Sunday, December 30, 2007

betajing 4

People have continually asked --with a palpable sense of foreboding-- about the rise of China, as if two weeks spent living in dive bars might cast luminance through the carcinogenic pall. They ask about Anti-Americanism, as if I might be able to parse spoken Chinese as I walked down the back alleys of Shanghai.

Who knows how it is with "the Other." Lord knows that when discussing the matter with Europeans dealing with this wholly alien culture that they were in the midst of, they often opted to use insects as an analogy. Not so much the teeming numbers (though that can no doubt apply) but more the methodology of the Chinese glimpsed on the street: tireless, strong, dilligent.

Beware such metaphors though. Take the perception made by a Japanese soldier, Azuma Shiro, after the fall of the Chinese capital Nanking to Japanese forces in December of 1937, which led to the "Rape of Nanking" that winter. He noted, with palpable disgust in his observation: "They all walked in droves, like ants crawling on the ground. They looked like a bunch of homeless people, with ignorant expressions on their faces." No longer perceiving human beings, men convert into animals.

Misconcpetions abound on either side. Some of it is lost in translation. If you cannot voice the vowel just so, no taxi driver can possibly understand where you want to go or what street name you wish to say. And examples of "Chinglish" abound. Shopping one day for bootleg DVDs leads to a treasure trove of the always-excellent "Griterion Collection" series of foreign films. And who knew that Dolph Lundgren still made films?

Of course, reading the back cover blurbs gives pause. English misspellings are one thing, but certain sentiments get voiced too. Here's one that sums up what I fear is the standard perception of America, from a movie otherwise forgotten: "Oh actually, what am I saying? It'll be a bloody surprise if it ever comes out in North America properly, given the hypocritical, righteous atmosphere of self-delusion that currently permeates this society."


Far from the gaze of Chairman Mao and Kris Kringle, I am now being watched by two other fatherly figures, that of the Buddha and His Majesty the King, Bhumibol Adulyadej. After being force-fed the benevolence of Mao, I was reticent to accept HM. Thai Airways Magazine devoted an entire issue to HM, setting off every cult of personality, anti-monarchy alarm in my head. He gazes up from the currency, and on every street corner stand frames gilded and strewn with banners. Surely it was but a mask of benevolence, no? I tried to keep doubt in my mind. That is, until I bought a double disc of his compositions. At 7-Eleven! Right next to the green jelly grass juice!

The pictorial evidence of his greatness is overwhelming: he held an audience with G.I. Elvis Presley, jammed with the likes of Stan Getz and Louis Armstrong. He's also an amateur photographer. I wish he were my king, in much the same way I wish Buddha were my savior. Reclining Buddha (also on his death bed) is far less gruesome than ol' Iron Nails.

Above is the most inspirational picture of the King I can find, one that will go straight to the desk shrine upon my return: pencil in hand, a bead of sweat running off his nose, wholly lost in thought.

Saturday, December 29, 2007

betajing 3

Stemming from my experience on the Great Wall, extending infinitely both forward and back, yet wholly in the moment, I learn that Chinese language has neither past tense nor future tense. It too is totally in the present.

Another lesson in Chinese language: it behooves one not to use vocab builders like "Chinese government," "Tibet," "Falun Gong," much less names of Chinese officials, in any correspondence, lest suddenly "the Internet" no longer work. Myself, I got kicked out of a Gmail account and Blogger for much of my China connection due to such an indiscretion. And forget looking at BBC News (curiously, one could click on the New York Times, though my paranoia was in the red so that I didn't dare click on the "Choking on Growth" series of articles about China's Industrial Revolution growing pains). An acquaintance tells that during one big political event, access to Hotmail and Facebook countrywide was denied for months on end.

Mao's visage can be seen, resplendent and golden, at the gates of the Forbidden City and in clutches of yuan, yet the main face in China is that of Santa Claus. Clad in red, smugly benevolent and always watching you, he winks at you from every shop window, hinting at the thin veil between communism/capitalism. Or, as The Economist put it recently:

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

betajing 2

When we arrive at the bus depot in Beijing, we no doubt look like pigeons: fat, clueless, cooing. Make that giant piegons, as we tower over all on the sidewalk like the marks that we are. A man begins hassling us with that ever-friendly "Hello! Hello!" and before we know it, we're herded into the party van. It's the only vehicle that can accomodate us six-foot plus pale behemoths, raised on corn and beef. As we make our way out of the lead skies of Beijing and into the Chinese version of the 'burbs, meaning acres of greenhouses for growing strawberries, still intact hutongs, and coming soon gas stations, our driver talks about how slow he must drive with our body weight. Struggle upwards into the hills that soon become mountains, which while immense, turn out to be unnamed. That such mountainous objects can go sans word is but part of the China experience.

