[the palaverist]

Thursday, July 07, 2011

[things i'd like to write about but haven't]

  • My trip to Budapest and Vienna.
  • My trip to Ann Arbor. And Ypsilanti.
  • All the churches in Brooklyn Heights: visit each, learn about it, attend a service, blog it.
  • My life as a Korean dancer.
  • My theory of Tom Tom Club vs. David Byrne.
  • My trip to Ghana.
  • Being sick abroad.
  • Toilets of the world (this one's more of a photo essay).
  • My trip to Mexico. (Noting a theme?)
  • My trip to Paris.
  • An open letter to the mayor demanding seasonal weather changes. (This will be funnier when actually written, I hope.)

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Wednesday, February 02, 2011

[drop the red lantern]

I have just seen Raise the Red Lantern, Zhang Yimou's claustrophobic 1991 film about a woman who becomes "Mistress Four" in a wealthy Chinese household sometime in the early twentieth century. The film received a great many awards and is widely considered a classic. I hated it.

Though it presents as a chick flick, centered on female characters and chock full of fancy costumes, it's a decidedly misogynistic movie. The plot is driven by the wives' (and a servant girls') struggle for the attentions of the Master in a ritualized environment where every coupling is formally announced to everyone else through elaborate ritual. To make this plot work, it's crucial that the women have about the same level of characterization you get in a high-end porno: Third Mistress was an opera singer, Fourth Mistress is a college girl who's father was in the tea trade, and so on. As in a pornographic film, the outside world is excluded; everything takes place within the household. Clearly that's an artistic choice meant to heighten the claustrophobia, but the story itself acknowledges that the women leave the house, sometimes unaccompanied: the Master offers at one point to take Songlian out for dumplings at a place she likes, and Third Mistress manages to get caught in a hotel having an affair with the family doctor.

And that's what gives the lie to the whole thing. At the end, Songlian is driven mad by her helplessness in the face of the servants' murder of Third Mistress for her affair. She paces the courtyard, alone and disheveled. There is, first of all, sheer laziness in that. Declaring your lady character insane is much easier than imagining how she might live with her trauma, and also totally unrealistic. And there, again, is the misogyny: depicting women as fragile, with minds that snap all too easily.

And it also goes against the facts we know. We know that Songlian connives. We know that she's unhappy. We know that people come and go from the house. Why does she stay, permitted to pace about the place? Alas, we know too little of that outside world to imagine what she might fear in it. Everything is inward-focused, to the exclusion of reality itself.

OK, so is this some kind of complicated metaphor for life under Mao? Is the hothouse craving for the Master's attention, and the infighting, and the murderousness of the servants, all some kind of allegory about the Communist Party? I don't think it is, or if it is, it's just not good enough.

Raise the Red Lantern is, in the end, a stylized costume drama. And it is, admittedly, haunting and compelling in some of its imagery. But it's an overbearing film that dehumanizes its characters to no particular end.

Also, it's boring.

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Thursday, January 27, 2011

[how not to apply for a job]

The following is an opening paragraph that I won't be using for a cover letter (for an internal position, peeps — I'm not leaving Google!).

I feel it’s important to write you and express my firm point of view that a sense of humor is not an appropriate job qualification. Those of us who were not blessed with this sixth sense at birth nevertheless deserve to be taken seriously (ever so seriously) as candidates for any and all roles that don’t expressly have ‘comedy’ or ‘comedian’ in the title. I think, for example, that we need more humorless talk show hosts, postal workers, and veterinarians, who could bring the appropriate seriousness to the tasks of celebrity chitchat, mail delivery, and cat-sticking respectively.
Yes, snow does cause brain damage. Why do you ask?

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Sunday, April 18, 2010

[pop is the new alternative]

It's a truism that the millennial generation is a whole lot more earnest than the Gen-Xers who preceded them. Certainly they don't seem to be mired in the crippling irony that we all seemed to struggle against, and they don't have the combination of seething anger and helpless despair that fueled the whole alternative movement.

