Friday, December 31, 2010

A Review of Reviewers

I’ve learned the hard way that most critics don’t really like most other critics, and nowhere is this more evident than in their reviews of The Pillow Book. The Pillow Book is either a beautiful celebration of traditional cultures, a dark yet strangely touching erotic story, and one of the best films of the 1990s; or else it’s the cancer that is killing film and doesn’t even rise to the level of fetishistic pornography. There is no middle ground, and if you think there is, you must be one of THEM. Or a critic from the Christian Science Monitor. One or the other.
            As with so much else, the drama over The Pillow Book was originally, in essence, Roger Ebert versus Everyone Else in the World. Ebert, a Japonophile who frequently gets the ‘one of us!’ treatment from anime geeks, really loved it, saying that it was a film for the ages and a dark, beautiful exploration of certain aspects of Japanese culture (including, yes, some of the more hentai aspects of said culture) from an original perspective that wasn’t really British but wasn’t really anything else. Everyone else in the world probably left the theatre thinking ‘what the fuck did I just see?’ Unless they were watching Batman and Robin instead, in which case they still left the theatre thinking ‘what the fuck did I just see?’, just for different reasons.
            But Ebert was right about North; that movie really did suck and really was beneath Rob Reiner’s true abilities! So maybe he was right about this! Right? Right?
            TIME’s Richard Corliss thought so, and like Ebert he could find almost nothing bad to say about The Pillow Book. Many other critics did not agree.
            The strange thing is, it really didn’t start out as a controversy. Film critics disagree on movies a lot, actually, especially if one of them is Ebert (or the late Gene Siskel, who actually liked The Pillow Book as well). It was only when the Internet became a more end-user-oriented place and when Japanese things started to become one of the Internet’s specialities that people who hated this movie started hating it TEN TIMES MORE, in one instance saying:

If your idea of a good movie is watching Ewan McGregor walking around naked with his uncut equipment flopping around going from sex with one fat old asian man to another then yeah you’ll love this movie and you can hide behind the same critiques about the films mis en scene that these other critics are blowing hot air about. Otherwise forget it. This film is both boring and disturbing and not in a cool way either. There are some colorful visuals with the beautiful young starlet and her fetish for writing Mandarin on bodies but it doesn’t save the film. How are we supposed to take him seriously as Obi Wan after seeing this?’

First of all, I don’t think that the fact that Ewan McGregor is uncircumcised is really relevant to the quality or lack thereof of any movie that he is in, from Trainspotting to The Island. But that could just be what is apparently (according to my ‘friends’) my ‘Victorian antisexualism’ talking. Second of all, I actually like Mr McGregor as an actor, but how were we supposed to take him seriously as Obi-Wan after finding out that he wasn’t Sir Alec Guinness? Third of all, he only has sex with one fat old Asian man. Fourth of all, Mandarin is a language, not a script. The script in question is kanji, and the characters use it to write Japanese, not Chinese. Fifth of all, there are many legitimate criticisms to be made of The Pillow Book; the mis en scene is not among them. Paul Greenaway, who made this movie, is actually a visual rather than a literary artist, and it shows. These are the film’s strengths, not its weaknesses. It’s like faulting Simoun for the accordion music. Sixth and last of all, it wasn’t this review, but one of these same Amazon reviewers also claimed that Steerpike is the ‘good guy’ of Gormenghast.
            I’ll just…let that one hang itself.
            This is not to say that people who like The Pillow Book can’t be equally ridiculous, because they can. Oh, they so can. I’ve seen people say ‘it just wasn’t my thing’ and get called stupid philistines who should shoot themselves to remove themselves from the gene pool! One wouldn’t think this sort of a movie would inspire such fanatical loyalty, but people get worked up about a lot of strange things. And this one is just…NO:

‘If you love to stare at nude luscious men, this is the VIDEO! I enjoyed it for hours! All the other reviews were right, this video is GREAT. The quivering male organs...the gleam of light on supple hairless skin...the curves of each exquisite’s ART in its purest form. If you love to examine the nude male, and marvel at its beauty, this is a GREAT video for you!’

            There really is a shocking lack of research in these reviews. The original Pillow Book (the work of literature, that is) is described as an ‘erotic novel’. Which it is not. Really is not. It’s a book of lists, basically. And one person claims that Sei Shōnagon lived in the eighth century, which she didn’t.

