Doodad Kind of Town

Back from the Land of China
July 8, 2008, 7:18 pm
Filed under: Blogging to China

“In the land of China, they got no possessions. In the land of China, they got no religion, too.” – Forrest Gump.

Let’s just say things have changed since Forrest Gump took his ping-pong game on the road.

Two of my great passions in life are movies and travel. And those two passions have fed one another to some degree.

For many years, I had dreamed of visiting China, and my dreams were largely shaped by the films “Farewell My Concubine” (which inspired me to want to attend the Beijing Opera one day) and “The Last Emperor” (which gave me the desire to visit the Forbidden City.) To be clear, “Forrest Gump” didn’t enter into it at all, but my goofy brother has been doing his Forrest Gump impersonation with the lines quoted above every time we’ve talked about my trip, so I couldn’t resist leading off with them.

I got to achieve all my dreams on this trip, but they weren’t quite as I imagined they would be.

For example, not once in all the times I imagined myself climbing up the Great Wall of China did I imagine I would have to pause while the person climbing ahead of me stopped to answer his cell phone. (No, he was not an American tourist.) Nor did I imagine that a Starbucks would be conveniently located just off the Wall.

I had imagined myself walking through the Forbidden City, but in my imagining, the courtyards had been largely empty and lonely-feeling (as in “The Last Emperor”), not packed with throngs of camera-toting tourists and vendors of tourist trinkets.

And I had never imagined that my experience of the Beijing Opera would be anywhere other than in its original location and format – certainly not offered as a sort of “sampler platter” of Beijing Opera favorites, presented for tourist consumption in a comfy, air-conditioned theatre inside a luxury hotel.

In the China of my imagination, the face of Chairman Mao – and not Colonel Sanders – loomed over Beijing. But, in reality, KFC is wildly popular in China, while Mao Zedong is mostly just an ironic presence on novelty watches, T-shirts, and paper fans.

I switched on MSNBC this morning to find Ted Koppel being interviewed about his upcoming Discovery Channel series on the People’s Republic of China. In his words: “Totalitarianism has no problem co-existing with capitalism.” That pretty much sums up my recent experience. There was little evidence of a repressive totalitarian government; we were even invited to comment on the quality of service offered by the passport inspectors at the airport by selecting a smiley face or sad face on a little touchscreen. But there was ample evidence of a Westernized consumerist society in the making. I spotted luxury auto dealerships, as well as American chain stores like Sephora and Ikea, in Beijing. Teenagers and young adults frequently sported T-shirts with upbeat slogans in English (“Let’s Dance,” “Have Fun!” and the occasional awkward translation, such as “I Were Sentenced to Life.”)

One of my fellow travellers (who was apparently a bit confused about recent Chinese history) asked our tour guide what dynasty China is in now. The tour guide jokingly replied that China is in its Ka-Ching dynasty.

Granted, this country is gearing up to host the Olympics and obviously eager to impress. And yes, it was a bit naive of me to expect that I would find China’s largest cities free of Western consumerist influence. (In addition to Beijing, we visited Shanghai and Xi’an; I’m sure that if we had been able to visit some outlying, rural areas, we’d have had a more varied and accurate experience of the country.)

And, for the record, I did take advantage of the comforts of home when they were available. In the course of the trip, I indulged in a Starbucks Mocha Frappucino, a Papa John’s pizza lunch (on our last day in Shanghai when none of us could face another lazy susan full of rice, pickled vegetables and pork or tofu-based dishes), and every bottle of Diet Coke I could get my hands on.

But it would have been nice to walk away with a more authentic appreciation of China’s culture and day-to-day life. While I did enjoy my trip, I was always a bit frustrated by the limitations of being part of an organized group tour. Our tour guides were wonderful, giving us exhaustive lessons in Chinese history, sharing their personal experiences with sometimes unexpected frankness, and coaching us on basic Mandarin phrases (the one that stuck with me was “ding ding hao” meaning “Excellent!”) But we saw Beijing mainly though the windows of a tour bus, and ate only at upscale restaurants vetted by the Olympic Games Committee. (No deep-fried scorpion on a skewer, deer penis soup or camel’s foot for us; I could feel the disdain of Anthony Bourdain and Andrew Zimmern as if they were right beside me.) And we were steered almost exclusively to shopping experiences – rather than cultural ones – in Shanghai. (One exception – a performance by the Shanghai Acrobats troupe that we all greatly enjoyed.)