There are two relics of the Gen-X period that to me sum up what stood out about our generation and why. The first is a line from "Smells Like Teen Spirit": "Our little group has always been/And always will until the end." There just aren't a lot of us, and I think that made a difference. The boomers were marketed to relentlessly, and still are. The same is true of the millennials: movies like Look Who's Talking and Three Men and a Baby, came out when they were born, and the music industry was creating pop stars for them when they were still tweens. But for Generation X, the marketing juggernaut never really got ginned up. I think we never fully bought into corporate America because corporate America never really bought into us. The resources weren't invested, so we went our own way and listened to weird bands and wore weird clothes that were difficult to sell in any organized way. I'd like to imagine that the alternative scene was about something deeper, but I suspect that we felt like we had no real place in contemporary America simply because no one was trying hard enough to sell us things.

The other Gen-X artifact that I think of is the movie Slackers. Its various characters are all struggling in one way or another to gather and communicate information: the guy who collects TVs, the guy who keeps shouting about how people need to read the newspaper, the Kennedy assassination buff, the girl trying to sell Madonna's pubes are all trapped by their inability to connect with anyone who shares their enthusiasms. And what's remarkable about this movie is that every one of those problems is solved by the Internet. With YouTube, political blogs, social networks, eBay, you no longer need to be alone with your obsession. That devastating feeling of isolation and powerlessness that the alternative scene was meant to assuage is simply not a problem in the way that it was. Millennials have come of age knowing that they can make a difference, that they can have an impact on the wider world, whether through serious political engagement or through participation in a flashmob.

But so here's where the whole situation with pop music starts to get interesting. For Gen-X, there were two kinds of popular music: pop that was manufactured by people who didn't seem to understand us that well, and who were definitely not us; and alternatives to that pop, whether gangsta rap or grunge or what have you, that had to define itself musically against the slicked-up sounds of more traditional pop. To be authentic, music had to be uncomfortable, at least a little.

But for the millennials, that's just not true anymore. They voted for their American Idols, so it's OK to like them. And they watched Justin Timberlake grow up, so it's OK to like him. And now, there's the emerging and fascinating phenomenon of the ironically self-aware pop star. Lady Gaga is the obvious queen of this new phenomenon, but you see it in Lily Allen and in Timberlake, and I noticed in in Ke$ha on SNL this weekend. (Sudden thought: was it Eminem who bridged the gap between alternative rage and abrasiveness, and self-parodying pop stars?) They're pop stars, and they know they're pop stars, and they seem to think that the whole thing is a zany lark, akin to a YouTube video that blows up for no apparent reason. You get the sense that they genuinely realize the whole thing is a crap shoot, and that there's nothing all that special about them as people.

It used to be alternative that was the realm of DIY, where you went to see bands that made you feel like you could be in a band just like them. You could never be a New Kid on the Block, but you and your friends could totally pull off a Beasties punk number, and any schmuck could dress that badly. But now it's the guitar bands that seem kind of remote and obscure, while anyone with a sequencer and a webcam can make a video and maybe turn into a pop star. It's like Toto pulled back the curtain, and the millennials decided that Oz was totally great and they wanted a turn at the levers.

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[what does it all mean?]

I don't know, but it's on every hip hop record, and apparently it's New York City Mayor Fiorello Laguardia explaining the moral of a Dick Tracy comic strip over the radio during a newspaper strike (the famous sample kicks in at about 1:27).

The first use is almost certainly Double Dee and Steinski, who included it in their Lesson 1: The Payoff Mix from 1983, an astonishing sound collage.

The more you know ... Star!

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Saturday, April 17, 2010

[national fears]

Because I know a little something about Korea, people often ask me about the Chinese government. I suppose Canadians probably get asked to explain America, so I kind of get it.

In any case, a question that often comes up is why the Chinese government is so terrified of Falun Gong. I don't know from any detailed insider knowledge or anything, but my guess is that it has to do with a vast and little-known war called the Taiping Rebellion.

