Another victory against corporations

Here's a story that can give us inspiration:

A small group of dedicated activists used their passion and righteousness to bring corporate giant Sony to terms and forced the record company to release the unjustly imprisoned album Extraordinary Machine by Fiona Apple. Using street protests and innovative demonstrations involving foam apples, the dedicated members of Free Fiona have finally triumphed and the album will be out October 4.

Well, actually there was some miscommunication and the album wasn't so much being withheld as it was victim to bickering between a spoiled music star and her recording company over how many more hundreds of thousands of dollars she'd have access to. But we've all learned a valuable lesson about the power of solidarity: as Fiona says, "It's good to know that if you organize you can make change, because that's certainly not what I was doing."


The unemployed expat in Beijing

I decided to take a nap Saturday at 4pm, and woke up Sunday at 6am. Jet lag and this miserable cold I've had since I got here, "THEIR POWERS COMBINED...!" and all that.

Yesterday I paid far too much for mediocre Vietnamese food at one of those dimly-lit restaurants around 后海 whose main attraction is that they ooze pre-revolutionary Chinese decadence, which they accomplish primarily thru dim lighting. But when all the people you were taking classes with get jobs in the business sector and start making expat wages, this is your lot in life.

Meanwhile I've spent a lot of unpaid time on job stuff that may or may not produce anything, and a lot of time looking for apartments whose rent is unreasonably high just because they're in the English-language listings. This place I looked at yesterday had a bed that was essentially an extra-long fold-out card table. For 1500元! (Last year I paid 1200, itself inflated, at a place that was nicer and had an actual bed.)

But this is all so much grumbling and I'm actually happy to be back. Even tho Chicago has a lot more that I like (and is much easier on the lungs), being there feels like sitting still, here feels like moving forward.


3 things that let you know you're back in Beijing

The sound of a saw in use is omnipresent;
you can see elementary school kids being drilled military-style out your window;
a thick blanket of pollution blots out the very sun.

Return to Red China

Here's the numbers for the Chicago-Beijing trip:

Hours spent in flight: 16
Hours spent waiting at airports: 8
Number of times security people were assholes: 2/2
Cost of 740 ml bottle of water at O'Hare: $2.63
Cost of 596 ml bottle of water in Beijing store: $0.11
Cost of mediocre medium-sized burrito at LAX: $8.11
Cost of breakfast at the Beijing hotel that the American businessman I was sitting next to is staying at: 150 yuan (~$20)
Cost of a meal at a typical Chinese restaurant in Beijing: 10 yuan (~$1.50)
Number of books I took with me: 27

The contrast in water is particulary striking. It would have been one thing if O'Hare had its own counterpart to Midway's Midway Springs bottled water (the marketing brilliance of selling water ostensibly collected from the clean, all-natural surroundings of an airport is incredible). Then I would have been happy to pay the airport price. But instead I got this Vasa spring water with soothing bourgeois blues and teals on the label. The Beijing water on the other hand, already 20 times cheaper, also has Chinese hearthrob Wang Lihong on the label. Now that's value!


The beer you should drink to regain 1950s masculinity

Check out these incredible commercials Errol Morris made for Miller High Life. Analysis is almost superfluous once you've seen them, but to entice your interest I'll just say that white male working-class masculinity is what each one is about. Also, if there were still any doubt, the connection between meat-eating and masculinity is hereby conclusively proven.

Public notice

Due to emotional exhaustion, I'm imposing a moratorium on future acerbic editions. At least till a tv deal comes thru and I can get some sort of monetary recompense. Sorry to eveyone who had such a fun time.


Movies lately III (acerbic edition)

Batman Begins (2005). This movie restores some dignity to the Batman genre after the disgrace of the post-Tim Burton movies. It's competent in all the ways you want Batman to be, from action to plot to atmosphere. It's also the first Batman movie to raise the issue of criminality as a social problem, rather than merely a matter of moral weakness or psychological deformity. But the film doesn't stop there, bringing a hard light to bear on amoral corporations, corrupt cops and judges, and genocidal ninja cults.

The possiblity of an interesting social critique is certainly undermined by the silly conspiracy elements of the plot, which among other things ascribe economic depression to the machinations of a secret cabal (jesus, even mainstream economists admit that depression is caused by capitalism). But maybe social critique is foreclosed from the start by the fundamental assumption behind Batman: that society can only be redeemed thru the heroic efforts of singular men and women (mainly one very rich man in particular, but also a handful of incorruptible public servants) against the grip of corruption and crime. In this drama everyone else is merely audience, understanding little and utterly incapable of themselves taking the stage. I'm pretty sure this model of social change hasn't actually produced much other than dictatorships of the proletariat and stories about the lamb of god.

