Talky Talkies

The last two books I read were murder mysteries: Death of a Red Heroine, by Qui Xiaolong, set in Shanghai (and GZ!) during the reformist 1990’s; and The Yiddish Policeman’s Union, by Michael Chabon, set in the fictional Jewish state of Sitka, set to revert back to Alaska a la Hong Kong in 1997. Chabon’s book shows the difference between someone who understands and appreciates language and someone who merely writes.

Aside from the fact that Qui (and his editor) lets one of my bugaboos into the book (misuse of ‘comprise’), the language is flaccid, and devoted to the plot. It serves the action and just moves things along. It’s like much popular writing, which is why it’s easy to read: it doesn’t really involve complex ideas or metaphors that demand you pause and consider them. It’s all stock except for the setting, which provides most of the intrigue, and near the end even the mystery tapers off. It’s not a bad book, but I wouldn’t read it again and I am hard pressed to recall even one standout sentence.

Chabon’s writing thrums. Sentences levitate off of the page and circle about your brain. You pause as you think about some of the images, but not too long because you must keep reading. And though the writing certainly rockets the plot forward, the language exists for your pleasure. You read to find out what happened, and just to read some more of the delicious sentences. Chabon doesn’t go to the far end, either, letting the plot and story go to hell for the sake of a perfect sentence. He stays well within the hardboiled genre, with the taut structures and descriptions—though not parsing it down to the piano wire terseness of recent James Ellroy, who seems to have dispensed with whole sentences in The Cold Six Thousand. I can’t recall any exactly right now, but I know that I was stunned probably once per page by Chabon’s writing, and I would pick it up again right away if I didn’t have something else to get to.

The difference is similar to that between The Dark Knight (still fresh in my mind) and, say, any Tarantino film. This is not to say the Dark Knight is badly written, for it isn’t, but there isn’t a line of dialogue that isn’t explicative—not in the Steven Spielberg, talking-head-gives-the-plot mode, but still purposeful and obvious. It’s a hardboiled detective story (Batman is certainly a hard man walking down a hard road in the Chandler sense), but you wouldn’t read the Dark Knight script the way you could read The Maltese Falcon or The Big Sleep . Tarantino’s dialogue also moves things along—rather nicely in some spots—but it exists on its own, too, which makes it much more like stage drama, even in something like Deathproof. It’s that literariness (for want of a better word) that distinguishes much of film from stage.

On Saturday I watched The History Boys, which is pretty much a filmed play. Norman Jewison’s Jesus Christ Superstar, which I love, is as well (okay, so it’s a filmed opera, but whenever I can talk about just how fabulous it is, I will) but uses its locations cinematically, whereas Hytner’s The History Boys doesn’t. That’s where a lot of literarily languaged films and TV shows fail: they have the words but they lack the show. But when they succeed, you get things like Tarantino’s movies—come on, they all stand out from crowd from the first syllable; David Mamet’s movies, though American Buffalo screens like a play, which isn’t due to it’s limited location since Fincher’s Panic Room is definitely a movie, but something in the way that the camera and people relate to the space; and great shows like Deadwood, in which foul words tumble like golden dice in a crystal glass; and, just thinking of it now, Serenity.

I love good dialogue, and though a movie certainly doesn’t need any of it—just see Sunrise or The General—words crackling and spitting up rather than being dying embers just add to the joy. Batman’s dialogue smouldered along. It would have been amazing to see such a great cast delivering lines that sparked up the screen.


The Darkest Knight

I came to Hong Kong to see the Dark Knight.

Yes, it’s really good, probably the best comic book movie made, and yes, Ledger is really good as The Joker, but amidst it all the man who is getting least praise is the man who deserves the most–Christopher Nolan. He co-wrote it and he directed it, and it is he who should be lauded.

Nolan has easily also made the darkest, bleakest superhero movie yet, one which actually does plum the depths of the soul.  It’s not the bleakness of Se7en, but it’s close.  The movies are stunningly similar in important ways, not just because of stolid and moral Morgan Freeman.  But where Brad Pitt fails John Doe’s test,  Batman passes the Joker’s, not succumbing to the Joker’s machinations, and the people on the boats pass in sacrificing themselves, which is something Batman does as well. But rousing moments of glory they are not, buried in the dark photography which rivals Khondji’s work on Se7en, and buried in the torment which the tests have brought up.

Watch Nolan’s movies, from Memento on up. They are all about human nature and tests and what we can do. But watch them for more than that. Watch them for how he works with the actors, which is why I think he deserves a lot of the credit for Ledger’s performance.

The performances, all of them, from Carrie-Ann Moss’s in Mememto, to Robin Williams’s in Insomnia, to Hugh Jackman’s in The Prestige, are top notch, and from people not noted for their acting ability. Hell, he even tames Pacino’s Godzilla like scene munching. Nolan knows how to direct his actors and get exactly what he needs.

