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Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Shakespearean Plays on Stage

It occurred to me that I should keep a record of the ones I've seen on stage:

Richard III (STC, lead: Stacy Keach)
King Lear (STC, modern version set in the Balkans)
Henry V (Folger, lead: Zach Appelman)
Much Ado About Nothing (STC, set in Cuba)
Romeo and Juliet (STC, all male production)
Coriolanus (STC 2013)
Measure for Measure (STC 2014)
Richard III (Folger Theater 2014, lead: Drew Cortese)
Henry IV, Part 1 (STC 2014, Stacy Keach as Falstaff)
Henry IV, Part 2 (STC 2014)
Julius Caesar (Folger 2014)

Aim to see at least one in London (The Globe) and one in Stratford-upon-Avon.

Into the Woods (movie)

Before the movie came out, Sondheim fans were worried that Disney would pour syrup all over the original musical and fuck it up. After the movie came out the complaints seemed to die down, but I still think the movie has been sugarized and messed up.

Let's not kid ourselves. The marketing campaign for the movie gave it away. The movie was marketed as a "family film" and it is adapted in that way. People who had never seen the original musical or the video of the original musical or who didn't know Sondheim from Speilberg took their kids to see the film. How could they possibly be given the musical in its original way as intended by Sondheim and Lapine?

Case in point is how the Wolf is kept --- but not really --- in the movie. The sexually suggestive song he sings to the Little Red Riding Hood ("Hello Little Girl") is quickly gotten out of the way in a blur. Not to mention the costume ... Awkward ...

And the movie does nothing for one of the main themes of the musical: parent-child relationships. No one would come out of the movie with any enlightenment or insight about this. What a waste. Into the Woods was, in some ways, Sondheim's psychological processing of his troubled relationships with a narcissistic mother and a father who escaped to save himself and left his son to drown. Damned if you got any of that from the movie.

The most important song in the musical is "No One is Alone." In the movie, the setup for the song gives you a fraction of its meaning and emotional depth. Everything is dumbed down and dashed off, as if afraid the audience would actually think about the lyrics and messages and meaning, and feel slightly disturbed.

One critic observed that the tempo of the songs in the movie is too slow. I think the reason is that most of the actors couldn't sing them properly. Movie actors are shit at singing, especially such difficult songs. The much revered great Meryl Streep was pretty shit at playing the witch too. Bernadette Peters can destroy her performance with a few verses.

This is why I prefer the stage to movies. 

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Procrastination

Apparently the "war" on procrastination has been raging around the world. Hanging out on the Chinese twitter, I saw how the issue has become a fashionable epidemic among the ambitious and upward-mobile Chinese youths. Hmm. And of course self-help books that claim to cure your procrastination problem fill up bookshelves in the only bookstore left in my neighborhood.

I don't have any remedy to cure anybody's procrastination. I am bothered by my own apparent tendency to put off doing things that are unnecessary but not enjoyable, sometimes, occasionally. I can't cure myself or anyone of occasional laziness.

The thing is, I just recently realized that institutions and even companies that are supposed to be ruthless money-driven machines procrastinate, and far worse than any individual person. People put off not only doing their work but making decisions that affect others' work downstream. And the problem is rampant. Especially by the end of the year, all the previously unmade and delayed decisions have snowballed into a gigantic snowball that swallow a bunch of innocent bystanders who did nothing to contribute to the others' indecision and laziness.

Yeah, indeed, when institutional procrastination is far worse and destructive than minor transgression by individuals, why beat oneself up over it?

It's perfectly logical for institutions to procrastinate than individual persons, because an individual knows the direct and first-hand effect of delays in doing laundry and taking out trashing, but the effects of procrastinating on making decisions and doing work in an organization are almost completely painless, until your boss or colleague comes to your office and looks at you with disgust and reproach. It's all the more painless when employees on salary see no difference in their paycheck, regardless of how much they have slacked off.

Corporations are not people, and people seem to know that instinctively. That is why they don't give a shit at work.

Thursday, December 25, 2014

Portrait of Jennie


The movie Portrait of Jennie left a strong and lasting impression on me when I first saw it on TV in my early teens. Re-watching it now (available on YouTube here), it holds up remarkably well. The cinematography, shot on location in New York City (very realistic) and Massachusetts (not so realistic), is beautiful, especially the foggy and moonlit night scenes. Some scenes were clearly shot through a gauze or cloth to make them look like oil paintings on canvases. The soundtrack is also fabulous, in which Dmitri Tiomkin cannibalized several Debussy's themes (I only recognize "Faun") rather perfectly. It walks a fine line between a cheesy ghost story and a palatable fantasy about time distortion. I think what made it work well is the early skating scene in broad daylight, which establishes a solid and sunny presence for the female character.

I see some degree of imitation of Portrait of Jennie in at least two later time-related fantasy novels (both were also adapted for screen): Somewhere in Time by Richard Matheson and The Time Traveler's Wife by Audrey Niffenegger. Matheson even used the same device of a painting as a means of freezing time. In my opinion neither achieves the same degree of ghostliness and whimsy as Robert Nathan and the movie. Matheson's novel is a bit overlong and overwrought, while Niffenegger's writing is utterly unreadable and puke inducing.

The only complaint I have about the movie is the casting. Both Jennifer Jones (28) and Joseph Cotten (43!) are too old for their roles. On the other hand, if the star weren't Jones, David O. Selznick would not have thrown loads of money at the production and insisted on shooting all the outdoor Central Park scenes on location.

When I saw the movie in the mid-1980s, China was just opening up and imported a number of classic movies through some kind of contract with CBS and showed them on TV. Among these movies were some Shirley Temple fluff. Portrait of Jennie was perhaps my favorite of the bunch. Around the same time I saw "The Third Man" (incidentally also starring Joseph Cotten) at least twice. Without knowing any background about them, I was utterly fascinated by these two movies, even though I couldn't understand half of the context and meaning (especially "The Third Man"). The movies that went down easily and happily left no impression whatsoever. In fact I was quite bored with the song and dance stuff or the cute Shirley with golden curls.

Indeed it seems that I had excellent taste at an early age --- another piece of evidence to support the theory that taste is an instinct. You either have it or you don't. Shit taste is rampant, but that cannot be helped.

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Whims 2014

At the end of the summer, I dragged DH with me up to the Deep Creek Lake in Maryland and hopped into it twice. Did not swim for more than 15 minutes each time, as it was quite cold. Whenever I submerged my head into the murky lake water, the cold shocked it like an icy clamp. So I turned over and floated on my back, with the backhalf of the head in water. It was all right, but unlike the rosy, filtered memory of that one other time when I had swam in a lake nearly three decades ago. It had been unbearably hot that summer and the water had been comfortably warm. My mother took me on a retreat of sort sponsored by her employer. I spent the idle days with a couple of her colleagues' daughters. There was a translation of Italo Calvino's Italian Folktales collection lying around, which I devoured in a couple of days.

A couple of weeks before Christmas, I again dragged DH (poor Mr. S) with me up to New York City and skated at the Wollman Rink in Central Park. It is smaller than one would infer from photographs, but I liked it nevertheless. The vegetation growing by the boards and the rocks and trees of the park surrounding the ice are an odd contrast to the skyscrapers in the background. The ice is of an irregular shape, suggesting that it used to be a pond on which people skated. Incidentally (or perhaps logically), this fancy was also related to a memory from childhood -- the movie "Portrait of Jennie" starring Jennifer Jones and Joseph Cotton (based on a novella by Robert Nathan). A painter met a strange girl in Central Park one winter, and they skated on the ice rink. In the movie the park was deserted, leaving only the two of them in the world.

Saturday, November 29, 2014

Infectious Diseases in A Dance With Dragons

Pale Mare in the siege of Meereen is pretty obviously dysentery, with bloody, explosive diarrhea that causes severe dehydration and death. Curiously, dysentery was a major cause of death in the camps during the American Civil War, another war related to slavery. At Gettysburg, it has been reported that twice as many soldiers died of infectious diseases than those died of battle wounds. Besides dysentery, typhoid and malaria were also major killers.

The greyscale took me a while to figure out. That childhood infection is less fatal, lifelong immunity, and residual scarring are based on smallpox. The description of blind, stumbling, zombie-like stone men on the Bridge of Dream is not smallpox. They have grey, hardened, cracking skin. One of the stone men shattered a leg crashing onto the Shy Maid but appeared to feel nothing and continued his attack. So then it must be based on leprosy.

Caused by two types of mycobacterium infection, leprosy is characterized by tumor growths and discolored skin patches. Peripheral nerve death over time can lead to loss of fingers and limbs and blindness.

Jon Connington was infected by greyscale and began to notice discoloration and numbness in a finger, but he intended to hide it for as long as he could. Leprosy has a long incubation period from infection to manifestation ranging from 5 to 20 years.

Leprosy is now curable with anti-mycobacterium antibiotics (but not vinegar or wine bath). 

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Visitors by Godfrey Reggio (with Philip Glass and Jon Kane)



It's kind of funny for me to talk about something like Visitors. Maybe I should draw something and post it as a commentary --- but then I suck at drawing.

I think the intention and effects of Godfrey Reggio's movie Visitors are fairly obvious if one is familiar with modern art. The point is to speak directly to and interact with the audience's emotions.