The Notebook (2004). I guess it's sort of sociologically interesting that people still take seriously movies as stunningly ingenuous and painfully predictable as this one. It's not really any different from a communist propaganda film, with hardships to be endured, obstacles to be overcome, but ultimate triumph ensured - with swelling music to let us know when we should feel moved. We look at that communist stuff and laugh at it. The plots are uninteresting, the techniques of manipulation insulting, and the social uses of the movies despicable. Yet somehow love-propaganda films are different? Isn't cynicism the mark of our times? If people still believe in something, why couldn't it be, say, liberation or equality?

Bring It On (2000). I know the obvious reading of this movie has to do with race and class, how the disadvantaged can succeed thru hard work, but that our sympathy ultimately lies with the rich white people who are, deep down, good-hearted. But I choose to read it as a tragedy, the descent of two super-cool alternative kids (Eliza Dushku and Jesse Bradford) into lamedom. Unable to transcend their identities as white rich kids, the two are drawn into a vortex of inanity by Kirsten Dunst, who is not to be seen as a villain in this interpretation but rather a mere agent of fate bringing the Pantone siblings' tragic flaw to its inevitable conclusion. O, the pathos!


Movies lately II

Konjanik (2003). Holy shit! Who would have thought a Croatian movie set in the Balkans of the 1740s could be so intense and penetrating? The plot is pretty standard Romeo and Juliet stuff, but the film takes things in a much more interesting direction than trite love and examines identity in the frontier between the Ottoman and Austrian empires and the republic of Venezia. Catholics, Orthodox Christians, and Muslims all proclaim their faiths loudly, but the way they act tells us something different. Identity becomes fluid under the influence of desire, political expediency, the search for livelihood, or merely trying to survive. Overrun with violence and backstabbing, the film's portrayal of interpersonal and intercommunal conflict rings remarkably true. At the center of this maelstrom is the tragic figure of the Venetian diplomat, who makes heroic if naive efforts to negotiate these incommensurable interests and identities, but ultimately must fail.

Lagaan (2001). Bollywood movie about defeating British imperialism by learning to play cricket. I know it was supposed to generate nationalistic pride, but I couldn't help thinking about how overwhelmingly the plot centers on accepting the imperialists' terms for fighting imperialism. And the top British guys sort of got let off the hook in favor of demonizing a relatively low-ranking officer. Also, how did the white woman learn Hindi in 2 days? That was a little disorienting. But I won't say it wasn't enjoyable.

Young Guns and Young Guns II (1988, 1990). All the hot young actors of the time. The music of Jon Bon Jovi. Emilio Estevez in his best role. Death and hilarity side by side. What more could you want? These movies have a special place in my childhood, but I think there's other stuff to like too. Young Guns is a bizarre, disjointed, and deeply nihilistic sprint thru Billy the Kid's murder/revenge spree. Young Guns II is slightly less weird and clearly has superior music, but maintains the subversive ethic of friendship-thru-murder. On first glance these two seem pretty conventional, but if you think about it for a minute what they're saying is pretty disturbing.

The Lost Boys (1987). Kiefer Sutherland is surprisingly effective as a vampire, especially in contrast with his urbane outlaw character in Young Guns. The movie supposedly takes place in the murder capital of America, but I'm pretty skeptical that a beachfront California town not afflicted by deindustrialization and white flight could take that prize.

The Outsiders (1983). Decent Coppola movie based on the S E Hinton novel. The pat ending is lame, but otherwise it's pretty watchable. The real question raised by the film is: would you rather sleep with Patrick Swayze or Rob Lowe?

Blackmail (1929). Boring early Hitchcock. Aside from one sweet single-take camera shot of 2 people walking up stairs, there's not much to recommend this one. On the other hand, you do learn the terrible consequences for women who exercise independence from their men. You might also learn how not to try and blackmail someone, as the guy who tries it here is totally incompetent.


He that lives upon hope will die fasting

Sometimes I feel sad when I read the news, but bad shit is something I expect, I only really get surprised when people suddenly - and randomly - pick something messed up and get angry about it. Mostly everyone else expects it too, and knows there isn't much they can do, so they don't say anything either.

Reading about the 60s makes me sad in a completely different way. Because then people had hope, they were willing to try to do something about all the bad shit, they were willing to radically change their lives and envision a better world. Then they gave up. I get sad that they stopped hoping, and I get sad that we who came after them have never bothered to try it again.


