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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.  

Monday, August 4, 2014

Something from Nothing

The Sunday before last I happened to catch a rerun episode of Radiolab entitled "Who Am I?" It turned out to be the first episode of the first season of Radiolab, so the information in the program might be slightly outdated. Nevertheless I was utterly blow away by two concepts put forth in the program: 

1. The human brain is uniquely (?) capable of conjuring up images that do not exist in reality, like a red canary with purple stripes, through some process of dismantling and assembling realistic images in memory. 

2. The sense of an integrated, coherent self is such an abstract mental creation. It's not based on anything concrete or real. 

Both points blew my mind and continue to do so all these days later. I am still chewing on them. 

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