Wednesday, June 24, 2009

You Know What's A Pretty Good Movie? Ran!

After seeing King Lear last week and still eager to shovel dollops of culture into my brain, I rented a movie that I've been meaning to see for a while: Akira Kurosawa's Ran, an adaptation of Lear that resets the story in Edo-era Japan. I've liked the other Kurosawa movies that I've seen, and I saw little reason why this one wouldn't be awesome. It does, after all, take a crushingly dark tale of crushing darkness and then amp up the kickassitude by adding samurai. It had to be awesome, right?

Short review: Ran is awesome!

Longer review: Ran is fucking awesome!!!

Somewhat more thorough review: Ran is a remarkably clean and direct movie. I can see how that could be taken as something of a backhanded compliment, but I don't mean anything of the sort. When I say that it's "clean and direct" I mean that it takes a story of intrigue, betrayal, shifting alliances, and high emotion and presents it all in a remarkably non-messy way. There are a lot of things going on, and a lot of really dramatic shit happening, and I kept thinking while I was watching it that there was a lot of potential for the story to get muddled. There was no muddle, though. That's a big, big deal, that kind of clarity and directness.

I also had a great deal of appreciation for how it was all shot. Most of the scenes had several people in the frame at once, and they tended to react to each other, not the camera. I also don't remember seeing any close-up shots. Close ups, I think, are somewhat overused. Directors seem to have this attitude of "How should I show the audience that there is emotion going on? Am I going to trust the strength of the narrative? No! I'm going to zoom in uncomfortably close on someone's face!" Most of the time, though, closeups are really not that compelling. Unless you've got an actor who can really pull it off, I don't think most directors should bother with them.

Oftentimes, I got the impression that I was watching a play that had been filmed, and I mean that in a good way. The actors were all in the frame together, reacting to each other, and even if they were just sitting at attention they didn't vanish from the action- the director was thinking about the whole scene, not just what happened to be moving about at the time. That's not something you see very often, and I was impressed by the weird and wonderful stylistic difference between Ran and, well, most everything else.

So it's well made. Very well made. It's emotionally compelling, and I was more than a little emotionally effected at the end. It's great. In and of itself, it's utterly phenomenal.

But how does it compare to King Lear? Obviously, this must be scored and quantified.

A Few Ways in Which Ran is Totally Better Than King Lear

1. The Cordelia character is actually interesting. Cordelia is one of the weakest bits about Lear. She's basically Pretty Princess Perfectpants and about as compelling as a Hallmark card. Ran's equivalent of Cordelia, Saburo, is someone who actively calls out his dad on his bs, and is somewhat of a swaggering, mouthy guy. Totally better than a stupid little princess.

2. The Fool doesn't weirdly disappear. One thing that's always bugged me about Lear: Where the hell is the Fool at the end of the play? Did he get lost in the storm? Wander off? What? I've always thought that he got eaten by the bear from The Winter's Tale, but my theory is not widely subscribed to. In Ran, he's actually around until the very end, which is more consistent.

3. Evil femme-fatale! Sure, Lear has Goneril and Regan, but they're not quite this dark. Lady Kaede, a manipulative superbitch who bends men to her will by pouring honeyed words into their ears and also having sex with them, may not exactly be a paragon of feminism, but she was fun to watch. She's eeeeeeeeevil!

4. Samurai doing the wave!
Really. I'm not kidding. It just sort of comes out of nowhere.

A Few Ways in which Ran is Not as Good as King Lear

1. Not enough eye gouging!
When I saw King Lear with my friend L, she mentioned that her favorite line in all of Shakespeare was "Out, vile jelly!" spoken triumphantly by Cornwall as he gouges out Glouster's eyes. Ran does not have an eye-removal scene, which sort of made me sad. There is a guy who's had his eyes gouged out, but it's just not the same.

2. No Edmund! Edmund is awesome. I think he's one of Shakespeare's more fun villains, a clever, conniving charismatic evildoer who, in some productions, gets to make out with Goneril and Regan. Plotting complicated, scheming webs of evil while doing the deed of darkness with a pair of very naughty girls sounds like a fun time to me, and I was disappointed that he wasn't around. Lady Kaede sort of made up for it, though.