Let me lay it out: The Pillow Book is a very specific sort of thing. If you feel that you will enjoy, be aroused by, be shocked by, be moved by, or otherwise derive benefit from a dark love story about the publishing industry in which Ewan McGregor and Vivian Wu copy the works of Sei Shōnagon on to each other’s bodies, good. You’ll like this movie. If that does not strike you as in any way appealing, don’t watch it in the first place, and if you are somehow forced to, don’t say I didn’t warn you. Just bear in mind that there is, in fact, more to the movie than McGregor walking around naked. There is also Wu walking around naked. And other people walking around naked. And, more seriously, tenth-century literary studies. And a love story. And a revenge story. And as for the most original thing about the movie—the calligraphy sessions—I actually quite enjoyed them. The actors involved (at least until we get to the sumo guy in the climax) are mostly fairly attractive, especially Wu. The calligraphy is beautiful, the literature is classic, the revenge plot is ingenious; I don’t myself understand what’s not to like. If you still think it’s pretentious, pornographic, or both, or that Ewan McGregor is metaphorically raping Sei Shōnagon from beyond the grave, that’s your right. Just don’t expect Heian diehards, or people with language fetishes, or people like me who fall into both categories, to agree with you. After all, we don’t expect you to agree with us.
            Besides, how often is a dramatic movie seriously commended for ‘interesting use of nudity’, anyway?

Writing Project: Part IV of God-Knows-How-Many

The Nish’s Story


‘All right,’ said Schlomo, ‘let us try it again.’
            ‘What have we learned from this?’ asked Cosgrove.
            ‘I learned that what we’re being shown isn’t necessarily accurate,’ said the Nish. ‘—Or that it’s misleading, anyway.’
            ‘Is it possible that…’ Cosgrove gulped. ‘Forgive me, please, for saying this, I know you really like her, but is it possible that you misjudged Hildy Wildermann’s personality?’

Friday, December 24, 2010

'This is where I am' into 'Que si el cangrejo se muere todo en su totalidad...'

A serious and good work of philosophy, focusing on philosophy of the values of acts (otherwise known by the somewhat more imprecise terms of normative and applied ethics) and the 'philosophy of the immortality of the crab' (i.e. the philosophy of the violent cognition that overpowers thinking in times of critical faith or desire), could be written entirely, or almost entirely, on the subject of Yun.


Monday, December 20, 2010

Discriminatory Federal Law-chic

Just right now, while browsing through news stories about the repeal of Don't Ask-Don't Tell, I found this one. I'm not sure why it was in the news section but it is. Here's a quote.

And now, we can take the idea of “don’t ask, don’t tell” a little less seriously. After all, there are plenty of things we think actually deserve being put into this category. Liiiike telling us about how wasted you got last night. Or the terrible sex you had with somebody else’s boyfriend. And especially talking about the explosive diarrhea you had this morning after breakfast. So, tell us: what’s on your personal “don’t ask, don’t tell” list? 


...okay, let's try this again.

And now, we can take the idea of “separate but equal” a little less seriously. After all, there are plenty of things we think actually deserve being put into this category. Liiiike separating us how wasted you got last night. Or how the terrible sex you had with somebody else’s boyfriend is equal to the dissipation of your life in general. And especially [I can't spin the gratuitously disgusting third example]. So, tell us: what’s on your personal “separate but equal” list? 
 Or this:
And now, we can take the idea of “enfeofed working for all” a little less seriously. After all, there are plenty of things we think actually deserve being put into this category. Liiiike...

You know what? I'm not going to go on with this. There's taking something "a little less seriously" and then there's disrespecting what it really is in every way, shape, and form. No. Please, no. 

Friday, December 17, 2010

In defence of Christmas.

For all the talk about Santa/Father Christmas as a harbinger of a total commercialisation of Christmas, I'd like to actually take some time to talk about what I think this figure means. I think that Santa fills an important role in the Feast of the Nativity in that he is in effect the tutelary deity or prime spirit involved in what amounts to a sacramentalisation of childhood, the same childhood that is seen and worshipped in the infant Christ.

When a parent reads a letter that a child has written to Santa and answers it with gifts, that parent is, in that moment, Santa Claus, in the sense that Santa becomes a role that the parent plays in a mystery play of the child's devising and for the child's benefit. In this role the parent absorbs the mythos of a benefactor and a comforter, whose operation in the enjoyment of the holiday is in effect a translation into material terms of the operation of the Holy Ghost in the enjoyment of spiritual graces. To a large extent the scruples and dedication of the parent are measured, by the child, in a subconscious examination of how this role is filled. The parent in effect becomes a household god, balancing this role with his or her role in the quotidian family unit and thus attaining a sort of priesthood, a position between Earth and Heaven in other times of the year reserved for more formalised religious functionalities.

It's only later that the child's evolving understanding of the spirit of giving and of the nature of parenthood allows for the roles that the parent plays to be collapsed into a more earthly understanding of generosity and the giving of gifts as operations that occur within and lend beauty to the everyday world. In this part of the system the role of Santa goes into abeyance as the child and the parent (and other gift-givers) enter into a more one-on-one relationship of exchange.

