peteg's blog

The Ides of March

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I've been sitting on my Palace Cinemas membership birthday freebie for four months now, waiting for them to put on something watchable at the Verona. I really liked Clooney's previous political/press Good Night, and Good Luck, so I put aside Dana Stevens's misgivings and fronted the 9:20pm session. Suffice it to say that even sitting unfashionably close to the front didn't stop an entire row of mouthbreathers infesting the row behind me. They proceeded to talk, rustle, etc. — coming in late, one doesn't need to observe the STFU compulsory courtesy short. They quietened down after a bit, but not before I got the impression I was in for two hours of having the scenario explained to some dumb bastard by his mate with the extra neuron. I don't know why these groups go to see these movies at these times; surely a trip to the pub would be better all round.

I didn't renew my Palace Cinemas membership this year due to this sort of thing, and hardly used it last year due to the paltry selection of even prima facie decent movies. I'll be sad when the Verona goes the way of the Academy Twin.

Anyway, the movie was the fiasco Dana said it was; two-thirds was Politicopath 101, and the last third possibly required another month or two at the academy. Ryan Gosling handled his transformation well, from slick media PR flack to slick media PR flack without a soul. Philip Seymour Hoffman was the pick of the actors though, completely natural as a rumpled campaign manager. Clooney overdealt his own hand this time, just enough to make the whole thing a bit ludicrous. I've been studiously avoiding Giamatti since his wine snobbery (that I didn't see), but he is quite good here.

/noise/beach/2011-2012 | Link

Midday paddle at Gordons Bay. A lot colder than the previous days, perhaps due to the lack of sun. Quite windy too.

Dương Thu Hương: No Man's Land

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Written in 1998 by Dương Thu Hương, and translated in 2005 by Nina McPherson and Phan Quy Duong. This one is a triangular pseudo romance with far too much artifice and verbiage. Huong is back to her old food-porn habits and something as simple as getting some third-person plot progression on the page becomes an exercise in describing just how many tiles are broken in the courtyard of the non-character that the anonymous crowd is parked at. It is a screen play from an exacting auteur.

Bon-the-bat is occasionally credible, but only historically; Mien is a vacuous pawn straight from the beauty salon. Hoan sometimes fires up but is mostly the stereotypical slick business dude, Ken to her Barbie. Huong's observations about village life are almost entirely banal; what, there's a lot of malicious salacious gossip? People are two faced? Say it ain't so. This is some composite of Romeo and Juliet, or maybe King Lear, with the Party playing the erstwhile King... or would be if it weren't Vietnamese; that makes it a reiteration of The Tale of Kiều.

I found the majority of the 400 pages tedious beyond belief, though most had just a sniff of something flamable. I don't know if I can face up to the last book on the list: Memories of a Pure Spring.

/noise/beach/2011-2012 | Link

Mid-afternoon paddle off the scuba ramp at Gordons Bay. I should have gone for a snorkel instead. Quite cool at the ramp itself but OK a bit further out in the bay.

/noise/beach/2011-2012 | Link

Perfect day for a late-afternoon paddle at Gordons Bay. The water remains very clear and reasonably warm.

/noise/beach/2011-2012 | Link

Late afternoon snorkel at Long Bay, from the boat ramp on the southern side. The water was the cleanest I've seen there and visibility was quite good; loads of immature fish to see, and even a group of seven small squid. The peace and tranquility was somewhat spoiled by some blokes on their jetski who seemed to like razzing the other users of the bay.

The Hustler

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Before The Color of Money paired him with Cruise, Paul Newman got hustled by George C. Scott and fell in love with Piper Laurie (Catherine Martell in Twin Peaks) in black and white, in 1961. Rated #200 in IMDB's top-250.

The Long Goodbye

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Altman, but mostly Elliot Gould being fantastic: the rambling internal monologues are a great device to bring text to the screen. The opening scenes with the cat are classic. Mr Precious Bodily Fluids (Sterling Hayden) is solid as a Hemingway clone. That would be Arnie putting in a cameo as the muscle in the office. For all of this I couldn't imagine reading the Chandler original.

This is not the best Altman I've seen (that was probably Shortcuts) but it is still damn fine.