3. No clever disguises!
One of the reason why the storm scene is so awesome is that everyone's either in disguise or insane except for the Fool, a bit of dramatic irony that has fueled thousands of high school English papers. Edgar was pretty much excised, though, and the Kent character in Ran spent barely a scene in his disguise. Working in alternate identities may have bogged down Ran a bit, but I still missed them a little.

4. No Fool banter! Sure, the Fool is in the movie, but he doesn't have nearly the sort of weirdly omniscient commentary that he has in King Lear. He is, though, quite the spry and jumpy little fellow, and fun to watch. Still, though... I like his stuff that almost breaks the fourth wall.

All in all, though, a great movie. If you like Shakespeare and/or samurai, you should see it. Quite possibly the best Shakespeare movie I've ever seen. Well, maybe not the best Shakespeare movie. That would be Ten Things I Hate About You. That movie rocks.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

The Most Fun You Can Possibly Have Without Actually Having Sex

"Want some blood?"

Various bottles of the stuff were being passed around. "Thanks," I said, and doused myself in a fair amount of it. I'd blackened my eyes, smeared white makeup all over my face, and torn up one of my dress shirts. I did not, however, have time for blood. I looked like an overzealous Misfits fan than a zombie, really, but my fellow undead were happy to fix that for me. Various other people were in lycra or street clothes, but the zealous hordes of the nonliving saw too it that they were sufficiently made up. I got myself good and red, dousing some blood on my face for good measure. I was ready to ride through Portland and demand brains.

Pedalpalooza is an annual sixteen-day series of bike events here in Portland, most of which are theme rides. Looking at the calendar, the one that I was determined to go to was the zombie ride, because, well, it was an opportunity to dress up as a zombie. Riding through Portland, shouting "BRAAAAIIINS!!!" at various pedestrians garnered us three main responses:

1- People ignoring us, pretending that a large crowd of bike-based undead were not, in fact, demanding culinary use of their grey matter. This was the most common reaction.

2- Some variant of "Woo!" This was fairly common, which I think speaks well of the citizenry of Portland. They are open-minded enough that they don't mind restless revenants consuming said open minds.

3- Some variant of "Fuck you!" Very few people had this reaction. I decided that those who did take offense to our antics were tortured, unhappy souls who needed to get laid very badly.

We stopped at a few bars, where a few adventurous patrons allowed themselves to be bitten and slathered in fake blood. There were a few other patrons who did not acquiesce to such zombification, and they were much less exciting human beings. At a bar, though, I got a phone call from my friend L asking what I was doing.

"What are you doing?" she asked.

"I'm at the zombie ride." I said.

"Oh," she said, with a pausing, "I'm at the Bowie Vs. Prince ride." Bowie Vs. Prince. At another event someone had rigged up a mobile sound system and was leading around a mobile 80s dance party that was stopping at various open spaces for dancing and antics. Long story short- my friend was able to give me directions and I was able to successfully lead a pack of zombies to an 80s dance party. When rolled up Thriller was, rather auspiciously, playing.

It was a blast- we rolled out with 1999 blasting into the evening, getting "Woos!" from various bar patrons. There was also some bike polo in there. Eventually the whole mass of people ended up at a dance party on the water under a bridge. The next day L and I formed a scavenger hunt team, biking around Portland taking pictues of cycle-themed curiosity.

The whole zombie/80s music/mobile dance party thing, though, made me think a lot about "hipsterism." At their worst (and most people do talk about them at their worst) hipsters are shallow, image-obsessed douchebags who are only capable of interacting with anything after a safe cushion of ironic distance has been established. At its worst, "hipsterism" is alienating, cold, distant, grating, and fickle. The word "douchebag" is often appended to "hispster" for good reason.

At their very best, though, the young, creative population of a city like Portland is absolutely fantastic, a population that is not afraid of audacity or bold actions. They are a demographic that does have a particular "style" but there is a distinct lack of "one-true-wayism" to it. While things are recognizably "hipstery," there is a definite pluralism to what can be incorporated into that aesthetic. Almost anything, if presented with a certain sensibility, is considered stylistically interesting, which I quite like.

Also, in answer to any complaints about insufficient illustration: I was having too much fun to bother with pictures. There were costumes, antics, and music, enough that I entirely forgot that I'd brought a camera.

Friday, June 19, 2009

Elizabethian Low-Fi

Along with The Tempest, King Lear is probably one of my two favorite Shakespeare plays. I remember, very clearly, the process of reading it for the first time.