In one of the DVD featurettes, Reggio said something like, music speaks directly to people's emotions or souls, "It doesn't go through the metaphor." The images in Visitors get close to the same effect, although some shots (I suspect) are not entirely free of metaphors, such as the shots of trash bags tumbling down en masse and the lowland gorilla staring sadly at rows of human audience's heads.

I often think of something Joseph LeDoux wrote: the human brain has not evolved to integrate the conscious thinking top layer and the instinctive feeling lower layer. The point of music, modern art, images, etc., is to get straight to the lower layer without the mediation and interference of the top layer (which is what I am doing --- all words are top-layer abstract stuff).

The movie's title and the bookending shots of the moon's surface suggest a view of perhaps aliens. I imagine aliens would not have very different reactions to the shots of human faces and those of square buildings and windows. But we do. We humans have vastly different reactions to them.

Saturday, November 8, 2014

Julius Caesar at Folger

"Et tu, Brute?"
Everyone has his (or her) idea. I want to believe my idea is closer to Shakespeare's original intention, but Robert Richmond probably would disagree.

One of the things I disagree with with Richmond is Cassius. He is played with an evil air, flailing his hands and arms like a villain, exuding spite in his condemnation of the tyrant. My friend who went to see the play with me said that Cassius is often interpreted as an Iago-like character. I was, like, no! Cassius is not a villain. He is a radical, an agitator, an extremist, but a wise one who knows that a radical does not win over the masses. Therefore he needs Brutus, the most honorable and trusted Roman senator, on his side. And Brutus is ideologically against Caesar the would-be emperor from the start. Cassius only needs to convince him that assassination is the only way. Cassius talks passionately about his cause; there is no sign to indicate he does not mean it. In the end he dies heroically on the battlefield. He is no Iago.

This issue goes deeper into the heart of the play itself. Between Caesar/Antony and the Senators, Shakespeare takes no side whatsoever. Both sides wholeheartedly believe their own righteousness and neither side is portrayed as malicious or weaselly. Caesar is written with signs of potential tyranny, but then the conspirators swarm and stab him to death (they have reasons for that, too). Nobody is saintly or whitewashed. Here Shakespeare truly splits down in the middle. Just because Antony and Octavius win and Brutus and Cassius lose in the end, it is no indication of where the writer's sympathies lie. People instinctively associate virtue with victory. Not Shakespeare. Certainly not in this play. Unfortunately this production's sympathy tilts in favor of Caesar/Antony and against the senators. It's a misstep in my opinion.

Perhaps it is not entirely true that Shakespeare takes no side. His sympathy clearly lies with Brutus. Brutus is (as GRRM calls) the viewpoint character for the whole thing. In a play otherwise filled with testosterone and politics, we see the tender domestic moments between Brutus and his wife --- which is botched in this production, as both my friend and I agree. Brutus chooses to murder his friend to save the republic and democracy. He is the example of "the human heart in conflict with itself." He is true and noble to the core. He wins battles and is gentle to his wife and his page. When Antony says Brutus is "the noblest of Roman of them all," he is speaking for the author. But look where honor and noble qualities get him, poor Brutus. The public can be bribed with a few pretty words and coins --- this is democracy for you. Caesar is dead but dictators immediately follow and senators are killed off. He is the quintessential tragic hero, because he represents the selfless courage, but it's all a waste.

If that is life, why not live like Jack Falstaff?

Hence my final complaint about this production. Brutus, played adequately but too quietly by the English actor Anthony Cochrane, lacks the presence and inner conflicts to become the center of the play.

*****

There is no shortage of violence in Shakespearean plays. This one is full of close-range stabbings. Not only do they stab Caesar, but a few other characters stab themselves too. The lines are littered with references to the gut. It's all very visceral.

In the middle of the assassination scene, which by the way was staged not too bloody and lacked a viciousness, an image appeared in my mind: A bright sunny morning, on the Forum in Rome, on the stone-paved square before the senate, a group of old and middle-aged men descend upon an old man and stab him wherever they can get a blade in, like a murder of crows swarming a corpse. Blood is spewing everywhere, splattered on the senators' faces and togas. Then, just as quickly, they disperse from the body, standing aside and staring at the lifeless pile of rag soaked in blood, trembling with fear and adrenalin. Dead silence falls upon the Forum.

Stabbing is such an intimate act of killing. It's also such an Italian thing.

Politics has always been soaked in blood and death, including many public ones. We modern people have forgotten the bodies hanging on market squares and the heads on spikes on city walls.

*****

I imagine it would be very difficult to stage a very bloody and visceral public stabbing scene. Obviously you can't stop the play to mop up all the fake blood poured on stage. Yet without blood poured all over the stage, somehow it's just not very horrible.

Overall this production is oddly stiff. My friend calls the staging "static." Characters do not move around a lot and rarely touch each other. They keep their distance. I also do not like the costume. In the first half, they wear vaguely medieval clothes. In the second half, the war scenes were moved to World War I military wear. Richmond explained that he was influenced by the WWI memorial activities in UK earlier this year. I don't think it's very effective. In my mind, everyone in the play should wear white togas and, when necessary, bear their flesh. It would cost less. The blood on white toga would be so much more in your face. The production is too English and not enough Italian.

I don't understand the urge to "modernize" the staging and costumes in many Shakespearean plays. The attempts to scream at the audience that Shakespeare is still relevant today to them are rather silly. If you can't hear and see the plain universal relevance in the words, you are wasting your time.

Thursday, November 6, 2014

A Theory of Laziness (2)

Similar to physical strength, there is variation in the attention reservoir between any two people and within one person over time. Some have more muscle; some have more endurance; some have less; some are weaker. Mental capacity is probably more complicated, and the rate of ego depletion or exhaustion may depend on the activity and effort. Some people may have more to begin with. A small minority of the population need substantially less sleep than the rest of us. Some people mentally lift more for longer than others.

Obviously, a person's strength peaks in youth and decline in the middle age. I suspect the same curves can be observed in the brain. Neuronal loss and brain mass shrinkage are natural aging process. Older adults' brain compensate for the loss to an extent by increasing processing efficiency. But the
decline is inevitable.

We already know that watching TV is less strenuous than reading, and reading is less strenuous than writing. Lying is more strenuous than telling the truth or omitting the truth, except for psychopaths. The energy expended by the brain in any task can be quantified by measuring the radioactively labeled glucose consumption and blood flow in the brain.

I suspect this is why, most of the time, we prefer reading/writing emails to writing a long, complicated article (like what I'm doing now). Organizing a collection of thoughts and ideas and sort out the logic and connections between them and put it all down into words is heavier lifting than responding to one question, one thought, on a single matter, one email at a time. I am feeling this difference right at the moment. I can spend hours reading and answering emails without fatigue, but writing an article or technical document exhausts me after a couple of hours.

So, is it any wonder that we would rather doodle on the Web and check and re-check emails every 15 minutes rather than do some real work for an hour? The same reason humans would rather watch TV than reading a book, even though neither has a very long history in evolution. The same reason most people love to hear stories but only a select few can tell stories, and making up stories is an even rarer talent.

A Theory of Laziness (1)

I am developing a theory about laziness.

The phenomenon of ego depletion has been observed. It describes the observable limitation of attention and self-control. A famous experiment showed that people are more likely to reach for a chocolate cake over fruit after a mental exercise.

Is mental capacity and its exhaustion analogous as physical strength?

To an extent, yes.

When I am well rested, I can run/swim/skate harder than when I am tired. I am tired when I have done a certain amount of physical activity. This is not so apparent in mental effort, because most mental activities during the day do not bring on a sore brain, just like walking around for a few minutes at a time, doing some very light housework, or driving the car would not cause sore muscle. However, the muscle gets sore quickly and reliably if I lift a couple of dumbbells up to my capacity. I have become aware that certain mental exertions can be similarly exhausting. For example, I was reviewing the statistical analysis plan of a study I just picked up yesterday afternoon. After spending almost two hours with full and deep attention on the document, I could not finish it. My reading and thinking speed slowed down considerably. I knew my brain was tired. I had to rest a bit, go on to some less strenuous work, and resume the mental "heavy lifting" today.

We instinctively prefer sitting to standing, standing to walking, walking to running. Without added reasons --- improving health, building muscle, losing weight --- we naturally choose resting to activity. Resting takes up less energy, obviously. The instinct likely came from the need for energy preservation during the long history of food/energy scarcity. Among all organs in the body, the brain is disproportionally energy expending. So it makes sense that our instinct also favors a state of inaction in the brain. Like physical objects, the body would return to the low-energy state as much as possible. It burns energy to do strenuous activity, mental or physical.

In other words, being lazy is a natural instinct. Without other factors, we would all be lazy if we can.

Of course, things are never so simple with the brain. 

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

The Son by Jo Nesbø

Well, realism it has not. There is a lot of religious (more specifically, Christian or Catholic) references in the novel, making it rather clear that the eponymous character is supposed to have some basis in Jesus. Yeah, what a Jesus it is! Murders and mayhem this Jesus brings to the underworld of Oslo. At times it reads like one of those relentlessly violent movies currently in vogue, and even the underlying dramatic drive is the same as those movies --- revenge. It gets a bit tiresome just because of the hardened indifference to all the bloodletting. The characters are pretty cardboard and the details quickly descend into incredulity after a few chapters of neat Sherlock Holmesian detective work early on. I know he is striving for the religious symbolism, but the insistence of the avenger's purity and innocence gets pretty hokey as the bodies pile up. I mean come on!

