Thursday, April 17, 2014


Lately I've been dusting off my comics collection and bringing them to work with me in a desperate bid to get my students to read something, anything. My lower secondary kids get badly-bound Calvin & Hobbes ("Teacher, the pages are falling out again") and my Secondary 4s get the good stuff: Sandman, Hellboy, Y: The Last Man and Transmetropolitan. (Only given to the kids with morally negligent parents, like mine were, thank God.)

I know that letting teenagers paw my precious comics is a bad idea in the long run. Already my Hellboy volume is dog-eared, and one of my Y: The Last Man books has been lost. I wince a little every time I see a kid unconsciously pull the pages back all the way, cracking the spine. But I don't say anything because these books are meant to be enjoyed, and I know from experience there's nothing less fun than someone going "Er... could you not open my book so widely?" I can always buy new copies, but the window of time for my students to develop a love of reading is closing with every passing day. My only request is that they always return the books, so future cohorts can read them too.

I've enjoyed re-reading my old comics as well. I pulled out Transmetropolitan for the first time in years and couldn't stop reading until I'd finished reading the volume's adventures of Spider Jerusalem, a tattooed and shirtless Hunter S. Thompson clone. (I have a thing for bald, cranky journalists who smell like cigarette smoke and sweat.) Set in a chaotic dystopian city of the future, where consumerism runs amok and the sheer number of skyscrapers and flashing screens make present-day Tokyo look like a sleepy fishing village, Transmetropolitan is a profane homage to the power of one gonzo journalist trying to do the right thing in a society that just doesn't give a shit about anything anymore. (Whew.)

Written by Warren Ellis and drawn by Darick Robertson, Transmetropolitan - which ran from 1997 to 2002 - is a roller-coaster ride through futurism. Everything from nanotech to 3D printing to wearable computing to cryogenics and genetic engineering, and lots of other tech I'm not smart enough to name or identify. But the same old problems plague humanity - corruption, greed, exploitation and selfishness. Like a chain-smoking avenging angel, Spider Jerusalem investigates and exposes the hypocrisy of the establishment, taking on government, religion and the police while avoiding censorship, death and torture. He also has a ray gun that causes explosive diarrhoea.

Two things I particularly like about Transmetropolitan: first, the artwork, especially the panoramic centrefolds of the city and its teeming mass of inhabitants. Wonderfully detailed, hyper-coloured and so alive they seem to bounce right off the page. Second, despite being an all-male team - right down to the inker and colourist - there is an underlying respect for women as characters. Yes, women are still relegated to martyr roles (Vita Severn) shrewish bitches (Spider's ex-wife) or the usual gratuitous nudity (Indira Ataturk, in an arc I found rather troubling). But at the end of it all - spoiler alert - Spider's disciples are both women, and one even inherits his role and persona. Which fits the storyline, and the transgressive nature of the series. Batman and Superman are always men, but in Spider Jerusalem's world, women can take on the protagonist's mantle and - most importantly - wear it no differently from him. Maybe it's a low standard that I have for comics, but baby steps. (Now, if only they could've gotten the Asian names right...)

The violent, hyperkinetic world of Transmetropolitan is often very silly, and sometimes pointlessly juvenile. Kind of disgusting, at times. It swings wildly between exuberance and cartoonishly futile rage (against the machine - sorry, couldn't help it). Still, for a character so awash in cynicism, Spider Jerusalem always puts a smile on my face.

On Monday I handed a Transmetropolitan trade paperback to a student, then waited for his reaction. As he flipped through the pages, his eyes grew wider and wider. "Wow. Wow! This is insane!" He couldn't stop staring at the panels, slowing down and lingering at each one. Soon, he was reading.

I knew I'd catch him taking it out surreptitiously later during the lesson, probably trying to hide it behind his worksheet. I was right. I told him to put it away, but the best comics are those you just can't taking another peek at - in class, or even in adulthood, years after your first time.

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.)