Monday, August 25, 2008


I sometimes think that we live in a time that denies all achievement, that the Web (especially "Web 2.0") has created a class of armchair-everythings who take pleasure only in cutting down the successes of the genuinely talented. The Olympics tends to bring this out. To some, Michael Phelps' athletic achievements matter less than the fact that he seems like a tool.

It's even worse when it comes to the arts. We know exactly how fast Phelps can swim, but creativity can't necessarily be quantified, nor the work and effort put into it measured.

Which may be why I found myself so attracted by two recent movies that give creativity its due.

My Name is Fame has one of those goofy Hong Kong movie titles, and its plot follows the well-trod path of Pygmalion and A Star is Born, but what really struck me about it was that it takes art seriously. The relationship between the two main characters - Fai, an embittered, washed-up actor, and Fei, the aspiring ingenue who at first idolizes and then surpasses him - is structured as an artistic rivalry, and the questions they confront regarding integrity, and what kinds of achievements and recognition really matter, are given the importance - and the ambiguity - they deserve.

If My Name is Fame is about the hard work of being a creative artist (especially in an industry that rarely values artistry), Be Kind Rewind simply revels in the pure joy of making stuff. The characters played by Jack Black and Mos Def are so unaware of how to make a movie that the obstacles that would thwart someone with knowledge but without means are hardly obstacles at all. Possessing neither means nor knowledge, they happily plunge in with a cheap video camera and whatever else they have at hand. These "Sweded" versions become more popular than the originals among the denizens of the video store where they hang-out, and this exuberance in creativity pervades the entire film (and beyond.)

In both films, creativity is, in itself, both labor and reward. The ingenious ending of My Name is Fame, which deliberately withholds what might have been Fai's triumph in another film, brings this point home in what I found to be a very moving way. The end of Be Kind Rewind is just as moving, but for a different reason. It, and the movie as a whole, evokes a lost Eden, where pure creativity exists unbound by mental or physical barriers.

Robert Ashley

I was surprised and a little depressed to learn that Robert Ashley has made, like, three or four operas in the last few years, and I was completely unaware of them. Obviously, I haven't been keeping up.

A friend introduced me to Ashley's work when I was in college, and I've been a fan ever since - partly because of the music, but even more because of his use of language. He is truly one of the great manipulators of English. Perfect Lives and Improvement are particular favorites of mine. The best entry point, however, is undoubtably Private Parts (The Record), which is a hushed, mesmerizing recording of what would become the first and last parts of Perfect Lives.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Soccer Blogs

I came to soccer fandom pretty late. For years I dabbled, watching the World Cup and the occasional Premier League match on cable. But one can only appreciate "the beautiful game" from a distance for so long. Eventually, you really have to pick a team so you can experience the full range of euphoria and agony provided by a sport that so often teases its fans with 0-0 draws after ninety minutes of excruciating tension.

So, last year, I decided to become a Barcelona; supporter. Which is, I know, a little like a newbie baseball fan declaring for the Yankees. Unluckliy for Barcelona, however, I am a lifetime fan of
the losingest sports franchise in history, and my bad luck tends to transfer to whatever other teams I follow. Barca finished the 07-08 season in third place in their league - a grave matter for them - and ended up jettisoning their coach and a couple of star players.

Their new season begins in a little over a week, and I plan to blog their (I hope) recovery from last season's disappointments.

In the meantime, here are some soccer blogs I recommend:

Unprofessional Foul is an opinionated, and often funny, round-up of world soccer news. I especially like the cover art, in which Ronaldhino's unmistakable teeth feature prominently.

Jennifer Doyle is an American professor of Literature, currently living in England, whose blog, From A Left Wing, covers her other passion: soccer (especially women's soccer), with verve and intellectual heft.

Finally, artversussport is by an artist in Barcelona, whose passion for her hometown team manifests itself in watercolors of the players in action.

Monday, August 18, 2008


Why is this clip so funny? Maybe because it's a perfect illustration of three-part joke structure, made even more funny because it happens by accident.

Speaking of Warhol

There's a great piece by Jonathan Jones in The Guardian objecting to how Andy Warhol is usually depicted in movies, i.e., either as a vampiric manipulator of vulnerable acolytes or a circus freak.

Speaking as a Warhol fanatic, I stand behind Jones when he writes that he'd "rather gaze at the Empire State building for eight hours than see another biopic or documentary that claims to recreate the strange and mysterious world of his New York studio." Warhol may have been just too strange for this world, but this world is better for having had him around for a while.

As Tears Go By

A new print of Wong Kar-wai's 1988 debut feature, As Tears Go By is making the rounds, and it's well-worth seeking out.

The critical consensus seems to be that it's mainly of interest for the brief glimmers of Wong's mature artistic style that are buried in an otherwise fairly unremarkable film, but there are other pleasures to be had as well. For me, seeing it reminded me of what I always liked about Hong Kong New Wave gangster movies. Namely, the way the narratives are stripped to the bone. Motivation, character development, exposition: all of these are virtually eliminated in favor of velocity and stylistic pizzazz.

In contrast to his later films, which constitute a genre all their own, Wong more or less play by the gangster movie rules in As Tears Go By, but those glimmers, which include some beautifully smeary step-printed action scenes, and a love scene set to a Cantonese version of "Take My Breath Away", are certainly a glimpse of what's to come.

Blog Restart

Until now, this blog was two things:

1. About Asian cinema exclusively.
2. Rarely updated.

As of today, all that is changing. From now on, I promise to post at least every other day (circumstances permitting), and to mix in topics other than Asian cinema. (Hence, the new title: Asian Cinema Plus.)

This is, in part, a form of self-therapy. Watching Asian films began as a hobby, then became a career, and now threatens to take over my life. Also, as a category, I'm not sure Asian cinema means anything anymore, or, rather, it means too many different things to too many different people. If I allow myself to use this space to write about movies from Iran and Korea, why not France and Senegal? Aren't each of these places equally similar and different, one from another?

Following the same logic, why limit myself to film at all? If I admire both Hou Hsiao-hsien and Andy Warhol as artists, why not write about both? If I enjoy watching soccer and watching movies, why not include that as well?

So without futher ado, welcome to my newly reconsidered blog, Asian Cinema Plus.

Friday, August 08, 2008

Otakon Appearances

Tomorrow (Saturday), I'll be traveling up to Baltimore to attend the gigantic anime convention known as Otakon. If previous conventions are any indication, the Baltimore Convention Center will be overflowing with people of all ages wearing outlandish costumes.

I will be signing my book at the Borders Express in the Dealers Room at 3 PM, then giving a talk at 5 PM in Panel Room 1.