It was my birthday, my eighteenth birthday, and I couldn't sleep. I looked up at the clock and saw that it was three in the morning, but no part of the mechanisms of sleep complied with that. I knew that I would miss three hours of rest, that I would be a unslept and groggy on my first day of legal adulthood, so I figured that I might as well do something productive with my time. I got out King Lear, which I needed to read for English later that week. I read the whole thing before my first class started, pretty much unable to put it down. I found it surprising. It was so very, very dark that I was inescapably captivated by it. It's a play with storms, insanity, torture and death aplenty, and I couldn't put it down, even though I found myself getting more bummed out as I continued to read it.

The morning of my eighteenth birthday, King Lear depressed the hell out of me. Reading it for the very first time with no idea of what happened at the end gave me this feeling of "Oh god, there is nothing positive about the world." So of course it's become one of my favorite bits of literature ever, and I jumped at the chance to see it on Thursday in Cathedral Park.

When one thinks of the phrase "Shakespeare in the park," one often imagines fumbled lines, missed cues, and the inarticulate trampling of iambic petameter. I showed up fully expecting the production to be very "okay" and was surprised to see that the Portland Actors Ensemble did a terrific job. In face, the "in the park" aspect of it was one of the best things about the production. The outdoor venue and public space were a serious asset for the whole thing, rather than a liability.

Take a look at that picture of the underside of the St. John's Bridge there. You like big, creepy gothic stuff? I know I do. Well, how do you like them arches? Now imagine some old dude screaming up up at those neo-gothic arches and shouting "And thou, all-shaking thunder, smite flat the thick rotundity 'o the world!" Get the picture? Pretty fucking sweet, huh? Even better than that, it was actually raining. Not as much as it really could have been- not enough for Lear to have a full-blown storm to rage at, but it was a nice addition, nonetheless.

It was also neat to see the actors entering and exiting from all directions. Yes, I know that having actors climb through the fourth wall is something that's been around for quite some time, but when done right it's still highly cool. More than having entrances and exits via the stairwell that ran through the audience, though (there it is in the picture) was that after the intermission the doorway in the arch was taken down and one could see the actors striding toward the center of the stage, sihouetted in the archway before they made their entrances. Having Edmund in shadows in the background while Glouster wailed up at the sky behind his bloody eyemask was really, really fucking cool.

By the end of the play I'd totally forgotten that I was at a free performance. No, scratch that. I hadn't forgotten that I was at a free performance. Rather, the DIY-ness of it all just increased my enjoyment of it. They were using a public space instead of a set, fairly cheap costumes, there was ambient noise from the bridge and the street, everyone was getting rained on, and that made it all better. This wasn't art inside some hermetic space or presented in some sort of pristine matter. The messiness of the situation granted it a certain kind of authenticity. That's what it had- authenticity. That's what I want, what so many people of my age and type want. Something stripped of artifice and slickness, or at least something that is conscious of such. Moreover, lack of artifice should be supplanted with a certain unfeigned enthusiasm, a truthfulness and security in one's actions and creations, an unsentimental sincerity that seems to pervade the DIY aesthetic. Lear in the park certainly had that.

I had a blast, and am certainly planning on seeing their next performance, Henry IV Part One. Also, I rented Ran, Kurosawa's film based on Lear. Totally epic, and the subject of a future post.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Gayest Post EVER!

Puttering around Sunday morning, I thought to myself, "Well, I could sit on my ass and listen to economics podcasts, or I could go snap pictures of crazy shit at the gay pride parade." I like to think that in my own internal brain-battles, I tend to err on the side of "crazy shit." I pried my eyes and ears loose from the internet, took a shower and hopped on my bike. I found myself behind a rather butch array of women on mountain bikes and thought "Yep, I'm going in the right direction." Downtown was overcast but not dreary, warm but not sweat-inducing. All in all, a good day for it.

I found myself near the start of the Parade in Portland's nicely green South Park Blocks. A brass band was playing a song I vaguely recognized but couldn't really place. Once it got to the chorus I recognized it as Dancing Queen, and smirked with recognition. The crowd and participants did not disappoint. Sure, most of the people were just holding signs and waving and such, but there was no shortage of weird costumes makeup. The gentlemen below were not extras from Amadeus, but rather on a float promoting affordable housing.

This guy was waving around a sword and shouting "God save the queen!" a lot. I have no idea what he meant by that, but the atmosphere was only improved by having a Don Quixote show up. He was waving that sword around quite enthusiastically, and I wished that I could have directed him to an obliging windmill.

