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Thursday, December 29, 2016

The Odyssey

Throughout my formative years, my father would tell and retell his journey out of the countryside in the spring of 1945, his hometown, at the age of 20 years, crossing the line between Japanese occupation and Chinese Nationalist control, to arrive in Chungking, the wartime capital of the Chinese government, and pass the college exam to open a new life for himself.

Mother did something similar at 55, when she officially emigrated to Long Beach, California. A new country. No job. A new language. No social or professional network. But she did not recount this experience nearly as much as Dad did, for a variety of reasons. Regardless, it was no small feat. 

Lately I think about these events often. Their meaning is not entirely clear, but that's OK. There are probably many ways to interpret them, some of which are contradictory, including the two instincts at odds: to migrate and to settle. What are we but contradictory creatures? It's not human to be without contradictions.  

Isn't it funny that The Odyssey is a story both about adventures in strange land and about going home? We're driven to go, go, go, if for no other reason than evolution.

All this calls into question the idea of free will, which, I think, is a problem plagued with ambiguous and muddle definition. A key problem with free will is its being mixed with the problem of conscious thoughts. If we define free will as conscious, reasoned, language-driven choices, then I am almost certain free will is an illusion.

(Consciousness has unfortunately been elevated to an absurd degree by people who consider themselves "scientific" in recent years. This is at least in part motivated by the urge to perpetuate our narcissistic needs to feel oh so special. We have to hold on to our specially favored position in the universe, if not by the rumor of 23 grams of soul, then by the quantum-fueled mumble ... I mean consciousness. But I digress.)

But, what about the unconscious will that might be free in its own way? What about the unconscious drives that push us out into the unknown world, forward and backward, faraway and here? Could it in fact be free nevertheless? Or not? One thing is for sure though, that the will is neither logical nor consistent, and full of contradictions in itself. 

Sunday, December 4, 2016

In the Hospital

It's December 2016. The thoughts of December 2015 have been haunting me lately. They spring up at unexpected and minor provocations and hit me smack on the nose.

My mother was first hospitalized in July 2015. The second time was October. The third and last time was Christmas Day.

What pop into my head nowadays are all these mundane details in memory, sharpened by the anxiety and horror in those moments.

For example, what just occurred to me a moment ago was the adult diapers she had to wear during her hospitalization, which were sometimes replaced by urinary catheter in order to collect urine samples for lab analysis. The discomfort and indignity of being in a hospital really irked her, and each time she was desperate to go home, particularly the last time.

She was always quite particular about her appearance and comfort, both of which cannot be maintained in that environment. I am much the same way. Even as a child I was not very tough in rough conditions. I chafed at noise and other disturbances and required a slightly compulsive level of cushiness. When my dad took me on a trip to Hunan, I was miserable in hot, crowded trains buzzing with mosquitoes, suffering in agitated silence. So I understood her irritation with the hospital gown, the inability to bath or shower for days, the endless needle pricks, and the lack of familiar faces and voices around her. I understood, in my bone, her horror and hatred of spending night after night alone in a hospital room.

All three times, I flew to LA and visited her every day. The second hospitalization lasted almost 10 days and frayed everyone's nerves. One day she complained to me that my brother was too selfish to come visit her and avoided his responsibility by "sending his younger sister to do all the heavy lifting." I secretly agreed with her and resented his absence. Later however I realized that his avoidance was driven by a terror, because he was weaker than I and much, much more afraid of the stench of death. I was not. On this particular issue, I am quite tough.

I still am not afraid of death, but I am afraid of hospitalization, just like she did.

Thursday, November 3, 2016

The Logical Conclusion

Elizabeth Kolbert's short article "How Can Americans Trust Donald Trump" in the New Yorker struck me with her incredulous tone. It's as if the more he lies the more people believe him with more certainty and fervor. She is not alone. I've seen this incredulous tone many time from many writers in the mainstream media.

When I first moved to this country almost 24 years ago, I knew nothing about it, except a few pieces of American pop culture that had been deemed culturally clean and "healthy" enough to be imported into China: The Carpenters, the movie "Love Story," and a few country songs. It took me a very long time to pick up things from incessant consumption of television (especially Law and Order), radio in the car, and summer blockbuster movies. That was before the InterWeb became the black hole that sucked everyone in.  

During college, in the late nights driving home from my intern pharmacy shifts, I caught Rush Limbaugh on the radio and some guy called Lyndon Larouche. It was not very interesting and I paid them little attention. I had no idea what it was all about.

After I graduated from university, on my first job as an editor at a biomedical journal, one of my colleagues, a copyeditor, told me some weird things that I had never heard on the radio or read in newspapers --- outlandish stories about UN black helicopters, secret prisons, government conspiracies, and plans to enslave the American people. She had grown up in rural Maryland and all her friends were farm kids. They all believed these rumors. I had only heard vaguely about Ruby Ridge, Waco, and the Elio Gonzales affair, but never thought there was a vast conspiracy behind all of them. But she made it all sound so real.

Tuesday, November 1, 2016

Sundance Sings the Blues

I have not watched NBC's "The Voice" for a few years but stumbled upon it again this season. My favorite singer of this season is immediately and undoubtedly Sundance Head.

He wears a cowboy hat and picked Blake Shelton as his coach. I don't know country music but I assume he's a country singer. It was a bit odd that I'd automatically prefer a country singer over everyone else, because the genre is never my cup of tea.

Out of curiosity I looked up Sundance's audition song, "I've been loving you too long." It turned out to be an R&B oldie by Otis Redding. Thanks to YouTube, I found out that Sundance Head has covered other blues songs, including At Last. He may look country but his heart is clearly in blues. No wonder... As a person so totally unschooled in music, I am drawn to blues by instinct. Is it me or is it just that blues is universal?

Monday, October 17, 2016

"Scandal" and Zizek's Ideology

Coincidentally --- or perhaps there is no such thing as a coincidence --- I was watching Zizek's psychoanalytical discussion about film and ideology while starting on Season 4 of Scandal.

What seemed like a conventional romantic trope to keep the two lead characters apart in Season 1 has become a bit of a joke in Season 4. Olivia Pope and President Fitzgerald Grant have overcome each apparent external obstacle between their union over the first 2 seasons and by now are resorting to transparent self sabotage.

The need to keep the lead characters apart until the climax (pun intended) of the story has long been explained to me. The audience's pleasure is derived from both the process of prohibition and the eventual release/payoff in comedy or the lack of in tragedy.

Beginning in Season 3 and continuing through at least Season 4, the obstacles to the "happy ending" between Olivia and Fitz are expressed in repeated outbursts with increasingly absurd logic. Take, for example, the scene after Olivia is rescued from her captors. She said, I cannot be with you because I am angry at you, and I'm angry at you because you started a war for me. He said, but you'd have been dead if I hadn't started a war, and what would I have then? Over and over, Olivia is posing her refusal in the most airtight loop that gives him no way out. All answers are wrong, and all options are null.

Her other even more absurd reason of refusal illustrates Zizek's explanation of ideology to a T: All these people, herself included, have cheated in Grant's election. A fake victory requires absolute commitment to make it real by his effort to be a spotlessly awesome leader. In other words, she is saying, "I did bad things to put you into the White House, and I feel guilty about it, so I am depriving myself --- and you particularly --- our union in order to satisfy this guilt."

So, if Olivia fundamentally does not want to be with Fitz, why does she --- or Shonda Rhimes --- continue to string the audience along? Perhaps more important, why do the audience continue to watch this obviously doomed romance? As Zizek points out, ideology is about having your cake and eat it. You satisfy both the id (pleasure) and the superego (guilt) by both indulging in your desires and feeding your guilt. Rhimes continues to insist that Olivia and Fitz must and must not be together. The fantasy of Vermont is perfect because it is forbidden. That is the only way to have your cake and eat it.

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Mr. Robot Season 2: Interpretation (1)

Like many viewers, I was totally puzzled by Elliot's story line in Season 2. Nothing of apparent consequence or forward motion happened to Elliot. All the conflicts and drama occurred to the other characters: Darlene has killed someone and watched her boyfriend killed. Angela has infiltrated Evil Corp and nearly defeated Philip Price, before falling under White Rose's persuasion. Dom DiPiro almost gets killed, twice, and almost solves the case single-handedly. White Rose, Philip Price, Joanna Wellick, and even the CTO played by Brian Stokes Mitchell all have plenty of action that, in the end, makes sense. (White Rose's logic may be a bit opaque but it's definitely there.)