Later on, if the child becomes a parent or even just has children in his or her life as an adult, he or she likewise will come into the Santa role, having prepared the child or children for the nature of the mythos as an inheritance from the generation before.

This is not to say the system is not commercialised or filled with shit, because it is, by advertisers among others. But at its heart, the role of Santa in Christmas is a very strong and very real signifier of the transmission of the ideas and experiences of childhood, and as such is certainly relevant to the celebration of the Nativity and God-as-Child.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Speaking of which.

About six weeks ago, I tried to read Hana monogatari, by Yoshiya Nobuko, for as long as I could before completely getting lost--in, yes, the original Japanese. The first couple of sentences were easy enough: It's an evening in early summer, and seven girls are meeting at this Western-style mansion to trade stories. As you do. It's proto-shoujo. But then, a few characters into the third sentence, I completely lost all sense of what was going on. All I knew was that it had to do with one of something saying something about pupils.

This morning, I tried it again. I still wasn't able to read whole sentences past the second one, mainly because of unfamiliar kanji, but I had a much clearer handle on what was going on. One of the girls tells a story about her time at a mission school someplace. Her father does or did something in the florist or possibly gardening business and her mother does or did something with this school. So the girl and her mother came to know this lady who played piano at the mission. I'm not sure why the fact that it's a mission school is relevant, but if I had to guess I'd say that it's because that way it's easy to make the piano player a beautiful blonde European lady.

So we follow the exploits of this girl as she watches the piano player play piano for the balance of the first page. At the end of the page, there's something about returning to some town somewhere, and then I completely lose track of what Yoshiya is talking about.

But still! Two sentences to one page! Progress, am I right?

Monday, December 13, 2010

My goal for the winter break.

Find one promising-looking story in Hana monogatari and translate the shit out of it, by any means necessary.

I'll have almost a month, a low-intermediate command of written Japanese, access to the Burlington County Library (with its kanji dictionaries), possibly the first two seasons of Maria-sama ga Miteru, and I'll be wearing fuzzy sweaters and eating comfort food.

If I can't pull this off then I have no business in this scholarship.

Nathan's Journey

The ground is not slippery; therefore it is.

So this morning, I went to church.

This was a usual undertaking unusually performed, in several senses. First, I did it earlier than I normally do, specifically at eight o' clock am. This was practical necessity, my usual schedule being a casualty of the impending finals. Since I stayed up all night last night (and am indeed going to bed after I post this, only to awaken for food and friends in the mid-to-late evening), my feeling was that my normal approach--go to the ten-thirty service, stay for tea and chitchat afterwards--was useless here. And indeed, right now I'd certainly be too tired to go, going by my current feeling. And I had tea.

Unfortunately, as superficially good an idea as this was, there were two problems with it. First, I live a little over a mile from my church. Getting there entails passing the Baptist church, the woodcutter with the dog who lives near the Baptist church, the Korean community centre, Kendrick Park, the high-end clothing store with worryingly sexless underwear models in the windows, the workers'-run socialist book collective, the Bank of America, and about half of the green. So usually I take the bus.

The Sunday buses don't start until ten. The service was at eight. I finished getting dressed at seven-forty-nine.

The second problem, which compounded the first, was one of the weather. Those of you who don't live in Massachusetts may not be aware of the phenomenon of freezing rain. This differs from frozEN rain (hail) in that it falls in perfectly normal, if cold, liquid form and hits the ground and splashes like any other rain. But then, because the ground is colder than the air in these conditions, it freezes, which results in a thin patina of ice that covers basically all open land area, often invisibly and thus dangerously. I had to walk through this for a mile in fancy shoes if I was to go to church. And I'm a good little Episcopalian (for whatever that's worth), so not going to church during Advent was NOT an option that I was willing to entertain.

So I embarked.

Upon reaching the home of the woodcutter with the dog who lives near the Baptist church, I found the first significant patch of mud of my journey. Mud was good because it is relatively immune to the slippy slidey ice world treatment but bad because it got on the fancy shoes. Also the woodcutter's dog doesn't like me and started woofing and wouldn't stop until I had passed.

Upon reaching Kendrick Park I gave some change to a bum so he could catch a bus to Northampton in two hours' time. I'm still scratching my head on that one, but he was obviously sober and he needed it more than I did.

Upon reaching the workers'-run socialist book collective, I encountered an enormous patch of ice that was impassible except for literally skating across it. The good news is that this cleaned the fancy shoes pretty well. The bad news is that I fell down two times.

