Monday, March 31, 2014

A (Fashion) Film I Love: I Am Love

I am quite a clothing addict, and according to my unimpressed friends, a major snob to boot. So naturally when I Am Love came out in 2009 - Italy, Tilda Swinton, fine dining, stirring violins and Jil Sander! - I wanted to dive headfirst into its depths like it was a swimming pool full of milky ricotta. (Not to mention that super-fine Sikh dude from all the Wes Anderson movies made a little cameo at a dinner scene.)

Directed by Luca Guadagnino, I Am Love relates the dissolution of a wealthy family of Italian manufacturers. The blonde protagonist is Emma Recchi, the younger, Russian-born wife of Tancredi, who is preparing to assume the reins of his father's industrial empire. By marrying Tancredi she has given herself completely over to the Italian bourgeoisie way of life: its culture, emphasis on conformity and tradition, painfully formal relations and calm, unchanging superiority to the modern world without. Her grown children are less impermeable, and they become unwitting gateways to Emma's eventual discovery of love and self.

The beautiful costuming was accomplished by Antonella Cannarozzi, who worked with Fendi for the men's attire and Jil Sander for the women's. There is a lot of signalling performed by the colour and style of Emma's various outfits, but I just really enjoy their beauty and sharp tailoring. In a world where more is more and the neon-glowing 80s' are back with a vengeance, the quiet confidence of Emma's red shift dress really does stand out. Unlike the frantic fuss and feathers of the Sex and the City movies and television series (I never liked that awful dreck) I think I Am Love will hold up in decades to come, alongside Maggie Cheung's silk cheongsams and Uma Thurman's blood-red lips and vampish black bob.

Here's the shift dress, in a clear orangey (?) red that I can never find at Sephora - you try being partially colour-blind and explaining to the bored salesgirl that the lipstick you're searching for absolutely has to be this particular shade:

I love shift dresses when they're made out of good cottons or silks. (Not those dull, cheap-looking polyester ones in black or grey that you see office ladies sweating through on the MRT.) A well-tailored shift dress shouldn't require a stupid skinny belt - it should be perfect as it is. I actually look pretty good in them (yay, a pleasant surprise) but I've given up hope on ever finding something as amazing as this one. The closest I've come is a stretchy coral cotton shift from Esprit, of all places, and a double-faced pale yellow Hussein Chalayan that I scored on clearance. On the hanger it looks a bit like a maxi pad with wings (it's Chalayan, not Cavalli) but when I put it on, it has the same spirit as Emma Recchi's: feminine without being ostentatious, powerful in its simplicity.

(By the way, hers is red because it's meant to signal that she's falling in love. But I'm sure you knew that.)

Speaking of love, here's Emma at a bar in a small town with her paramour, the chef:

This is casual wear for her. I love those perfect marigold tailored pants (also looking for them, but mine will have to be altered by about six inches). All of Emma's belongings and clothes are wonderfully put together, but they also signal that she is an outsider in the world of regular people, even as she battles old feelings of inferiority to her wealthy (second mention, but necessary) Italian in-laws. You can look good, but you can't win.

I love that clothing can mark you out as an alien, even when you don't intend to signal your status as one. I attended a friend's fancy wedding at the Shangri-la recently and wore bright silver stilettos, orange silk ankle-length pants from J.Crew Collection, a white Lela Rose asymmetrical-neckline top and Elizabeth Cole hematite-and-mint earrings. It was very 80s', especially since I wore my hair long and pushed to one side. I thought I would blend right in with all the middle-aged aunties, but I was the only female wearing pants that evening, and everyone below 50 was chasing youth in halter tops and short dresses. It was quite a sight.

While the bright colours signal Emma's slow awakening to love, early on in the film she is subdued in dense, dark blues and shadowy maroons. This is, again, another stunning example of Jil Sander's tailoring:

 The high neckline is what really makes the dress. It exposes a sliver of collarbone, but is almost puritan in its restraint. Ditto the sleeves, which are just a little longer than expected. Yet the dress is not deliberately baggy or frumpy - it's confident enough to step back and showcase the person wearing it. Also, I can't think of any other colour more suitable for it. Black can be very severe, but not formal enough, ironically. Navy blue is serious, profound. Black says you're either an art gallery employee, or still listening to the Smiths. Nobody's sure.