But as a thriller it's all done in good fun. The thing that actually bothers me is his (by now obvious) machismo. It's not misogyny, but still it is irritating that the women in Nesbo's books always need rescuing by the men. He kind of tries to keep it under control in the Harry Hole series, but here the romantic scenes between Jesus, I mean Sonny, and his Magdalena --- a weak and withering flower of a social worker --- are so sappy it makes paperback romances look sophisticated. The amount of violence does not drown out the bad romance, sorry.

Anyway, the thing is, Nesbo is the best writer at pacing, bar none. Man oh man I wish I had his secret of relentless, impeccable, addictive pacing. How the hell does he do it?

Sunday, November 2, 2014

Antony and Cleopatra

Yesterday I was thinking which of the plays I have seen and read is my favorite. Can't narrow it down to one. King Lear was the first and foremost, of course. Macbeth is the most different. Also love Henry IV, Part 1. And Much Ado, which I never get tired of watching. It's like what Woody Allen said about pizza and sex.

But I want to read Antony and Cleopatra again, maybe a few more times. I think of it as the "kitchen sink" play. It's got a bit of everything --- war, politics, sex, love and death, pettiness and silliness, jokes. From the biggest to the smallest, from the highest (international war) to the lowest (bedchamber humor). It's got everything and anything and goes all around the world.

In the face of such voluptuousness, perfection becomes a totally useless and meaningless concept.

Monday, October 27, 2014

Powerful Female Characters

One of the irritating things is how famous and popular Shakespeare is. Because he is so damned popular, a lot of people think they know what these plays are about when they really don't. People throw around stuff like, his female characters are merely decorations to the male characters, which is a clear sign that they have not actually read any of the plays except maybe Hamlet. Of all the Shakespearean plays I've read, Hamlet is the only one about weak women with two parallel characters in the Queen and Ophelia, a mother and a daughter, fucked over by men and just taking it dumbly. The rest, uh, not even close.

Funny how "strong female characters" are suddenly a "thing" these days. When people talk about this, they usually mean Katniss Everdeen from Hunger Games. Not that I want to knock Hunger Games, but come on. What does this say about women's place in society in our time? I'd hardly regard such a cliche as great assurance for a thoroughly free mind.

Male authors tend to write women into stereotypes, a more polite term is "archetypes." The most prominent types are the virgin and the whore, or the mother and the femme fetale. Whatever. With impeccable insight, Catholicism tells us that the virgin and the mother are the same woman (at least to men): a de-sexualized female who is infinitely loving and accepting and omnipotent to our every wish and need. The whore is the woman he both wants and fears. Anyway, Carl Jung might have better explanations about all this. All I'm trying to say is that male writers tend to write female characters that are not too real or diverse and rather tend to fall into these categories. (I'm not trying to be completely one sided about it. Female writers cast male characters in the stereotypical images of their father figure and greatest fear too.)

Incidentally, the two female archetypes are exactly the two female characters in Hamlet, except the roles are somewhat twisted around. The mother is the whore, whose sexuality has contributed to the destruction of the kingdom. The lover is the virgin, who is too weak to bear the leading man's complicated needs and desires and baggage. Therefore, neither provides quite enough fulfillment of the male audience's fantasy for the perfect partner. I am finally at an age where I can imagine how instinctively disturbing Queen Gertrude is to men. Ophelia, on the other hand, is a perfect tragic virgin lover to a lot of men. Again it has taken me a long, long time to sympathize with this fantasy.

Outside of Hamlet, however, the women rarely fall into these types. In fact they are often very scary, and their scariness often do not come from their seductive sexual power over the male characters. In fact, Shakespeare seems to be especially fond of a type of women who are, for lack of a better expression, headstrong. The good ones, the bad ones, they are all so damned willful!

For example, Juliet of Capulet runs away with the guy she is supposed to hate, in open defiance of her parents. Do you think that's easy for a thirteen-year-old aristocratic girl? Then Desdemona runs away from home to that guy who is no match for her family, in the middle of the night, when her dad is asleep. Anyone who thinks Desdemona is just another victim should go read the play. From the first to the last scene, she is sometimes confused and sometimes retreating from madness, but she is no weakling. In the last moments she is screaming that she's never had an affair with Cassio and she is not guilty of anything. Her husband overpowers her with brute strength but never gains any psychological upper hand. See also Portia (Merchant of Venice), Isabella (Measure for Measure), Regan, Goneril, and Cordelia (King Lear), Cleopatra (Antony and Cleopatra), Lady Macbeth (Macbeth), Queen Tamora (Titus Andronicus), Volumnia (Coriolanus); each is tougher than the next and every single one of them knows what she wants and grabs it with no apology. In other words, they are powerful.

A lot of men, including male writers, don't like women who are too powerful and would never write them. Perhaps just as many women are equally uncomfortable with powerful women. That is why headstrong female characters are uncommon and widely disliked or misunderstood. Look how public perception of Juliet, Desdemona, and Cordelia is softened from their original shapes to become more palatable as good women. The funny thing is that not only did Shakespeare write a whole of tough cookies, but they can be both good and bad. They are a force of nature that, like the crashing waves, can kill you or carry you to the heavens (or both). They are sometimes terribly destructive. This is something that today's writers are unable to deal with. So powerful female characters have to be good and stay good and be the perfect mother figure, so as not to threaten the sensibility of readers and writers themselves. But if we never acknowledge and accept the destructiveness of power, we will never be real.

Then there's one of my favorite female characters of all time, Beatrice (Much Ado About Nothing). When asked how he can write so many interesting and believable female characters, GRRM said he just puts himself in their shoes and treats female characters like male characters, ie, like human beings. The fact that Beatrice is such a meticulous mirror image of Benedick is proof that Shakespeare takes the same approach. If you can treat them all like human beings, you won't need stereotypes.

Stuff That Stays With You

After Othello is informed of the truth, it's perfectly reasonable and expected to say things like these to express his regret and lay down some sort of defense of his actions. 

Speak of me as I am; nothing extenuate,
Nor set down aught in malice: then must you speak
Of one that loved not wisely but too well;
Of one not easily jealous, but being wrought
Perplex'd in the extreme;

And lines like these below fit the context and serves to conclude the play.

I kissed thee ere I killed thee: no way but this;
Killing myself, to die upon a kiss. 

Yet between these lines comes something weird, an intrusion of a memory of violence and sudden death, something like, "Many years ago in a foreign land, there was this guy who was talking trash about Venice and I just went up to him and stabbed him in the heart, just like this."
And say besides, that in Aleppo once,
Where a malignant and a turban'd Turk
Beat a Venetian and traduced the state,
I took by the throat the circumcised dog,
And smote him, thus.

The image is so sudden and so vivid and so violent that I don't understand it at all. I can't understand it in a rational, intellectual sense. It's just a brick that hits me between the eyes and leave me blinded and stunned.

I keep thinking about this strange insertion. If I were to write an academic analysis on this ending, I'd get an F. But then if it makes perfect sense, I would not be haunted by it now, would I? It drives me crazy trying to imagine what's going through Othello's mind in that moment, right after he has made up his mind to punish himself with death. It goes something like, oh well, I hate myself, I cannot bear it to live another moment with my guilt and shame and without her, so here we go, I'll just stab myself right there and make it quick, because I know where the human heart is, and that's because all those years ago when I was a hot-blooded young man I grabbed a guy by the throat and stabbed him, and he died instantly, his confused and vacant eyes staring at me. The sun was scorching like a nightmare, I remember, and the streets were full of people; they all looked at me with horror and shock and disgust, just like these Venetians who are staring at me now ...

This is the kind of shit that stays with you: weird but true, shocking but makes sense, out of nowhere but deep down honest. Who can do this? Almost no one.

Saturday, October 25, 2014

Dark Places by Gillian Flynn

Dark Places is perhaps bleaker than Gone Girl, and much less playful or, uh, meta. The men are despicable and desperate, basically irredeemable. The women are slightly better, even though some of them are pretty cringe worthy, too. At least they seem to have more life in them than the men.

The poverty she describes is grotesque. It makes everything and everyone in the story grotesque, even those who supposedly have money. I must admit I did want to know what it's like, egged on by a morbid curiosity, so it would not be fair for me to complain about it now. It's not easy to read. No wonder people want escapist entertainment. Lousy, pathetic lives like a puddle of mud. Can't they have a bit of color and dignity too? Ugh. 

Sometimes I feel I've always had a bit of princess tendencies. Now I am just terribly grateful for it.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Shakespeare and GRRM on HBGoT

At the invitation of the host of the marvelous History Behind Game of Thrones Web site, I am writing several articles about the similarities between Shakespeare and A Song of Ice and Fire series.

The first entry comparing Petry Baelish (aka Littlefinger) to Iago is published today. (Whoohoo!)

Monday, October 20, 2014

Macbeth

I was discussing Macbeth and supernatural elements with a friend yesterday and something occurred to me. How did the weird sisters and their weird black magic go down so smoothly with the realistic side of the story?

Most of Shakespeare's plays are pretty realistic. Magical elements are used more often in A Midsummer Night's Dream, the Tempest, and this. Old Hamlet made just one appearance. With today's terminology, his works were "low magic."

Then I realized that everything that happens in Macbeth could happen without the magic. There is nothing in the plot that conflicts with human nature --- greed, ambition, murder, paranoia, conscience. Take out all the eerie "weird" stuff in the play, the story could very well happen exactly the way it does. The "blessings" the witches give Macbeth at the start of the play can be nothing more than the ambitions that have been brewing in Macbeth's mind for some time.