The peformances are nuanced and subtle and he knows where to put the camera and what lens to use. Watch Ledger walk out of the hospital. A lovely shot that pulls back to a full height mid-shot that shows his socks and shoes and all the akimbo posturing of Ledger’s Joker.  This skill to show us the actor seems to have been forgotten in the race to proclaim Ledger’s performance one for the ages. It is not. It is a great one and a great counterpart to Nicholson’s careening psychotic.

Nolan and Ledger’s Joker is more like the riddler, an enigma like John Doe. He comes in and leaves the movie as a mystery. Unexplained. A force of chaos more than a man, but a chaos of meticulous planning and execution. Of course, we are enthralled with such clever and diaobolical people. We love the criminal mastermind, particularly one which is the true rebel, beholden to no organisation. But we also like the ones who have their own code of laws, their own honour, and the Joker has none of that, just his raging misanthropy, which is why we reject him.

i don’t wish to take anything away from Ledger, who, again, showed us that he was an uncannily subtle actor, and i think even without the make-up he would have been unrecognizable. But I think the movie really worked because it all did and if the rest of the movie hadn’t been as determined as it was, Ledger’s performance would not have worked at all because it would not have had anything to work against. And that falls to Nolan.

I wish I could see it again before I leave. It deserves another watching. This time I could watch Gary Oldman a little more.  It’s hard to play good, upright, stolid and normal and he was awesome.

I Can See Clearly Now

I needed new glasses. My last pair, a year old, were looking ratty, with the plastic veneer peeling off over the nose. Back in Canada this would have been a major production: tests, many stores to visit to find a pair, waiting, then paying a lot. But I am in Guangzhou, where they have streets for everything. So I headed to Ren Min Lu, just south of the Children’s Hospital, for eyeglasses street.

I rode down after the gym and headed in to the building I go which has two stories of tiny stores. I didn’t venture far, finding some cool stuff at yingxu optical, where, fortunately, Lina, one of the clerks, spoke great English. The store is a closet, but a nicely designed walk-in closet, where their thousand or so frames are all neatly and nicely arrayed. They had these super cool faux-wood frames, which were why I stopped, but they were only wide enough for rodents, not for pumpkin headed people like me.

But I found a great pair of aluminium frames that swoop to match my eyebrows, and got a pair of nice plastic frames for sunglasses. I blew my budget though, doubling it to RMB 850, but the frames are better quality than the last ones. And it’s still below half of what I would spend in Canada. Lina told me that I would have to wait a while, but could I come back at 3pm? It was 1pm. I had my camera, and there’s plenty of stuff to see, so I said sure. She called in about ten minutes to say it would be five, but still, two pairs of glasses in four hours? I am not complaining.

So I got on my bike and rode away. Between then and picking up my glasses—which were ready bang on time—I saw the usual variety of usually unusual things you see in Guangzhou, including a group of people swimming in the Pearl.

piling it on

biking man

Diving in the Pearl

swimming in the pearl

swimming in the pearl


After getting my spanky new frames another of the usual variety of things: sudden thunderstorms and pelting rain; people running; people waiting; people scrunching up under umbrellas; clear skies; workers resting on rubble in front of buildings adorned with glorious socialist realist friezes.

>running in the rain

worker and rubble

death of socialist realism

Another great day in the Lair.

Artful Essays

In Paris I was lucky to catch a show by Alec Soth. His photos were fantastic, and I wish I had bought the books that were there, instead of having to order them off of Amazon like I do now (and possibly have them damaged by the apes at China Post).

A few weeks ago I read part of a series he is collaborating on about the change in fortune in the US and China, as the power of the world slowly transfers. It’s an interesting piece and Soth’s photographs, lovely large format images, are great. The great photo blog, [EV+/-] Exposure Compensation reminded me of them and so I thought I’d pass it along.

Here’s a short video about the project, featuring Soth’s photos

And here are the links to part 1 and part 2, with more to come.

No Really, I’m Straight

Back in Canada, I had a co-worker, Sonja, who joked about outing me. I like musicals, and think Liza in Cabaret is awesome. I like fashion and can dress myself. I can dance and like it. I had a rose garden. It may have been the last thing.

Last night, I picked up a friend’s dog I said I would sit for a few days while she is in Macau gambling. I rode my bike after the gym. So, there I was, in my gym clothes or a sleeveless shirt and shorts, riding home, with a cute, black, toy poodle wearing a pink collar in the basket of my bike, a “women’s” model without a cross bar named (argh) “Princess” (in my defense, I picked it because it was matte black, and the name was covered with packaging), and, as is my wont, whistling or singing because riding my bike makes me happy.

If I had seen me, I would have definitely thought I was as queer as a three yuan note. Reminds me of that great seen in Bringing Up Baby where Cary Grant answers the door wearing a woman’s bathrobe, is questioned by Katherin Hepburn’s mother about why he is in the robe, and he answers, “because I just went gay all of a sudden.”