This is where tailoring and material really count, and you won't find anything resembling this dress on the high street. They'll have high-collared navy blue dresses by the carton, but they won't be thick pure cotton. They might have it in rayon, if you're lucky. It's beating a dead horse, but these days when I walk by Zara I have nightmare visions of the entire place going up in plasticky-acrid flames, because everything is 100% polyester. I don't know how women can wear so much of it in our humid, hot climate. Apart from the environmental concerns, how can anyone be comfortable wearing plastic when the thermometer's creeping past 30 degrees?

Talk about an uptight family portrait (check out the loyal retainer seated on the right - all that's missing is the Italian purebred hound). Emma's daughter is in virginal blush pink and navy blue, with a very nice pair of loafers. I like how the look is tomboyish but not childish, which again signals a good deal about the film's storyline. Notice the slight flare of the men's jackets and the traditional tailoring of their pants - these days suits are a lot more slim-cut, but then again these guys aren't big fans of change. They look rich, powerful, complacent, yes - but also a tiny bit ridiculous, in a world that is moving on without them. In her red shift (named for the post-war shift in culture), Emma is at the defiant forefront of both the picture and a brave new modernity.

Friday, February 28, 2014

A Film I Love: Full Metal Jacket

I have a notoriously short attention span when it comes to television programmes or films. I'll sit through an hour-long episode politely, but I've never binge-watched an entire TV series on DVD. When I watch movies by myself on my laptop or on Apple TV, I hit the pause button every half-hour unless I really, really, really like what I'm watching.

There are only a few movies I am capable of sitting through every single time I re-watch them, no matter how fidgety or distracted I am. And chief among them is my all-time favourite movie, Full Metal Jacket (1987).

I first saw it at the tender age of five, thanks to my father's lax parenting. I remember hiding behind the sofa when (26-year-old spoiler alert) Private Gomer Pyle (Vincent D'Onofrio) blew his brains out in the lavatory. But I was also fascinated by the incredible rantings of Gunnery Sergeant Hartman (R. Lee Ermey) and the (again, ancient spoiler alert) completely unexpected ending. As I grew older I understood more of the film and its impulses. It always seemed to be floating around, lying somewhere on the living room shelf/in a computer hard drive/school library video collection, and I could never resist watching it just one more time.

What I love about Full Metal Jacket is firstly, the quotability of the dialogue. The movie was inspired by Gustav Hasford's novel, The Short-Timers, which director Stanley Kubrick loved for its 'poetic... carved-out, stark quality' (thanks, Wikipedia). So Full Metal Jacket is a movie that moves around the rhythms of the dialogue, like a jazz score complete with genius improvisations - witness Hartman's famously ad-libbed threats and insults in his introductory scene, a solo virtuoso performance that blows everything else out of the water. Joker is the movie's bassline, a laconic presence thrumming with moral tension, while Private Pyle and his tragedy constitute the operatic climax reached in the first act of the movie.

Secondly, the depth is just amazing - it is a Kubrick production, after all, his attempt to show what war was like. Now, I've never been to war, or even to National Service (I have done my tiny, top-security bit to protect the nation, does that count?) but even I know that what Kubrick presents is not so much realism as a hyper-reality, a telling of the truth that bears only a half-resemblance to daily existence. Yet it's still the truth, and you know it. Yes, there are explosions, and people dying, and prostitution and misery, but someone like Animal Mother (Adam Baldwin) wouldn't really have a quote from the Bhagavad Gita inscribed on his helmet ("I am become death") because a real-life Animal Mother would have the reading level of an eight year old with severe ADHD. But all the same, he has become death. So it's true.

Lastly, the duality present in Full Metal Jacket is probably a topic that every film studies undergraduate has pulled together a half-baked essay on, but I'll contribute my thoughts all the same. As Joker wrestles with the "duality of man" (sample: "I wanted to meet interesting and stimulating people of an ancient culture... and kill them") he is surrounded by dual characters and themes ("inside every gook there is an American trying to get out"). The dehumanisation of the Marines in boot camp (beating Private Pyle under the cover of night) shines darkly against their grief and desperation at losing their friends to the mystery sniper. Private Pyle himself, a pale and wobbly contrast to Gunnery Sergeant Hartman's tough and leathery exterior, gains in physical strength and skill at the same time that Hartman softens up, complimenting his shooting and emphasising that "you are definitely born again hard!" (A lovely bit of irony - Pyle's rebirth is Hartman's death.)