Finally, the haze clears and we can perceive vistas, as well as draw deeper breaths. A roadside host offers us perfumed green tea with chrysanthamum pedals that may be the most perfect drink I've tasted, before we get sold tee shirts and bottles of plum wine. Our host asks me if I believe in Jesus Christ, pressing his hands together in feigned prayer. I answer yes and he explains to me that it is how he feels about Mao. Try to remember what currency features JC's benevolent and fatherly gaze upon it. Our ride continues and we soon stumble out of the van, slightly woozy on plum wine as we start up a hill. Already breathless, the dirt turns to stone steps and then we find ourselves atop that motley assemblage of barricades that has cohered in lore into the Great Wall of China.

From such a vantage point, I grasp what infinity might actually be like, to be extending both forward and back beyond the realms of all sensory perceptions. Everything fails from such a precipice: body and breath and language and vision and touch and mortality. My words are like those invaders from the North: attempts to penetrate this barrier, to capture it or accurately describe it are doomed to failure, to total defeat. I can feel every single hand, each ascending with its load, one brick at a time. It is a weight I have never felt before. To say one feels like an ant in such a presence is far too presumptuous.

Much like the human haze that surrounds the imperial city, rendering its skyscrapers, stadiums, temples, and anthill building blocks unreal and disintegrated, so too does this fortress of absolute solitude enter the world of the imaginary and dream-prisoned the moment its walls are back out of sight, enshrouded once more in the distant fog of memory. Could I have really been there?

Friday, December 14, 2007


I cannot frame in words the sensation of being 36,500 feet over the North Pole, the temp hitting -81 degrees outside, nor can I properly convey the dread of waking up from pill-aided airplane slumber only to realize that there are eight more freaking hours to go before arriving in Beijing and there's no way I can watch The Bourne Ultimatum for a fourth time.

Beijing greets us with images of Yao Ming and Jackie Chan on every corridor. Everywhere you look, there hangs an Olympic veil. Kiosk ads namecheck it, the Olympic Stadium looms large off the highway, construction for other related buildings is everywhere, and even the shrubbery is sheared into the mascot's shape. Of course, that's what we're supposed to see. Someone whispers of poorer neighborhoods cordoned off from outsider eyes. Well, they needn't try so hard. So far, the trip has been but a circuit between the hotel and club.

Seeing Chinese punk bands is a curious affair. There's a prevailance of mimicry for the most part. I'm told that one of the bigger bands around has their Gang of Four act perfected to a tee. One band I catch considers themselves "post-rock" and I must admit, they have captured all the plodding stoic stolidity of Explosions in the Sky and Slint perfectly. The best part of them, aside from their matching frowns, is that the main guitarist rocks sweatpants onstage.

It's harder figuring if the air quality is worse inside the clubs, where everyone chains smokes, or outside, where smokestacks puff through the night and a simple walk down for some street food (oh, man) leads to shortness of breath. Equally hard to figure out is which is more awesome, broadcast Rockets games and inscrutable commercials featuring Yao (one has him blocking a bullet with his bare hands, which was meant for some giant elephant on the basketball court) or CCTV 6, which apparently runs nothing but kung-fu flicks 24/7.

Thursday, December 06, 2007

betatitis b

Having just shot $400 worth of crap into my left arm, I'm just about ready for my trip. Tetanus! Diphtheria! Typhoid! Influenza! Hepatitis A! All sorts of dormant and weakened viruses stream through my blood right now. It just caps a week spent thinking about retroviruses, and that New Yorker article about reconstructing ancient viruses. As each needle got jammed into my shoulder, I took solace in the news that "our bodies are littered with the shards of such retroviruses, fragments of the chemical code," and the factoid that 8% of the human genome is made up of such scrap. Of course, I could feel it rise to 10% in me as I have since developed a sore shoulder and the sniffles.