Finally, I got to church and took my seat, already halfway through the Nicene Creed. I joined in somewhere around 'was crucified, dead, and buried'. It was at this time that I realised that I had the profound need to record my morning for posterity, for the good of the Church and the World.

Prepare the way, O Zion! Your actual snow is drawing near.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

The things I put up with for this degree.

Below is the actual text that I memorized the general contents of for my Japanese speaking test tomorrow, including a translation (by me, no less!) so that the rest of you can bask in its magnificence:

Speaking test 2

 日本人のよう子さんは アメリカのホストファミリーに てがみをかきました。
Japanese person Youko wrote a letter to her American host family.
こんにちは。私のなまえは よう子です。
Hello. My name is Youko.
日本人です。らい年のなつ、アメリカに べんきょうしに行きます。
I am Japanese. Next summer, I will go to America to study.
私は 今 大学一年生で、アメリカ文学を べんきょうして います。
I am now a college freshman, and am studying American literature.
 私は せが あまり高くなくて、やせています。
I am somewhat tall, and thin.
それから、とても元気で、 やさしいです。
Also, I am very lively and kind.
私のかぞくは 父と母とあにです。
My family has a father, mother, and older brother.
父も、母も、あにも、アメリカが すきです。
My father, mother, and older brother all like America.
あには えい語が じょうずです。
My older brother speaks English well.
私は えい語が へたですが、えい語のべんきょうが すきです。
I do not speak English well, but I enjoy studying it.
アメリカで たくさん えい語をべんきょうします!
In America I will study English a lot!
私は りょうりするのが じょうずですから、
Because I am good at cooking,
ときどき 日本りょうりを つくりましょうか。
Id like to know if we could make Japanese food sometimes.
アメリカ人は すしが すきだと思いますから、すしを 食べましょう。
Because I think Americans like sushi, lets eat sushi.
Also, my friends said that Americans are fat.
Is this true?

Monday, December 6, 2010

Hi, I'm from the Family Research Council, and our Research indicates that your Family is evil.

Currently involved in America's politics are two outfits called the National Organization for Marriage and the Family Research Council. It would be natural to assume that these groups would have fairly broad bases of support for ideals relating to marriages and families. It would be natural, but it would be wrong, because of how these people's support for 'marriage' and 'family' is calibrated.

Here is a hint: Their support for such things is almost always based on their support for their marriages and their families. This is perfectly natural and even admirable, since it shows that they are to at least some extent grounded in a reality that they can perceive rather than high-flown ideologies alone. It only becomes problematic when you realise why these people like their own marriages and families.

They love their spouses and families, essentially, for the same reason that one might love a myna bird.

As long as Maggie Gallagher's marriage continues to be heterosexual and as long as Tony Perkins's family continues to be whitebread, they'll support them, and hence 'marriage' and 'family' in general, because they define marriage and family in terms of their own experience without any caring for what other people's marriages or other people's families might be like. But the second one thing goes awry--the second Maggie Gallagher interacts with a married couple who are the same sex, or of different ideologies or backgrounds, or in any other way noticeably different from her own--the mask collapses. And if Tony Perkins was suddenly in a world in which one of his children was gay, or had leftist sympathies, or was forced to drop out of high school to have her rapist's baby, then I don't doubt that he'd turn on them and everything they cared about, like Alan Keyes did with his lesbian daughter. I have seen this happen with very conservative families again and again, and in my view one of the saving graces of very conservative families, the way that you can tell that the members of a particular very conservative family really love each other, are a real family, and mean serious business with their love, is them not doing this if the situation arises. (This is, for instance, the one thing that, if anything will, could possibly lead Dick Cheney to redemption.)

I don't mean to sound alarmist or over-the-top. I genuinely think that this is how venal, self-serving, hypocritcal, and bigoted these people's reasons for supporting 'marriage' and 'family' as concepts are. I know that they outright oppose gay people's marriages and gay people's families and hate their members and want them to go away and be miserable and die. I don't doubt that many of them have similar feelings on interracial marriages--after all, one of the only interracial couples in the Bible was also lesbian--or extended families--giving a shit about anybody whose relation to you can't be easily explained with 'I had sex with X' is DANGEROUSLY CLOSE TO COMMUNISM, obviously--or anything else that forces them to remember that 'marriage' and 'family' aren't concepts that their marriages and their families have a global fucking monopoly over, that people who aren't like them exist, that other types of love exist, and that they have to share the world with other living things that have loved ones and human relationships just like they do.

It's worse than bigotry. It's a desire for outright and absolute control over what constitutes marriage, what constitutes family, and, in the end, what constitutes love.

Please, for all that's good and holy, with the love of your marriage (if you have one) and your family (we all have our family, whatever that may be), resist them. Resist them, for the good of America, and for the good of love.