Funny, isn't it? If the witches come to him and say instead, "We know you are plotting to usurp Duncan's throne, but we're telling you it will all end in tears for sure," do you think Macbeth would agree, "OK, you're right, I will abandon my ambitions and be content with what I already have"? Do people really do this naturally? In a sense the witches played fair. They told Macbeth that, although you will be the next king, Banquo's offspring will take over for the next eight generations (BTW, Banquo's son does not become king by the end of the play, which might have been a slip-up). He knows this from the start. Then he goes on to do what he would do anyway, prophecy or not. Isn't this how people behave? They do what their nature dictates, not what is best for them. Not rationally.

Hence this is the difference between Greek tragedies and Shakespearean tragedies. I'm not saying either is superior to the other. Rather, Greek tragedies focus on the futility of people's intentions and plans in the face of much more powerful forces of nature beyond human control, such as coincidences, the tide of time, and what the rest of society does. You want to be a good person or a hero, but the world and fate have other plans, and you are just too small to change that. Shakespeare, on the other hand, is talking about the externalization of human motives. We project our hidden desires and socially unacceptable motives onto the people and world outside ourselves to escape the guilt and shame. It is the struggle between id and superego projected onto witches and magic.

Yet again, one has to admit, Shakespeare basically invented psychoanalysis!

Monday, October 6, 2014

Shakespeare Notes

I've decided to read all Shakespearean plays, maybe the sonnets too, in the next year or two or three.

First, taking an inventory of the plays I have read recently:

Julius Caesar
Anthony and Cleopatra
Henry V
Henry IV (Part I)
Othello
King Lear
Titus Andronicus
Macbeth

The next play I want to read is Macbeth. Knock on wood for good luck, given its reputation.

Sunday, October 5, 2014

Starting From the End

I don't know what triggered this realization but it occurred in the shower. I was thinking about Othello again --- yes, Shakespeare and GRRM are two things that tend to pop into my head randomly during the day without particular reasons. 

Obviously, it had been decided from the start, that Othello has to kill Desdemona and then kill himself. The play opens with a trial, in which D's father accuses Othello of using witchcraft to seduce Desdemona, and end with another trial, in which Othello accuses and sentences his wife to death for the crime of adultery, and then pronounces her guilty and carries out the execution himself. He is mistaken. Once he discovers the truth, he kills himself.

From Point A to Point Z are a series of events. If I scrutinize these events, it is clear that they are all intricately linked. If any of the events go wrong (for Iago), the ending would be unlikely to happen: If Othello did not believe Iago's innuendo, if Desdemona did not drop her handkerchief, if Cassio did not get himself drunk at Iago's bidding, if Emilia were slightly more suspicious of her husband's strange request to steal the handkerchief from her mistress, if Desdemona weren't so oblivious to her husband's bizarre reactions to her pleas for Cassio, if she weren't so fond of Cassio, if Cassio had not got the promotion that Iago coveted ... Or one could dig deeper and suppose if Othello weren't black or had not risen from the bottom and therefore didn't have a repressed inferiority complex, if Desdemona weren't such a strong-willed, somewhat-spoiled aristocratic girl from the most prominent Venetian family and therefore a bit oblivious, if Iago were not in love with Othello/Desdemona/whatever his hidden motive, if the Turkish army weren't threatening to take Cypress, if Othello confronted her earlier rather than stewing in his suspicions, if he did let her vehement denials shake his belief just a tiny bit, if Emilia came with her explanations five minutes sooner ... If anything in these elements goes wrong, Othello and Desdemona would not have come to their demise.

Shakespeare was playing a very tenuous, high-risk game here. His chain of events could have easily lost credibility with the audience and appeared excessively manipulative if he had not plotted these events and characters carefully. The only reason we do not feel his hand of manipulation (only Iago's) is how he crafted these people and events with the utmost believability. Even without Iago, Othello and the audience would spontaneously wonder, even if subconsciously, why the most eligible girl in Venice would marry him --- old, black, not very rich, with no aristocratic family background. Well, no, not marry, but running away from her father's house into his arms with no regard for the marriage contract. Why wouldn't she be attracted to the dashing young lieutenant who is of her age with a reputation of a ladies' man? Iago only needs to verbalize what Othello himself is already thinking and give him the gentlest nudge. It is also what we, with our own notions of well-matched couples, have already been thinking as well. This is what Shakespeare uses --- the snake in our own heart that Iago merely awakens. That is why the whole chain of events seem so fucking convincing.

If anything goes wrong, of course they would not die. But they have to die, from the moment Shakespeare put the first word on paper. It wouldn't have been a tragedy if they don't die --- it would be "Much Ado About Nothing" instead. The key is to make us forget about the inevitability of the ending and create the illusion that, at any moment in the process, a slight "what if" could have reversed the course and saved them. That's why it is so fucking irresistible.

This is the crucial part that makes and breaks a story. You have a beginning and an end. Can you make the end seem heartbreakingly inevitable? Can you set up a chain of causes and effects that convince the reader? Is your hand both deft and invisible? How the middle leads naturally and inevitably to the doom is what separates masterpieces from mediocre ones and stupid ones. Masterpieces build the middle on human truths and universal flaws. Lesser ones use cheap tricks. Romeo and Juliet may have been undone by Friar Laurence's messenger, but the familial feuds and cycle of revenge loom larger. We can tell what are true deficiencies we are all guilty of and what are convenient coincidences dreamed up by the author.

GRRM does the same thing. Ned Stark has to die. It was decided before the first book began. Robb Stark has to die, too. This was decided before the first book was finished, although it does not come until the third novel. The whole magic is about how to get there without a whiff of cheap trick and lazy plotting. Of course they are all authors' manipulation, but the hand must be invisible, and the only way to stay invisible is a test to the authors' insight into the truth, the human truth. If you can't keep the middle real, the end would come out looking like crap. 

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Daenerys Targaryen and Elizabeth I

From Dany's point of view, Daario is perfect for her at this particular point in her life. Setting aside his seductive looks and the overt physical attraction between them, he is in fact an extremely nonaggressive man. He is aggressive in battle but not at all interested in politics or power. His sexual pursuit of her is completely devoid of any political ambition. He doesn't want anything more than sex from her. Can we say the same for any man around Dany? No one except the Queensguard Barristan.

A young woman in the position of power in a patriarchal society is sitting on a barrel of dynamite. The subplot of Dany in Meereen, if we put aside the hot-button slavery thing, is clearly modeled on Elizabeth I. (It's so obvious that I have not recognized it until now.)

Let's not forget the motif of ASOIAF: Why would this person do that person's bidding? Why would anyone obey another person? When it comes down to it, Daenerys Targaryen is no more than a 13-year-old girl with three dragons she can't even control and eight thousand unsullied soldiers. Why would anyone do her bidding? Because her dragons would roast you if you run away? Why would anyone listen to and obey her? Because she can pay you gold and gems? Dany is surrounded by men, all of whom think they can do this job better than she. The only thing standing between them and her throne (a mere slab of stone) is her dragons and the tenuous bloodline that isn't worth much nowadays. Even if they let her sit there, a man can gain real power and rule through her via marriage.

Obviously, that was why a lot of men wanted to marry Elizabeth and she played the virgin game brilliantly to keep herself in power. It didn't matter who she married. Any man she would have married --- no matter how loyal and devoted and submissive he appeared --- would instantly become a threat to her, simply by the fact that he is a man and she is a woman and everyone would obey him more readily.

Anyone sitting on the throne is at risk, especially when love and sentiment and sex are mixed into the business. Even for men. Some Chinese emperors were known to execute their concubines as soon as they gave birth to a son, because they feared that the mothers would grab too much power through their sons, as history had warned with examples.

Queens are inevitably even more vulnerable to the influence and control of their lovers and husbands. This is extremely dangerous. This is why Daario is perfect, while Jorah Mormont bad news from the start (Robert Dudley anyone?). Most readers don't seem to understand this issue, including the TV screenwriters, and interpret these relationships through the rosy lense of "luuuurrve." This is naive. Kings and Queens do not stay in power because they trust people around them who just happen to be completely loyal at heart and madly in love with them. When it's about a king, people at least vaguely realize that power and politics are at play. When the story is about a girl queen, all they can think about is "Who loves her more?"

(Oh and BTW I am totally turned on by that thing Daario does with his dagger. The TV Daarios are completely missing the point.)

Saturday, September 27, 2014

The Trope

This is one trope that I thought I would not get tired of, but right now I'm afraid it might be wearing thin for me, after seeing the thousandth police detective/inspector/lawyer/other kinds of crime solver with a completely screwed up life. He works too much. He has an addiction (drinking, gambling, sex, drugs). He is self destructive. He alienates family and friends around him. He has a boatload of psychological baggage and/or memories of trauma. Solving crime is the only escape and redemption ...

I have read and seen so many of them. From Kurt Wallander to Harry Hole to Clive Owen in Second Sight to Jane Tennyson in Prime Suspect. Lydia Chin might be a well-balanced young woman but she is plagued by an unrequited pining for her hopelessly dysfunctional partner Bill Smith. My God there are so many of them. I just finished the Australian series Rake. It's pretty well written, but almost entirely focused on the lead character's self-created problems. 