At roughly the same time that some 600,000 Americans lost their lives in our Civil War, China was going through an epic struggle that cost some 20 million lives — some 30 times as many casualties. (I found one reference to China's population in 1834 as 400 million, while the US had some 31 million in 1860, so the percentage losses are closer: something like 5% in China, and 2% in the US.)

Wars on this scale leave national scars. America certainly hasn't resolved all the racial issues that lay behind the Civil War, and fear of race-based insurrection has continued to haunt the national psyche.

In China, the haunting fear is of a different kind. It's a fear of disruptive religious movements, because that's what Taiping was. Hong Xiuquan, the movement's leader, claimed to be Jesus's brother, and he led what was called the Heavenly Kingdom in a great battle to rid China of Manchu rule and spread a peculiar brand of heterodox Christianity.

So I don't know this for a fact, but I suspect that when Chinese officials see a movement like Falun Gong — a religious movement with the power to mobilize great numbers of people — some national memory of the Taiping disaster kicks in. On a gut level, mass religious zeal produces panic.

None of this is meant to justify the abuse, repression, or torture of any group of people for their religious beliefs, of course. The question isn't whether such repression is OK — it's not — but why it happens, why this group in particular gets the Chinese government's panties in a bunch. And I think that maybe it's that legacy of Taiping.

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Tuesday, April 13, 2010

[lies, damn lies, and sound effects]

Like a lot of folks, I've been watching Life, the Discovery Channel series of nature documentaries in which photographers go to extraordinary lengths to bring back fascinating footage of fauna, which is then edited into anodyne snippets narrated by Oprah Winfrey, who seems to feel obligated to give clever line readings.

OK, so I'm not thrilled with the series. But here's the part that really gets me: the sound effects. And they get me because they're so utterly false.

Whatever you might say about the narratives used to frame the video of animals doing their thang, you can at least look at it and go, "Yup, that bat sure is eating that fish," or whatever. It's a picture of something real. But the sound effects are trickier. Sometimes they're presumably genuine recordings of animals making sounds: the call of a particular bird, the roar of a lion.

Or maybe not.

The trouble is, there are sounds that are evidently faked. Everything underwater, for example. We know that even if they had a mike down there, it would pick up the sound of a diver blowing bubbles, and that would be lame. But what do we hear in the show? The splishy whoosh of this or that fish darting out and eating its prey, or the burble and hiss of coral ejecting eggs. But there is no such sound, or at least nothing that was recorded in the wild for this show. Even worse are the sound effects that go along with slow-motion or time-lapse footage. The sounds aren't slowed, which is again proof that they're faked.

Why does this matter? Because it calls into question every other sound: the crack of the bones that the vultures drop on rocks to break open, the clack of monkeys breaking open nuts with rocks, even the animals' vocalizations. How can I have any confidence that the elephant's trumpet on Life was produced by the elephant on the screen at the time that the elephant was being filmed?

Indeed, and slightly to Life's credit, the show ends each episode with a segment called "Capturing the Shot," which shows photographers gathering the material for the show — and, typically, narrating the moment as they capture it. Which means that they're ruining the sound. Which means that the sounds we hear in the final version are foley effects added later.

It's disappointing. And it's not just Life, either. I was just watching a Nova episode in which a space telescope whooshed by. Did it have to whoosh? But at least there it was glaringly obvious that the sound wasn't real. With nature documentaries, I'd like to feel confident that the roars, squeaks, growls, crunches, and other animal noises are actually animal noises, not reconstructions in a studio. But until a higher standard of honesty prevails, we'll never really know.


Thursday, April 01, 2010

[our pakistan moment?]

For years, Pakistan made a national security bargain. Seeing India as an existential threat, and believing that they couldn't match India's military strength directly, Pakistan's intelligence forces promoted a variety of Islamist terrorist organizations as proxy fighters in Kashmir and elsewhere in India.

It was always a risky scheme, and in the last couple of years, many people, including many in Pakistan, have come to recognize that these state-supported terrorist groups are a far deeper threat to Pakistan's existence than India is.