What did Elliot do this season? He got himself jailed (in a pretty minimum security place, it seems) for the minor hacking and dog-robbery he committed in Season 1 against his psychotherapist's boyfriend. His goal, of going to either jail or his mother's house, was the same: to stay away from computers and the Internet and, in turn, to prevent his alter ego, Mr. Robot, from doing further damage to society. For over half of the season, Elliot does little more than arguing with himself --- we should remember this point because it's important. Meanwhile, he is involved in a self-contained story loop, in which the jail warden, played with menacing sympathy by Craig Robinson, is running an online black market site much like Silk Road. During all this, Elliot has several hallucinatory episodes and/or dreams that seem to go nowhere and do not pay off by the end of the season. The forward move of his is to help Darlene and Angela hack into FBI.

And then, by the final episode, he is suddenly reunited with Tyrell Wellick, and it becomes clear that he and Wellick had long planned to execute Stage 2 of their grand conspiracy (ie, the revolution), which would destroy Evil Corp's paper financial records, and that this whole scheme is carried out with the support of and perhaps direction from White Rose, who may or may not represent the interest of a foreign government.

So what is the point of all the meandering of Elliot's story in the first 8 episodes? Why does Sam Esmail spend so much screen time doing nothing? Is this merely artsy-fartsy self-indulgence?

Upon second viewing of Season 2, I realized that my mistake lies in my conviction that Tyrell was killed by Elliot/Mr. Robot at the end of Season 1. But that was wrong, and all subsequent deductions were wrong, too. I should have realized that killing someone and disposing of his body did not require 3 whole days. When Tyrell showed up alive, the entire Elliot story line must be re-interpreted from the start.

(Continue after the break)

Sunday, September 18, 2016


Driving is an activity that has fascinated me from the start. I would be driving on the road, keeping a reasonable distance from the car in front of me, changing to the lane on my left, slowing down to make a right turn, or stopping and starting at a stop sign. All the while I wonder, why does not car crash into mine? Why does everyone drive with respect to others? Why do I? More baffling perhaps, how do we know? Why do we trust each other not to suddenly accelerate or decelerate or jerk to the left or right or blow through a stop sign or red light? Obviously, some people have done these things, but it is an amazing rarity in the larger context.

Yesterday, I was making a left turn. The oncoming traffic slowed and stopped for a pedestrian crossing. A gray Ford something drifted into the middle of the intersection, blocking my way. After a second and a half, the car pulled up closer to the SUV before it, leaving me enough room behind it to make the turn. I was struck by how this exchange between me and that driver, with whom I didn't even have eye contact through the glare on the windshield. It was only after I made the turn that it struck me. 

We read each other's mind. 

That person in that car saw me waiting in the left-turn lane and, for a moment, we were both thinking the same thought and knew it. "Please pull up a bit, so that I can pass." 

It would be presumptuous to say that this is a human ability. Just like I have always thought that it is presumptuous and narcissistic to assume that consciousness is unique to humans. 
A separate but related question. What would it be like if we didn't have language? 

Sure, we could still communicate, but not nearly as much. How much though --- if we had no language and had to smell each other instead? 

[Movie trailer voice] In a world, where people have no words to talk or write to each other, and have to use no verbal means to express needs, wants, demands, requests, orders, pleads, and desires.

Such a world would seem absurd and laughable to us now, but there must have been a time when humans lived without language, a time when we "talked" to each other with our eyes, faces, hands, body, and, if we're desperate, a grunt or two. What was it like?

Perhaps, when thoughts got too complicated to express with looks and gestures, someone drew a picture.

Abstract thoughts and symbols are always considered a human specialty, but there is no genetic codes for them. It's not a physiological characteristic like the opposing thumb or upright walking. They are an ethereal ability that may not develop without early learning. There is nothing written in our body to guarantee that we can think in symbols for real and imagined objects and actions and emotions and ... an intangible thing known as causation.

And yet, I have a suspicion that language also broke something in us. A crack opened between thoughts and feelings, between knowledge and experience, between learning and instinct.

Without complicated sounds and symbols, we can tell each other how to make cars and agree on laws and morals, and we can also, more easily, lie to each other. 

Wednesday, September 7, 2016

Scandal, Year of Yes

While watching the first few episodes of Scandal, I thought, "I know what this is." But I was mistaken. I had no idea whatsoever. I thought it was soap opera, maybe political soap opera, or paperback romance. It is these things, but then there's more, with a dark cloud lurking over every familiar trope. The difficulty to pin it down has been driving me crazy.

On first glance it looks like a particular version of a utopia/dystopia or alternate universe, in which everyone is scheming against everyone else, occasionally murdering their friends' friends or spouses, but nobody apparently gives a shit about race or sexual orientation. 


I thought Rhonda Rhimes was trying to create a color-blind political soap opera as a retort to Aaron Sorkin's The West Wing, which I had strongly disliked for being sanctimonious, self-important, and manipulative. Being a liberal does not make me like liberal cliches any better. Scandal's Washington DC is deliciously and indiscriminately vicious, petty, immoral, and ... horny. It's as if party affiliation and ideology matter as much as race, which means none at all.


For a while I thought Rhimes was intentionally striving for the color-blindness to make a point. Maybe she was tired of presenting stereotypes of black characters, even the noble and wise stereotypes. Maybe she was pushing back the pressure for black writers and filmmakers to represent "their people" rather than themselves as individuals. It took me a while to realize that I was wrong. She does not seem to be on a mission to either follow or subvert conventions, nor does she seem interested in representing or not representing any collective group of people. All her characters are extremely self-centered and self-contained.

If any group is represented in the show, be it women, black Americans, white Americans, gays, heterosexuals, Democrats or Republicans, I'm not sure any of them would want to be represented like this. They are all plenty screwed up in the head. Nobody looks good.

True equality I guess.

The subject of race was finally brought up for the first time in Season 2 of Scandal, and it was a bit of a shock. During an argument between Fitzgerald Grant (the president) and Olivia Pope (the mistress) over whether she should return to the White House professionally and his embrace romantically, she blurted out something like "I don't want to be your Sally Hemmings." Fitz screamed back that it was she who owned his obsession. I giggled at the scene nervously. 

While their tortuous and disturbing relationship was filled with power struggle for dominance, comparing it to slavery is almost hilariously callous and vaguely inappropriate. It could be considered as trivializing slavery, except Rhimes gets away with it. I don't know how. 

I have seen a theory that the relationship between Olivia and Fitz is an allegory of the black-white racial relationship over American History. I can understand where the theory came from, it cannot be more wrong. True, in this black-and-white romance, the white man occupies the modern throne of "the most powerful person in the world." However, Olivia is not a victim, and Fitz is not an abuser. Their relationship is not plagued with shame or hatred, including self-hatred. It's intended and presented as a pure and simple sexual relationship, and the intense physical chemistry between the two actors cements it.

In Season 4, Rhimes devised a plot in which Olivia Pope is kidnapped by foreign agents and sold in an international auction, which is blatantly reminiscent of the history of slavery. But all this is also in service of the romance, as Fitz started a war for her sake. The audacity to use slavery this way seems a bit, hmm, cavalier? I don't know how I feel about it. Are you even allowed to do this? Yet she does.

And, of course, the show is so campy and over the top and never takes itself too seriously.

Fascinated, I read Shonda Rhimes' memoir Year of Yes, in which she describes her effort of self-improvement of sorts in 2014. So Rhimes really does talk like she writes in Scandal --- with lots of exclamation points and CAPITAL LETTERS and repeated words for emphasis --- and she does seem to squeeze breathless drama and twists from relatively innocuous life events. The book is both fluffy (with some cheerleading life lessons and advice) and surprisingly earnest with plenty of jokes.

The book also confirms my impression that, while Rhimes is acutely aware of racism, she is not necessarily more weighed down by its multi-century, cumulative history than any given white person, nor does she seem to feel obligated to self-consciously represent all black people. Perhaps she feels the obligation as much as an average white writer feels the obligation to represent all of white Americans. She grew up in a comfortably middle-class family. Her mother has a Ph.D. in education. Her father used to be the chief information officer at Ohio State University and later at USC (years after Shonda had graduated from USC film school).

She did not write much about her parents in the book, except that they are loving and supportive and smart and madly in love with each other. So the twisty and destructive relationship she has created for her characters remains a mystery. Rhimes wrote briefly and superficially about her aversion to marriage but provided no particular insight. More curious perhaps is her treatment of the father figure in Scandal, played by Joe Morton, a powerful man who appears to be the source of all evil in the world. His daughter gets to be a princess, but a damned and imprisoned one, because of him. I was particularly keen on potential origin of this bleak view, but she said almost nothing about her father in the book.

So for now the mind of Shonda Rhimes remains a bit out of my reach, but that's just as well. 