The only detectives with a happy family are Maigret and Ray Curtis in Law and Order --- Wait, even Curtis had a brief moment of crisis brought on by his excessively gorgeous looks. But at least he reconciled with his wife. 

Ah, right now I appreciate Law and Order so much for keeping the recurrent characters' personal lives complete off screen! So what if Jack McCoy has no time to date any woman outside of the DA's office. I don't care! I don't want to hear about it! Thank you. 

Connexions: Star Wars and GRRM, etc.

A few weeks ago when I tried to find some analysis of the mysterious and baffling novella "And Seven Times Never Kill Man!" by GRRM, Google turned up a series of articles about how George Lucas "stole" an illustration for this story to create his Chewbacca. The case originates from and is convincingly argued here by Binary Bonsai.

The illustration on the cover of Analog (July 1975) was by the famed sci fi artist John Schoenherr, who also did the extremely influential illustrations for Dune.


Star War's art designer Ralph McQuarrie mentioned being given a sci fi magazine cover by Lucas, which significantly helped define the image of Chewbacca during the pre-production for SW.

Of course, besides the appearance, there is probably no thematic correlation between Chewbacca the character and GRRM's novella. It couldn't anyway, since the script for SW was probably finished when the novella was published. However, Elio Garcia, the host of westeros.org and the authoritative living encyclopedia of all things ASOIAF, noted an obvious parallel between the story and a key plot in Return of the Jedi. (Alas, Elio is not an encyclopedia of SW and mistakenly called Ewoks as Wookies.)




The story of Ewoks strongly echos that of the Jaenshi in "And Seven Times Never Kill Man!" The Jaenshi is a kind of intelligent non-human species living on a jungle planet. The illustration by Scheonherr above is a Jaenshi.

Analog describes the story as "realities of a very rigid society conflicting with what looks like a pushover primitive tribal society; and we find out where the strength really lies." Yes, the Jaenshi don't have screechers, laser handguns, or blast cannons. They are clearly based on all the pushover tribes that have been colonized throughout human history. Such encounters of civilizations have served as the inspiration for many such stories. No wonder the story resonated with Lucas. I agree with Elio Garcia that Lucas was probably influenced GRRM's story, consciously or unconsciously, when he wrote ROTJ's Ewok story line, which was written in the early 1980s.

Perhaps ROTJ tries to rewrite GRRM's bleak story and fulfill our own dream of the underdogs beating the big bad wolf. I can understand this urge. The same routine is recycled once again a couple of decades later by James Cameron in Avatar. Of course, Avatar also more substantially ripped off Disney's animated movie "Pocahontas", as illustrated by someone apparently named Matt Bateman. But still. The connection to ROTJ and Ewoks is there too.


I do wonder if Cameron has read "Seven Times" though, because Avatar also lifts a certain mystical "collective consciousness" that was hinted at in the story. OK, perhaps such a concept need not come from GRRM. Isaac Asimov described such a planetary consciousness in his Foundation series known as Gaia (written in the early 1980s). This series eventually merged with his Robot series. Similar ideas may be widespread in the sci fi community. In GRRM's story, however, the planetary consciousness is not at all clearly described. In fact he worked really heard to conceal it. Still, in Avatar the natives prayed to and connect to the trees, which is not unlike the Jaenshi priests rubbing their godly pyramids. 

Anyway, regardless, all of these examples of a non-human and possibly collective consciousness represented in different ways by GRRM, Asimov, or Cameron (but not Lucas) may have come from an original source. The oldest source I can find is Solaris by the Polish conceptual sci fi writer Stanislaw Lem. Solaris was written in 1961 but translated to English only in 1970. Surely at least GRRM and Asimov would have been exposed to it. The mysticism in Solaris in some ways must have also influenced GRRM. Comparatively, however, GRRM is more earthly and humanistic. In 1975 he was not yet 30 and I doubt he can ever be as detached or philosophical as Lem is. His satire of militarism, religious fanaticism, and egoism is evident in "Seven Times." He must have been thinking of the Vietnam War and the conservative political forces at the time. (Ironically, 40 years and a few more wars later, the American conservatives remain much the same, thus keeping the story as fresh as it was then.)

Both GRRM and Lucas were of the Vietnam War generation, so it might be another reason the story left such an impression on the latter.

On a side note, although we humans instinctively reject the idea of a collective consciousness outside of our own consciousness, how could we know for sure? Much convincing argument has been made about the illusion of free will. If the Greenseer is able to reach anywhere in space and time and all creatures and minds, how could we ever tell what is our own mind and what is that planted by the Greenseer with the old gods? (Readers of ASOIAF would get this reference.)

Friday, September 26, 2014

GRRM, Taoism, Ragnarok

One of George RR Martin's novellas has haunted me since I read it first. Well, actually, most of the novellas of his have haunted me with some specific ideas or an indefinable feeling.

I decided to re-read this novella, "And Seven Time Never Kill Man!" (title referencing the Law of the Jungle by Kipling). I was completely baffled by the mysterious events that seemed to end in no ending when I read it. Then I read an analysis of the novella online by cantuse, who compares some elements and themes with those in ASOIAF. He makes a lot of sense and I am glad it finally helps me get into the story, including the ending.

If cantuse is correct that the Old Gods and Children of the Forest are analogous to the forces like the Jaenshi and their pyramids in ASOIAF, it would then confirm another interpretation of ASOIAF (by Dorian the Historian) based on Ragnarok of the Norse mythology, which claims that the central struggle in ASOIAF is not the various noise of wars, kings, dragons, and politics, but rather between the giants/jotnar/old gods and the gods/men/modern world. And the endgame is Ragnarok, in which the world ends in ice and fire and sinks into the sea.

Also coincidentally, both cantuse and Dorian pointed out from two separate perspectives (Taoism and Norse mythology, respectively) that the struggle is not one of good versus evil in the conventional and Christian sense. Both Taoism and Norse mythology refuse to label one as desirable or good, and the opposite undesirable or bad. Rather, the struggle and the opposition between forces are what makes the world go around and change and maintain a dynamic balance. Yin and Yang. After nearly all gods and men die in the apocalypse, or rather Ragnarok, a new world subsequently emerge from the sea. In ASOIAF, the last book is titled, A Dream of Spring.

The Christian apocalypse is a close-ended conclusion. God arrives on earth from heaven. All dead are resurrected, and the last judgment is passed on everyone. Souls then go to their respective destinations for eternity. The Taoist and Norse apocalypse, however, are cyclical, not unlike Buddhism (although I don't know as much about it). Life must emerge from and coexist with death, and light with darkness. They are two sides of the same coin and cannot be separated from each other.

The Others are widely assumed to be "evil" by the fact that they invade and kill humans, but GRRM gave some hint that they may be no more than a natural phenomenon or another species of the old world. He also said that the frozen wilderness beyond the Wall is vast, bigger than Canada. Natural forces are not evil or good except in man's mind.

I highly doubt whether GRRM will make this ambivalence explicit in the ending of ASOIAF, but I am increasingly convinced that it is what he intends.


Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Shakespeare & Oedipus Variations

Sometimes I wonder if Shakespeare was the real inventor of psychoanalysis and Sigmund Freud just kind of repackaged his insights and sold to the world.

I have always found Freud's argument that Hamlet is driven by Oedipus Complex unconvincing. In fact, Freud's argument that Oedipus is driven by Oedipus Complex is pretty unconvincing, too. But then I am not a son, so what do I know?

But I can't help but pick up a related but different type of parent-child tension in Shakespeare's work: Father-daughter relationship, namely the father's possessiveness of his daughter and jealousy toward her husband. To prove this point, I have numerous examples from the plays, and every one of them is a lot more solid than Hamlet's desire for his mother.

1. Othello. The play opens with Desdemona's father, Brabantio, raging on the news that she had just eloped --- in the middle of the night! --- to marry the Moor. He was so angry that he asked the Duke of Venice to punish Othello for his unlawful seduction. When that didn't work (because Venice needed Othello to defend the city against enemies), Brabantio parted with his new son-in-law with a bitter warning: My daughter has betrayed me. She's gonna do the same to you some day.

2. King Lear. Cordelia was his favorite, as everyone knew. As soon as she said, once I get married, I will put all my love in my husband, no longer in you, he flew into a rage and threw her out of the house. Well, can it be any more obvious what the problem is? 

3. Hamlet. Polonius kept warning Ophelia to stay away from that rascal Hamlet. He may be the prince but he's bad news. In a most overtly suggestive scene, Hamlet killed Polonius. We are led to believe it was an accident, but given the way they both had been fighting over Ophelia, a deadly confrontation would probably have been inevitable.

4.The Merchant of Venice. OK, here Shylock's anger and revenge were mostly directed at Antonio rather than the guy with whom his daughter eloped. Nevertheless, between the money-related hatred and the loss of his daughter, the latter seems to the real reason that tipped him over the edge.

The pattern is so obvious that it's becoming a motif. Shakespeare was clearly preoccupied with the sticky and uncomfortable position fathers might be in when their daughters come of age. Isn't it curious and revealing that Freud himself theorized that it is the child who develops a sexual attraction to the parents, but never mentioned the sexual rivalry fathers have against their sons-in-law and mothers have against their daughters-in-law? Especially when we consider the rampant family problem for daughters in Victorian societies.