Here in the US, since 9/11, we've had a fanatical focus on the threat of foreign terrorists. In the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, that was understandable: we thought they were far deadlier than they turned out to be, and we had no idea what was coming next.

Unfortunately, in the panic that ensued, a political culture was created that saw dissent as treason, and dissenters as a danger to our existence. Opponents of, say, the Patriot Act, or the prison at Guantanamo, or the war in Iraq were not just political adversaries but enemies.

Those who created that political climate were making a bargain a little like Pakistan's. A key problem with that kind of rhetoric is what happens when these supposed enemies take over the state, which happened in January of 2009. They took it over, of course, through the constitutional means of free and fair elections, and have done nothing to suggest that there won't be more elections on the same regular schedule Americans are used to. This was hardly a coup d'etat. But no matter. If you've convinced people that the political opposition is an existential threat to your country, then you've got a problem on your hands when the opposition takes over.

What makes this bargain similar to Pakistan's is that America faces significant threats from domestic terrorism. Indeed, through most of our history, domestic terrorism has been far more meaningful than foreign terrorism. The second-worst terrorist attack in our history was the Oklahoma City bombing, carried out by fanatical right-wing American terrorists. And if you lump in other forms of political violence that usually go by other names — lynch mobs, race riots (whatever the race of the rioters), hate crimes, assassinations — it's clear that home-grown fanaticism has been far more dangerous to us than foreign fanatics could ever hope to be.

Let's hope that we don't face another Oklahoma City, or another major assassination. Let's hope that the rhetoric can be brought down to a more responsible level before someone ends up dead. And let's be realistic about what genuinely threatens democracy in America.


Sunday, February 28, 2010

[how to fail like an olympian]

When you watch the Olympics, it can be easy to forget just how ridiculously good these people are at whatever bizarre thing it is they're doing. Take, for example, figure skating. Early in the evening of the ladies' long program, long before Kim Yu-Na and the other medal contenders took the ice, there was Tuğba Karademir, a Turkish skater who ultimately came in 24th.

Now, I have never been the 24th-best person in the world at any particular skill, as far as I know. It's an extraordinary achievement. And yet, watching her skate, it was absolutely clear why she was in a different class from the top five or six skaters in the world. So when you're watching the coverage of a medal contender in the slalom who misses a gate, or of a bobsled team that plays it conservatively and can't shave off that hundredth of a second they need to take the lead, you go, "Yeah, that was a mistake," and you forget how insanely difficult it is to do whatever it is the athletes are doing in the first place.

And after a couple of weeks of that sort of thing, today I went to my Korean dance class, and I imagined what it would mean to be the best in the world at it, or one of the top ten or twenty. For one thing, it would mean practicing more often than once a week for 90 minutes. My dance teacher is an extraordinary dancer, and part of how you get to be that way is to do it a lot. And then there's the level of detail: spending a week or a month or six months concentrating on just the right way to get your torso to expand and contract, or how to extend your fingers to draw out a line.

Beyond that, as I fumbled my way through my little bit of choreography, I started thinking about how much concentration is a part of athletic success. Sometimes, as I dance, some move I've just done half a dozen times will suddenly desert me, and I'll be shrugging my shoulders when I'm supposed to be twirling already, or my arms will be flopping at my sides because I've forgotten where they're supposed to be. Again, this is incredibly far removed from the kind of mental effort that serious athletes make, but I felt like it was an inkling, at the very least, of how it is that someone who's done a routine a thousand times in warm-ups can suddenly flub it in competition.

And now, back to your regularly scheduled programming.

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Wednesday, February 17, 2010

[cold winters]

This winter is the coldest and snowiest I remember in a long time — maybe since my first winter in New York. I was a California boy then, new to the rigors of winter, so I've sometimes wondered whether my recollections were overblown — whether perhaps the winter of '94 had grown harsher in my imagination that it actually was.

Not so.