It also makes me think of retroviruses in musical terms, as I've spent a great deal of time lately listening to disco edits, that phenom of finding obscure cuts, disassembling them, then tightening and brightening the track for the 21st century dancefloor (or chatboard, as that's where these seem most popular). Pilooski's dirty disco edits are a notable culprit, chopping up Frankie Valli & the Four Seasons so that it more resembles "The Rockafeller Skank" or else making the lone single from Jackson Jones, who sounds like the Caribbean version of Bryan Ferry, and make it feel extra woozy on "I Feel Good Put Your Pants On." Funny how such strands can float along, dead and dormant for decades, only to take root finally and proceed to blossom once more in a more fertile host. Vashti Bunyan is perhaps an even better example, but I'm not quite sick of either, by any means.

Wholly unrelated, a friend of mine produced this mash-up supreme:

Monday, December 03, 2007

beta on the newsstand

For that cold toilet seat in December, there are reviews of Ricardo Villalobos, White Magic, Sightings, Castanets, and Sunburned Hand of the Man in the new Spin and a slew of stuff for Paste.

Michael Hurley
Ancestral Swamp
Yo La Tengo’s Ira Kaplan summed up America’s kookiest living songster best: “I've never encountered anybody in less of a hurry than Michael Hurley; he always seems a second or two behind, like he's not quite seeing or hearing the same things we are.” Covered by the likes of the Holy Modal Rounders, Violent Femmes, and Cat Power, the perpetually itinerant Hurley no doubt exists on another plane entirely. Over the course of five decades, Hurley’s languorous songs have lounged just outside of blues, country, and folk, and his first for Devendra Banhart’s Gnomonsong imprint is no different. Spacy and sloooow, nudged on by guests like Tara Jane O’Neil, a fiddle snores through “When I Get Back Home,” while the electric piano on “Lonesome Graveyard” is basically somnambulant. Within his rasped lyrics, cowboys, crapshooters, and little green fellows abound (what, no werewolves this time?), making for some of the weirdest nap dreams imaginable.

Fraser & DeBolt (with Ian Guenther)
Earlier this year, a hushed cover of “The Waltze of the Tennis Players” appeared on Philly folk singer Meg Baird’s debut (warranting her a “Four to Watch” slot). Written by the obscure Canadian duo of Ian Fraser & Daisy DeBolt, it brought attention to the neglected act’s self-titled major label debut, which saw release in 1971 and disappeared soon after. Reissued on CD by a dubious imprint (and taken from a vinyl copy), it reveals not just what Canadian country music might sound like, but that the couple is painfully artless as regards their singing voices. Fraser’s is a plank-thick drawl, DeBolt’s prone to yelps. Adding to the mix is the wheezing fiddle work of Ian Guenther, which on numbers like “Armstrong Tourest Rest Home” is teeth-gnashing. The off-kilter combination works well on the woozy “Waltze,” while their cover of “Don’t Let Me Down” is particularly ragged.

*** ½
“In our daily life, there must be music.” So speaks Dominic, a 14-year-old Patongo School student in northern Uganda, about to compete in the National Music Competition. On the surface, War/Dance seems like any other competition movie: students practice, learn about themselves, then perform on the big stage, though it’s doubtful such a trip to the capital city ever involve armed escort. Patongo, situated in a refugee camp, overflows with orphans and others displaced by boogiemen rebel fighters, solace found only in music and dance. The Fines were fortunate to capture the school’s first ever foray to the festival, as well as compelling children. Tears streaming down his face in extreme close-up, Dominic recounts how he too had to kill so as to not be killed by these rebels. While the nightmarish flashbacks need not such a heavy hand (the stories are harrowing enough), the film shows how music alleviates that daily violence.

Despite The Ken Burns Effect on WWII, the story of what occurred in China’s then-capital city of Nanking won’t be familiar to most Westerners, in that it took place during the winter of 1937, two years before the invasion of Poland and four years before Pearl Harbor brought the war home. By the late thirties though, in alliance with Nazi Germany, Japan was already on the megalomaniac march, invading and toppling Shanghai before turning its bloodlust onto Nanking. This documentary (with parts read by Stephen Dorff, Mariel Hemingway, and Woody Harrelson) details how an all-out slaughter of the country’s poor populace was averted by strange bedfellows: both Christian missionaries and Nazi businessmen set up a neutral zone to stem the bloodshed of the innocent. This harrowing documentary captures the ultimate futility of such an effort (200K murdered, some 20K reported rapes in the first month alone) along with rare 16mm footage that won’t soon be forgotten.

