[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] 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.

[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.