My favourite duality involves the Saigon hooker ("Me love you long time! Me so hoooorny!"), about whom Joker makes a somewhat prescient remark: "Half these gook whores are serving officers in the Viet Cong, the other half have got TB. Be sure you only fuck the ones that cough." The prostitute's counterpart is the virginal teenage sniper, who takes on the role of the deadly aggressor until she is dispatched by Joker. While the prostitute sells her body to the Americans, the young female sniper uses her physicality to deal out death to them. Kubrick also piled on the irony by having Gunnery Sergeant Hartman brag about "what one motivated Marine and his rifle can do!" in the first movie's first half, then showing the devastating consequences of his boast in the second half - except it's done to the Marines, not by them.

I've always been fascinated by the American perspective on the Vietnam War, a weeping wound that they can't stop picking at. The war was the hammer that shattered America's charmed self-image, exposing the hollowness of the American Dream and American superiority. The heart of Full Metal Jacket is the inherent darkness and doubt of the American psyche, barely hidden by the hoo-rah surface exposition of these chatty-as-hell Marines. ("You talk the talk... but do you walk the walk?") To confirm this, all you need is the final scene:

A parting note: You know you've watched a movie too many times when you don't have to use IMDB to look up the quotes - and you still end up wasting time on YouTube re-watching all the scenes. The only other film I can do this for? Amy Heckerling's Clueless (1995). But that's another essay, for another time.

Friday, February 14, 2014

How Will I Know/Hallelujah

Two songs for this year's Valentine's Day, because why not? (OK, so I couldn't think of a third to make a list.)

The first is Whitney Houston's How Will I Know, which is a sweet pop confection, transformed into something of rare and permanent value thanks to her unearthly vocals.

I was reminded of the video after seeing one of my students, a 13-year-old with a penchant for oversized DIY bows on her head - the 80s' are certainly back from the dead. It's such a perfect song for teenagers experiencing their first romances, although the teens of today might be a little confused by the line about being too shy to call someone up on the phone. ("Why can't she just text him, 'cher?") I love the anticipatory, buoyant energy and optimism - it's all so innocent, a time before Bobby Brown, crack pipes and reality TV.

If How Will I Know marks the beginning of one's romantic life, then Hallelujah comes at the end. (It's been on my list of funeral songs since I was a gothic 16.) The Christian imagery is deeply personal, and the lyrics transcend bitterness to become simple truth. I don't believe in God, but I believe Leonard Cohen when he tells me that "love is not a victory march, it's a cold and it's a broken hallelujah".

There must be about a hundred thousand covers of Hallelujah floating around the Internet, and everyone's got a favourite. (Nobody really likes the original - Cohen was a poet, not a singer, no disrespect.) Forget the American Idol or X Factor contestants, the pop princesses warbling out a B-side to pad out their albums - the top three versions of Hallelujah are, in my opinion, Jeff Buckley's, KD Lang's and Steven Page's. While Page actually did sing it at a state politician's funeral, and Lang sang it in front of Cohen himself, I still prefer Buckley's version from his album Grace to all others.

In the hands of a lesser performer, the song can sound deadly monotonous, and a little too knowing. But Buckley's take on it is fluid, almost liquid in its complete surrender to Hallelujah's beauty and religious overtones. Listen to it in a dark room. Take note of his guitar playing. Maybe this is what communion with the Holy Spirit feels like.

Certainly, Buckley's untimely death lends pathos to his recording of Hallelujah. If you listen to the studio version - also available on YouTube - it begins with Buckley's seemingly unconscious breath, a sudden drawing in of air that feels so unbearably intimate. He drowned 16 years ago, but here he is tonight, his sighing in your ears and his voice reaching deep into your gut. Hallelujah is about more than love. It's life itself, and - death.

Happy Valentine's Day.

Thursday, January 2, 2014

Walter Mitty and the Death of Print

I was surprised by how depressing The Secret Life of Walter Mitty was. I thought it was going to be an IKEA catalogue shoot of desolate Scandinavian landscapes fronted by an Arcade Fire soundtrack and (hopefully) minimal mugging from Ben Stiller. Instead we were treated to an opening half-hour about the closure of Life magazine and the downsizing of its staff.