Wednesday, August 31, 2016

"Your English is so good"

In a feature on the Chinese pianist Yuja Wang in the latest The New Yorker, written by the famed writer Janet Malcolm, I was struck by a particular paragraph ---

Yuja speaks in fluent—more than fluent—English, punctuated by laughter that gives one to understand that what she is saying is not to be taken too seriously, and that she is not a pompous or pretentious person. Occasionally, there is the slightest trace of an accent (vaguely French) and a lapse into the present tense.

This attention paid to Wang's English, in her accent and grammar, is fascinating to me, probably because I have been told many times something similar. "Your English is so good. You hardly have any accent. How old were you when you came to America? Where did you learn English?"

Do I feel offended by this? Well, oddly enough, not when I was on the receiving end of what is intended as compliments, but yes when I read this paragraph by Malcolm.

I have heard that such compliments are considered a "microaggression" nowadays, which I do not necessarily disagree with. Contrary to the movement about microaggressions, however, I don't want to tell people to stopping saying such things to me. I don't want people to stop expressing aggressions, especially micro ones, to each other.

I don't know if I can explain clearly why I think that. There are many reasons. At least one of these is that the expression of microaggression reveals something about the person who is delivering it. The expression itself reveals something about Janet Malcolm, and my reaction to it reveals something about myself. Exactly what that something is is not easily described.

What exactly is it that drove Malcolm to comment on Wang's English? Did she expect Wang to speak English with a Chinese accent or Chinglish and was surprised? Wang started living in North America since 14 (she's now 29). Is it surprising? Or is it because, as a writer, Malcolm is particularly sensitive to languages, particularly accents and grammar? Or did she feel threatened by Wang on an unconscious level and felt the need to emphasize Wang's otherness?

Why am I touched by this paragraph? Perhaps I have always wondered why people complimented on my English and the lack of accent. I shouldn't have dismissed it as mundane compliment and missed the opportunity to understand them more deeply.

In principle, I do not think it is good to prohibit people to express microaggressions, or even macroaggressions. I do not believe in repression and suppression because I believe they lead to explosion. To deny others' aggression is to deny my own. If I want to be allowed to express a full range of my own emotions, then everyone must be allowed as well. As long as we don't kill each other, some verbal expression of aggression may be more healthy than pretending to be perfectly harmonious and perfect.

Without aggression, life would be so lifeless, and we would never have a glimpse into Janet Malcolm in a piece she wrote. We'd never get to know each other, even if such knowledge is always colored with our own projection.

Tuesday, July 5, 2016

Antony and Cleopatra Notes (1)

Re-reading Act 1, a thought struck me: This is two hearts in conflict with each other and themselves. Antony knows that he must leave the Egyptian queen for his own honor and reputation, not to mention political survival, but he can't. Cleopatra knows Antony wants to leave her and it will all end in tears. They are telling themselves and each other: Go, go away, leave. But they can't.

The Famine Pact

I've been re-watching some episodes of the French TV series "Nicolas Le Floch," based on the historical detective novels written by Jean Francois Parot. In addition to being glorious swashbuckling whodunnit fun, the series place fictional characters within the historical context of eighteenth century French politics. Being almost completely ignorant of this part of history, I can barely keep up with the intricate conspiracies and court intrigue.

One of the books entitled "The Baker's Blood," which I have not read, has to do with the Famine Pact. Under the pressure of chronic food shortage, Louis XV tried to stock up on grains during relatively good years as reserves for bad years. The intention was reasonable. Upon hearing the explanation, Nicolas Le Floch reacted as any of us would: "There's nothing shameful in that." Yet, the policy backfired and caused grain price to go up during good years and skyrocket during famine. Bureaucrats who carried out the policy saw an opportunity to make obscene amount of money through speculation, while shifting the blame on the king. Rumors began to circulate about the royalty's attempt to starve and rob the people. Riots broke out. These rumors, while untrue, directly contributed to the French Revolution a few years later.

Being a diplomat and historian, Parot seems to be quite sympathetic to both kings, Louis XV and XVI. He describes them as trying but failing to reverse the course of doom. Without the benefit of hindsight, Louis XVI supported the American Revolution against the British Empire, only to boost his own subjects' confidence in creating their own republic. Could they have done anything differently to avoid the revolution? The answer seems to be no. They were doing the best they humanly could. One could argue --- and Parot does argue --- that by then the system was too corrupt to be saved by any one person, even le roi. But then it's clear that nonpolitical factors, such as population growth, immigration failure (unlike Spain and Britain), weather, and other random events have as much or more effects on history than human policies and wisdom.

What disturbs me in all this is how little we seem to understand history. We don't know why the American Revolution was a success, but the equally promising French Revolution deteriorated into a bloody mess within four years. It was the French idea to begin with! Hell, we still have no idea what caused World War 1, and that was only 100 years ago! Is history a series of random chaos that can only be observed but never predicted? Or are we merely waiting for a theory to make sense of our own past and future with just the right variables and maths? What is the force of history? And are humans both self-deluded participants and powerless puppets in the process?

Perhaps most curious, why do people behave in the same way over and over? "The Queen says, let them eat cake." "The King wants to starve you all." "The federal government is going to break into your home and take away your guns and wives." "The President eats babies for breakfast." Time has stood still and the same rumors are whispered across hundreds of years. Nothing has changed. "The people," as they are called, are they real individual persons or recycled copies of the same marionette, generation after generation?

The TV series run up to early 1780s, with a disillusioned Le Floch sailing to the New World at Marquis de Lafayette's beckoning. (One cannot hear the name "Lafayette" without conjuring up the irresistible Daveed Diggs in mind.) There is an eeriness in this. Before a disaster hits, before people begin chopping heads off, we are all going about our business as if everything is normal. We may smell the rottenness around us and hear grumblings of discontent, but the smell and noise have always been there and nothing's happened so far ...

Saturday, July 2, 2016

Jason Moran: Armory Concert

To be honest, when I was first attracted to Jason Moran's music, it was not jazz but rather a piece he adapted from Ravel. I think it was his penchant for cross-genre blending that got me. The idea of mixing and crossing over was also what drew me to the Moran-Denk concert at Kennedy Center. Subsequently, I read about his multimedia projects that blend music with visual artists and other types of experience, even skateboarding.

A few days ago Moran released an album of recordings from his performance at the Park Avenue Armory. I have not heard it, except a sample of "Reanimation." The review in NYT makes it sound extremely intriguing.

Sure, his roots are unmistakably jazz, but he has expanded his mind and fingers into not only other genre of music but also other senses. Somehow this spirit is both universal and uniquely jazz-y.

Friday, July 1, 2016

Moran and Denk

Jason Moran

Jeremy Denk

Last October, I saw a performance involving Jason Moran and Jeremy Denk, a dialog of sort, between a jazz pianist and a classical pianist of similar age and, I believe, similar sensibility. It was part of Jason+, a series organized by Moran, who is the director of jazz programs at Kennedy Center.

Neither pianist is confined within their respective genre. Moran was classically trained and has a modern bent on jazz. His idol / inspiration is Thelonious Monk, who was himself an experimenter. I first heard about Denk was on an NPR program, in which he discussed Bach's Goldberg Variations. His inspiration, besides Bach, is Gyorgy Ligeti.

It was a tense time for me, when half of my brain was always waiting for the phone to buzz with news about my mother's illness --- and indeed it buzzed during the performance that evening. Nevertheless I was engrossed by Moran and Denk. They pounded their pianos alternately, each running down a catalog of representative pieces they had selected. Denk went from Bach to Ligeti, and Moran went from James Johnson to Monk. Denk showed off a bit of improvisation. Moran stuck to a fairly traditional and crowd-pleasing approach, although from some of his recordings I knew he could be more modern if he wanted to.

I don't know enough about music to comment intelligently about their skills, which I assume superb, or the music itself. However, the chronological order of their selected pieces struck me with the parallel of two separately evolved genre of music. The lineage of Denk's catalog grew out of central Europe --- Austria, Germany, and Czech some 400 years ago --- and later spread to Russia and western Europe. Moran's genre is one and half centuries of American music rooted in transplanted African slaves. These two lines of music, invented by a small number of people, have formed the two dominant strands in the whole world.

Isn't it strange, I thought, that the music from other regions of the world and in the thousands of years of human history has not achieved nearly as much sophistication and universal appeal? Indian music may provide some competition, but other places not so much. China, for its massive number of people living through a space of a couple of thousand of years, has produced no music of any worth whatsoever.

Friday, June 17, 2016

A Unifying Theory: ASOIAF

While the Game of Thrones TV series have turned into fan fiction of the ASOIAF novels (or, as some may say, parody), this fan fiction has the advantage of having learned the grand finale from GRRM himself. The main characters' fates and big story arcs will likely to be generally consistent. For example, Jon Snow has been resurrected. Arya Stark is heading back to Westeros. Cersei Lannister will blow up King's Landing with wildfire. Daenerys Targaryen has tamed Drogon. Looming events include the dominance of Littlefinger Petyr Baelish and the Others and their zombies swarming over the Wall.

