after the return flight to San Francisco.

*I fully own my usage of the definite article along with the number of the highway in common vernacular and in writing.

[Poe] Christopher Isherwood on New York

Impressions of New York from a literary émigré.

Excerpt from: Christopher ISHERWOOD, Christopher and His Kind, 1929-1939 (1976)

[At the end of Christopher’s brief visit in 1938, he had felt absolutely confident of one thing, at least. If he did decide to settle in America – and, by America, he meant New York – he would be able to make himself at home there. This, he said to himself, was a setting in which his public personality would function more freely, more successfully than it could ever have functioned in London. Oh, he’d talk faster and louder than any of the natives. He’d pick up their slang and their accent. He’d learn all their tricks. Someone had repeated to him a saying about the city: “Here you’ll find sympathy in the dictionary and everything else at the nearest drugstore.” This delighted him. He had accepted it as a challenge to be tough.

But now New York, on that bitter winter morning, appeared totally, shockingly transformed from the place he had waved goodbye to, the previous July. Christopher experienced a sudden panicky loss of confidence.

There they stood in the driving snow – the made-in-France Giantess with her liberty torch, which now seemed to threaten, not welcome, the newcomer; and the Red Indian island with its appalling towers. There was the Citadel–stark, vertical, gigantic, crammed with the millions who had already managed to struggle ashore and find a foothold. You would have to fight your way inland from your very first step onto the pier. Already, it was threatening you with its tooting tugboats, daring you to combat.

God, what a terrifying place this suddenly seemed! You could feel it vibrating with the tension of the nervous New World, aggressively flaunting its rude steel nudity. We’re Americans here–and we keep at it, twenty-four hours a day, being Americans. We scream, we grab, we jostle. We’ve no time for what’s slow, what’s gracious, what’s nice, quiet, modest. Don’t you come snooting us with your European traditions–we know the mess they’ve got you into. Do things our way or take the next boat back–back to your Europe that’s falling apart at the seams. Well, make up your mind. Are you quitting or staying? It’s no skin off our nose. We promise nothing. Here, you’ll be on your own.

Christopher, trying hard to think positive thoughts, declared that he was staying. But the Giantess wasn’t impressed. The towers didn’t care. Okay, Buster, suit yourself.]

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The New Directions first edition paperback.

I came across my first copy of Christopher Isherwood’s combined narrative, The Berlin Stories, in what had been Muddy Waters, on Valencia at Twenty-Fourth. I grabbed it because it was extremely weathered; much of the binding was crumbling apart, the pages were well worn, and mysterious greenish blue splotches had soaked across various surfaces of the book—the New Directions first edition paperback. I was living in the Mission studio at the time, and it sat on my bookshelf for a long time. Many books tend to get picked up, many go on the shelf, and they are slowly read. Isherwood’s name surely appeared on some list somewhere, in the words of some critic elsewhere, or off the lips of some teaching assistant or professor whereby my notion of having him on the long list of works to be read originated in the first place. My friend Laura had occasion to be at the studio, pick up the book, and read enough to tell me about some alternative sex mentioned in the text, bringing an immediate peak in interest. Starting The Berlin Stories, I quickly felt engaged with the first of the composite narratives, Mr. Norris Changes Trains. Isherwood’s self-proclaimed parlour socialism, characters, and charming prose fed this initial enthusiasm. Not long after this, I put the book down in a waiting room and forgot to pick it back up, perhaps appropriately. Upon returning the next week, it was gone. Desperate to press on, I turned to the public library. Finishing The Berlin Stories, I have since read my way down the shelf of Isherwood’s books, and found his works to be delightful to read, well-written, and inspiring ever since.

Having long thought about Isherwood’s writings, and my own journey as a writer, I have noticed clear rousers of this predilection for Christopher Isherwood. He is often noted and celebrated as a prominent gay writer. He was a student of languages; travelling frequently and with relish, Isherwood eventually lived more of his life out of his home country than in it. His political tones tinged perfectly in my aspirant leftist ears. He blends the autobiographical details and moments with fictional storytelling in his prose, creating a sense of intimacy as you grow familiar with him as mere vessel for his cast of misfit characters. I find myself having much affinity for Isherwood himself, and his model as writer. His autobiographies are excellent too, and he had many interesting peers whom I have grown to appreciate as well.

Reading Christopher and His Kind was a great experience, as my love for Isherwood’s work had long since developed. Upon visiting friends in New York and walking through Manhattan, I came upon a $4.55 first edition hardcover copy of Christopher and His Kind at Housing Works. Snatching it up, I burned through it over the course of the long weekend, and came upon the excerpt above en route back to San Francisco. What can I say; I love New York as only one raised in the northern suburban sprawl of Los Angeles can do. New York is noise while the sprawl is silence. I love Isherwood’s quick image of New York: one that begins with confidence, but fades in the face of the city. I walked across the Brooklyn Bridge for the first time on the same trip, and felt for the first time that I saw the city, in that grand visual where the city is unfathomably large and seething with action, regardless of you, your thoughts, your intentions or needs. His description becomes cold and alarming, just as the stark wall of the city is cold and alarming in its sheer scale and rigidness. Sometimes I feel similar feelings, to a lesser degree, passing from either the Bay Bridge or Golden Gate Bridge into San Francisco. But New York feels alive, whereas San Francisco feels quaint once over that bridge. (To qualify, San Francisco does have a very special place in my heart.) I love when Isherwood says,

“You could feel it vibrating with the tension of the nervous New World…”

as I enjoy the pulse and energy of the denser urban center, and identify with these words in particular.  The subways of New York, while sometimes decrepit and rotting, convey a time and usage to me that speaks to its value as space and art in itself. When you are walking the tunnels (so delightfully reminiscent of the passages in subway systems like the Parisian Métro) or waiting at the platform, you can sense the city humming, feel the heat from the metropolis radiating over you in the yellowish subterranean electric light.

In the end, it turns out Isherwood ended up choosing the coast of southern California, and not New York, as his home in this country. He lived, taught writing, and wrote many of his later works while living in that Los Angeles sprawl mentioned above—including most notably the poetic representations of mid-century Los Angeles in A Single Man.* I have thought myself confident and bold enough to pick my life up and continue it in New York. I too would throw myself into the throng, elbow into the stream of the city’s life, and be present for all that the city could throw me. However, against the reality of moving to a new place that possesses much harsher weather and a frightful cost of living, my own confidence ebbs as well. At this point, I certainly hope that I myself do not live out my days in Los Angeles, merely because I have already spent eighteen years worth of them in that one place. As Isherwood was born and lived his early life in England but moved west to finish it in Los Angeles, maybe I can do the opposite and work my way gradually eastward from a childhood spent in outer Los Angeles, through San Francisco and onto New York, and eventually to London?

*A novel dedicated to the spectacular Gore Vidal, another writer whose work I admire highly. Vidal is also the author of a particularly good essay on Christopher and His Kind, in his collection: Sexually Speaking: Collected Sex Writings.