Night Moves

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A minor Gene Hackman, 1973: murder/mystery thriller. Hackman ambles along and always seems to be in the frame when the women are wearing less than they otherwise would. Not bad, not awesome.

The Parallax View

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A not so hot political conspiracy thriller from the parallel universe of Warren Beatty, 1974. Apparently he was huge in his day; in mine he is only identified with turkeys like Dick Tracy. This isn't terrible, just slow and antiquated, like The Conversation; it is a minor part of Hollywood's golden renaissance, contemporaneous with Coppola's big works. Assassinating Senators? It's cheaper to buy them! — or bankroll some astroturfing, etc.

The scenes on the plane date it so much. Smoking? Climbing onto the plane from the street? ...

Modesty Blaise

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A Terence Stamp segue from The Limey. A strange movie, all fizz and no bubble. Of course it is a swingin' sixties Bond spoof, but done in a way that doesn't recognise that Bond itself is a parody.

House of Flying Daggers

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Another Zhang Yimou visual feast. The bamboo forests are gorgeous. They must be running out of narrative novelty to make Zhang Yiyi a blind martial artiste; I think they should try doing one that has no plot at all. I'm not much of an Andy Lau fan, I must say; he seems inexpressive and overbearing too often. Takeshi Kaneshiro was also in Chungking Express; here he looks too much like Orlando Bloom in full elfin regalia.

I'm beginning to see the point of Hong Kong martial arts flicks: there's so much dancing and music, and so little blood that they serve as date movies. They are visually more sumptuous than the typical American rom com, but probably just as normative. This one takes it for granted that the government troops are canon fodder (so to speak), and that the government is corrupt, I guess.

Western movies demand we suspend disbelief; the unbelievable stuff (martial arts) in The Matrix is done in cyberspace, and we need that clearly delineated fake space so we can philosophise about what's real and mrak's homunculus theory and so forth. This movie takes it for granted, not even trying to rationalise the lack of reality; this may have been Bob Carr's complaint about Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon: It doesn't ask for disbelief, it assumes it.

Chan Koonchung: The Fat Years

/noise/books | Link

Ah yes, another GFC novel. This one is set in 2013 (I think), but really it is 1984, Brave New World and an entire third devoted to economic didacticism. In brief: China uses the GFC to turn inwards, to found a new era of satisfaction, complacency, whatever. Oh, let me spoil it for you: there's something in the water. Now you need not read it.

I pulled this out of the ANU Menzies Library on the strength of Linda Jaivin's review at Inside Story. Her review is far superior to the source material, which is a mostly skillful synthesis of overly familiar dystopian tropes, with some nice Chinese touches such as the Red cinematic canon and the nomadism of Fang Caodi. The final third (where all is revealed!) is flabby and tedious. I found the whole thing overly predictable; there is nothing as arresting as Orwell's image of a boot stamping on a human face here. I ploughed through it hoping to find something so durable, and came away knowing that it's just another fad.

Dana Sachs: The House on Dream Street

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I extracted this one from the ANU Menzies Library a few months ago, on the strength of Dana's translation efforts. Here she recounts her experience of living in Hà Nội in the 1990s, both before and after the U.S. normalised relations with Việt Nam in 1995. This memoir was published in 2000.

The strength of this book is that it is not at all abstract; it is essentially a romance, both with a place and a man, with the author eventually moving on from the man but retaining a fixation on the place. Some awkwardness ensues, and the American ending — the erstwhile couple both paired off with children — is not entirely satisfying as Phai's bride is so unclearly drawn, and his future so uncertain.

There were some strange echoes of my time as an AYAD: some days you really do need to say whatever, more's the pity. Dana didn't want to turn 30 away from home, whereas I was happy to, as it turned out. She had a student visa to study Vietnamese; she makes me wish I'd spent more time on that. Tết was a pretty dire time for me, partly because I was heading back to Australia for Peodair's wedding and also because my friends had all gone back home for the holiday; I guess the difference was that her family-of-sorts lived in Hà Nội, whereas no one seems to admit to actually being from Sài Gòn.

I found and still find troubling her familiar dismissal of time in non-Western countries, that "this is not real life", the suggestion your real life is going on elsewhere while you idle, something sometimes reassuring and othertimes vexing. Unpacking just this attitude could be spun out to book length.