In the two novels plus 11 chapters released to date, a trend that is more pronounced than geographical convergence might be the spiritual "homecoming" of major characters. Daenerys has changed her principle from "If I look back I am lost" to re-examining her past. Jon Snow was about to ride to Winterfell before getting stabbed by Bowen Marsh and co. Tyrion, oddly enough, connects to home by selling it off to Brown Ben Plumm and his Second Sons army.

The human Arya may not be heading home up to the chapter "Mercy," but her constant warging into Nymeria suggests that her spirit may have already returned. Most notable, Bran's "return" reaches into the past of not only his family but the entire history of First Men and Children of the Forest, native populations of the ancient and mythical North. This, perhaps, is the grand and ultimate homecoming that the story is heading toward.

Thus we are faced with a question: What is home? What is the origin or true identity? Here another pattern emerges. Some of the main characters are not human but rather beasts. Below are the definite cases:

Thursday, June 2, 2016

Characters of No Importance

It occurred to me only recently that Shakespeare would often stick a character in a play that does not serve the plot but speaks for the average person or, more likely, the playwright himself. The character of no importance observes the absurdity of everyone else in the play and  the absurdity of life itself. He sometimes takes part in the action, but always maintains a detached outsider's viewpoint. Some examples that are particularly memorable to me are:
  • The Fool (King Lear)
  • The Bastard (King John)
  • Enobarbus (Antony and Cleopatra)
  • Thersites (Troilus and Cresida) 
There is a long list of Shakespearean fools on Wikipedia, but those characters are identified by the traditional definition of a theatrical fool, who serves a particular function on stage. Thus, Falstaff is classified as a fool even though he is also a central character in Henry IV. 

What I'm talking about, however, is a character that channels Shakespeare's own opinions, which is perhaps closer to the role of chorus, except this "chorus" is a lot more irreverent and cynical and sometimes vicious, and never represents the values and perspective of nobility. 

In general, Shakespeare seemed to be fairly careful in disguising his own opinions and had very limited use of chorus-like devices. When he did use a person as the chorus, he is there to tell the audience about stuff like "previously on this series ..." or "imagine some visual effects here ..." 

Given all the caution, Henry V is an extraordinary play in which he presented two nearly-opposing viewpoints: One of the king and his noblemen and one of the average soldiers. The two sides came to a head when Henry disguised himself to visit the camp at night before the battle of Agincourt and heard the real thoughts among his men. A couple of guys said:

Then I would he were here alone; so should he be sure to be ransomed, and a many poor men's lives saved. ... 
But if the cause be not good, the king himself hath a heavy reckoning to make, when all those legs and arms and heads, chopped off in battle, shall join together at the latter day and cry all 'We died at such a place;' some swearing, some crying for a surgeon, some upon their wives left poor behind them, some upon the debts they owe, some upon their children rawly left. I am afeard there are few diewell that die in a battle; for how can they charitably dispose of any thing, when blood is their argument? Now, if these men do not die well, it will be a black matter for the king that led them to it; whom to disobey were against all proportion of subjection.

The guys never appear again. After the battle, the king hanged his old buddy Bardolph.

Monday, May 23, 2016

Lear Again

I was just looking it up again for something on Edmund the bastard, and it occurred to me that this is one of the more readable plays; I hardly needed to look at the annotations. Then I somehow semi-consciously ended up on the YouTube watching a lecture on the play. It was interesting and comfortably detached. At one point a student commented that the characters are all so one-dimensional and only Lear goes through a full spectrum of human emotions. The lecturer asked whether the student thought, for example, Goneril is a one-dimensional villain. The student was apparently unconvinced. Suddenly I felt air went out of my lungs as if being punched in the gut. In a flash I remembered how it was Regan and Goneril that immediately grabbed my sympathies when I first saw the RSC's production of King Lear on TV. It's terrifying how this play has such ferocious power over me.

(It's not just me who find redeeming points in the two wicked daughters. Jane Smiley wrote "A Thousand Acres" loosely based on them.)

For a while I thought perhaps "Antony and Cleopatra" is my favorite. I love Othello and Much Ado as well. But after all this reminds me King Lear does something to me like nothing else.

Monday, May 16, 2016

Troilus and Cressida

It's an odd play, even more of a "problem" than "Measure for Measure." If it weren't written four hundred years ago, one could safely file it under absurdism or postmodernism. Troilus and Cressida defies any conventional classification.

Just when I thought I knew Shakespeare, sort of, I realize I don't. Not at all.

It's a vicious takedown of the heroic and romantic mythologies. He is saying that, the truth of heroism is jealousy and stupidity, and the truth of romantic love is inconstancy and self-interest. It's unusually obscene and sexually explicit. It's roiling with a rage underneath all the bawdy jokes. It's unlike any other Shakespearean play, although the sneering view on war here could have come out of Falstaff's mouth.

How do the two strands of plot connect with each other? One is how two unwilling warriors, Achilles and Hector, finally come to a deadly confrontation. The other is a cynical revision of Romeo and Juliet. I don't know, but I feel in my gut that they do connect in some way.

Come to think of it, it's kind of funny how Shakespeare approached the classics, compared with, say, T. S. Eliot. Good ol' Willie obviously didn't worship the classics as the grandiose foundation of English literature. Rather, he trampled and shat all over the lofty ideals and glory. What a guy.

Friday, May 13, 2016

Greek References in ASOIAF

It so happens that I'm reading Troilus and Cressida lately --- I've never thought Greek tragedy could be done as farce --- while the Game of Thrones series just put on a flashback segment depicting the Tower of Joy.

Game of Thrones, S6E3, Tower of Joy.

The homage hits me between the eyes. I'm wondering why it took me so long to see the connection.

George RR Martin's references to Greek mythology are not nearly as abundant or apparent as those to Nordic mythology, the Wars of Roses, and Shakespeare, and they are hidden much deeper. So when I recognize one it is a bit of a shock.

I wrote about Deianira, wife of Hercules, being the inspiration for Daenerys Targaryen for the History Behind GoT site. Then, in Season 5 of the TV series, a plot is transparently lifted from Agamemnon's sacrifice of his daughter Iphigenia. I am not convinced that GRRM would choose to sail so close to the source material himself, but, alas, the TV series has given it away.

It is then all the more puzzling why I did not think of Lyanna Stark as the face that launched a thousand ships. Maybe because the warring factions fought on land? Obviously, men fighting over women is nothing new or unique to the Trojan war. Heck, even the Chinese history books are filled with stories like this. But something in Lyanna's story matches Helen's.

Even now, after 5 books and 5.5 TV seasons, after multiple characters have mentioned Lyanna over and again in their thoughts and their dialog, we still have no idea what happened from her perspective. The questions about Lyanna are almost exactly the same as those about Helen. Was she abducted or seduced? Was she raped or in love? Did she go willingly? Why? Did she regret it? Shakespeare and most interpretations believe Helen eloped with Paris out of love, and that is the sentiment of most ASOIAF readers on Lyanna as well. But we never get to hear it from the woman herself.

What links Lyanna to Helen of Troy is not their role in the Trojan war or Robert Rebellion, that the desire to take them in possession spiraled out of control and led to the slaughter of thousands. Rather, it's how they are both at the center of the myths and completely invisible. I don't know if GRRM is going to eventually reveal the true face of that face or stick to the homage and critique of the original myth and hide it to the end.

Monday, May 2, 2016

War as Human Sacrifice (3): The Perpetuity of Violence

In the beginning of AGOT, the world is apparently in peace and prosperity. But even in this moment of peace, Ned's mind is filled with remembrance of war, which is Robert Baratheon's rebellion against the Targaryen dynasty only 14 years ago. Approximately a century ago was the Blackfyre Rebellion, a civil war that turned neighbors against neighbors and torn families apart. And soon enough Westeros is embroiled in the War of Five Kings. Men are killed, women are raped, children lose homes, and grains are burned at the cusp of a long winter. 

By the time we get to ADWD, the War of the Five Kings is over, but as the scope of the story pulls up like a camera, more battlefields and conflicts enter our view. Two mirror-image battles are waging with millions of lives promised to be lost: The battle of Winterfell between the Boltons and Stannis' Wildling army and the battle of Meereen on land and sea. Plus the Iron Islanders are taking cities and castles along the west coast while Mace Tyrell's armies are sitting on a barrel of explosives in a standoff with the now-armed church. Oh, and let's not forget (even though the TV series have) the Golden Company and Prince Aegon who have taken Storm's End, the last we heard. 