But I am straight. I think.

Mapping Progress

I was mapping out my latest photo adventure in Guangzhou, described on my other blog, veleur. I had posted more photos on my Flickr site and was trying to find the locations on Yahoo’s satellite map.
Yahoo’s photos are old. They even have a dusty tone to them, like photos left in an attic for decades. The enormous trade fair buildings are merely foundations, etched out like a body. One of the bridges I went over isn’t on the map. It’s interesting to see the massive changes, and I wondered how long ago the images were taken.

I checked out Google’s maps. Google’s satellite photos are clearer and probably only a year or so old. They have that sheen of newness, of drying ink. The new bridge is partially there, as is the base of the new CCTV tower. It also shows just how much of Guangzhou remains farmland and jungle. It’s one of the great things of this city. Modern developments built around a jungle in the middle, ever threatening. Nice linear roads are matched with twisting paths in the centre. The wilds are great places to go. It’s easy to forget that when you live and work hundred of feet up and you can’t see the trees for the forest of concrete.

That’s an indication of just how quickly things grow here. An article in Vanity Fair just pointed out, that in the time since the Twin Towers memorial site was announced, nothing has really happened. But in Beijing, the Olympic buildings, Rem Koolhaas’s CCTV ‘pants’ building are either complete or nearly there. Same in Shanghai. And here, in the Lair, we have the new opera house, an art museum, and a few towers in Guangzhou, that have been built or are nearly finished.

Comparing the maps is one way to see the rapidity of change. Bridges and buildings appear. Neighbourhoods and land disappear. But mapping out the photos shows changes just on the Google Map. On one, from the June 21 ride, I ended up at a large open field of rubble. A guy was filling a bucket from some water pipe which poked up through the debris. A typical Chinese gate arched over a road through another zone of remnants. Looking at this on the Google satellite picture, I can see the gate, but the fields are still traditional Chinese high-density housing: ramshackle buildings packed cheek-by-jowl.

I am annoyed by Google for one small thing, though. The street map (in Chinese) and the satellite map don’t register correctly. I like to map out my routes on the satellite map, but when I switch to the street map, it seems like I rode though buildings or over the surface of water. Nice, but I am neither ghost nor messiah, even if I do preach the bliss of biking.

Here’s the yahoo map

And the Google one

With the Google map, switch between the map and the satellite to see the registration problem.

Consistently Stupid

Back in Taipei, when I was spilling verbiage about movies, I was told I was a movie snob. I hate this since it implies I only like snooty art films with strange titles and/or languages. I simply like good movies, my usual response when someone asks what kind of movies I like.

It’s an unfair answer, but I have some criteria: that it isn’t grossly offensive without a point (leaving out Bad Boys II); it is consistent to itself; and that it doesn’t treat its audience like a bunch of idiots. I don’t want a deus ex machina plucking people out as an excuse of bad filmmaking. If it’s going to be stupid and unbelievable, make it so from the git go.

Included here are musicals (what, do you sing and tap dance all the time?), most of the great HK cinema from the 1980’s and early 90’s (Swordsman, Chinese Ghost Story, the Woo actioners, and, the great, great Bride with the White Hair), porn, The Fifth Element, and another which comes from the Besson stable of insane action, the Transporter movies, of which, I was tickled to find out, there is going to be a third. They all share an uncomplicated narrative structure with porn—spectacle linked by explication. And people don’t go to porn for the talky bits.

The ridiculous actions interspersed with perfunctory but serviceable dialogue is where the Transporter movies, particularly the second, shine. The second, is better because it has less dialogue, less shrieking Shu Qi–though it has more shrieking Matthew Modine— more supermodels in lingerie two-handing some bad-ass guns, and only a cursory nod to real-world physics like gravity. Statham is able to pull it all off with his laconic, stony demeanour because if someone else were to scream “yee ha” as removed a bomb from his car’s undercarriage by using the dangling hook of a construction crane, leaping and spinning the car just at the point of detonation (money shot), we wouldn’t buy it.

It is an unbelievably stupid movie. The director, Louis Leterrier (could it be a better name? Terriers, as Bruce McCulloch knows, are the best breed), is aware it’s a dumb movie and doesn’t pretend it’s anything else (which is why I have a decidedly jell-o-y spot for the Charlie’s Angels movies but may be due to Crispin Glover, Bill Murray, and Sam Rockwell), and you buy it, refusing to shout “jesus, there’s just no way he jumped his car through a cement wall to land on another building” or then ask yourself “wait, just how the f@ck does he get down, the stairs?”

It doesn’t matter. The kinetic energy is such that it plows right through such things. It’s a wormhole, jumping you past the plot holes that exist in our universe. Seijin Suzuki used the same ideas–though far more stylistically–in both Tokyo Drifter and Branded to Kill. As long as the things don’t slow down and keep you entertained without insulting you, it’s fine. Suspension of disbelief is a wonderful thing but it has its limits.