I learnt some great slang here: "phở không có người lái" — pho without the pilot (without meat).

As observed by others, this book inexplicably does not include her interactions with Nguyễn Huy Thiệp. You can read something about that here, but there's got to be more.

This book deserves to be bracketed with the roughly contemporaneous Catfish and Mandala by Andrew X. Pham. Apart from the obvious difference in viewpoint due to the authors' genders and ethnicity, there is also a feeling that Dana is looking for an exotic home whereas Andrew still has itchy feet.

/noise/beach/2011-2012 | Link

Midday paddle at Gordons Bay. The slate-grey skies kept the crowds away; I was almost the only person there, certainly the only one on the southern side. The swell was larger than usual, the tide was up. Quite pleasant in; the temperature about the same as out.

Raise the Red Lantern

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Pete's Dad recommended this one to me. It is indeed a visual feast, with some believably bitchy characters. (They are playing for small potatoes beyond the genetic; actually I doubt the sprogs of this bloke made it far, as the revolution sputtered along in China from the 1920s to 1949.) The setting is awesome.

Yimou Zhang also directed Hero and sundry other turkeys. I'm glad he did some good stuff too. Apparently Li Gong was in 2046. Saifei He is fantastic as the opera singer, mistress #3.

/noise/beach/2011-2012 | Link

Early afternoon lunch and paddle at Gordons Bay. Loads of people, reminding me why I go later in the day. ForecastFox is telling me it is 38 degrees today, which I'm not fully crediting. The water was very pleasant and clear, no surf.

Infernal Affairs III

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I thought Scorsese ripped off just the first one; turns out he composited that and this sequel-sequel. Good to see Tony Leung again, not totally convinced by Yeung or Andy Lau's flameout. Kelly Chen sizzles as the shrink who isn't. The plot, well, I don't know... Totally unnecessary and therefore compulsive.

/noise/beach/2011-2012 | Link

Mid-afternoon snorkel at Long Bay, off the northern boat ramp. Lots of fish, the water as clear as it ever is there. The old car wreck is still moldering away. Quite pleasant in. Clouds threatening, but I think we'll miss any substantial rain.

Infernal Affairs II

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When you're onto a good thing, over do it. This one is a hodge podge of Godfather III and the first one. Carina Lau blows in to lend some pizzaz to what is otherwise an all bloke affair.

Road to Perdition

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Another one of those Hollywood gangster romances that leave no trace of a memory. Tom Hanks has a habit of dying stupid; how could he go out so feebly? Paul Newman simmers here, almost as if he knows how risible his lines are.

Gordon Mathews: Ghetto at the Center of the World: Chungking Mansions, Hong Kong

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You've seen the film, now read the book. I don't know if there is a soundtrack.

Mathews is an American sociologist tenured as a professor at the Christian University of Hong Kong. He tells of first visiting the Mansions in the 1980s, and one gets the feeling that the funding for his anthropological studies arrived just a little too late; with China coming to understand what it takes to thoroughly own global trade, his low-end globalised traders are heading directly to Guangzhou, no longer in need of the Hong Kong middle man with his enforceable contracts and British business sensibility. This is certainly not Wong Kar Wai's 1960s Hong Kong.

The best part of this book is its promise, and when it recounts the stories of residents, either through anecdote or reportage. I found it fascinating as there doesn't seem to be anything like this building in Saigon, even as China is pricing itself out of the market. Then again, Vietnam is not yet known for high-tech manufacturing, or cranking out good-enough copies of mobile phones.

Unfortunately the novelty starts to wane somewhere around the middle, with the realisation that all players mentioned in the book are monothematic: they are there for money, money, money. This is what makes the building work, a friendship amongst the Indian, the Pakistani and the African possible, and indeed Hong Kong itself is the same effect written larger. That the mainstream of the host culture (Hong Kong Chinese, and more recently mainland Chinese) is uncomfortable with the third world in their midst, and identify it along racial lines, is surely true in most countries.