This is a question that applies to the real world much more than fiction: Is human history one of perpetual wars, with brief respites of temporary but unstable peace? Or are we more inclined to live in peace and periods of war are the anomaly? Given that we are living in a stretch of time that has not seen a world war for 70 years, it seems like we are moving in the direction of peace. American people are even more lucky than others as United States has not seen armed conflicts on its soil for 150 years. However, if we pull up the camera to cover a larger scope, the picture changes. Even now we are looking at a state of interminable military involvement. Since 1945, US has been directly involved in the Korean War in the 1950s, the Vietnam War in the 60s to early 70s, the first Gulf War in the early 90s, the second Gulf War in the early 2000s. The frequency is approximately the same as that in Westeros history, if not higher. We cannot go through even one generation with bloodshed, it seems. 

In ASOIAF, even when one area (eg, Dorne or Highgarden) is teetering on a vicarious peace, war is raging somewhere else in the world. While we can live in the illusion of peace in our daily lives, we are nevertheless involved in armed conflicts one way or another. For instance, we are all complicit as our tax dollars go into this drone and that bomb. No US president has ever not given orders to kill someone, and therefore our votes are also implicated. 

The optimistic Steven Pinker believes that the better angels of our nature are winning in the long run, evidenced in the diminishing proportion of violent deaths over time. I am not in the position to judge whether this hopeful trend holds in the next centuries or whether the recent era is just another blip of peace in our violent history. 

Regardless, I think one can hardly deny that our nature is not a blank piece of paper and that violence is a part of it. I'm very reluctant to label it as "worse devils" of our nature. Few would admit that they like violence or enjoy killing, but there must be something deeply irresistible that leads us to warring with each other. It's almost like wars are a home of our spirit. We try to stay away from it and avoid any mention of it, and may even succeed for some years or some distance, but sooner or later we cannot help but return to it. Why? Chris Hedges says, War is a force that gives us meaning. His point is that nothing can bind people's (especially men's) spirit together and fends off the existential loneliness like war can. Sigmund Freud credits the Death Drive, which is as strong as the drive to survive. Whatever it is, I'm not sure it's something that can be easily erased from the depth of humanity, or that it should be. 

Sunday, April 10, 2016

War as Human Sacrifice (2): Explicit Cases in ASOIAF

An Aztec priest removes a man's heart in a sacrificial ritual and offers it to the god Huitzilopochtli (from handcoloured engraving by Giulio Ferrario's Ancient and Modern Costumes of all the Peoples of the World, Florence, Italy, 1843)

Human sacrifice is one of the many threads underlying the A Song of Ice and Fire series. I have become increasingly convinced that the Unifying Theory of ASOIAF must contain this idea. I am trying to compile a list of as many human sacrifices in the novels as I can remember. There are probably more.

Old Gods of the North

In ADWD, Bran sees through the heart tree (the one in Winterfell?) the past, present, and future. His visions are described backward in time: First he sees Ned Stark, his father, sitting under the tree. Then an earlier scene of a boy and girl fighting with wooden swords, presumably Lyanna and Benjen Stark. The time is then fast rewound to much earlier times in the North, when he witnesses human sacrifice by the ancient people. The victim's throat is cut and blood flows into the roots of the tree.

It is generally believed that the Children of the Forest conducted human sacrifice to the Old Gods. This tradition has led to the speculation that Jojen has been killed and fed to Bran by the Children in the underground caves. Even if Bran has not drunk Jojen's blood, the fact remains that human sacrifice is part of the Old Gods' requirement and necessary for their powers.

R'hllor of Asshai 

The Azor Ahai myth shows that human sacrifice is also a foundation of the religion of R'hllor, also known as the Lord of Light. The ancient mythical hero forged his magical sword Lightbringer, the weapon against darkness, by driving the red hot flaming sword into his wife's heart.

Side note: Forging a perfect sword with human blood sacrifice is a proto-myth I am very familiar with from Chinese folklore. It's traced back to as far as over 2000 years ago. Whether the original story initiated in India, the Middle East, Asia Minor, or China, I have no idea.

As far as we have seen, Melisandre is the only red priest who does human sacrifice through burning. Neither Thoros nor Moqorro has burned anyone yet. On the contrary, Thoros has given life (sort of) to Berrick Dondarion seven times. Nevertheless, we cannot deny that human sacrifice appears to create powerful magic for Melisandre that allows her to assassinate enemies.

If we were to believe that Shireen Baratheon is really burned as a sacrifice to R'hllor, the concept of human sacrifice is definitely a part of this religion. Not only is king's blood especially powerful (with reference to Mayan religious sacrifice rituals), but child sacrifice is apparently more desirable to the god than decrepit old people, just like human society.

The Others

So far the novels have not directly described human sacrifice in these creatures, but the TV series have probably given it away in a Season 4 episode. At the end of this episode, we see an Other carrying one of Crastor's babies deep into the land of endless winter and places him on an icy alter. Their leader, identified as the Night's King, picks up the baby and turns his eyes blue.

Note the element of not only human but child sacrifice here. The question remains: Why do the Others demand so many male infants from Crastor? He is practically manufacturing babies for them over the years. It has been speculated that, by the constant perverse offerings, Crastor has maintained peace with the icy creatures and kept them from attacking the Wall. Is Crastor in fact a saint who is responsible for the long summer by sacrificing his own, uh, production? Alternatively, the Others may have been training a special operation troop with converted Crastor's babies who will serve some special purpose during their invasion.

Side note: We should keep in mind that GRRM has said that the Others are not dead or zombies, and they are not evil. There is an underlying logic for their behavior and migration, which is an integral part of the seasons. They don't eat brains and they probably don't exist just to be humans' enemy. This is a key point that has been ignored by nearly every interpretation of their nature.

Many-Faced God

We have learned nearly everything about this god of all gods from Arya's perspective. Human sacrifice is not as apparent in this religion as the other ones in the novels --- or perhaps it is the most apparent. What is the mantra of Faceless Men? Valar Morghulis. Valar Dohaeris. All men must die. All men must serve. What the hell does it mean? Why are these phrases together? Are Faceless Men merely an organization of hired hit men who assassinate for money? Not at all. They are servants of the Many-Faced God. Their service is to kill, ie, to take lives. All men must serve. They kill to serve their god. Hence death is a service. Hence death is sacrifice. They are the high priests at the alter, cutting out the heart and draining the blood of the offering.

Jaqen H'gar has explained to Arya (and us) the workings of the religion right in ACOK. Arya has saved 3 lives, including his; therefore, she has "robbed" his god of 3 lives that were supposed to be offered. To appease the god, Jaqen must kill 3 people --- maybe they have to be of her choosing, or maybe he just likes her --- to pay the god back. In other words, he must give the god his due sacrifice. The balance is then restored, and disaster has been prevented.

Where Are My Dragons?!

This is perhaps the best evidence that the hidden connection between human sacrifice and magical powers is part of the original plan for the series.

We are told that Mirri Maz Duur's magic is blood magic. When Daenerys begs her to save Khal Drogo's life, she does, but it is later revealed that his (sort of) life is gained by killing Dany's unborn baby. A life for a life. Blood for blood. The balance must be maintained (sounds familiar?). When Dany gives birth to the dead baby and understands this transaction, she gives Drogo the gift of death (again, sounds familiar?). She then burns 3 bodies in the pyre: Drogo, her child, and Mirri Maz Duur. Three lives are sacrificed in fire, a common practice in history and echoing Melisandre's approach, to an unnamed god. Which god is this? We don't know, although Mirri Maz Duur was from Asshai like Melisandre.

The god repays her sacrifice without fail. From the ashes she hatches 3 live dragons. Three humans for 3 dragons, not to mention at least 2 of these lives are of royal blood and 1 is an unborn fetus. This is exactly how magic works. This is how the god works across this entire world from Asshai to Westeros. It is almost certain that the Faceless Men are correct --- There is only one god in this world, taking different shapes and worshiped in different ways by different tribes.

True, neither the Seven of Andals nor the Drowned god of the Iron Island appear to fit the pattern of the above-cited gods. Are they different supernatural forces or merely different faces of the same god? It remains unclear but GRRM has no doubt mapped it out from the start.

War as Human Sacrifice (1): Early GRRM and mythology

In a recent conversation with a friend about A Song of Ice and Fire / Game of Thrones, the idea of war as a ritual of human sacrifice was raised. As soon as I heard this idea, my brain itched. I have seen or heard of it before, but where?