Not that there was a lot of time for exploring, though. The real purpose of the trip was to participate in a 350-voice North American choir, performing in a set of concerts entitled “Perform in Harmony with Olympic Spirit.” To that end, we spent as much time rehearsing and performing as we did sightseeing. Our first concert, at a modern concert hall located inside the Forbidden City, was a rousing success. The song we had learned in Mandarin (or at least attempted to learn – the quality of our Mandarin pronunciation was an endless source of amusement to our Chinese hosts) was a nationalistic anthem entitled “Defend the Yellow River.” Despite our bad Mandarin, this number brought the Beijing audience to its feet, clapping and singing along in a wildly enthusiastic manner that made us all feel good.

Our audiences in Shanghai were more reserved, but still appreciative. And our Mandarin had improved a bit by that point. Our tour guide proudly told us she was able to understand some of what we were singing!

Other numbers on the program included: Leonard Bernstein’s “Olympic Hymn;” “O Fortuna” from Orff’s”Carmina Burana” (this is the music played on the current Gatorade commercial); John Williams’ “Call of the Champions” – originally written for the 2002 Winter Olympics and sounding like a mash-up of the theme musicsfrom “Star Wars” and the “Harry Potter” films; and the choral finale of Beethoven’s 9th symphony.

Meanwhile – to get back “on topic”:

I kept an eye out everywhere for a movie theatre, but saw only one: a theatre in Shanghai where “Hancock” was playing.

As for watching movies on the plane, let me just say “Kudos” to Air Canada for their fine, extensive selection of movies and TV shows available “On Demand” at each seat in coach. The movie selection included foreign, independent and classic films, as well as recent theatrical releases, plus HBO favorites in both English and French. (“Curb Your Enthusiasm” becomes “Cache Ta Joie” en francais, a title that definitely loses something in the translation.) En route to Beijing, I caught “Definitely Maybe” and all but the last 10 minutes of “Charlie Bartlett” (we started our descent into Beijing just as it was reaching its final scenes; I must definitely rent this sometime soon to see how it all ends.) For the brief time that I was awake on the return trip, I was able to watch the Cary Grant-Audrey Hepburn classic “Charade,” a nice, feel-good experience for the long ride home.

And now, I return to life as it was before and to movies and reviewing. I’m off to a matinee of “Hancock” today and back to the office tomorrow. And a nap right now – jet lag is setting in again.

Where am I? What have I been Watching???
June 13, 2008, 12:34 am
Filed under: Blogging to China

I never meant to be gone this long. Honest.

And I really don’t want to write another post about how stressed and overworked I’ve been, although that’s the reason I’ve made very few appearances in the blogosphere as late.

So here’s are a few notes on what I’ve been watching in my (limited) spare time. I hope there will be more to come shortly.

As previously mentioned, I have a trip to China coming up soon. (In fact, two weeks from right now, I’ll be soaring somewhere over the north Pacific, hopefully sound asleep, on my way to Beijing.) Like any good cinephile, I’ve been preparing for my trip by rewatching the movies that made me want to travel to China in the first place.

“The Last Emperor” is certainly one of those. I first saw it in the spring of 1988 in a Tampa, Florida movie theatre. I was vacationing with friends in nearby St. Petersburg when a day of rainstorms pre-empted our beach plans, so we headed to a movie theatre to see the film which had just won the Oscar for Best Picture. Besides the boatload of awards it received, “The Last Emperor” is also famed for being the first film ever made inside the Forbidden City, the former imperial palace compound in Beijing. I was awed by the film when I first saw it, and vowed that one day I would visit the Forbidden City myself.

Rewatching “The Last Emperor” for the first time in twenty years, I was a little less awed. Not that it wasn’t a really good movie, but – to borrow a phrase coined by Rachel at Rachel’s Reel Reviews about “Amadeus” – it was “a masterpiece by the numbers.” I mean, it’s the kind of movie that practically hands itself an Oscar: stately, impeccably acted, filled with historical events and Big Important Themes, beautiful to look at, and with a soaring musical score that swells up on cue at key dramatic moments. It impressed me, it informed me, and it made me a little more excited about going to China. But it didn’t move me too deeply. Need I say that the disk I didn’t watch – the 3-and-3/4-hour, made-for-European-TV version – is still sitting in its unopened Netflix envelope. I just don’t have the heart to tackle this epic story again.

