Sunday, April 10, 2016

Because It Is Bitter

In the desert
I saw a creature, naked, bestial,
Who, squatting upon the ground,
Held his heart in his hands,
And ate of it.
I said, "Is it good, friend?"
"It is bitter - bitter," he answered;

"But I like it
"Because it is bitter,
"And because it is my heart." 

- In the Desert, by Stephen Crane (1985)

Sunday, February 14, 2016

Chesterfield King / Return To

We don't often think of punk being sensitive, or subtle. But Jawbreaker had a future English professor slash political essayist at its helm, which ensured that its literary lyrics were fit to be tattooed on hordes of flannel-shirted, Prozac-Nation-reading, Doc-Marten-wearing 20-somethings (now in their 40s).

Chesterfield King is first of all, a story with an introductory scene - two young people in a room, feeling some very intense feelings - and a conflict: the narrator is terrified of the change in their friendship. He leaves to ponder his situation in a 7-Eleven parking lot and encounters a homeless woman, who kisses him on the cheek when he offers her a dime and a Chesterfield King (don't smoke, kids). He tells her he's "glued up on some chick". They drink a beer and smoke while he does his thinking, then it's resolution time: he drives really fast to the girl's house and kisses her on the front lawn. Afterwards they watch TV and hold hands.

So simple, and so well-told. Very catchy, too. You get a real sense of time and place (early 90s, normcore parkas, fall, suburbia) and a neat summary of the problem at the root of every friendship-turned-relationship: "I guess I'm not a gambling type/but think of what the two of us have lost". Something always has to die, for another to take its place. It's not wrong to want a little time to mourn, before turning to face the future.

We now travel - figuratively, literally - very far away in space, time and theme from Chesterfield King. #1 Dads is an Australian band comprising one man (Tom Iansek) and a revolving cast of guest performers. I first encountered them on Triple J's Youtube channel, performing an amazing take on FKA twigs' (kids these days and their names) Two Weeks. 

Tom Snowdon's voice is eerily lush on that track, but in my opinion it's better showcased on Return To, off #1 Dads' About Face album (2014). It's a piano-shaped exercise in wintry, late-night melancholy. The lyrics are initially opaque ("There's no love in the ground for me/So I kicked all this earth downstream") but they soon turn clear and heavy as glass: "I'm just having a hard time... living without you here"). The aural equivalent of drowning in your sleep.

Friday, January 22, 2016

I Want to Believe

January is such a dry, dull month - back to work, back to school (for my students), back to healthy eating and exercising both financial prudence and eye-rolling patience in the face of the approaching Chinese New Year. At least this year I can look forward to the revival of the X-Files. (Thank God I've finally reached the age when my nostalgia is tall enough to reach into my pocket and extract my wallet. Those VPN subscriptions don't pay themselves.)

The X-Files were the highlight of my secondary school years. Wednesdays, 10pm, Channel 5. My dad - in a fit of bad decision-making - had fitted out my PC with a TV card so I could watch local programming in the privacy of my own bedroom. I often fell asleep in class, on the bus home, at tuition in the evening, but by 9.55pm I'd be wide awake and preparing my X-Files watching pod - high-backed office chair with leatherette arms I could lean against, pillow to clutch during hair-raising moments (and to hide the screen from sight, if things got really gory), lights switched off so that the room was only illuminated by the glow of my PC screen and Scully's red hair. 

The best feeling in the world was at 10pm sharp: snuggled into my nest in front of the screen with the opening credits playing - that ominous duh-duh-duh-duh starting up, heralding that iconic six-note whistle (I think the correct term is "threnody", according to the A.V. Club). Anticipation is the most exquisite form of pleasure, and that's how I learnt it was so. Everything else goes necessarily downhill in comparison.

On Thursday mornings, sleepy-eyed and even paler from exhaustion, I would look around hopefully for someone, anyone, who might have seen last night's episode and wanted to talk about it. But nobody in school had heard of the X-Files - let's just say it was more of a Channel 8 audience - save for one boy, who confessed he had only watched two episodes and wasn't really into it. 

"But you don't have to follow the alien mythology at all," I pointed out earnestly (probably pushing up my glasses with one hand). "The monster-of-the-week episodes are really the show's core strength." 