Monday, September 22, 2014

Finished Othello

The final two acts are so intense that I stayed up till 1:30 am to finish it and couldn't sleep for hours afterward. OMG. Don't read any abridged, watered-down summary of Othello. Read the real thing. I was out of breath. It's a thriller. A great thriller even by today's standard. The climax, yikes, is as fast paced and heart pounding as them car chases and explosions in a Henning Mankell or Jo Nesbo thriller. Considering that we are told right from the start who the murderer is and exactly how he's done it, the climax is pretty mind blowing. 

I will need to write and think some more to sort out my thoughts about it. One of my immediate impression though is how much sex it has. Nobody does it on stage, of course, but there is an unusual amount of naked discussion and allusion to sex and the psychological minefield around it. So intense. So fucking intense. 

Monday, September 15, 2014

Reading Othello (TBD)

I am only in the middle of Act 2, but interesting impressions are taking shape. This is fascinating. I must think on it some more.

And, of course, the Othello-Iago pair of characters are psychologically almost the same as the Ned Stark-Petyr Baelish pair. I'd bet all ten of my toes that George R R Martin based his version on Willie's version, which is another indication that he really, really read the plays, not just read the summaries of the plays. Martin's knowledge and understanding of Shakespeare is clearly first hand, because all the common summaries and judgment of major Shakespearean plays out there are completely useless and irrelevant and wrong. 

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

'Splainin Shakespeare

Incidentally, I did some explaining of Shakespeare last weekend during lunch with Mr. S. He enjoyed watching the plays with me. "For example, the movie we saw together about the Roman General," he mentioned. "It was pretty exciting and twisty." I was reminded that we saw the movie version of Coriolanus together, the one starring Ralph Fiennes, Vanessa Redgrave, and Jessica Chastain. "But I don't get why in the end he didn't invade Rome with the enemy army. He almost won. Why did he stop and get himself killed? It doesn't seem to make sense."

I explained how I see Coriolanus' motives. He is the ultimate Mamma's boy. He became this super-macho warrior general for his mother, because his mother wants him to be a hero. All his life he's tried to live up to his mother's expectations. His mother wants a strong and famous son in her life, so he becomes her fantasy. When he comes back to Rome, his mother wants him to move up in the world and campaign for the Senate. This would boost her vanity. He hates politics and the people, but he agrees to beg for votes from the citizens he despises. All for Mommy! So when Mother suddenly reverses all the rules she's instilled in him and begs him not to invade Rome in the end, he is totally fucked up in the head. What to do? He's obeyed Mother all his life, usually against his own well-being. He doesn't know what's good for himself. He hasn't got the practice. So he obeys Mother again, one last time. And, isn't it fucking ironic that this super-macho representation of extreme masculinity is but an artificial creation of female fantasy (or more likely pent-up female sexuality, considering that Coriolanus' mother is a widow)?

"Does that make sense?" I asked.

"Well, yeah." He said. "Now that you've explained it."

Orwell vs Tolstoy vs Shakespeare

By pure coincidence I happened upon George Orwell's critique of Leo Tolstoy's critique --- well, more like a hit job --- of Shakespeare.

Out of curiosity I dug up Tolstoy's essay on Shakespeare. As a blindly devoted fan of Shakespeare, I chuckle at Tolstoy's incredulity that sounds pretty familiar. I must have seen similar complaints elsewhere, or heard the wailing from high school students who are forced to read Shakespeare: "Why is this considered good? It's not even English! It doesn't even make sense! It's not realistic! Why do you all love him?!"

What is rather incredible is that such whining comes from Tolstoy in his seventies, after a lifetime of watching people and living life, not from a teenager who hasn't known what a mess family can be and how life is always full of shit that you can neither solve nor escape.

In his essay, Orwell ruthlessly pinned down Tolstoy's unconscious sore point with Shakespeare, namely Tolstoy's self-aggrandized pursuits late in his life is a parallel to Lear's idiotic choices. No wonder he was especially disturbed by "King Lear." This painfully accurate insight made me laugh so hard that my stomach hurts. Tolstoy complains that Lear's decision to give away his kingdom in exchange for guaranteed love and adoration from his daughters is ridiculous and unnatural. Well, one does not have to look too far for a real-life example of someone who gave away everything he owned in exchange for love and adoration from not only his family but the entire country, so obsessed he was with becoming Christ himself. Isn't it fucking hilarious? Oh the irony is killing me! With laughter! 

Monday, September 8, 2014

Two Sleepy People by Fats Waller

好可爱啊,我真喜欢 Fats Waller 写的情歌小曲儿。Two Sleepy People 就是一个典型。

Sunday in the Park With George

A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte by Georges Seurat

I saw the Sondheim revival by Signature Theater yesterday with a friend. We started talking about how some of the music is intended to imitate George Seurat's pointillism, ie, using "dot dot dot" in his paintings. Since we had been discussing choreography in figure skating before the show, my friend and I began to bounce around ideas about how one would do a "dot dot dot" impression on ice with skates. Quick turns on one or both feet, maybe, like Scott Hamilton used to do. I suggested a series of little hops, perhaps on toe picks. Most humans have a bit of synesthesia, which allows us to mix media (visual, auditory, and movement) and use symbols. (BTW, the female lead character's name is Dot, clearly not an accident.)

It is something only Sondheim can pull off --- A musical with almost no story, which is essentially a meditation and dissertation on the creative process, composed with a pile of dots and points and a collection of little anecdotes and episodes. Nevertheless there are bits of character details, which makes me suspect that he and James Lapine wrote up a whole other book on all the characters and their relationships and a full profile for each one with all their complexes ... and 99% of that has been left out of the musical. Note how Sondheim refuses to paint George Seurat as a stereotypical misunderstood genius who was wronged by people around him. No no no. The two Georges in the show both have their flaws and strengths, opposite as they are. Sondheim treats them both with compassion and tenderness, but never indulgence or victimization. While he is sympathetic to Seurat's inability to express his feelings, he does not diminish the humanity in the ordinary people around the genius, like the long-suffering model/lover Dot ("There is someone in this dress!"). So good. So good!

The theme song "Sunday" is, according to Sondheim, written as one big, circular sentence.

["Order, design, tension, balance, harmony"]

Sunday, by the blue purple yellow red water
On the green purple yellow red grass
Let us pass through our perfect park
Pausing on a Sunday

By the cool blue triangular water
On the soft green elliptical grass
As we pass through arrangements of shadow
Toward the verticals of trees
Forever

By the blue purple yellow red water
On the green orange violet mass of the grass
In our perfect park

Made of flecks of light
And dark
And parasols

People strolling through the trees
Of a small suburban park
On an island in the river
On an ordinary Sunday
Sunday
Sunday


And yes, the songs in the musical are all damned un-hummable.

Sunday, August 31, 2014

Slings and Arrows


Some years ago --- I can't remember know how many --- I rented and watched this Canadian TV series on video cassettes. It was after I started listening to NPR, which was where I heard it recommended, no, raved by a critic, but before I started watching Shakespeare on stage.

I've started watching it again on Web streaming. The first couple of episodes are mostly setting up the premise with some amusing observations of Canada's Shakespeare Stratford Festival and a few parallels between the modern story line and Halmlet --- a "father" ghost, some madness, an innocent and naive young woman played by none other than Rachel McAdams.

It got really good in the third episode when the fun started with table readings and rehearsals of Hamlet. A horrible director. Marketing heads griping about Shakespeare, "He's 400 years old! And not even that good!"

I was laughing hysterically. Then I had tears in my eyes. Then I was smiling through tears.

This is so good! Why can't people do more TV like this?!

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Untitled (for now)

For the past nine years or so, I have been going to this online forum for figure skating. Well, actually it started out much earlier. First, I found a figure skating group on usenet back in the 1990s, when I was still in pharmacy school. Once the worldwide web came to popularity, the same circle of figure skating fans migrated to several online hangouts. At some point, someone clued me in on two largest forums that have remained to this day, and I generally frequent one of the two. I go there off and on for nearly a decade, with stretches of indifference alternating fervent passions. This forum's owner is based in Europe, and many regulars are as well, giving the discussions a European perspective not apparent in North American skating circles.

On any online forum, there are always people with a larger presence than others. They have a more constant and concentrated presence than lurkers and casual visitors. Given the limited size of worldwide skating fans and limited outlets elsewhere, the regulars on the forums have remained surprisingly stable. A few years ago, a Polish young man became one of the big regulars. His posts ranked high in both volume and frequency. He was one of the die-hard skating fans who take obscure skaters and junior-level competitions as seriously as the Olympics. He was passionate about skating and about voicing his opinions --- primarily about but not limited to skating. Smart, articulate, strongly opinionated, passionate. He couldn't help but leave a lot of footprints on the forum.

About a week ago, it was suddenly announced on the forum that this Polish young man had died in an accident. He was just past 30. It was a shock, since he left posts all over the forum only a day or two ago. Many people wrote mourning comments under the announcement, including lurkers who rarely come out of the woods, saying how much they had respected and enjoyed reading his opinions and jokes and snarks. The loss is clearly felt by many people. Two of his friends found their way onto the forum and declared that they had no idea he had so many admirers online. According to the friends, the young man was well loved and popular in real life as well. He was certainly not a loner, despite the substantial time he apparently spent on the skating forum.

Except for three or four local skating fans whom I have met and socialized with in real life, I have always maintained a mental distance with the skating forum. I don't socialize or seek friendship that is solely online. I had no direct connection with any fan on the forum that I have not met in person. Yet, I've been thinking about the Polish young man a lot since the announcement.