Seven Times Never Kill Men

This novella is one of the few works in which George R.R. Martin has mentioned the god of war Bakkalon. Unlike "Soldier" of the Seven Gods, Bakkalon takes on the striking image of a pale child. An odd image, unless you connect it with the theme of war as a form of human sacrifice, particularly of the young. Some how, war --- or violent conflict since the dawn of humanity --- always revolves around the young.

The human warriors in the novella, known as the Steel Angels (sounds like the name of a biker gang), worship Bakkalon with fervor. They have invaded an alien planet by slaughtering the natives, a peaceful species of furry animals called Jaenshi.

The Jaenshi probably look like Ewoks of Return of the Jedi, because George Lucas was apparently inspired by this story when he wrote the screenplay and even gave the original illustration to his character designer as a model for Chewbacca. Jaenshi children are cut open and hung on the walls of Steel Angels' stronghold.

Published in 1975, the parallel to the Vietnam war is unmistakable. Unlike the Viet Cong, however, the Jaenshi seem utterly incapable of picking up weapons to defend their homeland. Instead they huddle around and worship their own god, who seems equally indifferent to their death and suffering. Only a handful reluctantly follow a human leader who tries to organize an armed resistance.

Meanwhile, the Jaenshi god begins to appear in the dreams of the prophet of Steel Angels. He sends out a platoon of Steel Angels to seize the god's statue and bring it back to their camp. The feeble rebellion was swiftly crushed, unlike the bloodless, romantic battle in Return of the Jedi. The violent aggressors win. Or do they? A year later, we are told, Steel Angels have begun to sacrifice their own children on the wall ...

The symbolism is a bit more explicit in this story than it is in ASOIAF, but in ASOIAF the idea is subtly pervasive. Children are fed to the god of war. Even the (apparently?) winning side cannot escape this bloody human sacrifice. The children of Tywin Lannister and Cersei, Roose Bolton's son, and Walder Frey's hundred offspring, they are hardly luckier than the Stark children. And there are the commonfolk orphans, associated with Brotherhood Without Banners, who are attacked by the Brave Companions in AFFC.

In Seven Times, GRRM does not make clear to which god the human children were sacrificed, Bakkalon or the Jaenshi god. In parallel, who's to say for what the American young men fought in Vietnam? It might be the indifferent universe (for getting drafted, for example), or the military industrial complex, or the anti-communist, freedom-and-democracy idealism. To which god were they offered? That is a central question that continues to haunt the Vietnam generation, GRRM included.


I finally scratched the itch in my brain and remembered where I had heard of this war-as-sacrifice idea before. The battlefield of Kurukshetra, on which millions of warriors across ancient India came to fight and die, has been interpreted by many literary critics and historians as an alter of human sacrifice for the gods.

In a society like ancient India and Sparta (and possibly the Persian empire), the warrior class is destined to die on the battlefield. It is the duty they are born into, assigned by society. The ultimate and perfect warrior in the epic, Bhishma, explains that Kshatriyas must attain his honor and glory through killing and being killed on the battlefield. The poem repeatedly asserts that anyone who dies on Kurukshetra goes directly to heaven.

The super-massacre on Kurukshetra described in the poem is both viscerally exciting and highly ritualized. It is both realistic and symbolic, particularly with the mythical meaning of war and death intertwined in the story. The conflict is not only the culmination of a family battle over the throne. In the multi-layered epic, it is also a war between the gods in heaven and the asuras underground, which is very likely a representation of historical conflicts between the invading Aryans and native tribes in India. Philosophically, the war symbolizes dharma and adharma (not the same as the Christian good versus evil), as explained in Bhagavad Gita.

The war, described as daily battles with arbitrary rules of conduct for both sides (not unlike the Trojan War in Homer's poem), seems highly ritualized. Aren't killings just killings? Yet modern warfare between nation-states is different in execution from violent conflicts in primitive societies (see Jared Diamond's The World Until Tomorrow). Even though modern wars are as much about resources and territories as ever, the way they are conducted is relatively confined. Indiscriminate and random killings are no longer accepted by civilized societies --- No, they only send young men to shoot and stab each other in a confined area, very much like Kurukshetra.

With the disappearance of mandatory draft (or conscription) and increasing use of remote weapons (drones, missiles), war is becoming ever more abstract to us. Except, somewhere in the world, blood of the young is still spilled by the bucket and we are usually not very clear why. The practical goals and intent of wars are ever more difficult to discern. The meaning and goals of violent conflicts, such as those purportedly for religion and ideology, are becoming increasingly psychological rather than material. I wonder how an alien observer studying humans would make sense of our warfare. Would they interpret it as a ritual in which we compulsively engage, a destruction we instinctively inflict on ourselves?

But I digress. The battlefield as an alter on which the blood of young men is sacrificed to gods is not an uncommon concept in the realm of Hinduism-Buddhism. Again I am astonished by how the ancient Hindus were able to get straight to the heart of the matter.

Friday, March 25, 2016

Los Angeles

I lived in Los Angeles for six and a half years. After I moved to the East Coast, I continued to go back to visit family every year. And yet, whenever I am reminded of LA, it still invokes a strange sense of unrealness in me. It's the blaring, glaring, blinding, relentless light that eats your brain.

I suppose the harsh and pervasive sunlight is not limited to LA. Phoenix? Palm Springs? Las Vegas? There may be numerous Western cities like LA, but LA was the place where I called home for a substantial part of my life. By now I have been living in Washington DC for more than a decade. Here, or in New York, in London, in Auckland, I can imagine making a normal and real life for myself, in which I could feel a solid sense of my existence in the sun, rain, snow, or breeze. When I dream of the streets and views of LA --- always seen from inside a car, of course --- they are still like a dream. So strange, so alien, so fake. A plastic, glossy sheen over everything, the whole world bathed in JJ Abrams' signature lens flare.

Jumbled, ugly low buildings along six-lane boulevards. Stretches of land without a patch of shade. Highways and streets crammed with cars with not a single human figure exposed in sight. Like in a dream, the LA faces always turn away, not interested in breathing a word or throwing me a glance. Perhaps that is the root of this unrealness. Even though people are no friendlier in another metropolis, at least I can surround myself with strangers and feel like I am walking among the living. LA is like a ghost town, devoid of warm bodies. That is why I knew I could never find love in that city. That is why, though I think of it with nostalgia from time to time, I can never call it home.

Monday, March 14, 2016

Othello (STC 2016)

This version is directed by the Brazil-born Ron Daniels and star Farran Khan as Othello and Jonno Roberts as Iago. The lesson is that Othello is the embodiment of the "other" in any society. He could be black in a white-dominated society or, in this case, a (converted) muslim in a Christian society, as the casting and directing suggest. 

The production is a letdown of sorts for me. After a few years of watching Shakespearean plays on stage and in movies, I may be having a burnout. Often a new production seems to be merely ticking off the boxes scene by scene. Actors are happy enough to get the lines out without looking exhausted. There is not a lot beyond the conventional interpretation. There is very little fun or distinctive mark. 

I understand the urge to cast Othello's "otherness" in whatever topical "other" look. Nevertheless I have always felt strongly that Othello should be black. Very black. Black in the way that Laurence Fishburne was in the movie or Laurence Olivier was --- yeah, yeah, I know Olivier did a Blackface there but the intent was not derogatory and my God what a brilliant decision to look thoroughly African! 

And Iago, oh Iago. It is so haaaaarrrrd to do him right. It is extremely rare to have a nuanced Iago who is halfway believable as a human being (even if a psychopathic one) rather than a caricature of villainy with evil maniacal laughs, as he was in this production, which went as far as lighting his face from below for effect. Might as well put a pair of horns on his forehead. 

I have thought about the possibility that this was a (relative) failure on Shakespeare's part, that maybe Iago failed to be human enough, but ... the older I get the more I am inclined to believe that he is indeed very human, but the elements he represents are too disturbing and terrifying for us to recognize within ourselves. He is not for polite company, so to speak, in a civilized society, but he does live among us and perhaps even in us. Whatever motivates him --- hatred, jealousy, fear of the other (?), or plain boredom --- I would love to see a realistic presentation of Iago. No evil laughs please. 

Vishal Bhardwaj's adaptations are some of my favorite re-interpretations of Shakespeare. I have begun to accept that perhaps the only way left for us to continue to own Shakespeare is to retell the stories, leaving behind most of the original text but keeping and even expanding on the spirit, like Bhardwaj has done. Rewriting it into a Hindi movie has clearly freed him and his actors to get to the heart of the matter with additional issues like feminism. Saif Ali Khan's Iago might as well be the most relatable --- yet even scarier --- interpretation that I have seen. 

And so far I have not seen a satisfactory interpretation of Desdemona. Perhaps it will take a female author's retelling to get there.