No dice, not convinced. Actually, if I had been savvier at pitching TV shows, I should have guessed that boys back then would prefer the complicated, under-lit plot mess that was the alien conspiracy Mulder worked so hard to uncover. It made people feel smart to keep track of all the ends and beginnings, Mulder's sister and Scully's pregnancy and the black oil and the Syndicate and Cigarette Smoking Man. All it did was bore me and give me a sneaking suspicion that there was very little payoff in following that storyline all the way to its inevitable rabbit-hole of dead-ends, dead characters and zero resolution. I was happy to let it provide the overall propulsion of the show's arc and Mulder and Scully's relationship, but the real fun of the X-Files was always the feral, dripping-wet monster hiding in the wall, the water, the sewers, inside a human being. The shrieks of the mother-thing under the bed from Home haunted me for days and nights afterwards. (That episode was all kinds of fucked up!) 

I stopped watching once David Duchovny quit. Of the two rather underwhelming movies, I skipped Fight the Future (alien mythology) and quite enjoyed I Want To Believe (shades of homophobia aside). I've seen early reviews of the six-episode revival and they aren't great - more of the same, dated vibes, unbalanced story-telling, etc - but I don't mind. I know that what people want is not really to see the X-Files come back to life, but to see their youth alive again, with all of the same hedonistic pleasures and dreamy, anticipatory excitement for the coming years. (Surprise - stock market crashes, global inequity, pandemics, climate change, ISIS.) People want to relive who they were when the X-Files was still on TV and wide-eyed Mulder and Scully had new adventures every week, flashlights in hand, peering into the dark unknown of age and death. There's no mystery left in the long night, but still, I want to believe. 

Thursday, December 10, 2015

Atlantic City

While a lot of the A.V. Club Undercover covers (awkward) are not great (too many bearded hipsters slowing the fuck down in ironic takes of 80s' hits) they have some really good moments. It took a couple of listens for this to grow on me, but I think I really like it now.

It's a classic Bruce Springsteen track off Nebraska, an album I'm saving for when I hit rock bottom. The original is obviously amazing - listen to the echoes in the chorus - but I love this cover because 1) no harmonica, and 2) you can really tell Justin Townes Earle knows what desperation feels like, first-hand. (A quick look through his Wikipedia page confirms the usual - rough childhood, drug addiction, recent sobriety.) He kind of looks like those Oklahoma dust bowl farmers in Dorothea Lange's pictures - something about the sharp lines and planes of his face, too worn out for thirty three. "Everything dies, baby that's a fact..."

In his hands, there's a sweetness to the inevitable darkness present in the song. Springsteen's chorus is hollowed out and pained, but JTE gives the words an inflection of hope, even as he makes it clear that the ending for his narrator is the same as Springsteen's. Springsteen knows that she's not meeting him in Atlantic City - and JTE knows it too, but he's bent on asking her just one more time anyway.

Thursday, October 29, 2015

Waiting for Gojira

Here's a secret you (probably) already know: being alone in a well-appointed hotel room is one of the greatest, saddest pleasures of city life. The clocks here are all digital, so time flickers by in silence while night falls and I watch the office workers through their windows, a million tiny screens displaying different views, same channel. The glass is cold and reinforced, and soon I will be as well.

Monday, September 14, 2015

Elections, Whatever

I don't talk much about it on social media, but I am pretty intensely political. The past general election has been quite a ride, as most Singaporeans know. But now I'm all politicked out; sick of skimming smug analyses, scrolling down long, hostile comment threads, being held captive by ranting taxi drivers (my last taxi fare was paid to a man who insisted that Goh Chok Tong was his MP - in East Coast GRC).

As a liberal, the election results were naturally disappointing. My own cancer-stricken grandfather insisted on being wheeled downstairs to vote for the PAP - he hasn't voted in a long time, for health reasons - because, in his own words, "they gave out money this year". That might explain the 10 per cent islandwide swing towards the men in white: it's the last rattling gasp of the old. Also the sentimental: a truly nauseating meme being passed around via WhatsApp - of course I got it from my relatives, the staunch PAP supporters - shows LKY and his wife ascending a staircase, surrounded by Taiwanese-cartoon style hearts and clouds. A speech bubble in Mandarin reads: "Thank you everyone for supporting our boy Ah Loong." There are no words.