I wonder if he knew how much his persona as an uber skating fan had been respected and admired and enjoyed by so many people. I wonder if he had any inkling how acutely his own absence would be felt. I often agreed with his opinions, but said so only occasionally with my trademark restraint and distance. Now I wish I hadn't had so much restraint and had openly praised his passion and insight more often, or just engaged with his discussions more even if I disagreed vehemently --- I think he would have enjoyed it, too. I hope he had known the size of the footprint he had left on other people's minds, but I doubt that.

Does anyone know one's own impression on the world? On people around him or her, close and far? It seems impossible. It is impossible, unless you believe in the afterlife. The thing that struck me is how little we tell each other "I care about you/your opinions." Perhaps we don't even think about it. It feels awkward and gratuitous to discuss our connections of varying degrees. The attachment is only felt acutely upon a loss, when it's too late.

So the inevitable question is, if I were dead now, who would feel a loss? Naturally, some would feel it more strongly than others. I think I have a pretty good idea. I have never thought about my interpersonal relationships in this way. Who will mourn me for the person I am and who will mourn the loss of my usefulness? Who will be empathic enough to feel it and who will be too narcissistic or numb to care? 

One of the common traits of neurotics is their obsession of others' opinions of them. "How do they think of me?" is the question that keeps them (us) up at night. Let's be honest. Most everyone cares about other people's opinions of himself to some degree, and those who completely do not give a shit are more likely to be jerks, assholes, and psychopaths. But the balance between caring and obsessing is precarious and potentially problematic.

Perhaps defining one's place in a social context can be approached from one's absence. At least, this way of thinking has immediately crystalized for me my relationships with people I know. Who care about me? Who do I care about? How much? Of course, people differ on the types of relationship they care about. If you are Andy Lau or Jackie Chan, your first loyalty might be to your fans rather than to your wife and children. Nevertheless, this provides a useful framework to sort out the importance and meaning of various relationships --- rather than intimacy alone --- and makes it easier to choose where to invest one's time and emotional energy.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

A Late Quartet


As a rather understated chamber piece movie about musicians, the writer/director Yaron Zilberman went *just* a tad too far. It would have been a much, much better script if only he had cut out one subplot, involving the Russian first violinist and his young student. Ack, that one really went over the line with me. All right, the other subplot involving Philip Seymour Hoffman and Catherine Keener was also soap opera-ish, but one soap opera in one movie, especially when it's restraining itself so strenuously, is manageable. Two would be too much! Argh!

Also I wish Zilberman had given us more on how irresistible playing the music is. That would balance out my constant incredulity that the characters are so averse to breaking up. In fact I was rooting for them to break up the whole time.

Ah, but I'm doing what Pedro Casals despised, aren't I? Why not focus on the good stuff?

I still love PSH.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

To See With Mine Own Eyes

The thought might have floated in the darkness of the unconscious for a while, but did not surface until I recently saw the exhibition that put together Andrew Wyeth's paintings that contained doors and windows. It occurred to me that, although he often painted with meticulous and delicate attention to realistic details of objects, his paintings are often awash with a monochrome palette: the cold, brown winter fields.

As I came out of NGA to a bright Washington summer afternoon, I became conscious of the messy, busy view of the streets. Before me a family on vacation crossed the streets, wearing T-shirts with mismatched colors: blue, bright red, flowery skirt and khaki shorts. The patch of blue sky was cut by crisscrossing telephone and electrical lines overhead and green leaves of trees. The buildings around us were predominantly of white marble, thanks to the neo-classical design for the city, with a few modern glass offices and red-brick colonials stuck in the mix. A bit like this below:

Then it dawned on me that no painting from any era is truly realistic. Reality does not have a unifying tone or a coordinated color scheme. Reality does not have a frame that cuts out any stray objects or lines that harm the sense of beauty in the picture.

Even the most realistic paintings or drawings are subjective. No landscape, cityscape, or portrait, no matter how photographic, reflects images in the real world. Even Trompe L'Oeil paintings, known for its stated intent to imitate real objects, are artificial and have a color scheme. Every piece of art has a scheme, a point of view, a tone, a frame. Yes, even Jackson Pollack or Fauvism had a tone and scheme in each piece. Even contrasting color schemes are still schemes. Even when you try to make it unrecognizable, it's recognizably human. No piece created by man is free from the point of view of a man.

Impressionists would like to have us believe that subjectivity in art was invented by Paul Cezanne. A nice marketing ploy. But art has always been and will always be subjective. The unruly and unpredictable and unregulated real world just won't do. Can you really say Mona Lisa is objective just because we perceive the face as believably life like? Look, is the warm and harmonious color scheme real? Is the background landscape real? Where's she sitting that one could see this shrunken landscape behind her? Does the color of her forehead match that of an Italian woman? And who sits like that anyway, eh?


Inevitably, what is on the canvas is blatantly one person's mental image of what reality should look like. Art is never realistic. Art is always a representation. Art is always and forever seen through the mind, not the eye. This is why I don't think an alien species visiting the earth would ever "get" art. Humans as living organisms, yet, but the world seen through and distorted by the human mind ... what the heck is that?

So here's the rub. I have to conclude that there is a fundamental, irreconcilable difference between the world I see through artificial images (eg, paintings, photographs, movie and TV images, and images described with words) and actual images I see with my own eyes and process by my own mind. Because the mind is so adept at framing the visual input, trimming out the details it deems irrelevant or unimportant, and making up a message or theme of the abundant information, that we discard the most of the external input. As Sherlock Holmes pointed out, "You see, but you do not observe." Or we see only what we expect to see.

Prompted with the cue word of "waterlilies," what appears in your mind? To be honest, I have to search really hard in memory to dig out an image of real flowers and leaves in a real pond. Rather small and pale, not too impressive. More immediately accessible images are those of Monet's paintings --- I have certainly seen those more times and paid more attention. Yet, the waterlilies in Monet's paintings are images at least thrice processed: by his (not very acute) eyesight, by his mind's plan to frame and color them in a certain and harmonious way, and by his paintbrush. Ah, but then there are layers between me and the flowers that lay in front of the artist one day in his life --- the cultural judgment associated with Monet and his waterlilies and other known and unknown cultural preconceptions about all this.

The cud --- what does it taste like? And what about the real water lilies?

This is not to say that chewing others' cud is necessarily a bad thing. What I'm wondering is actually whether we know how much one sees and feels and believes is his own, derived from his own senses processing the tangible, concrete, material, real environment around him, and how much is pre-processed stuff from other people. The real world is, more than anything, indifferent to the themes and schemes, and the stories we tell ourselves.

I wonder.

See, the problem is, the memory of a picture of, say, a fish, or a video of fish swimming around, isn't terribly different from the memory of seeing a real fish swimming with my own eyes. The brain isn't particularly good at appreciating the real stuff. In fact, the pictures look better with their color coordination, simpler, more pleasing, more ... certain.

Friday, August 15, 2014

The Cashier

I had a few hours free on Wednesday afternoon, so I decided to go watch the 3:30 show of Boyhood at the theater around the corner.

The ticket price was $9.50. I took out a twenty and two quarters and handed them to the cashier, a short, pudgy guy in his late twenties to early thirties with a scraggy and rather inadequate beard. He opened the register and stuffed my bill into the twenty-dollar slot, and then started pulling out one-dollar bills one after another after another. 

Being a mildly obsessive-compulsive neat freak with an aversion to small changes, I had a gloomy suspicion that he was going to give my change in a fiver and six singles. "What are you doing?" I wanted to say, "Look, you've got several five-dollar bills in the slot. Just give me two fivers and a single." 

He didn't though. I watched his two fat fingers pulling out a dollar bill, crumple it into a ball in his left palm, and another one, and another, four or five times, until he finally switched to the right hand and handed me a one-dollar and two fivers. The other crumpled dollar bills stayed in his other hand. 

It was not until I sat down in the darkened theater that I realized that he was probably stealing from the cash register while I stared at his fingers --- drawing the dollar bills and crumpling them in his palm. He did it calmly and paid no attention to me whatsoever. 

Then I remembered the few years in which the green stuff passed between my own figures, first at a small independent drug store in Monterey Park, California and later at the outpatient pharmacy at Kaiser hospital in West Los Angeles. At the former, I was paid five dollars an hour sitting or standing between the low counter in the front and the high counter behind, through which the pharmacist would hand me bottles of prescription meds to give to mostly Cantonese-speaking little old patients. There wasn't any kind of security measures guarding the cash register, but then the bosses --- pharmacists and part-owners of the outfit --- were by configuration always standing behind me. The senior technician and the boss's favorite girl, Brenda, would take cash straight out of the register to buy us lunch every day. Later at Kaiser, I would run the cash register only occasionally when it was short-handed in front, as I mostly worked in the back on dispensing, as I was a licensed intern pharmacist then. Every tech was assigned a specific register on the counter with a PIN. At the end of the day anyone manning a register was required to reconcile the sales printout and the money in the register. Pharmacy interns and pharmacists shared one register, under the assumption that they were less likely to steal. Indeed during my three years of employment, the pharmacists' register never seemed to miss more than a few bucks at any given time. 

Anyway, in those years the thought of palming a few bucks here and there never crossed my mind, as far as I can remember. It's not like I have never thought of stealing in my life, but when the thought did cross my mind, it was never induced by currency. That's not because I don't like money in a general, practical sense, but rather money in itself is so impersonal and abstract --- pieces of paper or cloth --- that seeing and holding it never quite inspires a salivating desire to possess it, somehow. Its allure is one or two steps removed for the actual pleasures it promises. Impulse is not enough; one has to think and imagine. 