Here's a fun little sampling of articles on just how rough that season was:
I recall the Columbia campus covered in ice sheets an inch thick that made going to class a treacherous affair. My Lit Hum class was way over in the International Affairs Building, east of Amsterdam Avenue, and getting there required a late-afternoon traverse across the howling wind tunnel of West 120th Street, a canyon between the high walls of Teacher's College and the Columbia campus's forbidding backside. There were many afternoons when I simply didn't make the trip. I had a hard time meeting people and making friends because so few people went out and did anything. But when the snow banks had piled up above the height of the parked cars, someone carved an entire life-sized automobile from snow, with a grinning grille and an icicle for an antenna.

I remember that on that arctic January 17, Martin Luther King, Jr., Day, the pipes in my dorm froze, leading to a basement fire. I heard my RA pounding on my door, shouting, "Get out! Get out! There's a real fire!" — we'd already spent much of the morning waiting out a false alarm in a slowly flooding lobby — and quickly pulling on boots and a coat over my T-shirt and sweat pants before running from the building. I didn't have my wallet or my student ID or socks. It was very, very cold, and there was nowhere for me to go. I begged my way into another dorm, where I sat in the lounge and watched pictures of the aftermath of the Los Angeles earthquake.

There were ice floes on the Hudson. I could see them from my dorm room's sliver of a river view.

I was totally unprepared for a winter like this. I didn't know to get long underwear. My boots were designed for jungle combat and had air vents down by the soles. When at last the snow began to melt, deep slush puddles formed at all the corners, and you could only cross at the corners, where cuts had been made in the towering snow banks. Going to the store directly across the street meant walking to the corner, crossing, and walking back.

I recall a long, wandering, intellectually confused discussion with my Logic and Rhetoric professor, an angry feminist grad student in the English department. I wanted to know what differentiated my B+ essays from my B- essays, and she came around to the position that her methods were holistic and could only be understood once the course was complete. Along the way, she suggested that maybe I needed to experience bad grades because I had already had so much white male privilege, "locker-room camaraderie" and the like. I countered that seeing as how I hadn't actually been on any sports teams, my friend Monica, who played rugby at Wesleyan, had undoubtedly experienced far more locker-room camaraderie than I ever had. This enlightened symposium took place outside in bitter cold. We were both too stubborn or too stupid to suggest going inside somewhere and continuing like civilized human beings.

My work-study job that year was at the reserve desk in the library, another institution dedicated to purging white male privilege. I was the only white person on the staff, and I'm fairly certain that was what my boss disliked about me, though I have no real proof. In any case, whenever I was on duty, it was invariably my job to go outside in the early morning and bring in the books from the drop-bin, which involved unlocking the Master Lock, which in turn required that I hold it in my bare hand until it thawed. Then I had to scrape the ice away from the bin door so that I could open it and retrieve the books. When I suggested that we perhaps wait a bit to open the bin on days when the temperature was in the single digits, it was pointed out to me that this would unfairly enable students to get away with returning their books late by several hours. I didn't think this was such a bad thing, but I wasn't in charge.

When at last the forecast was for 60 degrees, I went alone to Central Park — I was often alone in those days — and sat on a rock, thrilling that I was outside and it didn't hurt.

That was a very hard winter. The hardest I've known. This winter has seen a fair amount of cold and snow, but it's nothing like the winter of '94. 

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Previous Posts

[things i'd like to write about but haven't]
[drop the red lantern]
[how not to apply for a job]
[pop is the new alternative]
[what does it all mean?]
[national fears]
[lies, damn lies, and sound effects]
[our pakistan moment?]
[how to fail like an olympian]
[cold winters]


July 2006
August 2006
September 2006
October 2006
November 2006
December 2006
January 2007
February 2007
March 2007
April 2007
May 2007
June 2007
July 2007
August 2007
September 2007
October 2007
November 2007
December 2007
January 2008
February 2008
March 2008
April 2008
May 2008
July 2008
August 2008
September 2008
November 2008
December 2008
January 2009
February 2009
March 2009
July 2009
August 2009
September 2009
November 2009
December 2009
January 2010
February 2010
April 2010
January 2011
February 2011
July 2011


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