It hit a little too close to home, although the resident photojournalist took it in stride and even managed to find some slight optimism in the ending. But to me it was a delayed elegy for a funeral that has already been done and dusted. The print industry was on its last legs when I was in polytechnic, and though I never did become a journalist - for unrelated reasons - as a freelance writer I have stood by its deathbed... and then decided not to stick around.

The film was calculated to invoke nostalgia for the analog past of media production, and on that level it was very successful. While watching it I remembered learning how to process film, in a temporary dark room on the top floor of a semi-abandoned 1970s' concrete block. I remembered shooting on film, which felt like breathing underwater - inhale, click, exhale, click - being completely subsumed in the small rectangle of focus and light. I never became good at it, never bothered to keep up with it after class ended. I was always a writer, more interested in the conception, construction and final layout of text and headlines and straps. I started writing freelance when I was 19. I turned 29 this past November.

In the last decade, working mostly for one publication, I have contributed my small part to the rise of advertorials (ads masquerading as news articles, right down to the headlines and font choices) and then sponsored editorials (still not quite sure what they are, really) alongside dwindling editorial work. My per article rate has risen and stagnated and fallen. The demand for quality has just fallen (face to face interviews only, then phone, then the directive saying email interviews answered by public relations personnel are now acceptable). I always shrugged and said OK.

I could afford to do that, thanks to my pathological fear of commitment to any one occupation. For the last five years I have also been an English tutor and as long as insecure Singaporean parents are willing to give their children a leg up in their studies, I will never see the death of the tuition industry (sorry kids, may it continue to live long and prosper). You could say I anticipated the death of print - not a particular achievement, anyone with half a brain saw it coming - and walked away before I ever got started.

But it still grieves me that print is dead, that the twin arts of writing and photography now lead diminished existences on Twitter and Instagram. Everybody is a pithy quote machine and everybody knows how to apply the right filter to their sunset photos, so why pay for an expert? Sure, there's still plenty of longform journalism and even a decent photo essay or two floating around - but the web doesn't pay well, if at all. Newspaper travel articles today are no longer commissioned, they are funded by the writers and photographers themselves or paid for by junkets. Today only the wealthy can afford to create.

What has died is not the business of communication, which is alive and thriving online. What is dead is a slower approach to creation, one that allows for freedom of thought and reflection, and is the patient refinement of a craft as opposed to the slapdash inspiration of a split second. I used to dream about starting a magazine. We would talk for hours about what would go in it, the issues we wanted to explore, the tone and impact we wanted to have. But magazines take a lot of capital and depend on a willing audience - and at the end of the day I am none too sure that even if I had the capital, if the audience would be so willing to pay for quality. It's not very promising that Mother Jones is always asking for money while Thought Catalog is surviving.

I saw on Facebook that an old schoolmate had recommended The Secret Life of Walter Mitty - "Very inspiring, good show, Ben Stiller deserves an Oscar" (OK, so he didn't say the last part). It wasn't inspiring for me. It was bittersweet, wistful, pensive - also, quite disappointing with the product placement and shallow writing. I couldn't help thinking that the ending was left unresolved. The magazine died. Nobody uses film anymore. There's nothing left to daydream about, especially if you're Walter Mitty, aged 42 and holding a severance check in a world where print is dead.

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Three Moments in Nagoya, Japan

1. Early in the morning and a girl in a red puffa jacket lights a cigarette outside a standalone convenience store in the bitter cold middle of nowhere. She presses herself close against the pale yellow wall and her dyed ashy blonde hair rises with the wind. As cars go by she exhales upwards and her smoky breath drifts into a sky so blue, I swear it was borrowed from the movies.

2. Around ten at night I am following my family down a city street, still filled with people walking from one restaurant or bar to another. We pass a tapas hole-in-the-wall with a little window into the kitchen, where the hot hipster chef is slapping a thick ribeye slice down on the plancha. He smashes a few potatoes on the side, then looks up and sees me staring. Reaches over, flicks the window open and leans out to smile and point invitingly at the searing meat. Its garlicky aroma reaches me where I am standing and through the door I see one empty seat at the bar where people are knocking back glasses of sangria. But from a distance, my mother calls to me to hurry up. I smile regretfully at the chef, take one last look at the most perfect piece of ribeye I have ever laid eyes on, and then I walk away.