“Savage Grace” (currently available through IFC in Theaters) deals with themes of adultery, incest and murder . But for all that, it’s a strangely chilly, bloodless affair. It’s too dispassionate to be a cautionary tale and too removed from its characters to generate our sympathy.

It is, however, a true story, and that gives one pause. Julianne Moore plays Barbara Daly Bakeland, a former actress who married the heir to the Bakelite plastics fortune (played by Stephen Dillane). Dillane is a cold and cruel husband, stubbornly resistant to his wife’s flirtation and manipulative charms. So when a son comes along, Barbara focuses all her emotional neediness and longing on him. Eventually that son (played as an adult by Eddie Redmayne) becomes more of a husband to Barbara than his father was.

This is the kind of movie where civilized, articulate characters repeatedly enact a sort of emotional violence upon one another; their words are cutting and vicious, even if their behavior is otherwise impeccable. But don’t be fooled, this isn’t “All About Eve.” Eventually the verbal violence escalates into a shocking act of physical violence. Actually what’s shocking about that climactic scene isn’t the act itself so much as the incredibly deadpan way it’s portrayed. And that’s pretty much characteristic of the film as a whole. Moore and Dillane are supremely dysfunctional as both spouses and parents, but director Tom Kalin stages their scenes with no indication that we should either scorn or pity them. He simply observes their bad behavior without comment.

And that isn’t a particularly effective way of handling the material. There’s a startling scene late in the film which depicts an act of incest between mother and son at excruciating length. But that scene wasn’t one-tenth as powerful or shocking to me as was Angela Lansbury planting her sudden, impassioned kiss on Laurence Harvey in “The Manchurian Candidate.” “Savage Grace” could have benefitted from a similarly judicious hand with its sensationalitic elements.

Moore is usually skilled at playing women whose inner turmoil lurks just beneath a veneer of civilized charm (think “Safe,” “Far from Heaven,” even “The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio”), but even she seems at sea here. I never got a clear handle on what drove Barbara or where she went wrong, and I don’t think Moore did either. In fact, none of the characters seem to have an inner life to speak of, nor a clearly discernible motive for their actions.

I suppose a movie doesn’t always have to have a point, but it should have a point of view. “Savage Grace” suffers for the lack of one.

Movies, Stress and Blogging to China
May 24, 2008, 2:22 pm
Filed under: Blogging to China

While movie-blogging is my avocation, my “real” career is in IT.

Sometimes, these occupations do not co-exist peacefully.

Major work deadlines have been hanging over my head recently, and I’ve been putting in a serious amount of overtime. This has has left me somewhat depleted and stressed at the mere thought of grappling with multiplex crowds for a seat at “Iron Man” or “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.” Nor have I been able to get my tired ass to a theater to see a great indie flick like “Young at Heart” or “The Visitor.” Instead, I’ve been sticking close to an ever-buzzin’ Blackberry, running 4 am conference calls between various engineers and programmers (don’t ask), and continually haggling with end users over realistic delivery dates for the new systems we’re building for them.

The news ain’t all bad, however.

In between my almost-daily IT crises, I’m also struggling to prepare for a choir trip to China which kicks off in a mere 4 1/2 weeks. My life is an endless to-do list (“Get Hepatitis A vaccine,” “Arrange for neighbor to feed cat,” “Learn some basic phrases in Mandarin” and so on. ) In late June, I’ll be travelling with a local community college choir to Beijing, Xian and Shanghai to perform in pre-Olympics celebrations. We’ll be joining up with about 300 other singers from choirs around the United States to perform such venerable classics as Beethoven’s 9th symphony, Leonard Bernstein’s “Olympic Hymn,” and the ever-popular “Carmina Burana” (which can currently be heard in those Gatorade commercials with the still, black-and-white sports photos.)

OK, I’m pretty sure I lost everyone’s sympathies there. Tell people you’ve been on a conference call at four in the morning and you’re bound to get a shoulder to cry on. Tell them you’re crazed because you’re going to China in four weeks, and you won’t have many tears shed for you. I fully realize that I have a pretty high-class set of worries here.