Movies lately I

The Brothers Grimm (2005). Don't bother with this one. We all like Terry Gilliam, we all remember fondly Brazil and thought 12 Monkeys was pretty cool, and the material here had a lot of promise, but whoever was making final decisions just couldn't decide on one direction. The movie keeps making us think it's going to go down a particular path, but then erratically changes its mind and starts down a different one. At the beginning there's a hint that we might get to experience the true horror of pre-sanitized/Disneyized fairy tales, but that's quickly abandoned. At certain points it looks like Gilliam's specialty of creating bizarre characters could come thru, but in the end none of them come together very well. Three-quarters of the way in, Gilliam (or someone) decides to suddenly make an embarassing half-hearted effort at giving the main characters psychological depth, but then seems to realize it's too little too late and quickly gives up. Finally the whole rambling mess ends in conventional style, never having grabbed our attention.

Broken Flowers (2005). I was pretty disappointed with Coffee and Cigarettes, so it's nice to see Jarmusch finally come out with an actual movie again. This one doesn't let you down. While I didn't find it nearly as enjoyable as Dead Man or Ghost Dog, its power to capture the feeling of our age makes it more intellectually satisfying. ("Feeling of our age" sounds kind of grandiloquent, but I think it's appropriate.) Jarmusch concentrates on Bill Murray, a rich man with no meaning in his life and little desire to pursue any, but also gives an important place to Jeffrey Wright, his working-class friend whose eager but naive engagement with life is so great that it actually pushes Bill Murray's character out of his stasis. The quest that follows is a study in subtle acting as every encounter explores the feelings that swirl around relationships long gone, intercut with the tedium of moving between events that we, perhaps against the evidence, take to be the substance of our lives. But the real payoff comes with the end, which is perfect to the movie, and which exactly portrays where we - as individuals and a society - stand today. And the soundtrack is pretty sweet too.

Election (1999). Apparently I'm the only person who still hadn't seen this movie. It's not only a hilarious black comedy, it's also the best portrayal of the American political system I've ever seen. But in a way it's ultimately conservative, since the only character willing to challenge the system itself, Tammy Metzler, merely manipulates events to pursue her own personal goals, and quickly forgets her "revolutionary" rhetoric (does it sound stupid analyzing comedy this way?). This makes perfect sense in the context of overall despair for radical change, and we can't really fault the movie for reflecting reality, but it would be really nice to see some hope out there somewhere.

Bottle Rocket (1996). Okay, enough of these pretentious reviews. Bottle Rocket is cute, funny, and harmless. I'll spare you the WSWS-style class analysis.

Prime Cut (1972). The main reason to see this movie is that Lee Marvin is such a badass! The plot had a lot of potential, way way more than it knew what to do with. Gene Hackman plays a Kansas City meat baron, who also trades in human flesh. Lee Marvin is a Chicago enforcer for an Irish gang sent to extract debts from Gene Hackman. I want to emphasize that the gang is Irish, because the movie nearly overwhelms you with names like O'Brien, Shaughnessy, Delaney, and features a family of about 6 redheads. Lee Marvin and his men even come in for a good amount of mick-baiting from Gene Hackman and his super-Aryan henchmen. Who knew the Irish still weren't white in the '70s? Anyway, the setup is perfect for questioning the distinction we make between exploiting animals and exploiting women, but instead the movie takes the easy way out and makes the good-hearted mob enforcer teach Gene Hackman an important lesson about human supremacy. Plus the climactic fight/shoot-out was pretty lackluster. Oh well, Lee Marvin is still awesome.


A philosophical enquiry into biking

I've been doing a lot of bike riding lately, which is a great joy to me. All thanks to Jenny letting me use her sweet baby-blue-with-yellow-fenders bike. The obvious question is: does riding all over the city on a girls' bike challenge my masculinity? The answer is no, for two reasons: 1) living in China, where bikes are not gendered, has mostly eroded my need for a straight bar on the bike to reassure me that I'm not a woman; 2) it's such a sweet-looking bike!

One of the most pleasurable things in life is to sail past all the poor fools in their cars stuck in traffic. "How I am lost in admiration! How I laugh! How I rejoice! I'm full of exaltation then as I see so many great kings who by public report were accepted into heaven groaning in the deepest darkness!" There's some pretty obvious unhealthy slave morality stuff going on here. But the thing about slave morality is it's so satisfying. Who wants to give that up? And it's pretty hard to avoid ressentiment when drivers insist on almost killing you every time you go biking.

I did Critical Mass last week, which is definitely the most fun quasi-protest I've been in. What makes Critical Mass different from conventional protests includes: 1) no annoying speakers beforehand, 2) no hopelessly simplistic slogans that make you think about all the nuances that are missing, 3) you get to bike instead of walk, 4) no ISO or Spartacist contingents to make you realize how bad the left is doing, 5) you wave at onlookers and wish them happy Friday instead of shouting at them, 6) Critical Mass usually features a naked guy standing on a median holding his bike above him. Sure the lack of an explicitly anti-car message is a bit dissatisfying, but as we lay the groundwork for an anti-car coup d'etat we might as well have a good time.