Inevitable political digression: There were plenty of people (like the folks below) who were parading about their own unrelated political agendas at the parade. I can understand why they'd do this- the liberal, open-minded population of Portland was out in force, and they wanted to both energize the base and target a demographic that would be more inclined to agree with them.

I found their presence, though, to be a little weird. The whole atmosphere of the parade was one of joy and liberty. Even though I'm not gay, I do appreciate what the gay movement has done for everyone. Because of lots of really dedicated people demanding respect, the field of what is sexually "legitimate" has been expanded for all of us. Even though there's still a lot of work to be done with regards to reformatting the stupid bits of American culture, there was a general atmosphere of celebration and achievement. A lot has changed for the better, and we should really be happy about that. Oregon used to have a governor who was an out-and-proud member of the KKK. Now, Portland has a mayor who's an out-and-proud gay dude. That's real progress.

Hearing familiar angry shouts about how we need a revolution or whatever clashed with that feeling. I suppose the right has it's own contingent who love being victims as well. In the midst of party-town were a bunch of people whom I think secretly love being "oppressed."

But enough about the angry socialists. Check out this dude's nipples!


Other, different nipples!


I found this group especially endearing, actually. It was gay parents and their kids, and for whatever reason, they'd decided to dress up as monsters. I like the idea that whatever someone's aesthetic is, it's welcome and legitimate. Whatever sort of style you've got (in this case "zombie") is a potential catalyst for niftiness. This might sound trite, but I like aesthetic and stylistic pluralism. Seriously! Hooray for multitudes! Hooray for the varied panoply of people and stuff! Woo!

And of course, hooray for mostly naked chicks. Yes, most of them would want absolutely nothing to do with me or my filthy, filthy testosterone (unless some of them had unladylike anatomy that was not on display) but I found them visually appreciative nonetheless. Also, a rather tall drag queen told me that I was "beautiful." I said, "Thank you, so are you!" I'll take praise from all quarters.

All in all, a lot of fun, and quite the display of awesomeness and drove home my admiration of Portland. Since I've been back, I've really come to appreciate this place, more than I was ever able to in high school, when I last lived here. I know that there are lots of other fun, liberal cities, but this one is mine. This place, this effusive and varied place, is my home. The next time I leave it will probably be for good, but in the meantime I'm immensely happy to find that my geographical parent is more awesome than I could have ever hoped for.

Friday, June 12, 2009

King Abdullah Has A Posse

As much as teaching in Japan challenged me, there were two pretty fundamental areas where me, my students, and Japanese coworkers pretty much agreed about the basics of things: politics and religion. Yes, yes, I know that you're probably thinking "WTF, Joe?" at such a statement, but I'm talking about the very basics here. We all believed that democracy was pretty good, that having elections and whatnot was a desirable form of governance. On the front of religion, we shared various shades of nonparticipation.

So, it's been quite different teaching students from Saudi Arabia.

I've got to admit that, on paper, I'm not Saudi Arabia's biggest fan. In fact, I think it is something of a disgrace to the modern world. The fact that we still have a religious monarchy on the face of the earth would be mind-boggling in and of itself, but that coupled with the country's atrocious human rights record makes Saudi Arabia's existence truly staggering. This is the future, after all. Why the hell is there still a country where women can't drive and beer is illegal?

(Okay, I know the answer is some form of the resource curse, but it's still weird.)

Anyway, I've got a bunch of Saudi students in my class now, and it's been a fairly enlightening experience. This kids (and they are kids- around college age) are extraordinarily bright, and are from fairly well-to-do (and I'm guessing more liberal) families. They're well-travelled, and a joy to have in class. However, I do find it a little weird that they don't drink, and are filled with all kinds of effusive praise for King Abdullah.

As much as I like Obama, I still think that, on principle, his words and actions should be highly scrutinized, and I worry about the cult of personality that he seems to have. My skepticism regarding heads of state, though, is not shared by my Saudi students, who have nothing but good things to say about their king. King! A guy who actually got his job as a ruler because of the accident of his birth. They absolutely love the guy, and whenever they talk about him I listen for little rustles of dissent. I haven't heard any yet. They are, though, in my class because of a scholarship set up by His Majesty, so that might explain part of it.