Aside: I came to a funny (ironic, not haha) realization. Hollywood depiction of The Black Man, as a representation of the American unconscious, is either the calmly confident and noble general Othello of the first half if he is good (eg, Morgan Freeman, Denzel Washington, Morgan Freeman) or the hot-blooded Thug who murders Desdemona with his threatened masculinity (eg, the popular gangsters).

Another aside: It's also rather funny that Denzel Washington became very popular and well regarded playing the noble black man but only won the best lead actor award playing the dangerous black man (but never as Malcolm X). 

Sunday, March 6, 2016

Against Beauty

Recently a twitter account known as @femscriptintros created a bit of a stir. Ross Putnam, a movie producer who gets to see a lot scripts, is putting cliched introductory notes of female characters onto twitter. To be perfectly honest, at first I didn't see what was wrong with some of the entries, besides the impoverished imagination and writing. It only dawned on me after a bit of thought that every intro refers to the female character's physical beauty one way or another.

Yes, I know, the irony. I never thought of myself as having been indoctrinated by the patriarchal social values, but I had never questioned the insidious effect of "beauty." It is the only way to describe a good woman, a woman who is worth anything. Of course, physical beauty is superior, but if physical beauty is utterly out of the question (for example, a biopic of Mother Teresa), her other attributes, usually her heart and least likely her mind, would be assigned that description -- beautiful. All along I have believed that the highest compliment a woman can receive is her beauty.

But now the question is abundantly clear. Men are good and worthy in many various ways. Damn they don't even need to be good or worthy to be interesting or just ... to live. Men don't need to be anything but themselves --- OK I know this is gross simplification. Men too are imprisoned by their gender and social expectations, but women are still far more restricted. What's more disturbing than the externally imposed limitations is our internalized, self-imposed ones.

Saturday, March 5, 2016

45 Years

I went to see "45 Years" because I had read that the movie is about how a 45-year marriage unravels with a piece of news. The news is seemingly harmless --- The body of the husband's German girlfriend, who had fallen in the Swiss Alps and been frozen for decades, recently resurfaced. Geoff, the husband, may be asked by the authorities to identify her body. It's an effective image: a beautiful young woman preserved in her prime, while her lover has grown old and shabby.

I couldn't quite fathom how such an event would unravel a 45-year marriage, given that, when the accident happened, the husband had not even met Kate, the current wife. Does Kate discover that Geoff was, in fact, a murderer, or even a serial killer? Well, of course not. That kind of a movie would not have received Oscar nominations, even if directed by Hitchcock. So curiosity led me to the cinema.

But we are given nothing beyond a most innocent history of Geoff's lost love. In 1962, Geoff was an idealistic, passionate young man, madly in love with the German woman Katya. They were on the verge of marrying each other before she fell into the icy abyss. Then he came back to England, met Kate, and married her. He did tell Kate about Katya but never told her the extent of his involvement with Katya. Now the past floods back. Geoff confesses to Kate that he was deeply in love with Katya but never told Kate all the gruesome details. Perhaps he had thought about Katya a lot, but quietly, during his long marriage.

Through Charlotte Rampling's performance and through the use of stormy weather and sound effects, we are being told that Kate is shocked and dismayed by this revelation. Resentment simmers within as she struggled to maintain a calm and understanding face, at least until Saturday after their 45-year anniversary party. I guess she's just that kind of women --- anything to keep up appearances.

But I was, like, so? I'm not claiming that such events are impossible, but this movie has not earned my buy-in. Why would a wife burn with jealousy for her husband's ex-lover who had died before he even met herself? I'm not ruling out the possibility that such women exist, but they are certainly not the norm, and to portray such an intensely jealous person requires a lot more explanation about her than the movie provides. With so, so many married people who have had ex-spouses and pre-marital relationships, this kind of jealousy and sense of betrayal makes no sense for people growing up in the 1960s. And after 45 years of marriage? Really? Again, maybe it could happen, but the storyteller has to earn it, and the writer/director did not.

In a couple of climactic scenes, the root cause of Kate's intense anger at Geoff seems to be explained. She discovers that Katya was pregnant before her death. The writer implies that Kate's intense jealousy is directed at that pregnancy, as Kate herself have never had children with Geoff. Sounds logical, eh? But this does not hold up to further scrutiny, either. Why hasn't Kate had any children? If she did not want children or was infertile, she would have not reason to blame Geoff. Clearly Geoff was not infertile. So the only possible explanation was that Geoff convinced her not to have children with false rationale. He might have been traumatized by the loss of his unborn child by Katya (I won't get into how much sense this makes) so as to not ever want to have another child and dissuaded Kate from having children by making up some other reasons.

You might think I'm making all this up, as the movie tries really hard to conceal this theme. But just look at Rampling's face in a couple of key scenes and listen to her unspoken complaint that Katya has haunted their marriage all these years. What else could she be so angry about? That her husband had loved another woman before he met her? Indeed, throughout the movie, there are visual hints at how unhappy they both are because they have no children. So let me boil this movie down to a crude, simple summary: She wanted children. He didn't and convinced her not to. She acquiesced but always regrets it. Finally she discovers that the reason is his dead German lover. Boom. She is so angry at him now and feels so betrayed. Her life has been ruined by his lie.

Once I figured this out, my brain itched. There is something wrong with this story. I couldn't help but suspect that a man has written it. A woman would never tell a story about the choice of having or not having children in this way. I can see why men would imagine women to think this way but it is not how women actually think. When the end credits rolled I had to smile. Written and directed by Andrew Haigh, based on a short story by David Constantine. Can men and women truly understand each other?

Monday, February 29, 2016

Road Show

How fortunate that I live in the Washington DC area and get to see more Sondheim shows than anyone living now in New York City. At places during this rarely produced musical, I did wonder where the "Road" was leading, but the last 15 minutes really pulled itself together and made everything work.

Not having seen all of Sondheim's musicals, I don't know for sure if this is the first time he presented a gay romance in any of his work, but it is the first time I've seen him do it. The song "The Best Thing That Ever Has Happened," sung between an older man and his younger lover, is a blatant reference to his own life. I cannot help but shiver at the association. And the climactic confessional song about family --- that years and people come and go but one is forever stuck with his family --- says it all. That's what everything comes down to.

I can see why this doesn't suit Broadway, and I can see why critics feel mixed about it, but Road Show as Sondheim's last musical only added to my love for him. It may not be a masterpiece, but it's intimate and personal and, as such, does not cater to anyone. Why should he, at the end of a Shakespearean career?

The music. Oh the music. Can someone please do an instrumental recording of the complete Sondheim? Over and again during the show, I was drawn away from the story and lyrics by the lone piano tune that dominated the production, with an occasional fiddle. It's catnip to me. Inside I was twitching with delight.

Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Hamilton the Musical

When a friend of mine told me that she could not get tickets to Hamilton this summer --- or in fact for the rest of 2016, I was flabbergasted. Last summer, after it opened on Broadway in July, I bought 2 tickets in August for a Saturday (!) matinee show in September. How could the wait become a whole ye... Damn you online scalpers!

I have tried to explain to a few people just what is so successful about Hamilton that has caused such a breathless sensation. It's hard. I don't think Lin Manuel Miranda, the writer of the musical who adapted it from a biography written by Ron Chernow, can fully explain it. Everything clicks in various surprising and mind-tickling ways. So many things could have gone wrong in this rather daring re-telling of American Revolution from the point of view of Alexander Hamilton. It could have been too cynical or too earnest, too reverential or too disrespectful, too serious or too silly, too boring or too absurd ... Somehow by some miracle of not only Miranda's skills but also his personality, it has circumvented every gaping pitfall and kept the tone to an improbably perfection that pleases everyone. Unless you are a raging white supremacist who carry the Klan membership card in your pocket, everyone from a rabid liberal to a recalcitrant conservatives is thrilled and charmed by this portrait of a young United States. It's so universally flattering, except to maybe a British royalist, that you don't even feel the flattery.

Of all the things that have been vehemently praised by pretty much every talking head associated or unassociated with musical theater, one extraordinary thing is the fact that it has a cast of almost entirely minorities. The key actors are primarily black, some Hispanic (including Miranda himself who is Puerto Rican), and one Asian (Phillipa Soo). Of course it was a conscious decision to give many underrated and underappreciated actors a place to shine. Miranda has said in several interviews that he wanted to represent the faces of America then --- European immigrants fighting for independence --- with the faces of America now, as recent immigrants have predominantly darker skin. But, I can't help the feeling that the casting was initially dictated by his writing voice.

LM Miranda can juggle multiple music styles, but his specialty has always been rap, as shown in his previous musical In the Heights. He admitted in one interview that he started thinking about writing the show as he gobbled down Chernow's book for the first time. The voice in his head was the voice most familiar to him: rap. In 2009, he wrote one rap number summarizing Hamilton's life and performed it at a White House event. It was well received. From the beginning, the basic voice of this musical had to be rap.