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Antony and Cleopatra

The play has a number of unusual features that break various stage conventions. No doubt other Shakespeare scholars have written extensively about them, but it was fun to discover them for myself. 

- There are all these henchmen and lieutenants and god-knows-whos that would show up, say a few lines, and never show up again! The named characters are so numerous that I have to suspect that any regular cast would have to rush through all the "revolving door" procedures throughout the play.

- The scene switching between Rome and Alexandria is so quick and frequent as to resemble cinematic editing. It reminds me of the way Robert Richmond handled the battlefield scenes in Henry V. He "cut" rapidly between the English and French camps with alternating spotlights on the upper and lower corners of stage.

- The large scale in characters and geography matches the complexity of political machination, double-crossing, betrayals and failed betrayals, alliances and breakups, and all the typical Roman Empire bloody struggles on a global scale.

- All that mixed-up conspiracy and political stuff takes up only three quarters of the play, and the last quarter is spent on an eerie, tragic, comical, absurd, heartbreaking, and twisty long climax that has everything and the kitchen sink thrown into it. It's sort of like the climatic battle sequences in Joss Whedon's "The Avengers" that eat up almost half of the movie, except more gut-wrenching. Holy macaroni the last quarter of the play should really have its own full-length play. Reading it got me all twisted up inside and filled me with all kinds of contradictory feelings that I don't know how to sort out.

- Also attesting to the massive scale of just the finale, Act 4 features not one but two big battles: One on land and the other at sea. The siege of Alexandria must have been at least a partial model for GRRM's siege of Meereen, which has presumably been completed in The Winds of Winter.

It is just the biggest play I have ever read and totally blows my mind. Ah it has to go on my must-see list.

Ultimately though, what makes the play immortal is the human truth in it. Despite the weight of history and expectation for "greatness" associated with the subject and characters, he gives us the naked truth about a middle-aged, professionally successful couple who fall madly in love and act stupid and ridiculous. We can't help but love them and root for them, not because they are regal and heroic, but because we recognize ourselves in them. And we have to despise Octavius Caesar because he is the most responsible adult in this whole mess who acts with impeccable strategy and reason, without any emotion or frailty.

Enobarbus might be my new favorite Shakespearean character. I love him so much.

One can analyze Shakespeare with a hundred books as thick as bricks, but I have no words to describe how he makes me feel --- a mass of jumbled conflicting explosive feelings that seem to encompass an entire lifetime and all its laughter and tears, joy and sorrow, longings and regrets, all at the same time.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Antony and Cleopatra, Act 2

The politics is very, very complicated in this play. Ah how characters say things they don't mean, and the tension oozes between the lines.

So at the end of Act 2, Pompey is persuaded by the triumvirates (Octavius Caesar, Mark Antony, and Lepidus) to cease his war against Rome. He agrees, probably in fear of Antony's presence, and they all shake on the deal by drinking on his boat that night. During the feast for peace, Pompey's right hand man Menas whispers in his master's ear:

These three world-sharers, these competitors,
Are in thy vessel. Let me cut the cable,
And, when we are put off, fall to their throats,
All there is thine. 

What a simple and practical plan. The proposal is of the same nature as the Red Wedding. Pompey refuses with a most honest reply:

Ah, this thou shouldst have done
And not have spoke on 't! In me 'tis villainy;
In thee 't had been good service. Thou must know,
'Tis not my profit that does lead mine honor;
Mine honor, it. Repent that e'er thy tongue
Hath so betrayed thine act. Being done unknown,
I should have found it afterwards well done,
But must condemn it now. Desist, and drink. 

Of course Pompey is right. The leader must have deniability to the dishonorable atrocities his subordinates commit, especially if the acts profit him. A true loyal follower has to always be willing to give his master this, or he would be useless.

Ah such is the dilemma of leadership. Without his reputation of honor, Pompey is but a man with no one to lead. Yet with his honor he would have to lose the one chance for "all there is thine." The same dilemma has plagued all leaders throughout history, which is why those who won --- like Octavius --- always cultivate followers who would do the dirty work without asking first.

Still, the question remains, why the hell is Shakespeare so fucking Machiavellian?

(接下来第三幕一开头就是 Ventidius 的一番“功高盖主”和“兔死狗烹”论,我吐血倒地。)

Saturday, August 9, 2014

Christopher Nolan's Dream

I first liked but later changed my mind about "Inception." If the story were set up as cyberpunk, and the characters entered a computer game instead of a dream, then all would have been well, and I would have loved the movie. Ah, but Nolan just had to make it a dream. That is the deadly mistake.

Although Freud might not be completely correct in all his interpretations of dreams, he was largely right in that dreams are symbols and representations of our unspoken wishes and desires. I find it rather funny (ironic, not haha) that Nolan creates a world that is nothing like dreams but then insists that it is a dream rather than a more logical device like the cyberspace or video game. 

Many have commented that it seems laughable and ridiculous that Nolan's dream has so many rules that 90% of the movie is explaining various rules. Real dreams have no rule at all. In fact it is the land of escape from consciousness, which always has to make up a story and make sense of every inexplicable accident in the world. Dream is the opposite of reason and rules. Therefore Nolan's consciousness-based dream is particularly meaningful. One could argue that he wants to enter the land of dreams (or access his unconscious), but has to reject it (perhaps out of fear). By insisting on creating order out of the lawless unconscious, one has to wonder what in the unconscious is he so terrified of. 

Someone once said (someone famous but I have forgotten who) that storytelling is dreaming. Indeed. Fictional stories are where the unconscious slips out, just like in dreams. As hard as he tries, Nolan cannot prevent his unconscious from seeping between the cracks. If he really wants to hide it, he should get out of the storytelling business altogether and become a priest or something. 

What is Nolan's dream that he is so afraid of? I don't know, but I observe that a common theme in his stories is the man causing the death of his wife. It has appeared at least three times in "Memento," "The Prestige," and "Inception." (I have not watched Batman series. Besides, it isn't originally his story.) More important, the theme of the man killing his wife is the driving motivation for the leading man in both "Memento" and "Inception." The importance in this theme lies in his awkward and unconvincing effort to dodge the man's guilt.

What a very odd motivation though. In archetypal stories, the man is driven by love/lust/pursuit of women, by revenge, by daddy issues, by the passage to adulthood (aka "Hero's Journey"). Sure, we know these stories by heart, over and over. But by the secret wish to kill his wife and associated guilt and denial? Geez, where did that come from? It is certainly a place not traveled by most people. 

Of course one cannot immediately interpret that as Nolan's own unconscious wish to kill his own spouse. More likely it can be traced to his parents' relationships with him and with each other. 

"Inception" suffers from the problem of over-intellectualization and over-rationalization, as demonstrated in the excessive and rigid rules and the overly realistic and literal visuals (gunfights, car chases, crossing snow, bombs, the way characters walk and run). Yet in his obsession with over-intellectualization and the rejection of truly dream-like imagery and fluidity, I see a repressed urge to dream real dreams and cut loose. The more you want to cut loose and let it all hang out, the more you have to wrap it up and wind it tight in layer upon layer of logic and rules. Wouldn't it be funny to hear Nolan's real dreams? They are probably extremely transparent. 

*********
On a side note, the best and most effective dreams on screen can be seen in the Hitchcock-directed, Dali-designed "Spellbound" (1945). That, my friend, is a real dream to see. 

Friday, August 8, 2014

The Damsel-in-Distress Trope

Women have griped about the trope a lot. I can understand the complaint. Although it is true that most homicides are committed by men, most victims of homicides are also men, with the exception of domestic homicide (Kellerman and Mercy, 1992). The line between condemnation and exploitation on the writers' part and between being horrified and thrilled on the readers' part can be blurry.

In The Devil's Star, a thriller by Jo Nesbo in the Harry Hole series, a series of four murders were committed, in which 3 victims were young women, 1 was a young man. I searched my heart and, to my chagrin, had to admit that the death of the young man seemed less "thrilling" (or what the Chinese call 惊悚) than the women's. Perhaps because I am a woman, the murder of a woman seems more identifiably terrible to read about. Why do men like to read about murders of women, especially a young, pretty woman of reproductive age? Maybe this is a belief or instinct buried in all humans --- women are a more valuable/precise/scarce resource than men to our species/tribe, thanks to the inefficiency of childbearing. Every woman is needed in the game of reproduction for the tribe. Instinctively, we feel a greater loss in a woman's death. The same reasoning goes for our feelings toward the untimely death of a young person versus an old one. 

Also, yes, murders with a sexual motive thrill readers a lot more than murders for money. Financial motives were once common in "cozy" mysteries, in which one has much room to play with the issue of inheritance. Social changes have rendered those stories obsolete, even if homicide for money remains common in the real world. What other motives can mystery writers use but sex and revenge? Political murders and assassinations belong in its own subgenre. 

Well, frankly, murders for money or politics are just not as intimate and therefore as thrilling as more emotional and personal motives such as revenge and sex (including jealousy and various perversions). It's human nature. The market is unlikely to get tired of them any time soon.  

Timon of Athens

During the intermission of Timon of Athens at Folger, I eavesdropped on a discussion among the 3 persons (who looked like a mother with t...

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