I'm not waving about the firebrand of demoncracy in my classroom. That's not my job, and I wouldn't have the interest or energy to do so, anyway. I find it all to be fascinating, though. My Asian and European students are more than happy to complain about their governments and specific politicians in familiar ways. The current PM of Korea has a grand total of zero fans in my classroom.

So the most-loved world leader that I get to hear about is an absolute monarch who doesn't allow critics of his country to travel there. They love the guy. I'm not saying that it's good or bad, just really danged interesting, and hearing about it is a nice occupational perk.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

Wait... Those Aren't Dead Yet?

It's the start of summer, and I've seen and heard ice cream trucks lumbering around Portland. This might sound strange, but I can't shake the feeling that they really should be obsolete by now.

I do not have a coherent reason why this should be, but some gut part of me seems to think that ice cream trucks really should have gone the way of, say, milk delivery and personal letters. Their presence seems to have this unshakable quaintness about them, as well as this aura of imminent obsolescence. Whenever I see one I think, "How much longer? How long is this business model going to be tenable before it collapses? Surely driving around in a truck and selling cold treats will become a thing of the past eventually."

I suppose I find it odd because it is so irredeemably analog. The business model is basically "Let's physically enter urban areas, announce our presence, and see if people want to buy our stuff." There's not much in the way of sophisticated marketing there, nor is there a way that consumers can shield themselves from the advertising. I'm so used to seeing ads on the internet that target particular sites I like or stuff on Facebook that's tailored to my interest that hearing marketing (i.e., ice cream truck music) that's targeted at literally everybody seems sort of weird. Moreover, I'm quite used to blocking popups, deleting spam, and ignoring banner ads. I gloss over lots and lots of marketing every day, so it's sort of odd to hear something that is so unavoidable and, by extension, retro.

I'm sort of alarmed by this expectation, too, though. I guess it's good to be able to accept change and such, but I also just sort of expect institutions and things to die, be replaced, or be upgraded. I find myself having bought in to the idea of planned obsolescence, anticipating additional shininess and often wondering how long something or other will last. I've often wondered what will kill Facebook, for instance, and I wonder what we'll use instead of Google in twenty years. As nice as it is to be able to speculate, there's a certain amount of morbidity to this mindset. Instead of thinking "hey, it's hot... oh look, ice cream!" I think "Wait.. those aren't dead yet?" That's probably not the most fair attitude to have towards venerable institutions, ice cream trucks or otherwise. I can hear one right now, as non-dead as ever.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

China! (Possibly, Maybe)

Even though I didn't get the Foreign Service job, I'm still planning on living abroad again, and eventually working for either the government or a political organization. One of the best ways to get one's foot in the door with that is joining the Peace Corps, and yesterday I was nominated for a position in China.

The recruiter told that things may change, and that this was all tentative. However, because of my experience as an English teacher, she said that she'd rather not send me to an ordinary English teaching position. Instead, the Peace Corps wants me to join their teacher training program, wherein I'd be teaching future English teachers both advanced English, and how to run a class. Most of these positions are in China, but the program has other locations in Asia as well.

I'm thrilled with this, and very much hope that circumstances allow me to go to China. I quite enjoyed it the last time I was there, and would very much like to learn a bit of Mandarin. What I find especially amusing, though, is that if this whole thing plays out, I'll be in a situation already described by two of my favorite books.

River Town
Peter Hessler is a memoir by a former Peace Corps volunteer about being in a teacher training program in China. The book and its sequel Oracle Bones are both excellent. I would not say that the books encouraged me to apply for the Peace Corps (those seeds were planted long ago) but they certainly made me want to travel and write more. I can't recommend them enough.

So, I'm on track to do precisely what one of my favorite authors has already done, which is sort of cool/weird. It would be like joining the army and having the exact same assignments as Hemingway or something.

In any case, I'm thrilled to not only have been nominated for a position at all, but also for one that demands a certain amount of experience and expertese. Plenty of people whom I've talked to about the Peace Corps have said that there is a certain "hippy" factor to a lot of the volunteers, and the recruiter made it very clear that this program would be an actual, regular job. No chance to hippy around, though she did not say so in so many words. I couldn't be happier about it. Of all of the positions that I could have been offered or nominated for, this would have been in my top five. I've still got to get poked and prodded by medical examiners, wade through tons of paperwork, and do a bunch of other stuff. But, I'm definitely leaving again, and wouldn't have it any other way.