And I assure you, I’m thrilled to be taking this trip-of-a-lifetime (and getting to actually do some of things on my master to-do list – as in “Things to do before I Die” – such as stand on the Great Wall, see the Forbidden City and attend the Beijing Opera.) But I’m also a bit pissed that work commitments are preventing me from fully savoring these anticipatory weeks leading up to the trip. When I have time, I squeeze in a little reading from my Eyewitness Travel Guide to Beijing and Shanghai or a few pages of Fuschia Dunlop’s delightful culinary memoir “Shark’s Fin and Sichuan Pepper: A Sweet-Sour Memoir of Eating in China.”

And, once in a while, I watch a movie.

In the spirit of preparing for my trip and boning up on Chinese culture and history, I recently rented “Farewell My Concubine.” I hadn’t seen it since it was in theaters in the mid-90s, and it was a welcome reunion between this moviegoer and a great film. In just under three hours, it chronicles the 50-year friendship between two men who meet as boys in a troupe of street performers, ascend to stardom in the Beijing Opera, and ultimately are undone by China’s political upheavals, from the war with Japan to the Cultural Revolution. The historical underpinnings of the story give it an epic sweep, while the story of the two men, Douzi and Shitou, remains highly personal and intimate.

The third main player in the story is a courtesan named Juxian, played by Gong Li. I hadn’t realized just what an amazing screen presence she has till I re-watched her dramatic entrance in this film. When we initially see Juxian, it’s from some distance as struggles with a few men at the second-story railing of her brothel. To escape them she jumps – and lands in the arms of Shitou. There is a cut to her startled face as Shitou catches her, and the film gets a jolt of electric energy; you know right away that this character is a force to be reckoned with and that Shitou’s life and loyalties have been forever changed. Juxian eventually becomes Shitou’s wife, and Li’s performance as her character navigates the tricky, delicate relationship between Shitou and his loyal friend, Douzi, is never less than fascinating.

“Farewell My Concubine” is also a visually gorgeous film, the kind where I just wanted to freeze the frame every so often and admire the composition and lighting in an individual shot. Still haunting me is a shot of a very young Douzi though a single pane of a nearly frosted-over window, a image of great poignancy in the early part of the film.

More and more in these stress-filled days, I find I am drawn to films which are beautiful to look at, even if not much is going on plotwise. Which brings me the next film –

Over the past week, I’ve watched Sofia Coppola’s “Marie Antoinette” twice in its entirety. To say that it’s beautiful is to state the painfully obvious – why wouldn’t it be beautiful? You’ve got the palace of Versailles as a set; loads of voluminous, frou-frou 18th century gowns and waistcoats and towering hairdos on your main characters; and the sweetly photogenic Kirsten Dunst in the title role. How could anyone make an ugly movie, given all that visual splendor to work with?

As I recall, this film was booed at its debut at Cannes. And I’ll admit that Coppola doesn’t seem to have much more aptitude for history or politics than does the frivolous, fashion-obsessed young queen whose life story she’s telling. But taken on its own terms, “Marie Antoinette” is a compelling confection of mood and atmosphere. It’s the fasion magazine approach to French history, but then, I’ve always enjoyed a good fashion magazine.

Coppola took some heat for her frequent use of current-day pop tunes on the film’s soundtrack; I’ll admit it has the effect of reducing singificant portions of the story to a series of entertaining-but-shallow music videos. But then again, why not? The point seems to be that the young queen, married to a doltish young king who can’t quite figure out how to consummate his marriage, is bored and restless and compulsively filling her life with empty pleasures. Why not show her and her best friends stuffing themselves with pastries and trying on cute shoes to the accompaniment of “I Want Candy”?

It’s actually quite effective, too, when the tone of the film abruptly changes as the monarchy falls out of favor: the 20th century hit tunes are gone and we hear only somber, period-appropriate music from this point on. The soundtrack gives us a clear message before we even get our first glimpse of an angry mob: the party’s over at Versailles and the day of reckoning has come.

Those final scenes in “Marie Antoinette” are harrowing. There’s a palpable, nearly unbearable sense of dread as we watch the king dining in near darkness as angry mobs outside scream for his death. And, for me, the film’s concluding scenes are nearly perfect. There are no bloody beheadings cheered by angry Parisians. Instead, we see Versailles, bathed in autumnal light as glimpsed from a retreating carriage window. Then a black screen. Then a lingering shot of a ransacked room in the palace – a chandelier lying shattered on the floor, a door pulled halfway off its hinges, furniture overturned and broken. It’s an understated yet devastating visual image for the end of an era. No blood-drenched drama at the guillotine would have carried the same impact.