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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.

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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?

Timon of Athens

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

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