Berlin Alexanderplatz
“(Rainer Werner) Fassbinder can only be described in contradictions…gentle and brutal, tender and cynical, self-sacrificing and egocentric.” So spoke Christian Braad Thomsen, longtime friend of the prolific, doomed Fassbinder, the enfant terrible of West German cinema from the late sixties until his death from an overdose in the early eighties. Of course, his untimely death was also one of exhaustion, as Fassbinder’s frenetic work pace --directing some 41 movies in 13 years-- would make the prolific Steven Soderburgh (not to mention most porno directors) seem lazy in comparison. His immense body of work revels in such contradictions some two decades on.

Berlin Alexanderplatz is one of Fassbinder’s final efforts, completed and aired on German television in 1980. It consumed Fassbinder’s creative attentions for the better part of a year, which is saying something, considering he could churn out upwards of five movies in that time span. Much more than that though, the early modernist book by Alfred Döblin about protagonist Franz Biberkopf resounded for a teenaged Fassbinder, who told interviewer Klaus Eder in 1980 that he could perceive himself within Franz, “a person who goes around for much too long trying to believe in goodness in this world…though he actually knows better.” So struck was young Fassbinder by this work that he took “Franz” as the name of his alter ego thereafter.

Set in the Weimar era in Berlin, after the end of World War I and before the rise of the Third Reich, we first meet Franz Biberkopf (Günter Lamprecht) as he’s released from prison after serving a four-year bid for beating his prostitute girlfriend to death in a violent rage. It’s an instance that haunts not just him but us as well, the gruesome scene repeated often, each time with a different voiceover narration. Staying true to Döblin’s novel, which in the spirit of contemporary tome Ulysses took snatches of words from other sources, we hear excerpts from the Book of Job, Ecclesiastics, the story of Abraham, livestock reports, sexual education manuals, and Longfellow drift past.

What no doubt interests Fassbinder more than the modernist appropriation though is how a man like Franz, a malevolent pimp turned kindhearted simp, traverses this terrain. Crippled by the unemployment rate, its citizens seem to have few options: the men are either petty thieves or pimps, the women are prostitutes. Struggling to stay honest, ex-con Franz vows: “Even if the world is full of meanness, full of filth, I swore to myself, I’m finished with it.” Through the earliest installments, he keeps his word, but after attempts to peddle neckties, newspapers, and Fascist literature for an honest living fails, soon finds himself drawn back into the underworld by his new best friend, a baleful stuttering pimp named Reinhold (Gottfried John).

Pushed out of a getaway car after a heist, Franz loses an arm, rendering him an invalid, though most citizens chalk him up as being yet another one of the Great War’s casualties. His sole salvation comes in the guise of the doll-like Mieze (Barbara Sukowa), a similarly wide-eyed girl almost goofy in her innocence, even if she takes up with gentlemen callers to pay the bills. Unable to work, Franz cannot help but to become a pimp once more. Things are irretrievably set in motion and it ultimately comes to pass that his fate is not escapable.

Clocking in at thirteen episodes, with an additional two-hour epilogue that verges on the hallucinatory, Berlin Alexanderplatz makes for nearly sixteen hours of Fassbinder. Safe to say that this set is not for initiates; even those familiar with the man’s oeuvre, be it classics of 70s European cinema like Effi Briest, Ali: Fear Eats the Soul, or The Marriage of Maria Braun, will still have their work cut out for them here. The pacing is deliberate and slow, the format of the television mini-series giving Fassbinder ample time to let scenes unfurl at an excruciatingly slow pace. While an awkward moment in a Fassbinder film (and believe me, there are plenty in each film) might last for but one scene, in Alexanderplatz, they unfurl at upwards of a half-hour, as imminent and agonizing as a steamroller advancing. Tropes like action and plot advancement were never Fassbinder’s concern so much as the cruelty of mankind to one another, with love itself --to quote an early film-- being “colder than death.” It’s near absolute zero in Berlin Alexanderplatz.