The next logical conclusion must have been that he would have to cast several black actors to perform his rap lyrics. I don't know if the image of a cast of white Broadway actors rapping as Hamilton, Jefferson, Madison, and Aaron Burr crossed his mind. It did mine and gave me a shudder. It would have been so wrong in so many ways, not least the suggestion of cultural appropriation and reminder of repeated insults to minorities from the birth of this nation. No, his lines would have to be sung/spoken by black actors (and himself) who know what they are doing. As such, a minority-dominated cast is not only preferred but practically inevitable. Indeed, he had to convince a professional rapper friend, Daveed Diggs, to suspend his tour to join the cast. Diggs turned out to be an absolute highlight of the show.

Would this pose an issue as Hamilton goes on a National tour to Chicago and Los Angeles? Can they find a predominantly black and Hispanic cast who can handle the demanding lyrics and rhythm? We'll have to wait and see.

Monday, February 8, 2016

Golden State Warriors

According to NBA schedule, the match between GSW and Washington Wizards on February 3 was the last (only?) game of the 2015-2016 season to have GSW in the Verizon Center. Thus it was no surprise that the ticket prices reached a height for the Wizards franchise not seen in the past 6 years, surpassing even the Eastern Conference semifinals in the past 2 seasons. When Mr. S and I arrived at the arena before the door opened, the lines were swarming 7th Ave between F and G Streets.

"Everyone's a Warriors fan now," said the middle-aged man in the seat to my right. "It's like a teabag. Just dip it in hot water and you get tea, every time." Hmm ... He was no new fan, as he lives in Marine County, across the Bay from Oakland. 

I'm one of those freshly brewed Warriors fan, swept onto the Stephen Curry bandwagon only a couple of months ago, after over a decade of indifference to  NBA. I did watch the televised playoffs for a few years in the 1990s, when Michael Jordan was approaching his first retirement. Perhaps it was the resignation in a sports commentator's voice I heard on NPR, when he talked about Curry. The tone brought up the memory of how people were talking about Jordan, implying something like, "Here comes a mad genius. What can anyone do but lie down and be trampled?" 

And trample he did. In the game against Wizards, Curry scored 51 points. I must say that Wizards fought hard and played especially well. John Wall scored 41 points. Nene almost hit every free throw. GSW nevertheless won by 13 points in the end, but the match was, at one point, only a 2-point game. It was in the middle of second quarter, I said to the man from California, "If something should happen to Curry, where would the Warriors be?" He thought about it and agreed, "Yeah, they'd be a middling team." 

Beyond marveling at the impossible speed of the play --- I tried to catch a glimpse of formations and ball movement, but the only thing I saw was a few picks and rolls --- I wondered about what is the so-called "star quality." What is the quality that makes a team build their strategy around one player, so that he makes or breaks their success over a whole season, or several seasons? How does this shape the interpersonal dynamics and motivations of the non-star players in a team setting? Do they envy him and resent him while also depending on him? I used to think that individual sports, like figure skating and tennis, are more psychological than team sports, like football (soccer and basketball). But I might be wrong there. 

The Californian man said, "The other guard, Klay [Thompson], is actually as good as Steph, he just doesn't believe it." 

I was reminded of Scottie Pippen. All those years ago I had a very low opinion of Pippen. I thought Jordan was hitting all the crucial jumpshots and layups in the last quarter, while Pippen was missing them. He was just riding on Jordan's coattail. Only now I saw my error. There can never be two Jordans in one team. Why? I don't know. It was no small feat for Pippen to remain a good player, steady and uncomplaining at Jordan's side. 

At the next game, Curry shot rather poorly and scored only 26 points. Oklahoma City Thunder nearly won the match. Near the end, the teams were tied at 104. And yet, Curry either scored or assisted and was responsible for a string of successful offense efforts in the final few minutes. GSW won 116-108, despite Kevin Durant's 40 points. What makes a player so ... clutch? So deadly that his teammates mentally rely on him? I am convinced this is more than physical talent and superhuman effort. A key ingredient must be psychological.

Stars like Jordan and Reggie Miller and Kobe Bryant, now Curry, have been described as "cold-blooded" or having "killer instinct." It is not that they lack mercy while mere mortals are unconsciously reluctant to defeat the rivals. Rather, the mere mortals are inhibited by something other than mercy --- perhaps an anticipation of victory and all its spoils and associated fear of losing all those by one's own failure. I think the ancient Indians had it right --- only when one detaches himself from the fruit of his action, be it bitter or sweet, can he find the courage and focus to do what he must do now. And the effect may be even stronger on others around him.  

Sunday, January 24, 2016

Jessica Jones and the Nature of Guilt

Not unlike "Mr. Robot," "Jessica Jones" is an intensely psychological series. I have not read any of the original comics, so it's hard to attribute the source of this subtext. No matter, I'm especially fascinated by the issue of guilt in the TV series.

For most of the 13 episodes, Jessica resists the calls from people around her to kill her nemesis and the villain Kilgrave. Her explanation, which increasingly feels like an excuse, is that she wants to show the world that Kilgrave exists and thereby legally exonerate Hope, Kilgrave's young victim Jessica strongly identifies with and projects herself into. In effect, she is trying to get the world to agree with her that "It was not my fault." The "it" here of course refers to her past, when she lived with Kilgrave and murdered another woman at his bidding. It's not about Hope, but rather all about Jessica's judgment of herself.

The theme of guilt is permeated throughout the story line. It's pretty transparent that a villain like Kilgrave is the embodiment / projection of our guilt and shame for our id. He is created for our deniability and repression of a part of us.

Beyond the navel gazing, the series also suggest that guilt is a force that binds people together, although not always in a good way. Jessica feels like she is obligated to save Hope and other "weak" people from Kilgrave, because her guilt binds her to their fate. She feels responsible for Kilgrave's rage and destruction, and therefore she is responsible for the outcome.

Is this a reasonable assessment of the situation? I think the writers of the series are also questioning this chain of deduction: If Kilgrave is enraged by Jessica's disobedience and takes it out on bystanders, is Jessica responsible for either Kilgrave or the victims? Sounds familiar, doesn't it? The instigator of domestic abuse claims (and usually truly believes), "You have made me so mad, that I cannot help but beat you." Most of us would agree that this logic is faulty, but Jessica seems to differ. That she feels compelled or even forced to "save people" is a combination of her superpower and her guilt.

As such, one of the most intriguing characters in the series is Robyn, Jessica's neighbor who is always blaming other people for her own irritability. These two women are made for each other: One refuses to take responsibility for her own reaction/feeling, and the other gladly takes it on her own shoulders. Thus one can't help an sense of uneasiness in this orgy of saving and being saved, rescuing and being rescued.

Both Robyn and Kilgrave are able to command or manipulate Jessica into doing things for themselves. "This is on you," they tell Jessica, but that is not the point. The point is what follows, "Therefore, do what I tell you to do." While we do derive a sense of bonding and belonging through the fudged boundaries, the results are still all about each of us getting what we want. Kilgrave may enjoy the sense of power through Jessica's apparent obedience, but Jessica is getting relief from her guilt. You may be the superhero who have saved someone's life, but you are still alone.

Perhaps confined by the conventions and expectations of the American Superhero mythology (TM), the series do not fully explore the complications of such guilty-driven boundary crossing. Should Jessica save these people? What is she actually doing for the 13 hours of the series? Perhaps simply to escape the voice of guilt inside her head.

It so happened that, in the middle of watching Jessica Jones, I also re-watched the Hitchcock movie "Spellbound" starring Gregory Peck and Ingrid Bergman. It's a rather crude dissection of the guilt complex. A child wishes someone dead, that someone actually dies, and the child infers that his own wish has killed that person and therefore develops a deep-seated but often repressed guilt. Underlying the guilt is the omnipotent fantasy. In other words, attributing external occurrences to one's own will or power is both elating and depressing. This goes to the very heart of the American Superhero mythology, especially the darker superheroes. "With greater power comes greater responsibility," but the unspoken inference is "responsibility = guilt / blame." The flip side is that, one would rather be plagued with excessive and unrealistic guilt than to feel (realistically) small and weak and ordinary and, as such, not all that responsible.

The series seem to be fully aware of the god-complex (omnipotent fantasy) in the superhero mythology. The ironic dialogue between Jones and the nurse (played by Rosario Dawson), which could have been a psychologist's commentary on the series, shows an intentional deconstruction of the issue.

"I want everything to be my fault. Good or bad. Means I have some control."
"You're in total control. You are responsible for all this and I blame you."

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