Call me Angela Merkel - or even Margaret Thatcher, if you want to be a bitch about it - but sentiment is no way to decide on your country's future. I was especially disheartened to hear several women I know using it as their reason for voting the PAP this year. They hadn't read the party manifestos, they didn't know anything about the candidates, they didn't read the news - but they voted because they felt an outpouring of emotion for the Lee family (as if the old man, were he still alive, would have given two cryogenically-frozen shits about their sympathy) and by extension, the party.

Ah well. It's all over and done with, and the next five years will be interesting to watch. There's a global recession predicted to happen, so time to batten down the hatches and get through the storm. Time to return to the fundamentals, to stay home and save money and work and think and write, and maybe - the closest I'll ever get to sentiment - to dream a little, inside.

Sunday, July 26, 2015

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

Bit late to the party, I know, but I didn't get a chance to watch it in the theatres when it came out and then I forgot about it until I saw the title pop up on Apple TV.

I read John Le Carre's novel when I was in my late teens, and it was revelatory - neat, surgical writing, paper-dry wit, emerging tendrils of a genuine grief at its buried core. (Of course it led to my bad decision-making right after graduation. A very brief, false start that in hindsight, spoiled me for any future employment alongside other grown-ups.) Le Carre wrote it after his cover was blown by Kim Philby, one of the Cambridge Five, and his intelligence career subsequently ended. I think the sorrow and anger at his sudden loss turned out to be key ingredients in the novel.

I previously watched director Tomas Alfredson's Let the Right One In (2008) and thought it was good, but didn't really care for the story. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is a classic text that has been filmed before, but I've never watched either the BBC series or the Alec Guinness film. I don't think I need to. Tomas Alfredson's effort was beautiful - stylish without being bleak for the sake of it, grey and brooding without tipping over into self-parody. Lots of movies these days - especially pulpy superhero ones, which I suppose need it most - seem to 'go dark' as a cheap way to up the stakes visually and emotionally. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy has the darkness pre-built into the script, and the film's events unfold at their own pace. Brutality is delivered plainly, without needing to be heralded or celebrated as if it was a highlight. (I did squeal and cover my eyes at the more gruesome set pieces, though.)

It's been noted that the camera in the film takes the role of voyeur, watching the actors in motion from a distance. My favourite sequence was the scene where Polyakov's wife Irina discovers his infidelity. The viewer takes Ricki Tarr's (Tom Hardy) position in his own hotel room, where he is spying through a telescope on the Russian delegation's hotel across the street. In the lit stretch of full-length windows we see 1) Irina open the front door on the left, and the other members of the delegation weakly attempting to dissuade her from entering the bedroom. Striding down the length of the sitting room, she brushes them off and 2) opens the bedroom door to see Polyakov fucking a brunette in bed, who escapes as poor Irina goes berserk and 3) promptly has her head slammed several times against the window by her not-so-loving husband, whereupon 4) she stumbles into the bathroom on the furthest right to weep, and eventually raises her bloodstained face to confront the viewer's spying eye (i.e. Ricki's, in the film).

Irina's eventual sad ending is particularly awful, given that in her brief appearance she shows a commendable intelligence and self-preserving distrust lacking in the other characters, who are blinded by ego or loyalty. Besides her small part and a token appearance by Sovietologist Connie Sachs, there aren't many women in the film, but then it was a man's world in the 1960s. Actually, a third woman haunts the film - George Smiley's wife Ann, whose face is never seen, but whose absence and betrayal have settled into the very centre of his being. Smiley (Gary Oldman) is a man who has not come to terms with the loss of his wife, but instead has become defined by it.

On a more shallow note, I am absolutely in love with the aesthetics of the film - the smoke rising from cigarettes and pipes, tweed and corduroy and leather, dusty bookshelves and desks piled high with paper in all its forms: books and notes and files and boxes. Every table seems to hold a crystal decanter of something amber and strong, and a cut-glass ashtray smeared with ash. Their world is muted in blue and grey tones, everything worn down by age and use, a little shabby, like Smiley in his exile from the Circus. I wouldn't want to live in that cinematic world - too cold, hate wearing sweaters - but it's beautiful, nonetheless.

I won't bore further with my discount cinema studies undergrad analysis of the film. I'll have to hunt down the rest of Le Carre's trilogy and read them, although I'm aware neither will likely match up to the severe beauty of that first book, an elegy for years of service, torn away by a bitter wind.