3. Later that same night there is a rumpled and flushed salaryman perusing the titty magazine section of the convenience store. He makes his unnaturally-large selection and pays for it along with a can of Asahi, which he chugs while flipping rapidly through the magazine as if searching for something or someone. When he is done with his beer he carefully disposes of it in the recycling bin and staggers a little at the exit, reeling from the cold wind once outside the artificial warmth of the convenience store. Once sure of his balance he starts to walk, sweaty left hand curled around the magazine - forefinger inserted to keep his page - and the other hand deep inside his right pants pocket, performing obscure adjustments all the way down the sidewalk.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013


A round and resentful kitty I found rummaging through the trash behind a gift shop in Japan. Everyone else was out in front photographing Mt Fuji. I was in the back alley chasing a cat around. (Story of my life.)

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Five Songs I Am Ashamed To Love

In my later teenage years I used to hang out with a chinless rich kid who prided himself on his superior taste in music. He said I reminded him of (a chubbier) PJ Harvey and went on for hours about Tori Amos and Fiona Apple. At that point in time I was still enjoying the musical oeuvre of Blink 182 and Everclear, so I was understandably resentful of being bullied into listening to Stories From the City, Stories from the Sea. Like so many guys before and after him, he implied that all I needed was a lecture course in the music he enjoyed in order to see the light.

But I can't help liking the music I do. There's just something in me - a dumb inner jock, maybe - which craves sugary pop-punk and 90s' radio 'alternative'. These days we play Breakbot and Nicola Conte after work or on weekends, but when I'm alone and in need of a pick-me-up, I turn up the volume on something loud and teenage. And yes, I sing along.


First of all, I want to point out that AWOLNATION's frontman, Aaron Bruno, looks like a Swedish serial killer. One who's screaming "SAIL!" at you repeatedly, while you keep your hands above your head and try to surreptitiously nudge your cell phone closer with your foot.

I imagine this is what teenage girls listen to in a bid to be hardcore, but to me it's really just a fun party song - nothing too taxing on the brain or heart. I especially like singing "Maybe it's my ADD, baby" while marking the assignments of students with learning disabilities.

2. Kings of Leon - Sex on Fire

I come from a pretty religious family, so I enjoy the sepia faux-exorcism thing going on in the video. If my parents' church performed sweaty-young-farmhand exorcisms like that, they could charge admission and still pass around the collection plate after. I don't even know what the song means (genital itch? waxing gone wrong?) but who cares, it's three minutes and twenty eight seconds of hot beardies cashing in on their Pentecostal hillbilly childhoods. Good for them.

3. Third Eye Blind - Semi-Charmed Life

Oh my god - when this came out in like, 1997, I loved it so much. I had the album and I played it so many times the CD looked like a dog had been chewing on it. The "doot doot doot!" bit in the beginning never failed to cheer me up, even though it's all about crystal meth and the struggle to quit. Here's something funny -  everyone who sings along always, always tries to hit the falsetto in the chorus: "...I'm not listening when you say GOOOODBYEEEEEE!"

I'm not going to lie, I still love it and it makes me happy. I used to stop whatever I was doing just to watch the video on MTV and it was like a little bit of San Francisco sunlight bleeding into my life.

4. Blink 182 - Dammit

For my friends and I, this song was the equivalent of Ave Maria. You just couldn't get away from it - it was on the radio, on MTV, on everyone's Napster playlists. I think it captures the silliness and angst of being a teenager very well, and the wry resignation ("Well I guess this is growing up"). We used to be very badly behaved in movie theatres too - occupying an entire row or two, putting our feet up on the seats in front, flicking popcorn kernels at each other (and strangers). You only get to be so utterly clueless and inconsiderate once in your life, so on the whole I'm glad I had that experience.

5. Everclear - White Men in Black Suits

I know they're not a super admired band - in fact they sold out long ago - and I know this isn't one of their singles, and I know it's not even from one of their few respectable albums. But when I was 14 and struggling with the onset of the black dog (only a small and sad-eyed puppy then) this was everything to me. I think it must have been the desperate, diminishing hope in the chorus. 

Unlike a lot of self-aggrandising pop music these days, the song's declaration of freakdom ("I am a loser geek/crazy with an evil streak/yes I do believe there is a violent thing inside of me") isn't made with pride, it's just stated wearily. There's no fight left anymore, it just wants to be left alone by "all those people". When you're young and feeling helpless, it's all you need to know, that other people have felt the same way. (Of course when you're older you need more, but then hopefully you have the ability to find it for yourself - whatever it is.)