Another realisation was that this book never gets to grips with the role of women in the building, with the two roles on offer being a sex worker or a (Chinese) co-owner of the building. Perhaps the few women traders are mostly into clothing and are operating in another district. It is difficult to discern whether the incessant staring at the passing women in the building is a cultural thing (a women-as-property trope from the home country) or the behaviour of a large number of sex-starved expats, both, neither, etc.

Mathews treats the plight of asylum seekers at length, and wisely restricts himself to prognostication and not prescription. From a Western perspective it is interesting to see what the Eastern approach is and will become.

To be more curmudgeonly, this book makes me think that anthropology is at the more boring end of travel writing. Less repetition would have been lovely, and a bit less promising and a bit more carry-through. I don't put a lot of stock in non-empirical paradigms, and it seems that coining them is the essence of this sort of work. Here we get the "cultural supermarket", which is perhaps trying to summarise the idea of accessible multiculturalism, i.e. exotic food with the menus in English. Unfortunately it also connotes blandness, transactionalism, exploitation of primary producers, and so forth. I'm getting that ill-fitting cheap suit sort of a feeling.

I guess I was hoping for more of a biography of the building, ala Birmingham's Leviathan, in addition to the stories of individuals. Early on, Mathews tells of a shirt of his falling fifteen stories down a light well from a clothesline in the 1980s, and the possibility of it still being there; in doing so he lifts Chungking Mansions out of the generic facelessness of the ghetto. As Sickboy said about heroin, what keeps the relationship going is personality.

I picked this up from the UNSW Library on the strength of a review on Inside Story. I was a bit surprised the library had such a recent book (August 2011).

/noise/beach/2011-2012 | Link

Early evening paddle at Gordons Bay, still parked out but not so many people actually at the bay. The water certainly feels warmer than when I last got in. Very pleasant, no waves. I've been lucky not to have the promised showers and thunder storms these past few days.

Three Colours: Red

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Yeah, I couldn't get into this one either. A masterwork too easy for me to dismiss.

Three Colours: White

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Not really French so much as Polish. Julie Delpy has little room to move as the wife who only really wants her husband to perform in bed. The husband does the Godfather Part II thing of something dodgy in Warsaw after a dismal departure from Paris. I couldn't really get into it.

/noise/beach/2011-2012 | Link

Mid-afternoon snorkel at Gordons Bay. A few people around, not too many, as the clouds rolled in the from the west. Saw a few groper of medium size (large females) and loads of catchable luderick. The water was mostly clear, with huge variation in the currents; right near the sucba ramp it was freezing, but about 10 metres out it was very pleasant. mrak tells me there was a 6 foot swell at Maroubra today. I could belive that; it was totally flat at Gordons.

/noise/beach/2011-2012 | Link

Mid-morning snorkel at Gordons Bay with Rob. Loads of people there already, and the Clovelly car park was already full, so we had to go around to the southern side. Didn't see much, but wasn't really looking. The water temperature was all over the map around the bay; I reckon it must have had a spread of 3-4 degrees.

/noise/beach/2011-2012 | Link

Mid-afternoon snorkel at Little Bay. The beach was almost entirely empty. The swell was a lot larger than usual, with waves breaking onto the sand. Not too cold in a wife beater. Lots of immature fish around right now.

John Lanchester: I.O.U.: Why Everyone Owes Everyone and No One Can Pay

/noise/books | Link

I picked up this book on the GFC from the UNSW Library on the strength of this review in the New York Times. Lanchester's columns at the London Review of Books are great; for example, his notional review of two books on Murdoch. At book length, however, his prose gets much looser, and the repetition (even within single paragraphs!) killed it for me. I take that to mean that his editors at LRB did not work their magic here.

As is typical with pop accounts of highly technical things, Lanchester gets a few things wrong. As I'm not an economist, that I can pick holes in some of his points (he makes some errors of logic) does not induce confidence in his rendering of the stuff I didn't know about. Sure, he is upfront about the limitations of his metaphors and so forth, but I think he overestimates their utility as the whole space is counter intuitive. His prescriptions for repairing the economy are essentially a return to the banking policies enacted during the Depression and would be familiar to readers of John Quiggin's blog.

His ultimate call for people to say [we have] "enough" suffers from the same myopia that he accuses Keynes of. Still, he must be enjoying the Occupy protests.